#PLENK2010 Reflective Learning

Reflective learning came up in the weekly round up Elluminate session today and Stephen asked Rita to expand on her understanding of reflective learning. It was one of those situations, where I was so busy trying to find my own response to Stephen’s question, that  I completely dropped out of Elluminate into my own thoughts – so apologies if this post crosses or repeats what has been said.

Every year I work, as a tutor on an online distance learning reflective learning course ( a short course – only 4 weeks), run by Oxford Brookes University,  which is based on the work of Jenny Moon and on which Jenny Moon is a tutor. The course is usually fairly small, numbers below 20, which is ideal for the subject, but we get participants from around the world, and it is always highly thought provoking and stimulating. People who attend the course already have a deep interest in the reflective learning process, and I love the course because I learn so much from them.

Today Stephen asked Rita to explain what she meant by reflective learning. This is a question that we ask our course participants, and which I have thought about deeply, since as a tutor on the course, I also share my own definition. My definition has developed a bit over the years, according to the reading I have done and also in response to participants on the course who have sometimes challenged my definition – but currently this is my thinking:

‘My own understanding (I hesitate to use the word ‘definition’) of reflection/reflective learning is that it is the process of thinking about my own thinking, actions or learning, with a view to gaining a deeper understanding of them and improving them, so that I can see the evidence in changed behaviour. This thinking will also involve examining my emotional response and how my feelings have influenced my thinking, actions and learning. To make this reflection significant, I need to mark it in some way, by talking about it or better still recording it in written form. Finally, I need to revisit the marked events at some later stage and note whether my learning has improved/moved on.’

This definition is based on the work of Jenny Moon and also on the work of John Mason, who have influenced my thinking and to whom I am grateful for their insights.

  • Moon J (2006) Learning Journals. Routledge Falmer
  • Moon J (2005) A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning. Routledge Falmer

Every year, I keep a blog in conjunction with the course  – Reflective Learning with Reflective Learners. The next course will run March 2nd to April 2nd 2011. Although it is only short, it is intensive and I always learn a lot from the course participants, which helps to keep my thinking about reflective learning alive and prevent me from forgetting its relevance to teaching and learning in general.


This is the subject of Week 1 (which has already whizzed by) of the Critical Literacies online open course. In the course materials on Moodle, cognition is described as:

The capacity to infer, or detect faulty inferences, to use communicative elements in order to describe, argue, explain or define. Including the power of reflection, authority of knowledge, stability of knowledge, communication as conversation or as dialogue.
I am attending the course not only for the content on Critical Literacies, but also because I am interested in how open courses are designed and run. What is so intriguing is that the design of an open course cannot predict what participants will run with, what will grab their interest, what discussions will ensue, who will participate etc. So the quote above outlines what it was expected that we might discuss/engage with, but did we?

The discussion in Moodle about the evolving definition of  ‘expert’ generated quite a bit of interest.  Rita asked some great questions:
  • Who decides what information we can access, and how is it ordered.
  • Whose interests are served by providing particular information?
  • Does the (sub-)structure of the Web give us access to the ‘experts’, the most knowledgeable others, or to the people who are best at self-publicising?
  • Does it really matter? Or is it most important that people gain an awareness and understanding of these structures and the ability to assess sources of information?
  • Do people take for granted each word that is written down, or do they analyse what claims and conclusions people draw and if they are based on any substance or on thin air?
This aligns with ‘authority of knowledge’ from the quote above. The power of reflection and the stability of knowledge topics have only been touched on – unless it’s in someone’s blog post somewhere and I’ve missed it – but having this in the quote suggests that Critical Literacies include the ability to judge whether the author has the authority to talk/write about the subject, which is what Howard Rheingold highlights in his video. I haven’t quite got my head round why ‘stability of knowledge’ is linked to Critical Literacies. Are we supposed to be able to judge whether knowledge is stable or not?

So coming back to the ‘open course’ and participants ‘following their own lines of inquiry’ model, how am I to know whether the power of reflection and/or not knowing where ‘stability of knowledge’ fits with Critical Literacies is important or not.

We are already moving on to Week 2 Change – which is described as:
The capacity to reason dynamically, to detect and comprehend processes and flows, to understand the impact of progressions and differences, to reason employing dynamic events such as games and simulations.
As someone who does design online courses from time to time, it’s always very difficult to know how long to spend on each topic and to get the balance between breadth and depth – and of course, as always, you can’t suit all the people all the time!

So far, the course is well worth the time I am spending on it.

Open learning advance organisers

The opening synchronous meeting for the Critical Literacies course was very interesting, as unlike for CCk08 where we just pitched in and sank or swam, here we were given advice on how we might go about learning on this course.

The overall message was the same. It is an open course. We can and should pick and choose when, where, how, what and with whom we learn – all as in CCK08. We can come and go as we want – but Stephen suggested that we take part in 4 activities:

  • Aggregate
  • Remix
  • Repurpose
  • Feedforward

Aggregate: gather content using Google reader (www.google.com/reader). The course newsletter (The Daily) is an example of aggregation. I don’t use Google reader. Perhaps I should. I have found in the past that it just fills up with stuff that I never look at. Perhaps I am not using it correctly.

Remix: Pick and choose from the content and find a way of recording/keeping track of this, e.g. using an online bookmark tracker such as Delicious, or create a blog, or take screenshots and post on Flickr or record yourself on video. I have a Delicious account, but its another thing that I tend to put stuff in and then never look at again. I already have this and two other blogs. I also have a Flickr account but I do not use it for work purposes. Me and video do not go together. I am camera shy!

Repurpose: Recreate content for your own purposes. There are 4 major ways of repurposing

  • Describe/description – ( the simplest kind of critical literacy)
  • Infer/ argumentation, inference, drawing conclusions, responding – taking what you have and moving beyond it
  • Explain/ explanation – to go beyond appearance – identify underlying forces that make things the way they are
  • Define – to assign meanings to words (this is needed for all the others)

All 4 things play a different role. They form all of your cognition – every sentence – everything you think falls in one of these 4 things.

Critical Literacies are not simply critical – they are creative – they are about adding value to content

Feedforward: Presentation of work and sharing rather than competing. Produce learning materials for other people to aggregate, remix, repurpose and feedforward, so starting the cycle again.

This seems to me a useful way of thinking about how to work online.

Taking stock

My understanding is that by ‘connectivism’ we mean that knowledge is distributed across a network and that learning is the ability to access that knowledge through navigating the connections in the network. I think that’s the essence of it.

This assumes that we know what knowledge means, which is in doubt judging by the forum discussions. I can see that there is information in the network. It only becomes knowledge for me when I can make sense of it. That whole discussion in the Moodle forums around externalisation left me floundering.

Is connectivism a new learning theory? To answer this we need to agree what we mean by learning theory. From the 78 posts in the Moodle forum it appears that this is also a difficult task and there is little agreement. Personally I like the explanation provided by Stephen Hawking and quoted on Wikipedia but this relates to science so I’m not sure how helpful it is in relation to connectivism? I think connectivism provides a framework in which to think about learning, but whether this makes it a theory or not I wouldn’t like to say.

In addition I couldn’t possibly say whether connectivism is  a ‘new’  learning theory without knowing a lot more about existing learning theories and it seems to me that that could be a life-time’s work. I think you could say it’s a new perspective on learning – but does that make it a theory? So – all in all –  yes – the concept of theory may be distracting (to answer the assignment question , which incidentally I am not doing).

What are the strengths? Does connectivism resonate with your learning experiences? If so, how?


As a practical way of working/ learning, connectivism clearly makes sense in many ways. Technology is developing fast and the world is becoming a ‘smaller’ place. It’s quick and easy to connect with people from all over the world – although we shouldn’t assume that this is the case everywhere, see Frances Bell’s post (See- Re: What happened to you in the history of the social web? – Saturday, 4 October 2008, 08:54 AM) in the Moodle forum and Maru’s post on her blog. For those who do have access to the web, there is a whole world of information to tap into. The skill needed is in knowing how to do this, how to select the information we need and how to assimilate the information. I know that I can ‘google’ any information I need. I know I can also access networks for any information I need. However, accessing information doesn’t equal learning.


What are the weaknesses of connectivism as formulated in this course?


I can’t comment on weaknesses, but I can comment on where connectivism doesn’t resonate with my learning experience – and that is in personal contact. On this course I have made an attempt to ‘connect’. I skim read the Moodle forums – but I  ‘feel’ little connection there, either with the ideas being discussed or with the people. I read a number of blogs, and whilst many posts resonate with my own experience, I have only made very loose connections with people who have either commented on my blog or where I have commented. Connecting through blogs is a slow and laborious business. Blogs were not designed for this. Where I feel more connected is in the synchronous Elluminate and Ustream sessions. There I get some sense of who is on this course and I think that I learn most through these sessions. I can connect more easily with the ideas. But this is the most traditional aspect of the course in terms of teaching and learning, i.e. ‘the lecture’ for ‘the group’. So what does that say about learning in networks, or to qualify – ‘my’ learning in networks?


So is connectivism any more than a by-product of advancing technologies? To me it is obvious that there is just too much information accessible by too many to continue with an education system which relies on ‘the teacher’ to be the source of knowledge. The role of the teacher will have to change and is already changing in many cases – but to what? And if there continues to be a role for teachers, then since teacher and learner are linked, the role of the learner will also change. The inverse will also be the case in that changing learners will necessitate changing teaching. So my outstanding questions are around this relationship.

So, what have been the key learning points for me so far:

1. It is possible to have an open access course for 2000+ participants, provided you have one or more people to manage the technology

2. That Blogs are not good for conversation (I only didn’t know this because I have never tried it before – it never occurred to me that anyone would want to do this. In the past, I have always used blogs for personal reflection.)

3. That forums are subject to ‘trolls’ (I realise that I have been very fortunate in my prior online learning not to have experience of this)

4. That networks don’t support the affective elements of learning (this is obvious, but I have not been involved in any networks before)

5. That for me, the affective elements of learning are very important

6. When the Moodle server is down you can’t find the links for your post!

7. That it’s possible to spend a lot of time not getting very far despite having made efforts to connect! 🙂


Is this a course or something else?

I have just closed down the Elluminate session. This was the most interesting for me so far as it centred around what participants think of the course so far – what do we think works and what do we think doesn’t work so well. Fascinating and very relevant to me.

I’m going to try and get my thoughts down straight away before I forget. It seems to me that the real problem is that this is called a course but that Stephen and George are trying to introduce a new view of what a course should be, based on principles of connectivism. So it is not only a course about connectivism – it is also trying to enable connectivism practice.

I suspect that the majority of us have a fairly traditional view of what a course should be – so many of us here will not only be learning about connectivism, we will be learning how to learn about connectivism in a networked environment.

I have tried to summarise my thoughts in this table:

My work experience What I am experiencing on the Connectivism course Comment
I am responsible for authoring or co-authoring online courses, or facilitating on a course that has been authored by others. The course is planned out into a given number of weeks to cover a given curriculum Stephen and George have structured the course very clearly and it is there for everyone to see on the wiki It’s clear what will be covered. As on all online courses, in my experience, there is a tendency to include an amount of content that simply can’t be covered in the time. Why do we always do this when authoring online courses? Stephen said today that each week on this course could be a degree module. The problem with a course like this, and all online courses, is that when so much content is available, discussion ranges extremely widely. This is good in the sense that participants can access discussion at a point of entry of their choice, but can also be extremely confusing to new learners. George has said (and I agree) that learning is often confusing, but I think there is a balance to be maintained. I’m not sure what that balance should be on this course, but I think it should aim to ensure that the majority of participants can learn.
I do not assume that course participants have the technical skills to engage with the course. Technical Help is always on offer Some people are struggling with the technological demands. Someone asked today about how to connect better with the blogs. The question was not answered (I don’t think) I suppose you could assume that people would have the confidence to ask and that the network would respond. I can see no evidence that this works. In my courses I include a set of FAQs which might help answer some of these questions and always try to ensure that technical questions are answered, but here I think the assumption is that you can find out if you want to. For myself, I would like to have RSS feeds to the blogs that I am interested in on my blog, but despite ‘googling’ this, I do not understand the information I have gathered (technology is not my thing!) so can’t do anything about this. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere that I can raise this in this course.
The purpose of the course is always spelled out – aims, objectives etc. Now, I might have missed this, because I was late joining – but the question was raised in the Elluminate session today, so perhaps I am not alone in not being absolutely clear. Even if we are expected to work out our own purpose, maybe this could be made clearer – so, for example, I have participated in other courses where we have been encouraged to articulate our own goals. If this course is about gathering information, then this might not be necessary, but if it is about learning, then opportunities for increasing learning shouldn’t be missed.
Pre-requisites for the course are spelled out in the marketing materials Again, I might have missed this, but I had no sense before starting that I would have to work out my own ways of connecting without any guidance. This has been a steep and valuable learning experience, but I would rather have spent the time engaging with the content In the Elluminate session today, Stephen winked at my question about whether he knew what was going on in the network and implied (I may have misunderstood) that in a network facilitators don’t necessarily know what is going on. In courses that I have experience with, the facilitator always has an overview. On this ‘course’ I only discovered today (by chance) that there is an email group. I do know that there is a Facebook group, a Ning group and an SL group (all of which I have chosen not to participate in), Moodle forums (which I read), Blogs (which I selectively subscribe to), Twitter (which I have chosen not to follow), page flakes (which I look at from time to time), The Daily (very helpful), Elluminate and Ustream sessions (which I have always attended) – but is there anything else that I don’t know about and will only find our about by chance. What would be so wrong in having a list of ways of connecting which we could subscribe to if we wished to? Is there a reason for not providing this sort of support to network participants?
We spend some time socialising and getting to know each other There was an introductions forum – but for me it still shows over 1000 posts not opened. It did not help me connect. Perhaps more time needs to be spent in encouraging initial connections. The beginning of the course was frantic and chaotic. It is always a bit like this, but with 2000+ participants, perhaps more thought could be given to this. I would simply allow more time, simply for this and let the chat run for a while, before getting to the content.
I view my role as a facilitator. I know I do not have control over learners. No-one ever can. As far as I am concerned participants can engage as much or as little as they wish, in whatever ways suits their learning. But I do feel responsible for them  – after all, I initiated the course (the largest for me being with over 500 participants) – and I do encourage them to feel responsibility for each other From the beginning I knew that George and Stephen were responsible for this course, but at no time have I felt that they have been interested in me. Of course they can’t be with 2000+ on the course, so this is not a criticism, more an observation. However, I have also observed that they are interested in the participants who are doing the assessments and are also interested in some named individuals. If this is a course and not simply an experience of networked learning, then my feeling is that every learner deserves to be recognised. With only 2 facilitators this is not possible. The course needs more facilitators. If it is not a course, but simply a network, then 2 facilitators is ample for 20 people on the course. The rest of us are not on a course – just having an experience – but this (if this is how Stephen and George view it) has not been made explicit – at least not as far as I can see. We have all been invited to attend a course.
As a facilitator and having a responsibility to participants, I have various roles – the principal one being to enable learners to learn. The Daily is a fantastic help in keeping tabs on where we are up to. Both George and Stephen’s posts are wonderfully helpful in focussing attention. But I find the Moodle forums very difficult – very strange since I have authored and facilitated many Moodle courses. I don’t feel comfortable in these Moodle forums at all. It was suggested in the Elluminate session today that posts in the Moodle forums should be restricted to a certain length. Personally, I don’t agree with taking responsibility away from participants. But I do think summaries could be a help, although I don’t think facilitators need to do this. In my own courses, after modelling how to summarise in the first week, I ask participants to take over. I am now thinking of having wikis associated with each forum where key points could be posted by anyone as we move through the discussion – these key points would serve as a summary and would be the responsibility of all. I think there might need to be some rules to ensure that the wiki did stay as a summary and didn’t become yet another long document to read. I will have to try this out to see whether it would work. Unfortunately, my experience is that the minority in any community will take on this sort of responsibility – but I can try! 

Francis mentioned enabling the ‘international voice’ and associated ‘global perspective’. Absolutely – I couldn’t agree more. Inclusivity is a facilitator responsibility in the sense that the facilitator needs to raise this with course participants – but again, this might be different in a course as opposed to a network.


And finally, the facilitator has to determine whether some participants’ learning is being inhibited by others. In the courses I run, we overcome this by breaking out into smaller groups at some point in the course. I don’t think this is going to happen on this course – and the idea of it would probably be against the principles of a network. Here it has been assumed that people can find their own small group – but I’m not sure that this is the case. Despite my better instincts, I have been affected by the negativity in some of the forum posts  – and by some of the chat comments in the live sessions about these posts. It all feels a bit unsavoury and unhealthy to me – but I know this is a personal value judgement.

A course has an ending and as a facilitator, I would try to ensure that participants end it knowing what they have learned and what they still need to learn. The course has a given number of weeks, but beyond that – will the network ( I don’t regard it as a community) continue? Does it need to? I think there is a tension between what is widely regarded as a course and the work of a network. My understanding is that Stephen and George are trying to open our eyes to possibilities for new ways of learning. The problem is that they are using an old method i.e. course
Overall comment: I think Stephen and George could choose another way to describe this experience rather than use the word ‘course’. The word ‘course’ has many traditional connotations that do not seem to fit what they are trying to do here. They could then make it explicit what they are trying to do in terms of introducing a new learning experience. For example, they could have a list of things that you should NOT expect from this learning experience (e.g. tutor support) and a list of things that you SHOULD expect – e.g. to make your own choices about how you will connect to people to find the information you need, to determine your own curriculum, to determine your own assessment criteria, to determine your own assessment methods, to determine your own success criteria, to set your own priorities, to order you own learning environment etc. – whatever it is that they see as the key learning elements. Isn’t this what Ausubel calls ‘advance organisers’?