Student collaboration and learning : knowledge construction and participation in an asynchronous computer-supported collaborative learning environment in higher education

H. Mahdizadeh

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Since we moved into the third millennium, there has been a gradual shift from the so-called information society to a networked society. One of the main characteristics of this new society is working in distributed companies and teams. The big challenge for educational systems in a networked society is preparing students for living, working and enjoying themselves in such a society. New advanced information and communication technology (ICT) influences all aspects of human life. One of the main applications of e-learning which captivates and fascinates so many researchers in the field of education is “Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL)”. According to Stahl (2003), CSCL environments are tools designed to support the building of shared knowledge and knowledge negotiation. In CSCL environments students try to learn collaboratively through the Web and they practice working in distributed teams which seems to be a crucial competency for living in a networked society. Although, theoretically, e-learning and CSCL environments are seen as powerful tools for learning processes, the results of empirical research in the field are contradictory. While some research in the field reported low levels of participation, interaction and depth of learning, many studies described and concluded positive effects of CSCL environments, positive effects of face-to-face teaching supported by CSCL applications, and positive effects of CSCL environments applied in combination with face-to-face learning situations. This dissertation reports a PhD study which concentrated on performing tasks in asynchronous computer-supported collaborative learning environments as a blended learning approach for on-campus students. The blended learning approach, which aims at integrating e-learning techniques and traditional teaching methods, is seen as a way to improve the quality of education and reduce the costs of education for all students. The blended learning approach in higher education is a combination of regular, conventional, face-to-face and individual learning activities with web-based learning activities. It aims at integrating different learning approaches and modes of course material delivery into education. The current PhD project was designed to investigate students’ processes of learning (knowledge construction) and learning outcomes (quality of constructed knowledge) while performing different study tasks in university courses in which CSCL has been implemented. More specifically, the main objective of the study was to investigate the implementation of ACSCL environments in conventional face-to-face and on-campus higher education following a blended learning approach. The following research questions were addressed: What is the current use of e-learning environments in general and CSCL environments in particular in higher education?What is the opinion of teachers about e-learning environments in general and CSCL environments in particular in higher education?What is the opinion of students about implementing tasks in ACSCL environments in higher education?How do students participate in learning processes and knowledge construction while performing tasks in ACSCL environments? How can peer group feedback, supported by ACSCL, improve learning quality and facilitate learning processes? The dissertation is composed of four different studies which address several specific research questions to investigate different aspects of implementing ACSCL in higher education. The first two studies concern two main parties involved in the process of learning: teachers and students. The third study aims at exploring the process of knowledge construction and quality of learning outcomes while performing tasks in ACSCL environments, and finally, the fourth study is designed to investigate the effect of PGF supported by ACSCL on the process of learning.    Study 1: teachers’ use of e-learning environments   The purpose of the first study was to investigate teachers’ use of e-learning environments as teaching and learning tools in higher education and to explore factors which explain teachers’ use of those e-learning environments. In the study the following research questions were formulated: 1.                  Which functions of e-learning environments do teachers most often use? 2.                  What added value do teachers perceive of e-learning environments? 3.                  Which factors influence teachers’ use of different functions and capabilities of e-learning environments? 4.         What are the barriers for implementing e-learning environments in the learning process?   In e-learning environments, general course information functions (like course calendar and schedule and course announcement and news), content management functions (like presenting course material and literature and PowerPoint presentations) and non-interactive communication functions (like mail and mailing lists) are used most frequently. Other communication functions (like video conferencing, chatting, and voice conferencing) and collaboration functions (like online discussion, online collaboration, shared whiteboard, and application sharing) are the least used features of the e-learning environments. Comparable to the pattern of the actual use of e-learning environments mentioned above, results indicate that teachers believe that presentation of course materials and literature, presentation of information about the courses, PowerPoint presentations, and E-mail have the most added value for teaching and learning processes. Voice conferencing, shared whiteboard, videoconferencing and net-meetings are believed to have the least added value for teaching and learning processes. The assumed added value of online discussion and online collaboration is low as well. In addition, teachers believe they do not face serious technical problems when working with ICT tools and e-learning environments. Finally, teachers are satisfied with the facilities and connectivity but they feel that they do not have access to relevant software, websites and content. Running exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis we identified  different factors like Knowledge Construction Teaching and Learning Approach (KC), Teachers’ Opinion about Computer-Assisted Learning (CAL), Teachers’ Opinion about Web-based Activities (WA), Ease of Use (perceived difficulty), and Time which might contribute to the explanation of teachers’ actual use of e-learning environments (USE). We found that a teacher’s previous experience with e-learning environments, WA, CAL, and ease of use can help us to explain teachers’ perceptions of the added value and usefulness of e-learning environments and their actual use of these environments. At the end, we were able to introduce the Teachers’ Use of E-learning Environments Model (USE Model) which consists of Teachers’ Opinions about Web-based Activities (WA) and Teachers’ Opinions about Computer-Assisted Learning (CAL) as predictors, and Teachers’ Perceived Added Value of E-learning Environments (AV) as the mediating variable.   Study 2: Student satisfaction with, and perceived learning effects of, performing tasks in ACSCL environments The second study was aimed at investigating student satisfaction with, and perceived learning effects of, performing asynchronous online collaborative learning tasks in courses in higher education. The specific questions addressed in this study were: 1.                  Are on-campus students satisfied with performing learning tasks in this asynchronous computer-supported collaborative learning environment (ACSCLE)? 2.                  Do on-campus students perceive any added value of performing learning tasks in an asynchronous computer-supported collaborative learning environment (ACSCLE)? 3.                  What factors influence student satisfaction with, and perceived learning in, this asynchronous computer-supported collaborative learning environment (ACSCLE)?   Overall, 61.5% of the students were satisfied with their learning experiences with ACSCLE in their courses and, on average, 43.5% of the students agreed with all the items concerning their satisfaction with different aspects of performing tasks in the ACSCLE; with 45.7% of the students taking a neutral position. From the students’ points of view there were no differences between F2F and asynchronous online collaboration in terms of difficulty of performing tasks and perception of learning. These results led to the conclusion that students evaluate the quality of asynchronous online collaborative learning as equal to the quality of F2F learning. In total, 30.35% of the students positively agreed with all the statements meant to capture their opinions about the learning effects of performing tasks in ACSCLE and 50.35% of them were neutral (Mean=3.12).    Study 3: Students’ learning activities and quality of knowledge construction while performing tasks in ACSCL environments The third study was conducted to explore how on-campus university students in the context of green (food, animal, plant, social and environmental) sciences collaborate and construct knowledge in asynchronous CSCL environments. Therefore, attention was paid to learning activities during the process of knowledge construction. Moreover, we analysed students’ participation and quality of knowledge construction while performing collaborative tasks in asynchronous CSCL environments. The following research questions were addressed with respect to students performing collaborative tasks in asynchronous CSCL environments: To what extent do on-campus students participate in the process of knowledge construction? How can on-campus students’ learning and how can knowledge construction processes be characterised in terms of cognitive, affective, and meta-cognitive learning activities?What is the quality of the constructed knowledge? Are there any changes in on-campus students’ learning activities over time and what are the patterns of those changes?Are there any differences in students’ learning activities in different courses and settings?     Considering the fact that, on average, students wrote two notes and read fifty five notes per week, we concluded that students’ active participation in the learning environment was rather/fairly successful and their passive participation was quite successful. We also found that while, on average, each note was read 26.7 times and those contributions written in the first week were read more (Mean =60.4) than notes written in the last weeks (Mean = 5.17). Through content analysis of the students’ written notes and learning activities by means of a coding scheme developed by Veldhuis-Diermanse, 89.2 % of students’ contributions were coded as cognitive learning activities, 8.4 % as meta-cognitive and 2.1 % as affective learning activities. Looking at the subcategories of the coding scheme, we found that ‘debating’ in the cognitive category and ‘keeping clarity’ in the meta-cognitive category appeared more. Another coding scheme was used to assess the quality of students’ contributions. For each of the four quality levels (levels increasing from D to A) corresponding verbs were identified and described. Our findings showed that 75.1 % of students’ contributions were assessed as level B, which is reasonably high, 6.1 % as Level D (lowest quality) and 7.7 % as level A (highest quality) and 11.1 % as level C. Conducting in-depth interviews and focus groups with participants and looking at the open questions of the questionnaire, we concluded that task structure, level of support that students receive, teacher’s role, task complexity, and group composition, which can all be discussed under the term ‘scripting CSCL’, are the main factors that students believed to be important for their learning activities and the quality of their contributions to ACSCL environments.   Study 4: Asynchronous Computer-Supported Peer Group Feedback in Higher Education In the forth study we concentrated on the application of peer group feedback in face-to-face class meetings and asynchronous computer-supported collaborative learning (ACSCL) environments. More specifically, we surveyed student participation in, satisfaction with, and perceived learning effects of, participating in peer group feedback and studied functions and quality of student contributions to the PGF processes in both F2F and ACS conditions. For this purpose the following research questions were formulated: 1. To what extent do students participate in Peer Group Feedback (PGF) in both Asynchronous Computer-Supported (ACS) and Face to Face (F2F) conditions? 2. What are students' perceptions of the value of Peer Group Feedback (PGF) in both Asynchronous Computer-Supported (ACS) and Face to Face (F2F) conditions? 3. What is the function of the students' feedback in both Asynchronous Computer-Supported (ACS) and Face to Face (F2F) conditions during Peer Group feedback (PGF)? 4. What is the quality of the students' feedback in both Asynchronous Computer-Supported (ACS) and Face to Face (F2F) conditions during Peer Group feedback (PGF)? Our findings revealed that students in the ACS-PGF condition participated more in the process of feedback and all students were active (the distribution was better). In F2F conditions some students took over the discussions and teachers contributed more. The minimum amount of contributions under ACS conditions was much higher than under F2F conditions. We also found that students in both conditions were satisfied with participating in group feedback and perceived PGF as effective for learning. Students in ACS groups were positive, to a higher level, about the quality of PGF and its added value. However, there was no significant difference between students’ perceptions of the effect of PGF on motivation, interaction, and satisfaction. We found that both ACS and F2F conditions differed with respect to students’ contributions. For example, the students’ notes posted in the ACS groups were significantly clearer, more structured, and more to the point than students’ utterances in F2F groups. Students in ACS conditions posted more notes that were encoded as “evaluation/criticism” and as “motivate/praise” than students in F2F conditions.   Concluding remarks From the study the conclusion can be drawn that although well-arranged technical support and reliable infrastructure are important for teachers’ use of e-learning environments, they are not enough. A teachers’ first experience with using e-learning environments and their attitude toward ICT are more important. Moreover, those who use e-learning environments most frequently use non-interactive and superficial features and functions. Interactive features, like CSCL, are rarely used. It seems that, in practice, more attention has been paid to the technological aspects of e-learning than to the pedagogical aspects and, as a result, these advanced learning environments have only been considered as tools to facilitate traditional learning and teaching approaches. Tasks in CSCL environments need more attention than in face to face collaborative learning. In order to integrate CSCL effectively into the learning process characteristics/issues like structure and the level of structuring of the task, complexity of the learning process, task complexity, the formulation of the task, support that learners receive, and the way that they receive that support are very important. Based on our study the conclusion is justified that, as a blended learning approach, integrating asynchronous CSCL environments can effectively engage students in the process of learning. Implementing tasks in CSCL environments increases students’ participation in learning activities and their interaction with each other and with their teachers outside of class time. We also conclude that asynchronous CSCL does not only foster more students’ participation, but more equal participation, in the learning process and might be used successfully to encourage and engage the silent side of the class into the processes of discussion and collaboration. The results of the study lead us to the conclusion that ACSCL environments can foster higher-order learning skills. However, we should remember that the quality of discussion was significantly related to the design and setting of the course. Learning to work in distributed teams is one of the main competencies that should be developed in higher education to prepare students for working in a knowledge and network society. The findings of this study revealed that performing tasks in asynchronous CSCL environments has the potential to increase the level of participation and interaction among students and to foster processes of shared and social knowledge construction. Performing these kinds of tasks has the potential to provide a meaningful supplement to conventional teaching and learning approaches and can help teachers to overcome the limitations of face-to-face collaboration and discussion. We conclude that following a blended learning approach and taking course objectives into consideration, we can benefit from the added value of e-learning and CSCL environments. For example, our fourth study revealed that ACSCL can enable teachers to successfully embed ‘formative assessment’ and ‘process-oriented feedback’ (which aims at learning rather than assessment) into the learning process. As stated before, the quality of students’ contributions in groups operating under ACS conditions was significantly higher than in F2F groups and they posted more critical comments. This allows us to conclude that asking students to conduct tasks in CSCL environments and combining these activities within the learning process can improve depth of learning and critical thinking. It is commonly expected that in ACSCL environments students benefit from “asynchronicity” of the environment. By reading background literature in the field and written course material, and thinking deeply about the topic, students can provide in-depth and well-grounded “delayed feedback”. However our study showed that this is not the normal strategy followed by students. In other words, first we need to learn how students work in ACSCL environments, which is not necessarily as we expect, and second to develop an instructional design and script CSCL activities in a way that persuades students to take advantage of the power of ACSCL environments. Without doing so CSCL environments will lose one of their main advantages over conventional F2F conditions.                                                      
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Mulder, Martin, Promotor
  • Biemans, Harm, Co-promotor
Award date14 Sep 2007
Place of Publication[S.l.]
Print ISBNs9789085047230
Publication statusPublished - 2007


  • computer assisted instruction
  • higher education
  • students
  • information
  • information technology
  • knowledge
  • learning
  • academic achievement
  • learning activities
  • knowledge transfer


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