Contributions to a Theoretical Framework for CSCL

May 19, 2011, [MD]

Week four's second reading is Contributions to a Theoretical Framework for CSCL by Gerry Stahl. Stahl is a key figure in the CSCL movement, as an editor of ijCSCL, the key CSCL journal, and a prolific publisher. He is also an incredibly generous academic, sharing an incredible amount of information on his website. He even compiled ebooks of many of his papers, put together in a systematic fashion, made available most of his published books as OA, and even published all of his grant proposals (including the failed ones). I am very impressed by an academic who is so committed to sharing his work.

The paper

This week's papers are both dense and rich. We could probably spend an entire course just exploring the arguments being made in either paper. Of the two, I was more comfortable with Scardamalia's paper, since I am familiar with Knowledge Building. I found Stahl's paper quite difficult, especially since he tends to get philosophical, invoking Heidegger and Hegel (after all, his PhD thesis was in philosophy, on Marx and Heidegger).

He divides the paper into four parts, and I will touch on these four parts here:

Collaborative knowledge building

I found his comparison between learning and Knowledge Building (KB) quite interesting. He notes that learning is everywhere, and can even happen unconsciously ("even non-conscious activity can reinforce tacit competences"). It's also very hard to measure, only the consequences can be measured (and this is often problematic).

On the other hand, KB refers to specific, identifiable occurrences, and because it necessarily takes place in observable media, can be directly and empirically observed (useful for researchers). In this article, KB is thought of a group process, but even an individual who is engaged in deep and sustained work with ideas, will probably want to externalize his/her ideas in a systematic fashion.

He discusses a number of other approaches to collaborative learning, and notes a problem with project-based learning (which could probably apply to many of the settings when educators want kids to "collaborate"):

"A potential issue with project-based activities that do not adhere to a model like PBL is that tasks often get divided up so that participants cooperate (as opposed to collaborate) on the over-all project but do not collaborate on the knowledge building; they may subsequently share their individual expertise through jigsawing (Brown & Campione, 1994), but the basic knowledge building takes place outside the group interaction"

To me, this goes back to the difference between having an artifact as the goal, and the process as the goal. If we were collaborating on writing a book, or a Wikipedia article, together, the quality of the result would be measured by the quality of the artifact. It would not matter very much how we did it (except perhaps to determine the order of the authors), and division and specialization would be expected. However, if we are creating this artifact in order to learn, then this kind of division becomes problematic.

What's interesting is that earlier in the article, Stahl says of the goal of KB:

"Emphasize the construction and further development of a knowledge object that is shared by the group or “community of learners.” Not personal learning by the participants, however they will retain some of what the group discovered, deepen their collaboration skills and enjoy positive experiences of inquiry and intellectual engagement."

So if the goal of KB is the construction of a knowledge object, then why should we criticize approaches that lead to a good knowledge object, but does not let everyone learn from the approach? In the quote above, it sounds like the individual learning is more of an after-thought? (Perhaps the key is the "that is shared by the group", meaning that everyone has to be intimately involved in the production of the knowledge object?)

The individual and the social

He writes that only individuals can interpret objects ("symbols, representations and artifacts are only meaningful to individal minds", "interpretation is carried out by individuals, within horizons of personal perspectives (Gadamer 1960/1988)"), but that "isolated from social interaction, physical artifacts and historical cultures, human brains are poor thinkers and could never have developed into powerful minds (Donald, 1991)". It follows from this that a learning theory needs to account for both the individual and the social. I haven't often found a specific mention of the individual in CSCL literature, so I find this useful, however I wish he would have expanded on it.

In my paper Grappling with ideas, I introduced the concept of micro- and macro levels of collaboration:

To tackle this question, I would like to introduce the idea of different granularities of collaboration — how much of the working with ideas takes place in your own head, and at what point do you share your thoughts with others? On one end of the spectrum, at a micro-level of collaboration, you might have two people who knew each other well, who were engaged in a discussion about a problem, vocalizing every idea that comes through their mind, working together as one mind to solve the problem.

At the very other far end of the scala, the macro-level of collaboration, might be found the scientific world, where individual PhD researchers might read hundreds of books and articles, take thousands of pages of notes, diagrams, before they finally publish their dissertation, which deals with decades worth of literature. A few years after the publication of the dissertation, an article might be published that builds upon the ideas in the dissertation, a few years later, a new article, and so on. (Of course, the PhD student might be part of a local research team, and might exchange ideas with them at a much lower granularity).

This is a useful distinction, because it covers many areas where we instinctively feel that there is collaboration and knowledge building going on, such as the edublogosphere, where you can see a progression of ideas and a community understanding of the current state of knowledge in the field, yet there are no affordances in the tools we use, that make this knowledge building easier.

We can also experiment with lowering the granularity of collaboration in fields where the granularity to the public has traditionally been quite high - an example would be the movement for Open Notebook Science in academia, where researchers who would traditionally hoard their lab results until the final paper was published are not voluntarily sharing their data in almost real-time with anyone who might be interested (Bradley 2007).

Recently, Ove Christensen tweeted "An education is more than just passively listening to lectures.” I replied asking “Who says I am "passively" listening to the lectures? Just as I am "passively" reading great books?” This was in relation to the many Open Educational Resources which comprise of PDFs and lecture recordings. Certainly, the entire P2PU is founded on the idea that more active engagement with ideas is needed, however that does not mean that these resources are not useful. And this post is one example - if you go to the article's page on my wiki, you'll see how I worked with it. I first added it to my citation management system, then opened it in Skim. I read through it, highlighting relevant passages. I exported these to the wiki, and then went through them, trying to compile the most important ideas in my own language.

And now I am blogging about some of the questions that the article raised, linking this with other articles and people's contributions. This is all what I would call very active engagement with ideas, not at all "passively reading an article". Yet the article itself is passive, and for someone looking at the web statistics, they would only see "One PDF downloaded".

Artifacts and analysis

Stahl writes a great deal about artifacts and mediation, using concepts both from philosophy and anthropology. I find his writings fascinating, but difficult to penetrate or "pin down". Perhaps I need some concrete "examples". Probably I need to do more readings (perhaps some of the ones he cites), and then come back to this article, slowly teasing out what he means. Theoretically this might be a place where the community in this class could help me tease out the meaning that I cannot easily access on my own. Yet that is also where the weakness of our collaboration shows. By the time you read this blog post, we will almost be over in next week, with new readings and new topics.

We could spend weeks unpacking this material, especially given the little time available that each of us has. And if this was a true Knowledge Building class, perhaps we would now abandon all structure, and focus on this question that has appeared (or improvable idea). Yet, this brings two problems. First, everyone in the class might not find this very interesting at all. Second, there is clearly a value to covering a lot of ground, and getting an overview of the field, without spending the entire eight weeks burrowing down into one specific topic. The converse is also true. Perhaps we will structure the course differently next time. And perhaps another environment, that is at a higher granularity than blog posts, such as Knowledge Forum, would be more appropriate for that kind of interaction.


Stian Håklev May 19, 2011 Toronto, Canada
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