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This week I have been reminded that I cannot assume that everyone working in education will have online access as and when they want it.

I live in a beautiful part of the UK – Southern Cumbria – a county filled with mountains and lakes and lushly green because of all the rain we get. I have never had any significant problems with getting an internet connection. Sometimes it has been slow and sometimes I have dropped out when making synchronous connections such as in a Google Hangout, but this has been minimal and has not interfered with my ability to work. This week even these minor difficulties have been removed as I now have a high speed fibre broadband connection for the first time and I can already see the difference.

British Telecom claimed a year ago that half of Cumbria was covered by faster, fibre broadband – but we have only just got it in our area in the South Lakes and many still don’t have it.

I only have to travel 20 minutes from my home, on the motorway going North, to get into a valley (this must be one of the most beautiful stretches of motorway in the country) where I lose signal. I know from my hill walking experience that it can be easier to get a signal on the top of a mountain than in the valleys.

m6-tebay-c0858

Source of image

But few people in Cumbria will be living on mountain tops. The majority are living in the valleys, and many are living in remote rural areas.

Northern-Fells-Cumbria

Source of image

Eventually everyone will have high speed broadband, but in the meantime this has implications for anyone working online, for rural businesses and particularly for schools and for students in further and higher education and their teachers.

This came home forcefully to me this week when testing Google Hangout and appear.in with a couple of colleagues. This worked fine for me, but was virtually impossible for one of my colleagues whose online connection depends on tethering her phone to her computer. My other colleague pointed out that she could only join the Hangout from her work base, as at home in rural Cumbria, she doesn’t have a mobile signal and even her telephone line isn’t working. She is investigating satellite broadband, but it is expensive and for students probably wouldn’t be an option.

This is the reality for many students and educators in the area I live in, which adds another perspective to the meaning of open online learning and how it can be promoted.

The good news is that the county council claims that 93% of homes and businesses will have access to superfast broadband by the end of the year so hopefully this will increase the potential for open online learning.

I have been enjoying Pat Thomson’s daily blog posts about her 5 day course on the Tate Summer School.

I was particularly interested in the making of animated GIFs that they did on the last day, using this software. I have never made a GIF myself, although I have seen a lot, particularly in the outputs from ds106 – an open online course about Digital Storytelling. Pat has posted a link to a Tumblr site where all the GIFs made on her course have been archived. I have to say that I am not a fan of GIFs. When they pop up on a site, I usually wish there was a button that I could push to stop them, so that I could read the rest of the post without distraction. I find the constant quick flicking of images irritating. I think my problem is that I haven’t been able to determine the point of a lot of GIFs that I have seen, other than that they might be seen as a fun addition to a post. But Pat’s post made me do a search for what are considered to be ‘good’ GIFs. I have found quite a few sites where they seem to make more sense, e.g. their use to explain Newton’s cradle  or for advertising as in this Animated Bunny GIF .

Newtons_cradle_animation_book_2 Source of Gif

And I was very grateful to Matthias Melcher when he created a GIF to depict a 3D image of our Footprints of Emergence landscape  (This won’t make sense without reference to the associated research. See Publications and this presentation for research references).

output_CFbB5v

So thanks to Pat for sharing her experience at the Tate Summer School, which sounds a treat, although personally I think I like the sound of a week long life drawing class in London, that a friend has signed up for, better. Evidently according to a recent BBC News article,  life drawing can stave off memory loss, so it would serve a double function :-)

Update 28-07-15

Here is a link to the storify that Nancy refers to in the comments below – https://storify.com/NancyWhite/the-value-of-memes-in-engaged-mobile-learing-with-

openlearningSource of image 

My work in July has been more face-to-face than I have been used to in recent years. This has been a pleasure and illuminating in many respects, and has caused me to reflect once again on the meaning of ‘openness’ in teaching and learning.

I have been supporting tutors in the development of modules for an online Masters programme to be delivered in Blackboard. In my last post, I wrote about some of my frustrations with Blackboard  and this hasn’t changed, but I realize that a lot of my frustrations result from having worked outside an LMS for the past 10+ years, i.e. out in the open. I am now used to working in the open; as such Blackboard feels very ‘closed’.

The tutors I am working with are, mostly, not used to working ‘in the open’, for example in Twitter or on personal blogs, such as this one. They are used to working within Blackboard, uploading resources and using some of the Blackboard tools, such as discussion forums and the Blackboard blogs.

The problem with an LMS is that it’s easy for the tutor to be invisible and for modules to become repositories for resources. We have been discussing how to increase tutor ‘presence’ in Blackboard by creating and posting videos, engaging in discussion forums, blogging, and engaging synchronously with students. Research has shown (for many years) that tutor ‘presence’ promotes student engagement online. Increasing this presence can be made easier by using tools outside Blackboard, in spaces such as Google Hangout, appear.in, Skype, Twitter and on a personal blog. (Thanks to my colleague Mariana Funes for pointing me to appear.in. I think this will be a very helpful tool).

But being ‘in the open’ raises security alarm bells for some tutors. What if their students post the less than perfect (in their eyes) videos they have made on Facebook? What if synchronous sessions with students, which are not intended to be viewed by anyone other than the student group involved, suddenly find their way onto the open web? What are the risks? Even creating ‘unlisted’ videos in YouTube is no guarantee that they won’t find their way on to the open web. A student might (with no intended malice) post the link in a public place.

I can sympathise and empathise with these tutors’ concerns. I have been on the end of online ‘unpleasantness’ when in the open, so I know how it feels and I know the threats that this can pose to my reputation as a consultant, tutor, researcher and scholar. I know what an ‘ugly’ place the open web can be. I know the risks of openness.

But I also know the values. I wouldn’t be where I am today, working with wonderful research collaborators, having access to a diverse range of people and online resources and constantly having access to stimulating learning opportunities, if I hadn’t been prepared to ‘put myself out there’, at least to some extent.

If I Google myself I find a whole host of sites where I am referenced. I do have an online presence. Occasionally I find things that make me cringe and that I wish weren’t there in the open. For example, like many of the tutors I am working with, I don’t like seeing myself on video; I do not think this is a personal strength – but whilst I might cringe, I am not ashamed. I don’t think I have done, and I hope I never will do, anything of which I am personally ashamed on the level of professional or personal integrity.

For me this is the bottom line. Of course we will all make mistakes when working online, just as we do face-to-face, but strangely being open online can serve to make us more responsible and accountable than we might be in other offline spaces. For example, years ago I used to regularly travel to another part of the country to run teacher in-service training sessions. I remember at the time finding this a relief. All my other work was teaching face-to-face in classrooms, where if I made a mistake one day, I had to face the same students the next day or week. For the in-service training in another part of the country, I knew I would never see those participants again, so I felt under less pressure, although of course I made the same efforts to avoid making mistakes as when working face-to-face.

You would think that working online would offer a similar level of distance and obscurity, but if you come out of a closed space such as Blackboard, the opposite is the case. In working online in the open, we leave a record of our activity for all the world to see, should anyone be interested. The benefit of this is that we become acutely aware of our responsibilities and accountability to our students. In this sense, openness could be seen as positive professional development, despite the risks.

I have written lots of posts about openness in the past, exploring the advantages and disadvantages (see for example search results for ‘open learning’ , ‘how open are you?’ and ‘openness’). Overall, I would always recommend that a tutor gives it a go, even if only in a small way to begin with.

What I haven’t quite sorted out in my own head is how we can ensure that students adopt the same levels of responsibility and accountability as their tutors, so that no-one needs to worry about what might be revealed in the open; that we have a shared understanding of what responsibility and accountability mean when working in the open.

Note

Someone who has been exploring these issues for years with her tutor team is Lisa Lane. Lisa voluntarily (i.e. beyond the remit of her job) runs an open Programme for Online Teaching and supports tutors in the development of their online teaching skills through the programme and sharing of an extensive bank of open resources.

Last year Lisa also invited bloggers from her own institution and outside to contribute a post which reflected their interest in and understanding of online learning. Many different perspectives were shared and these have now been collated into a booklet which Lisa will share with her faculty. This seems like another great way to promote open teaching and learning.

See – POTPedagogyFirstbook

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 17.26.29Source of image

Fifteen years ago I was working in an institution which invested in Blackboard as its first VLE. Looking back, I remember how relieved I was when the institution got Blackboard. We had been running a distance learning programme by email and paper correspondence. The mixed messages going to the students by email from all the different tutors on the programme was a bit of a nightmare. Blackboard saved us from that. We were able to have all the information about the programme in one place, visible to everyone, we didn’t have to send out endless emails to large cohorts of students and we were able to cut down on paper correspondence. However, what we did need to do was learn how to use Blackboard, how to organise the programme on Blackboard so that students could easily find their way round and access the materials, and most of all (and most difficult) learn how to interact with students and teach on Blackboard, which involved a new pedagogical approach. Some tutors found this problem insurmountable, others, myself included, found the potential exciting.

Fifteen years later, I don’t see huge changes in Blackboard and there are still tutors for whom online learning is an anathema. But 15 years later I am no longer relieved to be working in Blackboard. I now find it an obstacle. Things that should be easy, such as blogging, editing and uploading videos, live synchronous sessions, using wikis etc. are unnecessarily difficult in Blackboard, or they are in the version of Blackboard that I am using.

A bit of context is needed here because others using Blackboard might not have the same issues in their courses and in their institutions. The context is the development of an online MA in Education. This is a recently revalidated programme which is ambitious in design. Hats off to the programme team and programme leader for this. The programme includes thirty-four modules varying between 10, 20, 30 and 60 credits which are distributed across 6 different learning pathways. The idea is that this will allow people in full-time demanding work, who are time poor, to build up the required 180 credits slowly or more quickly, as they wish, and thus have a chance of fitting the MA around their demanding work loads. I am currently working with 10 tutors on this programme, and thoroughly enjoying working with them face-to-face and learning from them.

From the perspective of the management of a complex programme, a centralised location such as Blackboard can help students to orientate themselves. A well managed programme can ensure a consistency of approach which will reduce confusion and help students to navigate the site and find the appropriate modules for their personalised programme. Tutors and students can maintain an overview of the entire programme, whilst at the same time easily locating their modules. The Blackboard programme site also provides a centralised and secure location for any work related to assessment. These are arguments that can be put forward in favour of a VLE/LMS like Blackboard.

But what are the downsides of working within a VLE like Blackboard? In 2009 Stephanie Coopman, in a critical examination of Blackboard’s e-learning environment, wrote:

…. the intensely hierarchical nature of Blackboard persists producing a textualized approach to teaching and learning. This hierarchy reflects the power structure embedded in e–learning management systems: Blackboard Inc. designers and marketers who determine the learning environment’s structure; university administrators who determine which features should and should not be included as well as instructor access to managing features; instructors who determine which features should be available to students and how the class website should be structured within the platform’s parameters; and, students, who determine how they will use the interface within the structure designed by Blackboard Inc., university administrators, and instructors.

Notice that students come right at the bottom of the list here. In Blackboard it is easy as a tutor to fall into the trap of thinking of teaching as something that is done to students, and as students to think of learning as something to be received. For both tutors and students autonomy can be constrained by the functionality of Blackboard. As Audrey Watters writes (2014) it ‘shapes, limits and steers our practices’.

In September last year Audrey Watters gave a talk to Newcastle University – Beyond the LMS , where she ended up by saying …

Let’s move beyond the LMS, back to and forward to an independent Web and let’s help our students take full advantage of it, because in her view ‘Blackboard sucks’.

Whilst I hold many of the same reservations about Blackboard, how is a tutor or student to respond to this? The fact that ‘Blackboard sucks’ doesn’t help those tutors and students who have to work within these constraints. They don’t have much of a choice.

For the people I am working with i.e. the tutors and the IT and library support people, the students are not at the bottom of the hierarchy but are their first concern. These are people who are immensely skilled at what they do, with years of experience behind them, but there’s no getting away from the fact that Blackboard is a constraint. For some this is a conscious constraint, for others it is unconscious. But isn’t that life? We all work within constraints of one sort or another.

How could Blackboard’s constraints be minimised? How can students and tutors reap the benefits of Blackboard, i.e. ease of finding resources, maintaining an overview of the programme, and the security of the assessment submission process, whilst at the same time reaping the benefits of autonomy, openness, diversity and connectivity offered by the open Web? On reflecting on this I think it has a lot to do with having an appropriate mindset. We have to recognise what the positives of working within an LMS might be, acknowledge the constraints, keep an open mind, be willing to experiment (and fail sometimes) and look for ways to overcome the constraints.

I have not been contracted to work with students, but if I were, I would look to see how I could support student autonomy and I would also want to increase my own autonomy. I think these are some of the things I might try. I would try to encourage students to set up WordPress blogs and would aggregate them within Blackboard, I would try using Skype and Google Hangout, providing links within Blackboard, I might try using a Facebook site or Google + for discussion, again providing the link within Blackboard (although personally I am not a fan of Facebook) and if I wanted to use a wiki I would try using pbWorks or Wikispaces, and provide the link in Blackboard.

The question would then remain, how open should these spaces be, and how accessible would they be for all the students? I know that the institution I am working for is concerned, quite rightly, about mobile access. And I also know that students can feel very vulnerable in open spaces. We ourselves, as tutors, can feel vulnerable in open spaces. These are not easy decisions to make and each tutor has to individually decide how best to work with their students, and what is best for them.

Ultimately it all comes down to personal philosophies of education; what do we want for our students, what kinds of spaces and environments do students need to learn in this digital age and how will we meet them in these spaces?

As I wrote in a recent post after hearing Ron Barnett speak at Liverpool John Moores University

The curriculum is not as important as pedagogy, i.e. the student/teacher relationship. We need to open up pedagogical space for our students and search for spaces of possibility. We should support our students in developing the dispositions needed for a world of challenge.

I think this can be done, even within Blackboard!

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This is what I have thought most about over the past month – so this is my post for June 2015, although I have also made other posts during June.

On Thursday 18th June Frances Bell and I presented a session at Liverpool John Moores University’s Teaching and Learning Conference, which earlier in the year put out a call for papers which could address the theme: ‘Locations for learning: where does the learning take place?’

We immediately recognized that our research into rhizomatic learning would fit this theme. The rhizome has been used as a metaphor for teaching and learning by many educators who are interested in encouraging learners to explore new spaces for learning.

This is the Abstract we submitted.

We can no longer preserve the illusion that learning is bounded by the classroom or other formal educational structures. Learners routinely navigate complex uncertain environments offered by social media and the web. Beyond the boundaries of the classroom, on the social web, learners enter the rhizome.

Our research in a massive open online course, Rhizomatic Learning: The community is the curriculum (now known as Rhizo14) revealed mixed learner experiences. Rhizo14 was modelled on Deleuze and Guattari’s principles of the rhizome, outlined in their book ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, although ultimately it was an experiment about learning in an age of uncertainty and abundance, rather than a course about the rhizome. The experiment sought to learn about what happens when learners take control of their learning and through connection and interaction determine the curriculum.

As a location for learning, the rhizome challenges traditional views of education, allowing entry anywhere and knowing no boundaries. Within a rhizome, learners select and follow their own learning paths, taking many ‘lines of flight’ and travelling as nomads. Learning takes place through a multiplicity of connections, continually being formed, broken and reformed. Learners learn from each other and together create their own curricula; hierarchies and authority are eschewed.

Learning in the Rhizo14 rhizome had both light and dark sides. It was motivating and stimulating, leading to intense creativity, engagement and transformational learning, but the freedom to roam increased learner vulnerability. In the absence of an ethical framework, the burden of ‘teaching’ fell on to the most active with some unintended and invisible consequences.

We will discuss with the audience how learning ethically in the rhizome might take place and how freedom and responsibility might be balanced.

Mackness, J. & Bell, F. (2015). Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade. Open Praxis. 7(1), p. 25-38

Over 400 delegates, mostly from the University but also including a few external presenters like ourselves, signed up for the conference and more than 80 sessions were presented over the two days. It was a lively conference and an enjoyable experience.

For our session we had 25 minutes in which we wanted to leave as much time for discussion as possible. As such we spoke for about 10 minutes, and then spent the remaining time discussing the challenges and possibilities of rhizomatic learning with our audience.

At the start we asked whether anyone was familiar with Deleuze and Guattari’s work on the principles of the rhizome. Two people were, but the concept was new to everyone else. In the time we had available to us we were only able to briefly outline what happened in Rhizo14 and the rhizomatic principles that inspired it. We then asked participants to divide into groups to discuss four statements that we hoped would stimulate thinking about the challenges and possibilities of using the rhizome as a concept for teaching and learning:

  • Learning requires boundaries
  • Learners cannot be trusted to select and follow their own learning paths
  • Learners can create their own curriculum through peer interaction
  • Learners and teachers know how to balance freedom and responsibility in social learning spaces

Ultimately only the first three statements were discussed but the feedback culminated in a response to the fourth statement.

Learning requires boundaries. The group discussing this statement felt that boundaries are helpful and that learners benefit from different types of boundaries at different times. Sometimes boundaries need to be rigid, which they represented by drawing a solid line, sometimes more flexible, which they represented with a dotted line. They acknowledged that looser institutional boundaries allow for more personal learning and that boundaries are always moving.

Learners cannot be trusted to select and follow their own learning paths. This group thought that selection is part and parcel of the learning process because learning goals change as the learning progresses. They made the interesting comment that the learning path is determined by a process of elimination.

Learners can create their own curriculum through peer interaction. This group wanted to change the word ‘create’ to ‘shape’. They thought that it is possible for learners to shape their own curriculum through peer interaction with facilitation and guidance, but they recognized that ultimately the curriculum would be determined by the majority and that there would be institutional constraints.

In listening to these responses we felt that all three statements had been discussed in the context of balancing structure and freedom, which relates to the fourth statement, and to ideas that we continue to explore in our ongoing research into rhizomatic learning.

We were very pleased with how this session went. Participants only had 15 minutes for discussion and feedback, but all engaged with the prompts and each group responded with thoughtful and insightful comments.

Many thanks to all those who attended our session and engaged so actively, and also to Elena Zaitseva, who chaired the session, fully engaged herself and kept us all to time so well.

Another highlight of the Liverpool John Moores’ Teaching and Learning Conference 2015  was a session in the FabLab (right opposite the Catholic Cathedral). I have already written about the highlight of Professor Ronald Barnett’s keynote (see Student learning in a turbulent age).

Liverpool Catholic CathedralLiverpool Catholic Cathedral

 Accredited by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, FabLab Liverpool  is a physical space located in the School of Art and Design which provides access to the tools and knowledge to educate, innovate and invent using technology and digital fabrication to allow anyone to make almost anything. (Source of text – conference Abstract booklet)

The FabLab

In the session we were introduced to 3D printers, laser cutters and 3D scanners, all of which were new to me. We saw a key chain made in a laser cutter for Frances Bell and demonstrations of 3D scanning and 3D printingKey fob

3D scanning 3D printing

The FabLab session was billed as ‘A place to play, to create, to learn’ and there was certainly a buzz in the room. The aim was ‘to demonstrate how a creative environment and access to innovative technologies can assist pedagogic development with transferable, creative skills’. It was a fun session.

Right at the end of the session, I had a brief discussion with one of the presenters about the applications of these technologies. We already know that 3D printing has been used successfully for facial reconstruction after severe injury such as in the case of a motor-bike accident. And there are clear applications of laser printing, 3D scanning and printing for many design projects. I did wonder though what the implications might be for the fine artist.

An article by Randy Rieland on the Smithsonian website reminds us that ‘technology has been providing artists with new ways to express themselves for a very long time’.

In contrast Iain McGilchrist warns us against art that is too abstract, cerebral and generalized. In his book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, he writes (p.96)

‘… works of art – music, poems, paintings, great buildings – can be understood only if we appreciate that they are more like people than texts, concepts or things’.

For McGilchrist, art is more than the creation of ‘something’. He writes p.308 …

‘Art …in its nature constantly impels us to reach out and onward to something beyond itself and beyond ourselves.’

… which echoes Ron Barnett’s words when he suggested that we see learning as ‘becoming more than you are, becoming other than you were’.

I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to see Liverpool John Moores’ FabLab in action, but on reflection I have wondered what the implications of these advancing technologies will be for art and artists. What will we lose and what will we gain in terms of the art that will be created in the future, our understanding and appreciation of it, and its place in our world?

View towards the Mersey

View towards the Royal Liver Building and the Mersey from the 5th floor of the Redmonds Building, Liverpool John Moores University.

This week I have been privileged to hear Professor Ronald Barnett speak at Liverpool John Moores University, where he was the keynote speaker on the second day of their teaching and learning conference. The title of his talk was:

A University for Learning: considering the present and glimpsing the future.

The theme for the conference as a whole was ‘Locations for learning: where does the learning take place?’ so Ron Barnett started his keynote with the question ’What kind of spaces are we trying to open up for students – how much space?’ He told us that the university has been with us for 900 years or longer and will be with us for a very long time. Many of today’s students will be alive in the 22nd century. At the very least we should try to answer questions such as: What is student learning the 21st century? What is it to be a graduate in the 21st century? What might we hope for from our students? What might they want of themselves?

He pointed out that we live in a turbulent environment and that our students are learning in a turbulent age where the higher education mantras of knowledge, skills and employability are no longer adequate. Neither knowledge nor skills may be adequate for tomorrow and we know that there is no guarantee of employability. The world is changing and there is a world beyond work.

He told us that the only thing that is certain is uncertainty and that we don’t only have to think in terms of complexity, but of supercomplexity. In the Abstract for his book ‘Realizing the University in an Age of Supercomplexity’, this is discussed as follows:

The university is faced with supercomplexity, in which our very frames of understanding, action and self-identity are all continually challenged. In such a world, the university has explicitly to take on a dual role: firstly, of compounding supercomplexity, so making the world ever more challenging; and secondly, of enabling us to live effectively in this chaotic world. Internally, too, the university has to become a new kind of organization, adept at fulfilling this dual role. The university has to live by the uncertainty principle: it has to generate uncertainty, to help us live with uncertainty, and even to revel in our uncertainty.

It is interesting to note that this was written 15 years ago!

So in this world of ever increasing diversity, differentiation and complexity, is there anything that should bind us together? What aspects of Higher Education are universal across the globe? To answer this question he said we need to ‘reclaim’ the student as persons who can develop the capacity to benefit the world in wise ways. Higher Education should therefore be more than satisfying students as consumers or viewing them in terms of pound notes.

In this world of uncertainty and supercomplexity, Barnett suggested that learning is often ‘scary’, involving becoming more than you are, becoming other than you were. Knowledge and skills are not enough; they require engagement to become a human being of a certain kind. Individuals must continually give of themselves, must continually remake themselves. The curriculum is not as important as pedagogy, i.e. the student/teacher relationship. We need to open up pedagogical space for our students and search for spaces of possibility. We should support our students in developing the dispositions needed for a world of challenge. Dispositions of

  • A will to learn
  • A will to engage
  • A preparedness to listen
  • A preparedness to explore
  • A willingness to hold oneself open to experience
  • A determination to keep going forward

Barnett then suggested that these dispositions should bind us across institutions. These are the dispositions that would help students to develop the qualities required for a world of challenge, qualities that will enable them to become global citizens who will help to bring about a better world.

He also suggested that to do this we have to understand ourselves as human beings in relation to the world and for this we need an ‘ecological curriculum’ which promotes being in the world, sensitivity to its global/local, personal/professional, systems/persons interconnectedness, engagement in its sustainability and improvement, active empathy and caring for the world.

Ron Barnett spoke with a passion that it is not possible to convey in a blog post and it was this passion that made the keynote so effective and, judging by the tweets and the comments I overheard in the following coffee break, inspired so many in the audience.

At the end of the keynote a question raised was whether these ideas were ‘pie in the sky’. These were not the words of the questioner, but the words that Ron Barnett used in responding to the question. On reflection about the keynote, despite finding it the highlight of the conference and well worth travelling to Liverpool for, I am left with a sense that we were treated to a passionate exploration of a glimpse into the future of the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of Higher Education, but it’s the ‘how’ that remains open.

We were left with the question of how an ecological curriculum which contains spaces for critical self-reflection, spaces for engagement with self, society and the world, spaces for multidisciplinary demanding experiences, can be introduced into a 21st century Higher Education institution. How will these ideas impact on Higher Education? How will they be realised in practice?

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