Activity Systems and Cognitive Maps

I have been working on a write-up of the data yielded by the research study at the end of Spring Semester 2012. Although I am not sure if this blog really gets the kind of traffic that I was originally hoping it would, I thought I would just throw some of the data out there just to see what type of feedback I get. At least people who stumble across the blog will know that I am still actively thinking about how 3D-DGBL environments can be used to teach a second language and culture. This is a part of what I discovered:

Analysis of the written narratives written by the study participants did reveal distinct patterns of how the 3D-DGBL environment encouraged participants in the experiment group to frame their narrative in the language of everyday bodily action and activity. The analysis was informed by the methodology described by grounded theory, a qualitative approach to textual and discourse analysis that generates or discovers a theory through a systematic close reading of data (Corbin & Strauss, 1990; Strauss & Corbin, 1998; Charmaz, 2006; Birks & Mills, 2011). Low-level textual indicators describing the same phenomena are coded as representing the same concept, which Corbin & Strauss (1990) identify as the basic unit of organization and analysis: “Only by comparing incidents and naming the like phenomena with the same conceptual term can a theorist accumulate the basic units for a theory. These concepts in the grounded theory approach become more numerous and more abstract as the analysis continues” (p. 420). In turn, Corbin & Strauss (1990) continue, a concept can be developed into a category “in terms of its properties and dimensions, the conditions that give rise to it, the action/interaction by which it is expressed, and the consequences that result” (p. 420). Although comparison of categories over time gives rise to an overarching theory, the current study is in its initial phases and will focus primarily on low-level textual indicators and organizing concepts; further research into the narratives generated by 3D-DGBL environments may expand these concepts into categories and a theory that can be used to guide the development of language instruction in these environments.

A close reading of the short narratives generated by study participants revealed the emergence of three general concepts, each of which had several qualifying properties. The first concept (“Process”) described the procedure of correctly recycling or disposing of objects found in the problem space, and therefore could possibly be interpreted as the ability of the participants to see themselves as subjected to – as well as subjectified by –  the rules, instruments, roles, and objectives that constituted the activity system of this space. The process concept was qualified by four properties: (1) “Locating,” which described the process of finding an object that needed to be recycled or discarded; (2) “Acquiring,” which described the process of moving the object from its location in the problem space to the ownership of the study participant; (3) “Movement,” which describe the process of transporting the object to a place where the participant could recycle or discard it; and (4) “Disposal,” which described the process of the participant recycling or discarding the object.

The narratives generated by the control group manifested slightly less instances of language to express locating an object for disposal (M= 0.95, SD= 0.91) than the narratives of the experiment group (M= 1.23, SD= 0.83); t(30)= -0.89, p= 0.38. A substantial difference between the narratives, however, emerges when they are read for language expressing the acquisition of an object. The narratives produced by the control group (M= 0.32, SD= 0.48) evidenced significantly less instances of language for acquiring an object than those produced by the experiment group (M= 1.15, SD= 1.07); t(30)= -3.02, p= 0.01, showing that this stage of the recycling and waste management process was a significant feature of the cognitive maps relied upon by participants in the experiment group to structure their narratives. Although language expressing movement was not frequently used in the narrative of either groups, again there was an emerging trend that the narrative produced by the control group (M= 0.11, SD= 0.32) had slightly less textual instances verbalizing movement than the experiment group (M= 0.15, SD= 0.38); t(30)= -0.4, p= 0.69. Only when the narratives were read for language expressing the disposal of an object did the control group (M= 3.32, SD= 2.08) outperform the experiment group (M= 2.54, SD= 1.76); t(30)= 1.10, p= 0.28, suggesting that this stage of the process was the most prominent feature of the cognitive maps used by the control group. A graphic representation comparing the narrative concepts generated by both groups to express the recycling and waste management activity system can be found here:

The narratives generated by the control group, therefore, seemed to focus primarily on the end state of the activity system, with the disposal of the object in the appropriate recycling or waste management container, whereas the narratives generated by the experiment group tended to pay more attention to all stages of the activity system, with significant attention being paid to the acquisition stage of the system. Given that a core mechanic of the 3D-DGBL environment was locating and gathering objects for appropriate disposal, it is not surprising to find this mechanic predominantly displayed in the narratives of those who were immersed in the environment. A close reading and comparison of the narratives from both groups suggests, therefore, that participants in the control group may have relied on a partial cognitive map to structure their narratives, one that did not fully cover all stages of the activity system and that did not completely depict them as embodied actors in this system. Narratives from the control group tended to be very well-written, although they inclined toward being a static literary exercise. Participants in the experiment group, however, tended to be more physically present in their written narratives, and the increased attention they gave the locating, acquisition, and movement stages of the activity system suggests that the cognitive maps they relied on to structure their narratives were more complete. Although sometimes lacking in attention to grammatical detail, narratives from the experiment group generally gave the impression of relating a dynamic lived experience.

Works Cited

Birks, M. & Mills, J. (2011). Grounded theory: A practical guide. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Corbin, J. & Strauss, A. (1990). Grounded theory research: Procedures, canons and evaluative criteria. Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 19(6), 418-427.

Strauss, A. & Corbin, J. (1998). Basics of qualitative research techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory (2nd ed.). Sage Publications: London.

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