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In my quest of looking for cognitive theories that apply to my research question: “Can microblogs help us learn and therefore perform better?”, I came across situated cognition. 

Situated Cognition

Situated cognition theory, developed by John Seely Brown, Allan Collins and Paul Duguid and described in Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning, states that knowing is inseparable from doing. In Situated Cognition & Cognitive Apprenticeships, Kevin Oliver explains it this way: “Situated learning theory and the cognitive apprenticeship model based on it suggest skills be acquired through authentic contexts and by communicating with peers and experts about those contexts.” This explanation really caught my interest because this is when I realized the connection between situated cognition and communities of practice.

Communities of Practice

“Community of practice (CoP), according to cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, is a term that describes a group of people who share an interest, a craft, and/or a profession. The group can evolve naturally because of the members’ common interest in a particular domain or area, or it can be created specifically with the goal of gaining knowledge related to their field. It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally (Lave & Wenger 1991).” Wikipedia

Community of Practice and Situated Cognition

“‘Community of practice,’ a concept emerging from situated cognition, emphasizes sharing and doing, construct meaning in a social unit (Roschelle, 1995). Situated learning occurs when students work on authentic tasks that take place in real-world setting (Winn, 1993).” EduTech Wiki “The theory of situated cognition…claims that every human thought is adapted to the environment, that is, situated, because what people perceive, how they conceive of their activity, and what they physically do develop together” (Clancey, 1997).” Situated Learning

Situated Cognition, Communities of Practice and Microblogs

Per the mini experiment I ran in my own organization with microblogs (see post), people answered the question: “What are you working on?”, and it allowed us to read each other’s posts and become more connected and notice when the other was working on something we could help with. So, any learning and performance improvement we enjoyed, was situated in the activity we were working on at the time. Therefore, per situated cognition, our learning and therefore knowing was not separate from doing–but was intertwined. The entire time we are working and blogging we are situated in the goal-directed activity and work environment. At the same time,  through microblogging, we were supported by our community, our community of fellow consultants, our community of practice–at least this is what happened in my mini experiment (see post).

However, as I discussed, in my last blog, in order to bring the sense of community to microblogs, another, external form of community has to be superimposed. In my mini experiment, this was my organization (see previous post). I am sure this is of no surprise because anyone who has explored the notion of community on a microblog like Twitter, without the superimposition of another form of community, knows that there really is no sense of community. Again see my experiment to create a community on Twitter in my previous post.

My Research Direction

Based on my research journey to date, I realize I really should do my experiment in/with a microblog community that does in fact has another superimposed community around it because that is when the group comes to life as a community, and, that is where situated cognition and perhaps even communities of practice are relevant. Therefore, that is where learning and performance improvement takes place.  The answer=a Yammer group. At first I thought an experiment with a public microblog like Twitter would yield the same results if used to answer the question: “What are you working on?” But I no longer believe that to be true because even in my organization, we had to stop publically blogging what we were doing for fear of violating confidentiality and with more and more social media policies against public microblogging popping up, the less this research is possible with Twitter.


Image courtesy of Solar Clarity

When I started this blog, dedicated to my research, I said that I would bring you with me on my journey–no matter where it leads. That means I may explore ideas/concepts/theories that may or may not eventually fit with my research–but that is ok, as it is all part of the journey and you have to dig in and understand things before you can rule them in or out.

Now that I have established that distributed cognition is a good lens with which to examine enhanced learning and performance through microblogs (see previous entry), I looked at similar concepts/theories and I came across the concept of the “extended mind” and it sounded like it may be relevant to me, so I explored it.

Extended Mind Concept and Distributed Cognition

The following is an excerpt from Wikipedia: “The seminal work in the field is The Extended Mind, by Andy Clark and David Chalmers…They argue that it is arbitrary to say that the mind is contained only within the boundaries of the skull.” Sound familiar? Yes, it does as I believe it is related to distributed cognition. So, what is the difference? My interpretation is that one is tangible and the other is not. In other words, distributed cognition gives an example of a person working out a math problem on a sheet of paper–stating that cognition in this case is distributed between person, paper and pencil. An extended mind example I learned is the following: a person stares at the back of your head–you turn around. Scientists say this is an example of how your “mind” is beyond your “skull” because you can, in a sense, make someone move just by looking at them. Wow–I know, very intense which is why I just had to blog about it.

Extending the Mind Into Another Mind Through Microblogs

If I wanted to get really philosophical, I could argue that using microblogs might help us extend our minds by allowing us to practice mind reading, which eventually may lead to more enhanced mental skills.

More from Wikipedia’s explanation: “The separation between the mind, the body, and the environment is seen as an unprincipled distinction. Because external objects play a significant role in aiding cognitive processes, the mind and the environment act as a “coupled system.” This coupled system can be seen as a complete cognitive system of its own. In this manner, the mind is extended into the external world.” Maybe microblogs can help us practice extending our minds from a more tactical perspective. Maybe after using microblogs for a while with a person you could become so connected that when you think of something they can “sense” it.  You have probably felt this phenomenon with a close friend or spouse. Maybe using microblogs you can feel that way with many people who become close to you through their status updates. Maybe, or maybe not.

So, will I include the concept of the extended mind in my research? No, because I am not setting out to prove microblogs help extend the mind–but I had to blog about it because it is just so interesting and maybe someone reading my blog will take this on ;). Check out this additional explanation on YouTube.

Uploaded on December 28, 2005 by Tolka Rover

What is Distributed Cognition?

At this point, because of my thesis, I have read countless material on distributed cognition. I think many explanations make it harder to understand that it needs to be. First of all lets define cognition: the ability to remember, think, and reason; the faculty of knowing. So distributed cognition, simply put, is the notion that cognition is not confined by what is inside one person’s brain. Instead, it is distributed across many things, such as other people, artifacts and the environment. Meaning, we don’t just learn in our heads, we talk to others, experience things in our environment, and use tools such as a paper and pencil to write out a math problem. Edwin Hutchins developed the theory in the mid 1980s. His pivotal work appears in his book: Cognition in the Wild. A great example of distributed cognition is the navigation of a large ship–many people and systems come together to navigate collectively. Not one person alone could navigate the ship–you really need the collective.

Why is this Interesting?

The reason this is interesting is because it gives us a framework, or lens through which to analyze cognition that focuses (unit of analysis) on the system as a whole, rather than the individual. Using distributed cognition to analyze microblogs means we look at the microblog system as a whole versus each individual’s experience with it.

Reading Minds and Learning through Microblogs

It becomes even more fascinating to think of cognition as distributed through microblogs because micoblogs allow us to almost “see into each others brains” as we post our streams of consciousness. Therefore, I may be following someone who posts something I may be interested in, they don’t know I am interested, they just post it as they use the microblog to post their thoughts, but I see it and can then engage with that person or just take the information and apply it to something I am doing or just ponder how interesting it is. It is like we are peering into each others thoughts through microblogs–something we have never done before microblogs came along. More importantly, by following people on microblogs we are learning even faster and more frequently than ever before, as we follow these frequent streams of consciousness we are, in a sense, connecting our brains.–like a collective intelligence (borg brain for all you Star Trek followers). “We define collective intelligence (to distinguish it from other forms) as natural or constructed designs where individuals share things with others and that lead to a better performance of the group and its individuals.” Edutech Wiki

Who you Follow Matters when you Follow TO LEARN

Meaningful learning can only happen if the people we follow are tweeting things other than the fact that they just arrived at the airport… This is my biggest hangup with the way MOST people use microblogs. I found a list of CEOs to follow once and I thought–wow, how great to read these great people’s posts, these leaders of leaders–oh what I will learn. Well I ended up unfollowing most of them because their updates were not thought provoking at all. I don’t care if you are petting your cat. I care about the challenges you are facing, the solutions you are creating–that is what I can learn from. I want updates that make me think–that help me learn.

Why do I care about all this? Because my research is in microblogs and how they can help us learn day to day (as opposed to an extension of a classroom).

Dcog fascinated me so much, that I started looking at some other theories that dcog was based on, and that can help me with my research question above… more in the next entry

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