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and the
Collaborative Experience of Learning

Computers and the Collaborative Experience of Learning is the title of a book by Charles Crook

This, and Crook's other writings, is dense with technical terms.

The terms provide a language (conceptual vocabulary) to analyse the relations between human beings and computers in education.

Crook is a psychologist, but the cultural theory he advocates ensures that the terms he uses treat society as a reality.

On this page I will attempt to make the terms more accessible to myself, and to others.

I will do this by using quotations from and paraphrases of Crook's book, and connecting the technical terms with links to quotations that explain them and/or to my efforts to explain them in a plainer English.

I will make most of the links internal to this page. Links to other parts of the web site could be useful, but confusing if the user does not know that the linked clicked goes outside my explanation of Crook's vocabulary. The title bar will tell if you have left this page. You can use the "Back" button to return.

Linked quotations from Charles Crook

  • "It is useful to warn against constructivist theorisers putting so much faith in autonomous learning that the social context is neglected.

    And it is useful to query cultural theorists who might suggest that all learning must be scaffolded through social dialogue"

    (Crook, C. 1994 p.62)
  • "The nature of cognitive development in Piaget's scheme of things is attractively captured in the term 'constructivism': children are actively 'constructing' their understanding of the world." (Crook, C. 1994 p.58)

Cultural approach, Cultural psychology, Socio-cultural theory.

  • "Theorists developing the ZPD concept invite us to view instructional exchanges more in terms of collaboration .

    A popular metaphor to capture what a collaboration might involve within instructional settings is that of the 'scaffold'.

    ...We assume that the learner is orientated towards a goal..."

    [and that?] "the goal would not be attainable without external aids and support. [a scaffold]

    The expert's presence serves to ensure such support and thereby creates an occasion of collaboration.

    Such encounters do not entail simple explanation or direct explanation: they require more participation on the part of the novice and more sensitivity on the part of the expert.

    The encounter is a collaborative one requiring jointly coordinated problem-solving.

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

Defined by
Vygotsky as:
  • "The zone of proximal development is defined as 'the distance between the actual developmental level as determined through independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers'"

    Vygotsky, L.S. 1978 p.86 quoted in Kolb, D.A. 1984 p.133 and (in part) Crook, C. 1994 p.49

Zone of interaction is a phrase Crook sometimes uses in place of zone of proximal development.

Why proximal?

Crook does not explain the metaphor.

It could be used in the anatomical sense of the point at which a limb is attached to the body, but it could also be used in the general sense of next or nearest point of development.

The point at which legs are attached to the body is called proximal. In the metaphor, the body would be society, the legs, the individual. The point of proximal development is then, the difference between how far the individual can develop on his/her own, and how far they can develop if attached to society.

The metaphor only makes sense if one recognises that individual members of society have a capacity for independent or autonomous learning that legs do not have.


Crook says the term collaboration is central to the
cultural approach in the same way that computation is central to the cognitive tradition and construction to the constructivist tradition. (Crook, C. 1994 p.79)

Joint activity is a phrase Crook sometimes uses instead of collaboration.

For cultural theorists generally, collaboration appears to mean that the 'tutor' provides a structure of support for learners who are already aiming at achieving a goal, but one which is not obtainable without external aids. The metaphor of the scaffold is used to explain this.

Crook thinks that the scaffold metaphor is helpful, but limited:

Crook analyses the variety of different ways in which computers can be part of the collaborative experience of learning.

He has chapters on:

The idea of working with a computer brings to mind a solitary individual sitting at a keyboard working on a computer program. The program could be a computer based learning program. Collaboration with computers is the goal of making such programs "reproduce the social character of a face-to-face tutorial dialogue". (Crook, C. 1994 Chapter 4 and p. 119)

A software designer, therefore, would try to make the computer respond to the learner with the intelligence (or otherwise!) of a human tutor.

By collaboration in relation to computers, Crook appears to mean tutor-student interaction about computers, not involving working at the computer, but supportive of work with a computer. Discussing things about computer work in a lecture might be an example.

Crook says:
  • "This is the...sense in which pupils are engaged in some activity involving their teachers but where those teachers' contributions are more indirect, or mediated, or deferred. That is, they make only intermittent contact with the task or refer to it on occasions when it is not actually in progress." (Crook, C. 1994 Chapter 5 and p.100)

Collaboration at computers refers to times when small groups of learners work on the same computer based problem at the same time. Two students helping one another with email software could be an example.

Collaboration around computers refers to learners working together more informally than when a small group is working at a computer on a common task. Crook says that "material environments will constrain and facilitate a whole range of social interactions that can occur within them". So, collaboration between students who happen to be individually working on computers in the same room, may be encouraged or discouraged by the room layout.

Collaboration through computers means collaborating through networks, including the internet. It can range from straightforward collaboration through email and the web, through to video conferencing and the virtual classroom.

Crook says that our concept of collaboration has to include circumstances in which collaboration is dislocated in time and when participants are not co-present. This is a central feature of interacting through computers.

  • " Vygotsky proposes that all cognitive functions are first experienced in the inter-mental plane before they exist on the intra-mental plane.

    That is, our private mental reflections arise from experiences that have first been organised in the public forum of social interaction".

    (Crook, C. 1994 p.50)
Crook then quotes Vygotsky:
  • "An interpersonal process is transformed into an intrapersonal one. Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice:

      first, on the social level, and later on the individual level;

      first between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological)...

    All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between human individuals".

    (Vygotsky, L.S. 1978 p.57 quoted Crook, C. 1994 p.50)

  • Interacting through computers: A University Community.
    "The key issue introduced in the last chapter...concerns how we may resource the constructing of a shared object of understanding.

    In many circumstances recognition of this 'object' will arise from a common concern to make progress with some self-contained task (such as writing a story, or scoring high on a number puzzle). The activity takes place together, at the site of the problem.

    However, in the configuration to be discussed in this section, the form of a shared understanding may sometimes be less tightly related to some such circumscribed problem. What it is that comes to be held in common - that becomes a source of shared reference - is more a set of broader intellectual practices.

    So, I shall be partly interested here in how new technology can mediate forms of activity that create communities of shared understanding.

    Understandings that are held in common need not be exclusively relevant to the short-term goals of working together on localised problems. There are circumstances where mutual knowledge provides a general underpinning relevant to a whole range of collaborative encounters: this arises in situations where people are held together in communities that share a common set of concerns - such as might sometimes arise within institutionalised education."

    (Crook, C. 1994 p.193)

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896-1934) Soviet psychologist, studying human learning, who used the concept
"zone of proximal development"

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collaboration around computers

collaboration at computers

in relation to

collaboration through computers

collaboration with computers


conceptual vocabulary


cultural theory


joint activity





zone of interaction

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)