1 Applying Theory to Practice – Using Technology to Support Situated Cognition in Education

Eliscia Di Schiavi


University of Ontario Institute of Technology


The Digital Revolution has introduced a radically different learner faced with a distinct set of requirements, a striking contrast to learners of previous times. It is no longer relevant that learners acquire conceptual subject-knowledge passively through the ‘transfer of knowledge’ model. Rather, it is essential that learners actively acquire relevant knowledge and skills by performing work in meaningful situated contexts. In this way, knowledge and skill sets acquired by learners can be used to solve problems. This chapter discusses the significance of situated learning on cognition applied in the context of technology-supported learning; a progressive pedagogical approach that bridges the generational gap between learning of content through formal instruction and real-life application of knowledge and skills to diverse environments.

Keywords: Authentic Learning, Context, Digital Natives, Information Communication Technologies, Instructional Design, Meaningful Learning, Situated Cognition.


The world is constantly changing and so are the requirements for active participation within it. The most influential change is the integration of technology and how it has contributed to a major shift in learning from being traditionally viewed as individualistic to a socially engaging collective.

Today, digital natives as coined by Marc Prensky (2001), often referred to as “Generation Z” have connected computers, internet access, smartphones, and social media. The presence and use of these information communication technologies (ICTs) have increased a learner’s access to information. As a result, the traditional learning design is no longer relevant, as it fails to accommodate and respond to the educational needs and demands of learners. Digital natives are fast-paced, visually oriented, nonlinear, always-on learners. They have a built-in instinct to navigate the world wide web and are unaffected by the pace of technology due to their resiliency to adapt. The way that digital natives interact with the technological tools available to them inevitably impacts the role of educators. Historically, educators were the only ones that could be held accountable for imparting the delivery of content; however, that is no longer the case. The Internet has had a revolutionary impact as it introduced the use of specialized content delivery systems and peer-to-peer file-sharing systems that replace the educator as the sole content disseminator. It is not surprising that the conventional learning system in schools does not resonate, nor does it prepare learners to thrive in this unpredictable world.

Whitehead (1929) asserts:

teaching contents that are abstract and out of context will merely result in imparting inert knowledge, or knowledge that students could use to answer items on a school test but will not be able to apply to solving problems.

Inert knowledge can be breed out of traditional instructional learning designs. Inert knowledge is unresponsive, erroneous and dangerous (Whitehead, 1929); it does not assist learners in navigating through the unknown. For this reason, “concepts cannot be taught separately from the context in which they are used” otherwise, they’re inconsequential as contended by Brown, Collins, & Duguid (1996). When a learner or a group of learners participate in an activity, in the context appropriate to the content, learning and cognition emerge through, “what is learned and how it’s learned which cannot be separated” (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1996). When the learning context and the activities within that context are meaningful, it can provide learners with the opportunities necessary to solve problems practically so they can transfer those competencies to real-world experiences. To support this view, situated cognition can be an effective instructional design approach when coupled with appropriate situating technologies, as it can create learning environments that procure and expand a learner’s cognition.

Background Information

Situated learning is an instructional approach that may be able to bridge the gap between formal theoretical learning imparted by educators and informal learning reliant on the independent, self-directed learner to transfer their knowledge to real-world applications (Resnick, 1987). The term ‘situated’ refers to ‘being placed in a particular position, situation or location’ whereas ‘learning’ involves the ‘experience, exposure, and acquaintance with’ knowledge or skill. Collin, Brown and Duguid (1996) can be accredited for the theory of ‘Situated Cognition,’ and they postulate that “knowledge and meaning are inseparable from situations and actions” (p.33). This theory emphasizes how conceptual knowledge and critical application of competencies can be achieved through activities, culture, and contexts that allow learners to apply and expand on their prior knowledge independently, and in collaboration with a community of learners. This is based on the notion that “knowledge does not occur within the mind of the individual but is a co-production of the mind and the world” (Hung, 2002). Therefore, it is imperative that educators acknowledge that content does not derive in isolation, but by the “doing” involved in engaging tasks that support the content in context, a learning process referred to as experiential learning (Kolb, 1984).

Situated learning provides learners with the circumstances that enable them to actively explore and participate in order to acquire new knowledge and form or revise mental models of cognition. As supported by Jonassen (1994), “situated learning occurs when students work on authentic and realistic tasks that reflect the real world thus providing meaningful learning in facilitating the transfer of knowledge to real-life situations.” In addition to this, situated cognition takes into consideration the culture of the community as, “culture is a powerful mediator of learning and practices, both for students and teachers” (Myers & Wilson, 2000). This meaning-making framework can be both constraining and enabling to one’s perception and reasoning (Nisbett & Norenzayan, 2002; Shweder, 1994). When a learner experiences a cognitive conflict, “this is the stimulus for learning, as it determines the organization and nature of what is being learned” (Dewey, 1916). It requires negotiation in the form of a discussion by the community of learners, attentive listening to make sense of various viewpoints expressed by others, and a comparison of meanings to justify one position over another to develop cognition. Unlike traditional teaching, situated learning embeds content into a realistic situational context with culture and action, as without it, learning cannot ensue. For this reason, technology as a situating tool, when used properly, can further strengthen the learning process to expand cognition.

Situated Cognition and its Connectedness to Technology

Digital technologies are essential situating tools for the twenty-first-century learning environment and for cognition. Technologically rich learning environments are said to develop life skills such as organization, critical thinking, problem-solving, inquiry, collaboration skills, and creativity. Since new technologies “are interactive, it is now easier to create environments in which students can learn by doing, receive feedback, and continually refine their understanding and build new knowledge” (Fouts, 2000). Technology allows for the existence of active participation and engagement with others using a variety of tools. The outcome is a change in cognition as it is, “linked to the action the learners in the community take, whether it is physical in nature or a reflective process within the learners themselves” (Myers & Wilson, 2000). Technology supports the action that needs to take place for cognition to occur. “This action often involves interaction between tools and or artifacts that are situated in the community” (Myers & Wilson, 2000). These tools and artifacts are an invaluable part of the learning system that must be part of the construction of instructional design in order to bring about and develop cognition. “These tools and constructed environments constitute the mediums, forms, or worlds through which cognition takes place. Problem solving involves reasoning about purposes in relation to the resources and tools which a situation affords” (Myers & Wilson 2000). It is evident that when educators expose learners to this kind of learning environment they will capitalize on using their, “knowledge and skills – by thinking critically, applying knowledge to new situations, analyzing information, comprehending new ideas, communicating, collaborating, solving problems, and making decisions” (Honey et. al, 2003). This learning theory supports the very competencies called upon by the twenty-first century, but it requires that teachers integrate technology seamlessly into the curriculum with purpose, not as an add-on or an afterthought to their instructional design for learning to be transformational.


Technology is an important situating tool that can be used to provide opportunities for learners to interact with content, engage with authentic activities and apply content to real-life situations. For technology to be properly integrated into instructional design and curriculum, educators should use technology to create environments that are both independent and collaborative, while keeping in mind the content itself. If this is considered, educators can create a suitable situated learning environment with the use of technology as a tool.

Authentic Context

Educators should incorporate a social and physical context in their instructional design. Learners must be exposed to proper contexts and not detached from it, so they know how the knowledge can be applied. Creating an appropriate context is imperative. An effective instructional design context is one that incorporates “authentic situations that help to stimulate an expert’s way of action” (Korpi, 2000). This can assist learners as they conceptualize the reasons behind having to acquire such knowledge and how it can be effectively applied. In addition, it can translate into learner motivation and individual ownership of the learning process. A well-designed situated learning environment that develops cognition is one that is, “authentic.’ An authentic learning environment is one that mirrors real life as closely as possible by simulating the elements and problems that exist while fusing rich conceptual meanings that encourage students to explore, discover, gain and apply the content learned. This can be possible by using the digital technologies tools available to educators such as, “multimedia, the use of sound, graphics, animations and digital video that can effectively represent genuine real-world context” (McGinn & Roth, 1999; Szabo & Poohkay, 1996). For instance, an effective way to immerse learners into authentic real-world contexts can be achieved by using an e-learning platform such as Skype (2003) or utilizing Google Expeditions (2019), which is a teaching tool that allows learners to participate in virtual reality trips to explore a variety of contexts which capture real situations that make problems more engaging. An educator can incorporate an authentic context into their instructional design using this curriculum exemplar illustrated below:

Task: Building a Sustainable Living Community in Canada Project

Technology Tool: Google Earth or Google Expedition

Course: CGC1D/1P- Geography

Targeted Students: Grade 9, Academic/Applied

Figure 1. How to use Google Earth.
Figure 1. How to use Google Earth. This figure provides learners with a visual representation of the City of Toronto in Ontario, Canada using Google Earth by Felepchuk, L. (2019). [Photograph] Retrieved from https://www.theloop.ca/google-earth-just-got-a-whole-lot-cooler/
Figure 2. Google Expeditions as a Situating Tool for Learning
Figure 2. Google Expeditions as a Situating Tool for Learning. A virtual reality (VR) field trip to the Canadian Rockies in Alberta, Canada by Jaynes, C. (2019). [Photograph] Retrieved from https://www.mersive.com/the-visualist/designing-with-your-customers-building-innovative-products-that-people-actually-want/

For the purposes of grade nine geography, the Ontario Curriculum (2018) incorporates a curriculum strand that encourages learners to understand the interactions that take place in a physical environment. This strand develops a learner’s understanding of how natural phenomena, physical systems, and processes shape the natural environment and influence the types of human activities that take place in Canadian communities. Exposing learners to authentic contexts using the technology tool, Google Earth (2004) will help them to acquire a visual representation of communities of interest as well as, the human activities that take place there which include transportation, recreation and industrial processes. It can also visually introduce learners to the kinds of problems that may arise from the infrastructure of a community and its subsequent effect on liveability, the environment, economy, and social sustainability. Learners will be able to conceptualize the problems that exist to develop strategies for making their communities a more sustainable place to live using this purposeful instructional designed context.

Authentic Activities. Cognition is achieved through the act of doing. It is counterproductive to have authentic contexts separated from activity, rather they should be interconnected. Authentic activities can be considered tasks that people do in the real-world, often completed over a sustained period. It is imperative that an educator’s instructional design incorporate learning tasks that, “replicate the structures of the activity in the real world of the practitioners or experts in the field” (Brown, Collins, Duguid, 1996). By incorporating meaningful, authentic tasks, educators are situating learning and presenting real cognitive challenges for learners to reckon with. This can be done by designed tasks that cognitively challenge the learner by situating tasks outside of their zone of proximal development, which Vygotsky (1978) defines as, “ the difference between what a learner can do without help and what a learner can do with the help.” This way it will motivate students to think, explore their resources and evaluate different approaches to problem-solving. Project-based assignments, for instance, are valuable authentic tasks that allow learners to determine the task, how it is to be split up into smaller tasks, how to select relevant information and suitable solutions. Authentic tasks can be accomplished using online discussion forums, personal learning networks and chat spaces. Some useful technological tools that support authentic tasks include course management systems such as Google Classroom (2014) and Adobe Connect (2018), online discussion forums such as Now Comment (2016), Kialo (2011), Yo Teach (2018) and chat spaces such as Twitter (2006) and Whatsapp (2009). An example of instructional design that incorporates authentic activities can be exemplified by the following curriculum exemplar detailed below:

Task: Devise a Book Club Discussion – Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

Technology Tool: Course Management System (Google Classroom), Online Discussion Forum (Now Comment) or Chat Space (Google Hangouts, Whatsapp, Twitter).

Course:  ENG1D English

Targeted Students: Grade 9, Academic

Figure 3. Google Hangouts as a Situating Tool for Learning.
Figure 3. Google Hangouts as a Situating Tool for Learning. An online learning forum that establishes collaboration between learners. (2019). [Photograph] Retrieved from https://www.bing.com/images/searchview=detailV2&id=A8F9665AADDDC12C79EFF87AA5223A03F1C3DFF4&thid=OIP.bwm3LZM9wKDGojav0W4CAQHaEr&mediaurl=https%3A%2F%2Fcdn.makeuseof.com%2Fwpcontent%2Fuploads%2F2017%2F06%2Fhangouts.png&exph=417&expw=661&q=google+hangouts&selectedindex=28&ajaxhist=0&vt=0&eim=1,6.

For the purposes of grade nine academic English, the Ontario Curriculum (2007) includes an oral communication strand relating to listening to understand. This strand focuses on helping learners listen in order to understand and respond appropriately in a variety of situations for a variety of purposes, to communicate with different audiences, and reflect on their strengths as listeners and speakers for their own improvement. For instance, educators can expose learners to the authentic task of creating an online book-club discussion forum, where learners could learn to communicate as speakers and listeners over the discussion of the Shakespearean play, Romeo and Juliet. In this way, learners can formulate questions, build on the ideas of others, respond to a speaker’s point of view and provide cultural perspectives while respecting the diversity of all learners.

Expert Support

The purpose of engaging students in authentic tasks is to enable learners to move from being novices at the onset to experts. Novices require expert support and scaffolding in order to perform and complete tasks. Therefore, instructional design must acknowledge a learner’s zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978) to help them cross the zone to become an expert themselves. This can be achieved using a model of cognitive apprenticeship, a method designed to, “enculturate students into authentic practices through activity and social interaction, based on the successful and traditional apprenticeship model (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1988). Collins, Brown and Newman (1988) define cognitive apprenticeship as, the process where an expert teaches a skill to an apprentice or novice. Collins, Brown and Newman (1988) contend that traditional apprenticeships have three characteristics that are cognitively important:

  1. Learners have continual access to models of expertise-in-use against which to refine their understanding of complex skills;
  2. Apprentices often have several masters and have access to a variety of models of expertise leading to an understanding that there may be different ways to carry out a task, and that no one individual embodies all knowledge and expertise;
  3. Learners can observe other learners with varying degrees of skills.

These characteristics, “bring tacit processes into the open, where students can observe, enact, and practice them with help from the teacher (Collins, Brown & Newman, 1988). Learners are given the opportunity to engage in complex tasks in a way that would otherwise not be sufficiently possible without the assistance of an expert modelling the behaviour. When an expert explains the doing and the thinking being modeled, the apprentice can acquire conscious knowledge of the task and the ability to verbalize the knowledge for the purpose of discussion and future knowledge transfer. Technological situating tools allows for the incorporation of experts within the classroom environment in accessible, cost-effective and appropriate ways. Technological tools that support cognitive apprenticeship that incorporate modelling, coaching and scaffolding to foster, improve and expand cognition include instructional videos, podcasts, vodcasts, simulations and interactive curriculum activities. An example of instructional design that incorporates cognitive apprenticeship by experts to novices can be exemplified by the following curriculum exemplar detailed below:

Task: Learning Long Division

Technology Tool:  Recorded Podcasts, Vodcasts and Instructional Videos

Subject: Mathematics

Targeted Students: Grade 4, Elementary

Figure 4. Using Khan Academy as a Situating Tool for Learning
Figure 4. Using Khan Academy as a Situating Tool for Learning (2008). [Video]. An instructional video used to teach long division. Retrieved from https://i.ytimg.com/vi/8Ft5iHhauJ0/maxresdefault.jpg

As part of the mathematics curriculum for grade four, the Ontario Curriculum (2005) introduces the concept of long division. As part of the learning objectives for mathematics, learners are expected to develop an understanding of how to divide using a variety of strategies, interpret remainders and understand the various meanings associated with division. To accomplish this, educators can expose learners to interactive, engaging, instructional videos that can communicate the purpose and methodology of solving mathematical problems such as long-division. When a novice listens to the expert explain exactly what they are doing and thinking as the skill is modelled, the novice can identify relevant behaviours and develop a conceptual model of the concept and the methods involved. “As the apprentice becomes more skilled through the repetition of this process, the feedback and instruction provided by the master “fades” until the apprentice is, ideally, performing the skill at a close approximation of the master level (Johnson, 1992). Based on this evidence, Collins, Brown and Duguid (1989) contend that, “cognitive apprenticeships are less effective when skills and concepts are taught independent of their real-world context and situation.” For this reason, the cognitive apprenticeship model must include a relevant context.

Articulation and Reflection. When performing a task, a learner needs a learning environment that supports both articulation and reflection. When an expert for example, performs a task, they are constantly articulating what they are doing and reflecting on and monitoring their own thinking. It must be acknowledged that, “reflection is a vital component of situated learning” (McLellan, 1996). When educators are designing instruction, they should use activities that promote discussion and reflective thinking. According to Lave & Wenger (1991), “being able to speak the vocabulary and tell the stories of a ‘culture of practice’ is critical to learning what it means.” Unfortunately, many learning environments do not involve working in groups, discussion of issues or processes, presenting to the class, interviewing or debating that allows articulation and negotiation to grow a learner’s understanding. This active process is reflected in Mercer’s (1996) expression, “Talk is now recognised as more than a means for sharing thoughts: it is a social mode of thinking.”

Reflection is vital to the learning process as it allows learners to link, construct and consolidate meaning from their experiences. When a learner reflects on their work, it enhances its meaning, whereas reflecting on experiences encourages insight and growth. It involves linking our current experiences to previous learnings in a process called scaffolding, aided by experts (Vygotsky, 1978). Learning opportunities are wasted when there is an absence of reflection in instructional design. Consequently, if this is the case, learners will view learning as temporary, as learners will only remember information long enough to complete the test, then they can forget it and move on to the next topic. This is not learning, but rote memorization. As asserted by Boud, Keogh, and Walker (1985), “reflection is a social process, not necessarily a quiet, solitary activity. A learner can be reflecting through verbal articulation.” For this reason, a well-designed learning environment is one that allows for discussion through talk as a form of reflection, so learners can evaluate the processes they use to solve problems to arrive at a solution. Digital technologies are valuable situating tools that can aid learners in reflection. Some technological tools that could assist in this process include interactive applications like word processors such as Microsoft Word (1983), blog websites such as Blogger (1999), Google Classroom (2014), Adobe Connect (2018) and Google Hangouts (2013). An example of instructional design that incorporates articulation and reflection can be exemplified by the following curriculum exemplar detailed below:

Task: Reflecting on the Canadian Legal Case of R v. Milgaard.

Technology Tools: Microsoft Word and Blogger

Course: CLN3M Introduction to Canadian Law

Targeted Students: Grade 11

As part of the grade eleven Introduction to Canadian Law course, the Ontario Curriculum (2013) provides students with an opportunity to learn about the Canadian legal system in areas focused on legal principles, case law, precedent, procedural and substantive legal procedures, the roles of legal representatives, and the jurisdiction of the courts on legal matters. As such, learners can use an application called Blogger (1999) to reflect on cases, for instance such as, R. v. Milgaard case that deals with the implications of a wrongful conviction after a collaborative discussion with their peers. As such, these written reflections can enable learners to compare their problem-solving skills to those of their peers and note the differences and similarities in their explanations and performances on the subject matter to expand their cognition. Online journals and blogs are tools that illustrate the processes, problems, conversation, resources, examples and ideas consolidated by a student that can be presented in words, graphics, sounds, or videos and can be packaged as a product to demonstrate cognition. The use of technology is powerful as it allows students to record their learning and easily update, retrieve, share, store and their knowledge over time.

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

Many educators are exploring the use of information communication technologies in their classrooms. This is a positive step for instructional design as learners are engrossed in the use of technology and view its existence as valuable, inseparable part of their everyday life. According to research conducted on computers, “virtually all segments of society have changed dramatically by information technologies and will continue to change in the future, which cannot be ignored. Schools must be a part of these changes and research should proceed with the assumption that technology is and will continue to be a growing element within the schools” (Fouts, 2000). Due to technological advancements and the increased tools it affords, this change calls for educators to rethink and modify their conventional learning environments and pedagogical practices to implement technology to achieve learning that is authentic, contextual, inquiry-driven, collaborative, creative and reflective in nature. This will as a result engage a dynamic, culturally diverse community of learners, so that knowledge and skills can be appropriated. Through the situated cognition learning process, students will acquire knowledge within an authentic context, work collaboratively, utilize technology to a greater degree, articulate and reflect their thinking to complete tasks that they are likely to encounter in the real world.

Technological tools such as multimedia, interactive technological tools and technological platforms will contribute to greater e-learning opportunities that will provide learners with rich learning experiences, as it can connect learners not only locally, but globally. Situated cognition supported by technological such tools allows educators to create alternative, yet powerful learning contexts for learning that more accurately mirror the demands of society in a flexible, non-static way. By using technological tools within the learning environment, collaboration, engagement and cognitive apprenticeship can easily exist. However, educators must do this with a clear purpose and rationale to direct application of knowledge to a real problem, so students can transfer their knowledge to their situated learning environment. As a result, students will no longer be passive learners. Technology affords students the opportunity to engage with tasks that could not be completed using traditional pen and paper methods.

Authentic learning environments are environments that are contextually relevant to the content a learner is exploring or attempting to solve; these learning environments often complemented by a technology-based instructional design. The use of technological tools has the potential to transform and enrich a learning experience. For this to occur, it is imperative that educators carefully plan for and facilitate classroom tasks that promote the principles of situated cognition. Technology must be used in a way that is both authentic and pedagogically appropriate for the experience, so that students can engage in cognitive apprenticeships. This paper provides practical strategies and examples of instructional design methods that can assist educators in creating a learning environment characterized by situated cognition using technological tools.


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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2019 by Eliscia Di Schiavi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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