Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Constructing Networks of Action-Relevant Episodes (CN-ARE): An In Situ Research Methodology (Barab et al., 2001)

Describes a way of analyzing the spread of concepts during learning where the focus is on the participation trajectories of multiple actors rather than on the minds of individual learners. Trajectories are represented as networks of activity involving material, individual and social components. To this end observations of learner interactions are broken into episodes which are coded and then represented as nodes in a network.

'Situated Cognition' theory informs this approach; the idea that knowing refers to an activity and not a thing; that it is always contextualized and not abstract. This made me ask isn't there some sort of knowledge that we like to have in abstract form, e.g. addition, but I guess even if a learner has abstracted the general concept of addition it is still contextualized in terms of the extent to which the culture in which they find themselves values mathematical skill, and the situations in which it is expected to be used; i.e. any cognition is a complex social phenomenon.

The authors present a number of methodological contexts for their own methodology.
  • Interaction Analysis - developing coding schemes to describe interactions
  • Network theory - mapping things into nodes and links
  • Activity theory - seeing things in terms of nested activity systems, i.e. participants using components to act on objects
  • Actor Network theory - tracing interactions
It seems like the nodes are little pseudo-'activity theory' elements, with each node being defined in terms of an issue at hand, an initiator, a participant, a resource and a practice. Seems to me that trying to code the practice up front could be premature; I would have thought what the practice was would emerge after subsequent analysis of a network. The diagram above shows the initiators of particular practices as circled numbers, and other participants as just numbers. Lines show relations, and shading indicating some common theme.

Nodes or Action-Relevant Episodes are delimited by a change in theme, activity, or initiator. In the example in the paper of a virtual solar system related class activity a new node might be created when the issue at hand switched from eclipses to animation, the practice from modeling to Socratic questioning, or from one student to another. A large CN-ARE diagram is presented showing the tracer network for eclipse-related nodes, but it is not clear to me what insight is necessarily derived from using this particular representation. It is clearly helpful to have the detailed coding of the learner's activities if one wishes to understand the learning process rather than just the end results, but it would be nice if there was an explicit example of how being able to highlight nodes of a particular type in CN-ARE led to particular insights. Although the authors do refer to another paper where they:
Barab, Barnett, Yamagata-Lynch, Squire, and Keating (2002) used the CN–ARE methodology to identify the frequency of occurrences related to a particular tracer, and then used Activity Theory (Engeström, 1987) to contextualize these in terms of the larger context (activity system).
So perhaps I should read that, although a quick skim of it reveals that, as they say in the above quote, that this is about frequency of occurrences, and activity systems analysis; rather than about the network diagrams. I can intuit the value of the network diagrams, but would really like to see a concrete example of an insight that they helped support, i.e. one that wouldn't have been easily discovered through another representation.

Cited by 39 at time of post according to Google scholar

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