Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Me as a teacher

One of the tasks asked of participants in the NGL course is to write about “me as a teacher” (i.e. some sort of involvement in formal education helping others learn). The idea is that as we read and think about NGL ideas, theories and tools we’re working towards figuring out how we can transform what we do as a teacher using those ideas, theories and tools.

What is your role as a teacher?

According to the HR systems I’m a Senior Lecturer in what used to be the Faculty of Education at USQ. In terms of workload allocation for 2014 my main teaching roles are as course examiner in two courses: EDC3100, ICT and Pedagogy, and EDU8117, Network and Global Learning.

In a previous post I give a potted history of the trajectory of my University teaching career (apart from a couple of months teaching in schools as part of a Grad Dip in Learning and Teaching, all my teaching has been in a University) from teaching Information Technology in 1990 through now. While the institution and the discipline may have changed, a common theme throughout my teaching career is that most of my students are not on-campus. That has influenced my approach to teaching, what I see as my role.

Perhaps the biggest example of that that I think lectures suck. In fact, I have a dislike for most face-to-face teaching practices in a University context. I have – what Bali and Meier describe as – an affinity for asynchronous learning. As you might imagine, this doesn’t necessarily fit well with many of my colleagues, but it does mean I’m naturally inclined towards NGL.

Print-based distance education – as practiced in the very early 1990s, when I got started – revolved around the provision of a study guide. A skeleton set of connective pieces and activities written around a larger textbook that would guide the student through what they had to learn. That’s where I started and being an academic I was never happy with the available textbooks and so a colleague and I ended up writing our own and published it online. You can still find copies floating about. That book took much the same approach, guiding the student through a set of activities.

You could make the argument that I see my role as teacher as being the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage”. Though I must admit to always disliking that term. Have grown to like the McWilliam’s (2009) idea of the “meddler in the middle” which is described as

descriptive of active interventionist pedagogy in which teachers are mutually involved with students in assembling and/or dis-assembling knowledge and cultural products. Meddling is a re-positioning of teacher and student as co-directors and co-editors of their social world. As a learning partnership, meddling has powerful implications for what “content” is
considered worthy of engagement, how the value of the learning product is to be assessed, and who the rightful assessor is to be.

I’m yet to tease out what this means in practice, but think it particularly appropriate for application in network learning.

I also see myself as a bricoleur, rather than an engineer. An engineer (or instructional designer which has the same pedigree) has a clear idea of the requirements of a perfect solution and won’t start work until all the necessary resources are available. A bricoleur tinkers with what is at hand to rethink what and how something is done. Having an Information Technology background helps greatly when it comes to engaging in bricolage in an NGL world.

Who are your students? What is the context?

EDC3100 is offered twice a year. The first offering averages just over 300 students spread across 3 campuses and around the world. The second offering averages just over 100 students who are all online. The students are generally 3rd year under-graduate students studying to become teachers in a range of specialisation (early childhood through to VET).

EDU8117 is offered intermittently and so far hasn’t broken 20 students. All are totally online and are postgraduate students. Typically spread throughout the world and with a range of backgrounds.

What role does NGL currently play in that context?

A little bit more than in most other courses.

In EDC3100 students are required to maintain a blog (Google EDC3100 blog”), use Diigo and complete weekly “learning paths” via the Moodle course site. The aim is to get them actively building their own connections and PLN specific to their needs.

Currently EDU8117 is a quickly implemented evolution of that idea. The Moodle course site is largely gone, replaced with a course blog. The aim is to focus on the participation between members of the course (see the blogroll on the course blog for links to the participant’s blogs) as the focus of the learning, rather than a fixed bit of content. This is the first time the course is being offered this way.

How do you think NGL might help?

Put simply, I think applied well NGL has the promise to create a better learning environment than more common approaches. But I don’t think the approaches used in either course are applied as well as the could be. That’s due to a combination of the limitations of the pedagogical design, the technologies being used, and my limitations and available time. For both courses I’m interested in questions like:

  • How I can be a more effective “meddler in the middle”?
  • What learning environment is going to be best engage students most effectively in NGL?

For EDC3100 the challenge is scaling this to a course with 100+ students. For EDU8117 the challenge may be to be a bit more experimental in how it’s done. In both the challenge may be for me to break my limitations/conceptions and those of the institutional environment.

Some misc. related topics follow.

Finding the balance

In his post “as teacher” Brendon, one of the other NGL participants, mentions Sugata Mitra’s work and the idea of students being “able to develop their own connections and learning without … explicit teaching”. Brendon identifies as a key challenge for schools the task of developing (or perhaps unleashing learner’s inherent ability to be) “self-directed and inquisitive learners”. For both my courses I see this as the main aim and the main challenge.

One of the challenges is that – as Donald Clark points out – Mitra’s work isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. Larry Cuban uses Mitra’s work as an example of magical thinking in education. These comments point to the problem that not all learners are ready to be self-directed. In EDC3100 there seems to be two main inter-twined contributors to this

  1. successful enculturation into formal education; and,

    i.e. it’s all about being told the answer and then successfully repeating the answer, “will this be on the exam?”. Being self-directed and developing your own answers is a challenge. This is both the student and the teacher. I’m not convinced that the learning environments I’ve created successfully escape those confines. Not to mention that the institutional and societal environment continually reinforces these confines (e.g. even with an acceptance of criterion referenced assessment final results processing retaining a focus on a results that don’t fit a bell curve).

  2. pragmatic self-interest.

    For a variety of reasons the desire isn’t to engage fully in the course, but instead to do enough to get the desired passing grade. There isn’t a passion or drive for the course or sometimes the broader teaching profession. With something similar challenging me and existing in the environment as well.

This links to the point made by Goodyear et al (2014)

Unless learning is very closely supervised and directed (which it rarely is), there will usually be some slippage between task and activity, for good and bad reasons. This is important to acknowledge, when designing, because what people learn is a consequence of their actual activity, and therefore only indirectly a result of the task set for them. Tasks are designable, activities are not – they are emergent. (p. 139)

Though the requirement for close supervision and direction is interesting. Just how much is needed?

Participants use their own devices – 21st Century Skills

I have long been and continue to be an eportfolio skeptic. I’m not skeptical of the idea of it being important for students to use some form of electronic portfolio to track and present their learning. I’m skeptical of the organisational practice of selecting and mandating a particular eportfolio tool that all students should use. That’s such an ancient way of looking at the world and one that is fraught with danger.

One danger is that the institutional system is just crap. Sorry, but Mahara still doesn’t compete with WordPress (or any other of numerous freely available online alternatives). In reflecting on her “as teacher” Anne relates a similar story around one school’s pilot program with Microsoft where each student has their own tablet device “but the device is not able to be taken home”.

But perhaps the bigger danger is that rhetoric mismatch between these practices and the much vaunted “21st Century Skills”. The pilot program Anne mentions is apparently aim to focus on helping students develop 21st Century Skills. Having access to a mobile device that you can’t take home doesn’t strike me as very 21st Century. Requiring all students in the Bachelor of Education to create their eportfolio in the institution’s installation of Mahara doesn’t strike me as very 21st Century. Instead it suggests to me an institution that is still stuck in 20th Century assumptions around how to manage technology. Shouldn’t institutions recognise this and help students develop these skills, rather than be constrained by ancient corporate IT practices?

What do I want to do?

At the moment, here are some initial ideas of what I’d like to explore for both courses as I progress through NGL.


I’m interested in exploring how the Reclaim Hosting service and the feed wordpress work from @cogodog can be harnessed to transform the NGL course site from a bog standard site into a Connected Course. As it happens it appears that Connected Courses – “an open course in how to create open courses” – could be something useful to engage in. A pity it doesn’t start until October, just as NGL will be winding down.

This is much more than just the technology. It’s also about exploring and leveraging the practices that ds106 and similar have developed. In no small part because the “Domain of one’s own” idea strongly connects with the idea underpinning EDU8117 that participation is essential to really understanding NGL. But also because the process of going through this change will allow new, different and hopefully interesting changes/insights emerge.

I’m also interested to see how this might scale to a course like EDC3100 and how it can/can’t be integrated with the institutional environment in which I work.


The immediate aim is to explore how the EDC3100 learning environment can be tweaked to enhance student learning. What designs for learning might work better? What changes to the technology used might better scaffold student learning and enable meddling from teaching staff?

I’m particularly interested in how we more effectively harness the collective artefacts of past and current EDC3100 students? There are 1000s of blog posts from EDC3100 students online. Are current students using those prior posts? How? What can be done with those? We have 100s of student assignments describing why and how they are using ICTs in schools and reflecting on those experiences. How can those insights be harnessed by new students? Increasingly there are online information used by teachers and EDC3100 students (e.g. the Australian Curriculum website, Scootle, and Australian Curriculum Lessons) that are all disparate sites. Is there value in adding a layer of connections between those sites and the experiences of educators? What might that look like?

How can NGL be used to address limitations of institutional systems? e.g. the fact that you can’t search the EDC3100 Moodle site and I’ve had to resort to a kludge using Evernote.

What difficulties might you face with implementation?

In no particular order, the problems to be overcome are likely to include

  • A mismatch with organisational expectations.

    Just one example is the growing movement within the Bachelor of Education to have all students make use of Mahara, which as I argued above I see as short-sighted. Organisations still see the need to mandate strategic or single approaches around the use of technology (a new standardised course look and feel is coming soon) and with other administrative practices. A more NGL approach as described above challenges these assumptions.

  • Technological affordances.

    Goodyear et al (2014) pick up on the term affordance as both important, but also as “a term that is also very widely critiqued and contested” (p. 137). The idea is that particular technologies afford different possibilities dependent on people’s perceptions of a technology. But an affordance isn’t a single set of possibilities seen by every person. Taking what Goodyear et al (2014) describe as a “relational-materialist” the idea of affordance becomes much more complex and emergent.

    As someone with a software development background the affordances that I see in technologies are very different to what most education academics see. Also, the affordances that I see with technologies within an enterprise context (like my current University) is also very different from what I would see in the University context I worked in 15 years ago. Not because of the technological changes, but because the institutional context around IT wasn’t as constrained and singular.

    At the moment the institutional context I operate in doesn’t make it very easy to get access to data and to integrate that data with other services. Institutional systems are still seen as the solution rather that as part of an emergent collection of solutions to be combined and re-combined. Perhaps echoing their foundation in the engineering mindset, rather than the bricoleur mindset.

  • Student conceptions.

    Many of my students have been hugely successful in learning how to navigate the existing educational system. Many of the NGL ideas result in that hard won knowledge being somewhat less than useful. Combine that with pragmatic self-interest and often student reluctance can be a barrier.

  • My conceptions.

    Just like the students I’ve been somewhat successful with the current approach, I have pragmatic self interest, and am also limited by my existing conceptions/identity.

  • Time and energy.

    Just thinking all this through and writing down in this blog post is taking time and energy. Actually doing it will take more. But I think it will probably be worth it.


Goodyear, P., Carvalho, L., & Dohn, N. B. (2014). Design for networked learning: framing relations between participants’ activities and the physical setting. In S. Bayne, M. de Laat, T. Ryberg, & C. Sinclair (Eds.), Ninth International Conference on Networked Learning 2014 (pp. 137–144). Edinburgh, Scotland.


Identity, community and trajectories – Jawitz (2009)


Give them a fish, or teach them to fish?

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