Friday 5 October 2012

Improving the Student ICT Access and Use Project’s Coding Indices with Second Generation, Activity theory activity system components

Written for ICT researchers developing titles for coding indices.

Using the components of an ‘activity system’ from the second-generation of Activity theory (Engeström, 2005) proved useful for creating more descriptive category titles in four coding indices that were developed during Laura Czerniewicz and Cheryl Brown’s research project Student ICT Access and Use (2004 -2012) project’s fourth phase (2011). This phase explored the first year university students’ formal and informal uses of Information Communication Technology (ICT). As the project gathered data from the ‘digital habitus’ of 26 students, it uncovered how they participated in many different activity systems. This long blog post explains how components of these activity systems were used to make more accurate and descriptive coding titles for each index.

Phase four of the research project aimed to better understand how first year students from diverse social backgrounds were using ICT technologies, both formally and informally, at four South African universities in 2011.  It sought to explore the ‘habitus’ (Bourdieau, 1986) of twenty six student subjects by analysing interviews, questionnaire feedback and day experience media (DEM) collected by a different researcher at each university for up to seven subjects.

To support efficient analysis across different media file types (video, audio and documents), these files were imported into qualitative research software. To code these media, four coding indices were developed after viewing students’ first and second interviews. The four indices could be used to code each subject’s: ‘past-’ (1), ‘present-’ (2) and ‘intended- ICT use’ (3), as well as common aspects of their feedback concerning ‘recent social media use’ (4). After publishing these indexes as Google documents, with supplementary posts on their development, I was asked to see whether Activity theory could serve a lens to improve the indexes’ category titles.

The Components of a Second Generation, Activity Theory ‘Activity System’
Activity theory (Engeström, 1987, 2001, 2005) has been used in many countries, including South Africa (Hardman, 2005, 2007), in order to understand the use of ICT in education (Kaptelinin and Nardi, 2006). Activity theory is a conceptual framework that is well suited to explain students’ use of online software in the complex social environment of university.

In Activity theory, the basic unit of analysis is an activity system, which in the first generation comprises a ‘subject’ who works with a ‘tool’ on a problem space, or ‘object’, to achieve an outcome that supports ‘objectives’ (Leontiev, 1974, 1981; Vygotsky, 1978, 1987; Wertsch, 1985). Second-generation Activity theory expands the activity system’s framework’s components to include ‘community’, ‘rules’ and ‘division of labour’ (Engeström, 1987).

An example of an activity system components in use is a student subject using a learning management system software tool as part of a common assignment (or problem space) to download an exercise. She does this with the the conscious objective of starting her assignment timeously. As a student, she is expected to observe rules; principles of control affording or constraining behaviour. If she does not submit her work on time, she will be penalised by losing marks. A division of labour that comprises a horizontal division amongst community members and a vertical division between the power- and status-holders also shapes the community’s actions. For example, the lecturer assigns an exercise to the class, which they must do individually. If he assigned a group project that would mark a change in the division of labour typically expected in class.

As this project’s indices reveal, its researchers explored many student activity systems; whether in the formal university environment or outside. The explanatory power of their components was then applied to all four indices, to see if they could better define category titles.

Updating coding index one, ‘Students' Past ICT Access and Use’.
The first index defined students’ exposure to ICT prior to university. This aligns with the Activity theory principle of development, which emphasises the importance understanding the origin and history of tool-appropriation by subjects. In this instance the index’s original titles did not reflect the learners’ secondary school context versus university: The index was divided into five categories, originally titled: ‘Demographics 0’, ‘Education 1.1’, ‘First ICT use 1.2’, ‘ Family history 1.3’ and ‘Access 1.4’. To clearly distinguish between these two contexts, the title ‘Education 1.1’ became ‘ICT education at secondary school 1.1’. By contrast, ‘Demographics 0’ became ‘Student's demographic details 0’ to highlight that the demographic details captured were for the students in 2011, not learners. It was also important to distinguish between the learners’ initial uses of ICT before university, so ‘First ICT uses 1.2’ became ‘Pre-varsity use of ICT tools 1.2’.

The tiles ‘Family 1.3’ and ‘Access 1.4’ were changed to be more descriptive, the former became ‘Use of tools in the family 1.3’, the latter ‘Site of access to ICT tools 1.4’.

For each index, the activity system components that each category featured were also highlighted under category headings. As an example, ‘Subject - Community - Rules - Division of Labour’ were added under the category ‘ICT education at secondary school 1.1’. This reflected the category’s focus on the learner subject whose formal exposure to ICT at school largely depended on the schooling community that they were part of, and its rules (or policies) influencing its learners’ access. By contrast, ‘Pre-varsity use of ICT tools 1.2’ focussed on each learner subject’s use of ICT tools, so only ‘Subject’ and ‘Tool’ were listed.

Changing coding index two, ‘Students’ Current  ICT Use 2’
The second index was developed to code the students ownership of, as well as formal and informal access to, ICT tools and their academic or informal uses. Most students had access to a diverse range of tools which were provided through a community including their; University, parents or sponsors, peers or acquired through their own work. Although this was reflected through the sub-categories under the original ‘ICT ownership 2.1’ category title, this was not highlighted in the title itself, which was changed to ‘Student’s personal ICT ownership and/or access 2.1’ to better reflect different avenues of tool access. The other two category titles were changed to be more descriptive; from ‘ICT use 2.2’ and ‘Academic use 2.3’ to ‘Student’s personal ICT use 2.2’ and ‘Student's academic ICT access and use 2.3’, respectively.

A sub-category title was also changed to be more descriptive of community; ‘ICT help 2.34’ changed to ‘University, family and peer assistance with ICT 2.34’ thereby emphasising the varied members who provided assistance.

Revising coding index three, ‘Students’ Intended ICT Use 3’
The third index was used in coding transcriptions of students describing; the types of ICT tools and resources they desired, their future aims with ICT, how they plan to use social networks in the future and their current and future social work contributions. The original category titles were ‘ICT tools and resources wanted 3.1’, ‘Future ICT aims 3.2’, ‘Future social network use 3.3’ and ‘Subject's social work 3.4’. These were revised to highlight the role of the learner subject, becoming; ‘ICT tools and resources wanted by the student 3.1’, ‘The student's future ICT aims 3.2’, ‘The student's future social network desired use 3.3’ and ‘Student's social work 3.4’, respectively.

Modifying coding index four, ‘Students' Social Media Use 4’
The fourth index focussed on coding student feedback regarding their social media use for self-representation, friendship and achieving specific tasks (through its affordances), as well as rules they employed in using social media and their feelings about it. The original titles were; ‘Representations of self 4.1’, ‘Friendships and social media 4.2’, ‘Social media affordances 4.3’, ‘Personal social media rules 4.4’ and ‘Student feelings in relation to social media 4.5’. These were also modified to reflect the subject’s importance; ‘Student's representations of self 4.1’, ‘Student's friendships and social media 4.2’, ‘Student's perceptions of social media affordances 4.3’, ‘Student's personal social media rules 4.4’ and ‘Student's feelings in relation to social media 4.5’

In conclusion
Using the components of  a second-generation Activity theory activity system proved useful as a lens to create more accurate and descriptive titles for the Student ICT Access and Use project’s coding indexes. Following a similar process may prove useful for ICT researchers creating or reviewing index titles.

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson, Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (pp. 241-258). New York: Greenwood.
Engeström, Y. 1987, Learning by Expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental research, Orienta-Konsultit Oy, Helsinki, Finland.
Engeström, Y. 2001, Expansive Learning at Work. Towards an Activity-Theoretical Reconceptualisation. University of London, London, England, UK.
Engeström, Y. 2005, Developmental work research: expanding activity theory in practice, Lehmanns Media, Berlin, Germany.
Hardman, J. 2007, "Making sense of the meaning maker: tracking the object of activity in a computer-based mathematics lesson using activity theory", International Journal of Education and Development using ICT, vol. 3, no. 4.
Hardman, J. 2005, "Activity Theory as a framework for understanding teachers' perceptions of computer usage at a primary school level in South Africa", South African Journal of Higher Education, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 258-265.
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Leontiev, A. 1974, "The Problem of Activity in Psychology", Soviet Psychology, vol. 13, pp. 4-33.
Kaptelinin, V. & Nardi, B. 2006, Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA.
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Wertsch, J. 1985, Culture, Communication and Cognition: Vygotskian Perspectives. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

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