Archive for January, 2010

A response to Stephen Downes

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Stephen has written some valuable comments on my ‘Defining OEP’ blog post. Couple of minor things in my defence and then some more subtaintive points to discuss! ;-)  Clearly my choice of picture to show the meeting was not a good one given Stephen’s reaction!

…but a conference session consisting of standing in a circle around flip-chart sheets would send me running and screaming into the nearest woods, never to be found again. So, please, let’s not make that an open education practice


Actually the meeting was excellent with a nice mix of different types of group work, use of flip charts, illustrative art drawings to capture key points, images on flckr etc. I found this a great mix and much better than the usual sit round in boardroom style meetings with one person dominating the meeting. Maybe we could have used more technology during the meeting but actually I think the face to face interactions were a key part of us connecting as a consortium at this point in the project.

Stephen critiques my initial starter for ten diagram which articulates the 4 different types of stakeholders involved in OER/OEP arguing that

…so, I’m not sure I like a model where ‘policy-makers’ (also called ’stakeholders’) are distinct from ‘creators’ and ‘users’ - people who create and use should make the policy, in my view.

Clearly the diagram isn’t quite right yet, my intention was never to suggest that the four roles were distinct and separate, rather that they are four aspects which have different agendas and interests. A ‘learner’ could very easily be involved in all four, but at each stage – when they are looking at creating, using, managing or ‘policy-making’ OER they will have a different focus of attention and it was this that I really wanted to bring out and explore.

Good to have some early feedback on this – I think there is a lot to trash out in terms of exactly what OEP is. I am reminded of some work I did a few years ago as part of the NSF/JISC DIalogPlus project. The aim (a naïve one now I admit) was to create a learning design guidance toolkit that would take practitioners through the process of creating learning activities. It would provide guidance and advice on pedagogical approaches, what technologies can be used when and why and a process of mapping learning outcomes, topics, activities and assessment tasks. The toolkit is still around if you want to play. Near the beginning of the work I thought ‘hang on a minute – what exactly do we mean by a learning activity anyway?’ A seemingly simple question… which turned into a mammoth amount of work and a very detailed taxonomy articulating the different components that make up a learning activity! More on the details of this are available in a chapter on the Handbook of Learning Design and Learning Objects by Lockyer et al. (Conole, G. 2008). I have a funny feeling something similar might happen with OEP – i.e. it seems obvious what it is, and easy to articulate it, but I suspect in reality the task will be much more complex.


Conole, G., 2008. Capturing practice, the role of mediating artefacts in learning design. In In L. Lockyer, S. Bennett, S. Agostinhi and B. Harper Handbook of learning designs and learning objects.  IGI Global.



Defining Open Educational Practices (OEP)

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Ulf group

Last week I attended the kick off meeting for an exciting new EU-funded project, OPAL, from the website:

The Open Educational Quality Initiative will focus on provision of innovative open educational practices and promote quality, innovation and transparency in higher and adult education. Beginning in January 2010, the two-year OPAL Initiative is a partnership between seven organizations including ICDE, UNESCO and ICDE member institution, the Open University UK, and will be coordinated by the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany. The project is part funded by the European Commission Education and Training Lifelong Learning Programme.

As you can see the project has a strong consortium with some significant players/representatives from across the EU. It is also an important and timely project given the increasing focus and interest in Open Educational Resources (OER).

For us at the OU it builds nicely on two stands of related work – our work on OER (through the development of the OpenLearn site and more recently the Olnet initiative) and the OU Learning Design Initiative.

At the kick off meeting we trashed out the details of the vision behind the project, with its focus on enhancing quality and innovation through clearer articulation and support of Open Educational Practices (OEP). For me a key first task in the coming months is going to be to try and really unpack what we actually mean by OEP, what are its dimensions, how can we expose existing OEP and from this translate this into a set of useful guidelines to help facilitate better OEP? These are important questions that we will be addressing in work packages 3 and 4 of the project.  We will begin by undertaking a state of the art review of the field and then a more extensive quantitative survey. This will be followed by four in-depth studies exploring how recognised leading institutions in the development and use of OER have instantiated good practice in OEP. These findings will then translate into four guidelines – for learners, educational professionals, managers and policy makers.

So what do we mean by Open Educational Practices (OEP)? The detailed discussions from the kick off meeting are currently being written up and distilled but here is my started for ten to stimulate debate:

Open Educational Practices (OEP) are the set of activities and support around the creation, use and repurposing of Open Educational Resources. It also includes the contextual settings within which these practices occur. Therefore there are three importance dimensions to this:

  1. The stakeholders engaged with creating, using or supporting the use of OER. These can be further sub-divided into two types: those involved in ‘creation and use’ of OER and those involved in ‘policy and management’ aspects of OER. Creators: create the OER, and could be either ‘teachers’ or ‘learners’. Users: Use the OER, and could be either ‘teachers or ‘learners’. Managers: Provide the infrastructure to support the OER (technical and organisational) and the tools/support to create/use OER. Policy makers: embed OER into relevant policy.
  2. The range of mediating artefacts that can be used to create and support the use of OER. These include tools and resources to help guide the creation and use of OER, as well as the technologies to support the hosting and management of them.
  3. The contextual factors which impact on the creation, use or support of OER.

OEP diagram

Does this definition make sense? Can we provide a finer grained set of indicators for each of these three dimensions? What existing research and development work in this area should we be looking at to develop these concepts further?

This is going to be an exciting and challenging project, I look forward to working more with other members of the consortium on this over the next two years. A number of people will be involved from the OU – in particular researchers from the Olnet team (led by Patrick McAndrew), but also drawing on expertise from the OULDI team. Paul Mundin has taken on the role of project manager for the OU aspects of the work.

New approaches to designing OER

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

This blog post is a draft of a paper I am working on following on from a keynote I did at the University of Limerick in May. It focuses on new ideas around the design and reuse of Open Educational Resources (OER). My initial thinking around this can be found in an earlier blog post.

The technology paradox

A paradox exists in terms of harnessing new technologies in education.  Despite the fact that there is now a wealth of free tools and resources available that could be used to support learning and teaching, in reality technologies are not used extensively in education. Indeed teachers and learners are bewildered by the variety and lack the time and necessary skills to harness them effectively. The focus of this paper is to present Learning Design as a potential solution and in particular to describe the work we are doing as part of the Open University Learning Design Initiative (OULDI), which is developing a suite of tools and resources to support teachers to make more effective design decisions and better use of technologies in the creation of learning activities and resources for their students. The paper will highlight current research on Pedagogical Patterns, Learning Design and Open Educational Resources (OER) and will suggest that together these three areas provide a possible solution to the mismatch between the potential of new technologies and use in practice. It will conclude with an illustrative example being developed as part of a new initiative, Olnet, which is a global network to support users and researchers of OER.

Redefining openness

I argue in this paper that we need to expand the notion of openness, to take account of the affordances of new technologies and the new patterns of user behaviour we are seeing emerge. There has been a growth in recent years in activities around the Open source movement and the development of open tools and services, also the open educational resource movement (Iiyoshi & Kumar 2008). These have a common set of principles and practices: free, shared, collaborative, cumulatively better. The next logical step is a more “open” approach to design (Open Design) – where the inherent designs within learning activities and resources are made more explicit to learners and to other teachers; so that they can be picked up discussed and adapted.

 I argue in this paper that education is now facing a number of new challenges, precipitating by new technologies. Education today, operates in a context that is increasingly open and abundant:

·      Open – In terms of free resources and in terms of public gauze/scrutiny and can no longer ignore this.

·      Abundant - There are now a wealth of tools, services and resources available to support education. If tools and resources are freely available, what is the purpose of formal educational institutions?

Examples of openness include the growth of the open source moment in general and, more specifically in education, the phenomenal success of the open source Moodle tool. Moodle is now a major Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)/Learner Management System (LMS) around the world, with a large community of active developers collectively improving the core code and adding extensions and plug-ins. There are increasingly sophisticated free generic tools available - Google apps, Gmail, free blog and wiki services, communication tools such as Skype to Twitter. New products are emerging all the time, introducing new concepts and patters of user behaviour – the latest being Google Wave, which is being hyped as the next generation communication tool, a combination of email, discussion forums and wikis – enabling both synchronous and asynchronous communication.

There has been a noticeable shift in the last few years in terms of the use of technologies. We now have near ubiquitous access with wifi-enabled Internet on demand. New generation phones such as iPhone make mobile learning genuinely feasible. The number and variety of applications for the iphone is truly mind blowing; the variety of applications for learning staggering, from mindmapping tools, through digital books and dictionaries to interactive learning tutorials. More and more material for learning is available for free on the Internet. This has been accelerated by the growth of the OER movement, which believes that education should be free and is a basic right. The OER movement has powerful supporters, especially the Hewlett foundation and UNESCO and include big international players such as MIT. The OpenCourseWare consortium has over 200 worldwide members. A range of different types of OERs and models are available which differ in terms of level of granularity, format and media richness, and type of pedagogy. The Open University launched Openlearn ( in 2006 with funded from the William and Flora Hewlett foundation.

Today’s students have grown up surrounded by a technologically mediated world. Clearly new technologies offer much in an educational context, with the promise of flexible, personalised and student-centred learning. Indeed research over the past few years, looking at learners’ use of technologies, has given us a rich picture of how learners of all ages are appropriating new tools within their own context, mixing different applications for finding/managing information and for communicating with others (Sharpe and Beetham, forthcoming). They provide a summary of recent research looking at the learner perspective and in particular how learners are using technologies (Sharpe & Beetham 2010). It is evident that today’s learners are immersed in a technologically rich learning environment. They see technologies as an essential part of their tools for learning. They appropriate technologies to suit their own learning styles and use them to support all aspects of their learning. However despite having grown up in a technological environment, not all students are able to use technologies effectively in an academic context. For example they may be comfortable using Google, but not competent at critically evaluating different resources and using them for their learning. Indeed for the weaker students the complexity of the range of digital tools and resources available to them means they are more likely to get confused and lost.

Good sources of further information on current technology trends and the ways in which technologies are being used in education include: Review of learning 2.0 (Ala-Mutka, 2009), Learner experience work (Conole, De Laat et al., 2008), NSF cyberlearning task force report (NSF, 2008), and a review of OER movement (Atkins et al., 2007)

Education for free

Theoretically one can now put together totally free course offerings using free tools and resources. George Siemens and Stephen Downes created an ambitious course and delivered it for the first time in 2009 – not only were the tools and resources they used in the course free, but so was the expertise! See for a reflection on the experiment by George Siemens. The twelve-week course was called ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge Online Course’.[1]  They described the course as a MOOG (Massive Open Online Course). The content, delivery and support for the course was totally free, anyone could join and an impressive 2400 did, although the actual number of very active participants was smaller (ca. 200). The course provides a nice example of an extension of the open movement, moving a step beyond the Open Educational Resource movement to providing a totally free course. Siemens reflecting on the course said the follow:

Did we change the world? No. Not yet. But we (and I mean all course participants, not just Stephen and I) managed to explore what is possible online. People self-organized in their preferred spaces. They etched away at the hallowed plaque of “what it means to be an expert”. They learned in transparent environments, and in the process, became teachers to others. Those that observed (or lurked as is the more common term), hopefully found value in the course as well. Perhaps life circumstances, personal schedule, motivation for participating, confidence, familiarity with the online environment, or numerous other factors, impacted their ability to contribute. While we can’t “measure them” the way I’ve tried to do with blog and moodle participants, their continued subscription to The Daily and the comments encountered in F2F conferences suggest they also found some value in the course.


 George Siemens and Martin Weller delivered something similar in the form of an ‘un-course’ conference (“From Courses to Dis-Course (yes/no? Am I being too cute-sy?”). See for further information. Such courses are becoming more commonplace, the immediacy of the Internet and the variety of free tools for creating content and for communicating with others, means these courses can be set up very quickly with an international team designing and delivering. What kind of impact will such courses have on traditional educational offerings? Will they sit alongside them or ultimately replace them?

Implications and the hidden conundrum

Clearly all this has profound implications for educational institutions and the provision of formal education (Grainne Conole 2009). For students in terms of the skills and experiences they come with and their expectations in terms of technologies (Sharpe & Beetham 2010)(G. Conole et al. 2008). For teachers in terms of how they design courses for students. For institutions in terms of how they support and assess students. New technologies give rise to a range of questions: To what extent have all these free tools and resources impacted on mainstream education? To what extent are the majority of teachers capitalising on these? How much are mainstream courses changing as a result?

The reality is that despite the enormous potential new technologies seem to offer for learning, uptake of them and utilisation of free resources has been slow.  Indeed there has been very little impact on mainstream education. Where technolgoies are used a lot of the use mirrors existing face-to-face practice, rather than harnessing the powerful affordances associated with them. There is little evidence of major innovations or new forms of pedagogy.

The reasons for the lack of impact of these new technologies are complex and multifaceted. But one of the key ones is that teachers lack the time and expertise to make best use of new tools and resources. Faced with a new tool – say a wiki or twitter - there are a number of questions a teacher (or indeed a learner) needs to consider: What are the special features of the tool? How can it be used to support learning? How have others used the tool? What are the implications in terms of designing and delivering a learning activity using this tool – for the teacher, for the student? Similarly just having freely available OERs is not enough, a series of similar questions arise: What is the quality of the resource? How has it been used elsewhere? How can it be incorporated into my teaching context? Am I able to adapt it; how much do I need to change to suit my teaching context? All of these are non-trivial and time-consuming questions.

Mediating artefacts to support design

Teachers need guidance in understanding how they can appropriate technologies in their teaching. This guidance can be in the form of a range of ‘Mediating Artefacts’ (MAs). I draw on socio-cultural perspectives (Vygotsky 1978;  Cole et al. 1997; Engeström et al. 1999; Daniels et al. 2007), in terms of the use of the term ‘Mediating Artefacts’ (MAs). I believe the concept of mediating artefacts can help us describe and understand how technologies are being used in mediating our practice. A user intent on achieve a particular goal has a range of mediating artefacts they can draw on; both in terms of ‘information’ and mechanisms for ‘communication’. Alongside the established communication channels of the telephone, email, forums and texting, the emergence of web 2.0 technologies in recent years has added blogging (and microblogging), wikis, social networking sites and virtual worlds but also free internet-based Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) and in particular popular tools such as Skype which enable virtually free, internet-based communication. Similarly information can now be distributed in multiple locations, and packaged and presented using a range of different multimedia and visual representations. Sophisticated repositories now exist for everything from shopping categories to repositories of good practice and free resources. RSS feeds and email alerts enable users to filter and personalise the information they receive. Social bookmarking and tagging means that collective value can be added to digital objects, concept and mind mapping, tag clouds and data-derived maps are only some of the ways in which information can be presented in rich and multifaceted ways.

I argue in this paper that there is a need for new mediating artefacts to support teachers and learners in making best use of these tools and resources.  See Conole (2008a) for a description of the use of the term mediating artefacts specifically for learning design. These mediating artefacts can guide and support the teacher in making design decisions. They can provide mechanisms to help teachers answer questions like those posed above, to help them make decisions on which tools and resources to use and in what ways. For example mechanisms to provide them with access to help and advice, expertise and peer support. Mechanisms to enable them to become part of an evolving peer community committed to discussing and sharing learning and teaching ideas.

I argue that this mediation is through more explicit articulation of the inherent designs associated with a particular learning activity and the way in which tools and resources are used in that particular learning activity. If we can abstract these designs and represent them in a meaningful and understandable way there is a greater chance of them being picked up, used and adapted by others, which, in turn, over time is likely to lead to an evolving understanding of how new tools and resources can be used.

Converging schools of thought

I want to focus on three types of Mediating Artefacts and look at how together they can be used to help guide the teacher’s design practice; learning design, pedagogical patterns and OER Mediating Artefacts. A brief introduction to these areas will be provided, followed by a description of how they can be used together to provide a holistic approach to designing for learning.

Pedagogical patterns

The concept of Pedagogical Patterns derives from Alexander’s work in Architecture, towards pattern languages for buildings.  Applied to an educational context, it is concerned with exploring how we generate a set of ‘patterns for good practice’; i.e. here is a problem and here is a tried and tested solution. There is now a considerable body of research on Pedagogical Patterns, such as the work of Yannis Dimitriadis and colleagues in Spain, Peter Goodyear in Australia and the Planet project in the UK. There are a number of repositories of patterns with surrounding communities of interest, see for example and Two well-known examples of patterns for collaborative learning are: “Think, Pair, Share” and “Jigsaw”.

The benefits of the pedagogical patterns approach is that the ‘patterns’ are derived from known, tried and tested examples, building on existing good practice. They all have the same format of representation – here is a problem and a potential solution, along with a powerful visual metaphors.

Open Educational Resources (OER)

The OER movement has concentrated on developing open educational resources and studying the ways in which they are used and/or adapted by learners and teachers (See for example McAndrew and Santos, 2008). The benefits of the OER movement is that it is building a word wide set of high quality free educational resources, along with opportunities to build a community around these resources - to share and critically discuss good practice in learning and teaching.

Learning design

In our own work as part of the OU Learning Design Initiative (OUDLI) we are developing a suite of tools and methods to help teachers with the design process and in particular to enable them to create more pedagogical informed learning activities and make better use of new technologies. Our work is focusing on three aspects of the design process: ways of representing pedagogy (and in particular visualising it), providing guidance and advice, and mechanisms to enable teachers to share and discuss learning and teaching ideas. In particular we have developed two tools – CompendiumLD for visualising and guiding the design process (G. Conole et al. 2008) and Cloudworks a social networking site for finding, sharing and discussing learning and teaching ideas (Conole & Culver 2009b; Conole & Culver 2009a) In addition we have been developed new schema for mapping pedagogies and technologies (Conole 2008)

The benefits of the Learning Design approach are that it provides a range of tools, methods and approaches to help teachers think differently, making the design process more explicit, means of sharing good practice.

A new understanding of design: an illustrative example

What we can see across these three areas of research are different types of designs. Can we combine these learning design tools with the documented good practice, which has been developed in the pedagogical pattern community, with the real exemplars available in the OER world? The pedagogical patterns describe a learning and teaching activity or strategy according to a predefined template. Whereas the OERs might be considered as ‘designs in action’ and provide actual learning content. Finally, Learning Designs help give us a better understanding of the broad ways in which learning and teaching activities or strategies can be represented from narrative case studies or descriptions through to visual designs.

In a new project, OLnet, we are attempting to put these three areas together, specifically to enable better use of OER. OLnet is creating a global network to help researchers and users of OER to work together – so that research outputs inform practice and vice versa. See Conole and McAndrew (Conole & McAndrew 2010). We are interested in exploring how explicit designs might be used to help learners and teachers and how the different tools and resources from across OER, Learning Design and Pedagogical Patterns research would might be used together.  In a recent book chapter we identify four types of Mediating Artefacts from across these research domains: Learning Design visualisation tools, Learning Design methods, Pedagogical Patterns and Web 2.0 sharing and discussion tools (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Types of mediating artefacts

The following scenario provides an example of how this might work (Figure 2). It describes the creation of an OER and an associated design for the OER and shows how this can be repurposed in three different ways. Tools and resources from OER, Learning Deign and Pedagogical Patterns research are used to help design the original OER and then to share and repurpose it.


Figure 2: Initial creation of OER+design and subsequent use and repurposing


Teacher A: The design phase

The scenario begins with ‘Teacher A’. The context is that Teacher A is putting her beginners’ level Spanish material for the OU course L194. She makes the material available as an OER online in the Openlearn repository ( She uses the CompendiumLD tool for visualising to articulate different ways in which she thinks the materials can be used. Figure 3 shows part of the visual design, including the branching sequence to enable a beginner and more advanced route through the learning materials. In particular she is interested in showing how the materials can be used as both a revision exercise for an individual student and at a more advanced level for a group of students working collaboratively. Whilst developing her design in CompendiumLD she has access to ideas and tips and hints from the Cloudworks social networking site for learning and teaching site, as well as from a range of OER and Pedagogical Pattern repositories. These help her to refine her design thinking, to get ideas about how to structure activities in the sequences and suggestions of tools that be used for example for supporting a diagnostic e-assessment test or to enable students to communicate synchronously.

Learner A: Use Scenario 1 – beginners’ route

‘Learner A’ is doing Spanish.  She is a few weeks into the intermediate level Spanish course. The topic she is currently working on is ‘describing places’, she is looking for freely available tools or resources that might help her, she is also interested in finding study buddies to work with, who are at a similar level.

1.      She explores the openlearn site

2.      She finds the set of OERs for a beginners’ Spanish course – L194 – Portales from the Open University, UK, developed by Teacher A.

3.      She finds alongside these resources a visual design – which provides an example of how these resources might be used. The design consists of the following aspects:

a.       A diagnostic e-assessment test to assess her level of understanding of the topics covered in the course

b.       Two potential pathways: a) a beginners route where the learner works individually through the L194 OER material, b) an advanced route where the learner is assigned to a study group to work collaboratively around 1 aspects of the L194 OER material, Activity 2.1. In this advanced route, the existing activity (categorise 3 pictures of buildings as Latin American or Spanish) is replaced with one where the learner has to describe and compare the buildings, working collaboratively with other students and interrogating an expert for information. The activity exploits the jigsaw pedagogical pattern and also uses a free video conferencing tool to enable the study group to speak with a Spanish cultural expert. 

4.      She takes the diagnostic tests and the advice is that she takes the beginners’ route and completes the L194 OER material.

Learner B: Use Scenario 2 – advanced route

Learner B is also a student a few weeks into an intermediate level Spanish course. She works through a similar set of activities to Learner A but in this case after taking the diagnostic test the advice is that he takes the advanced route and focuses in on the adapted activity 2.1 as a collaborative exercise with other students.

Teacher B: Use Scenario 3 – repurposes

Teacher B is an Associate Lecturer teaching on the intermediate level Spanish course at the Open University, En Rumbo – L140, preparing for a face-to-face tutorial with his students. The topic is describing places. Finds the design described above and adapts it to produce two new variants of the design 1. a classroom-based activity where the students describe the pictures using the Think-Pair-Share pattern and provides, 2. A similar exercise in terms of comparing three buildings but the students are asked to describe buildings from their town and then talk with an expert (a student in Spain) who then describes their home town. The activity is set as a precursor to the first assignment exercise for the course.

The design of this scenario represented in CompendiumLD was drawn by Andrew Brasher and an interactive version of it is available here. Figure 4 provides a conceptual overview and generalisation of this scenario – showing how an initial design can query existing resources such as Cloudworks and Openlearn, use these to help create and populate an OER, along with an associated design, both of which can then be deposited back into sites such as Cloudworks and OpenLearn for reuse.


The mismatch between the potential of technologies and actual use in practice is I would argue one of the most important key challenges facing modern education. The areas of Pedagogical Patterns, Learning Design and OER research have developed a range of valuable tools and resources which have proved effective in supporting teachers and learners and enabling them to decide and use educational resources more effectively. The next stage in the challenge is how to build on this; how to make more effective connections across these three areas of research.


Many people are involved in this work but want to thank in particular:

§   Olnet/Openlearn: Patrick McAndrew, Yannis Demitriadis (who is currently working with us as a visiting Olnet professor), Tina Wilson, Niall Sclater

§   OULDI: Andrew Brasher, Juliette Culver, Simon Cross, Paul Clark, Martin Weller

§   Funders: The William and Flora Hewlett foundation, the JISC, the Open University for strategic funding


Ala-Mutka, K., Bacigalupo, M., Kluzer, S., Pascu, C., Punie, Y. and Redecker, C. (2009). Review of Learning 2.0 Practices. IPTS technical report prepared for publication, IPTS: Seville, available online at [18/4/09].

Atkins, D., Seely Brown, J. and Hammond, A.L. (2007), A review of the Open Educational Resource movement: achievements, challenges and new opportunities, report to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, available online at, last accessed 5/2/09.

Cole, M., Engeström, Y. & Vasquez, O.A., 1997. Mind, culture, and activity: Seminal papers from the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, Cambridge Univ Pr.


Conole, G. (2008a) ‘Capturing practice: the role of mediating artefacts in learning design’, in Handbook of Research on Learning Design and Learning Objects: Issues, Applications and Technologies, in L. Lockyer, S. Bennett, S. Agostinho, and B Harper (Eds), 187-207, Hersey PA: IGI Global.


Conole, G. et al., 2008. Visualising learning design to foster and support good practice and creativity. Educational Media International, 45(3), 177-194.


Conole, G. & Culver, J., 2009a. Cloudworks: Social networking for learning design. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 25(5). Available at: [Accessed November 24, 2009].


Conole, G. & Culver, J., 2009b. The design of Cloudworks: Applying social networking practice to foster the exchange of learning and teaching ideas and designs. Computers & Education. Available at: [Accessed November 24, 2009].


Conole, G. et al., 2008. ‘Disruptive technologies’, ‘pedagogical innovation’: What’s new Findings from an in-depth study of students’ use and perception of technology. Computers & Education, 50(2), 511-524.


Conole, G. & McAndrew, P., 2010. A new approach to supporting the design and use of OER: Harnessing the power of web 2.0. In In M. Edner and M. Schiefner (Eds) Looking toward the future of technology enhanced education: ubiquitous learning and the digital nature.


Conole, G., McAndrew, P. & Dimitriadis, Y., The role of CSCL pedagogical patterns as mediating artefacts for repurposing Open Educational Resources’. In in F. Pozzi and D. Persico (Eds), Techniques for Fostering Collaboration in Online Learning Communities: Theoretical and Practical.  2010.


Conole, G., 2009. Stepping over the edge: the implications of new technologies for education. Available at: [Accessed November 24, 2009].


Conole, G., 2008. New Schemas for mapping pedagogies and technologies. Ariadne magazine, (56). Available at: [Accessed November 24, 2009].


Daniels, H., Cole, M. & Wertsch, J., 2007. The Cambridge Companion to Vygotsky 1st ed., Cambridge University Press.


Dimitriadis, Y. et al., 2009. New design approaches to repurposing Open Educational Resources for collaborative learning using mediating artefacts. In  Auckland: ASCILITE.


Engeström, Y., Punamäki-Gitai, R.L. & Miettinen, R., 1999. Perspectives on activity theory, Cambridge University Press.


Iiyoshi, T. & Kumar, M.S.V., 2008. Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge, The MIT Press.


McAndrew, P. and A. I. Santos (Eds.) (2009). Learning from OpenLearn: Research Report 2006-2008. Milton Keynes, UK: The Open University.

NSF (2008), Fostering learning in the networked world: learning opportunity and challenge. A 21st Century agenda for the National Science Foundation, report of the NSF task force on cyberlearning, available online at, last accessed 8/2/09.


Sharpe, R. & Beetham, H., 2010. Rethinking learning for the digital age: how learnes shape their own experiences, London: Routledge.


Vygotsky, L.S., 1978. Mind in society.





Theories and methods

Monday, January 18th, 2010

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

Theory and methodology in Networked learning

Gráinne Conole, The Open University

Positional paper for the Networked Learning Hotseat debate, January 2010


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

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

·      A cloudscape on interdisciplinarity

·      Relevant research literature

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Cohen, Manion and Morrison, 2000: 6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Networked learning researchers’ birth disciplines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The nature of theory

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

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

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

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

·      What is the value of theory to teachers?

·      What do we mean by theory?

·      How has theory has been embedded into three areas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theoretical perspectives dominant discourses

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



Cultural Historical Activity Theory

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

Communities of Practice

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

Actor Network Theory

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

Cybernetics and systems thinking

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

Methodological approaches

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

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

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

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

Content analysis

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


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

Case studies

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

Action research

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Research questions and grand challenges in the field

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

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

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


    * In which directions are they moving the field forward?

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

    * How will they build on current issues and findings?


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

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

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


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

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

·                Freedom requires resource

·                Collaborations grow in years not months

·                Goals must offer serendipity not constraint

·                Maintain and reward curiosity

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


Along with suggestions for making it happen:

·        Start small and move fast

·        Bring creative and design practices to technology

·        Facilitate encounters between communities

·        Cheerfully transgress academic borders

·        Engage with reflective social science

·        Directly address public policy


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


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


    * What is the difference between interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity?

    * Does it matter?

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

    * What about funding for interdisciplinary work?


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

Case studies

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

·      The focus of research

·      Theoretical perspectives

·      Methodological approach adopted

·      Key issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case study: A design and evaluation framework[1]

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

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

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



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

A framework for technological intervention

Monday, January 11th, 2010

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


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

Scrutinising the e-learning history line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* The degree of urban vs. rural developments.

* The balance of commercial imperatives vs. government directions.

* The types of funding models available.

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

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

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

* The unintended consequences arising from e-learning interventions.

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

* The degree of self-reflective and evaluation.

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



A glimpse into the future

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

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

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

Emergent themes and challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoiding the failures of the past

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

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

2. Misunderstandings – communication problems, inadequate information.

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

4. Disagreement over the need for change.

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

A framework for technological intervention

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

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

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

* The importance of demonstrating the added value of technologies

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

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

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

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

 Figure 2

Figure 2: A framework for technological intervention

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


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

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

* How can technologies support new forms of pedagogy?

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

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

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

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


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2 See for a current debate on the report.

3, and


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