20 June 2007

Summary: Pitfalls for collaborative learning

If computer-supported communication tools provide so much promise for learning and group collaboration, why are there so many failed attempts? Is technology to blame? Not according to the research. This paper looks at the causes behind why online collaboration and learning don't always go as planned.

Below is a summary of key points from the article:
"Identifying the pitfalls for social interaction in computer-supported collaborative learning environments: a review of the research" in Computers in Human Behaviour, Vol. 19 (2003), pp. 335-353. by Kreijns K, Kirschner P, Jochems W
In essence, the authors show that the pitfalls lie in a failure to properly support and foster social interaction. It has been shown that healthy social interaction is essential to successful group learning and collaboration, but generally, the social aspects of a learning environment are taken for granted or ignored.

"There is ample empirical evidence that cognitive processes necessary for deep learning and information retention occur in dialogues. However, research on group learning shows that asynchronous distributed learning groups utilizing computer supported collaborative learning environments often lack the social interaction needed for these dialogues...failures tend to occur at the social level far more than they do at the technical level."

The nature of the medium

Text-based forms of communication have unique characteristics that affect (and can hinder) social interaction. "Without non-verbal tools, a sender cannot easily alter the mood of the message, communicate a sense of individuality, or exercise dominance or charisma...Communicators feel a greater sense of anonymity and detect less individuality in others." Moreover, online groups tend to have 'zero-history' since they are generally unacquainted with each other.

Learning is Social

"Social interaction seems to be the key to collaboration...if there is no social interaction, then there is also no real collaboration."
Collaboration has been found to be essential for deep learning, and social interaction, essential for collaboration, so how do we ensure social interaction happens in an online learning environment? It's true that the technological tools used must be able to support this interaction, but having the tools available does not mean the social interaction will happen on its own.

The social part won't happen by iteself - it has to be designed into the learning

"social interaction in CSCL environments must be organized or it is unlikely to occur or be meaningful...interaction does not just happen, but must be intentionally designed into the instruction."
The authors argue that to ensure social interaction happens, the incentive to collaborate has to be designed into the course. They present three theoretical approaches to doing so, all of which result in participants engaging in "elaboration, questioning, rehearsal, and elicitation".
  1. Cognitive Approach: Includes designing activities that require learners to describe, explain, predict, argue, critique, evaluate, explicate and define, all in the context of a discourse. (They refer to this as developing 'epistemic fluency'.)
  2. Direct approach: In which completion of a task (eg. writing a report) is central to the learning activity, and specific collaborative techniques are included.
  3. Conceptual approach: Applying a set of conditions that enforce collaboration, usually making use of:
    • Positive interdependence (one can't succeed unless others also succeed and/or each member's work benefits all)
    • Promotive interaction (members encourage and help each other in order to reach the group goals)
    • Individual accountability (each held accountable for his share of the work and for his individual learning progress/mastery)
    • Internpersonal and small-group skills (all members must learn how to work in a group)
    • Group processing (group decides what behaviours to change based on group performance so far)

It can't just be designed into the learning - it has to happen outside the learning too

But building social interaction into learning activities is not enough. They go further to say that designing opportunities that support social interaction, for the sake of social interaction, is also key.
"if students are to offer their tentative ideas to their peers, if they are to critique the ideas of their peers, and if they are to interpret others' critiques as valuable, rather than as personal affronts, certain conditions must exist. Students need to trust each other, feel a sense of warmth and belonging, and feel close to each other before they will engage willfully in collaboration and recognize the collaboration as a valuable experience."
This inevitably brings to my mind, Gilly Salmon's many delightful e-tivities, like the "online wine tasting" activity and some of her other virtual icebreakers.
"Forming a sense of community where people feel they will be treated sympathetically by their fellows, seems to be a necessary first step for collaborative learning. Without a feeling of community people are on their own, likely to be anxious, defensive and unwilling to take the risks involved in learning"
The authors argue that community building is essential and doing so in CSCL environments requires structure. the steps involved in that structure include:
  • Affiliation (the propensity people have to get in contact with others) - will occur if members feel they are dependent on each other to achieve goals,
  • Impression formation (individuating impressions of other members are formed - getting to know each other) - I would suggest that profile pages, photos, and avatars are examples of tools that contribute to impression formation,
  • Interpersonal attraction (the feeling a group member has about other members; influenced by affection, status and competence)
which will lead to social relationships and group cohesion. "Social relationships, group cohesion and trust define the affective structure in the social space that in turn reinforces social interaction."

Moreover, research has found that there are four kinds of peer behaviors necessary for online collaborative learning to work:
  • participation (eg. giving perspectives, attending to other's experiences)
  • response (eg. constructive feedback, answering questions)
  • affective feedback (eg. using a person's name, being patient, offering compliments)
  • focused messaging
and two types of instructor behaviors:
  • discussion management (providing structure, pacing, focusing)
  • contribution (giving fast and relevant help, timely and individualized messages and feedback, etc.)
Research also suggests that the development of social presence and a sense of community can be fostered by training participants how to do it, as through moderation that, for example, models behaviour, scaffolds and starts discussions, recognizing all contributions initially, summarizing frequently, and weaving ideas together. These skills must be learned by instructors themselves. As the instructors model them, students learn them.

The authors propose that using non-task contexts to foster social interaction is actually more effective than trying to build it into the learning tasks. This is essentially because a non-task oriented environment is more casual, carries with it less stress, is often impromptu, and leads to conversations about things that foster affiliation, individuating characteristics, and so forth.

"Although social interaction may have very little to do with a course, it is still valued as the primary vehicle for student communications in a Web-based learning environment...the presence of non-task contexts positively affects the building of an affective structure and, thus, on the building of communities. However, contemporary CSCL environments usually do not provide such non-task contexts.

Lessons for the elearning multimedia designer : enter the Social LMS

The key message here, is that designing an elearning environment that supports social interaction, is equally important to designing tools that support learning activities. How many LMS take that into consideration? We need a comfortable couch and a coffee table, as much as a whiteboard and projector. Will it be FaceBook meets Blackboard? The article authors note that "comtemporary CSCL environments may not provide adequate opportunities for social interaction, the development of friendships and camaraderie." and conclude to say "For this reason we believe that another part of the solution lies in the design of sociable CSCL environments aimed at providing non-task contexts that allow social, off-task communication and that facilitate and increase the nunber of impromptu encounters in task and non-task contexts through the inclusion of persistent presence and awareness through time and space of the other member of the distributed group." Photos, members online, and instant messaging tools, are a few examples of what's available currently.

The authors separate the ideas of system interactivity and instructional interactivity and argue that we have "placed an unrealistic expectation on interactive technologies to ensure that instructional interaction [occurs]." No matter what the technology allows, this will not guarantee people will get together, interact, and come to know, respect and trust each other.

However, as designers, we can certainly make it easier. The design of a tool can still "afford" certain activities, and even encourage them, psychologically, through the careful use of colour, layout, media and good usability. If there's one thing Web 2.0 has taught us, it's that there seem to be certain tools that can lead to, sometimes explosive, amounts of social interaction. Of course, MySpace is not exactly a hub for deep learning, but while we shouldn't expect the design and technology to be all of the answer, as designers and technologists, we can learn about human needs necessary for learning, and design spaces that support them. Just as big cumfy couch is more likely to get people interacting than a stainless steel bench, design will always be essential to the success of the experience. Let's bring the social interaction on board for learning.