1. Focus and research question
The context for the study is the Gene-Ethics Scenario: an ICT-mediated collaborative learning scenario for natural science education involving two geographically distributed junior high schools. This thesis investigates how technology transforms basic features of students’ communication and collaboration in a telelearning scenario. In particular, my objective is to explore students’ grounding interactions when collaborating in the Future Learning Environment (FLE3). The construction of a mutual understanding sufficient for the current purpose (grounding) is considered a basic process in collaborative learning. The research question I ask is:
How does the FLE3 knowledge building forum support or constrain grounding interactions?
2. Methodology and data sources
When studying grounding processes at the activity level and utterance level I combine a sociocultural perspective with a micro-analytic approach. Relying on multiple sources of evidence, case study serves as a general research strategy. Prior to a more detailed analysis of students’ grounding interactions at the utterance level, the case is described chronologically according to the progressive inquiry model that is the knowledge building platform of the scenario. The principle data sources are electronic logs, video recordings and scenario documents.
Students’ grounding acts are divided into two distinct situations according to the qualitative nature of their collaborative interaction as co-located (face-to-face) or distributed (on distance). In the co-located situation, students grounding process progressed relatively unrestricted. The study concludes that the text-based asynchronous communication mode of the knowledge building forum constrained important aspects of students’ distributed grounding interaction.
Constrains are associated with the additional effort required to complete grounding acts in the knowledge building forum. Grounding repair-sequences were repeatedly initiated, but not followed up properly. Instead of contributing to a joint understanding by providing repairs at the task level, the grounding process was interrupted by comments on a meta-level. On some occasions this resulted in “pre-mature meta-cognition” as the participants moved to a meta-level before mastering the basic categories. Processes of grounding were also constrained by display costs. When collaborating on distance the communication was primarily text-based and non-verbal clues were not observable. Timing of utterances turned out to be problematic and the messages frequently arrived out of sequence. This de-contextualized the meaning and partly constrained grounding interaction. However, the knowledge building forum can serve as a collective memory supporting the construction of a common ground that may last over time.
Some unexpected patterns have also emerged. Students adopted a pragmatic approach in their collaboration by using one of the knowledge building categories for short, social and coordinating messages. I have identified this as a form of pragmatic grounding; students built a mutual agreement on how to use the tool in a way that was sufficient for the current purpose, but different from the intentions postulated by the designers of the learning environment.