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Grounding in computer-supported collaborative problem solving


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Report of project #11-40711.94

December 1996

Grounding in computer-supported

collaborative problem solving.


Pierre Dillenbourg & David Traum

Abstract We study how two collaborators build a shared solution to a problem, using a computer-mediated communication system. This system includes a text-based virtual reality (a MOO) and a shared whiteboard. The subjects communicate using MOO dialogue commands, but also across different modalities (an utterance acknowledging or being acknowledged by an action in the virtual space or by an action on the whiteboard). Our analyses show the relations between the mechanisms for building shared understanding and engaging in the problem solving process. When the rate of acknowledgment regarding task management utterances is low, the pair shows a higher long-term cross-redundancy rate in data acquisition actions. The communication mode (MOO dialogue, MOO action, whiteboard) varies according to the content of interactions (e.g., facts, inferences, management). Moreover, the choice of a particular mode for a particular content varies according to the problem solving strategy. While we initially expected that whiteboard drawings would be used to disambiguate MOO utterances, it is often the opposite which occurs: the central space is the whiteboard, probably because its content is more persistent and more structured that the MOO. The whiteboard maintains a shared context for the subjects,with respect to the task (e.g., what has been done, what remains to be done), but not the linguistic context of MOO dialogues. Interwoven dialogue turns reveal that subjects are able - with a semi-persistent medium such as the MOO - to maintain parallel conversational contexts, e.g. one in MOO dialogue and one in the whiteboard, or even two contexts in MOO dialogue. The same communicative function wss sometimes performed through one tool by one pair and by another tool for another pair, or even for the same pair at another time. However, we can generalize our observations across pairs, and beyond the particular system we used, if the consider the pair plus the computer tools as a single distributed system which can be configured in many ways.

This project was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant #11-40711.94). We would like to thank all the subjects in Geneva and eslewhere who participated to the experiments. Special thanks to Daniel Schneider who anticipated several years ago the potential of MOOs for education and for research and created a MOO environment at TECFA, and to Richard Godard who carries out the technical maintenance of TefcaMOO. Our gratitude also goes to Patrick Mendelsohn for multiple discussions, to Tom Wherle and Kayla Block for technical assistance and to Philippe Lemay who computed the complexity index. We also want to acknowledge Jeanne Gaffie, Cyril Roiron, Stephanie Ohayon, Philippe Oehler, Pierre-Nicolas Meier, Lydia Montandon, Patrick Jermann and Beatrice Ligorio who conducted related research projects. Thanks to the colleagues who allowed us to test or use their groupware systems: Andrew Wilson (tkMOO), Daniel Suthers (Belvedere) and Randy Smith (Kansas). Many thanks to M. Fedel who let Pierre the chalet in which this report was written and to Patrick Jemann for giving Pierre's lectures during that time.
  1. Research objectives


Our long term goal is to improve the quality of educational software. This project builds on our previous work on learning environments in which the human learner collaborated with an artificial agent (a rule-based system) (Dillenbourg et Self, 1992; Dillenbourg et al, 1994). In these systems, the quality of interaction with the machine was often not satisfactory for the user. We made the hypothesis that knowledge-based techniques are not appropriate to design collaborative agents (Dillenbourg, to appear). This is not surprising since artificial intelligence techniques grew out cognitive science, where the dominant view was that cognition is an individual process, occurring inside the individual head. We hence aim to upgrade knowledge-based technologies in a way which accounts for the distributed nature of cognition. This project originally included two phases: (1) observing grounding in computer-mediated collaboration and (2) implementing grounding in artificial agents. Only the first phasis has been funded so far: It aims to study how two human agents build a shared understanding of the problem they have to solve jointly.

The elaboration of common grounds between two speakers has been mainly studied in linguistics, namely in pragmatics, both as a condition for dialogue and as a result achieved through dialogue. The challenge we face here is to relate the description of interactions with the problem solving process conducted by the pair. While the former are often analytic, the analysis focusing on dialogue episodes with a few turn, the latter imply a more synthetic view of the problem solving process.

In our experiments, we control the communication bandwidth between the agents to avoid the non-verbal clues (facial expressions, gazes, gestures, body language, ...) which are difficult to analyze for a psychologist, difficult to model in computational terms and difficult to transpose into a human-computer interface. We therefore use a standard computer-mediated communication software, the MOO. The MOO is a text-based virtual reality in which several users can move, act and communicate.

When we jointly solve problems, verbal interactions are often enriched by the possibility to draw a schema. Hence, the MOO was enriched by a whiteboard on which the two users can draw. Our initial hypothesis was that the drawings on the whiteboard would contribute to common grounds by disambiguating MOO utterances. This project has been named 'Bootnap', en english variation of 'bout de nappe', i.e. the piece of napkin on which one draws a schema when we discuss a probelm in a retaurant.

The choice of a standard Internet tool is relevant nowadays. The fascinating growth of Internet applications in our society generates all kinds of extreme attitudes. We encounter both optimistic discourses ("Internet will generate fundamental innovation in education) and technophobic discourses ("Internet will deprave our teenagers"). Before to discuss about the effects of using Internet software, we believe that research must first describe with precision how people use Internet tools for different tasks. Ther exists for instance very few experimental research regarding how people use the MOO, besides the work of Cherny (1995), Tennison and Churchill (1996). This project is also a contribution to the understanding of problem solving processes in virtual spaces.

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