Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Practice Perspectives in CSCL

Practice Perspectives in CSCL:
from the introduction to the June 2009 issue of ijCSCL
Gerry Stahl * Friedrich Hesse

The theme of this year’s CSCL conference is “CSCL Practices.” It is concerned with practices relating to technology-based collaborative learning. According to the conference call, the CSCL community is not only concerned with studying and designing effective tools to support CSCL practices, but also with identifying specific educational and professional practices that are associated with their appropriate usages. In order to study practices in a reflective way, powerful theories and analytical approaches are required. The aim of CSCL research is to understand how learning emerges: on an individual level, on a group-cognition level, and at the community level. The articles in this issue of ijCSCL address this goal in specific ways.

The concept of practice is a complicated one. It comes from the Greek praxis—which may be why we are going to Rhodes this year, to connect to our philosophic roots—in contrast to theoria. Modern practice perspectives since Marx (1845/1967) argue for a unity of theory and practice. In common parlance, practice just refers to the things we do. Methodologically, practice indicates that we should be paying attention in our research to the ways in which people actually interact with one another, predominantly in dyads and small groups. According to Schatzki, Knorr Cetina, and Savigny (2001), for some researchers there has been a “practice turn” in contemporary theory, in which analytic focus has shifted from explicit knowledge and social structures to “practices as embodied, materially mediated arrays of human activity centrally organized around shared practical understanding” (p. 2).

The nascent CSCL field was influenced by Lave & Wenger’s (1991) analysis of collaborative learning as social practices within communities of practice. A related inspiration, Scardamalia and Bereiter’s (1996) proposal of CSCL technologies like their CSILE system, suggested introducing some of the practices of scientific research communities into classrooms as fledgling knowledge-building communities. As we shall see in this issue’s articles, the practice perspective can be applied at the individual and group levels of description as well as at the community one. We shall also see investigations of how practices are embodied, mediated and shared within CSCL settings.

The proposal to adopt practice perspectives in CSCL is a substantive one. It contrasts starkly with the view of collaborative learning in terms of observing regularities based on pre-defined and controlled variables of interaction. While a regularity view of causation offers causal descriptions involving sets of manipulated variables, it is less suited to address finer explanations of how observed patterns of interaction unfold over time (Shadish, Cook, and Campbell 2002). Providing such explanations is the field where the study of practice comes into play. Practices are not commonly described in terms of regularity among controlled variables, nor are they usually measured with computations of statistical variance. This does not mean that studies from practice perspectives cannot include quantitative measurements, hypotheses for investigation, specific research questions, rigorous analyses, and scientific results. Rather, the criteria for the most appropriate methods of research, analysis and reporting may be quite different from those for research efforts predicated upon statistical regularities among identifiable variables. For instance, contrast the studies in this issue with Kapur and Kinzer (2009) and Rummel, Spada, and Hauser (2009) in the previous issue.

Of course, ijCSCL is committed to publishing major contributions to CSCL from all scholarly perspectives. We plan to publish discussions of these methodological differences, their rationale and the possibilities for integration in future issues of the journal. At the CSCL 2009 conference, ijCSCL will sponsor a symposium on theory and practice approaches. In this issue, we present a set of papers analyzing the role of practices in CSCL.

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