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E is for E-mail

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Wednesday, 7 May 2014, 06:34
  • E-learning

  • EBooks

  • E-tivity

  • Ebbinghaus

  • Ed-Media

  • E-mail

  • Engeström
  • Ethnographic fieldwork

  • Experiential Learning

  • Extreme Learning

  • Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research

  • e-portfolios

  • e-Reader

  • Educational Technology

  • Externalisation

It stared with e-mail. Since then we've got e-learning and more. e-books has stuck, as has the e-reader. The lexicographers will have to decide whether we have adopted e-tivities and e-moderator. It is e-learning, it is never e.learning, but surely elearning is wrong? 

Ebbinghaus matters if you see the opposite of learning to be the problem that educators try to fix - forgetting or unlearning is easily rectified through repetition and application. Various platforms seek to address this. I like what was spaced-ed, and is now the corporate platform Q-stream.

Engeström is an academic who specialises in Activity Theory. Not exclusively e-learning at all, he ventures into management and community communications, but the thinking is valuable if you want to make the complex comprehensible. I wonder if Activity Theory hasn't been overtaken by network theory though, that complexity is the reality and the concept to embrace.

Approaches to research are not exclusive to e-learning either.

E-tivities are activities or learning activities, the pixie dust of learning online. Have people do stuff. I wonder if reading and taking notes, whether online or with a book is not, still, fastest way to gather, process, then integrate, act upon and share knowledge? Reading is reading that transcends the platform. It depends on the subject of course. A law student will read a great deal, a civil engineer may need to be out in the field more. 

Which possibly leaves me with e-mail as the game changer in e-learning.

Already this morning I have exchanged a few e-mails with a fellow student on a MA History course - not at the OU, but at the University of Birmingham where the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) is such a mess that we are reduced to or reliant on e-mail. Not all universities are like the OU (though they will have to be one day soon). 



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How people learn and the implications for design

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 21 Feb 2014, 15:43

Had this been the title of a post-graduate diploma in e–learning it would have been precisely what I was looking for a decade ago – the application of theory, based on research and case studies, to the design and production of interactive learning – whether DVD or online.

A few excellent, practical guides did this, but as a statement of fact, like a recipe in a cook book: do this and it’ll work, rather than suggesting actions based on research, evidence-based understanding and case studies.

Mayes and de Frietas (2004) are featured in detail in Appendix 1 of Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age (2007) Beetham and Sharpe.

Four types of learning are featured:

  • 1. associative
  • 2. constructive (individual)
  • 3. constructive (social)
  • 4. and situative.

Of these I see associative used in corporate training online – with some constructive (individual), while constructive (social) is surely the OU's approach?

Situative learning may be the most powerful – through application in a collaborative, working environment I can see that this is perhaps describes what goes on in any case, with the wiser and experienced passing on knowledge and know how to juniors, formally as trainees or apprentices, or informally by 'being there' and taking part.

Each if these approaches have their champions:

Associative – Skinner, Gagné (1985).

Constructive (individual) – Piaget (1970), Papert (1993), Kolb (1984), Biggs (1999).

Constructive (social) – Vygotsky (1978).

Situative – Wenger (1998), Cole (1993), Wertsch. (Also Cox, Seely Brown). Wertsch (1981), Engestrom (), Cole and Engeström (1993)

Beetham and Sharpe (2007:L5987) – the ‘L’ refers to the location in a Kindle Edition. I can’t figure out how to translate this into a page reference.

How people learn and the implications for design

Associative – Skinner, Gagné (1985) (in Mayes and de Frietas, 2004)

Building concepts or competences step by step.

The Theory

People learn by association through:

  • basic stimulus–response conditioning,
  • later association concepts in a chain of reasoning,
  • or associating steps in a chain of activity to build a composite skill.

Associativity leads to accuracy of reproduction. (Mnemonics are associative devices).

  • Routines of organized activity.
  • Progression through component concepts or skills.
  • Clear goals and feedback.
  • Individualized pathways matched to performance.
  • Analysis into component units.
  • Progressive sequences of component–to–composite skills or concepts.
  • Clear instructional approach for each unit.
  • Highly focused objectives.

For Assessment

  • Accurate reproduction of knowledge.
  • Component performance.
  • Clear criteria: rapid, reliable feedback.
  • Guided instruction.
  • Drill and practice.
  • Instructional design.
  • Socratic dialogue.

FURTHER READING (and viewing)

Brown, J.S. (2002) The Social Life of Information

Brown, J.S. (2007) October 2007 webcast: http://stadium.open.ac.uk/stadia/preview.php?whichevent=1063&s=31

+My notes on this:


+The transcript of that session:



Biggs, J (1999) Teaching for Quality Learning at University, Buckingham: The Society for Research in Higher Education and Open University Press.  (Constructive alignment)

Cole, M. and Engestrom, Y. (1993) ‘A cultural-historical approach to distributed cognition’, in G. Salomon (ed.) Distributed Cognitions: Psychological and Educational Considerations, New Work: Cambridge University Press.

Conole, G. (2004) Report on the Effectiveness of Tools for e-Learning, Bristol: JISC (Research Study on the Effectiveness of Resources, Tools and Support Services used by Practitioners in Designing and Delivering E-Learning Activities)

Cox, R. (2006) Vicarious Learning and Case-based Teaching of Clinical Reasoning Skills (2004–2006) [online], http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk/ esrcinfocentre/ viewawardpage.aspx?awardnumber=RES-139-25-0127 [(last accessed 10 March 2011).

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.

Eraut, M (2000) ‘Non-formal learning and tacit knowledge in professional work’, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 70:113-36

Gagné, R. (1985) The Conditions of Learning, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Gagné, R.M., Briggs, L.J. and Wagner, W.W. (1992) Principles of Instructional Design, New Work: Hoplt, Reihhart & Winston Inc.

Kolb, D.A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as a Source of Learning and Development, (Kolb’s Learning Cycle) Englewoods Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall

Kolb, D.A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall.

Littlejohn, A. and McGill, L. (2004) Effective Resources for E-learning, Bristol: JISC (Research Study on the Effectiveness of Resources, Tools and Support Services used by Practitioners in Designing and Delivering E-learning Activities).

Mayes, T. and de Frietas, S. (2004) 'Review of e–learning theories, frameworks and models. Stage 2 of the e–learning models disk study', Bristol. JISC. Online.

Piaget, J. (1970) Science of Education and the Psychology of the Child (Constructivist Theory of Knowledge), New Work: Orion Press.

Papert, S. (1993) Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas, New Work: Perseus.

Piaget, J. (2001) The Language and Thought of the Child, London: Routledge Modern Classics.

Seely-Brown, J.S and Duguid, P. (1991) ‘Organizational learning and communities-of-practice: toward a unified view of working, learning and innovation’, Organizational Science, 2 (1): 40-57

Schon, D (1983) The Reflective Practioner: How Professional Think in Action, New York: Basic Books.

Sharpe, R (2004) ‘How do professionals learn and develop? In D.Baume and P.Kahn (eds) Enhancing Staff and Educational Development, London: Routledge-Flamer, pp. 132-53.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978) Mind in Society, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1986) Thought and Languages, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wertsch, J.V. (1981) (ed.) The Concept of Activity in Soviet Psychology, Armonk, N

Appendix and references largely from Beetham, H, and Sharpe, R (2007) Rethinking Pedagogy in a digital age.

See also Appendix 4: Learning activity design: a checklist

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Ditch the E and the M - it's learning

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 28 Sep 2012, 14:02

It's just learning ... the greatest thinkers on educational are largelly pre-digital: Dewey, Vygotsky, Piaget, Kolb, Bloom, Briggs, Engeström, Gagnéet al.

E and M learning are advances on the Guttenberg Press or Power Point, but they are technologies all the same.

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H800 WK3 Bridging the individual and the social: Engeström

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 28 Sep 2012, 14:26

Bridging the individual and the social

Personal experience of learning and reflection on a wide range of different examples of learning may well undermine categorical distinctions between individual and social, acquisition and participation.

Not only are the boundaries between these distinctions difficult to define, they may be fluid and problematic, particularly in technology-enhanced learning.

Sfard (1998) argues that the acquisition and participation metaphors should not be seen as competing or enforcing a choice.

Her argument is based on the huge diversity of learning (particularly when looked at across cultures) and the wisdom of keeping different perspectives in play. No perspective has all the answers and there are both pragmatic and theoretical dangers in using only one conception.

Activity systems

Underlying these debates is a philosophical issue about how to bridge between individual experience and social structures; how individuals with limited experience and mental resources are able to learn about the world outside themselves and beyond their direct experience.

Vygotsky’s (1978) cultural historical approach emphasises the way in which learning involves tools – symbolic as well as physical – that express the history and culture of a society. Individuals interact with the environment using such tools, so that their action and their thinking are both enlarged and also bounded by the qualities and potential of the tool.

Yrjö Engeström, a Finnish researcher at the University of Helsinki, has built on these foundations and has developed an approach to learning that focuses not on the individual doing the learning or on community practices, but on the activity system.

In cultural-historical activity theory … the unit of analysis is a historically evolving, collective artefact-mediated activity system … Most learning consists of learning actions embedded in activities whose object and motive is not learning as such.

(Tuomi-Gröhn and Engeström, 2003, pp.28–9)

The importance of Engeström’s activity theory is that he shifts the analysis of learning from the individual to the activity system.

An activity system involves all those elements, as shown in Figure 1 (below).

Engeström and others have used this framework (set out in Figure 1) for the analysis of learning, describing the elements and their relationships as follows:

We take Leont’ev’s (1978) idea of collective activity system as unit of analysis seriously.

This means that learning is distributed in an object-oriented activity system, mediated by instruments, rules and division of labour (Figure 1). The learning of the activity system and the learning of an individual are intertwined, and the individual’s learning is understandable only if we understand the learning of the activity system. This does not mean that the subject position and agency are handed over to a mysterious collective entity. Different individuals and groups involved in an activity system take and leave the subject position as they produce specific goal-oriented actions. Thus, the detailed configuration of the activity system changes in each action.

(Tuomi-Gröhn and Engeström, 2003, p.30)
Diagram showing the activity theory triangle

Figure 1 shows the activity theory triangle in which the subject uses tools (or instruments) in relation to achievement of an objective that has an outcome. Relationships between these three elements and the wider triangle of rules (i.e. governing frameworks for behaviour), community and the division of labour within the activity system influence the learning taking place. The triangle thus offers a descriptive framework within which to map out learning-related actions using tools, and their relationships within specific communities and social structures.

This activity theory could be applied to a student at The Open University for example – the student taking the subject position in Figure 1. The tools used by a student are all the module materials and resources available to them, plus their existing knowledge of the area they are studying. The object is the ideas, practices and competences that are the focus for the student’s learning, with the intended outcome of passing the module.

The rules of engagement require the student to submit work for assessment by stated deadlines, drawing on their study of the module and representing their own work fairly. The community consists of, among others, OU students, tutors, university staff and, perhaps, workplace mentors and assessors. The division of labour has a key and familiar distinction, in that tutors mark students’ work, whereas module teams create material and have authority in relation to assessment. This, in brief, is an outline of how the activity theory framework can be used to describe the activity of being an OU student.


Leontiev, A. N. (1978). Activity, consciousness, and personality. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Sfard, A. (1998) ‘On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one’, Educational Researcher, vol.27, no.2, pp.4–13; also available online at http://libezproxy.open.ac.uk/login?url=http://www.jstor.org/stable/1176193 (last accessed 10 December 2010).

Tuomi-Gröhn, T. and Engeström, Y. (2003) ‘Conceptualizing transfer: from standard notions to developmental perspectives’ in Tuomi-Gröhn, T. and Engeström, Y. (eds) Between School and Work: New Perspectives on Transfer and Boundary-crossing, Oxford, Elsevier Science Ltd., pp.19–38

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.



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If a blogger blogs, what do you do if you are forever engaged in other social media such as Linkedin or Facebook?

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Monday, 5 May 2014, 07:45

Whilst embracing 'Activity Theory' I cannot always use the argument lucidly.

Engestrom presents an idea of how people or communities/groups communicate and learn from each other; when two people start to agree with gushing enthusiasm I'd worry, something else is going on.

(Power play of some kind, or love?)

[These ideas developed further here 'My Mind Bursts']

It is the very act of coming from a different stance that we as individuals begin to form ideas that are in effect beyond our current understanding, and when these 'objects' of understanding collide fresh thinking for both parties occurs.

There is a reason why in advertising (still I hope) a copywriter sits with an art director; this is how ideas form. Sitting in with 'creatives' and becoming one myself I came to appreciate this partnership ... though it has taken me 30 years to understand what is going in.

It has taken the last year with The OU to have my own thinking turned inside out, to let go, to share, to collaborate, rather than try to be that lone author in a garret, hunched shoulders over my work, never sharing it and rarely letting go.

What I have always needed and thrive on are collaborators in the form of agents, producers, editors, publishers, fellow writers and directors, colleagues who facilitate and enable, fellow bloggers too ...

If a blogger blogs, what do you do if you are forever engaged in other social media such as Linkedin or Facebook?

'e-Commentator' already feels like a naff 'noughties' way to express it.

We've had our fill of 'e-tivities' and 'e-learning' haven't we? It is just learning; they are just activities.

I've return to Engestrom often.

My ability to trace my love hate acceptance path through his thinking attests to the value of doing this, my 'learning journal'.

This is what initially had me befuddled and angry:

Two people are the easy part.

The interplay between SIX people because yet more complex.

At arm's length, the objects, the ideas, views or knowledge that they have begins to take on an identity of its own.

'Expansive learning is based on Vygotsky, though three times removed; it implies that we learn within activity pockets as individuals and groups. The interplay between these groups are the consequential objects of learning that in turn transmogrify in the presence of other objects. Solving problems, dealing with contradictions, may come about as these learning systems slide or shift'. Vernon (2011)

Am allowed to do that? Quote myself? It is my 'object 3' moment when it comes to this.

Anyone care to comment?

The challenge when reading papers such as those below is how to make the subject matter comprehensible to the non-academic. Some turn to diagrams, others to metaphors, yet others to cartoons.

I favour the lone speaker free of PowerPoint or even FlipChart.

If they can hold their argument and look into your eyes their conviction can be convincing.

My goal must remain making the complex comprehensible. Academics have a tendency to tie themselves in knots. If they only talk to fellow academics no wonder. I recognise the value of visualising, of animated explanation, of the power of persuasive through discourse, of metaphors, and analogies, of ideas rising out of the confusion to present themselves.

The problem with all things WWW is that it is just trillions of binary Ones and Zeros in the cloud (which is why I like to use the water-cycle as an analogy).


Engeström (2001) article, Expansive learning at work: toward an activity theoretical reconceptualisation

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H800: 40 From Teams to Knots - Engeström

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 28 Sep 2012, 14:25

When flummoxed and interested in equal measure I buy the book.


An article won't do. I need to understand the person's argument more fully. Written some 10 years on from the article we are looking at in H800 'From Teams and Knots' may benefit from Engestrom having had 10 years teaching at a US university.

Can I read it in 24 hours though? (and take notes)

Reading the sample champter on my Kindle I am immediately taken by the author's interest in teams in industry, in particular in car manufacture and the work of Jones et al in Lean Production in the 1990s. For four or more years I was spending three weeks out of every four videoing the development of lean production at UGC. An author who made no sense on first reading, I suddenly find has a great deal to say about something with which I am familiar.


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Interacting activity systems: Engestrom

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Monday, 5 May 2014, 06:26


1). What kind of theory of learning is offered by classic activity theory?

A single activity system unit that works upon an object and delivers an outcome

2). What are the five principles of current activity theory? According to Engeström:

  1. A collective, artifact-mediated and object-orientated activity system, seen in its network relations ot other activity systems, is taken as the prime unit of analysis.
  2. Multi-voicedness of activity systems. A community of multiple points of view, traditional and interests.
  3. Age and history
  4. Contradictions as sources of change and development - accumulating structural tensions within and between activity systems.
  5. The possibility of expansive transformations.

3). What is the problem with the ‘standard’ theories of learning that expansive learning addresses?

Standard theory equates to lasting behaviour change whereas expansive learning considers a sideways shift of the entire activity system.


created using Art Pad

I was thinking in terms of trying to boil two pans on water on one hob; the flames between the pans cause more conflict than harmony. Shift both pans to the left or right and the heat is under each activity rather than between them.

I'll get out a pad of paper and try some more of these.

4) What is the criticism that Engeström makes of the apprenticeship model of learning?

Doesn't permit the development of original thinking. (I disagree. It depends on the person you are apprenticed too. Think of the many great artists who learnt their craft under a great master, then broke loose).

In relation to e-learning or are we calling it technology-enhanced learning here I fully recognise the value of participation, letting go of your thoughts and therefore being one of these 'activity systems' so that a shared 'third object' (Engestrom, 2001) as it were, moves forward.

The best colloborative work is like this, my experience being those video production, often drama based, that require multiple inputs from people with very different, and specific talents.

I've gone on to try and express the Engestrom diagram in 3D, and drawing six activity systems ... i.e creating greater complexity to begin getting closer to the highly complex reality and in turn a different diagram/illustration entirely.



Engeström (2001) article, Expansive learning at work: toward an activity theoretical reconceptualisation

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