Collaborative knowledge building: A case study

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  • Collaborative Knowledge Building: A Case Study

    Nancy J. GilbertMarcy P. Driscoll

    What learning conditions are necessary toeffectively support the knowledge-buildingenterprise in a learning community? Toanswer this question, the case-study methodwas employed to investigate collaborativeknowledge building in a graduate level coursedesigned to incorporate specific constructivistlearning principles. These principles included(a) having a collective and authenticcommunity goal to facilitate collaboration andengagement in the community, (b) usingcooperative groups to provide for socialnegotiation and to promote multipleperspectives, (c) personally selecting of coursereadings and group decision-making toencourage ownership in learning, and (d)employing an integrated set of technologytools to archive the work of the community andfacilitate communication. Results indicatedthat the instructional strategies designed intothe course promoted collaborative knowledgebuilding and the acquisition of key conceptsthrough self-directed learning strategies.Results also pointed out the types oftechnological support required to implementan effective community of learners. A proposedset of guidelines is discussed to assistinstructional designers in the design anddevelopment of collaborative,knowledge-building environments.

    In an information society, knowledge movesinto the forefront and becomes an object withwhich people work (Bowen, Bereiter, & Scar-damalia, 1992). This suggests that students mustbecome knowledge workers to function effec-tively in todays digital age. A constructivistphilosophy of education may offer a means ofteaching students to become knowledgeworkers, because constructivist practices areconcerned with a learners ability to use andmanipulate information in authentic situationsthat have high relevance for the student (Lebow& Wager, 1994). Constructivist learning environ-ments can provide opportunities for students toaccess, use, manipulate, and evaluate informa-tion using authentic problem-solving activitiesand strategies that focus on generative teachingand learning.

    Making a shift toward a constructivist educa-tional philosophy requires a change in focusfrom individual knowledge constructed singlyto public knowledge jointly constructed by stu-dents (Brown, 1994; Brown & Campione, 1990;Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1992; Wenger, 1998). Aconstructivist orientation represents a fun-damental change in education where the goal isto modify closed classrooms into knowledge-building communities that enable students tocontribute to each others learning through so-cial construction of communal knowledge(Lebow, 1995).

    Collaborative Knowledge-BuildingCommunities

    Knowledge-building communities arose fromthe idea that schools should be restructured ascommunities in which knowledge is constructed

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  • as a collective goal (Scardamalia & Bereiter,1994). The main focus of activities within theseenvironments is on developing the collectiveknowledge base of the community and improv-ing the problem-solving expertise of thelearners. According to Lebow, Wager, Marks,and Gilbert (1996), a key principle guiding thedesign of knowledge-building communities isthat the artifacts or objects produced by thelearners are not simply passed in for a grade, butbecome public materials that support the goalsof the community and its individual members.The resulting database of information archivesthe materials produced by the learners and isevidence of the communitys advancingknowledge and expertise (Lebow et al., 1996).

    This shift to a communal approach to learn-ing changes the focus of the teaching and learn-ing process. Bowen et al., (1992) characterizedknowledge-building communities with fourprimary traits:

    1. A focus on knowledge and the advancementof knowledge rather than tasks and projects.

    2. A focus on problem solving rather than per-formance of routines.

    3. Dynamic adaptation in which advancesmade by members of the learning com-munity change the knowledge conditions re-quiring other members to readapt, resultingin continual progress.

    4. Intellectual collaboration as members poolintellectual resources, making it possible forcommunities to solve larger problems thancan individuals or small groups.

    In the last decade, increasing attention hasbeen paid to how computers can be used to sup-port and facilitate learners as they interact andsolve problems (Pea, 1994). This emerging inter-est is concerned with the design of tools thatcontribute to collective activity, and is charac-terized by authentic, collaborative workfacilitated through the use of networked com-puters. The use of networked computersprovides alternatives to traditional teaching andlearning as we move from a single-classroomconcept to the concept of a knowledge-buildingcommunity of learners.

    The computer supported intentional learningenvironment (CSILE), developed by Scar-

    damalia and Bereiter (1992), is an example of alearning environment that incorporates theprimary traits of knowledge-building com-munities and computers as tools. CSILE at-tempts to reform student achievement through avariety of methods, including collaborativelearning, and a focus on group projects ratherthan lectures. The groups are given the tools toresearch a particular topic, solve problems as-sociated with that topic, and present the infor-mation to their peers for review. Networkedcomputers are used as the primary vehicle topromote collaborative knowledge building be-cause they facilitate easy input and retrieval ofinformation as well as providing a variety ofcommunication features. Collaborativeknowledge building engages students with thetopic instead of leaving them on the outside aspassive observers. Learners do not rely onsimple memorization skills but must engage inhigher-order thinking and inquiry as they arriveat a variety of solutions to a particular problem(Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994).

    In CSILE, knowledge building, rather thanknowledge replication or retrieval, is the focusof student activity (Scardamalia & Bereiter,1994). Knowledge in this environment isdynamic, and is changed and reconstructed overtime. That is, students jointly build a body ofknowledge represented by the communitydatabase that is an aggregate of the communityrather than the individual.

    More than 10 years of research on CSILEshow that this approach can have a powerfulimpact on learning (Bereiter & Scardamalia,1996; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1996). Results ofstudents in grades 56 using CSILE in all contentareas suggested that students demonstrate ahigh level of knowledge building compared tonon-CSILE students. Knowledge building in thiscontext is the construction of new informationstored in the communal database associatedwith the formulation of questions to help stu-dents notice what information to add to thedatabase. Results also showed that a largeproportion of the questions generated by CSILEstudents are rated as challenging and con-sidered worthy of research by teachers andother adults (Bowen et al., 1992, p. 92).

    Additional research with CSILE demon-

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  • strates that students greatly surpass students inordinary classrooms on measures of depth oflearning and reflection (awareness of what theyhave learned or need to learn), and under-standing of learning itself (Bowen et al., 1992, p.282). Individual achievement, as measured bystandardized tests, reflected increases in reading,language, and vocabulary for CSILE studentscompared to their non-CSILE counterparts (Scar-damalia & Bereiter, 1992). Finally, Bowen et al.,(1992) suggested that CSILE students appear tofunction beyond their years in solving problemsand constructing knowledge at levels one doesnot find in ordinary schools, regardless of thecaliber of students they enroll (p. 282).

    Supporting Knowledge-BuildingCommunities with Technology

    How do computers function to facilitateknowledge building in a community oflearners? Technology is typically discussed interms of hardware and software. However,Jonassen (1995) posed the notion that technol-ogy is more than hardware and software and in-cludes instructional strategies and teacher-student relations. Technology, in a constructivistlearning environment, engages students in theenterprise of constructing knowledge and com-prises tools that enable learners to build per-sonal interpretations (Jonassen, 1995) byconstructing and manipulating information(Perkins, 1991). In other words, technology com-prises tools that extend cognitive functioning(Jonassen, 1995); that support, guide, and extendthe thinking process (Derry & LaJoie, 1993; Han-nafin, Land, & Oliver, 1999), and that engage thelearner in critical thinking (Jonassen, 1995). Han-nafin et al. presented a taxonomy of tool typesaccording to the specific cognitive functions theysupport, and described integration tools as thosethat help learners to link new with existingknowledge (p. 129). Such tools also supportknowledge representation, annotation links, andelaboration functions that help learners in or-ganizing ideas from a variety of perspectivesand integrating them with personal knowledge(Hannafin et al., p. 129). Because of these func-tions, integration tools should be particularly ef-

    fective in supporting knowledge-building learn-ing communities.

    Jonassen (1999) argued further that toolsused to support knowledge-building learningcommunities must also promote discourseamong community members and open access toshared information. Textualizing discourseamong students makes their ideas appear to beas important as each oth