Meaningful tools

Fetterman, D. (2002). Web Surveys to Digital Movies: Technological Tools of the Trade. Educational Researcher. 31(6). pp. 29-37.

Any article on technology tools is out of date the instant it is published; however, this article endures far better than the 2002 date suggests, possibly because Fetterman concentrates on tools that build meaning. Without inventing a complicated taxonomy, he lists a number of tools and their practical application:

  • Surveys (for gathering feedback)
  • Photography (for socialization)
  • Voice recognition (for data collection)
  • Collaborative file sharing (for group projects)
  • Video conferencing (for nonverbal communication)
  • Chat (for immediacy)
  • Reporting (for fast dissemination of research results)
  • Movies (for compelling capture of events)

Two conclusions seem appropriate seven years later:

  1. tracking changes by users in collaborative files is an invaluable feature–and yet is still elusive in Web applications (Google’s Wave may change that)
  2. private chat rooms allow users to maintain contact “more than any single software used”

While Fetterman’s optimistic vision of copyright-free accessibility still seems out of reach, his advocacy of a culture of participation has already come to pass. And as an instructional technologist, I personally appreciated his  admonition that “it is necessary to learn about technology to learn (and to help others learn how to learn) effectively with it.”


Collaboration is hard

Collaborative writing turned out to be more challenging than I surmised, primarily because we each approached the project with different styles (not writing styles–collaboration styles). However, this turned out to be the best lesson for me personally–the need to accept and embrace each individual. We talk about pedagogical design needing to recognize the variety of learner backgrounds, but this experience brought the requirement home. Two techniques that seemed to work (although I’m not sure the most effective ways to implement these in instructional environments) were the processes of negotiation and restatement.

Our team (from my perspective) experienced very few problems that weren’t addressed immediately; aside from initial technical problems with Second Life audio (we quickly moved to Skype and asynchronous comments), I found only two persistent issues:

  • synchronous interaction provided an immediacy and we accomplished more in a shorter amount of time; however, scheduling synchronous meetings where everyone attended proved challenging
    • I believe that setting meeting goals and a time limit–and sending a pre-meeting reminder would reinforce and structure these collaborative events.
  • the pace seemed to be a little frantic at the end; while many projects experience this phenomenon, the successful projects I’ve been involved with actually coasted the last 10% of the way without introducing new project requirements.
    • I believe setting earlier dates would allow more time at the end of the project for minor tweaking and a welcome wind-down period rather than a jarring stop.

The single biggest question that remains for me regarding collaborative writing is the best method for editing in a shared document space (Google Docs or a wiki). Our group alternated between end-of-document comments (doesn’t interfere with original author’s flow but becomes disassociated from the narrative) and color-coded in-text comments (created physical immediacy for the response but the colors interfered with legibility). Another option which we did not pursue would be direct replacement editing. I believe that agreeing on a single method at the start would be advantageous; I found myself needing to look in multiple locations for feedback. We need a tool that:

  • allows each person to see attributed edits directly in-text (Excel comments on steroids)
  • review and accept changes (Word Track Changes on steroids)
  • multiple and simultaneous edits to avoid overwriting

Perhaps this opens the doors for a new collaborative tool.

Recording SL

The following is the setup I used with CamStudio (an open source screen capture application available at but I think some of the settings (and especially the physical setup) may apply to other screen capture applications. This was done on a Wintel machine running XP:

Software Settings

  • Video compressor – Microsoft Video 1 (CamStudio’s lossless codec produces smaller files, but I could never find a codec to play the video under Windows Media Player or QuickTime. This may not be a problem if you are going to record directly to Flash .swf files, CamStudio offers direct recording to Flash via a .avi intermediate file)
  • Capture Frames Every – 200 milliseconds (keeps the file size low with no noticeable loss of quality)
  • Record audio from microphone (more on this later)
  • Audio options for microphone
    • Recording Format – 22.05 kHz, mono, 16-bit (22100 Bytes/sec)
    • Compression – MCI recording (no compression but avoids synch problems on long captures)

Physical Setting

Here’s the problem I ran into. With a USB headset, I could launch CamStudio with audio coming into the screen capture application via the microphone and record SL session video and my own voice audio—but not the audio voices of other SL participants. So, I found a non-USB headset (a microphone only will work—but find a good noise-canceling mic if you’re going this route) and physically placed it in front of me with the speakers equidistant behind the mic. Since I had CamStudio set to record from the mic, my audio voice was sent directly to Cam Studio; and because I didn’t have a USB headset (and because my speakers were the output for the SL audio), the mic picked up the audio voices from the other SL participants.


  • originally released by a company called RenderSoft who were subsequently bought by a company called eHelp who used some of the technology in their program, RoboDemo
  • eHelp was bought by Macromedia who wanted RoboDemo (which was to become Captivate)
  • CamStudio is now released as open source software

CSCL Revisited

CSCL combines many of the theoretical elements we studied in instructional design–constructivist learning, social negotiation of knowledge, the importance of communication transactions–with the area I work in: Internet-delivered instruction. While the group I work with has long advocated the use of student groups as a means to address enrollment scalability, CSCL lends research-based credence to that advocacy with more successful learning outcomes.

One area that troubles me a little is the focus of CSCL on small groups (3-5 students); this size seems better described as a team. My observation of game-based learning (not learning in serious games, but learning nonetheless) is that teams are more effective in solving discrete problems, but that larger groups are required to lend reality to a virtual world simulation. Would an island in SL feel “real” if there were only 4 people walking (flying) around? Can the premise of Dunbar’s number be tested in educational learning environments? Is a critical mass (and the resultant diversity) necessary to create a self-sustaining community?

As far as the module, the only problem I encountered was the rapid-fire pace of the assignments. Basically, an assignment was due every other day (and the days in between were required to get up to speed on the forthcoming assignment). This may prove to be a successful (if demanding) instructional design, implemented specifically to keep us on task; the pace provided a great deal of structure which might prove to be an exercise in self-discipline, especially if the end portion of the course involves a longer project.


While both cooperative and collaborative learning are founded in constructivist theory where knowledge is actively constructed by students, the distinction between cooperative learning as, “a division of labor among participants” and collaborative learning as “mutual engagement of participants in a coordinated effort to solve the problem together” (Roschelle & Teasley as cited in Resta & Laferrière) offers practical clarity as a backdrop. Education is a personal transaction among students and between students and teachers; these activities and transactions can take place only in a cooperative (or collaborative) environment.

Cooperative learning is more teacher-centered because the teacher controls the tasks, facilitates the methods, and may define the end products. Collaborative learning emphasizes personal change and transactions over environmental control and transmission. And in a punny way, collaboration may exclusively involve (evolve) elaboration. However, the sophistication of both students and teachers, as well as the subject matter, determines which method is more appropriate.

Many educational settings overly emphasize competition and individual work, although the former can provide motivation and the latter may be necessary to assure individual accountability. Key components in successful cooperative learning environments include positive interdependence, face-to-face promotive interaction, individual and group accountability, interpersonal and small group skills, and group processing. Clear guidelines on roles and expectations can prevent conflict and lay the groundwork for accurate assessment.

Collaborative learning should be viewed as “knowledge building” which is more concrete than “learning” from the perspective of social practice. Collaborative knowledge building is structured by the intertwining of personal perspectives with group understandings. Learners are influenced by socially-situated contexts, and learning occurs through interactional processes.

The construction of knowledge proceeds on the basis of artifacts already at hand and creates new artifacts from group knowledge-building to formulate, embody, preserve, and communicate new knowledge. The meaning of artifacts and our understanding of that meaning are first created in interpersonal contexts and subsequently may be internalized in an individual as a cognitive artifact. The mental representation is a result of collaborative activities within a socio-cultural context, not first as an internal product which is then expressed externally. Naturally occurring and carefully captured examples of collaborative knowledge building can be rigorously analyzed to make visible the knowledge-building activities at work, the intertwining of perspectives, and the mediating role of artifacts.

CSCL: The Way Ahead

Resta, Paul. (2007). Technology in Support of Collaborative Learning. Journal Educational Psychology Review, 19(1), 65-83. doi:10.1007/s10648-007-9042-7.

This article shows that CSCL encompasses several familiar models (social constructivism, cognitive apprenticeship, and situated cognition) and also offers new avenue to explore (distributed cognition, activity-network theory). The article provides a welcome clear distinction between cooperative and collaborative learning:

  • collaboration – interaction involving mutual engagement within ill-structured domains as a lifestyle
  • cooperation – interaction involving division of labor within well-structured domains to produce a product

The majority of the paper uses a practical framework from Biggs (pre-existing variables that provide the context; process variables that take place in the learning event; product variables that are the outcomes) to produce six recommendations for future CSCL research:

  1. Recommendation 1–Provide detailed data for replication
  2. Recommendation 2–Focus on unique affordances
    • Technological literacy
    • Enhance cognitive performance
    • Flexibility of time and space
    • Engagement
      • Academic: but can individuals achieve outside the group?
      • Higher order thinking: but is this a direct result of CSCL?
      • Student satisfaction: but is their preference for face to face?
      • Group products: can individuals produce equivalent products in a different group?
      • Group cognition: CSCL offers transparency but does that automatically equate to learning?
  3. Recommendation 3–Apply f2f collaborative techniques to online
    • Group size should be 3 or 5 and heterogeneous to offer diverse perspectives
    • A sense of community is critical (but how is social presence increased?)
    • Group support systems are 29% more effective than f2f
    • Task structures must balance between some structure (to avoid information overload) and too much structure (which reduces interaction)
    • Group leadership: online interaction doesn’t evolve without coaching and modeling, especially at the start, but this implies a group leader is automatically the group facilitator
    • Meaning making (the collaborative construction of knowledge through social negotiation) relies on:
      • Grounding which requires learners to add to their common ground by establishing the mutual belief that all have understood
      • Collaboration which should lead to a convergence of meaning
      • However, students may converge too early (by relying on the teacher for authority?)
      • In addition, students often don’t interact (because it’s required?)
    • Knowledge – different than work (task) because it uses intentional goals. Knowledge practice is distinct from acquisition and participation
    • Time – how much scaffolding responsibility can be transferred to students?
  4. Recommendation 4–Research on student characteristics
    • student engagement with cognitively complex ideas is not common (could be due to lack of interest–this is homework after all)
    • prior knowledge is the most important variable determining quality of contributions (and thus we should build on prior knowledge)
  5. Recommendation 5–Research CSCL design elements
    • students may not understand system features (or maybe it’s because this is homework or because they don’t know what’s expected)
  6. Recommendation 6–Research organizational issues

Wikipedia on CSCL

The Wikipedia entry for CSCL provides a practical overview but could be strengthened with clarification and additional examples.


  • distinguish between collaborative and cooperative learning
  • provide specifics on how “learners label aspects of their communication”

Current Research

  • add specific data on CSCL “tools as aides to learning” including data that comes from non-classroom modes

Means and Mediums

  • elaborate on multiple means and mediums


  • Wikis
    • Clarify use of wikis for reflection
    • Change example to students’ adding personal experiences to a topic
  • Learning Management systems
    • Consider renaming to Discussion Boards, the major CSCL tool within an LMS
  • Survey systems
    • Add example that shows how survey systems are used for CSCL
  • Video-conferencing/file sharing applications
    • Move file-sharing to Online Image/Video Sharing topic
    • Differentiate by virtue of synchronous nature
  • Online Collaborative Workspaces
    • Consider reframing as Web 2.0 services
  • Online Whiteboards
    • Provide additional examples of content that require visualization
  • Virtual worlds
    • Provide examples of additional subjects (other than writing/reading) that can make use of this tool
  • Mind maps
    • Add example of collaborative mind map tools
    • Consider moving to the Online Collaborative Workspaces (Web 2.0) section

Teacher’s Role

  • Add reference link for Ku, Lohr, and Cheng (2004) article
  • Extend list of competencies with practical details