Proceedings of CSCL '99

By International Conference on Computer Support for Collaborative Learning | Go to book overview

Does a shared screen make a shared solution?

Pierre Dillenbourg

University of Geneva, TECFA

David Traum

University of Maryland, UMIACS

Abstract. What is the role of a shared whiteboard in building a shared understanding of the task and its solution? Our hypothesis was that a graphical communication tool would facilitate grounding processes, i.e. the mutual understanding of one or a few utterances and thereby the construction of a shared solution. We conducted an empirical study with 20 pairs solving an enigma in a MUD environment enriched with a whiteboard. The results show that the whiteboard was used less to disambiguate difficult concepts in conversation than as a tool for distributed regulation of the task. The graphical features of the whiteboard were less exploited than the fact that information displayed on the whiteboard was persistent. Subjects selected the communication medium by matching the persistency of display (how long information is displayed) with persistency of information (how long it remains valid). Their grounding behavior also takes into account the probability that some piece of information is misunderstood or disagreed upon.

Keywords: grounding, shared knowledge, virtual environment, whiteboard.


Introduction

Cognitive science has for many years been treating social interactions as simple input/output mechanisms for core cognitive processes. This approach is inappropriate for our research field, since a major challenge for explaining the effects of collaborative learning is precisely to understand the deep intertwining between social interactions and problem solving (Dillenbourg 1999). The notion of shared understanding is a good candidate concept to use to articulate the connection between social interactions and problem solving. Unfortunately, this concept is not used in the same way by researchers studying problem solving and social interaction. At the linguistic level, 'shared understanding' is concerned with the understanding of a sentence, or even a word in a sentence, while, at the cognitive level, it is concerned with the understanding of a problem and its solution or even with the understanding of a domain. The goal of the research reported here was to articulate the relationships between the cognitive and the linguistic levels, namely to describe how grounding mechanisms contribute to build a shared solution.

There is a large difference of scale between grounding an utterance and sharing a solution through hundreds of interactions. This difference of scale is too large to expect that we would find a direct relationship between patterns of utterances and the final shared solution. Hence, we approach the relation between grounding an utterance and sharing a solution by describing how utterance grounding mechanisms vary according to task criteria.

We explore this issue in the context of a computer-supported collaborative work environment. We expected that a whiteboard would increase both mutual understanding at the utterance level, namely because a schema can disambiguate verbal expressions, and at the task level, by facilitating a shared representation of the solution.


Theoretical framework

Levels of shared understanding

Social grounding is the mechanism by which two participants in a discussion try to elaborate the mutual belief that their partner has understood what they meant to a criterion sufficient for the current purpose ( Clark & Brennan, 1991). Of course, people never understand each other completely. We treat the degree of shared understanding as a discrete variable ( Dillenbourg, Traum & Schneider, 1996). We adapted the four communicative functions of Allwoodet al. ( 1991), to the task of representing degrees of sharing of information, taking into account the peculiarities of virtual workspaces, namely typed communication and use of a spatial metaphor. If agent A wants to communicate information X to agent B, A have different kinds of information about B's potential sharing of that information, depending in part on the kind of feedback A receives. Each of these aspects can have a negative or positive component:

A can infer that B can (not) access X: For instance, in a virtual space, if A knows that B is in room 7, where information X can be found, then A knows that B can access X.

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