Articulating the context in the learning design studio

This post discusses the steps to articulating the context for a designing a learning activity to engage users at local history site mediated by mobile or social technologies. It reflects on an activity at the ‘Investigate’ stage of the learning design process and depends on the completion of the personas (see previous blog post).

Description of the activity

The aim of the activity was to identify the forces that define the context, which required an understanding of the factors (any noticeable characteristics of the situation) and the concerns (the factors of interest to the actors in this situation, the things they want to achieve or avoid).

Forces are, therefore, the factors and concerns that define the challenge, with the challenge being the description of the change needed to the context to be brought by the design.

Reflection on the activity

The group was charged with a three-step activity that involved:

  1. List all the factors and concerns you can identify in the personas you and your team mates have described.
  2. Distil the forces that are relevant to your proposed innovation.
  3. Map the relationships between these forces.

(Module instructions)

While I was working through this, I realised that one of the problems was that while I could list the factors and concerns in the persona identities, it was  instruction about distilling the ‘forces that are relevant to your proposed innovation’ that proved problematic. In the context of our design, we hadn’t gone to the stage of really deciding what the innovation was going to be, and therefore it wasn’t obvious at this stage what would be relevant. For example, we hadn’t decided if the solution was a mobile only or a blended solution that involved mobiles with other tools (such as a website). It was therefore difficult to decide which factors were relevant (or irrelevant).

In the end, we took a practical approach, working with what we had. The factors were classed under ‘material’, ‘social’ and intentional. So for example, material factors for the persons might be the ready availability of mobile devices and/or other equipment while social factors might be hours of work while intentional factors relate to a attitudes. In our case, we tended to choose factors that were related to technological availability of mobile devices, degree of receptivity to using them while even the weather in the outdoors would always be a factor.

I found this element was probably one of the most difficult to work together as a group. Each persona had a number of different concerns and factors. It was difficult to see what level of granularity a factor should go down to. However, we did – through a process of discussion and constantly referring to the personas – agree on a set of factors that we felt at least went some way to defining the context. I produced this list, which the group broadly agreed with:

1. Mobile device availability
2. Attitudes to mobile phone use
3. Current level of provision of information
4. Mobile data service availability
5. Parents would like children to engage on school trips
6. Weather may affect where and how visitors access information


Snapshot of some of the forces established

I think we covered some of the main forces defining the challenge, but it is possible that we may have missed some. For example, we didn’t really look at teachers and schools’ needs specifically, not did we align the content to the curriculum.  However, on reflection, if we had tried to do this, we might have become bogged down in developing a formal learning  activity wheras the requirement was to ‘engage’ learners while at a site using mobile and social tools, which pointed us toward a more informal learning approach.

One of the outputs was to establish tensions and that resolving these is defining the design challenge. The main tension was the availability of the mobile devices and/or the desire or capacity to use them and on the other side the practicalities such as the cost of data, roaming charges, attitudes about mobiles in an outdoors learning activity. I am not sure if we resolved these issues at the time we did the force map (although we acknowledged them), but I can see that as the design developed, especially supplemented by research, we made some design decisions that built in flexibility about type of device, a ‘paper’ brochure option, the app design itself allowed a number of options to engage and eventual storyboard had the activity spanning classroom work, a site visit and then consolidation in the classroom or at home. Mobility therefore rested more with the learner than with the device.

Articulating the context was a difficult process, due to time pressures and group work, which requires discussion and waiting for responses. The terminology around factors, concerns and forces is not immediately intuitive, which meant that learning to become comfortable with the language around context development was an additional cognitive load. The Force mapping stage was therefore rushed as deadlines loomed. I think this could be a valuable activity to make the forces surrounding context explicit, but in this situation it probably needed more time to account for the iterative nature of the activity.


Using personas in learning design

This post reflects on using personas in learning design and in particular how I worked with personas during Block 3 of H817 The Learning Design Studio.

In a previous post I made some general comments about the Learning Design Studio process. In this post, I’m looking back on the key aspect of defining the context and in particular understanding who to design for.

In some of the work I do with designing or developing learning experiences, the learners can often be seen as an amorphous group of people ‘somewhere out there’. Conversely, learners are seen as a highly disparate group who have few common characteristics (they may be mixed ages, genders, educational level) and so attempting to design for this group is seen as either very difficult or just impossible. Another approach is to attempt a universal design approach for learning that caters for all, but this approach is not without its detractors. It’s arguable whether it is possible to achieve universal design beyond a rather general and technically focussed approach.

So it’s been revealing working in Block 3 of H817 Learning Design Studio, where a key part of the learning design process has been to engage with personas. Personas are defined as

‘ ‘Fictional characters created to represent the different user types within a targeted demographic, attitude and/or behavior set that might use a site, brand or product in a similar way.’(Wikipedia , 2012) ‘

The advantage of developing personas is that in thinking of users as real people with names, specific details and needs, they cease to become ‘elastic’, and it is the product or learning design that needs to bend to them rather than the other way round.

Developing personas for the Exploring Giant’s Causeway project

In our project, three team members each developed two personas based on the vague outcome that the site would support visitors to the Giant’s Causeway site. Initially, I came up with the following personas:  Marcia, a Texan-based university student, Yuan – a British educated Malaysian father with two daughters visiting the site and our most memorable persona ‘Ryan’ – a sightly disgruntled assistant manager in the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre. My colleagues developed equally engaging personas, and interestingly both of them independently developed American personas with Irish roots.


Snapshot of a developed persona in the persona template

Working with personas helped to make the design real. Initially the process seemed contrived as I felt I was writing the cast of a potential soap opera. The task was to use the persona templates to create personas – detailed identities with names, pictures and personal habits of individuals for whom the learning was to be designed or who might be a stakeholder in the process.

Yet after this initial wave of (somewhat enjoyable) persona writing, I was struck with richness of the discussion that followed amongst the group and saw practically how the process of developing personas helped to define the context. We realised that the type of learning ‘in the wild’ we might want to develop around the myths and legends of the site might be more suitable to school children, family groups and teachers rather than tourists. Details in the personas’ profiles such as mobile phone roaming charges for overseas visitors,  the desire of tourists to travel in groups and have fun, as opposed to more directed field trip organisers helped us to develop and narrow the context. We also considered what was already available for tourists at the Giant’s Causeway – a reasonably sophisticated audio tour.

Therefore, although school children, teachers and family groups had not featured strongly in our original group of personas they emerged as the people we would design for during the discussion. So, we went back to the drawing board, we culled some personas, enhanced some we had currently and created two new ones (a school girl and a head teacher). I took inspiration from the Giant’s Causeway Trip Adviser site to develop Ryan and Yuan’s personas further, while a colleague based a new Headteacher persona on a real-life school.

In some ways, our work was still limited due to time but useful. For example, we kept Yuan but enhanced his profile as a father of two daughters. If we’d had more time, we might have considered making up separate personas for his daughters. We developed Ryan as he has to deal with school children and teachers as part of his job, and we still acknowledged the importance of other visitors to the site who could still make use of the product.

This discussion helped keep the activity real, as during the time I was developing personas I had a niggling doubts that I might be missing some key learners  and how could I possibly cover the full range of possible users?

Reflections on using persons

Personas therefore provided a valuable means of discussing some of the realities of the potential learners’ situation. The potential learners became real. We worried about whether all the school children would have a mobile device, even though we knew that some schools would provide some devices. We worried that parents were unsure about letting their children have mobile devices and the cost of data might be prohibitive. We thought about Ryan’s attitude that people coming to the Giant’s Causeway should be more concerned about enjoying the scenery than huddling around a mobile device might preclude him from promotion the use of augmented reality at the site.

Initially, the personas exercise for a learning design seemed rather meaningless as there were potentially so many variables for this type of project – an outdoors learning in the wild using mobile devices. However, that in itself became a useful pointer to deciding that it was necessary to narrow down to a group of somewhat connected individuals. In a way, persona development was akin to putting a stake in the ground and making some assertions about possible learners. In setting the context, the persona’s factors and concerns helped flesh out some of the design challenges. The approach has its limitations where the group may have overlooked a major stakeholder, but working in a group meant that there could be a reasonable degree of confidence that a range of users, their factors and concerns had been covered.



Learning about Learning Design

This post reflects on Block 3 of H817 Openness and Innovation in eLearning. It focusses on my experience as a student working in an online design studio to design a mobile and social learning application for a local history site.

Block 3 of H817 Openness and Innovation in e-Learning has been immersed in the practice of Learning Design (LD). I’ve been working with a small group of other students in an online ‘Learning Design Studio’ to design an activity or learning interaction that supports learning about local history using mobile or social devices. Our project (chosen by the group) has been to bring the myths and stories about the Giant’s Causeway to life for visitors to the site and to help learners investigate and understand how the physical characteristics of the site led to the myths and legends.

The project itself is not the main purpose of the block; rather, the project serves as a vehicle to expose students to the practice of Learning Design (LD) which differs from (although is related to) instructional design (Brock & Mor, 2012). Adapted from software development, this approach to designing learning views the learning task as a problem to be addressed through design, with a focus on the learners’ contexts and the given situation in which a change is desired. It adopts a more constructivist approach to designing learning and is more about designing for learning rather than designing learning.

The overall approach in terms of process is summarised in the graphic below (courtesy of the Open University).

(Click for a larger picture)

LD outline
As the project is concluding, I’ll be posting a series of reflective blog posts about some of the key stages of the learning design method in preparation for the formal assessment. These include articulating the context and the use of personas, designing through research; prototyping, and evaluation. The rest of this post, however, makes some general observations.

General reflections
Overall, this has been one of the most challenging blocks due to a combination of the intensity of group work and the nature of the subject matter. The Learning Design methodology in detail was new (to me at least) and required students to understand theory and apply practice at the same time. Some areas (yes I’m talking about creating pedagogical patterns) were downright confusing in their instructions and application, while others such as storyboarding were just time-consuming, especially with the need to discuss decisions with the group and collate individual artifacts into group-owned ones.

The pedagogy behind the module has been one of peer collaboration and peer feedback with a certain amount of tutor support while following a fairly rigid template-driven format. However the tutor support has been more of a trouble-shooting nature rather than one of guiding as the More Experienced Other and where at times (apologies to Vygotsky here) the Zone of Proximal Development has seemed somewhat far away. At various points, I could have done with a bit more ‘Sage on the Stage’, if only to be able to ask questions and get clarification on the activity.  Evidence of the chatter on tutor groups, (the secret Facebook group), in Google Hangouts and in the Google Community suggest that many students were bemused and flummoxed with some of the instructions on this module. Indeed the one live Elluminate session set up for students to have a discussion the module chair proved useful.

Despite the initial questions and uncertainty, the process has become clearer and more explicit in its purpose as the weeks have gone by and I have adjusted to the pace, the groups, the nature of the various spaces we have to interact in: the Google Project site, Open Design Studio (a social web environment), The Tutor Group Forums, the Course website as well as the student -set up spaces for collaboration, in our case a Google+ Community. Nevertheless, there were times when I had 20 tabs open in a browser and kept getting lost as to where I was and what I was supposed to be doing where. I have stretched my digital literacy skills and am rapidly developing new ones.

There have been many positives; I’ve been fortunate with other members of my group who have embraced the challenge with a sense of humour as well as dedication and with the subject matter. The project –  to design an learning activity for using mobile and social technology for a local history site – has the added bonus of being able to learn about a historical site and to play with tools such as augmented reality and view gorgeous videos of landscapes and stories. In researching an appropriate design approach, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about mobile learning ‘in the wild’, about the pedagogies that might underpin seamless and ubiquitous learning, the challenges of designing learning in the outdoors and how location-awareness and augmented reality might build just-in-time contexts for learners at a particular moment.

While I don’t think I will miss this block (as I did with Block 2 MOOC), the almost regimented and template-driven process of learning design is not one I will easily forget and I have already begun using some of the ideas in real-world context. And visiting the Giant’s Causeway is now on my list of holiday plans.


Craft, Brock and Mor, Yishay (2012). ‘Learning Design: reflections on a snapshot of the current landscape’. Research in Learning Technology, 20. Available at

Virtual teams and social presence


Block 3 of H817 takes the students through the Learning Design Studio – a methodology for collaborative learning design. A major part of this involves students working as a team to design a learning product.

Team working comes with its own challenges and opportunities. In fact, the course blurb clearly states

‘Teamwork comes at a cost – it means you will need to communicate and coordinate your actions with your team mates, you will need to provide them with feedback on their contributions and you will need to respond to their feedback. You will depend on your team for your success and they will depend on you.’

On the other hand, there are a number of benefits:

‘First, working in a team you will be able to engage in an endeavour on a much larger scale than you would on your own. You will enjoy the benefits of collaborative learning – constructing your knowledge through interleaved action and discussion. Finally, you will experience a process that is much closer to ‘real-life’ Learning Design projects, which are most often team efforts.’

My experience in teams has been mixed, but generally positive. I have always learned something (often about myself) and felt a feeling of satisfaction that what I have brought made a difference to the outcome.  Overall I like working with other people; it brings the best out in me and it feels more social. From a learning theory point of view team working enables social and connectivist learning, where learning is about the knowledge of others. For example in my designated group (our project is to design an activity for a local history project using mobile/social learning), I am delighted to learn that one member has direct experience of local history and will be the main source of knowledge of the chosen physical site, while other  members have  technical expertise and media skills.

However, team working practices need to be established upfront and Salas et al (2005) provide a ‘big 5′ essentials of teamwork for consideration:

•    team leadership
•    mutual performance monitoring
•    back-up behaviour
•    adaptability
•    team orientation
These are supported by three coordinating mechanisms:
•    shared mental models
•    mutual trust
•    closed-loop communication.

It’s difficult to argue against any of these. Obviously, team leadership is crucial. In an online space I think I have always been very grateful if someone has taken the lead and willing to support. What is worse is no one taking any responsibility for heading a team, as things just drift and there can be frustration. Similarly, mutual performance monitoring and backing each other up is crucial if the team members are trying to achieve a joint outcome.

However, there is a possible limitation to this framework in that the needs and dynamics of distributed and virtual team may require something else.

This came up in my team’s first online meeting via Skype, where we thought that in this sort of group, perhaps fixed team roles are not a great idea. We might choose to rotate the roles depending on the tasks of the week and people’s availability, which points to other essentials taking priority, such as mutual performance monitoring and adaptability. This approach will also share the load and also allow others’ expertise to come to the fore when required.

Additionally, the difficulties in an online space is that we don’t really know each other well enough, and we make assumptions about where we are coming from (similarities and differences). So we may make assumptions about shared mental models, while mutual trust has to be earned over time. As we have agreed to meet regularly on Skype or similar hopefully we will start developing towards some of these desirable characteristics, rather than assuming or forcing them to exist.

Therefore I think that team work in a virtual and distributed space needs to be treated as an evolving process with additional two factors to work on: communication and social presence.

Underpinning the effectiveness of the ‘big 5’ is the requirement for (lots of) communication. In my experience of group work on this Master’s programme, the most frustrating is when participants disappear or (for example) no one volunteers to take part in a call for a shared activity, and therefore long silences exist in the virtual space (usually the course discussion forums). As no one meets face to face, there is no way of knowing who will participate and who can be counted on and when – unless there is active opt-in. However, there may be very valid reasons for why people ‘disappear’ – there is no real social contract to participate, some participants may be happy learning on their own through sampling and lurking, someone may feel others are doing the job adequately, while concerns about time, confidence in expression and a myriad of other reasons may be present.

Cultivating social presence may help. Social presence, defined as the ability of participants in a community to project themselves, socially and emotionally, as real people through a medium of communication (Garrison and Anderson, 2003) can help in virtual and distributed teams by bridging some of the distance and enabling informal as well as business-like communications within the team. A sense of social presence facilitates team cohesion, which ‘has been shown to have strong reciprocal relationship with team performance’ (Jian & Amschlinger, 2006).

I’ve experienced this myself, where in an earlier module, the group found that Twitter helped establish social presence in a group activity, and tools such as Twitter can help build social presence amongst distributed participants (Dunlap and Lowenthal, 2009), indicating that there is someone around in the team may help as a motivator. It is possible that using a tool such as Google+ Community might build social presence, while being logged into Skype is another option.

For virtual and distributed teams , attaining the ‘big 5’ may be more akin to an aspiration, especially if the team duration is relatively short, but focussing on communication and establishing a social presence for the team, mediated by suitable technologies, may improve the possibilities for effective team working.


Dunlap, J. C., & Lowenthal, P. R. (2009). ‘Tweeting the night away: Using Twitter to enhance social presence’ Journal of Information Systems Education, vol. 20, no. 2., pp.129-135; also available online at

Garrison, D. R., and T. Anderson (2003). E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice. New York: Routledge Falmer.

Jian, G., & Amschlinger, J. (2006). Social presence in virtual teams. Available at

Salas, E., Sims, D. and Burke, C. (2005) ‘Is there a “Big Five” in teamwork?’, Small Group Research, vol. 36, no. 5, pp. 555–99. Available at

Image courtesy of Sweet Crisis /

Considering open learner literacies


This post suggests the types of literacies that open learners might require to succeed in a learning space that is increasingly open. I’ll consider digital literacy as a foundation for thinking about open learning literacies.

To start, there is an existing discourse around the types of capabilities and literacies required for digital literacy. At the simplest level:

“digital literacy defines those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society” (Beetham, 2010)

The focus on capabilities is important as a capability suggests that it is a pre-requisite or foundation for other capabilities, and an implication that there should be some sort of society-wide entitlement to such a capability (Beetham, 2010). The need for digital literacy in increasingly well-established, appears in mainstream media, and although consistently evolving in meaning, there does appear to be a shift from focussing primarily on information and media literacy to encompass literacies that enable collaboration, communication and increasingly creation.

This fuller definition from the Open University encompasses many common themes:

“Digital literacy includes the ability to find and use information (otherwise known as information literacy) but goes beyond this to encompass communication, collaboration and teamwork, social awareness in the digital environment, understanding of e-safety and creation of new information. Both digital and information literacy are underpinned by critical thinking and evaluation.” (Open University)

The OU further offers a framework for students that focusses on 5 key areas of digital literacy:

  1. Understand and engage in digital practices
  2. Find information
  3. Critically evaluate information, online interactions and tools
  4. Manage and communicate information
  5. Collaborate and share digital content

The detailed framework is here. Other frameworks and rubrics to inform digital literacies  include a framework for web literacies from Mozilla and a self-evaluation guide from the University of Exeter.

Digital literacies are, therefore, increasingly important for education, for economic growth and for empowering individuals to succeed in what in an increasingly (although unequal) digitally-mediated environment. So how are ‘open learner’ literacies much different?

At a functional or operational level accomplishment of digital literacies can be in a closed course or within a specific institutional context. For example, in an online course as that offered by the OU (that is not a MOOC), students and teachers can exhibit digital literacy skills without being ‘open’. Interestingly, it’s also possible to take a Coursera course in pretty much the same way without being ‘open’.

Open learning literacies therefore focus on those capabilities that enable learners to survive and thrive in an open learning environment. This means surviving and thriving beyond a course, in the absence of a course or getting the most out of a cMOOC. More broadly, open learning literacies are those literacies that enable lifelong learning  in an digital environment with abundance of content and opportunities afforded by others’ increasing open practices.

While there are many ways of categorising possible open learner literacies, I’ve identified three areas of focus that provide a start for discussion:


The abundance of content through digital storage and dissemination is at the core of digital literacy where information literacy is the ability to cope with increasing amounts of content through strategies to search, find absorb, cite, synthesise and evaluate. In an open learning environment the role of sharing and creation of content becomes an important capability. Sharing content is a default in an open learning environment (Weller, 2012). Through sharing, open learners become producers as well as consumers, so literacies of remixing and developing new forms of representation and understanding of licencing and open access publishing become more important.


While online communication skills are essential for digital literacy, open learners require communication skills to maintain a personal learning network beyond a specific course or institutional context. Communication with networks rather than groups requires increasing familiarity of a broader range of tools and contexts, accepting the importance of loose ties and social media connections. Commenting on blogs, Google groups and social media beyond a specific context build open learner skills, while maintaining an open blog and using aggregators and social media marketing to encourage feedback and communication are examples of open learner communication practice. There is an increasingly symbiotic relationship between content and communication in that communications such as blogs, blog comments, tweets and tweet chats themselves become new content. In open learning communication is the content.


Self-identifying as an open learner or practitioner means understanding some of the implications of openness and the potential of increasing innovation and creativity that openness can foster (Weller, 2012). It is a way of being and working that values sharing, promotes wider access, encourages open access publishing, open scholarship and open teaching. Open learners will develop digital identities and footprints to build social capital, as they understand that in order to receive the benefits of openness, it is important to give through sharing. This may involve the cultivation of a personal space such as a blog, a Twitter profile and subscription to services such as social bookmarking or online community membership, taking part in open courses both as learners and convenors and experimenting with openness.

Personal reflection on being an open learner

On H817, Block Two has been run as a MOOC on open education. As we come near the end of the MOOC part, I’m reflecting on the specific literacies  I have had to develop in moving from an online (closed course) to an open MOOC.

To a large extent, many digital literacies that have remained the same, whereby communications and discussion happen through discussions forums, in closed tutor groups and in response to specific activities. In block one, I also worked collaboratively in pre-assigned groups using social tools.

However, even before the MOOC part started, I have been engaging in some open learning practices through my personal blog which is open to all and in my use of Twitter which I use to engage more broadly with a wider community of educational technologists, teachers, practitioners and other students and across international boundaries. While the practice of open learning has been positively encouraged during the MOOC, based mainly around blogging, I had maintained a reasonably frequent blog over the past 2 years or so.

Therefore, moving into an open space has been relatively painless in this MOOC. I overcame an initial resistance to joining the Google+ group (not another social network) but this community has been the core of my experience on H817open, providing an critical yet supportive environment for the exploration of ideas with individuals with very different motivations for taking part in the MOOC. I have been surprised and grateful for the thoughtful responses to blog posts I write and the ongoing discussions in the Google+ group. I have become a Google+ convert. What has changed now is that I identify as an open learner – this is how I want to learn.

This may explain why I am somewhat reluctant to move back into the closed tutor group environment as the MOOC ends and the formal course begins again, even though that is a supported space with a dedicated tutor and fellow students, who are theoretically more committed to the course (as they have paid for it) rather than MOOCers who may have many different reasons for signing up.

The experience of open learning has been a positive one for me. However, I accept that for many other students it has not been positive. Individuals have felt overwhelmed and isolated, and some existing H817 students have missed the ‘safer’ tutor group environment. Some for reasons of institutional confidentiality have not been able to blog freely or participate in discussions in such an open environment. Others have felt that the huge diversity in the types of learners (with varying backgrounds and motivations) makes it difficult to have a meaningful learning experience. Others feel that signing up to an OU distance learning course means the ability to work independently in order to get the qualification and that interacting with others should not be a pre-requisite. Openness for some learners is more of a burden than an opportunity.

And this at the end of the day is what it comes down to – learner preferences and expectations regarding identity as a learner. Yet, I am reminded of the concept of ‘network weather’ that Weller (2011) explores as ‘a metaphor for the impact of open, digital networked approaches’, where ‘changes in your environment are occurring because of other people’s use of these technologies…even if you as an individual you are not engaged in them’ (p.129). Weller’s argument is that these new behaviours (which include open approaches) are happening anyway, pointing not only to opportunities that openness affords but also to the reality that other people’s open practices will start affecting the entire environment anyway, even if one chooses not to engage. Can we afford not to be open?


Beetham, H. (2010) Review and Scoping Study for a Cross-JISC Learning and Digital Literacies Programme: Sept 2010, JISC [Online]. Available at

Weller, M. (2011) ‘Network Weather’ in The Digital Scholar, London, Bloomsbury Academic. Also available online at;jsessionid=DF97F8961B195104021693DA727411B7

Weller, M. (2012) ‘The openness–creativity cycle in education’, Special issue on Open Educational Resources, JIME, Spring 2012 [Online]. Available at jime/ article/ view/ 2012-02

Image courtesy of winnond /

Mobile devices as open educational technologies


This post suggests mobile devices as a technology for open education.

In a developing world context, take up and availability of mobile phones far exceeds that of fixed broadband. For many communities in the developing world, a mobile phone is the only digital computing device available. Mobile phones, especially smartphones, have potential to enable access from a position of none at all. If open at its most basic level is about access, then mobile devices in the developing world are a key educational technology for the developing world.

Access means participation in digital scholarship and digital learning. As mobile infrastructure improves, opportunities for communications and learning increase. In South Africa more people access the internet from their smartphones than fixed broadband connections. The growth of internet banking and commerce via smartphones is also an opportunity for learning too as people get used to doing things on a mobile device. Many pilot projects in South Africa are using mobile devices for language and maths learning, serving content to disadvantaged communities via mobile devices and for teacher development.

Moving on from access, the mobile device has some specific affordances to do with personal ownership, mobility (the ability to be in a particular location) and personalisation – all of which contribute to openness, if understood as learner centred. At a simple level, I use my smartphone for formal and informal learning. I access the OU Moodle platform using my smartphone, and I keep up to date on what happens on discussion forums via email alerts I subscribe to. I make notes on my smartphone and read documents from dropbox. This enables the use of dead time or when I choose not to sit at a desk and study. Informally, I may Google to learn something, send a WhatsApp or BBM to a colleague. I once developed learning examples with a colleague for a writing course we were developing using BBM and was able to save the chat for later use. Following Twitter feeds at conferences adds to learning opportunities.

The device itself becomes less important than its role as being able to access easily other open technologies such as the cloud and social media. However, the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) movement suggests that personal ownership is significant both for practical purposes (institutions don’t need to provide hardware) and for flexibility in learners (openly) choosing which devices, which apps and which services.

Future approaches using mobile learning may involve augmented reality applications that can serve up data or information that is location triggered. At some point it will be less about the device (smartphone,  tablet, Google Glasses) than the relationship the learner/user has with the device and the way they personalise it for their own learning and context.


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

Rhizomatic learning as an open pedagogy


This post responds to questions posed after viewing a video by Dave Cormier entitled ‘Embracing Uncertainty – Rhizomatic Learning in Formal Education

Rhimzomatic learning is offered as pedagogy for open education, where using the biological metaphor of a rhizome, learning happens in the way the roots and shoots of a rhizome grow and expand according to need, curtailed only by the surrounding habitat (context). Learners in a rhizomatic system construct the curriculum in response to whatever the community needs to learn; this can change and be adapted as the community negotiates the curriculum. Learning happens through the formation of informal and formal social networks and through the construction of individual personal learning networks. Rhizomatic learning can help the development of problem solving skills in complex domains (Cormier, 2012).


I certainly recognised rhizomatic behaviour in workplaces I have been in where a problem needed to be solved. As a formal learning strategy, I can see it working in cases where there are no clear or obvious answers and for when people or a community need to come together to solve a problem. It may also be a deliberate strategy to develop skills in critical thinking or to create discomfort.

The question of whether I could imagine implementing rhizomatic learning got me thinking about whether or how it is possible to implement it. I suppose not having a curriculum and needing one would/could start rhizomatic learning. Setting an open ended problem might stimulate a community to get going, but the logic of rhizomatic learning is that it can’t be predicted. This has implications for how it can be incorporated into a formal course if learners need feedback, support and assessment.

I find it easier to see rhizomatic learning happening almost accidentally or in serendipitous circumstances, possibly in response to something authentic. While I was reading reading about rhizomatic learning, the terrible tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombings was unfolding. The online reaction to the Boston bombings saw ‘citizen CSIs’ taking up the mantle of law enforcement to try and identify the perpetrators from the photographs uploaded by people who were present, behaviour which on the surface seem like a rhizomatic response to the question – who was resposible for the Boston bombings? The frenzy of activity appears rhizomatic – a community on social media uploaded and started analysing photographs, others started to scan police radios while others coordinated supplies and accommodation for stranded Bostonians, while groups formed and broke away as the story unfolded. While this wasn’t a learning event, it was a response to a need or to solve the problem – to identify individuals who might have been involved, using the tools, evidence and skills available in the community. In the course of this, many mistakes were made, innocent people were temporarily considered suspects and it is possible that in some cases, the activities of these citizen detectives might have hindered the investigation as described in this article. (In fact, the two suspects were identified via traditional police work and a physical witness, not through online volunteers).

While the post Boston bombings activities on social media are not organised learning, the activities of a networked community in pursuit of a goal indicates some possible pitfalls that might affect rhizomatic learning. Cormier in the video says that some rhizomes can be incredibly annoying, and taking the metaphor further it is possible that some rhizomatic behaviour might strangle other types of growth, while leading to frustrations, dead-ends and mistakes.

Rhizomatic learning and connectivism

Rhizomatic learning as a network theory aligns with connectivism in that learning happens through the construction of the network and the connections that form are where the learning resides.

However, there appear to be some differences:

First, rhizomatic learning appears to be more individual based. Cormier talks about cultivating nomads as learners who construct their personal learning networks, which is a different emphasis from the learning being the network.

Second, rhizomatic learning feels more messy, more organic and less like the computer networks of connectivism, which use the language of nodes, non-human devices and a neater network topology.

Finally, rhizomatic learning is limited by its environment or habitat, while connectivism seems to be more like a growing network of interconnections and nodes. In rhizomatic learning nodes might break off and form new nodes so it’s not necessarily the case that there is one network. This also supports the rhizomatic learning approach of a dynamically changing curriculum.

The focus in rhizomatic learning on embracing uncertainty is certainly attractive as it fits into a 21st century discourse about rates of change, ill-defined problems and the need for learning approaches that are more learner owned both for what is learned as well as how. As with connectivism, I am still unsure that it is possible to make people behave in rhizomatic ways; research on MOOC participant behaviour suggests that many learners find this uncomfortable due to notions of what learning should be like (Kop, 2011). Taking the analogy at face value, rhizome growth is unpredictable, can be harmful as well as beneficial and is a response to existing environmental conditions. Any learning design would need to understand the dynamics of the context and culture in order to promote rhizomatic learning. Yet, as people’s online behaviour (as seen in the Boston bombings aftermath) exhibits increasingly networked behaviors amplified by social media, perhaps rhizomatic approaches to learning will become more common.


Cormier, D. (2012) Embracing Uncertainty – Rhizomatic Learning in Formal Education YouTube video, added by Dave Cormier [online]. Available at

Kop, R. (2011) ‘The challenges to connectivist learning on open online networks: learning experiences during a massive open online course’, International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, vol. 12, no. 3 [online], index.php/ irrodl/ article/ view/ 882 

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