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What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a Virtual Classroom with post-secondary school students starting or already studying sociology compared to a traditional classroom?

Is there an opportunity to increase access?

They’re testing the water, so seeing what would happen.

What is the sector and setting? (e.g. school, higher education, training, informal learning)

Sociology in undergraduate introductory and undergraduate upper levels at two very different and contrasting institutions Upsala College and New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT)

Upsala was small liberal arts college that became defunct in 1995 after several years of financial problems. ‘Unfortunately as the surrounding community’s crime rate increased, the student enrollment at the college declined throughout the late 1970s and into the 1980s’.

NJIT is  technology university with 1450 living on campus, at ‘University Heights’ in Newark, New Jersey where four universities are centred.

What theories, concepts and key terms are being used?

  • The hypothesis tested was that there would be no change, or a set of possible changes.
  • The ‘theory’ is that by putting people into a new scenario there will be observations to make and conclusions to draw.
  • Though ‘Some of our major hypotheses are … ’ rather suggests they don’t know what the outcomes might be.
  • Terms used include the early use of ‘e’ as a suffix as as in ‘electure’  for ‘electronic lectures’.
  • ‘Activities’ are still described thus. Hiltz and Meinke (1989 p. 433)
  • NJIT have registered ‘Virtual Classroom’ as a Trade Mark. I find this somewhat rich. I don’t suppose it has stuck. Has it?
  • For “turn to a specific part first” Hiltz and Meinke (1989 p. 433) we may now say ‘click’.

What methods of data collection and analysis are used? (e.g. the number of participants; the type of technologies; the use of interviews, surveys, observation, etc.)

Matched but ‘non-equivalent’ sections of the same course taught in virtual classroom  and in traditional classroom. There is surely an issue not only with the ‘non-equivalence’ but the fact the the institutions are so different. What took place was in effect two SEPARATE pieces of research, one with a group of first year sociology students at a small, failing college in an area that had a growing crime problem and the second at a vibrant, massive technical college.

Pre and post course questionnaires administered to students (so not self-selecting).

Objective behavioural data (grades, SAT score, records of online activity) gathered. This kind of data would distinguish the two groups as distinct, and the research therefore as two studies.

Differing technologies were used in the institutions. All were surveyed were taken through a questionnaire. Students were asked for detailed written feedback – some from Upsala struggled with this (poor english, grammar, spelling and use of CAPS).

What did this research find out?

‘It depends’. Hiltz and Meinke (1989 p. 441) Their words not mine! It does indeed depend i.e. it is open for interpretation. Mine is that the didn’t discover anything more than could have been observed by an intelligent onlooker, indeed a journalist visiting both sites during the test would have probably given a clearer and more honest account.

  • Hiltz and Meinke (1989 p. 433) observations – no. From reading 1980s papers.
  • Face to face gravitating to 15 students.
  • Gives time to ‘less advanced students’ (also a personality trait or behavioural response).
  • Absentees
  • Read only
  • Starting to define user types more fully developed in the following decade.
  • ‘Introductory computer science students did significantly better in the Virtual Classroom than in the traditional classroom’. Hiltz and Meinke (1989 p. 436)

The study, not surprisingly, found that second year students in a technology college doing a computer sciences courses did better with the introduction of a new technology in classroom teaching that students in the first year of a sociology course in a part of town with a growing crime problem at a college where enrollment was falling and it was in financial difficulties.

What are the limitations of the methods used?

There were so many variables that the research outcomes are questionable. There needed to be a standardization across the institutions and more institutions involved. There needed to be students at a similar stage, on a similar course, using similar materials, and the same kit from a broad spectrum of institutions, rather than two at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Speculation, ‘there may be an intermediate stage … ‘ Hiltz and Meinke (1989 p. 434)

  • Regarding the questionnaire, scales need to be used with care so that there construction doesn’t have any bias built into it.
  • There can be question fatigue by those answering.

‘computers and the handicapped’ isn’t an expression we are likely to hear any more.
Resistance of faculty members (need to understand ‘diffusion of innovations and change management)

Are there any ethical issues associated with the research?

Not ethics so much as coy language that may reveal the sentiment of the author when dealing with the ‘less advanced’ and the ‘handicapped’. There is potential with new technologies to offer one audience the ‘kit’ while denying the others.

Would it be ethical to do a randomized controlled trial, for example, on use of a new technology that with the research shows that those with the new technology scored significantly higher. It might be that a student failed for lack of this kind of support. Without such a trial though all you are doing is observing practices and behaviours in different settings – what is the test? Where lies the evidence of something being worse than, or better than what went before? I feel that using acronyms such as VC and TC give a false sense that these things are established.

Revealing of human nature – but care must be taken not to identify those who have one kind of approach to the studies compared to others. Clearly people must not be identified by name. Hiltz and Meinke (1989 p. 442).

However, implicit in the research is that something may not be working at Upsala College – the researchers would have known this but have decided not to mention it at all.

What are the implications (if any) for practice, policy or further research?

Not for first year students lacking the maturity, academic or technical skills who may depend on the spoken word and guidance. Recommend for more advanced and mature students who are more self-motivated and can exploit the platform to get more from the professors and each other.

The outcome was highly dependent on the environment in which the study took place.

They got the right answer, but in only came from research undertaken at NJIT.

Upsala College in 1988 was in financial difficulties, with growing crime rates in the immediate area and falling enrolement. In hindsight this would surely invalid this part of the research. It could well be that the circumstances of the students, not that they were in their first year had an impact.

To achieve a balanced result the same year groups should have been questioning in both institutions … or, given the presence of three other universities close to NJTI these should have been engaged in the research.

Such a study needs to be undertaken with a sample that can fairly permit scaling up. In this instance in Newark, on Universities Heights where NJIT is based there are three other universities. A far broader and representative piece of research should have taken place. There was resistance from faculty staff in one or other of the institutions – if this was from Upsala (we are not told), then once again, the research outcomes were far more likely to be negative from that place. I have personally been involved in bringing new ideas to secondary schools and have found the desire to help, the motivation to make something work hugely different. Upsala may have willed the test to fail but we are not given adequate insight into what was really going on. In fact, the research, following a set pattern of methods and a questionnaire may fail to pick up what a local journalist could have told you.

What is the appropriate way to research the introduction of an innovation such as this?

There will be a best practice model – this is not it.

REFERENCE

Hiltz, S, & Meinke, R 1989, ‘Teaching Sociology in a Virtual Classroom’, Teaching Sociology, 4, p. 431, JSTOR Arts & Sciences IV, EBSCOhost, viewed 5 February 2013.

Offered here so that amongst us we can come to a conclusion. This would be better expressed in a wiki. It would then be straightforward to combine the findings of others, not only from my student group, but from all the students in this cohort and even through a quick search from the efforts of students in the last few years.

I am always amazed how a group of people can look at a reading and see quite different things. This has to do with context, our personal even unconscious biases and interests, even our cognitive skills. I have to do several sweeps before something comes into focus.

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How do you use an Activity System to improve accessibility to e-learning by students with disabilities?

Fig.1. A knight and two bishops from the iconic Lewis Chess Set role playing to represent ‘Community’ in an Activity System. After (Engeström, 2008) 

Visualizing actions between people, concepts and things requires more than words – models and metaphors are needed to create meaning. I will visualize connections on sheets of backing paper or a white board, or get out a box of Lego. Here I used Lewis chess pieces (resin replicas naturally) on a model of Engeström’s Activity System that I draw out on a piece of laminated board the size of a door (Engeström, 2008)  in order to get a sense of people working in collaborative teams to a common goal and to understand that an Activity System doesn’t represent an entity so much as a framework or scaffold that is held together by the energy of action.

Why use any model?

A model should be a well-founded visual simplification of an aspect of a complex reality that communicates its concept clearly, is based on thorough research, and is easily shared for feedback and review. Users should find that a model, like an experiment, is repeatable so that in time a body of work including case studies and a critique of the model builds credibility. A conceptual model such as an Activity System is ‘particularly useful when one wants to make sense of systemic factors behind seemingly individual and accidental disturbances, deviations, and innovations occurring in the daily practices of workplaces’. Engeström (2008:27)

Conole and Oliver (2011) mention four levels of description:

1. Flat vocabulary
2. More complex vocabulary
3. Classification schemas or models
4. Metaphors

The use of vocabulary is inevitable, though talking this through to an audience would be my preferred approach, so that with engagement response is invited. The models used here, from Vygotsky (1978) and Leon’tev (1978) to Engeström (2008) may appear familiar and set – they are not. There is a group that likes to see everything ‘triangulated’ – diamonds and stars, though evident in the literature on education – maybe akin to complex rather than plain language. From models we move to various metaphors – and you are certain to have your own. While Engeström (2008:19) himself moves on to ideas of how a fungi grows, to ‘knotworking’ and fluid, organic representations.

Fig.2. Scrutiny of Activity Systems. Based on Engeström (2008) 

Do we use models so that we spend more time thinking through the problems related to efforts to achieve what we desire? Or is the model a product of this effort? There’s a point in the social sciences where a model may lose more readers than it converts – the perseverance is worth it.

Why use an Activity System?

Activity Systems derived from a century of analysis of the way people construct meaning (Vygotsky, 1978.  Leon’tev, 1978) that later researchers applied not simply to how people think, but how groups of people act in collaborative ways  (Engeström, 1987).

Fig. 3.   Vygotsky’s model of mediated act

There are two parts to an Activity System – upper and lower. The upper part is the triangle drawn to represent the interaction of Subject, Tools and Object. Engeström (1987) took a current model – that of Vygotsky (1978) and made it his own and has since offered a metaphor to explain it further.

Fig. 4.   Vygotsky’s model of mediated act and (B) is common reformation. Cole and Engeström  (1993)


Fig.5. The structure of a human activity system. Engeström  (1987:78)

Historically this is where Vygotsky began in Moscow in the late 1920s (Fig.3) Engeström and others turned the experssion of Vygotsky’s model the other way up. This split of upper and lower serves another purpose – Yrjö Engeström likens this expression of an activity system to an iceberg where the top triangle – Subject – Tools – Object is what we see, while the other actions, that give the system context – he added when developing Vygostky’s (1978) original model, are beneath the surface. Engeström. (2008:89). (Fig.4) It’s worth remembering that Vygotsky was working on how people create meaning, while later thinkers have adapted this to help scrutinise how communities or groups of people, tools and sets of guidelines create (as Engeström puts it above, ‘sense meaning’ Engeström 1987).

Here the author Jane Seale (2006) takes an Activity System and applies it, as a management consultant might, to a humdinger of a problem. What this reveals is the interdependence of many factors, groups, tools, artifacts and interests on a desired objective.

Fig.6. Application of Engeström’s (1987) systemic model of activity to the accessible e-learning practice of a higher education practitioner. Featured in Seale (2006)

When is the construction of an Activity System useful?

Engeström (2008:27) suggests that it is particularly useful ‘when one wants to make sense of systemic factors behind seemingly individual and accidental disturbances, deviations, and innovations occurring in daily practices of workplaces’. Someone needs to think it is necessary to study the status quo – perhaps because there is an awareness that something, somewhere is going wrong, or that there has been an actual downturn in business or collapse in profitability, or a desire simply to look at things in a different way to understand where improvements can be made, a change in policy and law, or a reinvented or renewed.

Fig. 7. Engeström.Y (2008) From Teams to Knots: Activity-theoretical studies of Collaboration and Learning at Work.

Engeström (2008:207) suggests that there are five principles in relation to theories of activity systems.

  1. Object Orientation
  2. Mediation by tools and signs
  3. Mutual constitution of actions and activity
  4. Contradictions and deviations as source of change
  5. Historicity

Fig.8. Scrutiny of Activity Systems . Object. Based on Engeström (2008) 

1) Object Orientation

The Object is a problem, the purpose, the motivation and opportunity – the modus operandi behind the activity. ‘Object orientation’ (Engeström 2008:222) is a crucial prerequisite of working with an activity system. In the context of accessible e-learning Seale (2006:165) creates an Activity System in which the object(ive) is ‘to make e-learning accessible for disabled students’. As an exercise considering its widest application this object definition suffers because the object is so broad it embraces a myriad of issues and circumstances, each word is open to interpretation – what, for example, is meant by ‘e-learning’, what is meant by ‘accessible’ by ‘disabled’ and by ‘student’. Rather than an object as an opportunity or goal as Seale uses, a fix, the desired outcome, is more likely to be found where, at least in the first instance, we identify a particular context and a tightly defined problem.

Not only that, but to contain the likelihood of ‘ruptures’ across the activity system clarity and agreement is required on the problem that needs to be fixed. In relation to accessibility to e-learning for students with disabilities there are multiple problems, many unique to a student with a particular disability or, where feasible and appropriate, a group that can be identified by the nature of their disability, for example, deaf students who are seen as, and many want to see themselves as a ‘minority language’ group. What is more, a disabled student may have several impairments and the degree to which these are a barrier to e-learning is fluid, perhaps ameliorating with treatment, or getting worse, transmogrifying, or simply being intermittent. As these are known issues that would cause problems or clashes within the activity system and prevent its working it seems futile to build an activity system on this basis – knowing that it will fail.

A problem well stated is a problem half-solved’. (Charles Kettering)

This may be an aphorism, but it rings true. Problem scoping is necessary but where a problem remains elusive, or is ‘messy’ rather than ‘tame’ (Rittel and Webber’s 1973, Ackoff 1979, Ritchey 2011) a variety of creative problem solving techniques (VanGundy, 1988. Griggs, 1985). Knowing what the problem is enables innovation – identifying the problem and devising a fix, and in communications, where, for example, advertisers prepare a creative brief that begins by clearly identifying the problem.

‘Object orientation’ and in this context, problem definition and refinement, is the first in five principles set out by Engeström (2008:207) for using activity systems. The drive, purpose and motivation for all the actions between the six identified nodes depends on the object ‘that which is acted upon’. A key component of activity theory is the transformation of this object into an outcome i.e. to solve the problem. If solving a problem is the goal, and recognition of a successful enterprise undertaken, then all the more reason to get the definition of the object correct – the process can be repeated for different problems, at different scales and over time. Without absolute clarity over the object you may find that different people in the system have differing interpretations of what it is. Kuutti (1996) found that having more than one object under scrutiny was a reason for an activity system to fail.  An answer where there are two distinct problems may be to treat them as such and attach them to separate activity systems. Whilst for the sake of scrutiny it is necessary to isolate an activity system, they do of course interact – indeed it is by looking at how two activity systems interact that you may reveal how problems are solved or innovations produced. However, if the object is wrong, or ill-defined or ambiguous then the motives may be out of kilter and it would therefore be necessary to transform all of the components of the activity system, especially and including those at the bottom half of the ‘iceberg’. Engeström (2008:87)

Fig.9. Scrutiny of Activity Systems . Tools. Based on Engeström (2008) 

2) Mediation by Tools and Signs

Tools might be evaluation and repair tools and assistive technologies, software or legislation, guidelines or staff development. Tools are a mediating factor between the Subject (student, lecturer, facilitator of the desire outcome) and the Object – the purpose of all this activity.

Tools play a significant role in the history of tackling accessibility issues, to undue, out do or transform resources or interpret platforms in a way that communicates their meaning offering some if not all the affordances of the tools as designed for students, who, having gained a place to study a degree  in Higher Education might be thought of as some the most able’, not simply the ‘able’.Tools in this role at the apex of the Activity System and can include guidelines and legislation where they are an applied ‘tool’ rather than a rule or standard. ‘ A functioning tool for the analysis of teams and organisations’. Engeström  (2008:229) Of course the category includes evaluation and repair tools, assistive technologies and software and equipment. Tools ‘mediate’ between the Subject – the facilitator of change through activity and the outcome of the activities – the Object. ‘To build a website that complies to level AAA’ may be achievable whilst ‘to make e-learning accessible for disabled students’ Seale (2006:) sounds like wishful thinking, rather ‘to build an e-learning module that when scrutinised by a representative range of people with dyslexia’ receives a grading of ‘satisfactory’ or above’. This would suggest the involvement therefore of dyslexic students in the testing of a navigation interface for the virtual learning environment as an ‘action’ between subject and object.

There is a particular congregation of ‘contradictions’ stemming from the relationship between Tools and both Subject and Object:

  1. The array of design and evaluation software applications (Seale, 2006)
  2. The mastery of external devices and tools of labour activity (Nardi, 1996)
  3. No rules of practice for use of that tool (Isscroft and Scanlan, 2002 )
  4. Tools that are overly prescriptive (Phipps et al, 2005)
  5. How do you choose from amongst such a plethora of tools?
  6. The context in which tools are introduced (Seale, 2006:160)

The use of tools, the choice of kit and even supporting software beyond the virtual learning environment, should be the student’s decision. “Learners can be active makers and shapers of their own learning. They should be supported in using technologies of their own choice where appropriate”.(JISC, 2009, p.51)

3) Mutual constitution of actions and activity

This is what activity looks like in a group – evidence of several thousand recorded actions within a group of students (as subject), including the group tutor, and course chair; the Open University Virtual Learning Environment, computer, device, software and network link some of the tools; the rules set by the context of postgraduate e-learning with this institution, the community all those who can be reached online the division of labour the roles we all take as students, mentors, teachers and tutors, technical help desk, subject matter expert, novice or guru – the subject specific learning outcomes for each block, for each assignment or the goal of completing the module with a pass or distinction.

Fig.10. The consequences of an activity system – loads of action. Here a tutor group over a period of 27 weeks. ‘Activity’ is represented by messages in a tutor forum. H810 is an Open University postgraduate course in Education. Technology-enhanced learning: practices and debates

The links between each component – object, tool, subject and so on – should equate to a burst of electricity or perhaps a chemical induced response between a synapse and a neuron – Engeström (2008) goes as far as to liken an activity system to a type of fungi – mycorrhizae like formation  Engeström (1997).

Fig.11. Mycorrhizae – one way Engeström sees an Activity System

An Activity System should be seen not as a concept of a static entity, but rather a living and growing thing. The actions, the double-arrows between each concept, are what gives an activity system structure  – it’s the management  of the disturbances, contradictions and conflicts along these lines of action that disturb effective flow where the role of an activity system comes in – identify then fix these and you move towards achieving the object orientation or outcome. Knorr-Cetina (2003) talks of ‘flow architecture’ and if neither of these concepts ring true for you in relation to activity systems then Zerubavel (1997) talks of ‘a mindscape’ while Cussins (1992) talks of ‘cogntive trails’. There is a caveat when using a metaphor – we tend to look for similarities, rather than see the differences and a choice of metaphor will itself skew our thinking. Morgan (1986/1997).

4) Contradictions and deviations as source of change

I would have opted for Subject as the third issue, but reading Engeström made me think again. Subject, Tools, Object reduces the Activity System to the far simpler upturned triangle Vygotsky devised to explain how people create meaning (Vygotsky, 1978:86)  without further thought to the deeper and wider issues once learning is put in context, that Engeström (1987, 2008, 2011) added by broadening this way of showing how ‘meaning is created’ in the workplace by adding Rules, Community and Division of Labour.

Rather than picking one more of these concepts at the expense of leaving the others out I think that the ‘Actions’ the double arrows that indicate something happening between the elements is of interest. I believe this would be the fourth of Engeström’s five principles – Contradictions and deviations as source of change. This after all is, literally, where all the ‘action’ takes place, what Seale (2006:164) describes as ‘problems, ruptures, breakdowns or clashes’.  (I need to go back and to understand what is meant by Engeström’s third principle – ‘Mutual constitution of actions and activity’) I think this is the principle that the Activity System has to be seen as a complete, self-contained entity, that any break or failure or misunderstanding in the system would call it to fail so you’d be better of starting again from scratch until the scale or context works. Engeström uses the metaphor of a very particular kind of lichen (‘mycorrhizae’, Engeström, 2008:229) to describe Activity Systems – he doesn’t suggest however that you attempt to work with this kind of complexity, rather it is a reminder that an activity system is fluid and changing and depends on activity taking places between the defined nodes.

5) Historicity

Fig. 12. A discontinuous series of Activity Systems … like Toblerone at Christmas.

‘Historicity’ – Engeström’s experssion (2008) is a term referring to ‘the historical actuality of persons and events’,(Wikipedia, 2012) suggests the need to see an Activity System as a snapshot, a sequence and a discontinuous one at that. So take the familiar equilateral triangle of the Activity System model and run a line of them. Seale (2006) suggests there is value to be found by doing some ‘archaelogy’ – I think ‘historical research’ would be an adequate way to think of it, for what this may reveal about how these ‘rupture, conflicts’ Seale (ibid) or ‘contradictions’ and ‘deviations’ as a source or change’ Engeström (2008:223) along the lines of activity. Seale (2006) talks of how an activity system ‘incesstanly reconstructs itself. Engeström (1994) talks of an ideal-typical sequence of epistemic actions in an expansive cycle. To Vygosky (1978), learning is a continual movement from the current intellectual level to a higher level which more closely approximates the learner’s potential. This movement occurs in the so-called “zone of proximal development” as a result of social interaction

Subject

Fig.13. Scrutiny of Activity Systems . Subject. Based on Engeström (2008) 

By definition here the ‘non-disabled’, particularly in the cognitive sense though sometimes with athletic promise too. Ironically whilst ‘non-disabled’ is not a favoured term it does at least relate to a homogenous group, while ‘disabled’ does not given the range, scale and potentially shifting nature of impairments to learning from hearing, to visual, cognitive and mobility.

Subject to be of most importance – this is the person, actor or lecturer, indeed a student – anyone who is responsible for facilitating and supporting the student’s learning experience. This may be a practitioner who works with a Higher Education Learning Technologist or the digital media access group if there is such a thing. Engeström (2008:222).

Any of the team members may be a novice, which may be a positive or negative influence for the actions in the system. A novice is inexpert, on the other hand they are free from the habits that may be causing problems and creating barriers. Because of the way a novice learns they are more inclined to innovate as they are not bound or even aware to rules, guidelines and beliefs that may hold them back.

Rules

Fig.14. Scrutiny of Activity Systems . Rules. Based on Engeström (2008) 

These can be formal, informal or technical rules. They are institutional and departmental policies and strategies. These are rules of practice, and legislation, as well as strategies and research. They are explicit and implicit norms. These are conventions and social relations. These in the context of accessible e-learning are the various guidelines related to web usability and legislation related to accessibility and equality. Universal Design and User Centred Design are rules too. Rules mediate between the subject and the community. The actions, the ‘doing in order to transform something’ or ‘doing with a purpose’ are the activities that link Rules with Subject, Rules with Object and Rules with Community.

Community

Fig.15. Scrutiny of Activity Systems . Community. Based on Engeström (2008) 

These are ‘people who share the same objective’ – their being in this activity system is dependent on their wishing to engage with the object, the opportunity, to strive to achieve the stated outcome. Any ruptures are therefore not a consequence of having the wrong person in this community – this grouping, this loose gathering of like-minded people, is what Engeström has come to describe as a knot and the actions these people take as ‘knotworking’ Engeström (2008:194) – latent, informal, sometimes impromptu gatherings of people who assemble to address a problem or to take an opportunity – what Rheingold (2002) describes as ‘smart mobs’.

Fig.16. Scrutiny of Activity Systems . Division of Labor. Based on Engeström (2008) 

Division of Labor

This concept, or node as an ethereal entity is ‘how people are organized to realise the object’. Not one to represent by a chess piece and one may think that this ought to be the link that joins people together … this is where working with a model as the beat of a heart, not the heart itself, requires acceptance of the way a model is designed to work. Division of labor This is planning and funding, designing and developing, implementing and evaluating, using, specialists vs. the mainstream).

Fig.17. A Wordle using the text from this blog.

Conclusion

Fig. 18. The Water Cycle – imagine this reversionsed to represent a digital ocean and content in the ‘cloud’.

Digitization of assets is akin to the creation of an ocean in which the binary code are the molecules of water – apt then with the shift from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 and our adopting the use of ‘the Cloud’ and ‘Cloud Computing’ to take this metaphor into a more dynamic form and think of it as a water-cycle. This system is shifting continually horizontally with currents and tides, but also vertically – the exponential growth in computing speeds and memory capacities the energy that drives the system. This global system hasn’t taken adequate account of people with disabilities – as in the real world there are barriers to access caused by visual, hearing, mobility and cognitive impairments – just as these have been addressed in a piecemeal way through legislation, funding, programmes and promotions, by disability groups or holistically, so too with adaptations or changes to the digital world – there is no panacea that will remove all barriers for all people with any disability, of any kind, type or stage of deterioration or amelioration.  Stretching the metaphor further I wonder if at times this digital water-cycle, again like the real one, is polluted, that translucence as well as flotsam and jetsam in this ocean are the barriers – on the one hand the pollutants have to be removed – the barriers taken down – but at the same time, cleaner purer water, in the form a universal design that is simpler and usable would gradually cleanse some of system. Once again, a mirror to the real world responses, specialist schools and associations, say for those with dyslexia are blind or deaf, become an oasis or island in this digital system.

‘Those not engaging with technologies or without access are getting left further and further behind. We need to be mindful that the egalitarian, liberal view of new technologies is a myth; power and dynamics remain, niches develop and evolve. Applications of metaphorical notions of ecology, culture and politics can help us better understand and deal with these complexities’. (Conole. 2011:410)

FURTHER  READING

Cecez-Kecmanovic, Dubravka, and Webb.C (2000) “Towards a communicative model of collaborative web-mediated learning.”Australian Journal of Educational Technology 16. 73-85. Towards a communicative model of collaborative web-mediated learning  (last accessed 20 Dec 2012) http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet16/cecez-kecmanovic.html

Hardman, J (2008) Researching pedagogy: an acitivty system approach Journal of Education, No. 45, 2008. PP65-95 (last accessed 20 Dec)  2012 http://joe.ukzn.ac.za/Libraries/No_45_Dec_2008/Researching_pedagogy_an_Activity_Theory_approach.sflb.ashx)

Engeström’s (1999) outline of three generations of activity theory (last accessed 20 Dec 2012) http://www.bath.ac.uk/research/liw/resources/Models%20and%20principles%20of%20Activity%20Theory.pdf

Engeström.Y (2008) From Teams to Knots: Activity-theoretical studies of Collaboration and Learning at Work. Learning in doing: Social, Cognitive & Computational Perspectives. Cambridge University Press. Series Editor Emeritus. John Seely Brown.

Engeström.Y (2011) Learning by expanding: ten years after (last accessed 19 Dec 20-12) http://lchc.ucsd.edu/mca/Paper/Engestrom/expanding/intro.htm

REFERENCE

Ackoff, R.L. (1979) The Art of Problem-Solving, New York: Wiley

Cole, M. and Engeström, Y. (1993) A cultural-historical approach to distributed cognition, in: G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations (New York, Cambridge University Press), 1-46.

Conole, G (2011) Designing for learning in a digital world. Last accessed 18 Dec 2012 http://www.slideshare.net/grainne/conole-keynote-icdesept28

Conole, G. and Oliver, M. (eds) 2007 Contemporary Perspectives on E-learning Research, Themes, Tensions and Impacts on Research. London, RoutledgeFalmer.

Cussins, A. (1992). Content, embodiment and objectivity: The theory of cognitive trails. Mind, 101, 651–688.

Engestrom (2008-04-30). From Teams to Knots (Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives) (p. 238). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

Engeström, Y. (1987) Learning by Expanding: An Activity-theoretical Approach to Developmental Research. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit.

Engeström, Y. (1994). The working health center project: Materializing zones of proximal
development in a network of organizational learning. In T. Kauppinen & M. Lahtonen (Eds.) Action research in Finland. Helsinki: Ministry of Labour.

Engeström.Y (1999) Learning by expanding. Ten Years After. http://lchc.ucsd.edu/mca/Paper/Engestrom/expanding/intro.htm

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A blend of learning, online or off, that wraps around a sequence of core activities.

20120919-145405.jpg

From ‘Preparing for blended e-learning’ (2007) Pegler and Littlejohn.

It strikes me that if you were to lay one of these over the other you get the exact model of the Open University’s Masters in Open and Distance Education – which is entirely online, howber their are synchronous and asynchronous forims, as well as face-to-face online.

Activities, activities, activities

I came from an industry in 2000/2001 that put bells and whistles on websitess and clients lined up to spend money on a future no one could predict but were desperate to ‘be there.’

How sober, academic institutions can throw money at some platforms like Second Life I can’t fathom, to try these things yes, but not at the expense of other tools.

Better to be the ‘late adopter’ in this case, to pick up tools once others have shown they work. What’s the inordinate hurry? The technology can only develop in one direction. It isn’t going away.

Students, indeed any of us, will drop technology that doesn’t work or meet expectations.

It has to be easy, obvious, accessible, cheap (ideally free), for whichever platform you wish to use it on: desktop, laptop … even tablet and smart-phone.

I’m also reminded what I hear all about me …. ‘acitivities, activities, activities.’

This does not need hi-tech (though it can). As I noticed in the General Forum someone is asking if text is more interactive than video.

For web 2.0 e-learning the mantra should be ‘play, play, play’ – to adapt the Movie making adage ‘the script, the script, the script’.

Richardson (2005), ‘Students’ approaches to learning and teachers’ approaches to teaching in higher education’.

This short, clear, bulleted article is the most straightforward and possibly most valuable text I’ve come across in the 14 months of the Masters in Open and Distance Education that I have thus far done.

No doubt its clarity is in part a product of my improved understanding and more extensive experience gained during this period; it slots into place.

Learning a foreign language (French) I described fluency being akin to a fog lifting; it became clearer and intuitive. I wonder if I am approaching that point with online learning? Not that certainty is possible,

I’ll return to Richardson often.

The assignment at the end of May draws on learning methods (theory) based on learning practice in Block 2. This is a valuable opportunity to return to theories on learning activities (Engestrom) which I interpreted as a complex game of chess, setting it up with Lewis Chess pieces on a large piece of MDF. It’ll also mark a return to ideas of metaphor in learning (Sfard).

Within the Masters in Open and Distance Education there are tailored loops and returns to core content; just as well, otherwise I’d sign up to revisit modules I’ve enjoyed so much and from which I want to get so much more. 14 months on I am not the postgraduate of February 2010 whose learning methods were 1970s/1980s A’level and undergraduate surface learning rather than deep learning.

Passionate about the 2011 publication ‘A new culture of learning’ from John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas so much so that I’m exploring new ways to engage with content in an e-reader. Clicking through the pages in reverse (as I read the Sunday papers) is one. By selecting a larger font the information is presented in bite-size chunks, almost like a set or cards. The other trick is to take a key word and step through each time this is covered – play, a key part of the thesis, occurs over 160 times. For e-learning design the mantra is ‘activities, activities, activities’, for web2 2.0 it ought to read ‘play, play, play’.


Patterns, designs and activities: unifying descriptions of learning structures

McAndrew, Goodyear, Dalziel

  • Learning patterns
  • Learning design
  • Learning activities

‘The use of online and electronic systems to support learning – e-learning – is emerging as a field with new opportunities and problems.’

In advertising, marketing and corporate communications, the standard ‘Creative Brief’ used to inform and direct the creative team poses two initial questions, the answers to which focus the creative effort:

What is the problem?

What is the opportunity?

It is therefore refreshing and reassuring to find the same terms being used in relaton to the ’emerging field’ of e-learning. i.e. it is a tool, a way of doing things that may be used to address a clearly defined problem … and in addressing this issues opportunities are created. The first enables the second, the second motivates ambition beyond the original problem.

Patterns, designs and activities are transferable, and therefore reproducible as digital objects (learning objects, etc:)

  • Personalisation
  • Large scale digital repositories
  • Flexible reuse
  • Knowledge economy

Learning Object ‘any entity, digital or non-digital, that can be sed, re-used, or referenced during technology-supported learning.’

  • learning
  • or
  • training

(Unsure how to differentate the two. Learning at a uni, training at a poly? Learning in school , FE, HE & Uni … training at work?)

‘In pratice, works in implementing Learning Objects in education (as distinct from training) tends to specialise the definition to refer to items that have education meaning, for example units that can result in a few hours of student activity.’

i.e. Learning objects …

‘Any digital or non-digital, with education meaning, that an be used, re-used, or referened during technology-supported learning.’

Patterns

The concept of patterns applied to learning seeks to identify what can be provided as useful background, guidance and illustration in describing a set of inter-related desriptions for ways to assist learning online. Patterns are not viewed as something that can be reused diretly but rather as something that can provide the informed teacher with ‘rules of thumb’ as they build up their range of tasks, tools, or materials that draw on a collected body of experience.

IMS Learning Design

a formal language?

Learning Activity Management System (LAMS) – a software system that encourages the design of sequences of collaborative activites that use individual activity tools configured using a visual ‘drag and drop’ interface.

Learning Patterns

Ref Christopher Alexander on architecture and town-planning – to democratise architecture and town-planning by offering a set of coneptual resources that ordinary people could use in shaping or reshaping their environment.

REFERENCE

Alexander, C. (1979). The Timeless Way of Building. New York. OUP.

‘His work provides a principled, structured but flexible resource for vernacular design that balances rigour and prescriptiveness by offering useful design guidance without constraining creativity.’

CF Long Compton Plan 1999 // Lewes Town Plan 2011

www2.tisip.no/E-LEN/

Fundamental Principles

  • picture
  • context
  • headline
  • body
  • solution
  • diagrammatic representation
  • linking paragraph

‘A pattern is a solution to a recurrent problem in a context.’

From Town Planning

A pattern ‘describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice.’

N.B. CONTEXT

  • to help constraint and communicate the nature of both problem and solution.
  • to help the reader understand enough about a problem and solution that they can adapt the problem description and solution to meet their own needs.
  • its name crystallising a valued element of the design experience.

‘The use of patterns, can be seen as a way of bridging between theory, empirical evidence and experience (on the one hand) and the practical problem of design.’

(When I start writing out the entire report I know it’s of value!)

‘In communities that have adopted the pattern approach, design patterns are usually drafted, shared, critiqued and refined through an extended process of collaboration.’

‘Educational design needs to be seen as a process in which a designer makes a number of more or less tentative design commitments, reflecting on the emerging design/artefact and retracting, weakening or strengthening commitment from time to time.’

‘Understanding the dynamic interplay between patterns in the mind and patterns in the world is key to seeing how and why design patterns work as aid to design. It is their ‘fit’ with the mind and the world that gives them power.’

‘The focus for our work is in task design, as this has the strongest analogy with the built environment where patterns are used to build concrete objects that activity then flows around in a way that cannot be entirely predicted.’

IMS Learning Design Specification

Educational Modelling Language (EML)

  • to enable flexible representation of the elements within online courses.
  • materials and the order in which activities takes place.
  • the roles that people undertake
  • services needed for presentation to learners.

‘How to package up the overall information into a structure that is modelled on a play, with acts, roles (actors) and resources.’

Of particular interest to someone who has written three screenplays, sold none, though had two short films produced … with one sold to Channel 4! Someone who is also a graduate of EAVE, taking a cross-platform interactive TV drama through the script development process. But of greater relevance a producer of some 135 training and information films, many drama reconstructions using professional actors, directors and writers.

Content Packaging

– digital objects are gathered together with a manifest describing their location, but enhances the approach to give an ordered presentation of the different entities within the unit of learning.

Simple Sequencing

Level A: roles, acts and the environment
Level B: adds properties and conditions
Level C: adds notification and messaging

http://www.unfold-project.net/ (UNFOLD PROJECT)

ref: Learning Activity Management System (LAMS)

e.g. ‘What is greatness?’

A’ Level history project.

http://www.valkenburggroup.org

N.B. One of the striking features of LAMS is the speed which new sequences can be created from an initial structure.

N.B. ‘Changes to the sequence structure are achieved via a simple drag and drop interface in which existing activities can be dragged into new locations, and new activities dragged into the sequence at an appropriate point.’

LAMS offers a complete system in three parts where first a design is produced in the author environment, using a visual sequence editor, then designs are instantiated with a particular class group (and subsequently tracked) through the monitor environment, and then designs are accessed by students from the learner environment. The modularity of the system allows each environment to be considered in its own right (not just as a unified whole), and particular focus has been placed on the author environment as a way to engage teachers in designing activities for their courses.’

TOWARDS …

An overall pattern language for learning.

CONCLUSION

‘In the ideal of patterns, flexibility and advice is valued over complete description and instantly usable output.’

REFERENCE

McAndrew, P., Goodyear, P. and Dalziel, J. (2006) ‘Patterns, designs and activities: unifying descriptions of learning structures’, International Journal of Learning Technology, vol.2, no.2/3, pp.216-242; also available online at http://www.inderscience.com/search/index.php?action=record&rec_id=10632&prevQuery=&ps=10&m=or (Accessed 17 June 2010).

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