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Technology in (and outside) the classroom

Image: piece of old and rusty machinery

The last few weeks we’ve been considering what you might call the flies in the eLearning ointment, in the form of recent studies suggesting that, despite the rapid spread of digital technologies across the higher education landscape, tech-enhanced learning has not so far had the transformative effect on actual classroom practice that some had expected and hoped.

Perhaps the most interesting of these studies is Larry Cuban’s New Technologies in Old Universities (Cuban, 2001). Cuban investigated the use of new technologies by teaching staff at Stanford University in the 1990s – a period of massive hype about the potential of information tech to transform the classroom experience, and equally massive tech investment by US universities. What he found was near-universal adoption by faculty of information technologies, but almost no integration of them into their classroom practice. Academics were using ICTs for writing, research, and teaching preparation – but hardly at all in class.

As a result, at the turn of the 21st century, the traditional lecture remained the predominant undergraduate teaching format for all disciplines at Stanford, an institution you’d expect to be more open to Silicon Valley’s computer revolution than any other on earth. Cuban estimated that the small band of pioneers who were using information technologies in the classroom to teach in radically new ways amounted to no more than 2% of the total Stanford faculty.

Disappointing perhaps – but I wonder how surprised we should be by this finding. Firstly, even the most student-centred, constructivist-oriented academics have been hired at least in part to disseminate a body of knowledge, and for this the lecture format can work quite well. “Because it is more efficient to convey subject matter and the essentials of a discipline to large groups than to small ones,” Cuban points out, “the lecture prevails” (Cuban, 2001).

Secondly, Cuban’s study notes two things that certainly have changed in the HE landscape. First, even 10 years ago when his study was conducted, Stanford students “had abundant and easy access to information technologies” both on and off-campus, with 95% of students owning their own computers by 2000 (Cuban, 2001). Second, although lectures accounted for more than half of all teaching hours, a number of alternative, more interactive, teaching formats were being adopted by increasing numbers of professors in a growing number of disciplines: seminars, student presentations, small group collaborations, discussion sessions after lectures, dialogues and debates.

I think these two changes are linked. You don’t have to subscribe to Prensky’s digital natives thesis to believe that one of the first impacts of pervasive digital interactive technologies is to change students’ habits and expectations. Net Generation students don’t necessarily expect their classroom to be computerised, but they do expect more interaction with their teachers and peers, more opportunity to question assertions and debate ideas. I suspect it is this demand for interaction that’s helping to drive the new teaching formats.

Another, more recent, study focuses in on this question of university students’ use of information technologies and their possible impacts on teaching and learning. The Educause Centre for Applied Research (ECAR) Study of Undergraduate Students’ and Information Technology 2008 surveyed over 25,000 students across more than 100 North American HE institutions (Salaway and Caruso, 2008), and confirms that the great majority of US students now arrive at college equipped with internet-capable computers and mobile devices, and use them daily to support both their social life, their leisure and their learning. What they don’t do in such large numbers is expect these same information technologies to be as pervasively present in the classroom as they are in their lives generally. Almost two-thirds of the ECAR sample said they preferred only “a moderate amount of IT in their courses”, insisting they would still attend class even if all course materials were available online and emphasising the overriding importance of face-to-face contact with their teachers. Again, this finding seems hardly surprising: why would students at a campus university not want lots of face time with their teachers?

A more interesting point about the ECAR findings is the shift they hint at away from the classroom as the principal locus of undergraduate learning. Consider the following statistics about the IT usage of the ECAR student cohort:

• 93% use the internet to access their university VLE or library
• 74% use SMS
• 68% use social networks to share files
• 50% use social networks to communicate with classmates about course-related topics
• 47% contribute content to photo or video sharing sites
• 38% contribute content to wikis, and 34% contribute content to blogs
• 33% use audio and video creation software
• 27% participate in special-interest groups, and 16% in forums
• 17% use social bookmarking
• 6% use social networks to communicate with instructors

The picture this data paints is of a cohort who are continuously connected to a set of overlapping networks, including their university network, enabling them to stay constantly in touch and to access and share data of all kinds. They use these networks to socialise, to entertain themselves, and to date each other; but they also use them for learning – outside of class, 24-7..

Perhaps the researchers who’ve been seeking evidence of the transformational impact of information technologies in the classroom have simply been looking in the wrong place?


Cuban, L (2001) Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, ch 4

Sallaway, G and Caruso, J (2008) ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2008. Educause Centre for Applied Research


Learner support in computer mediated conferencing

Image: WOMAD flags

This course, like the rest of the OU eLearning masters’ programme, revolves around a series of CMC forums where students interact online with the course materials, their tutor and each other. So if every technology has its trademark affordances – its inherent predisposition to construct the world one way rather than another, Neil Postman’s ideological bias – how does CMC impact upon our experience, perceptions and performance as students?

This week we’ve looked at two studies, both conducted here at the Open University, comparing student perceptions of course quality on CMC-based versus traditional face-to-face versions of the same courses. The first, carried out in 2002 by Price et al using a combination of quantitative and qualitative techniques, investigated student experiences across a range of metrics including clarity of goals, appropriateness of workload, degree of student autonomy and quality of tutoring (Price L, 2007). It also investigated differences in approach to study between the F2F and CMC students, using the twin axes deep approach/strategic approach/surface approach and role of self/role of peers/role of tutors.

The study found no significant differences between the two groups over most of the measures – except that in quality of tutoring the F2F course scored consistently higher than the CMC version. Possible explanations offered by the study’s authors include insufficient attention to the pastoral as opposed to the academic aspect of tutorial support, insufficient training for tutors in CMC tutorial support, and insufficient attention to the organisation of interactions in online tutorials, given that these “are severely impoverished from a communication perspective.”

The second study carried out in 2006 by John Richardson used the same quantitative survey instruments to study two groups of students across F2F and CMC versions of two OU humanities courses (Richardson J, 2009). This study, which did not include any qualitative investigation, but was based on a considerably larger sample size, found no significant difference across any of the measures of student experience or approach to study, with quality of tutoring scoring roughly equally in both versions of the course, and online students just as likely to take a deep or strategic approach to their studies as their offline peers. Richardson concludes that – in the humanities at least – course designers should have confidence in the efficacy of online tutorial support.

So far, so inconclusive!

To my mind there’s something missing from both pieces of research. The focus in both studies on quality of tutoring frames the issue of academic and pastoral support in terms of the traditional classroom, where the tutor is the sole or main provider. But a CMC forum typically has a much richer mix of interactions between tutor, individual student and the student group, with this three-way interaction taking over much of the provision of both learning content and student support. As Mary Thorpe, one of the architects of the OU MA programme puts it,

It is the purpose of the online interaction to use the learners themselves as a resource, and to build on their experience, reading and perspectives. (Thorpe M, 2002)

If Price et al and Richardson had asked students about the quality of academic and pastoral support they received not just from tutors but also from fellow students, the findings of both studies might have been more interesting…

A second, related, problem with the two studies is Price’s description, unchallenged by Richardson, of the CMC environment as being “impoverished from a communication perspective.” She is referring of course to the conventional wisdom that, stripped of the paralinguistic cues – vocality, eye contact, gesture, positioning etc – that supplement face-to-face conversation, CMC is unable to communicate much social or emotional meaning.

However there is now a growing body of research (eg Chenault 1998, Walther 2006) suggesting that CMC-users in fact deploy a number of online-native rhetorical devices for conveying socio-emotional information, effectively substituting them for the absent real-world nonverbal cues. These devices for constructing impressions and managing relationships online – Walther calls them social information processing – include:

  • syntactic dynamics which manipulate punctuation, case or layout to form a type of textual code; emoticons are an instance of this
  • social dynamics such as intensity of social presence, and acts of welcoming, sharing or personal disclosure – what Yossi Vardi calls “dopamine over IP”
  • temporal dynamics which send social signals via temporal patterns or the sequencing, pace, duration or latency of online interactions. Walther calls these chronemic cues.

Walther argues that these socio-emotive dynamics potentially compensate for the paralinguistic plainness of text-only environments, enabling them to afford as much pastoral support as a physical classroom:

The.. impression-bearing and relational functions, for which [offline] communicators rely on nonverbal cues FtF, are translated into verbal content, linguistic, stylistic and chronemic cues in the CMC environment.. All other things being equal, CMC is as capable as FtF communication of sharing impressions and managing relational communication, based on the substitutability of verbal and nonverbal cues in the service of social functions. (Walther J 2006)

Or as my fellow H800 student Carolyn Edwards put it in her course blog,

People make friends without paralinguistics (using chat and messenger, for example) all the time. It would be disingenuous to claim that it’s not more difficult, especially on a formal high-level course as opposed to a dating site, but then I think as humans we find a way – the odd joke or cultural reference here, the odd 😉 or ; – ) there, the seizing on things we have in common, the letting people know about illness or family problems and the sympathetic responses, etc. etc. Shepherds without a cue, posted 4th May 2010


Price L et al, 2007. Face-to-face versus online tutoring support in distance education. Studies in Higher Education vol 32, No 1, pp 1-20

Richardson J, 2009. Face-to-face Versus Online tutoring Support in Humanities Courses in Distance Education. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education vol 8(1), pp69-85

Thorpe M, 2002. Rethinking Learner Support: the challenge of collaborative online learning. Open Learning, Vol 17, No 2, p 112. Carfax Publishing

Chenault B, 1998. Developing Personal and Emotional Relationships via Computer-Mediated Communication. CMC Magazine, May 1998

Walther J, 2006. Nonverbal Dynamics in Computer-Mediated Communication. In The SAGE Handbook of Nonverbal Communication, Manusov V and Patterson M, Eds. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks CA

The construction of learning and teaching

Image: rusty tool box

Reviewing: Students’ approaches to learning and teachers’ approaches to teaching in HE, by OU Professor John Richardson, in Educational Psychology vol 25, no 6, 2005

John Richardon’s article describes the findings of a series of qualitative studies carried out mainly in UK and Swedish HE institutions between the late 1970s and the early 2000s, seeking to identify some of the determinants of student and teacher attitudes to the learning process, and their consequent behaviours as learners and teachers. Richardson’s conclusions are roughly as follows:

Different students have very different approaches to study, ranging from a focus on understanding concepts, through a strategy based on memorising material, to a concentration on optimising preparedness for tests. These differences seem to correspond closely to differences in the students’ underlying conceptions of learning – conceptions which can be grouped into:

1 Learning as an increase in knowledge
2 Learning as memorising
3 Learning as acquisition of procedures/facts
4 Learning as abstraction of meaning
5 Learning as an interpretative process aimed at understanding reality, and
6 Learning as personal growth or change

Students who subscribe to conceptions 1, 2 or 3 are more likely to have a ‘shallow’ approach focused on memorising or test preparation, and to see learning as something that happens to them; whereas students who subscribed to conceptions 4, 5 and 6 are much more likely to take a ‘deep’ approach focused on understanding, and to view their learning as something they are actively engaged in. What causes students to have these differing conceptions of learning, it’s suggested, has to do with contextual factors such as teaching style and institutional culture, as well as their previous experience of learning.

Turning to teachers, the studies cited by Richardson suggest a primary distinction in practice between a “teacher-focused approach” aiming at the transmission of information to students, and a “student-focused approach” aimed at bringing about conceptual change in learners. A student-focused approach was more likely to result in students adopting the ‘deep’ approach to study, and reporting a positive experience of their learning.

And as with students and learning, these two contrasting approaches to teaching are seen as reflecting a number of distinct underlying conceptions of what it means to teach. These conceptions can be grouped into:

1 Teaching as imparting information
2 Teaching as transmission of structured knowledge
3 Teaching as interaction between teacher and students
4 Teaching as facilitation of understanding, and
5 Teaching as triggering conceptual change & intellectual development

Teachers subscribing to conceptions 1 and 2 would tend to be teacher-focused in their practice, while those subscribing to conceptions 3, 4 or 5 would tend to be student-focused. Although Richardson acknowledges the importance of other factors such as perceptions of institutional context and culture, and specific features of the subject being taught, it is these underlying conceptions which are seen as the overriding determinants of teachers’ practice. Consequently,

If institutions want their teachers to adopt a more student-focused approach to teaching, they need to ensure that their teachers hold a commensurate conception of teaching – and a brief training course will not be sufficient to achieve this. (Richardson J, 2005)

Most of the above seems to me so obviously true as to hardly need 25 years of exhaustive research to demonstrate it. Did we not already know that some learning is active, deep and concepts-centred – some passive, shallow and test-centred? Or that some teaching is student focused, interactive and explorative, while some is one-way, transmissive and teacher-focused? Or indeed that these differences in practice correspond to some basic demarcations in underlying conceptions of learning and teaching, as well as being affected by the context in which the learning and teaching take place? I think we did!

But amid the truisms there’s a couple of unevidenced assumptions being made here which I want to challenge…

The first is that the ‘transmission of structured knowledge’ is a teacher-focused practice militating against student understanding, which I think does not always or necessarily follow. A brilliantly-delivered lecture, for example – while certainly not being all a learner needs – may well trigger exactly the kind of intellectual thirst and conceptual expansion implied by the phrase ‘deep learning’.

My second quarrel is with an assumption being made about the relationship between underlying conceptions about learning and teaching, and learners’ and teachers’ actual practice. On the basis of one or two ambiguous research references Richardson implies that this is a simple, one-way causation: that the concepts determine the practice. I think the relationship is more complex: that concepts also arise from practice, that practice and concepts are mutually generating and reinforcing.

In fact I think Richardson’s own account instantiates this two-way causation, for example when discussing “students who hold a reproductive conception of learning through exposure to a subject-based curriculum”, or in referring to a survey finding that “conceptions of teaching varied across different disciplines, but that teachers teaching the same disciplines at different institutions had relatively similar conceptions of teaching.”

I think Richardson does ultimately embrace this more complex, two-way view of causation when, discussing learning and teaching contexts, he concludes that “teachers constitute an important part of the learning context for the students, and the students in turn constitute an important part of the teaching environment for the teachers.”

Learners, in other words, construct their teachers just as surely as teachers construct their learners.


Richardson J, 2005. Students’ approaches to learning and teachers’ approaches to teaching in HE. In Educational Psychology vol 25, no 6

Academic blogging

Why do students and teachers blog? Or to put it another way, what’s blogging got to do with learning?

I use my blog as an online log of what seem to me the most important readings, concepts and themes from the course; and as a reflective journal which helps me to bed down new knowledge, consolidate my thoughts about what I’ve read, process my thinking, and make connections between ideas – all things identified by educational psychologists as fundamental to learning.

Often in my posts I’m trying on new concepts for size, testing their fit with existing ideas, trying out a new terminology to see what it feels like in use, and more or less consciously acting out an academic persona – performing my own identity as a practitioner of the academic craft. I also read and learn from the blogs of people who know a lot more about eLearning than I do (Josie Fraser’s SocialTech, for example, or George Siemen’s ELEARNSPACE to name two of my favourites). Apart from the exposure it gives me to new knowledge and ideas, this is a process of enculturation into academic discourse: what Seely Brown would call a cognitive apprenticeship and Etienne Wenger a legitimate peripheral participation in a community of scholars.

A quick survey of the H800-2010 cohort shows around half of them maintain course blogs for similar and/or other purposes to mine. Many of them function as online memo pads where students store notes on their reading plus links, references, reviews, answers to questions raised in the course materials, rants about the course structure, thoughts about online learning, notes to self – almost anything that doesn’t seem to fit naturally into a tutor group conference post. Some of them attract regular comments from fellow students. Virtually all of them exhibit some kind of reflection on the author’s experience of online learning.

A recent study of academic blogging by Gill Kirkup of the Open University’s Institute for Educational Technology reports that

Recent educational literature has given a long list of educational reasons why blogging is useful for students. These include: as a reflective journal, as a notebook to record events and developing ideas, as an aggregator of resources, and as a tool for creating community and conversation with fellow students. (Kirkup, 2010)

This list is largely confirmed by Kerawalla et al’s 2008 study, also for the OU’s IET, which analysed the blogging behaviours of a small group of students on one of the OU’s Masters in Online and Distance Education courses (Kerawalla et al, 2008). After allowing for those who gave up blogging or only blogged sporadically because they thought it a course requirement, Kerawalla et al identified three distinct purposes in the students’ postings:

• sharing learning resources with a network of other students

• storing (rather than sharing) personal study resources
• building a student community providing both academic and emotional support

In discussing this paper, several H800 students pointed to an overlap between these purposes and the functions that in most online course designs are intended to be fulfilled by a course conference. However the way blogs were used on the course in Kerawalla’s study (H808) meant they were better placed than the tutor group forums to fulfill this community-support function. I was a student on this presentation, and as I mentioned in the Week 10 forum discussion, the blogs on H808 were complementary to the TG forums in three important ways: they were a place for less formal, more speculative, more conversational contributions than the forums; a place for the more social and affective side of community-building; and a kind of online common room for the whole course cohort where you’d meet students from other tutor groups.

Unlike a tutor group forum blogs are normally public, and for many professional academics this is part of their usefulness. A blog’s openness to the world wide web, combined with its discursive, post-and-comment, hyperlinked nature makes it ideally suited to the interchange of ideas and the making of new intellectual connections, enabling academics, as Rory Ewins of Edinburgh University puts it, “to be both author and audience, and to communicate readily with their peers as either or both” (Ewins, 2005). Melissa Greg of Queensland University notes that blogs are an antidote to overconcern with intellectual property: “In blogging.. knowledge loses any sense of being something to be guarded. Instead, it becomes something to be facilitated, discussed and improved” (Gregg, 2006). While the OU’s Martin Weller posted recently that his blog was now a key part of his academic identity – the part he was most comfortable with – and went on to say that

Developing an online identity is a crucial part of being an academic (or maybe just being a citizen) – there is an online identity for you out there somewhere, you just need to find it. And when you do, nothing will be the same again. (Weller, 2009)

Despite all these benefits, many students are reluctant to blog. Many H800 students blog intermittently or not at all, and in the tutor-group discussion on the Kerawalla paper several contributors suggested they would only blog if it was a course requirement, and then only nervously or unwillingly. Some could still not see the point, some felt it was just not for them, and for some it seemed to do with lack of confidence as learners.

Nevertheless I agree with those like Adam and Caroline who argued in the forum that, while course design can be optimised to encourage it, blogging should remain ultimately a matter of learner choice and personal preference and not an assessable course component. You can’t be compelled to reflect.

Last but not least, blogging is a training ground for good writing, a way of practising a more informal, less hide-bound style of academic discourse; what Gregg calls “conversational scholarship” (Gregg, 2006). Blogs are after all rhetorical artefacts, and even academic blogs address themselves to the world wide web as well as a scholarly community. Blogs need to be well written if they are to be well read, which means they need to be – unlike a great deal of traditional academic prose – clear, concise and engaging. The instant access and endless editability of the weblog makes it a perfect writer’s sandpit.


Kerawalla L, Minocha S, Kirkup G and Conole G, 2008. Characterising the different blogging behaviours of students on an online distance learning course. Learning Media and Technology, Vol 33 No1, 21-33

Kirkup G, 2010. Academic blogging: academic practice and academic identity. Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK

Ewins R, 2005. Who are You? Weblogs and Academic Identity. E–Learning, Volume 2, Number 4.

Gregg M, 2006. Feeling Ordinary: Blogging as Conversational Scholarship. Continuum: Journal of Media & Culture Studies Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 147–160

Weller, M (2009). Happy Blogiversary to Me, posted to The Ed Techie 03/05/2009. Available online at Accessed 29/05/10

Visualisations of learning

Image: graffito detail

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between learning theory and learning design, and I’ve realised the two are so intertwined as to be sometimes indistinguishable. Learning design frameworks are not only expressions of a particular theoretical approach, they are almost a condensed or distilled version of the theory itself – theory viewed, as it were, through the lens of practice. The point of learning design frameworks is therefore twofold. Not only do they aid in the planning, describing and sharing of a learning event’s design by making that design explicit and reproducable; they potentially also help us understand what’s actually going on – cognitively, organisationally, and conceptually – during any learning event.

The grandaddy of learning design frameworks is really the experiential learning cycle of David Kolb. Developed during the 1970s, and itself based on the work of John Dewey and Kurt Lewin (all learning needs a starting point!), Kolb’s model starts with personal experience and moves through a reflective phase and a generalising phase into a final experimental phase in which new ideas are tested and modified in the light of experience.

Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. Graphic by Clara Davies/Tony Lowe, Leeds University LDU/SSDU.

Kolb’s model obviously focuses on what goes on inside the individual learner’s head, excluding the social dimension – and clearly reflecting a cognitive model of learning.

The experiential learning cycle has been immensely influential, and many more recent schemas follow Kolb in trying to isolate and define the different phases or types of learning that make up a learning event. Perhaps the best known of these is Diana Laurillard’s typology of learning activities or ‘flows’ – discursive, interactive, adaptive and reflective – which I blogged about during H806. One of Laurillard’s most important contributions is the centrality of dialogue in her conversational framework, manifesting a more social constructivist understanding of the learning process.

More recently, Grainne Conole has developed a more synchretic learning typology, identifying four key characteristics which combine elements of cognitivist, constructivist and social-constructivist learning theory. Conole represents these charateristics as facets of an archetypal learning-event structure, as follows:

Conole’s framework of learning activities (Conole G, 2008)

Another synchretic model, influenced by both Kolb and Laurillard, is the 8 Learning Events Model developed by LabSET in Belgium, which articulates every learning activity into eight distinct events – Receives, Explores, Imitates, Experiments, Practices, Debates, Creates & ‘Meta-learns’ (meaning reflects on the learning). Though highly derivative, the 8LEM model has the virtue of emphasising the active nature of learning.

LabSET 8 Learning Events Model

Some learning theorists have suggested a more structuralist approach to the problem of visualising learning, focusing on the learning event as an activity system or a set of variables which can be tuned like radio wavelengths. Conole for example suggests a kind of 3-dimensional cartesian grid on which any particular instance of learning can be plotted by adjusting the values along each of the three continua individual-social, passive-active, and information-experience.

Conole’s Tools-in-Use mapping framework (Conole G, 2008)

Interestingly, Conole’s axes also modulate between the basic stances of each of the main learning theoretical traditions – behaviourist, cognitivist, constructivist and situated.

Another structuralist approach is that of Helen Beetham, whose learning activity framework analyses the learning event as a system, drawing on the social-constructivist activity theory of Yrjo Engestrom (see my post Metaphor and metamorphosis) as well as the IMS Learning Design Specification. Beetham’s model articulates the interdependence and reciprocality of each of the inputs, components, variables and outputs of the learning activity, which she helpfully defines as “a specific interaction of learners with other people, using specific tools and resources, oriented toward specific outcomes.”

Beetham’s learning activity outline (Beetham H, 2007)

Finally there’s the situated learning approach associated with Etienne Wenger and John Seely Brown, which informs the idea of learning as a cognitive apprenticeship and much practice-based learning design. The apprenticeship approach to learning design is essentially identical to Wenger’s legitimate peripheral participation model, as visualised here:

Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Diagram from University of South Alabama’s Online Learning Laboratory

Personally I don’t think the different visualisations of the learning process are mutually exclusive, or that educators should feel they have to choose between them. Different frameworks will be more appropriate in different contexts; for example, Beetham’s system template is probably most useful in a formal HE context, while the Community of Practice model may have a better fit with CPD or workplace learning; and although the 8LEM model may function well as a learning designer’s checklist, it clearly can’t offer the insight into the nature of the learning process that, say, Laurillard’s framework provides.

That said, it’s those models that best express the complexity and interconnectedness of learning events, as Laurillard’s and Beetham’s both do – and those, like the Community of Practice narrative, that capture the essentially social nature of learning – that to my mind are the most complete and compelling visualisations of learning.


Conole G, 2008. New Schemas for Mapping Pedagogies and Technologies. Ariadne Issue 56, July 2008
Beetham H, 2007. An approach to learning activity design, in Beetham, H. and Sharpe, R. (eds) Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age, pp.26–40, Oxford, RoutledgeFalmer

Situated cognition and the school domain

Image: door of old school in Paris

John Seely Brown, Alan Collins and Paul Duguid’s influential paper Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning (Brown et al, 1989) is essentially an assault on conventional schooling. The school, they argue, is an inherently inauthentic domain where knowing is separated from doing, where knowledge is deracinated from its proper context in a community of practice and presented as “abstract, decontextualised, formal concepts”.

Brown et al’s starting point is Lave and Wenger’s concept of situated learning1. All learning is situated in the context of a particular practice; that is

the activity in which knowledge is developed and deployed .. is not separable from or ancillary to learning and cognition. Nor is it neutral. Rather, it is an integral part of what is learned. Situations might be said to co-produce knowledge through activity.

Most informal learning is embedded in the normal activities of a particular culture or domain, into which newcomers are enculturated by existing practitioners, with knowledge and skills being absorbed implicitly through participation in the domain’s discourse and practice – what Brown et al call its “authentic activity”.

The trouble with school-based learning, in their view, is that school uproots such domain-specific knowledge and situates it instead in the inauthentic activity of the school domain:

Classroom activity takes place within the culture of schools, although it is attributed to the culture of readers, writers, mathematicians, historians, economists, geographers and so forth… Much school work is inauthentic and therefore not fully productive of useful learning.

At this point Brown, Collins and Duguid have in my view veered off into theoretical extremism. Their paper comes very close to arguing that the kind of domain-specific, procedural learning of a craft apprenticeship is the only really useful kind of learning, and that there is little point in the declarative, generalised learning which makes what is learned explicit, that attempts to make connections between different things that have been learnt, to derive general rules and generate abstract concepts that can transfer from one context to another. (For more on domain-specific/procedural/declarative/generalised learning see this earlier post on types of knowledge.)

This strangely intransigent position is explained by Anna Sfard in terms of her Acquisition/Participation metaphorical framework (Sfard A, 1998). A thorough-going belief in the embedded and contextual nature of learning leads, by a purist logic, to a denial of its transferability from one context to another. Knowledge, it’s argued, cannot be both situated and abstract. (Standing on Sfard’s shoulders we can see that, whatever their theoretical intransigence, Brown et al’s widespread use of metaphors to advance their argument – conceptual tools, cognitive apprenticeship – suggests a recognition in practice that concepts can be transplanted from one domain to another.)

Brown et al are absolutely right in saying that learning cannot be understood in isolation from the place and practice in which it occurs, and that school constitutes its own specialised domain; but wrong in asserting that the school domain is less authentic than any other. The school domain’s authenticity lies precisely in an explicit, self-conscious engagement with learning, and perhaps especially with the declarative, generalised learning described above, which can lead to knowledge that is endlessly transferable and learners who can continue learning throughout their lives.

Despite this central flaw, Brown et al’s paper offers up four related but distinct ideas, each of which is a powerful aid to thinking about learning, especially if we consider them less as components in a grand theoretical narrative, and more (to borrow one of the article’s central metaphors) as a toolkit of serviceable conceptual tools. I’ve summarised them below.

Concepts as domain-related tools
Like physical tools, concepts are only properly understood through use in the context of domain-specific practice. Using them “entails both changing the user’s view of the world and adopting the belief system of the culture in which they are used.”

Situated cognition
This is cognition embedded in a social practice, and distributed across a social and physical environment. “Knowledge, which comes coded by and connected to the activity and environment in which it is developed, is spread across its component parts, some of which are in the mind and some in the world..”

Cognitive apprenticeship
A pedagogy aligned to the methods of craft apprenticeship, in which students learn to use conceptual tools through enculturation into the practice of a domain. “The term apprenticeship helps to emphasise the centrality of activity in learning and knowledge, and highlights the inherently context-dependent, situated, and enculturating nature of knowledge.”

Collaborative group learning
An essential component of cognitive apprenticeship, supporting knowledge pooling, collective problem-solving, adoption of multiple roles, and development of collaborative work skills. “Learning advances through collaborative social interaction and the social construction of knowledge.. Throughout most of their lives people learn and work collaboratively, not individually..”

All quotes from Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning (Brown et al, 1989).


Brown J S, Collins A and Duguid P, 1989. Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning, Educational Researcher, Vol 18, No 1, pp 32-42. American Educational Research Association

Sfard A, 1998. On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One, Education Researcher, Vol 27, No 2. American Educational Research Association.

1 See, eg, Lave E and Wenger J, 1991. Situated Learning: legitimate peripheral participation, University of Cambridge Press, Cambridge MA.  For an excellent summary of Lave and Wenger’s ideas, see the Infed articles The social/situational orientation to learning and Communities of practice available online at (accessed 20/03/10).

Metaphor and metamorphosis

Image: Orb Weaver spider in web

This week we’ve been reading a paper about activity theory by Finnish scholar Yrjo Engestrom. Engestrom is heir to a long and distinguished line of social learning theorists founded by 20th century Russian cultural-historical psychologists Lev Vygotsky, Alexander Luria and Alexei Leont’ev, whose central theme is the extent to which learning is embedded in, or mediated by, social relations, language, and cultural norms and artefacts.

Building on the work of Leont’ev in particular, Engestrom proposes the activity system as a model of how learning takes place. Engestrom’s system diagram shows learning as a situated activity engaged in by

Image: Engestrom's Human Activity System

a subject (the learner) with a learning object in view, aided and constrained by multiple factors: the language and tools available to him or her, the conventions of the learning event, and the community in which the learner is embedded together with its divisions of labour. In engaging with the object of learning, the subject uses concepts or other artefacts to help make meaning and produce a learning outcome of some kind. The oval on the right of the diagram, Engestrom writes, “indicates that object-oriented actions are always, explicitly or implicitly, characterised by ambiguity, surprise, interpretation, sense-making, and potential for change.” (Engestrom Y, 2001)

Activity systems are not sealed units, but relate horizontally to other activity systems, overlapping and combining outcomes in an expansive network of systems, their internal or external contradictions constantly triggering realignments of system components to create new solutions to emerging problems.

It’s a dynamic model which has many strengths. It emphasises the complex, active, and mediated nature of learning, the shifting interplay between the multiple factors bearing on every learning event, the social and cultural embeddedness of every learning act, and the potential for learning outcomes to transform and create.

Dynamic – but somehow rigid as well. Even when Engestrom is trying to capture complexity, his account, like his model, feels like a straightjacket. You can’t help feeling that real-life learning can never be as neat and clear-cut as the system diagram suggests. Why?

I think it’s because the model is not what the author thinks it is. It’s not so much a diagrammatic representation of a volatile, actually-existing system, more a likening of learning to a contrivance of rods, shafts, fulcrums and forces; less an analytical tool than a rhetorical comparison between the multiple connections and interdependencies of the learning process, and a complex and intricate piece of engineering. The activity system feels mechanical because, like Newton’s clockwork universe, it is using the metaphor of a machine…


Personally I much prefer another metaphorical attempt to capture the multiple interconnectedness of learning. In a paper we read last week, Sian Bayne uses the beautiful myth of Arachne to figure forth the transformations wrought in teacher and student identities when learning moves online. (Bayne S, 2005). Arachne was a weaver who became so supremely skillful that she surpassed her teacher, the goddess Athene. Humiliated in a tapestry-weaving competition between the two of them, the angry goddess punished Arachne by metamorphosing her into a spider, condemned to weaving her web for ever just to make a home and find food.

Ovid’s version of the myth includes detailed descriptions of the two tapestries: Athene’s a classical composition with scenes of mortals being punished for their hubris arranged in a border around a central image of Athene herself; Arachne’s more free-flowing and organic, an exuberant mass of images of metamorphosis and sex between humans and gods. Bayne reads the tale as an allegory, not just of up-ending the conventional hierarchy of teacher and student, but more widely of the shifting nature of online identities:

Athene’s tapestry places herself as teacher at the centre – [representing] the Cartesian subject, the acting subject firmly at the centre of a world ordered by reason… By contrast Arachne’s tapestry is centreless. No one image holds down and fills with meaning or moral the images which crowd the woven space… Arachne’s vision [is] a celebration of the fluidity of metamorphosis. (Bayne S, 2005)

It’s a very unmachine-like image of shifting, organic fecundity. Both Arachne’s tapestry design and her eventual fate resonate with creative transformation, including the changing shape of teaching and learning.

The metaphor extends into the arena of learning online in that here pedagogical methods and intentions rooted in principles of textual stability and the dissemination of knowledge among stable, autonomous subjects are often at odds with a medium in which both text and subject are liable to metamorphose, to the shape-shifting which is so much a part of our lives in the digital realm. (Bayne S, 2005)

This digital shape-shifting – this creative plasticity in both text and authorial identity – is highly evocative of Richard Lanham’s electronic orality which I blogged about a while back. But it’s also an account of learning and teaching, weaving and web-making, in which the spider’s web figures forth the countless interconnections and contingencies, elastic and ephemeral, involved in the act of learning.


Engestrom Y, 2001. Expansive Learning at Work: toward an activity theoretical reconceptualisation. Journal of Education and Work, vol 14, No1

Bayne S, 2005. Deceit, desire and control: the identities of learners and teachers in cyberspace, in Land, R and Bayne, S (eds) Education in Cyberspace. London: RoutledgeFalmer. Available online at