Posted by: soniahs | November 9, 2010

Exam readings: Activity theory

Activity theory seems to be popular in the educational community. I’ll be reading a few articles that involve it, but I’m still not sure how/if it will fit in with my overall project goals, as it’s used more in formal pedagogical design than for informal learning. Here are two readings that involve it:

Wolff-Michael Roth. “Activity Theory and Education: An Introduction.” Mind, Culture, and Activity 11(1): 1-8, 2004.

Summary: Introduction to a special issue; focuses on several key points about AT. Interest in AT has been increasing in educational circles; the core idea is that individuals have power to transform their communities through their activities (Marxist basis). First, the triangle model (subject, object, community, within tools/means, division of labor, rules) is dynamic, not static (see below for model). The subject & object are in a dialectical relationship; a contradiction between the subject’s mental image and the physical object drives action (e.g., a sculptor will keep sculpting until the sculpture matches her mental image). There’s also overall change- any human activity results in change in all elements in the system (e.g., learning through participation also constitutes participation as having effects on the wider group). Second, individuals produce outcomes, but participation also produces the structure of the community (and his/her overall position as a member of the community)- production drives the historical trajectory of the system. Third, internal contradictions drive the internal system activity- the main one being tensions between individual production and societal production (e.g., crime-fundamental contradiction between societal constraints and the individual actions that are best for society). There are four types of contradictions: within each system component, between components, between system objects of different activity systems, and between system components of different activity systems.

Comments: Gives some examples of contradictions that are present in educational settings, but would have been nice if these examples were explicitly matched up to the 4 types of contradictions. Mentions directions for future research (e.g., what is the nature of change in activity systems); also mentions that dialectical approach might fit poorly with western dualistic systems. This framework is applicable to HCI, but have to put more thought into how it might fit with other stuff.

Links to: Suchman, Sharples et al. (AT examples)

Mike Sharples, Josie Taylor and Vavoula, Giasemi. “A Theory of Learning for the Mobile Age.” in Richard Andrews and Caroline Haythornthwaite (eds.) The Sage Handbook of E-learning Research, pp. 221–247. London: Sage, 2007.

Summary: The authors use a conversational model and activity theory as a framework for mobile learning (informal, either using mobile tech. or learning while mobile). They frame it as interaction between a learner and technology to advance knowledge. First, conversation, negotiation, and interpretation drive overall learning (“conversation”-sharing of understanding w/in a pervasive medium- this defn. includes human-machine interaction); it’s about becoming informed about others’ representations. 2-level model for learning: acting (problem solving/model building) & description (demonstration/explanation) + constant internal representation. Within this model, teachers/experts don’t really derive authority through expertise, but rather through negotiation (they recognize that this model doesn’t quite apply to a classroom setting). Second, their AT framework describes how tool use helps people learn includes 1st triangle (subject/learner, object/task, community) plus 2nd triangle which mediates 1st (rules/norms, division of labor, tools-physical + signs). The tools (both semiotic and technical) constrain & support learners in goal of transforming their knowledge/skills. Dialectical interaction between nodes in the triangle drives learning; the idea is to use this as a framework to pinpoint “tensions” in the user-tool system that inhibit learning. Agency in learning is a system property, not that of individuals. They describe a case study of mobile technology use in a museum using this framework.

Comments: Mention digital divide, but point out that mobile technologies are being adopted in many places w/o traditional infrastructure. AT framework seems more like a model than a predictive theory, unless the prediction is that when all components are working, learning will occur. The conversational model sets up learning as a process of negotiation, and the AT model describes how tool use facilitates this. The AT aspect seems to be more as an analysis tool that helps design technologies to enhance “conversations” in informal learning settings (not replace traditional learning).

Links to: Roth, Suchman (activity theory)



  1. […] to: Roth (AT description); Sharples et al. (more standard? AT […]

  2. […] to: Sharples et al. (these concerns relate to AT framework for understanding learning tool use); Borgmann et al. […]


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