Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Month: August 2012

The dilemma of open courses in an Australian university

The great sage of our time offers the following definition of dilemma

A dilemma (Greek: δί-λημμα “double proposition”) is a problem offering two possibilities, neither of which is practically acceptable.

I have at least one course that I should be redesigning, but I find myself on the horns of a dilemma. The two unacceptable possibilities I see are:

  1. I keep the course as a standard course.

    i.e the Australian standard blended course delivered across multiple-campuses and via distance education. Course site, textbook, individual lecturers at each campus running lectures and tutorials, fixed study schedule and learning outcomes to box tick. Students completing and submitting assignments. etc.

    An approach that fulfils the organisational expectations, resourcing, policies, processes, tools, and doesn’t offer any surprises (i.e. run any risks). Saves me time, which I can spend on other tasks (i.e. research)…..and is just slightly hypocritical for a course talking about transforming teaching through ICTs, 21st Century Skills etc. Not to mention going against much of what I use in my own work.

  2. I follow in the footsteps of some intrepid Canadians such as Alec Couros and open the course up and get the students engaging in the broader community.

    This would better much how I learn, think and work. It would, I strongly believe, provide the students with a much better experience. It might even win a few kudos with the organisation, enabling senior management to say “Oh MOOCs/open courses, we’re already doing that”.

Yes, an argument could be made for a third option. Use aspects of the open (#2), but stick largely with the standard course (#1). This is essentially what I do already. This is possibility #1 for me (I could never run a purely standard course). I’ve done this combination for a year. It’s chafing, constrained and makes me feel a little inauthentic.

For the rest of this post, I’m going to reflect on the factors at play.

The MOOC fad

For those of you who have missed it – and apparently some have –

MOOCs are the latest fad to hit higher education.

In the last week, I’ve heard stories about two Australian Vice-Chancellors (not at my current institution) hearing about MOOCs and asking people within their institution for insights into this phenomenon. The first one asked his/her IT division, the second his/her Marketing folk.

So, there’s a bit of a mixed message. It’s increasingly important to the senior management of the institution, which could prove useful. But at the same time it’s a fad and at least some Senior Executive seem confused about the idea.

I also think most senior executive are probably more interested in the Massive letter of MOOC, rather than the Open which is where my interest lays.

Been there, done that

I offered my first totally open, online course in 1996. We evolved those over a few years, with this being the last. The Systems Administration course included a textbook we wrote that was widely used and translated into other languages.

The point is that I’m not the standard University academic. I have a preference for and experience with open courses. I have some technical capability.

Great examples to learn from

As mentioned above, Alec Couros – and others – have designed and implemented significantly better designs that could be used to inform an open re-design of the course I have in mind. A few tweaks of Alec’s approach would work very nicely.

Courses that are made for it

I’m currently teaching two courses, both of which are tailor-made for an open course. In fact, they almost demand it. One is aimed at helping pre-service teachers explore how ICTs can be used to improve their learning and teaching. The other is a Master’s level course helping participants explore and research the implications of Networked and Global Learning to their own teaching. These courses really should “walk the walk”.

Minimum course standards

I’m going to a presentation tomorrow talking about proposed minimum course standards. Sorry, minimum online course standards. Apparently, there are no minimum standards if you aren’t online.

The proposed standards assume you are using/require you to use the institutional LMS. Which, I believe, is set up so that you have to have an institutional account to access. So much for being open.

Of course, the minimum course standards argument reminds me so much of my troubles in 1995/1996 with the battle between traditional print-based distance education and online learning.

A somewhat inappropriate meta-level for networked learning

In this earlier post I suggested that the meta-level of institutional networked learning – i.e. the systems, processes, people and policies used to implement institutional networked learning – are not generally known for their capability to enable and encourage

community, openness, flexibility, collaboration, transformation and it is all user-centred

The nature of the teleological, management science-based processes and practices being adopted by universities means that the meta-level of institutional networked learning is configured to ensure that everyone is using the same institutional resources and approaches. e.g. minimum course standards. The meta-level is not set up to learn, it is not set up to innovate or transform. It is set up to efficiently achieve the decided upon status quo.

Any action that breaks this status quo is problematic. It is seen as inefficient or wrong headed. This creates a need to fight battles to explain the point of the innovation/mutation, rather than receive support. It also means that the meta-level must assume and provide the same level of support for everyone.

It leads to situations where academics are reported to the University solicitor for using a Google doc to allow students to book a Wimba classroom for their group (because when the students put their name and email address in the Google doc this is apparently breaking data privacy laws).

Bringing the students along is hard

This blog post from Dave White talks about the use of the digital visitors and residents metaphor at a conference. It includes the following

Even if this is the case many find being visible in their practice online stressful. Reflecting on her own teaching practice Lindsay Jordan highlighted that moving students from a Visitor to a more Resident mode online is often a painful process. She spoke of how distressing encouraging her students to start sharing in an open manner via blogging was – distressing both for her and for them.

Many students, like many people, don’t like change. They don’t like their expectations being challenged.

Bringing the staff(ing) along is hard

At least one of these courses will have other teaching staff associated with it. This means that the organisational staffing and workload calculation processes are involved. This creates two problems. First, just like the students some of the staff may not adapt well to the new approach. Second, I know that the workload calculation formulas will not work well with the new model.

Workload and research

All of these last few factors create workload. Many of these factors can be gotten around, but they require more work (Yes, another whinging academic complaining about the workload). This could be worked around, if not for the increasing priority on research. Just last week a fairly senior member of staff mentioned that the faculty I belong to is behind expectations in terms of research output. In preceding months, I’ve heard other mentions about research outputs being a major priority for the university.

What’s next?

The obvious question is whether or not the other folk appropriately involved in the redesign of these course(s) can be effectively drawn into the attempt to address these issues. And whether I can be bothered to expend the effort. Can this type of approach be brought in from the edge?

This post is perhaps/hopefully the start of a process of doing this. I wonder what form the process should take?

On a tension with teaching designs heavy on constructive alignment

Constructive alignment is an approach to designing courses where there is – not surprisingly – alignment between what the students do, what is assessed and what it is intended that they will learn. It’s gotten a lot of play in the higher education sector over recent years. It has some value, but I’ve always had some qualms about constructive alignment, but I’d like to add another observation about an apparent tension within constructively aligned courses.

Beyond my prior experience, I’m currently teaching a course designed by another academic that has been explicitly informed by constructive alignment. It’s a masters course and the design overall seems quite fitting and it it is certainly aligned. I quite like the design and think it has the potential – all other things being equal – engage the students in some quality learning. However, this alignment is also the apparent source of some tension.

The course is really very hard to get your head around. Trying to understand what a student has to do to complete the course is actually quite complicated. A part of this is the intricate, interconnection between everything. It’s just not a lecture and some assignments. Everything contributes to the end goal. This both reduces the freedom and flexibility of the students, but also means that to feel comfortable in the course they have to understand everything.

The difficulty of intricately, interconnecting all of this has also led to the design of some activities or names for activities which don’t exactly match the common definition for that name. In this case, what is called an online symposium is probably more a writers workshop or peer review session. This leads to students existing understandings creating dissonance with what is actually meant in the course.

Is a course that really tries to follow constructive alignment, destined to have to deal with a tension between difficult for students to understand and generating quality learning outcomes?

Lessons for the meta-level of networked learning?

This semester I’m teaching EDU8117, Networked and Global Learning, one of the Masters level courses here at USQ. It’s been an interesting experience because I’m essentially supporting the design – a very detailed “constructive alignment” design – prepared by someone else. The following is a belated start of my plan to engage in the course at some level like a student. The requirement was to use one of a few provided quotes attempting to define either networked learning or global learning and link it to personal experience. A first step in developing a research article in the topic.

Networked learning

As a nascent/closet connectivist, networked learning is the term in this pair that is of most interest – though both are increasingly relevant to my current practice. All of the three quotes around networked learning spoke to various aspects of my experience, however, the Bonzo and Parchoma (2010, p. 912) quote really resonated, especially this part (my emphasis added)

that social media is a collection of ideas about community, openness, flexibility, collaboration, transformation and it is all user-centred. If education and educational institutions can understand and adopt these principles, perhaps there is a chance for significant change in how we teach and learn in formal and informal settings. The challenge is to discover how to facilitate this change.

At the moment I have yet to read the rest of the article – it is somewhat ironic that I am focusing on networked learning, whilst struggling with limited network access due to the limitations of a local telecommunications company – so I will have to assume that Bonzo and Parchoma are using this collection of ideas from social media as important ideas for networked learning.

What stikes me about this quote is that I think the majority of what passes for institutional support for networked learning – in my context I am talking about Australian Universities (though I believe there is significant similarities in universities across the world) – is failing, or at least struggling mightly “to discover how to facilitate this change”.

This perspective comes from two main sources:

  1. my PhD thesis; and,
    The thesis argued that how universities tend to implement e-learning is completely wrong for the nature of e-learning and formulated an alternate design theory. Interestingly, a primary difference between the “wrong” (how they are doing it now) and the “right” (my design theory) way is how well they match (or don’t) Bonzo and Parchoma’s (2010) collection of ideas from social media.
  2. my recent experience starting work as a teaching academic at a new university.
    In my prior roles – through most of the noughties I was in an environment where I had significant technical knowledge and access. This meant that when I taught I was able to engage in an awful lot on bricolage 1. In the main because the “LMS” I was using was one that I had designed to be user-centered, flexible and open and I still had the access to to make changes.

    On arriving at my new institution, I am now just a normal academic user of the institutional LMS, which means I’m stuck with what I’m given. What I’ve been given – the “LMS” and other systems – are missing great swathes of functionality and there is no way I can engage in bricolage to transform an aspect of the system into something more useful or interesting.

Meta-networked learning

Which brings me to a way in which I’m interested in extending this “definition” of networked learning to a community. Typically networked learning – at least within an institutional setting – is focused on how the students and the teachers are engaging in networked learning. More specifically, how they are using the LMS and associated institutional systems (because you can get in trouble for using something different). Whilst this level of interest in networked learning is important and something I need to engage in as a teaching academic within an institution. I feel what I can do at this level is being significantly constrained because the meta-level of networked learning is broken.

I’m defining the meta-level of networked learning as how the network of people (teaching staff, support staff, management, students), communities, technologies, policies, and processes within an institution learn about how to implement networked learning. How the network of all these elements work (or not) together to enable the other level of networked learning.

Perhaps the major problem I see with the meta-level of networked learning is that it isn’t though of as a learning process. Instead it is widely seen as the roll-out of an institutional, enterprise software system under the auspices of some senior member of staff. A conception that does not allow much space for being about “community, openness, flexibility, collaboration, transformation and it is all user-centred” (Bonzo and Parchoma, 2010, p. 912). Subsequently, I wonder “If education and educational institutions can understand and adopt these principles” (Bonzo and Parchoma, 2010, p. 912) and apply them to the meta-level of networked learning, then “perhaps there is a chance for significant change in how we teach and learn in formal and informal settings” (Bonzo and Parchoma, 2010, p. 912). As always, “The challenge is to discover how to facilitate this change” (Bonzo and Parchoma, 2010, p. 912). Beyond that, I wonder what impact such a change might have on the experience of the institution’s learners, teachers, other staff. Indeed, what impact it might have on the institutions.


Bonzo, J., & Parchoma, G. (2010). The Paradox of Social Media and Higher Education Institutions. Networked Learning: Seventh International Conference (pp. 912–918). Retrieved from

Hovorka, D., & Germonprez, M. (2009). Tinkering, tailoring and bricolage: Implications for theories of design. AMCIS’2009. Retrieved from

1 Hovorka and Germonprez (2009) cite Gabriel (2002) and Ciborra (2002) as describing bricolage as “as a way of describing modes of use characterized by tinkering, improvisation, and the resulting serendipitous, unexpected outcomes”.

Using the NetSpot Innovation fund to enhance bim

So the 2013 NetSpot Innovation Fund has been announced. You can read more on that prior link but my summary is that NetSpot will contribute their human resources (with significant expertise around Moodle development, QA etc.) to improving an existing innovation with the aim of making it more sustainable. In the words of the guidelines

it is essentially a software development project

It sounds like a perfect opportunity to enhance BIM – Blog Aggregation Management Into Moodle – plugin. The following provides soem ideas for what shape that expansion/enhancement might take and serves the purpose of seeing if there’s broader buy in for some of this work and also make suggestions that I’ve missed.

If you are interested in this, let me know.

The foundation

The assumption here is that I have finished porting BIM into Moodle 2.x. This would form the starting point for any work the NetSpot folk might do. From this foundation, I can see two broad categories of work

  1. The enhancements.
    These improve or expand the functionality of BIM but keep it within the fairly traditional paradigm of a teacher led/managed process for assessment purposes.
  2. The expansion.
    Intended to move serve as a basis for an exploration of different – more “networked/connectivism” type – paradigms.

Yes, I’m aware that there could be significant questions about how you could explore different paradigms within the constraints of an institutional LMS. There are inherent constraints.

Leigh Blackall and I had this conversation a while ago. There are minuses in this approach, but there are some plusses as well and there aren’t many opportunities of getting access to some experienced developers the other way.

The enhancements

  • A general QA check and associated improvements.
    My initial port to Moodle 2.x will have flaws. Having the NetSpot crew double check this and make improvements where possible makes it more likely for institutions to feel safe adopting BIM.
  • Interface enhancements.
    This could be as simple as adding support for the more advanced types of tables that Moodle supports. mainly to improve handling large lists of students details.
  • Copy (“plagiarism”) detection.
    There are some issues around this, but I know that there are folk in large classes for whom the ability to run copy detection over blog posts would be a plus.
  • The question of “multiple activities” ?
    When you create a BIM activity at the moment, you can have multiple posts that the students need to complete. The one link to this activity occurs once in the Moodle course design. Which can cause some issues in courses where the teaching staff want to remind students of what they should be doing this week. Someway to have multiple links to the activity, or group together multiple BIM activities into one management interface seems to be needed.
  • Activity completion.
    This follows on from the above. Linking BIM with the new activity completion features in Moodle could be useful.
  • Private posts?
    I’m still somewhat uncertain about this one. But there are an increasing number of Allied Health folk asking students to keep journals while on prac. And BIM’s a good fit. But they want the information restricted. So, why not use a Moodle blog? Some way to support the aggregation of private blog posts might be useful.
  • Support for groupings.
    As per this request
  • And addressing other known issues for BIM
  • A complete collection of unit tests etc.
    Perhaps improving sustainability could be enhanced by having a complete collection of testing for BIM. So that changes could be made more quickly and with greater confidence.
  • Enable students to allocate posts.
    A BIM activity generally as a sequence of writing prompts/questions that students are meant to respond to on their blog. BIM will attempt to automatically associate a student post with the particular prompt/question. It also allows staff members to associate manually. Allowing students to allocate posts and allowing them to allocate multiple posts to a particular prompt/question would allow approaches where students are gathering or providing evidence against a particular standard, KPI etc.
  • Mirroring of embedded media.
    One of the perceived advantages of BIM is that it keeps a copy of what the student posts on a university server. Assuaging fears about losing data but at the same time allowing the student to have their own space. However, it only keeps a copy of what is in the feed, which in terms of blog posts is just the text. Any embedded media is not copied onto the institutional server, hence more fears about losing data. Though this does tend to rise the issue of resource consumption.
  • Closer examination of BIM functionality and Moodle core.
    Theoretically, Moodle 2.x allows the integration of an external blog for users. There’s some apparent overlap there. At the moment, I don’t believe it goes anywhere near serving the same purpose or the same functionality. But a closer examination and discussion of this with people who know – especially with any future plans for the Moodle core – could be useful.

The expansion

This is where my own interests lay and I need to think more about these as I’m still too stuck in the traditional education mindset.

The following are leaning more to adding features to support more connectivist/social constructivist pedagogies

  • Significant improvements to the feed forward functionality in BIM.
    At the moment, it’s pretty much limited to an OPML file that lists all the feeds for students allocated to a staff member. There’s a lot more scope here, some possibilities
    • Aggregated RSS feeds, rather than OPML, where aggregation is very flexible and configurable: e.g. aggregate all posts that have been given a certain mark, that are responses to a certain question, from certain students or groups of students, posted within certain date ranges.
    • Modifying the posts before aggregation.
      Rather than aggregating exact copies of the blog posts there might be some plusses in modifying the posts. e.g. anonymising the source.
  • Tracking and distribution of comments some how.
    As students are encouraged to comment on other blog posts (on the actual blogs) the ability to track or mirror those within BIM, perhaps to support some form of marking.
  • Allows student comments on posts within BIM.
  • Self and peer assessment.
    Starting to tread on the toes of other systems, but allowing students and their peers evaluate each others work has some value and would build on some of the earlier features.
  • Allow student creation of prompts/questions.
    Rather than have the prompts set by teaching staff, allow
  • Construction of learning paths/concept maps from aggregated posts.
    This is moving beyond BIM, I think. But the idea that any user could construct a visual representation of a collection of posts (including some derived from other sources e.g. diigo feeds etc) encapsulating their view of a particular topic. A visual representation that could be used by others.

The following are some ideas intended to explore how e-learning systems can be improved by embedding more explicit cognitive support for the designer (i.e. teaching academic) into the system. These are probably really starting to get outside the scope of the NetSpot innovation fund – at least in the short term – but a solid BIM being widely used might help spread this type of work.

  • SNAPP-like visualisations.
    SNAPP produces network visualisations of interactions in LMS discussion forums. A similar feature in BIM might be useful and could be used by teaching staff (or students themselves) to understand what is going on and take action.
  • Analytics?
    Which leads to the broader consideration of how to gather and display useful analytics and visualisations of what’s going on in a BIM activity.
  • Embedded galleries of BIM use.
    A method by which uses of BIM can be shared between all users of BIM and that is embedded within BIM itself.

  • A “game-like” introduction interface.
    Not gamification itself (that will get a mention later) but rather something more like I talked about here. Designing a good BIM activity is hard. The current interface doesn’t really help. Large-scale computer games are hard. But you can often get going in the game without referring to a manual. Can we design something for BIM that gives the same sort of learning experience for staff (and students?).
  • Badges.
    There are some minuses with this idea. But integrating BIM with a badging infrastructure (e.g. Mozilla’s Open Badges) might open up some space for interesting experiments.
  • Pedagogical “skins”.
    In it’s default state, the BIM interface is mostly focused on tool configuration. It doesn’t really embed a great deal of pedagogical support. The academic using BIM has to translate their pedagogical aims into configuration options in BIM. This is difficult. A pedagogical “skin” could act as a re-imagining of the BIM interface to offer direct scaffolds for a particular pedagogical view.

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