Archive for January, 2012

Left versus right brain?

Sunday, January 15th, 2012


I came across this interesting blog post about people being either left or right brained. People who are left brained are more organised and logical, whilst those who are right brained are more creative. I am not sure it is a binary as that. I can see aspects of myself on both sides. I also wonder if people change over time, for example when I was doing my PhD in Chemistry I was probably more left brain orientated, now the balance is probably more towards the right hand side. Surely it is in part related to your context at any one time? When I left Bristol to take up my chair at Southampton it took me a long time to get back into research. As a director at Bristol I needed to think on my feet and act quickly, whereas research requires you to focus in on things in more detail. What are other people’s views on this and what is your experience?

Using the VLE as a Trojan horse to transform practice

Thursday, January 12th, 2012


Image from:

I am working with a number of colleagues at Leicester on our upgrade to BlackBoard 9.1 (this includes the project lead – Jon Gunnell, Alex Moseley, Nichola Hayes, Ale Armellini and Denise Sweeney). This blog post gives an overview of an extensive survey being undertaken at the University of Leicester on the current uses and future plans for the use of our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) Blackboard, as part of our upgrade to Blackboard 9.1.

Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) are an established part of institutions’ core infrastructure. Effective use of technologies, and in particular VLEs, is a key concern for practitioners and policy makers in education. A number of benefits are evident: they offer a consistent/accessible environment for learners, they include tools to support communication and collaboration (such as forums, blogs and wikis), they provide a safe ‘nursery slope’ for academics to explore how they can use technologies to support their teaching, and they incorporate assessment and monitoring tools to enable them to evaluate learner progress. In addition, they can be used in conjunction with free Web tools to augment the core functionality offered by the VLE.

However, despite the evident benefits that VLEs offer, overall they are not being used to support learning extensively. Much use is little more than using the VLE as a content repository or what Oliver (2001) refers to as ‘Web page turning’. Academics lack the necessary digital literacy skills (Jenkins 2006) needed to make effective use of technologies, and see the VLE as additional work, rather than an integrated part of the learning experience. Furthermore, in research-intensive institutions there is a tension between teaching and research.

Leicester is currently in the process of upgrading to BlackBoard 9.1. We see this as an opportunity to help tackle the problems outlined above and as a mechanism for providing academics with the support they need to use the VLE more effectively. Essentially, we are using the VLE as a ‘Trojan horse’ to encourage staff to rethink their learning and teaching methods for the modern, online, student experience. As part of this work, we are undertaking an extensive survey of how academics and learners across the university are using the VLE. This will give us a rich picture of the ways in which it is being used (highlighting good practice), as well as insights into associated support issues. We are also finding out to what extent other technologies are being used by them. The survey consists of an online questionnaire, focus groups with both teachers and learners, and a series of interviews with key departmental contacts. We have the survey results and have started the process of carrying out the focus groups and interviews to be completed in February 2012.


Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide, NYU Press.           

Oliver, R. and J. Herrington (2001). Teaching and learning online: a beginners guide to e-learning and e-teaching in Higher Education. Perth, Edith Cowan University.




To tweet or not to tweet

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012


Picture from

As a result of a workshop facilitated by Etienne Wenger, a co-edited book is being produced by Wenger et al., (Wenger, E; Fenton-O’Creevy, M.; Hutchinson, S. and Kubiak, C. Learning in Landscapes of Practice). Mark Fenton-O’Creevy and I have a section in there on some interesting encounters on the use of web 2.0 technologies. The central theme was the differing views held by researchers on adopting more open practices. We decided to structure the piece along two extreme lines; me in terms of ‘yey let’s go open’ and Mark as ‘angry of Newport’ ;-) Here it is (a shortened version will appear in the book):

Setting the scene

Two boundary encounters around the use and role of technology are told through the lenses of two different participants who both attended two meetings held a few months apart.

The first setting was the first meeting of a EU-funded project. The meeting took place over two days in Barcelona in March 2009. It was the first time that many of the partners had met, although there had been various interactions prior to the. The project was an ambitious one crossing multiple research fields and hence the team was by nature very diverse and the approach to be adopted needed to be interdisciplinary in nature.

The primary purpose of the meeting was to get to know (and trust) each other and to develop a shared understanding of what the project was about and a plan of action for the first few months’ activities. A lot of the meeting was taken-up with sharing background expertise and exploration of what this could contribute to the project. As often happens in these contexts there was a tendency to lapse into monologue mode, and reverting to local professional discourses. However the project had a built in evaluation framework which explicit aimed to try and break down these boundaries and work towards more explicit shared consensus. One of the activities that was designed to facilitate this was where the group brainstormed the various research questions associated with the substantive workpackages (2-6) and then these were shared and refined via post it notes and then onto an electronic mindmapping tool.

The project used a number of standard tools for communication and sharing of information. A project mailing list was set up by the project manager and was as the main mechanism for communication with the partners. Information related to the project was stored on a project wiki and more public facing information was put on a project website. The meeting took place in a standard boardroom style room, with a data projector and wifi. About 15 people attended the meeting, with representatives from all of the 6 partners. Most had laptops. For some when they arrived ensuring they secured a power socket and access to the internet was a priority. Others were less concerned with having access.  Two of the team members were users of Twitter, some other members were beginning to explore the use of this tool. Similarly some members’ blogged on a regular basis, others didn’t. Likewise there was a mix in terms of experience of using wikis, one of the sites for example used wikis as their primary collaboration tool in research projects.

The second example was a two-day meeting associated with the production of this book. It bought together a diverse range of individuals all with a shared interest in understanding their professional practice and identity. It included people involved in academia (academics, tutors, students) but also those from other professions (such as the Health sector, Art and Business). The workshop used social learning theory as a theoretical basis and had Etienne as the overall workshop facilitator. The workshop was hosted in a hotel, which had good wifi access and a blog and wiki had been set up prior to the event. Both were password protected and hence only accessible to those involved in the workshop.


Gráinne’s story

A number of social media tools have become a standard part of my practice in recent years. I have been blogging for three years now and a member of Twitter since 2008. I have a Facebook account, and am in a number of professional networks such as linked in and I am comfortable within these environments, but don’t see myself as a technological evangelist per se. In part I feel participation and experimentation with these tools is an important means of making informed choice about their relevance to my practice. I have experimented with and adapted the mix I use, personally appropriating them to my preferred way of working and my professional needs. 

I recount here my recollection of two instances of boundary encounters around the use and role of technology in the meetings described above. I had met some of the project members involved in the EU-funded meeting before but didn’t know any of them very well. I wanted to use the meeting to get to know the others better,  and have a clear sense of the project and my role in it. As always my laptop was by my side; I feel professionally incomplete without my laptop to record thoughts, make notes, find relevant prior work or access the Internet. Therefore my priority on arriving at the meeting was to a) find a power socket, and b) get access to the wifi.

During the meeting I used the laptop in a number of ways, i) to take notes on what was happening during the meeting (an important mechanism for me in terms of remaining engaged), and ii) looking at papers related to the meeting or accessing links mentioned during presentations or discussions. However in addition I was also multitasking to some extent – checking dreaded email periodically and also Twitter. I use Twitter in a number of ways i) to keep connected to a broader community of researchers, ii) as a learner of Spanish to practice the language and seek help, iii) to disseminate information or seek discussions about research I am doing ‘Here is a blog post I have written on X’, ‘here is a draft paper I am writing, I welcome thoughts’, ‘Does anyone have any good references on X’, iv) to promote research more generally – projects I am involved with, interesting researcher or papers I have come across etc., v) to participate in online discussions – both through playful banter or more formal academic discourse.

I have developed my own distinctive ‘digital voice’ (through Twitter, my blog and other interactions in online spaces), which is a mixture of light-hearted personal reflections and more serious academic statements.  I have found being part of the broader web 2.0 community enormously beneficially both personally and professionally. I pride myself on being careful about what I say and feel I have a good understanding of what is and isn’t appropriate. I see participation in these spaces as being of enormous value and being part of the process of how technologies can mediate towards a distributed, collective improvement of our knowledge base.

I was aware that at the meeting two or three other people used or looked at Twitter occasionally, but didn’t know whether the remainder of the group did. I didn’t think about this explicitly at the time but on reflection I think I was subconsciously aware that it was unlikely that the rest of the group were using Twitter. I sent a number of fairly innocuous tweets about the meeting (see figure). The purpose of the tweets was threefold i) as a means of conveying to those who were following me where I was and what I was doing (a number of people had said in the past they found it interesting hearing abut the various projects I was involved with and the things I was doing, ii) as a means of promoting the project and saying ‘hey there is this interesting project that is worth watching’), iii) as a personal reflection on the topics being discussed at the meeting and iv) partly as maybe an invite to others in the team in case they wanted to engage in some form of Twitter backchannel as part of the meeting. The tweets all seemed to be fairly neutral comments and in honestly I didn’t think twice about sending them, I didn’t foresee that anyone could or would object to them.

Soon after, Mark commented on the fact that I was tweeting, saying something light hearted like ‘Oh I see you’ve started tweeting about the meeting Grainne’. This sparked off, what became at some points, a heated conversation in the group. Firstly, some people didn’t know what Twitter was, secondly there was concern that what was being discussed in what they considered to be a ‘private’, closed space was being shared openly with a broader audience, without either agreement or consultation. I was surprised that such simple, innocuous comments could spark such a reaction. I felt irritated by the ‘outraged from Newport’ attitude. A sense of depressing déjà vu came over me. ‘Here we go again’, I thought, ‘someone spouting off about the “evils of technology” when they haven’t got a clue what they are talking about’…. Analogies of ‘calculators leading to kids being unable to do mental arithmetic’, the dangers of the ‘viral spread of txt speech’ and the ‘insidious transformation of our kids into ‘wired zombies’ connected to a sinister worldwide gaming cult of World of Warcraft’ came to mind. Whilst I listened to what felt like uninformed arguments, given with academic pompousness, I despaired at even knowing where to begin in terms of arguing back.

I tried to placate by explaining what I had published, but nonetheless the damage was done. We seem to have reached an impasse in terms of my view that I had a right to express my opinion about things, in whatever manner I wanted (within the realms of the norms of professionalisms, sensitivity and ethical considerations of course) and this draconian outmoded view of the world which had an imperialistic view that I had to seek permission to use my own voice, that the discourse around the project had to be agreed by some central committee before it could be released.

Not only did this seem like a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but it seemed singularly uninformed and ignorant. A common ‘outraged of Newport’ reaction to the use of any technologies starts something like ‘ What is X, I’ve never heard of X, I don’t know what it is…’ and then some diatribe about personal infringements, or lack of time to engage. What this surfaces is the deep-seated techno-fear, which translates into an overarching hostility towards the technology and how it is being used. There is an air of superiority. I guess part of me felt more broadly disheartened because this kind of reaction is one that I come across again and again in my role as professor of e-learning. Whilst trying to help academics get a better understanding of what technologies can do and how they might be used, I feel a sense of dismay at the gap between their understanding (or lack of it) and what the technologies can do. At times I also feel that rather than try and bridge that gap or critically address this and then come to some informed judgement, instead more often than not the reaction is to ‘discredit the technology’ to come up with a long winded academic polemic about the problem of technology’.

A few months later Mark and I were at a very different meeting, a two-day professional practice workshop, which bought together a wide spectrum of professionals not just from academia but also the Health profession, Arts and Business. The workshop has a closed wiki and blog space, however I also set up an ‘open’ space on the cloudworks social networking space which linked to the closed spaces. The event had a ‘social reporter’ who’s role was to encourage people to participate and contribute to the blog and wiki, but it was clear to me early on in the meeting that the majority of people attending did not use these technologies routinely, if at all. The very fact that both the blog and wiki were ‘closed’ seemed somewhat of a misnomer to me. However a smattering of attendees did Twitter and we soon agreed on a hashtag for the meeting. A relaxed Twitter backchannel evolved with some fairly lightweight banter (see below). ‘Barnstorm’ who I had interacted with via Twitter before came up and introduced himself, and as I had done before I felt that strange experience of meeting someone face-to-face for the first time who you already feel as if you know because of your interactions online. There was a slight sense of shared camaraderie, of belonging and a connection, which I didn’t feel in the same way with others in the room.

Not surprisingly the blog and wiki spaces didn’t really work, despite being pushed a number of times by the social reporter. I sensed a growing unease generally about the perceived subversive role these technologies were or might be playing. Some, however, used the opportunity to try and get a better understanding of the technologies. A number of people asked me about Twitter for example, what it was and how it could be used and I found myself in the strange position of having a number of people peering over my shoulder and watching what and when I was tweeting. I sent a Tweet out on the second day about the long, and to my mind torturous, discussion about what role the blog and wiki might play in taking the work forward. There were lots of concerns raised about who would see them, how would they be controlled, managed, maintained. I felt an increasing sense of frustration that we were wasting a lot of time and that the conversation was based around ignorance; that a lot of the questions were just simply irrelevant if you actually understood how these new technologies worked. I argued afterwards that ‘pandora’s box had been well and truly open’ and that these technologies were here and here to stay. If an individual chooses not to use them that is fine, for whatever personal reasons, but that they should at least make that decision based on evidence, understanding rather than ignorance. Instead it felt to me that too often this outrage came from a lack of understanding, indeed an arrogant lack of willingness to engage. Technologies were being painted as the ‘bad guys’/the troublesome teenagers as opposed to the ‘old guard’/wise parents who knew best. I guess for me at the heart of this was a frustration around this lack of knowledge coupled with arrogance.

Mark’s Story

Unlike Grainne, I am not a fully paid up, card carrying member of the Educational Technology mafia.  I am more of a visitor to this world. I ‘get’ the technology, use a number of the tools but the use of social networking tools is not a core part of my practice and some of the practices and assumptions of people who inhabit this world seem quite strange to me.  I had recently begun to explore Twitter, primarily passively following a few people such as Grainne who I knew to be active users. I do recall the discussions that Grainne refers to but for me there was a different flavour to the debate.  In the case of the Barcelona meeting, the main concerns seemed to revolve not around technologies and fears about what people did not understand but around a perceived breach of trust.  Many in the room saw the early formative stages of figuring out what we will do (in this very trans-disciplinary project) as unsuitable for public exposure. They wished to try out ideas without fear of being accountable (yet) to their own community of practice for the quality of those ideas and certainly without fear of being held accountable to other communities (including a rather bureaucratic funding organisation with an already demonstrated tendency to misinterpret carelessly formulated language). A number of colleagues voiced the view that they were highly committed to disseminating ideas widely and engaging in dialogue with other interested parties, but at a later stage, under their own control. The realisation that a member of the group was in active conversation about the content of the meeting with unidentified outsiders raised anxieties. These anxieties were about the safety of the space in which we were all taking risks; risks of moving outside the boundaries of our respective subject expertise.

In the case of the professional practice workshop, again I recall the same discussions but again had a different perspective. By this time I had begun, tentatively, to post on Twitter as well as follow others. I posted a small number of tweets at the workshop - the following gives a flavour.


08:57:14  Just starting OU PBPL Landscapes of practice workshop and realising I have not done my homework! #oulop09

09:17:05  @yandim did you bring an apple for teacher as well #oulop09 (yandim had just boasted that he had done his homework)

11:51:07  @gconole #oulop09 experience matters but experience ~= learning?

There was a highly mixed group at this workshop who ranged from practitioners such as childminders to schools inspectors to engineering professors. The range of familiarity with tools such as Twitter, blogs and wiki’s also varied widely. In this workshop we engaged in a good deal of mutual story telling as we considered our experiences of crossing boundaries in our working worlds. Inevitably much of this story-telling was autobiographical and for some touched on points of personal vulnerability. The tools we used and the social reporting approach provided a powerful support to capturing this rich material. However, they raised anxieties among some participants. As in the research meeting a primary concern seemed to be about the open or closed nature of our discussions and work and the right of the individual to restrict access to their stories until they were comfortable that they were in a form that could be exposed to the outside world. On participant, for example, was telling a story of failure in a teaching role and was quite critical of the role played by colleagues in the school she had worked at. She, not unreasonably, wanted to be sure any publicly presented story disguised the identity of the school and made sure her store of failure was placed in its context of a highly successful teaching career. Some participants from the worlds of social work and nursing brought their own assumptions about practices of confidentiality and informed consent. Others were feeling their way to effective participation in what at times became a quite intense discussion and feared being seen as ignorant or stupid. Most of us had to move beyond the comfortable boundaries of our own regimes of competence and risk incompetence as we engaged with the experience of people from very different fields. In this setting, questions of privacy and control became very important to people.

In both meetings it seemed to me that, for Grainne and others from her field, there was an assumption that technologies such as Twitter, blogs and wikis came bundled with a set of social practices in which openness and transparency were core assumptions. Her message was that as you take these technologies up you are entering as a participant in my community and you need to adopt our practices. For me this raises some important questions about whether any particular community of practice ‘owns’ these technologies. Were we entering into Grainne’s community or were we starting to struggle with developing different practices more suitable for a different context? 

Still friends?

As we talked, and argued, together about our different perceptions of these two meetings we began to speculate about the wider relevance of what we were learning.  Certainly the kind of cross-boundary collaboration represented in these meetings is often difficult. These tensions created by bringing people together who identify with and feel accountable to different practice communities are common.  The goodwill which brings a group together can often mask significant differences in assumptions, ways of thinking and use of language.  However, there also seem to be some issues that were specifically to do with the challenges posed by developing common practices around the use of social media. We began to wonder if  there are clues here to explain the problems the educational technology community have had in bringing about any genuine transformation of the educational practices of other practitioners in education.  Often this challenge is framed in terms of the need to transfer learning from the Ed Tech community to other (more backward?) education practitioners. It may be that insufficient attention is being paid to whether  practices that work for the educational technology work for other communities? We may need more attention to supporting practitioners outside the Ed Tech community to construct their own different practices around the use of social media. This problem of practice transfer may be, ironically, exacerbated by the increasing professionalization of education technology work . As Beetham, Jones and Gornall (2001) note, the first generation of established Ed Tech professionals had most often made a move from other areas of educational practice. However the new generation of  ”new specialists” have often been trained and socialised in the world of educational technology from the start of their careers. This parallels Eraut’s (xxxx) account of the way in which practice focused academic groups such as nursing and social work educators have become, over time, increasingly separated from the practitioner communities they seek to educate. The boundary between these communities becomes all the more problematic because it is frequently not recognised.

Wenger defines a ‘body of knowledge’ as ‘the CoP that contribute to the continued vitality, application and evolution of the practice’ (Wenger, 2010). For the Ed Tech community, new social media such as Twitter are important communication channels to enable this to happen and it acts as an important mediating artefact to dynamic develop and refine that body of knowledge. Ed Tech research is now truly distributed and global.

Focusing on the project team encounter described above, this is a good example of the importance and role of boundary crossing in interdisciplinary research contexts. In a recent detailed review of interdisciplinarity in Technology-Enhanced Learning, Conole et al. (2010) found that the development of shared meaning and understanding was a key criterion for interdisciplinary research.  

Wenger (2010) also states that ‘Learning is not merely the acquisition of knowledge, it is the becoming of a person who inhabits the landscapes with an identity that is socially and dynamically constructed.’ For those of us who have embraced new social media, they have transformed and shaped our practice; they have changed the way in which we communicate and connect with others, the way in which knowledge is shared and shaped.  Indeed in the Ed Tec landscape of practice it is becoming increasingly important to participate in these new forms of social media as a means of being accountability to that community. Non-participation would mean that ones voice is not heard.

Part of the nature of different landscapes and practices and boundary crossing is that it is never possible to get true consensus. Some people belong in a particular Community of Practice, others don’t. This is evident in the two stories told in this chapter; different communities have different views on the use of social media and the degree to which they are comfortable about adopting open practices. We should not be concerned by this, but instead we should celebrate this diversity of practices and different modes of developing communities of practices and shaping practice.



Beetham, H., Jones, S. and Gornall, L. (2001) Career development of learning technology staff: scoping study final report. JISC committee for awareness, liason and training programme. (

Conole, G., Scanlon, E., Mundin, P. and Farrow, R. (2010), Interdisciplinary research; findings from the Technology-Enhanced Learning research programme, TLRP TEL commentary, available from

Wenger (2010), Learning in a landscape of practice

Social media evolution

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

I came across this nice blog post via @  on Twitter about how to build real relationships in social media. 

The steps are:

  1. Make a connection
  2. Reciprocation
  3. Engagement
  4. Have patience
  5. Private communication
  6. Start communicating like real friends
  7. Meed in person

This  certainly mirrors my own experience of using social media. It is great when you finally meet someone that you have been connected with on Twitter!

User generated content on YouTube

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

Elaine Tan and Nick Pearce gave a nice presentation yesterday at the Blackboard user conference on the ways in which they have been using YouTube videos in their teaching.



The use of video in the classroom has a long history. They showed Jean Marc Cote 1899 vision of education of the future, i.e. with books going straight into the brains of learners, transmission of knowledge. They also quoted Sneldon and Perkins (2009) and Cubin (1984) work on how technologies are used in the classroom. Back in 1951, Hoban and Van Ormer suggested that the effectiveness of films depends on how well their content is related is a specific instructional objective, i.e. it is not about the technology.

Early strategies for the use of film include using it in the following ways: process,  to provide an overview, initiating lessons, topic survey, demonstration, speeding up/slowing down, visit dangerous or remote regions, motion animation, expert lecture, micro cinema, performance and dramatization.

The questions Elaine and Nick were interested in included the following. What makes online video different? There is now a massive amount of video now available, freely and openly available.

Challenges include – the fact that there is an enormous amount of resources available how do you find appropriate content, there are also quality control issues, and a lack of control (advertising for example, where is it, how long will it be there).

Project aims:

·      To investigate the use of online vides in teaching introductory sociology.

·      To explore creating playlists as a community resource.

·      To look at the practical issues (pedagogical, technological and legal).

Exploring digital literacies – extent and presence strategies and consumption. They quoted Lea and Jones (2011) paper - Digital literacies in higher education – exploring textual and technological practice Studies in HE 36 (4) 377-393.

The research method consisted of 3 focus groups (n =24) with an external facilitator to explore the research questions. In particular they asked students about the following aspects:

·      The use of online video in the classroom

·      Quality and value for learning

·      Established playlists

·      Personal use

·      Strategies – how were they evaluating and using.


·      Thoughts: acceptable use, facilitated value and recommended viewing.

·      Issues – the role of the teacher, establishing a benchmark, diversity and democracy, social and sharing.

·      Benefits: Breaks up a lecture, keeps me interested, someone else’s views on a topic, alternative to group work, value of visualization as an aid to memory. Facilitated value of watching the video in class in a social context. Way of passing information on in this day and age, getting the opinion of others.

Nick also referenced his SCORE fellowship, which is on the topic of diversity and democracy. He described how his students were sending videos to him to include in the playlist he set up for the course, he referred to this as students as resource scavengers, finding what works for them.

A key finding was that this was about being social and sharing. They were interested to find that student use of social platforms was complex and multimodal. They used other platforms such as fb. The project gave them a rich picture of the interactions between students in informal learning environment, and how this impacted on the formal and thoughts on learning.


Open session – the implications, meanings and risks of openness in the digital academy

Saturday, January 7th, 2012


Ray began by stating that open can mean anything now and hence there is a danger that the concept will be diluted. He outlined the topics that he wanted to cover in the talk, including: the implications of open practices, the mean of openness and finally the risks and unintended consequences of openness. These themes are covered in the following sections:

·        Openness, speed and the digital the theory of fast ands slow time (Virilio, Eiksen)

·        The case for openness (Green)

·        Costs

·        Problematising openness 4 lenses on the issues of academic (non)engagement

·      Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge Meyer and Land

·      Disruptive innovation Christensen

·      Activity theory

·      Street level bureaucracy Lipsky

·        Risks of openness

·        A priority agenda for action


Ray argued that speed was a fundamental characteristic of the 21st Century. Referenced Eriksen’s book on this topic, the tyranny of the moment, he argued that speed sits within a broader set of characteristics associated with the world we live in, namely: uncertainty, speed, complexity, multiculturalism, mobility, conflict, inter-generational tension, ethical citizenship, information saturation, proliferation of knowledge, globalization, internationalization, and private/public sector tension.

He went on to suggest that the traditional academic institution is closed; truth resides in the printed text. And furthermore, that the printed volume was a disruptive technology in its day. He quoted Steven Hyman (Provost of Harvard) who reiterated the important of digital access to scholarship at Harvard.


The picture above illustrates the wealth of things that happen in a mere 60 seconds on the web; some staggering statistics across a range of digital media. The original can be found here. Indeed, Ray stated that the fastest thing on earth is the speed with which information is conveyed across the earth.

He quoted Virilio, a post-modern French philosopher, as saying that what has shaped human history is access to speed and went on to give some examples across the ages. I have heard Ray reference Virilio’s work before and can highly recommend his book, the information bomb (Virilio 1998), which is a dystopian view of the potential impact of technological failure. He then made a comparison between the characteristics associated with a traditional encyclopedia such as Britannia and the web-based Wikipedia:

Process                                     Artefact

Fragmentation                          Cohesion

Exploration                               Exposition

Visual/aural                              Textual

Volatility                                    Stability

Fast time                                    Slow time

Consensus                                  Authority

Openness                                    Containment

Where the right hand side characterizes print culture, which is more contained and text based, and which operates in slow time, based on authority. The left hand side characterizes Wikipedia, where process is always emergent and there is a shift because of speed of possibilities, the multimodality and the fast time nature of interactions with the media. Therefore the authority of Britannia versus Wikipedia is different. With respect to this he argued that the concept of a web page is in itself an oxymoron; as a webpage will typically include links to other web pages, forming an infinite and intricate web of information, which is constantly evolving and expanding.

He argued that in the past the body of the book (corpus) equaled the body of knowledge, making it stable and graspable. In contrast, the digital landscape is characterized by volatility and instability; digital text is infinitely editable and instantly distributable. Furthermore, the methods for imposing fixity and authorial control (such as creation of pdfs, page scanning, restricted access, etc.) work against, rather than with, the mode of digitality.

He then went on to quote some of Alexander’s work (2006), who argued that  sections of the web break away from the page metaphor, rather it is about the notion of the web as a book predicted on microcontent. Blogs are about posts not pages, Wikis are streams of conversation revision amendment and truncation. Therefore things are faster and smaller on the net.

Digging into these issues further, he quoted Virilio (2000) and Eriksen (2011), citing the following facets: speed supercomplexity, the death of geography, issues of democratic space, the advent of universal real time tyranny of the moment, the tension between slow and fast time, presentified history, the single gaze of the Cyclops and what Virilio coins ‘the universal accident’.

Virilio also argues that speed decontexualises; the Atlantic has disappeared, there are no geographical boundaries in today’s globalised and distributed network. Virilio laments the loss of citizens meeting in physical spaces and believes there is resulting in convergence in the gaze of the Cyclops.

One of Virilio’s most powerful statements, expanded in his book the information bomb, is that technologies have in built failure. In the 21st C when a technological accident happens (when not if note), it will happen to everyone, everywhere at the same time; this is his notion of the universal accident, a truly scary concept!

Turning to Eriksen’s work, he drew out the following aspects: that speed is an addictive drug that it leads to simplification and finally that it creates an assembly line (Taylorist) effect. Eriksen also argues that it is contagious and that the gains and loses equal each others out, so that increased speed doesn’t necessarily lead to greater efficiency, speed demands space (filing in all the available gaps). There are textualities and temporalities associated with this and the competing notions of fast and slow time. Ray feels that the concept of the back channel is eroding notion of closed spaces. [Ironic given that so many of us were tweeting as he was speaking!] Is the digital culture invading slow time? Does this mean the space of reflection, contemplation etc also gets invaded, eroded? He reflected that in the early days of the use of digital technologies, it was argued that asynchronous tools, like discussion forums offered space for reflection, whereas now the plethora of tools for communication, the speed of instantaneous transmission of information via tools such as Twitter are resulting in information overload. Ray argued that digital learning practices are caught up in the middle of these tensions. Pedagogical claims made for effective use of technologies seem to be located within and require the integrative and deliberate logic of what Eriksen characterizes as slow time. Similar pleas have been made with respect to food. Many argue that the rise of fast foods are detrimental to society in a number of respects and have signed up to the notion of the slow food movement, which is characterized by a return to the use of fresh ingredients, good cooking and groups talking around a shared meal.

This made me reflect can this metaphor be stretched in terms of the concepts of fast and slow learning? What would the equivalent of fresh ingredients be? Application of good pedagogical principles (such as dialogue, reflection, internalization and application) applied through effective design approaches (the equivalent of good cooking, implemented in a social context (equivalent to the shared meal). Ray argued that there is a public/private continuum and a displacement of slow time.

He then turned to Ron Barnett’s work (2005) on textual instability, suggesting this gives an example of the instability in academia’s ideas of itself. Barnett goes on to argue that the media implicated in the academy’s inability to claim universality in its pursuit of truth – supercomplexity related to texts a world of uncertainty all notions, such as truth come under scrutiny, revised and contested, concepts broken open and subject to multiple interpretation. Ray questioned how can we prepare our students to cope with this supercomplexity?

He talked about Mark Poster’s notions of authority and the notion of the academic gate keeper. Poster explored digitization and the effect on all aspects of social. He argued that this has resulted in the breaking down of boundaries in academic roles and identities. Ray wondered what would be the implications of a world in which all texts were digital and in which there were no originals. More broadly, what is the role of the university and the discipline in this context, where here is now no authority?

Gunther Kress has also done interesting work in this area; Ray referenced his work on the concept of open text, resulting in the loss of closure and fixity of printed page. As an example of the risk of digital, he referenced the DEFRA wiki which David Miliband created, which was a major embarrassment and was almost immediately taken down. Ray joked that this was the equivalent of the vicar at the disco; i.e. not appropriate at all.

He then showed a youtube video clop, ‘The five-minute university’ of the comedian Father Guido Sarducci. And argued that although this was an extreme parody, we are beginning to see examples of a shortening of traditional educational experiences. For example, Coventry University now offers an 180month degree ‘lite’ (which incidentally uses lots of OER). Buckingham University offers a two-year degree. And there are a number of example of what are referred to as ‘ten minute twittorials’; i.e. small packets of information and responses, bite-sized learning. However, what is important, Ray, argued is not content, but conversation and interaction with others. It is clear that we are seeing new forms of university emerging, Ray cited for example the Khan academy. Other examples include the Peer-to-Peer University and the OER University. What are the implications of these new business models for traditional institutions?

Case for openness - Green

He argued that there is a new ethics of knowledge to do with sharing the unique characteristics of digital items. In the digital world it costs nothing to store, copy and distribute. Open licences and mobile phones means there is a willingness to share. Digital scholarship can lead to a non-rivalrous culture, but we need a new ethics of knowledge sharing.

There is an unprecedented capacity for the infinite – reuse, revision, remixing and redistribution. And in addition, there are marginal costs. Scholarship has always been (or should be) about openness and should not be locked behind closed doors.

He referenced John Daniels’ comments on the future demands for learning, who shows some impressive statistics about the growth of learning and who argues that we can’t meet the demand for learning of the future through physical universities alone, we must go online. Interestingly though, China is opening a new university every week.

Ray cited Ernesto Priego who is a Mexican student who argued that in the past education for most was via Illegal copes of books. The digital age is the logical next step by providing free access to works.

David Kernohan, from JISC, who is involved in the JISC’s OER programme states that it is not about being open for the sake of, it’s because the world needs it and indeed arguably it links to the roots of academia and who we are.

We have the infrastructure in place to achieve this. But the focus now needs to be on appropriate staff development and support and encouragement at policy level. We still have what Green refers to as the 5 %/95 % argument, i.e. only 5% of the population has access to high quality education.

Who pays?

It is not a question of money, indeed most countries spends ca. 5-6% of GDP on higher education. But it is about sustainability in times of economic stringency.

Problematising openness

Ray referenced the notion of ‘troublesome knowledge’ (Perkins 1999). This challenges the ways in which academics have traditional done things. It is about ritualized knowledge, inert knowledge and the conceptually difficult.

A related term is the notion of the ‘threshold concept’ – i.e. integrative transformative, irreversible bounded, re-constitutive, discursive and troublesome.

Priego (2011) talks about the concerns of academics in terms of using digital content and technology, including views that the online medium is considered by many academics as being too informal. To get academics to engage they need to be made aware of the benefits and there is a need to change reward and recognition processes, as always there is the tension between a focus on teaching vs. research.

Openness as disruptive innovation Clayton Christensen

Clayton argues that the digital media has created new markets and value networks. Activity theory shows us that if you want people to change their practices you have to change practices; to often social practices become ossified.

Risk of openness

But Ray also argued that there are inherent risks associated with being open. Issues around quality, marginalization of teachers’ knowledge and expertise, appropriation and repurposing of openness by incumbrant corporate interests (for example iTunes Android), the danger of the commodification of learning and neglect of students.

He referenced Jim Groom (Mary Washington University MOOC) who has argued that students need to take control of their own learning, they need to control, manage and master their learning.

There is now a divergence of roles, with the demise of smaller learned societies and the risk of ranking tables with increasing academic self branding. Also the scarcity of abundance is occurring, with students devaluing commonly available items digital and the marginalisation of languages that are less prevalent globally.

Priority agenda

He concluded by arguing that we need a priority agenda to take things forward. We need to provide tools and training to promote an ethics of knowledge sharing. We need to lobby senior management to establish a culture strategy at all levels research on consequences of openness.


Virilio, P. (1998). The information bomb. London, Verso.

Beyond good and evil

Friday, January 6th, 2012


Catchy title from Nick Pearce from Durham University for his presentation at the BB users conference, Nick critiqued the notion of openness in education and the pros and cons of open vs. closed practices. He began by arguing that education and scholarship have always been about sharing. Nick was involved with Martin Weller at the OU on an interesting project on digital scholarship a while back and was clearly drawing on some of the findings from that research in his talk. More on this can be found in this paper. He argued that new technologies become old eventually, but are often persistent. He cited the interesting example of the qwerty keyboard that we still use today, which was originally designed in the era of typewriters to actually slow users down so that the keys didn’t get jammed!

He posed the question what is open? A dangerous thing to try and define a term like this… but his definition was that it is about making something available to everyone. He went on to ask, is it an ideal? And suggested that true openness is not possible for a number of reasons: not everyone will have access, not everyone will be interested and not everyone will have the capacity to adopt open practices. He then presented two examples of adopting more open practices from his own teaching context.

The first was around physical vs. digital reading packs and their associated Copyright Licensing Agreements (CLA). He created a digital reading pack, which was a mash-up of different content that was popular with his students. He argued that new technologies offer exciting possibilities, such as students being able to access and annotate content on devices like the iPad. The second example was the use of the new feature in BB to embed Slideshare presentations. Many of use have being using Slideshare for some time to share presentations at conferences, but the functionality in BB now makes it easier for teachers to share materials with students too. However making these resources available on Slideshare opens them up to a wider audience and Nick wondered what the impact of that would be on how peers viewed him and his work.

Finally, he concluded by introducing the notion of ‘open-ish education’; i.e. embracing the notion of open and closed in a teaching context. This relates nicely I think to my notion of a VLE+ in the last blog post; i.e. mixing VLE functionality with free tools and resource. Nick’s presentations can be found at and he is @drnickpearce on Twitter.

BB users conference

Friday, January 6th, 2012


I really  enjoyed the first day of the Blackboard users conference in Durham. As I wrote in my last blog post, I did the presentation using Sliderocket, which seemed to work well. The presentation had a much richer set of images and video clips than I usually include. There were some good discussions afterwards around the themes I addressed.

The overarching theme of the talk was the notion of using the VLE as a Trojan horse. This is very relevant to us at Leicester at the moment as we are in the progress of upgrading to BB 9.1 We plan to use this time productively to take e-learning forward in the university in a number of respects. Firstly, we are currently undertaking an extensive audit of existing use of BB across the university. This includes an online survey and a series of interviews and focus groups with academics and students. Secondly, we want to get a rich picture of how BB is being used, what issues people are having and what kinds of support and additional functionality do they want. We are also asking about what other tools they are using beyond the VLE. Thirdly, the findings of this research will feed into our support and staff development for the upgrade, as well as incorporating conceptual design tools into the VLE to help guide design practice. Finally, we will also collate the results to produce a library of examples of good practice of the use of the VLE across the university. Put together, we hope that this is very much an example of a Trojan approach to increasing the uptake of e-learning across the university. Will report back in due course on how we get on! I would also be very much interested to hear how others are doing this and how successful their approaches are.

One of the areas I focused on in the talk was the relationship between institutional VLEs and free tools and resources. I argued that we should no longer be arguing about the merits of PLEs vs. VLEs, but instead should be focusing on the notion of the VLE+. I argued that Pandora’s box is well and truly open in terms of new technologies; there are now a plethora of tools to support different forms of communication, collaboration and aggregation of resources and you can be sure that our students are using these. Therefore instead of trying to lock them into only using the institutional VLE, we should be designing learning interventions, which make effective use of these cloud-based technologies, that complement the functionality and security that a VLE offers.


Using the VLE as a Trojan horse

Monday, January 2nd, 2012

I am doing a keynote at the 12th Annual Blackboard conference on Thursday and have been using Sliderocket to create my slides.

I like the way Sliderocket integrates Flickr and YouTube and the way you can embed the slides.