Presenter: Dr. Françoise Blin, Dublin City University, Ireland
Françoise was attracted to Activity Theory initially because she felt that the field of learner autonomy was becoming stagnant. Would we ever go beyond simply talking about “learners taking more responsibility”? Françoise was interested in learning how you could measure learner autonomy and how you could know whether learners are becoming more autonomous. In addition, she wasn’t satisfied with the current theories of computer-assisted language learning. What IS the role of the computer? Is it really just a tool?
Activity theory has its origins in sociocultural theory and it basically refers to looking at “actions towards an outcome mediated by tools”. Tools in this case can be technology tools or language. Françoise referred to both as cognitive tools. She draws on the work of Engeström (1987) to bring in community and the object of the activity which is useful for taking a snapshot of learning at a particular time.
Françoise talked a lot about tensions, contradictions and conflicts within activities. From a learner autonomy perspective, this is the relationship between independence and interdependence and between the individual and the social.
Françoise made the distinction between a technology tool and a virtual learning environment (VLE). She argued that a VLE is not a tool, but a context, and a useful context for capturing interaction and data across timescales. She described a project whereby a group of 38 Irish learners of French were required to participate in a project where they created a website in teams making use of a VLE. Artifacts, such as diaries, notes and reports were studied and applied to a grid in order to identify evidence of learner autonomy. Each artifact was coded according to one of 4 categories: action, content, manifestation and contradiction.
What Françoise found was that the more autonomous students used the object (the website they were creating and the VLE) as a tool to do something else and were more adventurous. The less autonomous individuals used mote traditional, familiar tools. There were some problems with this project in that the teacher and the students had different perceptions as to the aim of the exercise. This was taken into account in subsequent projects.
Activity theory is a difficult area to get your head around initially, and Françoise is the only person I know who is applying it in this unique way, but it does seem to be useful. The “snapshot” in time idea is a very clever one. It is also very insightful to study how students are using tools available to them in order to evaluate how autonomous they are. It doesn’t have to be a VLE. Studying how a student might be using a textbook, or materials in a self-access center would also give a good indication of how autonomous a student is.
Engestrom, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to
developmental research. Helsinki: Orieta-Konsultit.