This chapter aims to perform a thorough analysis of students’ online learning conversations. Although offering a high potential for collaborative learning, successful online learning conversations are not easy to realize. After discussing the specific challenges of conducting conversations in general, conversations- for-learning and learning conversations online, the author uses this investigation to discuss ways to effectively facilitate them. Van der Pol demonstrates, then, that the context-creating effect of anchored discussion can effectively address some of these difficulties by turning opinion-oriented exchange of ideas into a more meaning-oriented processing of material, while increasing communicative efficiency.
Imagine a teacher in higher education: a teacher with a progressive state of mind and an enthusiasm for social constructivist theories who is continuously trying to improve the learning of his or her students, but is nevertheless still struggling to create successful and sustainable social constructivist teaching practices in his or her everyday life. Especially when trying to fulfill the promise of Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL), this teacher may have trouble to deepen students’ learning processes and to maintain students’ initial levels of motivation and engagement after a fading first wave of technology-related enthusiasm. The needs and problems of this imaginary teacher are at the basis of the theoretical and practical issues I will report on in this chapter and they have determined its approach in four different ways.
First, in this chapter the use of CSCL is regarded as a means to reach a certain goal, and it studies CSCL with deep or effective learning processes of students in mind. As indicated by Säljö (2003), introducing technologies in institutionalized forms of learning has not always lived up to the initial expectations in reaching these goals. In response to this observation, Säljö proposes to abandon the question of whether new technologies can improve learning altogether, because learning does not become better or more efficient, just different. However, I think it is still worthwhile to investigate whether it is possible to enhance learning through CSCL and how this can be done. Not only do I think that educational research is not neutral when it comes to learning, I feel it also has a certain responsibility. As the positive expectations about the advantages of CSCL for educational practice have been partially responsible for its widespread introduction, I think educational science should also investigate whether and how these expectations can be realized. I continue to believe in the potential of CSCL for student learning, albeit depending on many related variables and conditions. I therefore propose to direct research towards studying how to shape and develop the different (specialized) uses of CSCL in such a way that their learning potential can be better realized.
Second, seeing CSCL as a means and not as a goal in itself, I will be aiming for something more than the mere presence of online interaction. Andriessen, Baker, and Suthers (2003) distinguish between learning from a certain dialogue and learning to conduct that dialogue. Although the second learning goal will usually need to be reached to a certain degree as a necessary condition for reaching the first, by itself it may not be sufficient. In order to justify the investments in students’ and teachers’ time and the efforts that are required, I feel that it is important that students’ efforts are directed as much as possible to activities that lead to and deepen learning, in relation to their content-related learning goals. As stated by Kirschner, Paas, and Kirschner (Submitted), it is important in collaborative learning to maximize the students learning-generating effort (or “germane cognitive load”) while minimizing the required interaction costs. In this way, it is possible to let students invest as much of the available effort as possible in the production of rich interactions.