Anton Yasnitsky
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto, Canada
Michel Ferrari
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto, Canada

The theory of learning activity is presented in this paper as the direct development of
Vygotsky’s notion of the Zone of proximal development and his ideas on the role of
learning in human development. This study is an attempt to describe a wiki-based
computer-supported collaborative learning course using conceptual framework of the
theory of learning activity (also known as the system of Elkonin-Davydov). The
advantages and problems associated with application of this theory in the context of
graduate computer-supported collaborative course are discussed.

В данной работе представлены предварительные результаты исследования
построения учебного университетского курса с помощью вики-технологии. Для
описания процессов учебног сотрудничества привлкается коцептуальный аппарат
теории учебной деятельности. В работе обсуждаются преимущества и
недостатки применения системы Эльконина-Давыдова для разработки учебных
курсов опосредствованного компьютером совместного обучения для взрослых.

Announced more than a decade ago (Salomon, 1993), “distributed cognition” has now
become an everyday reality that has spread to virtually every human activity and
enterprise: Education is no exception. Today we all live in a world of second generation
web-based communities, recently described as “Web 2.0” (O'Reilly, 2005, 2006). Indeed,
traditional online conferencing systems and learning management systems (LMS) are
now augmented with an increasingly larger numbers of diverse Web 2.0 applications
used in classrooms—such as weblogs and RSS feeds, social software for online
networking and building communities, peer-to-peer file sharing systems, massivelymultiplayer online games (MMOGs), social bookmarks and folksonomies, popular
podcasts and video sharing services, and many more.


1999) exemplified by the ideas of dialogic or progressive inquiry (Hakkarainen. & Donskaya. This study explores one important avenue of successful integration of technology into the classroom in ways that make best use of existing innovative technologies. between traditional classroom discursive practices and progressive dialogic discourse. the representatives of the “school of the dialogue of cultures” (Bibler. 1998) point out that dialogue in the classroom has many faces and may be egocentric. 1975. Solomadin. 1989. 2003. 2002). The trick is to balance between predetermined curriculum and emergent self-organization in the classroom. Dialogic learning is an authentic activity in which students and teacher participate in democratic and collaborative fashion and is guided by the students’ interests and needs. Among the most acute problems of CSCL are those of how to build truly collaborative. 1994. Furthermore. it is increasingly social and distributed—as reflected in curricula. interest-driven. informal chat. individualistic and authoritative “expressive dialogue” that transforms into “dialogue-debate” between different rivalling parties defending their own views. 1996)—one of the most dynamic and fast growing fields of educational research and practice. In essence. etc. such educational dialogue is necessarily goal-directed and reflects the most fundamental feature of an open-ended inquiry.--progressive development as opposed to social small talk. 1992). The topic of computermediated classroom interaction is largely investigated by educators and educational researchers in the field of computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) (Koschmann.Learning is not an individual enterprise any more. dialogue proper is “dialogue-understanding” that allows multiple views co-existence and tolerates the polyphony of voices (Kurganov. 1975/1983. or courtroom discourse of argument and debate (Bereiter. In a number of studies on verbal interactions in the classroom the most common pattern of classroom discourse development was described as the IRE/IRF. This kind of discourse and classroom practices that support it has been extensively criticized for the formalism. yet still in-depth learning oriented environments. followed by the student’s response to this assignment and concluded by the teacher who authoritatively establishes the correctness of the student’s answer. 1975). Hakkarainen & Sintonen. Sinclair & Coulthard. 2001. classroom space organization. The predominance of IRE/F discourse in the classroom is challenges by the educational programs that posit “education should be conducted as a dialogue about matters that are of interest and concern to the participants” (Wells. lack of the students’ initiative. In contrast. Perhaps the most well-known Web 2. this means that the typical teacher-student conversation in the classroom consists of a sequence of tripartite units initiated by the teacher’s question or assignment. And the computer is both a major agent of change and a major challenge for the contemporary pedagogy.0 technology is wiki: an inherently social and collaborative 2 . 1999). or as initiation—response—evaluation (follow-up) (Cazden. 2002) and progressive discourse (Bereiter. Focus on problems of understanding and shared sense of common goal are essential conditions of a dialogue as progressive and dialogic inquiry. and learning activities and practices (Roschelle. Osetinskii. Indeed. 2002).

These discussion pages provide the environment for informal discussion of administrative issues and conflicts resolution and are often written in informal. Xiao. 2005. & Allen. the content pages tend to be written in neutral. and many more. 2007). Furthermore. O’Shea. to logical memory. first. user generated watchlist. 2007. THEORETICAL BACKGROUND: CHAT and wiki as a psychological tool The source of individual learning and development in collaborative environment is in the shared space of a collaborative learning environment. O’Shea. 2007. Lee. to the formation of concepts. colloquial style. This pertains equally to voluntary attention. an efficient instrument for designing computer supported collaborative learning environments.g. Curry-Corcoran. in two planes. & Baker. first. Wiki as an online software environment seems to be particularly well suited for the needs of education and is. Perhaps the most famous explication of the core of Vygotsky’s perspective on the role of culture in human development is his proposal that We can formulate the general genetic law of cultural development as follows: every function in the cultural development of the child appears on the stage twice. the social. Sajjapanroj. then. individual author’s contributions. ‘discussion page’ accompanies each ‘content page’ of a wiki article. which is a great advantage for real-world educational practice. Importantly. Engstrom & Jewett. & Lin. Simultaneous access to the content along with the ability to modify virtually any part of the project that multiple users/knowledge workers have in wiki are the key technological advantages of wiki as collaborative learning environment. 2005. We are justified in considering the 3 . Désilets & Paquet. Wikipedia. then the psychological. between people as an intermental category [kategoriya interpsikhicheskaya].computer environment exemplified by its most popular project. Wiki provides a number of tools that facilitate monitoring the progress in the group project such as the functions of tracking the changes to specific wiki-articles. Baker. a wide range of wikis are freely available and easily maintained. Allen. A number of theoretical approaches have been proposed recently to accommodate the growing need to discuss educational issues from the perspective of mind understood as the product of essentially social and cultural activity. It also allows authentic instructional tasks that involve progressive refinement and collaborative construction of knowledge (see. In this way Wiki may advance the important pedagogical goal of promoting deep understanding that is both personally meaningful and socially engaged. One of the most powerful theoretical frameworks that address the issues of cultural development of an individual within a society is the so-called Cultural– Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) that stems from cultural-historical psychology of Vygotsky and his associates. in potential. within the child as a intramental category [kategoriya intrapsikhicheskaya]. e. Bonk. In contrast. ideally impersonal and impartial style of objective encyclopaedic article. and to the development of will.

1999). The notion of the “zone of proximal development” first appeared in Vygotsky’s texts in 1933. Vygotsky's view on education. one of the basic principles of our will is the principle of division of functions among people. Palincsar (1998) argues that the concept of the zone of proximal development is "probably one of the most used and least understood constructs to appear in contemporary educational literature". his most famous concept of the zone of proximal development. Galperin. Vygotsky's notion of ZPD Lev Vygotsky is best known in the West among educators as the proponent of the idea of the “zone of proximal development”. just a year before his death (Chaiklin. Furthermore. Leontiev. whereas. Thus. The ideas of cultural mediation and the transition from the interpsychic (interpsikhicheskoe) to the intrapsychic (intrapsikhicheskoe) as the driving force human development appear attractive for researchers who study the role of culture in the mental life of human beings. 1931/1998. “This lacuna in our knowledge is clearly our loss” – points 4 . much of this work done in the Soviet Union in the 1930-1990s still remains largely unknown in the West. Luria. Genetically. has never existed as such. specifically. despite its enormous popularity remains largely misunderstood by the international community of educators. From this. in contrast with the considerable popularity of the concept of “zpd”. On the other hand. the concept is barely mentioned. However. the division into two of what is now merged into one. and their students. “ focus on zone of proximal development implies that it is central to Vygotsky’s position. in fact. according to Mercer and Fisher (1992). the later developments of Vygotsky’s views on teaching and learning in the works of his immediate students and followers still remain outside of the mainstream discussions of Vygotsky’s views on human development and the role of education. On the other hand. Elkonin. real relations of people stand behind all the higher functions and their relations. paradoxically enough. “the theory of the zone of proximal development”. appearing on no more that a few pages of the several thousand he wrote” (Tudge. Zaporozhets. N.thesis presented as a law. p. 106). changes its structure and functions. for example. As Tudge aptly points out. social relations. Bozhovich. This is a very popular educational concept that made its way into the way we think about education nowadays so that it widely occurs nowadays in academic discourse and curriculum materials alike (Chaiklin. "there is a danger that the term is used as little more than a fashionable alternative to Piagetian terminology or the concept of IQ for describing individual differences in attainment or potential". 2003) and was never posited as a full-grown “theory” but rather as an auxiliary concept. 2003). the experimental unfolding of a higher mental process into the drama that occurs among people (Vygotsky. ignoring the fact that in the six volumes of Vygotsky’s writings. but it is understood that the transition from outside inward transforms the process itself. Vygotsky’s theoretical framework was developed by Vygotsky’s students of the first generation such as A.

but never been systematically explored. 1935. However. the issue of development as opposed to mere learning in the adults remains beyond the scope of this study. Repkin & Repkina. Such general perspective on learning activity provides foundation for applying this theoretical framework not only in elementary school but also in other educational contexts. Repkin. 1986/1988a. 1991. 2002). This theoretical framework is used in this paper in order to discuss educational practice in the context of North American graduate education. should lead development (Vygotsky. 1935/1978). This paper explores the issues of computer-supported instructional design and facilitating collaborative learning from the perspective of the work done by Vygotsky’s students and followers over the period of 1930-2000s that is sometimes referred to as the “second generation of activity theory” (Engeström. the focus of this theoretical overview is the theory of learning activity in its most general sense. for instance. This perspective was suggested by the proponent of learning activity themselves as the next stage in the theory development (Davydov. the synthesis of their ideas. 1986. Davydov & Markova. 2003).out Wertsch (1994). 1981. or in college-level education. 2004. Davydov & Markova. 1987). 1997/2003a. 1997. and effects of teaching and learning on development of higher-order mental functions in children conducted over several decades of formative educational experiments has led to formulating the framework of learning activity theory (Davydov. structure of activity and its role in human development. Alexei Leontiev. in preschool learning programs. The work done by the Soviet Vygotskians in the 1960-90s addressed mostly the problems child development in the context of elementary school education. Human development certainly does not stop with the end early childhood or adolescence and continues throughout the whole lifespan up to the highest levels of spiritual and intellectual growth (Fischer & Yan. “brilliantly accomplished in the 1960-s by Elkonin and Davydov. Learning activity and developmental learning/teaching The most well developed first-hand educational application of Vygotsky’s theory to date is the so-called theory of developmental teaching and learning activity. 1997/2003a). Zuckerman. 1989. Learning activity theory is a focal meeting point of different threads of developmental research associated primarily with the work of Lev Vygotsky and. 1986/1988c. 1996b. 1981. A wide range of the experimental psychological and educational studies on conceptual development. Therefore. special and professional training. Elkonin. 1981/1983. The work on the theory of learning activity was done in the context of a large-scale ambitious project of building the system of Developmental Teaching. 1981/1983). furthermore. 5 . This system is the most direct practical instantiation of Vygotsky’s principle that education may in principle and. on the other hand. that made possible the qualitatively new step in the development of the developmental and pedagogical psychology constituted by the conception (and then also the theory) of Developmental Teaching” (Repkin. 1986/1988b.

the principles of formation. Learning motive: the driving force behind activity that defines this activity as such and. characteristic of all other activities. 1997/2003b. The first is serving out a sentence at forced labor. 1985. Another illustration of this point can be found in Leontiev’s text on the role of conscious actions in learning. 1996a. Elkonin’s ideas on the structure of the learning activity were developed in a wide range of studies done by his colleagues and collaborators in 1960-70s in two major research centres in Moscow and Kharkov (Davydov. In the other cases there is reactive behavior. 1997/2003a. The first experimental studies on the learning activity formation were conducted by the group under the supervision of D. Repkin. 1980/1981. 1998). 1982). 1990/1992. elementary student as a subject of learning activity (Davydov. Thus. 1974/1989. He argues that different motives radically distinguish psychological meaning of human behaviour: Let us assume that the child is preparing a lesson in history because until he finishes preparing the lesson he will not be allowed to go to the movies. as in animals” (Repkin. Elkonin and Davydov in the 1959/1960. Slobodchikov. Zuckerman. the structure of learning activity encompasses: 1. 1989). 17). Therefore. 1980. 1990. Such transformation is always difficult and can only be possible when the agent experiences a puzzling and unsettling problem she can not solve. and the third is raising the Temple. provides personal sense for the agent. The objective structure. p. as a whole and regardless of specific subject domain. 1992. personal communication). a wide range of problems was explored during the period of the 1980-2000s. & Tsukerman. Learning activity. Elkonin summarized the findings of this cycle of formative experiments in educational settings in terms of the main structural components of learning activity identified in these studies (Elkonin. 1987. Furthermore. the second is trying to make money. or development of reflexive practices in children in the process of learning (Slobodchikov & Tsukerman. were done on learning activity in the context of elementary school. Real learning starts with frustration (Zuckerman. 1989). Zuckerman. and the role of learning activity in human development needed to be systematically investigated. involves internal transformation of the agent rather than the external transformation of the world around us. our present analysis is focused mainly on the most abstract and context-independent component of the theory: the structure of learning activity. 1992/2003). such as the nature. The majority of these studies. let us assume now that he does this not 6 . according to Elkonin. This problem has to be significant and personally meaningful for the student. mechanisms and the effects of teacher-students dialogic interaction as well as cooperation between peers (Rubtsov. Only in the last case does activity take place. otherwise it will not be motivating enough to become the driving force of learning understood as self-alteration. Repkin illustrates the role of motive with the famous parable about the three builders of the Temple. though. Zuckerman & Romaneeva.The first account of learning activity can be found in several works of Daniil Elkonin written in the 1960-70s Elkonin underlined the importance of investigating learning activity generally. 1987/1991.

finally. The situation when the current model does not appear to apply to the specific classroom situation is described as another potential trigger for learning situation (Repkin. Unlike skill that can be imitated. METHOD This paper presents an ongoing educational design research project on implementing wiki in a computer-supported collaborative learning course. Formative assessment is the last stage when the outcome of the learning activity is assessed. the function of control is intended to monitor applicability of the model itself to the current situation. the general principles of performing mental actions. All students’ work online took place in the wikibook computer environment. 1947/1978. self-control and selforganization in the students. according to Davydov. the most general principle of action execution. learning task is normally developed in collaborative discussion of the educational problems of interest to the students. Therefore. In real classroom practice. he sees a way to his future profession and this compels him to study history intensely. problem-solving model. 1997/2003a). along with the course instructor and a course assistant who provided technology guidance and support. Learning task. learning task provokes inquiry and discovery. Yet. Will the results in all these cases be the same? Obviously not. An important component of learning actions constitutes acquisition learning operations that are auxiliary to goal-oriented deliberate learning practice. what place will the learning occupy in his life. applying the abstract model of mental action to concrete phenomena. Participants of the course included 21 Master’s and Doctoral graduate students. 1997. on a higher level. let us assume that in studying history. 183) 2. The class consisted of two three-hour classroom meetings per each week. we will assume further that he is fascinated by the content of the textbook itself. 7 . the functions of both control and assessment should be ultimately handed over to the students themselves as the agents of learning. p. Davydov’s idea on the priority of the abstract in learning is formulated as the principle of “ascendance from the abstract to the concrete” (Davydov. is the goal of acquisition of the theoretical foundations of a mental action. The goal of learning activity is the formation of initiative.for this reason but because he wants to obtain a good mark. 1972. Learning actions of the students are their deliberate attempts to bridge the gap between their present knowledge and abilities and the goal of the learning task. 5. which is already a significantly more complex form of control. Ongoing control allows students to continuously compare their learning actions with the models. The difference here will consist not only in the success of learning but also in the degree of its consciousness . Our study concerns a graduate intersession course on the history of psychology taught over a period of six weeks (MayJune. what sense will it acquire for him? (Leontiev. 1972/1990). 3. 2007). for instance.what will that which is learned be for the child. in his personality. 4.

Learning activity theory is used as an analytical framework to describe both instructional design principles and online and classroom practices that we observed in this course. This is exactly what happened over the first two weeks. however. and students were encouraged to continue their work from home. Learning motive The course on the History of Psychology is one of the mandatory and not particularly popular courses. The rest of the lab time was reserved for the students individual and group work on the project. the topics of their classroom presentations. However. in order to boost their interest the students were given the freedom to restructure the overall project in accordance with their professional and academic interests and preferences. Each classroom meeting was equally divided between both classroom discussion and a computer lab session. CHAT theories informed the design of this pilot study. a tentative outline of the online project content proposed by the instructor was drafted on the basis of the classroom lectures taught. Indeed. the 8 . INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICES FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF LEARNING ACTIVITY THEORY 1. This was a reasonable compromise between the course requirements and the students’ own interests to the extent these interests are related to the historical perspective. Furthermore. and the online wiki-project evolved considerably to accommodate students-generated content. Then the students themselves separately assessed each chapter’s completeness. Virtually a half of all class time was dedicated to the group work in one of the University computer labs. During these computer lab sessions we organized a series of wiki demonstrations for the whole group. significant flexibility was given to the group in terms of their online contributions to the project and teaming up with peers. followed by individual guidance and training in the technology. the students were encouraged to contribute on the topics of their expertise and. In our experience of teaching in the context of graduate school the issue of control appeared to be closely related to that of motivation.Virtually all work was done initially on the same wiki page. Furthermore. at some over the course development we witnessed a hot discussion of the difference between “Applied History of Psychology” and “History of Applied Psychology” initiated by the students. In other words. at the more advanced stage of the project development a series of interlinked pages corresponding to the book chapters were created. We were fully aware that creating authentic learning motivation in the students would require considerable effort and instructional support. We attempted to create such authentic motivation by proposing the students to participate in online project on creating a wikibook on the “Applied History of Psychology”. Somewhat puzzling and thought provoking title of the project proposed was also intended to attract their interest. Thus. possibly.

Mastering rich functionality of wiki technology the 9 . However. and still others did not want to correct the work of their peers. Yet. The wikibook was designed as a group collaborative project. the students experienced considerable difficulty dealing with technology. On the basis of our observations of classroom and online behaviours of the students we may suggest that these efforts to create a psychologically safe and attractive learning environment for the students were a success. 2. training and guidance was provided by technical assistant who answered questions and overcame initial confusion about technological aspect of their collaboration during lab sessions that included a series of whole-group presentations as well as individual consultations upon request.course was designed so that the instructor deliberately withdrew from the online component the course which was a considered as a domain administered and developed by the students only. Learning task The main design and learning task in this project was group collaborative assignment to design and write a wikibook on a given topic. Learning actions Initially. which would be the basis for the individual component of their work final assessment. the students were informed that all changes they would make were recorded and preserved in the wiki environment. a special research will be needed in the future in order to make scientifically grounded conclusions on the motivational aspect of such project. Therefore. We encountered much initial resistance and anxiety from students about the novelty of the task: some complained that it not what they are trained to do. b) discourse depth and the scientific quality of ideas. Interestingly. others that there was too little time. N. and a new grading system that would take into account both individual and group achievement alike was proposed by the students. In order to facilitate collaboration and community responsibility for knowledge advancement no individual assignments were given regarding the project. and c) ideas integration and interconnectedness between the problems and topics discussed. when the artificially created learning situation becomes so interesting and attractive to the students that it becomes a motive in itself. This anxiety was partly relieved by adding a group mark. our goal is to facilitate the phenomenon that A. 3. Leontiev called the shift of the motive to the goal of action. a 35% group mark and 35% individual mark was an important motivator for doing well on the project. Ultimately. It will also be interesting to investigate the dynamics of the students’ motives over the course development. Class discussion uncovered that the 70% total mark originally proposed for the online collaborative group project was considered too high. The criteria for both individual and overall group work quality assessment were: a) breadth of the material covered.

about half way through the class students initiated the organization of a “formatting team” and a group of students volunteered to join the team. This group dealt with issues of spelling. APA style. we hypothesized that origin of the development of self-control is in the control over the peers’ progress. Success of this component of group work suggested the importance of group self-assessment at earlier stages of project development. typically worked on what they considered their piece/section offline and then submitted that section as a single entry that took several weeks to prepare—and even these students did make some changes to other parts of the book. for example. such as control over the peers’ contributions and self-control. Ongoing control Following Vygotsky’s proposal about the transition from the interpsychic to the intrapsychic. in the opening class one student proposed a group mark to supplement individual contributions and this was included in the marking scheme. wiki formatting and stylistic coherence. analysing polyphony of ideas and developing shared understanding. Wiki provides impressive opportunities to monitor discourse and thought development and. those who did not contribute each week. allows for making changes and corrections in virtually any place of the online discourse. 5. no matter who initially authored it. 4. The students’ self-control and initiative was also supported by their freedom to form collaborative groups for the work on a wide range of issues from specific chapters and sections development to administrative and organizational work. Thus. An important element of selforganization and self-administration was the extensive use of the wiki discussion pages for negotiating administrative issues of project coordination. Formative assessment We introduced the practice of formative assessment at the last stage of our study. and read and participated in the discussion pages and class discussions about the overall project. 10 . Students were given full control of the wikibook project development. After all. although all did contribute to the project.students were expected to learn and internalize also the psychological meaning of these functions. As another example. Different participation patterns were found: most students contributed consistently to the whole project over the entire course. Group self assessment took place during classroom meetings and then continued in online environment on a discussion page of the main page of the wikibook project. and overall planning of the wikibook content and structure. tracking revisions and reflecting. not all students contributed equally. furthermore.

These omissions suggest the need in radical reassessment of the theory of learning activity in a broader educational context and a perspective for future research. at present most studies on learning activity to date explored the phenomenon in the context of elementary school. 11 . which was supported by the wiki function of project completeness estimation. Another important omission of the learning activity theory is the lack of the conceptual apparatus and explanatory mechanisms to deal with both super-individual group agent and the technology-mediated processes of collaborative project-based learning. Our study reveals the gap between the state of the art of the learning activity theory and the real needs of teaching outside elementary school. however. Repkin) appears to provide a promising framework for classroom instruction design and educational research as a concrete and hands-on instantiation of Vygotsky’s ideas on the zone of proximal development. Then the students themselves separately assessed each chapter’s completeness. at the more advanced stage of the project development a series of interlinked pages corresponding to the book chapters were created. Necessarily. Virtually all work was done initially on the same wiki page. applying such tool requires considerable reflection on the work done and comparison between the different parts of the project. Davydov. However. CONCLUSION The theory of learning activity developed by the scholars of “the second generation of activity theory” (Elkonin.An important feature of the course design was an attempt to facilitate ongoing group project self-assessment.

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