Knowledge building: theory, pedagogy and technology

May 17, 2011, [MD]

In week 4 of CSCL-intro, we are talking about Knowledge Building, and the first paper is Knowledge building: theory, pedagogy and technology by Scardamalia and Bereiter. I have read a number of their papers before, and have quite a bit of experience with Knowledge Forum, the platform that they developed (I also made a screencast to demonstrate how Knowledge Forum works, and can be used in a university class). This was a good opportunity to read the paper closely, taking very detailed notes, and look at some of the questions I still have.

Integrative learning and science

One of the key ideas behind KB for me, is the difference between cumulative and integrative artefacts. Scardamalia refers to literature reviews that scientists produce, and this reminds me of the initial OLNet proposal, which I blogged about three years ago. Later, she discusses the similarities between knowledge building discourse, and knowledge work in professional communities. She states that:

In scientific and scholarly research teams, knowledge building often proceeds with no special technology to support it. This is possible because knowledge building is woven into the social fabric of the group and in a sense all the technology used by the group supports it.

However, I wonder why she doesn't spend more attention on how professionals can improve their knowledge work. CSCL has a sister-discipline in Computer-Supported Collaborative Work, which has spent a lot of time looking at ways to improve for example knowledge management in companies and organizations. Scardamalia posits the scientific discourse as some kind of ideal, and there is no doubt that it is powerful, but there is currently a whole lot of very exciting work centered around improving the collaboration for scientists -- things like open notebook science, wikis, social networks for citation sharing, linking datasets, etc.

When I go to the IKIT website and see a list of more than 150 publications, I wonder if there isn't a better way in which the knowledge could be presented. I would love to see a wiki on Knowledge Building, where I could click on "scaffolds", and I would instantly see "the state of knowledge for the community" about scaffolds, the different definitions, the different ways of using them, the different research projects that have used them, and "we still need to understand"... What are the open questions in Knowledge Building research? What are the challenges that the community grapples with? How does new research "fit in" with what exists?


Scardamalia doesn't write much about pedagogy in this article, although she refers to a few other articles (which I'd like to read in the future), however I've both taken one of her classes, and observed/heard about some of the primary school classes. I know that she does not want to provide any "blueprints" for how to run a class, however I think this makes it very difficult for people to adopt these principles. She mentions that working with Knowledge Forum should not be the only activity in the class, they might go on excursions, do experiments, etc. In practice, one of the things I observed in the primary school classroom was "knowledge talks", where the teacher would project a Knowledge Forum database on the wall, and talk through it with the kids, the database being their "shared artifact" that they can refer to in their discussions.

I am quite fascinated by this interplay between asynchronous individual (although in practice the students often sit in groups typing in messages to the computer, for some of the small kids, the teachers also help them) activity and synchronous group activity. How do you best structure a "knowledge talk" to help with the productive discourse? If you run an online class, could this be replaced by a meeting in Big Blue Button, or on Etherpad? (Of course, it would loose the facility of easily pointing to nodes, and saying "I think this one was very useful").

The Knowledge Forum environment

It's pretty much impossible to discuss Knowledge Building without mentioning Knowledge Forum, the platform which was formerly called CSILE, and which has formed the center-piece of Scardamalia's research for the last 25 years. While there is no doubt that this environment has been very useful, enabling a lot of experimentation, especially in the early days when there was nothing else like it, I feel like this single-minded focus on Knowledge Building has held the theory back. Not only because the environment is not freely available (although an open source modernized version might be coming out), but also because the theory should apply much more broadly, and I think trying to foster Knowledge Building using different environments would also enrich the theory.

Many of the Knowledge Building papers complain about threaded discussions, but today we have so many more environments, from wikis to twitter, to blogs with pingback and comments, RSS feeds, aggregators, etc. (I discussed with Monica whether we could make a plugin for WordPress that provided a similar "scaffold" with "My theory is", "We still need to understand", "This explains", etc. Wouldn't be very hard technically). And as we will see next with with Dan Suther, there are actually a number of other graphical discourse environments with subtly different characteristics. The only paper I know of, which tries to foster a Knowledge Building environment with two environments is Duke-Williams and King, who compare the use of Elgg with Knowledge Forum. And Konrad Glogowski, who was a doctoral student with Scardamalia, wrote amazing posts about using blogs with his students, although I don't think he was trying to foster traditional Knowledge Building.


Stian Håklev May 17, 2011 Toronto, Canada
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