Designing computer systems to support peer learning

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<ul><li><p>European Journal of Psychology of Education1m, Vol. VII, n? 4, 339-352 1992, I.S.P.A.</p><p>Designing Computer Systems to Support Peer Learning</p><p>Claire O'MalleyUniversity of Nottingham, UK</p><p>This article begins with a review of the various roles which computershaveplayedin supporting collaborative learning and argues that, whateverrole it plays, technology is not neutral with respect to interactions withand between users. Interfaces to learning environments embodyparticularrepresentational schemes which have the potentialeitherfor competingwith representations of the learning domain or for giving access to it.In this respect, the learner-machine interface has 'Epistemic significance'and its design is as important as the design of the materials and activitiesto which it interfaces.</p><p>Introduction</p><p>Until relatively recently, one of the main advantages put forward for the use of computersin education was their potential for providing individualised, adaptive instruction. Despiteadvances in research on intelligent tutoring systems (ITS), this trend seems to have changedto some extent. Many early proponents of ITS now recognise the need to support the socialconstruction of knowledge (e.g., Brown, 1990) and computers are being seen increasingly aspotential tools for enhancing cooperative learning.</p><p>The pressure for this change is partly pragmatic, due to limitations on the resources andorganisation of classrooms. There are also pedagogical reasons for using computers to supportgroup work. Several studies suggest that it increases levels of interaction and encourages childrento cooperate and help each other. There is also a good deal of research in developmentalpsychology suggesting that peer interaction and peer tutoring provide advantages overindividualised instruction, whether or not computers are involved.</p><p>Although for various reasons the current interest in computer support for collaborativelearning is a good thing, there has unfortunately been rather little progressmade in understandingits implications for the design of educational software. With the exception, perhaps, of softwaredesignedspecifically for communication across a network (e.g., computer conferencing in distanceeducation), most software described in the literature on computer assisted learning and onpeer interaction with computers, is still designed with individual users in mind, although theactivities around the computer may be designed for cooperative work. This is a ratherimpoverished way of using what could be a powerful technology for mediating collaborativelearning.</p><p>One useful outcome of research in this area would be guidelines for designing, configuringand using the technology, given the particular role it is to play in interactions between learners.</p></li><li><p>340 c. O'MALLEY</p><p>Unfortunately, there is at present little specific guidance from the available psychological andeducational literature which might inform interface design for such systems.</p><p>This paper is concerned with making two specific points as a step towards understandinginterface design for collaborative learning environments. Firstly, technology is not neutral withrespect to learning and collaboration (nor are any other activities, come to that); it changes,not merely supports, interaction. Secondly, interfaces to learning environments embody theirown representational schemes apart from representations of the domain. These mayor maynot correspond with, or map onto, the learning activities to which they interface. It followsfrom these points that interface design is just as much the domain of educationalists as isthe design of curricula and learning activities. We need to take this seriously if representationsat the interface are not to compete with representations of the domain being learned.</p><p>Towards principles for designing effective computer support for collaboration</p><p>The role of the computer in collaborative settingsThere seem to be three main roles which the computer has played with respect to</p><p>collaboration, ranging from the merely passive to the more active:</p><p>Learning around the computer. This approach involves seeing the computer as a catalystor object for reflection on some joint activity (e.g., Bamberger, 1983; Sheingold, 1987). Herethe computer doesn't necessarily have any particular special properties with respect to supportingcollaboration, although it may have special properties with respect to the type of activity inwhich users can engage (e.g., simulations), and software is generally designed for individualuse, requiring turn-taking on the part of users within pairs or groups.</p><p>Learning through the computer. Computers can also be used to support communicationbetweenpairs or groups of students engaged in joint activities. This approach sees the computeras a medium for joint activity, as embodied in, for example, computer conferencing or emailsystems (cf. Hiltz, 1988; Mason &amp; Kaye, 1989), although it doesn't necessarily supportcollaborative activities much more than being a means for transmitting information, similarto a telephone or other communication medium.</p><p>Learning mediated via the computer. This view is slightly different to either role justdescribed, in that the computer is seen as contributing something quite different in collaborativesettings to that provided by any other kind of resource. In this view, the computer is a toolwhich augments collaborative learning, supporting not only communication but also jointactivities in some particular way. In this case, the system is designed with pairs or groupsof users in mind. In its most extreme form, this approach sees the computer as being a potentialparticipant in the interaction (cf. Chan &amp; Baskin, 1990; Dillenbourg &amp; Self, 1992).</p><p>There is probably a continuum of roles for the computer in supporting collaborativelearning, rather than this simple tripartite classification. Each of these views of the role ofcomputers in facilitatingcollaborativelearning has its advantages and disadvantages. Proponentsof computer-mediated communication (e.g., conferencing systems) argue that the advantagesof asynchronous interaction include allowing learners time to reflect and react more to thecontent of the message than the attributes of the sender. The fact that messages can be storedalso increases accessibility to the: process and results of interactive communication, preservingand extending interactions in space and time (Henri, in press; Kaye, in press).</p><p>On the other hand, others argue that there are distinct advantages to using computersfor synchronous interaction. Roschelle and Thasley (in press) point out that the computer canbe used as a means for disambiguating language, in that students may not have a precisenor shared vocabulary for describing things but can use the computer simulation to support</p></li><li><p>DESIGNING SYSTEMS 10 SUPPOKf PEER LEARNING 341</p><p>their talk. The computer interface also provides another means for producing conversationalturns (e.g., through the use of the mouse) and for resolving impasses in joint problem solving.</p><p>In actuall practice, there may not be a hard and fast distinction between asynchronoussystems such as conferencing tools and synchronous systems. For example, Newman discussesan implementation of local area networks which combine both of these features (Newman,in press). Another way to support co-presence in distributed learning situations is via the useof video and audio integrated with the computer environment (e.g., Smith, O'Shea, O'Malley,Scanlon, &amp; Taylor, 1991). Work by Boyle and Anderson (1992) suggests that face-to-faceinteraction, in particular where there is eye contact, produces more effective and efficientinteraction in joint problem solving tasks than audio-only conditions. Roschelle and Thasley(op, cit.) also note the importance of actions and gesture in creating a shared understandingin co-present interactions.</p><p>Factors influencing effective collaborationThere are numerous studies reporting computer support for joint activity in a variety</p><p>of ways. It is difficult to distil principles from this body of research since the studies differwidely in terms of tasks, settings, methodology and theoretical approach. We can infer someof the general factors affecting computer supported collaborative learning, but these are largelyto do with the settings in which collaborative learning occurs, such as the size and compositionof groups, rather than the design of the technology itself:</p><p>Group size. We know something about the relative advantages of different types ofgroupings for collaborative learning. Evidence suggests, for example, that pairs are more effectivethan larger groups, that groups of three tend to be competitive, whilst pairs tend to be morecooperative (,e.g., Trowbridge, 1987). However, other studies have shown no such differencesin group size when children are also given the opportunity to interact with others in the class(Colbourn &amp; Light, 1987; Light, Colbourn, &amp; Smith, 1987).</p><p>Gender. We know something about the social dynamics and composition of groups withrespect to more or less effective collaborative learning with and around computers. The researchsuggests that gender and friendship groupings are important factors. Jackson et al, (1986)found that teachers prefer to organise mixed gender groups rather than single gender groups.This has some support from studies showing that girls, at least, do worse in single genderpairs than in mixed gender pairs (Hughes &amp; Greenhough, 1989). However, other studies havefound that in mixed gender groups boys tend to be socially dominant and girls less motivated(e.g., Siann &amp; Macleod, 1986). Gender influences seem to depend on the type of task.Underwood et al. (1990) found that mixed pairs performed less well than same gender pairson a language task, as opposed to the programming task used in the studies just cited.Underwood and Underwood (1990) argue that there may be two reasons for the different resultsfound in these studies: programming tasks rely heavily on spatial skills rather than the verbalskills of the language task. The second reason they give serves as a good example of theimportance of interface design: the tasks used by Hughes and Greenhough (1989) constrainedthe responses of students when an error was made, whereas the task used by Underwoodet al. was more tolerant of errors by students.</p><p>Ability mix ofparticipants. There are also some sources for guidelines on the most effectivemix of abilities of participants in collaborative learning. Research stemming from a Vygotskianperspective tends to focus on asymmetrical pairs; usually employing adult-child pairs, or pairinga less advanced with a more advanced child. Research from a neo-Piagetian perspective tendsto emphasise equivalent intellectual abilities within the pair, although there are usually slightdifferences in the knowledge of each child within the pair. Explanations for the mechanismsunderlying conceptual change also differ according to these perspectives. Studies focussing</p></li><li><p>342 C. O'MALLEY</p><p>on asymmetrical pairs tend to appeal to guidance or tutoring mechanisms, whereas thoseemploying symmetrical pairs USI~ explanations based on cognitive conflict. Very few studieshave attempted to synthesise these: different accounts. Verbaand Winnykamen (1992) investigatedthe difference between relations based on expertise in the domain and those based on generalintellectual differences within the pair. They argue from their studies that no single mechanismcan account for conceptual change: it depends on the particular differences in expertise withinthe pair. They looked at high ability children who had been paired with low ability childrenunder two conditions: in one condition the high ability children were experts in the domainwhilst the low ability partner was a novice; in the other condition the low ability child wasthe expert and the high ability child was the novice. Pairs where the high ability child wasthe expert were characterised more by tutoring and guidance than pairs where the high abilitychild was a novice, in which case there was more cooperation than tutoring.</p><p>Type of task. The benefits of peer interaction, as well as explanations given for underlyingmechanisms, also differ depending on the type of task. Crook (1987) found that the mostsuccessful tasks for promoting effective collaboration were those involving problem solvingand discussion of competing hypotheses. Blaye and Light (in press) report a study which showsthat working in pairs leads to more anticipatory planning, use of information for planningand regulation of problem solving than individuals working alone. Gauvain &amp; Rogoff (1989)also show superiority of pairs over individuals in planning strategies, but this only happenswhen pairs demonstrate shared task responsibility during the interaction.</p><p>Explanations for the benefits of collaborationAs mentioned above, there are differences in the explanations offered for the benefits</p><p>of peer interaction, but which account is most plausible seems to depend on the type of taskand the ability mix of participants. The two main explanations that have been put forwardare conflict-based accounts and accounts based on tutoring and co-construction. Some studies(e.g., Fraisse, 1987) suggest that children perform better and interact more when the computerprovokes conflict with their ideas, However, recent work by Howe et al. (in press) suggeststhat facilitation depends upon the particular type of conflict engendered. This study involveda computer based task concerning freefall under horizontal motion. Students had to inputpredictions about the paths which objects would follow when they fell and interpret the feedbackprovided by the computer simulations of the motion. Pairs were arranged so that studentswere either similar or different with respect to their initial predictions and initial conceptionsabout the paths, as obtained in pre-tests. Students whose pairings differed on both predictionsand conceptions showed more pre- to post-test change than any of the other groups.</p><p>These results suggest that, for conflict to promote learning, there should be differencesin underlying concepts as well as judgements or predictions. One explanation for this mightbe that, although differences in predictions may provide an initial destabilisation of students'explanations, actual change requires promotion of discussion in order to construct and attemptto reconcile alternative accounts. This seems to be fostered in conditions where there are initialconceptual differences. This fits with studies suggesting the importance of peer interactionin promoting verbalisation and discussion (e.g., Fletcher, 1985; Forman &amp; Cazden, 1983; Crook,1987). However, a recent replication of the study by Howe et al. suggests that discussion maynot be necessary for promoting change (Payne &amp; O'Malley, 1992). In this study the partnerwas the computer, rather than another student, although subjects were told that the predictionsand explanations given by...</p></li></ul>