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.


How Computer Games Help Children Learn – Chapter 3

Shaffer, D. (2006). How Computer Games Help Children Learn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Shaffer opens by discussing the danger of superficially introducing games into the curriculum using Math word problems as an example. On the surface, an abstract equation might seem to be better explained by starting with a concrete example; however, couching the equation as a “real” word problem simply makes learning more difficult by requiring translation.

Shaffer introduces a defining characteristic of games: knowing what (declarative knowledge) versus knowing how (procedural knowledge). Procedural knowledge is the domain of experts in a field who often cannot articulate their declarative knowledge. Knowledge (what) and skills (how) are combined with the epistemology in a professional’s approach.

Shaffer defines innovation as something that “cannot be standardized…(but) cannot happen in isolation” and ties innovative professionals to a community. In the design game described in the chapter, students use both critiques (collaborative episodes) and public discussions (a community of practice). Shaffer describes the practicum process as:

  • doing things as a professional (action)
  • discussing what happened with the community (reflection on action)
  • repeating this iterative cycle until the process is internalized (reflection in action)

Shaffer ties the “reflection on action”  cycle to Vygotsky’s ZPD as a process of “doing things with help and then progressively internalizing.” This view accurately mirrors Stahl’s view of Vygotskian learning as initial socio-cultural community artifacts which are subsequently transformed into internal cognitive artifacts.

Research Directions (Web 2.0)

Greenbow, C., Robelia, B. & Hughes, J. (2009). Learning, Teaching, and Scholarship in a Digital Age: Web 2.0 and Classroom Research: What Path Should We Take Now? Educational Researcher. 38(4). 246-259. doi:10.3102/0013189X09336671.

Dede, C. (2009). Comments on Greenbow, Robelia, and Hughes: Technologies That Facilitate Generating Knowledge and Possibly Wisdom. Educational Researcher. 38(4). 260-263. doi:10.3102/0013189X09336672.

Leu, D., O’Byrne, I., Zawilinski, J., McVerry, G., & Everett-Cacopardo, H. (2009). Comments on Greenbow, Robelia, and Hughes: Expanding the New Literacies Conversation. Educational Researcher. 38(4). 264-269. doi:10.3102/0013189X09336676.

Owston, R. (2009). Comments on Greenbow, Robelia, and Hughes: Digital Immersion, Teacher Learning, and Games. Educational Researcher. 38(4). 270-273. doi:10.3102/0013189X09336673.

Zhang, J. (2009). Comments on Greenbow, Robelia, and Hughes: Toward a Creative Social Web for Learners and Teachers. Educational Researcher. 38(4). 274-279. doi:10.3102/0013189X09336674.

Greenbow, C., Robelia, B. & Hughes, J. (2009). Response to Comments on Research on Learning and Teaching with Web 2.0: Bridging Conversations. Educational Researcher. 38(4). 280-283. doi:10.3102/0013189X09336675.


This interesting set of articles shows scholarship and the peer review process played out in print. Greenbow begins the multilogue by taking Owston’s 1997 and Windschitl’s 1998 seminal articles on the function of the Web in education and fast-forwards the discussion to the Web 2.0 of today. While the assertion that Web 1.0 was “authenticated knowledge” is inaccurate, the definition of Web 2.0–a platform and a space built on de-centralized knowledge co-constructed from collective agreement–is encompassing and practical. The description of Web 2.0 technologies could be clarified:

  • Web 2.0 is best viewed not as a single platform, but as a collection of “small pieces, loosely joined” (and users define those linkages)
  • RSS and XML are the core technologies implemented in AJAX and REST

While Greenbow notes that interconnections , creation/remixing, and interactivity are Web 2.0 affordances, and while Web 2.0 has been termed the “participatory” Web, the distinguishing factor is the seamless integration of connections (among people and among artifacts) which bring to (digital) life Mark Granovetter’s theory of the strength of weak ties. The ecology lens adds a realistic perspective, viewing learning across multiple spaces (although learning doesn’t travel across these spaces but rather with learners through the spaces). And while Wikipedia does “little to generate meaningful patterns,” it could easily do so with the addition of user feedback mechanisms, version visualization, and user-centric tag clouds.

Greenbow lays out a three-part research agenda:

  1. what learners do with Web 2.0
  2. equity and access to Web 2.0
  3. building theory and corollary practices and policies

In the discussion of identity formation, Greenbow identifies areas which seem particularly relevant to Web 2.0: the need to consider learners as multiple selves, and the risks and benefits of emergent online identity development. However, in discussing the possible integration of Web 2.0 and school, two findings seem suspect:

  • students come to campus expecting to leverage online social networks to learn
  • 70% of parents believe social networks would help students improve reading and writing

In arguing for the concept of social scholarship, Greenbow identifies key elements:

  • sharing resources
  • developing an online (scholarly) identity
  • publishing and discussing individual research

The research element is particularly intriguing. Publishing in print means permanence and the ability for scholars to later reflect, dissect, and replicate. In the Web 2.0 world, digital research is now offering the same durability intertwined with a communicative interchange. At the same time, research into Web 2.0 (as opposed to research using Web 2.0) highlights the traditional ethical question of researcher impact, a problem acknowledged by danah boyd in her Friendster research.


While Dede’s taxonomy is simplified (mash-ups are less like the co-creation of wikis and more similar to blogging), and while I prefer Shirkey’s ego-centric and object-centric delineation, Dede proposes a sweeping idea to foster wisdom: a suite of Web 2.0 tools could provide an environment for addressing wicked problems where:

  • stakeholders have different views
  • constraints change over time
  • solutions must be attempted before the problem can be understood
  • no complete solution will ever exist


Leu approaches the conversation from a different perspective which seems designed primarily to advance a personal vision. Leu first identifies four limitations to Greenbow’s use review:

  1. the progression from Web 1.0 to 2.0 is continuous not binary (true)
  2. networking tools used for social interaction should not direct academic interaction (true although social networking tools should be analyzed and the appropriate affordances should then be incorporated into formal discourse)
  3. Web 2.0 tools should also be considered for the workplace (true although the original scope was defined as academic settings–and adults use Web 2.0 differently than do young adults)
  4. information technology is slighted in favor of communication technology (actually, Greenbow’s analysis is of usage not technology)

Leu’s proposal to view Web 2.0 as a literacy issue–and particularly to integrate the Web into subjects–is welcome. The distinction between new literacies and New Literacies (lower-case literacies are tested and become part of upper-case Literacies and then shared with other lower-case literacies) is needlessly pedantic. However, the caution on equitable access warrants continued monitoring.


Owston offers three potential areas for elaboration:

  1. the effects of continuous immersion
  2. the use for professional development
  3. the use of games for learning

Owston cites only a single research study that suggests digital media impairs the development of reasoning and social abilities; this area warrants further investigation because conflicting research suggests that some digital tools increase problem-solving, metacognitive ability, and effective collaboration. Owston advocates online professional development (based on asynchronous access to a community) and accurately acknowledges three potential problems: community sustenance, the tension between structure (which increases participation) and creative flexibility, and community socialization (made easier in face-to-face mode). The finding that successful online professional development programs were “directly related to the curriculum that teachers were teaching” underscores the importance of situated learning. Owston’s report of the ability for games to increase traditional literacy and improve collaboration skills seems to conflict with his earlier assertion that digital media impairs the development of these abilities.


Zhang’s design-based research perspective offers the ability to quantify the research areas suggested by Greenbow. Zhang emphasizes the community aspects of Web 2.0 and succinctly outlines the dilemmas posed by integrating Web 2.0 into the academy:

  • Web 2.0 enables collaboration but doesn’t treat these communication artifacts “as explicit objects in their own right” which inhibits reference and synthesis
  • Web 2.0 supports collaboration but doesn’t retain the historical evolution of knowledge with progressive visibility

Web 2.0 represents a classical tension between the gatekeeper model of peer review (offering both organization and totalitarianism) and the participatory model of consensus (offering both creativity and the superficial popularity of personal opinion). If Surowiecki’s “wisdom of crowds” model has validity in academia, it may need extension with visible and attributable iteration.

Zhang recommends four DBR areas:

  • Reflective representation of community knowledge
  • Inquiry into pedagogy
  • Progress-focused peer review
  • Scaffolding collaborative creativity

Zhang puts these recommendations into practice by tying the goals to professional teacher development.

Greenbow (redux)

Greenbow reminds us that research-based environments for teachers have not scaled up or altered teaching practice, a problem that must lead us to consider alternatives. Incorporating the reviewers’ comments, Greenbow proposes an alternate model in which research is presented as it progresses, a model which provides history and rigor while retaining the advantages of collaboration and multiple perspectives.

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.

Web 1.0

Owston, Ronald D. (1997). The World Wide Web: A Technology to Enhance Teaching and Learning. Educational Researcher, 26(2), pp. 27-33.

The K-12 orientation of this article probably explains the initial emphasis on the Web as a content resource; while discussing the accessibility created by multimedia and databases, it slights communication and the potential loss of a socialization component in online courses. However, the focus on learning improvement asks a key question about the unique attributes that distinguish between the Web as a tool and the Web as a medium. Incorrectly, Owston concludes that “no computer-based tool” has ever demonstrated transferable skills (in Owston’s word processor case, for example, MacArthur in The impact of computers on the writing process showed that word processing increased the acquisition and transference of revision skills). At the same time, Owston notes the possibility for deeper learning through the persistence quality of Web postings, as well as the motivational appeal to students.

Owston claims that teachers with computers shift from a didactic to a project-based approach, but this claim rings hollow when compared with other research (including Windschitl’s article). While discussing the Web’s advantages of currency of information, global reach, and student motivation, Owston glosses over another key differentiator: the ability of the Web to offer an authentic audience to the products of students’ learning experiences.

The final section on the Web as a potential cost savings mode is the most persuasive. While one contention seems dated (that costs may increase due to the expansion of campus networks–an expense we now know that was going to occur whether or not learning delivery moved to the Web) and another (that faculty must expend resources to plan content, pedagogy, resources, and maintenance) is equally true for physical classroom courses, Owston makes several critical points that have often been ignored  in the rush to move courses online:

  • course development costs are often hidden
  • faculty need access to instructional support centers
  • online courses reduce the impact on the campus physical plant
  • the asynchronous nature of online courses meets student needs

Owston’s argument that Web delivery can benefit small-enrollment courses (while noting that the primary impact will be seen in moving large-enrollment courses online) misses one crucial argument for accessibility: small enrollment courses which might not “make” have a greater chance of running through the addition of geographically-challenged students.

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