Learning across levels

Citation Stahl, G. (2013). Learning across levels. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 8(1), 1–12. Springer. Sidewiki
BibDesk PDF




author = {Stahl, Gerry},
date-added = {2013-05-29 11:42:17 -0400},
date-modified = {2013-05-30 17:01:17 -0400},
date-read = {2013-05-30 17:01:17 -0400},
journal = {International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning},
keywords = {discourse; analysis levels; CSCL; transactivity; individual; group cognition; knowledge building; community},
number = {1},
pages = {1–12},
publisher = {Springer},
read = {1},
title = {Learning across levels},
volume = {8},
year = {2013},


My Summary & Reflections

3 Levels connected and mediated by Interactional Resources

3 levels (units) of analysis in CSCL theory, research, and practice:

  1. individual
  2. small group
  3. community

Interactional resources” connect these levels and mediate between them.

Stahl suggests “interactional resources as a candidate boundary object for discussion across competing approaches”. Need to generate and analyze data that can help us understand inter-level relationships.

Researching an individual level in isolation from other levels meet with fundamental limitations.

Sawyer's theory of emergence

Keith Sawyer (2005) conceptualizes inter-level interactions as “collaborative emergence” resulting from discourse in which “interactional frames” emerge. Together, these are “collective social facts”. Interactional frames imposes boundaries on future action.

Inter-level interactions involves “ephemeral emergents” and “stable emergents”.

Stahl: Sawyer's theory of emergence - that emergence results from language usage and small-group interaction - implies that we should focus on discourse and use the small-group as a unit of analysis.

This make me wonder if I should pay more attention to what's going on in the CK Solar interest groups…?

“Common ground” (Clark and Brennan, 1991) - foundation for mutual understanding between speakers - is a system of indexical-reference resource networks.

Types of Interactional Resources across levels

Stahl draws on foundational work of several scholars (Hegel, Sfard, Husserl, Livingston, Netz, Lemke, Vygotsky) to define the following resources.

Interaction frame: an object of repeated discussion.

Reified resource: has at least an ephemeral emergent existence. [reify = to regard (something abstract) as a material or concrete thing]

Sedimented resource: has had time to settle into a “stable-emergent” existence, its meaning is retained across multiple group interactions.

Institutionalized resource: when a sedimented resource has been adopted by a larger community, into its structured network of resources. References the social context. Could be a new element or revival of an old resource(s).

Personalized resource: an interactional resource that has been “taken up” (internalized? - Vygotsky) in to community members' individual understanding (i.e. integrated into a member's intra-personal perspective). Results from personalization of previously inter-personal resources by individuals.

Stahl calls for “a study of representational artifacts and other resources that traverse between individual, small-group and community processes to mediate meaning making”.

Resources for collaboration and for math

Stahl introduces Diler Oner's paper (which appears later in the same journal as this present article), in which she argues:

  • go beyond analyzing collaboration as a “coordination of interaction” (Cakir et al., 2009)
  • analyze collaboration as a “coordinated use of resources”

Oner's participants use 2 categories of resources in math collaborative learning:

  • content-related resources
  • relational/social resources

Oner's analysis approach is to focus on the coordination of these would help us understand such math learning process (i.e. collaborative dynamic-geometry problem solving)

Oner's Distinction between 'social/collaborative/relational resources' and 'content-related resources' reminds me of the tag distinctions we had in our WallCology discussion tool: 'Process' keywords/tags and 'Content' keywords/tags. If Common Knowledge notes could be considered 'interactional resources', then tag (and/or note type?) distinctions could be categories of resources. Thinking along the lines of Diler and Stahl then, implies that focusing on the coordination of such resources would help us to understand the collective inquiry…?

The mention of “spaces” in the context of distinguishing between 'social/collaborative/relational resources' and 'content-related resources' is interesting to me:

  • “An inter-personal-relations space versus a content space (Barron 2000);
  • Building a joint problem space (JPS) versus solving a problem (Roschelle and Teasley 1995);…”

Stahl's commentary about spaces seems to have strong parallels to Jim Slotta's Knowledge Community and Inquiry (KCI) model as well as to the Common Knowledge (CK Solar) construct:

  1. “The 'space' that a group builds up and shares is a structured set of resources gathered by the group (JPS, indexical field, common ground).”
    • KCI: learners contribute to a shared collective knowledge base
    • CK: the Common Board (displayed on classroom's IWB) is shared community inquiry space, the Knowledge Boards (displayed at each interest group's table) are shared small-group inquiry spaces specific to the local inquiry context of the interest group, the tablets are personal inquiry spaces
    • CK: learners contribute to a database of notes, structured by note type (i.e. “Brainstorm Notes”, “Proposals”, “Inquiry notes” and Experiment Reports”) and topic/tag
  2. “The resources are 'indexical' in the sense that they are only defined within (and thanks to) this constructed space of the specific problem context.”
    • KCI: the collective knowledge base is indexed to assessable learning expectations
    • CK: the notes database is indexed to community/socially-negotiated tags
  3. “Through their discourse, the group compiles these resources as potentially relevant to the problem.”
    • KCI: learners collect information/data relevant to their small-group's inquiry trajectory
    • CK: Interest groups' Knowledge Boards and the community's Common Board serve as 'common ground' / 'boundary objects' / 'interactional frame' for small-group and community discourse, visualizes topic/conceptual connections, and offers a virtual space for multiple participants to 'play' with ideas through interactions with the screens and through sense-making discourse that arises from this. These screens are representational resources that mediate across levels.
    • CK: learners contribute information/data relevant to their interest group's inquiry trajectory/topic, to the shared collective knowledge base
  4. “In turn, the resources help to define the emergent problem, dialectically, as we will see in the next papers.”
    • KCI: learners use shared collective knowledge base to solve a subsequent inquiry task
    • CK: inspired by learner-contributed Proposal notes, learners conduct experiments to gather primary data and consult reference materials to gather secondary data. The data is then contributed to the CK notes database.

In my efforts to map connections to CK in the above list, I see that when considering the CK construct, I should make a further distinction between CK as a 'social/collaborative/relational resource' (i.e. Common Board, Knowledge Boards, tablet) and 'content-related resource' (i.e. note types and topic tags).

Links here


The attempt to bridge across levels of analysis—in CSCL theory, analysis and practice— stands at the forefront of CSCL research today. p. 1

CSCL research typically investigates processes at the individual, small-group and community units of analysis. However, individual CSCL studies generally each focus on only one of these units. p. 1

there is little data-based analysis of how the three levels are connected, although it is clear that such connections are crucially important to understanding and orchestrating learning in CSCL settings. p. 1

interactional resources p. 1

interactional resources p. 1

Resources across levels in CSCL p. 1

In his study of how social institutions can both effect and be effected by small-group interactions, Sawyer (2005, p. 210f) argues that we can conceptualize the interactions between processes at different levels as forms of “collaborative emergence”: “During conversational encounters, interactional frames emerge, and these are collective social facts p. 1

that can be characterized independently of individuals’ interpretations of them. Once a frame has emerged, it constrains the possibilities for action.” p. 2

frames that emerge from smallgroup interactions can take on institutional or cultural-level powers to influence actions at the individual unit. p. 2

ephemeral p. 2

This interplay among levels involves both ephemeral emergents and stable emergents p. 2

Sawyer’s theory of emergents p. 2

Sawyer’s theory of emergents suggests a relationship among different kinds of resources along the lines pictured in Fig. 1. p. 2

stable p. 2

While Sawyer’s analysis addresses a broad “sociology of social emergence,” it can be confined and adapted to the concerns of CSCL p. 2

What is most relevant in his theory is the view of emergence arising out of the subtle complexities of language usage and small-group interaction—rather than from the law of large numbers, the interaction of simple rules or the chaotic behavior of non-linear relationships p. 2

shifts the focus to the discourse at the smallgroup unit of analysis. p. 2

So I should pay more attention to what's going on in the CK Solar interest groups... p. 2

variety of interactional emergents form an intermediate level of analysis between the level of individuals and the level of community structures, providing a dynamic and processual understanding of social structures and infrastructures. p. 2

Analysis focused on these emergent artifacts can deconstruct the reifying processes of emergence that span the group level to both the individual and the social. p. 2

The small-group interaction represented in the center of Fig. 1 can be theorized as being based on an “indexical ground of deictic reference” (Hanks 1992). This means that the “common ground” (Clark and Brennan 1991)—which forms a foundation for mutual understanding of what each other says in conversation—consists of a shared system of indexical-reference resources p. 2

coherence of the interaction and its comprehensibility to the group participants is supported by a network of references, each of which is defined indexically, p. 2

that is by a pointing within the on-going discourse context (“here,” “it,” “now,” “that point”). Interactional resources, which can be indexically referenced in the interaction, can typically only be understood within their discourse context, but they facilitate meaning making within that context. p. 3

reified resource, something capable of being picked out as having at least an “ephemeralemergent” existence p. 3

sedimented resource p. 3

sedimented resource, something whose existence has settled into a longer-term “stable-emergent” form, which retains its meaning across multiple group interactions. p. 3

A sedimented resource is susceptible to being taken up by a larger community as an institutionalized resource within a structured network of such resources, as in Latour’s social-actor networks (Latour 2007) p. 3

the institutional resource not only references the social context, but also partially reproduces it in a dialectical relationship of mutual constitution by contributing a new element or revitalizing an old set of resources p. 3

interactional resources at various degrees of reification can also be taken up into the individual understanding of community members as personalized resources, integrated more or less into the intra-personal perspective of one or more group members. p. 3

The personalization of previously inter-personal resources by individuals renders them into resources that can be referenced in activities of individual understanding— corresponding to processes of micro-genesis in Vygotskian internalization. p. 3

“reification” goes back to Hegel’s dialectical philosophy of mediation p. 3

Sfard p. 3

Husserl (1936/1989) argued that the ideas of the early geometers became “sedimented” in the cultural heritage of the field of geometry p. 3

Livingston (1999) p. 3

exploration and possibly even the key insights are suppressed in favor of conforming to the “institutionalized” template of formal deductive reasoning. p. 3

Netz (1999) p. 3

important role of a controlled (restricted and reified) vocabulary to the development, dissemination and learning of geometry in ancient Greece p. 3

Lemke (1993) argued that learning the vocabulary of a scientific domain such as school physics is inseparable from learning the science p. 3

Vygotsky (1930/1978, esp. pp. 56f) noted that the micro-genetic processes of “personalizing” a group practice into part of one’s individual understanding—which he conceptually collected under the title “internalization”—are lengthy, complex, non-transparent and little understood p. 3

These seminal writings name the processes of reification, sedimentation, institutionalization and personalization of interactional resources; their empirical investigation remains as a major challenge for future CSCL research. p. 3

Among the theories influential in CSCL—such as activity theory, distributed cognition and actor-network theory—artifacts play a central role as resources for thought and action p. 3

Reviews of CSCL research show that few papers in our field have bridged multiple levels of analysis (Arnseth and Ludvigsen 2006; Jeong and Hmelo-Silver 2010) p. 4

the desired CSCL research agenda (Krange and Ludvigsen 2008; Stahl et al. 2006; Suthers 2006) calls for a study of representational artifacts and other resources that traverse between individual, small-group and community processes to mediate meaning making p. 4

Resources for collaboration and for mathematics p. 4

The idea of viewing interactional resources as central to mathematical discourse around dynamic geometry is proposed in the article by Diler Öner. p. 4

she argues that rather than focusing on the “coordination of interaction” (Çakir et al. 2009), collaborative activity should be analyzed in terms of the “coordinated use of resources.” p. 4

Participants rely on two major categories of resources when working on a geometry problem within a computer-based dynamicgeometry environment: (1) mathematical and tool-enabled resources (math-content-related) and (2) collaboration resources (relational or social) p. 4

She proposes a focus on the coordination of these resources—which characterize collaborative dynamic-geometry problem solving—for understanding what goes on in such productive math learning p. 4

relational or social p. 4

Öner’s methodological proposal is to track both the math-content-related and the social/ collaborative/relational resources used by students solving dynamic-geometry problems. p. 4

Distinction between 'social/collaborative/relational resources' and 'content-related resources' reminds me of the tag distinctions we had in WallCology discussion tool: 'Process' keywords/tags and 'Content' keywords/tags. p. 5

In CK Solar, the Common Board and the Knowledge Boards could perhaps be seen as shared community or small group inquiry space. Whereas the tablets could perhaps be seen as the personal inquiry space. p. 5

& An inter-personal-relations space versus a content space (Barron 2000); & Building a joint problem space (JPS) versus solving a problem (Roschelle and Teasley 1995); & Temporal dimensions of the JPS versus diachronic content (Sarmiento and Stahl 2008); & Text chat versus shared-whiteboard graphics (Çakir et al. 2009); & Project discourse versus mathematical discourse (Evans et al. 2011); & Spatio-graphical observation (SG) versus technical reflection (T) (Laborde 2004). p. 5

This seems to parallel the CK shared knowledge base and the community's socially negotiated tags by which the knowledge base is indexed. p. 5

The “space” that a group builds up and shares is a structured set of resources gathered by the group (JPS, indexical field, common ground). The resources are “indexical” in the sense that they are only defined within (and thanks to) this constructed space of the specific problem context. p. 5

the resources help to define the emergent problem, dialectically, as we will see in the next papers. p. 5

Öner generated data to explore the interaction of the contrasting dimensions by having two people work together face-to-face in front of a shared computer on a particular dynamicgeometry problem p. 5

spatio-graphical observation p. 5

a mix of SG and T resources p. 5

technical reflection p. 5

She uses this distinction among resources to structure her analysis. p. 5

she shows how these various resources bridge the different units of analysis. p. 5

Resources of individual perception (during dragging of geometric objects on the computer screen) feed into the group problem solving, just as do references to classical theorems passed down through cultural institutions. p. 5

They make possible and stimulate the group interaction. This analysis and the others collected in this issue of ijCSCL provide examples of interactional resources at work in CSCL settings. p. 5

Repairs are conversational moves aimed at avoiding or correcting potential misunderstandings. p. 6

is it a conversational move, a linguistic term or a mathematical concept? This is a matter of level of analysis, because one could characterize it in any of these ways p. 6

such a resource can serve as a boundary object (Star 1989), which can be discussed from different perspectives, focused on different units of analysis. p. 6

Öner succeeds in analyzing how her students collaborated on their geometry problem by focusing consistently on the interplay between social and content resources. p. 6

Scientific representations across levels p. 6

Even if analysts agree in identifying a certain object as a pivotal interactional resource, that does not mean that the nature or meaning of that resource is self-evident to students using it for collaborative learning, as the discussion by Anniken Furberg, Anders Klug and Sten Ludvigsen makes clear p. 6

They turn to look at how students make sense of scientific diagrams to support their collaborative learning of physics. p. 6

It is the sense-making process—mediated by the representational resource—that spans levels: The individuals, each with their own approaches and each bringing in different other resources, contribute to the group’s collaborative effort, resulting in a group understanding, expressed however awkwardly and partially in their written report. p. 6

"Structuring resource" sounds a lot like "boundary object" to me p. 6

The paper characterizes the science diagram as a structuring resource. It argues that the representation, as it becomes meaningful to the students, structures the group’s sense-making p. 6

The structuring takes place on various levels: Interactionally, the group uses the diagram as a deictic resource, pointing to its features either gesturally or linguistically to support the verbal accounts. Individually, the students refer to the diagrams to monitor their own understanding. At the level of science norms, the students attempt to use canonical language to express the sense they are making of the diagram. p. 7

when students go to write up a point, they must attain a much higher standard of articulation. They must make their written statement comprehensible and persuasive for a general audience or for people not present to indicate their understanding or agreement. p. 7

While the diagram still helps to structure their articulation of the description, the description can no longer rely so heavily on the diagram to help convey their meaning. p. 7

The paper nicely shows how the introduction of a second diagram enriches the dialectic by shedding light on the first diagram’s meaning through the tension created by the differences between the two representations. p. 7

Referential resources for a math problem p. 7

Alan Zemel and Timothy Koschmann take an ethnomethodological (Stahl 2012a) look at the role of resources, representations, referential practices and indexical properties in the mathematical problem-solving interactions of students within a CSCL setting. p. 7

They concur with the first paper on the importance of tracking the use of resources, and they further emphasize that it is the ongoing specification-in-use that determines the significance of a given resource p. 7

They concur with the second, in adopting a concern with representations, and they make even more explicit the extent to which the representational practices—how the representation was built and worked with—contribute to the problem clarification and problem solution. p. 7

In theoretical terms, this paper develops the discussion of indexical reference resources by Hanks (1992) p. 7

The work involved in this can be characterized as discovering, proposing and negotiating successive determinations of indexical properties of the problem they were working on p. 8

Can each of the interest group Knowledge Boards in CK Solar be considered a local inquiry context? p. 8

The indexical properties are ways in which the team members can reference aspects of the problem, such as in terms of sets of lines arrayed in specific identifiable patterns. These indexical properties are tied to the local problem-solving context of the respective team. p. 8

They specify the problem for the team in practical terms, which allow the team to make progress in both understanding and solving the problem. p. 8

As did the Proposal Notes in CK Solar... p. 8

This approach is appropriate for what Rittel (Rittel and Webber 1984) called “wicked problems.” p. 8

By gradually moving from purely deictic terms like “it” or “this,” to mathematical terms or abstract symbols, the indexical resources incorporated cultural knowledge and contributed to a less locally situated store of understanding that could be relevant in a larger classroom or culture of school mathematics (including standardized tests) p. 8

This is a foundational concern for CSCL, as “a field of study centrally concerned with meaning and the practices of meaning making in the context of joint activity, and the ways in which these practices are mediated through designed artifacts” (Koschmann 2002). p. 8

Roles as interactional resources for community meaning making p. 8

the paper by Magnus Hontvedt and Hans Christian Arnseth can be considered to be largely at the community-of-practice level. p. 8

Like the apprenticeship cases of Lave and Wenger (1991), this one is concerned with how p. 8

Situated in a simulator for training Norwegian sailors, the apprentices role-play at navigating a ship. To bring a ship up the fjord to Oslo, they must bring aboard a local expert. This master pilot helps to establish the professional navigational practices with the apprentices p. 9

novices take on the practices of a professional community. p. 9

Through their role-playing, the participants—whether newcomers or established members of the sailing community—co-create interactionally the context of their learning. p. 9

Much of the learning consists in this subtle process, which includes integrating interpersonal relations, language constructs, physical artifacts, a designed setting and nautical tasks. Together, this constitutes what the authors call an activity context. p. 9

Building on the theoretical framework of activity theory, an activity context is closely related to Goffman’s concept of frame, discussed above. p. 9

The roles taken on by the students are resources for their apprenticeship meaning making. p. 9

the analysis reveals how the participants themselves achieve the tenuous existence of the activity context interactionally. p. 9

The interactional resources of this learning community are ephemeral emergents—which also means they can collapse p. 9

Annotations as resources for individual learning p. 9

Evren Eryilmaz, Jakko van der Pol, Terry Ryan, Philip Martin Clark and Justin Mary take a controlled-experiment approach to evaluate the effect of a promising annotation-support tool as a resource for individual learning p. 9

By methodologically focusing on the individual student and the individual posting as the units of analysis, this study is able to isolate and quantitatively assess the role of context on these units. p. 9

While learning is conceptualized as a process that primarily takes place in individual heads, it is enhanced by the interactional level of individuals formulating ideas as posted text and receiving feedback as posted responses from others p. 9

Asynchronous discussion forums seem like good media for supporting such enhancement, except that their use causes excessive “cognitive load,” reducing the ability to engage in the cognitive processes required for deep learning and therefore counteracting the potential benefits of social interaction. p. 9

To make it easier to establish joint reference, the authors of this study provided students with a software indexing function, which graphically connects annotations with relevant selections in the provided educational text. p. 9

treatment group uses this software tool as an interactional resource, which is not made available to the control group p. 9

treatment group produces more p. 9

posts coded as “assertions” and “conflicts.” p. 10

treatment group also does better than the control on the post-test, confirming experimental hypotheses p. 10

conclusion is that the software resource reduced the cognitive load needed to co-construct effective shared interactional resources, like indexical descriptions of target text passages p. 10

This allowed the students more cognitive ability to engage in interactive assertions and conflicts. p. 10

So the focus on the individual unit of analysis allowed this study to evaluate interactions between individual learning, group interaction and socio-technical setting. p. 10

The approach and conclusions of this paper can be contrasted with recent findings in CSCL research about “productive failure” (Kapur and Bielaczyck 2012; Kapur and Kinzer 2009; Pathak et al. 2011) p. 10

Positive findings about productive failure suggest that group processes can underlie individual-level learning in ways that may not show up immediately. p. 10

The effort to build a joint problem space about a text through interpersonal interaction may confer learning benefits that are not achieved when that task is delegated to software p. 10

The CSCL agenda on levels of analysis p. 10

The time has come for CSCL to address the problem of traversing levels of analysis with exacting research. p. 10

Attempts to research a given level in isolation have run into fundamental limitations. p. 10

Although it is clear to most researchers that the levels of individual, small-group and community phenomena are inextricably intertwined, opinions differ on how to respond analytically. p. 10

There are vague theories that one level is emergent from another or dialectically coupled with it, but these ties are not well worked out or evidenced with CSCL data. p. 10

We now also need to generate, compile and analyze data that sheds light on relationships across levels. p. 10

idea of tracking interactional resources as they mediate across levels offers one suggestive approach p. 10

The different papers discussed here and other referenced theories show that there are many ways p. 10

interactional resources p. 10

to conceptualize, analyze and theorize resources. p. 11

suggest interactional resources as a candidate boundary object for discussion across competing approaches p. 11

The editorial introduction has not tried to propose a consistent position, but rather to raise some questions about what can be meant by resources for computer-supported collaborative learning, in the hope of stimulating thinking for the CSCL 2013 conference. p. 11