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Is falling in love linear?

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Saturday, 21 Jun 2014, 08:09

 Fig.1 A teenager on a quest for love

As a sixteen year old virgin the feelings I had for a girl had me indulging the sensations and plotting where it would go. It ended in tears - she took a fancy to my older brother. If anything happened, it was all in my head. She said I was in love with the idea of being in love. True. I wanted to record and reflect on all that I was going through, attempting to find a pattern in it. Any pattern, any model, is a crude simplification of reality. Learning above love or learning about learning as I've been doing these last four years is just as messy. 

There's a dangerous interface between the academic and the popular, the scholarly paper and the journalist, where a plausible hypothesis passes for the truth. In the New York Times earlier last week a reporter interpreted the entry in a blog where the author suggests that learning isn't linear, but logarithmic. There's a ring of truth to it: achieving a grade, for example, above a certain figure (it differs by person, subject, module, stage in learning, proficiency and aptitude for the subject). There's also a ring of truth in the suggestion that some things are toughest at the beginning, while others are toughest at the end. The mistake is to think that such a model can be applied universally.

Any linearity is a model, an interpretation of reality, not reality itself. Several models I would refer to as alternatives to logarithmic and exponential, offered by this author and the NY Times journalist's misinterpretation would be:

 Fig.2 In the flow

a) a straight diagonal line at 45 degrees with 'In the flow' as the title to illustrate the theory of getting 'in the flow' as a product of responding to stress on the one hand and learning or coaching to meet the challenge on the other as developed over decades by Miihaly Csikszentmihalyi


Fig. 3. The Forgetting Curve

b) the 'forgetting curve' developed over a century ago by Hermann Ebbinghaus

Fig.4. The Learning Cycle

c) the learning cycle, so a circle, developed by David Kolb.


Fig. 5 The learning thermal

d) My take on this is of an ascending spiral - which assumes constant progress. The reality is that we often hit turbulence, change or minds, come back to ground, gain a propeller, lose a leg ... Enough. I'll work this up when I can in a separate 'paper' and post in due course.

Oh heck. There are another two models I need to add to this:


Fig. 6 Activity Theory

e) Activity Theory, which is a triangle with six interconnected nodes (Yrjo Engestrom) and 


Fig. 7. Network Theory

f) 'connectedness' (George Siemens claims credit) which is the 21st century take on an ever-present vision of how we learn ... which is related increasingly to 'network theory' which is complemented by current thinking on neuroscience - put crudely that all thoughts and ideas, their creation and memory are the product of the brain connecting at least seven now recognised clusters in different parts of the brain. Is 'network theory' the science behind the assumption of connectedness though?


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A is for Apps

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Wednesday, 28 May 2014, 16:21
  • A List Apart
  • Academic Writing
  • A room of my own
  • Accessibility
  • Activity Theory
  • Applied Learning
  • Amazon
  • Ackoff
  • Action Research
  • Assessment
  • Assignment
  • Assistive technology
  • Augmented Learning
  • Asynchronous
  • Auto-ethnography
  • Alt-C
  • Analytics
  • Apps
  • Terry Anderson

I continual scramble learning and e-learning as separating the too seems so foolish - we learn and use whatever tools we have to hand and society and our moment in history makes available to us. The age of the printed book is not over, it has simply found over forms of expression, both linear and interactive, with moving images and sound. 

This is to be an A to Z of E-learning though so 'Apps' must head my list as I have come to rely and love so many. Having various apps on your tablet or smart phone supports learning in all kinds of ways, whether you are organising your time, drawing a mind map, or simple drawing and manipulating images and charts. Then there are apps that offer insights and support learning 'in the field' ... and the many thousands of choices too.

I have lived either side of Rodmell for the last 14 years so Virginia Woolf's life, work and death are forever present, not least as I often walk our dog along the River Ouse between Rodmell and Piddinghoe where the writer drowned herself by filling the pockets of an overcoat with rocks. The point, relevant to all learning, is to have 'a room of your own' - though a space will do and I dare so we can all make head-space with a pair of headphones and then work on a smartphone or iPad. Having space, the time and geographical kind, matters in all learning. 

Accessibility in e-learning, like all things, needs to be in the design, like inclusivity as the MAODE module H810 spells out. E-learning's strongest card is the ability to use technology to assist and augment experiences for students who may have struggled with traditional modes and methods of learning. Now font and text sizes and contrasts can be adjusted, the page can be read to you and various inputting devices attached.

Activity Theory is one of those vital models that help explain the world and how we behave in groups or between institutions. 

Applied Learning, from an apprenticeship to an MBA, to any learning that is situated in and of the workplace means that the constructed part of the learning process is actively putting the learning into practice. 

Amazon comes ahead of Apps in my personal experience. Whilst I have a number of Apps I love to use, the support my learning, from iWriter on the iPad, to SimpleMinds and Studio, it is the ease by which I can track down books and eBooks that makes Amazon like the Bodleian Library I knew as an undergraduate. I feel I can get, beneath my gaze, just about any book, in days, if not in moments. I wish to chase up a reference I can find the book and have it on my Kindle in minutes. I find an out of print book that has not been digitised and it arrives in a day or two - often old stock from an university library. And then there are quite special texts that organisations such as the Library of Congress have digitised and print on demand and send over. These are just the books, then there are the forum like reviews where readers tussle over the strengths and weaknesses of a publication.

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An idea - does it make any sense?

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 21 Mar 2014, 07:23


I have this idea that motivation matters. That the 'desire' to learn is part of it, and that to 'love your learning' is even better - whatever drives that love.

As Vladimir Nabakov said, "It's a matter of love; the more you love a memory the stronger that memory becomes."

Do you 'love' what you are studying? Even a little bit? Sometimes? Very rarely indeed I have sat an exam and loved it.

'Mindbursts' has been the name I've blogged under since 2002. I recently got the .com website and and wondering what to do with it.

The above, to certain educators, probably in higher education, and possibly only academics, puts a doodle of Activity Theory between the heart and two minds meeting. My thinking is that two minds and collaboration is good - though talking to yourself probably counts given how the conscious and unconscious brain works. My thinking is that love of a subject - lust for it, desire for it, motivation to conquer all, to achieve goals, to overcome adversity is in the mix. And like any love affair you can fall in and out of love! Or have impetuous flings. Or have a long lasting deep affection for a subject. While Activity Theory, becoming a little old school, studies the interconnectedness of nodes of interest and action in groups or communities of people - used to problem solve businesses and organisations, yet for me representative of what goes on in a brain - the multiple connections between parts of the brain that interact with another's brain to generate new stuff. Maybe I've got my mental knickers in twist and should be thinking of networking theory instead? Ooops. 

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Learning Theories meet Activity Theory in a series of doodles

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Saturday, 3 May 2014, 06:57


Fig. 1 When Learning Theory met Engestrom

(Clicking on this might take you to the original, as well as each doodle as a separate image)

I am forever 'mashing things up' with whatever tools I stumble across - recently adding images and text with an App called 'Studio' - essentially loads of layers, typically text and graphics over a photograph. In an attempt to assemble paper scribles and add annotations I've produced the attached. I'm trying to visualise 'opennness' with this, and by doing so implying that what goes on between groups of people is perhaps similar to what goes on with different parts of your brain - it is contrasts and differences that assemble to create something new. It also relates to learning theories and practices - so didactic behaviorist, for constructed to cognitive. I suppose what I might be proposing is looking at how a person, a couple of people or a group of people interact and how openness in such situations is more conducive to problem solving and creativity.

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13 Key Learning Theories - of value for H809, also the other MAODE modules ...

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Sunday, 25 May 2014, 07:15

Fig.1 12 Key Learning Theories

Based on three/four books on learning theory:
Double click on the above should take you to a shared Dropbox or Picasa Web Album of the original 'Simple Mind' mindmap.

Authors such as Knud Illiris, Grainne Conole, Yrjo Engestrom and Helen Beetham identify three to five key groupings of 'Learning Theories'. Etienne Wenger offered five theories excluding his own 'Communities of Practice' while David Leonard covers 150 or so in his 'A to Z of Learning Theories'.

For now I rest with the following, though there is of course overlap. We would struggle surely to exclude any in describing how it is that from as soon as the brain forms during foetal development we are learning - and continue to do so until the body that serves the brain ceases to function.

1) Organisational Learning
2) Neurophysiological Learning
3) Whole person - body and mind - physiological and neurobiological
4) Behaviourist Learning
5) Cognitive Learning
6) Resistance to - or defence against learning (i.e. to not learn or to block learning is to learn?)
7) Activity Theory
8) Communities of Practice
9) Accommodative Learning
10) Social Learning
11) Transformative Learning
13) Constructivist Learning

I'll add these in due course - see below.

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H809: Activity 9.2 - 9.4. Unscrambling the presumptions of research in e-learning educational practice

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Monday, 20 Oct 2014, 08:07

Activity Theory (AT) according to various authors .... , supposes a quest to solve a problem, an 'activity theorist' looking at certain kinds of research, understanding activity system as being driven by outcomes, would therefore annotated the six nodes of the AT pyramid with this in mind.

Fig. 1. Activity Theory (Engestrom, 2008)

In contrast, considering the same subject of research, a sociologist would be inclined to look for power structures.

In turn how might a management consultant, or psychologist approach this? And in relation to H809 and the MAODE, how differently would someone educated in each of the following theories approach the same subject matter: behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism and connectedness?

The suggestion that the theory behind a piece of research or OER from H809 TMA02 predisposes a specific research response is like having an undefined medical problem. In turn each specialist offers a view based on the narrow perspective of their specialism.

By way of example, with sinus/earache like symptoms from which I have always 'suffered' I in turn visit a neurologist, immunologist and dentist. I discover from each in turn that I must be depressed/stressed, have an allergic response to something, need a tooth filled/crowned. In turns out that I have a pronounced response to house dust mite and due to physical damage to a channel in one part of the maxillary sinus it doesn't drain so the slightest infection, a mild cold, will cause inflamation and pain. The response that works is primarily preventative with self-medication of prescription pain relief at a dosage that works - co-codomol and occassional antibiotics. (The above over a 33 year period of investigations that included several other excitable consultants who each in turn gleefully hoped that I might have a very rare condition X or Y that they would investigate).

Just as medical specialists are inclined to come at a situation with too narrow a perspective, so too can we when wishing to study, in a learning situation, what is going on ... in there (the brains of each student) and externally, the context and situation of the 'learning' that they are doing (or having done to them).


Conole, G., and Oliver, M. (eds.) (2008) Contemporary perspective in e-learning research. Themes, Methods and Impacts on Practice.

Engestrom, Y (2008) From Teams to Knots

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H809: Activity 9.1. Scrambling your head in the nodes and interludes of Activity Theory

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Monday, 24 Feb 2014, 15:34

When something important to me is about to come to an end I tend to lash out to make the parting of ways less uncomfortable.

I sense with OU graduation looming while this bridging module trundles on to who knows what that I will pretend I'm fed up and I don't care. But I do. So I'll try to bite my lip over the next three months as the inevitable parting of ways occurs.

Onwards to who knows what, though H809, with a bit of a spring it, ought to send me in the right direction.

Whether or not there is an institution out there ready to catch me is another matter - though I am looking, and I am talking to them.

In my dreams I'll be taking Activity Theory into the outer realms of the Internet - San Diego preferred, though Helsinki is the alternative.

I like sand, and I like snow ... but I prefer sand and snow ... and sun.

But that's not why I'm here is it? And does it matter a fig where any of us are situated anymore?  ... so long as it stimulates rather than stultifies.

(Yawn, yawn to bring it up but when will the weather forecasters stop talking about snow, frost and high pressure lingering over Scandinavia and just say 'this is so boring' - so here's a weather related picture we asked David Hockney to do instead and because he created it on an iPad using Brushes we can animate it - just like a weather front coming up form Nova Scoatia).

H809: Activity 9.1 (and a quarter)

Fig.1 Third Generation Activty Theory ... after Engestrom (2008) It's not just a theory, not just model ... it's a game. Photo by the author in his back yard (in England this means it really is a concrete space with junk in it. We have a garden for the plants and grass for the dog to wee on).

What functions do these ‘theoretical perspectives’ appear to be serving here?

Placing activity theory in context, both historically through previous learning theories and ‘geographically’ in relation to other disciplines. Is it a theory or a model (it can function as either or both); where is it of use? Anywhere people, groups of people or institutions interact with related, or closely related objectives.

Do you think Activity Theory is a ‘theory’?

It builds on past theories and is a model dint of the its visualisation. It can be considered and used as a theory or as a model, or both. Or, picking up some current reading as neither - the suggestion being that the connectedness of the Internet renders the parameters of each of the prescribed nodes of an Activity System redundant - as everyone and everything can  connect directly rather than through an intermediary tool, community or division of labour etc:

What do you understand to be the gap in Activity Theory that AODM is filling?

I don’t. Could someone offer a suggestion??

Try to summarise the authors’ view of ‘collaborative knowledge building’.

That knowledge creation, insight as such, is outside the head ... situated like

Engestrom’s ‘Object’ or ‘Outcome’ as at arm’s length, between people and distinct activity systems. This is where 1+1 = 3.

I prefer to see two or more activity systems NOT as systems or groups or departments ... but as the equally complex interaction of two people. Perhaps an image of a schizophrenic is Engestrom’s third generation activity theory where two apparently distinct system are in conflict ... but in the case of the schizophrenic, this happens in their head.


To get my head around Activity Theory I had to get it out of my head and onto paper. The idea of putting in chess pieces was intuitive - like improvisation at Youth Theatre.

At any one of these nodes, not absolutes, just suggestions for the model, there are people. People are complex and never act as distinct interlopers. We have the bagage of our lives behind us - parents, siblings and friends. So an Activity System is always a great leap into simplification. Add too much complexity and why bother?

This third generation concept of two interacting activity systems has also had 'historicity' added ... they are in constant flux, Think therefore of a series of overlapping frames. Whatever you look at now is soon gone ... there is too much happening in such a snapshot for it to be set.

This fluidity now has another force to pull it apart - the Internet.

I'll go and dig out the author of a paper, approved by the editor of the book it is in by its editor Yrjio Engestrom (Mr AT himself) where  the argument is that the Web means that all nodes are equally connected with all others.

I visualise this as drops of ink in water. They are unstable.

This instability, more brain like in its connectivity, is where we need to move on from Activity Theory.


Of course, carrying an examiner along with you in an OU assignment is quite another matter. I am currently challenging the OU where  I feel a paper I wrote was slashed at a) because I dismissed Wenger and didn't have another 1000 words to make my case and b) put all my money on Activity Theory only to conclude that 'we' had already moved on ...

Picking up tick points for an assignment is one thing - getting to the 'truth' seems to elude the OU. Too often I have felt that far from being on a postgraduate Masters programme I am in my first year as an undergraduate.

I guess having been brought up by the OU these lass three years I am like any teenager ready to exhurt my independence.


Where is the discourse? Where is the innovation? What is the point in any of this if every word has to be written as if pasted into cells of an Excell file so that someone can tick you off?

Is there anyone observing the MAODE for even the slightest sniff of orginality ????

Fig. 2. Division of Labor (sic)
Like a cabal of trade unionists or a gang in the school playground.


P.S. For anyone interested I have accumulated a libary on Engestrom ... some books that with some reluctance I have propped up on top of the fridge or somewhere and a bunch of eBooks.


Engestrom as author are the books to read, especially the case studies. There are a few collections of papers that are indigestible and IMHO are an embarrassment to their authors. I'd has might as well have bought a phone directory. Communication, or the inability to do so, will define the next generation of 'digital' scholars. If you cannot say what you mean and for this to stand up to the scrutiny of anybody then don't bother. Academics should never have dreamt they were only ever supposed to be writing to each other. If you cannot sit you grandmother down and tell her what you think, then you need to go away and think a bit more. Not meaning to be disparaging to mega-super hyper intelligent grandmother's out there - the same would apply to describing all the above to the 7 year old boy who is kicking a ball against a fence down the road.


P.P.S. Yrjio Engestrom is based in Helsinki and San Diego.
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H809 Activity 3.6

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Tuesday, 11 Jun 2013, 11:49

Read the Oliver et al. chapter, but in particular concentrate on the section headed ‘Methodology’ (pp. 30–7). Consider the following questions:

Theories Methods Approaches

To put it simply, what I see is a quest to answer a simple question ‘what is going on here?’ On the basis of observation, dissection, interview, quantification, benchmarking and other methods we hope to come to a view that can be agreed upon. We might say, we don’t know, we might say we have an idea, but these are the problems regarding our stance, or that we have a good idea what is going on and here it is .

Q1 What do each of the various approaches listed highlight?

I only felt that action research and activity theory were covered in enough detail, with the example, outcomes and likely findings to be able to apply them. A list of some nine other approaches were given … as a list. For me they imply, to use a metaphor, that if you head out into the dark you are going to see or uncover different things if you go armed with a torch, a guidebook or a trenching tool, and whether you go alone, with fellow students and/or with experts … ie. whether you are an observer, whether you situate your learning as acquired new insights on the ground, whether you literally get stuck in and/or do any of this with others to converse with - fellow students, those less knowledgeable than yourself or experts of varying degrees.

‘These different epistemological positions have profound implications for how e-learning should be studied’. (Landow, 1997)

Q2. How, if at all, are specific methods (interviews, surveys, focus groups, observation, etc.) and methodological approaches related?

The few methods that the authors elaborate are related through broad categories of social sciences.

They are also related in the sense that the same question is in essence being asked every time, ‘what is going on?’ though the angle of approach can clearly be very different because of the motivations and experience of the person(s) doing the research - and/or potential the politics and criteria of any awarding/funding body of the institution for whom, or where, the research is being carried out.  

They are related because they are all part of something complex, part of the same ‘universe’ of social activity.

I felt as if the chapter would have benefitted enormously from a Venn Diagram as the authors introduced these broad, encompasing theories, then offered a number of subsets and finally as list of some 11 specific methods but they only developed three of these: action research, activity systems and what might be called ‘power theory’. From the list given earlier in the piece I couldn’t find anything more on:

  1. actor network theory
  2. cognitive science
  3. discourse analysis
  4. grounded theory
  5. knowledge engineering
  6. artificial intelligence
  7. literacy
  8. management studies

Traditionally, changes in society and institutions are studied from the perspective of specific social sciences:

  • sociology,
  • social psychology
  • business studies, etc.

Changes in personal knowledge, understanding and skill are studied using

  • the tools of psychology,
  • personal development
  • and educational theory.

Changes in the nature of knowledge itself are studied using

  • the tools of philosophy
  • linguistics
  • media studies
  • critical theory
  • and theories of representation that may
  • include cultural theory and criticism.

Studying the intersection of these – the relationship between people, technology and knowledge – consequently draws in all of these perspectives, as well as new disciplines such as systems theory, instructional design and a field of applied research into the use of technology in education.

Given the complexity of the phenomena under study, there is certainly a need for a wide repertoire of investigative techniques. (Oliver et al . 2007. p 22)

Once represented in a digital form, knowledge can be almost limitlessly disseminated and analysed, re-inscribed, re-applied and re-appropriated. The authority associated with computer-based representations is often hidden and – because of this re-writable quality – may become complicated, referring to multiple ‘designers’, including (in interactive systems, at least in some sense) a system’s user. (Oliver et al. 2007. p 23)

These different epistemological positions have profound implications for how e-learning should be studied. Landow, 1997

Action research Technical, Practical, Emancipatory - and shared. Involves practitioners researching their own educational situations and practices, as a means of improving these. Technical - get in a specialist Practical - observation and focus-group feedback, systematic personal reflection, a couple or more iterations required. Emancipatory - identifying the systemic changes, as well as the changes to individual practice, that need to be made in order to improve specific educational situations. e.g. A quasi-experimental design, comparing the performance of cohorts over time Activity Theory Builds on the work of Vygotsky.  Learning is a social activity mediated through the use of tolls and developed into activity theory. Used like this, activity theory allows researchers to analyse systems and to focus on particular problems within them; this may allow solutions to be proposed. (Oliver et al. 2007. p. 35)

These different epistemological positions have profound implications for how e-learning should be studied.

Uses Positivism The ‘traditional’ hypothetico-deductivist view of reality as being objectively ‘out there’, something that can be posited and then investigated through our senses. Human beings are postulated as rational individuals whose behaviour can be predicted. Constructivism#
A cluster of related positions: -active experimentation (e.g. Papert, 1980),
-social interaction (e.g. Vygotsky, 1986; Wenger, 1998)
-constructed knowledge (e.g. von Glaserfeld, 1993). Ethnomethodological Looking for evidence of human motivation in the narratives and traces left behind in documentary evidence. Involves the researcher inhabiting the lives of those being studied so as to develop an understanding of those lives. Associative People learn through basic stimulus-response conditioning, then later through the capacity to associate concepts in a chain of reasoning, or to associate steps in a chain of activity to build a composite skill. This leads to accuracy of reproduction or recall. Cognitive constructivist People learn by active construction of ideas and building of skills, through exploration, experimentation, receiving feedback, and adapting themselves accordingly. This leads to integration of concepts and skills into the learner’s existing conceptual or competency structures.
Social constructivist People and groups learn with the support of dialogue and in the process of collaborative activity. Situativist

People learn through participation in communities of practice, progressing from novice to expert through observation, reflection, mentorship and legitimate peripheral participation in community activities.
This leads to the development of habits, values, identities and skills that are relevant to and supported by that community. Tacit communitarianism This is the dominant orientation of the corporate management training sectors. Leads to ‘people like us’. A commonsense pedagogy of normalisation that adopts forms from both the social perspective and positivism in order to reproduce a culture through its many tacit codes This leads to knowledge engineering and closed-systems computational approaches such as organisational learning and expert and intelligent systems. The post-theoretical or new critical approach The new critical approach acknowledges conflicts, be they epistemological, virtual or real: social class, gender, theoretical orientation, global economic/energy flows and balances. The approach might be characterised by project- and problem-based learning, applied and action research, and grounded and emergent theoretical approaches situated in communities of practice.




Beetham, H. (2005) ‘What is learning and how do we learn? Introduction to three
types of learning theory’. In Beetham, H. and Roberts, G. (eds.) Introduction to Learning Theory and Design for Learning,Oxford: ALT.

McLuhan, M. (1989) The Medium is the Message, New York, Simon and Schuster.


Cohen, L., Manion, L. and Morrison, K. (2000) Research Methods in Education, 5th edn, London: Routledge Falmer.

Conole, G, & Oliver, M 2006, Contemporary Perspectives In E-Learning Research : Themes, Methods, And Impact On Practice, n.p.: Routledge, eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost, viewed 23 February 2013.

De Laat, M., Lally, V. and Lipponen, L. (2005) ‘Teaching online in networked learning communities: a multi-method approach’, Researching dialogue and communities of enquiry in elearning in HE. ESRC E-learning seminar series, Southampton: University of Southampton. Available online at: http://www.wun.ac.uk/elearning/seminars/seminars/seminar_two/seminartwo.html last accessed 30 March 2006.

Kuuti, K (1996) Activity Theory as a framework for potential human-computer interaction research. In Nardi, B. A. (ed) Context and consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-computer interaction.

Landow, G. (1997) Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Oliver, M. (2001) ‘Evaluating online teaching and learning’, Information Services and Use, 20(2/3), p. 83–94.



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OLDS MOOC 2013 'Methods & tools: The activity checklist: a tool for representing the "space" of context'

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Wednesday, 22 Oct 2014, 09:44

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 Engestrom 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 Engestrom 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 Sytem as a diagram is to help make the complex seem less so - Kaptelinin et al have done the exact opposite.


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 .

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He's bonkers ...

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Thursday, 17 Jan 2013, 16:27

Do I join I club when it is clear I've become one of those students the OU will never get rid of?

I signed off H810 at noon - and in so doing complete the 'set' for the Masters in Open and Distance Education.

H810 - Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students

H807 - Innovations in E-learning (replaced by H817 which starts in a few weeks time)

H808 - The E-Learning Professional

H800 - Technology-enhanced learning: practices and debates

B822 - Creativity, Innovation and Change (An MBA module, extraordinary and insightful but now rolled into several modules rather than stand alone. A shame, as I came across other non-MBA people doing it as an elective)

I signed on to H809: Practice-based research in educational technolgy for good measure which gives me exactly 7 days to twiddle my thumbs. Actually, I am reading, without pressure, a few books that I stumbled upon over the last 3 years:

Learning and Expanding with Activity Theory. (2009) Ed. Annalisa Sannino, Harry Daniels and Kris Gutierrez. Kindle Version.

(Unfortunately for me this unpicks a piece of the assignment I've just sent off. Activity Systems can't really apply to a digitised world apparently)

Groundswell: winning in a world transformed by social technologies. (2006) Charlene Li, Josh Bernoff. Kindle Version

The Timeless Way of Building. Christopher Alexander (when it arrives from the US)

Often referred to during the MAODE.

Techniques of Structured Problem Solving. VanGundy (when it arrives from the US)

At the core of 'Creativity, Innovation and Change'. We recieved a handbook of problem solving techniques that contained many of these.

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H810 Activity 35 Chapter 12 Tutor Forum Response

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 2 May 2014, 13:25

Hi Adam, yes I agree that 'responsibility' comes up and that is what I come across even before people start to look at the tools - eyes glaze over on the discovery that there are many tools and lengthy guidelines and they'll conclude that it is potentially not worth the effort for them or the client ... in certain contexts - sports have strict guidelines relating to accessibility, as do places of education ... workplace education is another matter and I sometimes wonder if people just don't think there could possibly be anyone in their workforce who could have a disability that would prevent them using the internet ... otherwise how could they do their job. A number of charities have paid for an insightful video that introduces the viewer to a dozen or so people with disabilities in the workplace to understand where assistance and support comes from. We should remember that many have been on top of this themselves, often being early adopters of the technology for the benefits it brings to them - they don't need help necessarily, but could probably show you a few things if you need to personalise a browser.

I've had an incling that Engestrom has something interesting to say and I've misquoted him and convinced people that it means x, when it actually means y with no one wanting to correct me. As I indicated above to Christopher I wanted to crack this once and for all, especially as I am in the final weeks of the MAODE.

This therefore is essential reading. Find a case history that you might be familiar with and take it from there. These are thorough case studies from beginnign to end of consultancy like projects he and his team have undertaken for, amongst others, a TV production company, a court, a regional health service in Finland - so hospitals, specialist clincs and GP surgeries ... courts and think and several others.

Engeström.Y (2008) From Teams to Knots: Activity-theoretical studies of Collaboration and Learning at Work. Learning in doing: Social, Cognitive & Computational Perspectives. Cambridge University Press. Series Editor Emeritus. John Seely Brown.

This brings it up to date.

Engeström.Y (2011) Learning by expanding: ten years after (last accessed 19 Dec 20-12) http://lchc.ucsd.edu/mca/Paper/Engestrom/expanding/intro.htm

My take on it includes drawing up an activity system on a large piece of board and adding some chess pieces - to get it into my head that all these nodes are people dealing with oither people even if they manifest themselves as tools or rules - someone wrote or designed them, and someone effectively holds the 'keys. Also to remind myself of the historical point of view .. a half eaten Toblerone.

Various manifestations of this in my Blog.


If you want to share thoughts and have time to get your head around it do please get in touch. It is my hope that I can research, construct and use an Activity System for real. I just think it is a way to get inside a subject thoroughly to understand the actions that are working and those that are misfiring or getting stuck, blocked or shredded.

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H810 : Conflicts in an Activity System

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 2 May 2014, 13:23

Fig. 1 Seale (2008) chapter 12 on activity systems in relation to accessibility in e-learning as an Activity System

The six potential areas of conflict Seal identifies occur, from the Activity System, between:

  1. Objects and tools - if we agree that the tools currently available are weak (or too many of them, or too specialist or too expensive)
  2. Objects and division of labour - a fragmented division of labour that is pulling the different stakeholders apart and preventing them from working together to meet the objective.
  3. Community and division of labour - a contradiction could be perceived to exist between community and division of labour if the rules that the community develop divide labour in such a way as to mitigate against the objective of the activity being achieved
  4. Community and rules - a conflict with the community whether guidelines are seen as tools or rules. A contradiction may be perceived to occur between community and rules where the community cannot agree on the rules and how they should be applie
  5. Rules and subject - where the rules or guidelines are not specific to the object, or difficulties in interpreting the results having used tools. A contradiction may be perceived to occur between the rules and the subject where the rules are non-existent, weak or inconsistent and so not good enough to enable the users of the rules (subjects) to meet the objective of the activity.
  6. Tools and subject - If the subjects of an activity system are unable to use the tools in the way they were intended, then conflict or contradiction may occur.

There are a further 8 discussed tangetially in relation to the Activity System, some within individual nodes. In total the full list looks like this:

  1. The array of design and evaluation software applications
  2. The mastery of external devices and tools of labour activity (Naardi 1996)
  3. No rules of practive for use of that tool (Iscorft and Scanlon)
  4. Tools that are overly prescriptive (Phipps et al 2005)
  5. How do you choose a tool?
  6. The context in which tools are introduced (Seale, 2006:160)
  7. The array of guidelines and standards and lack of information on how to use these.
  8. Constraints caused by formal, informal and technical  rules and concentions of community (Seale, 2006:161)
  9. A framework for desscribing current practice both individual and social (Seale, 2006:160)
  10. More than one object (Kuutti, 1996)
  11. When different but conntected activities ahre an object or an artefact but place a very different emphasis on it (McAviia and Oliver, 2004)
  12. Conflict over who does what within 'Divisions of Labour'
  13. Novice or expert ... good thing or bad? The novice is more likely to be the innovator - if brought in from outside the system, while the expert in the system may be too set in the ways of the 'community'.
  14. Excuses about the lack of information. Steyaert (2005)

I like Seale's concluding remarks - Subject and object, object and community, subect and community - Contradiction in any or all of the relationships described in the previous section has the potential to threaten the central relationships between object and community, subject and object and subject and community.

And the over all thought:

‘Design for all’ probably requires a commitment to ‘design by all’.

According to Activity Theory, any or all of the contradictions will prevent accessible e-learning practice from developing and therefore accessible e-learning will not develop or progress unless these contradictions are resolved.

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Towards my own theory of learning

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 2 Nov 2012, 18:14


How do we perceive and share knowledge? What matters most in this equation?

Society, the institution, department or the individual educator?

Learning occurs at the interface between individuals, between the teacher and pupil, between pupils and of course between the thinkers, the educators, researchers and academics.

This interface is expressed as an artefact: a lecture, a book, a TV appearance, a podcast, a chapter in a book or a paper – as an expression of a set of ideas. This interface is also a conversation, in a tutorial, at a conference or less formally in passing over a meal, or drink (in the Oxbridge experience at the High Table, in the senior, middle or junior common rooms, in halls and rooms where societies and loose groupings of people meet, as well as in studies and rooms). Recreation of this online as minds meet, discuss and share. Informal or proactive groups or societies coming together. People with people.

On the one hand we like to put the institution above the person, whether in academia or the commercial world we rank and recognise Oxbridge and the Russell Group 'above' other universities while, for example, in Law we put Freshfields, Clifford Chance and Herbert Smith in the top ten of 125 or 500 legal practices.

However, it is an the individual level, at the interface between one person and another, one mind and another, where the learning occurs, where the knowledge is applied and changed, and in various forms written up or written out to cause or record effect.

It is at this interface, where minds meet, where ideas are catalysed and formed.

Towards my own theory of learning ?

Or trying to get my head around Engestrom's Activity Theory that fits the bill for me?


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Breakthroughs, Activity Theory and Agency Creative Teams

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 9 Mar 2012, 06:20

'There's never been a breakthrough as a result of writing a memo, breakthroughs occur when two or more people, get inspired, have fun, think the unthinkable'. Lars Kolind, Oticon.(in Mayle 1998) 

If you're on the trail of the MAODE then look at Engestrom's 'Activity Theory' which shows in a chart how not only two people, but two entities interact and create a unique response.
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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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Joining the Open University Business School

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Saturday, 27 Aug 2011, 23:23

It has surprised me how much my mind has be thrown by this exciting prospect. Like so many OU students I'm now very much in the camp of having my mind in two places.  Of course, the MAODE is complementary and my working world will substantially be an online one.

So, with one major sports related e-learning project set to one side and my head engaged in OUBS matters I return to contemplating 'Expansive learning.'


Activity Theory

I've decided that my problem isn't with the thinking, but with how it is expressed. I've therefore taken this model and set it up with chess pieces on a table. I need to visual people, objects and concepts rather than giving them titles or symbols. Some years ago when developing a project I got permission to spend an hour at a local youth theatre and I had the young people walk through and improvise the roles I was trying to form into a video script.


Where there's a budget to do so it pays to hire a designer, visualiser or art director such as David McCandless.




I wish academics, like copywriters in advertising, would work with art directors or designed, anybody who can better visualise what they have in their minds. There is more to sharing knowledge than text and diagrams. Where I also struggle is where these diagrams take on the attributes of science-fact, when they are simply models - one means of sharing a concept where there are plenty of others.

How often do you hear people say 'I see what you mean?'

Perhaps the best was to express Activity Theory would be as a podcast, to explain it without any image allowing each person to visualise it in their own way. Now there's a challenge.

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