My geographical categorizations of related learning activity-using geography as alignment tool. Clockwise from top-left: Tanzania (Zanzibar), Long Island (New York), Seoul, Edinburgh.
My geographical categorizations of related learning activity-using geography as alignment tool. Clockwise from top-left: Tanzania (Zanzibar), Long Island (New York), Seoul, Edinburgh.

Context: Representation vs. Interactional

There are several research papers and projects that had me thinking of this subject, but I will spare you the details of those for the time being. However, there are two more tangible, immediate articles recently recommended to me by my supervisor that helped shape my thinking on this subject and these are listed below. They are both good reads and worth a look if you working with ICT and community development.

  • Dourish, P. (2004). What we talk about when we talk about context. Personal and ubiquitous computing8(1), 19-30.
  • Tolmie, A. (2001). Examining learning in relation to the contexts of use of ICT. Journal of computer assisted learning, 17(3), 235-241.

They deal with the issue of defining and designing context in ICT environments and how elusive that process can be. This relates to my research in mobile learning (environments/applications) for higher education. Is one merely enabling an existing community through the use of ICT, augmenting its reach so to speak? Or is one using ICT to connect strands of disparate activity around a common domain, the ‘stuff’ of community? Defining and understanding the context in which activity takes place is critical for the understanding of all learning, but particularly for the kind of constructivist, community-driven learning that much ICT is trying to enable.

Some pertinent passages that deal with the distinction between context presented as a representational problem vs. context as an interactional problem are as follows. If you think these distinctions in the role of context don’t matter in the scope of ICT design and use, then you are designing in a void.

Context as a Representational Problem

  • First, context is a form of information. It is something that can be known (and hence encoded and represented much as other information is encoded and represented in software systems)
  • Second, context is delineable. We can, for some set of applications or application requirements, define what counts as the context of activities that the application supports, and do so in advance.
  • Third, context is stable. Although the precise elements of a context representation might vary from application to application, they do not vary from instance to instance of an activity or an event. The determination of the relevance of any potential contextual element can be made once and for all.
  • Fourth, and most importantly, context and activity are separable. (Dourish, 4-5)

Context as an Interactional Problem

  • First, rather than considering context to be information, it instead argues that contextuality is a relational property that holds between objects or activities. It is not simply the case that something is or is not context; rather, it may or may not be contextually relevant to some particular activity.
  • Second, rather than considering that context can be delineated and defined in advance, the alternative view argues that the scope of contextual features is defined dynamically.
  • Third, rather than considering that context is stable, it instead argues that context is particular to each occasion of activity or action. Context is an occasioned property, relevant to particular settings, particular instances of action, and particular parties to that action.
  • Fourth, rather than taking context and content to be two separable entities, it instead argues that context arises from the activity. Context isn’t just “there,” but is actively produced, maintained and enacted in the course of the activity at hand. (Dourish, 5)

I fall on the side of context as an interactional problem, where context emerges from the activity taking place there. It is “enacted in the course of the activity at hand” and thus the use of ICT (or any tools or artifacts) cannot be separated from the context that emerges from this use. This distinction between representational and interactional is an important point of departure for all subsequent design. For me, it had me thinking of a personal example of context, alignment, and geography.

Geography and Alignment

If context emerges out of the course of the activity being undertaken, then my context is bounded by geographical metaphors and alignment. I think in geography, in spaces and places, in the distance between and the motion and mobility required to get there. I place related activities in contextual buckets, like folder titles or representative icons, and employ these metaphors when performing certain tasks. I turn (metaphorically) towards the geographical metaphor, the place, when performing this or that activity. For example, some rough categorizations include

  • Edinburgh/London: elearning, academia
  • US: Non-profit, digital humanities
  • Africa: ICT4D and innovative mlearning
  • Korea: History, PhD, travel

These categorizations/buckets are pivot points, tools for aligning my activity with my designed context for efficiently performing that activity. Further, I organize my supporting contextual networks around those categorizations. Using Twitter as a microcosm, my network for my research interests (as listed above) match almost exactly to those geographical distinctions. My community for elearning is mostly UK based, Africa is where much, if not most, of my ICT4D and mlearning community resides or performs their work. The places represent real activity and context even in this online space. So I align myself with these communities depending on the activity or context at hand. So we have an intersection of space and activity, the context.

However, context is also about time intersections, about context emerging from activity in specific places/spaces at specific intervals or times. Let me illustrate this through my own pedantic example. I am currently based in London for my research. I call Korea my home (emotionally, at least). I am currently at my father in-law’s house in New York visiting my wife. 3 continents, 3 dramatically different time zones. In Korea, I am 8-9 hours ahead of the UK. In New York, I am 4-5 behind the UK. If I am participating in activity that I generally associate with the UK (or interacting with my community there), then I align those activities with the UK. I (metaphorically) turn to the UK. In Korea, I am ahead of the curve as I am almost complete with my day by the time they even wake up. In New York, I am a tardy student perpetually behind the clock. My activities in these spaces depending on my location and depending on what location I am aligning myself to are about attempting to stay ahead or catch up, to adjust the mis-syncs of time that my alignment has produced.

Technology makes all of this possible, even exacerbates this process by making all of this time, space, and context synchronization  immediate and visible. I am rarely not consciously aware of my being ahead or behind the synchronous activity taking place in a particular context. I am perpetually adjusting, aligning, shifting, activitizing (I just verbed that word) behavior to produce a very fluid context. To think that this can be captured in some sort of representational design is denying the variability of the activities in this context.

Welwyn Preserve County Park, Long Island, New York: March 2013

Nothing really to do with what I am talking about, but a pretty picture nonetheless.


By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

4 thoughts on “Representation vs. Interactional Context in ICT & Geographical Alignment”
  1. I think you as well exemplify nicely PoS/ by your post above. I can also imagine the constitutive humane powers present in your multifaceted interactional context not explicable in a blog message? Great writing, thanks.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Pekka. Agreed; there are aspects of how human/social variables of learning that are very difficult to express in blog form. I think the distinction between representational vs. interactional design is important for PoS. Do we want a pedagogy that represents the multitude of processes occurring simultaneously, or do we want a pedagogy that enables/augments them? Or both. Important consideration.

  2. You right, Michael. The first intuition is that I flag pedagogy, which enables, augments and also is part of simultaneities, doesn´t represent them. And still I have a hunch that there is some interplay of representational and interactional. To be continued…

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