Category: Uncategorized

Should online tutors use video to establish teacher presence?

My answer to this question is “Yes”, but with provisos. Students need to get to know the tutor as a presence on the course that guides learning by designing engaging and relevant activity, helps students develop subject knowledge by discussing their work and shows real interest as them as learners.

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…

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.

What Learning Design Means to Me

OLDS MOOC is making me think about learning design. It’s a course in Learning Design, after all. Don’t get me wrong, I think about learning design a lot: I design materials to aid students’ learning and academic colleagues’ teaching, but I don’t often reflect on this process itself. It feels difficult and awkward to be reflexive, to be inquiring about my practice.

There was an interesting discussion on Google Groups entitled “What does learning design mean for you”, with references to some old friends (Kolb’s Learning Cycle, Stephen Downes) and some new theories. As a teacher I liked methodology (I entered TEFL at a time when there were approaches galore), but felt that a little theory went a long way: it can occasionally become a kind of self-aggrandising navel gazing or a lexical stick to beat other teachers with. I don’t think that’s happening on oldsmooc, but I think it’s a danger with this kind of course.

All of which is a long run up for the short jump of my very personal statement about learning design:

There is so much great debate and links to promising resources in this thread that I can add little, except my own personal account as someone who does learning design with teachers but doesn’t teach. A strange position, granted, but there you go.

For me, learning design is multi-faceted and malleable. Learning design is not an individual endeavour, it’s a team effort involving teachers, students, admin staff and sometimes learning technologists. No two courses, teachers or students are the same and so it’s important to have a range of options, to have a fluid mix of elements. To do this it’s important to keep learning, keep trying new things and try to keep an open mind.

For me learning design is about taking in the context of a learning situation as fully as possible: the politics, personalities, subject domains, skills, attitudes and dispositions of stakeholders to begin with. Then the educational context: how is it assessed; is assessment fixed or can we change it; how many students are there; what if we end up with a much larger cohort than anticipated, or much smaller? Do we know what tends to work well for these types of students in this subject domain – what are people in other settings doing? What kind of tasks and interactions might promote learning? What kind of learning do we value most? How will we know if learning is happening? How do we promote peer support? How can we introduce ‘authentic’ activity into the learning and assessment. Can we trial new ideas with colleagues or small groups beforehand?

It begins and ends with people.

Sometimes what seems important turns out to be impossible, sometimes beautiful things happen spontaneously.

OLDS MOOC, New Tricks

Reflections on my first day in OLDS MOOC

I’m starting to lose track of how many MOOCs I’ve joined, but it’s certainly a lot more than I’ve participated in actively. I’ve completed one. Of close colleagues and friends, this achievement stands matched only by my esteemed colleague Ashley Towers. The suspicion that the MOOC craze is just educational planking is hardly helped by the fact that Coursera and Udacity are pedagogically threadbare. If only someone would get involved who understood online  learning.

Enter the UK Open University with OLDS MOOC, (Open Learning Design Studio). The OU has been doing great distance learning for decades.  My wife’s first experience of HE was with the OU  and its books got me on the right side of database design during my Masters. I joined the OLDS MOOC with warm feelings tempered by bad MOOC experiences. My “hello OLDSmooc message” was entitled “sceptical late arriver says hi“. Gratifyingly, Joshua Underwood, one of the course team soon replied. I felt better already. This was a MOOC with a human face beyond video lectures.

New Tricks?

  1. Google Groups for discussions. “Courserans” are encouraged to go down this route, but it’s an optional extra and when I tried it our group found little use for it. On OLDSmooc, Groups are a key tool for collaborative work. What’s not so great is the long list of discussions you’re faced with on the OLDSmooc Open Discussion. On tutor-led questions (e.g. “what does learning design mean for you?”), you get overlapping soliloquies. Nothing compared to the raging solipsistic chaos seen on Coursera Discussion boards, but I suspect that’s more due to the truly massive scale of those courses than anything intrinsic to Google Groups or the OLDSmooc approach.
  2. OLDSmooc uses Google Sites as its foundation and glue. Course details, timetables etc are here or embedded here. The design and navigation is clear and if you are so minded, you can click ahead to see skeleton versions of what future weeks hold.
  3. “Cloudworks”. I’ve never had a clue what Cloudworks was, despite creating an account some time ago. I’m still not sure what I make of it – that will have to wait for another post. What I can say now is that splitting the course between Google Sites, Google Groups and Cloudworks gave me usability friction burns. When I got to Cloudworks I felt lost. There were instructions on the main site, but the transition to an unfamiliar space (I don’t think there’s anything else quite like Cloudworks), made them hard to remember or apply.

I want to go home!

I thought about giving up. Having started late, I couldn’t find a group to collaborate with. I  was using a novel site with little guidance, I was unsure why I was doing the course at all: curiosity had got me into it, but I needed more than that to stay. I felt like a new kid in a playground where everyone was busy with unfathomable stuff. I was going to have to meet some like minded people if I was going to stick it out.

Tasks and online learning

On the online journey to learning, tasks are both milestones indicating progress and road stops allowing the information-wearied traveller to check bearings, compare experiences with other itinerants and generally pause for breath before continuing.

An online course with no tasks is a long road to a distant destination you eventually cease to care about.

Long Road
ong Road by Army Man Chaz:

At present I’m working on materials for an online masters module for next semester and I’m struck by the number and variety of tasks used. Reviewing them has led me to wonder what kind of guidance I should be giving to academic colleagues who accept the importance of tasks but are unsure exactly how to approach them.

What kind of tasks should we have, and how many? If one task is good, are two tasks better? Notionally these students are spending ten hours a week studying on this module. Should we be directing that study closely, or giving them room to explore the literature? How about a different task for every learning outcome so we and students can be sure they’re hitting the mark? Should we aim for variety: a blog post, a quiz, a webquest, a discussion, a wiki? Or should some tasks be largely social in purpose, creating a context for contact among learners and between learners and tutors. Should we have interactive tasks for which tutors are absent entirely. Doest this create learner independence or foster resentment at absentee academics?

These are important questions and I’m surprised to find that I have few answers beyond a feel for what’s right based on many years of classroom teaching and designing learning materials. In forthcoming posts I will explore these issues.


What if we give it away?

The scale and ambition of free online courses is about to go up a notch. Big name US universities are teaming up to offer online learning for free.  Harvard will be joining MIT on the EdX platform and Stanford, Princeton and others are offering their content for nothing on the Coursera platform. Here in the UK the Open University has been offering free courses on its “OpenLearn” platform for some time and its iTunesU downloads numbered 44,225,000 in October 2011 [1. iTunes U » Impact. (n.d.). Retrieved May 6, 2012, from

EdX’s PR boasts their reach will extend to a billion people with their free content.

That’s nice

Maybe MIT/Harvard’s intention in sharing their no doubt excellent learning materials (though some of MITs offerings could use a little QA) is to create a knowledge commons for the betterment of all. However, a $60 million dollar investment [2.  Weigel, M. (n.d.). Margaret Weigel: 5 Ideas for EdX, Harvard and MIT’s New Online Initiative. Retrieved May 6, 2012, from  suggests other motivations.

Harvard have stated that they believe their face to face courses will benefit from the online offering. This is partly a marketing stance, people pay handsomely to attend Harvard, however since the on-campus students have access to the new materials and new platform, there is clearly something in this. More and more teaching is blended these days: few face to face courses lack some kind of online support and many teachers use online interaction to extend engagement with topics beyond face to face sessions.

Beyond this, large student numbers brings a mass of data on all manner of things, from pedagogy and instructional design to marketing. As Phil Bradley observed of Google: if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. MIT and Harvard are oversubscribed but their recommendation to other education providers could be invaluable. Other HEIs might use the courses as gateway qualifications for admissions.  This might be seen by government as a convenient excuse to cut funding to community colleges in the US and further afield.