Drawing to think

I will start by saying that I do not draw to think, even though I do occasionally draw. I write to think, which is why I am writing this post. Let me explain.

Next week I will attend a one day symposium at Lancaster University on ‘The Materiality of Nothing’

The purpose of the symposium is ‘to extend conversations initiated by the AHRC funded ‘Dark Matters’ project which considered the provocations around Thresholds of Imperceptibility’ I attended the Dark Matters workshop at the end of last year and wrote a couple of posts about it.

For the symposium next week, the invitation from Sarah Casey included the following text:

The Materiality of Nothing is a one day symposium at Lancaster University bringing together practice and perspectives on negotiating the absent, unseen and unknown across art, science and social science. Across the arts and sciences that we call ‘zero’, ‘absence’ or ‘nothing’ remains a potent and powerful entity shaping the way we make sense of the world. It is staggering to reflect that 95% of our universe is invisible to human sensing; the provocation of the unknown and unseen is arguably at the core of creative thinking in the arts and sciences.

This event brings together a range perspectives on materialising the absent, unseen and unknown to reflect on the following questions:

  • How can ‘nothing’ be embodied?
  • How does it feel to encounter the immaterial and how might we negotiate it?
  • How might mathematics – as a speculative ‘messenger’ to and from the unsensed – be understood as a medium for generating touch and relationship (or not)?
  • How might absence, uncertainty be used as provocations and tool for creative thinking?
  • What can this offer in terms of understanding relationship and non-relationship, affect and non affect?

For me this resonates with my interest in Absent Presence and also in what Peter Shukie has called the ‘voice of the voiceless’. In other words, how can we give voice to the voiceless and how we can become more aware of the influences of what is not in plain sight?

A final paragraph in Sarah’s invitation asks us to ….

…. bring along a drawing , notebook or object that could be described as something you think with. The principal editor of Drawing Research Theory Practice Journal  published by Intellect has been in touch and is keen to link up this aspect of the symposium with the journal.

Hence the title of this post.

This invitation has highlighted for me that I do not draw to think, although I am interested enough in drawing to know that many people use drawing to think. Here are a few people that come to mind.

Marc Chagall’s sketchbook

Marc ChagallSource of image

Peter Checkland’s soft systems methodology rich pictures

soft-systems-methodology-for-solving-wicked-problems-5-638Source of image

Nick Sousanis – sketching entropy


Source of image

From the Research Theory Practice Journal website it is clear that the journal is interested in physical drawing as opposed to electronic drawing.

This journal seeks to reestablish the materiality of drawing as a medium at a time when virtual, on-line, and electronic media dominates visuality and communication.

This is interesting when artists such as David Hockney are using iPads for drawing. Hockney is on my mind at the moment as I will be going to see his portraits exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in September.

So knowing that I write to think, rather than draw to think, and knowing that the activity for the symposium next week really wants physical drawings rather than ’electronic’ drawings, I am a bit stumped. But I can only do what I can do, so I am taking along the following two examples of drawing/mapping that I do electronically.

ModPo footprints for paper 041013

This example above is how I think about and reflect on any given learning experience. I use the Footprints of Emergence framework which Roy Williams, Simone Gumtau and I developed for trying to understand learning in open learning environments. This has been published as a research paper.  The ‘footprints’ above reflect my experience in the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC and were included in a book chapter that we published in 2015.

Williams, R., Mackness, J., & Pauschenwein, J. (2015). Using Visualization to Understand Transformations in Learning and Design in MOOCs. In A. Mesquita & P. Peres (Eds.), Furthering Higher Education Possibilities through Massive Open Online Courses (pp. 193 – 209). IGI Global book series Advances in Higher Education and Professional Development. doi:10.4018/978-1-4666-8279-5

The second example is a mapping exercise

enhanced Keywords screenshot 090716 for Lancaster course

For this I used a mapping tool developed by Matthias Melcher to trace the development of my thinking through my research papers. I blogged about it at the time.

I suspect that neither of these is considered examples of drawing to think, but they’re as close as I can get.

I am very much looking forward to the symposium next Thursday.

Third Research Paper on Rhizomatic Learning

Slide 3

Source of image: Making sense of the Rhizome Metaphor for Teaching and Learning

Today our third paper about learning in the Rhizomatic Learning: The Community is the Curriculum MOOC (commonly known as Rhizo14) has been published. Here are links to the three papers.

Third paper: Bell, F., Mackness, J. & Funes, M. (2016). Participant association and emergent curriculum in a MOOC: Can the community be the curriculum? Research in Learning Technology.

Second paper: Mackness, J., Bell, F. & Funes, M. (2016). The Rhizome: a problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC. 32(1), p.78-91 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

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

At the end of our first paper, in which we explored alternative perspectives of learners’ experiences in this MOOC, we wrote:

In future writing, we will explore:

  • Interrelated processes of community and curriculum formation in Rhizo14
  • The positive and negative effects of emotion and alienation
  • Moderation and leadership roles in the design and conduct of de-centred courses
  • Distributed spaces, technologies and services in a multi-platform MOOC
  • The rhizome as a metaphor for teaching and learning

I think we have written about all these points, although not as separate points and some have been covered more implicitly than explicitly.

All these papers have been published in open journals and have been openly discussed by a group of Rhizo14 participants. I think most researchers would be gratified that their papers are noticed and discussed. At the beginning of the year Veletsianos and Shepherdson (2016) published a systematic analysis and synthesis of the empirical MOOC literature published in 2013-2015 in which they commented ‘that a select few papers are widely cited while nearly half of the papers are cited zero times’. In other words a lot of research goes unnoticed.

It is too early for this research on Rhizomatic Learning to have received a lot of citations. I know from an early paper that colleagues and I wrote about CCK08 (the first MOOC) that it took two years for the paper to be noticed, but since then it has been cited a number of times.

In the meantime these three papers on rhizomatic learning have not gone unnoticed. Currently they are being discussed in the Rhizo15 Facebook group. This is rather ironic, since this third paper raises the problems, based on evidence, associated with using Facebook for discussion. For this reason we have asked for comment and discussion of the papers, which we welcome, to take place on our blogs. Here is the link to Frances’ blog post – http://francesbell.com/research-in-learning-technology/participant-association-and-emergent-curriculum-in-a-mooc-can-the-community-be-the-curriculum/

I have learned a lot, on so many levels, from these two years of research, which has all been voluntary, unfunded and collaborative and which will inform my future work.


Veletsianos, G., & Shepherdson, P. (2016). A Systematic Analysis And Synthesis of the Empirical MOOC Literature Published in 2013-2015. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning. 17(2), Retrieved from: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/2448/3629  

Grids & Gestures Exercise. The text behind my experience.


Nick Sousanis’ Grids and Gestures 5 day online exercise has come to an end. It’s been a while since I’ve felt so engaged in an online activity. It was a lot of fun and I particularly liked the diversity of the group who participated. Aras Bozkurt tells us that there were 208 participants and 762 interactions.


I provided links to details of this comic drawing activity in my last post, so I won’t repeat them here, except to say that for me it was less about drawing and more about the impact of visual images and drawing on perception. And I will also say again that Nick Sousanis’ book – Unflattening – (which provides the background to this exercise) is fascinating, thought provoking and visually stimulating.

The task/exercise was to draw the shape of our day in comic format, ideally (at least to begin with) in grid format and without any text. On the first day (Tuesday for me as I discovered the activity a day late), I followed the rules.


I had just finished reading Nick Sousanis’ book, so although I didn’t reference it whilst drawing, I know that his use of black and white, and his drawings that depict direction, influenced me. I was on holiday so I only had a pad of lined paper and a black pen. I drew without any other aids. It didn’t take me long. The trickiest bit was working out how to add the photo I took of the drawing to Twitter. It is the first time I have added an image to a tweet. It’s interesting to remember that the difficulties people encounter with online activities are sometimes those we don’t expect.

On Wednesday I took a slightly different approach. Whilst my Tuesday drawing was about feelings, Wednesday’s drawing was of places and I made some attempt to connect the grids.


On Thursday I abandoned the grids. I’m uncertain about the outcome – too busy?  But it does tell the story of my day.


On Friday I spent most of the day working on a research paper, topped and tailed by physical activity. This wasn’t easy to depict. Again I abandoned the grids. I tried not to get hung up on a perfect outcome, or even an aesthetically pleasing outcome, but simply to think about how I could depict the shape of my day. I like this even less!



By this time I had seen many other examples – Click here for the Twitter stream full of wonderful work. I was intrigued by how some people did completely their own thing right from the word go. Was this deliberate, or had they simply not read the exercise instructions? Possibly the latter because half way through I realised that I had missed the bit about size of panels, shape and orientation.

Comics are static – and it’s in the way we organize the space that we can convey movement and the passage of time. Unlike storyboards, to which comics are frequently compared, in comics we care not only about what goes on in the frame, but we care about the size of the panel, its shape, orientation, what it’s next to, what it’s not, and its overall location within the page composition. The way you orchestrate these elements on the page is significant to the meaning conveyed (http://spinweaveandcut.com/grids-and-gestures/)

I never did get a handle on this.

Then there were the people who used colour and different media straight off – paint, pencils, pastels, even video. It made me wonder about the influence of colour on the outcome and also the influence of colour on how the drawing is interpreted. Even when I came home and had access to coloured pencils, I didn’t want to use it, although for my life drawing classes I love the use of colour. I haven’t yet worked out why this is so. There were people who used plain paper, coloured paper, squared paper. I noted that Nick himself used squared paper, so on the final day I went to the village shop and bought a pad of graph paper. Without this I don’t think I could have produced Saturday’s drawing. This was the most time consuming drawing. I wanted to try and do something that might vaguely resemble a comic, but I have mixed feelings about it and I would have liked a finer pen for the text.


There were also people who were clearly using some sort of drawing software, with great results, but I probably wouldn’t have joined this activity if it had involved using drawing software.

There are people who have blogged about the experience as I am doing here. See for example:

All these posts give a sense of how engaging this activity has been. And there are people who are not yet ready to let go, despite having done 5 drawings. They have learned something new about themselves. As Lisa Hammershaimb wrote


I have not yet got to the bottom of why this was, for me, such an engaging activity. Perhaps it was deceptively simple. Perhaps it was the group of people. Perhaps it was because the drawing was done, by most, by hand. Perhaps it was the pleasure and stimulation of seeing so many different outcomes (don’t miss the Twitter stream – there are too many great examples to include in this post).I’m pretty certain that part of it was down to just having read the book and seeing Nick Sousanis in action, posting his own drawings,


giving advice and encouragement, responding to participant comments and questions, retweeting participant drawings and generally being very present. It was also good to see the work of some of his past students, to see what could be achieved. It seems appropriate to finish off with those.


Thanks to all for this memorable experience.

Unflattening: text, drawing and alternative perspectives

This week there has been a flurry of activity on the #gridsgestures hash tag on Twitter as many people have responded to Nick Sousanis’  invitation to draw the shape of your day each day for a week, i.e. to take part in his Grids and Gestures- A Comics Making Exercise.  I discovered this activity on the second day, via Matthias Melcher, who has done some great drawings,  just as I finished reading Sousanis’ book ‘Unflattening’.  It was also Matthias who encouraged me to read the book which has helped to give depth to the exercise.

‘Unflattening’ is a gem of a book. Not only is it visually very compelling – a lovely object in its own right, but the text (which is presented in comic format and is no greater or less than the images) resonates so much with my own work and research. The book is an outcome of Nick Sousanis’ PhD dissertation which he presented in comic format. There is no traditional literature review, but the ideas are informed by historians, scientists, philosophers, educational theorists and artists, many of whom inform my own work.

So what does Nick Sousanis mean by unflattening? The book is about the narrowness and flatness of our vision and thereby of our understanding of the world around us. It is a plea for seeing beyond the boundaries of our current frames of reference, beyond the limitations of text, beyond the borders of the ‘flatlands’. It is a plea to imagine otherwise, to find different perspectives and new ways of seeing.

In support of this, Nick Sousanis points out that we see with two eyes, not one, and each eye gives us a different perspective. There is no one perspective. He reminds us that some of the most revolutionary changes of thinking in our history have come about through changes in viewpoint, for example the realisation that the Earth is not flat, its circumference can be measured (Eratosthenes) or that the Earth is not the centre of our universe but moves around the sun (Copernicus).

Like McGilchrist (whose work I have written about before), Sousanis reminds us that we tend to see only what we are looking for rather than see the whole picture. Others have recognised this. Stephen Downes (2014) has talked about this in relation to research methodologies and Checkland and Scholes’s work in soft systems methodology (2001) was about mapping different perceptions in order to better understand the whole rich picture. Sousanis draws on the work of Dreyfuss, Deleuze and Guattari, Bakhtin, Mandelbrot and others to drive home the point that differences are essential, that we need to hold different ways of knowing in relation, that we need views of our own and others and that we need to overcome linear static views through shifts in awareness. As flatlanders, our vision is limited. We need a different attitude, a different orientation, a multi-dimensional view.

Sousanis  discusses how traditionally words and images are not equal partners (text has the upper hand) and given that language is the means by which we give shape to our thoughts then this defines what we see. He writes ‘While image IS; text is always ABOUT’. In comics words and pictures co-habit. Comics are the spatial interplay between the sequential and the simultaneous. This is illustrated in this image from his book ‘unflattening’.

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 20.47.11

Source of image – http://www.comicsgrid.com/articles/10.5334/cg.ax/

Sousanis points out that perception is a dynamic activity in which we see things in relation, we negotiate experience. We create perception from a multitude of views. To experience another’s way of knowing we need to step out of our rut and take a leap of imagination. ‘We need a kaleidoscope of views that convey both our own dimensionality and dynamic capability (p.148) …… Understanding, like seeing, is grasping this always in relation to that’ (p.150).


Checkland, P.B. and J. Scholes (2001). Soft Systems Methodology in Action, in J. Rosenhead and J. Mingers (eds), Rational Analysis for a Problematic World Revisited. Chichester: Wiley

Downes, S. (2014, May 26). Digital Research Methodologies Redux. Retrieved from http://www. downes.ca/presentation/341

Sousanis, N. (2015). Unflattening. Harvard University Press

Sousanis, N. (2016) Tapestry Keynote. https://youtu.be/7veGaFlu9Xk

For a review of Nick Sousani’s book see: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/215762 

#NRC01PL The Connectivist MOOC – Research and Conclusions


In Week 4 of the Personal Learning MOOC (#NRC01PL) “Stephen Downes and Helene Fournier look at the research effort that has followed the NRC MOOCs and PLEs through development and deployment”. I didn’t manage to attend the actual Hangout, but I really enjoyed watching the recording and can recommend it to anyone interested in cMOOC history and research.

It was such a pleasure to hear Helen Fournier talking about her work, research that I have followed since 2008, but this is the first time I have heard Helene speak.

I attended CCK08, the first MOOC conceived and convened by Stephen and George Siemens. It was innovative. Not only was it innovative, but it was driven by a philosophical belief that we need a new learning theory for the digital age. At the time, it was a very new way of working. There had only been one or two open courses before this and they had not been on the same scale. It was an amazing achievement that they managed 2200+ learners, a number that was totally unexpected, which from my perspective was largely due to Stephen’s gRSShopper aggregation software.

Since then xMOOCs have become the ‘name of the game’ but they are not pedagogically innovative. They have simply managed to deliver traditional ways of teaching and learning at scale, which I am not scoffing at. It is no minor achievement to deliver a course to 160 000 learners, but the teaching and learning in the initial xMOOCs wasn’t innovative. Since then there have been many hybrid MOOCs – even within the xMOOC groups. So ModPo on Coursera for example is a brilliant MOOC and there have been very successful MOOCs on some of the other platforms, which try and combine the best elements of innovative cMOOC distributed teaching and learning with traditional xMOOC lecture style courses. EDCMOOC  is probably an example of this, but I haven’t attended that one.

Recently I have been trying to catch up on MOOC research so I have read a lot of papers. It was interesting to listen to Helene in the light of this. What comes through from my reading for me is that it seems to be difficult to think in innovative ways about evaluating teaching and learning in MOOCs. Evaluation of teaching and learning in MOOCs seems for the most part to be based on past research into the best practices in distance and online learning. So for example, in the past research has focussed on what best practices ensure that learners have a social presence and complete the course, meeting the course objectives. But do these practices and measures apply to innovative cMOOCs like CCK08? Which best practices from past research can we drop and which can we definitely not drop?

If learners are going to have their own personal learning environments (and many already do), how is their learning in these environments going to be valued? Do they need it to be valued?

These are some of the questions that interest me.

Footnote: The image at the top of this post has nothing to do with Helene and Stephen’s talk. It is simply the sunset I was watching through my window whilst listening to them.

Interrogating Thresholds of (Im)perceptibility

In December (2015) I attended a highly stimulating event at Lancaster University (UK) and blogged about it.

Dark Matters – Interrogating thresholds of (Im)perceptibility through Theoretical Cosmology, Fine Art & Anthropology of science

At the event the research team, Rebecca, Sarah & Kostas, had a video running, explaining their project work from their different perspectives, but there wasn’t time during the event to watch it. At the beginning of this month, the team sent all attendees the link to the video.

Dark Matters – Interrogating thresholds of (Im)perceptibility through Theoretical Cosmology, Fine Art & Anthropology of science from Ourus on Vimeo.

This is a wonderful video, both for its content and its images. I can relate closely to it, because I have stood in the exact locations that the presenters were filmed in – but I can also relate to the idea of the imperceptible, the absent present, and what cannot be explained. I think these are very important ideas when thinking about learning and learning spaces.

If you have 25 minutes to spare, I can recommend watching the video.

There is also more information on their project website

A new mapping tool: useful for research purposes

I have never felt comfortable with mapping. It seems to involve a way of thinking that just doesn’t come naturally and interpreting other people’s maps seems to be beyond me. Three years ago I attended Howard Rheingold’s online course Towards a Literacy of Cooperation, where mapping was a weekly activity. I blogged about this and without realising it found I had the title Minding Mapping in the Social Media Classroom. I thought I had written Mind Mapping in the Social Media Classroom. It was only later when I came back to the blog post that I realised what the heading was.

But this year I am giving it another go, using the Think Tool Matthias Melcher has developed. I have been looking back through all my published papers and I wanted to see if I could trace my development of thinking through these papers, what the common threads are, what links there are between the papers and what the maps might reveal about my research interests and development as a researcher.

Matthias has made the tool freely available. Here is a direct link – http://x28hd.de/tool/ 

The tool can also be accessed from his blog where he discusses it further and provides a wonderful explanation of how it works in this video which you probably need to watch if you are going to make sense of what follows. (Allow 5.44 mins to watch the video).

As he explains in the video this mapping tool is particularly useful for:

  1. Maintaining an overview of multiple connections and not having to organise ideas into discrete categories.
  2. Maintaining the richness of the associated text alongside the map. The text does not have to be visible, but can be accessed with a simple click of an icon.

These two affordances seemed perfect for looking for connections between my own research papers.

I have created my own video to show how useful this tool is and how I have used it to date. (This is a 12-minute video. It is a bit blurred, but hopefully not impossible to follow).

From using this tool I now know that my 22 papers can be organised into six groups, which can each be summarised as follows:

Group 1: Implications of community tensions for communities of practice

Group 2: The affordances, tensions and constraints of open environments, notably MOOCs, for learning experiences and connectivity with reference to the theory of connectivism.

Group 3: The design and visualisation of emergent learning experiences within open learning environments, such as MOOCs, where learning is uncertain and relies on self-organisation

Group 4: Focus on a specific MOOC – FSLT12 – to investigate experiences of the learning community, course design and the implications for teaching and learning in a MOOC

Group 5: Whether and how learning design can be influenced by an embodied view of the world and a view of perception and action as enactive perception using all the senses

Group 6: Focus on a specific MOOC – Rhizo14 – with particular reference to learners’ experience of community and curriculum formation and the teacher/facilitator’s role in this

I have also been able to identify major and minor keywords that crop up across the papers and how methods and theory are referenced, again across all 22 papers.

Finally, as I worked on these maps, entering text from the Abstracts and looking for connections, some continuing cross-paper themes began to emerge. At this stage of the mapping process, I see these as:

  • Factors of open learning environments; factors that influence teaching/learning
  • The impact and consequences of ‘open’ – including an open mind and a more right hemisphere view
  • Emergent learning; research itself as emergent learning
  • Liminality – the space in between spaces for learning
  • Learner experiences – particularly ‘hidden’ experiences; what cannot be seen; the alternative view or people on the boundaries
  • Individual dimensions

As I say in the video, Matthias’ Think Tool has been extremely helpful in enabling me to see the connections between my papers and the common threads. For anyone looking for connections across a multitude of concepts/ideas, I can recommend giving it a go.