Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What is Distributed Cognition?

I posted this originally on New Media Literacies blog, and thought I'd re-post it here for you. This gives you an idea of what I'm currently working on at work.

This post is pulled from NML's 6th webinar from our monthly series on the new media literacies. What is Distributed Cognition? was a big success! I'd like to share with you the presentation we gave for those of you who couldn't attend. This presentation was created and made possible through the collaboration of Henry Jenkins, Katie Clinton, Vanessa Vartabedian and myself. Over the past few weeks, we came together (via Skype and email conversations) to reflect on what was written in the white paper and to further explore what distributed cognition means and how to foster this new media literacy with educators and students.


We define distributed cognition as the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities. One of our past webinars focused on the new media literacy, collective intelligence -- the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal. Collective intelligence focuses on the ability of humans working together and is a complementary skill to the new media literacy, distributed cognition which can push our notion of pooling knowledge and expanding our capacity to include not just humans but the tools we use in sharing and expanding our knowledge.

In having us talk more deeply about distributed cognition, I want to share that I think this literacy is different than the others in NML's list. For one, we saw that it wasn't a skill educators and students gravitated towards as an entry point in beginning to understand the new media literacies. Perhaps, its because distributed cognition is more of a philosophy of mind, meaning its ever present in something we practice, an unconscious practice that we're hoping more people become aware of. It's different than our other nmls, for example transmedia navigation that is more tangible and applicable. Including distributed cognition, as one of the new media literacies is our tipping of our hat to the education research that we think the new media literacies aligns with and a chance for you to better understand what cognition is in the 21st century.

To better understand distributed cognition, the first thing to grapple with is --What is a Tool? In the 21st century, our minds might immediately go to the digital technology that has become an extension of ourselves and provides us with the ability to sample music, capture video, and edit media to socially construct meaning of the world. It is these tools that are talked about and are becoming the tools that we are comfortable with in shaping our idea of the world.

However, if you look back in history, you can see that the tools of today were not available back then, and so in thinking of the definition of distributed cognition, we need to broadly define the word tool as a device used to communicate, perform, make or facilitate. These devices work in conjunction with our mental capacities, a combination of "hybrid systems" interacting with one another. These tools can take many forms of externalized memory. For example, a database holds a lot of information in one place and alleviates humans from having to remember or store all of it in their own brain. We all can't be Rain Man but we can work with databases to remember large quantities of information, and free our minds to be used for other things - such as asking the right questions when we are analyzing that data.

Or we can use the tool to do work with us in gathering new information - like Facebook or Wikipedia, or the periodic table. We use these tools to expand the pool of knowledge we access. The ability to use these tools becomes increasingly important as the amount of information available to tap into becomes bigger and bigger! An example of this is the spell checker. We work with the spell checker to check our spelling. If we were to take everything the tool said at face value, than we wouldn't be using it at its capacity and our spelling wouldn't be right all the time, especially if you take into account the different ways to spell words like their or two. The spell checker shouldn't be seen as just a crutch; it can support our learning, especially if it's used within writing that the child is engaged in. It offers an intrinsic goal of aligning learning how to spell with something the child is interested in.

Henry Jenkins admits that he is a terrible speller and has learned how to spell words after the spell checker has caught his mistakes on many occasions. It's the reminder of being shared this new information by the spell checker that has him fix his spelling errors going forward and he's learning the words in conjunction with the subjects he is passionate about.

Language is a central tool in intellectual activity. We can think of language as a tool. Take for example a book you read. I'm currently reading Harry Potter to my son who is decoding and making sense of the story through performing as Harry Potter in the backyard as he makes up his own wand tricks or draws pictures of quidditch matches. This sense of play helps him to better understand the stories we read together. Or you can look at the millions of young fans who've joined communities, like FictionAlley to chat in detail about every character, and who have written fan fiction to extend the stories of many scenarios in Harry Potter. All of this doesn't happen in isolation. It is a cultural and social practice that uses the delivery technologies available today to be understood and remixed by others.

Lisa Gitelman offers a model of media that works on 2 levels. 1) The Tools that enable communication, like a television and 2) the Protocols, which are the social and cultural practices, that grows up around it. These protocols include the shifting content and the changing audience.

Do you own one of these tools?
* Record player
* Radio
* Still Analog Camera - like a Polaroid

If so, how are you using these tools?

Are you using them with their original intent (such as a record player is a place to listen to music) or have you looked at today's social and cultural practices and shifted the content with the changing audience. DJs sampling music with the record player is an example of the tool taking on new protocols.

I don't think that when the Internet began, they foresaw how people use it today. It's those that used distributed cognition and asked the right questions to encourage new protocols to emerge, like social networking, and new audiences, like Cosplayers, to find their niche in this delivery mechanism. So as teachers, a key attribute to foster is to look at the tools that you have available and ask new questions on how they can be used to meet your learning objectives. But this doesn't have to reside solely on the teachers, What do you think would happen if you offered your students a tool and ask them what they would do with it without a pre-determined learning outcome?

As new tools develop, society shifts to include these new tools to tell new stories; and yet the old tools remain and take on new purposes than what they originally were for. The medium that tells the story may shift and the audiences that participates in that medium also shifts... so it is in our classrooms similar with new tools and how we engage our audience, the students, in these new practices.

But distributed cognition doesn't just use language as a tool. Using tools allows us to look at bigger problems and expand our knowledge because we now have new capacities to do things that were not available to us before.

Are you wearing a watch?

You might not realize this because it is second nature to us now, but telling time is a form of distributed cognition. How many of you are wearing a digital watch versus an analog watch where you have to know how to read the clock hands?

Before we had clocks, people still knew the time of day. Perhaps it wasn't exact as we have it now, down to the millisecond but through reading the sun and having sundials, they knew if it was mid-day or evening. The watch, whether it's the clock on our computer or the watch on our wrist or because our favorite television program is on tells us the time and we believe it. We take it at face value and we don't consider the cognition that is happening in that tool to keep track of that process for us.

Do any of you know Ken Robinson, he often speaks at Ted and he tells this great story about his 20-year old daughter who doesn't understand why anyone would wear a watch, it only does one thing - tells time. Think about the young people in your life ...do they wear a watch? More importantly, when they ask what time it is in class, do they ever look up at the clock on the wall? There are so many ways now to find out the time of day ...it's often embedded into many of the new tools that we have at our fingertips. This understanding of what time it is becomes second nature because there are so many means of gaining this knowledge.

As I was thinking through this presentation, I decided to ask my son, what time it was? On his own, he knew to just read the digital time on my computer, but then I asked him to read the watch on my wrist and he didn't understand why I was showing him that way when he could gain the information another way. So much for that watch I bought him for Christmas, I don't think he'll ever want to wear it. But should I be upset that he might not learn how to read an analog clock? Here is a new example of a shift in our culture. New tools have given way to letting go of old tools - and that thinking is still being done for us by a tool.

There's a healthy, on-going debate that relates to distributed cognition. People who study distributed cognition are not technological determinists nor social determinists. They're interested in what cognition is. In all versions of the theory it is about how people and tools act together to accomplish thinking and doing. The debate for them is in whether the "essence" of cognition is solely in people's heads or whether it is actually *in* the integrated brain-body-world systems of extended processing, including combinations of thinking with our brain, physical gestures, our relationship with others and the objects we use.

When I joined NML, I came because in my role as a practitioner, I had gotten to a point where when I created new ways to engage children in their learning, it worked and they loved it. I knew using social media as a tool for learning was powerful but I wanted to better understand why it was working. In taking up the new media literacies, distributed cognition was not one that I actually understood at first. It was one that I had to grapple with over time. But having done that, I think that this new media literacy is part of answering the why in my initial questions that put me on this track in my career.

This is a list of guiding ideas for how NML uses the term, distributed cognition:

* Technologies don't change how we think; it's how we use technologies that changes how we think.

McLuhan notes, technologies are often put out before they are thought out and thus they can have unintended consequences. These consequences can also be good, especially when people see beyond the original intent of a tool and use it for new benefits to humanity.

* Even when technologies can do many things, it's humans who are at the helm and who need to take responsibility for their actions.

At NML, we worry about the tendency to make causal claims about how technologies change how we think. It bothers us when we read articles that say technology makes us dumber, makes us more violent, and so forth -- including Obama's recent mistake in his address to students graduating. I think right now there is a far greater tendency to exaggerate the impact of technology than to under-estimate it. Humans for a range of reasons want to deny their own agency and accountability for their actions where technologies are concerned.

* Human nature is dynamic; as we act within new sorts of extended networks of people and tools, human nature, itself changes.

Looking at the history of storytelling showed that what it is to be human can be qualitatively different in different eras and tools play a key role in enabling change (always keeping in mind that it is how humans use the tool that matters).

* We need to resist a humanizing of technologies; machines have capacities, not minds.

Technologies do have agency though they have capacity only in regards to what a human does with it. This idea is the one we most debate internally at NML.

* Think holistically and be aware of the entire system.

Work to identify and understand everything that is contributing to the process of thinking.

Participants in the webinar added to the discussion and I encourage you to listen to the archived recording in Elluminate to hear the whole discussion that happened. Also, feel free to pass this link along to others: https://sas.elluminate.com/p.jnlp?psid=2010-07-15.1632.M.ABCA45F9F0C0248640F8705DA5109D.vcr&sid=voffice.

But most importantly, from reading this -- can you identify distributed cognition in your life? If so, share -- I love to have more examples on this topic.

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