Academic journal article Quarterly Review of Distance Education

Collaborative Knowledge Construction in Highly Structured Virtual Discussions

Academic journal article Quarterly Review of Distance Education

Collaborative Knowledge Construction in Highly Structured Virtual Discussions

Article excerpt

This article1 presents research based on highly structured and self-managed discussions in the university context. The main question answered by this study is about the value and effectiveness of these virtual tools for teaching and learning, in terms of the types of knowledge built and the relationship between this knowledge and the academic contents offered. The results highlight the importance of the structural part of the discussions in virtual contexts and the vital role played by teachers at particular times during these discussions.

One of the areas of development of information and communication technologies has focused on the design and development of virtual environments that enable asynchronous collaboration at a distance. Asynchronous student interaction has developed more extensively and numerous areas for collaboration and learning have been created under different labels (such as CSCL, BSCW, or Groupware). Likewise, virtual discussions are very popular in these kinds of environments, as a communicative tool for sharing content and for interaction between teachers and students.

In this context, reflection on psychological and educational matters (closely linked to technological issues) in this area is needed as education is, at times, not up-to-speed with technology and the technological tools do not respond to the actual needs in education (Barbera, 2004). The focus for reflection and analysis should ascertain to what extent the collaborative teaching and learning processes developed in this sort of environment really help in the process of knowledge building. An important hypothesis that has yet to be fully investigated is that little knowledge is built in collaboration in virtual discussions, despite this being the aim of the teachers. There are some authors, presented below, who point out the same and who provide some data, but not enough to come to unique conclusions. This research looks to find stronger proof as to the characteristics of the knowledge building process in virtual discussions.

The first section of the article offers a brief review of the most relevant educational approaches with which studies have been developed on asynchronous collaboration between students in virtual environments. The results of the analysis of these earlier studies allow us to specify the objectives of the research and to justify the design of the methodology.


From the review of the literature on the study of virtual interaction among students in formal educational contexts, we have been able to distinguish five central approaches to the subject to be studied.

First, studies that are aimed at finding the best teaching practices, without explaining a specific theoretical framework, stand out. This is the case with works such as that by Beaudin (1999), which identifies various recommended techniques for online education and which looks more closely at the factors that affect the selection of said techniques, or those by Funaro and Montell (1999) and Rossman (1999), which summarize different uses for collaborative virtual areas and provide teachers with a series of recommendations for effective online teaching. Another perspective on the same area comes from studies such as those by Berge and Collins (2000) and Guzdial and Turns (2000). The former focuses on the analysis of the perceptions of virtual discussion moderators on the development of their role and the latter focuses on aspects for improvement to contribute to an optimum development of online discussions.

Second, a series of studies has been identified relating to the analysis of the structure governing participation and the forming of templates for computer-mediated interaction between students within the framework of academic activities. These studies stress research presenting methodologies to analyze patterns of social interaction in asynchronous technological environments (Hillman, 1999), as well as research based on the theory and analysis of social networks in online interaction (Fahy, Crawford, & Ally, 2001; Haythornthwaite & Bregman, 2004; Palonen & Hakkarainen, 2000) or studies that produce graphic representations (Donath, Karahalios, & Viegas, 2002; Turoff, Hiltz, Bieber, Fjermestad, & Rana, 1999) and indicators and categorizations for the interactive structure resulting from online participation (Lipponen, 2000; Lipponen, Rahikainen, Lallimo, & Hakkarainen, 2001) and studies that analyze the factors involved in discussions taking place over e-mail. …

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