9 minute read

Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning

A Brief History of CSCL Research, A Paradigmatic Example of CSCL Research

The traditional expansion for the acronym CSCL is computer-supported collaborative learning. However, many who work in the field find aspects of this title problematic; therefore a convention has developed to use the acronym as a free-standing designation in its own right. The traditional title is controversial in several ways.

As Pierre Dillenbourg points out, the term collaborative learning has been used in two different senses. On the one hand, some have treated collaborative learning as a distinctive form of socially based learning that is fundamentally different from prevailing psychological formulations. For example, Kenneth Bruffee defines collaborative learning as "a reculturative process that helps students become members of knowledge communities whose common property is different from the common property of the knowledge communities they already belong to" (p. 3). An alternative way to think about collaborative learning, however, is not as a type of learning at all, but rather as a theory of instruction. Stated simply, the theory of collaborative learning, as noted by Jeremy Roschelle and Stephanie Teasley, asserts that learning is enhanced when learners are placed in situations involving "coordinated, synchronous activity that is the result of a continued attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem" (p. 70). It has been incorporated into a variety of well-known instructional methods, including problem-based learning, some versions of cooperative learning, and project-based learning. Collaborative learning is not limited to settings of formal instruction, however. Learning in the context of joint activity occurs in workplaces, homes, and informal learning settings as well as in schools.

Other terms have been suggested as replacements for collaborative. Roy Pea, for example, observes that what takes place in settings of joint activity is often anything but collaborative, and he has proposed that the word collective be used instead. There are also other possibilities to be considered. In 1987 Yrgö Engeström drew upon a set of distinctions originally proposed by Bernd Fictner in 1984 between coordination, cooperation, and reflective communication in learning. The difference between coordination and cooperation has to do with the degree to which a learning task involves a prescribed division of labor among participants. This same distinction, however, is employed by Dillenbourg, and by Roschelle and Teasley, to differentiate between cooperation and collaboration. The critical point is that there has been no consensus with respect to the basic terminology for describing interaction in these settings, and it is probably premature to try to establish definitive labels for the field.

There are also misunderstandings that arise from the first half (computer-supported) of CSCL. Not all uses of technology applied to learning in groups are necessarily representative of CSCL research, and not all CSCL research necessarily involves computer-based instruction. Though there is a lively interest within the CSCL community in the ways that new and emerging computer and telecommunications technologies might foster and transform collaborative learning, this is not the sole, or even the central, object of inquiry. There is, indeed, a widely held recognition that the fundamental processes by which learning takes place in settings of joint activity are not well understood. As a result, a good number of CSCL researchers are engaged in basic research designed to illuminate how mutual understanding is accomplished in collaborative settings, whether augmented with technology or not.

A Brief History of CSCL Research

Precursors to what was to become the field of CSCL can be found in three influential projects, all initiated in the early 1980s. The first was a multi-university project known as ENFL, begun at Gallaudet University to support instruction in composition. Workers in this area developed a set of computer-based applications that have subsequently come to be referred to as CSCWriting programs. A second and highly influential project was undertaken by Marlene Scardamalia, Carl Bereiter, and colleagues at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. This project had its origins in reading research and focused from the outset on student epistemologies and the development of skills for knowledge sharing. It led to the development of programs (CSILE, Knowledge Forum) that have been widely used in instructional settings around the world. A third early influence was the 5th Dimension Project organized by Mike Cole and other researchers at the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC) at the University of California in San Diego. The 5th Dimension is an international multi-site network of after-school teaching programs initially developed as clinical training sites for pre-service teachers. It was less technologically oriented than the other early projects, but the 5th Dimension Project made considerable contributions toward the development of a theoretical framework for studying learning from a sociocultural perspective.

In 1983 a workshop on the topic of "joint problem solving and microcomputers" was held at LCHC. The organizers of this workshop, Mike Cole, Naomi Miyake, and Denis Newman, were all to assume prominent roles in the CSCL community as it developed. Six years later, a NATO-sponsored workshop was held in Maratea, Italy. Though there was some cross-fertilization between the groups (Denis Newman, for instance, participated in both workshops), the Maratea workshop largely involved participants from European research centers, while the San Diego workshop was attended by researchers from the United States and Japan. The Maratea workshop is considered by many to mark the birth of the field since it was the first public and international gathering to use the term computer-supported collaborative learning in its title.

The first full-fledged CSCL conference was organized at Indiana University in the fall of 1995. Subsequent international meetings have taken place biennially, with conferences at the University of Toronto in 1997, Stanford University in 1999, and the University of Colorado in 2002. A European conference was held at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands in 2001. The fifth international conference in the biennial series will be held in Norway at the University of Bergen in 2003. A specialized literature documenting theory and research in CSCL has developed since the NATO-sponsored workshop in Maratea. Four of the most influential monographs are Kenneth Bruffee's Collaborative Learning (1993), Charles Crook's Computers and the Collaborative Experience of Learning (1994), Newman, Griffin, and Cole's The Construction Zone (1989), and Carl Bereiter's Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age (2002). Additionally, there have been a number of edited collections specifically focusing on CSCL research.

A Paradigmatic Example of CSCL Research

A paradigmatic example of CSCL research can be found in an early study reported by Jeremy Roschelle in 1992. Roschelle's data consisted of videotapes of two students, Dana and Carol, working together with a program designed to enable users to visualize and experiment with the trajectories of Newtonian particles. For each of these exchanges he described the "conversation action," capturing not only the lexical components, but also timing, prosodic features, and affiliated gestures; the "conceptual change" evidenced in the exchange; and finally the displayed "shared knowledge."

Rather than attending exclusively to what was learned using some sort of outcome measure, Roschelle's study focused instead on how learners achieve new conceptual understandings in the presence of computational artifacts. When one examines the actual interaction of learners engaged in such activities it is often unclear what is being accomplished through their discourse or how participants move from their initial levels of understanding to appreciations more closely approximating those of a physicist. Roschelle discussed how convergent change is possible using "only figurative, ambiguous, and imprecise language and physical interactions" (p. 239). He argued that conceptual convergence is made possible by four elements: "(a) the construction of a deep-featured situation at an intermediate level of abstraction from the literal features of the world; (b) the interplay of metaphors in relation to each other and to the constructed situation; (c) an iterative cycle of displaying, confirming, and repairing situated actions; and (d) the applications of progressively higher standards of evidence for convergence"(p. 237).

Roschelle's study illustrates three distinctive features of CSCL research. First, as noted by Shelly Goldman and James Greeno, because CSCL research concerns itself with learning in settings of joint activity, learning is treated not as hidden or occult, but rather as a visible and accountable form of social practice. Second, and closely related to the first point, CSCL research is centrally concerned with the process by which meaning is constructed within such settings. Finally, there is an orientation in CSCL research to learning as a form of mediated activity–mediated not only by designed artifacts such as computer programs, but also by the more basic resources of human concentration, such as language and gesture. It is these features that distinguish work in CSCL from other research on the application of instructional technology to learning in groups.


BEREITER, CARL. 2002. Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

BONK, CURTIS JAY, and KING, KIRA, eds. 1998. Electronic Collaborators: Learner-Centered Technologies for Literacy, Apprenticeship, and Discourse. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

BRUFFEE, KENNETH. 1993. Collaborative Learning. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

COLE, MICHAEL; MIYAKE, NAOMI; and NEWMAN, DENIS, eds. 1983. Proceedings of the Conference on Joint Problem Solving and Microcomputers (Technical Report No. 1). La Jolla, CA: University of California, San Diego, Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition.

CROOK, CHARLES. 1994. Computers and the Collaborative Experience of Learning. London: Routledge.

DILLENBOURG, PIERRE, ed. 1999. Collaboratove Learning: Cognitive and Computational Approaches. Oxford: Pergamon.

ENGESTRöM, YRGö. 1987. Learning by Expanding: An Activity-Theoretical Approach to Developmental Research. Helsinki, Finland: Orienta-Konsultit Oy.

FICTNER, BERND. 1984. "Co-ordination, Cooperation, and Communication in the Formation of Theoretical Concepts in Instruction." In Learning and Teaching on a Scientific Basis: Methodological and Epistemological Aspects of the Activity Theory of Learning and Teaching, ed. Mariane Hedegaard, Pentti Hakkarainen, and Yrgö Engeström. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Psykologisk Institut.

GOLDMAN, SHELLY, and GREENO, JAMES. 1998. "Thinking Practices: Images of Thinking and Learning in Education." In Thinking Practices in Mathematics and Science Learning, ed. James Greeno and Shelly Goldman. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

KOSCHMANN, TIMOTHY, ed. 1996. CSCL: Theory and Practice of an Emerging Paradigm. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

KOSCHMANN, TIMOTHY; HALL, ROGERS; and MIYAKE, NAOMI, eds. 2002. CSCL 2: Carrying Forward the Conversation. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

LITTLETON, KAREN, and LIGHT, PAUL, eds. 1999. Learning with Computers: Analyzing Productive Interactions. New York: Routledge.

NEWMAN, DENNIS; GRIFFIN, PEG; and COLE, MICHAEL. 1989. The Construction Zone: Working for Cognitive Change in Schools. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

O'MALLEY, CLAIRE, ed. 1995. Computer Supported Collaborative Learning. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

PEA, ROY. 1996. "Seeing What We Build Together: Distributed Multimedia Learning Environments for Transformative Communications." In CSCL: Theory and Practice of an Emerging Paradigm, ed. Timothy Koschmann. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

ROSCHELLE, JEREMY. 1992. "Learning by Collaboration: Convergent Conceptual Change." Journal of the Learning Sciences 2:235–276.

ROSCHELLE, JEREMY, and TEASLEY, STEPHANIE. 1995. "The Construction of Shared Knowledge in Collaborative Problem Solving." In Computer Supported Collaborative Learning, ed. Claire O'Malley. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

SCARDAMALIA, MARLENE, and BEREITER, CARL. 1989. "Intentional Learning as a Goal of Instruction." In Knowing, Learning, and Instruction: Essays in Honor of Robert Glaser, ed. Lauren B. Resnick. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

SCARDAMALIA, MARLENE, and BEREITER, CARL. 1996. "Computer Support for Knowledge-Building Communities." In CSCL: Theory and Practice of an Emerging Paradigm, ed. Timothy Koschmann. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

SCARDAMALIA, MARLENE; BEREITER, CARL; McLEAN, ROBERT; SWALLOW, JONATHON; and WOODRUFF, EARL. 1989. "Computer-Supported Intentional Learning Environments." Journal of Educational Computer Research 5:51–68.


Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia: Education Reform - OVERVIEW to Correspondence course