Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department

Second Language Acquisition and Instructional Technology

Major Professor

Wei Zhu, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Linda Evans, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Steve Downey, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Tony Erben, Ph.D.

Committee Member

James Paul, Ed.D.


Cultural historical activity theory, Online education, Iran, Middle East, Postsecondary education


This study explores six English as a foreign language students in an English content-based course of critical thinking delivered via distance at the Bahá'í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) in Iran. Framed within cultural-historical activity theory, the study seeks to shed light on the complex nature of students' course-related activities with a particular focus on contradictions that underlie any human activity. The construct of contradictions provides a theoretical lens to understand the complex web of relationships among a number of elements in the course taking activity situated in a cultural-historical setting beset with political controversies, technological challenges, and demands of the bilingual curriculum of the university.

To capture the complex nature of contradictions, the study employed a naturalistic methodology and relied primarily on in-depth interviews with the participants, observations of their online behaviors, and the artifacts that student participants produced by the end of the semester.

The findings indicate that most participants had multiple activity systems within the course environment, some of which were oriented towards academic and others non-academic objects. According to the data and theoretical interpretations, most participants had primary, secondary, and quaternary contradictions. Most primary contradictions had the nature of use and exchange value, which in practical terms indicates the orientation towards genuine learning or earning a grade. Primary and quaternary contradictions led to many secondary contradictions. Furthermore, it transpired that content-based instruction pushed the participants to engage actively in actions oriented towards improving English even for the participants who did not have the object of improving English. Among many other findings are detrimental consequences of contradictions that are traced back to the persecutions of BIHE students, faculty, and staff.