Open Source

Subjects, objects and outcomes of (e-)learning activity system

In his post “Thoughts on this and that” Graham Attwell quoted Jyri
Engeström’s post about “
Why some social network services work and others don’t — Or: the case for object-centered sociality

“the term ‘social networking’ makes little sense if we leave out the
objects that mediate the ties between people……social networks
consist of people who are connected by a shared object.”

Graham commented:

“Lets substitute the word e-learning for social networking. It gets us
close to the true nature of e-learning. And it raises some interesting
questions. Like – what is the object? Is the object the learning
materials or or it the learning application. Me – I go for the second. I
think learning materials are part of the subject of learning. Its the
application which mediates the ties between people (and so in my book
qualifies for the title of a learning object!).”

All ready from the early 1990’s I have been fascinated by

Yrjö Engeström’s
(yes he is realted to Jyri) work in the field
cultural-historical activity theory
and it’s applications to teaching and learning.
In have found Engeström’s writings in the era of Internet, social software and
hmm.. e-learning very useful.

Engeström’s writings are

pretty hard but rewarding reading
. Probably the most well known part of
his work is the triangular structure of

human activity system
. It is so simple model –
and maybe looks a litte bit like UML model – that even computer scientists,
especially human-computer interaction (HCI) people have found it useful. 🙂

The structure of human activity (Engeström, 1987, p. 78 from the page:

Now when we know that in the human activity systems there are subjects,
objects, instruments and of course outcomes we may start
to think what is what in (e)-learning. Under these there are the nodes:
rules, community and division of labor controlling what can
happens in the upper level. But let’s first focus only to the upper floor.

Graham wrote that he would vote the “learning application” to be the
object in the e-learning. I do not agree with him. I think in a learning activity system
the object should be something as abstract as “knowledge objects”
(problems, own hypothesis, theories, etc.) that are interpreted,
modified and mixed by the subject’s – the members of the learning
community that contains both more advanced subjects (teachers, tutors)
and less advanced subjects (students). The objects are under consideration of
the subjects.

The instruments used to work with the knowledge objects are (1)
methods of working (pedagogical models, group work techniques, study/research plans
etc.) and (2) tools (paper and pen, notebooks, books computers, etc.).
So, what are the outcomes of this kind of learning activity system? If
the system works well the outcomes are meaning, conceptual change,
problem solving skills, critical thinking – deep understanding of the
domains under study.

This specification has actually been implicitly (I know we should write
more about this!) behind the design of Fle3
– the pedagogical tool for collaborative learning – developed by my group.
(I hope you are not getting tired of my writings about it 🙂

Anyway in this kind of learning activity system, Fle3 is the instrument,
students and teachers are the subjects and knowledge is the object.
But, I have noticed that the lower level nodes are making this kind activity system’s operations hard to work. Often Fle3 just do not fit to the existing human activity system.
Rules – the national curriculums and laws – do not support this
kind of activity systems in schools. The wider community – teachers,
parents (student, too) – are afraid that the schools will end-up to be
places of playing with “knowledge objects” and there is no more serious lessons and
discipline that will result as “real learning” = recalling of facts. Teachers are
skeptical if the students will learn anything when you give them the right to be the
subjects with a voice in the system. The request to become a subject alongside
your students is also major change in the division of the labor. And the selection
task of education becomes more complicate to carry out.

I personally think that most e-learning tool and “learning object”
developers have never thought who are the subjects, what are the
instruments and how and what the objects should be in the system
under design. For instance most of the learning management systems (LMS) are mainly
focusing on to strength the existing activity system with rigid lower
level nodes. Students are seen as the objects that are fed with
information provided by the subject – the teacher. To carry out the
feeding you need instruments, such as course syllabus, courseware and
quizzes to track their “progress”.

Technology is never value-free. Education is never value-free.
Educational technology is never value-free – in the second degree.

PS. If you are around in Helsinki you may tomorrow pop in the Media Lab’s
Demoday and have a face-to-face chat. The
Master of Art’s exhibition in the very same place where
the demo day takes will place is also worth of visiting. The pink festival trams from the center of the city gets you to the right place.

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