PDAs as lifelong learning tools: an activity theory based analysis

Waycott, Jenny; Jones, Ann and Scanlon, Eileen (2005). PDAs as lifelong learning tools: an activity theory based analysis. Learning, Media and Technology, 30(2) pp. 107–130.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/17439880500093513


This paper describes the use of an activity theory (AT) framework to analyze the ways that distance part time learners and mobile workers adapted and appropriated mobile devices for their activities and in turn how their use of these new tools changed the ways that they carried out their learning or their work. It is argued that there are two key strengths in using an activity theory framework in this context. The first strength is the emphasis activity theory places on tools, including computer artefacts, as mediators of activity. This emphasis focuses attention on the activity itself rather than, for example, simply the interaction between the human and the computer. The focus is on the learner or user’s objectives and activities and the computer is the tool through which the user achieves her objectives. The second strength was referred to briefly above. The AT perspective also enabled analysis of an interactive dynamic process of users or learners and their tools—in this case personal digital assistants (PDAs). It revealed a two way process in which the user adapts the tools they use according to their everyday practice and preferences in order to carry out their activities; and how, in turn, the tools themselves also modify the activities that the user is engaged in. Three case studies illustrate these processes. The first case study is of distance learners’ use of e-books on PDAs, to supplement their access to other static media such as books and computers. The second case study investigated how mobile workers in the energy industry used mobile devices to access information when away from the office. The third and final case study investigated the use of mobile devices in an art gallery. The paper concludes with a discussion of the information access needs that are apparent in each of these learning contexts, and highlights the pertinent issues in the use of mobile technologies to support lifelong learners’ information needs.

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