5 Surprising Things about Computer Supported Collaborative Learning

by Gary Woodill on January 9, 2008

In his 1999 book Collective Intelligence Pierre Levy observes that “no one knows everything, everyone knows something, all knowledge resides in humanity.” I thought I knew something about the field of Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) because I’d been teaching a graduate class at the University of Toronto in the mid-1980s when Marlene Scardamelia and Carl Bereiter started a collaborative learning project with grade school children called CSILE. I saw the demos and read the theory, even though I was not directly involved with the project. CSILE was one of the earliest examples of purpose built environments to facilitate collaborative learning. (The CSCL label goes back to a conference in Italy in 1989 and is now the generic term that is used most in the field).

I’ve just finished a new report for Brandon Hall Research on the application of CSCL in Training and Development, and realized that I really didn’t understand the concept of CSCL as deeply as I thought I knew it. In preparing this report, I encountered at least 5 surprising things about this topic that I want to share:

1. CSCL remains an academic field, still mostly centered on schools and universities. Of the more than 500 references to collaborative learning that I found, only about 20 dealt with corporate training and development. That doesn’t mean that collaborative learning doesn’t take place in training settings, but that almost all the research on CSCL has been about its application in school and post-secondary settings.

2. A parallel field of study, called Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), which also started in the 1980s, has developed very little research on learning or training. The surprising thing here is that both CSCL and CSCW each have their own books, journals, and conferences, but don’t seem to have ever seriously connected with each other. There are a few articles on learning in the CSCW literature, but mostly it is about office automation and cooperative work processes. I’d not even heard about CSCW until I undertook this research.

3. I was intrigued by the idea from Gerry Stahl at Drexel University that individual learning is mostly the result of group learning. In his recent book Group Cognition, Stahl concludes that individual learning may automatically take place within collaborative interactions. “It may be that group learning often supplies an essential basis for individual learning, providing not only the cultural background, the motivational support and the interactional location but also an effective mechanism for ensuring individual learning” (p. 274). This idea definitely needs more exploration, as does the distinction made by Stahl between individual learning and group cognition.

4. Most research on collaborative learning argues that it doesn’t happen just by putting people together in a room or a network, but requires a great deal of structure and intervention to make productive collaborative learning happen. While instructors do move away from direct presentation of materials to learners, their position in CSCL systems include scripting of roles and procedures for learners, and many other interventions including:

  • Modeling to illustrate performance standards and verbalize invisible processes
  • Coaching to observe and supervise students, thereby guiding them toward expert performance
  • Scaffolding and fading to support what learners cannot yet do and gradually removing that support as confidence is displayed
  • Questioning to request a verbal response from learners while supporting them with mental functions they cannot produce alone
  • Encouraging student articulation of their reasoning and problem-solving processes
  • Pushing student exploration and application of their problem-solving skills
  • Fostering student reflection and self-awareness (e.g., through performance replays)
  • Providing cognitive task structuring by explaining and organizing the task
  • Managing instruction with performance feedback and positive reinforcement
  • Using direct instruction to provide clarity, needed content, or missing information

This list, adapted from Bonk and Cunningham (1998), shows that the versions of CSCL being advocated in the literature have a much stronger role for instructors than I expected in my initial conceptualization of collaborative learning.

5. In addition to the need for intervention and structure, the literature shows a long list of issues that need to be dealt with in order to have successful collaborative learning. These include the development of trust among participants, motivating participants to engage with others, having participants learn methods of argumentation, creating an organizational memory as a repository of group ideas, leadership within the group, change management, creation of “presence” for online environments, lack of technical standards, and little agreement on how to assess the results of collaborative learning.

I’m not sure that computer supported collaborative learning needs to be that complicated, but that is what the literature is suggesting.

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