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.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Reporting back from the Networked Learning Seminar at Cardiff 6th May 2015

On Wednesday 6th May 2015, two friends from Bristol University traveled to Cardiff to head up our networked learning seminar: Dr Sue Timmis and Dr Jane Williams. At just after 1pm, around 30 of us were welcomed by Patricia Price (Pro Vice Chancellor Pro Vice-Chancellor, Student Experience & Academic Standards) who was on hand to open the seminar, kindly sponsored by the recently formed College of Biomedical & Life Sciences. I was personally very thankful to Emma Humphries from the College. Her fulsome help with the administration of the seminar was superb - it was so reassuring all through the surprisingly long run-up to the seminar.

Sue Timmis expertly traced out the tensions in Higher Education that keep the learning and teaching theory-practice gap wide open. For example, that theories of learning are far more contested than those within many disciplines. However, Sue challenged us to seek and engage students in participatory learning activities.  PowerPoint MP3

Jane Williams discussed her work with medical students who elect to develop e-learning materials for their optional module. Unlike the more programmatic materials developed by the department, the students target courseware that directly addresses content areas which they found challenging, thus increasing its value for ensuing cohorts. This was a perfect example of ‘participatory’ collaborative and cooperative learning that Sue had offered as a means of enriching and deepening learning. MP3

After a brief comfort-break, it was the turn of the Cardiff three... 
Karl Luke outlined a small-scale study in which he explored Nina Dohn's critique of the assumptions made in education when Web 2.0 tools (especially wikis) are deployed in hopes that they will succeed unproblematically. He went on to offer practical solutions to Dohn’s points. PowerPoint MP3
  Joe Nicholls used his slot to present long-standing work around 'learning literacies'. He argued that only a fully integrated approach to deploying these literacies could be effective and that, even then, context was key for securing worthwhile outcomes. PowerPoint MP3
Sadly, a few things, not just my relaxed approach to time-keeping, made us run out of time, leaving me with just a few minutes before the close. But even in a very short presentation there were practical and theoretical lessons gleaned from a mini-project carried out last year into aspects of informal learning by staff using an innovative application of blogs for shared academic supervision record-keeping. PowerPoint MP3

I was personally very pleased with the way that the seminar gave a real flavor of the conference. Networked learning does not do 'snake oil' and that can be confusing in learning technology circles... much the same as when my landline rings these days, I expect a sales pitch in broken English. The source of networked learning's 'non-splashy' power is in the humanistic values, transparent evidence and scholarly insight, and that should be good enough for anyone. Concluding comments MP3

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Networked Learning Seminar 6th May 2015 1-4pm 2.21 Tŷ Dewi Sant, Heath Park

The Networked Learning Conference runs biennially, and next year is the 10th at Lancaster University. So this year is 'fallow', interregnum, 'writing up' space in time for the 5th October deadline... I thought it might be nice to organise a 'fireside chat' among friends who happened to be doing advanced degrees in learning technology. I wanted us to share some of the good stuff we've learned on our studies that otherwise might never see the light of day. Probably we'd ask if anyone was around and wanted to listen in, probe a bit, etc.
I'm delighted to say that it has turned into a College-sponsored seminar, bringing the networked learning marque and experts Dr Sue Timmis and Dr Jane Williams to Cardiff next Wednesday afternoon (here's a link to their paper from the last conference).

We're dividing the three hours up as follows:

13:00-14:00 Welcome and introductions, followed by:
  • Dr Sue Timmis - Senior Lecturer in Technology Enhanced Learning at University of Bristol Graduate School of Education
    “Mind the gap! The power and the challenges of connecting theory AND practice in University learning and teaching”
  • Dr Jane Williams – Director of Technology Enhanced Learning Team at University of Bristol Medical School
    "Handing over the keys: unlocking the potential of students as developers and researchers of elearning"
14:00-14:30 Refreshments/networking

14:30-15:30 Three short papers from:
15:30-16:00 Panel summary and Q&A to close.

If you're free, do please feel free to come along too!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Human conversations in education

Last night a friend prompted me to watch a TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson (youtube link). I have been quite suspicious about Sir Ken since I heard him claim that teenagers do not wear wrist-watches any more, they have mobiles to tell the time with instead. This statement seemed insightful at the time but ignores the wider cultural significance of a watch. I know one teenager who sports an enormous watch. If anyone in his class wants to know the time they just have to look in his direction. If the infamous wearer can summon the strength to raise his watch arm, the sight of the watch alone is enough to disrupt a lesson.
But I digress... Last night, for me, Sir Ken was on form. It was an American agenda and audience but the points about education being a human activity were spot on. This is what we are in danger of losing and why I like the Networked Learning 'tradition' where we hold that 'promoting connections' with ICT's between learners and 'content'/resources is not a sufficient condition to meet the definition.
An example... When did 'e-learning' ever pay much attention to the spoken language of learners? Indeed, how could it? Why should it?
I've been trying to get a handle on Basil Bernstein - got an old copy of Class, Codes and Control. There is much that defeats me in its pages, however, here is a chunk from p72
There is, it is thought, a dynamic interaction between the speech form learned, the experiences organized by it and subsequent behaviour. The experience of a speaker is conditioned and differentiated by and through his language. Spoken language is a process and processing phenomenon and is the major means by which an individual becomes self-regulating. An analysis of the typical dominant speech mode learned should give important insights into the psychological effects of linguistic processing and the inter-relationships with the social structure which condition and limit the form of the usage.

The point I was struck by here is the 'Spoken language is a process and processing phenomenon and is the major means by which an individual becomes self-regulating'.
If this is true, then as those responsible for other people's learning, we neglect requiring oral presentations of ideas at our peril... well, in as much as learning matters. CampusPack has a 'podcasting tool' (like a blog with audio) and I encouraged students to record to it once; we saw mixed levels of engagement from the single online-only cohort that ran with it. Granted it is a different activity, and was used for different purposes (i.e. learning about voice and subjectivity), but this seemed nowhere near as good as a humble human conversation. Probably you know of better examples than that. Please share :o)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Networked Learning as a pedagogy again

I can't quite escape from the ideas I was talking about in 2008. Media choice and the pedagogy of and around that choice impacts behaviour and somehow we're liable to miss that.
Scenario: Evaluation. You have a large class of students (say 200) and you want to get a good response-rate to the routine end-of-module evaluation. The organisation would quite like this process to cost nothing at all. So, from paper-based, or perhaps optical mark read forms, the organisation has moved to online evaluations. This has coincided with a dramatic drop in response-rates. The choice of media has distanced the student from anything but the slightest amount of pedagogic influence over them (a paper just published refers to this kind of thing as 'pedagogic distance' - see Westberry and Franken 2015 - I think it is a massive issue). Even in a large lecture setting, if a lecturer hands out paper forms and requests students to complete them, the students are likely to comply. This is likely to do with the social form of the lecture as an event within which students immediately cede control to the person managing the session. Once out of the lecture, the spell is broken and all kinds of things come between the student and the online form.
Given that it is not very manageable to troop them all off to an IT room, unless you have the facility and could tie the evaluation in with some other desirable learning opportunity.
You could try an audience response system but that would be expensive and quite clumsy to administer. Apart from anything else, an evaluation with more than a few summary questions is going to feel like an imposition on the students and would, in my view, be an abuse of the lecturer's pedagogic power. There have been many discussions about the issue of students using their mobiles in lectures.
I suggested projecting a very large QR Code that points to the online form. Google's URL shortener serves up a QR Code and still works even though it gets a bit blurry when enlarged. [Note of caution - check URL's unless you can absolutely trust the source - perhaps use something like - good to use a checker that looks harder than just what's at the other end of your click - thanks to Martha for suggesting this edit 😁)
Any student with a smartphone ought to be able to follow the link. Clearly that is fantasy. It would be a good idea to warn the students in advance or at least to ask them to ensure they have or know where to find a QR Code Scanner app.
Even if they don't complete the form there and then, at least their browser is at the right page and they may go on to complete it later.
So it is hoped that merely by using the lecture setting to display the QR Code and allocating a few minutes to complete the form will increase response rates. Whether this will work after the novelty factor wears off, and what proportion of students who are not capable of scanning the code will feel disenfranchised and possibly put in a worse evaluation than they might have otherwise...!!! As they say, that's an empirical question...
But has the lecturer's action of introducing the QR Code in this scenario promoted connections? Is that an example of networked learning pedagogy in action? The definition says nothing about having students having to be learning at a distance...
Then there's the whole thing about the way that my role here means that I get to sit in meetings and try and join the things that I hear with the 'stuff I know' to come up with useful suggestions. Its serendipity. If learning technologists want to influence learning and teaching practice, they may have to sit in and tune in to yet more meetings.

Westberry, Nicola, and Margaret Franken. “Pedagogical Distance: Explaining Misalignment in Student-Driven Online Learning Activities Using Activity Theory.” Teaching in Higher Education 20, no. 3 (April 3, 2015): 300–312. doi:10.1080/13562517.2014.1002393.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Design for learning

People talk about 'blended learning' as if it is something worth making a distinct point about. The only thing it is distinct from is 'undesigned' learning... where the 'instructor' (in cases where there is one) has, for whatever reason, not designed it (enough). The T P sea K framework of M ! s h r a & K o e h l € r is, in my view, a typology that introduces unhelpful distinctions (feel free to google it, I'm not linking to it from here ;). The T(=tech) needs to become part of what we do as instructors in the way that it is when we learn to drive or act generally in the world. For me, T  P sea K is basically P - pedagogy.
pensive moi - because every post needs a picture and I was feeling low on creativity
I tweeted a link the other day, the heavily critical one by New Media in Monash. Within the hour, Dr K o e h l € r had favourited it and followed me, little me. That was simply too keen for my liking. I tried to rationalise this as I checked him out... As I viewed his 'trap' from the inside, it occurred to me that I still had a chance to get out. Happy to say, clearly I did escape. What I saw in there disturbed me though. K o e h l € r's actions on Twitter and the decor of his web presence meant just one thing: money. Someone is making money out of these acronyms. It doesn't matter if the theory is shaky, just like the learning styles stuff, there is good money to be made and people will buy it, walking away satisfied customers, thanking you very much. We might take a generous view of all this and say, well, they have to make a living somehow. But the thing that worries me the most is the effect on education research and theory in general. T P sea K is just P. That's the beating heart of it. It's not a new insight and provides us with another niche theory that does not hold much promise for building meaningfully upon. What it has is the potential for meme-like caché amongst those interested enough to care about teaching but in too much of a hurry to really care about building theory with greater explanatory power (e.g. Policy makers with the power to dictate various curricula). So, with more than a glance towards LCT, we get yet another confusing segment along the horizontal plane of the theory landscape (which now resembles a massive sprawling shanty town - sorry this simile is not quite as PC as I would normally align with) instead of something which genuinely has potential to build and be built upon, advancing theory AND practice in education. 
Here is a design principle I think has some reflective power to positively influence practice:
"design for learning networks will normally be improved if attention is paid to the little things that allow participants' activity to shift smoothly between the digital and the material." p270
If you cant do pedagogy then get some help or give up now.

Goodyear, Peter, and Lucila Carvalho. “Synthesis.” In The Architecture of Productive Learning Networks, 259–76. New York ; Abingdon: Routledge, 2014.