Social Software

Bug report: Group Cognition

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.

3 replies on “Bug report: Group Cognition”

Hi Teemu,Still having troubles with Gerry Stahl 😉 ?
If he refers to ITCOLE and is neglecting FLE3 and the Progressive Inquiry Model, that would be silly indeed.
I do not agree with your critique on Synergeia. Yes, the "negotiation by voting" option was not used. But in our article "Design of web-based collaborative learning environments. Translating the pedagogical learning principles to human computer interface" we concluded:
"Concerning the second research question “Are the involved teachers satisWed with the functionality
provided by the system?” it can be said that both the users of FLE3 as Synergeia are satisWed with
these tools. The overall functionality is rated as good, and the various functionalities individually are
rated good as well. Some functionalities are rated as average (Jamming for FLE3; MapTool and
instant messaging for Synergeia). For Synergeia, this is partly caused by general technical diYculties
especially in the case of the MapTool, resulting in lower ratings in some testing sites."
And I know several teachers (academic university, university for professional education, primary education) who are (still) using Synergeia.


I am not sure if I am presenting in this post any real critique on Synergeia. But, trust me the teachers in the participatory design sessions were not very happy with it. I think we brought this message pretty clear to the project meetings, too.The study you are referring to was actually a massive survey from four or five countries. In design we need to get a bit deeper than to the level of “opinions”, which you achieve with a survey. This is why we conducted participatory design sessions and asked teachers to write diaries and user stories. These are much more valuable data for designer than the results from survey. When saying that the usability of Synegeia was poor and voting feature stupid I am referring to the deep group interviews of teachers and other people in the participatory design sessions and expert analyses of them.Finally, I assume you must know all the Synergeia users. 🙂 (ps. BSCW is of course pretty widely used).


I have always regretted the conflict that arose between FLE and BSCL. I tried for awhile to resolve this conflict, but was not successful because of entrenched interests and institutional positions. Since I worked at the BSCW development group, I focused my energy on trying to innovate as much as I could on BSCL. In my writings, I have never tried to criticize FLE. Particularly in its interface appearance, FLE was always an appealing product. I maintain the greatest respect for the design work of Teemu and his colleagues.As a CSCL researcher, I became interested in collaborative negotiation. I wrote a theoretical paper on it and implemented an approach in BSCL. It is true that the negotiation support was probably never explored or used in the ITCOLE project. Many reasons can be given to explain that. I agree with Teemu that the surveys of teacher opinions did not provide much insight to guide further software development. So when I returned to the US, I tried the negotiation component of BSCL in my HCI class and had my students engage in (what might be called "participatory") design of extensions to that component. A Masters student from that class subsequently went to Germany to work with the BSCW group. A PhD student of mine is currently doing a dissertation on negotiation in group cognition.My book was explicitly intended to reflect on my own trajectory through CSCL research. I do not think it would have been appropriate in this context to write about either the design of FLE or the assessment of ITCOLE trials, since I was not centrally involved in either of these activities. I was involved in conceptualizing, designing and implementing BSCL, particularly its negotiation component. The chapters in my book about this document the development of my thinking about this. Clearly, the negotiation support in BSCL can be questioned in the ITCOLE context, and Teemu is certainly entitled to his opinions on that.I am pleased that I am continuing to work with colleagues in Finland, Norway and Germany on the complex issues that ITCOLE tried to address several years ago.As for wikis and blogs, I agree they are important tools and I use them quite a bit these days — see However, I did not do any original research on these technologies during the decade covered by my book.


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