3. THE CONDITIONS FOR EFFECTIVE COLLABORATIVE LEARNING
Regarding the number of members, small groups seems to function better than large groups in which some members tend be 'asleep' or excluded from interesting interactions [20, 21]. Most of the mechanisms described in the previous section, e.g. mutual regulation, social grounding, shared cognitive load, ..., can only occur between a few participants. This does not argue in disfavor of large group sessions. It simply means that distance learning activities should also include 'closed' sessions, in which a restricted number of subjects collaborate and/or 'monitored' session in which the teacher takes care that no learner is left out the interaction.
Regarding the participants, some developmental level is necessary to be able to collaborate, but this is only an issue for children and does hence not directly concern current distance education activities which mainly concern adult learners.
The most intensively studied variable is the heterogeneity of the group. It refers to the objective or the subjective differences (how subjects perceive each other) among group members. These differences can be general (age, intelligence, development, school performance, ...) or task specific. Results indicate there exists some 'optimal heterogeneity', i.e. some difference of viewpoints is required to trigger interactions, but within the boundaries of mutual interest and intelligibility. Heterogeneity can easily be understood as a condition to trigger conflicts and require social grounding, two important mechanisms described above. Heterogeneity is also implicit in the socio-cultural theory and its related mechanisms (internalization and appropriation) which rely on the observation of adult-child pairs or at least pairs with one member being more knowledgeable on the task than the other.
Internet-based information and communication tools have a great potential with respect to heterogeneity: no infrastructure can better cross geographic, cultural and professional boundaries. Nevertheless, human beings have a natural trend to assemble with those who are the most similar to them. When participants join the group on their own decision, there is no control of heterogeneity. If the tutor observes too much homogeneity among the group members, he may modify some conditions in order to activate anyway the mechanisms that normally rely on heterogeneity. He may for instance allocate role to participants which will inevitably create conflict or provide them with contradictory information.
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