Computer Support in E-Collaborative Learning-By-Doing Environments

Computer Support in E-Collaborative Learning-By-Doing Environments

Lin Qiu (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-937-8.ch001


With the recent widespread use of computer and web technologies, web-based tools have been developed to mediate collaboration and facilitate knowledge construction. However, how to effectively design these tools to stimulate and maintain productive knowledge construction remains a challenge. This chapter describes a virtual learning-by-doing environment where students take the role of consultants to investigate the cause of recurring pipe corrosion in a paper processing company. We illustrate how the learning environment is designed to provide both pedagogical and technological support to collaborative knowledge construction. Our goal is to provide an example and offer guidance to professionals and educators who are interested building such virtual environments.
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The social theories of learning have demonstrated the importance of situating learning in social interactions and collaborations (e.g., Lave & Wenger, 1991; Hicks, 1996). Learning is no longer considered as a cognitive process that happens in an individual’s mind, but a social process that often occurs through conversations as well as the collaborative construction of conceptual artifacts (e.g., Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989; Graesser, Person, & Magliano, 1995; Palincsar & Brown, 1984). Meanwhile, knowledge construction, the ability to actively understand existing knowledge and create new ideas has become increasingly emphasized in education (Scardamalia, 2003). Students are often engaged in collaborative tasks where they negotiate ideas and construct knowledge based on each other’s understanding (Roschelle & Teasley, 1995). Their collaboration results in continuous meaning making and learning (Stahl, Koschmann, & Suthers, 2006).

To facilitate collaborative knowledge construction, e-communication tools such as chat rooms, discussion forums, and videoconferencing have been used to allow geographically dispersed group members to work together. Research has found that computer-mediated collaboration can reduce production blocking in face-to-face collaboration (e.g. Gallupe, Bastianutti, & Cooper, 1991; Valacich, Dennis, & Nunamaker, 1992). Production blocking occurs when only one person can speak at one time. It causes difficulty in simultaneous idea generation and often leads to the loss of productivity (Diehl & Stroebe, 1987). Computer-mediated communication allows group members to present ideas simultaneously without the interference from peers. Multiple ideas can be generated at the same time. Furthermore, computer-mediated collaboration often allows one to view the performance of other team members and therefore causes the effect of social comparison (Festingerís, 1954). This comparison motivates one to outperform others and can result in the improvement in task performance (Munkes & Diehl, 2003). In addition, artifacts created in e-communication tools can be easily changed through redo and undo. They can be quickly duplicated through copy-and-paste and moved around through drag-and-drop. This allows learners to easily refine, reorganize, and augment their discussion. These artifacts can also serve as a permanent record and be used as the basis for future reflection. They can be adapted to provide scaffolding and representational formats appropriate to the competence of individual learners and the performance of the whole group (Stahl, Koschmann, & Suthers, 2006).

While e-communication tools have many advantages, how to effectively use them to stimulate and maintain productive knowledge construction remains a challenge. For example, while discussion forums have been found to produce more conversations with deeper thinking than face-to-face dialogues (Hawkes & Romiszowski, 2001), their structure makes them difficult for users to keep track of ideas brought up during discussion. Users tend to pay more attention to recent ideas rather than the ones discussed earlier (Hewitt, 2003). In addition, it is difficult for users to reference materials or representations outside the discussion forum. Users have to repeatedly go back and forth between their communication medium and the object under discussion. In addition, most of the communication tools lack the flexibility of providing multiple ways of representing and integrating ideas. This inevitably hinders the reorganization and connection of ideas in knowledge construction.

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