Home » E-Learning » OLD MOOC 2013 – Why Activity Theory needs to be seen, not itemised, to have any chance of being understood

OLD MOOC 2013 – Why Activity Theory needs to be seen, not itemised, to have any chance of being understood

Fig. 1. Durer’s Rhino.

I dutifully followed an OLD MOOC 2013 link to an article that pertained to offer a checklist for a would-be e-learning designer to get their head around the ‘context of learning.’ The article takes the model and theory of an Activity System and implies they will then offer this as a check list – I literally expected a set of questions and a check box set against the key concepts/issues of an Activity System:

  • Tools
  • Subject
  • Object
  • Rules
  • Community
  • Division of Labour

Though by doing so forgets crucial hidden issues such as the ‘action’ or activity between these points, the historicity of an activity system in a chronology of change, the interaction of more than one activity system to generate an alternative object  … and so on.

It has to be a matter of choice and working practice, but for me an Activity System drawn up as a triangle with interacting nodes on a large sheet of paper is a far better way to visualise and share the components involved. The very process of explaining what each node represents becomes a point of discussion, disagreement and compromise that forces ideas into the open.

Fig. 2. Engestrom’s Activity System in practice – addressing accessible e-learning

I have even gone so far as to take out chess pieces and put them at these nodes to represent ‘community’ for example … and have pieces of string to denote the activity and interactions.

Fig.3. Getting an Activity System visualised and closer to the real world – as interaction between people.

Then if people aren’t flummoxed to add a second activity system to represent separate communities or system with a common goal that through interaction will produce a valid, for different, new and unexpected outcome (or Object 3 if you follow Engeström closely). In this respect sharing how Activity Systems can help explain the context becomes a creative problem solving exercise and a crucial part of early learning design analysis.

Fig. 4. How Engeström takes Activity Theory to the next step and conceptualises the interactions between two systems. A meeting of minds or a meeting of institutions?

I found reading about Activity Theory without the classic equilateral triangle rather like trying to describe a rhinoceros without a picture.

Fig. 5. From ‘Methods & Tools’ (1999) Not a checklist so much as a table.

The above strikes me as rather like itemisizing the parts of a jelly-fish in an Excel Spreadsheet. This works for some people – a unique a tiny minority. The entire purpose of laying out an Activity System as a diagram is to help make the complex seem less so – Kaptelinin et al have done the exact opposite.


Fig. 8. Third generation Activity Theory expressed using Lewis Chess pieces

I’ve used chess pieces on a front door sized board drawn up as a third generation set of two activity systems to visualise the interplay between systems.

Fig. 9. Twister Max

What I’d like to do is work with 20+ people with a set of Twister Max discs to walk through some ‘live’ activity system scenarios … like a piece of improvised theatre ala Mike Lee, with people role playing personas or ‘insurgents’ in the system.

Fig. 10. Career Guidance for Year 11

To create a Year 11 careers guidance video I did something like this with some 30 students from a local youth theatre. The dots were placed out on the floor in various configurations and the players invited to say what they were doing x years away from their current age i.e. at key life stages in training, employment, at college, or school … beyond at university and so on. So bringing personas to life. This was then translated into identifying and interviewing people at these life stages on the street.


Engeström, Y (1999) ‘Activity theory and individual and social transformation’, in Y. Engeström, R, Miettinen and R.-L. Punamaki (eds) Perspectives on Activity Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kaptelinin, V.; Nardi, B. A. & Macaulay, C. (1999), ‘Methods & tools: The activity checklist: a tool for representing the “space” of context’, interactions 6 (4) , 27–39 .


1 Comment

  1. yishaym says:

    I don’t know why, but your “acting out activity theory” reminded me of Boel’s theatre of the oppressed. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theatre_of_the_Oppressed

    Yes, I see it. It would play out like this if a problem solving exercise, persona creation and AT or CH-AT workshop rolled into one.

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