Deictic Roles of External Representations in Face-To-Face and Online Collaboration

Suthers, D., Girardeau, L., and Hundhausen, C. (2003). Designing for Change, chapter Deictic Roles of External Representations in Face-To-Face and Online Collaboration, pages 173–182. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Amsterdam, The Nederlands. [pdf]


This study examined how learner-constructed graphical evidence maps were used by learners to support conversation through deixis to the contents of the evidence map in face-to-face and online conditions. The results show that although external representations play important roles as resources for collaboration in both face-to-face and online learning, they are appropriated in different ways to support communication and collaboration.

In face-to-face collaboration, deixis was accomplished quite effectively through gesture. Gesture is spatially indexical: it can select any information in the shared visual space, regardless of when that information was previously encountered or introduced. Online collaborators also used external representations for referential purposes, but through verbal deixis and direct manipulation rather than gestural deixis. Verbal deixis in the chat tool was temporally indexical: it most often selected recently manipulated items.

These results raised the question of whether and how online participants revisit prior information. Direct manipulation of the representations seemed to play this role most effectively, and indeed constituted an alternative means through which some aspects of communication about problem solution took place. However, communication in an evidence map (graph) is limited to propositions in the domain and the evidential relations between them.

Direct manipulation is in a sense “first order” – higher order reflections such as discussion of possible interpretations of the information available are undertaken more often in the verbal media (speech or chat). Putting these observations together, there is a danger that online discourse may be less reflective, especially in its integration of new and prior information, because the most reflective mode of interaction – verbal – focuses on recent (temporally indexed) items online; while the easiest means of reintroducing prior information is through direct manipulation. This speculation was consistent with the reduced integration scores seen in the essays of online participants.

Leave a Reply