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The social character of knowing and learning: Implications of cultural psychology for educational technology

Charles Crook

Department of Human Sciences

Loughborough University

Loughborough, LE11 3 TU

England, UK


A cultural-psychological view of knowledge is presented. The status and distinct concerns of this view are located by comparative consideration of other theoretical traditions in psychology. The cultural view frames knowledge as something that is mediated; participatory, distributed, and socially-guided. It is argued that if we take this view of knowing seriously, there must be implications for the management of learning. There then arise design implications for learning resources: in particular, those of educational technology. It is suggested that a number of innovations of computer use within education implicitly endorse the cultural view of knowing. However, the expression of this view is too often appropriated to a narrow celebration of face to face interaction in learning. While the "social" quality of learning does include such concepts as "scaffolded instruction", it reaches beyond the interpersonal in that sense. This is illustrated with a number of examples of how technological innovation in teaching and learning could create precarious circumstances in relation to that social quality of institutionalised learning.



History indicates that promises of educational innovation based upon new technology are realised much more slowly than the innovators themselves predict (e.g., Cuban, 1986). History suggests a further property of new educational technologies. Frequently they find a role in catalysing fresh discussion of theory and practice. Such discussion may embrace pedagogy, epistemology or human development. Indeed, the concerns of the present paper are somewhat at the intersection of these matters. I wish to consider, first, how the concept of knowledge can be theorised through the lens of contemporary psychology. I shall then move to consider how psychological accounts of knowledge help us cultivate it in others through the deployment of information and communication technologies (ICTs).

In pursuing these themes the discussion will be shifted away from "knowledge" and towards "knowing": Many people will grant that an orientation towards "knowing" (as an activity) rather than "knowledge" (as a state) can offer us insights. Accepting that this translation should be comprehensive requires a greater act of faith; but, in the present context, reaching a useful consensus will not depend on wholesale commitment. If a firm grounding in philosophy must be offered for the knowledge-knowing translation, then I appeal to that resilient tradition of epistemology associated with Gilbert Ryle. It is captured in his remark: "’Intelligent’ cannot be defined in terms of ‘intellectual’ or ‘knowing how’ in terms of ‘knowing that’." (Ryle, 1949)

A central aim here will be to bring one particular position within current psychology into sharper focus: namely the socio-cultural position. This will involve a modest history of how psychology more generally has dealt with learning. The underlying purpose being to trace how the contemporary "socio-cultural" movement has managed to precipitate a variety of new perspectives on both learning and knowing. The contribution of socio-cultural thinking may be more clearly identified once we notice the ideas that this movement challenged and displaced.

Psychological theorising of learning and knowing

Three particular contemporary psychological movements have dwelt on the topic of learning. For a long time the most influential of these was "behaviorism": in fact, that term was once effectively synonymous with "theory of learning" (Hilgard 1948) . The movement remained a powerful force well into the 1970s. Indeed, the learning considered in my own doctoral research was the learning of rodents and birds – innocently and arbitrarily chosen with an orthodox purpose: to explore biologically universal laws. However, the confidence behind this empirical tradition was, at that time, coming under threat. For the 1970s was a period of disciplinary revolution in psychology. The language of stimuli, responses and associations was being overrun by the language of stored representations and their mental manipulation. Put differently, the discipline was adopting the computational metaphor of mind that was to be celebrated by cognitive psychology. In addition, this same period is associated with a parallel revolutionary force within psychology. This defines the third theoretical alignment to be considered here – one that complements behaviorism and cognitive psychology – namely constructivism. This perspective was particularly influenced by the work of Piaget.

It is not intended to defend the coherence of this three-way distinction or, still less, to trace the intellectual histories of each in detail. Making the distinction may simply help us reflect on how a further theoretical perspective (a socio-cultural perspective) cut a distinct path through these mainstream traditions and came to occupy its current status as a serious and radical alternative.

If there is a common core to be claimed for socio-cultural approaches it might be: a concern for the mediated nature of human mentality. Unlike the im-mediate activity of other species, human action on the social and material world is inevitably organised through cultural tools. We coordinate with the world through mobilising cultural resources into our actions: we act with indirection through artifacts, technologies, symbol systems, environmental designs, rituals, and ways-with-words. Any account of knowing and reasoning should take as its central concern the individual’s appropriation and deployment of such resources. The position has been articulated most fully by Michael Cole who prefers to encapsulate this perspective in the term "cultural" (as in "cultural psychology" (Cole, 1996). The cultural and the socio-cultural will be used interchangeably here.

One basis for understanding how cultural psychology worked a distinctive path through the psychological landscape is to notice curious gaps in the alternative theoretical perspectives – then suggesting how the cultural approach proved potent in filling them. In particular, behaviorism was poor at managing the common sense notion of "knowledge", and cognitive psychology was poor at managing the common sense notion of "learning". So, behaviorism gamely struggled to assimilate "knowledge" into "learning" – as exemplified by Kendler’s troubled paper on "What is learned?" (Kendler, 1952). Meanwhile, theorists of cognitive psychology struggled to handle "learning" - either by appealing sideways to associationist models (Gagné, 1970), or by concealing (and freezing) the issue within their preoccupation with memory (Norman, 1976).

Constructivism confronted both learning and knowing head on (Piaget and Inhelder 1973). Such coherence made the constructivist view especially appealing. Challenges to constructivism have mainly concentrated on its lack of empirical rigour – criticisms particularly directed at the Piagetian tradition (Bryant, 1976; Donaldson, 1977; Flavell, 1977). The cultural approach shares constructivism’s concern with both knowing and learning and, thus, is also agreeably comprehensive in its scope. However, the cultural approach enjoys an interesting edge in relation to the other three. This arises from the ways in which it challenges the other main theoretical traditions on their own strong ground: namely, the learning of behaviorism, the knowledge of cognitivism, and the creative drive of constructivism. In the next section, I shall comment briefly on each of the resulting theoretical tensions.


Challenges from cultural psychology

Three important dimensions of the cultural approach are identified here. Each presents a challenge to central tenets of, respectively, behaviorist, computational and constructivist theories. Each challenge has been able to exploit prevailing unease with a mainstream of psychological theorising and so will be discussed here in terms of three theoretical "tensions". Moreover, each of these challenges imply an intuitively attractive alternative agenda.

A cultural/behaviorist tension. The behaviorist perspective on learning has been grounded in incrementalism. On this view, learning arose from histories of differential reinforcement, whereby new responses were added to an existing repertoire (Skinner, 1938). The paradox of how genuinely new responses could ever arise – their newness entailing that they did not already exist to be reinforced – was dealt with through the key idea of "shaping". Such a conception is familiar to any dog owner: whereby new tricks can be "shaped" into existence through the selective reward of existing behaviour. Such effort serves to create sequences of action that indeed are new. So the behaviorists’ appropriation of this folk wisdom theorised learning as incrementally extending existing expertise through the taking of small steps – the actual definition of the steps being derived from a reductionist analysis of whatever skill was being acquired. Such a vision is evident in the design of early teaching machines, and is not uncommon in the design of certain more contemporary drill and practice educational software. This conception of learning arose from a (rarely articulated) theory about what it is that may be said to be "known" – namely, reinforced associations of varying strengths.

Cultural theories of learning take the opposite perspective. The prevailing metaphor is more choreography than brick-laying. Good conditions for learning are ones in which the learner is granted access to legitimate and complete versions of what is to be acquired. From the cultural perspective, the educational environment must strive to approximate in some way this authenticity and to create conditions for learner participation – rather than learner shaping (e.g., Lave and Wenger, 1991). Thus, the goal in supporting a learner is to suggest the integrity of the complete system-to-be-learned, rather than reducing it to components for bottom-up acquisition. The learner may thereby participate in the system – albeit on its periphery. Arguably, momentum has been given to culturally-oriented approaches by the particular desire of developmental psychologists to better explain the extraordinary achievements of first language learning: achievements evidently not taught by shaping but seeming to demand forms of authentic (linguistic) participation. Cultural perspectives were further cultivated by increased interest among psychologists in learning organised out of school where the significance of apprenticeship arrangements was noticed (Cole, Gay, Glick and Sharp, 1971; Rogoff, 1990).

A cultural/cognitive tension. Here the home ground of a cultural challenge is in relation to knowing rather than learning. The computational orientation of cognitive psychology adopts a strongly individualistic and mentalistic approach to knowing. The mentalism is the more difficult to unpick – it refers to the definition of knowledge as a set of descriptions available to us as internal representations. The socio-cultural alternative acknowledges that this is a quite acceptable way of modeling knowledge but "the map is not the territory" (Clancy, 1997) . This form of challenge to cognitivism encourages the shift from knowledge to knowing. When properly pursued, it requires harmonising cultural and ecological theorising. This leads us to a conception that locates the psychology of knowledge within the very structure of our interactions with the world. It invites us to understand how human actors coordinate and sequence their behaviour within the actual (messy) conditions of real problem solving – how they go about knowing as activity. Of course among the resources people bring to bear in that enterprise may be knowledge descriptions (or "maps") of the kind that arise from memory of previous successes. So, in this sense, traditional cognitive modeling of knowledge remains relevant and useful - if incomplete. The situation is summarised by saying that this challenge to cognitive orthodoxy demands an acceptance of the situated nature of intelligent action.

A related but less radical form of cultural challenge to cognitivism takes the form of stressing the distributed nature of knowing (Hutchins, 1995). The cultural interest in tool-mediation regards intelligent action as inherently bound into the individual’s deployment of tools and technologies, symbol systems and genres of communication. These resources, appropriated through enculturation, are factored into the analysis of cognition. Cognition becomes, thereby, something to be analysed as "distributed" across these resources. Moreover, the representations that might be created within intelligent action are often to be understood in terms of their propagation through socially-organised systems of intelligent action. The strategies we discover to achieve this may also be termed strategies of "distributing" cognition.

Cognitive psychology has influenced the development of ICT in education. That influence is apparent in the effort to proceduralise tutorial interactions (intelligent tutoring systems) and to map knowledge domains (intelligent knowledge-based systems). These systems reflect not just underlying conceptions of learning, but conceptions of knowing. Knowledge here comprises stored representations and production rules for manipulating them (Vera and Simon, 1993). Technology that supports the acquisition of knowledge in this cognitivist sense is likely to breed a certain sort of software design. Or, put the other way, educational software designed in this spirit is likely to cultivate a certain orientation in the learner - as to what it is to be knowledgeable in some domain. The cultural turn, on the other hand, regards educational technology as a species of augmentation rather than a conduit for instruction or repository for "the knowledge map" (Crook, 1992)

A cultural/constructivist tension. In the 1970s Piaget’s constructivist work came under an interesting form of scrutiny. His claims about the limits to children's reasonings were confronted in a manner that exposed the significance of pragmatic factors in how individuals go about solving problems (e.g., Donaldson, 1977). The cultural psychologist’s concerns are once more visible in this debate because the pragmatic argument warmly embraces context as determining how we think and know. Actual problem-solving performance is moderated by how problems have been framed up for us in the variety of settings for encountering them. Description of context must include the pragmatics of social communication – so an interpersonal dimension is invoked to explain the quality of problem solving

Such intrusion of social or interpersonal themes into orthodox constructivism proved exhilarating (Perret-Clermont and Schubaeur-Leoni, 1981). The original appeal of constructivism may have exploited a human conceit about us being exploratory creatures. Yet, it is argued, we must also recognise (and celebrate) our fundamentally social nature. This aspect of our experience, it was noticed, had been neglected. So any theoretical position that could find a central place for the interpersonal in accounting for learning and knowing was refreshing. Yet the take-up of cultural theorising has often been careless in this respect. One problem (discussed more below) has been that the enthusiasm for cultural approaches often equates "social" with "interpersonal exchange". It thereby reduces a rich theoretical position about the conditions of cognitive change to an implausible demand: namely, that all knowing and learning must take place between people as they engage in states of social interaction. This is not all that is entailed by invoking the social in accounts of learning and knowing.

In terms of educational technology, the constructivist view of knowledge cultivates the design of exploratory spaces – computer-based simulations and micro-worlds that resource the individual’s discovery and reflection (e.g., Papert, 1980). The learner thereby may adopt a conception of knowledge as something that must be acquired from autonomous and solitary investigation. The cultural position elaborates construction by liberating the isolated learner and situating learning in a more social context.

To summarise:: recent years have seen within psychology the emergence of a cultural approach to learning and knowing. It conceptualises knowledge as participatory, as distributed and as socially-negotiated. It theorises knowledge in terms of " knowing". In this section, the cultural approach has been contrasted with more traditional theoretical approaches. The contrasts have involved comment on the sort of educational technology that arises from more mainstream theorising. These comments are integrated in the following section..


Implications of a cultural view of knowledge for educational technology

How psychologists theorise what it is to know something ought to influence designs for environments that help with what it is to learn something. How does the theorising of cultural psychology help in this respect? Below, I identify three particular concerns of the socio-cultural perspective: each of which can be invoked to support a direction for adopting educational technology. The three concerns are tool-mediation, participatory engagement, and social guidance. It is the third of these that I wish to emphasise as the most urgent for directing our planning of ICT use in education.

First, cultural psychology stresses the mediated nature of intelligent action. So the cultural psychology of learning must dwell upon individuals appropriating new technologies – coming to mobilise them as mediational means within their intelligent action. This view resonates with the current emphasis that is placed on learning with computers rather than learning from computers (Underwood and Underwood, 1990). Generally, educational technology is now more readily seen as augmenting and extending intelligence, rather than imparting it. While this is a widely accepted orientation to ICT, it remains important to theorise effectively the "augmentation" process. Cultural psychology approaches this by considering how intelligent action is re-mediated by new technologies. This contrasts with a view of augmentation as being an "amplification" of some basic intellectual capacity. Instead, the issue becomes how a cognitive practice is reorganised: how it is freshly configured in terms of the learner’s coordinations with relevant aspects of their material and social world. For example, an understanding of how student writing is restructured by text processing invites us to research the nature of writing as an activity system – and, then, recognise its re-mediation by the constraints and affordances of this new tool.

Second, cultural psychology stresses the importance of learners having a participatory relationship to those domains of practice that they are endeavouring to master. This perspective suggests shifting design questions away from software itself and towards the conditions in which software gets used. For example, it could be said that much simulation software is conceived to provide opportunities for "authentic participation" of the sort that a cultural view champions (Brown, Collins and Duguid, 1989) So, for example, the Jasper material designed by the Vanderbilt group (Cognition and technology group at Vanderbilt, 1990) is presented in just such terms: a computer-based resource to create vivid and interactive experiences of real world systems. What becomes a challenge in the application of such resources is how we tune up the circumstances of actual use. For example, it will be important to protect students from unrealistic models of how actual systems work – arising from their tinkering with potentially closed and speculative models of those systems as they are realised in software.

A third concern of cultural psychology that should influence educational ICT is an emphasis on learning as socially supported. In an important sense, this is an assertion that the quality of learning depends upon the systems of social practice in which it is oiganised. We find the influence of this idea in the community-building software designed for school-based local area networks. A number of recent interventions foreground the value of this technology for instituting some of the communicative practices that characterise what goes on in legitimate disciplinary settings (Riel, 1995, Roth, 1995, Scardamalia, Bereiter, and Lamon, 1994). Yet there are obstacles to the effective design of these initiatives and they remind us of the need to understand more fully the social dynamic of the systems we construct. . For example, in computer-based learning settings, problems can arise around issues of audience and ownership - at least in relation to that aspect of networked communities that involves the "publication" of learners’ work (Crook, 1998). Moreover, real communities of practice experience real (and sometimes) painful interpersonal processes - care is needed if we are to visit such authentic experiences on novice learners.

This last example gets closest to my interest here in articulating the "social quality" of knowing and learning. It illustrates how new technology can be mobilised to enrich the social context in which students’ activity is organised. The design and success of community-building software is affirmation of the social embeddedness of knowing. So demonstrates how an argument about the social quality of learning and knowing can be recruited to encourage a certain direction of ICT development. I shall turn now to the other side of this coin: whether arguments about that social quality of learning need to be invoked to challenge – rather than endorse – current practices for deploying ICT. The next section will consider examples where there is a degree of possible tension between the socio-cultural view of learning and knowing and the increasing penetration of new technology into routine educational practice.


Educational technologies and the social quality of learning

Socio-cultural theorising seems easy to dilute. Often this involves constraining what we understand by "social", such that observations about ICT being in tension with social aspects of teaching and learning are less convincing. In this final section, I start by noting how claims about learning and knowing being social too often are limited by a narrow definition of the social: one that merely promotes the priority of interactive, face-to-face learning. In reality, much learning and knowing is dislocated from such live contact with other people. We are not often instructed in intimate tutorial settings and so claims based on that idea can hardly convince. Yet, in the vocabulary of a cultural perspective, it can still make sense to describe much educational practice as "social". However, this requires recognising a wider sense of the term: a sense that embraces the societal as well as the interpersonal.

This is an observation about a narrowness inherent in claims about the social basis of learning. Ultimately, it concerns also the social basis of knowing. If, as in the computational view, knowledge is regarded as simply a set of private descriptions, then knowledge easily becomes something "delivered" by teaching. It becomes an "acquisition" arising from learning. Under this conception, methods of learning are relatively transparent. Selecting among pedagogies is a matter of relative efficiencies – some are more effective in leading us to that singular state of having knowledge, to getting in possession of "the map". On the other hand, as in the socio-cultural view, if knowledge is about being able to mobilise forms of co-ordination with the world, then the particular experiences we encounter within learning are themselves the bases of the knowing we are subsequently able to do. This variety in the experience of learning characterises just what it is any particular learner comes to know. This variety is not simply versions of educational "method", not simply alternative routes towards circumscribed goals.

Innovations in educational technology are therefore interesting in part because they create different kinds of learning experience. The theoretical point to be pursued here concerns an essential social grounding of these experiences. While the practical point is more about how ICT often reconfigures that social quality of learning – something innovators need to notice. In what follows there is some brief discussion of particular educational settings that involve ICT. This way we may establish more firmly the theoretical point, by recruiting these examples. But the aim also is to illustrate some straightforward practical concerns arising from the pervasive adoption of ICT.

The examples chosen are largely drawn from personal experience of studying innovation in higher education: but they could easily be reconstituted in other sectors. The recurring theme is that innovation does not always adequately respect or theorise the well-entrenched social nature of both learning and knowing. Again, "social" is not meant in the narrow sense of "interpersonal". That would suggest preoccupation with such matters as the status of "scaffolding" or other species of interpersonal guidance (Wood, Burner and Ross, 1976). Those occasions are part of a story, but the full story must reach beyond the special case of synchronous, intimate, orchestrated, face-to-face interaction. Thus "social" may be invoked to explain our experiences of learning and knowing even when there is no one else around when we are educationally engaged. Even the most solitary of educational explorations are often understood and experienced as species of social relationship and accountability. This appropriation to the social must therefore embrace the lecture, the text, the assessment and other familiar – if apparently lonely - anchors of educational life.

Four examples of educational practice are mentioned below. Each is discussed in relation to the re-mediating significance of ICT. They are considered in order, from cases that are the most obviously interpersonal to cases that seem not to involve the interpersonal at all. Yet each is considered in terms of its significant social quality.

ICT and tutorial discourse. The teacher-pupil exchange as pursued in tutorial discourse is a classic and precious arena for learning. Moreover, it clearly exemplifies the interpersonal sense of "social" that arises in learning. However, in considering ICT in this context, I am not evaluating its capacity to sustain the momentary to and fro of tutorial conversation. In fact, this technology is yet to prove effective at reproducing such conversations. Instead, designers with their sights on tutorial discourse have concentrated on developing tools for person(s)-to-persons(s) asynchronous text-based exchange – typically through some way of organising electronic mail. Thus, enthusiasts for online forms of education may then feel able to argue that the tutorial exchange has been protected. Yet students are often reluctant to make use of such computer-mediated tools. This can be so even under conditions that seem optimal – for example, when an email launcher to the relevant tutor is embedded in hypertext material being revised for a finals examination (Crook and Webster, 1998). What does this reticence tell us about knowing, and about technology’s role within learning?

On the basis of focus group discussions with students (Crook and Webster, 1998), the answer involves a reminder that issues of social role and identity are implicated in our capacity for knowing. It seems that lecturers are viewed by learners as busy people not keen on having their research interrupted by student enquiries. Arguably, the medium of electronic mail amplifies the feeling of "interrupting" and, perhaps, exaggerates the status separation of teacher and learner. In addition, students report a strong sense of self-consciousness about "not appearing clever". Too often the email communication medium cultivates this through its requirement of the student that arguments should be articulated in text (with all its permanence and unforgiving demand for precision)..

In sum, optimising educational experience in this arena (the tutorial dialogue) depends upon careful management of its social quality. This may sometimes involve us worrying about how far an asynchronous and intermittent text exchange can approximate what gets done in a traditional tutorial conversation. However, that more classically interpersonal dimension is not the feature of "social quality" that I have identified here. Rather, I have drawn attention to how the very possibility of tutorial exchange is embedded in a societal or institutional context. Thus it is "social" in the sense of raising issues of relative social positions, self –consciousness, and visibility (in terms of the archived nature of ones contributions). These are clearly dimensions of the social context surrounding tutorial exchange: dimensions that ICT can readily reconfigure when recruited to support that core ingredient of educational practice.

ICT and the collaborative peer group. Electronic media also can support interaction more modeled on the seminar than the tutorial – more about exchange among peers than about exchange between a tutor and student. Yet, again, use of the bulletin boards that support electronic seminars can be slow to develop. For the electronic seminar has many design features that distinguish it from the genuine item. Real-time peer group discussion in communities of practice does not take the form of permanent, text-based contributions exchanged asynchronously between disembodied participants. Seminars should give learners access to a genre of argumentation, and confidence in exercising it. However, the slow pace of asynchronicity and the permanence of the text medium may deny such opportunities. Moreover, failure of the medium to sustain authentic disciplinary conversation can foster unhelpful experiences for the participants.. If some of them adopt a "terrorist" persona (publicly undermining the discussion and individuals within it) or some of them become obsessively concerned with the clarity of their contributions, or handle the interpersonal atmosphere badly - then the electronic seminar becomes a species of experience that undermines learners’ models of themselves as disciplinary members (Light Nesbitt, Light and White, 2000).. Ironically, computer-mediated seminars may be conceived in a spirit of fore-grounding that very idea - membership. Again something about the social quality of learning and knowing, something about membership, status, audience and identity is being violated by our designs.

Of course the peer group - as a learning resource - does not flourish only in the organised format of the seminar. Learners may be encouraged into more informal partnerships, conceived in the interests of fostering collaborative study. Sometimes ICT may be recognised as a useful catalyst for such activity and students are now often encouraged to work together at computer-based problems (Crook, 1987). My own observations of children working together at classroom computers suggest that the motivation to coordinate around technology in this way can not be taken for granted (Crook, 1994). Sometimes, the demand to convene collaborative relationships for exploring some knowledge or other can be experienced too much as just that - a demand - rather than a form of co-ordination continuous with a surrounding social life. If the pace imposed by computer-mediated collaboration is too slow, or if an imposed orchestration of partnerships is unsympathetic, then these experiences can become irritating and unproductive. Of course, this might be said of any circumstances for peer collaboration. But computers do seem to create special demands arising from the way in which they can configure the timing and intensity of joint activity.

The conclusion might be that educational technology offers real opportunities consistent with notions of knowledge as collaboratively constructed. Yet if there is a shortfall in the dynamic of the computer-supported collaborations arranged for learners, then the re-mediation of joint work by ICT may be less than optimal. We may thereby risk imparting to learners a distorted conception of what it is to have an investigative and collaborative relationship within some knowledge domain.


ICT and the social quality of assessment. It is easily to overlook all the ways in which new technology enters into the task of assessment. There is more to consider than the familiar contexts of automated testing - although there is also a "social" analysis of this to be done. It is also necessary to consider the forms of automated feedback that can be generated by database-managed teaching records. For example, computers make possible the construction of standard forms that may be customised to refer to particular pieces of work, by particular students, on particular teaching units. This technology allows a certain proceduralistion of teaching activity: for example, coversheets can thereby be attached to student coursework in order to convey suitably itemised feedback. Why is this about the "social quality" of being a leaner?

Because the student-tutor contract embedded in the author-reader-assessment-feedback process represents a species of social relationship and accountability. Whether learners are self-consciously aware of it in this sense is not crucial to the present argument. The point is that the proceduralisation of coursework assessment violates something implicitly and traditionally social in quality. We need to be vigilant, therefore, that computers again are not undermining something precious in the experience of being a learner - a social experience constructed within traditions of interpersonal and institutional affiliations. Ironically, the motive for mechanically delivering assessment information is well-meaning (disciplining markers’ attention to their task). However, the intrusion of technology into feedback is another issue for cautious practice, another potential violation to the experience of knowing as socially negotiated.


ICT and the lecture as social setting. What could be more representative of educational practice than exposition? What could be less discursive? So, what could be more vulnerable to innocent displacement by information technology? After all, verbal exposition need not be vocal exposition. In this way, technology may, for example, invite lecturers to package their lecture notes as web pages. However, the familiar format of the lecture may not be a transparent device – "just" one way of delivering information. The lecture has significant social qualities even though it usually demands a "stillness" from most of the people present. There are at least two broader senses of "social" exposed on further analysis of this familiar experience.

First, the motivation and engagement of learners may be associated with the communal act of attendance. It may matter that something has been experienced in common; that the discipline under study has been encountered in this corporate sense. The resulting advantage could partly be about motivation: corporate action sustaining a stronger sense of involvement. But the advantage could also be, in part, more straightforwardly socio-cognitive: attendance at the occasion fashioning a platform of shared peer experience – a resource for off-line exploratory and evaluative discussion among the participants.

Second, there is a social quality to the lecture that is about the personalization of curricular material: if you like, the existence of a voice in the curriculum, an endorsement of the contingent nature of what gets claimed, an invitation to dialogue I have noticed this indirectly in a study of undergraduates revising a lecture course collaboratively. Some student pairs worked from their own records of the occasion (lecture notes), while others worked from the lecturer’s web-based notes of the occasion. Despite the authority of the lecturer’s own notes, the web material proved a far less potent source of inspiration for learner discussion and review. On the other hand, students using their own notes had deeper and more exploratory discussion of the material. There are many ways to make sense of this but one insight arises from closer listening to the conversation arising among the web-using pairs. From these records, one encounters a sense of learners grappling with material that is experienced as pre-digested, intimidating, and remote.

Transmuting lecture courses into multimedia portfolios, to be sampled at the convenience of the learner sounds attractive. Yet while the claimed student autonomy is seductive, it may be achieved at the expense of something precious within the traditional format of lecturing. It may serve to threaten the negotiated and rhetorical nature of knowing. The vocal exposition, is (at its best) experienced as a volatile, tentative and public exploration of some domain. The corporate nature of participation makes it a social occasion; the personalised nature of the disciplinary exploration also makes it a social occasion. Readily accessible text, sound or video file versions of the exposition are not a comprehensive substitute.



A particular psychological view of knowledge is implicit in what has been said here. This view is associated with a "cultural" form of theorising, one that has been defined by comparative consideration of parallel theoretical traditions in psychology (behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism). The cultural view frames knowledge as mediated; participatory, distributed and socially-guided. It has been argued that if we take this view of knowing seriously, there should be implications for the management of learning and, within that concern, there are design implications for educational technology – as a particular kind of learning resource. It was suggested that a number of innovations in computer practice within education reflected a growing endorsement of the cultural view.

However, it was also argued that the cultural view of teaching and learning as socially organised was too often appropriated to a narrow celebration of face-to-face, interpersonal processes in learning (scaffolding and so forth). The "social" quality of learning is indeed crucial, but in a broader sense than this. The penetration of ICT into educational practice helps us notice more of the contexts in which it seems appropriate to invoke (and protect) this social quality. For while ICT offers some powerful possibilities for elaborating the socio-cultural perspective in education, some applications of educational technology seem in awkward tension with the social nature of teaching and learning. Insofar as educational experiences are appropriated by learners to a template of "ordinary social life", then it will be important to monitor the effects of ICT. For those effect may often remediate our relations with others.



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