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Activity as the Participatory Unit of Analysis

In document 1.1 The Focus of this Research (Page 83-89)

3.2 Activity Theory as a Research Tool

3.2.2 Activity as the Participatory Unit of Analysis

It was argued in the preceding chapter that more expansive research approaches were needed to accommodate the complexity of eLearning settings in order to enhance understanding, and that activity theory was well placed to fill this need. This is because activity theory is underpinned by the belief that learning occurs through participation in the world and is a fundamentally social process (Brown, Collins, &

Duguid, 1989; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Vygotsky, 1978). Thus, emphasis is placed on

―contextualized activity and ongoing participation as the core units of analysis‖

(Barab et al., 2004, p. 199). By acting ―as a theoretical and methodological lens for characterizing, analyzing, and designing for the participatory unit,‖ activity theory recasts conceptions of participation by going beyond individual actions and mental processes and asserts that the minimal meaningful unit of analysis is an activity system (Barab et al., 2004, p. 199). Thus, it provides a more expansive and holistic conception of participation that can take account of individual and social factors, and recognise the socially-situated and culturally-mediated nature of learning (Barab et al., 2004).

An expanded conception of participation that encompasses contextual factors has great utility in this study because it can access many aspects of participation which have traditionally been under-explored by researchers including non-visible activity (activity which may be hidden from the teacher or researcher) such as reading texts on a website and navigating through a website. Also it can access non-visible activities that occur away from the computer (such as reflecting upon ideas while at the workplace), various degrees of participation (including passive and active resistance to learning tasks), and transformations in personal identity. Although only one research question guides this study, the use of activity theory generates a multitude of related questions which enrich and expand the primary research question. For example, by considering the internal dynamics of an activity (intra-activity), the researcher can investigate the nature of teacher and EAL student

understandings of participation, consider whether they are aligned, and explore how their understandings change over time. Also, the relationship of the individual to the community can be examined in terms of the nature of implicit and explicit rules guiding the group, the roles adopted, and the tools shared within the group. By considering the external dynamics of how one activity system relates to others, an inter-activity perspective can be gained which examines the relationship between virtual and face-to-face spaces, the interpenetration of institutional and learning activity, and the tensions emerging from the intersection of activity systems.

In addition, by considering mediated activity, technology is portrayed as a powerful tool that actively shapes human activity (Hodas, 1993; Innis, 1951; Smith, Alvarez-Torres, & Zhao, 2003) and is laden with many embedded values which may reinforce or disrupt the culture of the educational setting (Hodas, 1993). Instead of solely considering technology and its properties, researchers can consider how technology shapes human activity – what types of activity it affords and constrains and how the values of the technology interact with the surrounding social and cultural context.

This perspective challenges traditional approaches to learning which have tended to ignore mediated activity (Säljö, 1999) adopting the view that computing technology is passive and exists to support pedagogical objectives (Smith et al., 2003). It is argued that different technologies have varied affordances; in other words, they have particular properties that ―allow certain actions to be readily performed with them, and which therefore push behaviour in certain directions‖ (Tolmie & Boyle, 2000, p.

120).

Activity theory also provides a fluid and flexible conception of participation which can explicate multiple perspectives including local and global positions and differing temporal aspects. For example, activity theory can represent the ―multivoicedness‖

of complex social situations (Cole & Engeström, 1993, p. 31) by allowing a teacher, student, administrator, or technologist to be slotted into the role of subject. This can

be repeated many times in order to obtain ―snapshots‖ of activity at various points (see Yamagata-Lynch, 2003, for an interesting example of this approach) which reveal how people experience eLearning over time. The ability to represent multiple voices is particularly useful as it provides a means to capture the dynamic interplay between the teacher as designer and facilitator of the learning activity and the student as the consumer. The concept of participatory relativity – that participation can be interpreted differently depending on one‘s identity and role in activity – can be overlooked in the research literature, particularly when teacher or learner experiences are studied in isolation from one another. It is crucial to determine if the students and teachers share the same meanings of the learning activity and examine how the teacher disseminates her view of participation, how the students access and understand this viewpoint, and how other factors shape student understanding of the learning activity. Additionally, the concept of multivoicedness can also include the voices of the past; namely, the historical beliefs, expectations, and values of participants which are imported into current activities and shape what transpires.

The ability to encompass different perspectives of a learning situation can also include the interplay between multiple levels of activity at the operational, action, or activity level. Drawing upon the work of Leont‘ev (1981), activity systems can be viewed at three levels of activity, action, and operation. This multilayered analysis is helpful in understanding how activities can be decomposed into the conscious steps and automated routines of the individual (such as the action of strategically selecting postings to read or the routine of navigating through web pages), but it is also useful in showing how individual actions are meaningful within the context of the overarching activity which provides an object and motive shared by the collective.

In addition, activity theory illuminates connections between activity systems, filling a need to examine ―the inter-relationships between local phenomena and the wider

socio-cultural context‖ (Somekh, 2007, p. 8). The magnification of the learning context can be increased or decreased, for example, the researcher can include not only what occurs in the classroom (micro view) but what occurs beyond the classroom (macro view) as learners juggle work, study, and family commitments.

This capacity to view the learning context in differing ways can be extremely helpful in extending knowledge about eLearning as it offers more holistic perspectives and sheds light on how factors in the wider context can penetrate the classroom and affect teaching and learning practice. For example, issues in the broader context such as the lack of computers, the lack of professional development of teachers, or the lack of professionalism in IT support may shape the design and implementation of a learning activity.

The previous discussion has identified many benefits of using activity theory.

However, amidst these claims, one potential drawback is that, by drawing attention to stresses, tensions, and contradictions, there is a danger that an overly negative slant might infuse research. Similar concerns have been articulated by Issroff and Scanlon (2002, p. 83) in their use of activity theory to explore technology in higher education who observe that ―a key result of using AT in these settings is to highlight problematic features of the learning and teaching setting.‖ The researcher has to take care that a focus on ―what went wrong‖ may dominate ―what went right‖ in the learning context, leading to a sense that the activity under study is somewhat dysfunctional. Thus, while the concept of contradiction is useful in understanding how activity evolves, it must be balanced with perspectives that consider the affordances in the activity system and also examine how contradictions are resolved.

3.2.3: Methodological Implications for this Inquiry

As the final section in the chapter, this discussion will function as a link to connect activity theory with the following chapter on methodology by identifying some

methodological implications for the use of activity theory. While acknowledging that activity theory is ―primarily a descriptive tool rather than a prescriptive theory‖

(Jonassen, 2000, p. 110), some general implications for methodology have been drawn. These implications concern the need for researcher reflexivity, the need to study real-life contexts over a period of time, and the need to employ a variety of data collection methods to encompass varied perspectives. It will be concluded that activity theory is compatible with the qualitative research design articulated in Chapter Four.

Lincoln and Guba (1985) state that a qualitative researcher must strive to ensure that the findings and interpretations of the research (the researcher‘s constructions) are actually credible representations of the participants‘ understandings and experiences (constructions). Brought within the domains of activity theory, this statement highlights the need to be sensitive to cultural mediation. This study can be conceptualised as an activity system directed towards the overall goal of conducting original research which provides a contribution to knowledge and shaped by various tools ranging from a digital voice recorder to the concept of activity theory itself.

Included in these tools are the beliefs and assumptions (both explicit and implicit) that I, as the researcher, bring to the activity. Activity theory exhorts me to know my own mind, or in other words, to be cognisant of how the collection and analysis of participant constructions are shaped by mediating tools, including my own beliefs, values, expectations, and previous experiences. By using activity theory, I must commit myself to self interrogation and interrogation by others in the forms of researcher reflexivity, participant (student and teacher) checks of researcher interpretations, and peer checks of the data analysis.

Activity theory demands that instances of participation-in-the-world should be the object of study, in other words, research must be directed towards the real-life

activities people engage in including the motives, objects, and outcomes which drive activity and the social and cultural relationships amongst groups of people (Jonassen, 2000). In addition, as activity systems are artefact-mediated, meditational means must receive close attention, particularly in relation to the concept of distributed cognition which asserts that knowledge and understanding do not lie solely in the individual, but are shared collectively with the community through the use of cultural artefacts. It follows that the description of culture, and in particular the identification of cultural artefacts such as tools, social rules, and community roles, becomes a critical task for the researcher. In response to this and drawing from Thorne (2003, p.

40) who describes local ―cultures of use‖ which develop around technological tools, I have chosen to use ethnographic techniques including interviews, accounts, and observations in order to describe and understand the culture which surrounds the learning activities under study.

It seems entirely consistent to align a theory based on social constructivism with a qualitative methodology as both emphasise the constructed nature of reality and the relative nature of knowledge. More specifically, qualitative methodologies which focus on obtaining rich and detailed information about human experience, and in particular approaches which draw from the field of ethnography, are well positioned to describe, explain, and enhance understanding of situated activity embedded within a social, cultural, and historical matrix. In addition, activity theory approaches should employ a variety of data collection methods in order to include many different perspectives (Jonassen, 2000). Activity systems are multivoiced, in other words, they incorporate multiple perspectives from participants who import their unique personal histories into new social contexts. These histories which may include personal values, experiences of learning, and future aspirations influence how individuals make meaning as they participate in activity (Blin, 2004). Therefore, it is important to talk with both learners and teachers on a number of occasions, but also to go beyond the core group of participants and talk with other learners, additional teaching

staff, and learning technologists (for example) who are involved in the learning activity directly or indirectly. This approach also allows broader perspectives to be obtained which reside outside the local activity system and show how a learning activity connects with wider activity systems. For example, a learning technologist may discuss issues of under-resourcing which exist at the institutional level but also implicate issues at the classroom-level. In addition, multiple temporal perspectives can be obtained as the context is viewed over time, offering insights into the ongoing and dynamic relationships between system components (Barab et al., 2002;

Yamagata-Lynch, 2003).

Lincoln and Guba (1985, p. 178) argue that an inquiry should display ―value resonance‖. By this term, they mean that key elements of a study should be

―consistent and reinforcing‖ (Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p. 178). In the previous section, it has been argued that a qualitative approach, ethnographic techniques, and multiple methods that collect data from a variety of individual and temporal perspectives are consistent with activity theory

In document 1.1 The Focus of this Research (Page 83-89)