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Emergent theories and designs for collaborative knowledge building and collective creativity continue to point to the pressing need to better understand how the power of virtual distributed teams and online communities can be harnessed. My current research and design work aims to analyze the potential of new forms of interaction to generate and advance collaborative learning, creativity, and knowledge building online. In particular, I study the interactional methods that allow small groups of learners to construct, advance, and sustain knowledge about open-ended mathematical topics over time, as part of the Virtual Math Teams (VMT) online learning community.

Several componential models of individual creativity have characterized creativity-specific skills related to “bridging” specific elements of an individual’s space of creative work [1]. These include the ability to concentrate efforts for long periods of time, use "productive forgetting" when warranted, and break “cognitive set”. We can predict that these individual skills also play a role that is distinctively critical in the context of long-term collective knowledge building. In fact, recent models of group creativity [2] argue that collective creative work has to be understood as the synergy between synchronic interactions (i.e. parallel and simultaneous) and diachronic exchanges (i.e. interaction over long time spans, and mediated by ostensible products). Furthermore, the emergence of computational environments that support collaborative and sustained work has opened up the opportunity for researchers to go beyond studies of “solo” action and investigate the distributed system of thinking and learning that situates artifacts, tasks, and knowing in the interactions of co-participants and activity systems over time.

One particular aspect of the interdisciplinary study of computer-supported collaboration which is not well understood yet, is how interactions which are dispersed over time (e.g., long-term projects, multi-session problem solving engagements, etc.) and which cut across different collectivities (e.g., sub-teams, teams, communities, etc.) can more successfully be interlinked or "bridged" so that they lead to more constructive and sustained collaborative knowledge building. I use the term "bridging" to define interactional phenomena that cross over the boundaries of time, activities, collectivities, or perspectives. One of the central conjectures of my current research is that bridging is highly consequential for the nature of the overall knowledge-building experience of small groups interacting in a persistent computational environment. Therefore, studying how collectivities “bridge” interactional discontinuities may provide a unique viewpoint into the interrelationship between the local small- group activity and other more wide-ranging groups (e.g., online communities, multi-team collectivities, etc.) as well as across longer sequences of creative activity. This knowledge will contribute as well to the investigation of the nature and dynamics of group cognition [3] in which cognition is viewed as primarily linguistic, interactional
and dialogical phenomena of collectivities in action.

My current research work investigates, from an interactional perspective, the ways in which bridging activity contributes to sustaining continuity in the collaborative knowledge building of small groups in the Virtual Math Teams project —a research project at the Math Forum online learning community. Ultimately, my work is aimed at achieving the following three goals by analyzing bridging phenomena:
a) Defining how three different aspects of the online interactions of virtual collaborative learning teams are bridged: episodes, collectivities, and perspectives.
b) Exploring the interactional effects of such bridging activity on the sustained knowledge work of virtual teams.
c) Investigating how bridging activity can be supported by designed artifacts.


The Math Forum ( is an intentional, online community, active since 1992. It promotes technology-mediated interactions among teachers of mathematics, students, mathematicians, staff members and other interested parties committed to learning, teaching, and doing mathematics. As the Math Forum community continues to evolve, the development of new interaction supports becomes increasingly essential for sustaining and enriching the mechanisms of community participation available. As an example of these endeavors, the Virtual Math Teams (VMT) project at the Math Forum investigates the innovative use of online collaborative environments to support effective secondary mathematics learning in small groups. The VMT project is an NSF-funded research program designed to investigate sustained collaborative problem-solving in computer-supported environments and to characterize how members of the Math Forum’s community of learners constitute their interactions over time to foster their development as learners of mathematics. VMT implements a multidisciplinary approach to research and development that integrates the quantitative modeling of students’ online interactions, ethnographic and conversation analytical studies of collaborative problem solving, and an iterative process of software design. Key research issues addressed include: How to group students for effective online collaboration; how to design rich mathematical problems that foster collaboration and deep mathematical
reasoning; how to structure the online collaborative experience; and how to study the forms of collaboration and reasoning that take place.

Central to the VMT research program are the investigation of the nature and dynamics of group cognition as well as the design of effective technological supports for quasi-synchronous small-group interactions, and its linkages with distributed, asynchronous interactions at the level of the online community. We are currently studying how middle school students do mathematics collaboratively in online chat environments. We are particularly interested in the methods that they develop to conduct their interactions in such an environment. Taken together, these methods define a culture, a shared set of ways to make sense together. The methods are subtly responsive to the chat medium, the pedagogical setting, the social atmosphere and the intellectual resources that are available to the participants. These methods help define the nature of the collaborative experience for the small groups that develop and adopt them.

In our iterative design-based research approach, we started by conducting chats in a variety of commercially available environments: AOL Instant Messenger, Babylon, Blackboard, WebCT. Based on these early investigations, we concluded that we needed to add a shared whiteboard for drawing geometric figures and for persistently displaying notes. We also found a need to minimize “chat confusion” by supporting explicit referencing of conversation threads. We decided to try ConcertChat, a research collaboration environment
combining persistent chat with a shared whiteboard and a set of referencing tools. By collaborating with the software developers, our educational researchers have been able to successively try out versions of the environment with groups of students and to gradually modify the environment in response to our research. Some of ConcertChat’s interactional supports include:

Chat conversations are persistent during and after each session. Latecomers automatically receive the last ten messages when joining a session and can load all previous messages at will.

A chat user can post a new message with an explicit graphical link pointing to one or more previous messages. The graphical link between the two messages is displayed until a new message gets posted in the chat but can be shown again by a user by clicking on the linking message.

The shared whiteboard allows chat participants to create drawings and shared graphic information with each other. Every whiteboard action is recorded as part of the evolving history of the whiteboard. Users can manipulate a slide bar to navigate through all changes made to whiteboard since the creation of the chat room.

When someone types a new chat message, they can also select and point to a rectangular area in the whiteboard. When that message appears in the chat as the last posting, a bold line appears connecting the text to the area of the drawing (see Figure 1).

Figure1. VMT/ConcertChat collaboration environment with references from chat to whiteboard


I use the framework of design-based research and a series of design studies as the backbone of my research. This cycle of design and theory-building work is conceived as a way to iteratively refine our understanding of bridging in the context of the VMT online community. Each cycle is comprised of a design experiment in which a particular aspect of the theory in development will be explored in close relation to a design instance of the interaction environment provided. The initial design study is aimed at characterizing the dynamics of bridging in virtual teams interacting with basic computational supports. Following the results of the first design study, subsequent design studies will explore the effects of bridging activity and the role of designed artifacts in supporting bridging, through two subsequent experiments. The particular method used to analyze the datacollected through these design studies is interaction/chat analysis, a method derived from interaction and conversation analysis. When investigating the role of bridging in sustained collaborative learning we investigate the moment-by-moment unfolding of three trajectories of interaction: The situated interaction of the team members, the emergent properties that might come into view at the group and community levels and the ways that the individuals participating in the team might use to re-construct such outcomes.

My preliminary analysis of the ways that virtual math teams used a wide array of methods to sustain their joint activity suggests that in the particular domain of team problem solving and knowledge building, access to special supports for long-term work might be crucial to the success of these interaction environments. On the other hand, direct access to “raw” records of interactions (e.g. chat transcripts) might be only of limited value to the teams’ knowledge work. As a result, it remains as a challenge to researchers and designers to explore effective supports for sustaining the complexity of multiple, long-term problem-solving teams. In particular, support for “bridging” —the purposeful crossing of diverse interactional boundaries—seems to be a critical design challenge. This analysis has uncovered how participants develop a series of “bridging” methods used to co-construct mathematical knowledge over time, evolve a sense of collectivity, and interlink the online environment with other interaction spaces. My particular interest in “bridging” work resembles other researcher’s analyses of the structure of synchronous collaboration such as Linebarger et al’s proposal for combining “episodic”, “sub-group” and “agenda” supports for collaboration. Based on these observations I continue to explore three main aspects of bridging work:

Episode bridging: Supports for interlinking sequences of knowledge-building interactions (e.g. quasi-synchronous and asynchronous) while empowering users to make sense of knowledge from previous collaborative activities and use it for present or envisioned group interactions.

Perspective bridging: Artifacts and activities oriented towards allowing participants to discover and negotiate multiple conceptual perspectives within and across team interactions or held by other interested users (e.g. mentors, supervisors, etc.). Identity bridging: Facilitating the awareness of teams’ knowledge trajectories over time and the opportunistic discovery of potential collaborators. Exploiting the interdependence between small-group problem-solving interactions and community participation over time.

Because continuity in itself is important to the success of many collectivities involved with knowledge work and in particular those related to distributed virtual teams and online communities, the knowledge developed through this research will significantly contribute to emergent theories and designs for collaborative knowledge building in fields such as social computing, computer-supported collaborative learning, and information science and technology in general. By understanding the structural significance of “bridging,” researchers in these fields will be better able to understand how members of online collectivities recognize, constitute, and use the boundaries emerging from their interactions (e.g., those related to multiple online sessions, sub-collectivities, and knowledge-perspectives). In addition, designers of online environments will be in a better position to support bridging activities through particular “bridging supports” and to produce environments that take into account this very consequential phenomenon. In this way, collaboration environments will be in a better position to realize the potential of new forms of collective interaction to generate and advance learning and knowledge in organizations, communities of interest, academic disciplines, societies, and many other types of collectivity.


I am currently a doctoral candidate in the College of Information Science and Technology at Drexel University and a research assistant with the Virtual Math Teams (VMT) project. My dissertation work is entitled: "Bridging mechanisms in team-based online problem solving: Continuity in collaborative knowledge building." My current areas of interest include Social Computing, Computer-supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL), Human- Computer Interaction, and Social Informatics. Prior to starting my doctoral studies, I worked as a senior research associate at the Center for Research in Human Development and Education (CRHDE) at Temple University, conducting research and development work on the application of advanced technologies for learning. I expect that participating in the he graduate student symposium at the Creativity & Cognition conference will provide me with a unique opportunity to share my research work and learn from other students and researchers new perspectives on the study of collaborative creative work, knowledge building, and the design of computational environment to support such activities. In addition, I anticipate that such forum will provide with a wealth of information that I can bring back to Drexel and integrate in the ongoing research and development work of the Virtual Math Teams project.


1. T. M. Amabile, The Social Psychology of Creativity. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1983.
2. R. K. Sawyer, Group Creativity: Music, Theater, Collaboration. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003.
3. G. Stahl, Group Cognition: Computer Support for Building Collaborative Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.

Last modified 18 February 2008 at 10:19 pm by haleden