Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

This year it's all about the connections

The following is an attempt to give some structure to what I might do this year in terms of teaching and research. It’s in the same spirit as a similar post by Tim Klapdor. A summary of my possible contribution to 2015, rather than a set of predictions for 2015. More in line with Alan Kay’s quote

Don’t worry about what anybody else is going to do… The best way to predict the future is to invent it

(though it appears that a version of this adage my have arisen from others)

Two broad sections to the post

  1. Networks, learning and connections that attempts to find a unifying theme; and

    Mostly this section is useful for me.

  2. Questions and potential projects that attempts to outline what I might do (but never get near to completing).

Of course this list will change and grow as I (re-)connect with other ideas and people.

Networks, learning and connections

When I started this post (at least a couple of weeks ago now) the unifying thread seemed to be making connections and the idea that helping people make better connections with ideas, people and practices will help learning. The following quotes were central to this idea.

Goodyear et al (2005) define network learning as

learning in which information and communications technology (ICT) is used to promote connections: between one learner and other learners, between learners and tutors; between a learning community and its learning resources.

The Wikipedia page on Networked Learning starts with (and includes an interesting quote from Alexander’s “A Pattern Language”)

Networked learning is a process of developing and maintaining connections with people and information, and communicating in such a way so as to support one another’s learning. The central term in this definition is connections.

And have just come across the following quote from Dutton (2010) via Downes’ “A year in photos” (a post which has much to offer – and which surprisingly cites some of my work)

Organizations aren’t thinking about the ‘networked individual’ – the networking choices and patterns of individual Internet users. They’re still focused on their own organizational information systems and traditional institutional networks.

All of the above links to the problem I’m trying to fix. i.e. that a typical University’s attempt to implement and support network learning does not effectively encourage the development and maintenance of connections. Both in terms of the learning undertaken by the folk who pay to be students at these institutions, and in terms of the folk who are paid to teach at these institutions. Since it’s hard to make these connections in this context, much of the learning that occurs is far from good. If you fix this problem, the quality of learning should increase.

My last three publications have all been attempts to understand the problem and identify potential ways forward. In summary,

  1. Breaking Bad (Jones & Clark, 2014);

    Initial description of the BAD and the SET mindsets. The SET mindset is what I see informing the implementation of most institutional approaches to network learning. The BAD mindset is what I see as the more useful approach. This is illustrated by showing how the SET mindset has created a couple of concrete lounges and how the BAD mindset can help make it possible to live with a concrete lounge.

    The question is whether the BAD and SET mindsets can be fruitfully combined. Something I hope the following will help explore.

  2. Three paths (Beer, Jones & Tickner, 2014); and,

    Proposes three paths for change in institutional network learning: do it to, for and with. Typically most practice is in the form of “do it to” and “do it for” and ignores “do it with”. The “S” in the SET mindset stands for strategic, which is what the “do it to” and “do it for” paths best represent. The “B” in the BAD mindset stands for bricolage, which is what the “do it with” approach best represents.

    The paper illustrates how a successful institutional learning analytics project arose from a combination of all three. The argument being that without the “do it with” path – which would have been missing from a typical institutional project – this project would not have succeeded. The broader proposition is that network learning within a university is best served by a combination of the paths. (Almost by definition if you’re focusing on personal/individual learning you must by definition take a “do it with” approach, you can’t “do it to” yourself, can you?)

  3. TPACK as shared practice (Jones, Heffernan & Albion, 2015).

    Uses four themes of associated with a distributed view of learning to analyse the experiences of three teacher educators as they try to develop the knowledge required for effective integration of ICT into teaching (TPACK). Illustrates how the practices undertaken by the three teacher educators use a distributed/social approach to learning to overcome the limitations of institutional systems and support. Thereby partially illustrating the advantages of the “D” (for Distributed) in the BAD mindset over the “T” (for tree-like or hierarchical) in the SET mindset.

    Also talks about digital renovation and the value of participants in network learning (both learners and teachers) becoming digital renovators

    As the title suggests, this paper also took a quick stab at outlining some of the questions that might arise from this perspective. These are built upon in the next section.

Questions and potential projects

This starts with the four themes used in Jones, Heffernan and Albion (2015). This is used to generate some questions and random ideas for projects. Then comes some additional ideas which don’t fit nicely into the themes.

Situated in particular physical and social contexts

Standard institutional practice tends toward ignoring the situated perspective of learning and knowledge. Most especially in terms of assuming that there are single approaches that can apply to all learning that occurs within the institution. This can be seen in the idea of a standard course layout and design for all course sites. Also in the generic nature of much of the support and professional development around network learning.

Some of the questions that arise include

  1. How will a University-wide consistent structure for course sites impact the situated nature of learning?

    My current institution is introducing this across the institution this year. Even at a first glance I can see this standard design causing issues with the design I have used in my course. What other impacts will it have? What workarounds will I (and others) develop to make the design fit our pedagogical plans and the requirements of our situation? Will the standard design achieve the goal suggested by the proponents of making it easier for students to find information?

  2. How can institutional learning and teaching support engage with the situated nature of TPACK and its development?
    Mishra & Koehler (2006, p 1029) argue that (emphasis added)

    Quality teaching requires developing a nuanced understanding of the complex relationships between technology, content, and pedagogy and using this … to develop appropriate, context-specific strategies and representation

    i.e. the best teaching arises from knowledge that is specific to the content/course/learner/context. Institutional L&T support is anything but specific. It tends to connect teachers with central support staff with generic expertise in technology or pedagogy. Rarely does it connect teachers with people with experience and expertise in the combination of technology and pedagogy or better yet technology, content, pedagogy and context. i.e. help staff teaching into the Bachelor of Education support each other (in addition to other support). But also help connect people across disciplines who are using the same technology and pedagogy. e.g. enabling people using the BIM Moodle module to know who else is using it and engage in conversations.

    Jones et al (2015) shares some of the experience of how we did something approaching aspects of this using a blog shared amongst a group of teacher educators. I think there’s significant potential in embedding more of this sort of thing within the institutional network learning environment. More on this soon.

  3. How can University-based systems and teaching practices be closer to, or better situated in, the teaching contexts experienced by pre-service educators?

    Most of my teaching is to people studying to become teachers. While they are studying they use a range of university provided technologies. Once they graduate how well do these technologies prepare them for what they will and should (not the same thing) use as teachers? Will they continue to use any of it? If the technology they use whilst studying is better situated within a teacher’s professional practice, will they us it more/better? Can and how do we better integrate the technology used by teachers?

Some additional questions

  1. How and with what impacts can process analytics be implemented in my course?
    Process analytics are a type of analytics that provides information about the “information processing and knowledge application” (Lockyer et al, 2013, p. 1448) of learners as they engage within a particular learning design. This implies that the analytics being gathered are specific to the particular learning design being used. It is situated.
    Currently most university learning analytics is anything but situated. It’s the harnessing of data warehouses and other enterprise tools to provide generic analytics, not analytics situated in a particular learning design in a particular course. This is something that the largest course I teach is crying out for. Would love to explore what I can do.
  2. How to situate the knowledge of what works in educational technology into the practices of my students?
    There’s a lot of research about what works (and doesn’t) in learning and learning with technology. Research that could provide useful knowledge to the students taking EDC3100, ICT and Pedagogy. The question is how to help them build meaningful connections to the knowledge arising from that research in ways that are effective. This paper gives an overview of some of the problems.

    This problem is not that far removed from the same problem applied to university teachers in an e-learning environment.


An oft repeated refrain around here is, “we don’t have those conversations about teaching anymore”. Those hallway and lunch-room conversations where colleagues share insights and experiences about teaching don’t appear to be happening any more. Lots of causes for this including the massification of higher education, multiple campus institutions, increasing workload etc.

But another under-estimated cause is that the institutional network learning technologies are not designed to enable and encourage social conversations about teaching. Jones et al (2015) shares a story about how a small group of us set up a shared blog to support some of this, but I think we can do better.

Two early questions that arose were

  1. How can the development of TPACK by teacher educators be made more social?
    i.e. how can the learning and teaching environment better encourage social conversations about teaching.

  2. How can TPACK be shared with other teacher educators and their students?
    As teacher educators we are meant to model the development and application of TPACK to our students. How can they view and engage with us in the social conversations that help encourage development of TPACK?


Jones and Clark (2014) argues that too must of university e-learning is influenced by a tree-like (hierarchical) conception. i.e. that the world can be divided up into a neat hierarchical structure of separate components that are controlled by a particular group/individual and that these components can be combined to produce a larger whole without losing anything. Perhaps most importantly, each of the components can only make connections that are approved by the hierarchy (if at all).

Early questions include

  • How can technologies specific to teacher education (e.g. lesson and unit plan templates) be enhanced to increase the capability and learning of teacher educators?
    The current planning templates at my institution are not distributed. They are stand-alone. There is no automatic connection to the work of others or to the professional resources required for planning.

    For example, if I’m creating a lesson plan to help meet this content descriptor from the Australian Curriculum I have to manually copy the content descriptor into the unit plan. I also have to manually search the Scootle database/community for resources and discussions associated with this content descriptor. I have to manually search online for other lesson plans that aim to cover this content descriptor.

    More immediately important to my teaching. The students, markers and I have to manually check a completed lesson plan to see that that the content descriptors and the assessment criteria are aligned as per the curriculum. Rather than have the unit plan template automatically populate the plan with the appropriate criteria based on the selected content descriptors.

  • Is it possible to measure the digital fluency of a university, rather than focus on its teaching staff?
    The recent claim that the lack of digital fluency of teaching staff is the #1 “significant challenge impeding higher education technology adoption” strikes me as blaming the boxes at the bottom of the hierarchy for the problems of the whole. The knowledge of how to effectively integrate technology into learning and teaching isn’t something that’s solely in the head of teaching staff. It’s knowledge that is distributed across the many connections that make up the university.

    I’d argue that if digital fluency is a challenge to technology adoption, then it’s the lack of fluency held by the entire network, not the individual teachers that’s the problem.

    How would you measure the digital fluency of a university?

  • Can the LMS (and other systems) be more like the Globe Theatre?
    The LMS and other systems used to implement e-learning within universities provide little or not additional intelligence to the design and orchestration of learning. All (the vast majority of) the intelligence comes from the designer(s)/teacher(s). The Globe Theatre was set up to help actors meet the demands of their task, can the LMS be similarly enhanced? This is linked to the CASA idea below.

Encouraging more distribution also raises questions about

  1. How can the institution be encouraged to implement APIs and other means for enabling greater distribution.
    University information systems are generally fairly closed. The provision of APIs offers a way to make it easier to develop distributed systems.

    I’m particularly interested in how I can modify BIM appropriately to offer an API that can help in my own teaching.

  2. Exploring the impact of connections on student learning in EDC3100.
    In EDC3100 (a course I teach) students are required to create and use their own blog. They are encouraged to link to the blogs of other students and to outside links. Does encouraging these connections have any impact on learning? How might we find out? How can this inform the design of the course and the design of process analytics?

    Nick Kelly and I are in the early days of exploring how analytics might help.


The argument in both Jones et al (2015) and Jones and Clark (2014) is that typically universities see digital technologies as established. i.e. they are very difficult (if not impossible) to modify and what changes can be made are only done by qualified people under very strict governance structures. The argument is that this destroys/ignores the inherently protean nature of digital technologies. These are technologies that can be and should be changed.

Both those papers have the early stages of the development of an argument that good e-learning must involve an element of digital renovation by both learners and teachers. i.e. the learners and teachers must be able to modify the technologies to best suit their needs.

Some questions include

  1. Can the outputs of digital renovation practices by individual staff be shared?
    Currently a small number of staff (including myself) engage in a range of digital renovation practices. We implement kludges to make the concrete lounges that infest institutional e-learning into something approaching comfortable. These changes are typically very unique to our contexts (they are situated) and abilities and can’t be shared.

    Being able to share these practices could potentially provide some advantage. If only in being aware of where the concrete lounges are, but also perhaps as a way to address the resourcing issue that arises in institutional e-learning.

  2. How can institutions encourage innovation through digital renovation?
    Some of this connects back to the idea of APIs above. Assuming digital renovation is a good thing, how can an institution encourage and benefit from the innovations that would arise from more widespread digital renovation.
  3. What are the challenges and benefits involved in encouraging digital renovation?

A FedWiki textbook?

Beaulieu National Motor Museum 18-09-201 by Karen Roe, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License   by  Karen Roe 

This is a random though that’s sprung from an unexpected source. Have just received an email from the institutional leaders of learning and teaching at my institution advising that two new internal grant opportunities. One of those is an “Open textbook initiative” intended “to develop an alternative to the traditional textbook”.

For now, I’ll leave aside the various horseless carriage connections to be made with idea of focusing on an alternative to a traditional textbook.

Given my recent dabbling with the #fedwikihappening, my immediate thought was what would a “textbook” look like if it were implemented on top of the Smallest Federated Wiki (SFW)? You certainly couldn’t get much more open. What would a SFW-based textbook even look like? Is it a nonsensical idea?

Tim also has a post reflecting on his experience with #fedwikihappening.

Looking for and bridging the chasm

The presentation given for Jones & Clark (2014) was structured around the idea of a chasm between what was possible with existing institutional systems, and what was actually need to efficiently perform a task. The paper identifies two examples of a chasm that we bridged using the BAD mindset.

Very briefly at the end of the presentation a “process” was suggested as a possible way forward. This process was thrown together late the night before the presentation after enjoying a post-conference drink or two. It’s not great, but a starting point. The process was based around the following questions

  1. What are the important e-learning tasks?
    What does the institution, its teachers, and its learners think are the important tasks associated with learning. That might be something like the the 7 principles for good practice in undergraduate education or some other identification of what is considered important.

    Importantly, these “tasks” should NOT be deemed equivalent to functionality provided by information systems like an LMS. They should be tasks/activities that teachers and/or learners engage in.

    At some level, this step is seen as providing management and the “experts” to provide their input into what is important. An attempt to integrate some level of strategic thinking. Having discussions about what is seen as important across all teaching staff could potentially be useful (and divisive).

  2. How’s the reality/rhetoric chasm?
    Critically examine what a teacher/learner needs to do to complete those important tasks using existing systems etc. How hard is it to complete these tasks well?
  3. Who can/is bridging that chasm?
    If the task is important and difficulty to currently compete, then there will almost certainly be teachers/learners who have bridged this gap via various means. Find out who they are and what they are doing. This can help understand the causes of the chasm, identify ideas for bridging it, and probably also help identify other chasms that they are dealing with.
  4. What help is being/can be provided to help bridge the gap?
    The chasm is probably being bridged in spite of the institutional systems, rather than because of them. Identify what can be done to make it easier for those bridging the chasm. Chances are these steps will help others (see next question), but also it may help the bridge-builders develop better bridges.
  5. Can “bridges” be shared/scaled?
    Can the bridges identified be shared more widely? What might it take? Can those bridges inspire tweaks to institutional systems that can be scaled?

This basic idea is very much aligned with the idea of “making quality feasible” from Biggs (2001). An idea that is part of his suggestion for a reflective insitution as a way of assuring and enhancing the quality of learning.

Interestingly, I had some early conversations with @catspyjamasnz about some ideas about how some of this might be done.

My proposition is that this type of process is missing from most institutions because they have adopted the Strategic view of how things get done (see Jones and Clark, 2014). A mindset that assumes you can identify the requirements, design the system, build the system, and then let it run in support mode for a long time. It doesn’t recognise the complex collection of work-arounds and connections that have to be made in order for things to work effectively.

Context-Appropriate Scaffolding Assemblages (CASA)

Late last year at my part of the university I currently work for produced a new method for setting and managing supplementary assessment. In essence another go at passing the course for those students who just fell short. It was the responsibility of the course examiner to implement this new method with the support of a 9 page PDF containing instructions and screen shots of how to perform the method using existing institutional systems. Some difficulties and disquiet arose as the process wasn’t immediately straight forward, and if you only had one or two students in this situation it felt like the cost outweighed any benefit.

The assumption is that the person should have the knowledge and the time to implement this drawn out process. Rather than the technologies that are available provide appropriate support. e.g. a better system would have shows a list of students, allowed the course examiner to select those students who have been granted supplementary assessments, and then set up those assessments appropriately for the course examiner.

However, such a system isn’t possible because the generic tools the institution uses do not know anything about these more specific, situated processes and requirements. Hence the gulf having to be bridged manually by the person.

To bridge this gap there appears to be a need for context-appropriate scaffolding assemblages. i.e. collections of technologies and other resources that are appropriate to the context and which scaffold the performance of important tasks. Not as entire new systems, but rather as ways to glue together different existing systems.

This is not a new idea. My PhD work suggested the idea of scaffolding, context-sensitive conglomerations. There are two reasons for the shift to CASA

  1. Obtain a decent acronym; and
  2. More strongly connect with socio-material perspectives.

Honan (2004) suggests understanding teachers as

bricoleurs, who gather an assemblage of practices, ideas, and theories, to create meaningful classroom practices (p. 109)

The idea of CASA is that for quality learning in a contemporary university setting, it is no longer appropriate for it to be the teacher alone who is doing this. Taking the distributed and social perspective on learning and knowledge it is necessary that the organisation take on the role of bricoleurs who gather an assemblage of ……

The fix to the Peoplesoft gradebook implemented last year is an early example of a CASA. A greasemonkey script is used to create an assemblage that makes for a more meaningful/appropriate practice. Both this example and the supplementary assessment problem above are more administrative, than pedagogical. The challenge is to explore how and what CASAs can be developed to aid learning and teaching.


Biggs, J. (2001). The Reflective Institution: Assuring and Enhancing the Quality of Teaching and Learning. Higher Education, 41(3), 221–238.

Dutton, W. (2010). Networking distributed public expertise: strategies for citizen sourcing advice to government. One of a Series of Occasional Papers in Science and Technology Policy. Retrieved from

Goodyear, P., Jones, C., & Asensio, M. (2005). Networked learning in higher education: Students’ expectations and experiences. Higher Education, 50(3), 473–508. doi:10.1007/s10734-004-6364-y

Honan, E. (2004). Teachers as bricoleurs: Producing plausible readings of curriculum documents. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 3(2), 99–112. Retrieved from


"Do it with" teachers or students?


Choosing a research publication outlet: Part II


  1. There are some intriguing possibilities there. It should make for an interesting year. I guess it has not escaped your notice that ‘case’ is Spanish for house. Is that a nice match to your Spanish website at ?

    • An interesting year indeed, if any of it gets actioned.

      The Spanish connection is entirely coincidental. The initial task was trying to work assemblage, context-specific, and scaffolding into an acronym. CASA was the first decent one. It’s a plus that it’s not used for something less appropriate.

    • The house/renovator connection was something I’d thought of. Even thinking of integrating it in someway into EDC3100 (i.e. teacher needs to create their house/classroom, that means digital renovation, and maybe make mention of assemblages). The impression I get is that the renovation metaphor would resonate with a lot of the students and may help get over some of the ICT-fear they have. The assemblage notion might be a step too far. Certainly the full-on socio-material perspective probably is, but a lighter coverage could be important to get them to think more broadly about the task.

      Will have to work out how best to use the renovation metaphor without having the students get too stuck in thinking of the digital world through the lenses of the physical.

      Actually, have been wondering whether the four themes from the SITE paper might be a useful framing lens for the EDC3100 students. Explaining the rationale behind individual blogs, feed readers etc and breaking them out of the “it has to be all in my head” mindset.

  2. I’m very interested in your Social questions. Working in K-12 (K-5 at the moment), the question of social conversations around teaching and learning regularly come up. I’ve been intrigued by the TPACK model since I first encountered it a few years ago. My curiosity is sparked as a learner myself, as well as in light of my work with other teachers (as a technology coach). Although the context is different, I look forward to learning more from you in this realm.

    • I hope we can get to do some more work that’s interesting. I’d certainly be keen to hear comments, critiques and alternate suggestions from other folk. I have to admit that I have thought that much of what we’re doing here is very similar to the problems/requirements in schools. For this reason I’m hoping we can do more of this in the hope of identify some potential ideas that might be transferable, but also so we as teachers of pre-service teachers can model this practice for future teachers.

      The struggle I have is the point you made – the context is different. One of the advantages we have in our context is that a vast majority of our teaching and learning takes place in a digital space. I think it’s going to be much easier to enable these social conversations about teaching in a digital space because of the affordances of digital technologies. Doing this in an environment where most of the teaching and learning takes place in a physical space strikes me as more difficult, though perhaps not impossible.

      Of course, there is the much more difficult problem. Perhaps must summed up by the saying “the price of democracy is participation”. Social conversations about teaching are only going be valuable if people participate. While good applications of digital technology can perhaps better encourage and enable this, people still have to participate/contribute. This is the $64K question.

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