Draft – do not quote without permiswsion

To appear in Journal of Information Technology in Teacher Educaiton.




The Social Character of Knowing and Learning: implications of cultural psychology for educational technology


Loughborough University, United Kingdom

ABSTRACT A cultural-psychological view of knowledge and learning is presented. Its concerns are defined by comparative discussion of other theoretical traditions in psychology. The cultural view frames intelligent action as something that is mediated. This renders knowledge as participatory, distributed, and socially-guided. It is argued that adoption of this perspective has implications for the support of learning and the design of resources, such as those associated with educational technology. It is suggested that a number of innovations of computer use within education implicitly endorse this cultural view of knowing. However, the cultural-psychological emphasis on social aspects of learning urges more careful protection of some educational practices from unplanned consequences of ICT re-mediations – particular as these may arise within networked learning. Four traditional arenas for educational practice are analysed in order to illustrate the subtle nature of such social grounding.



History tells us that promises of educational innovation based upon new technology are realised much more slowly than innovators themselves predict (Cuban, 1986; Winston, 1986). History suggests something else about new educational technologies. Namely, that their emergence may often catalyse fresh discussion of educational theory and practice. Such discussion may embrace pedagogy, epistemology, or psychological development. Indeed, the concerns of the present article are somewhat at the intersection of these themes. 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 these psychological theories of knowledge can help the practice of cultivating it in others – in particular, through the deployment of information and communications technology (ICT).

In doing this, the discussion will shift away from ‘knowledge’ and towards ‘knowing’. Many commentators now suppose that an orientation towards ‘knowing’ (as an activity) rather than ‘knowledge’ (as a state) can offer us new insights. Certainly, this is a position recently argued within psychology (e.g., Clancey, 1992; Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1996). Not that such views are novel. They find philosophical grounding in that resilient tradition of epistemology associated with Gilbert Ryle. The theme is captured in his remark: "‘Intelligent’ cannot be defined in terms of ‘intellectual’ or ‘knowing how’ in terms of ‘knowing that’; ‘thinking what I am doing’ does not connote both thinking what to do and doing it. When I do something intelligently, i.e., thinking what I am doing, I am doing one thing and not two. My performance has a special procedure or manner, not special antecedents" (Ryle, 1949, p. 38).

In what follows, I shall bring into view one particular psychological perspective on these matters; namely, that of sociocultural theorising. I wish to note how the contemporary sociocultural movement has managed to precipitate a variety of useful new perspectives on both learning and knowing. My account will involve a modest history of how psychology more generally has dealt with the topic of learning. The contribution of sociocultural thinking may be more clearly identified, once we notice the ideas that this perspective has challenged.

Psychological Theorising of Learning and Knowing

Three contemporary psychological movements have dwelt on the topic of learning. For a long time the most influential of these was ‘behaviourism’. In fact, that term was once effectively synonymous with ‘theory of learning’ (Hilgard, 1948). The movement exerted a powerful influence until well into the 1970s. It framed learning as a pervasive biological function, universally realised through mechanisms of stimulus and response association. For example, as a postgraduate at that time, my own training was typical: a curiosity about early learning was led into research involving rodents and birds – innocently chosen as convenient and arbitrary species to explore universal laws of learning.

However, at this same time, the confidence behind the behaviourist empirical tradition was 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 a more cognitive language: that of stored representations and their mental manipulation. More specifically, the discipline was increasingly fascinated by a computational metaphor of mind. After behaviorism, this ‘cognitive psychology’ came to be the second theoretical force to shape modern accounts of learning.

Finally, during this same period there was also developing interest in another radical perspective within psychology. With behaviourism and cognitive psychology, it defines the third theoretical alignment to be considered here: namely constructivism. This was a perspective that conceptualised knowledge in terms of an active and exploratory subject. It became influential within education through the work of Piaget.

It is not intended to defend this three-way distinction at any length or, still less, to trace the intellectual histories of each strand. Making the distinction may simply help us reflect on how a further theoretical perspective (a sociocultural 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 this sociocultural approach it might be this: 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 everywhere coordinated through the intervention of cultural tools. We interact with the world through mobilising cultural resources into our actions: we act through these artefacts, technologies, symbol systems, environmental designs, rituals, and ways-with-words. These resources are the legacy of an evolving cultural history: we recruit them into our present actions. Thus, any culturally-influenced account of knowing and reasoning should take as its central concern the individual’s appropriation and deployment of such resources. Inevitably, this entails a special interest in individual development (enculturation) and, in particular, processes of cultural transmission such as are found in educational practice. The implications of this for psychology have been articulated most fully by Cole, who prefers to encapsulate this perspective in the term ‘cultural psychology’ (Cole, 1996). The terms cultural and sociocultural will be used interchangeably here.

One basis for understanding the growing influence of this psychology is to recognise curious gaps in the alternative perspectives – then noticing how the cultural approach proved potent in filling them. In particular, behaviourism was poor at managing any common sense notion of ‘knowledge’, and cognitive psychology was poor at managing any common sense notion of ‘learning’. So, behaviourism 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 traditional associationist models (Gagné, 1970), or by concealing (and freezing) the issue within their preoccupation with memory (Norman, 1976).

On the other hand, constructivism confronted both learning and knowing (Piaget & Inhelder, 1973). Such coherence made the constructivist view especially appealing. Moreover it surely appealed through its apparent foregrounding of our creative and exploratory nature as human beings. Challenges to constructivism have mainly concentrated on its lack of empirical rigour – criticisms particularly directed at the Piagetian tradition (Bryant, 1976; Donaldson, 1978; 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 theoretical traditions. It challenges each of them on their own strong ground: namely, the learning of behaviourism, 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, behaviourist, computational/cognitive and constructivist theories. Each challenge has been able to exploit prevailing unease within psychological theorising. So they will be presented below in terms of three theoretical ‘tensions’. Each of these challenges imply an intuitively attractive alternative agenda.

A Cultural/Behaviourist Tension

The behaviourist perspective on learning has been grounded in incrementalism. On this view, what an organism might be capable of reflects histories of differentially rewarded behaviour, whereby responses within an existing repertoire have been selectively strengthened (Skinner, 1938). The paradox of how genuinely new responses could ever arise – their newness entailing that they did not already exist to be rewarded – was dealt with through the key idea of ‘shaping’. Such a conception was often clarified with examples that might resonate with owners of domestic animals. It is readily acknowledged that a domestic pet learns new tricks by having them ‘shaped’ into existence - through the painstaking reward of existing behaviour. Responses are selected that approximate the endpoint sought after: the approximations come to get closer. The skill of a teacher becomes one of recognising the openings to judiciously apply reward or – a more neutral term – "reinforcement". Such effort serves to create sequences of action that indeed are new. So the behaviourists’ appropriation of this animal-training folk wisdom served to theorise learning as incrementally extending existing expertise through the taking of small steps. The teacher’s definition of such steps being derived from a reductionist analysis of whatever skill domain was being acquired. Such a vision is evident in the design of early teaching machines. It is not uncommon in the design of 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 responses 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 complete versions of what is to be acquired – rather than starting at a distance, and incrementally moving forward. From the cultural perspective, the educational environment must strive to approximate something that is authentic: a recognisable version of some domain for disciplinary practice. Thereby, conditions are created for learner participation – rather than learner shaping (e.g., Lave & Wenger, 1991). The goal in supporting a learner is to capture the integrity of the complete system-to-be-learned, rather than reducing it to components for bottom-up acquisition. Arguably, momentum was given to such culturally-oriented theorising by the efforts of developmental psychologists to explain the extraordinary achievements of first language learning in childhood: achievements evidently not taught by shaping but seeming instead to depend upon forms of authentic (linguistic) participation. Cultural perspectives were further encouraged by growing interest in learning organised out of school, where the potency of relatively untutored apprenticeship arrangements was noticed (Cole et al, 1971; Rogoff, 1990).

A Cultural/Cognitive Tension

Here the home ground of a cultural-psychological challenge is in relation to knowing rather than learning. The computational orientation of cognitive psychology adopts a strongly individualistic and mentalistic approach to knowing. Mentalism is the more difficult to unpick – it frames knowledge as a set of procedures and world-descriptions existing as internal (mental) representations. The cultural alternative acknowledges that this is a quite acceptable way of modelling knowledge but "the map is not the territory" (Clancey, 1997). This form of challenge to cognitivism involves the shift from knowledge to knowing. In developing a place for culture, it invokes notions from ecology. For it 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 coordinated 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. Incomplete, because such representations are implicated in intelligent action but they are not the antecedent causes of it. The situation is often expressed by saying that this challenge to cognitive orthodoxy stresses the "situated" nature of intelligent action (Clancey, 1997).

The individualism of cognitive psychology is challenged by the sociocultural emphasis on the distributed nature of knowing (Hutchins, 1995). The interest in tool-mediation naturally leads to accounts of intelligent action that attend to the individual’s deployment of tools and technologies, symbol systems, genres of communication, and so on. Cognition becomes, thereby, something to be analysed as ‘distributed’ across these resources. Representations may arise during the course of such intelligent activity. Then they are studied in terms of their "propagation": their evolution, as they get passed through socially organised systems of cultural activity (Heath, 2000). Such an orientation encourages the idea of "distributed cognition" (Salomon, 1993) – in contrast to the solitary and self-contained formulations of cognition found elsewhere in psychology.

Cognitive psychology has influenced the development of ICT in education. Views of communication as ‘information exchange/management’ have encouraged an effort to proceduralise the communication of teaching exchanges (intelligent tutoring systems). Moreover, characterising learners as vessels for symbolic representations invites the formal mapping of individual knowledge domains: that is ‘intelligent knowledge-based systems’. These systems reflect not just underlying conceptions of learning, but conceptions of knowledge. Knowledge comprises stored representations and production rules for manipulating them (Vera & Simon, 1993). Technology that supports the acquisition of knowledge in this cognitivist sense is likely to breed a certain sort of software design. Indeed, 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-psychological stress on mediation, 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 Piagetian constructivist ideas came under an particular form of scrutiny. Claims about the limits to children's reasonings were questioned by studies showing the significance of pragmatic factors in how young people go about solving problems (e.g., Donaldson, 1977). Cultural psychology’s concerns are again visible in this debate, because the pragmatic argument embraces the idea that context shapes how we think and know. This is in contrast to theories that seek to identify decontextualised or ‘core’ cognitive processes (Shweder, 1990). Such views become less attractive the more actual problem-solving performance seems moderated by details of the problem solving context. Increasingly, it appears that ‘powers of reasoning’ are not simply present or absent. They are manifest or not according to how the setting for encountering a problem is organised. Description of this context must include the pragmatics of social communication – and thereby an interpersonal dimension is invoked to define the dimensions what is known or understood.

Such intrusion of social or interpersonal themes into orthodox constructivism proved exhilarating to some within its community (Perret-Clermont & Schubaeur-Leoni, 1981). The challenge was to retain a respect for the exploratory quality of human learning, while acknowledging its orchestration within a social world: to balance a certain autonomy of human development against a certain embedding of development within the interpersonal. It was noticed that this social quality to our learning had been neglected. So any theoretical position that could find a central place for social experience was refreshing. Yet understanding of cultural theorising can often be careless. One problem (discussed more below) has been an equating of ‘social’ with ‘interpersonal exchange’. This 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 episodes of social interaction. This is not all that is entailed by invoking the social in accounts of learning and knowing. An important aim of this paper is to illustrate this in relation to designs for new technology in education.

In terms of educational technology, the constructivist view of knowledge has had its influence. It has encouraged the development of exploratory spaces – computer-based simulations and micro-worlds that resource the individual’s discovery and reflection (e.g., Papert, 1980). A revolutionary potential is claimed for this new technology: "Dewey, Montessori, and Neill all propose to educate children in a spirit that I see as fundamentally correct but that fails in practice for lack of a technological base. The computer now provides this" (Papert, 1979, p. 85). Yet constructivism has often reinforced a conception of knowledge as something to be acquired from autonomous and, often, solitary investigation. The tension I have been discussing here 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 situated. 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 technologies that have arisen under the influence of mainstream theorising within the three traditions identified. The relevance to educational technology of the contrasting, more cultural, perspective will be considered in the following section.


Implications of a Cultural View of Knowledge for Educational Technology

How psychologists theorise knowing ought to influence the design of environments for learning. How does cultural psychology help in this respect? I shall identify three aspects of the sociocultural perspective that address ideal conditions for learning. Each of them has implications for how we design new educational technologies. These three concerns are: tool-mediation, participatory engagement, and social context. 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. It is thereby especially interested in new technologies and how individuals come to appropriate them: how they mobilise them as mediational means within their intelligent action. As it happens, this interest resonates with the current emphasis that is placed on learning with computers rather than learning from computers (Underwood & Underwood, 1990). Educational technology is now often discussed 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 emphasising the re-mediation of intelligent action by new technologies. This contrasts with a more conventional view of augmentation as being about the ‘amplification’ of intellectual capacity. The issue of interest becomes how a cognitive practice is reorganised: how it is freshly configured through a learner’s coordinations with new cultural resources. Computers do not amplify knowing, they re-organise how it is exercised. For example, writing may be amplified by text processors only in the trivial sense perhaps allowing more to be written in the same period of time. What it is that may be interesting in any computer-mediated achievement is a re-structuring of the underlying activity system of writing – it gets done differently.

Second, cultural psychology stresses the importance of learners having a participatory relationship to those domains of practice that they are endeavouring to study. In part, this encourages software that is more interactive. Indeed, it could be said that much simulation software is conceived to provide opportunities for ‘authentic participation’ of just the sort that a cultural view champions (Brown et al, 1989) So, for example, the Jasper project (Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1990) is presented in 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.

There is a further sense in which a cultural notion of participatory learning is being realised through ICT. It is nurtured in those examples of classroom collaboration being built around computer-mediated communication (Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1992; Riel, 1995, Roth, 1995). Such ventures illustrate a route towards greater participatory experience that is based upon creating authentic "communities of practice" (Wenger, 1998) Quality of learning is thereby linked to the design of credible systems of cultural practice: systems that represent to the student relevant domain experiences. Most specifically, we find the influence of this idea in the community-building software that has been implemented on school-based local area networks. A number of recent interventions foreground the value of this technology for instituting some of the communicative and research practices that characterise what goes on in legitimate disciplinary settings (Crook, 1998; Pea, 1992; Scardamalia et al, 1994)

What has been said above implies that patterns of using ICT within education have come to reflect the theoretical agenda of a cultural perspective. Characterising computers in terms of tool-like augmentation and arranging for them to create more direct participatory experiences certainly is in step with emphases from cultural psychology. Yet it is only realistic to admit that this influence may be largely indirect. In fact, the examples mentioned above may reflect the consequences of disappointment with alternative genre of software: perhaps those inherited from other theoretical influences – say, behavioursim, congitivism and constructivism. Nevertheless, whatever the degree and direction of influence between theory and practice, discussion of issues at this interface remains important. In that spirit, there is one further theme within the cultural perspective that needs elaboration here. That is the theme of learning and its social context.

Contemporary enthusiasm for "networked learning" (Steeples and Jones, 2001) may signal a shift of investment away from the sorts of educational software discussed above and towards forms of computer-support that foreground the computer as an infrastructure. To some extent this encourages delivery models of computer-supported learning – for the network infrastructure readily allows the transmission of self-contained learning materials. Too often these may be in the constraining formats demanded by the ubiquitous (but interactively limited) "web". Related to this, networks have naturally cultivated an interest in promoting distance teaching – reviving perhaps an earlier debate about prospects for the "de-schooling" of education (Illich, 1973). Again, without any necessary influence from cultural psychology, these developments have re-kindled a concern for what should be the fate of the social or interpersonal fabric of teaching and learning.

My concern in the remainder of this paper is to consider the reach of the term "social" in relation to contexts of teaching and learning. The purpose being to reflect on what it is that we may need to protect, to re-mediate or to relinquish in relation to pressures from networked learning initiatives.


Educational Technologies and the Social Quality of Learning

The cultural perspective certainly does celebrate the social dimension of learning. However, this is sometimes taken to mean an insistence on the essentially interpersonal nature of learning – in a narrow sense of demanding teaching be best realised as face-to-face tuition. That encourages psychologists into a preoccupation with such matters as ‘scaffolding’ or other species of interpersonal guidance (Wood, Bruner 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. For ‘social’ can be invoked to explain our experiences of learning and knowing even when there is no one else around, but when we are nevertheless educationally engaged. Even some of the most solitary of educational explorations can depend on a grounding in social relationship and accountability. This widespread appropriation of learning to social experience embraces the lecture, the text, the assessment and other familiar – if, at first sight, lonely - anchors of educational life.

There is an urgency about recognising this reach of the social into teaching and learning: simply because networked computer technologies seem poised to re-configure certain key contexts in which educational practice is convened. Perhaps this is less urgent in relation to the primary and secondary sectors. Electronic "de-schooling" seems less imminent there. However, this is not the case in higher education, where there is more active enthusiasm for challenging the bricks-and-mortar basis of university and thereby redefining its social contexts (e.g., Gell and Chochrane, 1996; Dunderstadt, 1999). I argue below that managing the social dimension within this agenda may be more precarious than is realised. To pursue this argument, I refer to four particular learning contexts: in each, electronic re-mediation has suggested a subtle texture to the social dimension of what happens there. That these examples should be taken from higher education is an inevitable reflection of where the pressure of networked ICT is now felt. However, there is no reason why the points made should not be usefully extrapolated to other educational sectors.

The four contexts to be discussed are the informal tutor-student exchange, the peer-based discussion session, the practice of assessment feedback, and the lecture. In each case I note some lessons of electronic re-mediation in these various arena. The first two cases illustrate one species of problem, the second two cases illustrate another. In the first two examples, the social nature of these settings conform to the narrow and traditional conception of "social": namely, synchronous and interpersonal exchange. Yet, observations of their re-mediation by new technology reveal the "situated" nature of that exchange. That is, how its progress relies on an embedding in certain contexts that are not simple to reproduce. In the second two examples, the warning from research observations is a little different. Here the point is more to identify that these contexts do have a (hidden) social dimension. While their organisation may not entail synchronous exchange, the nature of student engagement may well depend upon mapping what happens onto a version of such exchanges. Again, re-mediation may need to take this into account.


ICT and Tutorial Discourse

In considering ICT and informal tutorial talk, I am not evaluating its capacity to sustain the momentary to and fro of live conversation. ICT designers with their sights on tutorial discourse have concentrated on tools for asychronous person-to-person exchange: this means text-based communication, typically involving some way of organising electronic mail. Thereby, enthusiasts for networked forms of education may feel able to argue that the tutorial exchange has been protected. Yet students are often reluctant to make use of such computer-mediated tools (Crook, 2001). 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 & Webster, 1998). What does this reticence tell us about knowing, and about technology’s place within tutored learning?

On the basis of focus group discussions with students (Crook & Webster, 1998), the answer involves a reminder that issues of social role and identity are implicated in learning and knowing. Academic tutors are not necessarily perceived by learners as unreservedly receptive. They are understood to be busy people not necessarily keen to have their complicated agendas interrupted ad lib by student enquiries. Arguably, the medium of electronic mail amplifies the feeling of ‘interrupting’ and, perhaps, exaggerates the status separation of teacher and learner. Its free availability renders uncertain the times and frequencies with which a student might appropriately used it with a tutor. 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 that arguments should be articulated in text (with all its permanence and unforgiving demand for precision).

In sum, optimizing educational experience in this arena (the informal tutorial dialogue) depends upon careful management of its social quality. Certainly, this may entail 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 of the arena is not the aspect of ‘social quality’ that I have identified here. Rather, I have noted how the very possibility of tutorial exchange is embedded in a societal 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 one’s contributions). These are clearly dimensions of the social context surrounding tutorial exchange yet they may not be the aspects of the social that get dwelt upon when re-mediation is at issue. Certainly though, they are dimensions that ICT can readily disturb when it is recruited to support the tutorial ingredient of educational practice.

ICT and the Collaborative Peer Group

Electronic media also can support academic interaction that concerns peers more than tutors: that is, informal group discussion. The use of the bulletin boards that support "electronic seminars" are the clearest realisltion of this support. But they also can be slow to develop engagement from students. For the electronic seminar has many design features that distinguish it from the more familiar and traditional version. Real-time peer group discussion does not normally 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 synchronicity 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. Sometimes they may adopt a ‘terrorist’ persona (publicly undermining the discussion and individuals within it) or they may become obsessively concerned with the clarity of their contributions, or they may handle the interpersonal atmosphere badly( Light et al, 2000). In all such circumstances, the electronic seminar becomes a species of experience that undermines learners’ models of themselves as disciplinary members. Ironically, computer-mediated seminars may be introduced in a spirit of foregrounding that very idea - membership. However, once again, something about the social quality of learning and knowing, something about membership, status, audience and identity may be 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 to foster collaborative study. Sometimes ICT may be recognized 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 cannot 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 coordination 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.

This discussion is converging on a similar point to that made in the first example. The sense in which collaborative discussion is "social" is subtle. The challenge for ICT designers is not simply to provide an electronic medium for the movement of discrete messages. The quality of the discourse sustained is influenced by the design of the computer-mediated environment for such collaboration. Such influences may be analysed for their effects on learning. But this is also a matter of effects on knowing. The quality of the disciplinary discourse students are given access to shapes their conception of what it is to have an investigative and collaborative relationship within some knowledge domain.

ICT and the Social Quality of Assessment

The previous two cases revolved around claims that the social interaction they supported was subtle: that its effective impact depended on noticing aspects of the context that might be missed in ICT remediation. In my other two examples the argument is more basic: just to establish that these arena do have a social basis. That in some important sense, what happens within them is grounded in the participants’ belief that something social is going on – even when personal and face-to-face exchange is not evident.

It is easy to overlook all the ways in which new technology enters into managing assessment. However, 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 grading and commentary forms: feedback sheets that may be customised to refer to particular pieces of work, by particular students, on particular teaching units, and so forth. In short, this technology allows a certain proceduralistion of assessment relations. For example, coversheets can thereby be attached to student coursework in order to convey such suitably itemised feedback. Why is this about the ‘social quality’ of being a learner?

Because the student-tutor contract embedded in the author-reader-assessment-feedback process represents a species of social relationship. In particular, it organises for the student a setting of (interpersonal) 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 (even where it takes the form only of personal annotations). 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 usually well enough intentioned (disciplining markers’ attention to their responsibilities). 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, less social? 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 (Crook 2001). 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, effective engagement of learners may be associated with the communal act of attendance. It may matter that something has been experienced in common, as a class; 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: put another way, 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 (Crook, in press). 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; perhaps thereby more 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 seems convincing, 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. The effort here to define that view has involved some 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. At present there is evidence that such thinking is influencing the application of educational technology. The use of computers often represents their capacity to augment or distribute intelligence; they often offer a more participatory experience of learning.

However, it was also argued that the cultural view of teaching and learning as socially organised was more vulnerable to unpredicted consequences of re-mediation through new technology. This unpredictability may arise from us often being too narrow in our appropriation of "social" face-to-face, interpersonal processes in learning (scaffolding and so forth). The traditional interpersonal quality of learning is indeed important to defend; but there is more at stake when we mobilise investments in social context. The penetration of ICT into educational practice helps us notice more about these contexts.

While ICT offers some powerful possibilities for elaborating the sociocultural 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 effects may often re-mediate our relations with others.


Charles Crook, Department of Human Sciences, Loughborough University, Loughborough LE11 3TU, United Kingdom (C.K.Crook@lboro.ac.uk).


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