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H810 – Individual perspective (A35.1)

December 24, 2010

The last activity enabled me/us to develop our understanding of institutional response to e-learning accessibility. This time the Activity Theory framework suppose to develop our understanding of individual responses to e-learning accessibility.

I came around the activity theory in H800 as a tool for analysis, but not as a means to analyse the accessibility of an activity. Activity Theory is a framework for describing current practice and to analyse possible contradictions between the different components of the framework, to see what works or does not work well. Activity theory is a multidisciplinary theory, originally coming from psychology (Vygotsky and Leont’ev), but is now applied and extended by a number of researchers (e.g. Engestroem, 1987). It offers a framework and a set of concepts and provide both and individual and social perspective on practice. One important feature of the Activity Theory is that it includes the context in the analysis.

The original Activity Theory consisted of three components: Subject, Object and tools.

  • Subject: person undertaking the activity e.g. learner, actor, participant
  • Object: purpose or objective of the activity, motivation, idea behind
  • Tools: any physical or conceptual tool often called artefacts

However, researchers like Engestroem (1987) began to realized that the relationship between the subject (individual) and their environment needs to be also considered. Therefore Engestroem expanded the previous model by three additional components: Rules, Community and Division of labour.

  • Rules:explicit or implicit norms, conventions, social relations within a community
  • Community: group of individuals who share the same general objectives, purpose, motivation, idea
  • Division of labour: implicit or explicit organization of community, division of labour can run horizontally or vertically

The systemic model shows the different relationships within the framework. According to Engestroem there are three central mutual relationships:

  • subject and object
  • subject and community
  • community and object

Seale also identifies five key concepts within the Activity Theory which sought to shape the understanding as to how an activity system works.

  • Transformation
  • Motivation and consciousness
  • Mediation
  • History and development
  • Contradictions and conflicts

Activity theory is motivated by the need to transform and object into an outcome. ‘Participating in an activity is therefore the performing of conscious actions that have an immediate, defined goal. North (1996) argues that consciousness is located in everyday practice, not a set of discrete disembodied cognitive acts. ‘You are what you do’. Tools, rules and division of labour are mediators within the framework and have a powerful impact on the relationships. Tools mediate the relationship between subject and object, whereas rules mediate th relationship between subject and community, whilst the division of labour mediates the relationship between object and community. Thus, an individuals (subject’s) action is therefore affected by three major factors: tools used, the environment or community they belong with its rules, and the division of labour within the community. Activities are not static or rigid, they continuously change and their development might be uneven and discontinuous and they have a history which needs to be considered when they develop. Contradictions and conflicts arise through ‘a misfit within elements, between them, between different activities or between different developmental phases of a single activity’. Contradictions can cause problems, ruptures, breakdowns or clashes, but they can also be a source of development and/or transformation.

However, how does Activity theory and accessible e-learning practice come together?

Accessible e-learning practice can be equated to components of an activity system (see Figure). Seale (2006) provides an example how the framework could be applied.

  • The activity is the development of accessible e-learning material
  • The objective is to enable disabled students to access e-learning
  • Subject will be anyone who is responsible for facilitation and supporting the student’s learning experience
  • The community to which the subjects belong will include all the different stakeholders, including disabled students, lecturers, learning technologists, student support services, staff developers and senior managers.
  • The tools that subjects use to carry out this activity, will include guidelines (e.g. WCAG), standards (Section 508) and repair and evaluation tools (LIFT, A-Prompt).
  • The cultural norms, rules and regulations that govern performance of this activity might include institutional policies and strategies.
  • The stakeholder within a community may need to decide and agree on roles and responsibilities (division of labour) within the activity.

I know, I know it is a long blog post again and I will come to an end, soon 😉

Seale points out in her conclusion that ‘Activity Theory prompts us to consider the socio-cultural responses to accessibility and to explore the influence that tools have on individuals within an activity system’. We are asked to take into account the wider context, hence the community and the division of labour, and to look beyond what’s wrong with the rules and tools. It is therefore imperative to enable subjects to use tools and rules effectively, which means developing tools that are comprehensively explained and accepted, understood by the community, but also to develop rules with which community feel comfortable and can apply consistently. Subjects also need to know their roles and responsibilities within the community and what their individual contribution to achieving the objective of the activity needs to be.

From → H810

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