Activity theory as a potential framework for technology research in an unequal terrain

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South African Journal of Higher Education

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University of Cape Town

This article attempts to expand and elaborate Activity Theory as a theory for studying human computer interaction in South Africa. It first sketches ways in which Russian activity theory arising out of the work of Vygotsky may expand understandings of learning before elaborating the theory in terms of Engestrom's contributions. Using case study data collected from a postgraduate course in Education at the University of Cape Town, I investigate how Activity Theory can be used in order to understand the process of transformation occurring when computers are used as teaching/learning tools and how different systems interact with, and transform each other over time. By employing methods such as interviews and observations I develop an account of how pedagogy shifts across the different contexts of lecture hall and computer laboratory, illustrating how a shift in the object of the activity system leads to shifts at all levels of the system. I conclude by arguing that the strength of Activity Theory lies in its ability to enable one to understand learning as the complex result of tool mediated interactions, rather than as something opaque, which happens in a student's mind.