Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Type



College of Education and Human Services


Learning Sciences and Human Development

Committee Chair

Malayna Bernstein

Committee Co-Chair

Amy Root

Committee Member

Laura Brady

Committee Member

Ugur Kale

Committee Member

Erin McHenry-Sorber


Computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) presents postsecondary educators with a conundrum: how to design and support small-group activities without stifling deep and meaningful learning. The literature indicates that students are not consistently practicing higher-order cognitive activities, educators are not reliably designing or facilitating them, and/or researchers are not locating or identifying them where they are occurring. The aim of this dissertation is to explore these deficits by identifying the antecedent conditions that most affect collaboration. Specifically, I answer the question, how do learner’s prior knowledge, characteristics, and experiences manifest in their collaborative processes. Addressing a gap in the literature, this study employs distance ethnography to assess at a fine-grain level the social and cognitive interactions of a trio of collaborators in a natural setting—an object-oriented, small-group project in an online writing course. The results reveal several ways that learner dispositions and prior knowledge manifest as barriers to productive interactions, including tendencies toward indirect and unidirectional communication; siloed workspaces and individual orientations to group assignments; unequal coordination work; and the preservation of individual autonomy to the detriment of group knowledge objects. The study has pedagogical and theoretical implications related to the theory of transactional distance (TTD) and collaborative cognitive load theory (CCLT) and pedagogical and methodological implications for the integration of reflective-practitioner journals.