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The Objectives of this Study

In document 1.1 The Focus of this Research (Page 59-67)

2.3 eLearning in Higher Education

2.3.3 The Objectives of this Study

―situation specific rather than culturally pre-set‖ (Cheng, 2000, p. 435). Other studies have indicated thatAsian students may be uncomfortable with the concept of dialogic interaction and critique (Holmes, 2004) and yet appear to participate more in online discussions (Biesenbach-Lucus, 2003; Campbell, 2004; Gerbic, 2005). While not directly disputing findings which suggest that cultural predispositions may shape activity, this study sounds a cautionary note about the dangers of making generalisations based on cultural assumptions. Shaped by historical factors, each student is a unique and complex blend of past experiences, idiosyncratic beliefs, expectations about learning, and varied abilities. There is a need to focus on individual EAL students to shed light on idiosyncratic features of student activity which may challenge beliefs that EAL students behave in culturally pre-determined ways and suggest that learning activity is more complex (as sociocultural theory would advocate) than has been claimed.

and implementation of learning activities based on social constructivist pedagogy has been problematic when faced with a complex array of interconnecting factors.

Second, it has been advanced that there is a need for more critical perspectives which sidestep glowing descriptions of the potential of eLearning to transform teaching and learning and offer accurate descriptions of student and teacher experience. Third, it is argued that more research should focus on authentic everyday settings where teachers who may not have a strong interest in ICT are faced with many challenges. Finally, it has been advanced that it is unclear as to how ICT is affecting the learning experiences of EAL students and that more research which conceptualises these students as unique socio-historical agents is needed.

As stated in the introductory chapter, the overall intent of this thesis is to contribute to ongoing discussions about the transformative use of ICT to enhance teaching and learning experiences in tertiary-level educational settings that are mediated by social epistemologies. This study intends to embrace the complexity of eLearning environments by providing an in-depth and critical representation through the eyes of EAL students and their teachers as they engage in interactive learning activities mediated by ICT. If we are to learn how to use ICT in transformative ways, we need to better understand the complex and value-laden nature of ICT-use in education by employing research approaches that can represent complexity.

To achieve this objective, this inquiry intends to focus on a specific eLearning context and adopt an exploratory approach by asking students and teachers to define what participation in a learning activity mediated by ICT means for them. Through this open and inductive approach, the intent is to live vicariously through the participants‘ eyes without imposing preconceptions and describe how teachers and students make meaning in these contexts. Also, by encompassing both learner and teacher perspectives at multiple times during the paper, the dynamic interplay

between teacher (as designer of the learning activity) and student (as consumer of the activity) may reveal nuanced understandings and important insights. In a survey of the literature, this sustained teacher/learner relationship is often overlooked by many studies that focus only on teacher or student viewpoints and do not consider the relative nature of participation; namely, that the concept of participation varies depending upon who is participating. In addition, recognising the complex nature of learning settings and the need to recast eLearning in a critical light, this study has used activity theory to frame this thesis. Through the concept of mediation, activity theory operates as a powerful conceptual tool that can reveal how the nature of participation is shaped by various social and cultural factors in the immediate or broader educational context. In response to the need for more research that focuses on everyday educational settings, this study intends to investigate three ordinary educational settings to gain an authentic understanding of eLearning which may be more useful to teachers who are interested in using ICT to support their pedagogy.

Finally, in response to the need to undertake research that seeks to understand the nature of eLearning from an EAL student perspective outside of language learning contexts, this inquiry intends to focus on how this group of students participate in eLearning activities, not only through ICT, but through a social epistemology and the English language (which they may still be in the process of learning).

2.3.4 Summary

The extended discussion in this section has sustained the main thrust of this thesis by arguing that more expansive, critical, and authentic research approaches to eLearning are required that can accommodate the complexity of this social phenomenon and reveal the socially-situated and culturally-mediated nature of ICT use in education.

In addition, it has also argued that a particular manifestation of eLearning – the experiences of EAL students and their teachers in learning activities underpinned by

social epistemologies – is underrepresented in the literature and is worthy of further study.

2.4 Expanding Conceptions of Participation in eLearning

In the preceding sections, a critical review of the literature has been undertaken in order to position the study at the intersection of three major conceptual fields – social theories of learning, social perspectives on academic literacy, and eLearning. The intent of this review has been to identify gaps in current understanding where more research is required and to explain how this study intends to address these issues. As this thesis looks towards the next chapter, it is important to lay the foundations to provide a rationale for the use of activity theory as a conceptual tool in this study.

This section will expand the argument articulated in the previous section that more expansive research responses are needed in eLearning. Thus, this chapter will act as a transition between the current conceptual framework chapter and the following chapter on activity theory. It could be argued that a discussion of activity theory resides more appropriately in the Conceptual Framework Chapter; however, it could also be argued that the use of activity theory to frame this inquiry clearly has far-reaching implications by shaping the way data is collected, interpreted, and discussed in this thesis. Because activity theory has both theoretical and methodological implications, this duality warrants the creation of a bridging chapter (Chapter Three) that extracts activity theory out of relative obscurity in the conceptual framework and recognises that it infuses almost every aspect of this study including the research questions, the methodology, the conceptual framework, the data analysis, and the discussion. Therefore, activity theory has been given its own chapter in order to recognise its profound significance as a powerful research tool in this study.

2.4.1 Conceptualising Participation in eLearning

The research question which guides this study seeks to understand how EAL students and their teachers participate in interactive learning activities supported by ICT in tertiary education. A crucial issue in the design of this study has been how to conceptualise the term participation in a way that would accommodate the complexity of eLearning, and also allow the generation of critical perspectives. The following discussion explores this process.

A survey of the literature surrounding eLearning research suggests that there has been a tendency to focus upon restricted approaches which show a preoccupation with specific teaching and learning processes while overlooking the socially-situated and culturally-mediated nature of eLearning. This preoccupation with restricted approaches can be seen in the number of studies which focus on evaluating specific eLearning innovations or particular aspects of online learning such as student level of cognition (Christopher, Thomas, & Tallent-Runnels, 2004), student facilitation of discussions (Hew & Cheung, 2008), and the presence of substantive and non-substantive messages during online interaction (Davidson-Shivers, Tanner, &

Muilenburg, 2000). These studies often limit their scope by considering only the internal activity of the paper rather than including broader factors in the educational context. Also, many studies consider either student or teacher experiences but do not consider them both as an holistic unit – the teacher as creator of the learning activity and the student as consumer.

It is not the intent here to dispute the value of approaches to eLearning which focus on specific aspects as it is acknowledged that these types of studies can certainly inform understanding; however, it is argued that they can pre-define the nature of participation, thereby narrowing the field of vision onto specific aspects and/or

constraining the ability of teachers and students to define what participation means to them. By focusing on specific aspects and key variables, these approaches may provide a simplistic view of eLearning that can exclude a wide range of factors such as personal beliefs and perceptions, implicit and explicit social rules that guide social interaction, physical, mental, and virtual tools that are employed to accomplish a task, non-visible background activity that may not be appreciated until participants are interviewed, and broader factors in the wider context such as student workload and institutional support for the professional development of teachers. It is advanced that, by narrowing the scope of vision onto specific teaching and learning processes, many studies fail to recognise that participation in eLearning is a messy, complex, and emergent process requiring more flexible and encompassing notions of participation.

Over ten years ago, Salomon and Perkins (1998, p. 2) asserted that ―a focus on the individual learning in social and cultural solitude is increasingly being seen as conceptually unsatisfying and ecologically deficient.‖ More recently, similar views have been echoed by a number of scholars from differing perspectives in relation to eLearning (Chambers & Bax, 2006; Hrastinski, 2008, 2009; Somekh, 2007; Zhao &

Frank, 2003). Somekh (2007) advises that there is value in directing attention towards research approaches that transcend the bounds of the classroom and consider the use of ICT in education from a variety of phenomenal levels (for example, at the classroom, programme, institutional, and national levels). Using an ecological perspective, Zhao and Frank (2003, p. 812) portray learning settings as ―complex system[s] containing many parts and relationships.‖ In his review of research approaches that underpin online learner participation, Hrastinski (2008, p. 1760) identifies the prevalence of ―low-level conceptions of online learner participation [which] do not recognise the more complex dimensions of online participation.‖ In his review, Hrastinski (2008) argues that online learner participation is often defined in limited terms such as the number of times a student accesses an online setting, and common research approaches have focused on measuring the frequency, length,

and/or configuration of messages. Although he concedes that the study of learner perceptions of participation is becoming more commonplace, he maintains that many studies still focus on limited conceptions of participation. Similar observations have been echoed by Rourke and Kanuka (2009, p. 43) who, in their review of the literature regarding the concept of community of inquiry (Garrison, Anderson, &

Archer, 2000), have observed that ―learning was uniformly operationalized as self-reports of perceived learning with one item.‖ They argue for more in-depth and robust studies of learning.

In relation to researching the concept of normalisation in computer assisted language learning (CALL) contexts, Chambers and Bax (2006) write:

…not only do we need to consider each relevant factor, but that we also need a better understanding of how exactly all of these factors interact and operate in real pedagogical contexts, so as to throw light on the ways in which different aspects, technological, administrative, social and others, interact to promote or impede the normalisation of CALL. This implies a programme of appropriate research. (Chambers & Bax, 2006, pp. 466-467)

In the same vein, the assumption that learners participate only by writing has been challenged by other scholars who recognise that participation is a complex and multi-faceted concept which includes both visible and non-visible aspects (Beaudoin, 2002;

Bozik & Tracey, 2002; Dennen, 2008; Hrastinski, 2009; Lee, Chen, & Jiang, 2006;

Mazzolini & Madison, 2007; Williams, 2004). For example, Dennen (2008) found significant levels of ―pedagogical lurking‖ (p. 1624) where students viewed their peers‘ work to obtain models, read postings, and reflected on the ideas presented.

These students viewed their online experiences in a positive light, perceiving that both writing and reading supported their learning. In their study of online posting activity, Mazzolini and Madison (2007) have observed that the number of student postings appeared to decrease when instructors posted more frequently. However, they have argued that ―clearly any judgment of the effectiveness of a discussion

forum that is based on posting rates only may be quite misleading‖ (p. 202). Thus, conceptualising participation as writing or the quality of writing in an online space may offer an impoverished perspective of participation which may mask the influence of other factors in the setting.

More expansive conceptions of participation in eLearning have been proposed (Hrastinski, 2008, 2009; Vonderwell & Zachariah, 2005). For example, in their study of learner participation in a graduate online course, Vonderwell and Zachariah (2005, p. 214) define participation as ―taking part and joining in a dialogue for engaged and active learning‖ and claim that ―participation is more than the total number of student postings in a discussion forum.‖ Another example is provided by Hrastinski, (2008, p. 1761) who, drawing from both Wenger (1998) and Vonderwell and Zachariah (2005), defines online learner participation as ―a process of learning by taking part and maintaining relations with others. It is a complex process comprising doing, communicating, thinking, feeling and belonging, which occurs both online and offline.‖ From Hrastinski‘s (2008) definition, a broader concept of participation can be obtained which includes temporal (participation occurs over time), situational (participation can occur in varied settings), social (participation involves others), and cultural aspects (participation involves using shared tools).

By adopting activity theory as a conceptual tool, the intent of this thesis is to appropriate a broader and more expansive conception of participation that recognises the inherent complexity of eLearning settings, acknowledges the value-laden nature of ICT (Hodas, 1993), affords a critical approach that reveals affordances and constraints in the surrounding context, and illuminates the transformative or non-transformative use of technology in educational settings. By conceptualising technology as a mediating tool and asserting that the smallest unit of analysis for understanding human learning is an activity system that includes a range of individual

and social factors, activity theory (Engeström, 1987) provides a powerful and expansive participatory unit of analysis that integrates cognition and activity and acknowledges the socially-situated and culturally-mediated nature of learning (Barab et al., 2004).

In document 1.1 The Focus of this Research (Page 59-67)