Vol. 8. No. 3 R-12 December 2004
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Electronic Collaborators: Learner Centered technologies for Literacy, Apprenticeship, and Discourse

Curtis Jay Bonk & Kira S. King (Eds.) (1998)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xxxv + 396
ISBN 0-8058-2797-8 (paper)

Introduction & Overview

As we move full steam ahead into a new millennium, several issues related to both work and learning continue to preoccupy strategists, educators and researchers alike. With the trend toward globalization and large-scale collaboration among organizations and individuals, new skills, attitudes and ways of sharing knowledge are needed. Educators at all levels are well positioned to be key players in the development of the new competencies needed to function in a new era. Not surprisingly, work in this area dates back to the last decade of the 20th century, when fledgling collaboration systems, models and technologies were making their debut on the educational stage. Electronic Collaborators published in 1998, offers the reader a surprisingly current look at the learner-centered technologies of the 1990s and their uses (and misuses). This review discusses the book in terms of a) the research approaches used by the authors; b) its theoretical underpinnings, c) the technologies discussed, and d) the pedagogy they support. It also takes a closer look at two chapters, highlighting the practical yet informed application aspect of the book.

Electronic Collaborators features the work of 22 contributors to the vast field of technology in education, mostly from Indiana University, but also including other institutions in the Midwest and elsewhere in the United States. The book is divided into five sections: I. Theoretical and Technological Foundations; II. Stand-Alone System Collaboration; III. Asynchronous Electronic Conferencing; IV. Multiconferencing: Asynchronous and Synchronous Classrooms; and V. Looking Back and Glancing Ahead. Each section contains several articles, each with its own bibliography. An author and subject index are included as well.

Intent and Research

In the words of the introductory chapter to Electronic Collaborators, "the goal of the book, therefore, is to display a range of collaborative technology tools, while documenting several representative ways of using them for enhancing human learning and development" (p. xxvi). Each chapter of the book presents research done in the area of educational technology in K-12 as well as higher education settings. The research methodologies presented are rich with both qualitative approaches to inquiry, such as case study, and oftentimes, anecdotes and narratives are used to illuminate key pedagogical issues. For an educator, nothing is more powerful than getting a glimpse of a classroom situation and hearing, albeit virtually, the voices of students engaged in the learning process. Thus, we are able to peer into classrooms and witness the inner workings of a learning environment through concrete examples of findings and rich anecdotal evidence. The authors of Electronic Collaborators for the most part make the learning environment come alive for the educator looking for sound applications of educational technology by using excerpts from conferences, e-mails and student evaluations. Many authors also discuss data collection and analysis methods, both qualitative and quantitative, in substantial detail. This transparency is an especially important feature when reporting qualitative research as it not only adds to the credibility of the research but more importantly adds to the best practices of qualitative research by sharing coding and rating systems with other researchers potentially interested in the details of relativist inquiry. [-1-]

Theoretical Underpinnings: The usual suspects

As suggested by the subtitle, Learner Centered Technologies for Literacy, Apprenticeship, and Discourse, the theoretical foundations of all the research presented and discussed in Electronic Collaborators is firmly rooted in a sociocultural and constructivist tradition, sometimes referred to as "socioconstructivist." This tradition gave rise in the twentieth century to the idea, crudely described here, that knowledge is not only actively constructed by the learner, as opposed to passively absorbed, but also that it is best constructed by the learner in a social setting. Thus, the learner is at the center of the learning process and the learning environment needs to reflect this. For instance, in a discussion on literacy, some of the book's contributing authors state that "literacy events should be experienced by learners as collaborative social activities with goals embedded in natural settings, and not as isolated and decontextualized events" (Angeli & Cunningham in Bonk & King, eds., 1998, p. 82). Seminal theorists most often cited by the authors of the various chapters in Electronic Collaborators include Vygotsky, Piaget and Dewey, Cole, Rogoff and Wertsch, but abundant references are also made to more recent socioconstructivist thinking emanating from, among many worthy others, the APA's Learner Centered Principles (1993), the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (1991), Scardamalia and Bereiter (1996) and Collins, Brown and Newman (1989). These current thinkers merge socioconstructivist theory with the teaching and learning act in a variety of settings, refining original theories into more applicable ideas. Some key concepts (and their applications) that weave their way through the different chapters of the book include Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development, scaffolding, self-regulation as well as mentoring and assistance. Each chapter presents a theoretical foundation for the learning environment described and has its own bibliography. This leads to a very rich and remarkably cohesive whole, as each chapter, even written by different authors, informs the chapters that follow it. In addition to the socioconstructivist undercurrent that permeates the whole work, the various authors also present content-specific theory applicable to their setting, much like would a stand-alone journal article.

Technologies Discussed: Withstanding the Test of Time

In Electronic Collaborators, the focus is on collaborative technologies and how these are deployed within a variety of socioconstructivist learning environments. Most tools discussed qualify as computer-supported collaborative learning tools, often called CSCL tools. Other tools discussed include a stand-alone application called Bubble-Dialogue, a reflexive dialogue tool designed with HyperCard, one of the early WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) hypermedia programming tools. [-2-]

The CSCL tools used in the research presented in Electronic Collaborators, such as First Class or VAX Notes, allow for online interaction between participants in a learning environment. Depending on the sophistication of the tool, interactions can range from one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many, as well as any combination of these. Early CSCL tools often were not built for combinations of interactions in a given learning environment and early adopters had to circumvent technological restrictions to stay true to their pedagogical intentions. Indeed, most of the technologies used in the research described in Electronic Collaborators date back to the early to mid-1990's, when CSCL tools were making their appearance on the educational playing field at a time when "technologies [were] becoming more interactive, distributed and collaborative". (Bonk & King in Bonk & King, eds. 1998, p. 5) Some of the technologies have since evolved and new tools are available today that far outstrip the pedagogical potential of old tools. However, because the authors let their pedagogy drive their uses of technology, the book remains current even today.

Because of the attention paid to software features and how they help with the design of a learning environment, Electronic Collaborators subtly highlights an important point that remains current even today. Software features of conferencing systems should be designed in such a way as to facilitate pedagogical strategies, and not the other way around. Systems that have not been designed with pedagogy in mind are far more likely to hinder pedagogical uses of conferencing, making them cumbersome and unwieldy, leading to frustration, a lack of engagement and, ultimately, disuse of the medium for all but the most basic of communications, and this, by student and teacher alike.

Pedagogy: The Learner Above All

There is no doubt in the reader's mind that it is pedagogy that drives the instructional design as well as the research presented in each chapter of Electronic Collaborators. Each chapter not only presents its theoretical underpinnings as discussed earlier, but also describes the pedagogical environment in which the research took place, including useful details as to pedagogical intent, student groupings, classroom management and evaluation. The high level of detail is important because it establishes Electronic Collaborators as being not only a presentation of research findings, but also a useful resource for the application of a variety of pedagogical scenarios as well as for the design of learning environments with similar goals. As educators everywhere are painfully aware, "even when constructivism is recognized as valuable, few guidelines exist for implementing and assessing it" (Bonk & Cunningham in Bonk & King, eds. 1998, p. 32). Moreover, the authors avoid oversimplification by openly acknowledging the pedagogical challenges faced by educators trying to merge technology and pedagogy noting that the step from cooperative learning techniques or tool-focused uses of technology towards CSCL tools and the learning environments they engender is not an easy feat.

For the educator, or anyone leaning toward the applicability of research findings as opposed to the generating of theory, Electronic Collaborators is a gold mine of models. Although each model described in the book is rich and worthy of discussion, it is beyond the scope of a book review to outline them all. Let us examine two of the models presented in Electronic Collaborators to illustrate the potential the book represents for educators.

Chapter 3--Critical Thinking in a Distributed Environment: A Pedagogical Base for the Design of Conferencing Systems by Thomas M. Duffy, Bille Dueber and Chandra L. Hawkley. [-3-]

This chapter describes the use of asynchronous collaborative tools to focus students on the problem-solving process in order to pursue collaborative critical inquiry in an undergraduate education context. The authors had noted that students are unable for the most part to engage in collective problem solving using a basic unscaffolded conference structure. They had also noted that in general both instructors and students have "very little recognition of the different rhetorical structures [used in a conference environment] and of the requirements for supporting those structures in a text rather than an oral mode" (p. 74). In layman's terms, this means that students cannot use e-mail based environments for collective problem-solving without structures and guidelines that equip them to do so. These structures and guidelines are to be found in the act of collective problem-solving itself, the mechanics of which are not very familiar to students and instructors alike. The authors of this chapter proceed to outline guidelines for the creation of an electronic environment that supports the development of critical thinking competencies through collective problem-solving, including key design features and a detailed explanation as to how this environment played out in a real setting.

Chapter 6 - Student Role Play in the World Forum: Analyses of an Arctic Adventure Learning Apprenticeship by William A. Sugar and Curtis J. Bonk.

Chapter six discusses an online global collaboration project with middle and high school students in which learners communicated with experts and with each other in an authentic-task learning environment. The goal of the project was to enhance perspective-taking, which, according to the authors, is an important part of critical thinking. Using a framework of cognitive apprenticeship which gives learners a legitimate social context for learning, students took on different roles from which to ask and answer questions as well as discuss issues with each other. The authors describe the learning activities involved in the project as well as how they were organized. Through excerpts of electronic messages, they illustrate both developing student competencies and teacher interventions. The authors show how the data collection procedures and coding can highlight where students need help and the ways in which educators can offer assistance, implying that effective scaffolding ensures student success and offering specific intervention strategies.

Concluding Remarks

Electronic Collaborators is a welcome addition to any 21st century educator's personal library. Its best quality is its strong pedagogical and research foundation which enables it to withstand the tremors and fissures of rapid technological change. Moreover, the reader will find no oversimplification or pat answers, no 'one best way' to engage in electronic collaboration. What he or she will find is a high level of detail, not only in terms of theoretical foundations, design principles and research findings, but also in terms of practical pedagogical applications in a day-to-day context. Electronic Collaborators merges theory and practice, weaving the two into a harmonious set of best practices and lessons learned.


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Cole, M. (1985). The zone of proximal development: Where culture and cognition create each other. In J.V. Wertsch (Ed.), Culture, communication, and literacy: Vygotskian perspectives (pp. 162-179). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Collins, A., Brown, J.S., & Newman, S.E. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing and mathematics. In L. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, learning, and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser (pp. 453-494). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1996). Adaptation and understanding: A case for new cultures of schooling. In S. Vosniadou, E. De Corte, R. Glaser, & H. Mandl (Eds.), International perspectives on the design of technology-supported learning environments (pp. 149-163). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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Wertsch, J.V. (1985).Vygotsky and the social formation of the mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sylwia Bielec
Université de Montréal

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