About humans and computers, some thoughts on distributed cognition

Critical reading number 4 is this paper ‘Distributed cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-Computer Interaction Research1

The main idea in the paper is the following: cognition happens inside and outside humans, the theory says that ‘cognitive activity is constructed both from internal and external resources, and that the meaning of our actions is grounded in the context of the activity.’ 2   This in contrast to more traditional cognitive theories that focus more on the mental activity with the individual. Distributed cognition encompasses interactions between people ánd with resources and materials in the environment. When technology is well designed, the technology becomes integrated into the way people think, see and control activities.

The authors also want to provide an integrated approach/framework for research that combines ethnographic observation and controlled experimentation as a basis for design of digital work. When designing digital materials you should take into account this idea of distributed cognition. If not, you simply re-design the old model.

Let me try and make the main idea and the framework for design clear to you with two examples.

But first, important to understand the meaning of the words … What is ‘cognition’ actually?

Cognition is the mental process of ‘knowing’, including awareness, perception, reasoning or judgment. As Charlie Palmgren says it: ‘Cognition is the mental process used when modifying,  inventing, constructing and transforming our mental models. It uses existing knowledge and new information generated through awareness and appreciation.’3

Mobile technology and feedback

‘Just as a blind’s person’s cane or a cell biologist’s microscope is a central part of the way they perceive the world, so well-designed work materials become integrated into the way people think, see, and control activities, part of the distributed system of cognitive control.' 4

So, likewise (although the comparison with the blind man is a bit off track), my smartphone and tablet are fundamental devices that are integrated in the way I think and work. For example giving feedback to students’ work on GooglePlus is much more easier, effective and instant than when using a PC when I log in in the evening. Or how sharing some thoughts on Twitter, helping some tweeps or picking up some new information on Twitter, is essential for how I perceive my job as an educator. The meaning of my actions is shaped by the mobile techology.

Design digital material

We too often see information and cognitive activity as lineair. From point A, over point B to point C. This is not how we cognition works. For example the way we use the browser: scrolling back and forth between pages to find information. Pad++ is an experimental software system to support exploration of dynamic multiscale interfaces. It provides zooming and panning with structured information to create a dynamic way of browsing. The software allows you to exploit computational mechanisms effectively.  In tasks requiring returns to prior pages, users of PadPrints (based on Pad++) completed tasks in 61.2% of the time required by users of the same browser without PadPrints. 5

What does this mean for the design of learning materials? Consider distributed cognition when you think of learning materials and start designing it. It will (at least) make you wonder about how we use technology to shape our mental models. Instead of using new technologies to develop old-style-learning-materials such as the ‘Bordboek’. A ‘board-book’ is an interactive handbook developed by educational publishers. An example via this link. But let’s be honest: this is still so teacher centred, and does not take into account the dynamic relations between people and their (mobile) technologies, nor the way young people contruct their mental models.

1. J. Hollan, E. Hutchins and D. Kirsch.
2. p.179, last but one paragraph
3. Charlie Palmgren, not published.
4. p. 178, second paragraph from the top
5. http://www.cs.umd.edu/hcil/pad++/papers/hypertext-98-padprints/