ICCAI 95 article


When one refers to 'distance education', the word 'distance' often sounds as the key word because it implies the use of salient technological tools. Recent widespread tools based on Internet technology [24], such as the World Wide Web [25] [26], the text-based Multi-User-Dimensions (e.g. MOOs) [27], or more sophisticated groupware (or CSCW) tools are especially spectacular. They may reactivate the belief that technology per se enhances education. This belief has repeatedly shown to be wrong in the history of educational technology, but it still reappears every five years, like the Loch Ness monster. A scientific attitude implies more distance with the object of study. Scholars in distance education have to disentangle each tool to find out which are its relevant features: Does it support synchronous or asynchronous communication, or both ? Does it mediate text, voice or images or any combination ? What is the 'cost' of interaction and of communication breakdown and repair ? Do the subjects in interaction exchange or share objects ? Does the technology enable to see what the other see (WYSIWIS), what the other does and where the other looks ? Does it support eye contact ? Does it enable anonymous participation ? ...

These questions are not specific to Internet-based tools. There is one feature which is present in most of these tools: they are inherently distributed. This feature gives a boost to educational practices which were underdeveloped in distance education. Previous distance education technologies such as paper mail, television and video tapes have a bias towards straightforward teaching. At the opposite, decentralised tools create the potential for new forms of interaction among learners, more decentralised. There is hence a renewed interest for collaborative learning.

There exists a large amount of empirical work on collaborative work that has been conducted independently from any technology. This paper relies on the postulate that this body of knowledge may prevent us to repeat old mistakes with our new tools.

The Internet is a wide-ranging amalgam of networks based on the TCP/IP protocol. In 1969, it started out as a single network for research sponsored by ARPA, the American Department of Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency. By the end of the eighties, TCP/IP had become the network standard for all major research networks throughout the world. Currently, the Internet has replaced almost all other research networks (like UUCP, Bitnet, CSNET, etc.) and it is no longer restricted to research and education. It now connects over 8000 networks on 7 seven continents and it is estimated that over 10 million people use it on a regular basis, with an additional 10-20 million people using it just for e-mail. The Internet carries many kinds of traffic.

Let's shortly sketch the functionalities of two recent Internet tools of interest to education. The "World Wide Web" (WWW) is a distributed hypermedia system that runs over the Internet. In a hypertext, if you want more information about a particular subject mentioned, you can usually "just click on it" to read further details. WWW documents can be linked to other documents written by different authors, in various locations. To access the web, you run a browser program. The browser reads documents, and can fetch documents from other sources. Information providers set up hypermedia servers which browsers can get documents from. The browsers can, in addition, access files by FTP, NNTP (the Internet news protocol), gopher and an ever-increasing range of other methods. Finally, the browsers permit searches of documents and databases as well as "fill-out form" interfaces for accessing any kind of external programs running on a server. The WWW has great potential as a distance education tool. It delivers information to the learner in an easy way and allows for more sophisticated computer mediated communication tools such as dynamic hypertext, question/answer programs, conferencing systems, etc.

Multi-user Dimensions (MUDs) and its most powerful variant MOOs ("MUDs, object-oriented") are becoming increasingly popluar in the world of education, because many people can interact at once in some "virtual space". MUDs are sometimes called "text-based virtual realities" A MUD is partitionned into virtual spaces ("rooms") such that people and objects not directly with people or objects in a other room. All communication is text-based and interacts via TCP/IP sockets from client programs to a server machine. MOOs have a powerful internal programming language allowing to program sophisticated objets and actions that people can use. All MOOs contain internal communication and information systems. Some have interfaces to external Internet services (such as mail, gophers or www). Very recently, prototypes of multi-media MOOs have appeared as well as WWW-MOO interfaces resulting in a similar functionality.

This contribution includes 3 sections. We first review the mechanisms that may explain the effects of collaborating. In the next section, we report the empirical findings regarding the conditions in which these mechanisms are triggered. We then draw some conclusions on the use of Internet-based tools for collaborative learning.

ICCAI 95 article - 08 FEB 95

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