A Distributed Perspective on Collaborative Activity

Thomas Satwicz, Reed Stevens

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Collaborative learning is often cited as a means to a productive educational experience for students. With this in mind, designers and researchers have taken to building technologies that support various forms of collaborative activity in schools and other learning environments. In this chapter, we take a look at how studies of collaborative learning have developed over time in relation to a shift away from exclusively individualistic conceptions of human activity in educational research and design. We use prescriptions for and descriptions of collaborative learning as two general categories for understanding research and design. By prescriptions, we mean ideas, principles, and representations of designs for collaboration. By descriptions, we mean empirical accounts of collaboration. In our view, a broad survey of writing on collaborative activity displays an imbalance; we are light on descriptions and heavy on prescriptions. Toward tipping this imbalance back, we argue that a productive perspective for casting descriptions of collaborative learning is a distributed one. A distributed perspective is one that considers human activity in relation to both other people and things. We use some of our own work to illustrate this perspective. We conclude by using the distributed perspective to challenge researchers to consider technological artifacts as inherently collaborative and to move their work forward under this assumption.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHandbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology, Third Edition
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages9
ISBN (Electronic)9781135596910
ISBN (Print)9780203880869
StatePublished - Jan 1 2008


  • Collaboration: Activity involving multiple people developing shared meaning while working together on a common problem; often involves harmonious cooperation but is not contingent upon it.
  • Descriptive accounts: Analysis of naturally occurring instances of human activity.
  • Distributed perspective: An analytic approach to understanding human activity that distributes agency across people and material artifacts.
  • Prescriptive accounts: Designed tools, strategies, and interventions.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


Dive into the research topics of 'A Distributed Perspective on Collaborative Activity'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this