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An activity theory analysis of social epistemologies within tertiary-level eLearning environments

In recent years, eLearning or the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in tertiary-level educational environments has experienced phenomenal growth. There is an extensive body of research that has established the pedagogic value of eLearning. The literature has identified key factors that can afford or constrain participation in learning activities supported by ICT. However, amidst much discussion of the benefits of eLearning, concern has been voiced about the apparent failure of eLearning to transform teaching and learning environments. In response to these concerns, this study intends to examine one aspect of eLearning – the use of learning activities underpinned by social epistemologies and mediated by asynchronous web-based technologies in three blended papers (a combination of face-to-face and ICT-supported modes of delivery) in higher education in New Zealand. More specifically, due to the significant numbers of English as an Additional Language (EAL) learners enrolled in New Zealand tertiary institutions, the study seeks to gain a rich and in-depth understanding of the nature of teacher and EAL learner participation in three mainstream (not English language learning) papers within the disciplines of nursing, management, and applied linguistics. By positioning the study within an activity theory perspective and thereby highlighting mediated activity, this inquiry intends to use an expansive conception of participation that takes account of social, cultural, and historical factors in the local and broader context. To investigate the nature of participation within three eLearning contexts, the research design has been shaped by a qualitative orientation. The study has used a case study approach, an exploratory research question, and inductive procedures, and has drawn from ethnographic and phenomenological research methods to allow the nature of participation to emerge through the experiences of teachers and students. Data have been systematically gathered over a five month period by way of semi-structured interviews, accounts, and observations of face-to-face and online activity. Using activity theory as an interpretative tool and drawing from techniques of grounded theory, the collected data have been analysed, coded, and categorised, and the findings emerging from this process have been grounded in the data. The findings show the complexity of eLearning environments and emphasise the crucial role that social and historical factors play in shaping participation. The study has shed light on the ways in which students and teachers make sense of the learning activity by exploring the intersection of previous beliefs and understandings with emergent practice, indicating that sometimes the classroom community constructs meaning in differing and conflicting ways. In addition, this inquiry has brought a critical perspective to bear on the use of interactive learning activities, suggesting that the enactment of social epistemologies is both complex and problematic. This has been particularly evident in relation to the credibility of students to act as resources for each other and the pervasiveness of expedient and instrumentalist approaches to participation. Finally, this inquiry adds to the growing body of work that has used activity theory in educational research, finding activity theory well positioned to meet the need for more expansive conceptions of participation in eLearning.
Type of thesis
Westberry, N. C. (2009). An activity theory analysis of social epistemologies within tertiary-level eLearning environments (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/4184
University of Waikato
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