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2.1 Conflict or disagreement

The conflict between learners is, within the socio-constructivist theory [1], an extension of the Piagetian concept of conflict between the learner beliefs and his actions in the World. They postulate that when disagreement occurs between peers, social factors prevent learners to ignore conflict and force them to find out a solution. This theory is grounded in empirical work and sounds intuitively appealing. However, other empirical findings question this theory. On one hand, some diverging viewpoints among learners, which cannot be really described as conflicts, lead to learning gains [2]. On the other hand, when conflicts are not verbalized, they do not predict positive outcomes [3]. We can draw two conclusions from these findings. Firstly, a simple disagreement, a slight misunderstanding can be as efficient as an clear conflict between two agents who respectively believe P and not P. We come back in section 2.8 on the mechanisms used to build and maintain mutual understanding. The second is that verbal interactions generated to solve conflict are related to learning outcomes. This refers to the mechanism described in the section 2.4.

Those who experienced wide-area networked information and communication software know that they constitute of a rich ground for controversial discussions. This is especially the case for the "Usenet" newsgroups in which, besides technical or practical information exchange, one observes intensive debates. Those debates may not trigger appropriate mechanisms, because they are too philosophical, because there is a large turn-over in the participants or simply because the setting does not force them to reach agreement, even partially. Nevertheless, one can claim that such tools offer a great potential for conflictual interactions. One may set as an hypothesis that the physical distance between participants, the rather anonymous participation of group members and the limited communication bandwidth (mainly text, no face to face communication) enable participants to engage into an intellectual debate with fewer emotional consequences than in co-presence interactions.

ICCAI 95 article - 08 FEB 95
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