Distributed Collaborative Learning Environments
The evolution of technologies for the World Wide Web (WWW), computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW) and distributed simulation provides new opportunities for education delivery as well as unique perspectives for training. Simulation follows a learn-by-doing philosophy . The WWW and CSCW provides a collaborative learning perspective by encouraging collective knowledge building. By merging these two approaches, Distributed Collaborative Learning Environments (DCLEs) can be developed to provide new approaches to training in the military, industry, and academia. Traditional approaches toward educational rely on an information transfer model. Instructors deliver the material to the students and students are tested on how well they can deliver the knowledge back to the instructor. A distributed collaborative learning environment provides a new approach for education delivery through a constructionist educational model. In a constructionist model, it is assumed that students build cognitive models of a new subject more rapidly and accurately by building working models [Harel91]. These models can include software or a physical artifact. The constructionist model is extended to produce the Virtual Academy model: a group of learners collaboratively builds on each other's knowledge through construction of distributed virtual environments [Moshell96). A DCLE provides the tools to implement this Virtual Academy training model by allowing geographically dispersed individuals to collaboratively build these distributed virtual environments to train others on a subject while simultaneously building their own expertise on the subject matter. Thus, the DCLE itself is a virtual environment for building virtual environments. It is now being proposed that similar virtual environments can now be constructed to bring together individuals on the World Wide Web with common interests beyond education and training. It is hypothesized that such groups of common interest can form commercially viable virtual communities similar to DCLEs [Hagel97). This paper documents an exploration of potential interactions in such participatory learning environments. The goal is to develop an understanding of Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) issues as they relate to collaborations among distributed groups of students. Ultimately, our intent is to develop criteria to evaluate and develop effective education-oriented CSCW systems. The proposed participants are potentially highly distributed in level of experience as well as geographically distributed. The purpose of these criteria will be to guide software developers as they build the tools that the students and teachers will use during exploration and incorporation of knowledge and lessons. The intent is to allow and encourage students to build educational lessons for other students to "play" through interaction of the student-constructed models. Current and anticipated developments in computer software and hardware point to computer tools as the appropriate vehicle for this endeavor (Kafai94].