Open University Innovating Pedagogy Report, 2019

Ferguson, R., Coughlan, T., Egelandsdal, K., Gaved, M., Herodotou, C., Hillaire, G., Jones, D., Jowers, I., Kukulska-Hulme, A., McAndrew, P., Misiejuk, K., Ness, I. J., Rienties, B., Scanlon, E., Sharples, M., W., & B., Weller, M. and Whitelock, D. (2019). Innovating Pedagogy 2019: Open University Innovation Report 7. Retrieved from

Stephen Downes recently posted a link to this report on Innovating Pedagogy on OLDaily, together with this comment.

The introduction to this guide (45 page PDF) predisposes me to like it, though as I went through the ten pedagogical models presented (ranging from ‘playful learning’ to ‘learning with robots’ to ‘making thinking visible’) I found myself imagining about how these would be introduced and presented and instantiated (and a whole MOOC curriculum opened up in my mind, yet another project I’d love to undertake but just can’t). ‘ Place-based learning’, for example, speaks to me: I can easily imagine taking some students into a place, whatever it is, and asking them what they can infer from their surroundings. It’s just these sorts of activities that create the perspective and breadth of vision needed to do things like develop the sort of ethical sense I allude to in the next post. Good guide, with useful resources listed at the end of each section.

I agree with Stephen’s last two sentences. The report makes for interesting reading and suggests 10 innovations that the authors think have the potential to provoke major shifts in educational practice.

In the Introduction the authors group these into:

  • Pedagogies which have a long history, have proved to be powerful and engaging, and are now being developed further.
  • Pedagogies that are strongly linked to new technologies.
  • Pedagogies that provide ways of addressing challenges.
  • Pedagogies that respond to changes in society.

Pedagogies which have a long history

Playful learning to focus on motivation and process as opposed to memorisation and testing. The report states that: There are concerns that an emphasis on memorising and testing in education leaves no space for active exploration or playful learning. At the same time, playful learning doesn’t fit well in many current education systems. And that is the problem. Playful learning takes time. The whole system would need to be changed to allow for this time, as evidenced by the example included of a low tech, high play school in California. 

Learning through wonder – sparking curiosity, investigation and discovery. This is not new, but it is so important and so obvious that you have to ‘wonder’ why it has been lost. I’m not sure that wonder can be taught, but if teachers are aware of its significance in learning then their teaching will reflect this. The report claims that this is innovative as follows:

Philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato saw wonder as a spur for learning, when we confront our familiar conceptions and explore strange new idea……The innovative practice here is a curriculum design that builds upon and extends the heritage of wonder, encompassing virtual trips to wondrous places, digital cabinets of curiosities, and student-led object lessons.

Many philosophers have emphasised the importance of wonder, from Descartes (‘wonder [is] the first of all the passions’) to Wittgenstein (‘Man has to awaken to wonder – develop a sense of wonder at the very existence of the world’). And Einstein once said:

‘The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle’ (Einstein, 1940, p. 5). (Source: McGilchrist, I., 2010, The Master and his Emissary, p.491).

For wonder to be an innovative pedagogy in today’s schools, the school would need to adopt this as its principal mission, as in Rudolf Steiner schools. From the report p.24):

The educational philosopher Rudolph Steiner saw children’s early years as a period to stimulate their imagination though wonder at the beauty of nature, the elegance of numbers, the design of artworks, and the telling of a suspenseful story. He saw his Waldorf School as a place to foster a spirit of wonder that combines thinking, feeling, and doing.

But wonder is surely not confined to early years schooling.

Place-based learning. Location is a trigger for learning. As the report says: Place-based learning isn’t new, but mobile technologies have opened up new possibilities in this area. The report describes how a multi-disciplinary approach can be taken to learning when using location as a trigger for learning, i.e. the location can be used to apply learning from different subjects, for example, from history to mathematics. This reminds me of topic-based learning, which used to be the way children were taught in UK primary schools, pre-National Curriculum.

Pedagogies that are strongly linked to new technologies.

Learning with robots to free teachers’ time so that they can focus on more human tasks. This seems bizarre to me. My personal view is that teachers need less administrative tasks, i.e. we need to do away with the excessive focus on administrative tasks rather than replace them with robots.

Drone based learning – enabling and enriching exploration of physical spaces, so that students can visit inaccessible landscapes. The report claims that drone-based learning can extend what can be achieved in fieldwork, which seems fairly obvious. I’m not sure that this can be claimed as innovative pedagogy though – rather it’s good use of an advancing technology.

Pedagogies that provide ways of addressing challenges.

Action learning in teams – finding solutions to apply in daily life through problem solving and raising questions, with a focus on collaboration. Again, this is necessary but not new.

Virtual studios. Hubs of activity where learners develop creative processes. The focus is on developing creative processes. Linear ways of thinking are challenged, and uncertainty is embraced through practice. Time previously spent developing traditional skills of sketching and making is now spent on developing literacy with digital tools.

Virtual studios are all about online exchange of ideas, rapid feedback from tutors and peers, checks on progress against learning outcomes, and collaboration. They provide tools for recording, reflecting, and archiving. The aim is to support learning through inquiry and dialogue. Virtual studios enable students and tutors to work together even if they are in different places and working at different times.

As reported in the document, virtual studios follow similar principles to DS106, a digital storytelling MOOC/course, which started in 2013 , so it’s difficult to think of this as innovative, but maybe it is innovative for schools.

Making thinking visible – opening windows into student learning. Digital tools offer a wide range of opportunities for students to construct and express their understanding, alone or in collaboration with others. Again, this doesn’t feel particularly innovative and seems to relate to reflective learning.

Roots of empathy – social and emotional learning. Roots of Empathy is an award-winning classroom programme designed to teach children empathy so they can interact with others healthily and constructively. The intentions of the programme are to foster empathy and emotional literacy, reduce bullying, aggression and violence, and promote prosocial behaviour.

I think it’s a sign of times that this is considered as an innovative pedagogy. There is some evidence that children spend so much time on their machines (phones, ipads etc.) that they are losing the ability to read faces, and so are less able to empathise. – e.g. see 

Pedagogies that respond to changes in society

Decolonising learning – changing perspectives and opening up opportunities. The report says that we need a view of the world that is not white, male and European. We need a curriculum that explores multiple perspectives and promotes the ability to cope with change. Of course, but what will be removed from the current curriculum to allow space for this?

Decolonising Learning opens up the most exciting, and the most unsettling, possibilities. This is a pedagogy that could produce radical changes in education, leading to learning that not only supports and develops communities but is also strongly rooted within them p.7

The authors have explained what they mean by ‘innovative pedagogies’.  We mean novel or changing theories and practices of teaching, learning, and assessment for the modern, technology-enabled world. p.6

Whilst the report provides a valuable perspective on what might be needed in education to counter approaches which focus on learning as ‘something to be consumed, … a set of facts and skills that must be transferred from experts to learners’, I don’t see any of these ideas as being novel or innovative. I do not doubt that they are needed, but if, as the report admits, some of them have been around a long time, I have to wonder what has prevented them from being adopted more widely.

It seems to me that if we value these pedagogies, which for the most part I do, then the innovative approach would be to challenge the constraints that prevent them from being adopted, which I would see as an overloaded curriculum and excessive surveillance and measurement of teachers’ and students’/pupils’ performance. As it stands I would expect many teachers to feel that these are just more innovations which they should add to their already over-crowded teaching workload.

I can’t see that any major shifts in educational practice will occur unless the underlying constraints and approaches are tackled first. The Open University has published an Innovating Pedagogy Report each year since 2012.  It would be interesting to know what the impact of these reports is. How many teachers adopt these pedagogies? Is there any evidence of a shift in understanding of what constitutes quality teaching and learning?

Dark Matters: Exploring Thresholds of (Im)perceptibility

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Dark Matters is a 1 year interdisciplinary project funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Science in Culture Innovation Award ’which has been exploring the provocations presented to physics, fine art and social science/philosophy by entities, forces and dimensions that exceed human and technological modes of sensing and comprehension.’

The project team comprises Rebecca Ellis (anthropologist), Sarah Casey (artist) and Kostas Dimopoulos (cosmologist), all based at Lancaster University and supported by an Advisory Group made up of 2 theoretical cosmologists, 2 fine artists and 2 social scientists.

The end of project workshop was held at Lancaster University this week and was open (free) to the public, so I went along, despite the fact that I knew very little about the topic. Surprisingly it was not necessary to have extensive expertise in physics, maths, social sciences or art history to enjoy the day and learn a lot from the wide range of speakers.

Even if you don’t know anything about dark matter (matter that cannot be seen and accounts for most of the matter in the Universe – 95% of the universe is invisible), it doesn’t take too much of a leap of the imagination to realise how significant this must be for thinking about our social and physical relations to the world, and to speculate on what might be the impact of the imperceptible, the unseen. These ideas resonate with my recent thinking about the Absent Presence in online learning, unheard voices and questions about what it is that we don’t/can’t see, how this might influence or affect online learning and learners, and whether or not we can or should try to make the unseen, seen.

The project team’s questions for the workshop were more challenging.

  • Is there a way to formulate imperceptibility, invisibility, insensibility beyond anthropocentric conceptions of knowledge production?
  • What might be the role of intuition and imagination in accounting for the imperceptible?
  • What are the roles of ‘proxies’ or ‘sentinels’ for approaching the imperceptible and what are their ontological status?
  • How do different scales and locations of imperceptibility challenge human levels of receptivity and responsiveness to current planetary challenges?
  • What does it mean to account for the imperceptible beyond technological limitations?
  • What might be the contribution of the arts in enhancing a critical sensibility to spaces in-between touch-non touch, feeling – unfeeling, knowing – not knowing?

Rebecca Ellis started the day by telling us that the imperceptible is more than invisibility beyond the human mind. The imperceptible might never be detectable, but can be speculated by mathematics. She referred to the work of Karen Barad on entanglement and nothingness and Levi Bryant on Dark Objects.

Kostas Dimopoulos told us about his contribution to the project as a cosmologist and pointed us to his recent article in The Conversation.

Sarah Casey discussed how she had approached the challenge of drawing the unseen, and drawing as a tool of investigation, drawing as bringing an idea into presence, drawing as drawing out and leaving a trace. Her work for the project was exhibited on the walls around us.


The first keynote was delivered by Roberto Trotto (theoretical cosmologist) and bore the title Cosmological Intangibles. Having now looked at his website I know why his keynote was so good. He is used to working with 10 year old children, i.e. avoiding jargon and making complex ideas accessible. He told us that what is visible is a matter of convention, because only a very narrow part of the electro-magnetic spectrum reaches earth. Our experience of the universe is limited by:

  • Scale and distance
  • Wavelength and energy which as humans we cannot see
  • Time delay
  • Intangible messengers

We use visualisation techniques and mathematical models to simulate dark matter, but we have to remember that visualisation is not neutral.

The next keynote was by Martin Kemp, Emeritus Research Professor in the History of Art at Oxford University, whose presentation focussed on Light Beyond Sight. His talk was illustrated with paintings by artists such as Michelangelo, Malevich and Piero della Francesca, which depict spiritual light, shifting sensory perception and the optics of uncertainty. He finished his talk by alerting us to the notion of visual deception, telling us that the eye is a deeply slippery deceptive organ.

We also had a keynote on radical indifference from Nigel Clark. I had difficulty following this talk, but the main question I took away was about whether the Universe is out there doing its own thing and if so will this make us more responsible, more ethical, open, moral human beings. Clark referenced Isabelle Stengers who in her work on cosmopolitics wrote that the earth is indifferent to the questions we ask. He recommended reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Fugitives by Anne Michaels. Also in this session was mentioned the work of the light artist James Turrell. This video was not shown as part of this workshop, but perhaps it is relevant, particularly since Turrell says that light has different behaviours when we’re looking!

Other speakers during the day were all very interesting and all challenged my thinking.

Klaus Mecke and Aura Heydenreich – ELINAS, Erlangen. ‘How is the unknown conceptualised?’

Neal White – Bournemouth University

Jol Thomson, Technische Universität Braunschweig, and Sasha Engelmann, University of Oxford. Their talk was about neutrinos and the Ice Cube Neutrino detector. ‘The limits of our imagination determine what we can and cannot see.’

Fiona Crisp – Northumbria University. ‘How does art purposively engage with other disciplines?’ She talked about productive doubt and negative capability (John Keats)  ‘Meaning is shaped and constructed rather than received and observed.’

Finally, the keynote from Barry Smith explained that the purpose of the projects within the AHRC’s Science in Culture theme was to promote collaborative research between the arts and sciences to speed up innovation and promote new research agendas. He gave us an overview of the other projects that have been funded and pointed out that each project was subject to the 4 Cs of communication, confusion, conflict and collaboration. Interdisciplinary conversations have been challenging not only because dark matter is imperceptible, invisible and intangible, but also because we do not have a cross disciplinary shared language with which to discuss it. There are emotional connections to words in different disciplines. It was suggested that we need an embodied reaction to depict sense of something that is beyond our grasp.

This post has only skimmed the surface of the workshop discussion and conversation. Hopefully more information will be provided on the project website in time.

‘Open space rewards consensus and punishes dissent’

Dave Snowden made a number of provocative statements  in his presentation to Week 17 of ChangeMooc, but ‘open space leads to consensus’ and ‘consensus is rewarded, dissent is punished’ were two that caught my attention.

As with all such statements, they have to be taken in context. He was arguing that spaces that lead to consensus are a constraint on innovation and creativity and that more conflict and processes such as Ritual Dissent, where people are literally harangued for their ideas, are needed in today’s education system. He denounced what he called ‘fluffy bunny’ approaches to learning and even suggested that good facilitation could be counter-productive.

So – what should we make of all this.

In some ways it is easy to understand and have some sympathy for these ideas. Open space (and it’s important to remember that he was not talking about ‘openness’) allows people to come and go as the please into the learning network or environment.

So would it be fair to say that the people who stay are those who can find like-minded people and ideas of mutual interest in the environment and feel reasonably comfortable there? We don’t often find out much about the reasons why many people don’t stay, but it could be that those are the people with alternative perspectives who either try and fail to ‘rock the boat’ (dissent), or just don’t have the patience to engage in ‘dissent’/posting counter-arguments, or for one reason or another can’t cope with the environment.

Are dissenters punished? My experience in Moocs (where most of my experience with open space has occurred) is that they can be, particularly if they make strongly dissenting posts. Usually the punishment is subtle. Dissenters are ignored. Or sometimes the dissenter receives a volley of angry posts and may even be openly asked to stop dissenting; these dissenters may be labelled as ‘trolls’ as happened in CCK08

A strong dissenting post into an online environment may be accepted if there is already a consensus that the dissenting person is ‘OK’ or has some authority and a respected reputation, as in the case of Stephen Downes and George Siemens, for example, and even Dave Snowden himself. For those not in this position of authority, any dissenting comment is often made tentatively, apologetically or politely, in the knowledge that it could be completely ignored or receive a lot of flak. On the whole, people don’t seem to know a lot about how to constructively handle conflict or dissent in open online spaces, so that we can learn from this and avoid group think.

So does this mean that ‘open space’ leads to consensus and if it does, is that a problem? We have to remember that Dave Snowden’s context for his work is in areas such as counter-terrorism and highly complex situations, where innovation and creativity, rather than consensus, is essential for effective decision making. But the open space offered by the net and open courses such as Moocs, allows those of us who are not learning in such highly complex situations to encounter a greater diversity of alternative perspectives than might otherwise be the case.  That is the point of Moocs, along with learning from these alternative perspectives through interaction and having the autonomy to vote with your feet (i.e. walk away) if you so wish.

I would suggest that if we see consensus as a problem (and it may or may not be according to the context), then it is not the ‘open space’ itself that is the problem. Rather it is knowing how to engage constructively with alternative perspectives, such that this engagement will lead to learning and higher levels of innovation and creativity. I don’t see an engagement with alternative perspectives as necessarily requiring dissent or conflict, but rather requiring ‘openness’ – an open environment, open resources and an openness of mind, self and spirit.