Bennett, Elizabeth (2010) Activity theory: what does it offer elearning research? In: ALT-C 2009 In Dreams Begins Responsiblity, 8-10 September 2010, Manchester. (Unpublished)

Activity theory is an analytical tool which offers a particularly useful perspective to those researching in elearning because of its ability to illuminate the contexts of an implementation of an innovation. Activity theory was originally conceived by Leontiev as a model of human psychology, but has been adapted to analyse complex situations involving people and organisational processes (1978). Within elearning and human computer interaction it is popular because it moves the focus of analysis from the technological tool to the way that tool is used by people to achieve a purpose.
This paper compares the conceptions of activity theory proposed by Leontiev with the way that it has been interpreted by Engeström. The paper then focuses on how activity theory has been used to examine the impact that learning technologies have had on teachers’ practice through consideration of three case studies. The paper illustrates the methodological pluralism, the flexibility, lack of proscription and range of focus of activity theory in practice.
As elearning seeks to become a well articulated discipline, activity theory offers a particularly useful way of conceptualising and articulating elearning practices because of its focus on a socio-cultural model for understanding the design, adoption and integration of technological tools into learning. The paper argues that Engeström’s approach to activity theory is popular despite criticisms of it as rarefied and over simplified because it fits with the characteristics of a good theory identified by Ur (2001). The paper also provides guidance on how to avoid the limitations associated with Engeström’s interpretation.


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