Semi-structured interface in collaborative problem-solving


The distributed cognition label includes various approaches which give social and cognitive processes a different weight in the analysis of computer mediated activity. A common idea to these approaches is that the object we observe is no more restricted to 'knowledge in the head' as it was the case in traditional cognitive science, but includes several agents and the artifacts they use to mediate their activity. Authors like Hutchins (1995) and Smith (1994) analyse the ongoing activity in a group by looking at the knowledge flow across different artifacts.

Smith observes that access to and processing of knowledge in a computer-mediated environment happen either by individuals or by groups. He presents a knowledge typology based on the information's persistence of display, i.e how long it can be viewed on a particular medium (Dillenbourg & al., submitted). Tangible knowledge is persistent and manipulated by individuals. It comprises the final product (called 'target product') and 'instrumental products' which support the group's work on the target but are not part of it. Intangible knowledge is not physically accessible and constitutes the shared and private knowledge people have in mind. Between these two types of knowledge, lie ephemeral products which temporarily take a physical form. These allow the transformation of knowledge from one type into the other by the contributions of several members of the group. A semi-persistent media is associated to this type of knowledge. Following this terminology, the system we describe later on comprises a tool for persistent target knowledge, the so-called problem representation and another tool for semi-persistent ephemeral products, the so-called communication interface (See "Interface design" section).

The application of the distributed cognition approach to the design of collaborative applications consists in matching the characteristics of a computer tool to the knowledge type it should mediate. The notion of affordance (Pea, 1993) refers to the same kind of relations: "a door knob is for turning". However, a particular tool can serve different communicative or problem solving functions as shown in Dillenbourg & al. (submitted). The allocation of tools to functions can vary across pairs and within a pair during the collaborative process.

Roschelle and Teasley (1995) defined collaboration as a "Coordinated, synchronous activity that is the result of a continued attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem". More precisely, the 'Joint Problem Space' (JPS) "[...] is a shared knowledge structure that supports problem solving activity by integrating (a) goals (b) descriptions of the current problem state, (c) awareness of available problem solving actions, and (d) associations that relate goals, features of the current problem state, and available actions". A computer supported problem solving environment can reify the JPS by associating physical representations to the elements which constitute it.

We defined a simple content typology with three categories: 'task', 'strategy' and 'interaction management' (See "Coding" section). The communication interface allows two modes of expression, 'free' and 'structured' (See "Interface design" section). Our hypothesis is that there is a preference to use a particular interface mode when expressing a particular content type. Previous work by Baker & Lund (1996) has shown that when using a 'chat' interface only subjects showed up more 'off-task' contributions than if they used a semi-structured, so-called dedicated interface. In our case, subjects have to choose a mode when producing an utterance. We have also computed a monotony index which reflects the style of task realisation (See "Monotonic reasoning" section). A major question is how can we relate a higher monotony (few tuning actions needed to accomplish the task) to the content type of utterances and consequently to the interface usage?

The long term goal of our work is to design software agents capable of identifying a problem solving phase when observing the interface usage and interaction parameters. Such agents could then orient and supervise the usage of the interface in a way to facilitate the interaction. In a distributed cognition perspective, we don't model a student anymore, but a larger system including people and artifacts. To do so, we first have to identify characteristics of artifacts such as media persistency and correspondence between artifacts and knowledge types (See Dillenbourg & al., submitted).

Semi-strutured interface in collaborative problem-solving - 20 MARCH 1997

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