Virtual patients as activities: exploring the research implications of an activity theoretical stance

Rachel H. Ellawa
Soort article
Activity theory,
Educational technology,
Medical education,
Virtual patient,
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Virtual patients are computer-based simulators of patient encounters for the purposes of instruction, practice, and assessment. Although virtual patients have been around for some time they have yet to become part of mainstream medical education. A major reason for this would seem to be a lack of clarity as to what educational value virtual patients actually have. This paper argues that virtual patients should be seen as activities rather than artifacts and that activity theory can be used to generate different ways to frame scholarship in and around virtual patients. Drawing on the work of Leont’ev and Engeström this paper describes a range of perspectives based on the operations, actions, and objectives in and around virtual patients; the use of virtual patients to mediate activities; and the sociocultural context and the participants in virtual patient activities. This approach allows us to move beyond the ‘does or does not work’ discourse of much of the existing scholarship around virtual patients and, to an extent, around educational technologies as a whole. Activity perspectives, and activity theory in particular, offer new horizons for research and evaluation that address many of the limitations of intervention-based paradigms of inquiry.


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