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H809 – Greenhow and Belbas (2007) A9.1

April 9, 2011

Yet, another interesting reading, although as more I read about the different learning theories/approaches/perspectives as more I get confused and experience difficulties to distinguish them. The differences between them are sometimes quite subtle and somehow flow into one another.

The authors Christine Greenhow and Brad Belbas focus with their research on understanding the interactions among various stakeholder groups involved in e-Learning courses. They claim that research often neglect the processes of development and design teams with respect to e-learning, but focus mainly on students’ and instructor’s interaction. However, effective online learning and teaching always involves not only students and instructors, but also learning technologist, programmer, curriculum coordinator, senior manager who all contribute to a successful (or less successful) outcome.

Greenhow and Belbas(2007) provide therefore a ‘interpretation how Activity-Oriented Design Methods (AODM) based on Activity Theory can be used to develop a more comprehensive understanding of collaborative knowledge building practices among course design teams and their students. That partly answers question 1.

  1. What functions do these “theoretical perspectives” appear to be serving here?
  2. Do you think Activity Theory is a “theory”?
  3. What do you understand to be the gap in Activity Theory that AODM is filling?
  4. Try to summarise the authors’ view of “collaborative knowledge building”.

Question 1

These theoretical perspectives are grounded in socio-cultural approaches which argue that learning derives from participation in joint activities, is inextricably tied to social practice and mediated by artifacts. They provide a holistic lens for understanding interaction, but also contradictions that might arise between the different ‘elements’ in the Activity model. The perspectives also allow close examination of course-related collaborative practices and facilitate thus a better understanding of collaborative knowledge building practices among course design teams and their students.

Question 2

Is Activity theory (AT) a theory. Well, one could assume that, because it is labelled as theory. However, most literature refer to AT as an analytic tool to investigate relationships within an activity, taking different elements (objects, subjects, tool as well as rules, community and division of labour) into consideration. Greenhow and Belbas refer to AT as a method they used to study the individual and group perspectives involved in the development and deployment of e-learning courses. They also refer to it as analytic tool that has helped to analyse macro-level processes (i.e. community, societal) and subject-oriented, micro-level perspective. It also helps  analysing breakdowns and contradictions. According to Nardi (1996) offer Activity Theory a set of perspectives on human action and a set of concepts for describing this activity.

Question 3

AODM suppose to fill the theory-praxis gap (Roth and Lee, 2007 in Greenhow and Belbas,2007), because “Activity Theory as an analytic framework does not offer ‘ready-made techniques and procedure for research’ and, as a ‘evolving framework’, provides only ‘general guidelines’ that must be operationalized and a ‘standard method’ developed for applying it.” Researchers that apply AT are often criticized that they do not apply proper methodological descriptions. Data-gathering and analysis procedure are not presented in a sequential ways, resulting in a static synthesis that obscure research results rendering them thus less credible and reliable. The reader is unable to determine whether or not the findings are credible or the methods reproducible (Anfara et al. 2002). AODM puts AT into practice reducing thereby ‘cognitive complexity’, while still providing an analytic tool for studying human activities in context (Mwanza 2002a). AODM address in particular practitioner communication evidence-based design insights.

Question 4

Greenhow and Belbas argue that the term ‘knowledge building’ is differently defined by different authors. Yet, they define ‘collaborative knowledge building as an iterative, social process of collectively advancing and elaborating knowledge objects in the form of conceptual artifacts (e.g. plans, ideas or models) or practices (e.g. research strategies), drawing thereby amongst others on the work of Engestroem (1999b) and Paavola et al. (2004).

Knowledge building is …

  • embedded in practice
  • mediated by questioning of existing practices or understanding
  • involving social interaction as intellectual resource are distributed across people and tools
  • new ideas co-evolve between people
  • transformational


Greenhow, C. & Belbas, B. (2007) ‘Using activity-oriented design methods to study collaborative knowledge-building in e-learning courses within higher education’, Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, vol. 2, pp. 363–391, available online at (accessed 31 January 2011).

Crosslinks to Activity Theory

From → H809

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