Category: Uncategorized

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.

HE in a networked world

George Siemens draws an illuminating contrast between what goes on in
most VLEs for example and the way most people interact in web-based
environments. I’m not sure if he’s right that education will or even
should ‘mirror’ the networked world, it’s more likely that educators
will find ways to introduce social or networked elements to courses. I
don’t really believe that HE is ‘broken’, but it certainly has to
change to adapt to the world around us.

Towards the end of the presentation Siemens argues that:

“Current generation of learning tools mirror a priori content and
planned conversations. Next generation tools will mirror the
information,power relationships, and fluid social structure of

HE still works very much along the lines of students being told or finding out what the teacher already knows. Assessment requires students to prove that either they

  • a. have found this information
  • b. can remember it
  • c. can apply it
  • d. can critique it
  • e. any or all of the above.

Is this not enough?

Gove on learning in a digital age

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education talking about “digital networks” in a speech on 2 December. Interesting emphasis on supporting digital pedagogy rather than setting up expensive infrastructure, which nobody was suggesting anyway.

“One of the greatest changes can be seen in the lives of children and young people, who are at ease with the world of technology and who communicate, socialise and participate online effortlessly. Two-thirds of five- to seven-year-olds use the internet at home, rising to 82 per cent for 8- to 11-year-olds and 90 per cent for 12- to 15-year-olds. Over a third of 12- to 15-year-olds own a smartphone, and typically use the internet for 15.6 hours every week. Children are increasingly embracing technology at a younger age: for example, 23 per cent of five- to seven-year-olds now use social networking sites.” “Yet the classrooms of today don’t reflect these changes. Indeed, many of our classrooms would be very recognisable to someone from a century ago. While there has been significant investment in technology in education, it has certainly not transformed the way that education is delivered.”

“Part of the problem has been that investment has focused on hardware. My fear is that, in the past, too much emphasis has been placed on machines that quickly become obsolete, rather than on training individuals to be technologically as literate and adept as they need to be. What’s more, fixating on expensive, soon-to-be out-of-date kit represents a failure to understand the fundamental changes taking place”.

“One major change concerns content. Technology is having a huge impact on the way educational material can be delivered. iTunesU now gives everybody access to the world’s best lectures. The Khan Academy provides 2700 high-quality micro tutorials on the web, so that anyone, anywhere can access them for free. Brilliant scientific publications like Science are building their own ecosystems of educational content. And by definition, as we move to a world where we expect every child will have a tablet, the nature and range and type of content that can be delivered will be all the greater”.

“Educational gaming, for example, is a booming area – and ripe for even further development. Games developed by Marcus Du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford, are helping children engage with complex maths problems that would hitherto have been thought too advanced. And the Department for Education is currently working with the Li Ka Shing Foundation and the highly respected Stanford Research Institute on a pilot programme to use computer programmes to teach maths. We have not developed the programme – we are just helping them run a pilot. Stanford say it is one of the most successful educational projects they have seen”.

“These exciting advances are the sort of thing that a central government department could never hope to produce and maintain. And nor should it seek to: Whitehall must enable these innovations but not attempt to micromanage them. Such content is being created daily, and the vast majority is free to anyone with an internet connection. Our role is to help bring schools and these developments together.” “To be absolutely clear: this isn’t about replacing teachers with YouTube videos – of course it isn’t. But it would be negligent of us not to look at how we can harness these developments for the benefit of all pupils. In Singapore, for example, I was lucky enough to witness how a superb lesson can be delivered through a mixture of online and teacher-led instruction. We can do it here too – and in the coming months we’ll be setting out how.”

“Another way in which technology is changing education is through its potential to create sharper assessment systems. Computer lab management software is now so sophisticated that an individual teacher can monitor how each student is doing simultaneously and then – without singling out that child in front of others – provide them with the direct amount of support that they need, accelerating the rate at which some children can learn and providing additional help for others. Problems can be picked up earlier. Students can be stretched when they’re ready. It’s the next step towards truly personalised learning – and it will also enable parents to have a better understanding of the level at which their children are operating.”

“Thirdly, technological advances can have a huge impact on teacher training. Teachers can more easily observe other teachers and learn more about the craft. Professional development content can be delivered in more accessible, engaging, and cost effective ways. Individual teachers can use the latest developments to refine their lessons to precision. As Michael Nielsen points out in his excellent new book, ‘Reinventing Discovery’, new developments allow teachers to get better feedback about how their lessons are being received. So not only does the spread of innovations like the Khan Academy mean there is more great teaching material on the web, but new tools like Google Analytics allow anyone to analyse video for attention, second-by-second, in a way that used to be very expensive and complex. All these are welcome developments.”

“Of course, in stressing the importance of digital content, I’m not saying we should neglect hardware altogether – far from it. But hardware means more than just the latest desktop – especially when many pupils are increasingly likely to have access to superior technology at home – or even in their pockets – than in their school’s computer lab. That’s why we need to think about how to give more children the chance to engage with truly cutting edge hardware, like 3D printers, or learn the fundamentals of programming with their own single-board computers, like the Raspberry Pi.”

“The challenge for us is this: how we can harness the many exciting technological leaps that are constantly being made? We will be saying much more early in the new year. Make no mistake: this is a priority for me. I believe we need to take a serious, intelligent approach to educational technology if our children are not to be left behind. As John Chubb and Terry Moe put it in their excellent book on the subject, a genuine engagement with the wondrous world of technological innovation will see children’s learning ‘liberated from the dead hand of the past.’ We owe it to pupils across the country to take this issue seriously.”