My focus in the masters thesis lies mainly on two aspects: The representation of problems in learning environments as sources of internalization. I also focus on how ICT can help learners cope with the semiotic challenges that they face, by exploring the role of ICT as sign and tool in the zone of proximal development. The example I used as a case was problem-based learning activities in an interactive 3D application, during a three day field experiment, but my research interests regard the use of all kinds of ICT.
Regarding the first of these two issues, I looked at how problem representations must contain a complexity that give the learners challenges in understanding for internalization to occur. To integrate this complexity in the learning environment I suggested that the elements of the environments must be relatable to a meaningful and rich external context.
The way we design ICT-based learning environments must be transparent, in a way allows learners to focus on the complexity of the task-domain, so that the conceptual challenges (the communicative aspect) is the main focus, in stead of “how to collaborate”, “how to use the ICT-system”, or other more pragmatic issues. To focus on this in research within CSCL is important, because this makes visible the needs that learners have in specific knowledge domains, and how computers can support these needs.
This focus on richness in problem representations can also be applied to the whole of the learning environment. If the learning environment is to give learners the semiotic challenges, it must make this complexity available for the learners. Authentic learning (coping with real life problems of great complexity and richness) pose a great deal of challenges to the design of ICT-based learning environments, like the distributed, interactive 3D application I looked at in my thesis. One concluding remark in my thesis was that the richness that many learning situations crave, is difficult to handle with any single computer application. Therefore I suggested that computer applications should only partly support the learning activity. How can we make learning activities in virtual learning environments grasp the complexity of ill-structured, authentic problems? This is an issue of the formality of ICT versus the ‘ill-structuredness’ and informality of real-life. This informality pose challenges that it is important that learners are exposed to. But difficult to represent in the design of a virtual learning environment.
In learning situations learners need flexibility; a freedom to choose, based on the constrains and needs that exists in the situation, and the difficulties the learners have just then. Different tasks pose different challenges in understanding, and need different forms of help and simplification. A problem of gravity is different from a problem concerning probability. Also, different learners have different needs. In light of this, computer-supported collaborative learning activities demand the design and use of multiple media, where the strengths and weaknesses of the different media in different parts of the learning activities decide which we will use. Textual applications like MOO’s and graphical applications like interactive 3D have different strengths, and the strengths of the applications combined with the needs of the learners(in the situations) should give directions to design of the computer-support. Learning environments should be “multi-media”.
In addition to the issue of providing sources for internalization in the learning environment, I also discussed in my thesis how ICT can scaffold learners in their learning activities. I looked at how ICT as sign and tool can simplify learning activities, and thereby aid understanding. I stressed that this simplification must be flexible, so that it can be adjusted to the learners needs, and so that learners can develop their skills as they participate. The use of newly gained skills is also an issue of complexity of the learning environment, because it suggests that learners should be able to participate on different, and increasing, levels of complexity.
I explored the role of ICT as artefact in different aspects of learning activities, as articulated by activity theory; production, exchange, and distribution. I learned that interactive 3D does not to a great extent lay constraints on the learning activity, so that the participation can be simplified (ICT as tool). Rather I suggested that the ‘visuality’, ‘interactivity’ and concreteness of interactive 3D should be explored as representations for grounding-activities (ICT as sign). The ‘concreteness’ of interactive 3D environments also raised the question if sufficient complexity can be represented in 3D, because the interactions in the case of my thesis to a great extent concerned ‘moving of objects’. This is an example of how the characteristics of ICT constrain the type and range of learning activities it can be useful for.
I stressed the role of exchange and the co-construction of mutual understanding (grounding) around ‘representations’. In my perspective, I focused on collaborative learning as the iteration between externalization and internalization in grounding, and how 3D objects can be representations for these processes. I became aware of the need for ‘semiotic representations’ to afford semiotic interactions (because the representations becomes objects, in an activity theoretical conceptualizing of the word). This ‘semioticity’ lacked in the case of my thesis, and I posed the question if 3D objects is suitable as objects for semiotic grounding. If so, the objects must be related to a meaningful, and rich context. Maybe then, the interactions can supersede the constraints of the interactive 3D learning environment regarding the complexity that is necessary for semiotic challenges and zones of proximal development to occur.