Theory-informed TEL and Connectivism

This week I met Seb Schmoller  who recommended that I have a look at the ocTEL MOOC , a 10 week open course in technology enhanced learning which is being run by ALT (Association for Learning Technology) here in the UK.

Seb is a former Chief Executive of ALT. I was vaguely aware of this MOOC, but had put it to the back of my mind, because for me there are just too many MOOCs about at the moment – it’s difficult to know where to focus.

But Seb’s prompt made me have another look and ‘Yes’ ocTEL does seem well organized with some interesting discussions and useful resources. However, I don’t think I will be getting fully engaged as I am already committed in part to FSLT13  due to start on May 8th 2013 – and Growing Old Around the Globe   due to start on June 10th 2013.  More of them later in other posts.

So far in the ocTEL MOOC I have checked out the Week 1 resources and listened to the recorded presentations .  One slide from Liz Masterman’s presentation has stuck in my mind.

Liz Masterman

Liz Masterman interviewed academics in Higher Ed and asked them which theories informed their use of technology in their teaching. This Wordle is the result. The two tiny words are ‘constructionism’ and ‘behaviourism’. This slide resonates with me because I was recently asked to create a presentation about learning theories for Lisa Lane’s Pedagogy First Online Teaching course. Whilst I am familiar with everything that is on Liz Masterman’s slide (although there are some models in there as well as theories), I only mentioned a few of these in my own presentation. Maybe I should have tried to take a broader brush, but at the time less seemed more.

For me an omission from Liz’s slide and therefore from the interviewees’ thinking and experience of technology enhanced learning in Higher Ed is ‘Connectivism’ or anything to do with networked learning – although communities of practice can be thought of in terms of networked learning.

In terms of the slide I don’t think it matters whether or not we think of Connectivism as a theory, since some of the other items listed on the slide are not theories – but could its omission be a ‘telling’ statement on where academics are in Higher Education in relation to their understanding of learning in new landscapes of practice?

Describing open learning environments and emergent learning

Recent work on developing our framework for describing emergent learning (see Footprints of Emergence   and Emergent Learning and Learning Ecologies in Web 2.0 ) has been taxing our powers of description. By we, I mean my colleague Roy Williams and me. The work of Paul Cilliers has been helpful (see below)

How can we have confidence in the footprints, when the footprint (a graphic description of a learning experience), if individually drawn, depicts an interpretation of the learning experience based on subjective personal reflection on that experience, and the scoring factors themselves can be open to personal interpretation?

This ongoing work in seeking to describe and clarify what we mean by emergent and prescribed learning is progressing on our open wiki ‘Footprints of Emergence’. There has been quite a bit of interest in this public wiki with upwards of 50 unique daily visitors, which is very encouraging.

In particular we have been very interested in the work that a colleague from Austria – Jutta Pauschenwein, (FH JOANNEUM, University of Applied Sciences, Graz, ZML – Innovative Learning Scenarios) has been doing in relation to using the framework we have developed. Jutta has written a number of blog posts about this, but here is the most recent one written in English – Footprints for “Emerging Learning” – Variety of a creative method of reflection.

This work of Jutta’s (and her team) and of others who have drawn footprints of their courses or learning experiences, and shared them with us on our wiki has motivated us to further discuss our understanding of the factors we use for scoring the footprints and describing learning experiences. It has become increasingly clear that each footprint is unique to the individual who is drawing it and that if footprints of the same course are drawn by different people, they will be different. Does this invalidate the process or the framework? Our answer is ‘No’. Each person’s learning experience, and perspective on that learning process, is unique to them.  The value of the framework is, we hope, in providing a mechanism for articulating that experience, and in the discussion around this articulation.

Now it could be argued that this is simply an excuse for vagueness and of course this argument needs to be taken seriously. Any research or discussion of learning should be rigorous, and we hope that in our efforts to clarify the meaning/description of the factors that we use in our framework, we will be adding to the rigour of the research.

However, we are also aware that all learning is context dependent and in particular, that the open, emergent learning that we are seeking to describe takes place in complex systems, where there are no straightforward right or wrong answers.

Particularly helpful in explaining our position on this is the work of Paul Cilliers and in particular his article – Complexity, Deconstruction and Relativism

Cilliers, P. (2005). Complexity, Deconstruction and Relativism. Theory, Culture & Society, 22(5), pp.255–267. Available at:

Cilliers writes that we should not underestimate the complexity of much of what we try to understand. It is difficult in complex systems to get agreement on meaning. He urges researchers to be ‘modest’ (not weak, but responsible) in the claims they make, because knowledge is always provisional, always contingent and contextual and the context has to be interpreted. My experience is that it is difficult to maintain a ‘modest’ stance in the face of requests for ‘the answer’.

Cilliers explains that in describing complex systems we have to reduce the complexity, which is what we have been struggling with in our framework. To reduce the complexity we have to leave some things out. In our framework we use 25 factors to describe prescribed and emergent learning and we have, more than once, had the discussion about where we draw the line, because our discussions often raise the possibility of adding another factor. The problem is that what is left out influences the description as much as what is left in.

Cilliers writes that complexity is messy and all frameworks are compromised to some extent.

‘There is no stepping outside of complexity (we are finite beings), thus there is no framework for frameworks. We choose our frameworks.’ (p.259)

‘To talk about the complex world as if it can be understood is clearly a contradiction of another kind and this is a contradiction with ethical implications.’ (p.261)

Cilliers has so perfectly described the issues we are wrestling with in the work we are doing in attempting to better understand open learning environments and emergent learning.

With the advent of MOOCs and a huge surge of interest in open, distant and online learning, how can we best describe learners’ experiences in these and more traditional environments? How can learners make sense of and articulate their own experiences? How how can we design environments which will help learners to work in messy complex systems?

‘We’ – my Facebook page and me

Elise Andrew, whose Facebook page ‘I F**king Love Science‘  is followed by over 1.7 million, recently shocked her fans by revealing her gender through posting a photo of herself on Twitter.

Here she talks to CBS This Morning about this reaction and with Michio Kaku discusses sexism in the field of science.

Her fans’ reaction is surprising on two counts:

  1. That her Facebook followers had failed to notice her gender, despite the fact that her name is posted on her FB page.  Perhaps Elise is not a familiar name.
  2. That the stereotypical image of a scientist as being male, wearing a white lab coat, having a ‘mad’ appearance – fuzzy grey hair, glasses and the like – and being surrounded by test tubes, bunsen burners, tripods, flasks and the like, is still so resistant to change and updating.

Many children still draw scientists in this image, despite many years of trying to break down this stereotype, dating from  Chambers’ Draw a Scientist Test in 1983


What I found most interesting about Elise’s CBS This Morning video was that when asked what the future might hold for her, she replied

Elise: We’ve had people talk to us about TV shows and about books…..

Interviewer: When you say ‘We” who do you mean?

Elise: When I say ‘We’, I mean the Facebook page …… me and my Facebook page…

This is fascinating.  This implies that Elise thinks of her Facebook page as a collaborative effort, a community, despite the fact that she runs it alone. Elise’s Facebook page appears to be ‘open’ to anyone.  Or maybe for her, her Facebook page has a life of it’s own.

But what else does it tell us about how people use social media, or why some people gather such a large following.

In the case of Elise Andrew perhaps the factors contributing to this are her

  • undeniable and contagious enthusiasm for her subject
  • apparent lack of ego evidenced by her surprise by all the fuss
  • knowledge of her subject and of reputable scientists, i.e. her connections
  • communication skills

… all of which come across in this interview:  Elise Andrew on why she loves science

Thanks to Sui Fai John Mak for posting a link to the CBS News video on his Facebook Page.

Pedagogy First gets going again

Pedagogy First is a Programme for Online Teaching Certificate Class run by Lisa Lane and her colleagues at Miracosta College.

 The class is free, offered by the Program for Online Teaching (not an accredited institution), run by volunteer faculty and participants, and open to everyone. We offer a certificate for those who fulfill the syllabus requirements, and open participation for anyone not interested in the certificate.

The course started in September – broke for Christmas and started again a couple of weeks ago. It will continue to run until the end of April. Participants are very enthusiastic and many seem to be ‘flying’ in the development of their ability to use technology to enhance their teaching.

It is great to see participants experimenting with different technologies and being confident enough to share these with others. Last week the focus was on images and screenshots  and explored the use of FlickrMbedr and the annotation of photos. There were a number of great blog posts this week, but Norm Wright’s introduction   to a 3D rotating image cube caught my attention.

This week the focus has been on Audio and Video with equally successful results. For example, Trisha Hanada Rogers was on the course last year and this year has come back to demonstrate how she uses what she has learned in her teaching.

For more examples of how participants are experimenting with new tools see the Pedagogy First site.

I have been invited to talk about learning theory later on in the course. I know now, having seen the work produced by participants in the last two weeks, that I cannot match their technical skills, but hopefully I will be able to contribute some ideas from my past teaching and learning experience.

I’m looking forward to seeing what’s on offer in the next weeks of Pedagogy First.

Minding mapping in the Social Media Classroom

Mindmapping is a big feature of Howard Rheingold’s course – Towards a Literacy of Cooperation. We are not only expected to collaboratively mindmap in the live sessions….

Week 1 mindmap SMC

…… but also the first individual mission (task) requires the production of a mindmap.

Find an example of cooperative arrangements, mutualism, complex interdependencies in biology and make a simple mindmap, post it under the Mindmaps tab. You can hand-draw, scan, and upload a .jpg or .png. Or you can use one of the many mindmapping services available, many of which afford embedding.

This is a problem for me. It’s not that I don’t know anything about mindmapping or using mapping to capture information and inform thinking. I have been living with a soft systems engineer for more than 40 years, so have been aware of academics such as Peter Checkland, systems thinking, rich pictures and so on, for a long time, and have even, some time ago, attended a course run by Eli Goldratt  on the Theory of Constraints to consider whether it could be applied to school education. This involved a lot of mental modelling in the form of maps. In our house if there is a complex problem to work through, a rich picture is drawn – but not by me.

I have also been aware of the work of Novak on ‘learning how to learn’ for many years and have even taught concept mapping to elementary school children. I know that if you say to a six year old child – ‘If I say the word ‘plant’ what word does it make you think of?’ and the child replies hopefully with a word such as leaf, flower or root, then the next question is ‘Why did you think of that word?’ and you have the beginning of a concept map which can be drawn out initially by the adult for the child. I have seen a six year old child draw her own concept map with the support of an adult to talk her through it.

Of course, rich pictures, concept maps and mindmaps are all different things.

Rich pictures are akin to concept maps in that the purpose of both is to graphically depict the relationships between the concepts. Rich pictures are used for understanding complex problems.

Rich Pictures are a diagrammatic way of relating your own experiences and perceptions to a given problem situation through the identification and linking of a series of concepts. The creation of a Rich Picture provides a forum in which to think about a given situation. Rich pictures should concentrate on both the structure and the processes of a given situation. (Source:

In school I used concept maps to elicit children’s understanding of the concepts. What they said about why they had connected two words would tell me a lot; a child who says plants have leaves, is at a very different level of understanding to a child who says plants need leaves for photosynthesis.

A concept map is a diagram showing the relationships among concepts. It is a graphical tool for organizing and representing knowledge. (Source: )

Mindmaps are the tool of Howard’s choice, and some others in the course appear to be skilled at producing them.

A mind map is a diagram used to visually outline information. A mind map is often created around a single word or text, placed in the center, to which associated ideas, words and concepts are added. Major categories radiate from a central node, and lesser categories are sub-branches of larger branches.Categories can represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items related to a central key word or idea. (Source:

According to Howard, mindmapping is a way of breaking out of linear thinking and moving towards lateral and visual thinking. Visual mapping is certainly widely popular amongst many learners these days, with Nancy White and Giulia Forsythe immediately coming to mind.

Despite all this I have never felt comfortable with any sort of mapping. I rarely get any increased understanding from looking at other people’s maps and it just isn’t the way I naturally organise my own thinking. Does this mean that I am not a lateral thinker, not an organized thinker, not a visual thinker, not a creative thinker – and if the answer to all this is ‘Yes’, does this mean I am an inferior thinker?

I would like to think that we need both linear and lateral thinkers and that in any learning group there will be a mix and both will be catered for. Does lateral thinking necessarily follow from linear thinking, i.e. a step up from linear thinking, or could some lateral thinkers benefit from more linear thinking? Here is an interesting article on linear versus adaptive strategic thinking  which describes how Sun Tzu recognizes the need for lateral thinking, but doesn’t reject the benefits of linear thinking.

Sharing as accountability

This was the title of a talk given by Dean Shareski to ETMOOC last week.  Dean is always entertaining to listen to and for me there is no doubting his sincerity and passion for his belief in sharing as accountability.

But Dean and I don’t really see eye to eye about sharing as accountability, as testified by the discussion generated by this blog post more than a year ago.

From his talk to ETMOOC, I don’t think either of us have shifted our positions that much, although in this talk he did not explicitly mention sharing as a moral imperative  and he did ask participants what the dangers of sharing might be.

Dangers of Sharing

However, at one point, he still said ‘You should feel guilty if you are not sharing anything’. Is there a hint of taking the moral high ground there? To be fair I think these comments are usually made (but not always) in the context of teaching. As David Wiley has evidently said, it is pretty impossible to teach without sharing.

But do we have a common understanding of what we mean by sharing?

  • sharing as a reciprocal relationship involving mutuality and interdependence?
  • sharing of thoughts and feelings in social communication?
  • sharing as altruistic giving and distribution?

Interesting is a summary of Peter Corning’s book ‘Nature’s Magic: Synergy In Evolution And the Fate of Humankind’, where Corning writes:

Work by Gintis, Bowes, Fehr and  Gächter indicate that strong reciprocity among humans is egoistic, not altruistic or cooperative, and depends on aggressive punishment of cheaters.

So maybe sharing is not all it is cracked up to be?

I should stress that I am not anti-sharing. More that I think it important to take an informed and balanced approach to the practice of sharing, such as found in the discussions around cooperation and collaboration, for example by


All this is on my mind because of the work I am doing on Howard Rheingold’s Towards a Literacy of Cooperation course and my thinking about how sharing, cooperation and collaboration inform each other. I will be surprised if I come out this course without having undergone a shift in my understanding, so maybe the next time I see/listen to Dean talk it will be through a different lens.

Emergent learning: the designer’s role, the learner’s experience

Discussions about our recently published paper, Footprints of Emergence,  continue, particularly with respect to the relationship between curriculum design intentions and the learner experience.

We have been discussing the paper with the CPsquare community, a group of academic colleagues from FH JOANNEUM, ZML-Innovative Learning Scenarios  and others. These discussions are ongoing and we share our current thinking on this wiki . Anyone who is interested in Footprints of Emergence is welcome to join.

The following points in our recent discussions have caught my attention:

Our experience (i.e. the authors of Footprints of Emergence) is that drawing a footprint from the design perspective and from the learner experience perspective can result in very different images for the same course. This raises the question of whether designer intentions and learner experience can be aligned.

If they can’t, then to what extent can the learner experience be validated by anyone other than the learner?

At this point I need to explain that the learner experience in terms of ‘identity’ development, is for me what learning is all about, but whether or not this can or should be ‘assessed’ is another question.

I can’t see that the curriculum/course/learning environment designer will ever be able to ‘control’ the learner experience, however prescribed the curriculum or however heavily assessed. So what then is the designer’s role?

A number of teachers talk and write about the need to first ‘create the space’ in which the learner can grow and develop their identities, and then facilitate learning within that space. If this is true and learners need ‘space’, why do we still see the design of heavily prescribed, content heavy courses? In addition, online learners seem to need and take/create more space than f2f learners, i.e. contemplative learning space. What does the need for ‘space’ mean for the design of blended learning, integrated online and f2f learning, and a prescribed curriculum?

Another point that keeps cropping up in discussion is the extent to which learners need to be pushed out of their ‘comfort zone’ to promote significant learning – possibly through providing a non-prescriptive, less structured learning environment. At what point does the learning environment become so chaotic and ‘unsafe’ that learning is compromised/jeopardized?

Should we expect learners bend to fit the curriculum/learning design or should the learning design bend to fit the learner? This is a difficult question if you don’t know who your learners are going to be, e.g. in MOOCs.

So finally, at what point is a mismatch between design intentions and learner experience constructive and at what point is it destructive and how might this affect emergent learning?