22 SES 13 C JS, Online Teaching and Learning in Higher Education
Joint Paper Session NW 16 and 22
We argue that this software-centered approach to cognitive tools is akin to studying teaching and learning in the classroom by concentrating on how blackboards are made or how textbooks are written. The focus on the software and its possible uses is a natural consequence of borrowing the idea of tool from Vygotsky, while ignoring the constructs of activity and mediation, into which it slots naturally. By retaining an essentially cognitive approach to teaching and learning, these researchers into cognitive tools were forced to focus on the tool as a thing-in-itself, because there is no straight-forward manner to incorporate it into the cognitive idea of learning as reception of information.
In the rest of the paper, we will propose a reconceptualization of cognitive tool within a Vygotskian theoretical framework, and demonstrate how with this approach, two crucial ideas about thinking about and studying cognitive tools become self-evident. The first is that it is the learning activity and not the software that is the useful unit of analysis. The second is that a software is a cognitive tool only in as much as it is used by a learner in carrying out an activity in Leont’ev’s sense.
In doing this we focus on the work of the instructional designer for online courses. Our reasons are two-fold. First, we want to argue that when learners sit down in front of a computer to engage with an online course, they tend to engage in an activity with an object defined by the instructor or designer. That is, online learning, even more than in-class learning, is experienced by learners as a series of discrete activities. Second, we want instructional designers not to start with a software and invent uses for it, but rather to envision an online course as a structured series of objects, each of which requires a learning activity to achieve.
Cognitive tools have proven a powerful idea in conceptualising the use of digital technologies in online courses. However, the experience of online learners has proven to be less than ideal because, in part, the design of activities within the course has often failed to systematically take into account the context in which learning is occurring.
In this paper, we employ Engeström’s (2014) activity theory as a framework for analysis of the online learning activity, which we tentatively operationalize as a task which the learner engages in at one session, and which has a specified object, such that once that object is attained, the session and the activity end. In this approach, a cognitive tool, like other tools in activity theory, is a mediator between the subject (the online learner) and the object of the activity. We retain the term cognitive tool both to reclaim its original Vygotskian sense, as well as to recognize that online learning has aspects of both concrete and psychological tools.
For any online activity, we begin by defining the object, that which the learner is to achieve, and then identify the community which is involved in that activity, such as the instructor and classmates. Then the mediators are identified, the tools, concrete, psychological, and cognitive, which the learner must employ to achieve the object, the rules which determine the dialogue between learner and community, and finally the roles that each member of the community must adopt to complete the activity. A careful analysis of the requirements of the activity, including identification of the necessary components of the cognitive tool. This provides a systematic approach to the design of activities for online courses.
In this design case study, we use activity theory to analyse a series of online tools that were used in an online course in statistics. A course objective was for students to be able to choose which statistical test was appropriate for a given research situation. In face-to-face classrooms, the instructor would often use stories as illustrative examples to help students understand this process, however, in an online course, cognitive tools can readily be employed. In Activity Theory, the first step is to determine the object of the activity. In this case, it is for the student to determine which statistical test is appropriate given a research scenario. The subject needs a set of psychological tools that are needed in order to carry out the task, such as to have already mastered several key concepts in statistics, such as how the variables in the scenario are measured, how many groups are being compared, whether these groups are independent, or whether the sample size is considered large. The next step is to provide the students with cognitive tool that supports their acquisition of the skill of applying this knowledge to research scenarios. In this case, we developed an online decision tree, consisting of a set of questions, by clicking on the appropriate answer, the student would be linked to the next question, and so on until the student arrived at a decision as to which of the 18 tests covered in the course was appropriate. This cognitive tool was designed so that it supported the students’ movement through their Zone of Proximal Development, that is students could perform a task with the support of the online decision tree, but not on their own. As learners engaged in more practice, they used the decision tree less, until they had internalized the knowledge and could complete the task on their own, without support. In the first iteration of this cognitive tool, it was found that students had trouble retrieving previously learned material that was essential to answering a question. The decision tree was revised to provide cues on each page (for example, the definition of a continuous variable). Furthermore, while the specific decision tree was designed for that specific course, the concept of the decision tree was generalizable, and was used by a colleague at another university to teach students how to chose the appropriate evaluation method for a course in program evaluation.
Digital technologies are ubiquitous within the online environment. It is the use of the digital technology, in collaboration, in a learning activity, that makes it a cognitive tool: it is not what the technology can do but what the learner does with it in a learning activity. Thus, it becomes a tool, in the Vygotskian use of the term, and as such it changes the learning, both in its process and quality. This way of looking at the cognitive tools as embedded in social use enables learning designers to be specific in the tools they are using, choosing the appropriate cognitive tools for a specific activity and a specific group of learners. ABID provides the course designer and instructor with: 1. design that is student-centered, 2. a focus on the salient features of the learning activity (and ignores the irrelevant); 3. a naturally modular learning environment that is adaptable in implementation; 4. assessment of student performance based on engagement in and completion of each activity; and 5. a language to communicate the elements of good online design and teaching which can be used not only to guide our own thinking but also to induct new online designers and teachers into professional expertise in online teaching. When there is a synergy between technology and pedagogy everyone benefits: learning designers find solutions for teachers and teachers make effective use of the tools developed by learning designers. By returning the concept of cognitive tool to its original socio-cultural framework of the learning activity, ABID provides a model for how the course designer can use cognitive tools to support and enhance student learning. It is by defining the activity as the basic unit of analysis and of design, that the cognitive tool can take its natural place in our understanding of student learning.
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