Are Computer Supported Learning Environments Really Learning Environments?


Julio Alberto Nitzke, Mra Lcia F. Carneiro, Sergio Roberto K. Franco
Post-Graduate Curse in Computing in Education
Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul
Av. Paulo Gama 110 - Prdio 1220 - FACED
8 andar - sala 810
90046-900 - Porto Alegre - RS - Brasil
Phone: (51) 3316-7048 

Abstract: The importance of the option for one epistemological approach when designing or choosing a learning environment is discussed in this paper. The adequacy of a CSCL environment to learning can only be assessed through the view of a specific learning theory. Thus we have chosen a socio-constructivist approach of collaborative learning, based on Piaget's Genetic Epistemology to analyze a couple of CSCL environments. We present the theory guidelines, together with a description of the environments, and discuss them according to those principles.

Keywords : CSCL environments, epistemology, constructivism

Approximate word counts: 5200


Men have become more and more competitive, specialized, individualist and attached to material values over the last decades, due to established society values. Floating against the tide, contemporary philosophers and thinkers among which can be cited Edgar Morin and Humberto Maturana claim for a more holistic view of situations. Their concepts are based in the belief that it is not possible to understand the complex, globalized and interconnected today's world through a fragmented analysis of reality.

Professor Michael Gibbon (The Economist, 1997), secretary-general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities also sees present leading science not as a consequence of placing one brick over another within a single discipline, but as the result of complex problems that cut across many disciplines. For him, either universities adapt to the changes, or they will be pushed to the margin of science. In different words, Edgar Morin (2000) argues that a reforming of thought is needed, which would allow full use of intelligence to tackle those challenges and the connection of two cultures (social and scientific), torn apart by disciplinary views of science. It is a pragmatic, not a programmatic reform, related to our capacity to organize thought.

Following this same line of thought, it is now usual to talk about a Cognitive Ecology, pointing out the perception that knowledge is a context inserted concept, and the strong inter-relation between cognitive and social development. As Levy (1993) says:

   "intelligence or cognition is the result 
of complex networks where a great
    number of human, biological and technical actors interact. It is no longer "me"
    who is intelligent, but "me" with the human group in which I am a member,
    with my language, and a whole inheritance of methods and intellectual technologies
    (among which, the use of writing) "(p. 135).

The results of Doise & Mugni research (apud Dillembourg, 1995) have shown that, in certain conditions, the work of pairs could be better than that of individuals. From these results, it has been proved by many researchers that learning happens at the individual level, but it may be fostered by social exchange. Social interaction and culture play an important role in the individual's cognitive development. This is the underlining principle of Collaborative Learning. Adding the advances in computer science, more specifically, communication and interaction tools, we come to CSCL - Computer Supported Collaborative Learning. Only under the label CSCL many research dimensions can be found, as pointed out by Pierre Dillembourg (1999) in the introduction of a book about Collaborative Learning. As a final product of this research field are CSCL Environments.

In our point of view, it is crucial to establish a profound liaison between the epistemological basis of the teacher's educational conduct and the pedagogical approach adopted in the environment design, to assure a really effective use of these new technologies in an educational context. Without it we will have nothing more than a pseudo-modernization of a meaningless educational practice. In this article we intend to discuss a social-constructivist approach of learning, developed from Piagets Genetic Epistemolology, and to analyze the adequacy of resources offered by a couple of CSCL Environments under the light of this paradigm.


Cooperation or Collaboration?

As already pointed out by other researchers (Dillembourg, 1995; Panitz, 2001), there is a great controversy upon the use of the terminology "cooperative learning" and "collaborative learning". Apparently, in English speaking literature, the main researchers have been using "collaborative learning", leaving "cooperative" to the area of work (CSCW). There is also such a controversy in Brazil (Nitzke et al, 1999), but it is more related to an epistemological issue. For the sake of this work we will use the term "collaborative", although in Portuguese we have opted for "cooperative learning" due to the strong piagetian basis of our works, where the construct "cooperation" has a very specific meaning. No matter which term is used, what is really important in this research field is the accomplishment of a group work as opposed to a simple agglutination of individual pieces of work. To Piaget (1998), this definition is fundamental, as it implies that the subject is in a stage in which he/she is able to do reciprocity relations, without which he/she cannot decentralize him/herself. While the subjects have not yet trespassed their egocentric thought period, there will be only "two individuals unable of understanding each other, as each one has the habit of thinking and talking to him/herself" (p.73), making cooperation impossible.

Therefore, it is very important to stress, that independently of which term is used, the meaning attached to it is the same, and for that we quote Roschelle (apud Dillembourg, 1999): "...a coordinated synchronous activity that is the result of a continued attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem". In this definition, the need of something to be accomplished together is explicit, for what a strong negotiation is needed, as the solution must be shared and not "glued together".

Learning - what does it mean?

As presented in the Introduction, and to answer the question posed at the title of this work, it is fundamental to have a very clear picture of the meaning of "learning". Results presented by Lipponen (1999) , about the introduction of CSCL in elementary and secondary schools in Finland, indicated that the main challenges are those related to pedagogical practice, which, in turn, are directly related to the prevailing view of learning.

For many centuries knowledge has been taken as a fluid, that may be poured from a "magnun sabere" professor, that knows everything, to a "tabula rasa" student that knows nothing. In Latin origin languages, the word for teaching comes from the Latin word "insignare", which means transmission of knowledge or information useful or essential to education and instruction. This concept, which represents a behaviorist learning theory "is most ubiquitous in schooling off all ages" (Clough, 1999). In other words, the epistemological basis for education, at all levels, in the majority of current institutions is the belief that it is possible for the teachers to "insignare" the students.

Coming along in this direction, Pfister (1999) takes a very common position among computer scientists, as he defines "for simplicity, that knowledge can be described as a collection of facts; and that the term "fact" is used extremely generically, including cognitive units such as propositions, rules, productions, etc."

During the past century, Jean Piaget conducted many scientific studies about the way humans acquire knowledge, and they point to another direction. In his Genetic Epistemology (1990), Piaget considers that cognitive development occurs as a consequence of an interaction between the subject and the object, source of his interest. The human brain works based on signification schema (a term introduced by Jean Piaget that refers to an internal representation of external experience in terms of a symbol, a representational outline, a percept or a concept), which are in permanent adaptation through continuous and simultaneous process of assimilation (the schemas of the subject are modified to adapt and incorporate the elements of the object) and accommodation (the elements of the object are modified by the action of the subject). Therefore, a disequilibrium of this process is necessary for cognitive development. This disequilibrium will promote the construction of new schema upon those already existing, leading to a growing spiral connected to many others through nets of individual significance. In this context, learning is the result of a process occurring through the relationship between the one who teaches and the one(s) who learn(s), and even among those, who are learning. Nevertheless, the construction of knowledge will be individual, which means that each one will learn in his/her particular manner.

There is another concept created by Piaget, which is still not very much discussed in literature, but helps a more complete understanding of the knowledge acquisition process, and consequently, of learning. We are talking about the notion of reflective abstraction (Piaget, 1995). The theory of abstraction demonstrates how new ideas can be constructed in the thought. With it, Piaget could more thoroughly show why new knowledge could not be taught in a deterministic manner, and why this knowledge comes neither from the apprentice's maturation nor from the teacher's or the teaching material imposition, or even from sheer empirical experience.

Piaget states that any new knowledge is constructed because it is extracted from the coordination of the actions or the coordination of the coordination of actions, and not directly from the observable (objects and actions). He, therefore, demonstrates that it is not enough to show contents for the students to learn. It is necessary to create situations for them to establish relationships, to establish relationships between relationships, to generate renewed constructions and to recreate the notions that are expected from him/her to learn. That is how the comprehension of knowledge is achieved.

Translating these concepts to a pedagogical plan, it is perceived that the figure of a teacher that "teaches" a student becomes incoherent and a new role must be drawn for the teacher. In this view, the teacher will help, stimulate and afford the student the 'construction" of his knowledge, through a participative process. That is the reason why the application of Piaget's theory to education takes the name of Constructivism.

A social-constructivist approach to Collaborative Learning

The importance of the social or cultural influence in personal development is growing steadily in the society in which we live in, as it can be seen in the work of today's philosophers, among which there can be mentioned Pierre Levy (1993), Edgar Morin (2000) and Humberto Maturana (1999).

Although Piaget has been criticized for not having privileged the importance of the social in cognitive development (Loureno, 1994), he has also considered the importance of interactions. For him "it is precisely the constant exchanges of ideas with others that allow us to decentrate and assure the possibility of inner coordination of the relationships  and the actions are, in fact, interactions, which are "conducts modifying one another, [...] or forms of cooperation, which mean operations mutually performed or in reciprocal correspondence" (p.22). It may be important to stress again, that Piaget's understanding of interaction is more than a simple exchange between people or between the subject and the object of his/hers interest. Interaction means exactly simultaneity between agents and, hence, knowledge happens where they meet and not only in one of the participants. Subject and object, or student and teacher or student and mate are not a binary opposition, but a dialectic dyad. This dyad is, consequently, dynamic, and results in changes in both participants, as one constitutes the other by the very own opposition, which characterizes them (Franco, 1999).

Proceeding with Piaget's work, Perret-Clermont (1980) has concentrated her studies at the influence of social interactions in cognitive development, emphasizing the importance of the socio-cognitive conflict in an interactionist and constructivist approach. For her, "social interaction does not merely offer a kind of "intellectual nourishment" to assimilate, but rather stimulates an activity of accommodation, and it is this which creates new development" (p.174).

According to Dillembourg et al (1995), this perspective is the basis for a socio-constructivist approach of collaborative learning. One of the differences between this approach and the other two (socio-cultural and shared cognition) is to be based on a dialectic and dynamic process. This means that even two students with the same level of development may benefit from the interaction, as each one will be participating from his/her perspective, what may favor a conflict situation, thus leading to learning.


At previous sections we had the intention of underlining the importance of an epistemological option to create or choose a method or work environment for education. Teachers' main concern is usually with the amount of material to be transferred to their students, with some attempts of improving aesthetic pattern of the transmitted information. Modern computing technology fits perfectly for that goal, with its amazing capacity of adding colors, movement and sound to the transmission of information. However, this is an underutilization of the potentiality offered by the new technology to the improvement of learning.

Computer Supported Collaborative Learning - CSCL Environments have been, therefore, developed thinking about an intelligent use of computing technology. These environments take advantage not only of storing huge amount of information but, mainly, of communication and interaction among people at a speed, efficiency and cost never reached by any other existing system. In our context, CSCL environments are characterized by a social-constructivist approach, which underlining principles may be summarized by the importance of the contribution of the group in the individual construction of knowledge by the subject.

Model of the learning process
Figure 1- Model for the learning process
CSCL environments have been more frequently applied as support to Distance Education, but its use for in-class education has also been projected. Figure 1 presents an illustration based on a model for the process of learning proposed by Souza (2000) for environments with a constructivist approach to learning. The tools and resources more frequently used are text and hypertext editors, electronic mail, whiteboards, video applications, etc. and vary at every environment according to the purpose and adequacy of each one. The analysis of a couple of CSCL environments will be based upon this model, focusing on the epistemological approach of learning.

Environments description

In our analysis, we have studied two environments designed to support Distance Education that, in our opinion, show very different characteristics and help us to evaluate the relationship between the environment and a pedagogical view.

AulaNet (
Aulanet Environment
Figure 2 - AulaNet Environment (version 2.0)

AulaNet (Figure 2) is an environment based on the Web, developed at the Software Engineering Laboratory-LES-of the Computer Science Department at PUC-Rio, to create and support distance education courses. This research project began at July 1997 "due to the perception that information technology (Internet, Intranets, WWW, etc) could supply solutions for Web-based education and training, which are crucial aspects of the growing information society" (Eduweb, 2001).

The objectives of AulaNet are: (a) promote the Web as an educational environment; (b) contribute to pedagogical changes, giving support to re-creation; (c) encourage the evolution of knowledge (as much for the students as well as for the instructors); and (d) create knowledge communities (Lucena et alii, 1998).

The focus of the environment design is support teachers in course creation. Using AulaNet, the teacher does not need to know any Internet programming language to create, change or offer distance education courses, as the environment provides separation between contents and navigation. A set of communication, coordination and cooperation mechanisms are offered, so the teacher can customize the interface and navigational structure of his/her course according with the objectives that have to be achieved in the learning process.

The environment is based on a cooperative approach, in a groupware point of view and stays away of metaphors adopted by a great number of actual environments, which simulate classrooms, libraries, blackboards and so on (Lucena et alii, 2000). In this point of view, cooperation means the possibility of contributing to the workgroup, not necessarily through peer interactions.

For Lucena et alii (2000), in AulaNet, the cooperation concept must be understood as the material prepared by the teacher and, under a constructivist point of view, the creation of space for anyone's contribution (other teachers and students). Among these mechanisms, there are tools for material download and suggestion of teachers and/or students as co-authors.

Communication tools support the information exchange between teachers and students. These mechanisms are: mail, interest group, discussion group, newsgroup and chat. Coordination tools support the workgroup organization: agenda, course news, teacher evaluation, enrollment and automatic messages. Assessment tools are: tests, test results, exercises and exercises results. Cooperation tools supply the means to promote learning, problems solution and workgroup that is, the means to share ideas and information.

ProInfo (

The environment of the Distance Education Course of the National Program of Computers in Education (ProInfo) of the Ministry of Education (Brazil) was initially developed to support the Teachers' Continued Education for the Program. Nowadays, the platform is available for other courses, through anyone connected to the Ministry.

Proinfo Environment

Figure 3 - ProInfo Environment

In this environment, users can assume different roles: as students, guides (teachers that orientate students in Seminars and Learning Projects), "workshopers" (teachers responsible for the elaboration and attendance of activities developed in workshops) and monitors (trainees that help students' activities), besides the Articulation group, created to manage the environment. The environment offers four modules: Support (Apoio), Library (Biblioteca), Learning Projects (Projetos de Aprendizagem) and Workshops and Seminars (Oficinas e Seminrios), as it can be seen in Figure 3.

Support Module holds activities related to the organization (or administration) of resources, with tools such as Agenda, Attendant (accessed by chat), News/Events, Tools (download area), Forum, e-mail, Statistics and Evaluation. In the Library Module are stored any bibliographic references, such as reference texts, articles, course production, books, magazines, thesis and Internet links.

The Learning Projects module offers a series of resources to create and publish projects developed by the students, as Projects Data Base, Projects, Webfolios and Notepad. In any of these spaces, students can publish new texts as well as access material published by their colleagues.

Finally, the Workshops and Seminars module allows access to workshops and seminars offered by the course. While Seminars have the purpose of promoting the discussion and reflection of course relevant themes, Workshops offer resources for implementation and exploration of software, necessary to Learning Projects implementation.

Environments analysis

The two environments presented have been tested in courses promoted by this University e typify two different categories, considering the characteristics and available resources. As mentioned in the Introduction, this analysis is performed under the light of a social-constructivist paradigm, as derived from a learning approach developed from Piaget's Genetic Epistemolology, discussed in the previous section.

Aulanet could be characterized as a learningware environment, which combines characteristics of courseware with many forms of interaction (interaction between apprentices and interaction between apprentice/instructor). The main focus of this environment is to allow interaction among participants in the discussion of material previously prepared by the teacher. A few resources help the teacher to create and publish (in the Internet) a new course. The environment is easy to use either by the teacher or by the students, which have access to all tools through an always-visible menu (named as "remote control"). Nevertheless, facilities offered to the teacher privilege exposition of support material and information transmission.

This kind of environment maintains a behaviorist approach of learning, as the teacher is still the main knowledge producer, which will "transfer" it to the students. Such a behavior does not encourage knowledge development under a constructivist point of view. According to Piaget, easy access to material proposed by the teacher does not guaranty learning. For learning to occur the student has to make relationships over relationships, what may be instigated or helped by the teacher, but never constructed by him/her in the student's mind. In this kind of environment the student is not challenged to make his/her own reinvention of the notions (adaptation), which are been transferred. Thus, he/she does not have the chance to climb a new step in a growing spiral of individual significance.

At Aulanet, students' participation occur almost only through discussion lists or by performing works, exercises and tests, which are not shared with classmates, as it would be expected in collaborative learning. As a matter of fact, they serve, mainly as an evaluation resource, based on the traditional right x wrong system. This behavior is explained by the description of "cooperation mechanisms", which are understood as tools to help teachers prepare materials to be presented, and not as a means of exchanging ideas and constructing a share understanding of a problem. Students' participation in the elaboration of this material is planned, but only with the permission of the teacher, in special cases and not as a methodological procedure, as there is no space to publish students' work.

Analyzing this environment from the point of view of the presented model (Fig.1), it can be inferred that a very important stage, according to collaborative learning principles - formalization- is impaired. At a formalization stage students share the results of their search, analysis and synthesis, which are exposed to be appreciated by and discussed with the classmates. They may then take advantage of all the benefits brought about by the social-cognitive conflicts, which may promote learning. Besides, due to the few possibilities to build a shared work, this environment would not be characterized as collaborative, but as cooperative. The students have difficulties to share the construction of a common work, what they can do is assemble pieces of work that could have been created separately and simply fit to constitute a whole.

The Proinfo environment has a more open structure, which could also be used for instructionism, but allows a learning process more similar to that foreseen by a social-constructivist theory.

The main difference between the two environments is how learning is proposed to the students. In the first one, the starting point is texts, presentations, slide shows or reference texts supplied by the teacher to the students, typical of a behaviorist approach, as mentioned before. In the second one, the knowledge base is formalized through projects to be developed by the students and shared with the group in individual Web folios. In this context, the environment is designed to support this sort of activity, and not the transmission of contents by the teacher. As a consequence, in a project based learning strategy (Fagundes, 1999), as this, the students should follow all the stages proposed by the presented model (Fig.1). During this practice, students are in a continuous stage of equilibrium / disequilibrium stimulated by teacher's challenges and classmates responses, promoting a constant process of adaptation, which may lead to learning.

At this environment, the choice of themes to be developed in the projects may be guided by the teacher or can be freely chosen by the students. Any way, it is very important that whatever choice is taken, the answer to it must fulfill students' needs, as according to Piaget (1998), it is fundamental for a lesson to have meaning, as "it only answers to a need if the embedded knowledge corresponds to the reality experienced and spontaneously lived by the child" (p.59).

Discussion tools available at both environments are practically the same (electronic mail, discussion lists, etc.), but the kind of communication and the discussion topics established in each one is what differentiates educational practices at those environments. While at Proinfo interactions support individual (or groups) project construction, at Aulanet they are specific over themes proposed and directed by the teacher. This is a fundamental difference according to Piaget's understanding of interaction, which should be dynamic, dialectic and reciprocal, as previously discussed.

In both environments a prioritization of individual construction can be perceived. Even at Proinfo environment, which allows a strong interaction and offers many tools to promote socio-cognitive conflicts, there is no space for a shared or group work construction, as it would be desirable in a truly collaborative learning environment, based on a socio-constructivist approach.
Even though these environments have been projected for distance education, they can be, and have been, utilized as a support for mixed or in-class strategies. In these experiments it was noticed that students still prefer personal contact than electronic mail or forum, showing that, although relatively well acquainted with new technologies, they still do not constitute them.
In this same direction, the pleasure afforded by the possibility of "seeing" or even "hearing" their partners was perceived in distance education courses. As a consequence, the importance of including more resources to support multimedia communication, such as video conferencing, must be emphasized.

The attachment to old paradigms is clearly noticed in the introduction of constructivist practices. A constructivist approach to learning obliges the students to think and make decisions instead of copying, memorizing and repeating information. The first moments are always traumatic, but the results after a period of adaptation have been rewarding.


Practice with different CSCL environments has demonstrated how important is previous planning in the success of the introduction of a new methodology. The objectives to be met must be very clear for the teacher. The teacher's epistemological view of the pedagogical practice must also be very well defined and he/she must know the characteristics and particularities of the students.

It is very important to emphasize that this work did not intend to look for any kind of value or quality assessment, on the contrary, its intention was to evaluate adequacy of different CSCL environments to a specific epistemological learning approach. With this we expect to have demonstrated that in order to evaluate the worthiness of any learning environment, it is very important to make the choice for one learning paradigm to start with. This is the only way to answer correctly if any CSCL environment really constitutes a learning environment.

An option for a social-constructivist paradigm goes beyond allowing students participation. It brings along the understanding that the student is an active subject, not only to choose tasks, but also to build knowledge and point new directions for the course, in a collaborative and interactive manner with his/her classmates, with teachers, with the computer environment as well as with external agents. We can, therefore, conclude that the adoption of an adequate CSCL environment can lead to a good contribution to the learning process, specially when the teacher does not simply want to transpose his\her in-class practices to a distance one, neither want to just make concessions for the student to "learn alone", but is willing to think over the very own meaning of teaching and learning.

Upon reflection over these considerations he/she may opt for a certain pedagogical approach and choose the kind of environment best suited to his/her choices. Other way around, the teacher will be making a "pseudo-modernization" of his/her pedagogical practice, which is very seductive due to the glamour associated to it, but in reality does not promote any cognitive gain neither for the teacher, even less for the students.


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