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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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