Activity Theory, ANT, or Distributed Cognition

Activity Theory, Actor Network Theory, and Distributed Cognition have all been used to describe technology and learning, generally in isolation of one another even though they appear to be theoretical cousins.  Acting with Technology by Kaptelinin and Nardi does a really nice job of explaining their nuances and differences, and if you read one chapter from this book make it Chapter 9, where a response to the question “What is the difference between these theories?” is wrapped up in a nice tidy bow.

Of note in this chapter is the topic of technology resistance, something we identified in our data in the second phase of our digital learners research (a short version of the paper can be accessed here).  Kaptelinin and Nardi note that often in our enthusiasm for technology we neglect to explain and theorize resistance, even though this is an important aspect of understanding how people act with technology (p.232).  In other words, it’s an essential part of understanding the whole story, and importantly:

…we have a responsibility to assess the impact of new technologies and to voice concerns when that is appropriate. We have a responsibility  to craft theories that allow for activities of resistance, placing them within the scope of the human relationship to technology (p.232).


Looking backward to look forward

I hadn’t really intended on a post that summarized the past 365 days or made predictions for the future, since others have done it so well already.  These posts have caused me to nonetheless reflect a bit on my own ed-tech moments of 2009  and the inevitable ups and downs that come with the field.

In 2009 I felt like I became a bit of a student of Distance Education and Ed-tech history, since many of the current conversations seemed to me to be echoes of the past. These are few that stood out for me.

Open Educational Resources–ideology, movement, or simple sharing?

As excited as I am about everything related to Open Educational Resources, and how much I’d like to see my own institution think about them strategically, I was disappointed by how much of the OER conversation (in North America, at least) seemed to forget that Open Universities from their inception had a goal of increasing access to education to disadvantaged groups, a radical (dare I say edupunk) idea at the time, and shared many of the ideological concerns of current OER proponents. OpenLearn is a logical extension of this vision, facilitated by the distribution and sharing opportunities of the internet.  Yet the jazzy tools and technologies that enable OER content sharing to those that have access to the internet seemed to me to dominate the discussions that I heard at the Open Education conference in Vancouver, and in the blogosphere in general.  And while I’m convinced of the value of WordPress, RSS, Twitter, and social networking and their value to the OER movement and a particular interpretation of “openness”, apart from some interesting presentations at the ICDE 2009 conference in Maastricht (notably the COL’s Asha Kanwar COL talking about the VUSCC)  and some journal articles, I would have liked to have learned more about broader contexts of OER use and interpretation, linguistic challenges and developments, OER sharing practices (Siyavula), and cost-benefits.

Yet, I’m increasingly aware that I have a responsibility to step outside of the ed-tech echo chamber that I participate  in, and spend more time looking for a different type of conversation.  This requires looking backward and beyond. By looking backward, I continue to find relevance in some of Mackey’s geolinguistic observations of the 80s and 90s; commonalities between the self-directed learning movements of the 70s and later and the desire for substantial change in teaching and learning in higher education. By looking beyond, I intend to read beyond my English language comfort zone and read more in French and Spanish. I also intend to explore other echo chambers in the twittersphere and blogosphere–this includes an interesting group of ed-tech enthusiasts in Quebec (Mario Asselin, Patrick Giroux)–and many more yet to be discovered.

Connectivism or Activity Theory?

This year I continued to be bewildered by the contribution of Connectivism to understanding learning in a networked environment.  I haven’t adequately articulated this anywhere on this blog, but I can’t get past looking for differences between Connectivism and Engestrom’s notion of “knotworking” in third-generation activity theory.  I’ve made this point in the past (posted on George’s blog back in 2006 under ‘tanbob’) but as noted by Bill Kerr’s critique back in ’07the point was never really addressed. I’m obviously not alone here but clearly have some homework to do in fairly and adequately discussing my view of the intersections of these two prominent ideas. The Networked Learning Conference, featuring not only Engestrom and Siemens, but Wenger as well, would have been a nice opportunity to gain some clarity, since current discussions of activity theory (in 2 recent books, one of them nicely reviewed here by Spinuzzi), in particular Engestrom’s notion of a ‘runaway object’ seem to bring connectivism and activity theory even closer.

21st Century Skills–a (sort-of) flashback to multiliteracies?

Another topic that I have yet to adequately articulate here, but I found myself going back to the work of the New London Group and looking for reasons why 21st Century skills felt like a more diluted version of Multiliteracies. How did we go from a broad, socioculturally-driven notion of literacies (framed in 1996, no less), to a more limited behavior-cognitive focussed notion of skills? I worry that 21st century skills will the be the buzzword of 2010 that will take us down the wrong path.

Digital Natives-an ed tech myth that will hopefully become history

On the topic of buzzwords Net Gen Skeptic has done a good job of demonstrating how an ed tech buzzword can become accepted and subsequently adopted as a rationale for systemic change without a whole lot of critical thought or demand for evidence. Being involved in a Skeptic project has made me aware of my own role in supporting myths-in-the-making, eg. what am I retweeting and why; who am I reading and who am I not reading. I suspect that myths find their legs in echo chambers, and I resolve to step outside of the spheres of my discipline and into those that are relevant but not totally familiar.