H809: Week 8 - Sociocultural Theories

April 2009

Again we had two readings in Week 8 and the issue of context rearing its head again.

The first reading was Tolmie, A. (2001) ‘Examining learning in relation to the contexts of use of ICT’, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 235–41. This paper makes the argument that the introduction of technology rarely has a straightforward impact and calls for more context-sensitivity in research. Three examples of the effect of context was given:

  1. A study of secondary school pupils working in pairs with a physics simulation. The type of dialogue between the pairs appeared to depend largely on the gender combination of the pairing, plausibly the result of previously established patterns of gender interaction
  2. A comparison of two groups of postgraduate Educational Psychology students collaborating on joint seminar papers on the same course. The extent and way in which the two groups used technology differed, at least in part because one group had concerns about the reliability of the online conferencing system based on previous experiences of it.
  3. An activity in which children provided with a certain type of support during a scientific investigation did better at 'on-task performance' but equally well in a pre-test/post-test comparison. The suggestion was made that the task provided implicit cues that helped the students without the support in the post-test.

Tolmie also remarked that context should not be regarded as 'noise' to be controlled since emergent uses of technology from particular contexts may be of value. He also argues that as no single software design will satisfy all contexts, the purpose of context-sensitive evaluations should be not to inform developers of software but to help provide guidelines for users of the software as to how to take context into account. Unfortunately he doesn't say anything about what should alternatively inform developers!

The treatment of context by the second paper, Crook, C. and Dymott, R. (2005) ‘ICT and the literacy practices of student writing’ in Monteith, M. (ed.) Teaching Secondary School Literacies with ICT, Maidenhead, Open University Press, was rather different. This was a paper was about the relationship between undergraduate writing and technology. The authors emphasised the complex nature of writing as a system of activities and the idea that writing should be regarded as a cultural practive.

Crook and Dymott put forward the view that we should be studying the use of technology in authentic contexts, with authentic goals and motivations, and that we need to consider the 'individual-acting-with-mediational-means' as the unit of study and examine processes not outcomes. In particular, we should resist the temptation to isolate elements of context as independent variables in an experimental manner. It does not make sense to try to understand the 'effect of technology on writing'  and we should not expect to be able to generalise in that way.

The authors go on to describe their findings on the relationship between technology and undergraduate writing (using research methods such as diaries, interviews and analysis of computer logs) by looking at writing from the various angles: 1. Text on the screen e.g. looking at how students manipulate documents on-screen and on paper and how students make notes on text sources 2. Text on the network e.g. looking at the temporal elements of writing, student multitasking and use of online resources, and the relationship between technology and the location of writing 3. Text as electronic traffic e.g. looking how students converse about their writing during the process of writing 4. Text and the website: e.g. looking at how students share their writing and the relationship between technology and audience

The course notes contrast the two papers in terms of the idea of where learning is situated. In the Tolmie paper, there is the implicit idea that learning is situated in the individual surrounded by a context that has an effect on them.  On the other hand the Crook and Dymott paper takes the stance that writing and technology are intertwined and that it is wrong to try and look for causes and effects.

The course notes also discuss socio-cultural theory. This considers learning to be

Like much of the course at the moment, I am still trying to clarify my thoughts here. I agree that learning should ideally be researched in authentic contexts and that if we want to understand learning we need to look at the processes not just at the outcomes. I think too that socio-cultural theory may be useful in terms of making us consider whether mental representations for instance might be cultural in nature.

I am worried though that some of the other distinctions might more linguistic than semantic. Is a private mental process just the same thing as 'mental activity mediated by cultural mental representations'? What does it mean for learning to be located somewhere? What is the difference between something having an effect on something else and having a relationship with it? I don't feel that I can satisfactorily answer these questions yet. The whole idea of totally ignoring the outcome of learning also niggles me. For example, there's a difference between being able to ride a bicycle and not being able to ride a bicycle. It's not a totally binary difference but it's near enough. If we want to help people learn to ride a bicycle then not distinguishing between these two eventual outcomes is going to make it a bit difficult I would have thought.

I am also not sure that I completely understand the different in research approach in say the situation with groups in the Tolmie course compared with the approach in the Crook and Dymott paper. Both are authentic and looking at processes, so is it just how the research findings are described or is it more than that? If Crook and Dymott were to research the same groups in the same course, how would they have done it differently?