From Cooperative Learning towards the virtual Class. An experience in Composition Techniques.

M. T. Blasco, J. L. Barrio,
Departamento de Didáctica de la Lengua y de la Literatura.
Facultad de Educación. Universidad de Valladolid,
C/ Fco Hernández Pacheco 1,
E-47014 Valladolid.
Tel: + 34 .983.42. 34. 45.

Y. A. Dimitriadis, C.A. Osuna, , M.J. Verdú, D. Terán
Departamento de Teoría de la Señal y Comunicaciones e Ingeniería
E.T.S.I Telecomunicación.

O. M. González
Departamento de Organización y Gestión de Empresas.
E. U. de Estudios Empresariales.
oscarg@tita.emp.uva es

The written word is a key for the access into many curriculum areas. Especially in the Humanities it is considered as an important element for the construction of the knowledge. However, the development of writing abilities is a well known problem for students and teachers, that attracts our attention as educators and humanists.

Telematics, as a merge of communications and computer technology, have given new opportunities and permitted new approaches in teaching/learning processes. New communications channels permit us to bridge time and space gaps, thus enabling learning and flexible asynchronous communications. Then, educators can employ modern techniques, inspired on the ideas of student-based learning and a renovated role of a teacher as a moderator or weaver.

Cooperative learning, together with a need for increased teacher/student interaction are essential points in both traditional and information technology-based  teaching/learning processes. Teacher's role is essential within those processes, being a coordinator of what students are producing, regulating duration and transition between phases, observing all processes and intervening for recommendations and help.

However, several problems have been detected that need further analysis, as well as new technological support tools. An important problem refers to the collaboration among students and teachers, an essential social aspect for efficient learning and adaptation to future professional life. Findings from the broader field of CSCW (Computer Supported Cooperative Work) have to be creatively applied in collaborative learning, enabling interaction and integrating in class and remote-individual learning.

In this paper, we discuss our research work that pretends to provide answers to the above collaborative learning problems. For such a study we developed a working prototype, PENCACOLAS (Pen Computer Aided Collaborative System), for teaching/learning collaborative composition, through pen-based computers. This prototype has been tested within a course of "Composition Techniques" at the Faculty of Education, a particularly appropriate environment, since students of this course will be tomorrow's educators. In a more general sense, our prototype may be adapted to other contexts with collaborative writing needs (such as, e. g. coordination and collaborative composition of articles, proposals, reports).

PENCACOLAS is a CSCL (Computer Supported Cooperative Learning) system designed to support the teacher's role, with significant advantages as compared to traditional classes because it facilitates to follow the different phases of the composition in real time. This is particularly important for the teacher in order to understand how the composition patterns develop, and how the writing skills, used by the students, improve.

Besides, PENCACOLAS records all writing events, so that they can be analysed a posteriori. Additionally, this kind of register, like a videotape, allows the students to think about their own writing process and facilitates the building of "electronic portfolios" for the assessment. Self-evaluation and coevaluation are then possible, based on the history of what is learned and by what means. From the students' point of view, this kind of feedback determines a major awareness of their development as writers and of writing as a recursive process.

In response to the above requirements, PENCACOLAS automatically generates filenames, that identify users, sessions, phases, etc., thus allowing easy searching. Therefore, we obtain not only final texts, but also a written interaction, that registers the process of collaborative writing. This allows a deeper analysis of the communication (synchronous and asynchronous), following the graphic footprints of several aspects of the conversation, such as tone, feed-back, management of turns and misunderstandings, and opening or closing communication channels.
Besides studying written expression as a basis for conversation, we could draw generic conclusions about the possibility of using it in non-expensive, low-bandwidth terminals and networks. Past experiences in the University of Duke and Berkeley show that solutions of this type are technologically feasible.

It has been some problems to put under way the system on a real classroom environment.

On one hand, appeared the well-known problems from collaborative work such as: the organization of the tasks between the students, the establishment of roles, the management of the discussion in order to write a text and the negotiation of the interesting ideas. In fact, this kind of problems play a critical role in the development of their thinking and learning to write in collaboration. Clarity, organization and social abilities are crucial points in their success as students and in their professional future.

On the other hand, were the computer and telematic problems, the majority emerged in the cooperative phases, since in these phases the system must implement mechanisms of concurrency control.

The solutions adopted to these problems were:

* Cursors of different type identify the user and the action (write, erase,...),
* In any phase, any student or the teacher could observe the work of the others (either for orientation or help purposes), and for the concurrency problem,
* Users just used a simple social protocol, dividing the space and assigning a region to each coauthor during the cooperative phase.

Other problems were caused for the excessive net's traffic by the size of the generated files. It causes a slow response of the system to the actions requested by the users, therefore is generated a frustate sensation that can induce to believe that the system does not work

The solutions adopted in this case were:

* Creating a new logical telematic net between the computers (which permit user's access to the system),
* Redesign the event's capture through logical processes distribution techniques,
* Using mechanisms of data compression in order to facilitate file's transportation in the net, and finally,
* Designing a new agent's mechanism through the distribution of processing activities and concurrency control

In parallel with the use of the proprietary version of PENCACOLAS, we have been designing and developing a Web-based alternative. Appropriate software tools for an Agent Description Language (ADL) and the code generator ADL2JAVA allow us to overcome the problems of software engineering in CSCW and rapidly obtain new prototypes, easily adaptable to different conditions.

This paper treats the above educational objectives through the design, development and experimental study of a system for teaching composition. Close collaboration with final users, as well as experimental work for the analysis of learning patterns and group dynamics were shown to be crucial for a final success of this CSCL product. Finally, pen-computers employed in our system permitted a smooth transition from conventional writing to the computer, and provided for efficient graphic dialogues. These findings suggest that integration of mobile computers with low bandwidth requirements is possible for both in-class and remote teaching, thus coming closer to a really virtual class.