Sunday, October 25, 2009

Adobe Connect For Distributed Cognitionists

Article summary

Edwin Hutchins explores, in his paper “Distributed Cognition in an Airline Cockpit,” the ideas of information flow in an environment, how the information is represented and utilized, and performance structures in a given environment. I believe one key point is that any kind of interaction can be analyzed with distributed cognition for HCI purposes, as long as there is some kind of language or information being transferred between two or more mediums. A lot of complex tasks today require more than just one person (or control device) to succeed. Another point is that “trajectories of information” play a key role in “expectations of action.” The trajectory of information will have multiple paths and the expectation of which path is chosen will not always be upheld. That paper also mentions how “intersubjectivity” can help initiate and control and information flow. When the expected trajectory is not met, intersubjectivity can quickly solve the miscommunication. One other important point is that “redundant feedback” creates checks and fail-safes. Redundant feedback creates multiple representations of information and allows for crosschecking of mediums (Hutchins, 2000).

Adobe Connect

I would like to apply these ideas and key concepts of distributed cognition to my experiences with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Learning Management System. However, doing a full analysis on RPI’s LMS would be like doing a full analysis on a Flight transcript (a bit hefty for the requirements of this blog). Alternatively, I have chosen to do an analysis of Adobe Connect, a segment of this LMS. Adobe Connect allows for an online solution to distance learning. User are given the experience of classroom learning by means of chatroom, visual webcam feeds, live audio, and shared computer screens. Through these means of communication, distance students are connected digitally to local students and staff.

Who and what is interacting?

Hutchins mentions in his paper how the pilots of large jets today not only communicate with each other, but they also communicate with the control devices of the plane and information being sent from control towers (Hutchins, 2000). What kinds of interactions and between what objects occur on Adobe Connect? The chat room is the primary form of communication with the distance students to the classroom and professor. The chat room also connects students to each other. The chat in Connect is particularly interesting because distance students are required to be in the chatroom to connect to the digital class. However, it is optional for local student to enter the chatroom during class. The main effect of locals not being in the chatroom is an absence of locals directly talking to distance students. Consequentially, a lot of distance questions are not answered or misunderstood as the Professor is preoccupied teaching the class. Similar to Hutchins example of the cockpit, there are three participants interacting with Adobe Connect (the cockpit). The Professor is the Captain; he manages the environment and tries to mediate the paths of information that are happening simultaneously. The local students are the first officers. They fly the plane (the conference room) and communicate with the control tower when necessary. The distance students are the control towel and ask questions that are confirmed by the first officer or captain.

Trajectories of Information

In Adobe Connect, the tools of communication are kind of like gauges and parameters in an airplanes cockpit. With all of these communication devices to control, there are multiple possible paths that the information can be channeled through. Hutchens says, “Given the content of the Captain’s plan, we attribute to him an expectation concerning the reply from Oakland Center. His radio call is the opening turn in a conversation with a highly predictable structure. The expectation is that ATC will answer, saying something like, ‘Nasa nine hundred, climb and maintain flight level three three zero.’ If the F/O was attending to the Captain’s request, he may also have formed this expectation (Hutchins, 2000).” If we turn the situation to a class about to start with the intention of having audio/video broadcast to the distance students the expectation might turn into, “Given the content of the Professor’s plan, we attribute to him an expectation concerning the reply from distance students. His introduction to the class verbally and video initiation of video and PowerPoint is the opening turn in a conversation with a highly predictable structure. The expectation is that Distance students will answer, saying something like, ‘Hello Professor, we can here you loud and clear.’ If the Local students were attending to the Captain’s request, he may also have formed this expectation.” What happens when the expectations are not met? How do we deal with the problem to quickly revise the plan?


Intersubjection is a communication form explained by Hutchens to be, “An interaction in terms of speech act theory. What a speaker actually says is called the locutionary act. The force of what is said is the illocutionary act, and the intended effect is the perlocutionary act (Hutchins, 2000).” Intersubjection can naturally occur when expectations are not met. For example, the Professor’s plan is to start the class with an audio video greeting, but the video freezes and the audio cuts out. This is an unexpected experience for the distance students. Their immediate reaction would be to wait a few seconds, weeding out the idea that it might be a temporary glitch. The next step would be for the distance students to enter the problem into the chatroom. The locutionary act would be the distance students asking something like “audio?” If any of the local students are in the chatroom or looking at the projection of the chatroom behind the Professor, then they will get the illocutionary force that a request to fix the audio is occurring. Without answering the question the local students will perform the prelocutionary act of asking the Professor to fix the audio connection. After, the Professor might say something like “Oh, excuse while I re-establish my connection.” So even though the distance students are directly connected to the Professor through the chat, they had to communicate to him indirectly through the local students. The reason that this worked is because the local students naturally understood that the question “Audio?” would infer the connection has difficulties. Then the Professor noticing someone with a raised hand and distressed looked, realized something might be wrong with the presentation. This is why it could be helpful to have redundant information and safeguards.

Redundant Feedback

Now I will stick with the same situation of audio and video dying during the Professor’s presentation. Referring back to having many possible paths for information I will list a few way that the distance students could have communicated with the room or Professor. The chat capabilities of Connect involve a public or private chat to anyone in the room. Say that maybe the distances students try to publicly type “Audio?” again, but this time no one locally notices. The distance students will realize by the continuation of the Professor’s lecture that their input is lost. This time the local students try to private message the professor and local students that are in the chat. The local lecture still continues, so the distance students resort to a last method of input. In Adobe Connect anyone in the Chartroom can raise a digital hand to imply that they have a question about what was said. When a few of the distances students carry out this action, a few of the local students notice. Now as the local students see that the professor is still lecturing, they might physically raise their hand. This signals to the teacher non-verbally that an issue had occured. Through the variety of way that attention could be brought to the local class the information got passed on to “The Captain.” Hutchins mentions the “control yolks” and “side-stick controllers.” Adobe Connect Definitely has more of a “control yolk” system where what the Professor see’s is what the students (or Co-pilots) see. This redundancy allows for intersubjection in a lot of case because when a student raises his or her hand and is looking at the projection of the chatroom, the Professor can immediately look at his screen and see the issue at play non-verbally.


The parallels that can be drawn, between Hutchins’ examples of the flight simulation and examples of the Adobe Connect Learning Tool, are endless. Clearly there are interactions between more than just people in this system. Distributed Cognition analysis has shown that the technology of Adobe Connect is appropriately implemented to allow such distance communication. Whether it be through expectation, intersubjection, or redundant information, the messages still get through and the Captain’s plan continues.

Works Cited

Hutchins, E. (2000). Distributed Cognition in an Airline Cockpit. La Jolla: University of California.

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