6.5 Supporting online learning groups (collaboration scripts and online tutoring)

by Aleksandra Lazareva, February 2017

In collaborative learning, whether it is face-to-face or online, students engage in processes of negotiation, argumentation, critical questioning and elaboration in order to construct their knowledge together. Students may perceive collaborative learning as a very challenging process when they engage in teamwork with peers for the first time. Even with the rapid development of easily available collaboration technologies, many learners are often lacking the skills of effective collaboration which leads to low levels of motivation and engagement in the collaboration activities. Since effective collaboration requires a set of skills from participants, learning to collaborate should be regarded as an important learning objective in itself. 

An interesting experiment was carried out by Rummel and Spada (2005). They carried out the experiment in two phases: first, they let the participants “practice” collaboration, and second, they had the participants engage in a collaborative task. The participants were assigned in four conditions, so during the “practice” phase there were (1) learners supported by a worked-out example of a collaboration activity, (2) learners supported by a collaboration script, (3) learners who were not supported and were to practice collaboration in an unstructured way, and (4) learners who did not have the chance to practice collaboration in the first phase at all. The researchers found that learners who had a chance to “practice” collaboration either by observing a worked-out example or following a script performed much better in the second phase. Interestingly, the learners who “practiced” collaboration without any support performed almost as bad as the learners who did not participate in the practice phase at all.

Learners need to be supported in order to develop effective collaboration skills.

Supporting may happen by different means. Of course, the teacher plays a very important role in collaborative learning. Importantly, the role of the teacher switches to the role of a guide, or a facilitator. In collaborative learning, it is the learners who take responsibility in constructing the knowledge and not the teacher presenting them with the information to be learned. The teacher is to monitor students’ progress and intervene where it is necessary to prevent dysfunctional phenomena in the group and help students with prompts or additional guidance. Students may also learn to collaborate from observing a worked-out example, a model of an effective strategy to solve a task. Finally, learners can learn to collaborate by being supported with a collaboration script.

In this chapter, I will focus on (1) collaboration scripting and (2) online tutoring. Both address the challenge of supporting students in online environments and helping them develop general knowledge on collaboration, argumentation skills, and, finally, improve their learning outcomes. The literature list can be found in the end of the chapter.

Collaboration scripts

Dillenbourg (2002) defines collaboration script as a “set of instructions prescribing how students should form groups, how they should interact and collaborate and how they should solve the problem” (p. 61). Collaboration scripts can be used in both face-to-face and online collaboration. In face-to-face collaboration the scripts are mainly concerned with the processes of knowledge acquisition, while in the online collaboration there is more focus on the coordination and communication processes among learners (Kollar et al., 2006).

Scripts can be introduced in different ways. They can be either presented explicitly by the instructor (e.g., during the task presentation or via handouts) or they can be integrated directly in the digital learning environment (e.g., textual prompts or graphical representations – see examples below, click to extend).

It is important to notice that scripting can occur on “macro” and “micro” levels. Macro scripts normally address longer periods of time. From the point of view of the macro level, it is about providing guidance on coordination, such as how the time will be managed in these collaboration activities and how the work is going to be divided among the participants. From the point of view of the micro level, it is about communication processes between learners, such as building common ground and reaching shared understanding. On the micro level, collaboration scripts can provide learners with such prompts as sentence starters in order to prompt a specific kind of contribution at a certain time.

One of the key points that scripts are aiming to address is helping learners build transactive interactions. What is transactivity? Transactivity means that students build upon each other’s contributions while they collaborate and create knowledge together. This way, they take into account what has already been contributed, and develop it further – either by complementing and developing it, or challenging it and providing an alternative argumentation.

The body of research on CSCL scripts has been growing in the past decades as this topic has been gaining more and more interest from the research community and educators. Much promising results have been reported, and collaboration scripts have shown to facilitate student argumentation skills and help them reach better learning outcomes. At the same time, less positive results challenging the concept of collaboration scripting have been reported as well.

One of the critiques of collaboration scripting is that providing too much structure through collaboration scripts can easily impede students’ naturally evolving discussions. Some students may find the strategies promoted by the script unnecessary or, even worse, just adding more complexity to the task at hand. Some studies reported that students dropped using scripts due to such an overload.

Moreover, some students are more experienced in collaboration. This is something we can refer to as “internal” scripts, or the strategies already known and used by students. Thus, for example, assigning a certain scripted role may turn out rather challenging if this particular student has been practicing a different role previously. Therefore, it is crucial to analyze students’ naturally emerging roles before scripting them.

Finally, we should also ask ourselves: What happens after the script is terminated? If the script was only used as a short intervention, are students really going to implement the strategies they practiced while being supported by the script? The answer is, most probably not. Recent research has argued that students need to be repeatedly supported by scripts in order for them to internalize the effective strategies of collaborative learning.

For further reading on the topic, I would like to suggest the following papers:

  • The paper by Kobbe et al. (2007) provides an excellent framework of the script components. They suggest that scripts have five components (participants, activities, roles, resources and groups) and three mechanisms (task distribution, group formation and sequencing).
  • Weinberger (2011) provides a great overview of the principles of collaboration scripts and what processes they can address.

Online tutoring

It can be rather difficult to give a precise definition of what the online tutor is. The online tutor does not really teach, but instead guides the learners through the activities designed by the course instructor. The online tutor takes proactive steps in order to help students in a CSCL environment to construct their knowledge together.

The online tutor’s roles can be largely classified into four groups: (1) pedagogical, (2) social, (3) managerial, and (4) technical (Berge, 1995). Please watch this short video lecture to hear some more elaboration on each of the roles:

Thus, the online tutor supports the following learning processes in students: (1) content-specific cognitive (e.g., by providing students with hints and feedback during their discussions), (2) meta-cognitive (e.g., by helping students plan and coordinate their learning activities), and (3) social (e.g., by promoting an open and inclusive learning environment in the course) (Kopp et al., 2012).

One of the questions remaining in education research is whether successful online tutors develop their expertise through daily practice or whether they have a theoretical base to build upon. The online tutor needs to have a good understanding of the behavior and dynamics of small groups learning online. While this understanding is achievable through practice, there may be a lack of practical guidelines offered to novice online tutors in the literature.

One of the challenges for the online tutor is to evaluate how much involvement is necessary in a particular learning situation. While the most obvious answer may seem to be “as much as possible”, this is not always the case. Indeed, active involvement of the tutor may be necessary when the group members are just starting to work together. However, as the learners gain understanding of the collaboration processes, too much tutor involvement can be actually detrimental for the group’s learning. It is quite likely that students will tend to address their tutor’s posts instead of developing their own line of discussion.

Therefore, as the learners become more independent, the online tutor needs to reduce his or her involvement in the group activities. Yet, it is crucial that the online tutor keeps monitoring the group’s progress closely and is able to address dysfunctional phenomena in the group timely (e.g., in case the discussion is taking a wrong direction, or if there seems to be a conflict between the group members).

References in the chapter

  • Berge, Z. L. (1995). The role of the online instructor/facilitator. Educational technology, 35, 22-30.
  • Dillenbourg, P. (2002). Over-scripting CSCL: The risks of blending collaborative learning with instructional design. In Kirschner, P. A. (Ed.), Three worlds of CSCL. Can we support CSCL? (pp. 61-91). Heerlen: Open Universiteit Nederland.
  • Kobbe, L., Weinberger, A., Dillenbourg, P., Harrer, A., Hämäläinen, R., Häkkinen, P., & Fischer, F. (2007). Specifying computer-supported collaboration scripts. Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 2, 211-224.
  • Kollar, I., Fischer, F., & Hesse, F. W. (2006). Collaboration scripts – A conceptual analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 18, 159-185.
  • Kopp, B., Matteucci, M. C., & Tomasetto, C. (2012). E-tutorial support for collaborative online learning: An explorative study on experienced and inexperienced e-tutors. Computers & Education, 58, 12-20.
  • Rummel, N. & Spada, H. (2005). Learning to collaborate: An instructional approach to promoting collaborative problem solving in computer-mediated settings. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 14, 201-241.
  • Weinberger, A. (2011). Principles of transactive computer-supported collaboration scripts. Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy, 6, 189-202.


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