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Collaborative Online Learning Environment:
Towards a process driven approach and collective knowledge building
Faculty of Education
University of Ontario Institute of Technology
Faculty of Education
University of Ontario Institute of Technology
A deterministic view of technology can lead one to put the
technology first and to develop curriculum around it. In turn,
by making superficial connections between features of the
specific technology and principles of learning, the curriculum
designer can view successful technology implementation as a
proxy for learning.
Gerber, S. & Scott, L. (2007)
Teaching remains rooted in the practices of the past and continues to resist the lessons arising from
educational research. Real reforms have been slow to take hold in educational systems around the
world. Much of the reluctance can be attributed to a widely held misconception of the nature of
learning. This project attempts to address this misconception through the development of an online
learning environment that requires the collaboration of users to solve problems. The organizational
structure and the central PBL tasks contained within the prototype of a Collaborative Online
Learning Environment (COLE) will be described with preliminary reactions from users.
At the beginning of this new millennium, with the information age and the technological, if not scientific
revolution, education and more specifically, teaching remains rooted in the practices of the past and continues to
resist the lessons arising from educational research. In spite of profound, rapid changes in society, real reforms
have been slow to take hold in educational systems around the world. The ways we work, live and play have all
gone through important transformations in the past generation. Employers, governments and institutions have all
realized that the needs of society towards education systems have also changed. For example, The Conference
Board of Canada, representing this nation's largest employers, published a short document titled “Employability
Skills 2000+”, outlining the kinds of competencies that should be expected of graduates of our school systems.
This organization identifies the needed: 1) Academic skills such as communication, thinking, and learning, 2)
Personal management skills that include “a positive attitude toward change”, and finally, 3) Teamwork skills
(Conference Board of Canada, 2000). From this, what is required of our future generation is clearly different to
what was needed just a few short years ago. This also suggests that the commonly held view about teaching may
no longer be relevant.
In spite of observations such as these, the need for changing our assumptions about how we learn and share
knowledge remains largely unanswered. Wenger, (1999) suggests that much of the reluctance can be attributed to
a widely held misconception of the nature of learning. He states that “institutional learning is largely based on the
assumptions that learning is an individual process”. Then, if knowledge is considered as no longer something to be
delivered, but as something that is constructed, and evolves through a series of conjectures and is systematically
subjected to attempts at refutation, (Popper, 1963) our concepts of learning and teaching must also change.
As McPherson and Nunes (2004) suggest that the more traditional views of teaching and learning tend to serve as
basic models on which online learning environments are built. A cursory examination of the tools and
technologies that have been the most successful in education in terms of adoption rates by teachers and instructors,
demonstrate that tools that deliver information or content most efficiently to the individual learners, systems that
allow the management of this content and systems that allow the automated use of quizzes and tests are extremely
Wenger (1999) also went on to argue that learning is a normal life activity and that, since humans are essentially
social beings, learning is a social activity – “learning as social participation”. This being said, Wenger concluded
that present institutionalized teaching and training, based on the notion of individual process and separate from the
rest of our social activities is in danger of becoming completely irrelevant.
If a constructivist view of knowledge construction is then considered in combination with the importance of
language, culture and interpersonal communication in the development of higher psychological processes
(Vygotsky, 1986) and the concepts of collaboration and of collective intelligence (Levy, 1994) it becomes rather
apparent that our existing models of online distance education are seriously inadequate as they are constructed
around the notions of objective content delivery and individual study and knowledge acquisition.
Whether we consider that technological evolution is shaped by the user’s demands as expressed by market trends
or that social changes are brought on by the diffusion of new technologies, the effects of one on the other is
undeniable (Williams & Edge 1996; Bijker, Pinch & Wieb, 1987; Pinch, 1996). In order to carry out some manual
tasks, humans have created tools that, in turn, have changed the way these tasks get accomplished. This has
subsequently brought on a change in the manner in which we think about these tasks and the tools, and then, we
alter the tool, then the tasks themselves and eventually the expectations! This loop has so far, been endless and, in
recent times, rapid and accelerating, except in education. In this field of social activity, for many reasons, such
changes are not quite as rapid. For teachers, the assumptions about teaching and learning have driven them to
develop or at least to choose and therefore encourage the development of technological tools that reflect these
assumptions. Since learning, has been considered, as an individual process of acquiring knowledge as an object,
from the introduction of the first micro-computers to the latest information and communications tools available,
the tendency has been to prefer using tools that reflect this. Teachers initially opted for drill and practice software,
CDROMs full of encyclopaedic information, then as technology evolved, they chose to support the development
of web-based content management systems (CMS) to organize sets of learning objects specifically designed to
teach pre-determined content to the student. Unfortunately the use and development of these new tools, has not
altered the general view of teaching and learning. The loop is incomplete and the attitudes about learning have not
These unchanged attitudes about learning are reflected in online distance education as it remains entrenched in an
objectivist perspective and technology is still used to deliver information to individual students much as it is done
in a large lecture hall. This is particularly problematic when this perspective is used to select and develop tools
used in professional development of teachers. In spite of the new social and constructivist ideas that we may
include in many of the courses offered to this group, the manner in which they experience these courses remains a
familiar, unchanged but increasingly irrelevant experience.
It is our view that by changing the online learning experience for teachers in a professional development context,
their personal theories about learning might be altered. To achieve such a change in experience for teachers, a
different online learning environment needed to be developed, one that would become, in essence, a “microworld”
in the manner described by Papert (1980). It is described as such, in principle, in that the technological
environment design for online courses, rather than only the course content, should reflect the notions that first,
knowledge is something that exists “in the mind” (vonGlasersfeld, 1995) of the learner and that learning is an
activity that occurs in every day life of social beings as they collaborate, exchange and generally communicate
(Wenger, 1999). It would then follow that such an environment should facilitate some aspects of learning with
specific affordances while limiting the use of particular traditional teaching strategies by actually intentionally
excluding other affordances.
The intention of this project, in designing the Collaborative Online Learning Environment (COLE), was to
intentionally move from a content centered – teacher driven design to a process centered – learner driven
approach. This means that a social constructivist position had to be adopted, with a strong intention to foster
collaborative knowledge construction. Consequently the vocabulary and the meanings would have to be negotiated
amongst the learners thus creating a “collective intelligence” (Levy, 1997) that would definitely require much
communication as well as the rethinking of personal assumptions. Old ideas would have to be presented,
defended by some and sometimes refuted by others. This process of inductive – deductive reasoning combined
with the Popperian idea of refutation (Popper, 1963) is only possible in a collaborative setting.
Another principle that is central to the development process is that if knowledge is deemed to be constructed by
the learner, a learning environment cannot claim that simply delivering content or information would foster actual
learning. Knowledge is constructed through perceptual experiences and reflection about these experiences
(Popper, 1963; von Glasersfeld, 1995; Piaget, 1977) To achieve this, the COLE would have to create an
environment where the learner would become the producer of knowledge, much like the scientist, or educational
scientist in this case, observes, analyses, thinks and writes his/her version of explanations of the phenomenon and
then exposes these conjectures to others for discussion and potential refutation.
With these two basic principles, knowledge is to be constructed by the learners and this is to be achieved as a
collaborative effort, the proposed online learning environment would have to offer the tools and functions to both
allow this as well as the limitations to almost prevent direct exclusive delivery of information and the individual,
non-negotiated production, or reproduction, of predetermined information.
The design of the COLE
With an objective to create a Collaborative Online Learning Environment that would respect these basic
principles, it is further intended that the use of this environment by teachers involved in professional development,
will foster a change in attitudes or at least in representations, of what teaching could be and of what learning is. It
is also understood that as in any study program, an instructor would be involved. In this case, the instructor would
play a specific role, that of a facilitator in accordance with the specific social-constructivist perspective adopted.
The online environment design was achieved first in the careful selection of the precise function that would be
required to support the collective knowledge construction process and in the difficult decisions of the features to
be explicitly excluded. Second, the interface was to be designed to specifically organize these functions by the
types of interactions afforded by the technology (Desjardins, Lacasse & Belair, 2001; Desjardins, 2005). To do
this, a prototype was created using the open source “Moodle" as a basic platform with a number of existing plug-
ins having been selected and implemented.
Figure 1: The basic architecture of the COLE interface
The student-teacher, or user, initially comes into contact with the Web-based interface that is as simple as
possible. The idea was simply that if too much time is required to learn how to “navigate” the interface, it is too
complicated. This interface, if is to be a “learning environment” must first and foremost be a workspace (see
figure 1). Around this workspace are the tools and resources, grouped under :
Information access & management tools,
Information production and processing tools.
Time management tools
Communication tools include such affordances as asynchronous elements such as e-mail and synchronous
multimedia made possible by technologies like peer-to-peer videoconferencing or video chat. Amongst the
limitations that were built in to the system was the decision to have only one chatroom. This was intended to not
only allow free discussions amongst the learners, but also to allow the discussions to be open to the other learners
in the cohort, in order to foster the negotiation of construction of the concepts.
Information access & management tools are specifically chosen to achieve two basic goals. First, the most
evident, these resources are to serve as a portal to access online information and documents, much along the same
lines as present Web search engines. Second, it is in this area that any information or documents produced by the
learner community will be stored. One of the main systems in this section is the “Wiki” which basically operates
along the same principals as “Wikipedia”. There is only one Wiki for each “course” or “theme”. The Wiki is
initially empty and all content is to be created by the learners. Students can create articles about specific concepts
but the built in limitation of it not being possible to have multiple distinct articles with the same title “forces”
different contributors to discuss and eventually agree on each specific definitions stored and referred to in the
Wiki. Unlike the well-known “Wikipedia”, experts are not expected to validate the content and therefore, it is
explicitly up to the learner community to monitor themselves and to negotiate the meanings to each term or
concept. Here, the facilitator can participate in these discussions, but should not act as an expert but rather as one
who would ask questions.
Information production and processing tools include the more standard word processing, spreadsheet, database
and concept mapping tools, but with the specificity that all of them create files that are shared and in some
instances, technology permitting, can be shared live online.
Because online students have a tendency to have some issues with managing their time when it comes to juggling
work schedules, family life and studies (Volery & Lord, 2000), a dynamic set of tools such as an agenda and a
calendar are made available with automated reminders as to self set or group set deadlines.
Finally, in addition to these four basic sections, two small frames at the top of the environment, provide current
information. First, a small “News” window represents the only real place where the instructor can actually make
some announcements or give small bits of information to the entire cohort of students. Second, on the left at the
top, a “statistics” window will provide simple information, automatically generated by the system, on such things
as the total time spent on the site, number of other participants online, number of connections in the recent past,
etc. This information is made available to the individual to help in planning and establishing work schedules.
At this time, although the working prototype meets most of the requirements expressed in the initial project, the
user interface is still constantly revised and adjusted as comments arise from initial users as well as from new
technological developments emanating from within the open source community of Moodle, allowing to
continuously progress towards the designed model.
The creation of the COLE in itself does not ensure learning, no more than would content presented in the most
elaborate manner allowed by technology. It is merely intended to provide a framework with a specific set of
parameters within which the learners can work. It is also a set of possibilities and limits by which the instructor or
facilitator has to abide by. For learning to successfully occur, all participants must not only respect these
parameters, but also, and most importantly, use them to actually collaborate in the problem solving and collective
knowledge building tasks. In the first iterations of the COLE used for teacher professional development, a set of
tasks or problems has been designed to take the learners from clearly expressing what the state of their individual
knowledge is on a specific subject to collectively constructing and agreeing on a model or theory allowing the
solution of a problem. In this particular instance, the task starts with the individual creating a concept map of
everything personally known about a specific subject or theme. The individual is then asked to define, to the best
of his /her ability, each term in the concept map. Following this, video excerpts of examples or cases are viewed
and the user is asked to analyze the presented situations and contexts through a set of questions. After reviewing
the initial concept maps and definitions in the light of the reflections on the videocases, the learner embarks in the
collaborative activity. The individual concept maps are shared and discussed in order to produce a collective
concept map and take the definitions to the Wiki for a first set of negotiated definitions. These have to be
discussed until agreed upon for a single collective “vocabulary”. It is in this exchange that conjectures are
presented by the individuals, and discussions produce refutations and eventually revised, more powerful versions
of these ideas.
Each of the videocases is prepared with a similar structure presenting first, a realistic, albeit contrived, context or
situation. The viewer is then invited to analyse this situation with a set of questions. These are intended to lead
the learner to make closer observations in an attempt to identify certain elements of the situation presented.
Secondly, more background information is then provided or simply made available to the learner. The third step
involves another set of questions being submitted to the learners with the objective to lead them to synthesise, to
make decisions as to what they would change for example, if they were in that situation, or in other cases, simply
what would they do with this problem. The videocases, are an example of the types of approach that can bring
realism to the task or to the problem thus contributing to making the learning situation as relevant as possible.
In such an environment, the role of the instructor or facilitator is to be an active participant but not to act as an
expert providing all the answers. The environment, designed to be learner-driven, the facilitator then acts or
participates carefully. The tasks or problems presented to the students, are not only designed by the facilitator but
they are designed in a manner to foster activity in the discussions amongst the group of learners, in the general
direction that could lead them to construct knowledge and develop the desired competencies (vanOostveen, 2005).
The problem is in the recognition of the cognitive space between the potential of the learner to carry out activities
based on the knowledge and skills he or she already possesses, and the activities that potentially could lead to the
construction and development of the desired skills and knowledge. As long as the learners are within this space
and progressing towards the goal, the facilitator does not intervene. It is only when the activity is leading outside
of the boundaries of the intersecting space between the potential and the required that gentle actions are required
on the part of the facilitator (Desjardins, 2001). This would then simply require the facilitator to remain in very
close and continuous contact with what is happening within the learning environment and to act only when
required, and even then, not by providing answers, but rather by asking questions that will bring awareness of the
Initial experiment with the COLE prototype
With a functional prototype, a group of volunteer students was invited to participate in a first trial of the COLE.
Two 90-minute sessions were devoted to this task. In the first session, after a brief introduction to the actual
interface, these students were then divided into two smaller groups of approximately ten and were directed to two
separate rooms on campus to simulate distance. A videocase was selected and the students were asked to proceed
according to the protocol described earlier. They viewed the videos, produced the concept maps, discussed using
the communication tools provided in the environment and also negotiated the definitions of the terms they had
selected. Although, they started the actual activity in the first session, the second was entirely dedicated to the
task at hand.
Immediately after the second session, a debriefing session was held with the two reunited groups in order to get as
many reactions as possible. Later, a sample of 8 members of this group was then invited to a more structured
focus group where a variety of techniques and instruments were used to gather information. Here, the reactions
collected from the first debriefing session are discussed. Although comments were invited in a particular order,
the discussion was allowed to follow it’s own path in order to avoid losing anyone’s thoughts on any subject
relative to the experiment.
The first questions and comments were sought around the issues of the technical aspects of the environment. On
this subject, the participants spoke of a known difficulty experienced during this trial, and that was the problem
with an extended response time for the text-based chat system. In spite of this, many suggested that this particular
form of communication is very useful. The participants mention using similar tools such as MSN© in their own
personal study situations. They then commented on the potential for the peer-to-peer videoconferencing. Many
commented on the ease of its use and it’s quality in spite of some technical problems that were also known to
exist. One individual commented that such a system would create unrealistic expectations, as he believed that too
many users in remote areas would have sufficient bandwidth to accommodate such tools. Overall, most agreed that
this is a very important aspect of the environment that could promote collaboration, and that if possible, they
would use it.
Another tool that attracted some attention, in spite of initial problems, was the Wiki. As the discussion progressed,
opinions grew as to it’s potential. In reference to the necessary negotiation of terms definition in the Wiki, one
participant remarked that if she had known how to use the Wiki, “…it would have been cool. I think it has lots of
potential”. This led the discussion on the necessary collaboration within the environment. One participant stated
that: “Having to argue or discuss, I personally like it, but I know a lot of people don’t so I’m not sure”. The
participants generally agreed with this as they commented on their own experience in class during the course of
their teacher education program. They even referred to the teachers they met in schools, stating that most just
want the information and do not wish to spend time discussing.
On the general concept of the COLE, particularly it’s specific constructivist perspective, one participant remarked
“I think it’s good because you’re actually creating it and it’s like right in front of you, like when you’re doing it,
it’s not, you’re just listening, it’s like you’re doing it. That’s what I like about it.”
This particular comment generated a lot of support within the group suggesting that many enjoyed being in control
of their own learning activity. Another individual noted that the use of videocases added a good sense of reality
or realism. She referred to some examples in the video and remarked that she could comment on this much easier
than a written description. Others commented that the videoclips being too “choppy” referring to the sometimes
rapid edits that occurs in these clips. These students felt that these rapid transitions did not allow users to get the
Overall, the initial reactions centred on two fronts, one being the technical issues and the second on more
pedagogical aspects surrounding the Collaborative Online Learning Environment. On the technical question, the
servers used for the main part of the COLE were insufficient to handle the number of students, even in this limited
experiment. Most of the delays experienced either in loading of certain elements or the particular lag in the online
chat, was simply attributable to a technical issue with servers, that can easily be addressed, but was not rectified
for the initial trial.
The Wiki was also problematic, as it was not managing the entries as it should have and therefore rapidly became
an issue. This also was an easy fix after the trial. In spite of this, the concept was understood by the participants
and sufficient interest and understanding as to its purpose was shown to suggest that it should remain very central.
Finally, although the COLE is designed to foster collaboration and for collective knowledge construction to occur,
it is the task design, the presentation of the problems and the actual participation of the learner in the learning
community that drives the learning process. The error would be to think that simply adding more features to the
environment would equate to increasing it’s potential as a learning, or worse, as a teaching tool.
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