Developmental Research
on Collaborative Design

Full Citation:
Sherry, L., & Myers, K.M. (1996). Developmental research on collaborative design. In Proceedings of the 43rd Annual Conference of the Society for Technical Communication. Charlottesville, VA: Society for Technical Communication.

Lorraine Sherry, Karen Madsen Myers, and the Internet Task Force (Craig Cutts, Curtis Farrell, Jere Paulmeno, Martin Ryder, Stephen Sanford, and Brent Wilson)

Copyright 1996, Lorraine Sherry. All rights reserved.


The University of Colorado at Denver's Internet Task Force designed a home page on the World Wide Web (WWW) as part of a learner support environment that addressed a set of specific needs stated by members of our School of Education. At the same time, we studied the group dynamics of our own collaborative learning/design team. Individual members interacted with one another and with the design team as a whole, both face-to-face and via e-mail. We developed a 4-point model which is appropriate for technically sophisticated adult learners, instructional designers, and software developers. Critical features are reflection-in-action, building a common knowledge base, taking ownership of an authentic task, and generating research questions.

Developmental Research on Collaborative Design

The Internet can be viewed either as an information superhighway filled with roadkill, or as a powerful constructivist environment for learning. The vision of our Internet Task Force - a team of graduate students and our faculty advisor - was to enable our academic community to join the Internet culture. To us, this involved developing an online knowledge-building and learner support environment, as well as conducting research on computer-supported collaborative learning, participatory design, and technology adoption.

This type of effort requires close cooperation among members of a team who are attempting to do three things simultaneously:

  1. build a shared base of knowledge and skills
  2. design and develop a software product, and
  3. make sure that product is usable by the intended audience.

Though participatory or collaborative design is given much lip service by both corporate and academic researchers, Grudin (1991) points out that group dynamics can be very complex, and are not well understood. Group processes are slower, and environmental variables play a much larger role. This is especially important when designing groupware, where the end users are in direct contact with the developers during the entire design and implementation process.

Models of the collaborative learning process proliferate throughout the literature (Brown, 1994; Crook, 1994a; Koschmann et al., 1994; Brown & Campione, in press) - these focus on building a shared knowledge base. Instructional design models also abound (Tennyson, 1995) - these focus on the analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation of learning environments. Then there are computer-based tools and hypermedia collaboration environments for educational and research use (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1991; Edelson, Pea, & Gomez, 1996), and learning-by-design environments (Harel & Papert, 1993) - these represent the tools for communication and knowledge-building among a community of learners. The last piece of the puzzle is the design tool itself - for us, the HTML authoring system and the World Wide Web (WWW). Our problem was to put all these pieces together and assemble the puzzle.

We had surfed the Internet enough to realize that the WWW is a library, a resource database, and a vastly powerful researach tool that excites, motivates, and empowers students. Thus, we wanted to build a home page that would be a resource of depth rather than one which emphasized "bells and whistles". Our intent was to lend support to our academic community in their attempts to access information, build knowledge, and share their findings with others. We studied, reflected upon, and documented our collaborative process as we participated in both face-to-face meetings and e-mail discussions, in an attempt to carry out what we considered an authentic task.

At the beginning of the project, none of us had expertise in HTML (the hypertext mark-up language). Most of us had only a rudimentary knowledge of the UNIX operating system and hypermedia-specific design principles. Thus, our developmental research, carried out over a six-month period, focused on identifying processes underlying group collaboration within a team whose members had double identities - we were designer-researchers as well as a constructivist learning group. We wanted not only to report and reflect on this case study, but also to learn how our findings could apply to collaborative design in general.

Project Background

In the spring of 1994, two of our members created Instructional Technology (IT) Connections, an online system which links students with a variety of Internet resources and tools relating to Information and Learning Technologies and Cognitive Science. IT Connections is linked to the Online Helpdesk, an all-purpose hypertext-based help page for both beginning and experienced users of UCD computers (Ryder, 1994).

That September, an ad hoc group of graduate students joined the pair and founded the UCD Internet Task Force. Based on an informal needs assessment of members of our academic division, we expanded the original hypertext documents to include a set of electronic job aids and three tutorials. We hoped that these would enable faculty and students to share scholarly products via e-mail, file sharing, and the UCD gopher server. Each member was individually responsible for contributions to the joint effort of the Task Force (Sherry, 1995a).

In January 1995, when the university implemented its new WWW server, we were able to progress from piecemeal interventions to a systemic approach toward information delivery and performance support. In spite of our enthusiasm for the potential of Internet resources, we were sensitive to the very real obstacles facing students and faculty alike. In particular, we were wary of mandating policy and enforcing changes in the culture without careful assessment of people's perceptions and needs (Sarason, 1988). Based on our previous research (Wilson et al., 1995; Sherry & Morse, 1995), and Rossett's (1991) model, we conducted a division-wide survey to assess the level of Internet training and support needed by our students, faculty, and staff. Our results are reported in Wilson et al. (1996), and Sherry (1995b), for the 73 members of our academic community who responded to the survey.

Basically, we are online, mobile, and have good e-mail access. Respondents wish to use the Internet for local information access; communicating with classmates, professors, and advisors; doing online searches for scholarly research; and, to a lesser extent, collaboration and information dissemination. Though our network affords a means of both local and global collaboration and knowledge-building, our participants felt that they were not quite ready to enter the global Internet community.

To find the reasons for this resistance, we built an affective profile of the respondents, selected the ten individuals who formed the "tail" of the distribution, and referred to them as "resisters" (see Martin, 1991). Their most important concerns of these resisters were affective in nature, rather than technological:

  1. I feel intimidated by the techno-gurus in the program.
  2. I feel I can accomplish the same thing with mail and phone calls.
  3. I'm the type that needs a lot of hand-holding.
  4. I'm concerned that I'd have to learn too much technical jargon and commands to make it worthwhile.

We are well aware that any project that introduces innovation to a population requires ongoing support until the innovation becomes part of the culture. Especially in technology, where the language and procedures are unique to the field, a large degree of "hand-holding" is necessary in the beginning. Most of the 73 respondents requested learner support, though the desired type of support varied greatly between early adopters and resisters. The early adopters were quite comfortable with online help and tutorials, whereas the resisters sought face-to-face instruction, whether in formal classes or by graduate assistants in the computer laboratories.

To assist with the enculturation process, we created promotional brochures to assist students in accessing and using the online tutorials, and encouraging them to create, share, and disseminate their research projects. We also realized that the home page would have to be transparent, user-friendly, simple to navigate, and easily accessible. We needed to present information clearly, in plain English, with a mininum of technical jargon. Moreover, we would have to create some means to "support the support system" - namely, to set up workshops and laboratory assistance to aid new users in accessing, navigating, and using the home page.


To provide a user-friendly interface, we had Netscape installed on all the computers. We also developed a template for automatically creating and customizing student home pages. Our next step was to design the home page itself. It was to include information about our school and it academic programs; student and faculty contact information; student and faculty home pages, doctoral portfolio items and scholarly products; tools for finding, sharing, and disseminating information; and online help. Our initial meetings were spent negotiating the conceptual framework and content outlines for the home page. We agreed upon tasks, timelines, responsibilities, and deliverables. Each member took ownership of a piece of the project, using his/her student directory.

The collaborative structure of our project led to a cognitive processing model that encompassed learning outcomes, as well as design. Where our skills were lacking, team members with greater expertise coached novices. Where our tasks were intertwined, team members worked as pairs, either sharing or linking related elements. Our advisor settled into a pattern of providing consultative leadership and support, while leaving the day-to-day development to others, based on the needs, expertise, and progress of group members.

We designed collaboratively by asking questions, requesting technical information, and seeking opinions about handling problems. Often, alternative views resulted in major differences of opinion. Rather than stifle conflict, we acknowledged opposing viewpoints, debated alternatives, and negotiated differences of opinion. At times, we arrived at a mutually agreeable solution by re-thinking our original premises, restructuring our ideas, and developing a unique synthesis of two alternate points of view. Socially constructed knowledge of this sort allowed us to develop entirely new understandings of the tasks at hand, as well as the negotiation process itself.

Since we were learning new skills and content knowledge, performing instructional design, development, and evaluation, and studying the process at the same time, we took a Type I developmental research approach to describe our group's activities. (Richey & Nelson, in press) Developmental research is defined as "the systematic study of designing, developing and evaluating instructional programs, processes and products that must meet the criteria of internal consistency and effectiveness" (Seels & Richey, 1994, p. 127). It is based upon Argyris's (1985) concept of action research. Similar concepts are used by other researchers: reflection-in-action (Schon, 1987) and situated designing (Rowland, 1993).

In addition to utilizing student/faculty survey data (Sherry, 1995b), we achieved triangulation by saving and extracting information from three other sources (see Table 1).

	Key	Source
	(E)	E-mail messages among Task Force memvers
	(M)	Task Force Meeting notes
	(Q)	Member responses to a written questionnaire

	Table 1. Triangulation sources

Cognitive Processing Model

Besides face-to-face meetings, both formal and informal, we made use of two important computer-based tools, namely, e-mail and the HTML authoring language. Our electronic discussions kept the learning component of our creative efforts on track between our monthly meetings. This created what Crook (1994a) describes as a narrative state - it furnishes "a recognized platform for the next set of explorations" (p. 107) and establishes a longitudinal continuity within their dynamically constructed, common knowledge base of an electronically-linked learning community. Since our mediated conversations stem from common resources and shared prior experience, comments were often directed toward groups of participants rather than to individuals. One member's comment was particularly incisive:

I think the question that is facing our design team is, how can we, as individuals within an academic division at a recognized research university, best reveal our work and interests to the outside world. (E)

We found that the collaborative structure of our design process, with its associated learning component, enabled us to engage in the type of interpersonal communication that Pea (1994) terms "transformative". In Pea's model, knowledge is restructured, and all participants are transformed as learners, by means of their communicative activities. We also felt that we were engaging in a type of online conversation that Bereiter (1994) describes as "progressive discourse". Specifically, we had a commitment to work toward a common understanding that was satisfactory to all, a willingness to frame questions in such a way that evidence might be brought to bear on them, a commitment to expand the common body of knowledge as well as considering possible alternative solutions to problems we encountered, and a willingness to allow any belief to be subjected to criticism if it would advance the discourse.

As our work progressed, a cognitive processing model emerged, resulting from our collaborative structure. We found that our design project involved four key activities which were driven by our interactions, both face-to-face and via e-mail. We propose that these four processes work interactively and provide a framework for analysis of successful collaboration based on shared goals, shared understandings, and a common ground of knowledge. The components of our cognitive processing model include:

Summary of Findings

Using our model as an organizing structure for our research, we present an abbreviated summary of our findings anchored to the literature on collaborative learning. Our findings are organized as a set of principles. We include a few notable quotes from team members, along with their sources (see Table 1).

1. Metacognition or Reflection

Conscious monitoring of our own cognitive states and processes is an integral part of the learning process.

Two goals of authentic tasks are learner independence and development of self-regulation. The success in carrying out a task depends on the group's commitment to reflective practice. Hence, for us, metacognition became the starting point for both the learning component and the design component of our collaborative process.

Brown (1994) describes metacognition thusly: "Effective learners operate best when they have insight into their own strengths and weaknesses and access to their own repertoires of strategies for learning" (p.9). This construct was summarized by our faculty advisor:

The task was worthy of our doctoral students, as long as we took a reflective, critical look at our own activities, and related them to the literature on learning communities and constructivism. (Q)

Yakimovicz & Murphy (1995) found that participants in an electronic discussion group worked together, shared adversities and successes, increased their self-concept, and expanded existing awareness. As they reflected upon their experiences with problems, they coupled them with their individual and collaborative solutions to make meaning out of their cooperative venture. Throughout the project, our team members reflected on their both their roles and their contributions to the design process:

I knew what troubles the team would run into, because I had already run into those problems before they did. People would seek me out in person, or e-mail me and ask questions, and I would answer them. (Q)

I think the question that is facing our design is, how can we, as individuals within a department, best reveal our work and interests, as members of a department, to the outside world. (E)

We began with several brainstorming sessions to determine what we knew, what we didn't know, and what we needed to know, so that we could begin to locate sources of information and skills which would be needed later on. Then, we proceeded to develop the necessary skills and common knowledge base for us to take ownership of our task.

2. Knowledge-Building.

A common knowledge base emerges from active dialogue among those who seek to understand and apply concepts and techniques.

Problem-based learning (PBL) is an inductive knowledge-building process for pre-professionals in medical or business school. The facilitator poses a practical problem; the learners must work collaboratively to find the resources to solve it. This is a cognitive apprenticeship environment in which novices are supported while they develop the metacognitive skills to solve typical problems that they will encounter later in actual practice. (See Savery & Duffy, 1995.)

In contrast, Brown and Campione (in press) describe a deductive knowledge-building process in their Fostering Communities of Learners (FCL) project, designed to promote the critical thinking and reflection skills that are the foundation of higher literacy. Students engage in research in order to share knowledge and expertise with their group. Their efforts culminate in an authentic task which demands that all participants have learned about all aspects of a joint topic.

Though our cognitive process model uses the same building blocks as Brown and Campione, we found that they occurred in quite a different order. Our activities were more like those in an open-ended, iterative PBL scenario than a closed FCL process. Our interactions, both in the learning component and in the design component, reflected the same overall aims and goals of PBL, namely, to enable team members to become self-directed learners and to sustain problem-solving throughout professional life.

As we worked, there were issues to be dealt with, differences of opinion to be negotiated, and more questions to be answered. Thus, it was the process of carrying out the task that generated our research questions, not the reverse. Constructing our knowledge base roughly paralleled Brown's (1994) description of knowledge construction among a community of learners.

2a. Expertise is not uniformly distributed. Expertise is irregularly distributed and develops at different rates for each individual in the community.

Brown (1994) notes, citing Vygotsky (1978), that learning occurs in a zone between one's current level of learning and the level one can reach with the help of people, tools, and aids. Some members are already experts in certain specific areas; others are exercising cognitive activities and skills that are just emerging. The group benefits from the range of expertise of its members. Our design process was strengthened because of the distributed expertise of the group.

As one of the early developers of a home page, I helped others get started on simple page development. As others became proficient, I identified a need: the existence of a page where people in the educational technology community could find up-to-date information about calls for participation and upcoming conferences. I then focused on developing and maintaining this capability. (Q)

Two of us began developing the Ph.D. page by identifying our individual strengths and setting realistic timelines. At this point my questions were directed to two other group members and my partner utilized a third member as her primary technical resource. (Q)

Skills and strengths were dispersed irregularly among different team members. Somehow the project achieved a focus and people's various talents were put to very good use. (Q)

2b. Confrontation helps restructure knowledge. The process of confrontation and conflict among group members, rather than being viewed as a disadvantage, brings about fundamental cognitive restructuring.

Brown and Palincsar (1989) note the important role of the skeptic in group discussions: by forcing the group to defend or elaborate solutions, a more mature resolution will emerge (p. 403). Areas of conflict brought about negotiation and restructuring of our knowledge about the task.

I emphasize that front-end planning is not as important as just "doing it". This is why I suggested that a group effort might get in the way of individual creativity. (E)

Well, I'd like to know who is going to maintain the page? We just can't keep letting that issue slide by.(Q)

You're a "Devil's Advocate" who constantly reminds us to look at all facets of things as we charge on ahead! (E)

We have an interesting group of very independent thinkers with a lot of personal ownership. That's positive because we have a high level of commitment to seeing this through right. We need to begin working with one another collaboratively on the product, and it's time to negotiate who will do what, and how. (E)

Restructuring generally occurred after E-mail discussion identified changes that were necessary. As a general rule changes occurred only following collaboration with other team members. (Q)

2c. The team becomes cohesive. A disparate group self-organizes into an interdependent community of learners, with common discourse based on shared expertise, strategies, values, and representational tools.

Pea (1994) describes two modes of communication. In information transmission, knowledge is imparted to the learner by some form of instruction; in ritual communication, learners come to share common knowledge and values through participation and socialization with other group members. These are not mutually exclusive. When learners participate in inquiries at a field's frontiers of knowledge with mature communities of practitioners, the communication process transcends both modes and gives rise to a process whereby both sender and receiver are transformed.

By capitalizing on varieties of talent, the group setting forces learning, understanding, and conceptual change. Ideas migrate through the group, and new concepts are further refined. Hanson and Gladfelter (1995), like Brown (1994) found that discourse takes place within a learning community joined by common values and an esprit de corps.

Our team self-organized in a way that capitalized on the strengths of individuals with dispersed knowledge. Members began to share leadership and discourse activities which are normally reserved for a mentor or manager, while the mentor became a full participant in the design process. Team members commented on their interdependency.

I learned a lot as I went along - mostly about the incredible energy and initiative brought to projects by the students themselves. I learned that groups have a way of self-organizing in a way that capitalizes on the strengths of individuals. (Q)

I gained a renewed appreciation for the total interdependency of the network. You can't have total consistency; you need so many pieces to be up and running, and you have to depend on those pieces being there for you. (Q)

3. The team takes ownership of the task

In a distributed, collaborative environment, learners take ownership of, and responsibility for, an authentic task.

Savery and Duffy (1995) note, "When we are in a learning environment, there is some stimulus or goal for learning-the learner has a purpose for being there" (p. 31). Bereiter and Scardamalia (1994) refer to this as intentional learning or goal-directed behavior. Moreover, the task must be authentic, that is, the cognitive demands of the task must be consistent with the cognitive demands of the environment for which the learners are preparing themselves.

My goals were entirely collaborative. I knew we needed Home Pages for our School of Education, our doctoral program, and the instructional technology program. (Q)

I knew up front what my goals were: to learn the tools and to have a defined piece within which to explore and express that learning - the Ph.D. page met that need so I took it. (Q)

Crook (1994b) remarks that when learners are linked electronically, collaboration takes place in relationship to the technology rather than through it.

The dominant resource I used was the IT Connections link. E-mail was the key to ongoing support and critical analysis of the project. I used the support function throughout the process. It prevented unnecessary delays between team meetings. (Q)

4. Research questions emerge.

Research occurs within the collaborative group and is extended to resources outside the group.

The group's knowledge was socially negotiated. Conflict, questioning, and asking for clarification all played a part in the research process.

Computer networks may be the best solution to support collaboration when collocation is not possible, but are they as effective as collocation of participants? (E)

What should be the proper mix of face-to-face communications to optimize communications and knowledge-building within a collaborative group of designers? (E)

At what point do we remove the scaffolding? The template lessens the cognitive load, but it's beginning to stifle creativity. (M)

I wonder why the students are polarized on whether they do or do not want formal courses or workshops in telecommunications? (E)


Our findings were consistent with Brown (1994), Savery and Duffy (1995), and Pea (1994). As team members began to develop expertise in their chosen areas, their initial roles began to change, and members started to take on some of the discourse activities normally reserved for the teacher/mentor. Whereas in Scardamalia and Bereiter's research (1994), the moderator stays in command, our own advisor evolved, learned, and became a participant. Participants took on moderator roles such as keeping up the team's energy, moving us toward our goal, providing resources, and giving feedback. No one member possessed the expertise of the entire group. The group became a self-organizing system with members contributing their unique expertise and, in turn, learning new skills and extending the group's common knowledge base.

Our interactions were supported by, but not limited to, electronic communication. Crook (1994a) tells us to work toward interactions that are resourced in relation to computers. The interactive processes described by our model-shared knowledge, research questions, authentic task, and metacognition, referenced in relation to technology-supported the development of our own expertise. As the project evolved, the technology became more and more transparent to us, and instead of fighting the technology, we began to mold the tools to our needs. Our model and the principles supporting it can assist others undertaking collaborative design projects.


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