Task environment

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1 Definition

  • A task environment refers to the choices, actions and outcomes a given user has for a given task.
  • Formally speaking, a task environment can be described as a directed graph where the nodes are states and the links are actions. Some links will lead to final states that represent completion of the task.
  • Note that task environments themselves can be changed by actors, i.e. he can redesign the task itself. In addition the debate is open to what exactly is inside or ouside the task environment.

2 Rational vs. situated definition

When Simon formalized and adapted Weber's notion of an institutional role to make it work for task oriented problem solving he emphasised that only a tiny fraction of the properties and events occurring in the environment at large were relevant to the problem solver and so part of the task environment. He laid great emphasis on the distinction between the environment as the activity space in which actions take place and consequences accrue and the problem space, which is the task environment as conceptualised or represented by the subject. The task environment is a construct that applies to the outside world, the problem space is a construct which is supposed to have psychological reality and refers to mental representations inside the agent's head.
(Kirsh, 1999)


A task environment is a theoretical construct which is supposed to supply the goal relevant consequences of allowable moves in performing the task. Moves or actions are considered allowable if they can possibly advance an agent closer to his or her goal. [.....] people really operate in much broader activity spaces than Task environments. We can pretend that they can be viewed as role players, where their only concerns are those to do with performance of their task narrowly conceived. But this is an idealization that eliminates from consideration many of the surprising ways people have of using the environment to help them control activity. [....] The spirit of the problem space approach is not to ask how problem solving is distributed over environment and agent, although it is possible to ask this question. [.....] Agents recruit aspects of their environment, or create structures in their environment that link with internal states in creative ways.
(Kirsh, 1999)

“ The two - person and environment -- are coordinated in the sense that reaching a goal state depends on both sides doing their part.” (Kirsh, 1999).

3 Design of activity-based learning environments

There are at least three logically distinct strategies a creature has for improving its fitness:
  1. adapt to the environment.
  2. migrate to new surroundings.
  3. adapt the environment itself.
(Kirsh, 1996).


  • Regarding the design of learning environments we may conclude from Kirsh's empirically founded research that such environments must both support rational "Simon-style" learning task centered and problem-space related activities, but also very open-ended "surprising" moves. In addition environments should be "malleable", i.e. adapt at least somewhat to user's behaviors. In particular it must provide tools that can be used in various creative ways.

4 References

  • Kirsh, D. (1999): Distributed Cognition, Coordination and Environment Design, In Proceedings of the European Cognitive Science Society. HTML.
  • Kirsh, D. (1996). Adapting the Environment Instead of Oneself. Adaptive Behavior, Vol 4, No. 3/4, 415-452. HTML
  • Kirsh D. (1995). Complementary Strategies: Why we use our hands when we think. In Proceedings of the Seventeenth Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.