Perspective-Taking in Online Discussions

In this article, Jarvela & Hakkinen (2003) use Selman’s (1980) sociocognitive construct of “perspective-taking” to evaluate the level of asynchronous discussions.  As they do, they had some interesting things to say about human- and machine-interaction.  They write, for example, that “[s]ome of the most important processes in human communication, like creation of mutual understanding or shared values and goals, are hard to reproduce in the Web environment” (p. 77-8).

This made me ask: which kinds of learning require “the creation of mutual understanding or shared values and goals”? Do knowledge acquisition or skill development require mutual understanding or shared values?  Perhaps this quotation sheds light on the kind of knowledge they indicate: “Studies report how networked interaction in many learning projects results in superficial and experience-based discussion, but does not reach the level of theory-based reflection and argument. Yet, theory-based discussions and expert knowledge are crucial for high quality knowledge construction and learning (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993)” (p. 78). I wondered whether this has anything to do with becoming, or whether it was just about critical thinking.

The authors discuss the challenge to continuously construct a common cognitive environment in asynchronous discussion without immediate social interaction (see p. 79).  There is a loss of the rich fidelity of face-to-face communication.  This affects our ability to solve the “mutual knowledge problem (they reference Graumann, 1995; Krauss 8c Fussell, 1990; Nystrand, 1986), which the authors state is part of effective communication. “According to the researchers in the field of sociolinguistics, the mutual knowledge problem derives from the assumption that to be understood, speakers must formulate their contributions with an awareness of their addressees’ knowledge bases. That is, they must develop some idea of what their communication partners know and do not know in order to formulate what they have to say to them. Research on collaborative learning also calls for reciprocity in social interaction (Crook, 1994)” (p. 79).

At this point they begin to focus on the issue of reciprocity, referring to their own earlier research which gave “evidence that reciprocal understanding is a typical phenomenon in technology based interactions…” (p. 79).  Then they invoke Selman (1980) and Flavell, Botkin, Fry, Wright & Jarvis (1968) to argue that “[p]erspective taking skills are critical to successful human functioning and involvement in everyday social interaction” (p. 80).  They also state that “…Web-based interaction basically involves the essential features of reciprocity…”(p. 81). As Graham and I have talked about human- and machine-interaction, it is clear that the authors here are referring to human interaction that happens to be mediated by a machine.

I would have loved to see them write a bit more about how “speakers … formulate their contributions with an awareness of their addressees’ knowledge bases” (p. 79) when they are communicating online versus face-to-face. This “mutual knowledge problem” is an interesting element of human interaction which, it seems, can be handled face-to-face and at a distance, though perhaps more effectively with co-presence.


Jarvela, S. & Hakkinen, P. (2003). The levels of web-based Discussions – using perspective-taking theory as an analysis tool.” Cognition in a digital world.



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