Part 1

Part 2

Richard Fouchaux February 2013

Thick Situations: paths towards a framework for 21st-century learning design.

Part 1 “How can digital technology enhance learning?”

Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger were members of the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL), specially recruited by John Seely Brown from the fields of social anthropology and computer science respectively. When Brown asked the question he was part of a cross-disciplinary team of researchers from anthropology, education, linguistics, computer science and psychology, that he and David Kearns, then CEO of Xerox Corporation, co-founded beginning in 1986 to study learning in a wide variety of settings, including schools, workplaces, and informal ones. Prior to this most instructional design for technology-enhanced learning was based in behaviourist or cognitive theories of learning (Conole & Fill, 2005). Adopting as its main research method ethnography—the description of peoples' customs and cultures—the Institute forged new understandings of how individuals enter and join learning communities, achieve acceptance, then themselves grow and evolve as vessels of community knowledge [see Appendix A]. As they do so they often increase interaction and engagement—i.e., collaboration—with secondary networks outside their primary one (Lave & Wenger, 1991) (Lave, 1996). As we'll see, this pattern is not unlike rites of passage into social networking, whether newsgroups and chat rooms of the eighties and nineties, or 21st century Twitter (Borau et al., 2009) (Ferriter, 2010) (Graham & Ferriter, 2009) (Dugan, (2012).

Learning is “Situated”

When someone is reading silently and then they ask you to define a word, do you ask them to read the entire sentence? This, said Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989), is because “Experienced readers implicitly understand that words are situated.” Building on Miller and Gildea’s (1987) work teaching vocabulary Brown et al. similarly rejected “the assumption that knowing and doing can be separated,” saying it “leads to a teaching method that ignores the way situations structure cognition.” They came to believe that all knowledge, like language, is intrinsically linked to the situations and activities that produce it—concepts, much like Web sites, are always under construction (p32). Collins and Brown, with Newman (1989) and Holum (1991) see this idea of “Situated Knowledge and Learning” as akin to the traditional apprenticeship of ancient times—a master practitioner showing the apprentice how something is done in the context of actually doing it, and then helping them to do it too, and do it better. Modern schooling, by contrast, has amassed great bodies of conceptual knowledge, yet at the same time hidden or removed the thinking behind it from the situation of would-be learners (Dewey, 1933). These researchers proposed a synthesis of schooling and apprenticeship they call cognitive apprenticeship (CA). The fundamental goal of cognitive apprenticeship is to “make thinking visible.” (Brown et al., 1989) (Collins et al., 1989) (Collins et al., 1991) (Miller and Gildea, 1987).

If the IRL and its associates looked to computer scientists and advances in the field of artificial intelligence to guide them in implementation, they looked to paradigms of ethnography to inform their methodology. A successful ethnography “…can communicate the rules for proper and predictable conduct as judged by the people studied” (Sanday, 1979), subsequently we “…use the ethnography's statements as instructions for appropriately anticipating the scenes of the society” (Frake quoted in Wolcott, 1975: 121) or in other words, by making their thinking not only visible but accessible, too. In the pages ahead I'll look more closely at the role of ethnographic descriptions in illuminating the interactions that take place in electronically enhanced learning situations.

The Learning Environment

Collins et al. define a learning environment as “the content taught, the pedagogical methods employed, the sequencing of learning activities, and the sociology of learning” (Collins et al., 1991:1) [Appendix B]. It’s my assertion that the browser-based web application permits a fresh joining of these four elements, perhaps even beyond the intuition that instigated the IRL. I further suggest that an updated understanding of the categories, strategies and insights Collins et al. put forth in the early nineties combine with technology and current practice to form a potent framework for understanding what is already happening in 21st century learning and instruction.

The World Wide Web happened when it occurred to researcher Tim Berners-Lee “hypertext markup language” (HTML), which had already been used in standalone documents for several years, could be engineered to link computers and data across networks widely separated in time and space. Hypertext is a “plain text” markup language, which means it's easily readable and writable by humans. In the first days of the Internet many people taught themselves how to write a Web page by reading instructions written by others who had already started figuring it out. I was one of those people. There was a great deal of informal learning taking place, and a great deal of disruption. The IRL and those who framed cognitive apprenticeship were not alone in the quest to apply computers to teaching and learning. I find their framework remains concise while being comprehensive, which I feel should help keep it practical. In light of the explosion in social media it now seems inevitable that social anthropology and ethnography would inform the methodology, but their foresight I find especially intriguing. I've already catalogued the 4 elements of a learning situation above. See [Appendix B] for further components within each element. Collins et al. stressed they were seeking a framework, not delivering a formula (1991:17). We'll see this framework is quite suitable for mapping to software and digital pedagogies on Internet-based platforms, and that some notable beginnings have already been made [Appendices C-D].

Situating Cognitive Apprenticeship

The context in which cognitive apprenticeship itself is situated deserves consideration. We can start by considering some of the contemporaneous nomenclature: the “edubabble” of the day. Some biggies of the era are still with us; here are four examples.

The adjective experiential is paired with learning since the 1970s or earlier (Keeton, 1976) (Weil and McGill, 1989). Mark Smith (2001) provides a very helpful summary of the literature and reports there are two general descriptions being applied: ‘direct encounter with the phenomena being studied…’ (e.g., Borzak 1981: 9 quoted in Brookfield 1983). and ‘…direct participation in the events of life’ (Smith , 2001 quoting Houle 1980: 221). Perhaps that directly parallels Vygotsky's (1979) zone of proximal development vis à vis Freire's (1970) praxis. Traditional apprenticeship certainly presents us with both opportunities, but does Collins et al.s’ cognitive? I think we’ll find it does when we design for it.

“Authentic learning” always struck me as an imprecise term. Learning is not a noun1 (Silvers, 2011) and shouldn't be indiscriminately paired with adjectives. When Collins et al. use the word they really refer to authentic contexts. I mean in no way to dismiss the school of thought the name represents; practitioners who embrace the concepts and techniques seem to interpret it as something more akin to “enabling learning within authentic contexts,” or verb adverb: learning authentically. I believe it has the same meaning as situated learning, another term used with cognitive apprenticeship (Brown et al., 1989) (Collins et al., 1989) (Collins et al., 1991) (Lave, 1996) (Ghefaili, 2003). In that spirit and looking through its lens, throughout this project I'm using the word situations to mean the kind of elearning environment that “capture and represent practice,” “provide scaffolding,” yet can sustain the innate complexity, contextualization and sheer messiness of experiences where learning happens. I showcase my own attempt at designing such a situation at the end of section 2.

In fact for many decades educators have observed a gap between life within and outside of schooling (Dewey, 1916) (Dewey, 1933) (Piaget, 1974) (Boud and Miller, 1997) (Dimmock, 2002) (Mims, 2003). I share an antipathy towards uncritical use of the phrase “real world” (and the advice of those who use it loosely) with John Shindler who warns, “…a) the real world is rarely defined by adages that include the phrase the “real world,” b) the use of the term the “real world” usually indicates a world-view that has been jaded and is fundamentally dysfunctional, and c) students are likely paying the price for it” (Shindler, 2009: Appendix J). I believe point “c” is a common destination, if by other paths, with at least one of Freire’s who, having said “…Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other” (Freire, 1970) said elsewhere, “The educator with a democratic vision or posture cannot avoid in his teaching praxis insisting on the critical capacity, curiosity, and autonomy of the learner.” (Freire, 1998).

The ideas of multiple intelligences (Gardiner, 1983) and learning styles (Kolb and Fry, 1975) are related. While it’s impossible to ignore their effect on teaching over subsequent decades they have naturally both been criticized at very deep levels. Again, Smith (2001, drawing on Jarvis, 1987 and Tennant, 1997) summarizes those critical of Kolb very well, they centre around extravagant claims and lack of empirical evidence. The latter flaw is also claimed of Gardiner’s theory, along with disconnect from findings from the field of psychology (Wellingham, 2004) (Visser, Ashton and Vernon, 2006a) (Gardiner, 2006) (Visser, Ashton and Vernon, 2006b), yet the ideas persist and some practitioners attribute successes while passionately defending their use in the classroom. Might the social setting of classrooms, and the sociological aspects of learning, account for such alleged results where strict neurological science finds no correlation?

Ethnography: the “thick” view of Learning Communities informing praxis

As Peggy Reeves Sanday tells us, "Ethnography …is as least as old as the work of Herodotus. With great and sometimes disdainful zest, that ancient Greek ethnographer recorded the infinite variety and strangeness he saw in other cultures." The qualitative methodology we see today developed in the 20th century with work such as that of Boas1 (1979:527).

I strongly suspect treating cognitive apprenticeship as a framework for experience design sidesteps much of the conflict. Cognitive apprenticeship’s heritage, as the others’, traces back to activity theorists such as Vygotsky and Leontiev but charts its course via the social anthropology of Jean Lave and socially situated, community of practice-based learning she explored with Etienne Wenger (Brown, Collins, Didiuk, 1989:41 footnote 1) (Lave & Wenger, 1991) (Lave, 1996) (Ghefaili, 2003). Apprenticeship in general, and cognitive apprenticeship by design, attempts to make thinking visible, often illustrated by the use of exemplary case studies (Collins, Seely and Holum, 1991) (Ghefaili, 2003) (Conole et al., 2008). These are somewhat like miniature ethnographies2 (Wenger, 2003).

Qualitative “sciences”

Social and cultural anthropologists during this period were engaged in an internal debate over the concept of thick description, an interpretive, qualitative practice of a type that caused discomfort amongst many pure and applied scientists (as it does to this day) who may have thought there was “no common ground between art and science, between intuition and rigor” (Scheff, 1986:408). Clifford Geertz, credited with developing a philosophical motif of Gilbert Ryle1, himself said of thick descriptions, "what we call our data are really our constructions of other people's constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to..." but argued nonetheless that this "...[leads] to a view of anthropological research as rather more of an observational and rather less of an interpretive activity than it really is" (Geertz, 1973:9). Indeed, observation is the primary source of ethnographic data. An ethnography is “…both a qualitative research process or method (one conducts an ethnography) and product (the outcome of this process is an ethnography) whose aim is cultural interpretation,” says Brian Hoey. “…To develop an understanding of what it is like to live in a setting, the researcher must both become a participant in the life of the setting while also maintaining the stance of an observer, someone who can describe the experience with a measure of what we might call ‘detachment’” (Hoey, 2012). Isn't an engaging teacher in a classroom engaging in similar role swapping?

It's a truism amongst educators that we learn as we teach. “When we are engaged in learning projects we teach ourselves. In all of these roles we are also likely to talk and join in activities with others (children, young people and adults). Some of the time we work with a clear objective in mind… At other times we may go with the flow - adding to the conversation… or picking up on an interest” (Jeffs & Smith, 1997, 2005, 2011). Cognitive apprenticeship models reject models that value the results of traditionally formal learning (e.g., schooling) over informal ones (e.g., observation, trial and error). From an apprenticeship perspective, “…the assumption that teaching necessarily precedes or is a precondition for learning, or that absence of teaching calls learning into question, is a false one” (Lave, 1996:151).

I argue that informal learning can be orchestrated in group situations using visualization software and social platforms, accessed by web browser. Every object a participant “touches” is a transaction, so with design, planning and the right tools feedback and assessment can be built in (Smyth, 2009).

Learning assessment—quantifying the situation

In ‘learning management’ models of online education, paradigms of assessment—diagnostic, formative, summative—are reflected in tools and protocols such as SCORM. Mainly put to summative purposes, SCORM “…governs how online learning content and Learning Management Systems (LMSs) communicate with each other.1”. Looking forward, the TinCan project has produced the ExperienceAPI, an approach named after the tin can and string telephone many of us built as kids. TInCan employs a semantic paradigm:

At the core of Tin Can API is a simple sentence structure… “Jack completed safety training.” “Christie experienced the Berlin Wall in Second Life.” These statements can be simple or complex. The actors, verbs, and objects can vary widely… Actors/learners can also be described in various different ways… An actor doesn’t have to be a learner — it can be an instructor… content becomes part of a larger superset that we call “activities.” Content creators will be more like “activity providers.”

Neither do the actors necessarily need to be situated at a computer. An LMS could be set to respond to the scanning of a QR code at a particular exhibit at a museum and record that a participant had been there (Silver, 2012).

Adoption of TinCan/ExperienceAPI has begun but is probably proceeding more slowly in the open source community. There is interest, as shown in a Drupal developer forum discussion Noteworthy commercial adopters include Articulate and Blackboard2.

Digital storytelling is a rich area with a long and well-documented history in both instruction and assessment. Rubrics have formative value (Matthews-DeNatale, 2008). Teachers who want to excel at creating and using rubrics can find an online community of practice at RubiStar ( I'll discuss digital storytelling at greater length further on.

The cognitive apprenticeship framework encourages “…integrated assessment of learning within the tasks.” Assessment within authentic situations leads to “greater levels of retention and transfer” (Ghefaili, 2003). We'll see it's also more difficult to separate learner and program or process evaluation when environment and context play such an integral role in the learning situation's design (Rittel and Webber, 1973) (Conole, 2007) (Smyth, 2009). We'll also see an open source Issue Based Information System (IBIS), originally designed to solve wicked problems3 (Rittel & Webber, 1973) by dialog mapping, where the object is to create “a shared display for collaborative thinking and group memory” (Conklin, 2006), adapted specifically to the design of learning situations (Conole et al, 2008) (OULDI-JISC, 2012).