Technology for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Contexts: Activity Theory and Actor Network Theory Analytical Perspectives

Article excerpt


There is a growing body of literature which argues that technology enhances teaching and learning processes in higher education. The adoption of teaching and learning technology such as elearning and the learning management systems (LMSs) is also on the rise among higher education institutions. The patterns of this growing trend are also incoherent and inconsistent. In addition, there is no general agreement on the meaning of concepts of adoption and use within academia. In the midst of the existing conceptual stampede it remains difficult to adequately explain emerging patterns. This paper explores a possible framework for the analysis of objective (goal)-directed applications of technology in a teaching and learning environments, and implications thereof. The work of Miettinen, of Rajkumar, and as well as Miettinen and Hasu encourages the use of Activity Theory (AT) for this purpose. The paper draws on three case studies from technology usability studies to explore a possible AT analytical framework. AT is found to be helpful for analysis of practical applications of technology, but not without shortcomings. AT tends to advocate an instrumentalist view of technology as a neutral tool. Both AT and Actor Network Theory (ANT) subscribe to the contextual embedded nature of technology but differ on implications and the status of technology in a socio-technical process. ANT supports the critical view of technology as value-laden, thus encouraging the critical engagement with a technology in social environments. Its symmetrical assumptions however, limit its scope in accounting for differences between human cognitive capabilities and the non-cognitive nature of artefacts. Additional studies towards an AT and ANT framework of contextualising e-learning and LMSs are recommended


Technological innovation has changed the social, political, economic, and cultural fabric of life since the end of the Cold War (Taylor, 2001). Information and communication technology (ICT) has been instrumental in social transformations - from the industrial society of the 20th century to the 'network society' of the new age of 'lnformationalism' - where even intercontinental neighbours are now one button-push away (Castells, 1996).

Higher education has not been left untouched, and predictions are that in just a few decades time the pressure of the changing times will have reduced big university campuses into relics. Universities as we know them, according to Drucker (1997), just won't survive. In the context of higher education there is a shift from the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, to a more pragmatic economically-oriented paradigm (Gibbons, 1998). Information, awareness, and the ability to use information are key features of knowledge. Knowledge production and dissemination, research and teaching are no longer self-contained but involve interactions with a greater variety of knowledge producers than in the past. Universities worldwide are improving their competitiveness in the new and challenging distributed knowledge production system (Mlitwa, 2005). In this quest, they are making extensive use of new kinds of ICTs - to attract and teach new students, and to improve co-operation with different stakeholders (Gutlig, 1999; Middlehurst, 2003). The reaction in South Africa has been a move by the more established higher education institutions from cultural conservatism to a more entrepreneurial university (Gutlig, 1999; van der Merwe, 2004).

Such traditional universities are dealing with the pressures of globalisation, the technology revolution, new kinds of competition, and the global push for an information society. Survival however, will depend on how universities re-position themselves in distributed knowledge production systems, the type of partnerships they forge (Gibbons, 1998; van der Merwe, 2004), and how they use available tools and resources such as ICT to improve their activities (Mlitwa, 2005). …