Ms. Kati Mäkitalo' s Academic dissertation 10.2.2006

Mäkitalo, K. 2006. Interaction in Online Learning Environments: How to Support Collaborative Activities in Higher Education. University of Jyväskylä. Institute for Educational Research.



This study explored interaction and learning in computer-supported collaborative learning environments. It involved three different research projects based in higher education settings. The aim was to study, in particular, learner interaction and the way in which learners built and maintained common ground so as to enable themselves to collaborate and learn together. Another aim was to explore the effects of scripting interaction in online learning environments with a view to finding out how scripting can enhance or hamper collaborative interaction.

The five substudies were carried out as parts of three projects involving higher education courses. The main data collected and analysed in all five substudies consisted of the record of the students’ online discussions. The different documents produced by the individuals or groups and data on their learning outcomes were also exploited in analysing the materials. Substudies I, II and V were based on a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods. Substudies III and IV explored the activities of the small groups by using a qualitative approach.

All the five substudies indicated that interaction and collaboration in online learning environments are complex phenomena. In order to work together and interact successfully participants must engage in teamwork, making an equal personal contribution to the team’s collaborative activities and freely sharing their prior knowledge, beliefs, assumptions and feelings. Here the mechanisms of the grounding process are basic elements which can enhance learners’ ability to work as a team and reach shared understanding in knowledge building activities or whose absence can, on the other hand, hamper teamwork and the construction of knowledge (Substudies I-IV). The grounding process enabled the learners to face up, as they went about building and maintaining common ground, to a dual-problem space consisting of a content space and a relational space. Learners must focus on the content space in order to understand what their fellow learners are saying and, at the same time, give thought to what they should themselves say to the other learners and how they should say it so as to ensure that their learning partners grasp what they are themselves saying. On the other hand, they must understand the relational space of group work, representing what their fellow learners are willing and able do and what they all can do as a group together and how their work will go forward efficiently. Besides this, individuals must attend to whether their fellow learners are willing and able to make contact, recognise the ideas and suggestions that are important, and willing to listen, react and respond. Further, participants must also know how to be present in the online learning environment and how to signal their presence in a suitable way. The research results indicate that both individual learners and learner teams must put more effort into building and maintaining common ground.

In online learning courses where participants do not know each other, uncertainty among learners can influence collaboration in a number of ways. Learners’ collaborative learning activities can be specified and sequenced by using scripts. The findings of Substudy V support the idea that epistemic (content-related) scripts reduce uncertainty. However, the results on student learning outcomes revealed that the learners in the unscripted condition had gained better learning outcomes than those in the epistemic script condition. It is possible that uncertainty promotes beneficial interaction patterns, including information-seeking processes. On the other hand, the members of the successful group might have excelled because they were willing to put in more effort to build and maintain common ground as they went about their collaborative activities.

Learning to collaborate is already being consciously promoted in higher education through the design of various tools or scripts supposed to help learners to interact and work together. However, learners may not be able to put such tools to appropriate and successful uses or do this without guidance if they are unclear about the basic rules of collaborative activities. As a result, even well-designed tools might fail to reach the goals set by their designers and by the educators who have taken them up. Further, the nature of collaborative learning suggests that its assessment should be based also on the interactive learning process itself (Chan & Van Aalst, 2004). In other words, assessment should focus not only on the individual group members and their final product but also on the group processes. Moreover, account should be taken of both individual and group learning because different groups and different individuals inside one and the same group learn different things.

To obtain a more detailed presentation of the different (cognitive, socio-emotional, contextual) features of common ground and the processes of shared understanding, we could apply and modify the model of the Johari Window (Luft 1984; Chapman 1995-2005). The Johari Window captures behaviour, empathy, cooperation, inter-group development and interpersonal development more precisely than other descriptions. It would make possible an integration of the theories of common ground and uncertainty reduction with the outcomes of the substudies, producing a more comprehensive picture of the significant areas of the grounding process as it operates in computer-supported collaborative learning environments. The four perspectives are the area of common ground, the blind area, the hidden and avoided area and the unknown area (or, as it could also be termed, the area of no common ground). This model of areas of the grounding process could help not only educators to support learners but also designers to create environments and scripts that enable learners to move to the area of common ground. It can help also researchers to explore interaction and learning in online learning environments; in particular, it can help them to focus on the hidden areas of grounding processes, research of a kind that is lacking in the field of computer-supported collaborative learning.

Keywords: collaborative activity, computer-supported collaborative learning, common ground, epistemic script, grounding process, higher education, interaction, uncertainty