An Overview of Activity Theory - E

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Running Head: AN OVERVIEW OF ACTIVITY THEORY
An Overview of Activity Theory and Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development
Robert Power
Athabasca University
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AN OVERVIEW OF ACTIVITY THEORY
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Table of Contents
An Overview of Activity Theory and Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development ......................................... 3
Activity Theory in Context............................................................................................................................. 5
Influence on Instruction ................................................................................................................................ 6
Resources for Further Study ......................................................................................................................... 7
References .................................................................................................................................................... 8
AN OVERVIEW OF ACTIVITY THEORY
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An Overview of Activity Theory and Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development
Activity Theory essentially describes how people use tools to interact with objects in order to
satisfy a need. Activity Theory casts aside behaviorist descriptions of conditioned behaviors
(Atwell, 2009; Wikipedia, 2012), stating that there is a goal to any human activity. In education,
that goal could be either mastery of a skill or concept, or obtaining a credential (Atwell, 2009).
Achieving goals requires an active relationship amongst three main elements (Chaiklin, 2003;
Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006; Murphy & Rodriguez-Manzanares, 2007). The first is the subject (or
actor). This is the individual or group attempting to learn. The second is the object, which is
the focus of the actors’ attention. The object could be an item or something less tangible, such
as a concept (Wikipedia, 2012). The third element is the tools that facilitate interaction, which
range from language to pencils, slide-rules, computers, and mobile devices.
Tools extend the range of interactions with objects, but they also impose limitations
(Atwell, 2009; Impedovo, 2011; Sharples, Taylor & Vavoula, 2011). Activity Theory states that
this is because even the most complex tools are task specific, and their use is often governed by
preconceived notions and rules. Humans interact within communities (even when acting as
individuals), which creates perceptions and governs how we interact with objects, tools and
each other (Chaiklin, 2003; Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006; Murphy & Rodriguez-Manzanares, 2007;
Wikipedia, 2012). People may move between social contexts that impose different degrees of
rigidity upon goals, the selection and use objects and tools, and the division of labor between
actors. This complex web of interactions is depicted in Figure 1, below:
AN OVERVIEW OF ACTIVITY THEORY
Figure 1: Interactions in Activity Theory (Bury, 2012)
Another concept that emerged alongside Activity Theory is Vygotsky’s zone of proximal
development, which describes what individuals are capable and willing to do to attain desired
goals (Chaiklin, 2003; Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006). The zone of proximal development describes
the gaps between what learners are capable of doing on their own and what they can achieve
with the assistance of significant others such as teachers, tutors, coaches or peers (Chaiklin,
2003; Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006; Koole, 2009; Wikipedia, 2012). The zone of proximal
development illustrates that collaboration increases willingness and ability to learn, which in
turn has a positive effect upon what the individual can do alone. Vygotsky’s zone of proximal
development is depicted in Figure 2, below:
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AN OVERVIEW OF ACTIVITY THEORY
Figure 2: Vygotsky's zone of proximal development
Activity Theory is a descriptive theory of human psychology and interaction (Wikipedia,
2012). However, it is congruent with, and foundational to, a number of prominent theories
that inform distance education practice.
Activity Theory in Context
Activity Theory first emerged in the 1920s and 1930s from the work of Leontiev,
Rubinstein and Vygotsky, who were dissatisfied with behaviorist psychology (Ballantyne, 2004;
Russell, 2001; Wikipedia, 2012). However, its most widely recognized form stems from the
work of Engeström beginning in the 1980s (Wikipedia, 2012). It has been applied to a wide
range of social sciences, including human-computer interaction and teaching and learning
(Atwell, 2012; Chaiklin, 2003; Impedovo, 2011; Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006; Koole, 2009; Kuuti,
1995; Murphy & Rodriguez-Manzanares, 2007; Russell, 2001; Sharples et al., 2011). While
Activity Theory contradicts behaviorist approaches, it is congruent with, and foundational to,
such prominent learning theories as constructivism, connectivism, and Transactional Distance
Theory.
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AN OVERVIEW OF ACTIVITY THEORY
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Constructivism focuses on how learners experience concepts or skills first hand, and
then construct personally relevant meaning (Hover, 1996; Learning Theories.com, 2012). This is
in keeping with the concept of actors learning by using tools and social rules to interact with
objects. Connectivism draws strong parallels to Activity Theory, in that it describes knowledge
and information as existing within systems constructed based on communal rules and with
which learners must interact to forge connections based upon their own needs and contexts
(Downes, 2012; Siemens, 2004).
Activity Theory is also congruent with Moore’s (1989, 1991) Transactional Distance
Theory, which focuses on the physical, psychological and knowledge differences between
learners, significant others and content. Reducing transactional distance between learners and
significant others is similar to fluency in the social rules described by Activity Theory. Such
fluency enables communal interaction with objects (Chaiklin, 2003; Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006),
thus, the more easily actors are able to reach their goals. In Transactional Distance Theory, the
less transactional distance there is between learners and significant others, the more easily
they are able to interact to reduce the transactional distance between themselves and the
learning content.
Influence on Instruction
Activity Theory can be used to inform instructional design decisions about the use of
tools and the design of learner activity and interaction. Impedovo (2011) notes that learning is
“always mediated” (p. 105) as learners attempt to make sense of the world around them, and
Activity Theory can help understand both the affordances and limitations of mediating tools
(Atwell, 2009; Impedovo, 2011; Sharples et al., 2011). For instance, Koole (2009) draws heavily
AN OVERVIEW OF ACTIVITY THEORY
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upon Activity Theory and the zone of proximal development in her Framework for the Rational
Analysis of Mobile Education (FRAME), to describe how tools (mobile devices) facilitate
requisite social and content interaction for physically remote learners. Instructional designers
in any distance learning context must consider whether new tools increase the range of
possible social and content interactions or if they force unreasonable constraints upon learners
that limit their perceptions (Atwell, 2009; Impedovo, 2011; Sharples et al., 2011).
Activity Theory can also help when making decisions that will affect the impact of
community context. In formal educational settings such as K12 schools or campus-based postsecondary institutions there are very rigid norms of social interaction, division of labor, and use
of tools (Atwell, 2009). These rules may serve to effectively scaffold the mastery of learning
strategies and content, but they may also constrain the creative application of tools and social
interaction. By considering the teachings of Activity Theory, instructional designers can push
for the transformation of community rules that impose undue constraints. This is especially
true in distance and mobile education, where considerable efforts remain underway to
determine the most effective ways to employ technological tools and structure learning
interactions (Russell, 2001).
Resources for Further Study
Useful links to more information about Activity Theory and the zone of proximal development,
and their application in teaching, learning, distance and mobile education, can be found at
https://landing.athabascau.ca/pages/view/197318/activity-theory-in-distance-education
AN OVERVIEW OF ACTIVITY THEORY
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References
Atwell, G. (2009, December 21). Vygotsky, Activity Theory and the use of tools for formal and
informal learning. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from
http://www.pontydysgu.org/2009/12/vygotsky-activity-theory-and-the-use-of-tools-forformal-and-informal-learning/
Ballantyne, P. (2004). Leontiev’s activity theory approach to psychology: Activity as the “molar
unit of life” and his “levels of psyche.” Retrieved from
http://www.igs.net/~pballan/AT.htm
Chaiklin, S. (2003). The zone of proximal development in Vygotsky’s analysis of learning and
instruction. Retrieved from
http://people.ucsc.edu/~gwells/Files/Courses_Folder/documents/chaiklin.zpd.pdf
Downes, S. (2012). Connectivism and connective knowledge: Essays on meaning and learning
networks. Retrieved from http://www.downes.ca/files/Connective_Knowledge19May2012.pdf
Hoover, W. (1996). The practice implications of constructivism. SEDL Letter, 9(3). Retrieved
from http://www.sedl.org/pubs/sedletter/v09n03/practice.html
Impedovo M. A. (2011). Mobile learning and Activity Theory. Journal of e-Learning and
Knowledge Society, 7(2), 103-109. Retrieved from http://jelks.maieutiche.economia.unitn.it/index.php/Je-LKS_EN/article/viewFile/525/530
Kaptelinin, V., & Nardi, B. (2006). Acting with technology: Activity theory and interaction design.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
AN OVERVIEW OF ACTIVITY THEORY
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Koole, M. L., (2009). A model for framing mobile learning. In M. Ally (Ed.), Mobile learning:
Transforming the delivery of education and training, 25-47. Edmonton, AB: AU Press.
Retrieved from http://www.aupress.ca/index.php/books/120155
Kuutti, K. (1995). Activity Theory as a potential framework for human computer interaction
research. In B. Nardi (Ed.), Context and consciousness: Activity Theory and human
computer interaction (pp. 17-44). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Learning Theories.com (2012). Constructivism. Retrieved from http://www.learningtheories.com/constructivism.html
Moore, M. (1989). Three types of interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2),
1-6.
Moore, M. (1991). Editorial: Distance education theory. The American Journal of Distance
Education, 5(3), 1-6. Retrieved from
http://www.ajde.com/Contents/vol5_3.htm#editotial
Murphy, E., & Rodriguez-Manzanares, M. (2007). An Activity Theory perspective on e-teaching
in a virtual high school classroom. Proceedings of the 10th IASTED international
conference: Computers and advanced technology in education, 121-126.
Russell, D. (2001). Looking beyond the interface: Activity theory and distributed learning. In
Lea, M. (Ed.), Understanding distributed learning, 64-82. London, England: Routledge.
AN OVERVIEW OF ACTIVITY THEORY
Sharples, M., Taylor, J., & Vavoula, G. (2005). Towards a theory of mobile learning. Paper
presented at the 4th Annual World Conference on Mobile and Contextual Learning
(mLearn 2005), Cape Town, South Africa. Retrieved from
http://www.mlearn.org/mlearn2005/CD/papers/Sharples%20Theory%20of%20Mobile.pdf
Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. Retrieved from
http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm
Wikipedia (2012, November 12). Activity theory. Retrieved from
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Activity_theory
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