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Reviews of Group Cognition

"This work has clearly impacted the field of CSCL, influencing the thinking and work of other practitioners, myself included. Group cognition is the phenomenon whereby small groups of people perform cognitive acts such as problem solving and learning through their interactions with each other. The key conceptual contribution is the insight that some cognitive processes (e.g., construction and application of knowledge) are constituted by, and hence visible in, the interactions of small groups, rather than always taking place within individual minds. Gerry's contribution builds on others' work on 'situated cognition' or 'distributed cognition', but goes further to specifically locate knowledge constructing processes in the interactions between members of small groups. He points out that small groups are at the critical granularity because they interface between individual (intra-subjective) processes of learning and the changing practices and cultures of larger communities. Gerry's approach to identifying these interactional knowledge-construction processes draws upon insights of ethnomethodology and conversation analysis. His methodological contribution has been to work out and show in detail how micro-analytic techniques derived from conversation analysis may be applied to the study of computer-mediated interaction. Our colleague Tim Koschmann initiated this methodological approach in CSCL, but Gerry has been very influential in developing and recruiting others to that analytic agenda. Although Gerry has analyzed data from a variety of collaborative learning situations, he is best known for his work with Virtual Math Teams (VMT), a service of the Math Forum at Drexel. Gerry has another book in press based on international collaborations around VMT, building on the idea of group cognition as well. The impact of Gerry's work within our field of CSCL is substantial. The concept of group cognition is appearing more and more in the literature, particularly with citations to Gerry's book, and the associated analytic methodology has developed as a strong 'third leg' of CSCL research."
— Daniel D. Suthers, Professor of Computer Science, University of Hawaii, 2009
"Group Cognition was a groundbreaking work. It is important for several reasons. First, theoretically, Dr. Stahl is a researcher who has been pushing the field to think about the location of cognition and the way ideas are generated and carried out. Without denying the role of individuals in cognition, Dr. Stahl suggests that in many settings, small groups are the creative units that tend to generate new ideas, to invent new technologies, and to move society forward. The process of thinking that is carried out in small groups is different than that of individual cognition. The American pragmatic philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce, argued that even private thoughts are social in that there is always an implied interlocutor with whom one is carrying out a conversation. Dr. Stahl pushes that idea even further to say that small groups collectively can think through big problems and it is the work of the group—not the individual—that is tremendously important. Dr. Stahl's thinking about group cognition is on the vanguard of contemporary theory, but he has also thought about how new media are able to contribute to the ability of distributed small groups to interact together and to engage in productive group cognition. Dr. Stahl's work has contributed greatly to the development of computer-supported collaborative learning environments and his research into the relationship between interaction, meaning making and learning is at the forefront of the field."
— Wesley Shumar, Professor of Anthropology, Drexel University, 2009

"In this bold and brilliant book, Stahl integrates three distinct fields of knowledge: computational design, communication studies, and the learning sciences. Such an interdisciplinary effort is both timely and necessary to foster innovations for human learning. This book shows how small-group cognition can be the underlying building block for individual and collective knowledge building."
— Sten Ludvigsen, Professor and Director of InterMedia, University of Oslo

"This book, which synthesizes research by a leading thinker in computer-supported collaborative learning, offers a thought-provoking and challenging thesis on the relationship between collaboration, technology mediation, and learning. Its scope is broad, encompassing philosophy, AI, and social science, and it is bound to stimulate the kind of productive debate that Stahl argues is core to knowledge building."
— Claire O'Malley, Professor of Learning Science, University of Nottingham

"Gerry Stahl's new work targets a vitally important issue facing a twenty-first-century knowledge-based economy: How can group cognition be fostered as a new unit of analysis for research and design of computer systems crafted for building collaborative knowledge? There are many golden nuggets in this volume that will help advance the collective intelligence available on the planet for finding and tackling hard problems, from educational systems to informal workplace learning."
— Roy Pea, Professor of Education and the Learning Sciences, Stanford University

"This groundbreaking book reflects on the decade of research that led Stahl to the timely notion of group cognition. Those interested in collaboration will find here a plethora of insights into the relationship between design, communication, and learning."
— Barbara Wasson, Professor of Pedagogical Information Science at the Department of Information Science and Media Studies, University of Bergen

"This book is, I may say, one of the kind of books I always wanted to have, to read and revisit for getting its golden nuggets. It is unique because it provides, from several different perspectives (technical as well as philosophical), deep insights in what is going on in computer-based collaborative applications, with emphasis on Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning. The need of collaborative applications is justified and analysed starting both from practice and theoretically. The text very well presents and analyses the valuable experience of the author in designing and implementing a wide range of applications in e-learning, groupware, artificial intelligence (expert systems and knowledge-based and text processing with Latent Semantic Indexing). This experience description may be better understood if we see the text almost as a saga ending with one of the main ideas of the book: knowledge building appears in verbal-mediated collaboration in small groups. The practical experiences are doubled by deep interdisciplinary theoretical considerations, including philosophy (integrating ideas from Heidegger, Vygotsky, Derrida, Bourdieu, Bakhtin, Adorno, etc.), learning sciences and sociology (e.g. Garfinkel's ethnomethodology, and Schegloff's and Sacks' conversation analysis). State of the art theories like activity theory, distributed cognition, situated learning, knowledge building, and group cognition are also integrated in the whole."
— Stefan Trausan-Matu, Professor of Computer Science, Politehnica University of Bucharest

Most researchers would agree that traditional artificial intelligence (AI) is seriously flawed. Some would even say that AI is dead. In this book, Stahl attempts to introduce a paradigm shift in computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) and cooperative work (CLCW), by introducing a new approach. Here, we do not study the individual processes first, and then try to understand the emergent phenomena in a small group. We do the reverse. We study the group, and try to understand the individual. Thus, we are reading a book that takes us far away from the premises of traditional AI, and makes us rethink our stance on issues in multiple post-AI domains.

This book is a somewhat coherent story that follows, mostly chronologically, the development of the author's research in the last couple of decades. It is a collection of essays that were put together in terms of context to each other, and amalgamated, with brief introductions to the three parts of the book. It is these introductions that give us the global picture.

Part 1, "Design of Computer Support and Collaboration," consists of eight chapters. It overviews case studies of (mostly) software products that were developed or co-developed by the author, and which have helped him understand the importance of creating human-centered systems while concentrating on taking the best advantage of human and group intelligence. Part 2, "Analysis of Collaborative Knowledge Building," contains five chapters, and argues for analysis of group interaction, providing an illustrative analysis that does not seek quantitative measures of individual outcomes. The author states that analysis of group interactions is easier than trying to understand the processes in individuals, and then puts them in the context of the group. Part 3, "Theory of Group Cognition," contains eight chapters, and carries the paradigm shift to the theoretical level, based on issues discussed in the previous parts. Its goal is to help the reader overcome the habits of thought that resist the focus on the small group as the principal agent of collaborative knowledge building.

The focus of the studies is on phenomena and emergence in small groups. These case studies always carry a moral to the story, so the momentum and the excitement build as we go forward through the paper. The presentation is quite methodical; the language and the approach are persuasive.

Regardless of whether one is a recent enthusiast in the study of cognition, or a veteran who belongs to a particular school of thought, this book is a must-read. This is not because of its content, but because of the questions that emerge as one browses through this volume. This is not a book with a definite conclusion. It ends by posing more questions (by several orders of magnitude) than it attempts to answer; that is what makes a book a success.

What is group cognition? What is the relation between individual and group processes of learning? What are the optimal approaches in groupware? How should we be supporting small groups online? What can we learn about the individual perspective from the group cognition and collaborative learning processes? How is knowledge shared in the group? How does new knowledge emerge in small groups? Can we develop new conceptions of group discourse? These are but a few of the questions you will consider long after you have closed the back cover of this book.

-- Trajkovski, Goran(2007) Computing Reviews. ACM. Review# CR134235 (0804-0340) May 6, 2007.

"This is not so much a book as a library. And it is not so much a text about computer support for building collaborative knowledge as an autobiographical account of the writer's imaginative and successful ventures into a wide range of developments. He describes how he has used computers and presents the collaborative assembling of knowledge as but one of the features of his subject matter.

"Like the book (p. 278), this review "has been in gestation for some time." It has taken me much longer than BJET expects or allows for the process of review, because there has been so much to assimilate, to ponder over, to evaluate. I have read and re-read, on several occasions during long journeys and in the empty evenings associated with overseas travel. I have been reading, engrossed, of one fascinating development after another, I have been challenged by each anecdotal account or analytical essay to see how the lessons summarised by the writer and appreciated, to some extent, by this limited reader, might be applied in my own teaching and that of my colleagues.

"Gerry Stahl is adamant and persuasive in his conviction that 'small groups are the engines of knowledge building.' Consequently, the examples which he presents all explore the potential of collaborative software in innovative settings, wherein he claims that the notion of group cognition is more readily studied— and understood—than individual learning. Equally, they all concentrate on 'knowledge building' which I compare, at something of the same level, with the way many writers dealing with online learning write of 'delivering the content.' I felt a modest yearning for something more than either of these, as I read this wonderful account of an intellectual giant's progress.

"In the first part of the book, Stahl describes and traces the development and application of eight studies of technology design. All are of absorbing interest in their own right. As the writer says, they provide 'little windows on illustrative experiences of designing software for collaborative knowledge building.' In the second part, he presents five essays covering aspects of research methodology for the study of small-group interactions. These I found slightly more laboured, and open to questions from even such as me, who might be looking for more depth and more probing in the researches described. The final eight chapters deal with Stahl's reflections on the discovery of group meaning, and its further analysis; these certainly prompted me to think, I hope deeply, but did not entirely persuade me of the conclusions which he reaches. For, although the collection of texts does, as claimed, provide 'different perspectives on the concept of group cognition,' yet, as he himself freely admits, 'the concept of group discussion as discourse is not fully or systematically worked out in detail.'

"In the first, descriptive, section, a number of points bothered me even while I was beguiled by the subject matter within which the software was developed. The summary of what the writer learnt from his use of his teachers' curriculum assistant, if taken in generic terms, seemed to contain nothing new for those who have themselves engaged in action researching of their use of online learning facilities. His developments using WebGuide seem almost like attempts to find uses for WebGuide (once he had designed it). It's difficult to see how this software developed from scratch to meet basic pedagogical needs. It is hardly surprising that 'people express confusion about how to use the perspectives' which WebGuide sets out to make 'natural and simple to navigate.' Indeed, there was an emphasis here, as at other parts of the text, on questions which still needed to be answered, and potential which still needs to be confirmed. For the use of WebGuide as a 'threaded discussion medium for superficial opinions and socialising'—rather than as a knowledge construction space—is a common weakness of most discussion board software, or rather of its use, with which many of us are already familiar, and which we, too, have yet to solve. Finally, in the discussion of online knowledge negotiation, the writer seems to assume that groups can and will communi­cate, whatever their composition—and that they should agree on the co-operatively discovered knowledge. I question these assumptions.

"In the analytical second part of the book, Stahl depends heavily on views and decisions recounted—as his track record well entitles him to do—in the first person singular. He tries to analyse the nature of small group interaction, suggesting a model, appraising other models for computer-supported collaborative learning, and drawing on his own studies to substantiate his approach. I see how his experiences corroborate his assumptions, but not necessarily how they justify them. I am also disappointed that the emphasis here is so much on knowledge building and the building of shared meaning, a praiseworthy but somewhat low-level educational aim. I would rather have seen much more emphasis on the explicit and reflective development of those abilities that can have good effect in building, applying, evaluating and enhancing knowledge. I found little here focussing on such higher level goals.

"In consequence, I struggled somewhat to find advice and analysis in the final section which relates to the higher level cognitive and interpersonal professional development. Such reservations trouble me, for the back cover of the book carries powerful testimony from greater authorities than me, describing this 'bold and brilliant book'” which 'offers a thought-provoking and challenging thesis on the relationship between collaboration, technology mediation, and learning' with 'a plethora of insights into the relationship between design, communication, and learning.' I can only say 'amen' to that. For this is certainly a rich and readable library of writings by a highly regarded writer. But, having read it several times with great interest and renewed enthusiasm, I find myself taking into my own teach­ing relatively little from it that is new. My advice is that you should encourage your library to stock it, borrow it, read and re-read it, expect to enjoy what you will find there— and so make up your own mind thereafter."

— John Cowan, Visiting Professor, Birmingham City University, UK. British Journal of Educational Technology. Vol. 39, No. 3, 2008, pp. 568-9.

"Gerry Stahl is planning a follow-up study to his 2006 MIT Press book, Group Cognition: Computer Support for Building Collaborative Knowledge. The new monograph will be an exploration of online math discourse in virtual math teams, his research project at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He is professor of information science at Drexel and founding editor of the International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, published by Springer."
— Technology Review. Vol. 111, No. 4, July/August 2008, p. M37.

Book Review
Group Cognition: Computer Support for Building Collaborative
. Gerry Stahl. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press; 2006.
510 pp. $45.00 (ISBN 0–262–19539–9)

"Successful, real-world organizations employ groups to get work done. Despite the large number of years of collaborative models in work-group paradigm, it is a little surprising that there are very few books about the subject. Furthermore, most of those studies are mainly focused on work group performance management and work productivity.

"This text belongs to the advanced type, and is a valuable resource for graduate students in a wide range of courses and for a large spectrum of professionals interested in collaborative work. Due to its advanced level, some topics are relatively difficult to understand if the reader does not have some background in collaborative work and group cognition.

"Students who use this book will rapidly understand the most important topics of the science of collaboration for computer-supported cooperative work and computer-supported collaborative learning, and their relation to the business world of our days. The main concern and fundamental idea of this book is to set its focus primarily onwork group, and not on individuals. Stahl’s baseline is to use the science of collaboration for computer-supported cooperative work and computer-supported collaborative learning to conduct comparative studies on group interaction, group meaning, group cognition, group discourse, and thinking. The book is divided into three distinct parts.

"The first one is about the design of computer support for collaborative work and presents eight studies centered on software tools and their particular applications: The first three are AI applications for collaborative computer-supported cooperative work and computer-supported collaborative learning, the fourth and the fifth are about collaborative media, and the last ones are a combination of computational technology and collaborative functions.

"The second part is focused on the analysis on knowledge building in the collaborative work of small groups. It is developed with support on five essays published by Stahl from 2000 to 2004. In the first of those chapters, he describes a model of collaborative knowledge building and how to share knowledge production. The second criticizes some cooperative work and collaborative learning research methodologies that make the collaborative phenomena hard to perceive. The remaining chapters mostly provide mechanisms to understand in new and better ways collaborative processes.

"The third part contains the theoretical corpus of the book. Chapters 14 through 21 contain the most recent of Stahl’s contributions to the theoretical foundations of computer-supported cooperative work and computer-supported collaborative learning. Chapters 16 to 18 provide much material about topics directly related to group cognition research and collaborative work in modern organizations. Finally, the last part of the book contains an exhaustive list of references that will be of great value to all interested in the multiple aspects and fields of cooperative work and collaborative learning."

--Carlos Caldeira
Department of Computer Science, University of Évora, Évora, Portugal, E-mail: ccaldeira@di.uevora.pt
Published online 12 May 2008 inWiley InterScience, (www.interscience.wiley.com), DOI: 10.1002/asi.20815

Caldeira, C. (2008). Review of Group Cognition. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, ISSN 1532-2882, 07/2008, Volume 59, Issue 9, p. 1531.

International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 24(6), 613–615, 2008 DOI: 10.1080/10447310802209414

Book Review

Gerry Stahl. Group Cognition: Computer Support for Building Collaborative Knowledge. MIT Press, 2006. 468 pages, plus notes, references, and name and subject indices. ISBN-13: 978-0-262-19539-3

Reviewed by Barrett S. Caldwell, Indiana Space Grant Consortium, Purdue University

The author, Gerry Stahl, has attempted to create a large, broad book on a tremendously complex, multidisciplinary subject. This sense of scope exists on several dimensions. The 21 essays represent a collection of distinct projects, stand-alone essays, and conceptual positions in which he was involved over the decade from the early 1990s through the mid-2000s. (Given that the treatment of the book includes the development, use, and growth of technologies such as the Web browser and search engine, one can immediately see that this is a challenging time to summarize.) Stahl was involved in a range of software development projects over this time, describing evolutions from basic desktop operating systems to Web-based scripting languages.

The range of disciplines that Stahl addresses is similarly broad. In the introduction alone, we are treated to discussions of anthropology, educational science and pedagogy, philosophy, computer science and information theory, and technology policy. This attempt at scope provides Stahl with his most significant challenge, and one of the largest barriers for the reader to overcome. Despite the book’s title, the author has relatively little background with cognitive ergonomics or human–computer interaction (HCI) perspectives on collaborative work. In various essays, we learn that Stahl’s approach is largely influenced by his intellectual development, with a Ph.D. in philosophy in the 1970s supplemented by a second Ph.D. in computer science nearly 30 years later. It is not surprising, then, that Stahl references Hegel, Marx, and Vygotsky in his discussions of the interactions of operators and their tools in a work or (more frequently) an educational context.

The range of disciplines involved in the study of group cognition and computer-supported collaborative activity is vast. As a result, researchers will necessarily have their own set of disciplines through which they will filter this book—and the areas of emphasis that they will expect to see. It would be nearly impossible for any author to satisfy all critics in this realm; entire research labs devoted to multidisciplinary integration and interdisciplinary translation still fail to consider all relevant perspectives. (This reader, for one, was disappointed to see relatively little acknowledgment and treatment of the history of group dynamics research in social psychology, or the ongoing evolution of socially constructed information repositories as studied in departments of library and information science.)

A frequent discussion of perspective focuses on philosophical and sociological considerations of self versus other identification and software architecture modeling. However, cognitive ergonomics uses of the term, such as Woods and colleagues’ discussions of perspective and stance in collaborative work in NASA environments, are not cited at all (though that work is roughly simultaneous with Stahl’s work with NASA). In a discussion of group cognition and group interaction processes in chapter 14, there is no mention (and no listing in the book’s reference section) of the group dynamics, coordination theory, or media characteristics research of authors such as Kiesler, McGrath, Olson, Rice, or Sproull. The discussions of situated cognition in the individual’s experience suggest an historical reference to the work of Kurt Lewin from the 1930s, but again, this type of reference sits outside the perspective of the author.

After reading the entire book, many critiques about stance, perspective, or interpretation can be seen as resulting from a fundamental issue—the book is presented in chronological, rather than conceptual, order. The historical introduction to Part III (between chapters 13 and 14) is the clearest presentation of the author’s personal and intellectual orientation to the body of references and research. The essential aspects of the author’s concept of group meanings and results are presented in chapter 17, on page 349. The most powerful working example of the author’s main points comes in presentation and analysis of a 2- min excerpt of discussion between elementary school students presented in chapters 12 and 13. In fact, one strong suggestion to the reader of this book would be to start reading with the Introduction to Part III, followed by chapters 17, 16, 15, and 18 (in that order). The remainder of the book then is much easier to understand, interpret, and process for those who do not share the author’s history, orientation, or focus—which is most of the human factors/ergonomics (HFE) community.

Nonetheless, some significant shortcomings limit this book’s utility to the HFE researcher or practitioner. Perhaps the most significant example of differences in approach and background is found in a chapter 6 discussion of WebGuide, a collaborative work tool the author developed to support a middle school project. The tool itself required significantly more computational resources than computers and networks at even a well-funded school could handle; the tools and interfaces were far more complex than the students wanted to use, and the students had access to the tool only a few times per week. Stahl seems genuinely surprised that the interface was not well received and never suggests usability testing, cognitive walkthrough, or any other HCI methodology as a solution to improve the flawed system. The transition section between Parts I and II remind us of two critical issues that are extremely serious limitations of this book:

* Most of the tools described by Stahl were developed from a theoretical perspective of how philosophical computer science researcher approaches social interaction and learning, rather than a user-centered perspective of what tools teachers and learners want to improve their goals.

* Almost none of the tools described in Parts I and II, examined retrospectively (instead of simply republishing the author’s perspectives at the time of the tool development), can be shown to have demonstrable validation in their intended context of use.

A discussion of the limited success of one tool is addressed as a suggestion that “it is probably important for researchers to set up special learning contexts in which students are guided to engage in collaborative knowledge building. Too much of this was left up to the teachers” (p. 224). Stahl describes “boundary objects” (p. 363), a very useful concept in the consideration of how information and communication technology tools are used in a group context, as artifacts that help coordinate and share meanings for members of a group. However, he never actu- ally does consider how his computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) tools could better serve as effective boundary objects or how his groups or communities of practice could be more equal participants in improving the effectiveness or usability of the CSCL tools as such boundary objects.

Despite these criticisms, Group Cognition has a real contribution to make to the field of collaboration, knowledge sharing, and coordinated team performance. Stahl emphasizes that group knowledge is not simply an aggregation of individ- ual knowledge (p. 349), and he describes three distinct types of emergence that are often lumped, or ignored, in a reductionist view of cognition (p. 406). In fact, there are five chapters—chapters 15, 17, 18, 19, and 21—that would form a powerful contribution to a graduate seminar on knowledge coordination and team performance in information technology environments. Those chapters are valuable invitation for a variety of researchers, from a broad range of perspectives and traditions, to draw together to develop new capabilities, tools, and understandings in the design, evaluation, and improvement of group-level technologies.