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Educational blogging on an online postgraduate course

Madras Cafe

Blogging, although neither mandatory nor assessed, was an important part of the student experience on the Open University postgraduate course H800: Technology Enhanced Learning – Practices and Debates.  Around 70 students – more than half the enrollment, and probably nearer two thirds of those students still actively engaged with the course after seven months – maintained weblogs during the course’s 2010 presentation.  Numbers of posts ranged from three to 103, one student writing a remarkable 50,000 words during H800, most posting several times a month and receiving regular comments from fellow students (see my previous post). An unpublished end-of-course survey by H800 student Catherine Coltman suggested that six in 10 students had enjoyed blogging, seven in 10 found it helped them with assignments, and eight in 10 felt it had supported their learning.

Clearly, while a substantial minority of H800 students blogged reluctantly or not at all, many others found blogging sufficiently rewarding to devote considerable time and energy to its practice.

So why do students blog? Here are some voices from the H800 blogosphere:

Student A: I have found I’m using it in 2 ways … as an online place to store notes.. and to talk aloud/share my thoughts .. Not expecting anyone to comment … but happy if they do!

Student B: Writing helps me sort out my ideas and encourages me to think more deeply…  I am experimenting with a mixture of personal and academic stuff. This feels ‘right’ to me as I feel the need for a perceived audience (even if no one reads it)…I think this helps me feel part of the community.

Student C: Somebody in my tutor group posed the question over how public reflection adds to learning?..  Disclosure – about things that are authentic and matter to you –  is a tool for building trust with others.

Student D: In the adult basic education field, we cannot avoid using what Moon refers to as “collaborative methods of deepening reflection”… I see blogging as [a] useful way of getting critical friends to deepen one’s reflection while learning.

Student E: [There are] two types of writing. Thinking writing – what you do for yourself as you’re learning, taking your own notes, helping you to think –  [and] Presentation writing – writing for an audience, communicating. Blogging combines both types of writing and also introduces the activity of conversation. 

Each of these comments resonates with my own experience of academic blogging. My MAODE weblog is an online notebook of stand-out readings and themes, a live connection with a community of student bloggers, and a reflective journal helping me to consolidate thoughts, process concepts and connect ideas. It is an instance of the representation by the learner of their own learning, which Moon (2001) identifies as a prerequisite of deep learning.

My blogging has another function too. When I interact with other academic blogs I’m not just acquiring new knowledge, I’m also learning the skills of scholarly discourse: practising academic writing, trying out a new rhetoric or discourse, performing my own identity as a practitioner – a role-playing process I blogged about here.

Students use their blogs, then, as:

  • reflective journals
  • online scrapbooks/notebook
  • platforms for self-publication and peer review
  • for knowledge sharing, social support and community building
  • for discourse practice and cognitive apprenticeship

All these uses are well supported in the academic literature. According to Downes (2009) “blogs give students ownership over their own learning and an authentic voice, allowing them to articulate their needs and inform their own learning.” Oravec (2003) has characterised the use of blog reading and writing to explore expert knowledge communities as a type of cognitive apprenticeship. Sharma and Fiedler (2007) describe the educational weblog as a learning log which “captures the history of a learning project in action and records the personally meaningful material that can foster and facilitate reflective practices.” Ferdig and Trammell (2004) point to the way blogs enable students to revisit and revise their learning artefacts for reflection and analysis while supporting learning-as-conversation; while Nardi, citing Vygotsky, notes that

Thinking by writing’ embeds cognition in a social matrix in which the blog is a bridge to others for getting explicit feedback, but also a means by which to regulate one’s own behavior (writing) through connecting with an audience. (Nardi, 2004).

The theoretical foundations of educational blogging lie in two of the most influential ideas in 20th century pedagogical thought. The first is the notion of reflective practice, introduced in the mid 1980s by Schon (1983), but most lucidly embodied in Kolb’s learning cycle which understands learning as the processing of experience, via review, reflection, conceptualisation, and experimentation (Kolb, 1984).

This is precisely what H800 student bloggers were engaged in: a conscious, reflective processing of experience in order to improve understanding and future practice. “Reflection seems pointless if it is only for reflection’s sake,” wrote one student in her blog. “If it helps us to apply what we have learnt to our practice, then it really becomes worthwhile”.

Reflective practice also has an emotional dimension, something first noted by Boud (1985) and discussed in depth by Nardi et al (2004). Several H800 students used their blogs to vent feelings of demoralisation or alienation, and invariably found support and encouragement from fellow students. For example a post entitled “Week 24 and really struggling” quickly received eight comradely comments; the writer’s next post reported that “All this has helped me to realise that I’m not on my own, and that lots of others are struggling along with me.”

The second conceptual foundation of educational blogging is the notion of communities of practice developed in the 1990s by Brown, Wenger and others. This tradition sees learning as a process of socialisation of new group members into domain-specific knowledge, skills and discourse, moving from the periphery to the centre as they become more expert in the domain. In the social and networked dimension of H800 student blogging, in which students mix personal with academic reflection, share knowledge, commentate on each others’ posts and encourage each other through hard times, we can see the community of learners in operation. And in the opportunity blogs give learners to interact with expert practitioners, to be enculturated into the language and practice of a domain, and to adopt an academic persona, they instantiate what Brown would call cognitive apprenticeship and Wenger legitimate peripheral participation in a community of scholars (Brown, 1989; Wenger, 1998).

Even when the writing is personal and inward-looking, the public nature of the blogging platform makes the practice a social and conversational one: a kind of dialogue with oneself.  This inner dialogue is well exemplified by the animated diablog format created by H800 student Julie Carle, in which students Bob (nerdy) and Sue (sporty) chew over the current week’s theme in a pastiche Platonic dialogue. Their slightly flirtatious chats articulated their author’s internal debates so absorbingly that they became minor internet celebs, with hundreds of plays on YouTube. Here they are discussing collaborative working:

Bob: I think there is more talk than actual collaboration in this course. Just interacting isn’t collaborating.

Sue: How d’you mean Bob?

Bob: Well, we don’t create joint products really – something that everyone has equal input [into]. Usually we do individual stuff, and someone summarises it and posts it to the forum. I don’t call that collaboration, Sue..

Sue: I wonder why we HAVE to collaborate on courses, when we could be much more efficient if we just got on and did things ourselves?

Despite all these reasons to blog, however, a substantial minority of students on this course did not engage with academic blogging. Why?

All new technologies are disruptive of existing practices and therefore encounter resistance.  Rogers identifies the main resistance factors as a perceived lack of relative advantage or of compatibility with existing practice; plus high complexity and low observability (Rogers, 2003). Both disruption and resistance may be contraindications for educators thinking of deploying new technologies, even if they are outweighed in the final analysis by potential benefits.

Educational blogging has a high degree of compatibility with existing practice, since most students are used to writing and familiar with notions of journal-keeping, reflection and peer-review. For regular web users, complexity is low, since blog publishing is as easy as updating a social network page, and observability high because blogs are so numerous – 146 million according to BlogPulse (2010). The main barrier for potential student bloggers is therefore a perceived lack of relative advantage: a failure to discern sufficient benefits as to justify the extra investment in time and/or energy. On H800 this barrier was heightened by the fact that engagement with blogging, unlike tutor-group forum contributions, played no part in assessment. Unclear about the different purposes of forum participation and blog-posting, many students opted out of the latter, as noted by H800 student Sylvia Mossinger in an unpublished survey of her tutor group: “most stated they saw blog and forum as competing tools; they did not want to write things twice and with the great workload they decided to stay focused on the forum to achieve good marks there”.

Here are some more H800 student voices:

Student V: I was not sure why I was required to use a blog when the forum seemed.. more than adequate for my response.

Student W: It was clear that most of the other H800 students were electing to make their comments in the forums and not on the blogs.

Student X: While I am engaged in excessive study I just don’t have the time to make meaningful and well thought-through posts.

Student Y: I didn’t get the feedback on my postings which I thought I’d get.

Student Z: There was little encouragement or incentive to visit and comment on other student blogs.

These comments underline the need to convince students about the purpose of blogging, its benefits to them, and the centrality of blogging in the overall course design, a point reinforced by studies of deployment of social web applications in online courses, for example Minocha and Thomas (2007) and Kerawalla et al (2009). To succeed in this, educators need to do a number of things.

1. Course designers need to incorporate activities demonstrating the value of blogs as spaces for reflective learning and “writing as thinking”, as online notebooks, as self-publication and peer-review platforms, tools for networking and knowledge sharing, and settings for cognitive apprenticeship.

Examples and testimonies by current and/or former student bloggers will help to reinforce these points.

2. Course designers and tutors need to make very clear the distinction between participating in an online course forum and maintaining a  blog. The former is course-specific, task-oriented, tutor-mediated, and focused inward onto group discussions; while the latter is generalising, reflective, community-mediated, and focused outward onto the world wide web.

Ideally, student bloggers should use public blogging platforms, which not only allow them to control their blog’s format, design and access settings, but also to reap the pedagogical benefits of open publication to the web.

3. Course designs need to incentivise the practice of blogging by aligning it with assessment. This should preferably be in an indirect way so that blogging is seen as conferring an assessment advantage rather than being itself compulsory or assessed.

This is difficult territory, as external summative assessment of student outputs feels antithetical to the practice of self-directed reflective practice by learners. However I now think that leaving blogging entirely unassessed runs the risk of students feeling that synopsis and reflection are optional extras instead at the heart of learning.

4. Tutors need to support the practice of blogging by engaging in and modeling the practice themselves – eg by pointing to interesting examples, maintaining a reflective blog themselves, or regularly commenting on student posts.

It’s important to establish that there’s no single ‘proper way’ of blogging. Students should feel free to adopt or invent the blogging style which works for them.

5. Course designers and tutors need to support the networked dimension of academic blogging by putting bloggers in touch with each other across internal course boundaries and introducing them  to the practice of commenting on posts.

Once established, a community of student bloggers will generate its own gravitational field as students seek out the academic, practical, social and emotional support its members provide to each other.


BlogPulse (2010). Index page/BlogPulse Stats [online]  (Accessed 18/09/10)

Boud, D et al, eds (1985). Reflection. Turning experience into learning. London: Kogan Page

Brown, J S, Collins, A and Duguid, P (1989) Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, vol.18, no.1, pp.32–42.

Davies, C & Lowe, T (2005). Kolb Learning Cycle. Staff and Departmental Development Unit, University of Leeds [online] (Accessed 01/08/10)

Downes, S (2009) Blogs in Education. Post to Half an Hour blog, 13/04/09) [online] (Accessed 09/09/10)

Ferdig, RE & Trammell, KD, 2004. Content Delivery in the ‘Blogosphere’. THE Journal, 01/02/04 [online] (Accessed 09/09/10)

Kerawalla, L, Minocha, S, Kirkup, G & Conole, G (2009). An empirically grounded framework to guide blogging in higher education. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 25, pp 31-42

Kolb, D (1984) Experiential Learning: Turning Experience into Learning, New Jersey, Prentice Hall Inc.

Minocha, S. and Thomas, P.S. (2007) Collaborative learning in a wiki environment: experiences from a software engineering course, New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia, vol.13, no.2, pp.187–209. Available online at login?url= 10.1080/ 13614560701712667 (accessed 01/09/10)

Moon, J, 2001, Reflection in Higher Education Learning, LTSN Generic Centre PDP Working Paper 4, available online at (Accessed 17/09/10)

Nardi, B, Schiano, D, and Gumbrecht, M (2004). Blogging as Social Activity, or, Would You Let 900 Million People Read Your Diary.  Proceedings of the Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, pp 222–228. New York: ACM Press

Oravec, J A (2003). Blending by blogging: weblogs in blended learning initiatives. Journal of Educational Media, 28(2-3), p229

Rogers, E M (2003). Diffusion of Innovations, 5th edition, Ch 6. New York: Free Press

Schon D A (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: how professionals think in action. London: Temple Smith

Sharma, P and Fiedler, S (2007). Supporting Self-Organized Learning with Personal WebPublishing Technologies and Practices. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 18(2) pp3-24

Wenger, E (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

This post is adapted from part of my H800 End of Course Assignment.

Student use of blogs and mobiles

I’ve done a little quick-&-dirty research on use of blogs and mobiles on H800 as part of my end of course assignment, and publish the results here in case anyone else finds the data useful.

1. Course-related blogging

Seven months into the course, I counted 70 students who were maintaining or had maintained course-related blogs – just over half the enrolled student cohort. I don’t know how many students had dropped out by Week 29, but a fairly conservative drop-out rate of 15% would push 70 student bloggers up to nearly two-thirds of the still-participating cohort. Of those 70, 80% had begun their blogs on H800, the remainder starting to blog on previous MAODE courses or elsewhere.

Student bloggers’ productivity ranged from just three posts and less than 1000 words, to more than 100 posts and well over 50,000 words. Most bloggers posted several times a month, and around half received regular comments from fellow students, where regular = a comment:post ratio of 1 or more.

Clearly, a substantial minority of students – more than 33% – blogged reluctantly or not at all. But it’s clear too that for many H800 students, blogging was an important part of their experience as learners.

2. Mobiles for learning

Eighteen students took part in my online survey of mobile usage on H800 during Weeks 28 and 29. I have no idea how representative the sample might be of the cohort as a whole.

More than 8 in 10 respondents (83%) reported using “mobile phones or other mobile devices to help with their H800 studies”. Of these, the vast majority (87%) used pocket-sized devices for this purpose – mobile phones, smart-phones, iPod touches etc – the remainder using a netbook or iPad.

In joint first place, the two most popular types of mobile study support were “To access the course website/VLE” and “To read posts in the tutor group forum”; with “To read or write H800-related updates to Twitter” and “To communicate with other students” sharing second place. The table shows all the use-type responses in order of popularity.

Finally, I asked all respondents “how important is mobile functionality to you as a learner?” Just under three quarters – 71% – replied “really important” to this question, with 29% saying “useful but inessential” and 6% “not important”.

The architecture of learning design

image: lace-like patterns in dead & decaying elm trunk

The chapter on learning architectures in Etienne Wenger’s classic Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity (Wenger, 1998) is not an easy read. Its ideas are densely packed and expressed in triple-knotted impenetrable prose, but it repays the work needed to decypher it. I’m going to try to explicate his four dimensions of learning design, and trace their influence on two more recent models of learning architecture.

Wenger’s dimensions consist of four dualities – a word he uses to express the creative tension between binary forces which he sees as a driver for learning and change. The dualities in Wenger’s architecture work like slide controls on a mixing desk, modulating the output along four separate sliding scales.

Participation-Reification is the slider which modulates between engagement with others and abstraction or conceptual modeling (reification). The key idea is that “design is always distributed between participation and reification.”

The Designed-Emergent slider modulates between prescriptive design and responsive practice. The key concept here is that “there is an inherent uncertainty between design and its realization in practice, since practice is not the result of design but rather a response to it.”

The Local-Global slider modulates between the learning within a particular community and the learning that takes place across community boundaries. The key idea is that “no community can fully design the learning of another [and] no community can fully design its own learning.” (For learning to take place between communities of practice, Wenger posits the necessity of a mediating reification, some kind of model or tool or narrative of practice, which then becomes a boundary-crossing artefact, capable of generating meaning in the context of a new practice.)

Finally, the Identification-Negotiability slider modulates between centralised versus distributed ownership of meaning. The key concept is: “Design for learning .. must set up a framework, but it depends on this framework being negotiable in practice.”

Wenger’s architecture of design has been extremely influential and finds echoes in several subsequent models of learning design – for example, Peter Goodyear’s indirect design framework, in which the designer’s intentions for the Space, Task and Organisation of the learning, are in practice always negotiated by teachers and learners into mediated, co-constructed Places, Activities and Communities for learning.

Image: diagram of Goodyear's model of indirect or mediated design for learning

Wenger’s belief that practice is not a simple result of, more a contingent response to, design (Designed-Emergent dimension) – and his contention that the designed framework is inevitably negotiated in practice (Identification-Negotiability dimension) – both of these ideas are perfectly expressed in Goodyear’s depiction of an indirect and mediated relationship between learning design and learning in practice.

Another version of Wenger’s architecture is embedded in Beetham and Sharpe’s notion of design for learning. These authors see learners and learning situations as essentially unpredictable, and learning as a kind of creative dialogue with the designer’s intentions. “We acknowledge, then, that learning can never be wholly designed, only designed for (ie, planned in advance) with an awareness of the contingent nature of learning as it actually takes place.” (Beetham and Sharpe, 2007)

Beetham and Sharpe go on to point out why explicit and intentional design, though present to some degree in the practice of every teacher, becomes more vitally important when learning moves online, because the teacher is no longer physically present to negotiate and fine-tune the experience in response to the changing actuality of each individual learning situation.

With the use of digital technologies, pedagogical activities require.. an explicit representation of what learners and teachers will do. An interesting and unforeseen consequence of the greater reliance on technologies in education has been this opportunity for teachers to reconsider how courses and learning activities are structured: new technologies make visible aspects of their pedagogic practice that were previously taken for granted. (Beetham and Sharpe, 2007)


Wenger E, 1998. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity, chapter 10. Cambridge, CUP

Goodyear P, 2002. Psychological foundations for networked learning. In Steeples C and Jones C (eds) Networked Learning: Perspectives and Issues. London, Springer

Beetham H, and Sharpe R, 2007. Introduction to Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age. New York, Routledge

Networks, power-laws and mycorrhizae

Image: photo of wood fungus on fallen trunk

A recurring theme in H800 is the way our thinking about new technologies is both enabled and constrained by the language we use to talk about them. However precise and scientific we try to be, we always end up speaking and therefore thinking metaphorically, because we must press old words into service, imaginatively bending them into shape to express new things in different contexts.

Take the term network. It’s a metaphor which helps us to imagine light-speed electronic packet-switch connections between computers in terms of the knotted mesh of criss-cross woven fibres which people have been using to catch their supper these last 100,000 years or so. But it turns out networks are not just a beautiful technology metaphor. They’re also a branch of mathematics, one which can help us both to imagine computer networks, and to reach a much deeper understanding of their structure, meaning and growth.

Network theory studies the distribution of nodes and links in many different kinds of network. 20th century network theory predicted that nodes and links should be distributed more or less randomly, resulting in a Gaussian distribution or even spread over time across the network. But contemporary network theory, which is dominated by the Romanian physicist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, challenges the idea that complex networks behave like this. Barabasi discovered that complex networks are what he calls “scale-free”, because there is no typical number of links per node, and so no simple scaling. Chris Jones, of Lancaster University’s Centre for Studies in Advanced Learning Technologies (CSALT), puts it like this:

These networks differ from random networks in which nodes are connected without any organising principle. Scale-free networks show a degree of organisation; in particular they display a power-law distribution. Those nodes with only a few links are numerous, but a few nodes have a very large number of links.. The rationale behind this kind of distribution rests on some simple propositions. Firstly networks grow through the addition of new nodes and these new nodes link to pre-existing nodes. Secondly there are preferential attachments within the network such that the probability of linking to a pre-existing node is higher if that node already has a large number of attachments. (Jones 2004, p83)

One result of this type of distribution is a high degree of clustering, with a small number of mega-hubs dominating a landscape of thinly-connected nodes. Another is the paradoxically important role played by weak or bridging links – those relatively distant and occasional ties between clusters which were first noticed by Everett Rogers and which serve to tie the whole network together. As Jones comments, “these links are central to the dissemination and propagation of ideas and are of particular interest in education.” (Jones, 2004, p84)

Barabasi crunched the numbers on many kinds of complex network – transistor connections in computer chips, actors cited in the IMDB, the connections between proteins in cellular metabolism, the structure of the internet itself – and found they all showed the same power-law distribution. Far from being random, complex networks actually “evolve, following robust self-organising principles and evolutionary laws that cross discipline boundaries.” (Barabasi, 2002)

These discoveries have implications for how we think about technology-enhanced learning, prompting us to switch focus away from the technology and onto the networks we construct to support learners. As Chris Jones suggests, “the move from interaction with computers to interaction through computers has now moved on to interaction in relation to computer networks.” (Jones, 2004, p89)

The CSALT group offer the following definition of this networked learning:

Networked learning is learning in which ICT is used to promote connections between one learner and other learners, between learners and tutors, and between a learning community and its learning resources. (Jones, 2004 p89)

Jones suggests that learners themselves constitute nodes in the network, along with educators, groups, web objects and destinations – while others argue that learners should be seen not as nodes but as link-makers in the network, actors who instantiate the network by linking between its nodes (eg Ingraham, 2004). Either way, networked learning is seen as a self-conscious process in which the network environment is manifest to the learners, who are thus enabled to focus on the organisational dynamics of the network itself.

These dynamics in turn shape the behaviour of online communities, whether they are peer2peer sharing networks, activism networks, flashmobs, or communities of learners. And according to Finnish activity system theorist Yrjo Engestrom the relationship between the network infrastructure and the collaborative communities that arise from it is analogous to the symbiosis between plant root systems and underground fungal filaments known as mycorrhizae.

Like power-law networks, mycorrhizae exhibit very rapid and massive growth, like online social networks they exhibit intertwining mutualism, and like other complex networks they exhibit a kind of clustering – when a filament encounters a food source the whole fungal colony mobilises itself to concentrate resources on exploiting the source. I really love this metaphor, which like all good rhetorical figures is intriguing and beautiful as well as extremely functional. Thinking about these giant underground fungal organisms is a powerful aid to understanding the structuration of online networks:

Mycorrhizae are difficult if not impossible to bound and close, yet not indefinite or elusive.. They are made up of heterogeneous participants working symbiotically, thriving on mutually beneficial .. partnerships.. A mychorrhizal formation is simultaneously a living, expanding process (or bundle of developing connections) and a relatively durable, stabilized structure; both a mental landscape and a material infrastructure. (Engestrom, 2007, p48)


Jones C, 2004. Networks and learning: communities, practices and the metaphor of networks. ALT-J Research in Learning Technology, Vol 12 No 1

Barabasi A-L, 2002. Linked: the New Science of Networks. Perseus Publishing

Ingraham B, 2004. Networks and learning: communities, practices and the metaphor of networks – a response. ALT-J Research in Learning Technology. Vol 12 No 2

Engestrom Y, 2007. From communities of practice to mycorrhizae. In Hughes, J., Jewson, N. and Unwin, L. (eds) Communities of Practice: Critical Perspectives, London, Routledge.

PLEs and VLEs

What does your personal learning environment look like? It’s a useful exercise – one we’ve been doing this week – to picture your own day-to-day engagement with digital devices, networks and services and then to look at that picture as a set of bespoke educational tools: a Personal Learning Environment. My PLE looks something like this:

Click image for larger version

I didn’t include purely leisure or social activities, although in retrospect one or two of them ( for example) absolutely do support learning. The point about a PLE schematic like this is to demonstrate just how much of the functionality built into the VLEs provided by educational institutions to support eLearning can be replicated by a personal mix of free online applications and services – replicated or even bettered. So why would we bother paying for institutional systems?

The OU’s Martin Weller among others argues that we probably shouldn’t. Weller’s thesis is that institutional VLEs express a centralised, controlled, inflexible model of learning – “the embodiment in code of the [traditional] physical structures of learning” – which, when imposed upon students who are used to ordering their non-academic life around their own personal toolbox of flexible, customisable applications and services, are inevitably experienced as overcomplex and substandard. Institutions would be better off adapting students’ pre-existing digital toolsets, encouraging them to assemble them into personal learning environments tailored to their individual learning preferences and needs. (Weller, 2009.)

The counter argument is well deployed by Niall Sclater in an ECAR research bulletin on PLEs and the future of learning management systems (Sclater, 2008). Institutions have responsibilities to their students, for example around accessibility, data privacy and technical support, which it’s hard for them to fulfil without controlling core learning support services. Moreover, as long as an online environment is delivering formal learning with its concomitant assessment and accreditation, there needs to be a single point at which activities and outputs stop so they can be compared and evaluated, which would seem to absolutely require control of the environment by the assessing institution. Last but not least there’s the need for a group of learners to have a common experience and a single social space for knowledge-sharing and discussion – something which again is hard to guarantee to all students without a core institutional environment.

My own view is that institutions and students can have the best of both worlds. A common core environment is needed to support equality of access, quality assurance, comparability and a single locus of CMC; but students should then be encouraged to build out from this core functionality, plugging in their personal toolset of networks and applications in order to supplement and enrich their learning. In fact, this model is not so far from what’s happening on the ground in H800, where much of the learning and support takes place outside the official VLE/course conferences within free web services like Delicious, Google Reader, WordPress or Blogger blogs, and the Twitter #H800 tweetstream.

One final point. Two open-source learning platform projects now in development may help to enable distance learners to plug their personal toolsets into their learning provider’s management system in precisely the way suggested above. Both the Eduglu concept pioneered by D’Arcy Norman and based on RSS and Drupal, and the SocialLearn environment now being developed at the OU’s Knowledge Media Institute and based on Google Apps/Gadgets, are both designed to support exactly this kind of structured self-assembly of personal learning toolsets.


Weller, M (2009) Using learning environments as a metaphor for educational change. On the Horizon, vol.17, no.3, pp.181–9; also available online at

Sclater, N (2008) Web 2.0, Personal Learning Environments, and the Future of Learning Management Systems. Educause Center for Applied Research, Research Bulletin, vol. 2008, no.13. Available online at

Learning 3.0 will be mobile

As more and more humans come equipped with a networked mini-computer in their pocket, it’s obv that the next wave in distance learning will be mobile. We need some conceptual tools to help us understand the pedagogy and practice of mLearning, and the last 10 years has seen the rise of a remarkable body of mobile learning theory, much of it pioneered by the Open University’s Mike Sharples and his collaborators.

The starting point for analysis is the idea of mobility itself – which, as Agnes Kukulska-Hulme has pointed out, applies not only to spatial but to temporal and contextual movement as well. It also includes mobility in conceptual space, mobility in social space, and mobility of technology. “The common denominator is context: physical, technological, conceptual, social and temporal contexts for learning.” (Kukulska-Hulme et al, 2009)

This contextual mobility inevitably blurs the traditional distinction between formal and experiential learning, in the process placing much more control in the hands of the mobile learner. In Towards a Theory of Mobile Learning, Sharples et al define mLearning as “a cybernetic process of learning through continual exploration of the world and negotiation of meaning, mediated by technology.” (Sharples et al, 2005)

The ability that mobiles give us to slide from context to context aligns mLearning with some important characteristics of learning in general. Like experience, mobile learning is labile:

Learners are continually on the move. We learn across space as we take ideas and learning resources gained in one location and apply or develop them in another. We learn across time, by revisiting knowledge that was gained earlier in a different context, and more broadly, through ideas and strategies gained in early years providing a framework for a lifetime of learning. We move from topic to topic, managing a range of personal learning projects, rather than following a single curriculum… (Sharples et al, 2005, p2)

Mobile networks connect learners with each other as well as with educators, so mLearning is seen as inherently collaborative as well as situated. Sharples draws on the influential Conversation Theory of Gordon Pask, which describes learning as a kind of distributed cognition, a conversational process of coming-to-know through continuous adjustment and negotiation. For Sharples mobile learning enables this conversational process to take place across multiple contexts, mediated by personal interactive technologies. He sees it as enabling us to move beyond 20th century ideas of education as knowledge construction and information processing, into a new era of education as continuous interaction between learners, educators, personal technologies and everyday experience.

Sharples also draws on Yrjo Engestrom’s activity theory (which I blogged about here) to analyse mobile learning in terms of 1) a semiotic system layer in which the learner’s object-oriented actions are mediated by cultural tools and signs, and internalised as private thought; and 2) a technology layer “in which tools such as computers and mobile phones function as interactive agents in the process of coming to know, .. to mediate agreements between learners, .. and to aid recall and reflection.” (Sharples et al, 2005, p7)

Mobile devices, then, are both semiotic and technological mediators, sliding seemlessly between different domains – the public and the private, the networked and the personal, the formal and the experiential. They also mediate between stability and flux, enabling learners to engage with the flow of experience to construct what Sharples calls “transiently stable and effective sites of learning”, just as teachers do in traditional classrooms to allow meaning-making and reflection to take place. As such they promise to extend learning outside the classroom into the interactions of everyday life.

Mobile technologies offer the potential for a new phase in the evolution of technology- enhanced learning, marked by a continuity of the learning experience across different learning contexts..[They] can support the design of learning experiences that cross spatial, temporal and conceptual boundaries, and interweave with the learner’s everyday life and into her web of personal knowledge, interests and learning needs. (Kukulska-Hulme et al 2007, p14)


Sharples M, Taylor J and Vavoula G (2005) Towards a Theory of Mobile Learning. Available online at

Kukulska-Hulme A, Sharples M, Milrad M, Arnedillo-S ́anchez I, Vavoula G, (2009). Innovation in Mobile Learning: A European Perspective. International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning, 1(1), pp. 13–35.

Technology in (and outside) the classroom

Image: piece of old and rusty machinery

The last few weeks we’ve been considering what you might call the flies in the eLearning ointment, in the form of recent studies suggesting that, despite the rapid spread of digital technologies across the higher education landscape, tech-enhanced learning has not so far had the transformative effect on actual classroom practice that some had expected and hoped.

Perhaps the most interesting of these studies is Larry Cuban’s New Technologies in Old Universities (Cuban, 2001). Cuban investigated the use of new technologies by teaching staff at Stanford University in the 1990s – a period of massive hype about the potential of information tech to transform the classroom experience, and equally massive tech investment by US universities. What he found was near-universal adoption by faculty of information technologies, but almost no integration of them into their classroom practice. Academics were using ICTs for writing, research, and teaching preparation – but hardly at all in class.

As a result, at the turn of the 21st century, the traditional lecture remained the predominant undergraduate teaching format for all disciplines at Stanford, an institution you’d expect to be more open to Silicon Valley’s computer revolution than any other on earth. Cuban estimated that the small band of pioneers who were using information technologies in the classroom to teach in radically new ways amounted to no more than 2% of the total Stanford faculty.

Disappointing perhaps – but I wonder how surprised we should be by this finding. Firstly, even the most student-centred, constructivist-oriented academics have been hired at least in part to disseminate a body of knowledge, and for this the lecture format can work quite well. “Because it is more efficient to convey subject matter and the essentials of a discipline to large groups than to small ones,” Cuban points out, “the lecture prevails” (Cuban, 2001).

Secondly, Cuban’s study notes two things that certainly have changed in the HE landscape. First, even 10 years ago when his study was conducted, Stanford students “had abundant and easy access to information technologies” both on and off-campus, with 95% of students owning their own computers by 2000 (Cuban, 2001). Second, although lectures accounted for more than half of all teaching hours, a number of alternative, more interactive, teaching formats were being adopted by increasing numbers of professors in a growing number of disciplines: seminars, student presentations, small group collaborations, discussion sessions after lectures, dialogues and debates.

I think these two changes are linked. You don’t have to subscribe to Prensky’s digital natives thesis to believe that one of the first impacts of pervasive digital interactive technologies is to change students’ habits and expectations. Net Generation students don’t necessarily expect their classroom to be computerised, but they do expect more interaction with their teachers and peers, more opportunity to question assertions and debate ideas. I suspect it is this demand for interaction that’s helping to drive the new teaching formats.

Another, more recent, study focuses in on this question of university students’ use of information technologies and their possible impacts on teaching and learning. The Educause Centre for Applied Research (ECAR) Study of Undergraduate Students’ and Information Technology 2008 surveyed over 25,000 students across more than 100 North American HE institutions (Salaway and Caruso, 2008), and confirms that the great majority of US students now arrive at college equipped with internet-capable computers and mobile devices, and use them daily to support both their social life, their leisure and their learning. What they don’t do in such large numbers is expect these same information technologies to be as pervasively present in the classroom as they are in their lives generally. Almost two-thirds of the ECAR sample said they preferred only “a moderate amount of IT in their courses”, insisting they would still attend class even if all course materials were available online and emphasising the overriding importance of face-to-face contact with their teachers. Again, this finding seems hardly surprising: why would students at a campus university not want lots of face time with their teachers?

A more interesting point about the ECAR findings is the shift they hint at away from the classroom as the principal locus of undergraduate learning. Consider the following statistics about the IT usage of the ECAR student cohort:

• 93% use the internet to access their university VLE or library
• 74% use SMS
• 68% use social networks to share files
• 50% use social networks to communicate with classmates about course-related topics
• 47% contribute content to photo or video sharing sites
• 38% contribute content to wikis, and 34% contribute content to blogs
• 33% use audio and video creation software
• 27% participate in special-interest groups, and 16% in forums
• 17% use social bookmarking
• 6% use social networks to communicate with instructors

The picture this data paints is of a cohort who are continuously connected to a set of overlapping networks, including their university network, enabling them to stay constantly in touch and to access and share data of all kinds. They use these networks to socialise, to entertain themselves, and to date each other; but they also use them for learning – outside of class, 24-7..

Perhaps the researchers who’ve been seeking evidence of the transformational impact of information technologies in the classroom have simply been looking in the wrong place?


Cuban, L (2001) Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, ch 4

Sallaway, G and Caruso, J (2008) ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2008. Educause Centre for Applied Research

Learner support in computer mediated conferencing

Image: WOMAD flags

This course, like the rest of the OU eLearning masters’ programme, revolves around a series of CMC forums where students interact online with the course materials, their tutor and each other. So if every technology has its trademark affordances – its inherent predisposition to construct the world one way rather than another, Neil Postman’s ideological bias – how does CMC impact upon our experience, perceptions and performance as students?

This week we’ve looked at two studies, both conducted here at the Open University, comparing student perceptions of course quality on CMC-based versus traditional face-to-face versions of the same courses. The first, carried out in 2002 by Price et al using a combination of quantitative and qualitative techniques, investigated student experiences across a range of metrics including clarity of goals, appropriateness of workload, degree of student autonomy and quality of tutoring (Price L, 2007). It also investigated differences in approach to study between the F2F and CMC students, using the twin axes deep approach/strategic approach/surface approach and role of self/role of peers/role of tutors.

The study found no significant differences between the two groups over most of the measures – except that in quality of tutoring the F2F course scored consistently higher than the CMC version. Possible explanations offered by the study’s authors include insufficient attention to the pastoral as opposed to the academic aspect of tutorial support, insufficient training for tutors in CMC tutorial support, and insufficient attention to the organisation of interactions in online tutorials, given that these “are severely impoverished from a communication perspective.”

The second study carried out in 2006 by John Richardson used the same quantitative survey instruments to study two groups of students across F2F and CMC versions of two OU humanities courses (Richardson J, 2009). This study, which did not include any qualitative investigation, but was based on a considerably larger sample size, found no significant difference across any of the measures of student experience or approach to study, with quality of tutoring scoring roughly equally in both versions of the course, and online students just as likely to take a deep or strategic approach to their studies as their offline peers. Richardson concludes that – in the humanities at least – course designers should have confidence in the efficacy of online tutorial support.

So far, so inconclusive!

To my mind there’s something missing from both pieces of research. The focus in both studies on quality of tutoring frames the issue of academic and pastoral support in terms of the traditional classroom, where the tutor is the sole or main provider. But a CMC forum typically has a much richer mix of interactions between tutor, individual student and the student group, with this three-way interaction taking over much of the provision of both learning content and student support. As Mary Thorpe, one of the architects of the OU MA programme puts it,

It is the purpose of the online interaction to use the learners themselves as a resource, and to build on their experience, reading and perspectives. (Thorpe M, 2002)

If Price et al and Richardson had asked students about the quality of academic and pastoral support they received not just from tutors but also from fellow students, the findings of both studies might have been more interesting…

A second, related, problem with the two studies is Price’s description, unchallenged by Richardson, of the CMC environment as being “impoverished from a communication perspective.” She is referring of course to the conventional wisdom that, stripped of the paralinguistic cues – vocality, eye contact, gesture, positioning etc – that supplement face-to-face conversation, CMC is unable to communicate much social or emotional meaning.

However there is now a growing body of research (eg Chenault 1998, Walther 2006) suggesting that CMC-users in fact deploy a number of online-native rhetorical devices for conveying socio-emotional information, effectively substituting them for the absent real-world nonverbal cues. These devices for constructing impressions and managing relationships online – Walther calls them social information processing – include:

  • syntactic dynamics which manipulate punctuation, case or layout to form a type of textual code; emoticons are an instance of this
  • social dynamics such as intensity of social presence, and acts of welcoming, sharing or personal disclosure – what Yossi Vardi calls “dopamine over IP”
  • temporal dynamics which send social signals via temporal patterns or the sequencing, pace, duration or latency of online interactions. Walther calls these chronemic cues.

Walther argues that these socio-emotive dynamics potentially compensate for the paralinguistic plainness of text-only environments, enabling them to afford as much pastoral support as a physical classroom:

The.. impression-bearing and relational functions, for which [offline] communicators rely on nonverbal cues FtF, are translated into verbal content, linguistic, stylistic and chronemic cues in the CMC environment.. All other things being equal, CMC is as capable as FtF communication of sharing impressions and managing relational communication, based on the substitutability of verbal and nonverbal cues in the service of social functions. (Walther J 2006)

Or as my fellow H800 student Carolyn Edwards put it in her course blog,

People make friends without paralinguistics (using chat and messenger, for example) all the time. It would be disingenuous to claim that it’s not more difficult, especially on a formal high-level course as opposed to a dating site, but then I think as humans we find a way – the odd joke or cultural reference here, the odd 😉 or ; – ) there, the seizing on things we have in common, the letting people know about illness or family problems and the sympathetic responses, etc. etc. Shepherds without a cue, posted 4th May 2010


Price L et al, 2007. Face-to-face versus online tutoring support in distance education. Studies in Higher Education vol 32, No 1, pp 1-20

Richardson J, 2009. Face-to-face Versus Online tutoring Support in Humanities Courses in Distance Education. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education vol 8(1), pp69-85

Thorpe M, 2002. Rethinking Learner Support: the challenge of collaborative online learning. Open Learning, Vol 17, No 2, p 112. Carfax Publishing

Chenault B, 1998. Developing Personal and Emotional Relationships via Computer-Mediated Communication. CMC Magazine, May 1998

Walther J, 2006. Nonverbal Dynamics in Computer-Mediated Communication. In The SAGE Handbook of Nonverbal Communication, Manusov V and Patterson M, Eds. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks CA

The construction of learning and teaching

Image: rusty tool box

Reviewing: Students’ approaches to learning and teachers’ approaches to teaching in HE, by OU Professor John Richardson, in Educational Psychology vol 25, no 6, 2005

John Richardon’s article describes the findings of a series of qualitative studies carried out mainly in UK and Swedish HE institutions between the late 1970s and the early 2000s, seeking to identify some of the determinants of student and teacher attitudes to the learning process, and their consequent behaviours as learners and teachers. Richardson’s conclusions are roughly as follows:

Different students have very different approaches to study, ranging from a focus on understanding concepts, through a strategy based on memorising material, to a concentration on optimising preparedness for tests. These differences seem to correspond closely to differences in the students’ underlying conceptions of learning – conceptions which can be grouped into:

1 Learning as an increase in knowledge
2 Learning as memorising
3 Learning as acquisition of procedures/facts
4 Learning as abstraction of meaning
5 Learning as an interpretative process aimed at understanding reality, and
6 Learning as personal growth or change

Students who subscribe to conceptions 1, 2 or 3 are more likely to have a ‘shallow’ approach focused on memorising or test preparation, and to see learning as something that happens to them; whereas students who subscribed to conceptions 4, 5 and 6 are much more likely to take a ‘deep’ approach focused on understanding, and to view their learning as something they are actively engaged in. What causes students to have these differing conceptions of learning, it’s suggested, has to do with contextual factors such as teaching style and institutional culture, as well as their previous experience of learning.

Turning to teachers, the studies cited by Richardson suggest a primary distinction in practice between a “teacher-focused approach” aiming at the transmission of information to students, and a “student-focused approach” aimed at bringing about conceptual change in learners. A student-focused approach was more likely to result in students adopting the ‘deep’ approach to study, and reporting a positive experience of their learning.

And as with students and learning, these two contrasting approaches to teaching are seen as reflecting a number of distinct underlying conceptions of what it means to teach. These conceptions can be grouped into:

1 Teaching as imparting information
2 Teaching as transmission of structured knowledge
3 Teaching as interaction between teacher and students
4 Teaching as facilitation of understanding, and
5 Teaching as triggering conceptual change & intellectual development

Teachers subscribing to conceptions 1 and 2 would tend to be teacher-focused in their practice, while those subscribing to conceptions 3, 4 or 5 would tend to be student-focused. Although Richardson acknowledges the importance of other factors such as perceptions of institutional context and culture, and specific features of the subject being taught, it is these underlying conceptions which are seen as the overriding determinants of teachers’ practice. Consequently,

If institutions want their teachers to adopt a more student-focused approach to teaching, they need to ensure that their teachers hold a commensurate conception of teaching – and a brief training course will not be sufficient to achieve this. (Richardson J, 2005)

Most of the above seems to me so obviously true as to hardly need 25 years of exhaustive research to demonstrate it. Did we not already know that some learning is active, deep and concepts-centred – some passive, shallow and test-centred? Or that some teaching is student focused, interactive and explorative, while some is one-way, transmissive and teacher-focused? Or indeed that these differences in practice correspond to some basic demarcations in underlying conceptions of learning and teaching, as well as being affected by the context in which the learning and teaching take place? I think we did!

But amid the truisms there’s a couple of unevidenced assumptions being made here which I want to challenge…

The first is that the ‘transmission of structured knowledge’ is a teacher-focused practice militating against student understanding, which I think does not always or necessarily follow. A brilliantly-delivered lecture, for example – while certainly not being all a learner needs – may well trigger exactly the kind of intellectual thirst and conceptual expansion implied by the phrase ‘deep learning’.

My second quarrel is with an assumption being made about the relationship between underlying conceptions about learning and teaching, and learners’ and teachers’ actual practice. On the basis of one or two ambiguous research references Richardson implies that this is a simple, one-way causation: that the concepts determine the practice. I think the relationship is more complex: that concepts also arise from practice, that practice and concepts are mutually generating and reinforcing.

In fact I think Richardson’s own account instantiates this two-way causation, for example when discussing “students who hold a reproductive conception of learning through exposure to a subject-based curriculum”, or in referring to a survey finding that “conceptions of teaching varied across different disciplines, but that teachers teaching the same disciplines at different institutions had relatively similar conceptions of teaching.”

I think Richardson does ultimately embrace this more complex, two-way view of causation when, discussing learning and teaching contexts, he concludes that “teachers constitute an important part of the learning context for the students, and the students in turn constitute an important part of the teaching environment for the teachers.”

Learners, in other words, construct their teachers just as surely as teachers construct their learners.


Richardson J, 2005. Students’ approaches to learning and teachers’ approaches to teaching in HE. In Educational Psychology vol 25, no 6