Increasingly, students are enrolling in wholly online courses, or are being asked to participate in substantive online components as part of residential classes (Allen et al., 2007). With this shift, new questions arise about how to effectively support student interaction in online spaces. In what follows, I propose an approach grounded in Activity Theory (Engeström, 1999, 1990; Wertsch, 1981), which provides a principled process for designing and integrating online instruction in a manner that encourages robust, authentic activity. I illustrate this approach with a description of the Cross-Class Collaboration Project (CCCP). In the CCCP, students from two different graduate level courses, one residential and one online, challenged each other to synthesize and apply their course materials to solve real-world problems.

Designing Through Activity Theory

Activity Theory (Engeström, 1999, 1990; Wertsch, 1981) emphasizes a need to focus not only upon individuals, but upon joint, collective activity as the site at which learning occurs, a relationship expressed in an expanded meditational triangle (see Figure 1). The activity triangle depicts the relationship between the individual subjects (students), the object of their activity, available tools, and the rules and division of labor that shape interactions with the local community. In my classroom design activities, I find that the triangle is an effective heuristic to help me systematically account for these six elements as well as the relationship between them.

Activity is defined by the shared object of the participants within an activity (Wertsch, 1981), and I therefore approach the design of learning activities by determining the object of students’ activity. In the case of the CCCP, I was working with students in two different graduate level courses. Students in P540: Cognition and Learning surveyed major theories of learning in an online distance-education setting. The second face-to-face class, P574: Computational Technologies in Educational Ecosystems, surveyed many of the theoretical and practical innovations related to implementing technology in learning contexts. The students in both courses, therefore, shared a general interest in learning and education. 

Step-by-Step Implementation

The shared object that I identified for these students was, however, one that may apply to many disciplines and courses: how to answer messy, real-world questions in their area of interest. In particular, they wanted to see how they might apply the course content to the practical questions that they would encounter in their current and future careers. Furthermore, this kind of authentic activity has been shown to increase the likelihood that students will be able to apply what they have learned once they leave class (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989).

  1. Identify the shared object. My identification of the object stemmed from repeated observation and conversation with the students. In other situations, however, it might have been necessary to either poll students to solicit a shared object or engage the students in activities designed to inspire a shared object. For example, I have often found that once students are presented with a sufficiently interesting and yet unanswered question, they will adopt the answering of that question as a goal for their immediate activity.
  2. Provide thought-provoking questions. Given this goal, and a general concern that students in online courses often feel isolated from their peers, I decided to ask the students to answer authentic questions that were driven by the needs and interests of the very community they might one day work with – their peers in the other course.
  3. Determine the necessary components. All that remained, then, was to determine the tools, rules, and division of labor that might effectively support the students’ attainment of their goals of applying the course theories to answer their peers’ questions. For this step of the design process, I find it make more sense to begin with whichever mediator comes to mind first and then to use the activity triangle as a heuristic to ensure not only that the mediators are all addressed, but that they are complementary. In this case, my students were already using Oncourse (the former LMS of IU) and so a shared forum made sense as a location where the students might meet.
  4. Provide assignment. Finally, I determined the rules and division of labor that I believed would best support students in engaging in a forum discussion aimed at applying their theories to real-world problems. The assignment therefore had two tasks: first, post a question for the students in the other course. Students in P540 asked the P574 students questions how they might implement technology in their learning environments while the P574 students asked how learning theory might influence their technology designs. Then, to ensure substantive and diverse answers, I required students to answer at least 3 questions with a minimum length of 2-3 paragraphs. The end result was a lively set of discussions in which students struggled, in the most productive sense of the term, with how to adapt the “clean” theories they had been learning to the “messy” realities of their peers’ real-world contexts.


From my standpoint, the exercise was a success. The majority of the student answers were longer than required, and showed a depth and insight into the course theories that was largely absent from more traditional essay tasks. Furthermore, when surveyed upon their experiences, the students consistently responded that they found the exercise to be challenging, but also realistic, interesting, and rewarding. For example, one student wrote, “A project like this has forced (in a positive way) me to think critically on the readings, and how they apply in practice. […] With a project like this I have to examine the needs of another and find the fitting theory. Here’s a bonus, I really enjoyed it.”

An illustration of the how the Activity Triangle provides a systematic way to design learning activities, the CCCP shows the potential of leveraging shared online forums to engage students in different but related classes in a rich, meaningful manner. Asking students to respond to their peers in this way, in lieu of traditional essays, has the added benefit of providing authentic, messy problems that are akin to those that students will face when they leave our classes.