Education can be viewed as an ongoing process of argumentation (Petraglia, 1997). It is the process of discovering and generating acceptable arguments and lines of reasoning underlying scientific assumptions and bodies of knowledge. In collaborative learning, students can negotiate different perspectives by externalising and articulating them, and learn from each other’s insights and different understandings. Thus, through negotiation processes, including argumentation, they can reconstruct and co-construct knowledge in relationship to specific learning goals.
The present research suggests that the role of argumentation needs to be reconsidered. Across studies, ‘direct’ forms of argumentation (challenges, counter-argumentation) did not relate well to the production of constructive activities, a measure to define learning-in-process. This may be explained by the paradox that students should have a well-established understanding of knowledge in order to take firm positions. However, their knowledge is under discussion and subject to the learning process itself. Therefore, offering support to students to challenge and counter each other’s information may not be the most fruitful approach. However, information checking was shown to be important, which was regarded as an ‘indirect’ form of argumentation. The more information was checked, the more constructive activities were produced. Students can be provoked to critically check each other’s information through instruction and task design.
With regard to computerised learning environments, the research indicates that students particularly need facilitation by means of tools and explicit instruction in co-ordinating electronic and text-based communication, and in keeping track of the main issues while producing networked-based discussions. Technical disturbances and a loss of thematic focus easily occur, especially in synchronous CMC systems, and have a negative effect on collaborative learning processes. Additional tools to keep a (graphical) overview of the issues at hand can be helpful, such as the diagram construction tool provided by the Belvédère system and the TC3 program.
In research by Erkens (1997), focusing, checking and argumentation were revealed as essential factors in collaborative learning processes. In addition, parallel studies aimed at argumentation, epistemic interactions and grounding processes contributed to gaining more understanding of the mechanisms that can support collaborative learning through (electronic) dialogue. We presented some results of a couple of studies in this chapter to explore those relations more in depth.
We found that the Diagram, Outline and Diagram-Advisor conditions all have a positive affect on the number of Argumentatives. This suggests that the moderate availability of extra tools has a positive influence on the number of arguments in the chat, and also on some aspects of the quality of the argumentative text.
The transition patterns show that the experimental groups are more structured in their direct communication than the Control group. This suggests that the planning tools (Diagram, Outline, Advisor) stimulate a more structured dialogue. The same difference in the structure of dialogues can be observed when comparing high scoring and low scoring dyads. This leads us to conclude that the experimental condition (extra tools) has a direct effect on text quality, but also through the communicative function in the chat dialogues.
Some of the results in the last study (Erkens, Prangsma, Jaspers, & Kanselaar, 2002) are not simple to interpret.
The analyses of chat dialogues about the Diagrams suggest that for some participants this tool did not serve as a basis for discussion or a tool for idea generation, as it was intended, but rather functioned as a visual representation. The correspondence of arguments between Diagram and the final text reveals a discrepancy between the two: only about a third of the arguments are found both in the final text and the Diagram. Although the use of wholly original arguments seems to be slightly positively related to text quality, these are hardly used, and most of the arguments are taken directly from the given sources.
With respect to these results, the study of Veerman (2000) can be mentioned in which students used the Belvédère environment to chat electronically and to visualize their discussion about a computer-based design by the use of an argumentative diagram construction tool. It showed that the students only gained from the Belvédère environment, when they linked their chat discussions closely to their diagrams. A significant relationship was found between the amount of overlapping information between chats and diagrams, and the amount of constructive activities produced (Veerman, 2000). However, student groups varied in linking information between chats and diagrams. This appeared to depend heavily on student groups’ task approaches and preparation activities.
We also found that using the private – hence non-collaborative -– notes window (the upper left window in Figure 3.3) is detrimental to the quality of the collaborative product. This confirms our idea that collaboration is necessary on all subtasks, including planning, idea generation, coordination and information processing.
We also found that explicit argumentation on content, coordination, and metacognitive strategies is related positively to text quality, whereas argumentation on technical aspects of the task and on non-task related topics is related negatively to text quality. The relation between non-task chat and text quality is negative throughout the groups, although the relation is the most clear for the Control group.
When we compare the Diagram (Figure 3.4) with the Outline (Figure 3.5), the Outline tool was more successful. Availability and proper use of this planning tool have a positive effect on the dialogue structure, and on the coordination processes of focusing and argumentation, as well as on text quality. The Diagram often functions as a visual representation, and not as a basis for discussion or a tool for idea generation. When a diagram reflects the discussion itself, it can be a valuable starting point for writing the text, and of benefit to textual structure. Students don’t have much experience with the use of Diagram tools. Perhaps a different approach to the task instruction – for example by giving the students time to practice using the complex Diagram tool – could encourage the students to use the tool as it was intended, and thus lead to different results.
Much is possible in electronic learning environments, but so far not enough is known about the relationships between collaborative learning, argumentation and educational technology. This research has shown that such relationships are neither simple nor very predictable. Hence, much more research is needed that examines the role of (interactive) mechanisms such as argumentation and focusing in relationship to features of CSCL situations.
The research reported in this chapter was made possible by grant from the Dutch Scientific Organization (NWO-project 575-33-008)
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2MEPA was developed as a general program for protocol analysis and is being used in several research projects at Utrecht University, as well as abroad. For further information, please contact G. Erkens (G.Erkens@fss.uu.nl).
3Thanks to Floor Scheltens who assisted in the analyses of the data.