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 others and the instructorscomments (Slatin, 1992, cited in Jonassen, 1999,p. 229).

    Testing Design Features in aTechnology-Supported,Knowledge-Building Environment

    Our desire in this study was to integrate con-structivist principles with the concept of learn-ing communities in such a way as to yielddesign features that could be implemented andtested empirically. CSILE is unquestionably themost prominent example of a technology-sup-ported learning community, but it has beenemployed almost entirely with children work-ing on knowledge building over year-long spansof time. Indeed, virtually all of the research onlearning communities that we are aware of hasbeen conducted with school-age children (e.g.,the collaboratory notebookEdelson, Pea, &Gomez, 1996; the knowledge integration en-vironmentBell, Davis, & Linn, 1995). In addi-tion, students using CSILE work on general,knowledge-building goals, creating theories andbuilding explanations. Finally, until the adventof Web CSILE, the knowledge-building com-munity was not networked to resources outsidethe classroom.

    Construe, Web software designed specifi-cally for the purpose of supporting aknowledge-building learning community, wasdeveloped in 1996 for an application in highereducation (Lebow et al., 1996), but it was not em-pirically validated. It therefore offered an oppor-tunity to extend the findings on CSILE into thehigher education arena with adult students. Asschool children must become knowledgeworkers to function in todays society, so muststudents in higher education, since most of themwere educated under more traditional models of

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  • schooling. Differing from CSILE, Construe isdesigned to manage a one-semester course, in-corporates a database of articles that learnerscan easily access from the course Web site, andoffers a means for students and the instructor tobuild links within the environment to resourcesoutside of it. As an integration tool (Hannafin etal., 1999), it supports the ability of students toreact to information, integrate new knowledgewith personal knowledge, and view multipleperspectives. Construe also provides the openaccess to shared information that Jonassen(1999) indicated is critical in constructivist learn-ing environments.

    While Construe constituted the softwareaspect of a technology-supported learning com-munity, we wanted to explore several construc-tivist instructional strategies as learningconditions to facilitate a community of learners.For instance, Wenger (1998) stated that a sourceof community coherence is the negotiation of ajoint enterprise (p. 77). Combining that notionwith the emphasis in constructivist learning en-vironments on authentic tasks, we hypothesizedthat incorporating a collective and authenticcommunity goal could be an effective instruc-tional condition to facilitate the development ofa learning community. A community projectwould be the joint enterprise within which bothgroups and individuals could negotiate morespecific learning goals and tasks. The coopera-tive groups were also expected to promote mul-tiple perspectives along with social negotiationof meaning. Finally, we wanted to encourageownership in learning as a learning conditionthat may facilitate self-regulation in learners(Duffy & Cunningham, 1996; Lebow, 1995). Toaccomplish this, we incorporated an instruction-al strategy enabling learners to select coursereadings for personal interest and to meet thegoals of their learning teams.

    Purpose of the Study

    The purpose of this study was therefore to inves-tigate two research questions, one primary andone secondary. The primary question was: Howeffectively did the instructional conditions im-plemented within a graduate course dealing

    with alternate views of teaching and learning(known as Altviews) contribute to a collabora-tive knowledge-building enterprise? That is,what effects, if any, did a collective goal,cooperative groups, ownership in learning, andtechnology tools have on student acquisitionand use of key concepts, self-regulation, andhigher-order thinking? The secondary researchquestion was: What instructional managementissues arose at an individual, group, and com-munity level and how were these issuesresolved?


    The design of this research was a single casestudy focused on identifying and understandingthe learning conditions that promote knowledgebuilding in collaborative learning communities.According to Yin (1989), the case study as a re-search strategy is preferred for investigating howand why questions regarding a contemporaryphenomenon occurring in a real-life context (p.13). Once the case studys questions have beenidentified, the case is defined and sources ofevidence from the case are determined that bearon the questions being asked.

    The case was the Altviews course composedof 20 graduate students at Florida State Univer-sity. The subunits of the case were individuals,groups, and the community as a whole. Datawere collected over the span of an entire 15-week semester from students enrolled in thecourse, the course instructor, the course teachingassistant (who was also the primary researcher),and a student informant (ident...


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