My scholarship in the fields of instructional technology and the Learning Sciences stems from a strong interest in the how learning, particularly within the fields of science and engineering, is accessed by – and made accessible to – all learners. My predominant focus in this regard is the role technology plays in mediating learning processes, and the social practices that afford or constrain the employment of technology for learning STEM concepts and practices.
To that end, my research examines the nature of students’ use of technology for learning (both formally and informally) from a practice-based, sociocultural perspective. Most importantly, my work concerns how students might be empowered to navigate, bridge, and impress upon barriers that challenge or constrain their access to legitimate forms of participation within STEM-related activities (formulating research questions, designing experiments, engaging in argumentation, etc.).
Significant research shows that children of across socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds experience technology-mediated STEM education in ways that are all too often inequitable – an outcome of historical structures found within our education system. While much research in the past two decades has taken the approach that such inequity has led to a gap in STEM literacies or “skills” between populations of academically proficient “haves” and their less proficient “have nots,” some have proposed that such a perspective oversimplifies the deeply-ingrained nature of social inequities in school-based learning (Ito, et al., 2013; McDermott & Varenne, 1995; Sims, 2013). For this reason, a growing number of scholars have begun to adopt a practice-based, sociocultural approach to understanding differences in technology-mediated STEM learning, focusing not on the deficiencies of particular populations of students, but on the ways participation in learning activities are structured and made accessible to all students. This perspective seeks to augment theoretical approaches that cannot fully account for differences in learning when students share equitable access to resources, skills development opportunities, and chances to participate in STEM learning activities.
Theories of practice (Bourdieu, 1977; Giddens, 1979; Ortner, 1984) propose that persons actively produce, and are productions of, social worlds. That is to say, while persons may act freely across settings and contexts, they do so in ways that are historically mediated and culturally formed, and thus not reducible to individuals alone. Rather, social practices necessarily involve distributions of power, norms of behavior, and the use of culturally mediated tools. Individuals participate in historically-structured activities, but in ways that are deemed as being more or less “legitimate” by the greater community within which the activity is taking place (Lave & Wenger, 1991). The legitimacy of this participation is thus a negotiation of power between individuals and communities, and as such, has significant influence on opportunities for learning and the development of individuals’ identities (Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, & Cane, 1998). How social structures and culturally mediated tools serve as barriers to valid forms of participation is thus a critical area of learning research.
In terms of STEM and technology-based learning, this means considering the nature of activities that provide students with varying levels of access to legitimate participation and, therefore, learning. With that in mind, I believe that ethnographic research is an essential methodology for examining these issues. Ethnographic research has been shown to shed light on outcomes that seem contradictory or perplexing, such as those suggesting a gap or division in learning outcomes despite seemingly equitable access to learning technologies and the acquisition of literacies or skills. As well, ethnography equips us with tools for understanding relationships between social inequalities and digital education, because ethnography can help to situate tensions between students and education within a greater ecology of social and cultural practices. Such an approach may thereby help us to understand why certain inequities are reproduced, despite efforts to combat them.
Two analytical approaches that have informed much of my own work in understanding the nature of barriers to STEM-based learning opportunities with technology are Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) and “Third Spaces.”
Briefly, CHAT assumes knowledge and cognition are socially distributed, historically derived, constructions of human cultural experience, and that goal directed behavior must be understood within the context of that experience (Engeström, 2001). Building upon Vygotsky’s (1978) theory of culturally mediated behavior, Engeström interpreted activity as a constellation of context-based elements including the activity object, subject, mediating artifacts, rules, community, and divisions of labor. As subjects interact within this paradigm of situated, historical activity, they negotiate and perform various tasks to accomplish the object of activity. While subject, object and mediating artifacts represent situated aspects of the activity context, community, rules, and divisions of labor encompass the historical nature of interaction, suggesting all goal-driven activity is a combination of both situated and historical influence. To that end, CHAT provides a useful framework for locating and examining tensions that inhibit the achievement of activity objectives (Barab, Barnet, Yamagata-Lynch, Squire, & Keating, 2002; Engeström, 2001; Roth & Tobin, 2002).
Third space theory (Moje, et al., 2004) holds that human experience is shaped by one’s social interactions, and one’s interactions with the physical environment. “Space”, in this sense, refers to both the physical setting (i.e., material conditions) and the “created”, or “second” space, which resembles activity systems theory in terms of social organization, rules, mediating artifacts, etc. It is this second space in which humans attribute meaning to their experiences. As a situated context of activity, the second space represents the location where discursive practices are rehearsed, reified for future interactions. The second space, therefore, symbolizes the socially constructed rules, behavioral norms, and action possibilities of the material environment – the first space. The “third space”, then, refers to a continuously produced form of space in which the conditions of the first space and the regulations of the second space are reconceptualized to expand the action possibilities of the participants in the context.
My goal as an ethnographer and education researcher is to incorporate these ways of looking at teaching and learning so as to give credence to the sociocultural differences and lived experiences of all students, and to foster productive forms of agency for their personal growth. It is my hope that through continued rigorous research into the practices that structure and form STEM-based learning, to inform policy and curriculum at a broad scale.
Barab, S. A., Barnet, G. M., Yamagata-Lynch, L. C., Squire, K., & Keating, T. (2002). Using activity theory to understand the contradictions characterizing a technology-rich introductory astronomy course. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 9(2), 76–107.
Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Engeström, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental research. Retrieved from http://lchc.ucsd.edu/MCA/Paper/Engestrom/expanding/toc.htm
Engeström, Y. (2001). Expansive learning at work: Toward an activity-theoretical reconceptualization. Journal of Education and Work, 14(1), 133-156.
Giddens, A. (1979). Central problems in social theory: Action, structure, and contradiction in social analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Holland, D., Lachicotte, W., Skinner, D., & Cain, C. (1998). Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Ito, M., Gutiérrez K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K,… Watkins, S. (2013). Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McDermott, R., & Varenne, H. (1995). Culture as disability. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 26, 324.
Moje, E.B., et al. (2004). Working toward third space in content area literacy: An examination of everyday funds of knowledge and Discourse. Reading Research Quarterly, 39(1), 38-70.
Ortner, S. B. (1984). Theory in anthropology since the sixties. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 26(1), 126–166.
Roth, W. M., & Tobin, K. (2002). Redesigning an “urban” teacher education program: An activity the- ory perspective. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 9(2), 108–131.
Sims, C. (2013). From differentiated use to differentiating practices: Negotiating legitimate participation and the production of privileged identities. Information, Communication & Society, 1-13.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psycho- logical processes (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, &: E. Souberman, Eds. &: Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.