Archive for the ‘E-learning research’ Category

Theories and methods

Monday, January 18th, 2010

I am in the hotseat this week - as part of the virtual seminar series as a precursor to the Networked Learning Conference. The focus of the debate is on theories and methodology in networked learning. To kick start the debate I have written a positional paper, the full paper is available on slideshare but I’ve copied most of it here.

Theory and methodology in Networked learning

Gráinne Conole, The Open University

Positional paper for the Networked Learning Hotseat debate, January 2010


This paper is intended as an initial position paper to spark debate for the networked learning hotseat scheduled for the week beginning 18th January 2010. Each section will focus on a specific theme around theory and methods in Networked Learning and will conclude with some questions for discussion. Given the changing nature and contested nature of this field of research the paper begins by providing a definition of some terms of the terms discussed.  This paper draws on a number of sources of data:

·      Outputs from a TLRP TEL workshop on interdisciplinarity on 14th November 2008. Participants were all researchers involved in the TLRP TEL research programme.

·      A cloudscape on interdisciplinarity

·      Relevant research literature

·      It also draws on a special interest group led by Martin Oliver in the early nougties on theory and learning technology, which resulted in the production of a special issue of JIME (

These will be combined with the outputs from the Networked Learning hotseat discussions to provide an update positional paper for discussion on the TLRP TEL programme website ( as part of a theme on interdisciplinarity in TEL research.


Research into the use of technology in an educational context had a long history with changing labels over the years, each indicating evolving trends in the field and emphasising different types of foci of inquiry. Commonly used terms include: educational technology, learning technology, e-learning, Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) and more recently Technology-enhanced Learning (TEL). Networked learning has a particular niche within this broader family, as Goodyear (Goodyear 2005) contends:

The terms e-learning, web based learning and online learning now have wide currency in education. I use the term networked learning to mean a distinctive version of these approaches. I define networked learning as:

    learning in which ICT is used to promote connections: between one learner and other learners; between learners and tutors; between a learning community and its learning resources (Goodyear, Banks, Hodgson & McConnell, 2004).

The specific focus of this paper is on theories and methodologies in networked learning. Many books have been written on research methods in Social Science. Cohen et al. is one of the standard texts for educational research (Cohen et al. 2007). The Research Methods Knowledge Base ( provides covers the entire research process including: formulating research questions; sampling; measurement; research design; data analysis; and, writing the research paper.  It also addresses the major theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of research including: the idea of validity in research; reliability of measures; and ethics. The ESRC National Centre for Research Methods ( provides a comprehensive site for collating research methods activities across the Social Sciences, along with the latest in innovations in research methods. Early work carried out by the centre included a review of research methods and generated a typology of research methods (Beissel-Durrant 2004) which illustrates the rich variety of research methods being used reflecting the breadth of different epistemological perspectives in the field.

Oliver et al. (M. Oliver et al. 2007) argue that there are a range of different epistemological positions adopted by researchers in the field and that these have profound implications for how the field will be researched. They argue that this is often explained in terms of the ‘paradigm debate’, and framed as a contrast between qualitative and quantitative methods; although go on to qualify that this is a rather crude distinction; i.e. qualitative data can be interpreted in a positivist way and quantitative data can be used to yield understandings beyond the specific numerical data. They argue that

‘we need to consider how different philosophical positions would interpret the kinds of data generated by particular empirical methods. ‘Methodology’ describes this relationship, and must be understood separately from ‘methods’, which are the techniques used to collect and analyse data (This will include things like interviews, questionnaires, observation etc.) Methodology determines whether the implementation of particular methods is successful or credible. Indeed, according to Agger, “methodologies can’t solve intellectual problems but are simply ways of making arguments for what we already know or suspect to be true” (Agger, 2004, p. 77).

To do this, methodology codifies beliefs about the world, reflecting ‘out there’ or ‘in here’ positions.

The view that knowledge is hard, objective and tangible will demand of researchers an observer role, together with an allegiance to methods of natural science; to see knowledge as personal, subjective and unique, however, imposes on researchers an involvement with their subjects and a rejection of the ways of the natural scientist. To subscribe to the former is to be positivist; to the latter, anti-positivist.

(Cohen, Manion and Morrison, 2000: 6)

Such commitments and interests arise from historical, cultural and political influences, which collectively shape traditions of research that provide the context for current work (e.g. Conole, 2003). These have profound implications for the topics that people study and the kinds of conclusions they are willing to draw.  (M. Oliver et al. 2007, p.9).

Therefore methods are the techniques used to collect and analyse data, whereas methodology align with different epistemological beliefs and views of the world.

The term theory is contested and is used in a variety of different ways; here are some definitions that are the closest to how it is used in a networked learning research context:

·        Theory, in the scientific sense of the word, is an analytic structure designed to explain a set of empirical observations. A scientific theory does two things: 1. it identifies this set of distinct observations as a class of phenomena, and 2. makes assertions about the underlying reality that brings about or affects this class. In the scientific or empirical tradition, the term “theory” is reserved for ideas which meet baseline requirements about the kinds of empirical observations made, the methods of classification used, and the consistency of the theory in its application among members of the class to which it pertains. These requirements vary across different scientific fields of knowledge, but in general theories are expected to be functional and parsimonious: i.e. a theory should be the simplest possible tool that can be used to effectively address the given class of phenomena. (

·        A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena. (

The relationship between theory and empirical data can be defined as follows:

Social research is theoretical, meaning that much of it is concerned with developing, exploring or testing the theories or ideas that social researchers have about how the world operates. But it is also empirical, meaning that it is based on observations and measurements of reality — on what we perceive of the world around us. You can even think of most research as a blending of these two terms — a comparison of our theories about how the world operates with our observations of its operation. (

Networked learning researchers’ birth disciplines

Researchers at the TEL interdisciplinary workshop sited a broad range of ‘birth disciplines’, including: Computer science, Plant science, Botany, Veterinary science, Ethnology cultural studies, Psychology, HCI, Philosophy, Fine art, Moral philosophy, Electronic engineering, Chemistry, History of art, AI, Geology, HPS, International development education, Linguistics and AI, Philosophy, Sociology, Maths and Physics. Authors involved in the ‘Contemporary perspectives in e-learning research’ book (G. Conole & M. Oliver 2007) also came from a diverse discipline background: Physical Sciences, Social Sciences, Critical Theory, Education, Psychology, Computer Science, Philosophy and Management Studies.  

Clearly such diversity brings with it strengths; different theoretical perspectives and methodologies; different interests in terms of the focus of inquiry and research questions, but it also results in tensions - differences in definitions and understandings and even fundamentally opposed epistemological beliefs.  Discussing the emergence of learning technology as a research field, Conole and Oliver (G. Conole & M. Oliver 2002) note:

Learning technology is an inherently multidisciplinary field, and stakeholders include of researchers from different fields (educational research, cognitive psychology, instructional design, computer science, etc) as well as teaching subject-experts who engage with it as ‘end users’ or ‘consumers’. This multi-disciplinarity is a common feature of emergent research areas and, in one sense, is a strength. However, if we are to capitalise on this richness of expertise, it is necessary to work towards a clear theoretical underpinning that allows these diverse cultures to engage with and develop the use of learning technology.

A recent cloud in cloudworks considers these benefits and tensions in more detail ( Here is a summary of some of the main arguments made to date:

·        Some researchers recognise the underlying influence their ‘birth discipline’ has on their research approach. However others argued that their perspectives around e-learning have been shaped far more by the experiences they have had working in the area than by prior studies in an unrelated discipline many years ago.

·        The transition to an educational perspective for researchers originally fro a Science background is very hard indeed, requiring a complete rethinking of underlying epistemological beliefs. However having an understanding of both Science and Social Science perspectives is incredibly useful. Similarly transitional processes are evident from those coming into the research from managerial or business backgrounds.

·        Many researchers are drawn into research into the use of technologies in an educational context from a practical perspective, i.e. what can these technologies offer? What are the issues? This pragmatic stance is coupled with a desire to understand and describe emergent theoretical perspectives.

·        Irrespective of the theoretical and methodological lenses used to study technological phenomena, the contextual and in particular the human dimension is key

o   Whether you call it Hermeneutics (Theology) or multiple perspectives (Systems) doesn’t matter - both recognise the situated and contingent nature of anything involving people. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to make sense of TEL solely using the ’scientific’ paradigm.

·        A number of points were made extrapolating key themes emerging from research and practice. I) The focus needs to be on how technologies can enhance the learning experience, and that it is important to remember that good teaching and learning is possible without any technology.  2) The teacher’s role is crucial, technology wont make a bad teacher good, 3) There is no one size fits all solution. 4) Failure is useful, we can (and should) learn from it.

The nature of theory

In the introduction to a special issue of JIME, Oliver provides an overview of the position of theories in the emergent field of learning technologies in 2002 (M. Oliver 2002):

I was struck by the diversity of theories that people were drawing upon, and the very different ways in which they were using them. For some, a theory was a touchstone, a guiding set of principles, the foundation on which their work built. For others, theories were tools, and the important thing was having the right one for the job. What, I wondered, was the right way to use theory here? Should we believe in them, live them, and risk being dogmatic — or should we be pluralistic, tied to none, and risk being superficial?

The papers included in this issue are as varied and eclectic as the group that contributed them. Approaches vary considerably — from theory as tool, to theory as principle; from theory building, to theory using; from disciplines as diverse as film studies, psychology, sociology and education. So too do the topics — software tools, logic learning, metadata, multimedia; an array of mainstream issues, and other gems besides. To me, it is this diversity that makes this such an interesting area. It is constantly challenging; always impossible to tell quite what perspective might be brought to bear on your problem next.

Masterman and Manton considered the role of theory with respect to elearning (Masterman & Manton 2009 and see also posing the following questions:

·      What is the value of theory to teachers?

·      What do we mean by theory?

·      How has theory has been embedded into three areas?

They drew on Lawes work (Lawes, 2004), in particular the notion that theory gives a framework of understanding that ultimately improves the quality of practice and leads to the transformation of subjective experience. They argued that theory could provide a glue between technology and practice. They then went to make a distinction between theories, models and frameworks:

·      Theories provide a means of understanding and predicting something (Cook 2002). In the original article Cook expands this ‘A theory or model can be used as a means for understanding and predicting some aspect of an educational situation. Theories are not the same as models. A theory can posses an explanatory power and can consist of a set of

…general assumptions and laws … that are not themselves intended to be directly (in)validated (for that, the theory must engender a model). Theories are foundational elements of paradigms, along with shared problems and methods (Kuhn, 1962)
(Baker, 2000). ‘

·      Model are abstract representations that helps us understand something we can’t see or experience directly (Conole, Oliver et al., 2007)), models include things like Kolb’s leaning cycle,

·      A framework is a  structure and vocabulary that supports the explication of concepts and issues (G. Conole & M. Oliver 2002), such as Laurillard’s Conversational Framework (Laurillard 2002).

They argue that theory is a cornerstone of professional practice… and an antidote to technological determinism. However, teachers generally do not consciously espouse formal theories and are driven by prior experience and reflective practice.

Conole and Oliver (G. Conole & M. Oliver 2002) in discussing the range of resources that can be used by practitioners to support decision making, identify five types: tools, good practice, models, frameworks and templates/wizards. They define models as

‘representations, usually of systems. These are frequently visual representations, although formal models are more likely to be syntactic (or derived from an underlying syntactic representation), often being defined mathematically. Models may be tools, in that they can be used to carry out analyses or may permit certain assumptions to be expressed. Equally, however, they may be the object (i.e. purpose) of an activity, in that it may be necessary to construct a model of a system in order to develop an explicit understanding of how it works.’

And they go on to argue that there is a spectrum from templates/wizards through to frameworks:

Aids to decision-making range from highly restrictive ‘templates’ or ‘wizards’, which provide high levels of support and step-by-step guidance but little possibility of user-adaptation, through to ‘theoretical frameworks’, which provide a context and scope for the work but leave the user to devise their own strategy for implementation.

Theoretical perspectives dominant discourses

This section tries to articulate some of the main theoretical perspectives that are evident in networked learning research. It is not intended to be comprehensive; rather it aims to act as a starting point for discussion. At the TLRP TEL interdisciplinary workshop the following range of theoretical perspectives were listed: Social constructivism, Actor Network Theory, Constructivism, Critical theory, Action research, Communities of practice – researchers and practitioners, STS, Scientific enquiry, Conversational framework, Philosophy of technology, Anthropological views on tools artefacts and technology, Activity theory. However there was also a suggestion that we need to move beyond existing theories and that in time new interdisciplinary theories might emerge from TEL work.



Cultural Historical Activity Theory

Socio-cultural perspectives are a predominate discourse in the field. In particular, Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) (see the following edited collections (Engeström et al. 1999) (Cole et al. 1997)(Daniels et al. 2007) has been used extensively in Networked Learning particularly as a descriptive lense. A key idea in CHAT is the notion of mediation by artifacts (Kuutti, 1991), which are broadly defined ‘to include instruments, signs, language, and machines’ (Nardi, 1995). In my own work I have drawn on this extensively in terms of exploration of the range of mediating artefacts that can be used to support the learning design process (Conole,  2008).  Engestrom’s so-called ‘triangle’ representation (Engestrom 2001) has been used extensively to described particular instances of networked learning interventions, as it helps consider a focus on subject-object with associated outcome supported through mediating tools in the context of a wider community context and associated rules and divisions of labour (Joyes 2008) (Waycott et al. 2005) (Karasavvidis 2008).

Communities of Practice

Wenger’s notion of Communities of Practice (Wenger 1998) has been picked up and used extensively in the field of Networked Learning;(G. Cousin & Deepwell 2005)(Guldberg & Pilkington 2006) (Breuleux et al. 1998)in some cases in appropriately. It’s appeal is probably a combination of the fact that it is relatively easy concept to grasp and that it offered a means of explaining some of the more social-situated interactions arising in networked learning.

Actor Network Theory

Actor Nework Theory considers both people and technologies as Actants in a connected network and in particular that it is the relationship between these actants that is important. Although called a theory it doesn’t explain a phenomenon but focuses more on why a network takes the form that it does. It is much more interested in exploring how actor-networks get formed, hold themselves together, or fall apart.  It was developed by Callon (Callon 1999) and Latour (Latour 2005) and also builds on the thinkings of Foucault (Fox 2000)

Cybernetics and systems thinking

Cybernetics and systems thinking provide a means of understanding complex systems(Capra 1996) (Gharajedaghi 1999) and have been applied to a limited extend in a networked learning context. Liber for example draws on the work of Illich and Beer as a means of describing in modern learning environments and systems (Liber 2004). Related work which also apply systems thinking include the work of Friesen, Stankov et al. and Cantoni et al. (Friesen 2004) (Stankov et al. n.d.)(Cantoni et al. 2004).

Methodological approaches

As the NCRM’s typology of research methods demonstrates there are a wide range of research methods in use across the social sciences (Beissel-Durrant 2004). This section foregrounds some of the key methodological approaches which have been predominant in networked learning. The choice of methodology tends to reflect both the individual’s epistemological stance and their focus of inquiry. Oliver et al. argue that

‘The kinds of data are available to e-learning researchers may suggest particular kinds of interpretation. (M. Oliver et al. 2007)

This hints at the suggestion there is a complex inter-relationship between research in the field and the affordances of the technologies themselves. 

It is not possible to provide a comprehensive review of all the different methodological approaches used in networking learning. Methodologies are predominantly interpretive in nature; although experimental approaches are still used extensively in North America. In terms of methods a range are evident – interviews, focus groups, observation, surveys, student journals, video and audio diaries, document analysis, and web tracking. In-depth case studies are popular, as are large-scale surveys. The use of web tracking as a means of data collection is still in its infancy but is a growing area of research. 

Content analysis

Early research in the field was dominated by analysis of asynchronous discussion forums. Coding schemes such as those developed by Henri, Garrison et al. and Gunawadena et al. were used extensively. Henri (1991) identified following five dimensions, which can be used to evaluate CMC: participative, social, interactive, cognitive and metacognitive (Henri 1992). Garrison et al. (2000) developed a ‘community of learning’ model which assumes that learning occurs through the interaction of three core components: cognitive presence, teaching presence, and social presence (Garrison et al. 2000). Gunawadena et al. divided content into the types of cognitive activities the participant engaged with (questioning, clarifying, negotiating, synthesising, etc), the types of arguments they put forward, the resources used and any evidence of changes in understanding (Gunawardena et al. 1997). There was a naïve assumption that focusing on the content in the treaded messages was enough to capture the whole event. Whereas in reality the level of detail/object of focus will naturally have a significant impact on results and it was soon realised that taking account of the broader context within which discussion forums were taken place was important. Jones for example reports students simulating collaboration online whilst co-present and seated around four computers (C. Jones 1999). A number of approaches have been used to take account of the broader perspective. For example, De Laat et al. use a multi-method approach using social network analysis with content analysis and critical event recall (De Laat et al. 2007). Social network analysis is used to visualise the social structures and dynamics of the course, content analysis is used to identify the learning and teaching processes and critical event recall is used to elicit teachers’ experiences and perceptions.


Ethnography has been used extensively to study networking learning phenomenon (Hodgson & Watland 2004) (Rice-Lively 1994).  The approach is qualitative based on ‘systematic description of human behaviour and organisational culture based on first-hand observation’ (Howard 2002).

Case studies

Rich, situated case studies are a very popular and common form of studying networked learning. A case study is an in-depth investigation/study of a single individual, group, incident, or community (Yin 2009). The nature and scope of the cases can vary significantly and the approach often overlaps with other methodological approaches (such as action research, evaluation and ethnography). Critics of the case study approach argue that the findings are not generalisable or transferable. Proponents argue that the case-based approach enables the researcher to gather a rich, contextual understanding of a situation in context,

Action research

As might be expected given the educational nature of networked learning as a research field, action research is often used as a methodological approach, particularly by practitioners who are trialling out the use of technologies in their classroom and want a framework within which to study the interventions.


The importance of evaluation has grown in recent years; as new learning technologies emerge there is a need to evaluate how these are used to support an increasingly diverse student population. The relationship between evaluation and research more generally remains contested. Both processes may use the same methods and study the same things. However, one way to distinguish them is to consider how findings are used. If they are interpreted by an immediate, local audience and used to support decision making, the study was probably an evaluation; if findings are interpreted in terms of theories and are presented as a contribution to knowledge, it was probably research. Oliver et al. contend that pproaches in evaluation range from positivist approaches focussed upon objective data collection (typically using quantitative methods) to interpretivist ones more rooted in constructivism (typically using qualitative methodologies) (Martin Oliver et al. 2007).

So which methodology should be used when, are some methodologies better than others? Oliver considers how five different methodological approaches (action research, behaviourist, activity theory-based, and a perspective based on power) are used to tackle the same research problem. This provides a nice illustration of how different theoretical perspectives would explain this situation differently, and how each can contribute to our understanding of this field.

The following are some extracts from Cloudworks on different methodological approaches or factors that influence different individuals’ approaches:

·      I’m becoming particularly enamoured ATM with Content Analysis (Krippendorff) it fits in well with my overall Systems perspective and seems to me to be a useful tool in evaluating TEL as it focuses on communication acts and meaning - which seems to me to be central to any TEL ‘pedagogy’.  I’m also interested in the work done on Andragogy - the transformative nature of adult learning and wonder whether some of us shouldn’t be moving away from pedagogical theories of TEL based on the developmental psychology of children when we want to apply them to adult learners … (Diana Brewster)

·      On a wider pedagogical level I do lean towards group based activities and situated learning, as so much of my working life has been spent creating, devising and refining ideas in goal oriented teams (Sacha van Straten)

·      The methodologies I use span a wide range of disciplines, and combine quantitative and qualitative research techniques, taking multiple perspectives at different levels of analysis (micro, meso, macro). (Steven Verjans)

Research questions and grand challenges in the field

Conole and Oliver articulate a set of research questions grouped according to whether the focus predominantly on technological, pedagogical or organisational issues. Despite the fact that these questions were generated in 2007 and were referring to e-learning they provide a useful starting point for discussion what the equivalent set is today for networked learning research. The full set of questions is available on the full paper.

At the TLRP TEL workshop the following areas of focus were listed: Cognitive education, Creating research communities, Epistemology, Case-based learning, Human computer interaction, Fieldwork across disciplines, Artificial intelligence, People/communities, Educational research, Fluid learning objects, Personal development, Fostering self-sustaining communities, Human learning and judgment, Creative development, Field work across disciplines, Making a sustainable permanent difference change.

At a TLRP TEL seminar ( Diana Laurillard mapped the current dimensions and players in the field of technology enhanced learning, in the UK and in the wider EU, building on the findings being generated by the principal research funding bodies. She looked at how the TEL-funded development proposals can be located within this developing research space, and will consider the following questions:


    * In which directions are they moving the field forward?

    * How do they relate to other funded research in the field?

    * How will they build on current issues and findings?


The seminar also considered the mechanisms and technologies available for supporting the cumulation of knowledge from researchers and from practitioners as action researchers in the field.

The challenges of interdisciplinary research in networked learning  and strategies for fostering interdisciplinarity

Networked Learning by nature is an interdisciplinary area; drawing on a wide range of disciplines, theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches. Is there anything distinctive about interdisciplinarity in this context as opposed to interdisciplinarity more generally?


Alan Blackwell is co-director of Crucible – a centre for research in interdisciplinary research.(, he has done extensive research on interdisciplinarity. At the ESRC TEL workshop in November 2009, he listed the following as ingredients for successfully fostering interdisciplinarity:

·                Leaders and founders of interdisciplines should resist convention and maintain vision, while being mentors and coaches

·                Freedom requires resource

·                Collaborations grow in years not months

·                Goals must offer serendipity not constraint

·                Maintain and reward curiosity

·                Understand work with and subvert structures – organisational, disciple, career


Along with suggestions for making it happen:

·        Start small and move fast

·        Bring creative and design practices to technology

·        Facilitate encounters between communities

·        Cheerfully transgress academic borders

·        Engage with reflective social science

·        Directly address public policy


More generally from my own experience in working in interdisciplinary teams, one means of fostering interdisciplinarity is to create shared objects as the focus of inquiry. The use of such ‘mediating artefacts’ in a project can act as trigger points to discuss ideas around.


As a precursor to the current TLRP TEL programme a series of seminars were run. Josie Taylor led one that focussed on interdisciplinarity ( considering the following questions:            


    * What is the difference between interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity?

    * Does it matter?

    * Can you engineer interdisciplinarity or can it only arise spontaneously?

    * What about funding for interdisciplinary work?


In the TLRP TEL workhop one researcher questioned whether most Interdisciplinary teams were really multi-disciplinary. Another person suggested it was important to break down the space barrier – to create time and space for sharing and imaging. Another argued for the need to create theoretical space.

Case studies

This section is intended to provide some case studies that aim to apply the general discussions so for in particular context; to show how different theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches are actually applied to real research problems. I have included a couple of case studies from my own research, but s hope that the Networked Learning hotseat discussions will generate some additional examples. Each case study follows the following template:

·      The focus of research

·      Theoretical perspectives

·      Methodological approach adopted

·      Key issues

Case study: The agile development of a social networking site for education, Cloudworks

Cloudworks is a social networking site for sharing and discussing learning and teaching ideas and designs. The original focus of the research was:

Given that there is a gap between the potential of technologies and how they are used in practice, can general social networking and web 2.0 practices be harnessed and used to foster sharing and discussion in a teaching context?

The theoretical perspective was predominately socio-cultural in nature, drawing in particular on the notion of mediating artefacts. Of particular importance was application of Engestrom’s notion of ‘social objects’. In the Cloudworks site, the social objects are ‘clouds’, where a cloud can be anything to do with teaching and learning (an idea, a discussion topic, a tool or a resource). The design and development of Cloudworks is discussed in a recent Computers and Education paper (G. Conole et al. 2008) and the initial theoreitical perspectives in an AJET paper (G. Conole & J. Culver 2009). Recently we have begun to expand our theoretical perspectives as discussed in a paper submitted to this year’s Networked Learning Conference:(Alevizou, et al. n.d.)

Our initial theoretical perspectives on which the development of Cloudworks was based, focussed around Engeström’s  (2005) notion of ’social objects’ in social networking and Bouman et al’s . (2007) framework for ’sociality’. More recently we have started to explore three additional frameworks and demonstrate how they are helping us with our preliminary analyses of emerging activities on the site and in particular the insights they provide into the dialogic interchanges and structures of involvement within the site. The first framework is Goffman’s (1955;1963) notions of ‘face-work’ and ‘ritual performance’. The second is Engeström’s (2001) idea of ‘expansive learning’. The third is the notion of collective intelligence (Lévy, 1998; Jenkins, 2006). In this paper, we review a selection of case studies from the site, and explore how the frameworks can be used to understand then. We argue that these perspectives are useful in studying networked sociality bounded in the context of learning, with wider implications for the matters of participation, self-representation, and openness in education. We conclude with the methodological frameworks that can support the further study of interaction, socialization and sharing into higher education establishments and culture

Our methodological approach is essentially one based on agile development using  user-focused mixed method approach. Data is collected from a variety of sources, including interviews, focus groups, workshops, observations, think aloud protocols and web statistics.

Case study: A design and evaluation framework[1]

XDelia (Xcellence in Decision-making through Enhanced Learning in Immersive Applications), is a three-year pan-European project that uses wearable sensors and serious games to investigate how people’s behavioural habits and emotional states affect their financial decision making. The project combines research skills and expertise of European partners from different methodological traditions (experimental, economic, field research) who will work together to achieve the project goals. Within this project we have developed a Design and Evaluation framework that aims to help stakeholders of a inter-disciplinary research project develop a shared understanding of project goals and methods by pooling their knowledge of research approaches and methodologies. The Design and Evaluation framework will provide a working collaborative model to capitalise on the different approaches, using ongoing participatory evaluation to ensure the development of an integrated set of research questions, optimum use of research instruments and effective collaboration between the different disciplines.

The approach aligns with Patton’s utlilisation-focussed evaluation approach (Patton 2008)and is informed by Cousins and Whitmore (1998) three dimensions of collaborative inquiry; control of decision making, selection for participation and depth of participation (Cousin & Whitmore 1998). To support the evaluation we are developing a design and evaluation framework that will provide the vehicle to ensure that comprehensive, ongoing evaluation is built into all facets of the project and that evaluation findings feed back into the ongoing development activities of the project in a timely manor.

It has been based on a participatory and iterative approach, which aims to be ‘useful’ rather than rarified – i.e. formative evaluation that feeds into and informs project activities as they occur throughout the project on an ongoing basis, rather than a more removed summative evaluation which merely reports on project activities towards the end of the project lifecycle. In addition to drawing out specific instances that occur across the project, we want to explore a number of underlying themes, some of which arose from the baseline interviews. For example, the way in which complex inter-disciplinary projects of this kind are coordinated can have a significant impact on how well the project works and the extent to which overarching objectives are achieved. Similarly we want to examine what kind of collaborative activities occurs in the project and the extent to which they are successful or not. Finally what critical moments occur and how do they steer subsequent project work? In keeping with the notion of being participatory, iterative and ‘useful’ the Design and Evaluation framework encourages partners to adopt a critically reflective approach to the evaluation across the project – everyone is asked to reflect on what they are doing; everyone is a researcher/reflector/evaluator. Figure 1 shows the relationship between the design and evaluation sides of the framework in which each builds upon and feeds into the other.



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[1] The text here is taken from a conference presentation on this work(Clough et al. 2009)

A framework for technological intervention

Monday, January 11th, 2010

Here is a draft of some ideas I am currently thinking of it terms of working up the framework for technological intervention I mentioned in a previous post. I would welcome thoughts.


It appears as if e-learning is now embedded in most educational institutions; from the provision of an appropriate technological infrastructure to support teaching, research and administrative activities through to the innovative use of technologies for learning. National and international policies in the area reflect this and are filled with rhetoric about the potential technologies offer for education – personalisation, flexibility, adaptively, and engaging, authentic environments. However, closer inspection suggests that there is a gap between the promises inherent in the policy rhetoric and actual use in practice. This post will focus on a retrospective e-learning timeline, mapping the shifting directions of policy perspectives and their subsequent impact on practice. It will extrapolate the timeline to consider the implications of technologies for education in the future. It will then present a framework for ensuring that e-learning interventions are effective, that emphasises the relationship between e-learning policy, research and practice. I argue that use of such a framework can help ensure that e-learning research informs and helps shape both policy and practice and vice versa - that activities in practice can in turn inform further policy directions and suggestions for areas which need further research investigation.

Scrutinising the e-learning history line

There is evidence to suggest that e-learning is beginning to mature as an area (Marshall & Mitchell 2004, Jones & O’Shea 2004,  Conole & Oliver 2007,  Zhang & Nunamaker 2003). Technologies are now an integral part of educational institutions’ infrastructures and core strategies and policies. The promise of e-learning infiltrate national and international policy perspectives; purporting that e-learning offers new exciting possibilities for learning – for personalisation, for student-centred learning, to support new forms of communication and dialogical learning and enriched multi-model forms of representation (DCSF 2009, M. Brown et al. 2007, Hodgson 2002, Andrews & Haythornthwaite 2007). Nonetheless the promise behind the rhetoric of e-learning has yet to be realised (Hedberg 2006). Zemsky and Massy in their ‘Thwarted innovation’ report (Zemsky & Massy 2004) argue that there are three naïve assumptions associated with e-learning: ‘If we built it they will come’, ‘The kids will take to e-learning like ducks to water’ and ‘E-learning will force a change in the way we teach’. One of their key conclusions was that ‘The hard fact is that e-learning took off before people really knew how to use it’. Many others have written about ‘what went wrong’ with e-learning (Davis et al. 2007), the gap between the rhetoric and reality (Conole 2007) and the ‘no significant difference’ (between e-learning and traditional teaching) argument (Ramage 2001, Russell 2001). 

So what is the reality? The reasons for the lack of impact of technologies in education to date are complex and multifaceted. In truth successful implementation of e-learning is dependent on a range of inter-connected factors – which are as much to do with pedagogical and organisational issues as with purely technical ones. To explore these issues, this section will provide a brief summary of some of the key technological developments of the last few decades, focusing in particular on the relationship between technological developments, policy directions and actual impact on practice.

Conole, Smith and White provided a chronological reflection of the development of e-learning in a UK tertiary educational context spanning the period 1965-2000 (Conole, Smith et al. 2007). They argue that whilst technologies change rapidly, the management of them change much more slowly. I would add that the impact on change in practice is also much slower. This lag between technological developments and impact on policy and practice is one of the factors hindering radical change. They divide technological change into four main phases:

  • 1965-1979: Mainframe systems. In the sixties, use of computing in education was dominated by mainframe computers and mainly focused around use for high-end scientific research. Nonetheless the potential for education was evident. In the seventies policy reports considering the use of technological for educational purposes began to emerge and subsequently associated funding initiatives and professional bodies. The focus in this phase was very much on the application of computers in a scientific context primarily for research purposes; mainframes operated by computer specialists dominated the discourse although there were hints of the potential wider application of computers across institutions.
  • 1980-1989: Stand-alone systems. The emergence of the personal computer was the first major shift in terms of technologies having a broader impact on education. Initial application focused around the use of PCs in a business context, with the consequently emergence of basic office tools such as word processing applications and spreadsheets, but as educators began to use these tools to support their general administrative duties they also began to experiment with how they could be used in a teaching context. In the UK and in mainland Europe funding initiatives explicitly exploring the potential of new technologies for education emerged, including the TLTP programme in the UK (Gilbert 1999, Stern & Impact 1997) and the EU Framework Progammes for research and technological developments (Berleur & Galand 2005, Muldur et al. 2007). Significant funding was made available via these programmes that enabled educators to explore the different affordances of new technologies and to gather empirical evidence of their impact on practice. Many of the technological artefacts produced though these initiatives (interactive computer-based tutorials, laser disks, etc.) became obsolete with the emergence of the Internet, nonetheless this period of technological experimentation marked the emergence of e-learning as a new research field (Conole & M. Oliver 2007). What is evident from initiatives in this phase is that they were characterised by two things: the exploration of the potential of technologies through the ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ approach and the emergences of associated new professional roles (e-learning researchers, learning technologies, managers of learning systems) (Conole, White et al. 2007).
  • 1990-2000 Networked technologies: The emergence of networked technologies, and in particular the Internet, marked the next major phase of technological developments. Email became the main communication tool within institutions, replacing the paper-based memo; word processors replaced the traditional role of secretaries and institutions began to exploit the communicative affordances of the web for disseminating information both internally and externally. This indicated that technologies were moving from being peripheral innovations to affecting all aspects of learning and teaching. Institutions were beginning to understand that technologies were a core aspect of their business and hence needed to be incorporated into institutional strategies and policies.
  • Beyond 2000: Politicisation and systematisation. Conole et al. were optimistic that post-2000 there was evidence of more coherent policy perspectives at a national level in the UK, with an increasing emphasis on the importance of technologies to support learning. They argued that the various e-learning funding initiatives were not only providing opportunities to gather evidence on how technologies might be used in education, but also resulting in the growth of new professionals with specialised expertise in this area. They highlighted the grow of associated research centres specifically focusing on e-learning and the consequential increase in publications and conferences discussing the field.  They argued that the web in particular was a significant trigger during this time, singling out Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs)/Learner Management Systems (LMS) which they argues acted as important catalysts for shifting the use of technologies beyond early adopters by providing easy to use, all in one environments for supporting web-based teaching.

The chapter was written before the impact of the current wave of new technologies, in particular web 2.0 tools and services, virtual learning environments and new generations of mobile technologies. These new technologies bring with them a variety of additional affordances; new means of communicating and representing information. E-Learning research has matured over this period of time and is providing valuable insights into how these technologies are being used and their impact (and in some cases lack of impact) on practice. However, despite this increased variety of technologies, it is arguable whether the optimistic coherence in policy and systematic use of technologies indicated by Conole et al. has actual been realised. The gap between rhetoric and reality is still evident.

In a related international review of e-learning policy and practice, Conole compared e-learning directives in six international contexts: Europe, the United States, Australia, China and Africa (Conole 2007). The review shows the influence of the different cultural contexts on how e-learning policies for each country were focussed and the consequential impact on actual practice. Conole then considered the way in which e-learning developments (as instantiated in practice driven by policy directives) have had an impact on higher education, classifying these into ten types:

* The degree of hegemony: the balance between local and global perspectives.

* The degree of urban vs. rural developments.

* The balance of commercial imperatives vs. government directions.

* The types of funding models available.

* The organisational and managerial structures to support e-learning.

* The changing nature of roles as a result of e-learning implementation.

* The increased drive for academics on focus more on research than teaching.

* The unintended consequences arising from e-learning interventions.

* The types and impact of communicative mechanisms used to disseminate e-learning initiatives.

* The degree of self-reflective and evaluation.

 Figure 1 provides a summary of theseFigure 1 factors considering them in relation to wider contextual factors, specific policy and practice directives in different regions, and consequential impact in practice. It illustrates how the macro contextual factors influencing society generally (i.e. globalization, an increasingly network society, changing societal norms and values and technological advances) provide a contextual force and influence local policy and associated practices and how these in turn result in the ten types of impacts on practices listed above.



A glimpse into the future

The previous section took a retrospective look at e-learning developments in the last three decades and considered the relationship between different waves of technological development and policy/practice.  Can we get any indication of what future developments might be and hence use this as a basis to help steer decisions about future directions for policy and practice? This section will consider four sources of data that provide a glimpse into the future. The next section will then discuss emergent themes that are evident from this research and associated challenges for education.  Four sets of research are drawn on: the annual series of Horizon reports, reviews of web 2.0 technologies and their use in education, a report on the future of cyberlearning and an edited collection exploring the increasingly prevalent trend towards ‘openness’ in education (for example - open source tools, open educational resources).

The annual Horizon reports1 provide a valuable glimpse into the future by predicting which technologies are going to have the most significant impact in one, three and five years time. The preview report for 2010 lists mobile computing and open content as being within the one-year timeframe, electronic books and simple augmented reality within two-three years and gesture-based computing and visual data analysis within four-five years.2 In each case the report indicates the advantage of each technology within an educational context and provides illustrative examples. Certainly the increased sophistication of the current generation of mobile phones, like the iPhone and new tablet computers mean mobile learning is now becoming genuinely viable. Similarly the Open Educational Resource (OER) movement one could argue has now reached critical mass with institutions worldwide engaged in the creation of OER (Atkins et al. 2007), but despite the opportunities, OER developments also have associated challenges (Hylén 2006). For example, despite the success of the Open University UK’s OpenLearn initiative, there was little evidence of actual repurposing of OER (McAndrew et al. 2009). Conole et al. have argued that this is in part a design issue, arguing that there is still significant work to do in terms of development effective design strategies for the use and repurposing of OER (Conole et al. 2010). With augmented reality (where location-based data is combined with what we see in the real world) and gesture-based computing  (which can accept multiple simultaneous inputs such as gesture-based inputs used in the Nintendo Wii) there are indications of yet more fundamental shifts in store in terms of the way we interaction with and use technologies. Two recent reports from the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies provide a rich database of case studies showing how web 2.0 technologies are being used to support both formal and informal learning (Redecker et al. 2009, Ala-Mutka 2009). In the States a task force considered the implications of new technologies (which they term the cyberinfrastructure) for learning (Borgman et al. 2009). They identified five recommendations including the need to emphasize the ‘transformative power of information and communications technologies for learning, from K to grey’. All of these reports indicate that technologies have the potential to radically transform education. An edited collection by Iijoshi and Kumar explores one particular aspect of technological impact – namely the growth of open approaches to the development and distribution of tools and resources (Iiyoshi & Kumar 2008). The case studies described in the book suggest radically new forms of practice and approaches to education, which if taken up more broadly would have an impact on both teaching practice and overarching educational business models. In the forward to the book John Seely-Brown sums up some of the key issues associated with trying to make better use of technologies in education:

…the challenges we face in education today are daunting,… The world becomes more complex and interconnected at a lightning-face pace, and almost every serious social issues requires an engaged public that is not only traditionally literature, but adept in a new, systemic literacy (Seely-Brown cited in (Iiyoshi & Kumar 2008).

Emergent themes and challenges

A number of trends are evident with emergent technologies and the way they are being appropriated:

* There has been a shift in the last five years or so from the web as a content repository and information mechanism to a web that enables more social mediation and user generation of content.

* New practices of viewing and sharing are emerging, for example sharing of images on sites like Flckr, bite-size, amateur videos via sites such as YouTube and the use of presentation sites like Slideshare for Powerpoint presentations.3 In addition there are a host of new mechanisms for content production, communication and collaboration (through blogs, wikis and micro-blogging services such as Twitter). Social networking sites have become increasingly important as a means of connecting people and supporting different communities of practice (such as Facebook, Elgg and Ning); not just socially, but within professional contexts as well.

* A network effect is emerging as a result of the quantity of information available on the web, i.e a multiplicity of connectivity due to the scale of user participation.

In a related paper I consider thesTable 1e emergent themes and the associated challenges they bring to an educational context in more depth.4 Table 1 summarises these – focusing on five challenges and their impact on education. Firstly, the expansion of the knowledge domain and the consequential ‘death of the expert’ naturally challenges the traditional role of a teacher. It can no longer be assumed that the teacher is expert or that the focus should be on transmission of knowledge. Whilst such a shift away from didactic to constructivist approaches has been a dominant discourse in education for many years, the Internet as amplifier of this cannot be underestimated.

Secondly, multi-located/fragmented content and the potential for multiple pathways through content have an impact on how educational interventions are designed.  And although such multiplicity offers increased choice, in an educational context this also has the potential to lead to confusion. Hence there is an opportunity for teachers to play an important new role in terms of providing pedagogically grounded learning pathways, to help learners navigate their way through this complexity.

Thirdly, with the increasing complexity of the digital landscape the gap between the ‘tech savvy’ teachers and students and those who are not engaged is ever deeper; the digital divide is very much still in evidence (Norris 2001, Warschauer 2004). This is exacerbated because to understand web 2.0 technologies you have to personally engage with them; a a hands-on demonstration of Twitter does not really help you fully understand the power of the tool. Technically it is simple; type in 140 characters and press return, but in reality practical application of Twitter requires you to understand how to appropriate it for your own use, to adapt it to your own style or ’digital voice’. Twitter is also about being part of a wider network, so is only any use if you are connected to (i.e. ‘following’ and ‘being followed’ by) people you are interested in.

Fourthly, the power of the collective has clear potential in a learning context. The user-focussed, participatory nature of web 2.0 practices has immense potential educationally, for shifting the locus of control from the teacher to the learner, and for enabling constructivist pedagogical approaches. The ability to connect with others opens up the potential for dialogic, situated and inquiry-based learning. Social networking sites for example enables you to have ‘just-in-time’ learning moments; posing learning queries that can be answered within moments providing a number of different explanations to aid understanding. Similarly, a student cohort can gather and comment on course-related resources in new ways using social bookmarking tools.

Finally; as discussed earlier, despite the wealth of free educational resources and tools that are now available it is sobering to note that in reality these are not used extensively (McAndrew et al. 2009). The reasons for this lack of uptake are complex and multi-faceted but to a large extent are because teachers do not have the necessary skills to take advantage of the affordances of new technologies

 This section has argued that each new technology brings with it a set of associated affordances that have the potential to influence the way we design courses and the way students learn. However, for every opportunity new technologies provide there is an associated set of challenges that need to be addressed.

Avoiding the failures of the past

As the previous section has demonstrated new technologies offer much to an educational context but also bring with them an associated set of challenges. I want now to return to the core question posed at this beginning of this post: Why is it that despite the evident potential of technologies they have had so little impact in practice? Resistance to change is a well-studied phenomenon; Kotter and Schlesinger (1979) identify four basic causes of resistance to change:

1. Individuals are more concerned with the implications for themselves.

2. Misunderstandings – communication problems, inadequate information.

3. Low tolerance of change – a sense of insecurity, different assessment of the situation.

4. Disagreement over the need for change.

All of these are evident in the literature on e-learning failures; barriers are organisational and pedagogical as well as purely technical. Common reactions against change include: ‘I haven’t got time’, ‘My research is more important’, ‘What’s in it for me?’, ‘Where is my reward?’, ‘I don’t have the skills to do this’,  and ‘I don’t believe in this, it won’t work’. Common resistance strategies include saying yes (and doing nothing) or undermining the initiative and/or the people involved. Depressingly classic mistakes are repeated over and over again: an over emphasis on the technologies and not the people and processes; funding for the technology developments but not use and support.

A framework for technological intervention

The importance of connecting e-learning policy with practice is now recognised (DCSF 2009, Borgman et al. 2009, Culp et al. 2005, Attwell 2009, Guri-Rosenblit 2006,  Conole 2007). Nonetheless making this connection meaningful and effective is far from trivial. De Freitas and Oliver consider five prominent models of organisational change (Fordist, evolutionary, ecological, community of practice and discourse-orientated) in terms of a case study of a UK university (de Freitas & Oliver 2005).  They conclude that each model has inherent problems, but surmise that whether the change is evolutionary or ecological flexibility and fluidity are key elements of success. Blin and Munro argue that despite the fact that most institutions now have easy-to-use Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs)/Learning Management Systems (LMSs) in place with a range of tools to support the delivery and management of student learning, there is still significant resistance to adoption of technologies by academics (Blin & Munro 2008). Clegg et al. take a critical stance to the rhetoric on ICT-policy (Clegg et al. 2003); arguing against:

‘technological determinism… No technologies are neutral. They are always the products of real historical social relations as well as the emergent technical capacities they provide.’

Haynes puts forward a three-part strategy for overcoming technological resistance: a technology should make a user’s life easier (or more enjoyable), it must be easy to use and ultimately should become essential to their practice. He concludes that it is important to make the users aware of the benefits of effective use of technologies. Similarly approaches are suggested in other strategies for supporting the uptake and use of technologies in education.5 A number of factors are evident across the literature:

* The importance of demonstrating the added value of technologies

* The need to understand and take account of existing practice and culture

* The complexity of the relationship between models for change and their impact on practice

* Recognition that technologies will continue to change/to have new impacts and hence flexibility needs to be a cornerstone of any policy perspectives.

Figure 2 outlines a framework for technology intervention, which captures these factors. The framework illustrates how effective implementation of technologies can only be achieved if policy, research and practice are considered in conjunction. Practice is further sub-divided into teacher- and student-practice. Each node of the pyramid needs to inform the other three nodes and vice versa. So e-learning research and theory should be used as a guidance to inform policy and influence practice. Teacher and student perspectives and their actual practice should also inform policy, but also help to guide future research directions. And policy itself should in turn impact on both research and practice.

 Figure 2

Figure 2: A framework for technological intervention

The framework is being used within the Open University as part of our OU Learning Design Initiative6 and see related research papers (Conole 2009,  Conole, Culver et al. 2008, Conole, Brasher et al. 2008). The work is strategically supported and learning design is embedded into the institution’s learning and teaching strategy. A strong body of empirical evidence to understanding current practice underpins the work and this is used to inform the development of a set of tools and resources to enable teachers to make more effective use of technologies in their practice. Evaluation of the tools and resources in turn drives ongoing research activities. We believe that application of the framework has helped lead to more effective use and uptake of technology. The framework acts both as a guide to direct developments and as an evaluative tool to monitor impact.


This blog post has focused on the reasons behind the gap between the rhetoric around the potential of technology and its actual impact on practice. It is evident that the reasons for this gap are complex and multifaceted, involving pedagogical and organisational issues as well as purely technological ones. The general resistance strategies associated with any change management context are evident, but are further compounded in an e-learning context by the speed and complexity of technological change. I have put forward a framework for successful technological intervention, articulating the co-dependence between policy, research and practice. Only by taking account of all three at once and their impact on each other can effective technological intervention be achieved. Many questions still need resolving before true technological innovation can be realised. Some of the issues arising from this blog post include:

* What models and frameworks can help bridge the gap between e-learning policy and practice?

* How can technologies support new forms of pedagogy?

* What is the relationship between technologies and the delivery of teaching (i.e. how are physical and virtual spaces now being blended to support learning)?

* How do we take account of a digital divide that is narrower but deeper?

* What new digital literacy skills will learners and teachers need in the future?

It is evident that technologies are now an inherent part of educational systems. We need to harness them effectively both in our overarching institutional strategies and policies and in what we do in actual practice. Research into the use of technologies is showing the ways in which it can transform education, providing support for more personalised, flexible and learner-centred pedagogies and new means of communicating and collaborating with peers and tutors. Technological change will inevitably continue, bringing additional opportunities and challenges for teaching and learning. True e-learning innovation is likely to need a radical rethink of the curriculum. Are we ready to meet the challenge?


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Laurillard, D., 2002. Rethinking university teaching, Routledge: London.

Lepori, B., Cantoni, L. & Succi, C., 2003. The introduction of e-learning in european universities: models and strategies. Digitaler Campus: Vom Medienprojekt zum nachhaltigen Medieneinsatz in der Hochschule, 74.

Marshall, S. & Mitchell, G., 2004. Applying SPICE to e-learning: an e-learning maturity model? In Proceedings of the sixth conference on Australasian computing education - Volume 30.  Dunedin, New Zealand: Australian Computer Society, Inc., pp. 185-191. Available at: [Accessed January 11, 2010].

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Muldur, U. et al., 2007. A New Deal for an Effective European Research Policy: The Design and Impacts of the 7th Framework Programme, Springer Verlag.

Norris, P., 2001. Digital divide: Civic engagement, information Poverty, and the Internet worldwide, Cambridge Univ Pr.

Ramage, T., 2001. The ‘no significant difference’ phenomenon - a literature review. Journal of Instructional Science and Technology, 5(1).

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Rosenberg, M., 2001. E-Learning: Strategies for delivering knowledge in the digital age, Columbus, Ohio: McGraw Hill.

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Warschauer, M., 2004. Technology and social inclusion: Rethinking the digital divide, the MIT Press.

Zemsky, R. & Massy, W.F., 2004. Thwarted innovation. What happened to e-learning and why. The University of Pennsylvania, PN: The Learning Alliance.

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2 See for a current debate on the report.

3, and


5 See for example (Rosenberg 2001, Laurillard 2002, Bates 2005, Chickering & Ehrmann 1996, Lepori et al. 2003).
















TLRP TEL at the AERA conference

Sunday, April 19th, 2009


AERA presentation 
I’ve just got back from the AERA conference which was held in San Diego this year. I still can’t quite cope with the size of the conference - 15,000 delegates this year I understand! Eileen Scanlon and I were part of a TLRP Technology-Enhanced Learning symposium, in which 5 of the 8 projects funded under the programme presented.We focused in on three themes: Design, Interdiscplinarity and Transformation.We had a slight change at the last minute - Vic Lally was unable to come and so Margaret Cox presented on her project “Personalised learning with Haptics when Teaching with online media, PHANTOM”. It was a great session lots of interesting discussions afterwards and we have plans to do a follow up next year. Our draft paper relating to the Personal Inquiry paper is available here. We are planning to work this up and submit to a journal soon.  Here is the abstract for the session:

Innovations in design and methodology in technology-enhanced learning: findings from the TLRP Technology Enhanced Learning programme

Session submission to the

Advanced Technologies for Learning (SIG #7), AERA conference 2009

Chair: Professor Richard Noss

Discussant: Professor Sir Tim O’Shea 


Personal Inquiry (PI): Innovations in participatory design and models for inquiry learning

Eileen Scanlon, Gráinne Conole, Lucinda Kerawalla, Karen Littleton, Mark Gaved, Alison Twiner, Trevor Collins, Paul Mulholland, The Open University

MiGen: Intelligent support for mathematical generalisation

Richard Noss and Celia Hoyles, University of London

LSDE: Transforming teaching practice through planning and design

Diana Laurillard, Institute of Education, University of London, George Magoulas, Birkbeck College, University of London, Elizabeth Masterman, University of Oxford

SynergyNet: Innovative and immersion

Liz Burd, University of Durham

Inter-Life: Interoperability and transition

Victor Lally University of Glasgow


Technology continues to have a radical impact on all aspects of society and offers much for the educational domain. Information of relevance to learning is now available in abundance – through the Open Educational Resources movement and via a range of sites which offer ‘media-rich’ resources. This is coupled with the increasing impact of web 2.0 technologies characterised by user-generated content and social networking. At face value this might suggest that technologies are radically changing educational practice, however, in reality the impact in education of technologies has not being as profound as in other spheres of life. The reasons are complex and pose important technological, pedagogical and organisational challenges and dilemmas.

In the UK an ambiguous Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) programme (ca. $22 M over five years) is underway, funded by the EPSRC/ESRC, which at its core is about tackling these challenges of educational significance from an interdisciplinary perspective:

Technology enhanced learning (TEL) requires interdisciplinary collaboration across the disciplines of learning, cognition, information and communication technologies (ICT) and education, and broader social sciences… To achieve the highest ambitions for education and lifelong learning we need to exploit fully what new technology offers – for personalising learning and improving outcomes… for creating more flexible learning opportunities and for improving the productivity of learning and knowledge building processes. But to do this, we need a more explicit understanding of the nature of learning itself, both formal and informal, and the way it is responding to changes in society and the opportunities created by new technologies… This… will support innovation from both research areas, each challenging the other, to rethink ways of making learning more effective and to develop the new technology solutions to make that possible. Such interdisciplinary research is intended to help build new understandings of how technology can enhance learning.

The first phase began in September 2007; a second phase begins in September 2008. The symposium is structured around five of the projects in the TEL programme and will consist of thematically linked presentations.It will explore how the projects are tackling the challenges set by the programme and more generally on how to instantiate the rhetoric of radical transformation of educational practice through the use of technologies. In particular the objectives of the session will be to consider the following questions:

·      Issues of design: How can we design for innovation and adopt a more participatory, inclusive approach to design? What is the relationship between design and instantiation of practice?

·      Transformation of practice: How might innovative technologies lead to real transformation of practice? What are the barriers and enablers? What new forms of pedagogy are possible?

·      Methodological development and interdisciplinary inquiry: What are the methodological challenges and what are methodological innovations? What are the benefits and challenges of interdisciplinary research? 

Rooted in the distinctive approaches and context of each specific project, we will address the issues identified above with reference to key findings to date.

Phase one – the PI and MiGenprojects

Personal Inquiry (PI) is designed to help school students learn the skills of evidence-based inquiry (Conole et al. 2008). The aim is to understand how effective learning can be enabled with technology across formal and informal settings. Our focus is on designing for evidence-based inquiry learning and we are developing an innovative ‘scripted inquiry learning’ approach, where children aged 11-16 carry out scientific explorations supported by a personal inquiry toolkit. This toolkit, running on an Ultra-Mobile PC provides ‘scripts’ in the form of dynamic lesson plans that guide the learners through a process of gathering and assessing evidence, conducting experiments and engaging in informed debate on topic themes of relevance to the secondary-level UK National Curriculum (Myself, My Environment, My Community). The aim is to encourage thinking and debate about issues that affect students’ everyday lives, such as fitness, diet and waste. Project partners include schools, technology companies that develop sensing and data-logging equipment, and museums, community resource centres and fieldtrip sites.

The project sees pedagogy and technology development as inextricably interwoven and the team have adopted an iterative, participatory approach to the design, development and evaluation of the scripts. We have conducted focus groups, design workshops, and discussions of the prototypes with teachers and learners, as well as with key educational experts, software designers, curriculum developers, curators of informal learning and discovery centres. Initial trials, carried out in Spring 2008, involved each site (Open University and University of Nottingham) working with local partners. These are being followed by a further iteration from September. Key questions driving the design and evaluation include, how:

1.      do students and their teachers adopt the technologies as tools for learning?

2.      does the experience of scripted inquiry learning assist and change learning activities?

3.      do scripted inquiry learning activities develop children’s learning skills?

We will report on the development and trial activities conducted by the OU team with local participants. It will detail our participatory design approach - which aims to involve true cross-stakeholder engagement in the design and enactment of innovative inquiry-based scenarios. We will report on the research findings of the first set of trials involving two school-based interventions, one a location-based inquiry learning toolset to support an eight-week Geography project on urban heat islands, which has been completed by 78 students aged 15-16 years-old, and a second with younger students on microclimates.

The work presented will draw on videotaped observations, the data students collected and the notes and products created by the learners and teachers in the trials. Video records of the stakeholder workshops involving teachers, pupils and others will also be used. Drawing on Engstrom’s (1999) analytic approach, we will explore how the outcomes of both the initial trial and the participatory design workshop have informed the subsequent design of activities and the associated personal inquiry toolkit.

MiGen aims to co-design, build and evaluate, with teachers and teacher-educators, a mutually supportive pedagogical and technical environment for improving 11-14 year-old students’ learning of mathematical generalisation. There is a clearly identified need to engage students in reasoning and explanation on the basis of recognition and articulation of pattern and structure. This challenging agenda has been well documented and theorised (Healy and Hoyles, 2000, Stacey et al., 2004, Mason and Bruning, 2004; Kieran and Yerushalmy, 2004; Kaput, et al. 2002). One fruitful approach has involved students constructing, evaluating and sharing their own computationally-based mathematical models (Noss, Healy, and Hoyles, 1997). Despite some successes, difficulties coalesce around the need for intensive, timely and appropriate pedagogic support from the teacher. In particular, the need to:


  • provide students with appropriate pedagogic support during the modelling process; and support the building and sustaining an online learning collaborative community.

We have developed a prototype microworld – the eXpresser – designed to promote the learning of mathematical generalisation through model-construction where tools have been designed that afford building with the general case, building with the specific, while the system provides an ‘eye to the general’. Our work adopts a “lightweight” strategy that focuses on supporting the individual without artificially constraining his/her explorations, and therefore renders unnecessary a large-scale complete learner model (Veermans, 2003, de Jong, 2006). 

We will present the eXpresser, its pedagogical rationale and the epistemological and pedagogical-design criteria and the ways we have sought to devise intelligent support. We will outline the architecture of the technical system and illustrate its operation in trials with students and teachers. The challenging issues confronted include:

·      What to model – knowledge in constructionist environments is not well-specified and often ephemeral;

·      Recognising correctness – in an exploratory environment, it is difficult to label strategies as correct or incorrect, without taking account of the contingencies of overall student goals, strategies and characteristics;

·      Accounting for situated abstractions – knowledge is not usually expressed in conventional abstractions, but rather within the tools and relationships of the system;

·      Attempting to characterise student strategies from student-system interactions;

·      Finding ways to represent student knowledge to the teacher, in ways that can suggest helpful intervention trigger-points and pedagogic strategies.

Phase two: the LDSE, SynergyNet and InterLife projects

LDSE is developing a ‘learning design support environment’, based on our analysis of the gap between current and potential best practice. ‘Potential best practice’ includes, for example, an informed analysis of the comparative benefits and costs of alternative learning technologies and realistic planning that exploits the potential of innovative technologies alongside conventional methods. LDSE includes a set of design support tools, links to relevant existing good practice documents and exemplars, and learning activity management tools. We will focus on the issue of how to transform teaching practice using interactive tools to support them in planning and design for the blended use of innovative learning technologies alongside conventional methods. The project adopts a design-research approach (Bell et al. 2004) with interdisciplinarity as a fundamental principle. It is through melding the knowledge and expertise of computer scientists, educational researchers and teaching practitioners that we can clarify the complex requirements of the learning design process and implement them in a computational form that is viable for teachers. Moreover, by engaging teachers in a more research-based approach to teaching as part of their everyday practice, we hope to accelerate the development of their understanding of how to engage more effectively with TEL. We will draw on previous findings (Masterman, 2008; San Diego et al., 2007), initial practitioner needs analysis, initial modeling of practitioner design decisions, and user evaluation data for the early prototype, completed in the first stage of the three-year project.

SynergyNet involves the development, operation, and evaluation of an innovative ‘Interactive Immersive Classroom’ in which advanced technology is introduced to provide high quality collaborative learning experiences.  Central to SynergyNet is a new form of computer interface (for both desks and presentation boards) that integrates a large built-in multi-touch surface that can detect simultaneous contacts by fingers or pens. Therefore, two or more students can operate the desk concurrently. Therefore a single multi-touch desk can operate both as a set of individual computerised work spaces and as a single large digital workspace allowing students to work individually or collaboratively on a task.  Our research involves capturing and analysing the learning experiences of students while they use the multi-touch equipment, and subsequently assessing how these differ from those learning experiences gained in more traditional classroom environments in primary, secondary and higher education settings. We are focusing on two broad issues: collaborative engagement through ICT and the impact of this upon knowledge and understanding. Our data-collection system enables analysis of the level of students’ cognitive engagement and achievement (Moseley et al. 2005) using Bloom’s revised taxonomy and considers any changes in the relational complexity of their contributions (using the SOLO taxonomy: Biggs and Collis 1982). This analytic work is complemented by microgenetic analysis of group discourse (Schoenfeld et al. 1993) and group solutions (Taylor and Cox, 1997).  

Inter-life is investigating the use ofICTs to support skillsdevelopment by young people to enhance their management of life transitions . It has developed a mobile and three-dimensional (3D)virtual community called ‘Inter-Life’.  Educational and social transitions have significant impacts on performance, motivation and identity formation.  Inter-Life offers the opportunity for participants to work together on transition activities in thiscommunity, whether they are logged in, or using their mobile deviceaway from the desktop.  It provides reflective and personal development tools and scenarios for transitions, to demonstrate theflexibility and robustness of the educational and technical designs.In particular, the research focuses on: user engagement, co-design, and development, identification of learning outcomes, processes, and skills acquisition, participant identity formation and development associated with Inter-Life usageand professional development of educators working in 3D-communities. The project uses mixed-method, technology-enhanced data gathering andanalysis. Phenomenographic techniques are used - analysing personalaccounts of participants across a range of settings. The project isinvestigating identity development from an Activity Theory perspective, viewing identity as individually and sociallyconstructed, rather than a fixed quality or ‘given’.


Bell, P., Hoadley, C.M. and Linn, M.C. (2004) Design-based research in education, in: M. C. Linn, E.A. Davis and P. Bell (Eds) Internet environments for science education (Mahwah, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum).

Biggs, J.B., and Collis, K.F., (1982) Evaluating the Quality of Learning – the SOLO Taxonomy (1st ed.), New York: Academic Press.

Conole, G., Scanlon, E., Kerawalla, C., Mullholland, P., Anastopulou, S. and Blake, C., (2008), From design to narrative: the development of inquiry-based learning models, Edmedia Conference, July 2008, Vienna

de Jong, T. (2006). Technological Advances in Inquiry Learning. Science, 312, 532-533.

Engeström, Y. (1999) Innovative Learning in Work Teams: Analysing cycles of Knowledge Creation in Practice, in Y. Engeström, R. Miettinen, and R.L. Punamaki (eds.) Perspectives on Activity Theory, Cambridge University Press

Healy L and Hoyles, C. (2000), ‘A Study of Proof conceptions in Algebra’. Journal for Research  in Mathematics Education, 31, 4, 396-428.

Kaput, J., Noss R. and Hoyles, C. (2002) Developing New Notations for a Learnable Mathematics in the Computational Era. In English, L. (Ed) Handbook of International Research in Mathematics Education. London: Lawrence Erlbaum. pp. 51-75.

Kieran, C., Yerushalmy, M. (2004) Research on the role of technological environments in algebra learning and teaching. In Stacey, K., H. Shick, H., Kendal, M., eds.: The Future of the Teaching and Learning of Algebra. The 12th ICMI Study. Volume 8 of New ICMI (International Commission on Mathematical Instruction) Study Series. Kluwer Academic Publishers. 99–152.

Mason, B, and Bruning, R. (2004). Providing Feedback in Computer-based Instruction: What the research tells us. Retrieved 2004 from MB/MasonBruning.html

Masterman, L. (2008). Phoebe Pedagogy Planner Project: Evaluation Report. Available at:

Moseley, D., Baumfield, V., Elliott, J., Higgins, S., Miller, J. and Newton D. P. (2005) Frameworks for thinking: a handbook for teachers and learning Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Noss, R. and Hoyles, C. (1997) The Construction of Mathematical Meanings: Connecting the Visual with the Symbolic. Educational Studies in Mathematics., Vol 33, 2, pp 203-233

San Diego, J.P., Laurillard, D., Boyle, T., Bradley, C., Ljubojevic, D., Neumann, T. and Pearce, D. (2007) The feasibility of modelling lecturers’ approaches to learning design, ALT-J, 16(1), 2008, 15–29.

Schoenfeld A. H., Smith, J. P., III, Arcavi, A. (1993). Learning: The microgenetic analysis of one student’ s evolving understanding of a complex subject matter domain. In R. Glaser (Ed.), Advances in instructional psychology: Volume 4 (pp. 55-175). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Stacey, K., Chick, H., and Kendal M. (2004) The Future of the Teaching and Learning of Algebra. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Taylor, J and Cox, B.D. (1997) Microgenetic Analysis of Group-Based Solution f Complex Two-Step Mathematical Word problems by Fourth Graders. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 6, 2:183-226.

TLRP ESRC (2006), Announcement of forthcoming EPSRC/ESRC call for research on technology enhanced learning, (30/6/08)

Veermans, K.H. (2003) Intelligent support for discovery learning. Enschede, The Netherlands: University of Twente Press.


E-learning review

Saturday, April 18th, 2009

An excellent review of e-learning produced by the Institute of Prospective Technology Studies (IPTS) is now available online. The abstract provides an overview to the report.


This report presents the outcomes of the expert workshop held at the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS) on 29 and 30 October 2008 to discuss the impact of the social computing on Education and Training (E&T) in Europe.

The workshop aimed to validate the results of the Learning 2.0 study, launched by IPTS in collaboration with DG EAC. The study explored the impact of social computing on E&T in Europe (in terms of contribution to the innovation of educational practice, and to more inclusive learning opportunities for the knowledge society). It also assessed Europe’s position in the take up of social computing in formal educational contexts and - by identifying opportunities and challenges - devised policy options for EU decision makers.

The report offers a structured account of the debate that took place during the two day workshop. It reflects the discussion on the potential of social computing take up in organized educational contexts, focusing on innovation (from the pedagogical, organisational and technological standpoints), and on inclusion. It further discusses how, despite the recent emergence of the phenomenon mostly outside E&T institutions, its primarily experimental nature within formal E&T contexts, and the speed of its evolution, there are clear signs that it can transform educational practice and that a new schooling culture is called for. The report then presents the main risks that were identified by the experts and proposes a number of items for research and the policy agenda to respond to the educational needs of society as it is being transformed by the social computing wave. Finally, it summarizes the trends identified as likely to affect the future evolution of the learning landscape.

So who are we??

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

Last week, Eileen Scanlon and I ran a similar kind of event at the OU to the TEL interdisciplinary research workshop I blogged about earlier, but this time the focus was more on what was the nature of our field and which directions it was going in.
The workshop started with a series of short presentations by members of the research group on aspects of their current research or reflections on what they thought were some of the key issues and future directions for TEL research. Speakers included Robin Goodfellow, Patrick McAndrew, Agnes Kulkuske-Hulme, John Richardson, and Cindy Kerawalla.

In the afternoon we divided into teams to discuss around a similar set of questions to those at the TEL workshop, namely 1. What is your birth discipline?, 2. What are your research interests/questions?, 3. What do you think are current hot topics?, 4. what methodologies and methods do you use? and 5. What theoretical frameworks and theories do you use?iet_workhop1.jpgAs with the other workshop, people had very diverse backgrounds – from science and engineering through to art history and linguistics. Research interests were more closely related than in the other workshop and included: use of digital resources in eleaning, student experience of ICT in DE, learner practice with technology, the role of technology in learner activity, scaffolding students argumentation using technology, how to encourage online interaction in open and closed environments, open educational resources, accessible writing and collaborative writing, system thinking for individual sense making, personalisation, 2.0, new technologies and mediation, affective aspects of technology-enhanced learning, patterns and chaos, student experience, efficiency and effectiveness, resources, usability (devices), different devices and roles. iet_workshop2.jpgThe group put forward the follow as potential hot topics: choices made by learners that are not part of learning design, interface between digital resources and elearning, how technology mediates learner activities, OERS, mobile devices, ubiquitous learning, user modeling and profiling, learning 2.0, and digital natives.

I was surprised at how tightly integrated the group were broadly in terms of methodologies and theoretical perspectives. Mixed-methods and socio-cultural perspectives were amongst the most commonly cited approaches. In the final discussion there was general consensus that we should try and articulate a shared perspective in terms of our research position – almost like coming up with a research manifesto that we could all sign up to. This, it was felt, had the potential to enable us to capitalise on the group collective, to focus beyond our individual research interests. In order to achieve this, the following were suggested as practical next steps in terms of themed, follow up events.

  • Researcher 2.0 – this, it was felt, was a nice banner to work around and discuss; look at our practices and how we work and communicate and also more about the researcher position. There are potential links here with our new OL-Net proposal (which aims to develop a global network of researchers, producers and users of OERs). A key question for this theme would be exploration of all aspects of the question - what does being a researcher mean in a web 2.0 world?
  • Design – this came up as a strong theme across many of the presentations and discussion during the day, so there seemed to be a commonality of interest. Questions to address included exploration of what the notion of co-design means and how can it be achieved, how can we best work in different cultural contexts, who can we design OERs effective, and how do we take account of the learner perspective in the design process?
  • Inter-disciplinarity, methodologies, theories and labs – can we work towards a shared perspective and position on what our research field is about? How can we move beyond the notion of ‘theories as wall paper’, i.e. mentioned but not really committed to it? What is the relationship between theory and practice?
  • Learning – what do we mean by learning and how is it changing, what is the relationship between education and learning, formal/informal etc…?
  • Technological infrastructure – what do we need to support our activities in innovative ways, how can we relate this to the work we are doing with OL-Net and sociallearn?

Overall it was an enjoyable day, it was great to get the chance to sit down as a group and collaboratively reflect on who we were and where we are going.

Online/e-learning, TEL, web 2.0….

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

I’m currently writing an article for one of the subject centres and so thought i would post a draft of my thinking so far here. Comments welcome!

What’s is a name? The title of this article alludes to the fact that there are now a plethora of confusing, overlapping terms to describe one particular ‘type’ of learning; essentially learning that is mediated in some way by the use of technology. The range of terms that are use is indicative of the fact that research and development activities in this area are fast moving; as new technologies emerge and start to impact on education, as new ideas and ways of using them get developed and shared. The fast pace of this area of research makes it a fascinating area to work in.

I have been involved with ‘e-learning’ (just to plump for one of the terms for the stake of consistency) since the early nineties. I got involved as a lecturer in Chemistry, by creating interactive computer-aided tutorials for my students and also through dabbling with the early Internet. Before I know where I was, I was hooked. It was great to get positive feedback from the students on how these technologies were helping their studies, but also the introduction of these technologies raised lots of issues. Was the university’s technical infrastructure adequate to cope with an increase in the use of technologies? What implications were there for making lecture materials freely available on the web? Were there any ethical issues with doing students feedback evaluation forms on the web? And many, many other questions and issues. I became increasingly interested with looking at elearning not just from a teaching perspective, but also in terms of it as a genuine area of research inquiry – in terms of appropriate research methodologies and evaluation techniques to better understand how students might use technologies and how the design and use of technology-mediated activities could be improved.

So here I am more than fifteen years on very much immersed in elearning research, nonetheless those early aspirations are still with me. I think it is imperative that there is a very close relationship between elearning research and development activities and actual practice. I find it valuable to be both a researcher and a teacher and to see the impact of introduction of technologies within my own context. Perhaps therefore it is not surprising that four of my current areas of interest in terms of the research work I am doing are around i) better understanding how teachers go about designing learning activities using new technologies (through the work we are doing as part of the OU Learning Design Initiative –, ii) exploration and understanding of students’ use of and experience of technologies (see Conole et al. (2008)[1] for a recent article on aspects of this work, and join the ELESIG special interest group[2] if you are interested in this area), iii) fundamental questions about research methodological issues in e-learning research (we have a masters module about this H809 – ‘Practice-based research in educational technology’),[3] and finally, iv) issues to do with the impact on individuals and organisational structures and policies).

 What fascinates me about this area is that it seems to be dominated by a series of ‘fads’ or ‘crazes’; a wave of enthusiasm for a particular set of technologies that sweeps across the education sector. In the eighties there was an obsession with the production of multi-media content. The nineties saw the arrival of the Internet, with individuals and organisations coming to terms with how ‘web 1.0’ technologies could be used both to directly support student learning experiences, as well as providing an infrastructure for the operational aspects of organisations and external promotion marketing. Email replaced the good old memo, marketing departments became obsessed with the creation of structured web sites adhering to the institutional ‘market brand’. The next key fad in my view was the emergence of Virtual Learning Environments. I remember seeing an early prototype of WebCT and being really excited about its potential and in particular the ability for me as a teacher to have easy hands-on control of a digital learning environment for my students. In recent years of course we have seen the dramatic impact of web 2.0 technologies – the rise of social networking and the ability to communicate and connect in multifaceted ways. This has raised implications for the tension between institutionally owned technical infrastructures and student controlled use of freely available tools – an argument nicely trigger in the Internet last year by Martin Weller’s controversial post ‘The VLE/LMS is dead’ and subsequent postings and counter arguments. Twitter and related micro-blogging services seem to have taken off recently;  in contrast some are arguing that MySpace and Facebook are old hat and email is for ‘oldies’ apparently. Then of course there is second life…

It’s also interesting within all this to reflect on my own recent experience of being a student and using technologies. I have just completed a beginnings Spanish course with the Open University. Overall I really enjoyed the course and have learnt a lot. The materials and activities have been excellent. It’s great to have the paper-based books, but I also wanted all the text and audio digitally so I could put them on my computer and iPOD. I was never able to access the audio-conferencing systems used for the course, which meant I didn’t have any contact with the other students, which was a definite drawback. In addition to the ‘official’ course I supplemented it with my own ways of learning – by choosing to go to Spain in the summer with the kids, by attending an additional face-to-face summer school (which was excellent and gave me the direct contact with other students I badly missed), through get peer support and help via Twitter and other social networking channels. In my mind my ‘Spanish Learning Experience’ is a combination of all of these things – both the ‘official’ course and my own personalised, learning environment. Ask any student and I bet they will give you a similar story – of how they appropriate technologies to create an individual, personalised learning environment. Understanding this to me is one of the keys to of harnessing new technologies.

So what does all this tell us and what can we surmise in terms of future directions? The fundamental point is that I think none of us can deny that technologies are now having a dramatic impact on educational institutions and that impact is likely to continue, and indeed increase. It raises huge implications for organisations - for strategy and policy, for organisational systems and processes, for individual roles and identities. We can’t predict future directions, but we can at least prepare ourselves for a changing and dynamic context. I think it’s a really exciting time to be working in education as a consequence of all of this; the possibilities of new technologies are truly amazing. However how we manage this change process, how we design to take best effect of the potential of technologies is key. As such I think e-learning research has a profound role to play in helping us better understand the changes, and better harness the technologies.

1.     Conole, G., De Laat, M., Dillon, T. and Darby, J. (2008), ‘Disruptive technologies’, ‘pedagogical innovation’: What’s new? Findings from an in-depth study of students’ use and perception of technology’, Computers and Education, Volume 50, Issue 2, February 2008, Pages 511-524.



Mapping formal online learning

Friday, March 21st, 2008

This week I attended a BECTA seminar. The venue was the Commonwealth club in London, what an amazing place, it appeared to be a labyrinth of rooms underground – it never ceases to amaze me how many meeting venues there are in London! The focus of the seminar was reporting on the findings to date from a study that BECTA have commissioned being carried out by researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University. Cathy Lewin and Nicola Whitton gave an overview of the work, which is trying to identify the nature of formal online learning. Initial work including a literature review of related research looking at learners’ use of technologies. They have undertaken eight very rich case studies across a range of different schools and colleges; each one is adopting a different approach to utlilising technologies to support learning. Their research questions focused around three main themes (flexibility, models and impact). Their findings to date are around five main areas: 

  • Organisational limitations (eg lack of flexibility, workload models, technologies available), 
  • Regulatory limitations (eg procurement, assessment, etc),  
  • What are appropriate models for structuring learning to support autonomy?,  
  • Repacking of content vs. ownership,  
  • Pragmatic drivers (eg space limitations, coursework management, etc.)

The final one reminded me of a recent post from George Siemens, where he questions the predominate mantra ‘pedagogy first’. He goes on to ask the question ‘what is sound pedagogy?’, arguing that ‘pedagogy is not the starting point with technology, context is’. He concludes

Let’s abandon the somewhat silly notion of pedagogy first and recognize that the choice of technology is driven by many contextual factors and therefore context is what we are evaluating and considering when we first start talking about possible technology to use. Then, after we have selected technology, we can start talking about pedagogy. Pedagogy is just not a practical starting point for deciding the technology we should use.

In recent interviews we have carried out with teachers about how they go about design, we found much the same; no one started with some esoteric pedagogical framework – design was messy, creative, iterative, and yes driven by mundane pragmatics. However that didn’t mean that their designs weren’t pedagogically informed, just that it was implicit and infused the whole of the design process. 




The MILO framework
Cathy and Nicola showed how they are using the MILO framework they have developed as a means of visually making sense of the different patterns of technology use across their case studies. The framework consists of four quadrants, each quadrant had two associated factors –learner tools (content, activities) communication (teacher-student, student-student) and assessement (formative, summative) and teacher tools (pedagogic, administration). It’s possible to map on ways in which online and traditional methods are used to support the development and delivery of a course and hence see the degree of overlap. It seems to provide a nice, simple way of visualising different uses of technologies and seeing where the emphasis is  - ie is the focus on using technology for administrative purposes, or for assessment, or to support different forms of communication? It seems to me the framework could be a useful tool in assessing institutions’ levels of ‘preparedness for e-learning’, ie how sophisticated their use of technologies is.  They have produced a briefing paper which gives more details about the framework. If you want to quote this I suggest contacting Cathy or Nicola to get the correct reference details.        

What’s in a name?

Friday, March 7th, 2008

One of the characteristics of our area is that it’s constantly changing and this is reflected in the way in which the terminology we use changes too. Educational Technology, Learning Technology, Distance Learning, have all come and gone. “E-learning” has been around for a while and indeed when I was asked what title I wanted for my job at the OU when I started a year and a half ago this seemed the obvious choice, but in a number of arena recently I have heard people say that e-learning is on the out and just this morning I came across a link to this effect from Rosanna one of the students on our H809 course from a news article in the FT. Indeed the changing nature of our area, the tensions and discourses was a major theme of our book ‘Contemporary perspectives in e-learning research’. I guess its just something we have to live with, but how does this make us as a research community sit alongside more established areas? Reading the FT article there are comments about ‘distance’ being an inappropriate term - which is interesting because we are currently thinking about whether or not the title for our masters course - MA in Online and Distance Education - is still appropriate. The problem is if we change it, is there any guarantee that the new title will survive the test of time!

Fostering the research community

Sunday, December 16th, 2007


Constellation of practice in e-learning research (Image from flickr
George Siemen’s post about the role of blogs in teaching has prompted me to write something about the way we are planning to use blogs on a new course we are starting in February as part of our masters programme. The course is affectionately known as H809 (codes… it’s an OU thing….) or to give it its full title ‘Practice based research in educational technology’. The focus of the course is about researching with and about technologies. Rather than giving the students lots of content on research methodologies and how they are being used in e-learning and in studying the impact of technologies in education, we have decided to adopt a more innovative approach to the delivery of the course. We want the students to “experience” e-learning research, for them to become members of our research community. This fits very much with Wenger’s Community of Practice ideas and his views on identity and constellations of practice.   So instead of “dry content” and our views on what e-learning is about, we have designed the course around a series of seminal research papers which encapsulate some of the key features of e-learning research. We want the students to get a feel for the changing nature of e-learning as a research field, the predominant educational theories and perspectives which underpin it and examples of methodological innovation. But many of the students who are likely to take the course will be researchers or practitioners in the field themselves.  So we want to ensure that we can capture and build very much on their expertise as well. Soooo to the role of blogs in the course. We will be asking each of the student to keep a reflective research blog as they work through the course and will be encouraging them to read and comment on each others blogs. We want them to experience the role of blogs in a research context and for them to reflect on their own views of how blogging offers a valuable, alternative communication channel for academic discourse. Hopefully they will find the experience rewarding and maybe even keep on blogging after the course has finished!            

HE Academy Research Observatory

Saturday, December 15th, 2007

As part of their establishment of an e-learning research observatory, the HE Academy have commissioned a landscaping study. The observatory will act as a ‘one-stop-shop’ for identifying, collating, assessing and disseminating national and international e-learning research. Given the incredible diversity of research going on, this is very much needed and is to be welcomed. Further information on the reseach observatory is available from the HEA website. The landscaping study is being undertaken by Rhona Sharpe and colleagues from Oxford Brookes. They have set up a consultation wiki which provides more information on the scope and purpose of the study. One way in which they are collating views is via an online survey, so if you have any views on how the observatory should work fill it in!!! I think this is a very exciting development and has the potential to offer a very valuable service to the community. It is now, more than ever, critical that the good research being done on technologies and their impact on students, teachers and institutions is synthesised and then targeted at both the policy and practice levels, because technologies are now having a profound impact on all aspects of education and this impact is only like to increase in the coming years. If we don’t find a way to use the research as a means of understanding these profound changes, we as a sector are likely to make some bad decisions which could have disastrous effects.