The forces at work in our telic group

During our last session we discussed and read the paper about ‘Distributed Cognition’. Distributed cognition is a psychological theory that says that knowledge lies not only within the individual but also in the individual’s social 1 and physical environment. In this post I reflect on the paper.

Apart from the reflective blogpost, I will use the paper more  in my final writing assignment on Google Apps for Edu and how it affects the learning process in my school. It is really an interesting paper, and (in my opinion) since it was published  in 2000 a lot of the main ideas reoccur in other theories or pedagogical views  (collective intelligencesituated cognition -  artificial intelligenceconnectivism).

At the end of the Collaborate session we were also asked to reflect and brainstorm about how we worked together, how it was for us to work in little groups. I remember that we all mentioned rather ‘technical’ elements of working together or feelings: the software we used (GoogleDocs, sharing Prezi), the language barrier, ‘very enjoyable’, ‘great adding on each others thoughts’, shared engagement, etc. Richard pointed out to us that we should think more about the underlying processes rather than on surface activities and results (cf. Vygotsky 2). What were the forces at work in our groups? Taking into account Vygotksy’s framework 3  and the crucial dialogue model of Johan Roels 4, I end up with following processes underlying our group work:

Interaction: we exchanged ideas in this Google Doc. This had a two way effect on our group members.

Dialogue: through an extra Collaborate session we shared thoughts, found value in each others points of view (appreciative understanding of opinions).

Communication: regularly e-mails were sent to make appointments and announcements.

Imagination: the sharing of the Prezi and the way Dave, Koen and Kieran used this tool fueled my own imagination.

Transformation: my final blogpost was a sum of the shared thoughts and experiences.

Remark about the  mediative role of the tools: it is very interesting to see how we used Google Docs, Blackboard Collaborate and Prezi to mediate these processes. We should indeed be more aware of how we mediate (delegate) these processes to the technologies. We focus too often on the tech tools and artefacts while the underlying processes are easily taken for granted.

1. The term social refers to a characteristic of living organisms as applied to populations of humans and other animals. It always refers to the interaction of organisms with other organisms and to their collective co-existence, irrespective of whether they are aware of it or not, and irrespective of whether the interaction is voluntary or involuntary.


3. ‘Vygotsky (1962/1986) held that learning is embedded within social events, and learning occurs as a learner interacts with people, objects and events in the environment. Through interaction with surroundings and communication with others, internalization and learning occurs.’

Voogt, J & Knezek G.  (eds 2008) International Handbook of Information Technology in Primary and Secondary Education, Springer, p.253

4. Roels J. (2012) Cruciale Dialogen. Antwerpen, Garant. p. 29

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