The Critical Literacies Divide

Living in the Kashmir Himalayas

It’s not good to take 10 days out of the middle of a course – especially if you travel to the other side of the world and enter what feels like ‘a different universe’. Or maybe it is good –  as a reality check – for keeping grounded.

This photo – which I took last week on a trekking holiday in the Kashmir Himalayas – shows a family in front of their home.  As I passed, the woman was washing her clothes in a mountain stream. She stopped and gathered her children around her for the photo. I doubt she even knows that the internet exists. There was no internet or mobile phone connection once I arrived in the Himalayas and these families were shepherds living in the accommodation shown in the photo. Their living conditions were harsh by our standards. There was no school for their children although an NGO was working in the area to try and provide a school/education for these children/families. But they were skilled at living in these harsh conditions, at tending their goats and sheep, at ‘reading’ the environment – definitely more skilled than me. They could control their animals, goats, sheep, horses with a whistle, cross a raging torrent of a river by running across a fallen tree, light a fire in pouring rain, produce an amazing cake without an oven, climb mountain slopes as if they were a stroll in the park. They did not ask for money. They did not want to ‘talk’. The only thing they asked us for was medicine. Without basic medical services, the potential of sickness (so possible in these harsh conditions) meant that they would not be able to tend their sheep and goats, or climb the mountains, or raise the minimum income they needed to survive. Critical literacies – if at all on the horizon of these people – would be reading and writing and they would be lucky to access even this.

Charalambos Vrasidas raised this issue in a Hotseat discussion prior to the Networked Learning conference 2010.

Would a critical literacy of our networked world be to remember this digital divide and to try and bridge it?

Ethics and the Learner Voice

With increasing research into the learner experience comes increasing need to consider the ethics of this type of research. The only two questions we received about the two papers we presented at the Networked Learning Conference in Aarlborg, were both about ethics.

The first question was ‘What are the ethical considerations that need to be taken into account when ‘experimenting’ on learners?’ This was in relation to the CCK08 course in which George Siemens and Stephen Downes attempted to destabilise the notion of a course. Our Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC paper concluded that there needs to be more research into the ethics of running massive open online courses – so this question was not a surprise and unfortunately the 20 minute slot that we had for presenting the paper and answering questions did not allow time for discussion.

The second question related to our Blogs and Forums as Communication and Learning Tools in a MOOC paper. The question was whether it is ethical to aggregate blog posts from course participants. As far as I can remember (in CCK08) participants were were asked to tag their blog posts with #CCK08, so that they could be easily located.  Most participants would also have been familiar with Stephen Downes’ OLDaily – so I’m not sure where this leaves the ethics question.

To learn more and hear what others say, I will attend the ELESIG Webinar On Wednesday of this week (May 19th)

Webinar: Doing It Right! Methods, Ethics and Hearing the Learner Voice.

Joint HE Ethics and Web 2.0 SIG & ELESIG, with John Traxler

Wednesday 19 May 2010

11:00am – 12.30pm

Speakers (not necessarily in this order):

Dr Roy Williams, University of Portsmouth, “Paradoxes of Audio Narratives”

Liz Masterman, Oxford University Computing Services, “Ethical issues associated with an extended e-mail interview technique: what we called our “Pen-Pal” Method”

Amanda Jefferies, University of Hertfordshire, “‘Using student constructed video diaries – reflections from the STROLL project”

Karen Fitzgibbon, University of Glamorgan, “Helping to shape and enhance the student experience”

Ali Messer, Roehampton University, “Appreciative enquiry as a method in part for ethical reasons”

Adele Cushing, Barnet College, “Do’s and Don’ts’ from a mobile learning project – experiences and personal accounts”

For more information see:

All ELESIG events are free. The only requirement is that you become a member (this is also free!)

Academic credibility

In recent days,  and as a result of ongoing conversation, both on and offline, in the light of my experience at the Networked Learning Conference, I have been thinking a lot about the implications of openness for academic credibility and learning.  The ideas I am about to express are the result of a conversation that I have been having with a friend, so I cannot claim them as my own, but neither can I attribute them, as they arise from a private conversation.

Academic credibility seems to stem from a recognised research record in academia. I am not an academic and I am a new researcher so I am aware that I could easily be shot down for what I write in this post.  However, being an independent consultant also gives me a degree of freedom to speak that maybe people who are trying to maintain their credibility and self-esteem within an HE institution and maybe climb the career ladder do not have.

As far as I understand it, an HE institution relies on its researchers to provide its credibility as an academic institution of note and from people I have spoken to, some if not all academics are required to publish a certain number of papers a year in esteemed journals. A recent article I read (can’t remember where) pointed out that the pressure on new researchers is much greater than on established/recognised researchers who can rest on their laurels a bit and have lesser demands made of them by their institutions as to how many papers they produce.

In this age of open online publication – what does this mean for academics? When Sui Fai John Mak, Roy Williams and I were selecting a conference to submit our two papers to, we specifically chose the Networked Learning Conference because our papers would be published online. For us this was/is important as we felt that this decision adhered to the principles of openness that we had learned about on the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge course.

Despite having written in the Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC paper about the difficulties of understanding the meaning of openness, it seems to me to be a principle worth signing up to. But what might be the difficulties for academics if their paper does not go through a peer reviewed journal?

In discussion with my friend/colleague I realise that a peer-reviewed journal does offer some protection for the integrity of an academic’s ideas and for accuracy of citing the author’s writing. So for example, it is difficult to accurately cite writing in blog posts and often blog posts are not considered to have the same worth as an article included in a peer-reviewed journal. The link may go down, or the writing may be inaccurately cited or attributed.

And then there is the question of what happens when the online writing/article is translated into another language without the author’s knowledge  – interpreted inaccurately by the translator – and cited from there. The potential for dilution and distortion of the original post is huge.

So what do those who are keen to follow the openness route do? Do they just shrug and accept that their ideas and in many cases considerable work will be open to corruption and distortion – or do they need to consider the protection that the academic establishment can ensure for their ideas, through the long, slow, tedious and narrow confines of peer reviewed journals ( my interpretation of the submission to journal process, which I have to admit is based on very limited experience, and which, being independent of an HE institution, I don’t need to worry about!).

Which is more important: – that we ensure that our ideas/thinking/research reaches as many people as possible as freely as possible, or safe-guarding the integrity of our research? Quite a dilemma, for which I do not have an answer.

Too much choice

I am still reflecting on my experience at the Networked Learning Conference and it has been heartening to receive supportive comments here on this blog, in emails and  f2f.

The conference in Birmingham yesterday was wonderful. Inspiring in many ways. It’s interesting to reflect on why it worked so much better for me than the Networked Learning Conference. It is obviously significant that I was involved in the planning of this conference – and I think relates to negotiated meaning. Etienne talked a lot about the importance of moving away from thinking about teaching, learning and education as being about ‘stuff’ (e.g. curriculum, grades etc) to being about meaningfulness. The B’Ham conference was all about ‘meaning’ for me and I think it was for some of the delegates too judging from the feedback we have been receiving. The Birmingham conference was also considerably shorter and smaller, but more importantly was more focussed in it’s content.

The good thing about the Networked Learning Conference is that it has brought into sharp focus for me, some of my learning preferences and abilities. So I realise I am more of a ‘small is beautiful’ person, although I did manage to participate in CCK08 until the end – but mostly from the confines of my blog 🙂

I have also been intrigued by Heli’s posts about the Networked Learning Conference, as although she wasn’t at the conference, she really seems to have much more of a handle on what went on there than I do! She has managed to stay focussed on her interests (connectivism) and not get distracted by the huge diversity of what was presented at the NLC, which I found bewildering.

So Heli’s blog has reminded me that I am the type of person who does not like large department stores – I can never find what I am looking for and prefer the small shops with less choice and more focus on my personal style. It also reminded me that although I love gardens and flower shows, my one and only visit to the Chelsea Flower show in London  many years ago also left me feeling disappointed. I could not see the ‘wood for the tree’s – or in that case the flowers for the gardens. It is more enjoyable for me to experience the Chelsea Flower show from a distance, via the television, radio  and newspapers – but does this mean that I abdicate choice to others and open myself to possible group think, echo chambers and lack of critical analysis?

There is so much talk nowadays about being able to traverse networks, being able to filter and select, analyse and synthesise from vast amounts of information, that I wonder if we will end up with a divide between people like me who tend to prefer a smaller number of connections and those who participate happily in vast networks. Or has it always been like this – but to a lesser degree?

The Reality of the Networked Learning Conference

The Ideals and Reality of Participating in a Conference ( a personal perspective)

This week I have presented for the very first time (with Roy Williams) a paper at a conference (the Networked Learning Conference)

This has been a steep learning curve for me which I reflect on here. I had ideals – yes – and the reality is that I feel disillusioned with the conference process.

My ideals were that the research we were working on was worthwhile, was honest and open, and raised questions which would be of interest to the networked learning community. Big mistake – little or no interest from the 160 participants in the conference.

My ideals also included the hope that the networked learning conference as a whole would address some of the issues raised by the connectivism course – such as the implications of autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness for the design of education courses in the future. These seem to me to be very relevant to the future of networked learning – but ‘No’ – I did not come across any discussion of these. In fact most of the sessions I attended (and there were so many parallel sessions that it was a real lottery as to which session to attend) presented material that was not new to me. Only Etienne Wenger (keynote speaker) succeeded in firing up my imagination and enthusiasm for the future of education and thinking about how people learn.

The reality was that whilst the conference was extremely friendly and socially a great experience (it was great to meet in the flesh people I have only met previously online), a conference is a mechanism for people to present their paper to meet the requirements of their HE institutions. If you get your paper presented all is well, but overall I did not get the sense that people were trying to grasp the real issues. The only other Networked Learning Conference I have attended was in 2004, which left me ‘buzzing’ at the end of every session. To be honest – apart from the social contacts – for the most part this conference left me cold. I overheard someone say that the Networked Learning Conference has ‘lost it’s way’ and this resonated with me. As far as I could see, whilst the host country has changed, the format has not changed at all. A very disturbing thought when attending the conference cost me personally, as an independent consultant, over £1000. I would like to see a more innovative approach.

I have in the past academic year, attended some ‘unconferences’. These seem to me to fit better with recent thinking about how we connect to people and negotiate our learning (and discuss our research aspirations) – but I am realistic enough to know that this probably doesn’t fit with the demands of HE institutions (although as an independent consultant these don’t concern me).

I have followed the Twitter stream and frankly am bemused by the ‘isn’t this wonderful’ posts. There is only one which seems to me to be critically evaluative, where someone has said that the conference participants seem to be split between those interested in theory and those interested in practice. I agree.

I would like to see future networked learning conferences change to include:

  • More consideration of value for money. I know for most people institutions pay – but to approach it as if each individual is paying out of their own pocket would, I think, improve it. This conference was hugely expensive and I can see no justification for this.
  • More support of new researchers, e.g. do not have new researcher sessions in parallel with the high flyers – inevitably new researchers are left out in the cold.
  • Fewer parallel sessions (although I realise that this wouldn’t meet institutions requirements for their employees to present) and more opportunity to focus on the themes of the conference and raise questions about the key issues for the future of networked learning and the implications of this for the future of our education systems.
  • More negotiation about the content of the conference.
  • More evidence that the conference is trying to address the issues of massification, privatisation and globalisation that networked education will have to address. Some of the sessions I attended, including some of the symposia presented by well recognised names – were I felt, seriously out of date in their thinking
  • I think I must be coming from a completely different place with regard to my thinking about networked learning and the issues that HE needs to address for the future – but I was disappointed by the content of the networked learning conference – apart from Etienne’s presentation.

However – looking at it from the glass half full perspective:

–          I learned more about myself and my aspirations, what I can do and what I can’t do, what I aspire to and what I will give a miss, what my values are and what I am prepared to speak out about to defend these values

–          I met some wonderful people, including members of the CPsquare community and others

–          The food in Denmark is wonderful, even if it is hugely expensive

–          Copenhagen is a beautiful and intriguing city – especially the hippy community. Aalborg is also worth a visit and wonderfully hospitable

–          The experience has made me reflect deeply on whether or not I wish to continue doing research. I am an independent consultant, so I am only doing this out of interest. There are not career benefits for me – only the benefits of continuing to pursue an interest in how people learn and the role of the teacher.

Second NLC Presentation 2010

Here is the presentation for our second paper which we will present on Tuesday at the Networked Learning Conference in Aalborg.

Blogs and Forums as Communication and Learning Tools in a MOOC

I think we are all set to go now.

Networked Learning Conference Presentation 2010

Below is the link to our presentation of our paper for the Networked Learning Conference 2010.  This is for the  Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC  paper.

The Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC Presentation


We will also be providing a handout to go with the presentation at the conference : Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC Handout

We’re really hoping that this will go well, that we get some people at our session and that people at the conference will find it interesting – but I expect everyone else is hoping this as well!

And of course we have the other paper to present as well!