Bodong Chen

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Notes: Cowan, P., & Butler, R. (2013). Using Activity Theory to Problematize the Role of the Teacher During Mobile Learning



Citekey: @Cowan2013-ke

Cowan, P., & Butler, R. (2013). Using Activity Theory to Problematize the Role of the Teacher During Mobile Learning. SAGE Open, 3(4), 2158244013516155.


Summarize: Interesting use of activity theory. There is an attempt to advance AT in this piece as well. The focus on ‘4 faces’ of activity systems is interesting and may be combined with automated, network measures.


m-learning is a new peda- gogical option for teachers. Indeed, “in a short space of five years, mobile learning (m-learning) has moved from being a theory, explored by academic and technology enthusiasts, into a real and valuable contribution to learning” (Stead, 2005, p. 1) making it a viable tool for the classroom. (p. 1)

Mobile learning (m-learning) is a contested and multifaceted term (Coyle et al., 2007) meaning different things to different people. (p. 1)

Activity theory (AT) is used as the lens through which the teacher’s role during m-learning is ana- lyzed in an attempt to find a “language of description” to coin Bernstein’s phrase, which captures the centrality of the role of teachers in this multimodal digital world of learning. (p. 2)

AT Models (p. 2)

Engestrom’s (1987) first generation model of AT emerged from the work of Vygotsky on mediation. The initial model comprised three elements: the subject, the object, and the mediating artifacts (tools or instruments) as indicated in the upper triangle of Figure 1. The basic concept of AT is that all human activities are mediated by culturally defined or created signs or tools; that is, the “subject” (person) interacts with the “object” (lesson content) through the use of the mediating tools (mobile technology) to achieve the “outcome” (goal). Through external interactions with these tools, the internal mental state of the individual is transformed (Aboulafia, Gould, & Spyrou, 1995). (p. 2)

The social context is key to the transformation of the individual or “subject,” and there- fore three additional elements—rules, community, and divi- sion of labor—were added to the model. (p. 2)

The “division of labor” acts in two dimensions—vertically and horizontally—and refers to “the horizontal division of tasks between the members of the community and to the vertical division of power and status” (Engestrom, 1993, p. 67). (p. 2)

Although m-learning has received a positive reception in the technology-enhanced learning arena, much of the research has focused on its impact on learners and its role in offering pupils rich and authentic learning experiences. (p. 2)

In general, studies have been short term, and learners have used the ready-made learning experiences already uploaded on the mobile devices, often referred to as “teacher-led mobile learning experiences” as pupils have no input into the design, content, or method of use of these “programs.” The research in this article is unique in that it considers the power and control dynamics of the role of the teacher using m-learning over the course of an academic year for teaching geography. (p. 2)

Embedded within the AT model are four higher order functions arising from mutual relationships among the near- est neighbors within the model (Holt & Morris, 1993; Nardi, 1998). Each function represents an aspect of human activity: “production,” “distribution,” “exchange,” and “consump- tion” (Youn & Baptiste, 2007). (p. 2)

According to Engestrom (1987), “production” creates objects that correspond to the given needs or desired objectives of the system. “Distribution” divides the workload or activities in accordance with the social laws of the community, while “exchange” captures the social interactions from the previously agreed distribution of activities. Finally, “consumption” relates to the achieving of (p. 2)

structural and interactional. The structural level relates to the social division of labor and the strength of the boundaries between divisions or subject specialism in the school con- text. (p. 3)

the objective within the community or system by the subject. Within the activity system, “production” is viewed as the starting point, “consumption” as the conclusion, with “distri- bution” and “exchange,” the interim processes (Engestrom, 1987). (p. 3)

Through investigating a system in detail, contradic- tions and internal tensions between the elements are revealed. Classrooms are multifaceted, multidimensional organiza- tions (p. 3)

The interactional level refers to the social rela- tionships in the learning context, as determined by the extent of transmission and/or acquisition between the teacher and the pupils—that is, the pedagogical processes used in the classroom environment. (p. 3)

With the introduction of a more constructivist approach to teaching and learning by the teachers who were “early adopters” of technology (Rogers, 2005), the control has shifted with these new pedagogical practices. (p. 3)

As Cole and Engestrom (1993) aver “reflective appro- priation of advanced models and tools provide ways out of internal contradictions” (p. 40) resulting in new activity sys- tems. (p. 3)

Within AT, Engestrom (1999) supports the assertion by Leont’ev (1978) that “The activity of individual people thus depends on their social position” (p. 10) and therefore the impact of “framing” is embedded in the activity system within the learning environment. (p. 3)

Engestrom’s (1999) “third generation” AT reveals that multiple applications of AT can be applied to a joint activity system as a mechanism to analyze and review the role of various “subjects” as the dominant perspective in the system. (p. 3)

Teachers can invoke a strong influence on the activity system through their choice of tools, rules and predefined division of labor within the community, or they can assume a low level of regulation and allow the activity system to continually find an equilibrium position in which the pupils can work effectively as a com- munity, sharing leadership and agreeing to their own rules to optimize performance at any given moment in time. (p. 3)

In this article, the singular activity system in Figure 1, of using mobile technology for classroom teaching, is used to deter- mine the position of the teacher within the system while maintaining the focus on pupils’ learning and therefore pro- poses placing the teacher within the pupils’ AT model rather than existing in parallel to it. (p. 3)

Using the AT framework, an analysis of the distri- bution of power and control can be investigated within this new technology-enhanced activity system and the position of the teacher determined. As Daniels and Warmington (2007) posit “activity theory should also develop a language of description which allows for the parameters of power and control to be considered at structural and interactional levels of analysis” (p. 388). (p. 3)

Power and Control in AT (p. 3)

Bernstein (2000, 1981) considers the impact of rules, inher- ent in the ethos of the institution, on the communicative dis- course used by teachers and pupils alike. He defines the power and control in pedagogical practices in two tiers: (p. 3)

Method (p. 4)

This research aims to problematize the role of the post-pri- mary geography teacher using m-learning during one aca- demic year. (p. 4)

The Mobile Learning Environment (p. 4)

Action research was used in this predominantly qualita- tive study, as it provided the teacher involved in the m-learn- ing activities with the autonomy to structure and organize the m-learning tasks to map into the existing curricular require- ments and scheme of work (McNiff, 1994). It also empow- ered the teacher to capture the decision-making process of all participants in the study—teacher, pupils, and technical/ research support—through detailed observations recorded in a journal or log over the duration of the research. (p. 4)

Mscapes superimpose our everyday environments with a “digital canvas,” meaning locations are geo-tagged with multimedia (Loveless et al., 2008). (p. 4)

The pupils were able to “walk” the length of the river from source to mouth seeing the key physical features typical at each stage of the river’s profile. (p. 4)

There were quiz questions embedded at key stages along the route in an attempt to sustain the pupils’ attention and to promote recall of the important river features and physical processes such as erosion, transportation, and depo- sition. (p. 4)

the Thames mscape was a teacher created, pupil experienced linear multimedia experience in which the teacher had full control over the content of the activity and the inclusion of the learning intentions for the task. In Bernstein’s terms, there was strong classification (teacher power) and strong framing (teacher control). (p. 4)

In contrast, the treasure hunt mscapes were pupil directed and created, and then once tested, the pupils experienced each other’s mscape activities and offered feedback to their peers. This student-centered pedagogy showed the presence of low classification (low levels of teacher direction/power) and weak framing (due to increased pupil control). (p. 5)

In addi- tion, the activity system does not exist in a vacuum nor is it a static framework. It is dynamic, allowing for the unexpected, which may come from within the system (internal contradic- tions) or from outside (external contradictions). (p. 5)

When faced with the challenge of creating their own mscape, the pupils’ group journals revealed insights into the struggle this became for some pupils over the duration of the project (p. 5)

For the treasure hunt mscape, the pupils were assigned into three groups by the teacher. (p. 5)

Analyzing m-Learning Through the Lens of AT (p. 5)

The very essence of AT is “activity.” It is not so much interested in how the participant uses the tech- nology but their interaction with this mediating device for learning. (p. 5)

Similarly, there was consensus that the workload was unevenly distributed with pupils declaring “The group lead- ers got too much.” (p. 6)

These contradictions indicate that AT can be utilized effectively to capture the tensions that often go unnoticed in groupwork or remain hidden from the teacher as traditionally the pupils do not have a voice to express their concerns about the learning processes being utilized by teachers. (p. 6)

The teacher and researchers’ reflections on these outdoor events noted the changing role being adopted within and across groups of pupils. (p. 6)

The power/ control dynamic in these cases rested squarely with the teacher (and researcher) during this phase of the work. (p. 6)

Some pupils simply did not like the technology stating this plainly as “I don’t like technology,” (p. 6)

and the collective “consumption” of knowledge through m-learning is diminished. (p. 7)

It was at this point that the research highlighted the importance of distin- guishing where the teacher’s role was positioned within the activity system and what factors preempted the movement of the power/control dynamic back to the teacher. (p. 7)

Finally as depicted in Figure 2c, if the subject and the community collaborate too closely on the task, there can be a detrimental effect on the achievement of the learning objectives (O), resulting in a negative impact on “consumption” of knowledge. (p. 7)

why? (p. 7)

Findings (p. 7)

a slightly unfamiliar write-up. Many results get reported in the method section. Is this typical? (p. 7)

Using the same strategy for analyzing the three elements of the “exchange” face, namely, rules ®, subject (S), and community ©, the equilibrium between these three ele- ments was not sustained across all the m-learning tasks. (p. 7)

in reality, tensions existed between these vertices in the activity system causing the figurative representations of the activity system at any moment in time to be a distorted version of Figure 1. (p. 7)

very interesting way to consider the activity system. (p. 7)

Initially, the formal and informal rules governing the use of m-learning activities overwhelmed some of the participants, driving the subjects and the community together and away from the rules ® as shown in Figure 3a. (p. 7)

Overdominance of one person (S) could also adversely affect the balance between the exchange of information and knowl- edge within the group community (C; Figure 3b), especially when group members remained true to the formal and infor- mal rules, which resulted in fewer exchanges between the group members and the isolated position of the domineering pupil. (p. 7)

The “consumption” aspect of AT lies at the heart of knowledge creation and could therefore be considered as the cornerstone of m-learning. Figure 2 illustrates that the equi- librium between the subject (S), object (O), and community © can be negatively affected by the isolation or perceived lack of support given to some individuals during the m-learn- ing activities. (p. 7)

Figure 3c captures the occasions when the group com- munity dominated the m-learning experiences and the indi- vidual subject’s voice could not be heard. This situation was observed in one group during the creation phase of the trea- sure hunts when pupils breached the rules of effective group- work and an individual’s initiative was stifled by the community resulting in less productive exchange of ideas and a reduced learning experience. (p. 7)

For instance, technical problems experienced by an individual subject (S) when using the PDA (for the Thames mscape) can distance the subject from the commu- nity and the object of learning, meaning some students lag behind the main body of the group and complete the objec- tives of the task much later than their peers (Figure 2a). (p. 7)

The “production” face captures the more competitive ele- ments of using m-learning as the pupils were designing and creating their own product in groups. (p. 7)

Conversely, if the subject becomes too dominant within the peer group in an effort to achieve the learning objectives (Figure 2b), then the rest of the group will suffer as the opportunity for learning (through the treasure hunts) has been removed. In the absence of constructive and inclusive leadership, the community © itself can become isolated, (p. 7)

pupils (usually the group leaders) felt overburdened and iso- lated when left with the responsibility of gathering resources for the task as denoted by the subject (S) being “distanced” from the instruments (I) and object (O). In the early stages of production, the pupils were distant from the instrument and the learning objectives (Figure 4a); (p. 8)

For other pupils who understood the task and were comfort- able with the objectives of the activity, their challenge was coping with the new technology (instruments [I]) as shown in Figure 4b. (p. 8)

the pupils became fixated with the instruments, such as the PDAs or resource creation, resulting in the subjects losing sight of the learning objec- tives (O) as shown in Figure 4c. (p. 8)

The final face, “distribution” also experienced tensions at various stages in the research. (p. 8)

In some groups, the objectives (O) were achieved at the expense of community © as collaboration and support for those pupils with heavy workloads (D) were not addressed, causing tensions within the group as discussed by the group leaders (Figure 5a). (p. 8)

The role of the teacher varied across the m-learning activ- ities ranging from a driver to a facilitator of the learning pro- cess or a participant in the problem-solving within a group. (p. 8)

this shared ownership of the learning experi- ence resulted in some pupils creating a gap in their subject knowledge (the object of the learning [O]) as shown in Figure 5b where the object became isolated from the community and division of labor. (p. 8)

Finally, when the division of labor (D) to achieve the object (O) of the m-learning task became the focus of the community ©, valuable time was wasted agreeing to roles instead of working together as a team sharing ideas to achieve the common goal (Figure 5c) of the m-learning task. (p. 8)

AT is more than a geometrical representation of faces and vertices. (p. 8)

Although AT was effective in interpreting the specific ele- ments of the m-learning experience from the pupils’ perspec- tive, it seemed to fail to simultaneously capture the complexity of the real-world experience for all partici- pants—teacher and pupils. (p. 9)

As it stands, the single AT model ousts teachers from the central position they assume when leading and facilitating the m-learning activities and removes the opportunity to describe their unique role alongside the pupils in m-learning. This outcome is in sharp contrast to the purpose of AT, which relies on social interaction and is underpinned by inclusion, flexibility, and the importance of identifying the contribution of all components and their inter-relationships (Uden, 2007). (p. 9)

As Uden and Kumaresan (2007) acknowledge, AT is a simplification of reality and multiple activity systems are at work in parallel around us. (p. 9)

It could be asserted that within AT, the “subject” can be interpreted as both the teacher and the pupil as they are participants in the activity system; however, this arrangement fails to recognize the reality of the situation where a synergy exists between both these players in the m-learning process. (p. 9)

A Three-Dimensional (3D) AT Model (p. 9)

Locating the Teacher in a Single AT Model (p. 9)

The facilitative role of the teacher in ensuring a positive learning experience for all pupils requires dynamic interac- tions between pupils and teachers. (p. 9)

This promi- nent position is not necessarily a position of authority or hierarchy. (p. 9)

By converting the current two-dimensional (2D) model to a 3D model, the teacher can be located at the center of the triangular pyramid, equidistant from all vertices but still within the activity system and avoiding a hierarchical status (see Figure 6). (p. 9)

As illustrated in the above analysis of the activity system in action, the role of the teacher becomes excluded when m-learning is viewed through the lens of the AT model, (p. 9)

The “consumption” of m-learning is key to the activity system and therefore should act as the base or foun- dation of the 3D triangular pyramid, making the subject, community, and object vertices the base of the pyramid. (p. 10)

The sides of the pyramid are therefore the remaining three faces—production, distribution, and exchange. (p. 10)

At the apex of the pyramid, the three elements, rules, instruments, and division of labor converge, symbol- izing the “pedagogy” of the activity system. (p. 10)

it highlights the centrality of the teacher in connecting the learning environment and pedagogy to create an effective m-learning experience for the pupils. (p. 10)

Within the new 3D model of AT, the higher order func- tions of “production,” “distribution,” “exchange,” and “con- sumption” are more clearly defined as playing a key role in sustaining the balance within the activity system as a whole. (p. 10)

This force from within the AT model could be referred to as adaptive framing. (p. 10)

Engestrom, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding: An activity-theoret- ical approach to developmental research. Helsinki, Finland: Orienta-Konsultit. (p. 12)