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A Naive Exploration of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning

Last tended on June 26, 2020
🌱 Budding

Stian Håklev, a fellow Roam Gardener and twitter friend, clued me in to the field of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning.Stian is a fascinating thinker, and I'd recommend this podcast interview to hear about his PhD in CSCL and applying it at The Minerva Project

Much like the name suggests, it's an academic discipline exploring the possibilities of pedagogy and education where collaboration and computers are first-class considerations.

Rather than treating digital mediums as a supportive system or extra add-on in a normal classroom environment, they're The Main Thing. And rather than focusing on how individuals learn and understand, knowledge building as a group is prioritised.

It's a reaction against what's known as the "direct transmission" model – the view that learning is an individual experience of passively receiving content from someone lecturing at you.

TLDR; it's an entire academic discipline studying how we can build digitally-mediated Communities of Practice for learning Or, in their own words... "CSCL is a field of study centrally concerned with meaning and the practices of meaning-making in the context of joint activity, and the ways in which these practices are mediated through designed artifacts."
Stahl, G. (2002) Computer Support
For Collaborative Learning

Stian warned me that, like almost all academic disciplines, they haven't mastered the art of Learning in Public. Some cursory research made it clear the main medium of communication for these folks is obscure academic conference papers and £200 scholarly publications.

The buzzwords and acronyms are stacked high.

This page is a record of my research as I wander into the world of CSCL – wide-eyed, naive, and excitable.

Key Concepts and Essential Questions

Collaborative Learning Not Guaranteed

CSCL does not claim collaboration is a silver bullet solution to effective learning. Quite the opposite.

All the papers makes clear that collaboration in and of itself doesn't magically produce understanding. Instead, it needs to be designed, structured, and carefully facilitated to lead to learning.

The most effective techniques are not surprising...

  • Meaningful discussion, debate, and negotiation that forces us to question our assumptions and revise our conclusions.
  • Explaining your thinking to another human, out loud or in writing, quickly shows how well you know the material.
  • Solving a problem, then comparing your solution to someone elses, and mutually agreeing upon the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Most of the research focuses on designing these intentional collaborative experiences. As well as the systems that make them possible (aka. apps, tools, platforms, all that jazz).

These are not new pedagogical findings, but CSCL is exploring how digital mediums are particularly well-suited to enabling them. Not just within small groups, but at scale.

Computer magic means we can have multiple, intertwining discussions all going on simultaneously. With a far wider range of expertise, experiences, and perspectives. Hence, Twitter.

"Collaborative Learning does not just mean that individual learning is enhanced by participation in small groups; it means that it is the groups themselves that learn." Knowledge is a product of the collaboration process: it arises through interaction of different perspectives, heats up in the cauldron of public discourse, is gradually refined through negotiation, and is codified and preserved in cultural or scientific artifacts"

Computer Support For Collaborative Learning: Foundations for a CSCL CommunityStahl (2002)

"Collaboration leads to positive outcomes only when students engage in knowledge generative interactions such as giving explanations, and engaging in argumentation, negotiation, conflict resolution or mutual regulation""

Designing Integrative ScriptsDillenbourg and Jermann (2007)

"The occurrence of knowledge-generative interactions is not a given: such interactions do not necessarily emerge spontaneously" (Cohen 1994; Salomon and Globerson 1989)

Computer Supported Collaborative Learning and Intelligent Tutoring SystemsTchounikine, Rummel, and McLaren (2010)

Creating Structure with Macro-scripts

It quickly became clear that macro-scripts are the bread and butter of CSCL systems. These are the Pattern Languages of the field that create structured collaboration.

CSCL Macro-scripts describe how a learning experience will play out. On a general level, they define a sequence of activities focused around a learning goal. The learners all have assigned roles and follow a set of constraints and rules for interaction.

It sets up the whole dinner party for you, so participants can just show up and know all the learning logistics are taken care of.

That might sound a bit prescriptive. Until you realise every social interaction you engage in works this way. But most of the time our scripts and roles are so internalised they become invisible.

When we walk into a grocery store we play the role of shopper and follow the put-stuff-in-basket script. It would be disastrously off-script to begin eating a fresh croissant while standing in the bakery aisle, or to walk behind a checkout counter and begin scanning our own groceries. We have all been

to follow the script. What I'm describing is a well-established social theory developed by many people, but my favourite is Erving Goffman's account that he presented in the classic book Frame Analysis. Goffman refers to the social setting that scripts play out in as a "Frame"

Scripts make it much more likely learners will develop a thorough understanding of the material, and come away with original perspectives on it.

There's also a need for a fine balance of structure and improvisation. If scripts are too weak the learning experience falls apart. If they're too rigid or irrelevant, interactions become boring, sterile, and rote.

"CSCL scripts are primarily considered as support devices enabling learners to stick to an effective pattern of collaboration more easily and to obtain improved learning outcomes" (156)

Scripting Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning: Cognitive, Computational and Educational PerspectivesFischer, F. et al. (2007)

"Free collaboration does not systematically produce learning. One way to enhance the effectiveness of collaborative learning is to structure interactions by engaging students in well-defined scripts. A collaboration script is a set of instructions prescribing how students should form groups, how they should interact and collaborate and how they should solve the problem"

Over-scripting CSCL: The risks of blending collaborative learning with instructional designDillenbourg (2002)

Playing the Role

One of the most intruiging elements of macro-scripts is that they define clear roles for each participant.

Most of us have been in meetings with assigned facilitators and scribes, but we rarely expand beyond these.

Why stop there? What if we add in...

  • A Research-Runner who is in charge of fetching up links and references mentioned in the discussion.
  • A Sceptic or Devil's Advocate who (constructively) raises objections and counter-opinions
  • A Timekeeper who moves us through the learning plan on schedule
  • A Summariser who captures the group's conclusions in succinct statements
  • A Reflector who mirrors people's points back to them in their own words
  • An Explorer responsible for gathering wildly off-beat references outside the traditional domain

There's a huge range of role options that you can pick and choose from depending on the size, synchronicity, and goals of the group.

The Group Work Roles page on EduTech Wiki (an overall great place) elaborates on this list.

What's a "Community of Practice"?

Coined by Etienne Wegner, a community of practice is a group of people "who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise by interacting on an ongoing basis."Introduction to
communities of practice
- Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner (2015)

It's a collection of people who are into the same stuff as you, that you end up stumbling into organically. In an ad-hoc decentralised way, you start collectively problem-solving and learning with them in a weird, emergent, beautiful process.

No one plans the community. No one regulates or controls it. There is no central calendar of events.

You earn membership by proving you have the right domain expertise and Cultural Capital to belong there. This doesn't necessarily mean an official domain like Biochemical Engineering. Knitting clubs and Favela gangs have equally valid kinds of domain expertise.

CSCL mentions Communities of Practice a lot. While much of the research focuses on your typical K-12 formal school institutions, there's a decent branch of it trying to figure out how we can foster and facilitate better CoP's.

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Maggie Appleton © 2020