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2. Conceptual framework

In this study the focus is on social aspects of learning because recent trends within educational psychology or learning theory are emphasising the necessity to understand and stimulate social processes. This will also be reflected in the analytical framework which will be used when studying IMS LD. First we will look in to why social processes have become important in educational research and secondly we will outline the analytical framework of this study.

2.1 Perspective on learning

From the ideas of Descartes presented in the 17th century, Western philosophy has largely regarded human beings as being separate from their external environment (as subjects in an objective world). This has largely also been the case within research in psychology, hence also influencing our view on learning and teaching for decades.

The first important learning paradigm based on this dualism between the subject and the object emerged at the beginning of the 20th century and is broadly known as behaviorism. In behaviorism the focus of study is the behaviors that can be observed and subsequently measured. It views the mind as a "black box" in the sense that response to a stimulus can be observed quantitatively, totally ignoring the possibility of thought processes occurring in the mind. The behaviorist paradigm, with B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) as a lead theorist, monopolised research activity for decades but in the 1950s and 60s, behaviorism started to be challenged particularly insofar that it failed to address issues related to language acquisition. Chomsky's (1959) critique particularly marked the beginning of the end of this paradigm. Chomsky's idea of transformational grammar, Piaget's constructivist theory and information processing theories entered the scene with more fruitful research questions as they characterized learning in terms of a change in knowledge structures rather than change in the probability of response.

Information processing theory, also known as cognitivism, made mental processes the primary object of study. The intention here is to discover and model the mental processes of the learner during the learning process. In this view, knowledge is symbolic and mental constructions existing in the mind of individuals, thus learning becomes the process of committing these symbolic representations to memory where they can be processed. The strength of this view of learning is that it expresses the complexity of thought processes and can give a precise analysis of performance and change. However, there are a number of challenges as well. Information theorists have problems explaining how infants learn as they at first do not have any strategies for processing information. Another shortcoming is the lack of social context in their analysis. The last issue is that their models and metaphors are based on theories from computer science, thus limiting the research to what we know about a computer's way of processing information.

The basic view within constructivist theories of learning, with Piaget (1896-1980) as an early lead researcher, is that humans construct knowledge as they interact with the world. For example, Piaget stressed in several books that children go through a process of stage like changes where their mental schemes develop. Their thinking becomes increasingly organized, building on the structure from a previous stage. Movement through these stages is based on factors such as physical maturation, experience with physical objects, social experience and the cognitive structures' ability to reach a state of balance at the end of each stage (equilibrium). Piaget's work still has great impact in educational psychology but his notion of stages has been criticized as well as the lack of social context. In the 1970s Piaget's theory reached its peak but at the same time there was an awakening interest in Soviet cultural-historical psychology that had been translated into English during the 1960s and 70s (Miller, 2002).

Soviet cultural-historical psychology is one of several movements that during the 1980s shifted the focus of analysis towards the social aspects of learning. Piaget still had his followers (the neo-Piagetians) that continued his work but emphasis was now on the importance of peer interaction for cognitive development. This shift in focus gradually evolved into ideas, which today still highly influence educational psychology and is known under the umbrella term of “Social Constructivism”. This view on cognition is much influenced by the work of Piaget but the focus of analysis has moved from individual processes to social processes of learning. Learning is now regarded as an active social process where learners should learn to discover principles, concepts and construct knowledge through interaction with others; hence the importance of encouraging collaborative inquiry and problem based learning. One important contribution within social constructivism in educational psychology is the concept of “Knowledge Building” derived from the work of Scardamalia & Bereiter (1994). In their work, spanning more than two decades, they have tried to analyze and identify the process of becoming experts:

“there is a process aspect to expertise, which we hypothesize to consist of reinvestment of mental resources that become available as a result of pattern learning and automaticity, and more particularly their reinvestment in progressive problem solving - addressing the problems of one's domain at increasing levels of complexity.”

And, they argue, this process happens in a social setting where a person going from novice to expert has to contribute to the collective knowledge. The way of building this collective knowledge is through collective discussions and synthesis of ideas. In this way, the group or collective will advance their understanding of a certain knowledge domain beyond their initial level of knowledge. There are different methods in which this intentional learning process can be achieved but most of them centre around a collective inquiry of a certain knowledge domain where students create questions and hypotheses that will be tested against expert knowledge and the arguments of fellow students.

Many of the ideas within social constructivism can be traced to Piaget, but more influential is the Soviet cultural-historical psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), whose writings were translated to English during the 1960s and 70s. In Vygotsky's writings (1978), social and cultural dimensions are emphasized in a child's development. Cultural beliefs, knowledge, values, artifacts and physical settings influence what settings children are encouraged to enter, when they can enter them, what they learn in these settings and how they acquire skills. Thus, the dichotomy that came with Descartes and influenced western thinking for almost than 400 years (where mind and body, or subject in an objective world have been separated) have to be re-examined by contemporary educational researchers.

One important concept that Vygotsky (1978) introduced when discussing the relationship between development and learning is the “Zone of Proximal Development”, described as: “the distance between actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86).

What Vygotsky conceptualize is that children can be seen as developing in a zone which is the distance between what the child can do without help and what s/he can do with help through interaction with more capable peers. This can also be formalized where a more skilled person (a teacher or mentor) scaffolds children’s movement through the zone by prompts, discussions, modeling and explanations. Children actively contribute to this movement by seeking out particular settings, influencing the course of activity and bringing personal skills into the interaction. The concept of “Zone of Proximal Development” has reinvented the way that social and participatory learning takes place (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996; Wells, 1996), and can be seen as an argument for collaborative learning.

2.2 Collaborative Learning

Based on the new perspectives of learning, where social aspects of learning have become more prominent, it has been fashionable to create collaborative learning scenarios. However, what is meant as collaboration learning is not totally clear among researchers. There are some that have tried to create definitions of the concept of collaboration in learning and who prefer not to attempt a definition and rather try to identify aspects which describe collaborative learning. One attempt to define collaboration is Roschelle's and Teasley's (1995: p.70) following statement:

"Collaboration is a coordinated, synchronous activity that is the result of a continued attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem"

This definition is widely used, but their central concept of 'shared conception of a problem' is somewhat problematic. Mutual efforts to construct and maintain shared conceptions are something that is not only connected to collaboration. Verbal interactions between a teacher and his/her students also have these elements though not necessarily being collaborative in nature.

Dillenbourg (1999), on the other hand, uses another approach. He argues that current literature on collaborative learning is unclear about this concept but largely views it as either a prescriptive method where collaboration is viewed as an effective method or that collaboration describes a mechanism that causes learning. Instead he argues that the concept of collaborative learning should describe a situation where particular forms of interaction are expected to occur, which could trigger learning, but that there is no guarantee that interaction and learning actually will occur. To understand the process of collaboration, he therefore looks into different aspects that can inform us what collaborative learning really is. First and foremost, we must understand the situation that leads to interactions between group members. Dillenbourg identifies that symmetry of actions, knowledge and status are important means for peers to find each other and collaborate. If peers are allowed to do the same things, have almost the same amount of knowledge and have the same status within the group there is a greater chance that they will interact with each other. In the work they are going to do there must also exist a low degree of division of labor because, if they divide the work too much, it will not be collaboration but rather cooperation where they largely work individually as a part of a whole. Also, the group members should share the same goals and be mutually aware of these goals for collaborative situations to occur. Secondly, it is obvious that the group members must interact with each other to create these collaborative learning processes. Interaction that leads to learning processes are hard to operationalise but it is apparent that group members must do most of their actions while they are interacting, hence synchronous activities can be an important aspect. Also, group members arguments must be negotiable by other group members. The situation and the associated interactions will affect different cognitive processes of individual group members, which then will lead to learning.

2.3 Analytical framework: Activity Theory

As noted earlier, Vygotsky and his notion of “Zone of Proximal Development” plays an important role in contemporary educational psychology. His work, however, has influenced theories and research in other fields as well. During the 1920s and 30s Vygotsky and some fellow researchers, most noticeably Leontev and Luria, tried to create a framework for psychology based on the ideas of Marx and Engels. Thus, the task at hand was to create a theory that was a “psychologically relevant application of dialectical and historical materialism” (Cole & Scribner, 1978: p.6). Activity theory is not a ‘theory’ as such, but it is rather a framework that emphasizes certain basic principles that can be used when analysing human activities. As Kuutti (1996: p. 25) points out, Activity Theory is: “a philosophical and cross-disciplinary framework for studying different forms of human practices as developmental processes, with both individual and social levels interlinked at the same time.”

Activity Theory has been a recognised framework for enhancing design practices in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and related disciplines for over a decade. In most cases, Activity Theory has been deployed as an analytical framework for understanding users within context during systems design and evaluation (Mwanza & Bertelsen, 2003). As Nardi (1996: p. 8) points out: “We have recognized that technology use is not a mechanical input-output relation between a person and a machine; a much richer depiction of the user's situation is needed for design and evaluation.”

Basic principles of Activity Theory are:

Object orientation

Every activity is directed towards an object or objective having a motive and an outcome. Activity in this context is considered a conscious process where the motive might be fuzzy for the participants in the activity. Each participant, however, contributes with his or her actions to fulfil the motive of the activity. The actions of each participant are clearer and have a goal. Some of the actions can be considered routines to some of the participants and hence considered operations that merely are conditions in Pavlov’s sense. An important aspect here is that there is an inner dynamic between activities, actions and operations. Sometimes an operation (e.g. routine action) does not fit for a certain situation and results in a breakdown, leading to possible reflection or more conscious actions for the participant.

Artefact Mediation

In every activity we engage in as humans there are underpinning cultural beliefs that manifest themselves through speech, symbols, models or tools. These artefacts are created and transformed during the activity through mechanisms of internalisation and externalisation. The use of artefacts is an accumulation and transmission of social knowledge.


This pair of concepts goes right to the heart of activity theory and socio-cultural studies. Internalisation is related to reproduction of culture, whereas externalisation relates to the creation of new artefacts that transform the culture (Engeström & Miettinen, 1999). This dialectical idea is founded upon the principle that you as a person (a subject) assimilate to a culture with ideas, meanings and practices, but you also influence the same culture with new ideas, thus transforming the cultures you participate in. This pair can also be coupled to technological and conceptual artefacts or tools in the sense of whether they (tools, technological and conceptual artefacts) just manifest bad habits or production problems or whether they improve and transform practices.

Human activity is social in nature and cannot be understood without referencing formal or informal rules and practices that impose the activities. The activities are also connected to a community that are an integrated part and have different roles and parts (division of labour).

This way of understanding human activity leads us to use the extended Activity Model by Engeström (1987) that show how these aspects are connected (Figure 1).

Figure1: The extended Activity Model by Engeström (1987)

In this study we will use a somewhat modified version of the Activity Model of Engeström. In our context we will regard Rules as constraints or affordances that the tool and its interface and inner structures impose on use during the act of modeling. Affordances is a term from Gibson (1977) which he sees as all possible or potential actions latent in the environment, which can be independent of the individual's ability to recognize those possibilities. Later Norman (1988) has applied this term to HCI research where he sees affordances as features of the immediate environment, which indicates how to interact with an object or feature. In our sense the tools we use gives us possibilities to use IMS LD, but if these tools are difficult to understand or use they will constrain our actions.

Another modification is that the community component is not considered an active part as in many activity theoretical studies. Instead we will use community as passively supporting actors in the sense of actors that have contributed to research on IMS LD but are not actively taking part in this particular modeling process. This also means that division of labour, as an active social organisational process, will not be considered in the modeling activity.

The rest of components in the Activity Model will be used as intended by Engeström (1987). The subject of the activities in this study is the author as an instructional designer. Tools that we use are both conceptual and technological in nature. Conceptual artefacts are the conceptual model and descriptions of IMS LD, the learning scenario which is being remodeled using IMS LD and pedagogical models as desribed in literature. Technological artefacts are actual tools that represent the XML-binding model of IMS LD and Learning Activity Management System (LAMS) which is another tool that has a lot in common with IMS LD.

An important aspect when using Engeströms model of Activity is that there are inner contradictions or tensions between the elements constituting the activity. This aspect reflects the dialectical view of activities inherited from Marx and Engels. Contradictions manifest themselves as problems or conflicts and, if these tensions become too problematic, the activity will experience a dialectical change.

For this analysis, this means that we will look at the tensions emerging when modeling a learning scenario. As we have two objectives in this study, the modeling activity actually consists of two activity systems:

  • One activity system is when we model pedagogical learning scenarios using IMS LD.
  • The other activity system is when we focus on how we can reuse activity constructs that represents pedagogical methods in IMS LD.

This will be reflected in the analysis section when we deal with these two activity systems separately.