Archive for September, 2009

A matter of interpretation

Friday, September 18th, 2009

mariaToday is the final day of the Italian e-learning society conference in Salerno. It’s always interesting to get an insight into e-learning research and development activities in other countries – to compare similarities and notice differences.

Mine was the only talk in English, so my host Maria Rosaria D’Esposito had very kindly arranged for me to have two interpreters. I was amazed by how they were able to keep up with the complex range of technical discussions and the speed of the presentation.

It made a big difference to feel more directly connected with the conference – so my thanks to Gabriella Rammairone and Maria Graziani.

The talk enabled me to work up some ideas I have been mulling over in terms of the relationship between policy and practice, and to put forward an e-learning policy framework as describmandged in the previous post.

I used our own work on Cloudworks and Olnet as illustrative case studies of how policy, practice and research can be more closely aligned.  As always having attended the conference I go away, having had the change to reconnect with colleagusalernoes – it was great to see Lorenzo Cantoni from Lugano again, make new friends, and gain a few new ideas and insights. And it has to be said Salerno is a pretty nice location to boot. Only problem is I have my Spanish oral exam next week, so four days immersion in Italian is maybe not such a good idea from that respect….

The image is a view of the bay of Salerno, which is a lovely town about an hour south of Naples. On the last evening I went out with Maria and a couple of her colleagues and had one of the best Pastas I have ever had! “Foglie D’Ulivo” - yum! Cooked some last night at home with a fresh pesto sauce which seemed to go down well!

A framework for e-learning policy

Friday, September 18th, 2009

This is my third blog post associated with my recent talk at the Italian e-learning society conference in Salerno. The previous posts reviewed e-learning policy to date and argued that despite the potential of technologies, order the impact on practice has not been as extensive as might have been hoped. There is a gap between the rhetoric of policy and actual practice. Why is it that great policy initiatives still fail? I think there are three main reasons:

Common reasons for not engaging

  • “I haven’t got time”
  • “My research is more important”
  • “What’s in it for me?”
  • “Where is my reward?”
  • “I don’t have the skills to do this”
  • “I don’t believe in this, it won’t work”

Common resistance strategies

  • I’ll say yes (and do nothing)
  • Undermine the initiative
  • Undermine the person involved

Classic mistakes

  • Emphasis on the technologies, not the people and processes
  • Funding for technology developments

frameworkIn this post I want to put forward a framework designed to help bridge that gap and ensure that policy is more effective. To my mind policy needs to be considered in relation to three other inter-related aspects of e-learning: research and development, teacher practice and the learner experience. Only by taking account of these can we ensure that policy is effective. In order to maximise each of these we need to do the following:

Policy: Align with institutional and national initiatives and funding opportunities, ensure it is firmly embedded in relevant strategy, and align with broader technological trends.

Research and development: R&D enables us to explore what is possible with technologies, however it is important that we put in place effective formative evaluation strategies to observe changing user behaviour as they interact with the tools, as well as identification of drivers and challenges.

Teacher practice: We need to start from where teachers currently are, their motivations and fears, their skills levels. Upper most in our minds must be the question “What’s in it for them?” We need to observe and learn from actual practice, how the teachers are interacting with the tools, what is working and what isn’t.

The learner experience: Perhaps most importantly of all we need to identify what impact all of this is actually having on the learner experience, is there evidence of improvement? Because ultimately surely this is the overarching goal – pedagogically effective and innovative use of technologies to improve the learner experience.

All four aspects are inter-related: the research can inform future policy directives and help guide practice. The teacher and student voices can in term help shape policy and steer R&D activities. I concluded the talk by posing a series of questions and reflections:

  • What is the relationship between Government rhetoric and actual practice?
  • How can technologies support new forms of pedagogy?
  • What is the relationship between technologies, physical and virtual spaces and pedagogy?
  • How do we take account of a digital divide that is ever narrower but deeper?
  • What new digital literacy skills will learners and teachers need ?
  • E-learning innovation will require a radical rethinking of the curriculum,
  • E-learning challenges existing norms about assessment

Too often policy is developed in isolation from the other components of e-learning and as a consequence too often it fails. By articulating the explicit relationship to these other components there is a chance that policy can begin to have a greater impact. Link to the other blog posts, resources, references and the slides are available on cloudworks.


Here’s my blogging story…

Friday, September 18th, 2009

I have been a blogger now for a few years and although I go through phases of inactivity on the whole I think blogging has become an important and fundamental part of my practice. I was prompted to begin in part because I realised I didn’t really understand blogging as a practice and wanted to explore whether or not it could be of value for me. To be honest I was pretty sceptical but once I started was amazed at how valuable I found it. For me blogging performs a number of functions:

  • It acts as a reflective outlet, helps me develop and articulate ideas, in a fairly informal and quick fashion
  • It acts as a repository of my ideas and resources
  • It provides a mechanism for promoting project work and the work of others I respect in the community
  • It enables me to be part of the wider network, to connect with other researchers.

This link lists some of my previous musing on the topic. Twitter has changed how I blog and how frequently, but it hasn’t replaced it. I, like others (see the twitter vs. blogging flash debate), think the two are complementary. For me Cloudworks is increasingly becoming a third dimension = as a means of collective live blogging, discussion and aggregation of resources around a particular topic or theme. But then I guess I would say that wouldn’t I! ;-)

Trends and implications

Friday, September 18th, 2009

This is the second in a series of blog posts associated with my keynote at the Italian e-learning society conference. Having set the scene in the talk in terms of taking an historical perspective on e-learning policy and perspectives I then moved on to consider current trends and future directions. I highlighted four recent reports which provide an indication of where technological developments are going, ed namely

The Horizon reports series, which  provides an annual snap shot of technologies which are likely to have a signiticant impact in one, three and five years.  For 2009 the following six are listed as technologies to watch:

  • Now and in the next year: Mobile and cloud computing
  • Over the next three years: Geo-everything and the personal web
  • In five years time: Semantic aware applications and smart objects

The NSF cyberlearning report also considered current technological developments but considered the implications for education and provided a series of recommendations.:

  • Help build a vibrant cyberlearning field by promoting cross-disciplinary communities of cyberlearning researchers and practitioners including technologists, educators, domain scientists, and social scientists.
  • Instill a “platform perspective”—shared, interoperable designs of hardware, software, and services—into NSF’s cyberlearning activities.
  • Emphasize the transformative power of information and communications technology for learning, from K to grey.
  • Adopt programs and policies to promote open educational resources
  • Take responsibility for sustaining NSF-sponsored cyberlearning innovation.

The IPTS report provides a database of over 200 case studies of the use of web 2.0 technologies in education

The edited book “The collective advancement of education through open technology, open content and open knowledge” provides a summary of the spirit of the increasingly prevalent “open movement”, including of course the open educational resource movement.

coevolutionI then argued that there is (and indeed always has been) a co-evolution of tools and users. From the first very rudimentary communications between humans, through to the development of different forms of symbolic representation (alphabet systems, numerical representations, graphics and symbols) and finally on to the various ways of technological mediation over the last hundred years or so. I quoted Pea and Walllis from the cyberlearning report:

We can now interact at  a  distance, accessing complex  & useful  resources  in  ways  unimaginable in early  eras.

And posed the question, what next?

practicesI then focused in a little more specifically on the actual affordances of new technologies and argued that there is a very good match to what is current thinking in terms of what constitutes good learning.

So the various patterns of behaviour evident in web 2.0 practices maps well to the general shift from a focus on the individual to the social aspects of learning. Similarly location aware technologies clearly have potential in terms of contextualised and situated learning. Similarly, adaptation and customisation maps well to notions associated with personalised learning.

The immersive and 3D/real time environments in tools such as Second Life offer opportunities to set up authentic and experiential learning opportunities. The automatic habit of “Goggle it!” as a mechanism for finding out information could with appropriate learning activities be channelled to enable learners to adopt more inquiry-based learning approaches, indeed I would argue that this is important as otherwise learners will not be able to make informed critical choices about the information they are presented with. 

Different patterns of behaviour are emerging from observation of gaming environments and in particular community-based systems such as World of Warcraft. The notion of peer credited expertise and levels of attainment of expertise could clearly be applied to fostering peer-learning approaches. User-general content and open educational resources are in many ways synonymous, however to fully exploit their potential we need better ways of helping users to deconstruct and repurpose these resource for their own context. Peer support and critiquing is also evident within the blogosphere, which also offers a lot in terms of self-reflection.

Finally, the enormous potential of cloud computing means perhaps we are on the brink of moving towards a dynamic, shared collective intelligence, which maps to notions of distributed cognition.


Despite all these possibilities, I argued that the rhetoric doesn’t map the reality. There are a range of complex reasons for this and a set of fundamental tensions; between integrated IT systems vs. loosely coupled tols, student controlled vs. institutionally controlled tools and personalised vs. institutional tools. I argued that there is no simple answer at the moment, it is not a question of either or for these, but that it is important we are aware of these and adjust our institutional policies appropriately. I pointed the audience to the recent resurgence of the VLE/LMS is dead debate; I suspect variants on this will continue for some time to come!

Policy/practice: an e-learning timeline

Friday, September 18th, 2009

This week I am participating in the Italian e-learning society conference in Salerno. Yesterday I gave a talk exploring the link between policy and practice. In particular I focused on two main questions:

  • Is there a gap between e-learning policy and actual practice?
    • How can we bridge the gap?
  • Does e-learning policy adequate reflect current technological advances
    • If not how can we ensure it does?

I am planning to write a series of blog posts expanding on the themes I discussed in the talk. The slides and associated references can be found in this cloud on cloudworks. In this post I concentrate on setting the scene for the talk in terms of reflecting on past e-learning policy perspectives and their associated impact on practice. I began the talk by seeing what lessons could be learnt by scrutinising the e-learning history line. I drew in particular on two chapters; one written with Sue White and Janice Smith looking at UK policy and practice in e-learning over the last forty years and a second much broader look at international policy perspectives.The introduction to the chapter with Su and Janice sets the scene:

In this chapter we outline the relationship policy directives and practice. HE has changed dramatically in the last thirty years through policy drivers such as widening participation, lifelong learning and increased quality assurance. The sector has expanded and diversified, leading to a context that shapes policy directives and has a direct impact on e-learning practice. We consider these structures and trace the growth in the use of learning technologies and associated research.

In the chapter we put forward an e-learning timeline tracing technological policy directives and associated funding initiatives and looked at the subsequent impact on practice. We divided the timeline into four phases (see below) and for each looked at predominant technologies, key reports and initiatives, and characteristics and impact on practice.






Impact on practice

Phase one- 1965-1979: Mainframe systems


Mainframes, batch processing, machine code



Provision of computers for research; central planning for regional consortia

Predominant pedagogical emphasis is instructional, behaviourist. Research is concerned with navigational issues.





Establishment of Computer Board for Universities and Research Councils  (CBURC)




Barnard report


All students to be taught programming; proposal to develop CAL system to teach programming




National Development Programme for Computer Assisted Learning (NDPCAL)

CAL in the disciplines: exploratory use, planned use, service use






Phase two – 1980-1989: Stand-alone systems


Desktop PCs



Shifting costs from centre to periphery; early service developments such as the Resource Discovery Network






Move from computing to IT; emphasis on teaching requirements; suggested national staff development programme

Increased activity in terms of multimedia functionality but still content driven and focused on the interactive tutorial paradigm




Computer Teaching Initiative (CTI)

139 subject-specific development projects


Graphical interfaces







CTI centres

Promoting software use

Phase three – 1990-2000: Networking technologies




Janet launched




The Web








Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP)

Collaborative software development projects

Beginning to see more emphasis on the wider contextual issues (skills, strategy, importance of embedding and integration.) Also a shift away from the emphasis on the individual to the concept of situated learning.






Establishment of the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC)

Internet browsers

Beginnings of network use by non-technical disciplines



JISC ‘Guidelines for developing an  information strategy’

JISC electronic libraries (e-Lib) programme


Beginnings of digitisation/ preservation projects


Commercial Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) appear



Increased use of ICTs; open access to facilities for all students

A move to more holistic and joined-up thinking. Evidence of more linking of development to strategy and policy





ICT use ‘tool of the trade’ for HE lecturers; strategies for integrating ICTs in the curriculum


Managed Learning Environments (MLEs) begin to appear


Learning and Teaching strategies

JISC Distributed National Electronic Resource (DNER) programme

JISC MLE programme

Institute for Learning and Teaching (ILT) launched

ICTs in support of non-traditional/off-campus learners; staff development, accreditation

Phase four: 2000 – present: Politicisation and systematisation




Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) launched

Human Resource strategies

Repositories, services, portals, reusable learning objects

Pedagogy shifted away from individual learner to collaboration, communication and the notion of communities of practice


Mobile and

wireless technologies become more prevalent

Government  White paper on HE





DfES and HEFCE e-learning strategies

Closure of the UKeU

Launch of HE Academy




We concluded the chapter by discussing what we considered were the key factors emerging in terms of the relationship between policy and practice:

  • Short-term funding: providing opportunities to experiment with technologies but negating against any form of long-term sustainability and embedding.
  • The management of change and the catalytic nature of e-learning: technology initiatives can often act as triggers for wider change, but to be effective the change process needs to be appropriately managed.
  • Complexity and collaboration: E-learning initiatives are complex and multi-faceted.
  • Risk and unintended consequences: Technological change carries with it inherent risk and often unintended consequences.
  • Visibility and accessibility: How successful e-learning initiatives are depends on how visible they are to key stakeholders.

We concluded:

This chapter has demonstrated that there is a close relationship between policy and practice, which is in turn driven by broader educational and technological drivers. Numerous initiatives and funding programmes have focused on the development and use of learning technologies over the last two decades, resulting in significant changes within HE institutions; increased uptake and use of learning technologies, impact on policy and strategy within institutions, as well as impacting on organisational structures and roles (see chapter five). However, despite this, the increased use of technologies has raised many new questions and issues. One of the most fundamental is, given the interconnection of policy directions and subsequent impact on practice, what factors need to be taken into account to make appropriately informed policy decision making? This question surely is central if we are to see a better, more strategic and targeted use of technologies in the future.

The chapter on ipolicynternational policy perspectives was more of a broad-brush comparison of different national initiatives. It included a diagram articulating the relationship between the broader context within which e-learning policy and initiatives arise; a comparison of country-specific policies and practice and subsequent impact on practice. It was evident that there were a number of ways in which elearning development were impacting on practice, which can be categorised as follows:

  1. Local culture versus global hegemony: On the one hand the communicative dimensions of the Internet offer unprecedented opportunities for global reach and access, development of new forms of collaboration and virtual communities. However, many are increasingly concerned with the insidious domination of the Internet by Western norms and the emergence of English as the de facto language of communication.
  2. Urban versus rural developments: Case studies considered in the review demonstrated the differences in the application of elearning in rural and urban settings.
  3. Commercial imperatives versus Government directives: There is a tension between elearning developments which are driven by commercial imperatives and those which emerge from Government directives or more socially orientated drivers.
  4. Funding models: The scale of funding and the model of funding adopted have a direct impact on the nature of developments undertaken, and on their long-term sustainability.
  5. Complexity and change management: An inherent characteristic of ICT is the exponential pace of change and its consequential impact on education, the economy and society more broadly.
  6. Changing roles and organisational structures: One of the most evident indicators of the impact of technology is the way in which professional roles are changing.
  7. Research versus teaching: Successful implementation of elearning requires time and investment. In many cases to date elearning developments are undertaken by academics (or at least by mixed-teams which include academics). This clearly creates a tension; academics are expected to undertake both teaching and research, however in many institutions research output is significantly prized over teaching and learning.
  8. Risk and unintended consequences: Given the pace of change of technologies there is a raft of risks associated with elearning developments and resultant unintended consequences.
  9. Dissemination and impact: Another aspect which impacts on how successful an elearning initiative is, or is perceived to be, is the degree to which it is visible and accessible to relevant stakeholders.
  10. Evaluation and reflection: One of the key lessons which can be drawn from reviewing the relationship between policy, funding and practice is the importance of setting in place formative evaluation mechanisms alongside initiatives so that individuals and the sector as a whole can critically reflect on the initiatives’ impact and distil out recommendations for future directions.

The chapter concluded by putting forward a set of research questions to explore:

  • Are current intellectual property policies adequate to cover the implications of elearning?
  • How are Governance issues (and in particular issues to do with privacy and individual rights) being addressed?
  • How do elearning policies and developments integrate with other policies (such as those concerned with access and inclusion, widening participation, development of the economy)?
  • How are changing academic and student roles being addressed; what provision is being put in place to meet new and emerging literacy skills?
  • What new markets and models for higher education might be appropriate to capatilise on the potential of elearning and an increasingly competitive globalised environment?
  • Recurrent trends in elearning research include: the effectiveness of elearning, academic and student-related issues, the impact on organisational structures and processes, and a host of associated issues such as quality mechanisms, privacy rights and security issues. How will these trends develop in the future, what new factors are likely to emerge and how can both be taken account of in policy directives?
  • How can we ensure that policy makers are aware of and take account of the multitude of research activities in elearning and how can we ensure the future research developments are of benefit to and feed into policy directives?

And finally:

In reviewing policy and funding arrangements for this chapter, one thing is evident: that practice follows policy directives and the general trend of technological developments, rather than informing them. This suggests that research and development activities in this area are necessarily pragmatic rather than forward thinking. Furthermore the complexity of the area and the wealth of policy directives, initiatives and funding programme makes overall clear coherent thinking nigh on impossible.



Types of cloudscapes

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

 Types of cloudscapes and strategies for encouraging the use of Cloudworks

Now that we have a number of enhanced features available on the Cloudworks site (such as email alerts, RSS feeds and activity streams) we are beginning to explore different ways in which the site might be used. Here are some examples of types of cloudscapes and how they might be structured and supported:

  • Conference cloudscape
  • Workshop cloudscape
  • Virtual events cloudscape
  • Teaching cloudscape
  • Flash debates cloudscape
  • Tricky and interesting questions cloudscape
  • Aggregated resources cloudscape
  • Design cloudscape
  • Expert elicitation cloudscape


Conference cloudscape

  • Set up a cloudscape for the conference in advance.
  • Include links to relevant information – the conference website, any video recordings, details of agreed twitter hashtags, etc.
  • Set up stub-clouds for each session; include title of presentation, names of presenters and a link to the abstract

  • Get some people to agree to be “live bloggers” during the conference
  • Encourage presenters and attendees to add relevant links and academic references to clouds and participate in discussions
  • Disseminate to the wider network of non-conference attendees via twitter and facebook
  • Important to be aware that many conferences now have their own social networking site, so need to be clear about how the cloudscape will work wit it rather than in competition with it
  • Provides a useful means of aggregating content around a conference, valuable for those attending the conference but also those remotely
  • Example: ALT-C 2009 conference


Workshop cloudscape

  • Set up a cloudscape for the workshop in advance
  • Include general information about the workshop – aims, outcomes and intended audience, include any relevant links and details of agreed hashtag

  • Set up clouds for each of the sessions in the workshop
  • Encourage participants to summarise their discussion around session activities in the clouds
  • Live blog presentations and plenary discussion feedback sessions
  • Encourage participants to add relevant links and resources
  • Provides a useful summary and collection of resources associated with the workshop
  • Example: FELS workshop


Virtual events cloudscape

  • Similar to the conference and workshop cloudscapes, but to support an event that is entirely online
  • Set up the cloudscape with aims, intended audience, timescales and events
  • Set up clouds for each presentation or activity


Teaching session cloudscape

  • Set up a cloudscape for the teaching session in advance
  • Include general information about the teaching session – aims and outcomes, include any relevant links and details of agreed hashtag
  • Set up clouds for each of the activities in the session
  • Encourage students to summarise their discussion around session activities in the clouds
  • Live blog presentations and plenary discussion feedback sessions
  • Encourage participants to add relevant links and resources
  • Provides a useful summary and collection of resources associated with the session


Flash debate cloudscape

  • Set up a cloudscape and outline its purpose, it a series of timed debates around topical issues
  • Set up a cloud around a question/issue for debate, you need to ensure that this is something people will be interested in and want to discuss
  • Pick a time-period for discussions around the cloud – say 1 week
  • Disseminate via twitter and facebook
  • Appoint someone to facilitate the debate and to periodically summarise discussions as additional content on the cloud
  • Periodically re-disseminate to keep the debate going
  • Encourage participants to add relevant links and references
  • Example: “Is Twitter killing blogging?” – virally released on 11/9/09; 27 details comments and 14 links added over the next 3 days, acted as a trigger for a number of reflective blog posts


Tricky and interesting questions cloudscape

  • Similar to the Flash Debate, but more ongoing and focusing on difficut questions in the field that people are seeking answers to
  • Set up a cloudscape outline the purpose
  • Add clouds around questions of interest
  • Virally disseminate
  • Resulting discussions and clouds acts as a rolling FAQ
  • Example: Tricky and interesting questions cloudscape


Aggregate resources cloudscape

  • A cloudscape for aggregating resources around a particular topic, this could be a research area or for students on a particular course
  •  A place to aggregate relevant resources and useful tips for the course

  • Serves as a useful resource for other students interested in the topic
  • Also useful for teachers of the subject, a potential source of new resources or ideas
  • Example: En Rumbo Spanish course


Design cloudscape

  • A space to share and discuss learning and teaching designs
  • Individuals upload their designs
  • Others comment on the design


Expert elicitation cloudscape

  • A mechanism for gathering views, references and resources from experts in the field around a particular research topic/issue
  • Set up a cloudscape setting out the purpose of the research, the approach that is going to be adopted and what advice support you are seeking
  • Add clouds for each sub-topic or question
  • Disseminate via targeted mailing lists, virally disseminate via Twitter and Facebook if appropriate
  • Summarise discussions at key points
  • Include the final research report which synthesis the views gathered when it is available
  • Example: Literature review: educational technologists

Reflections: Cloudworks at ALT-C 2009

Friday, September 11th, 2009

I thought I’d take the chance to reflect on some of the patterns of use of Cloudworks we have seen this week, price particularly in the way it was used around the ALT-C 2009 conference. We set up a cloudscape for the conference and put stub-clouds for each of the sessions. The intention was that the cloudscape would complement the ALT crowdvine site and act as a means of aggregating resources and debates around sessions. Whereas the crowdvine site provided a useful flow of discussion, means of connecting with others at the conference and centred around the programme at the conference, we felt the cloudscape focussed specifically on the actual sessions. A number of folk live blogged sessions they went to – Juliette Culver, Rebecca Galley, Partick McAndrew , Chris Pegler and Martin Weller and Doug Clow even managed to live blog remotely! I didn’t attend the conference but participated remotely. Ironically I felt that I almost learnt more about the conference by following what was happening in the Cloudscape than I would have done if I had attended. But perhaps that says more about me gossiping and networking too much at conferences, than about the usefulness of the site per se ;-)

I think there are mixed views as to how well crowdvine and the cloudscape worked together and we need to reflect on these. One key concern, not surprisingly, was whether the cloudscape detracted from/diluted the activities on crowdvine. However, certainly a number of people watching in remotely said that they found the cloudscape useful as a simple way of keeping in touch with what was happening at the conference. There were a number of trigger clouds around which there was significant activity – the two most active were The VLE is Dead debate and Martin Bean’s Keynote. I think the adding links and academic reference functionality on clouds worked well. Similarly adding additional content to clouds and additional comments also seemed to work well, although we are aware that the current two-column format for this isn’t quite right. I found that I wanted to be able to interact with people more – to be able to post something on their profile, so this is something we are going to look into.

We have activity streams for individuals and cloudscapes as well as the whole site. I found I was using this a lot as a means of keeping abreast of new things happening on the site, but I wonder to what extent other people are using these features or indeed whether they are even aware they are there? Likewise to what extent are people using the RSS feed feature?

We have an irritating bug that needs fixing – currently if you cut and paste from word you get lots of erroneous code. Also we want to be able to add pictures easily and also an embed button from sites like YouTube and Slideshare.

We are still torn as to whether or not to enable users to upload files, given that there are many other good sites that do this – such as GoogleDocs and Slideshare, is this really necessary?

Searching and being able to find content is clearly going to be critical as the site grows. You can also find a lot usefully via the Tag button at the top of the front page but again I don’t know how many people are aware of that.

Adding clouds still seems to be a major barrier, although its encouraging to see more people being willing to add links, additional content or comments – for some reason there seems to be a lower barrier than creating a new cloud.

So these are just some of my initial random thoughts. I know Juliette and Rebecca have their own reflections and hopefully they will post something here. Again any feedback much appreciated and if you have a moment to fill out the Cloudworks survey that would be great.

Cloudworks: design decisions

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Juliette Culver and I have just had a paper accepted for Computers and Education on Cloudworks. A draft is available here. The paper describes the first three phases of design decisions, along with evaluation of each phase. We have just being using Cloudworks extensively as a means of live blogging the ALTC 2009 conference and plan to reflect on the experience and what worked and didn’t. Would really welcome any thoughts on the paper or on the current look&feel/functionality of the site. Below is a summary of the design decisions to date:

Design Decision 1.1 Cloud metaphor

We wanted to avoid the use of technical terms such as ?learning design? and hence choose to call the core objects of the site ?Clouds? and the overall site ?Cloudworks?. The notion of Clouds was intended to indirectly evoke metaphorical images of ?blue skies thinking?, ?thinking at an elevated level?, ?visioning and thinking creatively?. The name ?Cloudworks? also works as an acronym for ?Collaborative Learning Design at The Open University?, although it is important to stress that we do not see Cloudworks as a specific tool solely for the OU but as a generic tool for anyone to use.

Design Decision 1.2 Initial content population of the site

In order that visitors to the site did not find an empty site and had examples of the type of content expected on the site, we made the decision to initially populate the site with some content. This was done in two ways. Firstly, through trawling existing sites for good practice ? this included harvesting the 44 case studies of the use of VLE tools mentioned earlier, appropriation of learning designs generated by the AUTC Learning Design site ( and a selection of examples from other well known learning object repositories and case studies of good practice.  The criteria for inclusion was that the examples should present a good spread in terms of pedagogy, subject and tool use and should provide different types of representations from short textual narratives through to more complex visual designs, as well as being representative of the different potential types of Clouds that might be included in the site. Secondly, once we had a reasonable mix of seeded Clouds, we ran a series of five ?Cloudfests? with potential users, where participants were asked to generate Clouds for the site and where they also critiqued existing Clouds. We used the data from the interviews with teachers and the 44 case studies of the use of the VLE tools, to draw out barriers and enablers to finding, discussing and sharing learning and teaching ideas and used these to help steer the discussing in the Cloudfests. 

Design Decision 1.3 Include social features

Analysis of the design interviews with teachers and of the VLE case studies showed that teachers value the opportunity to share ideas with others; indeed for many a named contact to get further information about a particular learning and teaching intervention was perceived as more useful than finding similar information via a website. This was particularly true if the teacher knew the individual and valued their expertise, but was also because they felt there was then an opportunity to follow up with further queries if required.

The importance of socialisation in social networking is well recognised and is one of the underpinning philosophies we have adopted for the site. As a result, from the early stages of development of the site, each Cloud was intentionally social, in that others could comment on and add to it. In the initial stages of development, these social aspects consisted simply of the ability for users to add comments to Clouds and these comments then appeared in a linear temporal fashion under the Cloud. However, our ultimate aim was to build a much richer set of social functionality, drawing on observation of other successful Web 2.0 social practices, alongside evaluation of users? perceptions and use of Cloudworks.

We wanted the focus of the site to be around Clouds and associated discussions, rather than replicating more complex social networking sites such as Ning or Elgg, where the user can incorporate multiple Web 2.0 tools for aggregating content and for communication. We wanted therefore to keep the focus on objects (Clouds) about learning and teaching. This metaphor of a Cloud as a social object was a core principle of the site.

Design Decision 1.4 Tagging within categories

Instead of allowing completely free tagging we restricted the use of tags, allowing free tagging within three categories: pedagogy, tool and discipline.  The aim here was to make it simpler for people to search for particular types of content without having the constraints of pre-defined vocabularies. We felt these three categories reflected the intended scope of the site and acted as a reminder to users of the kinds of things they might either be interested in looking for or contributing. Again these categories were abstracted from the teacher interviews and case studies, as these were what teachers typically used to filter information. 

Design Decision 1.5 Low barrier to entry

One of the themes at the initial vision workshop was the tension between a low barrier to entry to encourage users to generate content verses the desire for high-quality content (the issue of reputation systems and evidence for quality came up frequently). It was also clear from the workshop that detailed information about a topic was often less important than having contact details for a person to talk to about it  (which triangulates with similar comments from the teacher interviews as discussed earlier). Each Cloud thus consisted of a short informative title, a two-line description, a more detailed account and any relevant links.

Design Decision 1.6 No private content

Another tension from the initial workshop was between the website being open and issues such as rights clearance and student access. Here following the Web 2.0 principle of harnessing collective intelligence resulted in the decision that, in order to gain critical mass for the site, all the content should be open and no private content would be allowed. We felt that in order to capitalise on Web 2.0 practices the site needed to be open and also that existing tools behind institutional firewalls (such as password protected forums, blogs and wikis) already provided adequate mechanisms for sharing and discussions within distinct groups. Openness allows for serendipity, for a Cloud created and discussed within one community to be discovered and re-appropriated in another context. However we also needed a means of validating users and hence anyone can view content on the site, but to add content or comment on existing Clouds the user needs to register on the site. 

Design Decision 1.7 User Profiles

As discussed earlier, sharing and discussing experiences is a core facet of teacher practice and hence we recognised that the information on the site about individuals needed to be informative, to enable others to gain quickly an overview of that individual?s expertise and interests. Hence the user profiles, in addition to having user-generated information (such as name, institution and interests), also included an automatically generated stream of the clouds that user has created. This helps to differentiate users within the site; so for example it might be inferred that users with a lot of Clouds have some degree of authority ? although in the initial stages no peer reviewing or voting of Clouds or individuals was included, this is certainly one of the more advance features we are interested in exploring. The aim is to not only provide a listing of users within the site, but an indication of their interests and expertise.

Design Decision 1.8 Cloud types

The core aim of the site was the intention for it to be a place to share and discuss learning and teaching designs and ideas. At an early stage of the conceptualisation of the site it was decided that these designs/ideas would be described as ?Clouds?. In the first version of the site there were five types of Clouds.

Design Decision 2.1 Amalgamate cloud types

The initial five categories of Clouds were amalgamated, so that now the sole object in Cloudworks is a ?Cloud?. This decision was made because it became clear that it was difficult to categorise clouds into the types suggested. For example, it is not clear if a site containing a number of designs should be included as a ?Resource? Cloud or a ?Design? Cloud. Likewise, the distinction between a tool and a resource was not always clear-cut.  Nonetheless, the types of Clouds which could be included remained the same, i.e. a short description of a learning and teaching idea, a more detailed learning designs or case studies of practice, a question or issue a user was seeking advice on, or information about particular resources or tools and how they can be used to support learning and teaching.

Design Decision 2.2. Increase social features

It was clear that the site was not being used socially. We were generating the majority of the activity on the site, either in terms of the creation of new Clouds, or through use of the site in workshops. As well as retaining the social element of being able to have a comment around a Cloud, in the revised site, new content and discussion was made more prominent on the home page, with a list of new clouds in the centre and new comments on clouds on the left hand side. The intention was to help make the site appear more dynamic and to highlight site activity to encourage further activity. 

Design Decision 2.3 Cloudscapes

A new feature ?Cloudscapes? was introduced to address the issue of focusing on community engagement. Clouds can be aggregated into ?Cloudscapes? associated with a particular event, purpose or interest. Example Cloudscapes include: conferences, workshops, projects, research interests, types of pedagogy, course design team spaces, tool development spaces, or course-specific Cloudscapes. 

Design Decision 2.4 Following functionality

As discussed earlier, the ability to comment on Clouds was seen as the first step to mimicking some of the practices around the use of other Web 2.0 tools. Another practice, evident in many social networking sites, is the idea of indicating who you are connected to ? the concept of connecting to friends and following their activities is prevalent in many sites such as Facebook, Ning, Elgg, Linked-In and Twitter. We were particularly interested in the way in which the microblogging site Twitter ( has been appropriated over the last year or so as a lightweight mechanism for engaging ideas and sharing and were struck by the way in which this matched our criterion for low barrier to entry of use of the site as discussed earlier.  In Twitter posted messaged (tweets) are constrained to 140 characters and tend to be a mix of light hearted and professional comments. Users ?follow? others and can be ?followed?, anyone following you will see your tweets and vice versa. In the e-learning community we have seen an uptake of Twitter as a mechanism for providing a community back chat of discussions around e-learning issues and research. We wanted to explore how such practices might be replicated in Cloudworks, as a result a ?follow? feature was added to the site. Users can follow both people and Cloudscapes. A list of who and what they are following then appears dynamically on their user profile, helping to enrich the picture of an individual?s interests and expertise discussed earlier.

Design Decision 2.5 My Cloudstream

Another feature evident in many web 2.0 sites is some type of activity stream. This shows activity of relevance to an individual such as: who has recently connected to whom in your community network, new posts added, comments made by others etc. To mimic this we introduced the notion of a ?Cloudstream?. An individual?s  ?Cloudstream? includes a temporal listing of any new Clouds a user creates, as well as Clouds from any individual or Cloudscapes they are following.

Design Decision 3.1 Add RSS feeds

In line with increasing the Web 2.0 functionality associated with the site, RSS feeds are now available for Clouds, Cloudscapes and people. This enables users to flag only those aspects of the site they are interested in and means rather than having to go to the site, the information can be send to them as an RSS feed and incorporated into their chosen personal digital environment. 

Design Decision 3.2 Integrate streams from Web 2.0 sites

A common Web 2.0 practice, particularly evident in the blogosphere, is the ability to integrate dynamic content from other Web 2.0 sites, often using a ?cut and paste? embed code. Dynamic Twitter, Flickr and Slideshare streams are now possible for both individuals and Cloudscapes. In each case an agreed ?tag? is used as a means of identifying appropriate content for inclusion. For example, if a conference has an agreed Twitter tag #conf09, use of this on the conference Cloudscape will dynamically incorporate all the tweets including that hash-tag. 

Design Decision 3.3 Merge the tag categories

Evaluation of the earlier versions of the site and how tags were being used on it, indicated that users were confused by having three different categories of tag-clouds and in fact were not finding these distinctions helpful, particularly when creating Clouds associated with workshops or conferences, where tags associated specifically with the content of the Cloud and the name of the event were emerging as more natural tags. As a result the tag-clouds have been merged so there is no longer a distinction between pedagogy, subject and tools. 

Design Decision 3.4 Make the home page more visual

Jelfs highlighted in her usability report that the homepage was too busy and not very engaging. Analysis of other feedback indicated that users were not always clear about the scope of the site and what it contained. As discussed above, the newly added Cloudscape facility provided a useful means of engaging specific communities, particularly at workshops and conferences. We wanted to highlight this and hence featured Cloudscapes were added to the front page of the site. We felt this offered the dual purpose of highlighting current, active communities and as a means of illustrating the range of different types of Cloudscapes that could be created.

Cloudworks Future Development 

A second user design was commissioned in April 2009 and a new design based on this was launched in July 2009. As part of this the site was completely rebuilt in CodeIgniter ( The new design provides a much cleaner look and feel and a simpler, more intuitive navigational structure. Initial feedback on the new design has been very positive.

Further enhancing the social aspects of the site is the key driver for the next stage. The success of the use of the site for conferences and workshops is encouraging; nonetheless the site is still not being used in the spontaneous way we envisaged in the original vision statement. We therefore intend to work with a few specific communities in-depth, to articulate their needs and evaluate their use of the site over a number of months. Potential communities to work with that we have identified so far include a cross-institutional community interested in e-learning, a group developing and deploying OER, a pedagogy and research group interested in enquiry-based learning and a support network for careers work and innovation.    

By adopting a reflective approach and not tying down the site in terms of tight specifications a number of surprising patterns of use have emerged. For example, we could not have anticipated at the start of the project the success the site would have in terms of acting as a shared live blogging space.

This post has described a set of design principles which have shaped our development of the site. We have argued that these principles have been derived from our original vision for the site and the associated theoretical perspectives it draws on and that we have used findings from our evaluation work to progressively improved the functionality of the site. We will continue to incorporate further Web 2.0 functionality, trying to pick up the best of social networking practices and appropriate them within the site.

Conferences offered time-bounded events where people are bought together around a shared interest. Cloudworks provides a simple to use back channel to capture and archive the conference discussions. Similarly it works well as a mechanism for capturing discussions during workshops. It is also proving useful as a mechanism for aggregating and discussing resources for a particular community of interest. For example a Cloudscape has been set up to support a group of learners on a language course. We are beginning to explore how the site can be used to support other types of community, as well as looking at ways in which such community engagement can be initiated and sustained.

However the broader vision of a site, where it acts as a conduit for sharing learning and teaching ideas and designs, where teachers upload ideas as a matter of course, and as a back channel drip feeding new innovations, has not yet being achieved and is a much more ambitious and difficult thing to realise. Barriers to this are social and cultural as well as technical. Technically we intend to continue to incorporate and test out Web 2.0 type functionality. We will continue to run activities and events using the site and intend to set up further evaluation studies to tease out the social and culture barriers. We also intend to work with specific ?champion? communities to explore how the site might be used to meet they needs.