ICCAI 95 article

4. Conclusions

From the previous section, we might infer that the distance tutor must should try to create the conditions that will optimise the probability that collaborative learning is efficient. The complexity of this task is however greater than it appears. Most of the variables (or conditions) presented above actually interact with each other. For instance, the effect of heterogeneity is not the same with different group sizes or with different tasks. The task effects may vary according to the communication media. It is difficult to really understand such second and third order interaction effects. Therefore, researchers have attempted to decompose the causal relationship between conditions and effects into two consecutive causal links: in some conditions, some types of interactions occur, and some types of interactions lead to learning effects [23]. For instance, explanations are more frequent when the group is moderately heterogeneous (high ability and medium ability students or medium ability and low ability students) and when the group is homogeneously composed of medium ability students [7]. The quality of explanations is lower for homogeneous high ability students (because they assume they all know how to solve the problem), homogeneous low ability groups (because nobody can help) and heterogeneous groups comprising high, medium and low ability (because medium ability students seem to be almost excluded from interactions).

Facing this complexity, the distance tutor cannot set up conditions which guarantee efficient collaborative learning. He should rather stop investigating collaborative learning at a general level and refer to more precise interaction processes which may or may not occur during collaboration. Hence our conclusion is that the only way to achieve partial control of learning effects is monitoring closely the interactions and check whether they offer a potential for at least some of the mechanisms that we have presented.

We would like to emphasize a second idea which underlies the work presented here. Under the label 'collaborative learning', most research actually focuses 'learning through collaborative problem solving'. Most of the mechanisms we presented may only occur if two or more individuals are engaged into some activity which forces them to maintain some agreement and to reach eventually a shared solution. These results do not concern experiments in which subjects would roughly be left free to talk about whatever they want. Current discussions of Internet-based tools focus often on people sending messages, but neglect the reason why they communicate. Even if individuals have such reasons, the effects we reported in this paper only concern goal-directed collaboration. In such settings, individuals are somewhat 'glued' into a single shared cognitive system by the fact that they are engaged into a convergent attempt to solve a problem. Therefore, more effort has to be spent on integrating collaboration features found in Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) tools into communication and information software available for "masses" on the Internet.

ICCAI 95 article - 08 FEB 95

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