Category Archives: collaboration

Common Knowledge – Alpha 1

I’ve been working with some of my Encore Lab colleagues to design and develop a tablet-IWB (interactive whiteboard) discourse tool, for the past year and a half.  Our first implementation (May 2011) was a simple application that allowed students to contribute “Inquiry”  and “Idea/Comment” notes from tablets.  These notes (in response to a newspaper article) appeared instantaneously on the classroom’s IWB on a simple chronological T-table with the column headings:  “Inquiry”  and “Idea/Comment”:

The public IWB display’s T-table format seemed too rigid for the way students wanted to interact with each other’s questions and ideas through this tool.  The red annotations in the above image show that students tried to reply directly to each other’s questions, and found a semantic way to get around the technology’s constraints.

To address students’ interaction needs, the next iteration (May 2011) allowed students to add their comments to specific notes that they read from their tablet. In response to the HelioRoom Embedded Phenomena (EP) inquiry activity, students contributed notes related to their observation-based hypotheses identifying the “planets” that were “orbiting” around their classroom. These “Hypotheses” notes appeared on the IWB colour-coded by “planet”, and could be dragged into thematic note clusters on the IWB. Students shared their general wonderings via white “Idea/Question” notes:

To allow for student-tagging of the notes they contribute, our next iteration (autumn 2011) was used in the WallCology EP inquiry unit. This iteration included a set of pre-defined tag words from which students tagged their notes. Instead of using colour-coding to thematically differentiate notes, this IWB display afforded the filtering of notes by “keyword” tag(s):

Our most recent iteration:  Common Knowledge – Alpha 1 (Nov. 2012), is now a stand-alone tablet-IWB web application that scripts the knowledge community through three progressive phases of blended (oral and online) in situ discussions:  Brainstorm, Analysis, and Synthesis.   After the Brainstorm phase, the knowledge community considers emergent themes arising from the contributed notes, and socially-negotiated tags are entered into the system by the teacher.  The Analysis phase begins with the system sending these notes to student tablets in rapid succession for students to tag and optionally, compose a response.  Student tagging of notes results in a dynamic IWB display of the community’s notes (white icons) connected by lines to corresponding tags (red-rimmed) icons:

The teacher may “pause” the system, to refocus student attention on oral class discussion spurred by the community’s notes.  Later cycles of discussion focus student attention on a specific tag to synthesize learnings through their contribution of “Synthesis” notes (orange icons):

Here’s a Prezi of the blended activity flow (faces have been blurred to protect the children’s identity):

We’re looking forward to developing the alpha 2 iteration of Common Knowledge in early 2013! In the meantime, you can take a look at the code on Github.

(This has blog entry has been cross-posted to Encore Lab’s blog)…

Piaget, Vygotsky, Situated Cognition Vs. Mitra’s SOLE & Granny Clouds

I’ve been reading about social and cultural influences on learning, as well as Situated Learning:

Piaget, Vygotsky, Situated Cognition
Where Piaget asserted that children developed from the individual to the socialized (i.e. nonverbal autistic thought –> egocentric thought & speech –> logical thinking & socialized speech), Vygotsky argued that children developed from the socialized to the individual (i.e. social –> egocentric –> inner speech).

In situated cognition theory, activity and situations are integral to cognition and learning.

Vygotsky’s developmental theory and Situated Cognition theory can indeed work in tandem!  These theories imply that:

  1. Learners need to be situated within a collaborative learning context so they may co-investigate socially, eventually leading to internalized learning for each individual.
  2. These co-investigation activities must be authentic tasks, situated within the context of the subject domain of study, such that learners see themselves as practitioners of that domain.

Both #1 & #2 can be done face-to-face (F2F) or online, but I always think that a blended model (e.g., F2F + online) works best.

Mitra’s SOLE and Granny Clouds
Having read about Piaget and Vygotsky’s somewhat opposite theories of child development, it has made me give more thought to Sugata Mitra’s TED talk about The Child-Driven Education:

The idea that children will collaboratively learn with digital tools they’ve never used, heard of, or seen before; inspite of purposeful lack of instruction and scaffolding – is evidence to me that collaborative learning is natural to the human condition.  This is incredibly profound!  Furthermore, Sugata Mitra’s work seems to support Vygotsky’s developmental theory, rather than Piaget’s; as it seems that the children in his studies developed their skills and knowledge socially before the new knowledge became internalized within each individual child.

In his TED talk, Mitra mentions 2 quotes from Sir Arthur Charles Clarke, that I find very profound:
“A teacher that can be replaced by a machine, should be.”
“If children have interest, then education happens.”

The second half of this TED talk is particularly intriguing.  Sugata Mitra’s work on Self Organizing Learning Environments (SOLE) and the Granny Cloud.  He informally organized children into small groups and gave each group a set of questions, as well as the freedom to access the internet with 1 laptop,  discuss amongst their group, drop in on other groups, and no other scaffolding.  He’s found that such informal groupings and vague scaffolding sets the stage for children to self-organize as a learning community, producing deep learning.  His Granny Cloud work involved 200 volunteer English grandmothers who regularly taught English to children in India via Skype.

Mitra Vs. Situated Cognition
Mitra’s SOLE work is in sharp contrast to my classmates’ (Scott J.’s KEC note #1286 and Chad L.’s KEC note #1310) and my own thinking (KEC note #1404), that collaboration skills need to be explicitly taught.  In Mitra’s SOLE work, this is clearly not the case!  Is it possible, that by explicitly teaching collaboration, we stifle the degree to which children can collaborate effectively and learn deeply?  It also interesting to note the absence of any situatedness in Mitra’s SOLE work.  In fact, all of the learning tasks that he presented to various populations of children in various countries (India, Italy, England) were intentionally out of context and in some cases, not even in a language that the children knew!  Perhaps then, situated cognition is not a necessary component of effective/deep learning, merely an enhancing component?

Mitra’s speculation:  “Education is a self organising system, where learning is an emergent phenomenon…”.  He estimates that it will take 5 years and under $1 million to prove this experimentally, and that’s what he intends to do.  Mitra’s theory is a direct contradiction to Brown, Collins, and Duguid’s “cognitive apprenticeship” model (1989), where learning is embedded in activity and deliberate use is made of the social and physical context to immerse learners in the culture of the knowledge domain under study.  The one idea that Mitra’s work and the Cognitive Apprenticeship model have in common is that learning is supported by collaborative social interaction and social construction of knowledge.  As previously noted, Mitra’s work also contradicts the notion of “situated cognition“, in which activity and situations are integral to cognition and learning.

So who’s right?  There seems to be supporting evidence for all arguments!  Perhaps it’s a question of efficiency.  If we leave learners to collaboratively self-organize, they will learn deeply if given enough time.  If we situate (via cognitive apprenticeship) and scaffold learners’ collaborative learning, they will learn deeply, perhaps in less time?

Finally, Mitra emphasizes that the future of educational change is “A question of attitude, not technology”, and breaks down “The Arithmetic of Change” for us:
1 billion children
100 million mediators
10 million SOLEs
$180 billion
10 years

This indeed is an exciting and optimistic outlook for education!  Perhaps there is hope yet of rocketing the education dinosaur into the 21st century…

Note:  Sugata Mitra’s papers regarding the studies he mentioned in his TED talk can be found here (UTORid needed).