The dialectical potential of Cultural Historical Activity Theory for researching sustainable CSCL practices

  • Sue Timmis


This article explores conceptual and methodological challenges in researching sustainable computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) within authentic educational settings. It argues that to investigate the sustainability of CSCL in such settings, we need to understand how new innovations become enculturated as part of educational communities and the shared repertoires and practices of learners and teachers. The potential for Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) as a relational, dialectical framework for researching collaborative learning is examined. The article argues that, although CHAT is increasingly being used for researching educational settings, it is often employed only descriptively or as a set of guiding principles and the dialectical method, which focuses on emergent contradictions and tensions, is not always fully explored. An integrated conceptual and methodological CHAT framework is proposed for understanding the complex interrelations between discourse, actions and community and as a result how new technological innovations and knowledge creation practices can be appropriated and sustained. This is illustrated through the analytical processes undertaken in a recent empirical study of undergraduates working on an online collaborative research project. The article concludes by arguing that the dialectical method at the heart of CHAT is both unifying and problematizing and could allow us to develop a richer, more integrated and explanatory picture of sustainable CSCL activities.


Cultural Historical Activity Theory Sustainability Dialectics Discourse Knowledge creation Community Methodology 



The author acknowledges the contributions, time and efforts of the students and tutors involved in the empirical work reported here. My thanks are especially due to Patricia Triggs for her invaluable, insightful comments and advice in preparing this paper and to the anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback on an earlier version.


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Copyright information

© International Society of the Learning Sciences, Inc. and Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Graduate School of EducationUniversity of BristolBristolUK

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