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H809 – Using activity-oriented design methods (AODM) (A9.2)

April 11, 2011

Finishing the rest of the reading, which unfortunately required a lot more time than suggested, not to talk about answering the questions and comparing them with other students :-(, showed me the value of AODM (activity-oriented desgin method) based on Activity theory for practitioner, but also for others involved in the process of designing and  implementing learning activities in a certain context.

Interestingly our tutor is the third researcher mentioned in the writing. I knew she favours Activity theory, but it is pretty cool to see a research paper where she participated.

Research question

The research focus on understanding the interactions among various stakeholders involved in e-learning courses. In a multi-year research project two authors and a third researcher examined how online course management systems (i.e. WebCT/Vista) were being used to facilitate teaching and learning across the university.

The primary objective of the research study was to produce ongoing pictures or models of instructional practice to find out how course design teams develop engaging e-learning courses using WebCt/Vista.


Higher Education (University within the United States)


  • 3 tenure-track faculty and 3 non-tenured instructional staff, their course assistants (instructional designer)
  • Students across six different disciplinary departments
    • 3 online courses
    • 3 blended courses (online and face-to-face instructions)


  • AODM based on Activity theory
  • Key words used: collaborative knowledge building, e-learning, socio-cultural and socio historical theories, context, mediated actions involving artefacts, relationships and contradictions within the activity system, design-based research


  • AODM as tool, method?
    • hybrid methodological approach that falls within the descriptive and iterative traditions
      • descriptive – because AODM provides descriptive analysis within  the ethnomethodological traditions examining brief episodes in great detail (micro-analytic), accumulating evidence over time to advance theory
        iterative – because the single steps are often repeated, it is a back and forth progression (p. 376), fits well into design-based research paradigm
  • Activity theory (AT) – this method was used to study the individual and group perspectives (p. 365)
  • screening interviews, ongoing interviews,
  • focus groups with students
  • records of participants actions and interactions online, including records of discussion threads and examples of students’ work
  • statistical journals kept by students

  1. What benefits did Transana provide?
  2. What do you understand to be the gap in AODM that discourse analysis was chosen to fill?
  3. According to the authors, what advantages did Activity Theory and AODM bring?
  4. Do you think these advantages could have been obtained another way?
  5. In what ways is the research design influenced/constrained by the use of AT as a theoretical basis?

Question 1

Transana is a qualitative research software for analysing digital audio and video. It allows selecting text in transcripts, assigning keywords to it, create a link between the selection and the location in the audio file, and group related selections into collections (creating clips)

  • allows to organize great amounts of data
  • to code them into categories, label them, to create clips (group related selections into collections)
  • to more easily compare data and to meaningful interpret data

Transana software reminds me on the !KwicTec, that Wegerif and Meinke (1994) used for their computer-based analysis of collaborative learning. A method that combined as well  qualitative methods of discourse analysis with quantitative methods.

Question 2

Identifying contradictions in relationships within and between the various sub-activities that exist with the main activity system is important to obtain a ‘comprehensive understanding of the means by which these contradictions develop from a social, cultural and historical perspective ‘ (Mwanza 2002 cited in Greenhow and Belbas, 2007). Discourse analysis is a means to examine conversation in small groups in more detail.

The authors drew upon the analytic framework developed by Mercer and colleagues in the Spoken Language and New Technology (SLANT) and used it to identify instances of collaborative knowledge building in student’s discourse.

The analytic framework concentrates on

  • three aspects of social interaction (i.e. linguistic, psychological, cultural)
  • three types of talk (disputational, cumulative and exploratory)
  • three distinct social modes

This allows a very detailed examination of talk and allows interpreting data more holistically. However, it did not demonstrate that the course design and the guidelines for small group interactions was the driving force behind the changes in students talk towards more exploratory talk. Further examination of the sub-activities relationship was needed to find out if the course design is responsible for more collaborative knowledge building.

Question 3

Both, AT and AODM are effective methods/tools that help to inform the development of subsequent educational experiences and support group processes, because AT is relevant to analysis of work practices and tool design (marcro-level analysis) and AODM helps to ‘analyze instructional practices among course design teams with contexts mediated by online tools and other artifacts’ (Mwanza 2002). AODM  allows to analyse data in great depth (micro-analysis).

The process of data-gathering, analysis and communicating design insights is supported by the four methodological tools from AODM.

  • An Eight-Step-Model
    – that operationalizes the nodes of the activity triangle defined by Engeström (1987). It facilitates modelling of a main activity system.
  • An Activity Notation
    – facilitates decomposition of the main activity system into sub-activity triangles
  • A technique for Generating Sub-Activity-Oriented Research Questions
    – examining the relationships within and between activity system components.
  • A technique for Mapping Operational Processes
    – shows links between the previous applications making them more explicit, illustrating how the use of these tools build on another.

Here a list of advantages that the authors saw when  using Activity Theory and AODM.


  • create a more comprehensive picture of course design team’s instructional practices within an e-learning course
  • gain insights about the values shared by the course design team, make tacit values explicit
  • help to structure the complexity of interpreting observations in activity theoretical terms and ensure accuracy and consistency throughout the research project
  • assist the researcher with organizing and attending to details and looking closely at the shift that occur in an activity system as it develops over time
  • useful heuristic for stimulating further investigation of possible tensions
  • helps researcher find clarity and focus in observing complex social behaviours and in interpreting the mediating elements that influence those behaviours.
  • constitutes a mean of integrating the values, tools, and division of labour of constituencies who enter the course design system to produce new educational experiences
  • allows to communicate with different constituencies
  • assist the design of e-learning practices
  • enables designers to draw comparison between design vision and enactment – important to justify change
  • however! – AODM is very complex and requires vigilance in maintaining perspective on the relationship between the part and the whole.
  • process revealed a myriad of details – logistic and information management challenge
  • applied best in the early stage of the design process, although AODM tools offer insights to educational researchers and technologist at any stage in the development or revision process, however design teams may be most receptive to suggestion during the initial phases of development

Activity Theory

  • contradictions can contribute to a better understanding and can lead to improvements in existing courses or future courses.

Both authors argue that

AODM offers much to researchers who are interested in understanding and characterizing the messiness of real world practice in a way that is valuable to others with context being a core part of the story’ (Barab et al. 2004).

Question 4

I thought about communities of practice or constellation of networks that can be used as analytic tool, but I doubt that it would provide such detailed information. In H810 communities of practice or constellation was introduced by Seale (2006). It emphasis as well on relationships and contradictions within and  between different communities. A combination of qualitative and qualitative methods could be used, e.g. the computer-based analysis for discourse analysis by  Wegerif and Mercer.

Question 5

In what ways is the research design influenced/constrained by the use of AT as a theoretical basis? That is a difficult question 😕 We learned that AT is more coarse-grained as AODM, but overall is AT concerned with ‘doing in order to transform’ something in context (e.g. course design enacted over time) and not with ‘disembodied action’ (e.g. designing a course) (Barab et al. 2004a).  Thus, AT is much related to practice intended for practitioner-audience. In combination with AODM it provides a powerful and effective tool.


Greenhow, C. & Belbas, B. (2007) ‘Using activity-oriented design methods to study collaborative knowledge-building in e-learning courses within higher education’, Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, vol. 2, pp. 363–391, available online at (accessed 31 January 2011).

Wegerif, R. and Mercer, N. (1997) ‘Using computer-based text analysis to integrate qualitative and quantitative methods in research on collaborative learning’, Language and Education, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 271–86.

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