DISCUSSION: The pitfalls of computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL)

The pitfalls of computer-suported collaborative learning CSCLs



In the past two years, myself and colleagues from various backgrounds, have noticed the increased use of CSCL in andragogical pursuits. During a collaboration we discussed a number of factors of limitations which we feel this approach has in its usage. These are discussed below:


Research has found that there is a level of fear and anxiety associated with written communication in a CSCL forum (Berge, 1997; Fisherman, 1997). This is likely to be more anticipated than real but through my own experience I know I spend time agonising over the content of my posts. Worried about duplicating, being formally criticised and anxious about having my intelligence judged. This obviously influences the degree of social and learning interaction (Muirhead, 1999).


We know from the work of Daft (1987) that learners ‘text-based CSCL’ is low in media richness due to the constraints of participants vocabulary. This impacts on the ability of the learners to accomplish certain tasks, however, media that is more face-to-face increases the social interaction and collaboration. Also due to the fact that participants know that they are going to be marked on the collaboration you have lost their intrinsic motivation for the task and learning. This is a breakdown in the natural collaborative process.


“Over 50 years of research shows that people often reach irrational decisions in groups … and highly biased assessments of the situation… strong willed people who lead group discussions can pressurise others into conforming, self-censorship and create an illusion of unanimity… In short – people have been using brainstorming to stifle–not stimulate their creative juices.” (Wiseman, 2009).

Although this media creates a more suitable environment for communication in the 21st century, it does not guarantee the social interaction, collaboration and learning. Hewitt (2005) and Lipponen et al (2003) found that “online forum participation is often found to be scattered and fragmented” Chan & Chan (2011). I know that I find the threads often fragmented, the number of comments and length overwhelming and often tangental.


CSCL, according to Kreijns, Kirschner & Jochems (2003), can be restrictive for social interaction and therefore cognitive processes. There are a number of factors which have been identified as influencing the effectiveness of collaborative learning, such as: group size, group composition, nature of task, learning styles, but ultimately, they are all factors that affect social interaction, and without social interaction there can be no social collaboration. So unless the community has a history, feel safe, are acquainted with each other and have trust in one another, social interaction fails. Distance learning CSCL in my experience is used in groups with no prior history, the groups are too large and there is limited trust. Perhaps this is a sign that we should be trying to make the learning more socially interactive. The use of CSCL, text-based forums, does not allow for the non-verbal social cues that humans use face-to-face, and therefore, the participant is unable to demonstrate a sense of individuality and cannot set the tone of the message.

Below I have listed some suggestions for the improved use of CSCL in distance learning:

* Create a safe space to share before everyone starts thinking critically, perhaps by having Skype conversations and setting up “home groups” to get to know each other.

* Using small groups for different tasks / activities, so that they are able to collaborate with each other and then feedback as a group to the whole learning community.

* Provide strong leadership and a framework to follow. Keeping it free-flowing and without rules might sound good, but that is what allows the loudest voices in the room to hold court and squeeze out those who are shy, they may have brilliant ideas which never get heard. Perhaps by being in small groups and having set tasks or using set thinking tools e.g. De Bono’s six thinking hats, this would keep the learning focused and give everybody some accountability or responsibility in their group.

* At the start of the course, share with participants specific, explicit techniques that they can use online, guiding the participant’s thinking.

* Whilst using groups you could make everyone accountable by giving a group mark for their participation online.

* I note that this course the CSCL participation grade was only for the first six weeks, perhaps if this period was extending for the whole course then it would give the participants time to get used to collaborating with each other and time for individuals’ to improve their collaborative skills.

* As part of the reflection of the CSCL participation grade, you could ask the participants to complete a self-reflection at the beginning and the end of the course. This will help them to evaluate how their learning has developed as well give the course leaders an idea of the participant’s prior knowledge.



Berge, Z. (1997). Computer conferencing and the on-line classroom. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 3(1) pp.3-21.

Chan, C.K.K and Chan Y.Y. (2011). Students’ views of collaboration and online participation in knowledge forum. Computers and Education, 57(1) p.1445-1457.

Daft, RL. et al (1987). Message equivocality, media selection, and manager performance. MIS Quarterly, 11(3) p.355-366.

Fisherman, BJ. (1997). Students traits and the use of computer-mediated communication tools: What matters and why? Paper presented at the 1997 AERA Annual Meeting, Chicago, Illinois.

Kreijns, K., Kirschner, P.A., & Jochems, W. (2003). Identifying the pitfalls for social interaction in computer-supported collaborative learning environments: A review of the research. Computers in Human Behaviour, 19(3), p.335-353.

Muirhead, B. (1999). Attitudes towards interactivity in a distance education programme: Qualitative analysis. dissertation.com, Florida.

Wiseman, R. (2009). 59 seconds: Think a little, change a lot. ISBN: 0307474860.


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