Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ How Social is Computer Supported Collaborative Learning: Do Off-task Interactions Exist?

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Sept 02, 2004

Interaction and communiy does not occur, either in physical space or online, merely because a space is provided. Rather, what is created a set of affordances - possibilities for interaction - and these need to be understood within a social and cultural context. This social aspect of learning is as important as the cognitive, or content based, aspect, and interactions establishing a social or cultural connection - usually dismissed as off-topic - as as important as interactions having to do with content. This is a summary of Paul Kirschner's keynote address at the ITI conference in Logan, Utah.

There is a unique relationship between an artifact and an actor. These relationships are what we call 'affordances'. Gibson: how animals see things and how they react to them. Take a pond, for example. For a fly, it's a place to walk on. For a fish, it's a place to swim. For a mammal, it's a place to drink. It's not one of those things, it's all of those things - but only one for each animal. Affordances describe possibilities for action, possibilities for reciprocal action, possibilities for perception-action coupling. Take a forest. I may see a log and jump on it in a forest. Later, when I'm lost, I may see the same log again. Now it has a new relationship to me - I may sit on it, because I am tired. For a giraffe, it is neither of these things. If you are a kid, consider the following perception-action coupling: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a video recorder. To a kid, these go together - the bread goes into the slot.

CSCL is a powerful 'treasure chect' for learning. It allows us to create collaboration. But it's only a possibility - no more than a room, chairs and a table create a strong group. We really don't have a good electronic pedagogy.

What is CSCL? It's 'learning', 'with others', 'supported by a computer network'. The first thing is learning, in collaboration, only supported by computer networks.

Premise 1: artifacts and our perception of them influence human behaviour (and not always in a conscious way). A window in a door will influence us to look through it. These physical things afford certain kinds of things. The same with electronic things. Email, discussion boards. But email and email aren't the same thing. Email on a fibre background, you can send large attachments, you can have near conversations. Email on copper wire - it's sparodic, it's slow, you can only send small attachments. Email in the first situation isn't email in the second situation.

As designers, we deal with perceived affordances, not real affordances. Constraints and inventions. People say, a screen affords clicking. But the only thing a screen affords is clicking. The screen doesn't do anything. It deals with our perceptions of things. Our perception is governed by physical constraints - you can't click outside the screen - logical constraints - there must be a third answer, we scroll down - and cultural constraints and habits - we've been conditioned to see this screen this way. Take a Windows environment. We know what to do with the scroll bar. Adobe came up with a piece of software, and used a completely different convention, 'grabbing' to move the Window up and down. And when they changed the convention, they changed the icon - that's the cultural aspect. Consider the help icon used by the Open University. It's completely arbitrary - everyone is confounded.

Premise 2: behaviour is shaped by context. Belgium and the Netherlands are right beside each other, they speak the same language, but they are completely different cultures. There's also the material context. Chairs are for sitting down on. Plates are put on tables. But if you are in a fancy dining room you will act differently than in a country kitchen. "New technology seldom supports old practices with increased efficiency; it undermines existing practice." An escalator - we understand that we use an escalator the way we use stairs, but we move faster. But what happens is people stand on the escalator. People stand because new technology moves.

Premise 3: education is always a combination of technological, educational and social contexts. And that's the crux of the matter. There's an interaction when we're dealing with community or collaborative environments between the pedagogical (cognitive, educational) and the social-psychological. We obtain both learning performance and social performance, but learning performance is not based only on cognitive process, it is also based on social process, and in the same way, the social performance will be influenced by the cognitive process and the social process. It's not only a linear relationship, it's also a crossing relationship. The problem is that these aspects, the cognitive and the social, tend to be swept under the rug. Think of emails in an educational situation. A certain number are on task, some are off-task. As if the social is off-task. Think coffee machine or water cooler conversations. Why do we have break times? So we can talk to each other. So we can say the Yankees lost 22-0. That's not off task, itbuilds trust, it teaches us about each other, so we can work together. That's not off-task. Coffee machine: it creates the opportunity - affordances - for meeting with each other. It doesn't make you meet with each other, but it gives you the possibility - we chat over coffee, all of a sudden we are working better together. If we ignore that, we get behavior that kills learning.

The social cues are there. Think of door handles. Because it doesn't work the wy I thought, it doesn't make me not walk into my building. But think of the student, faced with things that don't work they way they expect them to. They're going to stop, especially in distance learning, online learning. There is aloss of capital, social capital, but also enjoyment.

Educational tasks should allow educational affordances. The relationship between the properties of the educational intervention and the characteristics of the learning. We look at these tasks at a very low level of granularity. Group size, for example: what's a large group and what's a small one. If we are trying to reach consensus, 3 or 4 is a large group. If we are trying to brainstorm, 8 or 9 may be a small group. What you should be looking at are things like ownership (who is responsible), control (the school (external) or the learner (internal)) and the task (authentic or constructed). (Good 3D diagram). Why? Look at three scenarios: cooperative, competitive and individualistic. In individualistic, there is no interdependence, no interaction, no affordances, no activities, no emptional involvement (all like this lecture, for example). In the competitive situation, we see negative intedependence, oppositional interaction, affordances of rejection or distrust or disliking, no activities or misleading communication, and low emotional involvement. In the cooperative environment, there is positive interdependence, promotive interaction, affordances of acceptance or support or trust, exchange or influencing activities, and high emotional involvement. Imagine a learning scenario where, of a group, one person, the name drawn from a hat, will be tested, and the marks given to all students.

Sociability is the degree of promotion of a social space or a network. How these enviroments differ in their ability to facilitate the emergence of a social space. Look at two CSCL environments. Do these things promote social interaction, social space. What do you need? One thig is trust. No trust impedes cognitive processes. A second aspect is belonging. The willingness to give oneself up for the greatr cause, the cause of the team. Lance Armstrong's team, for example. What you see is people giving themselves up for him. Lance Armstrong's tem members have never won a single rce in the tour. The feeling of belonging: if Lance wins, we win. A third is temporal and physical proximity. We can do the same in CSCL learning. We can see who was where doing what when. You can see spacial-temporal proximity online. The exact same email - will have different meanings if we know what the other is doing or has done. Five stages of group formation. Forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjournment. He wrote a great article, about the Beatles, how they went through these stages. Finally, the last aspect is community: a shared element, a sense of collectivity. A block party for example.

We ask: how can CSCL be optimized by proper usage of technological, educational and social affordances. First, analyze the combination of educational, social and technological affordances for collaborative learning. Second, design CSCL ...(see slide, sorry). Example of leaning environment shown on scren. The main distinct thing (according to me) is the history bar - where they were online, where they were physically (in the library, eg).

Suppose we have a mathematician, graphic designer and programmer. So now we say the product should display a certain amount of melegance. Each of the three has a different idea of elegance. There has to be a negotiation process, from unshared knowledge to shared knowledge, which occurs through a shared formalism, in which you check new contributions. "Do you mean...?" "No, I meant..." Acceptance, rejection, choice of position.

CSCL - knowledge construction or shared ignorance. In education, students learn more. This means we need to afford such environments.

Q: do off-task interctions exist? No. So people passing notes in class... If you create an environment... if it's a class, the answer is no. If you are working in a project. But if it's a lecture hall of 900 people, and they're reading their email... It depends on the situation. But if you create a situation where there is self-organizing, there is no such thing as an off-task behavious.

What about avoidance behaviour in cases of cognitive overload. Yes. But it might increase motivation or increase ork, kick it up a notch. I wouldn't call it avoidance behaviour - deleiterious cognitive interactions in your head. If it's completely new, it will only stay in short-term memory - it will cuase blockages.

Mathemathantic? (Richard Clark)? Between 1963-1966, Bell Laboratories - Mathemagenic - those activities that give birth to learning. Clarks problem with things that could kill learning. Mathemathantic. Catering to preferred learning styles. Clark says - the organized person will learn from organized materials, but not learn deeply. Give them disorganized materials. Give a disorganized person disorganized materials? But that person can't organize, and can't learning.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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