From Contradictions to Expansive Transformations in Technology-Mediated Higher Education

From Contradictions to Expansive Transformations in Technology-Mediated Higher Education

Copyright: © 2014 |Pages: 29
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4590-5.ch005
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This chapter illustrates Activity Theory’s principle of expansive learning. It begins with an overview of expansive learning followed by description of a hypothetical, more culturally and historically developed form of the activity of higher education. The description is organized according to the seven components of the activity system. The outcomes of this hypothetical, transformed form of learning are the realization or near realization of the zone of proximal development and co-actualization. Following the description of the components of an expanded, more developed form of higher education, are the identification and analysis of three contradictions that must be resolved in order for the expansion to take place. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how the expansive transformation of higher education might be realized and the role that contradictions could play in this transformation.
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Introduction: From Contradictions To Transformation

Above all, cultural-historical activity theory serves not just to understand the world but, following Karl Marx’s dictum, endeavours to transform the world.

(Roth & Lee, 2010, p. 4)

Contradictions are not important in and of themselves. In that regard, our discussion of contradictions in the previous chapter was only a preamble to a focus on Activity Theory’s principle of expansive learning. Expansive learning means learning new, transformed types of activity. Expansion is what drives the existence of activity, i.e., to innovate and move towards “a radically wider horizon of possibilities than in the previous mode of the activity” (Engeström, 2001, p. 137). Engeström (2001) described the elusive nature of new forms of activity in the following proposition: “In important transformations of our personal lives and organizational practices, we must learn new forms of activity which are not yet there. They are literally learned as they are being created. There is no competent teacher” (p. 138).

In place of a competent teacher, activity systems rely on contradictions in order to bring about new forms of activity. Contradictions are a mechanism to help activity systems expand and transform. They create disturbances that signal the need for adaptation in the system. The successful adaption allows the system to expand into new forms of activity, forms that are more culturally, historically, and socially developed. Hence, the reference to an activity system as a “virtual disturbance- and innovation-producing machine” (Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research, 2003-2004, The Activity System section, para. 12). Equilibrium is an exception in activity systems; disturbances are the rule (Cole & Engeström, 1993, p. 8).

Activity systems are always developing into new forms of activity by bridging what Engeström (1987) termed the zone of proximal development (ZPD) of the activity. As in Vygotsky’s (1978) original ZPD, proximal refers to what is not yet there and development means progression towards realizing potential. The zone refers to a distance or difference between the current and the potential state of development. In a Vygotskian perspective on individual learning, the zone can be bridged by reliance on help (e.g., from scaffolds or more capable peers). From the perspective of Engeström, the ZPD of the activity is its potential, developed state arrived at through resolution of the contradictions as scaffolds within or between components of the activity system or between different systems. The ZPD is not an empty space but features “preexisting dominant trails and boundaries made by others, often with heavy histories and power invested in them…” (Engeström, 2009, p. 313). The zone is “a terrain of constant ambivalence, struggle, and surprise” (Engeström, 1999b, p. 90), “an invisible battleground” (Engeström, Brown, Christopher, & Gregory, 1997, p. 384), and “a contested area between the traditional practice and alternative future directions” (Engeström, 1994, p. 128).

Expansive transformations may occur over long periods of time, perhaps centuries. The emergence of the Industrial Age could be interpreted as a transformation of a number of activity systems. The transformations were made possible by the introduction of new tools of mechanization. These tools overcame human limitations of physical power in order to automate mass production and to elevate manual labour to a mechanized, more efficient and effective form. The emergence of the Industrial Age and tools for mass production also meant that new forms of mass learning could be implemented.

Even though industrialization has, in many respects, been supplanted by what has been termed the Knowledge Age, remnants of Industrial-Age education persist. Students in rows, one-to-many transmission of knowledge, scheduled classes, standardized curricula, specialized knowledge, and competition for grades: these are norms, tools, and division of labour of a form of Industrial-Age education. Yamazumi (2009) referred to this form as a “factory-like, machine model of mass production” with a “‘one size fits all’ imperative, characterized by strong classification, control, and… static and linear ways of human learning” (p. 37).

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