The development and use of digital technologies have spread like waves over schools and society (Jedeskog, 2005). Rapid growth and enhanced access to technologies are said to pose new possibilities to teach and learn (cf. Jahnke et al., 2017). Simultaneously, the integration of digital technologies in schools has been reported to be a complicated process. Several researchers report that digitalization initiatives have difficulty gaining sustainability in schools (Aesaert et al. 2015; Hauge 2014; Håkansson Lindqvist 2015) and that the technologies implemented tend to support and reproduce previous practices rather than developing new ones (Glover et al. 2016).
In their studies Agélii Genlott and Grönlund (2016) and Glover et al. (2016), argued that digitalization that is not rooted in pedagogical objects and methods can fail to transform practice and enhance students’ learning. In a research review, Islam and Grönlund (2016) continued this discussion by concluding that there has been an extensive focus on aspects of technology and that technology-use itself do not result in change and development in educational practice. Islam and Grönlund (2016) go on to say that practice and future research should focus on pedagocal, organizational and leadership aspects and “their contribution to improving and disseminating good pedagogy” (p. 216).
For digital transformation to take place, some researchers argue that change and support must occur at several organizational layers (cf. Pettersson 2018b; Vanderlinde and van Braak 2010), including organizational, cultural, and administrative change (Blau and Shamir-Inbal 2017; Vanderlinde and van Braak 2010; Zhang 2010). As argued by Hauge (2016), digitalization should be considered an organizational task, including various levels and competences acting within the school organization. In a similar line of thought, Pettersson (2018b) studied how schools could be strategic in enacting resources, structures, and activities to support actors, practices, and structures and establishing pedagogical and organizational objects that drive digital and educational change in schools. However, few studies have conceptualised the digitalization process via an organizational and multilevel perspective on change and transformation.
In this study, we elaborate on the concept of digitalization, viewing it as a process involving transformation in various steps and on several organizational levels. To this end, cultural–historical activity theory (CHAT; Engeström 1987; Leont’ev 1978, 1981; Vygotsky 1978), including the concepts of object, change, and transformation, will be used as an analytical framework, providing an opportunity to study school organizations as collectively created activities. In addition, this study will use the concept of levels of learning (Bateson 1972; Engeström 1987), which should be seen as an attempt to understand steps of transformation in school. Following the introduction above, this study aims to explore and understand structural and educational transformation. More specifically, the aim is to explore how digitalization is conceptualised in school as well as how structural and educational change occur in schools known for large-scale digitalization. The following research questions are raised:
How do actors in schools conceptualise the object and process of digitalization?
How do teachers, school leaders, and educational technologists deal with digital and educational change, and how do new educational practices and organizational infrastructures occur as part of digitalization?
Digitalization in school
In previous research, there have been several attempts to understand factors that influence digitalization and educational change in schools, including access to digital technologies (e.g., laptops, tablets, and mobile phones; Håkansson Lindqvist 2015; Hansson 2013), digital competence (e.g., pedagogical digital competences, TPACK, ICT skills; Pettersson 2018a; Aesaert et al. 2015; Hatlevik and Christophersen, 2013; Krumsvik et al. 2016; Mishra and Koehler 2006), development of teaching and learning designs (e.g., flipped classrooms; Lund and Hauge 2011; Olofsson and Lindberg 2014), and organizational or institutional change (e.g., administrational and institutional support, ICT infrastructures, ICT leadership, and ICT school culture; Pettersson, 2018b; Blau and Shamir-Inbal 2017; Ottestad 2008; Vanderlinde and van Braak 2010).
Researchers have concluded that digitalization in school can be a complicated process (Hauge, 2014; Håkansson Lindqvist 2015). Digitalization initiatives have problems gaining sustainability in schools (Hauge 2014; Aesaert et al. 2015), and the technologies implemented and used tend to support previous practices rather than lead to change and development (Glover et al. 2016; Håkansson Lindqvist 2015; Jenkins et al. 2011). The evidence-based research on digital transformation in teaching practices is often small-scale, and the processes are often driven by, and dependent on, individual enthusiasts (Jenkins et al. 2011; Means et al., 2009; see also Cuban, 2013). Cuban (2013) said, for example, that “incremental changes have largely left intact teaching routines that students’ grandparents visiting these schools would find familiar” (p. 112).
In a research review, Islam and Grönlund (2016) concluded that there is an been an extensive focus on aspects of technology. This was confirmed by Haelermans (2017), who continued this line of discussion to say that “having access to ICT in education will not necessarily lead to an effective use of ICT in education” (p. 101). Other researchers put forth the importance of connecting integration of technology to pedagogical objects and methods (Jahnke et al. 2017; Glover et al. 2016). Agélii Genlott and Grönlund (2016) found that digitalization that is not rooted in pedagogical objects often fails to transform practice and enhance students’ learning. Moreover, digitalization in school must be driven by new ways of thinking about teaching and learning. This was confirmed by Pettersson (2018b), who extends this argument to say that digitalization driven by pedagogical and organizational goals and visions can be more effective and sustainable in school. At the same time, two research reviews (Pettersson 2018a; Olofsson et al., 2015) show that digitalization and digital competence have primarily been studied on the level of single groups of actors, and especially teachers.
In their research review, Islam and Grönlund (2016) argued that practice and future research should “focus not only on pedagogical methods but also school organization and leadership and their contribution to improving and disseminating good pedagogy and dismantling bad habits”. (p. 216). From a student perspective, Aesaert et al. (2015) argued that educational research on, for example, digital competences and learning outcomes digitalized environments “should be multilevel in nature.. . reflecting a pupil, classroom, school and overall context level” (p. 327). Aesaert et al. (2015) further argues that focus has primarily been on factors regarding the levels of pupils, whereas “the broader classroom and school context in which pupils are embedded” (p. 327) is not accounted for.
Research shows that digitalization is a complex process requiring large-scale transformative changes (Holmgren et al., 2017; Olofsson and Lindberg 2014; Zhang 2010), and with support from school organizations and leadership (Håkansson-Lindqvist and Pettersson 2019; Kafyulilo et al. 2016). Zhang (2010) go on to say that for deep and sustainable change to be enacted, it must appear at all levels supported by comprehensive system thinking. According to Zhang (2010), such change calls for a close and dynamic interplay between macro and micro processes. However, regarding complex system thinking, Zhang (2010) suggests that schools work toward and support an interplay between various levels of the organization. Following this line of thought, Hauge (2016) suggested an ecological approach that included several organizational levels. To integrate digitalization in schools, Hauge argued for a shared understanding by school leadership, administrators, and development and learning staff, as well as the need to develop common tools for institutional learning. In their study, Vanderlinde and van Braak (2010) developed an e-capacity model reflecting “schools’ abilities to create and optimize sustainable school level and teacher level conditions that can bring about effective ICT change” (p. 543). In another study, Petersen (2014) stated that schools must find ways to formulate goals and transform them into supportive infrastructures for developing actors within the organization. Another example is Blau and Shamir-Inbal’s (2017) study on digitalization, cultural change, and development of ICT cultures in school. A recent research review supported these arguments, concluding that broader organizational perspectives on digitalization and development of digital competence are often limited in research (Pettersson 2018a, 2018b).
In the next section, we will elaborate on the theoretical framework we used to analyse digitalization and transformation in a school organization. The section includes a theoretical elaboration on what the term digitalization might mean in the context of school and how the process of digitalization could be understood in terms of small steps of learning.
Digitalization in school through the lens of activity theory
To analyse how digitalization is conceptualised and how structural and educational change occur for teachers, school leaders, and educational technologists, this paper uses the CHAT theoretical framework (Engeström 1987; Leont’ev 1978, 1981; Vygotsky 1978). The theory focuses on formation and development of object-oriented activities, providing an opportunity to study school organizations as activities that are changed and transformed. One of CHAT’s main ideas is that change and transformation are results of human action driven by an object (for example, digitalization, enhanced quality in teaching and learning practices, or enhanced access to teaching and learning) and mediated by culturally developed tools (for example, books, digital technologies, or white boards) (Cole 1996). Vygotsky (1978) described this mediated act as a three-way interaction between the subject, object, and mediating tools. Building on the concept of mediation, Engeström (1987) expanded the theory and structure of activity to include three additional collective forces framing the activity. These forces include rules directing the activity, a community in which the activity is conducted, and the division of labour among actors in the activity.
The dialectical relationship between subject, object, and tools is important from the perspective of CHAT theory. At the same time, a limitation in this field is extensive focus on tools (digital technologies) and subjects (especially teachers) without trying to understand the (pedagogical and organizational) object of digitalization. Thus, this study is an attempt to more explicitly include the object when trying to understand processes of digitalization. An important aspect of understanding the appearance and development of activities is the object of activity, characterizing the aim or goal the subjects attempt to reach (e.g., digitalization as an object in today’s schools). As argued by Kaptelinin and Nardi (2006), an object provides a basis for commitment, priorities, planning, and division of labour and as a tool for interpreting and structuring an activity. Engeström described objects as “concerns; they are generators and foci of attention, motivation, effort and meaning. Through their activities people constantly change and create new objects” (p. 3). Because an object directs activities, planning, and organization, the interpretation of its meaning among participants is important to understanding how and why activities are structured and develop. As argued by Kaptelinin and Nardi (2006), the concept of the object of activity can be a promising analytical tool providing the possibility of
understanding not only what people are doing, but also why they are doing it. The object of activity can be considered the “ultimate reason” behind various behaviours of individuals, groups, or organizations. In other words, the object of activity can be defined as a sense-maker, which gives meaning to and determines values of various entities and phenomena. Identifying the object of activity and its development over time can serve as a basis for reaching a deeper and more structured understanding of otherwise fragmented pieces of evidence. (p. 138)
Hence, more than understanding the tools used to conduct the activity (in this case, digital tools often emphasized in previous studies), the object can be used as an analytical concept for understanding how digitalization is structured and transformed in a specific school context.
For understanding change and development of objects and activities (including tools, rules, community, and division of labour), transformation forms another central concept of CHAT theory (Engeström 1987). The transformation of activities as a result of expansive learning is described as rare, deep, and comprehensive changes in human practices, meaning that previous structures and components of the activity system are reconstructed. Engeström (2001) described this process as follows:
Activity systems move through relatively long cycles of qualitative transformations. As the contradictions of an activity system are aggravated, some individual participants begin to question and deviate from its established norms. In some cases, this escalates into collaborative envisioning and a deliberate collective change effort. An expansive transformation is accomplished when the object and motive of the activity are reconceptualized to embrace radically wider horizon of possibility than in the previous mode of the activity. (p. 137).
In the context of school and digitalization, transformations could take shape as new knowledge and practices of teaching, learning, communicating, and organizing work in school. However, as a productive but painful and comprehensive process taking place in a previously described inert system with strong norms and visions of teaching and learning (cf. Cuban, 2013), processes of transformation can be somewhat rare in schools. Thus, the concept of transformation will in this study be dismantled into smaller analytical entities. In the early development of CHAT, Engeström (1987) used and developed the concept of levels of learning (Bateson 1972) for describing smaller steps or appearances of transformation. In his thesis, Engeström described these steps as Learning I, Learning IIa, Learning IIb, and Learning III. The first, Learning I, is described as minor implementations or “extremely slow and gradual improvement of tools” (Engeström 1987, p. 145). Learning II, as a more demanding step of change, was divided by Engeström (1987) into two forms: Learning IIa as a reproductive step and Learning IIb as a productive step. As a reproductive step, Learning IIa include implementation of tools (in this case, digital) without a change in practice (for example, teaching). Learning IIb, on the other hand, is characterized by experimenting with new methods and practices by reflecting on and reformulating the old. In comparison to Learning IIa, Learning IIb results in larger changes, such as new teaching practices and routines in the activity system. Learning IIb is limited to change on the individual level but can, when moving to a collective level, result in Learning III. As expressed by Engeström (1987) “creation of new instruments within Learning IIb is potentially expansive – but only potentially” (p. 149). Learning III includes the transformation of the whole activity system, including qualitative changes in object, practice, and cultural patterns of activity (Engeström 1987, 2001) (Table 1).
To sum up, conceptualising digitalization as emerging through smaller steps can enable analysis of a gradual digitalization, even though it might not end up with a complete transformation in school. The analytical focus in this study is how teachers, school leaders, and educational technologists understand the object of digitalization, how schools are implementing digital and educational change, and how new practices and infrastructures occur as part of digital transformation in schools. This, in turn, is expected to contribute to a picture of various levels of learning and thereby steps of transformation in school.