Call for papers

July 22nd, 2017


Image source

I have just come across this interesting call for papers for an edited volume in Assessment for learning in the CLIL classroom. The editors are Mark deBoer and Dmitri Leontjev. A background to the special issues and details of how to submit are described below.  

Content and language integrated learning (CLIL) has a dual focus: simultaneously promoting the content mastery and language acquisition, an amalgam of both subject learning and language learning, flexible and adaptable to many contexts (Coyle, Hood, & Marsh, 2010). This implies that foreign/second language plays a dual role in the CLIL classroom, on the one hand, being the medium of instruction and, on the other hand, the target of it. The efficacy of such instruction for language acquisition has been studied rather extensively, research findings showing the positive impact of CLIL on language acquisition (Marsh & Wolff, 2007) and providing a holistic educational experience for the learner.

That said, there is much less emphasis on assessment in CLIL research, so much so that there is no clear understanding or systematization of the process of assessment in CLIL (Coyle, Hood, & Marsh, 2010). In language teaching, summative and formative assessment is ubiquitous. However, the premise of CLIL is the use of language to mediate subject matter and subject matter to mediate the language, knowledge being co-constructed in social interaction. These tenets call for a monistic view of assessment, teaching, and learning in the CLIL classroom. Thus, dynamic assessment (DA), Learning-Oriented Assessment (LOA), or emerging embedded or transformative assessment theories in online learning communities are strong candidates for assessment practices in CLIL. Furthermore, teaching practices will essentially be ineffective without a solid theoretical foundation of these assessment practices.

This edited volume will aim at conceptualizing CLIL and establishing the theoretical basis/bases for assessment practices in the CLIL classroom. It will focus on the theoretical perspectives of assessment linked with CLIL in foreign language or second language contexts, or in tool-mediated online learning management systems.

We welcome theoretical, conceptual, and empirical contributions pertaining to the state-of- the-art research in CLIL assessment in both foreign and second language contexts with the specific emphasis on assessment that supports learning and/or is considered to be indivisible from teaching and learning. While the language of the contributions should be English we encourage submissions reporting on assessment in CLIL where target of instruction are languages other than English. 

Akita International University - Japan

Proposed Schedule:

Friday, 29th September 2017

Expressions of interest and extended abstracts to be submitted via email (See submission guidelines below)

January 2018

Successful authors will be invited to submit full papers for peer review. Submission guidelines will be provided at this time.

Monday, 30th April 2018

First full chapter submission deadline

August/September 2018

Final submission deadline for revised/resubmitted chapters

March 2019

Anticipated publication date

Extended abstract submission guidelines:

Submission of extended abstracts:

Please send extended abstracts by email with subject field titled ‘Assessment in CLIL’ by Friday September 29th 2017. Submissions after this date will not be accepted.

Extended abstracts should be mailed to:

Your extended abstract should include: Document 1: Proposal

Ø Proposed title
Ø Proposal of at least 500 words, with no subheadings

o Explain the assessment approach in CLIL
o Provide rationale
o Give the guiding questions for the research
o Briefly explain the results of the research (if available)

Document 2: Other information

  • Ø  Provide an estimated length of the completed chapter (in words)
  • Ø  Provide an estimate of the number of tables, figures, graphs and diagrams in the chapter
  • Ø  Let us know if there is a need to include any coloured images
  • Ø  Provide biodata o Name
    o Affiliation
    o Contact E-mail address 

Key trends in Technology Enhanced Learning

July 22nd, 2017


I recently came across a Horizon summit looked at the future of education and in particular the wicked problems/challenges education faces. The three-day summit bought together global leaders and thinkers to brainstorm the future of education and associated challenges. There are a plethora of factors impacting education, but I think of particular note are: globalisation, technologies and a changing work place.

The summit listed a number of challenges and made suggested for how these could be addressed. Firstly that we need to rethink teaching to better prepare students for the future. Secondly we need to re-image online learning (and I think also campus-based learning and in particular the design technology enhanced learning spaces). Thirdly we need to allow for productive failure. Interestingly this is also listed as one of ten things of importance in education by the most recent OU innovating pedagogy report. Finally we need to innovate as part of the learning ethic and ensure our institutions are agile and responsive to the external market and associated drivers.

This got me thinking about what the key trends in Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) might be and how we can make more effective use of a spectrum of use of digital technologies from more effective use of the tools associated with Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) to more innovative and cutting edge technologies.

There are a number of useful sources that give us an indication of emergent technologies. These include the much cited New Media Consortium annual Horizon report,   which for 2017 lists the following as important:

  • Blended learning design
  • Collaborative learning
  • Growing focus on measuring learning
  • Redesigning learning spaces
  • Advancing cultures of innovation
  • Deeper learning approaches

The OU Innovating Pedagogy report for 2016 list the following ten things that are likely to be important in education in the near future:

  • Learning through social media
  • Productive failure
  • Teachback
  • Design thinking
  • Learning from the crowd
  • Learning through video games
  • Formative analytics
  • Learning for the future
  • Translanguaging
  • Blockchain learning

Finally Gartner’s hype curve attempts to position technologies along a spectrum of ‘hype expectations’.  Garnter suggests the following  10 technology trends 2017: 

  • Applied AI and advanced machine learning
  • Intelligent Apps
  • Intelligent things
  • Virtual and augmented reality
  • Digital twins
  • Blockchains and distributed ledgers
  • Conversational systems
  • Mesh App and service architecture
  • Digital technology platforms
  • Adaptive security architecture

I would suggest the following as overarching factors and key trends. In terms of overarching factors it is evident to me that TEL will continue to become increasingly important in terms of supporting formal, non-formal and informal learning. Furthermore today’s learners face an uncertain, but constantly changing and dynamic future. They will be doing jobs that do not even exist today. Therefore, we need to shift the focus from knowledge recall to the development of transferable skills and competences, such as critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork. We need to help them develop strategies for meta-cognition, or learning about learning, and help them to become lifelong learners. Also it is evident that the learner experience will change as a result of digital technologies, see for example Pearson’s – ‘The future of education 2020’, which includes a number of vignettes of learners of the future (for example Simone’s story). Finally, I believe that there will be a spectrum of educational offerings: OER/MOOCs, online, blended, face-to-face, one-to-one tuition. Key trends of importance to my mind are the following:

I would argue that there is a spectrum of ways in which digital technologies can be used in education, from more effective use of the tools associated with VLEs to more innovative use of technologies. VLEs have a range of tools to support communication and collaboration, the present administrative information and learning content and to enable students to submit assignments and receive feedback. These include: discussion forums (to provide structured discussions), blogs (to encourage reflection), wikis (to enable collaboration), and e-portfolios (to support students in gathering evidence of their achievement of learning outcomes). The EDUCAUSE 7 things you should know about…. series of reports provides a useful and practice guide to a whole host of different tools, including the ones just mentioned. In addition to more effective use of VLE, other technologies can augment the learning experience. Examples that are routinely used include use of OER or MOOCs on topics related to the students’ course, lecture capture and to record and store lectures, podcasts as a means of lecturers discussing particular topics, use of social media to enable students to communicate with peers and the broader expert community, and use of mobile devices to enable learning anywhere, anytime, webinars. Looking back at the trends in Technology Enhanced Learning described at the beginning the list of augmented technologies is only likely to increase, potentially given students an even richer and enhanced learning experience.

Principles of learning to design learning environments

July 20th, 2017


I’ve just come across this interesting publication ‘The principles of learning to design learning environments’.  It focuses on a set of principles, these principles maintain that learning environments should: make learning and engagement central, ensure that it is understood as social, be highly attuned to learner’s emotions, reflect individual differences, be demanding for all while avoiding overload, use broad assessments and feedback, and promote horizontal connections. One to explore in more depth…

More on openness

July 20th, 2017



After being on a panel on open learning at the Future of EdTech conference in London last month, I wrote a blog post working up my ideas and contributions on the day. Cristina Preston from mirandanet who was also on the panel did the same. The MirandaNet Fellowship is a professional education community. The website states that


It has forged a unique approach to professional development for teachers. Working in partnership with school practitioners, academic researchers and funding agencies (governmental and non-governmental) and educational product developers the MirandaNet Fellowship has developed an active, participatory and research-oriented CPD framework it has named iCatalyst.

Handbook of learning analytics

July 19th, 2017


Image source


Learning analytics has emerged as an important new field of Technology Enhanced Learning and has grown quickly since the first Learning Analytics and Knowledge (LAK) conference held in Banff, Canada in 2011. The Society for Learning Analytics Research (SOLAR) website provides a useful overview of the field. It also hosts a learning analytics journal and runs various conferences and events. A new edited collection ‘A Handbook of Learning Analytics’  has just been published, with chapter contributions from key researchers in the field. It is divided into four sections:

  • Foundational concepts
  • Techniques and approaches
  • Applications
  • Institutional strategies and systems approaches

The tools and techniques associated with learning analytics can help identify students at risk, as well as help improve learning and teaching processes.  Together the chapters represent a rich overview of the state of the art in learning analytics research. Chapters explore different facets of learning analytics, such as: a focus on predictive as opposed to explanatory modeling to measure learning and teaching. content analytics, discourse analytics and emotional analytics. There is an interesting chapter on learning analytics dashboards that can help visualise learning traces to give users insights into the learning process. These dashboards can:

  • provide feedback on learning activities,
  • support reflection and decision making,
  • increase engagement and motivation,
  • reduce dropout.

Of particular note is the chapter that focussed on the use of learning analytics for professional development to make both formal and informal learning processes traceable and visible to support professionals with their learning. The final section looks at institutional strategies. The first chapter in this section looks at the challenges of institutional adoption. One of the chapters in this section begins with the following powerful statement which is at the heart of the vision associated with this exciting new research field:


Learning analytics holds the potential to transform the way we learn, work, and live our lives. To achieve its potential, learning analytics must be clearly defined, embedded in institutional processes and practices, and incorporated into institutional student success strategies



Towards personal learning

July 15th, 2017


I came across this downloadable book by Stephen Downes via Paul Prinsloo. The title is great ‘’Towards personal learning - Reclaiming a role for humanity in a world of commercialism and automation’. Stephen is well know for being an advocate of Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) and personal learning, and is a regular keynote on these and related topics. Stephen did a nice video explaining the difference between PLES and VLES as part of the PLE conference in 2012. The first paragraph sets the scene:


In the five years after Connectivism and Connective Knowledge was posted we saw the phenomenon of MOOCs appropriated and commercialized, the rise of artificial intelligence, analytics and personalization, and the ubiquity of mobile devices. It’s all pretty much what was predicted, and yet the reality feels so different. We’re not in an age of breathlessness and hope, as we were even in 2012, we’re in an age of anger and cynicism.


He lists a number of reasons for why he focused on personal learning:

  • The first is the idea of autonomy in a connected world.
  • A second is the idea that we need to reorganize knowledge in such a way as to better prepare people for a complex and changing world.
  • A third is the tension between commercial good and social good, especially with respect to open learning and open content, but also with respect to society and values generally.

I haven’t had the chance to read the book yet, it’s over 750 pages! However skimming the content list it looks like a really rich and interesting read. 


TEF results… some shake ups…

June 23rd, 2017


The results of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) are now out and there are some interesting shake ups. A guardian article has the heading ‘Top UK universities miss out on gold award in controversial TEF test”. The London School of Economics, Southampton, and Liverpool universities only achieved a bronze award. The article quoted the Russell group as saying that the TEF was not a measure of “absolute quality”. The group has raised concerns about the process used to arrive at the decision to award institutions gold, silver or bronze. Oxford and Cambridge were both awarded gold but so too were a significant number of new universities, such as Coventry, Northampton and Nottingham Trent.

The TEF was introduced by the Government because it was felt that institutions were focusing too much on research and because there had been complaints from students that their degrees were poor value for money. The aim of the TEF is to provide a picture of teaching quality and learning outcomes in Higher Education to help prospective students make better-informed choices about which university to attend. The results are expected to have a significant impact on student recruitment, particularly international recruitment. Of the 134 universities and specialist higher education institutions that were given ratings, 32% (43) scored gold, 50% (67) silver and 18% (24) got bronze. The rankings for the TEF are based on statistics including: dropout rates, student satisfaction survey results and graduate employment rates.

Proponents of the TEF argue that it provides students with more transparency to inform their choice of institutions. They also state that it recognises excellence in teaching and rewards innovation.  Finally, given that students invest significant time and money in their Higher Education, proponents argue that they have a right to a high-quality academic experience.

There is significant controversy around the TEF. Concerns about the TEF include: its subjective assessment, its lack of transparency and with different benchmarks for each institution, removing any sense of equity and equality of assessment.

TEF chair Husbands argues that universities shouldn’t rest on their laurels and should use the TEF to improve what they are doing. He argues:

The teaching excellence framework (Tef) results give us a unique insight into teaching quality and student outcomes across what is now an extraordinarily diverse higher education system… No higher education system in the world has hitherto released such a fabulous resource for understanding teaching. Universities should use the results creatively to help them ask tough questions about what they do.

It is too early to assess what the impact of TEF will be, but it is likely to have a significant impact on institutions strategic priorities and the ways in which they support learning and teaching, in the way that the sister Research Excellence Framework (REF) has for research. Criticisms are likely to continue for a long time and no doubt many of them are true, any league table has fundamental flaws. However if TEF helps to make institutional offerings more transparent, and if it forces them to really think about what the student experience will be that their institution, surely that is a good thing…

The future of open learning

June 23rd, 2017


On 14th June I attended the future of edtech conference in London. I was on a panel looking at open learning. The focus was on How will open learning develop in the next 5 years? With sub-themes of:

  • Leveraging free-to-access information and content to enhance student experience and university reputation
  • Key growth through distance learning
  • Developing a sustainable business model to evolve digital strategies

The other panelists were Christina Preston, Professor of Education Innovation, DeMontfort University and Ajit Chuahan, Vice Chairman, Amity University in India. Our chair asked us to focus on the following area:

  • General comments about open learning
  • Challenges
  • How to embed Technology-Enhanced Learning (TEL) into practice
  • How to get student involvement
  • Would open learning ultimately replace traditional learning and institutions
  • Concluding remarks and reflections

Open learning

Open Educational Resources (OER) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offer fantastic opportunities for opening up education and to potentially supporting social inclusion and widening participation. UNSECO argue that education is a fundamental human right and therefore should be freely available. Despite the rhetoric and the hype around OER and MOOCs in reality OER are not being used extensively by students or teachers and MOOCs are predominantly taken by those who are already educated. New digital literacies, see Jenkins and JISC, are needed to harness the potential of OER and MOOCs. OER and MOOCs are examples of disruptive innovations as they are challenging existing educational provision, which is good, in that institutions need to think hard about and make clear what a student will get by attending that institution, and what their will their student experience will be.



As mentioned above a key challenge is that students and teachers lack the necessary digital literacy skills to harness the potential of digital technologies. However there is also inertia in existing educational structures and a hesitance to engage in new practices. For research intensive institutions teaching is the poor sister, with research being privileged and rewarded. Furthermore there is a lack of understanding and clarity of how to recognise learning through OER and MOOCs. Models are emerging, such as: digital badges, certificates of participation/completion, and recognition through organisations like the OERu, but these are still in their infancy. An IPTS commissioned report, OpenCred, looked at models for recognition of non-formal learning through MOOCs. Another barrier is around pedagogies. Firstly most OER and MOOCs do not make the underlying pedagogy explicit. Secondly, it is not clear what pedagogies are most appropriate to support open learning.  For OER work that I did with colleague found the following barriers to uptake: i) the pedagogies of OER were not clear, ii) the difficulty of repurposing, iii) the lack of clarity of perceived benefits, and iv) a culture of academics wanting the create their own resources. For MOOCs two extremes have been cited: xMOOCs – which are essentially linear, individually focused and didactic and cMOOCs – which are about learning in a networked, social context; promoting connectivist learning. I have previously that this dichotomy is too simplistic and have put forward a 12 dimensional scale to describe MOOCs. Finally academics are skeptical of the benefits of engaging with OER and MOOCs and more is needed in terms of convincing them of the benefits.


Embedding TEL into practice

A number of strategies can help embed TEL into practice. Firstly incentives and rewards can be put in place to celebrate the development of learning innovations and TEL enhanced learning interventions. Secondly, appropriate Continuing Professional Development (CPD) opportunities and support. This can include workshops, learning and teaching conferences, show and tell sessions, informal brown bag lunchtime sessions to share practice, learn about fairs, and learn about guides on using different digital technologies. Thirdly, given the increasing importance of digital technologies in education, it is important to have senior management who have a good understanding of TEL and the implications for their institutions, so that they can put in place relevant TEL related strategy and policy. The recent Teaching Excellence Framework (TEL) despite being criticized is clearly an important driver for promoting and rewarding teaching, as is evident in the reaction to the just published results, as a recent Guardian article testifies. So fourthly, TEL should be an integral part of the metrics associated with TEF. Fifthly a pragmatic approach to use of TEL should be adopted. Starting with helping academics make better use of the core features and tools of the institutional Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Evaluation of VLEs consistently show that they are primarily used as content repositories, little use is made of the tools to promote communication and collaboration, or more innovative assessment approaches. For campus-based institutions more needs to be done to ensure physical spaces are technology enhanced. The Spaces for Knowledge Generation  project has developed a set of seven principles for designing technology enhanced learning spaces. Institutions also need to have in place policies on students bringing their own devices and should recognize the increasing importance of mobile devices for supporting learning anywhere and anytime. This also means approaches such as the flipped classroom can be adopted, where students watch content in advance, freeing up the classroom sessions for more student centres and active learning. Bradley Lightbody has a useful guide on this Finally there is the increasing importance of social media to enable students to interact with their peers, their tutors and the wider community. The OPAL initiative developed a useful instrument for helping institutions benchmark their OER activities and to create a vision and roadmap for their development.


Student involvement

One of the key benefits of involving students is that they can provide a fresh perspectives. Furthermore as they are actively engaged with learning they can often provide novel insights into what is needed. Two examples demonstrate this. The first is the SKG project which involved students throughout. One interesting focus was on getting the students to generate novel technology enhanced learning spaces both inside the classroom and externally. Professor Eric Duval involved his third-year students to creating learning analytics Apps for the second-year students. Students can be given access to learning analytics so that they can better manage their learning. For example, the App might tell as student ‘you appear to be doing all your learning on a Sunday, whereas research shows that it is better to spread it out over the week and do it in bite-sized chunks’, or ‘ you have spent 6 hours learning this week, whereas your class mates have spent at average of 10 hours’. The solar website  is a useful source of information and resources on learning analytics.

Will open learning replace traditional approaches?

No, more likely is that there will be a spectrum of offerings from free OER and MOOCs right through to the Oxbridge one-to-one tutorial set up. This means that students are offered a rich range of educational experiences and thy can make their choices based on the ways in which they prefer to learn. Blended learning and approaches which harness the affordances of technologies such as the flipped classroom will become increasingly evident and important. We are seeing a blurring of boundaries: learners/teachers, real/virtual and formal/informal. In addition we are seeing an unbundling of educationSome ask the question as to whether unbundling is the next disruptive innovation. In the futures students may not choose to do a full three-year degree; instead they may pay for: high quality resources, a guided learning pathway, support or accreditation.


OER/MOOCs are as they get us to think more about the learner experience and they challenge traditional educational offerings. However, more needs to be done to increase the uptake and use of OER and MOOCs. We need to better understand what new digital literacies are needed to harness digital technologies. There is a distinct lack of discourse on OER and MOOCs at policy and strategy level and this urgently needs to be addressed. We also need to focus more on the development of senior management who have an understanding of digital technologies and a vision for open learning. There are also financial implications; institutions need to understand why they are investing in OER and MOOCs. Importantly we are teaching students for an uncertain future, to do jobs that don’t even exist today. Therefore there is a need to go beyond knowledge recall to development of the skills and competencies they need to be adaptive and lifelong learners. John Daniels has stated that we would need to build a new brick and motor institution every week if we want to meet the demands of future learners, this is clearly unrealistic and therefore digital technologies and OER and MOOCs in particular are an important alternative.

Supercomplexity and Technology-Enhanced Learning

May 31st, 2017


I am currently in sunny Sligo staying in the beautiful Glasshouse hotel. I am here to give a keynote at the EdTech conference tomorrow. The theme of the conference is ‘TEL in the age of supercomplexity’ building on Barnett’s (2000) use of the concept. The conference website states:


This concept is particular apt when describing today’s Irish technology-enhanced learning community as it grapples with: increasing demands with limited resources; new models of teaching, learning, assessment and accreditation; emerging strategies, policies and frameworks; and where traditional concepts of the professional, professionalism, and professional life are being reconstituted in an increasingly digital age. Barnett contends that it is impossible for individuals to resolve this overwhelming agenda in traditional terms.


Epochs of learning

Barnett contends there are four ‘epochs’ of learning. He states that initially learning was a matter of departing from this world and moving into a different world. This learning is metaphysical, giving access to a meta-reality. Drawing on Plato’s imagery he states that a learner is able to escape the cave of illusions and see the world anew. Learning is seen as efficacious in epoch 2. Through learning an individual is able to put themselves in a better position in the world. In this epoch, there is a real and definite world and learning enables one to know it better.  In addition to knowing more about the world, an individual is able to do things they weren’t able to do before. However, the world is changing and in part as a result of the changes in the world made possible by epoch 2 learning. Importantly, what we learn today won’t necessarily equip us to live effectively in the world tomorrow. Consequently learning becomes a matter of moving with the times. There are no fixed or universal rules for learning. Learning is in situ, and takes place in discrete contexts. This ‘learning on the hoof in an unstable world’ constitutes epoch 3 learning. It is learning brought about as a result of learning about learning. Epoch 4 learning is a result of realizing that not only is the world changing but it holds with it proliferating and competing frameworks by which we understand the world. This is, he argues, a supercomplex world, a world characterised by confusion as to what is to count as learning. What counts as learning for one group may not be the same for another group. 


Defining supercomplexity

Supercomplexity can be defined as structures that are comprised of multiple complex systems, which interact and operate at various scales Barnett (2014) defines supercomplexity as that form of complexity when our very frameworks for understanding and engaging in the world are in dispute. Such that we, personally and in our institutions, no longer have a clear sense of identity or our responsibilities. It is a state of challengeability and contestation.  Barnett (2001) argues:


We live among proliferating and incompatible frameworks, each of which at best can yield only a partial insight into our world. … It is not just a matter of coping with uncertainty, for that formulation is overly passive and reactive. An age of supercomplexity requires the will to go on in a milieu in which there is no security and calls for the courage to make purposive interventions even in the understanding of that lack of security. … The humanities have been in the business of spawning frameworks anew for our self-understanding. Their insights, their concepts, their methodologies are inherently reflexive: … these reflexive properties furnish us with a new wherewithal to be, to act and to communicate … In short, the humanities can assist our accommodation to a world of supercomplexity by promoting forms of being appropriate to supercomplexity. A new and wider educational project awaits them, if only they would seize it. (Barnett 2001, 36–7).


Facets of supercomplexity

The following are some of the key aspects of the concept of supercomplexity and its implications.


We are preparing students for an unknown, uncertain changing future, to do jobs that don’t even exist yet. Therefore we need to move beyond knowledge recall to teaching them the competencies and skills they need to be lifelong learners, to be flexible, agile and adaptable, to harness the power of digital technologies and their social networks to support their continued learning.


We are living in a word in which we are conceptually challenged. The way in which we understand our interactions in digital spaces has changed and become more complex. The boundaries between real and virtual have blurred. We have fragmented identities across real and virtual spaces, different people ‘see’ us through different channels: twitter, facebook, linkedin, email, blogs, webinars, etc…. We need new concepts and metaphors to understand how we perceive and behave in these digital spaces, concepts and metaphors beyond the idea of place and time, and more associated with the notion of networks and interactivity.


Digital technologies offer a plethora of ways in which we can interact with content, and ways to communicate and collaborate. This leads to complex interactions online and exacerbates the concept of supercomplexity. Furthermore technologies are constantly changing and the ways individuals interact with and use them changes over time.


Learners are increasingly using smart phones and mobile devices to support their learning, meaning that learning anywhere and anytime is now a reality. However this means that institutions need to redesign physical spaces to be technology enhanced. The Spaces for Knowledge Generation project did a worldwide study tour of innovative learning spaces and identified seven principles of designing digitally enhanced learning spaces: aesthetics, affordances, blending, comfort, equity, flow, and repurposing.


Rhizomatic learning

Cormier’s concept of rhizomatic learning is useful as a means of describing how we learn, adapt and develop through our use of digital technologies and our interactions with others online. He states that  


Rhizomatic learning is a way of thinking about learning based on ideas described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in a thousand plateaus. A rhizome, sometimes called a creeping rootstalk, is a stem of a plant that sends out roots and shoots as it spreads. It is an image used by D&G to describe the way that ideas are multiple, interconnected and self-replicating. A rhizome has no beginning or end… like the learning process.



We are operating in a constantly changing techno-ecosystem with which we interact and co-evolve.  Pea described a series of phases of technology interaction. 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 think the concept of affordances (Gibson, 1977) is particularly useful in terms of describing how we perceive and interact with technologies:


All “action possibilities” latent in the environment, objectively measurable and independent of the individual’s ability to recognize them, but always in relation to the actor and therefore dependent on their capabilities (Gibson, 1977, pg. 67-82).


For example, a tall tree has the affordance of food for a giraffe because it has a long neck, but not for a sheep, or a set of stairs has an affordance of climbing for a walking adult, but not for a crawling infant. Therefore affordances are always in relation to individuals and their capabilities; this includes the individual’s past experience, values, beliefs, skills and perceptions. Therefore a button may not have the affordance of pushing if an individual has no cultural context or understanding of the notion of buttons or related objects and what they are for. Gibson also argued that:


The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill (Gibson, 1979, p. 127).


Conole and Dyke (2004) propose the following types of ICT affordances: accessibility, speed of change, diversity, communication and collaboration, reflection, multi-model and non-linear, risk, fragility and uncertainty, immediacy, monopolisation and surveillance. They argue that the taxonomy has a number of uses. Firstly, that establishing a clearer understanding of the affordances should help to inform practitioners in their use of technologies to achieve particular goals. Secondly, that it can also help to identify potential limitations and inappropriate uses of the technologies. Thirdly, by making the inherent affordances of technologies explicit, the taxonomy can act as a discussion point for critique and further refinement. Fourthly, it can be used as a checklist to help practitioners understand the advantages and disadvantages of different technologies. Fifthly, it can be used as a mechanism for staff development and improving practice – for example, by providing a checklist of potential benefits and drawbacks of different technologies, which can be used to inform choice and the ways that practitioners might choose to use them.


Distributed cognition

Another useful concept with respect to our interactions with technologies is Salomon’s concept of distributed cognition (Salomon, 1993). it emphasizes the ways that cognition is off-loaded into the environment through social and technological means. Salomon developed the concept before the emergence of the web but it is particularly insightful in today’s technological world, where our cognition and identity is distributed across a range of interfaces.


How we interact through digital technologies gives rise to our digital identity and how we are perceived by others. The figure below shows the relationship between identity, presence and interaction. Our identity builds on our beliefs and our approach to the world, this influences how we interact which in turn relates to our presence.




Digital literacies

Interacting in today’s technological landscape is not simple and requries a particular set of digital literacies. The term digital literacy is contested and has evolved over time. Gilster (1997) introduced the concept as ‘the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers’. He identified four key competencies: (a) assembling knowledge, (b) evaluating information, (c) searching, and (d) navigating in non- linear modes. Martin (2006) extends Gilster’s definition as follows: digital literacies are “the awareness attitude and ability of individuals to appropriately use digital tools and facilities to identify, access, manage, integrate, evaluate, analyse and synthesise digital resources, construct new knowledge create media expressions and communicate with others, in the context of specific life situations, in order to enable constructive social action and to reflect on this process”.


Digital literacies can be used to bring together knowledge, attitudes and skills, and so encompasses the basic ability to use digital devices and applications as well as allowing for the development of a level of critical, reflective and strategic capability in various areas of application and practice.[1]


Jenkins (2009)  lists the following digital literacies, which he argues are needed to be part of what he calls today’s participatory environment: play, performance, simulation, appropriateion, multi-tasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking, negotiation and visualisation.


Digital literacy is conceived as an attribute of the person in a socio-cultural context; it is an element of that person’s identity. In considering the pedagogy of e-learning, Mayes and Fowler (2006) argue that, “Just as in the field of educational technology has matured from a ‘delivery of content’ model to one that emphasizes the crucial role of dialogue, so the field of digital literacy, we suggest, should shift its emphasis from skill to identity.”


Returning to Barnett’s notion of supercomplexity, it is not just that our interactions in today’s technical landscape are complex, dynamic and changing, but we live in a complex and changing world. There is the increasing impact of globalisation, an increasingly sinister political climate, the impact of cultural issues and religious beliefs on actions, and the unknown impact of climate change. In particular within this context, universities are subjected to a number of demands: accountability, massification, internationalization, quality assurance, etc. Universities are now operating in a climate of increased competition from other players, such as publishing houses like Pearsons and free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).


Other concepts related to supercomplexity

A number of other concepts are related to Barnett’s notion of supercomplexity. Giddens (1999) and Castells (2000) describe the networked and globalized nature of modern society and the impact of the changing nature of societal values (including the defragmentation of the family unit, polarized perspectives on secular versus religious beliefs, and the changing roles of individuals and organisatiions.


Beck’s notion of the risk society is concerned with how a society deals with risk and arguably given the above we live in a world with an increasing number of risks (Beck, 1992). He defines it as defines it as ‘a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernisation itself’. The implications of these new technologies for learning and teaching are profound. Unintended consequences (Beck, 1992) of use will arise, misuse and abuses of the system will happen, the digital divide is still present; those not engaging with technologies are getting left further and further behind ((Warschauer, 2004). Warschauer critiques the relationship between access to information and communication technologies and social inclusion. He argues that: “the ability to access, adapt and create new knowledge using new information and communication technologies is critical to social inclusion in today’s era” (Warschauer, 2004, pg. 9).  


Virilio (1998) goes further and suggests that we are utterly dependent on technologies and when (not if) technologies fail it will have a catastrophic effect. Indeed the recent complete IT failure of BA resulting in chaos at the airports in a case in point.   Furthermore, key academic figures are warning about the dangers of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Stephen Hawking  for example, has warned that AI could spell the end of mankind.  He stated that:


I believe there is no deep difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer. It therefore follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence — and exceed it.


Bauman (2000) describes liquid modernity as a characteristic of today’s highly developed global society.  He argued that its characteristics are about the individual, namely increasing feelings of uncertainty and the privatization of ambivalence. It is a kind of chaotic state where an individual can move from one social state to another in a fluid manner. Giddens (1991) states that: social practices are constantly examined and reformed in the light of incoming information about those very practices, thus constitutively altering their character’.


Stehr (2001) argues that knowledge is now central to the modern economy and its productive processes. It is also essential for social relations, social cohesion and conflict resolution. We have moved from a society based around heavy commodities to symbolic goods, from situated markets to non-place-specific locations, from machines to software and from things to ideas. These changes produce new forms of social interaction and new perspectives on identity, practice and association. Furthermore, we increasingly arrange and produce the reality within which we exist on the basis of our knowledge.



Barnett  (2000) argues that the university has lost its way and that the world needs the university more than ever. He contends that we need to find a new vocabulary and senses of purpose. The university is faced with supercomplexity, in which our very frames of understanding, action and self-identity are all continually challenged. In such a world, the university has explicitly to take on a dual role: firstly, of compounding supercomplexity, so making the world ever more challenging; and secondly, of enabling us to live effectively in this chaotic world. Internally, too, the university has to become a new kind of organization, adept at fulfilling this dual role. The university has to live by the uncertainty principle: it has to generate uncertainty, to help us live with uncertainty, and even to revel in our uncertainty.




Barnett, R. (2000), Realizing the university in an age of supercomplexity, Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.


Barnett, R. (2001), Crises of the humanities: Challenges and opportunities. In Fuzzy boundaries? Reflections on modern languages and the humanities, ed. R.di Napoli, L. Polezzi, and A. King, 148–73. London: CILT.


Barnett, R. (2014), The university in an age of supercomplexity: challenges and possibilities, Guest lecture, UNESP, Sao Paulo State University, available online.


Bauman, Z. (2000), Liquid modernity, Cambridge: Polity.


Becks, U. (1992) Risk society: towards a new modernity, London: Sage.


Castells, M. (2000, The rise of the networked society in the information age: economy, society, and culture, (2nd Ed, Vol 1), Camrbidge, M.A.: Wiley-Blackwell.


Conole, G. and Dyke, M., (2004a). What are the inherent affordances of Information and Communication Technologies?, ALT-J, 12.2, 113-124.


Gibson, J.J. (1977). The Theory of Affordances. In Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing, R. Shaw and J. Bransford (Eds),  pg. 67-82, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.


Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associated.


Giddens, A. 1991. The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford University Press.


Giddens, A. (1999), Runaway world: how globalisation is reshaping our lives: London: Profile.


Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century, Mit Pr.


Gilster, P. (1997), Digital literacy, Canada: John Wiley and Sons.


Martin, A. (2006). Literacies for the Digital Age. In A. Martin & D. Madigan (Eds.),

Digital Literacies for Learning (pp. 3-25). London: Facet Publications.


Mayes, T. and Fowler, C. (2006) “Learners, Learning Literacy and the Pedagogy of e-Learning” in Martin & Madigan, 2006: 26–33


Salomon, G. (Ed.). (1993). Distributed cognitions - pyschological and educational considerations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Stehr, N. (2001), The fragility of modern societies,  Knowledge and risk in the information age, London: Sage.


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


Warschauer, M. (2004). Technology and social inclusion: Rethinking the digital divide. Cambridge, 540 MA: MIT Press. 








Reflecting on digital learning as a research field

April 12th, 2017


On the 1st November 2016 Dublin City University hosted ‘The next generation digital learning research symposium.’ I gave the keynote as part of the symposium. The title I was given ‘Research through the generations: reflecting on the past, present and future, was an interesting and challenging focus. In particular looking back at the emergence of a field is useful and can give an indication of where the field is going in the near future. This paper fleshes out the points made in the talk. Comments welcome!