Academic BEtreat – the technical challenges

Academic BEtreat has got off to a shaky start, with lots of technology difficulties. There are sixteen people in this BEtreat (18 if you include Etienne and Bev) and 8 of those are online. This is a great mix of people, all working on very interesting aspects of communities of practice in their very differing contexts. It is this diverse mix of people that will enrich the experience.

One of the principles of these BEtreats is that online and face-to-face participants should be fully integrated, so for the most part the online people are projected into the face-to-face room through video on Adobe Connect – where presentations can also be shared. However, bandwidth issues make it difficult to use the audio connection in Adobe Connect, so we also connect via Skype – but this also keeps breaking up. This makes full participation and engagement almost impossible and detracts from the content. Ironically one of the sessions on the programme today was to discuss the Chapter on ‘Meaning’ in Etienne’s book, which I was looking forward to, having read the chapter and having some questions I would have liked to have discussed (which I blogged about here), but difficulties with the technology meant that the time for discussion was severely cut short and in particular that it failed just as Etienne was speaking – so I have no idea what he said. There is no recording.

We have been told that this BEtreat is trying to ‘push the boat out’ to explore the challenges of integrating online and face-to-face participation in a course and I think we all recognise how ambitious this programme is. We have been asked to be patient (not my strong point :-)) and reflect on whether it is worth it. This is the start of my reflecting and I hope to continue to blog during the week.

So what have I learned from this first day of the Academic BEtreat?

  • In general motivated learners are incredibly tolerant of technical failure. I have seen this a lot in MOOCs and online courses – but I’m not sure that tolerance is always an appropriate response. As adult learners, and particularly as academics, we need to be critically reflective. This does not necessarily mean criticizing, but it does mean not glossing over the issues that need to be addressed. It’s good to see that this year the comments and feedback on the BEtreat wiki are more critically evaluative than they were last year.
  • Much of my past thinking about the place of technology in learning has been confirmed, i.e. technology should be a tool in the service of learning – it should never dominate – unless it is the focus of the learning – and I wonder if that is the issue here in terms of my expectations, i.e. is technology supposed to dominate in this BEtreat? If so then my personal aspirations for and expectations of this BEtreat are not aligned with the design of the BEtreat.
  • It’s early days, but as yet there is no real integration of the online and face-to-face groups. I suspect that some in each group secretly wish that the other group were not there. I remember last year when I was in California attending the BEtreat face-to-face, being so relieved when in one group activity there was no online person present. Last year I felt that in trying to integrate face-to-face and online participants in this way, the discussion for each group was compromised by the presence of the other, and individual voices were hard to hear (in all senses of the word ‘hear’). So far I have not changed my mind, but I am trying to keep an ‘open’ mind.
  • Finally I have realised that I feel like a guinea-pig in an experiment over which I have very little sense of ownership.

So following this first half day, what would I change in the future. Here are some initial tentative thoughts, but I am aware that I could change my mind by the end of the week.

  • For me the programme is over-complex. I was really hoping for depth of discussion on this BEtreat. Difficulties with the technology takes time out of the programme. Recognising that this is likely to be the case, the programme should aim to maximise how the remainder of the time could focus on learning and discussion of Etienne’s book.
  • Perhaps the BEtreat could learn from the connectivist MOOC models, which range from a very ‘hands-off’ approach by convenors (as in ChangeMOOC) to a much more ‘hands-on’ approach (as in FSLT12 ). MOOCs allow for asynchronous distributed learning, interspersed with synchronous online presentations and discussion. Perhaps the balance between synchronous and asynchronous, integrated and non-integrated face-to-face and online participation in this BEtreat needs to be reconsidered.
  • If the intention is to use the BEtreat as a ‘testing’ ground for pushing the boundaries of distributed participation and interaction, i.e. if it is intended as an experiment, then participants need to be negotiating partners in that experiment. One of the differences between the MOOCs I have attended and this BEtreat is that the MOOCs were ‘free’ – I participated in the MOOC experiment knowing that I had nothing to lose. Is there more to lose in the BEtreat experiment? As a paying participant I am not only hoping for increased insights and learning, but also for ‘value for money’. How that is realised I am not absolutely sure, but I think it does affect my perspective of the BEtreat.

These are my personal perspectives, as is this whole blog post. The thoughts here are my own and are not intended to represent the wider BEtreat group.

So it’s on to Day 2. On the programme today we are due to discuss ‘Communities and Learning’, ‘Boundaries and Scale’, ‘Identity’ and “Identification and power’ – pretty much the whole book! Hope the sound works 🙂

The MOOC Bandwagon

As others have noted – most recently Bon Stewart in her Inside Higher Ed article  – everyone seems to be jumping on the MOOC bandwagon at an alarming rate.

This week the JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee, UK ) has jumped on it with a webinar entitled

What is a MOOC – JISC Webinar 11-07-12

Four speakers were invited. Here is the programme and here is the recording
12.00 Definitions of MOOCs (Martin Weller)
12.10 Tutor perspective (Jonathan Worth)
12.20 Learner perspective (Lou McGill)
12.30 MOOCs and online learning (David White)
12.40 Q&A

Martin Weller presented a useful overview of the history of MOOCs and some thoughtful ideas about the benefits of MOOCs and the associated concerns in relation to Higher Education.

Jonathan Worth told us about his ‘open’ photography course in which he uses Twitter with his students to reach a wider network of experts. I was not sure that this is a MOOC in my terms, although it was clearly an ‘open’ course. It got me thinking about whether using different technologies necessarily means that the course is distributed across different platforms, which according to Stephen Downes is a necessary condition for a MOOC (at least a connectivist MOOC).

Lou McGill is a staunch advocate of the DS106 MOOC, in which she has been a learner and she shared her experience of authentic learning in this MOOC. She is also working with Strathclyde University to research learner experiences in the Change11 MOOC.  I was a participant in Change 11 and was also interviewed by Lou McGill for the research – an interesting experience in which I realized that my understanding of ‘What is a MOOC?’ stems from CCK08, but many, many people who are discussing MOOCs today were not in that MOOC and appear to be coming from a different place.

Dave White pondered on why the Stanford MOOC attracted such large numbers and thought it must be to do with their credibility and brand name. He raised the question of the role of the teacher/facilitator in MOOCs and suggested that this is important if MOOCs are to be inclusive. This is a topic we have been discussing in our review the FSLT MOOC.

These are my reflections as a result of attending this webinar.

There are still plenty of people who have technical difficulties accessing a site like Blackboard Collaborate. We cannot make assumptions that people have the technical equipment or skills to engage in MOOCs.

Whilst MOOCs might be the new buzzword in Higher Education, there are still plenty of people who have never heard of them, only just heard of them, have no idea what they are, or who completely misunderstand what they are.

The original connectivist principles of MOOCs are getting lost in the plethora of offerings which now bear the name MOOC, e.g.

  • CCK08 (the original MOOC) was an experiment in getting people to think about learning differently;
  • the idea was that learners could be in control of their learning and meet in learning spaces of their own choice  according to the principle of distributed environments (see slide 33 in this presentation by Stephen Downes) and see his LMS vs PLE video
  • learners would experience learning in the massiveness of the network – so they would not be able to rely on the tutor/convener/facilitator – instead they would need to make connections and seek peer support. In the light of this our understanding of the relationship between teacher and learner would need to change
  • the purpose of learning in a MOOC would be to create knowledge and artefacts through exposure to a diverse network, rather than have it centrally provided. This would, through the aggregation, remixing, repurposing and feeding forward of resources shared and created, enrich the learning experience
  • MOOCs were never intended – despite the name – to be ‘courses’ ( see this blog post  and this response from Stephen Downes ); they were intended to be a challenge to the traditional notion of a course – in the form of learning events. If they don’t do this then they are ‘open courses’ (with some of the attributes of MOOCs), but not MOOCs in the terms of how they were originally conceived.

This is my understanding of what is meant by MOOC – now renamed (in the light of different interpretations) a connectivist MOOC. Many of the most recent courses which have been called MOOCs are not MOOCs in these terms, but fall somewhere along the continuum from connectivist MOOCs with these principles, to the Stanford AI type of centrally located MOOC (see Stephen Downes’ LMS vs PLE video for an explanation)

It is evident that there is room for all these different types of MOOCs or ‘open courses’.   But I hope we will not lose the principles of the CCK08 type of connectivist MOOC, as it is the connectivist MOOCs that are really pushing against the boundaries and challenging traditional ways of thinking about teaching and learning, which is of course why many people feel uncomfortable with them and why we are now seeing efforts to somehow tie them down and bring them into line.

Open Educational Resources and Pedagogy

Dave White’s presentation to FSLT12 yesterday included a number of thought-provoking ideas.

In the past I have heard Dave speak a number of times about ‘Visitors and Residents’ in the online environment. You can find out more about this on his TALL blog – Technology Assisted life-long learning – TALL for short  (his joke – not mine :-))

But this week’s talk took a different focus. It centred on the relationship between open educational resources (OERs), open academic practice and changing pedagogy. The title of his talk was even longer than this:

OER: The quality vs credibility vs access vs pedagogy vs legitimacy vs money debate

Click here for the recording of the session.

As Dave pointed out, OERs come in all shapes and sizes and Creative Commons  licensing of these is very important in determining our use of them.  But despite being in all shapes and sizes, we can take the iceberg metaphor and categorise them as

  • those above the water-line, visible, above board, properly licensed – the kind of resources produced by an institution to market itself
  • or those below the water line – where licensing is not so important.

These below the water line resources are easy access , free and easy to remix and repurpose, without much attribution.  This happens a lot below the water line.

Slide 6 - Dave White presentation

(Slide 6 from Dave White’s presentation)

But perhaps the most important point/question raised by Dave is 

What effect has access to OERs, above or below the water line, had on the way we teach and learn?

I remember when MIT first opened access to their educational resources, this was accompanied by a statement to the effect that it was not an issue for them to open their content to the world – because the educational value and quality they provide is not so much in their content, but in their teaching and learning. To get this we have to pay to go to MIT.

So as Dave said, when thinking about OERs we cannot neglect ‘contact’. It is not all about ‘content’. So how do OERs ‘drive pedagogy back into what it’s meant to be’? (quoting Dave from the presentation). For me they do this in a number of ways:

  • Now that we have more clarity around what we are allowed to do with OERs (through Creative Commons Licences), we can remix, repurpose and feed-forward OERs (to quote Stephen Downes). We can be more creative.
  • Perhaps OERs also enable us to challenge the ‘status quo’ – in the sense that ‘credible, quality’ content might no longer always be in peer reviewed journals, articles and academic sites, but might instead be on ‘John or Jane Doe’s blog’ or deep below the water line (iceberg metaphor).
  • They do tend to force more critical thinking and the framing of critically relevant questions, e.g. what is a credible, quality resource? How do we recognize it?  And this in turn raises the whole question of whether learners have the skills to navigate the web to find the quality resources.
  • And from the teacher’s perspective, as Dave pointed out, we will have to come up with assessment tasks that don’t allow the student to simply find the answer through an easy access easy to find OER. This has always been a challenge for teachers, but even more so now.

Dave’s final slide quotes Harouni (2009).

“I must value not answers but instead questions that represent the continued renewal of the search. I must value uncertainty and admit complexity in the study of all things”

For me living with uncertainty is the big paradigm shift we might need in today’s digital world. Roy Williams, Regina Karousou, Simone Gumtau and I have been exploring this in our papers about emergent learning  – and Dave Cormier raised this as a key point in his presentation to the in the ‘New Places to Learn’  – NewPlacesEvent HEA event held at the Said Business School in Oxford in April of this year.

Hopefully discussion about how OERs affect pedagogy will continue in the FSLT12 Week 4 Moodle discussion forum  There is still lots to talk about.

Scholarship and the ‘Tyranny’ of Openness

There have been some great comments by George Veletsianos, Mark McGuire and Fred Garnett on my blog post, which asked the question ‘What is a Scholar’ –  prompted by George’s presentation to ChangeMooc.

In George’s comment he asks

Are we are attempting to impose our values (of openness, sharing, online learning as the future of education, etc) without a critical examination of what that means for practice and for individuals who are part of social organizations?

This is a very timely question. There has been a lot of discussion on the web over the past 12 months or so about what we mean by openness. According to Martin Weller it is a ‘state of mind’. I agree…..

….but whose mind? As Carmen Tschofen and I discussed in our paper – Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual Experience  – openness means different things to different people – ‘learners may vary greatly in their desire for and interpretation of connectivity, autonomy, openness, and diversity

On p.137 we write

This inner state of openness offers a significantly expanded perspective from the much more externalized “sharing” definition of openness and the “no barriers” definition currently articulated in connectivism. It leaves room for the speculation, for example, that legitimate peripheral participants may be experiencing “openness” in relation to connective learning by being attentive in a mindful and non-judgmental way.

An understanding of psychological openness and its relationship to connectivist principles and process also introduces a potential connection between creativity and connective learning. The personality trait of openness to experience is linked to curiosity, exploration, creativity, and unusual ideas. These elements may be significant in gaining insight into MOOC “early adopters” and in understanding the challenges and rewards of promoting and conducting such unusual learning ventures. By the same token, learners who express discomfort in learning networked environments, calling, for example, for more structure, may be closer to the “more cautious” end of the openness spectrum, with greater preference toward the familiar, including learning conventions and traditions. Questions remain as to how connective learning can best accommodate learners throughout this spectrum.

So I agree with George that we need to critically reflect on what we mean by ‘openness’ and how this might affect our expectations of scholars and influence their scholarship. And I think I understand where he is coming from when he writes ‘I am worried about imposing a single worldview that we view as “correct” on others. Freire talks about the oppressed becoming oppressors, and I find that without an uncritical examination of our practice we might be heading towards that direction.’

I also understand where Mark is coming from when he writes about the dangers of becoming institutionalized

‘in the process of working within an institution, we become institutionalized. We internalize the values, assumptions, and practices of the institution of higher education as it is currently constructed, and we take on the mission statements, strategic plans, and objectives of the organization that pays our salary.’

‘becoming institutionalized is like becoming acclimatized or acculturated — it is an induction into a particular set of habits, histories and beliefs that we come to accept as natural and right. If we wish to develop new ways of organizing our labour and our learning using more open networks, in keeping with shifts elsewhere in contemporary society, we must be prepared to examine and critique our institutions and our place within them.’

It seems to me that both Mark and George are making a strong case for critical reflection on and critical examination of the meaning of openness. Is openness (like participation) becoming a ‘tyranny’ that we are all just drifting into? Or is openness essential to the future of education and scholars?

I’ll be interested to hear what Frances Bell has to say about this when she talks to #fslt12 MOOC on Wednesday 30 May

Frances Bell, “The role of openness by academics in the transformation of their teaching and learning practices.” Wednesday 30 May 2012, 1500 BST

#fslt12 MOOC Distributed Learning Spaces

Over the weekend I prepared a video presentation to provide a brief overview of the learning spaces we will be working in during this MOOC. Actually – as one of my colleagues has already pointed out – it is not so brief – 5 minutes – which I know is a bit too long for a video of this type. It’s hard to be succinct :-). But despite that I hope it’s helpful.

For people who might not venture to our WordPress site – where the video has been posted – I’ll post it here as well. If you are an experienced ‘Moocer’, or very comfortable with different technologies and used to working in online networks, then this video is probably not for you.

But on this MOOC we are expecting people who are not only new to learning and teaching in Higher Education, but might also never have done an online course, or might not have worked in distributed online spaces, like we will be doing for this course. If you are one of those people, hopefully this video will help a bit.

Blogging for Reflective Learning Video Transcript

Working across distributed spaces does require some self-organisation. The strategies that I use are:

  • To bookmark the urls of all the different sites so that I can find them easily – and make a note of my passwords.
  • And although we are aggregating blogs in the WordPress site, I am also going to set up a new folder in my Google Reader account and gather the blog feeds there too.
  • I have also started to check the #fslt Twitter stream on a daily basis.

I’d be interested to hear what strategies other people have for keeping up with distributed MOOCs/courses – particularly those strategies that you used as a ‘beginner’.

#fslt12 Week 0 – starts tomorrow – Monday 14 May



The run up to the First Steps in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Mooc is well under way. The course officially starts on 21st May (and will run for 5 weeks until 22nd June), so next week is a good time for anyone who is interested in following the course to have a look round our WordPress and Moodle sites and spend a bit of time setting yourself up and deciding where and how you want to participate. These sites are still being developed, so there may be some last minute changes next week.

Designing this course has been more complex than I anticipated and I think this is because the course is neither a fully connectivist course of the type conceived by Downes, Siemens, Cormier and Groom, nor an institutional or commercial type of Mooc (Stanford, MIT, Curtis Bonk). It is somewhere in between and is aligned at least to some extent to Oxford Brookes University’s and funders’ expectations. So we do have an LMS element (Moodle), which feels more like a traditional course, but also the course is open – we will aggregate blogs, and we are expecting people to interact in spaces of their own choosing.

Lisa Lane has written a very interesting (and for me – timely) blog post this week – Where’s your class? musings on course location   in which she describes the type of MOOC we have been developing as a ‘pseudo’ Mooc. A Mooc that perpetuates the idea that ‘class is here’.  She describes the model we have decided on as being the ‘middle ground’.

I recognise our Mooc in what she is saying. Like Lisa, my own preference is for Moocs to be open, distributed and aggregated, but as she has pointed out:

The WordPress Multi-User site, or the LMS that’s open to all, or the main blog where all blog within it but can have their content exported to save (which is what Dave is doing) may then be the preferred models for balancing these issues with those of exploration and innovation. They are being chosen because they take into account concerns of pedagogy and comfort, not because they can handle 1,000 students and use their content and personal information for other ends, but because they work.

Certainly for the #fslt12 MOOC, which is targeted at new lecturers in HE and PhD students who want to teach (although we welcome experienced practitioners as well), we hope to be able to provide a comfortable and safe learning environment for those who need it, for whatever reason.

The proof of the pudding will be in the eating 🙂 Whatever happens it has been, and will continue to be, a great learning experience!

What is a scholar?

George Veletsianos’ presentation to Week 33 of Change Mooc  has been very timely for the First Steps in Learning and Teaching Mooc  that I am planning with colleagues  at the moment.

George has posted a recording of his presentation to his blog and it is worth listening to. (See also – Another very interesting part of this presentation was the chat that it provoked. This focused on the question on ‘what is a scholar?’ a question that novice academics must surely think about. I have pulled together some of the key ideas and questions that came out of this chat. I’m not going to try and identify those responsible for each comment – but these are the people who contributed (in no particular order): Lisa Lane, Keith Hamon, Stephen Downes, Verena Roberts, ljp and Bon

This is how I have interpreted the key ideas – but I have also included quotes from the chat below.

  • You have to be networked to be a scholar
  • These days you not only have to be networked to be a scholar – you also have to be networked online
  • As a scholar you need to have your work critically assessed and this happens by submitting your work online
  • Sharing is an essential element of scholarship
  • Blogging can be scholarship
  • There is no such thing as a non-connected scholar
  • Scholarship relies on interaction
  • Institutional management processes are a constraint on scholarship

The discussion started with the question of whether in this digital age a scholar can be a scholar without being online. The conversation (chat) included these comments……

‘the act of becoming a scholar is (now / in the future) the same as the act of *creating* an online social network’ 

‘your activities may be online and off, but your *scholarly* activities (papers, presentations, discussion, etc) ought to be online – otherwise the

y’re just private & therefore not very scholarly’

‘I think we all became scholars by participating in networks, online and off’

‘… the extent that they are not online I think they are over time becoming less and less “scholars”

I became a scholar BY participating in online social networks (no chicken, no egg)

Then there was the question of whether you need to have your work critically assessed by online networks to be a scholar

‘…you can’t submit your work to critical assessment (these days) without really being online, and a person who does not subject their work to critical assessment is arguably not a scholar’ 

Sharing was considered an essential element of scholarship

‘..sharing is what makes scholarship valuable’

‘I can’t think of any scholarship that isn’t shared eventually’

That makes most blogging qualify as scholarship?’

‘… no but it does mean that blogging can be scholarship’

‘Do you have to be with a University and digital in order to be a scholar?’


What are the institutional constraints on scholarships?

‘ …institutions cannot change quickly enough to support the kind of work we are doing’‘management is based on [a] measurement, and [b] best practices and these are antithetical to good work’ 

we keep having to go outside institutions to do good work?

as a grad student, this academia beyond the institution potential is what i find most profoundly absent withIN the institution. little support and no scaffolding. people can’t model or even recognize what they don’t understand.

because our institutions keep wanting to ‘manage’ us

because the institutions cannot change quickly enough to support the kind of work we are doing, for instance here today

& management is based on [a] measurement, and [b] best practices and these are antithetical to good work

I wonder whether creating an environment for scholarship is an institution’s responsibility any more?

Can a person working on his own be a scholar?

I don’t think you can say an individual working on his/her own can’t be a scholar.

if a person is working on his/her own, then, what is it that makes them a scholar (and not, say, a carpenter)?

no scholar works on their own – that pile of books IS a network of scholars

There is no individual working alone – we are all born out of a discipline, or network of study, and we conduct our study (even alone) within the context of that network, using its language, tools, resources, reference points, even if we extend them or change them

generally, I think we would agree that just reading a bunch of books is not by itself ‘scholarship’

Maybe its about the interaction as well? Its difficult to interact “with” a book…have to interact in order to be a digital scholar?

a “bunch of books” + peer review of ones own work can equal scholarship

actually successful readers are highly interactive with the books they read

All these comments and questions seem to me to be directly relevant to the work of lecturers in Higher Education, whether or not they are new to the job.

My question

Is the identity of people working in Higher Education changing?

Or do you keep your identity intact in a special place known only to you as one chat participant commented ……

Final quote from the chat…

I keep my identity in a small cardboard box in the attic

I love this comment 🙂