Computer Support for Knowledge-Building Communities (Scardamalia & Bereiter)

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1996). Computer support for knowledge-building communities. In T. Koschmann (Ed.), CSCL : theory and practice of an emerging paradigm (pp. 268-305). Mahwah N.J.: L. Erlbaum. 

The authors recommend refashioning schools and education as knowledge-building communities, by “replacing classroom-bred discourse patterns with those having more immediate and natural extensions to the real world; patterns whereby ideas are conceived, responded to, reframed, and set in historical context” (p.249). They examine how schools limit “knowledge-building potential” and advocate for the kinds of environments that support the process of expertise, in particular, progressive problem solving as it applies to competence and understanding. They introduce the idea of Computer Supported Intentional Learning Environments (CSILE), and discuss the implementation of a student-created CSILE community database.

“With new technologies, student-generated collages and reproductions appear more inventive and sophisticated — with impressive displays of sound, video, and typography — but from a cognitive perspective, it is not clear what, if any, knowledge content has been processed by the students” (p.249)

The idea of CSILEs derive from three areas or research:

  1. Intentional learning — an important kind of learning whereby the student is actively “trying to achieve a cognitive objective — [as opposed to] simply trying to do well on school tasks or activities” (p.250).
  2. The process of expertise — consisting of reinvestment of mental resources as a result of pattern learning and automaticity, into progressive problem solving. PPS = not only characterizes people on their way to becoming experts, but also experts when they are working at the edges of their competence. Related to intentional learning.
  3. Restructuring schools as knowledge-building communities. Most social environments and didactic/child-centered schools are 1st order environments (learning is asymptotic). 2nd-order environments — learning is not asymptotic because what one person does in adapting changes the environment so that other must re-adapt (ex: science discipline, where adaptation involves making contributions to collective knowledge).

The authors generalize schools’ shortcomings thusly:

  • Schooling focuses on the individual’s abilities, dispositions, and prospects. Educators have failed to grasp the social structures and dynamics that are required for progressive, communal knowledge building.
  • Schooling deals with only the visible part of knowledge (formal knowledge and demonstrable skills), as opposed to informal or tacit knowledge (generally what is needed to function expertly). The result is inert knowledge.
  • Knowledge objectives tend to be invisible to students (and instead translated into tasks and activities)
  • Scope for the exercise of expertise also generally not available to students. And no mechanism for the teacher’s expertise to be passed on to the students.

These characteristics of schooling all inhibit and do not support the process of expertise.

“…any hope for technology to have a role in restructuring education must take the form of searching for a third way — something that is neither didactic nor activity-centered nor a mere compromise between the two (which is what already exists in most schools)”  (p.252).

The authors suggest that one examine the “social processes of research teams and laboratories, which have a character and a power quite different from a mere aggregation of individual researchers” (p.253). Brown and Campione (1990) propose communities of learners and thinkers; Lipman (1988) proposed “community of inquiry” (p.254).

“Restructuring schools as knowledge-building communities means, to our minds, getting the community’s efforts directed toward social processes aimed at improving these objects, with technology providing a particularly facilitative infrastructure” (p.254).

Characteristics for knowledge-building discourse (p.258):

  1. Focus on problems and depth of  understanding (rather than on categories of knowledge or on topics)
  2. Decentralized, open knowledge environments for collective understanding
  3. Productive interaction within broadly conceived knowledge-building communities

CSILE community database (these represent core functionality of a system in which the construction of knowledge is a social activity):

  • Created by students
  • Consists of text and graphical notes
  • Anyone can add a comment or note or attach a graphic note subordinate to another graphic note, but only authors can edit or delete notes
  • Authors are notified when a comment has been made on one of their notes
  • All notes are searchable and accessible

“…the hallmark of the intentional learner is the ability to diagnose one’s own learning needs and to identify next steps” (p.262).

“CSILE’s low-tech approach to diagnosis (students diagnose their own needs and write an “INTU” — I need to understand — note) contrasts sharply with that of intelligent tutoring systems. With intelligent tutoring systems, the intentionality resides in the system’s own diagnostic and decision processes. The contrasting view, which we have embodied in CSILE, is that an important part of education is for students themselves to learn to carry out those diagnostic and decision processes” (p.262). [Teachable agents agree!]

Distributed model of educational computing: (1) information should flow freely among participants, without having to pass through a central authority; (2) knowledge should be distributed across students, rather than each student being expected to know the same things, thus making for more productive exchanges between students (p. 262).

CSILE is designed to support a distributed model, through the following features:

  • Elimination of turn-taking problems
  • Peer commentary and notification
  • Entry points for all ages and ability levels

CSILE-supported classrooms maximize the interplay and value of different communication modes, which has encouraged various processes/characteristics: reflection; publication/review process; cumulative, progressive results; independent thought, diverse arrangements for supporting “small-group” exchanges; increased and diversified response to ideas. [relies on a student’s context-dependent curiosity/motivation… teachable agents do not]


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