How experienced university teachers make decisions about teaching with technology in a complex learning environment: an activity theory analysis

Bradey, Scott Bruce (2014) How experienced university teachers make decisions about teaching with technology in a complex learning environment: an activity theory analysis. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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There is a growing imperative for Australian universities to deliver Higher Education through a range of approaches employing a diversity of established and emerging digital technologies. The imperative to attract and engage students and improve the quality of educational outcomes has seen an enormous penetration of information and communication technologies across the sector. An extensive body of literature has established the pedagogic potential of eLearning; however, supporting the integration of technologies in online and blended-mode settings remains a considerable challenge for universities, academic departments and lecturers with well-established approaches to teaching and learning. In response to the concern that eLearning initiatives have generally fallen short of their promise to transform teaching and learning in Higher Education, the study sought to explore the challenge of planning and teaching a blended-mode course from the perspective of a group of lecturers who were experienced university educators and disciplinary practitioners. In particular, the research sought to investigate the influence and interplay of individual, social and contextual structures on lecturers' pedagogical intentions, decisions and actions. The research is therefore driven by a primary research question: How do experienced university lecturers make decisions about teaching with technology in a contemporary blended learning environment? Sub-questions guiding the inquiry are: (a) How do the lecturers' individual beliefs about teaching and learning influence their decisions? (b) How do the contextual and social structures in their environment influence their decisions? and (c) What is the relationship between individual and contextual factors in the decision making process?

Locating the study within the theoretical and interpretive framework of cultural-historical activity theory (Engeström, 1987, 2001) provided a means to describe the highly mediated yet dynamic nature of lecturers' participation in planning and teaching a blended-mode course, as well as a way to capture the social, cultural and historical factors influencing their decision-making in the local and broader context. To allow the nature of lecturers' participation in a complex activity to emerge over time, this exploratory research adopted a qualitative design and a multiple case study approach.

Data were gathered over the course of a study period by way of individual and group semi-structured interviews, stimulated recall interviews, online observations and digital artifacts. Data interpretation was undertaken in two phases and employed Rogoff's (1995) notion of the three planes of sociocultural analysis to focus on the activity taking place on the personal, interpersonal and institutional-community levels. Interpretation began with the construction of pedagogical belief profiles for each participant and culminated with detailed accounts of the interactions and tensions in their work activity systems. A cross-case analysis was undertaken to synthesise and discuss the individual, contextual and technological influences on lecturers' participation in the activity of technology-mediated teaching.

The four case studies presented in this inquiry provide an insider's perspective on how university teachers from different disciplines (Journalism, Health Science, Engineering, and Nursing) make decisions about teaching with technology in a contemporary blended learning context. In particular, the study offers an expanded view of teacher cognition that illuminates the complex interrelationships among lecturers' pedagogical and technological beliefs, their interpretation of the technology's 'affordances-in-use', their past experiences as teachers and practitioners, and the social and contextual structures in their local environment. The findings suggest that the relationship between the individual and the environment plays a significant role in determining how the latent affordances in the tool are activated (or suppressed) and become manifested through practice. In particular, the findings accentuate the highly personalised and contextualised nature of lecturers' personal practical theories of teaching and highlight the central role of the individual in the socially constructed activity of planning and teaching a blended-mode course. The findings also highlight the propensity of experienced lecturers to maintain the continuity of their established pedagogical beliefs by seeking alternative ways to actualise their pedagogical visions in the face of contradictory circumstances.

This study has contributed to the growing body of research that has applied cultural-historical activity theory to eLearning and has a number of implications for both practice and research. The pedagogical belief profile developed in the methodological design phase of this research holds promise for assisting lecturers to engage in in-depth reflection on the conceptual stances and pedagogical orientations underpinning their espoused theories of teaching beyond the fundamental relationship between teacher, learner and content. Similarly a discussion or structured reflection drawing on the principles of cultural historical activity theory could provide opportunities for lecturers to reconcile the past and present forms of their practice by reflecting on the differences between the affordances of a traditional face-to-face teaching setting and a blended learning setting. Through surfacing some of the often-tacit individual and contextual factors at play and recognising their interrelatedness, there are opportunities to assist less experienced lecturers to discover their own pedagogical dispositions, vocalise their perceptions of the technology, and acknowledge the motivations and assumptions held by colleagues sharing the same activity. By engaging in such an exercise, lecturers may be better equipped to navigate the passage from the trial and error approach of the novice towards the self-aware and self-confident approach of an expert.

An activity theory base for future research holds significant potential for a broader and deeper theorisation of the complexity of eLearning. This study has engaged with contextual complexity and the messiness of the human condition to illuminate the interrelationships among the individual, social, cultural and historical factors at play in a contemporary learning environment. Balancing the descriptive and interpretative elements with a degree of structure and organisation has enhanced explication of the findings. In doing so, this thesis represents a credible contribution to the field and offers a viable approach for future investigations.

Item ID: 40675
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Australia; education methodologies; education theory; educational psychology; educational technologies; higher education; information technology; instruction technologies; integrating technologies; learning environments; pedagogy; study and teaching; teaching methodologies; teaching methods; teaching technologies; technology; training theory; university education; virtual learning environments; VLE; web-enhanced teaching
Date Deposited: 30 Sep 2015 22:59
FoR Codes: 13 EDUCATION > 1301 Education Systems > 130103 Higher Education @ 50%
17 PSYCHOLOGY AND COGNITIVE SCIENCES > 1701 Psychology > 170103 Educational Psychology @ 50%
SEO Codes: 93 EDUCATION AND TRAINING > 9302 Teaching and Instruction > 930203 Teaching and Instruction Technologies @ 33%
93 EDUCATION AND TRAINING > 9399 Other Education and Training > 939902 Education and Training Theory and Methodology @ 33%
97 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 970113 Expanding Knowledge in Education @ 34%
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