ICT-based Collaborative Learning and Innovative Pedagogy

By Paul A. Kirschner

Much of what has been designed and developed for modern day multimedia computer supported collaborative learning (MM‑CSCL) is based either on the possibilities that information and communication technologies (ICTs) afford for CSCL and CSCL environments or on a variety of educational and/or on various general and specific pedagogical principles that practitioners attempt to apply in those MM environments. The problem with these two approaches is that CSCL is often not very effective (i.e., students often do not learn what was planned and/or do not really collaborate with each other), and/or not very efficient (i.e., learning what was intended takes more time and more effort that either learning alone and/or takes more than the time that was allotted/planned), and/or not really enjoyable (i.e., learners have the idea that they are just “going through the paces” and would prefer to work alone). I have, along with two colleagues (P. Kirschner, Kirschner, & Janssen, 2014), come to a different – cognitive – approach to the problem of how to make ICT-based MM‑CSCL environments more effective, efficient and enjoyable. Based upon this cognitive approach it is now possible to design and develop multimedia ICT environments that take human cognition and information processing into account.

This cognitive approach to collaborative learning in a MM‑CSCL environment starts with the identification and understanding of the conditions under which collaborative learning works best. This has led to our defining of what we call the collaboration principle in multimedia learning (P. Kirschner, Kirschner, & Janssen, 2014). Simply stated, learning in teams – that is collaborative learning – is best when the learning task is cognitively demanding enough to warrant collaboration (i.e., complex enough to overly tax the working memory of an individual learner) and where the benefits of collaboration exceed the transactional activity costs. This collaboration principle in multimedia learning consists of three related sub-principles which help determine when and under what conditions collaboration will positively affect learning in a multimedia environment. Collaboration in multimedia learning is effective when the

1. Learning task is cognitively demanding (i.e., complex) enough to require collaboration and thus the effective use of a collective working memory;

Simply placing learners in a group and assigning them a task does not guarantee that they’ll work together, engage in effective collaborative learning processes, and/or reach positive learning outco

mes. If we are to make good use of MM‑CSCL, we must first take the limitations of human cognitive architecture into account. By approaching groups of collaborative learners as information processing systems in which relevant knowledge and information is divided among its group members (Hinsz, Tindale, & Vollrath, 1997; Tindale & Kameda, 2000), collaborative learning can provide an opportunity to overcome individual working memory limitations. Collaborating individuals can invest less cognitive effort than learners working alone, because information processing can be divided across a larger reservoir of cognitive capacity (F. Kirschner, Paas, & Kirschner, 2009a,b; Ohtsubo, 2005); in other words there is a distribution advantage. However, collaborating learners must invest additional cognitive effort for communicating the information with each other and coordinating their actions, which individuals working alone do not have to invest; that is there are transaction costs(Ciborra & Olson, 1988; F. Kirschner et al, 2009a). Based upon this, only when a task is too complex for a single, individual learner to carry out, her/his limited processing capacity can be expanded by learning in collaboration with others.

2. Cognitive processes and information necessary for learning are effectively and efficiently shared among the group members; and

Information sharing is central to having group members collectively utilize available informational resources (Mesmer-Magnus & DeChurch, 2009). To maximize information sharing, group members need to be dependent on each other for successfully carrying out and completing a task, should be aware of each other knowledge and expertise, made accountable for, visualize and evaluate the effort they invest. MM‑CSCL environments, thus, need to offer opportunities to facilitate and stimulate the sharing and utilization of group members’ thoughts and processes if the media are used in an effective and efficient way.

3. Multimedia environment provides the necessary tools for effective and efficient communication about the task content, and coordination and regulation of the processes involved in carrying out the tasks minimizing transactional activities.

Collaboration is a complex activity because it requires students to interact with their group members in two dialogical spaces, the content space (i.e., understanding together – at a deep level – what it is all about) and the relational space (i.e., establishing and maintaining shared understanding and ensuring well-being of group members) (Janssen & Bodemer, 2013). This requires learners to regulate their own learning (self-regulation), the learning of each other (co-regulation), and the learning of the team (socially-shared regulation) (Järvelä & Hadwin, 2013). Based on this, MM‑CSCL will be effective, efficient, and enjoyable if the multimedia environment provides group members with tools to engage in meaningful interaction allowing them to effectively and efficiently share their cognitive resources.

Since the goal of all education is that it should make learning there effective, efficient, and enjoyable, MM-CSCL environments need to be designed and developed to meet these principles and teacher need to be trained to design materials that make use of the principles.

Note: This blog is based upon a book chapter (P. Kirschner, Kirschner, & Janssen, 2014) written with Dr. Femke Kirschner and Dr. Jeroen Janssen, both at Utrecht University.


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Janssen, J., & Bodemer, D. (2013). Coordinated computer-supported collaborative learning: Awareness and awareness tools. Educational Psychologist. 48, 40-55. doi: 10.1080/00461520.2012.749153

Järvelä, S. & Hadwin, A. (2013). New frontiers: Regulating learning in CSCL. Educational Psychologist, 48(1), 25-39. doi:10.1080/00461520.2012.74800

Kirschner, F., Paas, F., & Kirschner, P. A. (2009a). A cognitive-load approach to collaborative learning: United brains for complex tasks. Educational Psychology Review, 21, 31-42. doi: 10.1007/s10648-008-9095-2

Kirschner, F., Paas, F., & Kirschner, P. A. (2009b). Individual and group-based learning from complex cognitive tasks: Effects on retention and transfer efficiency. Computers in Human Behavior, 25, 306-314. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2008.12.008

Kirschner, P. A., Kirschner, F., & Janssen, J. (2014). The collaboration principle in multimedia learning. In R. Mayer (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning (Second edition) (pp. 547-575). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Mesmer-Magnus, J. R., & DeChurch, L. A. (2009). Information sharing and team performance: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 535-546. doi: 10.1037/a0013773

Ohtsubo, Y. (2005). Should information be redundantly distributed among group members? Effective use of group memory in collaborative problem solving. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19, 1219-1233. doi: 10.1002/acp.1162