Activity Theory, Authentic Learning and Emerging Technologies

Selection_001For the past few years I’ve been involved in an NRF-funded research project looking at the use of emerging technologies in higher education. One of the products of that collaborative project was an edited book that has recently been published. Professor Denise Wood, one of the editors, describes the book on her blog:

This edited collection seeks to fill the current gap in understanding about the use of emerging technologies for transformative learning and teaching by providing a nuanced view, locating higher education pedagogical practices at an intersection of emerging technologies, authentic learning and activity systems.

The book, which is edited by Professors Vivienne Bozalek, Dick N’gambi, Denise Wood, Jan Herrington, Joanne Hardman and Alan Amory, includes case studies as examples, and draws from a wide range of contexts to illustrate how such a convergence has the potential to track transformative teaching and learning practices in the higher education sector. Chapters provide the reader with a variety of transformative higher education pedagogical practices in southern contexts, theorised within the framework of Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) and tool mediation, while using authentic learning as a pedagogical model upon which this theoretical framework is based.

I made a small contribution to the book in the form of a case study that emerged from my PhD work as part of the project. Professor Jan Herrington wrote the introduction to the section on the Case Studies:

Moving from theory to practice in higher education is deeply challenging. While exploring pedagogical models in the literature may lead to tacit understanding of general principles, actually implementing these principles in practice can be an entirely different matter. Authentic learning is a pedagogical model that is sometimes misunderstood, such as when teachers believe that in order for authenticity to be achieved, learning must occur outside the classroom in the real world. In fact, authenticity – as described in this model – can readily be achieved within the regular classrooms and lecture halls of the university environment. Providing examples of successful cases of such authentic learning environments offers an opportunity to explore the practical application of a theoretical model, and provide concrete instances of implementation in different subject areas. This chapter provides three such cases. The cases presented here provide international examples of authentic learning in practice across different discipline areas, using different technologies, and focusing on different aspects of the approach. The first case (Case study 14.1) describes the use of reflective analysis and role play in the study of obstetrics, using the model of authentic learning described in Chapter 5 (Herrington, 2014). It focuses on the use of technology as a mediating vehicle for authentic learning through the use of practice dilemmas. The second case (Case study 14.2) describes specific tasks developed within an authentic learning environment, using characteristics of authentic tasks (Herrington, Reeves, Oliver, & Woo, 2004). This case describes the use of complex contexts and the development of case notes in the study of physiotherapy. The final case (Case study 14.3) explores the use of wikis and blogs to mediate authentic learning in sport science education. All the cases represent authentic learning in action, and include details of the context, the tasks, and the problems that inevitably arise when teachers necessarily relinquish their more traditional role to allow students to take primary responsibility for learning. They are also effectively works in progress, where solutions are refined and improved in successive iterations. But above all, they are visible and tangible exemplars of theory in action.

While my own contribution was small, I’m really proud that I could be part of the initiative. The book is available on Amazon in a variety of formats.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2011-01-24

CHAT workshop for Emerging ICT in HE research

Last week I attended a short workshop on Cultural Historical Activity Theory (given by Joanne Hardman) as part of an NRF-funded research project on the use of emerging ICTs in Higher Education. Here are my notes from the session (this was all very new to me and I probably got a few things wrong. Feel free to point out any problems with what I’ve written):
CHAT has no theoretical framework, and is partly a method and partly theoretical
There are 3 different approaches to AT, going through Vygotsky, Leont’ev, Engstrom
Rote learning is appropriate in some instances for e.g. learning terminology. “Good” or “bad” is dependent on the objective of the teaching and learning activity. Rote learning is not appropriate to develop conceptual understanding.
Will the introduction of innovative technology in the classroom lead to changes in T&L practice?
How do people learn? Learning = cognitive change
Learning new technical skills doesn’t lead to cognitive change
Piaget = learning happens when we add to what we already know
Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934)
“Authentic learning situation” = real life examples that students are familiar with using their own lived experiences
“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” – Marx (1859). At the time, learning was about the individual.
Learning and conceptual knowledge comes from interaction with others
If students are performing poorly, we may need to look at our social interactions with them.
Lower cognitive functions are things you’re born with i.e. we share these with animals e.g. perception, memory
Higher cognitive functions are unique to humans i.e. they need to be taught, you can’t learn them on your own e.g. selective attention, logical memory
Vogystky’s theory is an instructional theory.
“Structured process of mediation by a culturally more advanced peer” → you have to be taught, you can’t learn it on your own i.e. it must be mediated
What do people do with technology to effect change? This must happen through mediation. Instruction in and of itself doesn’t automatically lead to learning. So even if technological change is leading to innovative practice, without mediation, learning doesn’t actually happen.
Mediation requires an other.
Imitation is the first action towards developing mediation
General genetic law = every function in a child’s development appears twice. First on the social level, and later on the individual level. First between people (interpsychological), and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, logical memory, and the formulation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals.
If students are not learning in your class, it’s a function of their social self, not their cognitive self.
Mind in society, not mind and society (“Mind in society” – Vygotsky)
The general genetic law → ZPD (the extent of what someone is currently able to do or think), the potential to learn with assistance (“the space that opens up in social interaction that leads to cognitive change”). ZPD = potential to learn with guided assistance.
In the classroom, consider staggering activities / tasks that open up different ZPD’s i.e. expect different things from / provide different inputs to students who are at different levels (requires sensitivity to where they’re at)
ZPD = the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers…the actual developmental level characterises mental development retrospectively, while the ZPD characterises mental development prospectively (Vygotsky, 1978)
ZPD = responsive pedagogy
“Instruction is only useful when it moves ahead of development”
Conceptualising working in the ZPD (Langer & Applebee, 1986):
  • Ownership – of the activity
  • Appropriateness – to the students current knowledge
  • Structure – embodying a “natural” sequence of thought and action
  • Collaboration – between teacher and student
  • Internalisation – via gradual withdrawal of the scaffolding and transfer of control
Mediation in the classroom, through:
  • modeling
  • guiding
  • questioning
  • helping
  • structuring
  • recruiting attention
  • prompting
Mediation is about providing tools to help someone get to the answer. It’s not about giving the answers.
Alexei Leont’ev
Vygotsky focused on how signs and symbols (i.e. semiotics → language and writing) led to cognitive change. This has problems in an illiterate society. This had issues in Stalin’s Russia, as many of the population were illiterate. So Leont’ev focused on activity to mediate cognitive development.
“Without a theoretical conception of the social world one cannot analyse activity”
Leont’ev differentiated between collective activity and individual action e.g. hunting is a collective activity made up of individual actions. You need to study the activity, and not the actions, as the actions provide only a very narrow view of the whole.
Individual students are part of many activity systems.
Leont’ev’s activity theory (second generation):
  • Operations – fossilised and automatic e.g. typing
  • Actions – individual
  • Activity – communal, motivator, need-state i.e. requires a motive (“what is the need-state that drives the activity?”)


The structure of human activity (1987), triangle = a heuristic diagram for representing a method, → reason that this is a method, rather than a theory (the theory is Vygotsky)
  • Division of labor – different roles e.g. we operationalise behaviour by assigning roles. This is also about power
  • Community – shares an object e.g. the object of this workshop is “understanding of AT”
  • Rules – are horizontal and vertical (like power). Instructional: “put up your hand if you want to ask a question”. Disciplinary: “no talking when I’m talking”
  • Object – the thing we have in common e.g. our understanding of AT. Activity systems are defined by the object
  • Subject – the thing / group that is being studied / analysed in an activity system (we are the subjects in this workshop)
  • Tools
If you want to study change in an activity system, you have to first identify the contradictions / tensions / conflicts / breakdowns:
  • Primary – within each node of a system
  • Secondary – between nodes in one system
  • Tertiary – between activity systems, when role-players outside the system impacts on those within the system e.g. how will students be affected by external activity systems during our study?
  • Quaternary – exists between nodes in activity systems
No activity system operates in isolation.
There is no defined analytical framework for studying an activity.
Change laboratory is the method for expansive learning (Engestrom). The following process could be used in our case studies. Very similar to Action Research, but with a strong underlying theory, which AR sometimes lacks.
  • What is the primary contradiction need-state for our question? Questioning.
  • Secondary contradictions double bind (historical analysis, actual empirical analysis). Why is the need there?
  • Model the new solution
  • Examine the new model
  • Implement the new model (tertiary contradiction resistance e.g. pushback from others)
  • Reflect on the process (quaternary contradictions re-alignment with neighbours)
  • Consolidate the new practice
Providing anonymity is one way to empower students to participate, especially shy, marginalised and disempowered learners.
Change laboratory: an intervention method that involves sustained efforts to analyse and transform social practice. It comprises a series of workgroup meetings to reflect on current practices and envision future activities. Essential aspects of change laboratories are:
  • Using videotaped practices as a “mirror” for assessing current activity
  • Generating ideas and tools e.g. charts, that help to assess past, present and future activity
  • Modeling present practices by using activity-system analysis