Through history, the analysis of cognition has broadened, from a focus on single concepts (Platonic ideas) or isolated responses to stimulae (behaviorism), to a concern with mental models (cognitivism) and representational artifacts (post-cognitivism). Theories that are more recent encompass cognition distributed across people and tools, situated in contexts, spanning small groups, involved in larger activities and across communities of practice.
The history of theory can be tracked in terms of the following issue: At what unit of analysis should one study though (cognition)?
P 76 Figure 4.1 Adapted from Stahl, 2006, p. 289, Fig 14.1
Theories of individual cognition in CSCL:
Work within CSCL certainly acknowledges the importance of the larger social, historical, and cultural context. However, it often treats this context as a set of environmental variables that may influence the outcomes of individual student cognition, but are separable from that cognition. In this way, cognition is still treated as a function of an individual mind. This approach may be called sociocognitive. It acknowledges social influences but tries to isolate the individual mind as a cognitive unit of analysis by controlling for these external influence.
Followers of Vygotsky, by contrast, are considered sociocultural. They recognize that cognition is mediated by cultural factors. Yet, they still generally focus on their individual as the unit of analysis. They investigate how individual cognition is affected by cultural mediations, such as representational artifacts or even by collaborative interactions. Vygotsky was trying to demonstrate that individual cognition was derivative of social or intersubjective experiences of the individual, and so his focus was on the individual rather than explicitly on the social or intersubjective processes in which the individual was involved.
In this sense, much CSCL research investigates individual cognition in settings of collaboration. In fact, if the research is based on testing of the individual before and after a collaborative interaction and does not actually analyze the intervening interaction itself, then it is purely an analysis at the individual unit of analysis, where the collaboration is merely an external intervention measured by presumably independent variables.
Theories of community cognition in CSCL
In striking contrast to the steadfast focus on the individual as the unit of analysis is the social science perspective on social processes. Lave and Wenger (1991) borrowed Marx's approach to educational theory, showing for instance how an apprenticeship training system reproduces itself as novices are transformed into experts, mentors, and masters. Learning is seen as situated or embedded in this process of the production and reproduction of structures of socially defined knowledge and power.
Levels of description or unit of analysis in CSCL