mLearning & Activity Theory

mLearning and Activity Theory

The mobile learning (mLearning) community is in the process of a paradigm shift comparable to the transition of static internet (web 1.0) to the present-day dynamic internet (web 2.0) where interactivity, file sharing, and access are becoming more ubiquitous. Successful mLearning atmospheres must be designed to incorporate dynamic attributes that will allow the user to have access anytime, anywhere to interactive content complete with file sharing and community building tools sensitive to individual need and location.

Activity Theory (AT) provides an academic researcher’s insight that can inform the complex practice of instructional design within the context of mLearning.

“Given that it is primarily a descriptive tool, AT is geared towards practice. It embodies a qualitative approach that offers a different lens for analyzing a learning process and its outcome, focusing on the activities people are engaged in” – (Nussbaum & Zurita, 2006).

The integration of mLearning technology is a tool in this system. Since AT shows how all parts of a system affect each other and none are independent of all other factors, AT can “inform the design and use of” technologies (Gay and Hembrooke, 2004) in instructional settings where human-computer interaction is able to enhance learning. The model (Figure 1) below was originally developed by Engeström (1987) but re-purposed by Nussbaum and Zurita. The model (Nussbaum & Zurita, 2006) shows the multifaceted structure of a human activity system (Activity Theory).

Figure 1. Engestrom’s expanded Activity Theory model


“Activity, or ‘what people do’, is reflected through people’s actions as they interact with their environment” (Nussbaum & Zurita, 2006). The tool, in this case, mLearning technology, is a piece of the system not the focus of the system. The focus, or outcome, of the system is educational success. Clearly this mLearning effects and is effected by the other factors in this system.




Engeström, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental research. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit.


Gay and Hembrooke (2004) “Activity Centered Design: An ecological approach to designing smart tools and usable systems” MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.


Nussbaum, M., & Zurita, G. (2006) “A conceptual framework based on Activity Theory for mobile CSCL” British Journal of Educational Technology 2006.

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