Shannan Muskopf

International Journal of Educational Technology
January 2001 - Feature Article

"The Construction of Shared Knowledge in an Internet-based Shared Environment for Expeditions (iExpeditions)"
Minjuan Wang, San Diego State University;
James Laffey, University of Missouri-Columbia;
Melissa J. Poole, University of Missouri-Columbia


As I scanned through the articles in the various educational technology journals, this article stood out because it seemed to be well organized and fairly easy to comprehend, with very little technical jargon I had noted in some of the other articles. Another reason for the choice was that it stood out as a research oriented article, the purpose of the research was defined in an abstract at the beginning which made it easy to discern what exactly the article was going to be about, rather than having to read large amounts of text to find out what the research was about and whether it was appropriate for the class critique. The other appealing factor for this article was the topic it addressed, which was how teams constructed knowledge in an online collaborative setting. This was particularly interesting due to previous coursework I'd encountered regarding collaboration and constructivism. I found myself interested throughout the entire document, and was impressed with the organization of the researchers' findings.

Clarity of Purpose

The authors were very thorough in explaining the research methods. From the very beginning, I knew exactly what was being studied and how the researchers were gathering information. The purpose of the research was to determine exactly how knowledge was constructed by a group, and how a computer system (iexpeditions) served to provide a medium for collaborative work. Emphasis was placed on learner interaction and artifacts created as the teams worked toward a common goal. The team's goal was to create a powerpoint presentation to Motorola that proposed development and marketing strategies for car wireless communications. Though the team's goal was stated, the emphasis of the research was not on the outcome, it was on the interactions of the team members as they worked to achieve this common goal. The authors made it very clear that they were not judging the team members' projects, they were instead, analyzing the processes of communication and knowledge construction. "The goal of this study was to discover patterns of interaction mediated through an online environment and their relation to the construction of shared knowledge."

An abstract presented at the beginning of the article summarized the research and included information about what was being researched, how it was being researched, and a brief description of the results. Following the abstract, the authors detailed each aspect of the experimental design and focus group. The abstract was extremely helpful in giving the reader and overview of the experimenter's purpose and methods which made the detailed explanations easier to understand in the context of the overall research.

An introduction following the abstract clarified terms used in the article, such as computer supported collaborative learning (or CSCL). iExpeditions referred to the actual medium the test subjects would work within, a computer program that had functions such as forums, chat rooms and email for the teams to communicate and share knowledge. Expedition referred to the actual team goal, which was to determine marketing strategies for wireless communication. The authors were very clear in defining the terms first, so that the document could be easily understood by the reader.

The research had important implications for computer supported collaborative learning. The researchers wanted to determine the patterns of interaction and the construction of knowledge specifically in an online medium. It is also important to note that the artifacts and final project of the team members was secondary to the process the teams used to develop these products. The researchers were studying the process, not the products.

Appropriateness of Methods

The researchers used a case study method where a focus group of teenagers working on a collaborative project was chosen. The study followed a constructivist paradigm where the researchers would observe the test group and use the observations to construct a pool of knowledge regarding how teenagers learn in a computer supported collaborative learning environment. An interesting approach considering that the body of the research was to study and quantify the learning process of teenagers using a constructivist philosophy of learning. It was also an approach that was very ambitious in a sense, because the number of variables involved in pinpointing the interactions through observation alone would be extensive. The case study also leaned toward phenomenological research, as the study focused on the group experiences of a test group as they solve a problem by sharing knowledge and ideas. Again, the article was very clear with the methods used and even stated that phenomenological research was inherent in the study: "The case study method accommodates the research focus of describing and interpreting a phenomenon and meets the twofold research purpose of understanding the phenomenon under study and in generating an explanatory model."

The researchers could have used other methods to study the problem. For instance, a comparative research study could have been undertaken in order to compare the interaction of teenagers in an online environment versus that of a face-to-face classroom environment. If this type of research had been conducted, the authors may have gained insight into the differences between the interactions of team members who have actually met and must interact face-to-face to those who only interacted over the internet. This method would have related to the goal of determining how computer aided collaborative learning aided or impaired the construction of knowledge, with a reference point of the same collaborative learning process conducted in a traditional classroom.

Perhaps the scope and timing of the research did not lend itself to this type of comparative study though I believe the results of such a study would also be valuable in determining the usefulness of technology to support collaborative learning.

Execution of the Study

The execution of the study was thorough and methodical. While six teams participated in the project, only two were chosen for the case study. In order to determine the level of interaction among the participants researchers focused on specific areas. They used transcripts of email and chatroom discussions, and periodically sent surveys to participants to determine their level of involvement and progress. Again, it is important to note that the outcome of the team's project (the powerpoint presentation) was not focused on, rather it was the interaction and the processes that lead to the creation of the final project that researchers were interested in. In fact, the researchers did not include team member artifacts in the document at all, though it would have been interesting to view the participants final project, I suspect the researches ommitted these artifacts because they were not supposed to be the central focus of the study.

The researchers categorized patterns of talking and communication of the participants into categories such as "disputational talk, cumulative talk, and exploratory talk". These categories helped the researchers determine how the team members discussed topics and built upon each others insights to create a shared knowledge base. The number and types of talk were reported in organized tables with clear explanations about the types of talk and interaction monitored. This information, added to the information from the surveys was used to determine patterns of knowledge construction among the participants.

Another important point made was the difference between the two teams. One team was described as being completely randomly chosen, where team members did not know each other prior to the project. The other team was described as having a social structure outside the project, two of the members were brothers in the same household, and the third was a personal friend of the two brothers. The researchers recorded significant differences in the types of talk the dominated the interactions of both teams. The more “social” group tended to engage in disputational and exploratory talk more than the other group. The “social” group tended to challenge each others ideas, whereas the other group tended to support and encourage others’ ideas, but rarely challenged them.

In addition to the interactions of the team members, the mentors of the teams were also observed to having specific types of talk. One mentor engaged mostly in cumulative talk, where the ideas presented by the group were restated and encouraged. The other mentor was described as facilitating exploratory talk and even disputational talk, where he often played the “devil’s advocate” to challenge the group’s ideas. The researchers distinguished between the two mentoring strategies and charted how each team’s conversations developed in relationship to types of talking.

The methods used to collect data were appropriate to the study. Obviously, trying to quantify the interactions of a peer group into data that can be analyzed is not an easy task. Unlike survey instruments which rely on yes-no responses or degrees of agreement, the researchers in this study undertook a method where the actual interaction among the participants is measurable and can be analyzed within the context of the study. The method chose, where individual statements and posts were analyzed as types of talk is a good method for determining how shared knowledge is constructed among the team members.

For instance, when participants stated clearly that they disagreed with other team members statements, that talk was classified as disputational talk. Since two teams were studied, the researchers compared the way discussions evolved and how the final project was developed based on team member interactions. This method is perhaps the only way a researcher could analyze such a subjective concept. The interpretation of group interactions is a daunting task, especially considering that chat rooms and forums lend themselves to casual discourse. The researchers chose a subjective method of evaluation, where every chat room log, every email and every forum post was analyzed and categorized. The actual method of the research was a constructivist approach about constructivism: while the participants were building their projects by sharing information, the researchers were constructing a knowledge base about how team members interacted, and how they shared knowledge and insight.

The interpretation of the data was valid in the sense that it accurately quantified the interactions of the team members to determine how a group consensus was being reached. I was impressed by the thoroughness of the researchers in being able to evaluate such a subjective concept as discussions and to determine how knowledge was constructed. The interpretation and explanation of the data that followed seemed valid and definitely offered insights into how a computer based collaborative environment facilitated the construction of shared knowledge.


The conclusions researchers drew from the data gathered were summarized clearly and was supplemented by an image of three concentric circles that illustrate the patterns of knowledge construction. Authors separated the patterns into three main groups, which were labeled as zones of knowledge construction. The researchers used the illustration to show how knowledge flows from one zone to another. For example, an inner circle represented individual activities and reading, around that circle was a zone that including mentoring, ways of talking, and themes of discussion. The outermost circle represented the development of shared knowledge and project artifacts.

The image and the author's discussion of their finding was easy to read, understandable and supported by the evidence presented in the article. There was no final, “absolute” answer in this study. Researchers made no value judgment of the teams’ artifacts, and did not really even address the final projects created by the teams. They did compare the differing styles of the mentors and how it may have resulted in different patterns of knowledge construction among the participants. The researchers clearly stated that the goal of the study was to “discover patterns of interaction mediated through an online environment and their relation to the construction of shared knowledge”. Their conclusions and reporting of their findings followed the goal they initially set for the research study.

The authors also stated the significance of the experiment in relation to computer based learning systems. They concluded that mentoring was an important role in any learning environment where the goal is to share and construct knowledge centered around a particular theme. The conclusions drawn from this study could be applied to other learning systems that involve shared knowledge, computer based environments where participants must work together to create a final product or knowledge base.


Overall, I enjoyed reading this article, mainly because I felt a personal stake in the study since my degree program at the University of Missouri uses a computer based environment. Though my classes do not often have a final group project required, I find myself reading the forums at MU direct and identifying some of the patterns of interacting described in this study.

I found that I kept looking for an “answer” some kind of final illumination from the study, but there was none. (This may be because as a science major, I’m looking for the hypothesis, data, and conclusions as if it were a scientific research paper). For instance, I wanted the researchers to establish some value judgment that one means of interacting was better for constructing knowledge than another, or one method of mentoring was better than another. The authors gave no such opinion, which further supported the case that the research itself fell within a constructivist paradigm. The authors weren’t seeking a specific answer, they were trying to discover the process involved in constructing a knowledge base in an online environment.

I also felt that too many variables were used in the research. The fact that the two teams differed in their prior knowledge of each other seemed significant in how they interacted with one another. The different mentoring strategies also seemed significant. Since the study was to determine processes, I’m not sure why they chose the two different groups. It would almost seem like a side study of how interactions compare between groups of different social backgrounds, though this was not elaborated on to a great degree in the article.