Introduction: From Common Sense to a Complex Theory

Introduction: From Common Sense to a Complex Theory

Copyright: © 2014 |Pages: 18
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4590-5.ch001
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This chapter presents an Activity Theory perspective on technology in a context of higher education. It introduces the reader to the basic constructs and principles of Activity Theory through the experiences of a hypothetical first-year university student, Anne. Her experiences highlight the complex role that technology can play in reshaping and disrupting forms of learning that are deeply rooted in cultural, historical, and social traditions. The chapter sets the stage for the argument that Activity Theory explains technology’s role in the development and transformation of learning and provides a framework to make sense of them.
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Practically any outcome of using a theory, especially if it is stripped of professional jargon and described in plain language, is exactly what one would expect using common sense.

(Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006, p. 263)

The use of technology in education is not a new phenomenon. Like all activities (e.g., Healthcare and Social Work), education has a very long history of reliance on tools, both material (blackboard, books, digital media) and psychological (methods, strategies, techniques, curricula). Interest in use of these tools in education is not a new phenomenon. Such interest led to the formation of the field of instructional design and technology (see Reiser, 2001) and educational technology (see Saettler, 2004) as well as a large body of research literature. Growth of the field has been fuelled by the increased use of technology in education, which itself has been propelled by the rapid and, what many characterize as revolutionary, technological developments in society in general. The emergence of the Internet, the availability of personal and mobile networked devices along with a plethora of free and open software and applications have had repercussions for all aspects of society, including education.

At the higher education level, the use of technology is evident in the increasing prevalence of online learning, the independent and open access to information and knowledge, and the presence of computers in classrooms and all over campuses. The increased reliance on technology in education has led researchers to try to make sense of the changes brought about by technology and to determine if it makes a difference when compared with face-to-face instruction (see Bernard et al., 2004; Bernard et al., 2009; Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2009; Michko, 2007; Schmid et al., 2009; Tamim, 2009). Others have been critical of many of the approaches to the study of technology in education. Selwyn (2012b) observed that the field is rife with “underlying agendas and interests,” “hype and over-selling” and “personal interpretations of what technology can ‘do’ for education” (p. 214). Selwyn argued in favour of study of educational technology that adopts a historical perspective, considers social, economic, political and cultural contexts, and engages with theory.

Activity Theory, or Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) as it is often referred to, provides a framework to approach the study of educational technology that addresses some of Selwyn’s (2012b) concerns. Described as “the best kept secret of academia” (Engeström, 1993, p. 64), Activity Theory relies on a sociocultural, systemic perspective to capture the complex, developmental and contextualized nature of learning. In addition, Activity Theory offers analytical tools for understanding constraints to innovations in educational settings and a means to overcome them in order to support sustainable change efforts (Sannino & Nocon, 2008). An Activity Theory study of integration of new technologies in education shifts from an emphasis on tools themselves to tool use (e.g., Benson, Lawler, & Whitworth, 2008) or, as Barab, Schatz, and Schekler (2004) explained, from tools’ usability to their sociability.

This perspective on their sociability is a refreshing one, given the emphasis in practice and in the literature on technology itself, instead of on what the technology affords in contexts of learning. Wikis, blogs, websites, smartboards, social media, learning management systems, presentation software: these tools or technologies are not important in and of themselves, even though, for example, higher education institutions may direct considerable efforts to “train” individuals in their use. What is important are the potential affordances of the tools and how other elements of education, such as classroom norms, must be transformed and expanded in order to take advantage of these affordances. That is why, in this book in general, and in this chapter in particular, the focus is not on the tools, but on the broader context of their use.

The aim of this chapter is to introduce those unfamiliar with Activity Theory to a perspective on technology that is contextualized in a hypothetical case of a higher education student named Anne. We describe changes and developments in Anne’s educational experience at university brought about by technology and then view them through an Activity Theory lens. Our goal is to provide an intuitive illustration of how Activity Theory can help make sense of the developments that can come about in education because of the introduction of technology.

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