When Computer-Supported Collaboration Means Computer-Supported Competition: Professional Mediation as a Model for Collaborative Learning

By Shaffer, David Williamson | Journal of Interactive Learning Research, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

When Computer-Supported Collaboration Means Computer-Supported Competition: Professional Mediation as a Model for Collaborative Learning


Shaffer, David Williamson, Journal of Interactive Learning Research


This article analyzes collaboration in a computer-supported learning environment based on the professional practices of mediation and dispute resolution. In so doing, it explores the nature of collaborative learning in a setting marked by competition as much as cooperation. Interviews with students suggest that the processes of collaborative learning in this competitive environment were fundamentally similar to collaborative learning processes observed in more cooperative contexts (Hutchins, 1995). Individual learners assumed roles that mapped to important elements of the conceptual domain. Learners developed understanding through feedback on their own role from peers, and by observing their peers enact roles that represented alternative facets of the domain under study. The cognitive processes of computer-supported collaborative learning thus appear similar whether students are working toward more shared or more conflicting goals.

**********

  There's going to be tension and that's good, because if there's
  tension it means that you care ... You have to be civil and you have
  to compromise and you have to look at the other person's point of
  view.
  --Margaret, (1) high school student in the Pandora Project, on the
  process of negotiation

In common discourse, collaboration and cooperation are often used as synonyms. Even in some formal reports of research, both collaborative learning and cooperative learning are described as some form of working together towards a shared goal to develop understanding (Hamm & Adams, 2002; Warschauer, 1997). Theoretical treatments of collaboration and cooperation, however, make a distinction between the two terms, arguing, in effect, that the difference between collaboration and cooperation is in the middle phrase: towards a shared goal (Bruffee, 1995; Oxford, 1997). Cooperative learning, such theorists suggest, implies a shared purpose. Collaborative learning environments reflect the fundamentally social nature of the learning process, and the importance of developing contexts that foster constructive and productive interactions in support of learning--whether or not those interactions arise in the context of working towards a shared goal.

Obviously, there is not a dichotomous relationship between activities "towards a shared goal" and activities "not towards a shared goal." No two people ever share exactly the same goal (or, even if they did, there would be no way to tell for certain); and simply by engaging in the same activity, participants necessarily share some common commitment to the structure of that activity. In any activity, there is a range of goals (and levels of goal) that may be more and less shared by participants. A complete analysis of why this perspective on collaboration and cooperation is not more widely reflected in the literature on collaborative learning in general and computer-supported collaboration in particular is beyond the scope of this article. However, one possible explanation is that there may simply be a lack of examples. We have many images in the literature of productive interactions in the context of shared tasks. It is harder to envision such collaborative interactions in situations where learners are working towards different (or even conflicting) ends.

Previous work on professional practices as models for computer-supported collaborative activities (Shaffer, 2002b) showed how the practices of the architectural design studio can create a framework for collaboration that was not in the context of a directly shared task. The pattern of collaboration in the studio was for students to exchange reciprocal consulting on one another's projects. (2) Each student had his or her own project, and in both one-on-one and more public critique sessions, peers and experts offered feedback on--and often co-designed elements of--those individual projects. As a result, students were able to develop important collaborative skills of giving and accepting constructive criticism without simultaneously having to engage in the complex process of managing a shared project. …

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