I was browsing Dr. Gerry Stahl’s new book, called Group Cognition – Computer Support for Building Collaborative Knowledge. Pretty bold title – isn’t it? From the title and the size of the book (521 pages) you could expect that there must be something about blogs and wikis and how these tools have been used in collaborative knowledge building. Blogs and wikis are anyway the most commonly used social software of our time. Nope – wiki (swiki) is mentioned once in a subordinate clause, blogs zero times. Blaah.
So what is the book about? Many things. I will discuss here only some points, which I found ..hmm.. interesting.
In 2001-2002 Dr. Stahl use to work in a EU funded research and development project called ITCOLE (Innovative Technology for Collaborative Learning and Knowledge Building). Dr. Stahl was visiting Fraunhofer Society, which was one of the ten ITCOLE project partners. My research group and Media Lab in Helsinki was the coordinator of the ITCOLE project. After the project Dr. Stahl returned to US where he then combined this book out of several articles written in last few years.
How the book describes the ITCOLE project and the main results of it is rather different from that how we see it here in Europe. A good first hand reference of the ITCOLE project and its results is the project brochure, still online.
Firstly, Dr. Stahl do not even mention the Fle3 software as a result of the ITCOLE project. Still according to the project reviewers Fle3 was at least as important result of the project as the Synergeia/BSCL software developed by Dr. Stahl and his colleagues in Fraunhofer. In number of participatory design sessions, which we use to have with teachers during the project, teachers told with a lot of detail why they prefer Fle3 to Synergeia/BSCL. The most common reasons were related to usability – basically to the amount of useless features making Synergeia/BSCL complicate to use. Dr. Stahl did not find participatory design and user stories written by users anyhow meaningful design practice. Interestingly enough Fle3 was according to the original project plan developed as the UI and interaction prototype of the Synergeia/BSCL, but because Dr. Stahl and the other developers in Fraunhofer didn’t like our design their simply refused to implement it.
Secondly, also the “negotiation by voting” -feature of the Synergeia/BSCL, described in the book, got a pretty clear “no thanks” in the ITCOLE project, both from the teachers and the pedagogical researchers. Some of the expert teachers said that the feature could even harm the knowledge building, because the actual aim in the process is to reach mutual understanding. Some people were also referring to democratic process where voting is normally carried out only if consensus is not reached by other means. You may guess that we did not implement this feature to Fle3.
Thirdly, the progressive inquiry learning model was obviously one – if not – the most important results of the ITCOLE project. Since then the model has been discussed and used in hundreds of European schools. For some reason Dr. Stahl forgets to mention it when describing the ITCOLE project.
Related to the above points I would like to point out one quotation from the book that is simply misleading. This is a kind of minor thing, but still important:
“The BSCL version of the software has now been integrated as an option of the popular BSCW collaboration system and is being used in many European classrooms.”
Hmm.. Well, my humble estimation is that the Synergeia/BSCL is today used in less than 10 European classrooms.