Interviewing students on their (blended) learning experience

“It is crucial to keep uppermost in one’s mind the fact that the interview is a social, interpersonal encounter, not merely a data collection exercise”.
John Creswell (2012)


I’ve just completed the fifth of five student interviews as part of my doctoral studies into the student experience of blended learning. I hope to do a couple more, but this being the end of the academic year, my emails to students inviting them to join me for a chat are not finding a response. So I may have done all of my data collection. Time to think about how this part of the data collection has gone.

All my interviews have been semi-structured. I’ll possibly go into the reasons for that elsewhere. It’s been like going for a walk in the woods, hoping that of the different tracks criss-crossing the forest floor in different conversations there may be convergences, clearings where the light is a little brighter. Hoping that by keeping a record of the journeys, each with a different partner, a pattern may emerge which is worth mapping for other travellers looking to venture this way.

The semi-structured approach meant that the interviews were loose enough for us to explore themes as they arose, with me using a list of questions to steer us towards my research focus if I felt we had wandered too far. The wandering itself was engaging and at times beguiling.  I found the process of mentally widening my focus from the conversation to my research question to check whether this might or might not be a fruitful direction difficult, perhaps rude. I imagine it’s something that feels less mechanical and gets easier with practice.

Having a list of questions to refer to certainly helped with this and as the interviews went on, I got a sense for which questions would work best at a certain times. Sometimes the questions served to return to a topic we had already touched on to elaborate or add to or think again about what had already been said and I would introduce them as such: “I think we’ve talked about this already….”.

It’s been hugely enjoyable and illuminating. I guess students won’t volunteer to be interviewed about their learning unless they think they might have something to say and feel fairly comfortable about saying it. I was struck throughout by their generosity and willingness to respond to my nudging towards the specific area of their experience concerning the “blend” where online and face-to-face experience blurs into one learning experience. At times participants have expressed their experience with such clarity and originality that I’ve wanted to cheer and punch the air. Presuming this not to be appropriate, I refrained. Maybe I shouldn’t have. Instead I thanked them and promised to send a draft of how I use their interview before I present my thesis.

Faking reflection

I’ve had the good fortune to assist, in a legitimate peripheral participation kind of way, on a couple of teacher training programmes over the last few weeks. Reflection as a tool for critical thinking on practice, leading to a deepening of theoretical understanding, or at least to preparing the ground for theoretical exploration has been an important theme. So this seems like a good moment to think about my experience of reflection.

2 Rocks and Their Reflection
Photo by Stanley Zimny (Thank You for 20 Million views) on Flickr

I am an occasional reflector and serial counsellee. Professionally I’ve found reflection useful in various roles: first as an advice worker, then as a teacher, lately as a someone who is obliged to write as part of a doctoral programme.

Generally I dip in and out of reflection. Usually an experience or thought causes me to feel particularly anxious, enthusiastic or curious and (but usually anxious) and I write to get the thing into perspective, see whether I can or should do something about it, what I can learn and what I can do. Invariably this leads to some reading and to writing and thinking that is incomplete but still serves its purpose. Reflection is my own, usually private, sometimes not read back even by me.

I have only ever been obliged to reflect while on teacher training programmes: a CertTESOL and a PGCE. Neither were really satisfying.

On the CertTESOL I wrote my entire journal on the night before submission, plundering a colleague’s journal for useful ideas and desperately trying to remember lessons from my plans. I got a better grade than my colleague did, which perhaps shows that even bodged fake reflection can do the job of meeting tutors’ expectations very effectively.

I entitled my PGCE journal “Don’t look back in anger”, which was in the charts at the time. I felt that we were being trained in portfolio assembly, not helped to become teachers who could inspire our students and do work we loved. I was summoned to explain myself to the course director.

Student reactions ranging from ambivalence to irritation and resentment are well documented by Valerie Hobbs in “Faking it or hating it: can reflective practice be forced?” (2007). Hobbs enrolled on a CertTESOL course, similar to the one I did, in order to undertake an ethnographic study of course participants’ attitudes to reflection. Students were obliged to reflect on every lesson and to follow particular prompts to guide this. The prompts suggested certain expectations, anticipated particular modes of thinking and teaching. These expectations may not have been explicit in tutors’ minds, they may not have been in tutors’ minds at all, but they were keenly felt by the students.  A requirement to explain how activities were connected would mean that students post-facto would invent connections, areas of difficulty in early lessons would appear in later journal posts as freshly won competences. This grim revisionism is a particularly soul-destroying pursuit and a reversal of the point of reflection. When learning outcomes are sliced together with reflection, the result can be a performative blancmange. People will hate you for wasting their time by making them serve it to you.

I am happy to report that this is not the nature of reflection on the courses I am assisting with at the moment. A colleague who is undertaking teacher training elsewhere has found that blancmange remains a popular dish.


It’s two weeks today since I joined #humanMOOC. I have enjoyed it perhaps as a course and definitely as conversations on twitter – hence the hashtag. It’s been great to deepen my acquaintance with people I knew already, to meet new people and to chew the fat on the subject of how we learn online, how we think we can help students learn online and the connection between the two. It’s been enjoyable and useful to think about the place of instructor video in establishing teacher presence with Laura Gibbs and Andy Nobes.

Any exploration of learning inevitably moves to meta-levels. Considering learning with technology particularly involves a reflexive element due to recurring novelty. This is exciting and can become distracting.

I never really committed time to the stream mode to the course, instead I found myself stepping through the hashtag into the garden and the course fading out of view except as a clearing in social media for conversations. Those conversations and connections draw me back to the course, to ask what it is that has brought us together and what we’re trying to learn.

Friday Find

So, it’s been a year exactly since my last post. Ho hum. Never mind. The glossary of terms for the EdD could still happen, the logging of what’s going on in my work and my studies should still happen. But it’s hard to find what I write good enough to share (I know, you wouldn’t guess from what did make it onto here).

In the light of this, I was interested in a post on Harold Jarche’s blog called “Friday Find” where he explains that in a move to reflect and make something of the information he finds and shares on Twitter, he summarises the best of it every couple of weeks.

Summarizing what I see on Twitter is probably beyond me right now (I have an assignment due in a month and a half), so for the same reasons as Jarche but with less ambition, I offer the first of my Friday Finds – something I ran across this week on Twitter which excited my interest and got me thinking about education, teaching and technology.

This first week I’m going with a Stephen Downes slideshare:

In particular, I’m taken with a couple of aphorisms here that are I suppose obvious but easy to forget:

To teeach is to model and to demonstrate

To learn is practice and reflect


This is a partial account of both learning and teaching but it emphasises teachers as models of learning behaviour and facilitators of student practice and reflection over say as assessors or holders of knowledge.

I really liked this slide: Reclaiming_Personal_Learning
I’m not sure what Downes means by it at all. But what I like is that ‘personal’ is about connections to other people, it is emotional, multifaceted, difficult, compelling. For me, most of the best moments in education and in life are about personal connections. Personalized is something that machines do to us using our data, like the Amazon “people who bought this item also bought” algorithm or the soup that Facebook serves up. It is interesting but it is not as thrilling as somebody going to the trouble to suggest we look at something, to disagree with us, tell us we can do better or make us laugh.

This reminded me of another Twitter find this week: Mark Barnes talking about the importance of encouraging learners to engage in discussion and try again as part of work towards learning rather than be handed a score for assignments.

With both Downes and Barnes there is a distinction between learning as data and learning as a process between people. I think both are useful, but technology can allow us to focus on one at the risk of undervaluing the other.


The first of a series of provisional descriptions in a personal glossary of terms to help me with my EdD.

Inductivism is the view that causation or at least significant connection can be drawn from observation of data. Furthermore, this connection can be tested by the observation of additional data by other researchers.

This is the scientific approach. It assumes that there is an objective reality, that we can measure aspects of this reality, that we can correlate these measurements in consistent and meaningful ways and then draw useful conclusions from them for predicting future events or situations.

Education for whom and for what?

In his lecture delivered at the University of Arizona on 8 Feb 2012, Noam Chomsky brings his own historical analysis, wide reading and critical sensibility to the question of not only which purposes education serves, but whose purposes. He delineates two approaches to higher education:

  • The Enlightenment View: “laying out a string along which the student can explore and progress in his own way” (citing Wilhem Von Humboldt, the founder of the modern university system) [24’00]
  • The Transmission Model (my phrase not his): a method for imbibing students with a prescribed set of knowledge and procedures and testing them narrowly on their ability to recall these.

Recalling Dewey, he links the second approach to the preparation of children for an uncritical acceptance of their lot in the workplace. It encourages students to fake learning rather than to engage with it. He contrasts this with a HE course taking the first approach, where on the first day students are required to ask not “what will we cover in this course” but “what will we discover on this course?”. This, he suggests is the whole of the curriculum at a serious university [32’00].

These two ends of a pedagogic spectrum will  be familiar to anyone who has taught. It addresses the spirit of education: I would suggest that practice will range along the continuum from free inquiry to close instruction and that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Chomsky’s purpose is to place this dichotomy in the particular political and economic context of contemporary USA, in which public policy and priorities are increasingly set by corporate interests, so learning which doesn’t have clear economic benefits will be deprived of funding. The growth in tuition fees and student debt is part of a move towards an indoctrinatory system in which students will uncritically accept any education that leads to employment and then have an uncritical approach to that employment. David Harvey elsewhere has described as the creation of an indentured graduate workforce.

Placing this “education as social control” thesis in broader context Chomsky cites not Marxist theorists such as Gramsci or Althusser but Adam Smith on the immorality of a society where each is directed only towards their own welfare and Ralph Waldo Emerson for the necessity to gain the consent of the masses for privilege to be maintained.

Inevitably a narrative this wide in scope deals in generalisations, however the broad sweep of his analysis fits the picture both in the US and increasingly so in the UK. However, within the broad sweep there is wide variation and many educators are busy ‘laying out string’.

It’s interesting to ask in what ways the field of medical education, for example, with its guarantees of well-paid employment on graduation and hopefully high levels of ethical and critical thinking is able to buck the trend.

On my EdD, son.

A little over a month away from starting an EdD and I’m starting to feel pretty excited about it.

I’m a trainaholic, a study junky, I like the challenge, the sense of community, the chance to read stuff at last that I wouldn’t be studying if left to my own devices, the opportunity to write. A small but significant part of my motivation comes from the swotty 12 year old in me that got squeezed out by hormones and bereavement as a teenager; he is still wanting to make order with words, to find solutions, to get things right, still craving good grades. Having got a Masters more than a decade ago, I’ve been eyeing the next challenge for years now. Until this last year or so, I’ve been sensible, telling myself, I don’t have the time, or the money or the motivation, that life is too short and time with family and friends too precious. And yet, a month or so from now I’ll be learning about educational research methods and pruning my list of research areas.

What has changed my mind is the conviction that through the EdD I will work better, add to discourse informing the teaching and learning of my School and contribute to the knowledge of other practitioners in the field of technology enhanced learning and in particular learning at a distance.

My thinking on this was brought into focus today by watching this talk by John West Burnham, someone whom I must confess to not having heard of before. In addition to useful tips for thesis writing he makes a pretty good moral case for practitioner research.


Learning about audio and electronics with Coursera

I’ve recently revived my college punk band and discovered some interesting things such as: I can’t play any more, I look really old, jumping around with a guitar looks silly if you can’t actually get off the ground. But I also found that it’s pretty difficult to set up a PA so that it doesn’t feedback constantly unless

    a. the singer is in another room or
    b. somebody gives the drummer a powerful sedative.

Why is this? How come the band down the pub doesn’t have this problem? I decided to find out. Obviously I couldn’t take the simple route of asking the band down the pub, oh no, I was going to do an online course.

I am a learning technologist, thus any online study serves more than one purpose. With a single stone I kill two birds:

    find out how to set up audio equipment properly and
    critically appraise somebody else’s course (what fun!) and build an amp.

Three birds in fact, which just proves what a good idea this is.

I’ve studied with Coursera before, and even completed one course. In my experience, what works well with Coursera is that they have some fairly undemanding content which is well supported by videos and text and then use MCQs as a way for you to check your learning. This is supported by discussion boards, but so far I have found these unusable. As Stephen Downes says, “numbers change everything” – several thousand people on the same discussion board leads to a kind of solipsistic chaos, and where students use pseudonyms, some pretty unpleasant trolling. I’m keen to see if Coursera have found any tricks to fix this problem, surely they’ve been working hard to make student to student interaction more reliable and useful?

Well, we’ll see…

Jaron Lanier on Digital Economy

Having read “You are not a gadget”, I was pleased to see an article by Jaron Lanier on the BBC website yesterday. Was he still warning of the perils of Web2.0, or had he decided it wasn’t as bad as all that?

In “You are not a Gadget” Lanier made cautionary points about how software design decisions lock-in styles of interaction, expression and thereby thought and self-image. In web2.0 he sees our representation of ourselves as a piecemeal stream of check-box statements to nobody in particular. The fragmentation and re-constitution of intellectual artefacts render authorship a side-issue as knowledge becomes the homogenised, crowd-sourced soup we see on Wikipedia. The individual is eroded as a felt presence along with intellectual property rights; mob behaviour is ever a risk in environments where anonymity is preserved as a legacy of the days when ‘virtual identities’ were thought the way forward. He tends to make the same point several times, but I had the feeling that there was a point to make, particularly about how digital interactions affect our notion of who we are.

The article for the BBC, entitled “Sell your data to save the economy and your future” serves up the same enjoyably pessimistic dish as before. The article seemed to have suffered some aggressive editing leaving it less than entirely coherent. In particular, he gives causal precedence to technology for what are economic effects of normal capitalist processes (increasing automation in the pursuit of efficiency) and neoliberal policies (export of industries to developing nations, growing wealth and income inequalities). Having shared the article with a colleague, an email conversation ensued, my own part of which was more admiring of Lanier’s article than hers. Here is my final email, trying to summarise my thoughts:

“I think he does have a point, which is that we should be wary of certain trends in the digital economy. After that you kind of have to finish his arguments for him. He’s a software developer, and so focuses on the tech, but to me he’s writing about corporate monopolistic tendencies: disproportionate power and influence resting in a few hands. When he talks about threats to democracy, he’s echoing a concern that goes back to the concerns of Thomas Jefferson and other US presidents 200 years ago who brought in anti-trust legislation to guard against monopolies.

“He has the technological egg coming first and the economic chicken back in the coop but this is understandable given his background. As someone who worked on Internet technologies going back a long way, including at Microsoft, he’ll have seen how wide-scale tech adoption can lead to lock-in (e.g. the peculiar permanence of Word, but also network effects that make an alternative to Facebook difficult to develop even for Google). He seems to view this as the driver for monopolies. When data about how to perform surgery, build houses, knit socks or whatever is accessible by smart machines, when machines can rebuild and fix themselves, high value nodes become significant monopolies.

“He worries how automation will affect employment, a concern as old as capitalism. This is exactly what the Luddites were protesting about in the mid-nineteenth century and the same pursuit of efficiency led to progressive de-skilling and automation of manual labour throughout the 20th century. As more productive capacity is achievable by fewer people, what happens to the people who used to do those jobs? So far new types of employment have come along to replace them, but he perhaps is concerned if this going to continue in an era where dominant economic forces have little stake in maintaining high levels of employment (at least I think that’s what the austerity reference was about).

“I can remember when a million unemployed was a scandal that helped to bring down a government, now 2.5 million unemployed doesn’t merit a mention in the papers. 45 million people in the US are on food stamps. I think Lanois is right to try to connect the dots even if his aim’s not great.

“There’s a bunch of other stuff in there as well: like he thinks we should get a small payment everytime somebody uses our data: an interesting idea but looks unworkable.

Connectivism – still crazy after all these years?

Like you, perhaps, I have two large plastic containers under my bed. Each one holds beneath its dusty lid an assortment of things which, for whatever reason, I have no particular immediate use for but feel reluctant to exile to the attic. The newspapers from the days my kids were born are in there, some articles from .net magazine and even more articles from Guitar Techniques. I was looking in one of these containers the other day and came across George Siemens’ “Connectivism: Learning as Network Creation” (2005): printed out, stapled, unread.

It was like finding a photo of an acquaintance who, despite promising beginnings, never quite became a friend. Connectivism has been around for as long as I’ve been a learning technologist, it has always fascinated me and twice I’ve started MOOCs given by its leading lights, George Siemens and Stephen Downes. I find their ideas exciting, their personalities compelling, their approach to learning and teaching refreshing and certainly useful, but their insistence that learning and most everything else was a network seemed like a kind of ideological OCD. This causes me some regret since connectivism could provide both practical approaches and theoretical tools which would be very helpful to me and those I work with.

In the following posts I will attempt at last to consider how connectivism is relevant to my work as a learning technologist and how it may be useful in helping teachers teach and learners learn.