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distributed cognition and supporting learning@work

March 14, 2014

There are two main ways in which, distributed cognition may be framed – epistemic distributed cognition and collective distributed cognition, which are mutually interrelated.

I: Person-centred view

  • Epistemic distributed cognition: distributed cognition is eminently epistemic from the persons point of view, because it deals with the very activity of knowing and understanding the world one lives in. Giere (2007) refers to this kind of distribution as locally distributed cognition.
  • Epistemic distributed cognition results in creating personal cognitive niches. Magnani (2008), and Magnani and Bardone (2008) use the term cognitive niche to mark the distributed space that people create by interrelating individual cognition and the environment through the continuous interplay through abductive processes in which they alter and modify the environment.
  • People use external resources as part of the distributed cognitive system to solve problems. They continuously offload some of their cognitive functions onto external objects and artifacts, which can just be found out-there or designed for accomplishing specific goals and tasks (this approach may be important in Captus).
  • Tacit dimension of knowledge that is different for everyone influences what one is finding worthwhile to consider as part of their cognitive system, due to the tacit knowledge persons are creating diversity and variability in their cognitive niches.
  • Some part of the cognitive niche formation may be seen as the purposeful activity – with the problem or goal in hand one tries to develop distributed cognitive structures (for example in Sharing turbine the White folders)
  • Not all what is incorporated into cognitive niche is useful at the time when it is noticed, but it may become useful later on, since much of the informal learning happens retrospectively. Learning lies outside the realm of regular expectations and involves a forward-looking attitude. We cannot entirely rely on what happened in the past, but we must inevitably look forward, projecting ourselves onto the unknown future. (For example in Bits and pieces).

II: Collective (culture, community, system) centred view

  • Collective distributed cognition is cognition where the output of a certain cognitive process cannot be attributed or tracked back to the effort of a single agent, but it is the product of collective effort. (Relate with social semantic server, also networked scaffolding)
  • Social organisation is seen as a form of cognitive architecture that determines the way information flows in the context of activity (Hollan et al., 2000).  (relate with networked scaffolding)
  • External resources – the objects, artifacts, and at-hand materials and software are temporally integrated into goal-based affordance networks (see Barab & Roth, 2006) that support actions. Barab and Roth (2006) have noted that connecting learners to ecological networks, where they can learn through engaged participation, activates the affordance networks. Affordance networks are extended in both time and space and can include sets of perceptual and cognitive affordances that collectively come to form the network for particular goal sets. Affordance networks are not entirely delimited by their material, social, or cultural structure, although one may have elements of all of these; instead, they are functionally bound in terms of the facts, concepts, tools, methods, practices, commitments, and even people that can be enlisted toward the satisfaction of a particular goal. In this way, affordance networks are dynamic socio-cultural configurations that take on particular shape as a result of material, social, political, economic, cultural, historical, and even personal factors but always in relation to particular functions.
  • The result of many self-organised cognitive activities contributes to ecological enculturation. Ecological enculturation brings the traces of previous activities available in some form for future use. It increases the anticipatedness of the environment by formation of cultural patterns as cultural niches for solving certain problems. (for example in Social Semantic Server)
  • Alexander and associates (1977) define design patterns as the visible/explicit part of a solution to a problem in a field of interest. They assume that patterns tend to focus on the interactions between the physical form of the built environment, and the way in which that inhibits or facilitates various sorts of personal and social behaviour within it (Alexander et al., 1977). Patterns are easily recognisable generalisations of solutions for a problem, that emerge as the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich, or to maintain the stock of this problem’s solutions, using the remains of previous constructions or destructions from individuals.
  • Culturally, each pattern exists as an emergent niche in the system. In the pattern niche the environment becomes anticipated and ecologically encultured due to many learners’ activities. There are no defined patterns one can “take” but patterns exist in an abstract way as effective niches in the encultured environment, which are evolving constantly. These niches emerge as abstract spaces and the range for the pattern niches is created as the fitness of many similar individual patterns is tested in the culture’s ecosystem.
  • Emergent enculturation, the formation of cultural niches occurs as a product of self-organised system behavior from the interactions between various types of actors and the environment. Deliberate enculturation may be done incorporating certain guidelines, and instructions for action to the system
  • When we are have a precise intent in mind, we can turn to certain patterns detectable in the collectively encultured system. (For example when we search help) Interacting with the environment having a specific learning goal, the appropriation of patterns would decrease the need to seek chances, since the ecologically encultured environment can lead you with patterns that might do the job effectively. The trivial understanding of pattern usage is, that taking a pattern it can be used as a template for repeating the pattern. However that view of pattern-replication is misleading, since pattern niches are evolving constantly. Alexander et al. (1977) calls such niches the pattern prototypes.
  • The embodiment of pattern prototypes has person-dependent and culture-dependent components and variability. Patterns can be found because they are cognitively afforded partially internal and partially culture defined multi-dimensional spaces (Zhang & Patel, 2008). Only the learner who is part of the culture can perceive the pattern niches encapsuling some problem solutions that this culture that has sorted out. An options for finding dimensions incorporated into patterns is aligning one’s attention in crowded places, looking for the traces left by others, or mimicking and uptaking others’ behaviours in the environment.  It is only known by the learner whether a collectively formed pattern facilitates something for himself, but even he does not know whether any collectively defined pattern helps him in his learning. 

III: Interrelations between personal (epistemic distributed cognition) and cultural (collective distributed cognition) cognitive niches (see figure 1)

  • Bardone (2011) suggests that human beings act as an integral part of their environment while at the same time actively modifying and constructing this environment. Niche construction as an ecological factor that enables organisms to contribute for and benefit from environmental information (Odling-Smee et al., 2003). If organisms evolve in response to selection pressures modified by themselves and their ancestors, there is feedback in the system. The feedback must persist for long enough, and with enough local consistency, to be able to have an evolutionary effect. Ecological inheritance is a modified environment influenced by organisms, their ancestors or other organism communities what has evolutionary effect and selection pressure to organisms. Ecological inheritance depends on the persistence, between generations, of whatever physical changes are caused by ancestral organisms in the local selective environments of their descendants.
  • Traditionally, enculturation refers to the process by which a person becomes acquainted with a given culture (or community of practice) (Wenger, 1998), which may be related with EDC. This is the process of adapting oneself to the cultural niches.
  • The epistemic distributed cognition comprises two loops of cognitive niche formation – the creative loop of chance-seeking uses the ecosystem unanticipatedness for chance-seeking, and chance amplification and results with personal patterns; the accommodating loop of pattern-finding builds on cultural anticipatedness and results with validating and amplifying these patterns as instances of a cultural pattern
  • The collective distributed cognition is fed by the personal patterns: the chance-seekers create personal patterns as distributed cognitive niches which serve as the destabilizers of cultural patterns that extend or shift the pattern niches, whereas pattern-finding activity validates cultural pattern niches and stabilizes the ecosystem incorporating cultural patterns as optimal collectively selected solution paths to the distributed cognitive environment of the individuals. 

Let’s illustrate this:

  • According to Schmidt, Norman and Boshuizen (1990), expertise formation is associated with the qualitative transition from a conceptually rich and traditional knowledge base and analytical approach in diagnosing to one comprised of largely experiential and non-analytical – that is a radical departure from conventional view of clinical competence development.doctorsin community

    Figure 2. Medical reasoning with new cases (differences for novice and experienced doctors)

    Medical students learn mainly from theories, based on books – the result is a propositional pathophysiological network about the disease causes and consequences in terms of pathophysiological processes – the resulting perspective on disease is rather prototypical, with limited understanding of the variability with which disease manifests in the reality. They use many concepts to explain the phenomena. The medical guidelines have similar prototypical nature.

    In practice with patients the knowledge-in-use will reorganize itself to increase accessibility into simplified causal models explaining signs and symptoms that contain only higher-level concepts from original pathophysiological networks and their relationships. The student begins noticing contextual factors under which disease emerges  (enabling factors in script) and instead of causal processes the different features that characterize clinical appearance of the disease become the anchor points. Simultaneously list-like illness-scripts are formed that contain enabling conditions for the disease, faults and consequences. In case of diagnosing, the script is searched and verified. The script elements appear in specific order that matches the way doctors inform other doctors about their patients’ conditions. Enabling conditions in the script develop quite slowly in response to experiences in daily practice. Expert doctors make more use of constraining information than novice doctors. Because of different experiences different doctors may develop quite different scripts for the same disease. Such idiosyncratic scripts bear only superficial relationship with the prototypical disease cases.

    Finally scripts are supplemented with elaborated instances. Experienced doctors use in diagnosing the case similarity – the new case is mapped to previous patient case – this is a pattern recognition process. “The problems have the life of their own” a large part of expertise appears to consist of matching a problem with similar ones seen before.

    The scripts and elaborated instances at the collective level would form the “living guidelines”.

    In case of such dynamic pattern search and recognition, pattern-instance validation and collective pattern formation process the critical issue is whether novice will understand the support that is provided using the way experts way of structuring knowledge, and against which knowledge structure (prototypical, script or elaborated instances) the validation will be processed.

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2 comments

  1. As I have come to understand it….
    Knowledge is the ‘actionable’ distribution of identical/nearly identical information among the knower nodes in a shared knower network. Everything else, every fact, every data point, every memory is just information. The distinction being made here is when information is held by a person AND is collectively held by many who understand and use it for the same purpose, the epistemic distribution and the collective distribution are merely two sides of the same coin. Knowledge is the state of the shared information only when the distribution is being maintained/used by the multiple knowers.

    By the way, the ‘actionable’ status is also a requirement of information being knowledge. If some obscure factoid is held by a knower, but they nor others in the network can find a direct use for it, it can only be information. If however, the information can be applied by any knower for any cognitive exchange in the network, that network shared activity is… knowledge.

    At any rate, I do want to thank the author for a fine article that recognizes many of the dynamics of knowledge when most posts/papers mistakenly claim that simply holding information is knowledge.


  2. […] This blog is about virtual and augmented spaces and our attempts of taming them for education « distributed cognition and supporting learning@work […]



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