Computer-supported collaborative learning
Computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) is a pedagogical approach wherein learning takes place via social interaction using a computer or through the Internet. This kind of learning is characterized by the sharing and construction of knowledge among participants using technology as their primary means of communication or as a common resource. CSCL can be implemented in online and classroom learning environments and can take place synchronously or asynchronously.
The study of computer-supported collaborative learning draws on a number of academic disciplines, including instructional technology, educational psychology, sociology, cognitive psychology, and social psychology. It is related to collaborative learning and computer supported cooperative work (CSCW).
Evolves in ways that are hard to pinpoint and includes important contributions that seem incompatible, the field of CSCL has a long history of controversy about its theory, methods and definition. Furthermore, it is important to view CSCL as a vision of what may be possible with computers and of what kinds of research should be conducted, rather than as an established body of broadly accepted laboratory and classroom practices. We will start from some popular understandings of the issues of CSCL and gradually reveal its more complex nature. We will review CSCL’s historical development and offer our perspective on its future.
As the study of particular forms of learning, CSCL is intimately concerned with education. It considers all levels of formal education from kindergarten through graduate study as well as informal education, such as museums. Computers have become important in this, with school districts and politicians around the world setting goals of increasing student access to computers and the Internet. The idea of encouraging students to learn together in small groups has also become increasingly emphasized in the broader learning sciences. However, the ability to combine these two ideas (computer support and collaborative learning, or technology and education) to effectively enhance learning remains a challenge—a challenge that CSCL is designed to address.
Interactive computing technology was primarily conceived by academics, but the use of technology in education has historically been defined by contemporary research trends. The earliest instances of software in instruction drilled students using the behaviorist method that was popular throughout the mid-twentieth century. In the 1970s as cognitivism gained traction with educators, designers began to envision learning technology that employed artificial intelligence models that could adapt to individual learners. Computer-supported collaborative learning emerged as a strategy rich with research implications for the growing philosophies of constructivism and social cognitivism.
Though studies in collaborative learning and technology took place throughout the 1980s and 90s, the earliest public workshop directly addressing CSCL was "Joint Problem Solving and Microcomputers" which took place in San Diego in 1983. Six years later in 1989, the term "computer-supported collaborative learning" was used in a NATO-sponsored workshop in Maratea, Italy. A biannual CSCL conference series began in 1995. At the 2002 and 2003 CSCL conferences, the International Society of the Learning Sciences (ISLS) was established to run the CSCL and ICLS conference series and the ijCSCL and JLS journals.
The International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (ijCSCL) was established by the CSCL research community and ISLS. It began quarterly publication by Springer in 2006. It is peer reviewed and published both online and in print. Since 2009, it has been rated by ISI as being in the top 10% of educational research journals based on its impact factor.
The rapid development of social media technologies and the increasing need of individuals to understand and use those technologies has brought researchers from many disciplines to the field of CSCL. CSCL is used today in traditional and online schools and knowledge-building communities such as Wikipedia.
According to Siemens, "theory serves a dual purpose of explaining phenomena (or more accurately, sense and meaning making) and of providing guidance for decision making or action." Sutton and Shaw suggest theory is "about the connections among phenomena." In other words, a theory provides a way for researchers and practitioners to make decisions regarding how a particular research study is constructed and its data interpreted, how its results connect to other research results.
The field of CSCL draws heavily from a number of learning theories that emphasize that knowledge is the result of learners interacting with each other, sharing knowledge, and building knowledge as a group. Since the field focuses on collaborative activity and collaborative learning, it inherently takes much from constructivist and social cognitivist learning theories.
The roots of collaborative epistemology as related to CSCL can be found in Vygotsky's Social Learning Theory. Of particular importance to CSCL is the theory's notion of internalization or the idea that knowledge is developed by one's interaction with one's surrounding culture and society. The second key element is what Vygotsky called the Zone of proximal development. This refers to a range of tasks that can be too difficult for a learner to master by themselves but is made possible with the assistance of a more skilled individual or teacher. These ideas feed into a notion central to CSCL: knowledge building is achieved through interaction with others.
Cooperative learning, though different in some ways from collaborative learning, also contributes to the success of teams in CSCL environments. The five elements for effective cooperative groups identified by the work of Johnson and Johnson are positive interdependence, individual accountability, promotive interaction, social skills, and group processing. Because of the inherent relationship between cooperation and collaboration, understanding of what encourages successful cooperation is essential to CSCL research.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter wrote seminal articles leading to the development of key CSCL concepts: knowledge-building communities and knowledge-building discourse, intentional learning, and expert processes. Their work led to an early collaboration-enabling technology known as Computer Supported Intentional Learning Environment (CSILE). Characteristically for CSCL, their theories were integrated with the design, deployment and study of the CSCL technology. CSILE later became Knowledge Forum, which is the most widely used CSCL technology world-wide to date.
Other learning theories that provide a foundation for CSCL include distributed cognition, problem-based learning, cognitive apprenticeship, and situated learning. Each of these learning theories focuses on the social aspect of learning and knowledge building. Each theory recognizes that learning and knowledge building involve inter-personal activities including conversation, argument, and negotiation.
Only in the last 15 to 20 years have researchers begun to explore the extent to which computer technology could enhance the collaborative learning process. While researchers, in general, have relied on learning theories developed without consideration of computer-support, some have suggested that the field needs to have a theory tailored and refined for the unique challenges that confront those trying to understand the complex interplay of technology and collaborative learning.
Collaboration theory, suggested as a system of analysis for CSCL by Gerry Stahl in 2004, postulates that knowledge is constructed in social interactions such as discourse. The theory suggests that learning is not a matter of accepting fixed facts, but is the dynamic, on-going, and evolving result of complex interactions primarily taking place within communities of people. It also emphasizes that collaborative learning is a process of constructing meaning and that meaning creation most often takes place and can be observed at the group unit of analysis. The goal of collaboration theory is to develop an understanding of how meaning is collaboratively constructed, preserved, and re-learned through the media of language and artifacts in group interaction. There are four crucial themes in collaboration theory: collaborative knowledge building, which is seen as a more concrete term than "learning"; group and personal perspectives intertwining to create group understanding; mediation by artifacts (or the use of resources which learners can share or imprint meaning on); and interaction analysis using captured examples that can be analyzed as proof that the knowledge building occurred.
Collaboration theory proposes that technology in support of CSCL should provide new types of media that foster the building of collaborative knowing; facilitate the comparison of knowledge built by different types and sizes of groups; and help collaborative groups with the act of negotiating the knowledge they are building. Further, these technologies and designs should strive to remove the teacher as the bottleneck in the communication process. In other words, the teacher should not have to act as the conduit for communication between students or as the avenue by which information is dispensed. Finally, collaboration theory-influenced technologies will strive to increase the quantity and quality of learning moments via computer-simulated situations.
Currently, CSCL is used in instructional plans in classrooms both traditional and online from primary school to post-graduate institutions. Like any other instructional activity, it has its own prescribed practices and strategies which educators are encouraged to employ in order to use it effectively. Because its use is so widespread, there are innumerable scenarios in the use of CSCL, but there are several common strategies that provide a foundation for group cognition.
One of the most common approaches to CSCL is collaborative writing. Though the final product can be anything from a research paper, a Wikipedia entry, or a short story, the process of planning and writing together encourages students to express their ideas and develop a group understanding of the subject matter. Tools like blogs, interactive whiteboards, and custom spaces that combine free writing with communication tools can be used to share work, form ideas, and write synchronously.
Technology-mediated discourse refers to debates, discussions, and other social learning techniques involving the examination of a theme using technology. For example, wikis are a way to encourage discussion among learners, but other common tools include mind maps, survey systems, and simple message boards. Like collaborative writing, technology-mediated discourse allows participants that may be separated by time and distance to engage in conversations and build knowledge together.
Group exploration refers to the shared discovery of a place, activity, environment or topic among two or more people. Students do their exploring in an online environment, use technology to better understand a physical area, or reflect on their experiences together through the Internet. Virtual worlds like Second Life and Whyville as well as synchronous communication tools like Skype are ideal for this kind of learning.
Problem-based learning is a popular instructional activity that lends itself well to CSCL because of the social implications of problem solving. Complex problems call for rich group interplay that encourages collaboration and creates movement toward a clear goal.
Project-based learning is similar to problem-based learning in that it creates impetus to establish team roles and set goals. The need for collaboration is also essential for any project and encourages team members to build experience and knowledge together. Any file sharing or communication tools can be used to facilitate CSCL in problem- or project-based environments.
Though the focus in CSCL is on individuals collaborating with their peers, teachers still have a vital role in facilitating learning. Most obviously, the instructor must introduce the CSCL activity in a thoughtful way that contributes to an overarching design plan for the course. The design should clearly define the learning outcomes and assessments for the activity. In order to assure that learners are aware of these objectives and that they are eventually met, proper administration of both resources and expectations is necessary to avoid learner overload. Once the activity has begun, the teacher is charged with kick-starting and monitoring discussion to facilitate learning. He or she must also be able to mitigate technical issues for the class. Lastly, the instructor must engage in assessment, in whatever form the design calls for, in order to ensure objectives have been met for all students.
Without the proper structure, any CSCL strategy can lose its effectiveness. It is the responsibility of the teacher to make students aware of what their goals are, how they should be interacting, potential technological concerns, and the time-frame for the exercise. This framework should enhance the experience for learners by supporting collaboration and creating opportunities for the construction of knowledge. Another important consideration of educators who implement online learning environments is affordance. Students who are already comfortable with online communication often choose to interact casually. Mediators should pay special attention to make students aware of their expectations for formality online. While students sometime have frames of reference for online communication, they often do not have all of the skills necessary to solve problems by themselves. Ideally, teachers provide what is called "scaffolding" or a platform of knowledge that they can build on. A unique benefit of CSCL is that, given proper teacher facilitation, students can use technology to build learning foundations with their peers. This allows instructors to gauge the difficulty of the tasks presented and make informed decisions about the extent of the scaffolding needed.
Criticism and concerns
Though CSCL holds promise for enhancing education, it is not without barriers or challenges to successful implementation. Obviously, students or participants need sufficient access to computer technology. Though access to computers has improved in the last 15 to 20 years, teacher attitudes about technology and sufficient access to Internet-connected computers continue to be barriers to more widespread usage of CSCL pedagogy.
Furthermore, instructors find that the time needed to monitor student discourse and review, comment on, and grade student products can be more demanding than what is necessary for traditional face-to-face classrooms. The teacher or professor also has an instructional decision to make regarding the complexity of the problem presented. To warrant collaborative work, the problem must be of sufficient complexity, otherwise team work is unnecessary. Also, there is risk in assuming that students instinctively know how to work collaboratively. Though the task may be collaborative by nature, students may still need training on how to work in a truly cooperative process.
Others have noted a concern with the concept of scripting as it pertains to CSCL. There is an issue with possibly over-scripting the CSCL experience and in so doing, creating "fake collaboration." Such over-scripted collaboration may fail to trigger the social, cognitive, and emotional mechanisms that are necessary to true collaborative learning.
There is also the concern that the mere availability of the technology tools can create problems. Instructors may be tempted to apply technology to a learning activity that can very adequately be handled without the intervention or support of computers. In the process of students and teachers learning how to use the "user-friendly" technology, they never get to the act of collaboration. As a result, computers become an obstacle to collaboration rather than a supporter of it.
Computers in the classroom are often viewed with skepticism. They are seen by critics as boring and anti-social, a haven for geeks and a mechanical, inhumane form of training. CSCL is based on precisely the opposite vision: it proposes the development of new software and applications that bring learners together and that can offer creative activities of intellectual exploration and social interaction.
CSCL is often conflated with e-learning, the organization of instruction across computer networks. E-learning is too often motivated by a naïve belief that classroom content can be digitized and disseminated to large numbers of students with little continuing involvement of teachers or other costs, such as buildings and transportation. There are a number of problems with this view.
First, it is simply not true that the posting of content, such as slides, texts or videos, makes for compelling instruction. Such content may provide important resources for students, just as textbooks always have, but they can only be effective within a larger motivational and interactive context.
Second, online teaching requires at least as much effort by human teachers as classroom teaching. Not only must the teacher prepare materials and make them available by computer, the teacher must motivate and guide each student, through on-going interaction and a sense of social presence. While online teaching allows students from around the world to participate and allows teachers to work from any place with Internet connectivity, it generally significantly increases the teacher effort per student.
Third, CSCL stresses collaboration among the students, so that they are not simply reacting in isolation to posted materials. The learning takes place largely through interactions among students. Students learn by expressing their questions, pursuing lines of inquiry together, teaching each other and seeing how others are learning. Computer support for such collaboration is central to a CSCL approach to e-learning. Stimulating and sustaining productive student interaction is difficult to achieve, requiring skillful planning, coordination and implementation of curriculum, pedagogy and technology.
Fourth, CSCL is also concerned with face-to-face (F2F) collaboration. Computer support of learning does not always take the form of an online communication medium; the computer support may involve, for instance, a computer simulation of a scientific model or a shared interactive representation. In this case, the collaboration focuses on the construction and exploration of the simulation or representation. Alternatively, a group of students might use a computer to browse through information on the Internet and to discuss, debate, gather and present what they found collaboratively. Computer support can take the form of distant or F2F interaction, either synchronously or asynchronously.
- Collaborative learning
- Computer supported cooperative work
- Collaborative information seeking
- Educational Psychology
- Group cognition
- Online Community of Practice
- Mobile Computer Supported Collaborative Learning
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