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Academic blogging

Why do students and teachers blog? Or to put it another way, what’s blogging got to do with learning?

I use my blog as an online log of what seem to me the most important readings, concepts and themes from the course; and as a reflective journal which helps me to bed down new knowledge, consolidate my thoughts about what I’ve read, process my thinking, and make connections between ideas – all things identified by educational psychologists as fundamental to learning.

Often in my posts I’m trying on new concepts for size, testing their fit with existing ideas, trying out a new terminology to see what it feels like in use, and more or less consciously acting out an academic persona – performing my own identity as a practitioner of the academic craft. I also read and learn from the blogs of people who know a lot more about eLearning than I do (Josie Fraser’s SocialTech, for example, or George Siemen’s ELEARNSPACE to name two of my favourites). Apart from the exposure it gives me to new knowledge and ideas, this is a process of enculturation into academic discourse: what Seely Brown would call a cognitive apprenticeship and Etienne Wenger a legitimate peripheral participation in a community of scholars.

A quick survey of the H800-2010 cohort shows around half of them maintain course blogs for similar and/or other purposes to mine. Many of them function as online memo pads where students store notes on their reading plus links, references, reviews, answers to questions raised in the course materials, rants about the course structure, thoughts about online learning, notes to self – almost anything that doesn’t seem to fit naturally into a tutor group conference post. Some of them attract regular comments from fellow students. Virtually all of them exhibit some kind of reflection on the author’s experience of online learning.

A recent study of academic blogging by Gill Kirkup of the Open University’s Institute for Educational Technology reports that

Recent educational literature has given a long list of educational reasons why blogging is useful for students. These include: as a reflective journal, as a notebook to record events and developing ideas, as an aggregator of resources, and as a tool for creating community and conversation with fellow students. (Kirkup, 2010)

This list is largely confirmed by Kerawalla et al’s 2008 study, also for the OU’s IET, which analysed the blogging behaviours of a small group of students on one of the OU’s Masters in Online and Distance Education courses (Kerawalla et al, 2008). After allowing for those who gave up blogging or only blogged sporadically because they thought it a course requirement, Kerawalla et al identified three distinct purposes in the students’ postings:

• sharing learning resources with a network of other students

• storing (rather than sharing) personal study resources
• building a student community providing both academic and emotional support

In discussing this paper, several H800 students pointed to an overlap between these purposes and the functions that in most online course designs are intended to be fulfilled by a course conference. However the way blogs were used on the course in Kerawalla’s study (H808) meant they were better placed than the tutor group forums to fulfill this community-support function. I was a student on this presentation, and as I mentioned in the Week 10 forum discussion, the blogs on H808 were complementary to the TG forums in three important ways: they were a place for less formal, more speculative, more conversational contributions than the forums; a place for the more social and affective side of community-building; and a kind of online common room for the whole course cohort where you’d meet students from other tutor groups.

Unlike a tutor group forum blogs are normally public, and for many professional academics this is part of their usefulness. A blog’s openness to the world wide web, combined with its discursive, post-and-comment, hyperlinked nature makes it ideally suited to the interchange of ideas and the making of new intellectual connections, enabling academics, as Rory Ewins of Edinburgh University puts it, “to be both author and audience, and to communicate readily with their peers as either or both” (Ewins, 2005). Melissa Greg of Queensland University notes that blogs are an antidote to overconcern with intellectual property: “In blogging.. knowledge loses any sense of being something to be guarded. Instead, it becomes something to be facilitated, discussed and improved” (Gregg, 2006). While the OU’s Martin Weller posted recently that his blog was now a key part of his academic identity – the part he was most comfortable with – and went on to say that

Developing an online identity is a crucial part of being an academic (or maybe just being a citizen) – there is an online identity for you out there somewhere, you just need to find it. And when you do, nothing will be the same again. (Weller, 2009)

Despite all these benefits, many students are reluctant to blog. Many H800 students blog intermittently or not at all, and in the tutor-group discussion on the Kerawalla paper several contributors suggested they would only blog if it was a course requirement, and then only nervously or unwillingly. Some could still not see the point, some felt it was just not for them, and for some it seemed to do with lack of confidence as learners.

Nevertheless I agree with those like Adam and Caroline who argued in the forum that, while course design can be optimised to encourage it, blogging should remain ultimately a matter of learner choice and personal preference and not an assessable course component. You can’t be compelled to reflect.

Last but not least, blogging is a training ground for good writing, a way of practising a more informal, less hide-bound style of academic discourse; what Gregg calls “conversational scholarship” (Gregg, 2006). Blogs are after all rhetorical artefacts, and even academic blogs address themselves to the world wide web as well as a scholarly community. Blogs need to be well written if they are to be well read, which means they need to be – unlike a great deal of traditional academic prose – clear, concise and engaging. The instant access and endless editability of the weblog makes it a perfect writer’s sandpit.


Kerawalla L, Minocha S, Kirkup G and Conole G, 2008. Characterising the different blogging behaviours of students on an online distance learning course. Learning Media and Technology, Vol 33 No1, 21-33

Kirkup G, 2010. Academic blogging: academic practice and academic identity. Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK

Ewins R, 2005. Who are You? Weblogs and Academic Identity. E–Learning, Volume 2, Number 4.

Gregg M, 2006. Feeling Ordinary: Blogging as Conversational Scholarship. Continuum: Journal of Media & Culture Studies Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 147–160

Weller, M (2009). Happy Blogiversary to Me, posted to The Ed Techie 03/05/2009. Available online at Accessed 29/05/10

Visualisations of learning

Image: graffito detail

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between learning theory and learning design, and I’ve realised the two are so intertwined as to be sometimes indistinguishable. Learning design frameworks are not only expressions of a particular theoretical approach, they are almost a condensed or distilled version of the theory itself – theory viewed, as it were, through the lens of practice. The point of learning design frameworks is therefore twofold. Not only do they aid in the planning, describing and sharing of a learning event’s design by making that design explicit and reproducable; they potentially also help us understand what’s actually going on – cognitively, organisationally, and conceptually – during any learning event.

The grandaddy of learning design frameworks is really the experiential learning cycle of David Kolb. Developed during the 1970s, and itself based on the work of John Dewey and Kurt Lewin (all learning needs a starting point!), Kolb’s model starts with personal experience and moves through a reflective phase and a generalising phase into a final experimental phase in which new ideas are tested and modified in the light of experience.

Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. Graphic by Clara Davies/Tony Lowe, Leeds University LDU/SSDU.

Kolb’s model obviously focuses on what goes on inside the individual learner’s head, excluding the social dimension – and clearly reflecting a cognitive model of learning.

The experiential learning cycle has been immensely influential, and many more recent schemas follow Kolb in trying to isolate and define the different phases or types of learning that make up a learning event. Perhaps the best known of these is Diana Laurillard’s typology of learning activities or ‘flows’ – discursive, interactive, adaptive and reflective – which I blogged about during H806. One of Laurillard’s most important contributions is the centrality of dialogue in her conversational framework, manifesting a more social constructivist understanding of the learning process.

More recently, Grainne Conole has developed a more synchretic learning typology, identifying four key characteristics which combine elements of cognitivist, constructivist and social-constructivist learning theory. Conole represents these charateristics as facets of an archetypal learning-event structure, as follows:

Conole’s framework of learning activities (Conole G, 2008)

Another synchretic model, influenced by both Kolb and Laurillard, is the 8 Learning Events Model developed by LabSET in Belgium, which articulates every learning activity into eight distinct events – Receives, Explores, Imitates, Experiments, Practices, Debates, Creates & ‘Meta-learns’ (meaning reflects on the learning). Though highly derivative, the 8LEM model has the virtue of emphasising the active nature of learning.

LabSET 8 Learning Events Model

Some learning theorists have suggested a more structuralist approach to the problem of visualising learning, focusing on the learning event as an activity system or a set of variables which can be tuned like radio wavelengths. Conole for example suggests a kind of 3-dimensional cartesian grid on which any particular instance of learning can be plotted by adjusting the values along each of the three continua individual-social, passive-active, and information-experience.

Conole’s Tools-in-Use mapping framework (Conole G, 2008)

Interestingly, Conole’s axes also modulate between the basic stances of each of the main learning theoretical traditions – behaviourist, cognitivist, constructivist and situated.

Another structuralist approach is that of Helen Beetham, whose learning activity framework analyses the learning event as a system, drawing on the social-constructivist activity theory of Yrjo Engestrom (see my post Metaphor and metamorphosis) as well as the IMS Learning Design Specification. Beetham’s model articulates the interdependence and reciprocality of each of the inputs, components, variables and outputs of the learning activity, which she helpfully defines as “a specific interaction of learners with other people, using specific tools and resources, oriented toward specific outcomes.”

Beetham’s learning activity outline (Beetham H, 2007)

Finally there’s the situated learning approach associated with Etienne Wenger and John Seely Brown, which informs the idea of learning as a cognitive apprenticeship and much practice-based learning design. The apprenticeship approach to learning design is essentially identical to Wenger’s legitimate peripheral participation model, as visualised here:

Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Diagram from University of South Alabama’s Online Learning Laboratory

Personally I don’t think the different visualisations of the learning process are mutually exclusive, or that educators should feel they have to choose between them. Different frameworks will be more appropriate in different contexts; for example, Beetham’s system template is probably most useful in a formal HE context, while the Community of Practice model may have a better fit with CPD or workplace learning; and although the 8LEM model may function well as a learning designer’s checklist, it clearly can’t offer the insight into the nature of the learning process that, say, Laurillard’s framework provides.

That said, it’s those models that best express the complexity and interconnectedness of learning events, as Laurillard’s and Beetham’s both do – and those, like the Community of Practice narrative, that capture the essentially social nature of learning – that to my mind are the most complete and compelling visualisations of learning.


Conole G, 2008. New Schemas for Mapping Pedagogies and Technologies. Ariadne Issue 56, July 2008
Beetham H, 2007. An approach to learning activity design, in Beetham, H. and Sharpe, R. (eds) Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age, pp.26–40, Oxford, RoutledgeFalmer

Situated cognition and the school domain

Image: door of old school in Paris

John Seely Brown, Alan Collins and Paul Duguid’s influential paper Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning (Brown et al, 1989) is essentially an assault on conventional schooling. The school, they argue, is an inherently inauthentic domain where knowing is separated from doing, where knowledge is deracinated from its proper context in a community of practice and presented as “abstract, decontextualised, formal concepts”.

Brown et al’s starting point is Lave and Wenger’s concept of situated learning1. All learning is situated in the context of a particular practice; that is

the activity in which knowledge is developed and deployed .. is not separable from or ancillary to learning and cognition. Nor is it neutral. Rather, it is an integral part of what is learned. Situations might be said to co-produce knowledge through activity.

Most informal learning is embedded in the normal activities of a particular culture or domain, into which newcomers are enculturated by existing practitioners, with knowledge and skills being absorbed implicitly through participation in the domain’s discourse and practice – what Brown et al call its “authentic activity”.

The trouble with school-based learning, in their view, is that school uproots such domain-specific knowledge and situates it instead in the inauthentic activity of the school domain:

Classroom activity takes place within the culture of schools, although it is attributed to the culture of readers, writers, mathematicians, historians, economists, geographers and so forth… Much school work is inauthentic and therefore not fully productive of useful learning.

At this point Brown, Collins and Duguid have in my view veered off into theoretical extremism. Their paper comes very close to arguing that the kind of domain-specific, procedural learning of a craft apprenticeship is the only really useful kind of learning, and that there is little point in the declarative, generalised learning which makes what is learned explicit, that attempts to make connections between different things that have been learnt, to derive general rules and generate abstract concepts that can transfer from one context to another. (For more on domain-specific/procedural/declarative/generalised learning see this earlier post on types of knowledge.)

This strangely intransigent position is explained by Anna Sfard in terms of her Acquisition/Participation metaphorical framework (Sfard A, 1998). A thorough-going belief in the embedded and contextual nature of learning leads, by a purist logic, to a denial of its transferability from one context to another. Knowledge, it’s argued, cannot be both situated and abstract. (Standing on Sfard’s shoulders we can see that, whatever their theoretical intransigence, Brown et al’s widespread use of metaphors to advance their argument – conceptual tools, cognitive apprenticeship – suggests a recognition in practice that concepts can be transplanted from one domain to another.)

Brown et al are absolutely right in saying that learning cannot be understood in isolation from the place and practice in which it occurs, and that school constitutes its own specialised domain; but wrong in asserting that the school domain is less authentic than any other. The school domain’s authenticity lies precisely in an explicit, self-conscious engagement with learning, and perhaps especially with the declarative, generalised learning described above, which can lead to knowledge that is endlessly transferable and learners who can continue learning throughout their lives.

Despite this central flaw, Brown et al’s paper offers up four related but distinct ideas, each of which is a powerful aid to thinking about learning, especially if we consider them less as components in a grand theoretical narrative, and more (to borrow one of the article’s central metaphors) as a toolkit of serviceable conceptual tools. I’ve summarised them below.

Concepts as domain-related tools
Like physical tools, concepts are only properly understood through use in the context of domain-specific practice. Using them “entails both changing the user’s view of the world and adopting the belief system of the culture in which they are used.”

Situated cognition
This is cognition embedded in a social practice, and distributed across a social and physical environment. “Knowledge, which comes coded by and connected to the activity and environment in which it is developed, is spread across its component parts, some of which are in the mind and some in the world..”

Cognitive apprenticeship
A pedagogy aligned to the methods of craft apprenticeship, in which students learn to use conceptual tools through enculturation into the practice of a domain. “The term apprenticeship helps to emphasise the centrality of activity in learning and knowledge, and highlights the inherently context-dependent, situated, and enculturating nature of knowledge.”

Collaborative group learning
An essential component of cognitive apprenticeship, supporting knowledge pooling, collective problem-solving, adoption of multiple roles, and development of collaborative work skills. “Learning advances through collaborative social interaction and the social construction of knowledge.. Throughout most of their lives people learn and work collaboratively, not individually..”

All quotes from Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning (Brown et al, 1989).


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. American Educational Research Association

Sfard A, 1998. On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One, Education Researcher, Vol 27, No 2. American Educational Research Association.

1 See, eg, Lave E and Wenger J, 1991. Situated Learning: legitimate peripheral participation, University of Cambridge Press, Cambridge MA.  For an excellent summary of Lave and Wenger’s ideas, see the Infed articles The social/situational orientation to learning and Communities of practice available online at (accessed 20/03/10).

Metaphor and metamorphosis

Image: Orb Weaver spider in web

This week we’ve been reading a paper about activity theory by Finnish scholar Yrjo Engestrom. Engestrom is heir to a long and distinguished line of social learning theorists founded by 20th century Russian cultural-historical psychologists Lev Vygotsky, Alexander Luria and Alexei Leont’ev, whose central theme is the extent to which learning is embedded in, or mediated by, social relations, language, and cultural norms and artefacts.

Building on the work of Leont’ev in particular, Engestrom proposes the activity system as a model of how learning takes place. Engestrom’s system diagram shows learning as a situated activity engaged in by

Image: Engestrom's Human Activity System

a subject (the learner) with a learning object in view, aided and constrained by multiple factors: the language and tools available to him or her, the conventions of the learning event, and the community in which the learner is embedded together with its divisions of labour. In engaging with the object of learning, the subject uses concepts or other artefacts to help make meaning and produce a learning outcome of some kind. The oval on the right of the diagram, Engestrom writes, “indicates that object-oriented actions are always, explicitly or implicitly, characterised by ambiguity, surprise, interpretation, sense-making, and potential for change.” (Engestrom Y, 2001)

Activity systems are not sealed units, but relate horizontally to other activity systems, overlapping and combining outcomes in an expansive network of systems, their internal or external contradictions constantly triggering realignments of system components to create new solutions to emerging problems.

It’s a dynamic model which has many strengths. It emphasises the complex, active, and mediated nature of learning, the shifting interplay between the multiple factors bearing on every learning event, the social and cultural embeddedness of every learning act, and the potential for learning outcomes to transform and create.

Dynamic – but somehow rigid as well. Even when Engestrom is trying to capture complexity, his account, like his model, feels like a straightjacket. You can’t help feeling that real-life learning can never be as neat and clear-cut as the system diagram suggests. Why?

I think it’s because the model is not what the author thinks it is. It’s not so much a diagrammatic representation of a volatile, actually-existing system, more a likening of learning to a contrivance of rods, shafts, fulcrums and forces; less an analytical tool than a rhetorical comparison between the multiple connections and interdependencies of the learning process, and a complex and intricate piece of engineering. The activity system feels mechanical because, like Newton’s clockwork universe, it is using the metaphor of a machine…


Personally I much prefer another metaphorical attempt to capture the multiple interconnectedness of learning. In a paper we read last week, Sian Bayne uses the beautiful myth of Arachne to figure forth the transformations wrought in teacher and student identities when learning moves online. (Bayne S, 2005). Arachne was a weaver who became so supremely skillful that she surpassed her teacher, the goddess Athene. Humiliated in a tapestry-weaving competition between the two of them, the angry goddess punished Arachne by metamorphosing her into a spider, condemned to weaving her web for ever just to make a home and find food.

Ovid’s version of the myth includes detailed descriptions of the two tapestries: Athene’s a classical composition with scenes of mortals being punished for their hubris arranged in a border around a central image of Athene herself; Arachne’s more free-flowing and organic, an exuberant mass of images of metamorphosis and sex between humans and gods. Bayne reads the tale as an allegory, not just of up-ending the conventional hierarchy of teacher and student, but more widely of the shifting nature of online identities:

Athene’s tapestry places herself as teacher at the centre – [representing] the Cartesian subject, the acting subject firmly at the centre of a world ordered by reason… By contrast Arachne’s tapestry is centreless. No one image holds down and fills with meaning or moral the images which crowd the woven space… Arachne’s vision [is] a celebration of the fluidity of metamorphosis. (Bayne S, 2005)

It’s a very unmachine-like image of shifting, organic fecundity. Both Arachne’s tapestry design and her eventual fate resonate with creative transformation, including the changing shape of teaching and learning.

The metaphor extends into the arena of learning online in that here pedagogical methods and intentions rooted in principles of textual stability and the dissemination of knowledge among stable, autonomous subjects are often at odds with a medium in which both text and subject are liable to metamorphose, to the shape-shifting which is so much a part of our lives in the digital realm. (Bayne S, 2005)

This digital shape-shifting – this creative plasticity in both text and authorial identity – is highly evocative of Richard Lanham’s electronic orality which I blogged about a while back. But it’s also an account of learning and teaching, weaving and web-making, in which the spider’s web figures forth the countless interconnections and contingencies, elastic and ephemeral, involved in the act of learning.


Engestrom Y, 2001. Expansive Learning at Work: toward an activity theoretical reconceptualisation. Journal of Education and Work, vol 14, No1

Bayne S, 2005. Deceit, desire and control: the identities of learners and teachers in cyberspace, in Land, R and Bayne, S (eds) Education in Cyberspace. London: RoutledgeFalmer. Available online at

Two metaphors of learning

Image: photo of soldier beetle

The idea at the heart of Anna Sfard’s article On Two Metaphors of Learning is that metaphors are not just linguistic features or poetic tropes, but also basic units of conceptual development. It’s one of those brilliant ideas which hit you like a revelation, then immediately seem completely obvious: all new concepts develop out of prior concepts, and must be expressed through a re-wiring of prior language. From Plato’s cave to Newton’s clockwork universe, from Rousseau’s social contract to Schrodinger’s cat, intellectual inquiry has proceeded and explained itself via metaphor.

Sfard focuses on two metaphors between which (she thinks) are caught all current thinking about learning. The Acquisition Metaphor depicts learning as the acquisition and accumulation of knowledge. It underlies not just cognitive models which see learning as transmission, but also constructivist models emphasising the development of ideas or construction of meaning. Key terms in the AM are transmission, internalisation, appropriation.

The Participation Metaphor on the other hand represents learning not as cognitive growth or as receiving something, but as an active involvement in an ongoing process of learning – one that is inevitably situated in a particular context, embedded in a particular culture, and mediated by a particular community and idiom. Key terms in the PM are practice, discourse and community.

It’s an alluringly simple dualism which on the face of it would seem to leave some important strands of learning theory unaccounted for: behaviourism, for example, which sees learning not as acquisition of something but as the progressive modification of behaviour; and social constructivism, which sees learning not so much as internalisation of new concepts, more as the development of meaning through enculturation.

How does the acquisition/participation duality map onto that other binary opposition of learning as something that happens inside individual heads versus learning as a social meaning-making process? Here Sfard contends – not entirely convincingly in my view – that the AM/PM distinction is of a fundamentally different kind from the individual learning/social learning duality:

While the acquisition / participation division is ontological in nature and draws on two radically different answers to the fundamental question, ‘What is this thing called learning?’, the individual / social dichotomy does not imply a controversy about the definition of learning, but rather rests on differing visions of the mechanism of learning.

Sfard argues that while theories of learning can be classified as acquisition-oriented or participation-oriented, most conceptual frameworks use elements of both metaphors. These are not mutually exclusive categories, but complementary ways of thinking about the complexities of learning which each illuminate different aspects of it. When I think about my own learning experiences – whether as a conventional student 30 years ago, as a lifelong informal learner, or as a student on a formal HE course online – this seems about right: all of these learning processes have involved elements of both acquiring or constructing knowledge, and of engaging in a domain-specific discourse or community.

In some ways the most compelling part of Sfard’s argument is the thought expressed in the second part of her title: The Danger of Choosing Just One (metaphor, that is). She adopts a post-modernist stance in advocating that we should embrace what she calls – in a metaphor neatly drawn from political philosophy – ‘metaphorical pluralism’ as a guard against theoretical extremes. More importantly, Sfard derives from this multimetaphorical approach a powerful new understanding of the relationship between data and theory – between ‘fact’ and ‘metaphor’ – as mutually constitutive of each other, with neither existing previously to, or independently of, the other. And this in turn leads to her quintessentially postmodern conclusion that we should stop hankering after “a unified, homogeneous theory of learning” and learn to make do with a bricollage, a patchwork of metaphors – each fitting with a small area but none covering the entire field.

A realistic thinker knows he or she has to give up the hope that the little patches of coherence will eventually combine into a consistent global theory… We must learn to satisfy ourselves with only local sensemaking.

I’ll be sad to say goodbye to my unified theories – but I think she’s probably right…


Sfard A, 1998. On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One. Educational Researcher, Vol. 27, No. 2. Downloadable from Anna Sfard’s website

Electronic text 2: Rhetoric reborn

Image: graffito on wooden board

Before the Greeks invented philosophy, they invented rhetoric. The rhetors or sophists were the West’s first professional teachers, wandering from city-state to city-state in the early 5th century BCE, teaching science, grammar, philosophy and whatever else people wanted to learn. Above all they taught the arts of discourse – reasoning, arguing and public speaking – which were suddenly much in demand among the citizens of these first democracies. The rhetoricians saw discourse as a tool for constructing social reality, and taught their students how to use it to construct themselves as social actors. They used language self-consciously, playfully, dramatistically.

The philosophical tradition founded in the late 5th century by Plato defined itself in opposition to the sophists, who were despised as materialist, frivolous and secular. Philosophers should be seekers after truth, which was fixed and universal. Language was simply a window onto reality, not a tool for manipulating it: hence poets were to be banned from Plato’s republic. Like Plato’s forms, the human self (the ‘soul’) was single and fixed. Appropriated by Christianity, Platonism became the default philosophical position in the West – and the sophists were airbrushed out of history.

According to Richard Lanham these two traditions are “the two great opposites of the Western cultural conversation,” and he sees the advent of electronic text – multiply-authored, multi-media, interactive, creative rather than just transmissive – as representing a late come-back by the rhetoricians.

The rhetoricians.. built their world on the logos, on the word, or more largely on what we would call ‘information’. It was there that they found their natural home, not in the ‘real’ world beyond language [or] in Platonic forms… The logos.. creates new meanings as does poetry, rather than simply communicating preexisting knowledge in a transparent capsule…

On the one side we have the semiotic view of language as self-referential, the dramatistic view of human self and society which the rhetorical paideia has always taken. On the other side we have the philosophers’ argument for a Platonic central self and intentionality, and a ‘reality’ which is somehow or other really out there. (Lanham R, 1993)

Lanham argues that when the word becomes electronic it begins to regain the self-conscious, playful, generative characteristics of sophist rhetoric. At the same time, the single, metaphysical reality of platonism breaks up into the urbane bricollage of postmodernism, and the fixed, central self fissures into something much more actorly, self-conscious and protean. “The computer turns out to be a rhetorical device as well as a logical one.”

In the resulting rhetorical online space, we can and do construct, morph and deconstruct our online selves almost as easily as posting status updates on Facebook or Twitter. In doing so we are playing with roles in a way the rhetoricians would have understood, for role-play and the modelling of multiple subject positions in an argument was a necessary part of an education in citizenship:

It is not two-sided argument per se that distinguishes rhetorical education, but the insistence that the same person take both sides, first one then the other. Civility requires the acceptance of imposture… (Lanham R, 1993)


Lanham R, 1993. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology and the Arts. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. Available in part online at

Electronic text 1: Return to orality

Image: North London graffito

What impact is the internet having on traditional literacy skills? Do hypertext, ‘horizontal reading’ and instant availability of information threaten the hegemony of linear, book-based learning?

In an [electronic] word, yes.

The invention of printing brought us texts which were authored, definitive, fixed and un-editable; texts which, though much more available than manuscripts, were still relatively difficult and expensive to publish and therefore were limited in availability; texts which could be individually owned and were both produced and (usually) consumed in private; texts whose unadorned and standardised typography suggested an unselfconscious, unmediated presentation of a single, positivist reality.

When text moved online, though, it acquired some very different characteristics. Online text is multimedia, interactive, dynamic – fluid rather than fixed. It calls attention to itself, to its mediated nature, and to the impossibility of a one, true version of reality. It can be edited, re-authored, ‘cut-and-pasted’. It resists ownership, can be distributed and copied endlessly, and can be written and read by many people almost simultaneously – making it a kind of communal resource. All these characteristics recall aspects of pre-literate, oral culture.

This new textual configuration – what Walter Ong calls ‘secondary orality’, and Richard Lanham ‘electronic orality’ – makes possible a new kind of interactive literacy, one in which texts share some of the features of the communal poetic performances of pre-literate societies, in which the listeners, through their memories, reactions and responses, are participants, co-authors of a constantly-evolving communal textual act. (I blogged about secondary orality in the context of wikis back in 2007, during H808.)

As electronic texts become more and more ubiquitous, this kind of electronic orality will likely become our culture’s default textual mode. Jay David Bolter writes that

The printed book .. seems destined to move to the margins of our literate culture. The issue is not whether print technology will completely disappear.. But the idea and the ideal of the book will change: print will no longer define the organisation and presentation of knowledge as it has for the past five centuries. This shift does not mean the end of literacy itself, but the literacy of print; for electronic literacy offers us a new kind of book and new ways to write and read. (Bolter J D, 1991)

The new textuality, in other words, demands a new literacy which re-embodies aspects of a pre-literate culture revolving around speech as ‘phatic communion’ – the conversation which takes place simply to keep human reality in being. As Richard Lanham puts it,

electronic text enfranchises the oral/rhetorical/dramatistic/semiological world in the same way that print did its literate/philosophical/positivist opposite. The oral world returns in a hyperliterate form. (Lanham R, 1993)


Bolter J D, 1991. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Lawrence Erlbaum, New Jersey & London. Available online at

Lanham R, 1993. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology and the Arts. University of Chicago Press, Chicago[

The digital divide and Web 2.0

map of the Earth using the Mercator projection

The internet, though global in reach, has its own specific geography, simultaneously linking and dividing people and places in new ways. As Manuel Castells demonstrates in The Internet Galaxy, plotting any aspect of the internet economy – origins of diffusion, locations of technical infrastructure, location of investors, service providers and content producers, location of users – will give you a map of the digital landscape which is both familiar and rapidly changing (Castells, 2002). Like Mercator’s Projection, which exaggerates the colonialist North while shrinking the underdeveloped South, our Internet map would massively inflate the size of the most technically advanced countries of North America, Europe and the Pacific rim and further belittle the developing countries of the South.

Within the magic circle of northern hemisphere wired societies, the internet has turbo-charged the economies of a handful of major metropolitan areas which now constitute the main hubs of network development and investment, account for the majority of internet domains, and form the main nodes in the global network. As Castells points out, the internet is in fact the technological driving force of global urbanisation:

The entire planet is being reorganised around gigantic metropolitan nodes that absorb an increasing proportion of the urban population, itself the majority of the population of the planet… The internet is the medium that allows metropolitan concentration and global networking to proceed simultaneously. The networked economy, tooled by the internet, is an economy made up of very large, interconnected metropolitan regions. (Castells 2002)

Because the internet has made connection to the network a precondition of full social and economic participation, it has also – at least initially – increased the divide within the wired societies between richly connected urban and poorly connected rural areas and between the well-connected majority and economically deprived ethnic minority communities who cannot afford connection. However as internet diffusion nears saturation these internal digital divides are beginning to narrow.

But the digital divide between the developed/wired world and the undeveloped/unwired one is arguably still growing. For less economically developed countries, lack of connection to the global network equates to marginalisation in the new global economic system: “development without the internet would be the equivalent of industrialisation without electricity in the industrial era.” (Castells, 2002)

The global network may actually be accentuating inequality. The 1990s was a decade which saw not only the rise of the internet and the growth of the networked economy, but also a substantial increase in inequality between rich and poor countries – a widening of the gap in productivity, income and social benefits between the developed and developing world. This growing development gap is another aspect of globalisation, the distinctive economic and social transformation of our time, whose technological driving force is the internet. Castells concludes that

Under the current social and institutional conditions prevailing in our world, the new techno-economic system seems to induce uneven development, simultaneously increasing wealth and poverty, productivity, and social exclusion, with its effects being differentially distributed in various areas of the world…This global process of uneven development is perhaps the most dramatic expression of the digital divide. (Castells 2002)

Such uneven development is characterist of technological innovations in general. Way back in the 1960s, E M Rogers wrote

the consequences of the diffusion of innovations usually widen the socioeconomic gap between the earlier and later adopting categories in a system.. Further, the consequences of the diffusion of innovations usually widen the socioeconomic gap between the segments previously high and low in socioeconomic status. (Rogers, 2003)

However as internet-powered globalisation proceeds, some of its imbalances may be evening out. Just as some of the network access inequalities in technically advanced societies – between men and women, urban and rural, rich and poor – have diminished as the net diffused more and more widely, so there are signs of the digital divide between developed and developing countries beginning to narrow.

One factor is the waning of global economic domination by the countries of the North and West. A new tier of southern and eastern economic superpowers has arisen – the so-called BRIC grouping of Brazil, Russia, India and China – whose economies are growing so fast that they will soon match in size or overtake those of North America and Europe. The stature of the BRIC economies is reflected in the countries’ internet presence, as measured by the number of internet domains based in the BRIC countries: in 2007 a list of the 20 countries with the largest number of domains showed China in third place with 157 million domains, Brazil in 12th place with 25 million, Russia 17th with 20 million, and India 19th with 15 million (see

Although north America, Europe and the Pacific rim countries (including Australia) still have the highest penetration of internet users, they no longer have the largest number of users – Asia does. More importantly the rates of internet usage growth in the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America now dwarf those in the developed North and West, as the table below shows. The South may be beginning to catch up.

Data from Internet World Statistics @

Other less economically developed countries are also taking strides. Indonesia is currently the least wired of East Asian nations, but has just announced an ambitious programme of broadband rollout, backed by NGOs, local businesses, international corporations and the UN, that aims to provide 20% of the population with a cheap, fast connection via either wireless or mobile by 2012.

Several aspects of ‘Web 2.0’ have the potential to help make participation in the global network more feasible for people in developing countries. For example

  • Open source makes free software available to people who could not afford to pay
  • Cloud computing makes powerful applications available to all and means computers need be less powerful
  • OER makes educational resources available free to anyone with a connection
  • Mobile & social computing helps people to get organised and make their voice heard

Another positive is the huge number of organisations now working on the problem of bridging the digital divide: UN bodies like UNESCO and the Global Alliance for ICT, academic/business initiatives like OLPC, international NGOs like Digital Alliance Foundation, and Eduvision, and networks like Digital, Digital Divide Network, and Web2forDev. A growing number of people understand that helping to bridge the divide is the responsibility of all of us, and is about investment in hardware and in infrastructure, and above all about investment in education.

As Digital say on their website, “closing the digital divide is fundamentally about empowerment – that is, about using new technologies to empower the poor just as they now empower the rich.. It is the only way to make globalisation work for the poor”.

It is also arguably a precondition for survival, for we humans face global climate catastrophe unless we can find ways of equalising development – of ending the pursuit of endless economic growth, contracting and converging in order to reach a more just and sustainable way of co-existing with each other and the planet. The hope must be that the global network can play its part in this process of slowing down and evening out.

Castells M, 2002. The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society. Oxford

Rogers EM, 2003. Diffusion of Innovations, 5th edition, p471. Free Press, New York

Copyright and the Commons

When it comes to intellectual property the internet has a split personality. Like chromosomes lining up in preparation for cell division, every piece of web content is caught in opposing forcefields emanating from the Net’s twin poles: the need to Keep, and the urge to Share.

In the Keep corner, here’s the copyright notice on the website of University for industry, which runs the UK government’s learndirect programme:

Save as expressly set out in this Copyright Notice, you may not modify, copy, reproduce, re-publish, upload, post, transmit or distribute in any way any of the learndirect Materials. Any use of the learndirect Materials not expressly permitted in this Copyright Notice is strictly prohibited and will constititute an infringement of the copyright and other intellectual property rights of Ufi..

While over in the Share corner, here’s the copyleft statement on, a wiki-hosting offshoot of Wikipedia.

Except where otherwise specified, the text of all wikis on is freely licensed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL). Reusers of the content must retain it under the same licence, ensuring it remains free… Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GFDL..

This core polarity between Keep and Share, so intrinsic to the internet, can be understood in several different ways.

It can be traced back to some of the divergent cultural streams identified by Manuel Castells as flowing fortuitously together in the 1970s to form the internet’s distinctive zeitgeist (see Internet Galaxy 2: Net culture). The entrepreneurial tradition, for example, sets a supremely high value on ownership, for entrepreneurs require markets, and markets are about the exchange of property. Entrepreneurs must keep what is theirs until they can sell it for a profit, and it is largely this capitalist drive to marketise the new technology that has fueled the internet’s explosive growth in the last two decades.

The hacker subculture on the other hand has an ethic of knowledge sharing and collaboration, derived partly from the practice of the open source software movement and partly from communitarian philosophical strands in 1960s and 1970s youth culture. The hacker instinct is to donate what they make to the hacker community so it can be used and improved by others. Copyleft and the GNU Free Documentation Licence were bequeathed to the world wide web by the share-alike ideology of this hacker tradition.

Another way of understanding the Keep/Share dualism is as the latest manifestation of the historical struggle between commoners and enclosers, which in the 17th – 19th centuries in England forcibly took most farmland out of common and into private ownership. The Creative Commons open publication licences set out to recreate this ancient communal form of ownership in the context of what Charles Leadbeater calls the “new global information commons”. Leadbeater points out that unlike the real world version, the digital commons does not fall prey to overuse and lack of care – the so-called Tragedy of the Commons – but on the contrary is augmented by sharing: “The sheep grazing the commons shit out more grass. The more the commons is used, the larger it gets.” (Leadbeater, 2008 )

Leadbeater describes the digital-age version of the struggle between commoners and enclosers like this:

In England the village commons were enclosed to encourage more private investment to raise agricultural productivity and provide more food for the expanding urban population.. Now the same argument is being used to justify enclosures of the digital commons.. The argument of large corporations such as Microsoft and News Corporation is that the digital world will work better if everything can be turned into private property, to be protected and controlled. Were these emergent commons to be parcelled up and fenced off .. we could buy, have, make and acquire, but we would find it much more difficult to enjoy collaborating, participating, contributing and playing. (Leadbeater, 2008 )

A still more ancient source of the IP polarity, suggested by Geoff Mulgan in his book Connexity, is the age-old contradiction between the human need for stability and security and the human desire to explore and exchange. This tension dates back to the beginning of civilisation, expressed in the counterbalancing pull of the periphery against the centre, the outpost against the walled city, the frontier against the capital.

The edge places can be found throughout history: they are the hubs, entrepots, port cities. They see themselves as a web of connections, not as a territory. They were often not only creative and absorptive, but also often unstable….
By contrast in the landmasses you find the cultures of the centre. These are built around great empires, huge bureaucracies, absolute religions and ideologies.. They aspire to stasis and immobility. This immobility has been reflected in .. grand buildings that symbolise hierarchy.. (Mulgan, 1997)

Is this tension between centre and edge still at work in the Keep / Share duality? Arguably here again, as with the Tragedy of the Commons, the internet has changed the rules of an old game. For the nature of the global network is that it has no centre, but consists entirely of nodes and connections. The Net is all edge.

Castells M, 2001. The Internet Galaxy: reflections on the internet, business and society. OUP, Oxford
Leadbeater C, 2008. We Think. Profile Books, London. Available in part online from
Mulgan G, 1998. Connexity: responsibility, freedom, business and power in the new century. Vintage, London

The point of Blended Learning

blend of blue and green splodges (shot of dried mud processed in photoshop)

Blended Learning’s contribution to the eLearning discussion is a simple one. It forcefully makes the point that delivering learning online is a pragmatic not a dogmatic solution, that eLearning works fine in a mixed economy of learning, and that it doesn’t replace but supplements traditional modes of delivery. This point may seem obvious from the standpoint of 2008, but six or seven years ago it needed to be got across to educators, and BL performed that function.

(It’s for this reason that Blended Learning is best understood as simply a mix of on- and offline learning delivery. This definition clarifies BL’s place in the eLearning landscape, whereas other definitions that have been suggested – such as the blending of distinct web-based modes, or the blending of pedagogical approaches – actually obfuscate BL’s role.)

A blended approach makes sense in many scenarios because some types of learning simply ARE best delivered face-to-face: children will always need some physical schooling; learning ceramics, taekwondo or CPR will always demand hands-on teaching. eLearning in turn can help wherever learners are geographically dispersed, or on the move, or having to fit their learning around their work or domestic obligations – as well as putting enormously powerful exploration, research, communication and community-support tools into the hands of learners themselves.

There are cost factors to be balanced here too. eLearning can have high fixed costs, especially if sophisticated learning objects or simulations are involved, and so may only be cost-effective where there are large numbers of learners or where courses have a long shelf-life. Face-to-face sessions on the other hand may appear inexpensive to run but do not scale up well and will always carry high variable costs in the form of transport and accommodation overheads. A blended learning approach which combined high eLearning fixed costs with high face-to-face variable costs would be difficult to justify from a cost-effectiveness point of view.