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Steven Robert Harris - Doctoral Thesis

Supporting Learning-in-Use: Some Applications of Activity Theory to the Analysis and Design of ICT-Enabled Collaborative Work and Learning
Accepted June 2007.

Download: full text of thesis (PDF, 5.62MB) | appendices & supplements (PDF, 0.6MB) | thesis cover

This thesis discusses some applications of activity theory to the analysis and design of collaborative work and learning processes either partially or wholly enabled by the use of information and communication technology (ICT). Activity theory (AT) is a monistic, materialistic psychological meta-theory comprising several distinct strands of historical and theoretical development. Founded in the former USSR in the early 1930s, it became a fundamental approach in Soviet psychology. In the West, AT was first adopted as a conceptual framework for human-computer interaction (HCI) and information systems design (ISD) in the late 1980s by researchers associated with the Participatory Design (PD) and Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) movements. Mainly drawing on Scandinavian interpretations of AT, this work established a distinctive, predominantly cultural-historical approach to context-aware information technology design now known as ATIT. ATIT is widely recognised as having made significant contributions to the theory and vocabulary of HCI and ISD; the principal aim of this thesis is to further develop its usefulness for ICT design. The research discussed explored the theory, history and development of ATIT while also applying and evaluating various established and new practical ATIT methods. These included the breakdown and focus-shifts analysis approach developed by Bødker and her associates and some novel techniques based on systemic-structural activity theory (SSAT), a modern, explicitly design-oriented synthesis of the cultural-historical and systems-cybernetic strands within Soviet activity theory.
The empirical investigation involved participatory action research into the uses of ICT at an adult basic education (ABE) Open Learning Centre in south Wales, UK. A longitudinal study of an intensive ICT-enabled ABE course, Computer Creative, was carried out between September 2000 and May 2001 using ethnographic techniques. This was followed-up by a short video-based study in May 2002. In both cases the aim was to use activity-theoretical techniques to identify ways of improving the use of ICT to support the Centre’s learner-centred, empowerment-oriented ABE practice. Using the key ATIT notion of breakdown as a starting-point, a number of factors influencing participants’ effective and creative learning-in-use of and with the available technologies were identified. Among the most significant of these was learners’ motivation during the ICT-enabled work-process. Conditions observed to encourage positive motivation included physical co-location in a material and sociocultural environment favouring self-regulation and mutual coordination through communicative and instrumental means and the structuring of ICT-enabled tasks so as to facilitate the formation and alignment of personally meaningful task-goals. Although user-interface (UI) design emerged as only one among many task-conditions impacting on motivation, some applications were persistently associated with recurrent and/or catastrophic breakdown. The principal UI characteristics identified as likely contributors to such breakdowns were inadequate provision of task-relevant information and under- or over-representation of task complexity. Based on these findings, the thesis presents a number of recommendations and guidelines for researchers and designers on the use of activity-theoretical techniques to create and evaluate interactive information and communication systems, ICT-enabled work-processes and tasks, and ICT use-settings. In doing so it provides further evidence of the potential applicability of AT to a range of IT-design challenges, while concluding that in order to more fully realise this potential researchers should consider revising and expanding the conceptual framework of ATIT to include ideas from SSAT.