Archive for November, 2008

Talking about design

Saturday, November 29th, 2008

Iron_jo.jpg’ve spent Thursday at Edith Cowan University with Ron Oliver (pro vice chancellor for learning and teaching) and Joe Luca (dean of the graduate research school). It’s a beautiful campus about half an hour train ride from the centre of Perth. I was struck, as I often am, by how similar Ron and my lines of research interests are. Ron talked me through some of the work he has been doing as part of his Carrick fellowship. He has created an online database of good practice in learning and teaching. This includes a range of innovations. Each has concise details, which essentially represent the inherent learning design of the idea. Ron described it as analogous to buying a house. You begin with some broad metrics – location, price, type of property, number of rooms, etc and only then begin to drill down to specifics such as the house details and then through a process of further narrowing down, only then do you choose to go and actually see some properties.

ecu.jpgHis feeling was that we need to adopt a similar approach when looking at learning and teaching ideas, by guiding users through a set of broad, generic factors, before guiding them into detailed designs. Each design in his database has a set of fields and short descriptions - including title, learning outcomes, nature of the activities and assessment undertaken by the students, what resources and tools they will be using, etc. The database was developed in conjunction with learning technologists and educational developers across Australia. Ron ran a series of workshops to foster debate on the issues with creating such a database and used these workshops to develop a shared consensus of how to design and structure the database. Experts were asked to contribute good practice examples and research journals were trawled to find innovative case studies to include. One of the interest facets, Ron explained, was the difficulty of getting shared consensus on what constitutes ‘good design’, even amongst experts and even when they were using shared criteria. What I think this highlights is the difficult of rarefying designs and the reality that at the end of the day design is only as good as the context within which it occurs.

There seemed to be a lot of synergy with this work and what we are doing with cloudworks. I showed Ron and Jo the site and explained what we are trying to achieve. It would be really interesting to explore how cloudworks might be used in conjunction with Ron’s site and whether a site like cloudworks might provide a forum for shared debate.

ecu1.jpgOne interesting question Ron asked me was what would I consider to be the KPIs (Knowledge Performance Indicators) for the site – well he is a pro vc after all! ;-0) and it’s certainly an interesting question that we have been asking ourselves in the team. At a trivial level I think the answer is simple, i.e. evidence that the site is being used by people and that they find it useful! ;-) But actually when you unpack this, it’s a lot more complicated than that – how are people using the site, is there enough new content being automatically added to the site rather than ‘seeded’ by us, how much engagement and discussion is there around the clouds (the core social objects of the site), is there any evidence that use of the site is making a difference to what teachers do and how they design courses? Some of these can be retrieved relatively easily through web stats etc. Others, such as impact on practice, are subtler and will require us to do more in-depth case studies and evaluations.

Adopting an evidence-based approach is a key feature of our overall approach within the OU Learning Design Initiative and certainly evaluation of events such as the cloudfests we ran around the first version of cloudworks were really valuable and helped shape our thinking in terms of the development of this current version of the site. One comment at a cloudworks summit we ran in September from George Roberts really struck a cord with both Juliette Culver (the technical developer for cloudworks) and myself. George said we should be using the site ourselves, an obvious statement, but it did get us thinking ‘What would make us use the site, where is the added benefit?’ I have to admit I found that difficult to answer with the first version of the site, but I can really see a use for the notion of cloudscapes that we now have. I’m looking forward to getting feedback and comments on the site at the forthcoming Ascilite conference and catching up with people.

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.

Moodling about

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

Perth skyline
I’m at the start of a mammoth three-week trip of Oz – Perth, Melbourne and then Sydney. I spend the day yesterday with Martin Dougiamas (head of Moodle). moodle1.jpgIt was a pure luxury to spend the day brainstorming with him and great to see ‘Moodle head quarters’ and the core team. Was surprised to see a familiar face - Tim Hunt from the OU - who is out here on secondment for a year. Martin is a partner in our JISC Curriculum Design project, which is partly about exploring how we might adapt and deploy the tools and resources we have been developing in our Open University Learning Design Initiative (OULDI) in different contexts. There are essentially three layers – embedding the use of the tools and resources across the OU, cascading them out into four other UK institutional contexts (Brunel, Cambridge, London South Bank and Reading universities) and then across two pan-community contexts (i.e. the Moodle and Lams community). I bought Martin up to speed with the various components of OULDI – CompendiumLD, Cloudworks, the different schema we have been thinking about in terms of reconceptualising design (see this ariadne article for more on what I mean by this) and the types of events we have been running to get community engagement and user feedback (such as our Cloudfests and Design Challenge events).Martin was very interested in our latest developments of CompendiumLD and could really see the power of being able to represent designs visually. Of course it would be wonderful to be able to more closely integrate CompendiumLD and moodle, so that with one click the design could be converted into a course on the fly, but this would be far from trivial! One of the recent features Andrew Brasher has been working on is enabling users to add time allocations to tasks in activities, which are then automatically aggregated from each role (student, tutor, etc.). He is also working on being able to map learning outcomes at different levels of design. I showed Martin our new version of cloudworks (will blog a more detailed post about the specifics of this later), where the focus is on encouraging dialogue and discussion around different community needs. Martin gave some great feedback on the site and it was interesting to what him navigate around – albeit a bit nerve wrecking too!! We talked about usability and design issues with site development and of course issues about security and anti-spamming. Quality control also came up – in terms of the balance between open access and contribution and avoidance of site dilution in terms of good content. Martin showed me around the Moodle community (virtually). It really is very impressive seeing the open source community up front and in action – the shared mechanism for reporting bugs, voting, discussing and tracking developments via (a repository with ca. 17,000 issues and bugs). He talked about the sensitivity of identifying and promoting ‘experts’ or ‘trusted others in the system. They currently have a simple but effective approach with a voting on objects in the system, which just says ‘Was this useful?’ yes/no. Responses are aggregated according to an open algorithm and people within the system then have little icons associated with their name to denote their ‘expertise’. He also shown me around the moodle discussion forums and the ways in which they are using tagging to group people with common interests together. One mechanism for example was to view users who are tagged in the system with similar terms – Moodle and Guinness seemed to be particularly popular – not sure what the significance of that is!Clearly the Moodle community is vibrant and worldwide– which is why it seemed such an obvious and valuable community to work with; a collective bound in a common interest – i.e. the use of Moodle to develop courses. What struck me was that crudely speaking you could categorise the community engagement and dialogue into three layers:

  1. Technical discussions – i.e. the layer most closely aligned to the open source notion. This layer is about a shared, collective enterprise of identifying, discussing and tracking issues and bug fixing. This layer is particularly well developed and Moodle has a sophisticated online system and volunteer facilitators to ensure this is effective.
  2. Support issues – the next layer up is primarily around users sharing tips and hints, seeking support and advice on how to use Moodle. This is primarily through a range of treaded discussion forums at
  3. Pedagogical issues – the third layer is about sharing ideas about good practice in course design. What struck me was that this was the least developed layer and this is where I think there is a real connection with the work we are doing and why I am so excited about being able to work with Martin as part of our JISC project.

moodle2.jpgThe Cloudworks site we have been developed is precisely about providing a mechanism for encouraging and facilitating discussion at this third layer, i.e. helping users to find, share and discuss learning and teaching ideas and designs. However we know that this is far from trivial. Rarefying ideas and designs into different representations, whether those are textual descriptions/case studies or visual designs, loses something of the essence of the design in the process. Although teachers say they want case studies and indicate that they are interested in sharing designs and discussing ideas with others, in actual practice this rarely happens in practice (note the third pedagogical issues layer I referred to above). And yet extending the vibrant open source community engagement to more generic learning and teaching issues has been a long term goal of many of us working in this area.

We then let brainstorming get the better of us (think this was because it was after a delicious lunch in a local café…) and started to think ‘what if…’ Wouldn’t it be nice if when a moodle user started a new course there was a set of resources and tools they could draw on to help guide them in creating a great course? Could we take and adapt some of the tools from our OULDI work as a starting point for this? Could Cloudworks act as a conduit for sharing the designs and ideas generated within the moodle community? In other works can we focus on promoting that third layer – and get vibrant community engagement around the pedagogical aspects of developing moodle courses? So Martin and I decided to have a go at doing this. We plan to develop a moodle course, which will be initially seeded with the various tools and resources we have been developing, as well as others we think might be useful. We are going to put out an invite to the moodle community to participate in the course. The goal will be to use the tools and resources to design ‘great’ courses. Participants will be encouraged to share their experiences of using the tools and resources and to discuss each other’s ideas and designs. Courses created will have be made available on the moodle demo site. We think we will target educational developers/instructional designers/learning technologists – i.e. those tasked with providing support and advice on course creation within institutions. Although we will initially seed the course, we will continue to develop it based on participants’ feedback and reflection on their experience of using the tools and resources. Participants will have a shared goal in terms of adapting the core course to develop their own institutional version of ‘Create a great course’.

This may of course turn out to be a mad capped idea but we reckon it’s worth a try and if nothing else I am sure it will generated lots of interesting discussion and we will learn a lot in the process. It was a privilege to be able to spend time with Martin and I am really looking forward to taking these ideas forward with him and to more fruitful discussions in the future.

Fostering interdisciplinarity

Saturday, November 15th, 2008




I am part of the Personal Inquiry project, which is one of eight projects funded under the ESRC/EPSRC Technology-enhanced learning programme. This is an ambitious (ca. $22 M over five years), 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.

Three of the projects have been going now for just over a year, including ours. Five new projects have just started. Eileen Scanlon and I presented at the first in what is planned to be a series of workshops associated with the programme. The theme was ‘The challenges of interdisciplinary research’. The tagclowd of my notes was courtesy of Shaaron Ainsworth who was also at the event – here’s a slightly more readable version.

Alan Blackwell  of Cambridge University kicked off the day with a really interesting talk on tacking interdisciplinarity and some of the approaches he has adopted and the projects he has been involved with.  He is co-director of Crucible – a centre for research in interdisciplinary research. Here’s a summary of some of the points of advice he made on 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

And here are his 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

I really liked his approach and style – working across boundaries, questioning the established and being a bit of a maverick basically! It’s just what’s needed. He also gave a plug for HCI2009 conference  1-5th Sept, not a conference I have been to be before but it looks interesting.

Eileen and I kicked off a debate session. Eileen gave an overview of some work in the literature on interdisciplinarity and then we gave a case study of how we have approached it in the PI project and what has worked and what hasn’t. The slides are available on slideshare.  In particular we talked about how we used various ‘mediating artefacts’ in the project as trigger points to discus ideas around and also our variant of adopting a participatory design approach and involving different stakeholders in the design process. Interestingly design was a key concept that was also central to Alan’s approach and was returned to again and again during the day’s discussion. We also drew on Roy Pea’s diagram about the co-evolving relationship between technologies and practice and discussed how this might impact on fostering interdisciplinary dialogue. We then got delegates to add to flip charts around the following five themes:

  1. What were their ‘birth’ disciplines?
  2. How methodologies do they use?
  3. What theoretical frameworks did they use?
  4. What research questions are they interested?
  5. What approaches did they suggest to foster interdisciplinarity?

Of course it’s not a large sample and people were doing this around lunch when their mind was more on food than intellectual debate, but nonetheless the results are interesting. The National Central for Research Methods did a much more extensive study when it was established. One of the outputs was a Typology of Research Methods.  The report is well worth a read.  Below are some of the notes from our exercise:

Birth disciplines: 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. Is it my imagination or are there a lot of people from a predominantly Scientific background. One person wrote why worry about disciplines - aren’t many of these just fields?

There wasn’t much written on methodologies – just a few notes. One person argued for the need to have robust methods and suggested looking for evidence from methodologies which work for other disciplines. Persistent collaboration methodology and normal scientific method were also mentioned. 

Theoretical perspectives: 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.

One person also suggested that we need to both build on relevant theories in education science, but also consider that new interdisciplinary theories might emerge from TEL work.

Research focus/interest: 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. 

Approaches to fostering interdisciplinarity. Some 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. Other quotes: Grounding relationships and developing shared language, Triangle of elation – frustration and desperation, inter-actional vs. contributory expertise, ensure good publications within disciplines only, worry less – explore what ID does rather than worry about meaning – bring back Derrida!, Project members going together to the pub or cultural equivalents, exposure to, appreciation of and respect for the paradigms methods of others disciplines having them influence ones own practice, Rich intermediating representations eg design patterns, A team member who bridges the disciplines and makes the connections that hold people together, Be concrete work on specific examples – I get lost in the general interdisciplinary which disciplines etc? Its good to talk…, Shared tasks. So in essence time and space to foster debate and develop ideas seems to be the overarching message from this list.

In the afternoon we split into groups and asked them to foster around three key themes that we had posed as part of a seminar we will be presenting at AERA 2009. 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? 

Here’s a summary of the feedback from the groups.

Group 1

  • Communication Use of a Virtual Research Environment (VRE). VRE’s can be really useful for Geographical distributed projects but also bring out a lot of the interdisciplinary issues - the way in which you use wikis, email lists, announcement tools is something else you still need to get shared consensus with. The extent to which the debate around ID is very productive, are we actually as bounded as we think we are, can we reframe the debates about how knowledge generation takes place?
  • Engagement The fact that there are different levels of engagement of those involved in the project and different technological expertise.
  • Methods To what extent do the methods reflect the learning impact that technologies might bring?? How do things change when you move from a paper measure to one that’s based on the screen?

Group 2

  • Design – What is the nature of participatory design.  How do you begin, how do you take account of user views? The tension between this and the need for a starting point around theoretical perspectives and goals. Also when do you know when to end/stop? Design is always a compromise – we should all make our design decisions more explicit and write these up in our design history. Shells for design and creativity. ‘User’ design – who is the user? Do you use them same ones over the life span or do they become experts in the system, introduce new novices? Tangible and attractive, simple about reaching out to a set of complex designs that might represent behind the metaphor – mobile phone as a metaphor has a lot of hidden meaning.
  • Research vs. development Tension between research and development – research aims, but also a design element but that is not what we are funded to do, but these are intimately linked. Are there important lessons for the funders here? Process and product – a research process we reflect on but also a product. Tension between creativity vs. productivity - how much can/do you deviate from the original project aims?
  • Transformation of practice – what and whose??  Researchers, users, changing design as practice – new metaphors and new ideas. New forms of pedagogy. Establishment and sustainability of learning communities – mobile and at a distance

Group 3

  • Methodological challenges and working together.  Building on known success stories, which have involved a large interdisciplinary team and also learn from those that didn’t work. 
  • Issue of project management – these projects involve large and disparate groups, do we new approaches needed to managing such projects? How much arising from ID as opposed to the size of the project team? The impact of the birth discipline of the Principal Invest Igor on managing the project.  The need to manage different expectations – understanding from each other’s disciplines what might be achievable. Danger of splitting off into parallel tracks of research with some cross talking but no real coming together. To overcome challenges need to allocate enough time for the team as a whole to come together to develop a commonality of purpose.
  • What is emerging – transformation of knowledge as well as transformation of practice. The presence of technologies may be changing the nature of what we are tackling

Group 4

  • Users Working with users and PD and what it means. Working with users who are experts but they might not be the best people to work with if you want to design for novices.
  • Communication. Importance of communication – getting the terminology right as soon as you can. 
  • Nature of innovation – technology, practice, activities,
  • Success criteria and evaluation How much should we be driven by the original proposal?
  • Shared understanding – what do we understand by a shared understanding?

On reflection it was a really interesting day. It was great to meet up with the other projects. I look forward to future events in this series.

Learning in a networked world

Monday, November 10th, 2008

Roy Pea at BectaI was lucky enough to hear Roy Pea from Stanford University speak twice last week; first at the Becta research conference and then at the launch of the LSRI at Notthingham University. Here’s a summary of some of the things he was talking about. He peppered his talks with highlights from the report of the nsf task force on cyberlearning – a 21st century agenda for the national science foundation, which he and others were involved with.  He began by highlighting where in his view technologies are going in the next decade and hence how this is likely to impact on education. His list included:

  • Always on smart mobiles
  • Location aware services
  • Ubiquitous sensing of content
  • Open platform technologies
  • Elastic cloud computing resources
  • Immersive worlds and games
  • Open Educational Resources
  • Participatory media culture

What struck me about this list was, here, as elsewhere, elastic cloud computing services seem to be given more and more prominence. It was also noticeable how much value and importance he put into the development of Open Educational Resources. In essence he painted a picture of an exciting future, with wide spread access to technologies, He argued that these were exciting times given the wide spread access to technology, coupled with an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the nature of learning.

He provided a definition of ‘cyberlearning’ as ‘learning that is mediated by networked computing and communication technologies’, relating to the term ‘cyberinfrastructure’ which is used in NSF circles in the states. [i.e. ‘cyber’ from Wieners, 1948 ‘cybernetics’ from the Greek  meaning to steer as a way to signal the intertwined tapestry of concepts relating the goal directed actions, predictions, feedback and responses in the system (physical, social, engineering) for which cybernetics was to be an explanatory framework.]

He referred to Henry Jenkin’s report ‘Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: media education for the 21st century’. It’s an excellent report - here are some of the highlights I picked out from it.

According to a recent study from the Pew Internet & American Life project (Lenhardt & Madden, 2005), more than one-half of all teens have created media content, and roughly one third of teens who use the Internet have shared content they produced. In many cases, these teens are actively involved in what we are calling participatory cultures.

A growing body of scholarship suggests potential benefits of these forms of participatory culture, including opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, a changed attitude toward intellectual property, the diversification of cultural expression, the development of skills valued in the modern workplace, and a more empowered conception of citizenship

A central goal of this report is to shift the focus of the conversation about the digital divide from questions of technological access to those of opportunities to participate and to develop the cultural competencies and social skills needed for full involvement.

The new skills for this according to Jenkins include: play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognitions, collective intelligence, judgment, trans-media navigation, networking, and negotiation. The list makes a lot of sense to me and does seem to encapsulate a lot of the potential of what new technologies and in particular web 2.0 approaches can offer in an educational context. However, fostering these new skills suggests a need for radical transformation of the educational curriculum. Pea argued that: in principle therefore we have exceptional resources for human learning and activities, but do we know enough about learning to guide design of learning support? He then turned to some of the work he and colleagues are doing as part of the LIFE centre in terms of rethinking learning in a modern technological context. 

THE PURPOSE OF THE LIFE CENTER IS to develop and test principles about the social foundations of human learning in informal and formal environments, including how people learn to innovate in contemporary society, with the goal of enhancing human learning from infancy to adulthood.



He gave a scenario of a learner of the near future; a learner where education transcended formal educational barriers, facilitated by technology: a learner with a portable lifelong digital portfolio, with seamless access to materials using inexpensive mobile technologies, interacting with peers in a variety of formal and informal context, using the power of new technologies for the visualisation of real time data from remote sensors. And that this individual’s learning goals could be facilitated by formal curriculum, through individual teachers or via peer groups as appropriate. The vision seemed very close to the kinds of things we are trying to do in our sociallearn project.  

Referring back to the ‘cyber’/steer for this learner the forms of steering of learning could arise from a hybrid manner from a variety of personal educational or collective sources and designs and therefore the ‘cyberinfrastructure’ needs to be designed to enable this to happen. He argued that this is really becoming possible now with new technologies and what can be achieved though them. He argued for the centrality of mediation in cyberlearning, referring back to Vygotsky’s work on mediation, i.e. that ‘subject’ and ‘object’ are connected directly, but also indirectly through the mediation of cultural artefacts as with written language and maths.



He showed a nice diagram illustrated how a series of waves of technology have changed the ‘ether’ of mediation. The first phase being essentially ‘cultural mediated’ (face to face), the second being ‘symbol mediated’ (letters and numbers), the third being ‘communication mediated’ (TV, radio phone), the fourth being ‘network mediated’ (wireless database internets) and the fifth being ‘cyber infrastructure mediated’ (cloud computing, intelligence of crowds, constant contact, sensors networks). I thought this was a useful classification and in particular liked the way it highlighted the changing nature of the technologically-enhanced medium, but also the suggested that there was a co-evolution of tools and users – something I have argued about as well.  He also argued that as a result of these changes, people’s learning have evolved substantially as well – which echoes some of the discussions in the netgeneration literature.  

He argued that the time was ripe to take advantage of modern technologies (their communicative potential, the ability to render and visualise information in different ways, etc). And that this therefore extends the capacity of educational institutions into lifelong learning opportunities and how to blend formal and informal learning. He showed a nice slide which illustrated that only a tiny fraction of an individuals lifetime is spend in formal learning context and that the majority of learning in fact occurs informally and hence we should capitalise on this and harness the potential of modern technologies to support this. This is a core aspect of the work that he and others are doing as part of the LIFE Centre, which is focusing on trying to better understand the broader nature of learning, i.e. learning beyond formal contexts.

He also referred to the work of Brigid Barron on her ‘Learning ecology framework’ for understanding individual differences in the development of technological fluency.

A learning ecology is defined as the set of contexts, comprised of configurations of activities, material resources, and relationships found in physical or virtual spaces that provide opportunities for learning (Barron, 2004). A learning ecologies perspective foregrounds that 1) adolescents are simultaneously involved in many settings; 2) they are active in creating activity contexts for themselves within and across settings, and 3) that interest driven activities tend to be self-sustaining given adequate resources. Text taken from

Barron’s learning ecology framework diagram shows the multifaceted environment in which modern learners learn – with distributed resources, in conjunction with peers, via communities, school and home. It highlights the multi-directionality of digital fluency and illustrates that the dynamic nature of a learning ecology. Barron argued that the home is a central access point for learning and she showed that the home environment is pivotal.

Pea drew on this work and argued for the need for an experiential focus for learning research, i.e. the need to get inside the experiences of the learner in more fundamental ways – their interests, values, identities, commitments, engagements, challenges, appraisals, and persistence. This resonates very closely with the central philosophy of much of the current research interest in eliciting the learner voice (see for example the Pea drew out three key distinctions:

  • The power of social….how are they using social networks?
  • The power of the setting…how do they navigate the boundaries?
  • The power of imagination… what course of action do they consider?

He then highlighted some of the recommendations the NSF task force on cyberlearning made to NSF. This included the need to promote the growth of a cyberlearning infrastructure, to develop new ways of looking at and understanding content preparing students for computational thinking, to teach students and teachers how to harness large amounts of data (he reference Galaxy zoo – a mash up of astronomy data), leveraging the data produced by cyberlearning systems, and encouraging shared systems that allow large-scale deployment, feedback and improvement.

At the end of the Becta conference Pea left us with the following thoughts:

  • How does learning technology influence learning?
  • ICT changes the representational infrastructure and also the environment within which education occurs - the roles, the divisions of labour, etc
  • ICT is not an amplifier of learning; it’s actually a reorganiser of the learning systems

It’s rare to get the pleasure of hearing one of today’s truly great thinkers, his talks were truly inspiring. 

Web 2.0 in schools

Sunday, November 9th, 2008

Charles Crook
One of the parallel sessions at Becta’s Research Conference  was an overview of the work that Charles Crook and Colin Harrison have done on looking at web 2.0 in schools. It’s an excellent, timely report and complements other research being carried out on learners’ use of technology (see for example the Elesig special interest group). As the report says web 2.0 potentially has a lot to offer - it should fit well with current policy directors and educational theory. This is something I have argued before too, however in reality the alignment is not as strong as it should be. Here are some of the highlights from the executive summary of the report: 
  • At Key Stages 3 and 4, learners’ use of Web 2.0 and related Internet activities is extensive.
  • Use is not generally sophisticated; learners are mainly consumers rather than producers of internet content.
  • Of the 2,600 learners surveyed across 27 schools, 74% have social networking accounts and 78% have uploaded artefacts (mostly photographs or video clips from phones) to the Internet. However, nearly all Web 2.0 use is currently outside school, and for social purposes.
  • There is only limited use of Web 2.0, and only a few embryonic signs of criticality, self-management and meta-cognitive reflection.
  • Many learners lack technical skills, and lack an awareness of the range of technologies and of when and how they could be used, as well as the digital literacy and critical skills to navigate this space.
  • There is a disparity between home and school use of IT, both in terms of the larger range of activities and the increased time spent on IT at home.
  • Use of web 2.0 in schools is limited.

Four potential benefits were identified: 1. Stimulating new modes of enquiry, 2. Engaging in collaborative learning, 2. Engaging with new literacies, 4. Online publication of content. The report also talked about the barriers and challenges with using web 2.0 in a school context, including issues around e-safety. The exec summary concludes with the following quote: 

Perhaps the key implication for practice, therefore, is for evangelists, innovators and visionaries (and policy makers) to take careful account of the effort required of teachers if encouraging the wider implementation of Web 2.0, and to recognise that, although most teachers are positive towards Web 2.0 in principle, relatively slow and cautious progress is inevitable.

Retro plus Becta?

Saturday, November 8th, 2008


Vanessa Pittard, Director of Evidence and Evaluation, Becta
Have you noticed that retro seventies is very much back in? I have stayed in two hotels recently that were freakily 70s, including weird see-through plastic chairs! Having got that rant off my chest, now to the main focus of this post… This week I was at the Becta research conference in Sheffield. [As an aside I went to University in Sheffield - I hardly recognised the place!] There was good representation from across the educational spectrum and also from other relevant stakeholders - such as technology providers. The initial focus for the day was the launch of Becta’s ‘Harnessing technology review’. The review brings together a range of research evidence and data on the use of technology in education. The review benchmarks against the five high level outcomes of the UK Government’s Harnessing Technology strategy: 
  1. Technology-confident, effective providers
  2.  Engaged and empowered learners
  3.   Confident system leadership and innovation
  4.   Enabling infrastructure and processes
  5.   Improved personalised learning experiences

becta_mindmap.jpgThe day included a keynote from Roy Pea  of Stanford University, with closing remarks from Jonathan Drori. Jonathan commissioned the BBC’s first website and here is an excellent TED lecture by him here. The days was divided into a series of parallel sessions, I went to the sharing research snippets session in the morning. Pic is of the evolving mindmap from the session.

  1. Andy Black talked about a number of projects he is involved with; more can be found on his blog.
  2. Tom Boyle talked about the work of the Reusable Learning Objects (RLO) CETL and in particular that their Generative Learning Object Maker is now available online. 
  3. Anna Reid from Newcastle University talked about their work on enquiry learning which seems to have a lot of synergies with our Personal Inquiry project.
  4. Robert Hart from intuitivemedia  talked about the really interesting work they have been doing with creating safe social networks for children, there seemed to me to be potential connected with our SocialLearn project



Roger Hart from Intuitivemedia
In the afternoon I went to the Rose Review – a major review of Primary Education (see for example Mike Baker’s article on it). Becta is helping in terms of articulating the technology chapter of the review.  The discussion focused around how to integrated ‘ICT skills/competences’ across the primary curriculum, but the thing that struck me most was that the list presented was very web 1.0; there was little about the communicative, dialogic potential of technologies. In a parallel session Charles Crook and Colin Harrison were talking about their recent review of web 2.0 in schools, which I’ll come back to in another posting. 

Overall it was a very useful and as always good to catch up with people. Cutler’s hall was certainly a very impressive setting - although the lack of Internet access had a number of us involved in the JISC online conference a little less than pleased. It was just one of those unfortunate things, but made me realise just how much I have come to rely on constant, online access! The key message from the day was that Becta aims  to adopt an evidence-based approach in terms of helping to steer policy and practice – by commissioning timely research and ensuring that the findings were then made available to and discussed by relevant stakeholders as quickly as possible, through events like the research conference but also via smaller invited workshops to discuss specific research. They have produced a very effective set of videos, which showcase some of the research they have commissioned and include quotes from attendees at the workshops where the findings were discussed with relevant stakeholders.


JISC online summary

Friday, November 7th, 2008

Marion Manton did us proud again on day two of the JISC online Innovating e-learning conference, as facilitator for the strand on ‘Supporting staff - transforming culture’, that Alan Masson and I were ‘co-presenting’. There was another lively day of debates and it was great to be able to share and develop ideas with others in this format. There is lots from the conferences that we can chew over and reflect on as a team in our OULDI work. Again blatant cut and past, but here is Marion’s excellent summary of the discussion on day two. 

Change is due the virtual space too! This strand revisited the issues around the VLE as an artifact which shapes design. Michael Vallance raised suggested “We do not limit ourselves to one solution but look at what a number of tools can do, and do well” I raised the ideas that sometimes “we forget how many students (not just academics) value an easy to use integrated environment that lets them focus on the learning not the technology.” The conclusion from Michael was to u”se the best technology available to do the task required … and not seek that all embracing single solution”


Change is due to the institutional processes too! Today this thread talk moved onto ways we have managed to get the learning technologist perspective into the sign off process for course development, especially in terms of negotiating shared course visions. There was also a brief discussion the differences between working with enthusiasts and the mainstream.


Visualization Designs This theme kicked off the day with Grainne introducing the idea of visual v. textual representations generated from tools such as Compendium LD. Grainne linked to as a step by step guide to creating a learning activity in Compendium LD. Adam Bayliss raised the possibility of Compendium LD for the Mac and Andrew replied he was aiming to have this available by Christmas. EA Draffon introduced a selection of other generic tools. Accessibility was discussed with Andrew Brasher mentioning There was a discussion about text v visual being better for different parts of the design process and Nigel Ecclesfield talked about generic tools that could cope with both modes. I talked about this in relation to the idea of a Phoebe/compendium link up, and also about how the LD tools report had looked at generic tools as well We also talked about visual design being better for activities and textual for course level design – although Andrew Brasher had examples of when this may not be the case. Lastly Alan share 3 representations of a design from Ulster and we discussed ways of taking the same data and showing it in different ways, especially in light of how the Mod4L project identified that most users did not have time to create multiple representations.


Starting day 2 - innovations that really work I started this thread by asking people to share innovations that had really worked. Richard Everett mentioned eMentors (where students teach the teachers to use technology appropriately) eInnovations - a £50K fund that staff (and students) bid into to do something innovative of relevance to the new building, but need culture to allow risk and failure. Grainne mentioned the OU ‘Design challenge’ to get people to design a short course in a day with support various stalls that represented stakeholders such as librarians etc, which raised as a key factor in success. Helen Beetham also mentioned other institutions’ ‘design intensives’ e.g. Brookes, Herts, Leicester. Alan Clarke suggested how Adult and Community Learning has used digital cameras, which led to a discussion of the Molenet project which James Clay was involved in and expanded on. Sarah Knight mentioned the ILT Champions programme for the FE which was reiterated by many, as something that had and was having a long lasting effect on their practice – this years conference is being hosted by James Clay, who shared some podcasts it had created

Cloudworks Juliette Culver introduced the cloudworks tool and the latest thinking here and Paul Baily suggested tag clouds (of this discussion) as a possible feature. 

Day 1: JISC online conference

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

Marion Manton from Oxford University, has done an excellent summary of some of the manic discussions which went on today in the session that Alan Masson and I were running in the JISC online coference.

Here is a blatant cut and past of her summary…

Hello and WelcomeMalcolm Ryan introduced us to the work on defining the skills, knowledge and attitudes required by the e-competent tutor Alan provided a link to the HLM cards which are described in his presentation, along with an indicative recording grid at . 

Gilly’s keynote and design There was a consensus that everyone agreed with Gilly’s vision, but that ther real the question was “how” to achieve this. Alan suggested, “not only do we need to provide support, guidance and facilitation, we need to address quite distinct challenges - reflection, planning, design” Grainne added “getting the balance right of getting people to think differently/out of their comfort zone, whilst also not frightening or overwhelming them” Sheena Banks brought up how methods of production can effect design which led to a general discussion on the need for practitioners to see examples from others – both in terms of outputs but also practice. Grainne mentioned how Cloudworks was designed to support this. 

Supporting culture change Richard Everett introduced us to the work they have done at Oaklands College (see S1 for more on this) where the aspect of students contributing to the design process was picked up. Academics, while reluctant at first grew more interested as students showed they had valuable contributions to make. Sarah Knight suggested that the JISC Curriculum Design and Delivery programmes ( and would be interested in knopwing more about this work. Richard uploaded the report written by the lead eMentor at Oaklands!enclosure=.eebec11 .

Helen also drew attention to the conclusions from the D4L programme here Helen Beetham, “Resource sharing area” #4, 4 Nov 2008 2:13 pm which concluded there was a difference “between skilled self-directed learning (how learners direct aspects of their own learning as they engage with an already-designed curriculum) and skilled educational design (how learning is designed for a particular curriculum or cohort)”. Alan stated he was making a mind map of the discussion which would try and share before the end of the conference. 

Changing culture is due to the physical space as well This thread looked at how physical space can shape curriculum design Richard Everett and Grainne reflecting on their experience , including how very practical constraints can affect things. This discussion also started to consider how virtual spaces and especially VLEs also can shape things, and the need for virtual spaces which are not always about learning (Alan). 

Tools to support design This thread discussed the tension between visual and text representations with a consensus that these are useful for different people at different times. Other issues raised were Alan “representations are outputs from a process” which it is also important to capture. Sheena raised the issue of over simplification, with Grainne in response “the minute you represent anything by its very nature you are being reductionist because you cant capture everything about a design in one go” Sheena “how far do you think that learning designs can be reusable/shared?” Helen Beetham mentioned the work from the Source project (see figure C1) which also identified the tensions around mediating artifacts around design. Change is due the virtual space too! This strand revisited the issues around the VLE as an artifact which shapes design, and also considered the tensions between a VLE being pedagogically restrictive and it providing “simple, clear guidance which is useful…So again as always we need to adopt a mixed approached tailored to different needs” – Grainne. The Exe tool was mentioned here by Adam Bayliss. Sharing learning and teaching ideas Grainne introduced Cloudworks “which applies the best of web 2.0 tools and approaches to enabling teachers and designers to share learning and teaching ideas and designs” and Richard Everett mentioned the pack of cards technique they had used at Oaklands Change is due to the institutional processes too! Alan Stanley raised this important point, and how accreditation proceses tend to look at the subject but rarely at “what do students actually do on this course” which led to comments on this at the micro level from me and Alan reflecting on how they were looking at this in Ulster. It was noted that the JISC funded Curriculum design projects would be exploring this. 

“Elluminating” design

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

I recent did a presentation via Elluminate to a very interesting online course (well worth at look by the way) that Stephen Downes and George Siemens are facilitating. It’s interesting how different it is presenting in an empty space as opposed to a live audience. We had technical difficulties so the slides weren’t loaded into Elluminate and we had to semi-syn with my slides on slideshare, very interesting experience taking part in these kinds of sessions! In the presentation I gave an overview of some of our recent working in our OULDI work.  Someone in a blog posting mentioned that i sounded unbelievably like Ms. Marple - please please tell me this is not true…. Here’s a link to the video stream.