Motivation and the ecology of collaborative learning
The Editors of this volume invite us to "re-think" collaborative learning. My own motives for doing so arise from an uneasy awareness that many who write about collaboration are at odds over whether and why it is a good thing. Thus, within the pages of one recent book we find quite opposing judgements on the benefits of learning collaboratively: one chapter notes that "there is a substantial body of empirical evidence demonstrating the positive effects of social interaction for learning" (Littleton and Hakkinen, 1999, p.20); while another claims "research suggests that there is nothing particularly special about working in small groups, at least with regards to cognitive outcomes like learning" (Schwartz, 1999, p.197). Indeed Schwartz argues that, despite its long history as a topic in psychology, collaboration has been rather poorly theorised. In particular, he suggests that the ingredient of human "agency" has been excluded from its definition: collaborations are not viewed as motivated. I agree with this diagnosis. Although I am less comfortable with Schwartz's suggestion that such a neglect indicates researchers’ over-concern with the contextual arrangements for collaboration; or that, therefore, "there are times when it is worthwhile to minimise the emphasis on the cultural environment in which we swim" (op. cit., p. 203). In fact, I wish to argue that the settings in which collaborations get organised – the tide in which we swim - should be a natural starting point for any analysis. Moreover, that includes any analysis that takes "agency" seriously. To do this, I believe it helps to mobilise the notion of "ecologies" and thereby to analyse the actual spaces within which collaborations are either constrained or resourced.
In order to summarise the arguments to be developed here, it is necessary to simplify some key concepts, not worrying for now about how their definition ought to be more hedged about with qualifications. In this spirit, it can be said that "collaboration" refers to certain forms of productive joint engagement. "Ecology" is about the immediate environments within which such activity is supported – the artefacts, the technologies, and the spaces for acting. Then, a significant organising idea is that arrangements for collaborating evoke in us more or less agreeable emotional reaction. This is an idea that is not well explored. However, I suggest it helps us understand certain conflicts (such as that illustrated above) over whether collaborating is good for learning outcomes, or not. For the experiences evoked in collaborations are highly variable and such variability is most likely implicated in learning outcomes. Schwartz’s agency and motivation could be mobilised at this point. Yet, I shall argue, we can not properly systematise this variation of experience, unless we foreground the idea that any collaboration is, in the end, a form of co-ordination with a supporting environment. In short, taking on the felt experience of collaborating requires us to take more seriously the ecologies of collaboration. Doing so helps us understand the variety of engagement enjoyed by collaborators and, thus, the variety of learning outcomes that arise. A consideration of ecology also helps us act more effectively as educational designers: for we may better design circumstances in which the productivity of joint engagement can be optimised.
In what follows I shall first try to be more precise about "collaboration" as a social psychological concept. I shall then consider the status of "ecology" as a metaphor for organising analyses of how collaborations occur. Finally, I shall illustrate the ecological approach with some empirical examples.
The collaborative experience
On entering this arena, we surely want to know "what counts as collaboration?" and "what collaborations count?" Unfortunately, in practice, such questions prove slippery. I suggest below some problems with the way collaboration has been conceptualised in discussions of learning. In particular, I shall suggest that collaboration might be usefully characterised as an experience with a distinctive and important emotional dimension.
There certainly have been attempts to characterise how collaborative interactions can vary in quality. Yet the terms in which that variation has been sought suggests a pre-occupation with notions of cognitive skill. On this view, collaborators – as individuals - possess resources of, say, predicting, hypothesising, reasoning, reviewing, and so forth. When they are learning as individuals, those resources are suitably deployed for getting problems solved. When individuals learn as collaborators, those resources are suitably co-ordinated. Indeed, in the case of collaboration, the public nature of the problem solving discourse allows researchers to classify and count constituent cognitive acts. On the whole, this is what has been done by those researchers who have tried to characterise the form and variety of collaborative encounters (e.g., Webb, 1986). Those who are oriented towards a cognitive skills emphasis tend to focus on two general themes for characterising variability in the collaborative communication. The first concerns discrepancies between the collaborators in terms of their cognitive resources at the outset of interaction. This would encourage research on mixed ability groupings (Bennett 1991), or research on the consequences of (otherwise matched) collaborators starting with different cognitions about the problem in hand (Howe, 1996). The second research line concerns how smoothly collaborators manage cognitive co-ordination: how individually-preferred cognitive moves get comfortably integrated with a partner's preferences. This has encouraged studies on the implication and control of cognitive conflict within such contexts of interaction (Doise, 1985).
Collaborating as motivated
There is no question that research in these traditions has been valuable. Yet the underlying theoretical perspective does lack scope. In particular, conceptions of collaborative learning that foreground cognitive skill fail to represent collaboration as something that is motivated. The quality of a collaborative encounter may depend just as much on the participants’ enthusiasm for engagement, as it does on their harmony of knowledge, or their experience at resolving cognitive conflict. In practice, researchers often tend to neutralise this issue of motivation by arranging that the situations they observe recruit good-natured volunteers who agree to be interested by the problems they are invited to solve. Moreover, perhaps researchers suppose that motivation is never more than a benign issue in collaboration. For it may be argued that whether a learner is motivated by a learning task is no more of a problem in a collaboration than it would be when the task is conducted alone. Such reasoning might dispose of any idea that motivation has a special relevance to collaborating.
However, the issue of motivation becomes less benign if it is supposed that there are emergent properties associated with learning through collaborative interaction. For being within a collaboration may provoke reactions of an affective nature: responses that are distinctive to that form of encounter. Such responses could then be relevant to the motivation of greater (or lesser) task engagement. Finally, "task engagement" determines how far cognitive skills get mobilised and deployed. Such an analysis is implicit in the paper by Schwartz (1999) mentioned earlier: "people need to choose whether and when to collaborate and whether to go beyond the minimum necessary to meet the rules of collaboration" (op cit. p. 198). To develop this claim, Schwartz invokes the notion of "agency". He suggests that this is a neglected form of experience arising within occasions of joint problem solving. For Schwartz, the core of agency as a motivational notion is what he terms "effort after shared meaning". Note that this is an individualistic, rather than a social, concept. It thereby encourages inquiry "into the properties of individuals that make collaborative behaviours emerge" (op. cit. p. 198). Finally, Schwartz characterises such interpersonal agency as an aspect of our human nature: when collaborating, we are naturally inclined to work towards attaining this state of mutual understanding.
Here I shall attempt to tune more finely this notion of "effort after shared meaning": reflecting, in turn, upon the "natural", the "effortful" and the "shared" features of what is proposed.
Motivation as seeking shared meaning
If human beings are "naturally" disposed to act collaboratively, we might expect participation in such arrangements to evoke agreeable emotions in us. Elsewhere (Crook, 1994, p. 225), I have argued that observations of human development strongly suggest that joint cognitive engagement can have affective and motivational potency in and of itself (perhaps "effortlessly"). From the earliest months of infancy it seems that we are attracted by the forms of synchrony that joint human action can furnish. A close observer of such events has remarked that "only humans have the kind of appetite a one-year-old begins to show for sharing the arbitrary use of tools, places, manners and experiences" (Trevarthan, 1988, p.55). Argyle (1991) complements this claim with observations about the attraction of joint activity for adults. Thus, the experience of mutual knowledge - a cognitive synchrony, as it were – appears to be something that people readily strive to achieve. Given that human history is significantly about the evolution of social problem solving (Humphrey, 1976), then it is reasonable that positive emotional states should be associated with the behavioural synchronies involved.
A more problematic feature of "effort after shared meaning" is the understanding of "effort". It implies a strong intent to achieve shared meaning. Yet moments of powerfully-felt shared meaning clearly can arise following rather little effort on our part. The point is that effort is not a necessary condition for realising the motivating experiences of a collaboration. Krauss and Fussell (1991) provide an accessible illustration. They discuss the potency of mutual knowledge that is experienced when, for example, one New Yorker meets another – perhaps as strangers both away from their common home. This gives rise to pleasure that needs very little "effort" of construction. If the case of roving New Yorkers is not sufficiently like collaborating, consider an illustration closer to formal learning. Consider two individuals who, separately, have been working on some problem and, separately, have achieved familiarity with it (say, some computer puzzle that we have authored). My expectation is that if their activity is now arranged to intersect, if they are convened by us for a collaborating session at the computer, then at that time they will most likely experience a pleasantly animated feeling from the intersection. Such an experience reflects awareness that their understanding of the problem domain overlaps: an awareness that it is understanding shared. They will experience this even though the basis for it is in what they have done (previously) as individuals. They still register that this has created an agreeable shared understanding, albeit not something created through joint activity – for there was none. Yet that shared understanding is now available as a resource: it can be recruited into the (now joint) activity, and it may come to motivate that convened collaboration further and faster.
Of course, whether joint activity has the informality of New Yorkers meeting abroad or the formality of collaborative learning, if the pleasure of co-ordination is to be savoured then the participants must launch into more active investment of effort - more organised work directed at controlling and extending the shared meaning. That is, if collaborators’ effort was not necessary to precipitate the shared meaning, such effort may become important to sustain and elaborate it. Nevertheless, the basic emotion we are discussing here seems often to be available without any great orchestration on the collaborators’ part. The collaborators’ shared culture (say, that of common institutional context) may serve to furnish the currency through which shared meaning may be experienced within joint activity. This should encourage psychologists to understand how such optimal scenarios are provided – particularly for would-be or reluctant collaborative learners.
The final ingredient of "effort after shared meaning" to consider is the "sharing". Here the challenge is to discover more of how the positive affect arising from collaborating relates to different conditions of things being shared. It is natural to think first of depth or extent of common knowledge as the basis on which the quality of sharing might vary. Doubtless this is significant. But also important may be the degree of "intimacy" associated with the common knowledge. If when collaborators convene their shared meanings are very widely shared by others, then the joint experience may not be very engaging. However, if the shared meaning is more idiosyncratic or if it does arise from unique effort that learning partners have made as collaborators, then such intimacy of understanding may be especially motivating. This is a perspective recently applied to understanding the appeal of joke-telling (Cohen, 1999). Yet, regrettably, the general argument still remains speculative. The research agenda on the processes of collaborating has been rather narrow in its focus. It has dwelt upon situations that tend to have no history. It also admits rather little concern for the motivational quality of participation.
This exploration of the experience of collaborating (inspired by Schwartz’s "effort after shared meaning") need not imply that joint activity is always and everywhere vigorously sought For we readily discover that joint activity can arouse both positive and negative emotions. I have documented some of the variety of such experience by observing young children collaborating in pairs around classroom computers (Crook, 1994, chap. 7). In some pairs, discourse was mobilised to discover and negotiate an expanding resource of shared experiences (as, perhaps, their teachers had hoped). Moreover, often this entailed conversational contributions that seemed to cultivate an intimacy from the situation: marking events in such a way as to appropriate them into a particularly personalised narrative of shared experience. On the other hand, some collaborative pairings exercised conversational moves that were more about wrestling to contain competing individual ambitions (such as one partner wishing to solve the problem and another wishing to escape and do some other more preferred activity). Still others would involve one member of a pair manoeuvring to ensure that the version of shared meaning to evolve was the one that he or she had pre-determined as desirable. An important point about this variety is that it exists despite the collaborative talk being rather similar in terms of its more cognitive profile. These pairings are all similarly animated, often quite symmetrical in terms of contributions, and those contributions can be equally sophisticated in cognitive terms. Yet, the affective tone within these encounters can be very different; the intimacy of shared meaning also can be very different. Probably we would also find that the learning outcomes associated with such variability were different.
In sum, the position I wish to defend regarding the concept of collaboration is as follows. To be a collaborator is to enter into an interpersonal exchange in which it is understood that there should be a sustained investment in constructing shared meaning. Talk and action is recruited towards negotiating, updating and reviewing that achievement. Progress in this enterprise will involve both a cognitive and a motivational dimension. Cognitively, the participants become resourced by an evolving "platform" of meanings from which new explorations can take off. Motivationally, we find that participants can become more closely engaged through a certain potency associated with the experience of shared understandings. The affect arising from this cognitive synchrony is something human beings seem inclined to enjoy. In this setting, it can serve to animate and sustain a cognitive exploration - to an extent that might be beyond what could be achieved in solitary conditions of learning. Yet that quality of affect is not an easy or an inevitable consequence of the contract for joint activity.
This sketch of what it is to be within a collaborative relationship refers to somewhat delicate forms of social alignment. The sense of having realised something that is genuinely "shared" may often be quite fragile. It may be a hard-to-win prize. It may become unevenly felt by the collaborators. In particular, how these occasions are experienced may not be simply determined by the sheer will or "effort" brought into them by participants. Certainly, human agency and the effort after shared meaning are significant ingredients that can be usefully imported. But they are ingredients that are not immutable properties of individual collaborators. They are psychological reactions that situations evoke. They occur because people act within a cultural context: because they share certain experiences within that local culture. The possibility of powerful joint activity must depend a great deal on the context of the collaborative occasion itself. Because circumstances of joint activity are precarious in this sense, there can be no assumption that learners will energetically seek out collaborative opportunities. It can not be assumed that they will naturally seek out opportunities to exercise some generic effort towards making shared meaning with another person. Faced with a given possibility, they may judge that this will not be the inevitable payoff. Or they may judge that the logistics of co-ordinating defeat the anticipated gains. At least within formal educational settings, it may be more realistic for researchers to think in terms of how the circumstances for a potential collaboration are made more optimal: how they are designed and engineered, with expectations that putative collaborators can more readily fall into them to productive effect.
I wish to marry up this line of thinking about the experience
of collaborating with a line of thinking that is, broadly speaking, "ecological".
The point is to maintain that for collaborators, the quality of the experience
felt - in practice - is variable. Moreover, such variability is best approached
by orienting towards the social, cultural and material conditions surrounding
the collaborative occasion. So, if learning outcomes following collaborative
study are mixed, then this may reflect varying qualities of affect aroused
by the circumstances of the collaboration. And this, in turn, may be understood
by reference to the ecology of the joint activity that was entered into.
The ecological metaphor
The term "ecology" recently has been recruited by Nardi and O'Day (1999) into a discussion about people’s relationships to information technologies. These authors are frank in admitting that their use of the concept is strictly metaphorical. So, also is my own use here. Ecology is a helpful term to invoke because it invites a principled attention to certain neglected aspects of collaborating.
First, the term reminds us that an organism’s activity is always a form of co-ordination with an environment. In the study of collaboration, there has been a tendency to de-couple the collaborators' talk from the material circumstances in which it is embedded. Analysts need to recover this "mediated" character of social interaction. Second, an ecological perspective is one that addresses the potentially systemic character of social exchanges. What collaborators do is not bounded by the circumstances of a researcher’s convened "session". On this view, we are invited to consider how the fate of a collaboration is to be understood in terms of its position within some larger picture of organised human activity. In particular, to consider interdependencies: to consider how, for example, tinkering with parameters in one region of this "system" has knock-on effects elsewhere. Finally, ecology offers us the notion of "niche". Importing that idea into the study of collaboration would require us to notice the organisational coherence of various settings - say, institutional settings - in which the practice of collaborative learning is pursued.
Ecological perspectives have enjoyed some influence in psychology. In the study of perception, Gibson (1968) stimulated a significant research tradition concerned with how structure in the visual array furnishes "affordances" for the management of activity within space. Ecological studies of child development have revealed how parameters of the built environment constrain or facilitate patterns of social and playful development (Barker and Wright, 1954, Smith and Connolly, 1980). Similarly Bronfenbrenner's work (e.g. 1979) develops this into a larger systemic analysis of how child development is governed within a culture's institutions and spaces. Finally, studies of how we interact with technologies stress how patterns of use arise from the affordances of material design (Norman, 1988). This may be to the larger scale (social) design issues of space management within workplace settings (Bannon, 1986).
Arguably, the ecological perspective has been most vigorously pursued in relation to features of the environment that seem to have fairly direct relationships with human action - or where the sophistication of the actors is less advanced (as, say, with children). This may be because the problem confronting any ecological analysis of human activity is that human beings are so active in imposing meanings upon the paraphernalia of their material world. The spaces, artefacts and technologies of our worlds are interpreted. Their "properties" as items to be co-ordinated with are complicated by the meanings we impose upon them. Moreover, different people may build very different meaning relationships into the environment. All of this makes things difficult for researchers and theorists. In practice, these complexities may have distracted researchers from taking a strongly ecological approach: from making the material environment the starting point for their analyses of human action. Perhaps it encourages theorising to be developed on a more cognitive plane. The conceptual vocabulary for analysis becomes pitched more at the level of mental structures rather than at the level of embodied and situated activity.
Yet it should be possible to grapple with the complexities introduced
by the fact that human actors impose meanings on the cultural context in
which they act. I suggest it is necessary to do this. Because, otherwise,
we can not make adequate sense of how collaborations can be successful
(and how success may be designed for). Making this sense requires us to
become ecological. Thus, it requires us to register the systemic nature
of the activity; to understand how collaborating implicates artefacts or
technologies; and to characterise the cultural niches within which it is
orchestrated. These possibilities perhaps are best captured through considering
concrete examples in which the ecologies for collaborative learning are
illustrated and research needs identified. I turn to this task in the next
section of this chapter.
On resourcing collaborators
If we wish to optimise the collaborative experience of learners, I suggest there are two broad research challenges for the design of educational interventions. The first involves a concern for the character of the resources that collaborators interact around: that is, what they refer to at the time that they are actually engaged in a session of joint learning. This becomes an "ecological" interest because it insists that the quality and prospects for interaction depend upon the coordinations that are made possible by locally-available resources. This line of inquiry is more familiar, as it resonates with the typical format for research investigation in this area. Namely, it tends to take discrete occasions of orchestrated collaboration as the "empirical unit" of concern.
There is a second line of inquiry that is less familiar. It is based on recognising that formalised occasions of joint learning are only one way in which collaboration can occur. Collaborative learning may also simply crystallise out of learning communities: occurring as rather informal and improvised occasions. Such collaboration is not something that is prompted through the official demands of some curriculum (or the stage directions of some researcher). The challenge presented by this more informal case is different. It is one of understanding how the corporate experiences of some learning community are best designed to optimise such opportunities, by making them seem attractive. This becomes an "ecological" interest because it locates individual collaborators within a larger system of (learning) activity. It also seeks a greater degree of interdependence between social experiences in a learning community – rather than parcelling them into circumscribed occasions of joint learning activity (the most popular empirical unit).
I will discuss what is involved in this more corporate and improvised situation first and, then, turn to the ecological dimension of the more planned and self-contained circumstances of a collaborative learning "session". For each case, I will endeavour to illustrate some empirical possibilities, by reference to some examples from work of my own.
Ecology and informal collaboration
With the advent of accessible and powerful computer-mediated communications, there is some question as to whether the communal nature of traditional educational practice is necessary at all. Perhaps this technology will be the final lever for a "de-schooling" (Illich, 1973) of society. Yet if there is something to defend here it is surely something to do with the potential for peer interaction that a community context for learning affords. Whether members of this community actively plan collaborative encounters or whether they crop up casually, the depth of participants’ established common knowledge will make a difference to what happens within them. At least, this would be the argument that follows from the conceptualisation of collaborative experience formulated above. Where collaborating partners understand that they have interesting commonalties of knowledge (arising from their participation in the larger learning community), then it is likely that the quality of affect generated by their various encounters will be enhanced. I will expand these observations a little first in relation to undergraduates
It is not unusual for undergraduates to remark that the sense of corporate activity (attending the same lectures, doing the same assignments etc) is an agreeable aspect of institutional learning. In that case, the sense of shared understanding probably serves a serious motivational function. On the other hand, this does not necessarily ensure that informal and productive collaborations will thereby flourish. Unfortunately, the learning niche students occupy may have other features that obstruct an effort to develop further shared meanings. In particular, if there is a sense of being in competition with fellow students, then that structural feature of the learning ecology may impede informal collaborating (cf. Becker, Geer, Hughes, and Strauss, 1961). Probably this is happening within many university classes. I suggest this because I can report observations about social affiliation taken from two second year classes of residential, full-time students taking degrees in chemistry and in psychology.
These students had attended various courses together for two years. They were each shown a composite photograph of the 40 or so fellow-students in their respective classes and asked a number of questions about each peer. About two thirds of the class was sampled as respondents while all class members were visible in the photograph. Figure 1 shows a psychologists’ affiliation network based on which other students were acknowledged to be at least acquaintances ("known such as to talk with socially"). Figure 2 shows how the density of this net thins out when the question concerns whether or not a respondent has triggered an arrangement "to meet up explicitly to talk about course work". This is clearly an infrequent scenario despite the apparent goal-directed coherence of the underlying community. The same point is made comparatively (for psychologists versus chemists) in Figure 3. Here we see median percentages of the class nominated in response to a number of questions to individuals about their social affiliation. For example, Question "0" merely asks whether a fellow student is recognised. Question "1" is that mentioned above concerning simple acquaintance. Question "2" asks each individual whether they have ever "discussed problems/ideas relating to work/study outside of actual class time" and Question "3" is the one cited above concerning explicit study meetings. The remaining questions concern further possibilities for closeness of social contact.
Observations of this kind are useful for clarifying the extent to which an existing learning community takes advantage of its shared experiences to resource informal collaborative interaction. One would have to say they do not do this very much in the present example. However, this is descriptive research. It is hardly useful for clarifying what circumstances or social processes obstruct the taking of these opportunities. We get a little further with that interest by referring to another study carried out by David Webster and myself at the same university. We carefully sampled a cross section of students during a period of several weeks when they were revising for final examinations. They reported a number of things about their study strategy, including confirming that it was largely solitary. Figure 4 shows how such study was distributed across the possible spaces provided by the campus infrastructure. Clearly most of it is conducted in areas where social interaction is either prohibited (libraries) or in spaces that traditionally are private (personal study bedrooms) and where neighbours are from a whole variety of degree courses (rather than just ones own).
This is an issue of ecology. For it encourages us to think about how the activities we wish to cultivate (informal collaborations) might best be supported by the design and provision of a certain kind of space. In the diaries of revision study, there is a notable lack of reference to space conceived for informal encounters. Space designed to encourage members of a class who might seek opportunities for collaborative discussion. Our impression was that this university (like most others) lacked significant space of this sort. Not that simply making it available is all that is needed. For example, my own department has reserved an area at its centre for casual use by the community – suitably furnished with round tables, comfortable chairs and refreshment facilities. I believe the space enjoys some success as a support for casual collaborations. Yet I suspect there is still a shortfall in what it achieves. Its limitations arises less through its furniture and situation than through the habits of occupancy that it has attracted. In particular, it enjoys relatively little use by postgraduates or staff. This is "merely" an issue of office geography and pressures of time, but this reduced constituency of users undermines the sense of the space as a representation or focus of shared concerns. Moreover, the one-sided nature of its occupancy (mainly by undergraduates) may serve to reinforce some of what is unhelpful in the tutor/student divide. Such division may obstruct any grand ambition that what is originally "tutoring" might move towards becoming "collaborating". Yet this example about study space - once opened up for scrutiny - exposes the systemic nature of the activity (informal collaboration) that researcher-designers need to contemplate.
In the end it will be necessary to go beyond simply documenting the state of development of educational ecologies. Researchers must also probe how local space can be designed to "work": that is, to be richer in its collaborative opportunities. I will refer to just one example of what acting at this level might involve. I have reported elsewhere (Crook, 1998) an intervention that considers how new technology might be recruited towards extending the shared knowledge of a primary classroom. The environments of early education and university may appear very different but there is a common underlying need: namely, to create a setting which cultivates, records and exploits common knowledge. In our case, this strategy involved designing an interface to the file system of the classroom’s (un-networked) computer. Pupils were given "home page" style space and a facility for passing text messages. Various areas of the disc were created to display records of work currently being carried out – as well as that from previous years. While the facility has received no formal evaluation, it was clear on the basis of informal contact that it made possible a greater degree of mutual awareness in relation to ongoing class work and products achieved. The example simply illustrates the relevance of new technologies to working on such challenges. While a primary school classroom may be quite hard to influence by this route, a university class should be much easier. For example, the use of websites for undergraduate classes is one point of comparison. Perhaps their future use could echo my example above: moving away from "delivery" models (repositories for handouts, lecture overheads, or assignment details) towards a more "community" model (celebrating the corporate discussions and products of the learning group).
Ecology and collaborative resources
Earlier, I noted that an ecological approach might be mobilised to consider two species of issue. First, these community level issues (facilitating informal collaborations) and, second, interaction with the more "local" resources that mediate within particular occasions for collaborating. There is much that could be said about the design of such resources. For example, it seems that the interactivity of mediational means is important to enhance the potency of shared knowledge. Also important is the capacity of a collaborative resource to act as a useful representational support – perhaps externalising for the collaborators difficult abstractions characteristic of the problem domain being studied (Crook, 1994). Here, I will mention just one study concerning mediational means: in this case, resources being used by pairs of (undergraduate) collaborators. It is a useful example to conclude on as it touches on a number of points I have tried to develop in this chapter.
Students revising for a final examination on a particular lecture course were invited to convene into (self-selecting) revision pairs. They would take part in a couple of informal sessions and would be assigned to a condition in which the collaborative resource was either their personal notes from lectures, or a set of hypertext web pages built from the lecturer’s own notes for these sessions. Evidently, there is much in common between these circumstances. The students have the same purpose (revision for exam), they are oriented to the same target (the syllabus of a lecture course), and they have a similar focal object for collaboration (species of textual notes). Yet the interactions generated seemed to have a rather different qualities. Talking around their own notes, students’ discussion was more exploratory, more creative and more pitched towards understanding underlying disciplinary ideas. Talk around the web notes, was more prone to distraction, more pre-occupied with what was "expected" and more likely to provoke (worried) social comparisons within the pair regarding what they each seemed to "know about".
The example again warns against crude forms of assessing collaborations in terms of the amount of task talk sustained. In both conditions there was a lot of task talk. But detailed consideration of how the core material was being explored revealed very different levels of engagement, and different sorts of shared experience being developed. Clearly, as mediational means these artefacts (the two forms of notes) had attracted very different meanings for their users. These differences can only be speculated upon in relation to the larger ecology of which they are products. Thus, it is tempting to suppose that the lecturer’s web notes conjure up the metaphor of "delivery". They are a version of something that took place (lectures) and the attitudes they invite from collaborative users is perhaps to learn them, and to consider the lecturer/author himself – his motives, expectations and agenda. Whereas students’ personal notes (albeit composed from the same teaching events) conjure up the metaphor of "platform" and thereby they invite from the collaborators a more exploratory and open-ended form of use.
The example illustrates the significance of collaborative artefacts as mediational in this sense. Further it illustrates the challenge to "human ecology" identified above: namely, that artefacts acquire cultural meaning prior to serving as a focal point for co-ordinated activity. Finally, the example also illustrates something of the systemic nature of what we are considering here. For, a development such as educational information technology can not be viewed as a self-contained form of resource simply added to the educational "pot". It is an intervention that has potential knock-on effects throughout the system. In particular, the innocent new resource of web-based lecture notes may well disturb the cultural context of learning in ways that are not easily anticipated.
I began by noting that commentators seem uncertain as to the effectiveness (the learning outcomes) of studying in collaborative arrangements. I then considered the emotional dimension of collaborating: suggesting that the quality of the experience in this sense would have much to do with the prospects for any given collaboration. Broadly defined, the emotions generated seem to centre on the participants’ discovery, pursuit and celebration of shared understandings. Expressing this as "effort after shared meaning" is helpful – unless it invites us only to dwell on "the properties of individuals that make collaborative behaviors emerge" (Schwartz, 1999, p.198). In the end, much of the variance associated with these experiences of joint activity may not be derived from individual cognitive or personality differences. The significant variance will be found in the configuration of that socio-cultural (learning) context within which individuals act. This, therefore, encourages a more ecological approach to theorising collaboration.
Research has tended to neglect the socio-cultural conditions that precipitate collaborating. Possibly the neglect of this issue reflects the fact that most occasions of interest for researchers are required, designed (and perhaps rewarded) by the researchers themselves. Yet there is a bigger picture; one that than can not easily be derived from looking at only short, self-contained occasions of orchestrated problem solving. Many collaborations for learning will be circumstances that are serendipitous or improvised: they simply arise from living within a learning community. As such the emotions they create – the engagement that is sustained – will not be fully understood without serious scrutiny of the rich cultural context in which collaborators are positioned.
If we stand back from what goes on in formal education, it is possible
to conclude that the biggest question about collaboration is why it does
not happen more often. Few students study together informally. Many undergraduates
actively resent the direction to "work in groups". I do not believe that
this undermines claims made above about the synchronies of joint activity
being intrinsically attractive to us. From preverbal play to adult conversation,
human co-ordination is a powerful motive. Yet any given occasion for co-ordination
must be located in a wider system of personal motives and cultural constraints,
obligations and responsibilities. Intending collaborators may see much
that is complex in the circumstances of each proposed liaison and in the
configuration of each set of material resources. I have suggested that
we may enjoy greater purchase on the quality of these experiences (and
their value for participants) if we adopt a more ecological perspective.
In the end, collaborations are social events that are "situated": that
is, they involve interpersonal coordinations around the artefacts and technologies
of culture, and they must be precipitated out of the larger social systems
– the larger communities - to which collaborators belong.
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