Posted by: MandyS | January 4, 2012

Activity 35.1 – Individual perspectives

On the third read, I think I now know where I am going with Activity Theory.

Basically, AT considers the entire work/activity system and how a wide range of factors work together to impact on activity. In this chapter, Seale essentially uses it to consider the relationship between the tools and the people to determine what is and what isn’t working i.e. ‘is it the tools which are faulty or inadequate or the users who are faulty and ignorant?’

The three basic components of AT are:

1. the subject = the person undertaking the activity.

2. the object = the purpose of the activity.

3. the tools = either physical or conceptual which are used to help meet the objective.

Of course, the environment within which the activity takes place is also important so added to these are:

4. Rules = both explicit and implicit within the community (legislation, policy etc.).

5. Community = those that share the same general objective.

6. Division of Labour = how the community is organised to achieve the objective.

There are then 3 mutual relationships:

a) the subject and the object

b) the subject and the community

c) the community and the object

And different levels of activity:

a) activities = long term which go through stages.

b) actions = the stages.

c) operations = which build to form stages.

Finally, to understand how AT works, there are 5 Key concepts:

1. Transformation of the object into an outcome.

2. Motivation i.e. the need to transform and consciousness, which is dependent on whether the subject is a novice or expert.

3. Mediation i.e. the means of connection via tools, rules, division of labour and how these impact on an individual’s actions.

4. History & Development i.e. activities are subject to constant change and development but they will always maintain a history.

5. Contradictions and Conflicts i.e. external influences can change elements of activities causing imbalances. The important point here being that the working through of problems and issues is in fact a source of development.

What Seale then does is apply this theory to elearning and accessibility identifying various issues:

a) novices will always find some actions difficult and experts still struggle, so ‘specialists’ are still needed. This itself has a cost implication so it is important for actions and operations to be evaluated to determine difficulty and who is best to undertake them.

b) need to learn to use the tools there are rather than producing new ones to solve accessibility issues

c) The impact of legislation and policy is dependent on the extent to which they are questioned and a ‘detailed set of rules of practice’ would be more effective in promoting effective use of the rules.

d) Stakeholders need to increase their knowledge of how to divide labour effectively so that the emphasis is not one role.

e) Understanding the history of development will help practitioners deal with perceived conflicts but should not be seen as a bar to engaging with new rules, tools or divisions of labour.

f) that contradictions can exist between any or all of the 12 relationships and that such contradictions need to be resolved for accessible elearning to be developed.

g) that AT is a means of considering the wider context rather than focusing on the inadequacies of the tools or their users.

Turning now to the activity questions:

1. Seale identifies six potential areas for conflict or contradiction within an organisation or activity system. What potential contradictions exist in your organisation and why?

On the basis that the OU is probably at the forefront of making elearning accessible, I initially thought I may struggle to answer this question. So instead of looking at it from the point of view of the organisation, I decided to look at it from the point of view of the Law Programme and this has given me much more scope.

a) Object and division of labour – as a tutor, and prior to H810, I somewhat assumed that my role in making elearning accessible was rather minimal and essentially taken care of by the Course Team or Disability Services, and I imagine the majority of the Law Programme tutors will make a similar assumption. This links with the next contradiction:

b) Community and division of labour – I think the problem here is that, although there are clear rules embedded within the OU accessibility policy, which tutors are aware of, they are not involved in the integration of accessibility within the Law Programme itself. The fact that tutors see their role as minimal suggests the Course Team advocates the ‘segregated specialist services’ identified by Seale (p. 173) i.e. it is the role of the Course Team to make the Law Programme accessible and the role of the tutor to deliver the course. Which then leads to the next contradiction:

c) Community and the rules – in some respects, this contradiction is dependent on what actually constitutes the Course Team. Is it made up of those responsible for putting the course together or does it include the tutors that deliver the course? If the Course Team is representative of the community, for it to work together and apply the rules consistently, then surely the Course Team must include the tutors. As it stands, I doubt any of the tutors on the Law Programme would consider themselves a part of the Course Team; tutors on this course defer to the ‘course team’ for definitive answers to queries.

d) Tools and subject – this is very much from my own personal experience of this course. As Seale says (p. 174) ‘there is evidence of a very uneasy relationship here’. I imagine the majority of Law tutors would find themselves in a similar position simply because little thought is given as to whether their tutorial materials are actually accessible.

2. Do you think that Figure 12.1 on page 165 would be useful as a trigger for discussion within your organisation.

Not even the OU is perfect in relation to accessibility and imagine that there are courses which are less accessible than others. The AT model would be useful in identifying any courses which need development.

Would it enable you and your colleagues to identify what changes or developments are needed and why they are needed?

Using AT to consider accessibility has got me to think about any accessibility problems with the Law Programme. I imagine the course is designed with accessibility in mind, but the contradictions reveal that there may be a breakdown in relation to the tutors and their role. On that basis, I think the AT model is useful in identifying changes and development and why they are needed.

Three issues:

1. Novices becoming experts – this is of interest to me in my own context simply because I wonder how tutors will ever become experts in accessibility. From what I have learned so far, being an expert encompasses being able to apply and interpret guidelines and evaluation tools. In the context of the Law Programme, tutors, although they need to make their tutorials materials accessible, will have little control over making the VLE accessible and as such will not gain expertise in doing so. The impact this may have is for those tutors who may want to develop material using a website. Without experience, it will be difficult to progress from novice to expert. Given the cost implications, it is unlikely tutors will be afforded the staff development to turn them from novice to expert. In turn, as tutors are not compelled to make elearning accessible, it is also likely to perpetuate the ‘uneasy relationship’ the subject has with tools.

2. Stakeholders have little or no knowledge of how to divide labour effectively – Seale identifies that different communities divide labour in different ways e.g. emphasis for accessibility is placed on technicians whilst the role of lecturers is overlooked. The OU identifies that tutors clearly have a role in making learning accessible on the basis that it is a requirement in the selection process and the wealth of information that is available to tutors. However, this division does not necessarily extend to the Law Programme, where the emphasis is on the Course Team being responsible for accessibility i.e. the VLE both via the OU and the College of Law.

3. Whether history is a help or a hinderance to development – this is more from an interest point of view than it being related to my context. For me, I learn from experience and this helps me to develop more effective and efficient ways of doing things. This is what Seale seems to be saying about history and development; if we look back to the way things were originally, the problems faced now in relation to accessibility are probably far less than they were then. WCAG-1 was introduced to promote universal design etc. and, although not perfect, this is essentially what it has done.

I also avoid things which I know do not work for me, and would probably be reluctant to try something again just because it promised it had changed. This is the sticking point with history in terms of accessibility mediators, as practitioners will always be sceptical that introducing a new rule, tool or method will have a significant impact on accessibility.


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