Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Reading :: Group Cognition

Group Cognition: Computer Support for Building Collaborative Knowledge
By Gerry Stahl

Group Cognition is a perplexing book. The fourth book in MIT Press' Acting with Technology series, it focuses on the topic of computer support for building collaborative knowledge, drawing largely from the literature of computer-supported cooperative learning (CSCL). As Stahl explains in the introduction, the book represents his journey over a decade of CSCL research as he came to see individual cognition as a secondary effect of group cognition, and CSCL as a way to help support, improve, collaborate, and transform individual cognition. So far so good -- I'm interested in this issue as well, and so are many others in CSCW and related fields.

What makes the book perplexing is that the chapters are based on Stahl's published research and talks over the past decade, and they appear to be only partialy revised. So we get a chronological evolution of Stahl's thinking, research, and methodologies, but they are not well framed, so it's difficult to tell what Stahl's current arguments are and how the previous arguments fit into them. Since the evolution is quite visible -- Stahl starts with rule-based modeling and ends up with a distributionist understanding of CSCL demonstrated through conversation analysis -- the book really needs more framing than it has for us to avoid becoming lost.

At one point in Ch.6, Stahl explains that this approach is not accidental: "In this draft of the chapter (still not considered a final static document but a recapitulation from one particular moment in an ongoing process), I am trying to narrate a story about how theory and practice have been comingled in our research" (p.132). Whatever the merits of this approach, it makes it difficult for us to sort out which claims are still operative, what claims aren't, and when they've decayed. It's, in a word, slippery.

Let me see if I can make it less slippery. From what I can piece together, Stahl discovered two things -- the sociocultural perspective and Conversation Analysis -- partway through the decade of research under discussion. He now wants to tell everyone in CSCL about these two things, and he spends a lot of time in the later chapters unravelling conversations syllable by syllable in the manner of conversation analysts. The portion of the book before this epiphany is primarily about modeling CSCL without a sociocultural theoretical framework. The portion after the epiphany involves applying an activity theory-based framework and CA to several studies, but it's a straight application without much theoretical or methodological development. In addition, the later chapters tend to go over the same short piece of dialogue multiple times.

If you have a CSCL background, you might find Stahl's journey to be useful. If you're familiar with CA and sociocultural theory, though, I don't think you'll turn up many new insights.

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