Monday, August 22, 2016

Networked Learning metaphors #23432: The Synapse

It seems like a classic ivory tower pursuit.... a bunch of academics coming up with metaphors for networked learning, and especially getting whimsy about it. But this was one of the memorable aspects of the conference back in May. However, as ideas, metaphors can spawn insights, hone analysis or enhance practical organisation of learning and teaching. Perhaps it is something we need to do more of...
I want to publish some work I did last year but I have lost access to a book I need to refer to. It was an expensive library acquisition from Lancaster. I guess, for a small charge, they'd send it to me again as a distance learner. But I thought I would see if I could get it at home. Apparently not. This would be best done through an inter-library loan, so I was told. This conjures up the horrible chain of events that is the British Library's secure download system. It is the information management equivalent of traveling by slow-motion train crash.
At the networked learning conference I cheekily added some bits to my presentation that were not in the 'full' paper - especially the postscript:

I think I mentioned 'chain of weak links' back in 2008. In this slide though, I've likened the network in networked learning, to a neural network, especially the aspect of neural networks that sees a weaker messages fail to arrive due to synapses. In my 'resource' example, the library has proved to be a synapse too far, for now... In competition with everything else I have going on, the added hurdle to access the resource I need, although only requiring a small further push, is crowded out. I found time to write this instead of submitting the ILL request!
For me, motivation is one of the things that strengthen the signal, allowing it to traverse synapses. Motivation is a key aspect of learning, and the intentionality which actor-network theory is said to lack, by the way.

I should just add that the other two points on this slide refer to the following:

Friday, May 6, 2016

Rubbish and link-rot


I dont like litter (thus a picture of a spring tree instead without any litter in sight for a change) and broken links are a kind of litter of the internet. 
A student kindly pointed out a link I'd created was now giving it the big '404'. This was to the Virtual Training Suite tutorial on finding online images. I have referred students to this for many years.
But, sadly, it seems that VTS ceased a while ago. I read that the resources were being parked somewhere but who really wants to use something that's growing mold before your eyes. So I headed off to find an alternative in JISC Digital Media's excellent site. Ah. Except that their funding's been pulled too it seems. Grim. Well. I thought, I cant believe at all this rich information is so useless to everyone in this age of trying to promote 'the digital' - it must be that JISC are just having a re-org. I'll head off there. is a very different animal though. Much more aimed at researchers, with a sideline in L&T - just my perception anyway. Over at I'm offered to go to 'JISC Digital Media'... er  no. Nice for now, but not for something I want to create a link to.
So I search the guides. I scan through the 'Refine' topic options on the left. Who came up with these..? The closest I would get to what I'm after is in 'Content' or 'Blended Learning' but that judgement is reliant on my obscure knowledge of what might lie behind these terms. 'Creating blended learning content' apparently only takes 5 mintues to read so I dont think I'll bother....oh, go on then. At least it was updated 16th March. According to our experts, Alistair McNaught, Lynnette Lall and Scott Hibberson, I can make my content engaging by 'reading our guides on finding the best content that the web has to offer'. Snag is, this points to #ironynoted So, now my options are... build it myself, check whether Nottingham have been kind enough to put some effort in this direction. Nope. Pay more tax? Too long term and fraught. Perhaps another country has a nice resource... likely candidates: Canada, Australia. However, both of these operate on different legal footings to the UK... Anyway, perhaps JISC will have to link to them soon too so, after a quick search, best options seem to be Laura Gibbs resource at: and Sarah Christensen at Thanks both!
Oooff! Just found another reference in something I wrote to JISC Digital Media... this time it's their very nice tutorial about Making and using Clinical Healthcare Recordings at JISC Digital Media. I wonder if that will get ported and/or maintained. 
So there are two take-homes for me here (both raised in Chris Jones' 2015 book on Networked Learning).
  1. Who pays for this kind of thing - a 'guide to finding and using digital images'? The government, the institution or the keen kind skillful individual scholar? I think this relates to a debate about digital scholarship that I was reading in Robin Goodfellow's 2013 chapter, 'The literacies of Digital Scholarship' where he compares the free-and-easy Edtechie Martin Weller's book with Christine Borgman's more 'traditional' scholarship. The latter is concerned with curation and knowledge building. As Goodfellow says, 'Borgman is trying to make digital scholarship more scholarly, Weller is trying to make it more digital'. Out of interest I was pleased to read a bit of Borgman's book and found she was homing in on this key question of information being a public good, borrowing an economics term for items like street-lighting, refuse collection, litter picking. 
  2. Posthumanism. Bear with me. In the same edited collection as Goodfellow's chapter, Sian Bayne and Jen Ross set out, 'Posthumanism in heteroscopic space: a pedagogical proposal'. I'm too dull to get the real point of it but... Anyway, some of the chapter is given to describing students' responses to assessment in Edinburgh's MSc in E-Learning. Jeremy Knox produced what looked like a traditional essay but each of the 2000 words had been carefully hyperlinked. This was a text "'full of 'holes', of material routes out of the formal academic essay and into the vast network which functions here as materially co-authoring the final piece of work. It is an apparently simple, but in fact deeply critical piece of work which challenges academic literacy norms by using the conventional essay form as merely a facade, a permeable front and interface to the digital network which is both its theme and its object of critique. The essay gathers, assembles, links, connects, and pushes well beyond the tight association of the stable authoring subject with the stable print text; it equally discusses and enacts a posthuman moment" p109. Except that, I couldnt help wondering how many of those 'holes' were not at all networked any more, given the speed of link-rot. Unless Jeremy had used DOI links or something like that... Try as I might, I also couldnt find this essay anywhere. Anyway, the moment has passed and in order to do digital scholarship we really do need the infrastructure, very broadly defined, even including a resource on 'how to find images', even to facilitate the kind of 'less scholarly' digital scholarship as advocated by Prof Weller and certainly to accomplish the kind of scholarship that enables knowledge building, the architecture of productive learning networks must be insulated from linkrot so as to endure longer than 'posthuman moment' and let us all get on with our jobs instead of wasting time hunting down (worse building) alternative, likely inferior, resources and then taking the trouble to actually moan about it on a blog. At least I gave the world a nice picture without litter or (at least for a bit) linkrot.
Bayne, Sian, and Jen Ross. ‘Posthuman Literacy in Heterotopic Space’. In Literacy in the Digital University: Critical Perspectives on Learning, Scholarship, and Technology, edited by Robin Goodfellow and Mary R. Lea, 95–110. Abingdon: Routledge, 2013..
Goodfellow, Robin. ‘The Literacies of “Digital Scholarship” - Truth and Use Values’. In Literacy in the Digital University: Critical Perspectives on Learning, Scholarship, and Technology, edited by Robin Goodfellow and Mary R. Lea, 67–78. Abingdon: Routledge, 2013.
Weller, Martin. The Digital Scholar: How Technology Is Changing Academic Practice. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2011. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Pundit's Folly

Jugend 1898 42
I know a great little book by Sinclair Ferguson, 'The Pundit's Folly' - the cover is as good as the contents... It's an adaptation of (from my searching) a cover of a magazine printed in 1898. The basic thing is that a masked clown is seen to dangle a crown above a crowd of people all trying to grasp it. This is reflecting on the way that we keep chasing that illusive 100% uptime whereas it is quite hard to achieve. I'll bet someone has done a curve plotting server uptime. The crowd in this case is the learning technologist (broadly defined, whether academic, 'para-academic', management or nobly propping up systems). Each one believes. But do their beliefs in or about technology (for automation or enhancement) take attention away from the 'irreducible distinctiveness' of all human beings? (a phrase attributable to Jeremy Knox ). For me, this is one of the important aspects of Bennett et al's new article in the BJET. We chase automation and/or enhancement but at what cost?
Bennett, S., Dawson, P., Bearman, M., Molloy, E. and Boud, D. (2016), How technology shapes assessment design: Findings from a study of university teachers. British Journal of Educational Technology. doi: 10.1111/bjet.12439

Monday, March 7, 2016

Book Review: Chris Jones "Networked Learning" 2015

So I review books occasionally for the British Journal of Educational Technology. Last year I put my hand up to review Chris Jones' new book and they sent me my copy. I am a busy guy and things do not always get the right priority. By some happenstance, Springer also sent a copy of the book to a scholar in Iran who has clearly got his act together better than me because when I eventually sent my review in (having actually read the book - it's a conscience thing) I was told by the reviews editor that BJET had already published a review on it!! So I thought I'd look elsewhere. Seems not many learning tech journals bother with book reviews now. I found one that did and I'm giving up on emailing them a third time. I have a blog. That'll do nicely. Here it is...

I was excited to see that Professor Chris Jones had published a substantial contribution to this topic. He was my personal tutor in Lancaster from 2002-2008 and I have since followed his published work with interest. He is one of the only scholars I would trust or expect to take this project on and carry it off. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Reviews, and being either side of the fine line

As I grapple with the submission system, awaiting a tweak by Jane, I've taken the moment to reflect on the reviews and the decisions about them which led me to not really do an awful lot of changes to the paper. The reviewing system is pretty grown-up really. You submit your full paper and hope that people like it. They give you feedback and it's up to you whether you take their advice. Then you submit finally and that is that. You're in the proceedings. In 2013 my paper was rejected, which was upsetting because it seems like they did not really read or, still less, understand the paper. But, hey-ho, I got over it quickly and attended the conference anyway. So it was a considerable relief when my submission was accepted this time around. The reviews were fascinating. The more positive one was keen for me to make clearer links with my theoretical frameworks, and, come the conference, I should give more of an introduction to activity theory for an audience, they thought, which might not be familiar with that tradition. In fact, I'd not mentioned activity theory at all anywhere in the paper, not even a hint of a triangle anywhere to be seen. And is there anything wrong with leaving theory more implicit, more light touch? It's a bit like a kids movie where there are gags for the kids and gags the grown-ups will get. I dont want to be a slave to any particular theory. I hope I've moved on from wearing my frameworks on my sleeve... with the exception of networked learning of course :)

The second reviewer was more penetrating...
I should have worked harder to take up the analysis of textual practices rather than being taken up with the technology. This one vexed me because I know they're sort-of right but I cant ignore the fact that the technology was up to something here - semiotically or just from the sheer affordance of sharing information that would have otherwise remained locked away in cabinets or inboxes. Was a claim to be saying something about learning here spurious? Have I, by discussing user engagement, just caved in to the curse of technological determinism/myopia, again... ?

Indeed, and I get really sanguine now... Probably my paper gets no where near depicting 'learning'. So I admit defeat - learning is truly an illusive phenomenon and it's got the better of me again. If you're coming, feel free to politely slip out before I 'die' more at its hands. The only thing I can say by way of excuse is that this was originally designed as a doctoral paper and so there is, of necessity, 'too much on the plate'. I happen to like my nachos that way... Perhaps the thesis will help wean me off that when I'm writing.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Embedding digital scholarship requires academic leadership

Me in Sorrento's with my hat and a macchiato I am just really pleased with the way my little group of BSc students have risen to the challenge of submitting a "first 500 words on Evidence-based practice" to peermark. They are very lacking in confidence and find academic work thoroughly alien to their world of clinical expertise. It is a real joy and privilege to share a room with these guys as they open up about the challenges of embodied knowledge practice and the extreme skill that they deploy on a daily basis. But now they have to do knowledge work of a scholarly kind, and very often that is 'digital scholarship'. As module leader, I'm bringing them on in small steps and they're responding famously (we argue about whether these are 'small' steps :). As far as why this is happening, Glover et al's recent paper points back in my direction...
However, the overarching theme evident from the interviews was that the preference of the module leader is the main driver of the use of technology in submission and feedback, even when they will be taking little part in the process.
Any success I'm reporting here is not intended as a cheap boast. For me it highlights the necessary agency of academics to set the direction and expectations for what happens in terms of embedding digital literacy practices into the fabric of core learning and teaching activity. Something too many shy away from. Perhaps there is an analogy with children and the significance of their birth parents. No para-academic (e.g. learning technologist, librarian, administrator) can carry exactly the same weight of authority. We're living in times with earnest attempts to apply a 'division of labour' to university activities with the promise of more student centredness, maximising consistency, increasing efficiency and driving down costs. Whether or not these are worthy and entirely necessary goals in a time of 'austerity', we should consider whether tweaking the academic out of higher education may leave us with something other than 'higher education'. Is that what we want and who decides? For my part, I'll do what I can to help my students develop current scholarly practices and habits, many of which will incur 'the digital'.

GLOVER, Ian et al. Making connections: technological interventions to support students in using, and tutors in creating, assessment feedback. Research in Learning Technology, [S.l.], v. 23, oct. 2015. ISSN 2156-7077. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 29 Oct. 2015. doi:

Thursday, September 24, 2015

NL an optomistic enterprise

We've been reading Feenberg (1999) and Hodgeson et al. (2012) on the doctoral programme. I studied economics a little bit when I worked for a bank and at Aberdeen. But I suppose many people will have heard of Adam Smith's 'invisible hand'... It helped me to apply this to 'technology' when reading Feenberg. I think Feenberg is explaining that different ontologies leave one with very different views as to whether 
  1. We can/can't really control 'the invisible hand'
  2. Does that matter? 
In the case of Marx, he is saying that not only can we not control the invisible hand, the hand's effects are, at worst neutral. However, some, like Feenberg (also cites Foucault and Marcuse who I have barely heard of still less read), are deeply suspicious of what the hand ('hooded claw' better?) is really up to.
There could be a connection between Feenberg's argument, that we 'should be asserting human control' and Hodgson et al's stated ontology (p292) for networked learning, and even the expanded definition of networked learning which, enacted through programmes like the Lancaster PhD, pushes back against strong tide of 'economic-pragmatic discourse' (Hodgson et al 292). Hodgson and Feenberg's view of the world 'as we would like it to be', may well clash violently with the daily realities of, say, learning technologists who are...
  1. trotting out multimedia at the bequest of unwitting lecturers with no better agenda than that it could look good/modern, appeal to the millennial students (sic) and may save them time/effort in the long run
  2. Rolling out moocs, to pay their mortgage and other bills, as an extension of the university's marketing department
Do you recognise these 'value laden' examples as such? Are they real to you? If they are, does that really matter? If it does, can/should we be doing anything about it? Feenberg is saying we certainly can and should.
Do we agree with the political angle in these readings, however ambitious it might be? After all, there is a sense in which, on programme like the one I'm on, we're very much part of attempts to enact it - if you have or are on such a programme, how was/is it for you? You're paying handsomely for the 'bus ride', did you realise where it was hoping to take you?
I spent a while yesterday discussion a proprietary tool with our learning technologist who was bemoaning the impossibility of making 'progress' with staff who are so ardently Luddite, in their opinion. This is a fairly typical moan for a learning technologist to make, and it falls some way short of 'the Feenberg perspective'. What would be the impact of such a blithe embrace of 'all that technology can offer' on your place and even society as a whole. Would we become super efficient but/and/or loose our humanity in the process? Which of those things really matter?

Or should we be enacting learning designs which are 'appropriate and suited to live in a digitally connected and networked world where sharing and collaborative ways of working are the norm rather than the exception' (Hodgson et al p292 again) and 'we all live happily ever after'?
Networked learning, to the likes of Hodgson et al, is an optimistic enterprise... What alternatives are there when (if?) one sees 'market failure' in all directions?
  • Feenberg, Andrew 1999 Questioning Technology. London ; New York: Routledge.
  • Hodgson, Vivien, David McConnell, and Lone Dirckinck-Holmfeld 2012 The Theory, Practice and Pedagogy of Networked Learning. In Exploring the Theory, Pedagogy and Practice of Networked Learning. Lone Dirckinck-Holmfeld, Vivien Hodgson, and David McConnell, eds. Pp. 291–305. New York, NY: Springer New York.