Continuing the paper I am working on, I decided to post the section on group knowledge in response to the presentation by Nancy White, Dave Wilkins, and Mark Sylveter on Online Communities and Architecture. I was surprised at how they touched on much of what I am addressing in this paper.
Creating Shared Knowledge
Before discussing the literature on shared knowledge, it is important that I define what I understand as knowledge. Using a constructivist approach, knowledge is an individual’s construction of meaning through social and ecological interaction. In this definition, an individual creates their own knowledge based on their experiences, perceptions, and beliefs. However, there needs to be some social or environmental interaction which will trigger an individual to reflect on his or her experience before knowledge can be created. In addition, knowledge is dynamic as a result of constant interaction. This is very close to Ragnar Rommetveit’s definition of dialogical meaning making (Hagtvet & Wold, 2003). Knowledge is more than the construction of meaning through social interaction, it is also the individual choices a person makes in creating the meaning based on values, personal attributes, and experience. In addition, the context of knowing is as important as the interaction.
Yakhlef (2002) distinguished between the making of knowledge and the reusing of knowledge (applying what was learned to different contexts). He determined that in reusing knowledge, new understanding and meaning was created. However, society and (in his case) organizations try to capture knowledge through written and physical documentation such as reports, books, software, and other artifacts so as to allow for reuse of the knowledge. The question is, therefore, if knowledge is individually generated what is the use of these artifacts and documentation? The answer is that for individuals to work in groups, there needs to be some shared understanding and meaning. The process of documenting and negotiating meaning (knowledge discourses), moves the artifacts from being to knowing (Hall, Stevens, & Torralba, 2002; Yakhlef, 2002). The artifacts provide a common starting point from which interaction can move, thus creating knowledge. In an online course, the artifact is the course design including the technology, readings, and any other supplemental material such as course links and graphics.
Related to knowledge (cognition) is perspective (social). For Rommetveit, perspective is vital in creating meaning (Hagtvet & Wold, 2003; Mortimer & Wertsch, 2003). Other researchers have identified the ability to take on others perspectives as examples of higher order thinking (Herrington & Oliver, 1999; Jarvela & Hakkinen, 2002; Wegerif, Mercer, & Dawes, 1999). Perspective taking requires that a person be able to understand another’s viewpoint, anticipate their responses, and present their position in such a way as to encourage mutual understanding. Including both social and cognitive elements, dialogue that leads to perspective taking requires intersubjectivity, or the recognition that the other person has a position, whether it is implicit or explicit (Hagtvet & Wold; Mortimer & Wertsch). The higher the level of reciprocity, in which there is an equal exchange of social and cognitive information, the greater the chance to achieve shared understanding (Hagtvet & Wold). However, even with the exchange of information, it is possible that there is a low level of shared understanding.
This is obvious when there are a diversity of values or backgrounds within the group (Jehn, Northcraft, & Neale; Hall, et al., 2002). Individuals come into groups with assumptions about others knowledge and intentions. With group interaction, these assumptions might be confirmed or questioned. When those assumptions are questioned, cognitive dissonance occurs (Karau & Kipling, 1993). An individual can either ignore this dissonance or change to accommodate the internal conflict (Moreland & Levine, 2001; Skitka, 2003). There are many factors that affect an individual’s choice including interdependency with the group, amount of time in the group, the level of trust within the group, external threats to the group, threats to the individual’s social and personal identity, group cohesion, and personal traits such as the level of self confidence, comfort with the topic, and access to resources and knowledge (Hall, et al., 2002; Moreland & Levine; Olivera & Straus, 2004; Simons & Peterson, 2000; Skitka; Waller, Conte, Gibson, & Carpenter, 2001). In negotiating understanding within a group, an individual becomes aware of his or her assumptions and perspectives. Without the dissonance, it is unlikely an individual will create knowledge since they will be unaware of their own assumptions on which their perspective is based (Hagtvet & Wold, 2003). Therefore, multiple perspectives and perspective taking is an important factor to assess in order to understand the individual-group relationship in online learning.
In order for a group to function affectively they must have shared perspectives and assumptions: shared mental models. Shared mental models are the implicit heuristics a group develops to function, allowing members to describe, predict, and explain group processes and behavior (Mohammed & Dumville, 2001). These mental models are shared representations of relationships, the environment, and group tasks (Cannon-Bowers & Salas, 2001; Mohammed & Dumville). Cannon-Bowers and Salas have identified four different types of mental models that can be used depending on the group, goals, task, and context. Shared or overlapping mental models are when all members co-create the same group representation. Even though each individual may initially come with and maintain a different individual mental model about the group task, the group creates a shared vision that defines their work. Groups that have identical or similar mental models are designed with the intention that members come to the group with the same mental representations. Compatible or comparable mental models are when groups are designed to maximize the shared mental model. Like constructing a puzzle, each member will have a piece that when put together, gives a road map to the group process. The main difference between this and the distributed mental model is that the comparable or comparable mental model comes with the pieces already intact. A distributed mental model assigns the responsibility for each piece. If an individual does not already have the mental model of how that piece works, they are responsible for going outside the group to create that piece. These four types of mental models suggest that there are different ways in which groups conceptualize their functions: as a group with equal abilities and effort, designed or through group process, a group that utilizes member strengths, or a group that divides up the process with members responsible for augmenting those areas where they may have gaps.
While shared cognition focuses on what members bring to the group, group learning theories address how individuals create understanding from the group. According to social identity theory, individuals have multiple identities they access in any given context: material, personal, and social. The extent that an individual will contribute to the learning of others in the group depends on which identity is salient in that context. For example, if group cohesion is an important value to the group, an individual might decide to withhold information that could cause group conflict. At this point the individual is accessing his or her social identity in order to maintain group values. However, if this is an important concept for the individual to master, he or she might present the information, knowing that it might negatively affect his or her status in the group. Group learning is a result of the negotiation not only of meaning, but of problem and process construction (Olivera & Straus, 2004; Yakhlef, 2002). Problem construction and solving help to create the boundries within which interaction that promotes group learning takes place (Yakhlef).
Another aspect of group learning is the analysis of shared experience. Through feedback or group correction (based on the feedback), individuals create their own meaning based on the group experience (Mohammad & Dumville, 2001; Mulder, Swaak, & Kessels, 2002; Olivera & Straus, 2004). This analysis of shared experience can be based on individual to group interaction, group to group interaction, group to environment interaction, or intragroup interaction. It is not necessary that an individual be an active participant in the interaction to reap the benefits of group learning (Olivera & Straus). The implication for online learning is that even the lurkers (Mazur, 2004) who are following online discussions but not contributing to them, learn from observing how group members construct and solve problems.
Finally, the contextual and situational factors that are outside the control of the group contribute to how the group mediates understanding for its members. The level of contact between groups, transactive memory within the group, the development of group artifacts or tools, the control of information to and through the group, and the distribution of resources all help to create the boundaries that will define the group (Hall, Stevens, & Torralba, 2002; Mohammed & Dunville, 2001; Moreland & Levine, 2001; Oubenaissa, Giardina, & Bhattacharya, 2002). Not only will these factors allow the group to present its members to those outside, but it will also interpret the outside world to those within the group. Finally, another aspect of the environment is time: duration, timelines, and frequency of interaction. Because groups are dynamic, the time frames in which group work will change both intragroup and individual interaction (McGrath, Arrow, & Berdahl, 2000).
An Addional Note:
Because of the number of resources I used to write this paper, I will post the references in a separate blog post after I have posted each of the sections I am working on. As always, I would appreciate any feedback you can give me.
- V Yonkers
- Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.