Capturing the learner experience in ModPo and open learning environments

This is an invitation to all Modern & Contemporary American Poets MOOC (ModPo) participants, SCoPE community members, CPsquare members, ELESIG members, FSLT13 participants, POTCert participants, colleagues and friends, and the wider open network to join us in two open webinars to reflect on your learning experiences and discuss emergent learning in MOOCs and open learning environments.

Where and when?

SCoPE Blackboard Collaborate Room:

  1. Webinar 1 – Emergent Learning – Tuesday, 19 November 18:00 GMT
  2. Webinar 2 –  Drawing Footprints of Emergence – Tuesday, 29 November 18:00 GMT

See for further details of the Webinars.

In these webinars we will be sharing some thoughts about our experiences in MOOCs and other courses,  in my case ModPo, and inviting participants to do likewise. In particular, in the second webinar, we will encourage participants to reflect on their learning to draw a visualization of their learning experience – a Footprint.

This is a visualization of my reflection on my ModPo experience at the end of Week 10, the end of the MOOC.ModPo Week 10 Image 2

In these drawings (we call them Footprints) we consider the relationship between 25 different critical factors  that can influence the learning experience with particular reference to the balance between prescriptive and emergent learning. There is not room here to explain this in detail. We will do this in the webinars and further information can be found on our open wiki and in our published papers – which you can find here and here.

Drawing footprints is a way of surfacing deep reflection, tacit knowledge and understanding about learning in complex learning environments.

I have documented my ModPo experience over the weeks in this document in a series of footprints – see ModPo footprints and explanation 151113

This is how I have described my learner experience at the end of the course (the end of Week 10) which is depicted by the Footprint image above …….

My Learning experience in ModPo – End of Week 10

ModPo has been a bit of a roller coaster ride for me. I have lurched from being thrilled by it, to feeling excessively irritated, from marveling at the open minds of the poets to whom we have been introduced, to feeling that I do not have the competence to understand them, from being disappointed in aspects of the MOOC pedagogy to being really impressed with the way in which the MOOC has been run. This is reflected in the footprints I have drawn at various stages of the course.

Reflecting on my experience of the last week of the course, I find that my perception of the balance between emergent and prescriptive learning in this MOOC has once again shifted more into the ‘sweet’ emergent learning zone (The pale white zone on the footprint is the emergent learning zone. The darker central zone is the prescriptive learning zone. The outer darker zone is the challenging zone, moving towards the edge of chaos).

The footprint I have drawn shows that there are a number of factors that remain in the prescriptive zone. There isn’t a lot of ‘Risk’ in the ModPo environment, or opportunities for the course to be self-correcting or adaptive. There is limited variance in the learning pathways and not really any possibility that I could see of negotiating outcomes. My perception is that these constraints on emergent learning are a result of the design of the Coursera platform.

I also imposed constraints on myself by choosing not to engage in the forums and towards the end of the course I stopped watching the webcasts. For myself I had to balance engagement with the heavy load of poetry we were required to read and engage with, with the demands of engaging in the overloaded forums. I chose the former and instead to engage with the MOOC from my blog. I have blogged each week of the course.

The result has been a mostly sweetly emergent learning experience, i.e. ModPo has been a positive learning experience. I do not feel part of the ModPo community (it has been a ‘purple in the nose’ experience*), but I have found the introduction to poets and their experiments highly stimulating and relevant to my work in education.

*(A story from Etienne Wenger). I have tasted the wine and know there is a lot to know about the wine, but I don’t feel part of the wine-tasting community, I don’t understand their language (purple in the nose) and I don’t think I want to become a member of this community. I will remain at the boundaries of the community.

This is my experience. It is valid for me, but of course there is no way in which it could be said to be representative of the 36 000 ModPo participants. For that we would need many ModPo participants to draw a footprint and share it. Hence the invitation.

And the invitation is equally open to all interested in online learning experiences. We already have many examples of footprints from participants on a range of courses and would welcome more. The more we have, the more we can begin to unpick what it means to learn in open learning environments.

We hope you will join us in the webinars. Everyone is welcome.

New Special Issue on MOOCs published today (JOLT)

Today has seen the publication in JOLT  of a paper I worked on with Marion Waite, George Roberts and Elizabeth Lovegrove from Oxford Brookes University, in which we examined learning in the First Steps in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education MOOC (FSLT12).

Waite, M., Mackness, J., Roberts, G., & Lovegrove, E. (2013). Liminal participants & skilled orienteers: A case study of learner participation in a MOOC for new lecturers. JOLT

In a brief overview of ocTEL which Martin Hawksey gives in the video below, he mentions that one thing they would like to address in the next run of ocTEL is learner support.

In FSLT12 we were also concerned about this. We noted in our research into participation in FSLT12, that whilst many of the participants found themselves in that liminal zone of uncertainty about who they are, what they should be doing, how to navigate the environment, how open to be and so on, there were also many experienced MOOCers, who we called ‘skilled orienteers’. These participants voluntarily took on the role of supporting participants new to MOOCs and this way of working in the open. In the following run of the course, FSLT13, alumni from the previous course were invited to act as ‘expert’ participants, with the expectation that they would support those new to MOOCs and also provide feedback on the outcomes of the course activities.

Martin Hawksey is running a session today at ALT-C on Tues 10th Sept, 1.55 -2.55 pm, Horses for Open Courses: Making the Backend of a MOOC with WordPress – experiences from ocTEL .

The main thrust of this session will be, as the title suggests, the design of the course using WordPress. The design of the ALT-C website, which Stephen Downes has decribed as ‘masterwork’  is a development of the design for the ocTEL MOOC.

I’m looking forward to Martin’s session and hearing not only what he has to say about the ocTEL WordPress platform, but also his plans for future developments in relation to participant support.

I’m also looking forward to hearing what Stephen Downes might have to say about learner support in MOOCs. I remember, as a participant of CCK08, being aware that I was very much in a ‘sink or swim’ environment. My perception at the time was that this was an intentional part of the course design, and since I ended up ‘swimming’, but not without difficulty, I didn’t see this as a bad thing. But I do still wonder how much learners should be expected to sink or swim. Is there a conflict between the principles for learning in cMOOCs – autonomy, diversity, openness and interactivity/connectedness – and learner support, i.e. can the principles be constrained by support and if so to what extent?

#FSLT13 Hybrid Learning

FSLT13  –  ends this week and was wonderfully well rounded off by Cris Crissman who talked in the live session about opportunities for openness in hybrid learning. See Cris’ blog – Virtually Foolproof

Cris has loads of teaching experience and really embraces openness and the opportunites that different technologies provide for doing this.

She also embraces creativity and this shows in her presentation.

She didn’t only present her own ideas and content but also managed to pull together threads from the previous two presentations, my own and Sylvia Currie’s to nicely sum up some of the key messages from the whole course.

I don’t think I need to say any more. Cris explains it all much better than I could – so here is the video.

You can also find links to the actual Blackboard Collaborate session and Cris’ Diigo site here.

Building open communities

Sylvia Currie who manages the SCoPE community at BC Campus spoke to FSLT13   last week on her work as a community facilitator and organizer.

The title of her talk is intriguing, because in some senses communities of practice could be regarded as closed rather than open, in that traditionally they have had clear boundaries. For example, in 2007, Engestrom wrote of the costs of a community of practice as follows:

  • A community of practice is a fairly well-bounded local entity which has clear boundaries and membership criteria.
  • A community of practice has a single center of supreme skill and authority, typically embodied in the master.
  • A community of practice is characterized mainly by centripetal movement from the periphery toward the center, from novice to master, from marginal to fully legitimate participation;opposite centrifugal movement may occur but is not  foundational.

But things have moved on since those early days of communities of practice. Sylvia points out that the term ‘open’ can have different meanings.

Open means many things

Etienne Wenger acknowledges this change in openness in his more recent work on  ‘landscapes of practice’ where he discusses how we are members of different communities of practice and situated in multiple landscapes.

The human world can be viewed as a huge collection of communities of practice – some very prominent and recognized, others hardly visible. Our learning can then be understood as a trajectory through this landscape of practices: entering some communities, being invited or rejected, remaining visitors, crossing boundaries, being stuck, and moving on. In such a landscape, both the core of communities of practice and their boundaries offer opportunities for learning.

He has suggested that learning is often most profitable at the boundaries between different communities, recognizing that community boundaries are permeable.

The SCoPE community is ‘open’ in many senses of the word and Sylvia has recognized that ‘openness’ changes things and requires a different approach in terms of facilitation.

Open does change things


Here is the recording of the session:

And here is a link to the complete recording in Blackboard Collaborate, including the chat and an example, in the second half of the session, of how to manage group work in a synchronous online session. Sylvia points out that this is not without risks, so not everything worked out, but if no-one took these risks then where would be the progress?

Sylvia’s talk reflected her wealth of experience (more than 20 years) of community facilitation and her commitment to open sharing of her expertise.


Engeström, Y. (2007). From communities of practice to mycorrhizae. In J. Hughes, N. Jewson & L. Unwin (Eds.), Communities of practice: Critical perspectives. London: Routledge.

Open Academic Practice – How open are you?

This was a question that I asked FSLT13 participants this week in a synchronous online session that I was invited to run. I suggested that we place ourselves on this grid, according to whether we consider ourselves a lone academic or an open scholar and whether we make limited use of digital technologies or extensive use of them. This was the response.
how open are you 2
Given that FSLT13 is principally for people new to learning and teaching in Higher Education, but also for anyone who has an interest in learning and teaching in HE, the outcome of this activity is not really surprising. Whilst the majority of people in the session felt they are making good use of digital technologies, not everyone feels they are working as open academics, and as one participant pointed out the notion of ‘openness’ can be context dependent.

The invitation to run this live session was good for me. It forced me to consider how open I am. I decided to try and depict this graphically by using characteristics which have been discussed by Terry Anderson and Martin Weller (see references at the end of this post), scoring myself out of 10 for each characteristic and generating a radar graph. This was the result.
Characteristics of an open academic
It is fairly obvious from this that there is room for more openness in my academic practice, but that would mean increased contribution of OERs and shared outputs, increasing my online network and mixing personal and professional outputs. To be honest, I am hesitant to do any of these things. I can just about keep up with the online network I have, my outputs would have to be of significantly higher quality for me to feel confident in pushing them out there, and there’s no way I want to share aspects of my personal life with people I don’t know. So that leaves me with being more adventurous with new technologies, which I could/should do, and maybe that would increase my confidence with sharing outputs and thus increase my online network.

Given how many years’ experience I have had of teaching and learning on and offline, it is easy to see how becoming an open academic can be daunting. I have in the past discussed the ‘tyranny’ of openness  and the fact that regarding openness as some sort of moral imperative can be unhelpful.

I haven’t changed my views on this, as I don’t think we can force people to be ‘open’. But I do think it is worth reflecting on Terry Anderson’s comments that

‘…successful educators share most thoroughly with the most students’

‘…expertise is non-rivalrous … it can be given without being given away’

In other words openness can be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat.

But ultimately openness is an individual dimension as Carmen Tschofen and I discussed in our paper – Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual experience (see reference below).

These were the ideas (and there were more), that we discussed in the live session, a recording of which has been posted on `YouTube’. I will now try and address my reluctance to share outputs by posting this here  – and hope I don’t live to regret it 🙂

It took me a while to relax (I still find it difficult to talk to an invisible audience), but once I got going, I enjoyed it. However, despite all my preparation and determination to be sufficiently organised to be able to follow the chat at the same time as speaking, I still didn’t manage it. So apologies to those whose questions went unanswered.

Finally I was really interested to see this response to aspects of the session from Steffi in her Week 1 reflection

The rewards of open practice come in reciprocity, alternative perspectives and opportunities for dialogue. Thanks to FSLT13 participants and team for this opportunity.


Anderson, T.  (2009).  Association for Learning Technology Conference, keynote presentation.

Weller, M. (2011). The Digital Scholar. How technology is transforming academic practice

Tschofen, C. & Mackness, J. (2011). Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual Experience. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning.

FSLT13 Reflections on teaching

Focus on your own learning experiences, how do you learn best? How have your own learning experiences influenced how you teach? These are the questions asked in the first week of the FSLT13 course (not yet a MOOC. According to Stephen Downes you need more than 150 active participants – Dunbar’s number – to be a MOOC, but that begs the question of what we mean by active).

So thinking about the questions for the first task on reflective writing …

…. I qualified as a teacher in 1969 – rather a long time ago. Last year for FSLT12 I was a tutor on the course and didn’t really have time to think about this question, but I was impressed by all the participants’ posts and in particular the autobiographical response made in a series of blog posts by Fred Garnett about how and why he came to be the teacher that he is.  (See Stephen Brookfield’s work on becoming a critically reflective teacher for further information about reflective writing using an autobiographical lens).

Reflecting on this, I know that condensing more than 40 years of experience into one post is nigh on impossible, but as it so happens, I have recently watched a TED talk by Ken Robinson – How to Escape Education’s Death Valley.

This talk is about school education. I spent quite a few years teaching in schools and teacher training (teaching how to teach in schools) so a lot of it resonates. In fact I think he’s spot on. Through the years I have taught all ages from the youngest of children to adults at Masters level. Years ago a wonderful Head teacher, to whom I am eternally grateful, insisted that I teach the youngest children (4/5 year olds) telling me that if I could teach these children (kindergarten), then I could teach anyone – and I have found that there is a lot of truth in this.

Ken Robinson in his talk says that ‘the role of a teacher is to facilitate learning – that’s it’.

In recent years I have thought a lot about the role of the teacher and despite my many years in the teaching profession, as the years go by I think of myself less and less as a ‘teacher’ in the traditional sense of the word. This thinking started a few years after I qualified as a teacher with the sudden realisation/revelation that teaching isn’t about me, but about the learners.

When we are new to teaching all we can think about is ourselves and our ‘performance’ and unfortunately many teaching situations and practices encourage performance (we are observed, assessed, inspected, judged). So we end up with a focus on questions such as Have we planned the lesson effectively? Do we know the subject? Will we engage the learners? Will we be able to explain the subject? All a focus on me as the teacher instead of on the learner.

As time went on in my teaching career I began to realise that I was the least important person in the process and that my focus should be on the learners – what were they learning, were their learning needs being met, did I know who they were? But having been a teacher trainer I know that you have to go through the first step, i.e. who am I as a teacher, to get to the second step, who are the learners.

My current approach to ‘teaching’, if you can call it that, is a strong belief in learner autonomy and negotiated meaning and a belief that learning is emergent and cannot be controlled by the teacher whether or not it is prescribed. Recent research  into what kinds of learning environments promote emergent learning and how these environments are experienced, confirm time and again that learner experience is unique to the individual (see this wiki for examples), which really shouldn’t come as a surprise, but which makes me wonder about the logic of the teacher planning learning objectives.

Stephen Downes has said that to teach is to ‘model and demonstrate’ and to learn is to ‘practise and reflect” – but as Cris Crissman has pointed out in a comment on my last post – a teacher is also a learner, so also ‘practises and reflects’. To ‘model and demonstrate’ probably needs unpicking.

Anderson et al. in their Community of Inquiry model write about ‘teaching presence’  and Stephen Brookfield in the podcast posted on the FSLT13 Moodle site, make it clear that whilst a teacher may be learning alongside learners, there is still a need for intervention – but the manner of this intervention has to be carefully thought through, particularly with regard to power relationships. At what point does intervention become interference? There is a delicate balance here to be understood and worked with.

I think I learn best when I have a good sounding board and safety net (teacher), but also when I feel empowered and in control, so this is how I try to teach. Catherine Cronin articulated this very well in her keynote this morning to the ICT in Education Conference in Ireland in terms of student voice . Hopefully a recording of the keynote will become available soon.

I have written about many of these ideas before, but they just seem to keep coming up again 🙂

FSLT13 – What is learning?

FSLT13  has started this week, and today George Roberts, Marion Waite and Elizabeth Lovegrove  ran the first live session in Blackboard Collaborate (View the recorded session here) .

Officially this is the Orientation week, so this synchronous session was simply to explain how the course will run, to have a go at using BB Collaborate tools (see below) and to raise and answer questions.

Screen shot 2013-05-09 at 18.22.12

This First Steps course has a very ‘friendly’ and supportive feel to it. It is open, but not massive. Over 250 have signed up and 12 have signed up for accredited assessment. New this year is the involvement of 20 volunteer ‘expert’ participants – people who have considerable experience of teaching in HE or who participated in FSLT12 last year. Alec Couros and Lisa Lane, have called these people ‘mentors’ on their courses. Finding the word that accurately describes their role is a bit problematic, but in FSLT13 the expert participants have already been proving their worth, responding to blog and forum posts and encouraging engagement.

Whilst this is an orientation week, no time has been wasted in getting down to the nitty gritty, with George Roberts asking the question in the Week 0 Moodle Forum – ‘What is learning?’ This is a very weighty question. I remember that last year I referred to Stephen Downes’ statement that ‘to learn is to practice and reflect and to teach is to model and demonstrate’. Ever since I first read this I have liked it. It is very straight forward and emphasises the process of learning and teaching. Of course, learning can also be a product which is articulated in this website.

What I particularly like about this website page is the quote from Carl Rogers

I want to talk about learning. But not the lifeless, sterile, futile, quickly forgotten stuff that is crammed in to the mind of the poor helpless individual tied into his seat by ironclad bonds  of conformity! I am talking about LEARNING – the insatiable curiosity that drives the adolescent boy to absorb everything he can see or hear or read about gasoline engines in order to improve the efficiency and speed of his ‘cruiser’. I am talking about the student who says, “I am discovering, drawing in from the outside, and making that which is drawn in a real part of me.” I am talking about any learning in which the experience of the learner progresses along this line: “No, no, that’s not what I want”; “Wait! This is closer to what I am interested in, what I need”; “Ah, here it is! Now I’m grasping and comprehending what I need and what I want to know!” Carl Rogers 1983: 18-19

This aligns completely with my belief that learning is not so much about what we know but about who we are. My thinking has been very much influenced by Etienne Wenger’s work on learning and identity. Ultimately, however we learn, it changes who we are. Through learning I learn about who I am and that knowledge influences everything I do. That’s what learning is all about for me.