Collaborative Learning via the Internet
The advent of innovative information and communication technologies have induced certain changes in the present educational system. These interactive technologies have affected the very nature of teaching and learning. In response to this situation, universities which offer traditional programs as well as distance education programs have been attempting to redefine traditional pedagogical approaches by integrating information and communication technologies into course syllabi. A prominent example of this new interactive technology is the Internet. From an educational perspective, the Internet has the potential to radically change the way that learners assimilate information. Students who learn via the Internet have to develop cognitive abilities which enable them to research, to identify, to analyse and to synthesise new information in order to construct their knowledge base. However, even though the Internet in a Distance Education program is seen as a viable financial, technical and pedagogical option, its use in a pedagogical environment is still open to debate. For example, several educational models promote the use of the Internet without really providing parameters for a teaching method which befits this media and its proponents. In response to this dilemma, certain researchers suggest that a teaching method which encapsulates collaboration, interaction and interactivity would likely work well within this medium (Webb,1983; Bailey & Cotlar, 1994; Ellsworth, 1994; Dessaint, 1995). The interactive media of the Internet, such as e-mail and hypertext navigation, would give the learner the chance to participate actively in the learning process and to communicate easily with other learners. The possibility of interaction and feedback in a distance education situation due to e-mail would likely counter-effect some of the negative repercussions of asynchronous communication and isolation most often felt by distance learners. Despite the fact that they are separated in space and in time, the distance learners must be encouraged to act as a group by developing learning activities which promote interaction and collaboration between partners. It is also important to structure the pedagogical parameters in a virtual environment in a methodical and logical manner so as to present all learning material clearly and precisely (Harasim, 1993). However, contrary to the previous authors suggestions, the results of this study indicate that the collaborative learning assignments did not always encourage students to interact and to collaborate with their peers. For some students, these collaborative assignments proved to be a frustrating and time consuming process which in no way enhanced their learning. Within the context of the courses observed, interaction and the ensuing collaboration, were greatly hindered by the diverse time zones, personal and professional constraints and even noticeable differences in work habits. Yet, for other students, particularly the international students, this collaborative process was a welcome addition to an Internet based distance education course enabling them to communicate with students from different cultural backgrounds.
Two undergraduate Psychology courses via Internet
This research centered around student collaboration and interaction in Internet based distance education courses. In order to verify how distance education students collaborate and interact, we observed and studied two Introduction to Psychology courses offered by the Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface, the only French language university in Western Canada. These courses attracted francophone students from within Canada, mostly from the provinces of Manitoba and Québec, and around the world : France, Belgium, Switzerland, Mauritius and Reunion. Each one of the Internet courses spanned 15 weeks and was divided into 7 learning modules. The seven modules for each course had their own Internet sites where information about learning objectives, required readings, glossary of new terms, hypertext links to be explored, auto-evaluation exercises, module evaluations and collaborative learning activities were clearly presented. Each student had to complete three module evaluations, two comprehensive exams and three collaborative learning tasks per course. In order to help the students in their explorations, the course professor and a teaching assistant were always available to answer their questions, usually via e-mail and sometimes by phone.
Students had to complete three collaborative learning tasks per course. As prescribed by Dillenbourg and Schneider, (1995), and Muffoletto, (1997) all collaborative assignments were developed according to the subject matter being studied in the learning modules. Since there were no prerequisites for these courses, students could enrol for either one or both of the courses at the same time. Due to this fact, the same first collaborative assignment was used for both. This collaborative learning assignment allowed the working partners to get to know each other, to explore the Internet site and to become acquainted with the course requirements (assigned readings, evaluations, exams, collaborative work). For the first course, the second assignment entailed an exploration of Internet sites related to diseases of the brain. Students had to identify the disease, give a brief summary of the malady and identify the electronic address of the site where the information was found. The third assignment called for a joint writing effort in which the effects of the behaviourist learning theory was to be discussed. For students enrolled in the second course, the second collaborative learning activity was based on information culled from an assigned reading. Each collaborative group had to develop a question which represented a concept or several concepts that they had learned. The questions then had to be answered. Each of the questions and respective answers was posted on the Internet site, and could have be used as a study guide or used for ensuing discussions. The third collaborative learning assignment was a group discussion based on personality tests and their viability. Each student had to respond to at least one e-mail posted on the discussion site. The sum of the collaborative learning activities developed for both courses is presented below :
In order to follow a logical course of observation and analysis, the following research questions were developed :
Being a qualitative based research project, the methodology used in this study is modelled upon the paradigm of naturalistic inquiry (Patton, 1990). In a naturalistic inquiry, the researcher does not attempt to manipulate the research setting. For example, if a course or a program is being evaluated, observation is conducted on a regular basis without any interference from the researcher. During this ongoing observation, naturalistic inquiry evaluators focus on capturing process, documenting variations, and exploring important individual differences in experiences and outcomes. Usually, within the framework of naturalistic inquiry, the following methodological tools are used (Patton, 1990).
Since the data collection for the present research project included interviews, direct observation and analysis of e-mail contents, the naturalistic inquiry model was chosen for the observation and the ensuing analysis of the Internet courses. Specifically, the following methodological tools were developed in order to evaluate the nature and degree of interaction and collaboration between Internet learners :
Before the Internet courses began, the diagram on collaborative learning was completed by three external judges who verified and certified that the courses being observed were designed to facilitate collaboration. Apart from being francophone, all three had had experiences with the on-site collaborative learning process and the distance education collaborative approach. When designing the diagram identifying the collaborative process, each criteria established for collaboration came from a number of authors, considered to be experts in the field of collaborative learning such as Adams, Carlson and Hamm, (1990), Harasim, (1990), Harris, (1994), Bruffee, (1995), Dillenbourg & Schneider, (1995), and Muffolletto, (1997). For example, criteria # 1 of diagram # 1 asks whether the professor of the Internet courses being studied, guides the student and supports his/hers learning process. Harasim (1990), Harris (1994) and Bruffee (1995) state that the professor in a distance education Internet based course has the responsibility of guiding the student through the learning process as well establishing clear parameters for the learning environment. In keeping with the first statement, each of the following criteria from diagram # 1, is validated by one or several authors who have specialised in collaborative learning.
Apart from the diagram identifying the use of a collaborative approach, two types of interviews were used in this study.
According to Patton (1990), the purpose of interviewing is to find out what is in and on someone else's mind. Subjects are interviewed to find out from them those things we cannot directly observe, such as feelings or emotions. The interviews described by Patton (1990) allow the respondents to express conscious or unconscious reactions regarding the matter being studied. For example, the general guide interview is a list of questions or issues that are to be explored. An interview guide is prepared in order to make sure that basically the same information is obtained from a number of people by covering the same material. It provides topics or subject areas within which the interviewer is free to explore, to probe, and to ask questions. Just before the beginning of the classes, a general interview guide was sent by e-mail to the students enrolled in the Internet courses. The aim of the general interview guide was to get personal and academic information about the distance learner. This information helped the teaching assistant proceed to collaborative group composition according to geographical area, student status and previously shared academic experiences. (Appendix 2)
Two weeks prior to the end of the Internet courses, the standardized open-ended interview pertaining to the collaborative assignments and the role of the professor in the collaborative process were sent to the students via e-mail. The questions in the standardized interview were culled from the primary research question and the secondary research questions. The basic purpose of the standardized open-ended interview is to minimise interviewer effects by asking the same questions of each respondent. This interview is systematic and each question is prepared in advance exactly the way they are to be asked. In this research, the standardized open-ended interview was used to answer questions regarding the collaborative learning assignments and the role of the professor in the collaborative process. (Appendix 3)
The diagram detailing collaborative mechanisms was developed according to criteria identified by Bruffee (1995), Dillenbourg & Schneider, 1995; and Repman & Logan (1996). Students were asked to identify collaborative mechanisms used with their partners such as explaining, clarifying or sharing work. These mechanisms were identified by Adams, Carlson & Hamm (1990), Bruffee (1995), and Dillenbourg & Schneider (1995) as being an integral part of collaboration. Students are asked to evaluate the usage of ten collaborative mecanisms all of which have been identified by the preceding authors. (Appendix 4)
The diagram describing media interactivity stemmed from criteria established by Kretz, (1986), Rabaté & Lauraire, (1985); Barchechath & Pouts-Lajus, (1990), and Jacquinot, (1993). Students were asked to identify how they were able to interact with their computer according to the following criteria : choice, sensory, temporal and usage. The criteria established came from the findings of the previously stated authors. (Appendix 5)
As with the standardized open-ended interview, the diagram detailing collaborative mechanisms and the diagram detailing media interactivity were sent to each one of the thirty-five students enrolled in the courses, two weeks prior to the end of classes.
As stated previously, the process of direct observation and the analysis of all written documnets was an integral component of the Internet courses being researched. Patton (1990) explains that data that stems from direct observation are detailed descriptions of behaviour, activities and actions of those being observed. Direct observation of the courses being studied enabled the researchers to witness the entire collaborative process from the first tentative communications between partners, to the difficulties as well as the satisfactions encountered by the students. Whereas data coming from written documents include official reports, letters, messages and e-mails. In this case, students e-mails were carefully documented in order to identify recurring themes, student satisfactions or frustrations.
Since the data pool was fairly limited, the results of this study pertain only to the two Internet courses that were observed at the Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface. Thirty-five students were enrolled in the Internet courses being researched. However, only thirty four percent of these students responded to the diagrams and the interviews that were sent out prior to the end of classes. Even though most of the remaining students participated in the collaborative assignments, they did not respond to requests to complete the diagrams and the questionnaires. Results indicate that most of the distance education students enjoyed communicating with one another, with the professor and with the teaching assistant. These collaborative partners managed to work well together, primarily because they enjoyed the process of working with partners and sharing their learning experiences with their peers. The majority of these students revealed that they would have liked more contact with the teaching staff and more contact with the members of the virtual classroom. Some students sought out physical representations of the staff members and were highly disappointed when there were no photographs available. These were the students for whom collaboration with a peer was highly successful experience. They enjoyed the collaborative assignments and the collaborative process. They were very rarely hampered by technical difficulties and if some were encountered, sought out help almost immediately from one another or from the support staff. They had an above average knowledge of the word processing software, the Internet and its communication tools. They participated actively in the collaborative process by using e-mail on a regular and frequent basis. An analysis of the e-mail messages indicated that the following collaborative mechanisms were used : explaining concepts, sharing of work, compromise, encouragement and to a certain extent socialisation. Even though, these learners were highly motivated, well organised and displayed an ability to work independently in an efficient manner, peer socialisation was deemed to be an important part of the Internet experience. For example, overseas students were eager to meet and to communicate with Canadian peers in order to work and in order to meet on a more personal level. These students were also interested in the Internet and the various communication and research tools available. For these students, distance learning via the Internet and the ensuing collaborative assignments, were a highly successful academic and social endeavour. For them, the collaborative process enhanced their learning and provided them with a network of help stemming from their peers and their professor.
Difficulties encountered with collaboration
However, the collaborative learning assignments did not always work in an efficient manner. Some students complained of technical difficulties which greatly hampered communication and, consequently, the sharing of attached files. These technical difficulties created a high level of frustration amongst the learners. These students had little or no knowledge of the word processing software, the Internet and its communication tools. Since communication was problematic, the collaborative process was not able to function at an optimal level. That is the various mechanisms of collaboration such as explanations, sharing answers, negotiating an answer and peer encouragement and peer sympathy, were not present. These results confirm the work of several authors who have researched the use of the Internet and its interactive tools in a Distance Education Programme (Hiltz, 1990; Bailey & Cotlar, 1994; Ellsworth, 1994; Dillenbourg & Schneider, 1995, and Dolence & Norris, 1995.) Since, it is important to ensure that all students are able to use the interactive tools of the Internet, it is imperative to offer training to technological novices, and to establish norms of communications between partners even before the collaborative tasks begin. Information in regards to word processing programmes, Internet navigators and e-mail software has to be shared right at the beginning of the course. In this manner, students can communicate easily with the professor and with their collaborative partners.
As stated by previous authors, asynchronous communication did become problematic for some distance education students (Feenberg, 1987; Harasim, 1993; Hiltz, 1990; and Romiszowski & de Haas,1991). Due to different time zones and diverse professional and personal schedules, the delay in the response time hindered the flow of communication between collaborative partners. Students became very discouraged when their e-mail messages were ignored or answered at a much later time. It became particularly frustrating for students who were attempting to communicate with an unresponsive partner. For example, some North American students had to wait a couple of hours or even days before hearing from their international or even national partners. This asynchronous communication often led to a lack of interest in the collaborative tasks. Often the teaching assistant had to facilitate communication between two wayward partners. In some cases, even with the help of the teaching assistant, collaborative tasks were not completed.
Autonomous students prefer individual work
Another interesting factor that surfaced was the fact that some autonomous, highly independent students preferred working alone without peer interaction. They felt that the collaborative tasks placed undue constraints on their personal work schedule. They resented having to communicate with a partner whose work habits were not the same as theirs. Since these students were in a different time zone and sometimes in a different country, communication, as stated previously, was in an asynchronous mode. These highly motivated students resented having to wait for a partner to respond to an e-mail regarding the assignments. Since these students were subject to professional or to familial obligations, they much preferred doing the work right away without having to wait for a partner to respond. Another important factor to retain is that these students required none of the social framework provided by collaborative tasks. They were able to function well in a structured academic setting. In this manner, the course met all their requirements. They were there simply to learn in an autonomous manner and not necessarily to interact with peers. It is difficult to obtain more information about these students, since very few of them responded to the diagrams and the standardized open-ended interview.
Diversity in written language
Another problematic element encountered by the distance education students was the diversity of the text-based communications. In a text-based course, students have to pay careful attention to the content (clarity of communication) and the form (spelling, grammar and syntax) of their e-mail messages. As the Internet courses progressed, it became evident that some Canadian students, for whom French was a second language, were not as fluent in written French as their Québecois or Francophone peers. This diversity in written language did cause some communication problems between the native speakers of French and the non-native speakers. One Canadian student actually refused to work with a French student because of the distinctions existing in the written language. Therefore in this case, contrary to the research (Bailey & Cotlar, 1994; Ellsworth, 1994), the interactions made possible by e-mail did not always allow students to overcome geographical barriers, and to exchange with culturally diverse students
Difficulties encountered with technical problems, asynchronous communication, group composition and diversity in written language did not fully explain why collaboration via the Internet was so problematic for students enrolled in the two courses observed : Introduction à la psychologie I and Introduction à la psychologie II. A review of the results indicated that students were particularly reticent to interact with each other during the remittal of course evaluations and comprehensive exams, which occurred every two weeks. Further analysis of this situation indicated that there was an imbalance between the marking of the academic work and the marking of collaborative tasks. According to the syllabus, the individual coursework was worth 92% of the final mark while the collaborative tasks were worth only 8% of the final mark. As the courses progressed, students focused on the individual work and became less interested in the collaborative tasks. The professor was aware of the imbalance between the academic and the collaborative assignments, however did not feel that this would effect the student's academic progress and learning outcomes. Upon further study, we learned that the Internet-based courses had been developed from on-site university courses, which were based on the traditional university teaching method : formal lectures, assignments, exams and brief question and answer periods. It seems that this traditional method of learning and teaching was inadvertently transferred to the Internet-based courses. The three collaborative assignments were added to the Internet course syllabus with the intent to encourage socialisation among peers and to mitigate feelings of isolation and the lack of motivation engendered in distance delivery mode. However, only three collaborative tasks were developed for each 15 weeks course. These assignments while being a component of the course design were few and far between. According to the data, students did collaborate on a regular basis at the beginning of the course, particularly because the first collaborative task allowed them to meet one another and to explore the course site. Then, as the course progressed, the academic assignments, which were worth 92% of the final mark, became their focal point. It would seem that the onus on academic work, notwithstanding technical difficulties, discrepancies in personal and professional schedules and asynchronous communication, hampered interaction and collaboration between students.
In regards to course design, Muffoletto (1997) and Dillenbourg & Schneider (1995) identify regular collaborative tasks as an important proponent in the collaborative process. They emphasise the implementation of collaborative learning tasks in which both partners participate actively and equitably in order to construct new knowledge. The environment in which the task has to be performed, particularly asynchronous Internet-based tasks, is especially important. Therefore, it is imperative to develop teaching strategies and methods which will fully exploit the interactive tools of the Internet. This type of teaching and learning is pro-active and dependant on the learner's ability to construct knowledge. It is the professor's role to establish parameters for this type of interactive, constructive learning and to encourage interaction and collaboration amongst the collaborative learners.
Dillenbourg & Schneider (1995) also offer partial explanations which clarify why the diversity in group composition and written language hampered the collaborative process observed in both Internet courses. The authors state that group composition determines the efficiency of collaborative learning. Group composition is defined by several variables : the age and level of participants, the size of the group, the difference between group members, etc. The researchers studied, in particular, the heterogeneity of the group. Heterogeneity refers to the objective or the subjective differences among group members such as age, intelligence, development, etc. Results indicate that some difference in viewpoints is necessary to trigger interactions. However, it can also be used to trigger conflicts arising from differences of opinions. At this point, homogeneity becomes important since it is natural to assemble with people who share similar interests. Upon applying this principle to the group composition of the Internet courses, we found that the level of heterogeneity amongst students was elevated. For example, we had placed regular students with students who were auditing, overseas students with Canadian students and adult students with regular students. As predicted by the authors, some of these groupings were problematic. In order to bypass these difficulties, homogeneous groups were established by placing regular students with regular students, auditing students with auditing students, and when possible, adult students with adult students. This seemed to alleviate some of the previous problems encountered with group composition. However, despite these modifications, some students preferred and persisted in working alone.
In order to understand the difficulties encountered with interaction between students, we referred to Repman & Logan (1996) who identified why interactions in an Internet based course are at times, irregular. To begin with, the authors identified four types of interaction :
Essentially, Repman & Logan (1996) state that learner-content interaction should lead to knowledge acquisition. This knowledge is built on the prior learning experiences of the learner and the ability of the learner to interact with the content. The learning modules for the courses observed provided ample interaction between content and learner by offering study guides, a glossary of terms and auto-evaluation exercises which the student could complete according to personal schedules. As stated previously, the problems encountered by collaborative partners were in the realm of the learner-learner interaction. Learner-learner interaction is the bilateral communication between learners. Through the collaborative process, students enrolled in the Internet courses had to interact with each other through e-mail. Since, the collaborative tasks are evaluated and marked, students felt compelled at the beginning of the courses to communicate with their respective partners in order to complete these assignments. However, due to the imbalance between academic work and collaborative work and difficulties with asynchronous communication, students tended to focus more on the individual assignments which had to be handed in to the professor. Therefore, learner-learner interaction diminished substantially towards the end of the courses. As discussed, learner-interface interaction, depending on the technical knowledge of the learners, had been problematic. However, steps were taken to ensure that all technical difficulties encountered would be resolved at the beginning of the course. As observed in the courses, learner-instructor interaction occupied an important place in the students academic achievement. The professor was always available to answer questions pertaining to the academic content, to comment on assignments or even to offer moral support. He encouraged regular communications between he and his students. His instructions for assignments and tests were concise and precise, and enabled students to establish clear time frames for study and remittal of assignments. Since students had easy access to the professor, there was less reliance on collaborative partners to help in resolving a problem. Therefore, in the courses observed, learner-content interaction, learner-interface interaction and learner-instructor interaction, were interactions that occurred on a regular basis. However, the learner-learner interaction diminished as the courses progressed. This lack of interaction between partners great hampered the collaborative process.
Based upon our observations and the data collected, we may conclude that even if researchers proclaim that interaction and collaboration are the main keys of the success of Internet courses, this type of learning is problematic. However, despite problems encountered with course design, diversity in written text, group composition, asynchronous communication and technical difficulties, it is important to note that a minority of the distance education students observed experienced successful collaboration with their peers. These learners indicated that they enjoyed interaction with a peer from a different culture, and enjoyed using the Internet and its communication and research tools. They appreciated the socialisation and the sense of community which grew from these interactions. Yet, they also indicated that the collaborative tasks designed for these courses did not necessarily affect their learning outcomes. These students were content, and were able to learn by themselves. Therefore, in light of the courses observed, the benefits of this pedagogical approach seem to be situated mostly at a social and affective level.
It must be noted that collaboration on the Internet would not have been possible without e-mail and without hypertext navigation. These interactive tools enabled students to interact with one another and to do research either individually or in a collaborative manner. The interactive media of the Internet, electronic mail and hypertext navigation facilitated communication between collaborative partners by virtue of their accessibility, their level of interactivity and the ease of use. Students were able to interact with their peers, their professor and the hypertext content of the course site. They were able to make choices stemming from an Index, use a password to access the course sites, write an e-mail message and research specific themes relating to their course work.
However, in order for e-mail and hypertext navigation to facilitate collaboration, parameters must be established. It would seem that the success of collaboration via the Internet lies in the design of virtual courses and in the embedded pedagogical model. The collaborative process has to be an integral part of the course framework and the activities based on a constructivist approach. In this manner, students are compelled to communicate and to work with distant partners in order to construct new knowledge. It is important to realise that the mark attributed to collaborative tasks has to reflect the time and the effort that the students will spend on communicating and learning with a distant partner. As indicated by Dillenbourg & Schneider (1995), it is important to develop collaborative learning tasks in which both partners participate actively and equitably, in order to construct meaningful learning.
From what we have observed and analysed, the following recommendations have been compiled in order to ensure optimal conditions for collaboration via the Internet :
The following diagram identifies some of the principles associated with the collaborative approach. Please indicate, by using the scale below, how you would classify the following statements which refer to the role of the professor, the learners and the collaborative tasks:
(Adams, Carlson & Hamm, 1990)
Please give examples of student support strategies or
techniques used in this course :
(Miles & Huberman, 1984; Patton, 1990)
While you were working with your partner which of the following collaborative mechanisms did you use ? In order to respond, please use the following scale :
(Adams, Carlson & Hamm, 1990; Dillenbourg & Schneider, 1995; Repman & Logan,1996)
Refer to the following diagram in order to give the necessary information in regards to your computer system.
Technical : Identify the problems and the satisfactions you have encountered :
(Kretz, 1986; Rabaté & Lauraire, 1985; Barchechath & Pouts-Lajus, 1990; Jacquinot, 1993)