What I have learned about on-line collaborative learning

October 16, 2012 at 8:15 am 21 comments

When the report “Researching Online Education” (quoted and linked below) was released, a couple people contacted me.  “Tell them what’s really going on in collaborative learning!  Tell them what we really know from research!”  I looked at their report and concluded that the work I’ve done and am most familiar with doesn’t really have much to do with what they’re exploring.  I don’t know much about business models in on-line collaborative learning.  I do think that some of the work that I did 10-20 years ago in computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) is relevant for today’s MOOCs and other on-line learning experiments.

The work led us to a few hypotheses: (1) We’re skeptical a business model that charges for content will work at scale and in the long run. (2) We expect education platforms that offer vertical content and/or specific education experiences will be more successful than horizontal platforms, though we think credentials and careers offer two opportunities for horizontal aggregation. (3) Without credentialing or careers, online education seems aspirational and removed from the day-to-day of many people.

via Researching Online Education – Union Square Ventures: A New York Venture Capital Fund Focused on Early Stage & Startup Investing.

I got started working in CSCL as soon as I got to Georgia Tech in 1993.  Janet Kolodner took me under her wing and got me started on several projects developing collaborative learning activities on-line with engineers and architects around campus.  Note that this was two years before Mosaic, so we had to build our clients ourselves.  We built a system called CaMILE (Collaborative and Multimedia Interactive Learning Environment) mostly in HyperCard, but then moved it to the Web as soon as graphical browsers became available.

Relevant finding #1:  With CaMILE, we created a form of collaboration we called “anchored collaboration.”  Rather than a wholly separate forum, we could link to a particular thread in a discussion, so that we could (for example) link a homework assignment to a thread for discussion of that assignment.  Jennifer Turns and I did an analysis which showed that anchoring collaboration led to longer, on-topic discussions than having a separate forum.  It seems to me when I look around at on-line learning forums today, they’re mostly stand-alone — not integrated, not anchored.

Later, we developed the CoWeb or Swiki (which I talked a bit about in a previous post).  We had several reasons for moving to Wiki’s.  We had noticed with CaMILE that the anchors that were most effective were written by teachers.  Would they have been as effective if written by peer students?  Wikis gave us the chance to explore that.  (Unpublished finding: Nope.  The posts by the teacher are always the most interesting, generating the most traffic.)  We were also interested in moving away from a strictly threaded model, based on the work in CSILE and the Knowledge Forum on network-based representations that may lead to better student learning.  Most of our earliest work with the CoWeb or Swiki was descriptive: Teachers and students were doing all kinds of wonderful things with it, and we simply tried to catalog them.  Over those early years, the Swiki evolved rapidly, in response to the needs of teachers and students. Jochen Rick did a nice CSCW paper describing our design process and how the Swiki met the needs of different roles in an educational context.

Relevant finding #2: One of our coolest findings from back then was that collaborative learning could be better than classroom learning at lower cost.  Jochen Rick ran this study, in two English classrooms: One doing close-reading on paper, and the another doing the identical activity in a Swiki.  We tracked costs down to teacher and student time (e.g., using diary studies).  The Swiki-based learning was better and at lower cost.  Here’s a paper providing an example of a blended classroom that really did reduce costs and improve learning.

Relevant finding #3: We did CSCL research for a long time (from pre-Web into the early 2000’s), and we started to notice how and where collaboration worked and when it didn’t work.  Jochen did another nice paper on the interaction between the culture in the classroom and collaboration.  (His dissertation work explored the complicated issues of permissions, privacy, and transparency in personal webpages.)  We had one really large project where we worked on cross-disciplinary collaboration between engineers, mathematicians, and computer scientists.  It was a disaster.  Students had no interest in collaborating, and even accepted failing grades rather than participate in the Swiki.  (We called this “non-integrated engineering education.”) Our work completely changed — instead of creating collaborative learning situations, we switched to studying why they didn’t work.  These are important results for the MOOCs: Collaboration doesn’t always happen, and making it work sometimes requires changing culture, which is hard to do in an international, multiple-thousands-of-students “classrooms.”

One of the final projects I did in CSCL was with Karen Carroll.  We noticed that, in our English class study, there really wasn’t all that much use of the Swiki by each individual.  I had done a “dirty secrets” paper years earlier that got a plenary spot in a CSCL conference, showing that use of online collaborative forums, viewed from an individual level, was far too small for learning to occur. Our existing theory on collaborative learning (e.g., Roschelle, 1992) says that learning arises from the dialog between the participants — 0.5 notes/week/student (a fairly regular rate across several studies) is not a dialog.  We found a couple of similar papers in the literature that, like our English class study, showed significant learning, but without significant dialog.  How is learning occurring?  Karen did a really interesting interview study, where she explored all the ways that reading the on-line forum led to learning activities, even if there was no posting.  I wanted to follow up on that, to see how common these activities were and if they did explain the learning we were seeing.  But then Media Computation came along.

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21 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ernesto León De la Rosa  |  October 16, 2012 at 10:21 am

    Reblogged this on Memes:~Education and commented:
    Can thoughts on Online Collaborative Learning serve the ideas behind MemEducation?

  • 2. nickfalkner  |  October 16, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    Very interesting and timely, Mark. We’ve been looking at a number of points around this in our local research on the use of on-line collaborative spaces for assignment work at our international campus. Thanks for the great summary!

  • […] Kurze und prägnante Zusammenfassung von Mark Guzdial zu einigen Erkenntnissen im Bereich CSCL. Meine Arbeit zu dieser Zeit wurde insbesondere durch das Konzept der anchored discussions beeinflusst, was ich heute nach wie vor für einen sehr vielversprechenden Ansatz für Online-Diskussionen ansehe, der jedoch viel zu wenig umgesetzt wurde. […]

  • […] of the research has been done. But there has already been quite a bit of research into how to form effective and engaging collaborations in online learning environments. We have to extend this research into the domain of MOOCs and the particular environmental […]

  • 5. Gregory Wilson  |  October 19, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Do you think the lack of successful collaboration you found among the college design teams is due to a lack of a priority to teach collaborative skills in K-12 education?

    • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  October 19, 2012 at 11:42 am

      It’s a good question, but I don’t think so. One of the interesting observations in our cross-disciplinary effort was that some of the same students who collaborated a lot in the English class refused to collaborate in some of their math, CS, and Engineering classes. It wasn’t that the students did not know how to collaborate. It was the culture that the students perceived in the classroom, about whether collaboration was encouraged or useful.

  • 7. David Karger  |  October 25, 2012 at 9:57 am

    Mark, you since you mention that ” It seems to me when I look around at on-line learning forums today, they’re mostly stand-alone — not integrated, not anchored” I wanted to give a shout out on nb (http://nb.mit.edu/), which is an anchored collaboration forum. Nb has been used in upwards of 50 classes (and is open to anyone who wants to use it for their own). Unlike your experience with Camille, it seems that in Nb a tremendous amount of the interesting discussion is initiated by students—perhaps because they are more familiar with the whole forum concept these days. More details in our CHI paper from this year: http://people.csail.mit.edu/karger/Papers/nb.pdf

    • 8. Mark Guzdial  |  October 25, 2012 at 12:51 pm

      Hi David — I believe that the interesting discussion is initiated by the students, but the teacher assigns the reading, yes? So that means that the anchor is created by the teacher still, if I’m interpreting the paper right.

      • 9. David Karger  |  October 25, 2012 at 2:46 pm

        Well, the faculty choosing the document to be read, but students are the ones who place whatever annotations they want at whatever location they want. So I don’t think of it as teacher-assigned in the CaMILE sense (where the teacher picked the location of the anchor). It isn’t as student-initiated as swiki, where students can introduce whatever resources they like.

        • 10. Mark Guzdial  |  October 25, 2012 at 2:52 pm

          Agreed — it’s an interesting mix of the two different models. Thanks, David!

  • 11. Trident  |  December 13, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    Perhaps it would be a good idea for some classes to touch upon the subject of collaboration before the course even started in order to encourage collaboration and explain to students how they would be able to do so and give out a tip sheet or something similar.

  • […] where the “teaching” and learning takes place, but I would like evidence of that. I’ve mentioned here that I used to work in computer-supported collaborative learning in the ea…. That’s not really enough posting for a dialog and collaborative learning. Is it the same […]

  • […] how most students asked questions. Everyone reads (over 95%), but only 33% post — which is pretty similar to the lack of participation that we documented years ago in engineering courses usin…. That doesn’t mean that the collaboration forums aren’t contributing to learning, but […]

  • […] “Anchored Collaboration sounds interesting. Can I do it with Piazza?  No?  Then it’s not really useful to anyone, is it?” […]

  • […] CaMILE project was an early creation of Mark Guzdial’s. He started it at Georgia Tech in 1993. This was prior to graphical interfaces. As soon as graphical interfaces bacame available on the Internet, they moved CaMILE to the web. It was followed by several other projects, including CoWeb and Swiki. Today, Guzdial says that computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) is relevant for today’s MOOCs and other on-line learning experiments. (https://computinged.wordpress.com/2012/10/16/what-i-have-learned-about-on-line-collaborative-learning&#8230😉 […]

  • […] too. On Thursday and Friday, I’m attending a workshop on integrated engineering education. Since I used to do work like that, and haven’t done much in Engineering Education in years, I thought it would be fun and […]

  • […] there” and “It seems to work in CS classes, but not for the  other majors.”  I told them about work that Jennifer Turns and I did in 1999 that showed why Piazza and newsgroups don’t work as well as integrated computer-supported […]

  • […]  It may be that the scale swamps out the teacher demonstrating value for the discussion.  Our past work in CSCL suggests that the culture of the class (e.g., the subject, the rewards structure, etc.) influences […]

  • […] It’s not surprising that men and women participate differently in online class discussions.  I’m disappointed that the interpretations of the results are not grounded in the literature on collaborative learning.  We know something about why people might not want to participate in an online forum (as I wrote about in a previous blog post). […]

  • […] that these numbers were interesting, because they’re comparable to the ones I explored in my information ecology paper in CSCL many years ago. 38 or 32 notes student in a 15 week class is a couple per week. That’s not a […]

  • […] hard to do on-line education well. I used to study this kind of learning a lot (see post on “What I have learned about on-line collaborative learning”). I recently wrote about how we’re mostly doing emergency remote teaching, not effective […]


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