Assembling the heterogeneous elements for digital learning

Framing an open book as situated, social, distributed and protean

My institution has some grants available to produce open textbooks. The following is an attempt to develop an interesting idea that might be funded by such a grant.

This is a quick first run at this. It hasn’t been informed by any literature or other searches for prior art. It’s constrained by my experiences and perceptions. It’s crying out for suggestions and improvement. It could certainly benefit from a revisit to Putnam and Borko (2000) and similar.

Is it even a book?

After completing the following, the biggest question I have is whether or not what I’m talking about is a book? Answering that question effectively would seem important for the chances of being successful in a grant application.

Perhaps why I think this is a book stems from the design of the course I teach. Each week has a learning path that the students will use as their initial foray into the wilds of the particular topic. They work through the learning path as if it were a multimedia book. Working sequentially through a sequence of pages. Those pages contain a bit of text, embedded video and other multimedia, and various activities and exercises.

The learning paths are situated in the Moodle LMS, so it doesn’t look explicitly like a book in the way that Project Management for Instructional Designers does. But that’s more a question of interface, than interaction.

Is that a valid/convincing argument?

Reservations about open textbooks

I have some reservations about the idea of funding academics to produce open textbooks.

As the tweet suggests, it strikes me as somewhat old fashioned. There’s thing called a World-Wide Web that has hypertext and multimedia capabilities that extend far beyond the capabilities of a “book”. Plus it’s taken off in a fairly big way and there’s an awful lot of good information out there. Is a “book” all that interesting, innovative and useful?

@s_palm and I seemed to agree at around the same time, that there are some more interesting possibilities.

The following is an attempt to expand on what might be interesting, useful and perhaps innovative.

Start with a conception of learning and knowledge

If the aim is to produce something to help people learn, it would seem sensible to consider at some stage conceptions of learning and knowledge. I’m going to draw on the “distributive view of learning and knowledge” that we used in this paper (this view has become my most recent hammer). It’s based on three themes from Putnam and Borko (2000), plus one we’ve added

That conception sees learning and knowledge as

  1. Situated in particular physical and social contexts.
  2. Social in nature.
  3. Distributed across the individual, other persons and tools.
  4. Digital technologies are protean.
    It’s pretty clear which one of the four we’ve bolted on, just from the summaries. As it’s currently framed, this one doesn’t fit nicely. It’s also more than just digital technologies, learning and knowledge are protean (tending or able to change frequently or easily; able to do many different things; versatile).

An open “book” with a distributive view

The following uses those four themes to think about what an open “book” might look like if this distributive view of learning and knowledge is used. It’s going to focus explicitly on the main course that I teach – ICT and Pedagogy. A 3rd year course for pre-service teachers aimed at developing their capability to integrate the use of digital technologies into their teaching.

The aim of any grant application would be to start developing the practices and tools that enable the production and support of an open “book” that supports some of these. I do have a question about whether or not such a “book” is in danger of just becoming an online course of some description?


A good “book” would be situated in the different contexts within the course. What are those contexts and how might a “book” be situated?

  • Learner’s learning environment.
    The environment in which learners learn is incredibly diverse on many characteristics (devices used, their PLE, time, location, etc.). So format of the book, the devices used to read and contribute to it should be flexible.
  • Course environment.
    The abstraction of the course is still core at universities. Each course has its website and specific rules, nature and timing. The situated nature of knowledge and learning provides some arguments about why each course should be different. An open “book” should support that.
  • Other course environments.
    It should also support the ability to move into other course environments. The difficulty of doing this is perhaps one reason most university courses remain silos unto themselves. The book should be visible to other courses/teachers, it should be easily customisable to the needs of different courses, and yet retain the ability to share changes between courses.
  • Teachers’ teaching environment.
    Just a learner’s learning environment is different from others. So to a teacher’s teaching environment. More specifically how they go about “authoring” and curating a “book”. Teacher’s shouldn’t have to under-go massive change to contribute. It should start from their current environment and work out.
  • Learner’s professional environment.
    Learner’s in my course range from early childhood educators right through to VET educators. There are a number of professional environments with which they must engage (e.g. the Australian Curriculum). The “book” should integrate with these professional environments. For example, have a simple way to integrate links and content like a content descriptor from the curriculum.

    This also points to the book containing “authentic activities and resources”. Dealing with issues and knowledge that are meaningful to them.

  • External environment.
    In part this is the “open” nature. Anyone should be able to access it from their environment. Hopefully it’s something students continue to draw upon and contribute to for the rest of their professional lives.
  • Institutional environment.
    Sadly, institutions have policies, systems and other constraints on how and what can be done. Will need to be cognisant of those. In my context, this means linking in and working with the Moodle LMS.


Authoring and reading a book are typically very individual tasks. There are views of learning that see it as arising from social interaction. From engaging with and becoming familiar with how specific communities think and act.

Some ideas from this view include

  1. Support for multiple authors and versions.
    Not only should I not be the sole author, there should be active support for people to “fork” their own version of the book (or parts thereof). The influence of Smallest Federated Wiki here. Both learners and other teachers.
  2. Capture the residue of the communities experiences.
    The experiences, actions, and creations of the people “reading” the “book” are able to be captured and used to enhance the “book”. This post gives an example of this and some of its origins in the learning communities literature.

    Examples might include

    • the idea of learners forking off and changing versions of the book;
    • the capturing of annotations (as shown in the blog post
    • sharing prior answers to exercises provided by learners as examples.


The big idea here is that cognition is just not in the head of the learner. Instead, it’s a function of the individual, other people, and the tools/environment they have to work with.

In terms of learning, there seems to be an obvious connection to mindtools defined by Jonassen (2000) as

computer-based tools and learning environments that have been adapted or developed to function as intellectual partners with the learner in order to engage and facilitate critical thinking and higher-order learning (p. 9)

Kirschner & Wopereis (2003) extend this a little to “include the facilitation of work (by knowledge workers)” (p. 110) and argue that “(Aspirant) teachers must therefore learn how to use mindtools both as a means of encouraging constructive learning in the classroom and as a tool for their own professional growth” (p. 110). Jonassen (2000) describes 5 characteristics of mindtools that connect nicely with these themes and could be useful.

The particular “mindtool” I have in mind for here is a unit planning tool. My course (and its “book”) currently asks learners to develop a unit plan to demonstrate their capability of designing the integration of ICTs into their teaching. Currently this is supported by a unit plan Word template. It does not contribute a lot of cognition to the task.

The rough idea is to develop a unit planning “mindtool” as part of the book, that would

  1. be used by learners to develop a unit plan;
  2. provide direct connections to parts of the book explaining each section of the unit planning process;
  3. provide access to relevant examples based on the learning objectives chosen for the unit plan;
  4. provide checklists and suggestions for what to do next;
  5. provide access to examples that have been critiqued;
  6. be integrated with curriculum where possible; and,
    e.g. if you specify the unit is for Year 7 Mathematics in a Queensland school, then the only learning objectives you can choose from are taken from the appropriate curriculum. The only criteria you can use in a rubric, are from the appropriate curriculum.
  7. track coverage of learning objectives in learning experiences.

Another possibility from the “distributed” perspective is that the “book” doesn’t reside on one specific server. It is instead distributed across many different locations, courses etc.

Perhaps more importantly is that the implementation of the book should not require the adoption of a single authoring process or presentation tool. The aim is not to develop the one-ring to rule them all, but to enable the building of a network of tools that can contribute to the book. Which tools are used, depends on the situations of the learners, authors, teachers, readers. Picking up on some points made in another discussion about “books”


In short, the idea is that anyone and everyone can change the book. In fact, the aim would be to explore if and how some aspects of change can be automatically enshrined into the book. This also links to the social perspective above.


Jonassen, D.H. (2000) Computers as Mindtools for Schools: engaging critical thinking, 2nd Edn. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall

Kirschner, P., & Wopereis, I. G. J. H. (2003). Mindtools for teacher communities: a European perspective. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 12(February 2015), 105–124. doi:10.1080/14759390300200148

Putnam, R. T., & Borko, H. (2000). What do new views of knowledge and thinking have to say about research on teacher learning? Educational Researcher, 4-15.

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