H800: Assessment and Learning are (possibly) not the same thing


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I’m a happy bunny this week as the H800 module results came out, and I passed with a Distinction. As I have quite a few more assessments to go before the MA is done, I thought I’d take time out to reflect on what assessments mean. Obviously it’s great to have formal validation that all that reading, reflecting, studying, note taking, discussing paid off and I achieved what I set out to do. But does the assessment really make a huge difference to the actual experience of the course , the actual learning and what I personally gained from it?

When we first started H800, we had to consider what ‘learning’ was. We looked at Anna Sfard’s (1998) metaphors of aquisition and participation, as well as Sian Bayne’s (2005) notion of learning as identity change. ‘Learning’ can of course be all these, so this isn’t really about choosing, but reflecting on what this particular learning experience has meant to me, and what the ‘final’ paper result means.

I certainly ‘acquired’ much new knowledge as a result of the assessments in H800. My ‘specialist’ technologies in the EMA were mobile technologies and Twitter and I certainly feel my core knowledge about these tools and their affordances has a secure foundation. I did a substantial amount of research around these technologies, reading much of the literature around these. However, there was a bewildering array of papers, subjects, topics and themes covered in the H800 syllabus, and of course there is no way of remembering or applying all of many of these to my immediate work. The knowledge that I ‘acquired’ therefore is limited by my actual cognitive capacity and my immediate need to use it (although I feel I can now draw an Activity Theory diagram in my sleep).

In terms of learning as ‘participation’, I certainly feel more capable of participating in a community of educators, of learning technologists, of academics and of elearning practitioners. The norms of community behavior virtually have been honed, as has building a personal learning environment in Twitter especially.

Perhaps for me the greatest surprise has been a kind of identity change and transformation of what I can be, have done and can achieve personally. And this is where the importance of assessments come in. The OU’s continuous assessments (TMAs) and the end of module assessment (EMA), which substitues for an exam, were pretty tough, especially to achieve the higher marks. I did indeed sweat blood and tears researching and thinking, of deciding on my argument, of deciding what would best showcase what I had learned, and how to communicate it. In the midst of this, I suddenly found myself getting ‘aha’ moments when suddenly something clicked. Without the pressure of an assignment requirement, I don’t think I would ever have got to this point and for that I am grateful. Whether it was the combination of pressure, the fear of failure, the need to prove something to myself and justify the time and financial commitment, the personal hurdles that had to be overcome (time management, self-disclipline, referencing skills, asking for help) have helped me learn more about myself as a person, what I want, what makes me happy, what motivates me and where my own strengths and weaknesses lie.

So on reflection, I think that immersive and disruptive assessments do matter. We are all motivated by different things and assessments that might result in a qualification, an accolade, a new career, or a promotion can be seen as ‘strategic’ and in opposition to the notion of learning for its own sake. But they do help in spurring some sort of reaction whether positive or negative and that is itself a learning experience and outcome.


Bayne, S. (2005) ‘Deceit, desire and control: the identities of learners and teachers in cyberspace’ in Land, R. and Bayne, S. (eds) Education in Cyberspace, Abingdon, RoutledgeFalmer. 

Sfard, A. (1998) ‘On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one’, Educational Researcher, vol.27, no.2, pp.4–13

H800: how not to do an End of Module Assessment


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I submitted the EMA today and promptly resolved “never again” will I:

1. Think reference checking is a day or two’s work.

2. Read and markup texts but not take out the quotes I will need at the time of reading.

3. Read far too much that can’t possibly be included in 6000 words.

4. Revise large sections the night before submission because they don’t have “flow”.

5. Go wild on creating mind maps and procrastinate on actual writing.

6. Use the stress of writing to overindulgence on chocolate.

I will however remember how much I enjoyed reviewing and reading and feeling amazed that I actually understood things. I’ll remember feeling sad that this was the end of the module and the end of interacting with  classmates and new friends on a regular basis. I’ll remember the banal tweets encouraging each other on, playing big word ed-tech bingo on Twitter and planning of the still to happen ‘after party’ on google hangouts.

Lessons learned from an online distance module


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I’m coming to the end of my first module ‘H800 Technology-enhanced learning: practices and debates’ on the Open University Masters in Online and Distance Learning (MAODE). In order to prepare myself for the next module (H808 The ELearning Professional) and to reflect on my experiences, here are my top tips for making the most of a distance learning module on a week to week basis:

1. Planning and motivation: I was very keen and motivated to do this module but there were still some weeks when looking at the amount of reading required, I felt daunted and overwhelmed. Plan to read at least some core texts otherwise you will fall behind. Knowing how important that texts are for overall understanding, I would have made more of an effort to read and note take. If you have a holiday coming up, try doing some reading beforehand rather than catching up when you are back. I found that reading and holidays did not go together! When on holiday, switch off as much as possible.

2. Get your kit sorted: make sure you have your computer and filing system sorted out from the beginning. Create a folder per week and place all the readings and notes in one folder. When you come back to assessments, you need to know where everything is. A generic H800 folder with everything dumped in is a nightmare. I experimented with various tools and technologies and now have a a core set of tools: Evernote, Mindmanager (note taking and bookmarking) and devices (laptop, kindle, iPad and smartphone) that hang out together. Keep backups too! I’ll be using dropbox for the next module for extra insurance.

3. Decide how you will take and store notes. I find that reading an article is not enough for me to adequately engage with it. Most of the module activities have prompt questions so pre-read the prompt questions as you read the article. Eventually I found that reading the article and highlighting key points worked, but that if there was something that had to be written down, I interrupted my reading to make a note in a mindmap that I had set up for that week. There were times when I just couldn’t engage with an article, so I left it. Often going back a week later or near the end when doing a TMA helped as it seemed to make more sense.

4. Make use of dead time. I got a lot of reading done waiting in cars, cafes and airplanes as I had downloaded files to my kindle (and recently iPad). How to take notes in this situation? I used the email client on my blackberry to email myself notes as I read. Even if the email can’t be sent immediately, it can be saved.

5. Use a smartphone or mobile device to access the module : I found I was able to respond to forum posts quickly while on the move but keeping myself in the loop. I could also read the web-based readings and explanatory matter on my smartphone. PDFs, however, I had to read on a kindle, iPad or laptop.

6. Get involved in discussions: Without this the tutor groups will be stale and boring. You will also get more out of it because you contribute to the knowledge of the group, you make friends, it gives you a boost when someone appreciates your contribution and you are practicing what you preach (technology-enhanced learning). It’s gratifying to read back through one’s posts and (sometimes) be pleasantly surprised! Some assessments give marks for discussion posts, and it’s a shame to throw away those marks. Subscribing to email alerts for the discussion forums helps keep the course in your mind and you can weave in postings and readings during the day.

7. Use the posts in the tutor group forums (TGFs) to help you when the week’s reading and activities are becoming arduous. Sometimes reading comments and opinions on an article will help focus your mind and speed up the reading for yourself. You might also get a view on whether it is worth the time investment that week based on others’ opinions. It’s OK to leverage the distributed knowledge of the group.

8. There are NO silly questions to ask in TGFs. Don’t be afraid to ask an obvious or what sounds like a silly question. Others will probably be grateful and you can reap the benefits of more expert opinion.

9. There are lots of acronyms flying about (EMA, TGF, TMA, AM, PM, AT). Don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t know. Once you know, you’ll be more comfortable participating in the community. People are going to use acronyms as it is efficient, so go with the flow rather than fighting it.

10. Take a look at the Tutor Marked Assessments (TMAs) a month or so before you are about to start them so that the questions can percolate in your mind. You can also start collecting resources and references over a longer period of time which will help plan and produce the TMAs. Flag up what might seem like relevant discussion forum posts for use in your TMA using the flag feature in the forum post itself.

11. Be adventurous with tools. Try out Twitter, Diigo, blogging and the other tools suggested. I didn’t really take to Diigo but I am a much more confident Twitter user now.

12. Blog your experiences regularly. This is something I didn’t really manage. Perhaps it was time constraints, but I wish I had done it more as it keeps a record of self-development and ongoing reflections that you can’t really get back. Don’t worry who is or isn’t reading your blog – do it for yourself. If you can’t blog regularly, read other colleagues’ blogs and comment on them. It will keep you in the blogosphere and get you writing mini blog comments.

H800: What are web 2.0 technologies and why do they matter?


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Week 18’s reading on H800 concerns web 2.0 and answering the question ‘What are web 2.0 technologies and why do they matter?’

A simple definition is that web 2.0 refers to technologies and tools that are now available through a web browser with the numbering system indicating a progression or versioning element (as in software development).

“Web 2.0 tools comprise novel applications and services that run in a web browser. By invoking the language of software versioning, ‘2.0’ implies that the technology heralds a step change in what we can now do with the web”. (Crook in TLRP-TEL 2008 Report , Education 2.0? Designing the Web for Teaching and Learning)

We can understand more clearly what web 2.0 might be if we look at what is meant by web 1.0. This was the first web and was characterised by websites that essentially reproduced non-web models: online shopfronts, electronic versions of documents, brochures converted into websites, directory listings (Yahoo and Craigslist). Essentially, web 1.0 still had a publication and producer versus consumer/buyer model but just using a different format.

Web 2.0 is an evolution and adaptation of this model where the boundary between producer and consumer is fluid, mixed and then formed into a mutually dependent relationship. For example, Amazon gets better because the buyers of books rate, write reviews, follow other reviews which enables Amazon to give personalised feedback and recommendations.

So Web 2.0 technologies are not only the tools that have evolved (Amazon is still speciously a bookstore) but the ways in which the ‘networked-ness’  permeates has enabled new ways of using the tools in a more participatory manner that has two continuing effects:

  • the tools change in themselves and keep changing
  • new ways of acting emerge as a result of the tools including new tools

The ways tools evolve and people’s use of them in new ways is fluid, circular and unpredictable.

Crook’s description of four areas (playful, expressive, reflective and exploratory) does a good job of summing up four distinct areas where these everyday activities play out online using web 2.0 tools as he maps tools to these aspects. So collaborative gaming and Second Life map to our playful aspects while Youtube and mashups are forms of collaborative expression. On the reflective aspect, blogs, social networks such as Facebook, and wikis enable reflection while tagging, social bookmarking and folksonomies fulfil collaborative discovery and exploration.

Web 2.0 matters in a number of ways for education because it:

  1. Challenges traditional ways of doing things (free economy, e-books are not really owned, long tail is profitable) and affects business models includung education.
  2. Enables a more participative approach than consuming media to a co-creationist model (Youtube, blogs). Expression, publication and creation are integral aspects of education.
  3. Rapidly evolves so the meaning changes as well (concept of perpetual beta). This has implications for course design and educational products.
  4. Is consumer/participant driven (ratings, clicks) so consumer’s needs more important and become part of the design. Education will need to take more account of student preferences.

Web 2.0 technologies and ways of doing things have permeated all sorts of areas : business 2.0, parenting 2.0 (OK, I threw that one in) and education 2.0. Web 2.0 is more than another medium or another format for doing things. It is new way of doing things altogether, but we don’t necessarily know the way forward, where we are going or what the likely outcome is to be.

H800: Imagined negative futures of technology in education


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This week’s reading on H800 has been about the negative aspects of using technology in education. It’s been quite refreshing, if a little contrived, as some of the reading was from about a decade ago and technology has moved on. While the focus was primarily in the university sector, it’s interesting to look at some of the predictions made over 10 years ago and reflect on what has happened. Of course predicting anything technology-wise more than a couple of years down the line is a bit foolhardy (Myspace anyone?)

We were asked to look at issues of technology adaptation in universities with focus on negative consequences with reference to three sources:

1) Wesch video (the one with miserable students holding up signs)
2) Diploma mills (commercialization and commoditization of education against plucky faculty and students)
3) Students frustrations with a distance learning/online-only course (but only 6 students on the course with 4 actually surveyed and what looks like a dodgy tutor and technical issues)

The readings revealed frustrated students and a stressed university sector exacerbated by untrained teachers, technical failings and the commercial impetus overiding educational aims. In reality, I presume that there are good, bad and indifferent examples of technology implementation but a more logitudal and broad survey of evidence needs to be pursued. 

A summary of the problems associated with implementation of technologies seem to be:

1. Lack of time and resources for teachers and tutors to use and influence technology-based learning. Underestimation of time and cost it takes to develop modules for online learning.
2. Lack of skills and training for developing pedagogically sound learning using technology and lack of skills on part of students.
3. Institutional pressures, power struggles, apathy and resistance or making decisions ad hoc.
4. People trying to make a quick buck: selling VLEs and equipment.
5. Lack of government regulation especially on quality, funding, student loans.
6. Credibility of institutions under threat eg LSE due to involvement of private sector, buying decisions, types of degrees awarded.
7. Less contact time, more drop-outs, lack of transformative university experience. Poorer experience for many students.
8. Uneven access to technology, especially in developing countries.

It does seem however that there are some trends and certainties that mark out technology adoption which we need to bear in mind and probably not try and deny or fight against:

1. Technology implementation is already far advanced so unlikely we will be able to stop it, even if we wanted to.
2. Social media take-up increasing generally therefore more familiarity with technology as ubiquitous tool especially mobiles.
3. University funding under pressure and increasing privatisation of HE sector. Less money, more students.

In the light of this, here is my list of (foolhardy) predictions for the future based on the above and on readings:

1. Technology enables and will continue to enable access, flexibility and Social Media collaboration, community, choice and empowerment. Technology implementation will be good and bad across the sector depending on how the problems mentioned above are dealt with.
2. Commercial imperitives will mean students can vote with their mouse. Some institutions will fail.
3. Blended learning might reduce costs due to economies of scale and increased flexibility. Blended learning will become the norm. Fully campus-based instruction will be rare.
4. Involvement of private sector and business will increase.

Of course, what happens in developed and developing countries will vary. In a South African context, technology especially through the mobile phones is driving access but the education sector is still to catch up. The potential for disconnect and missed opportunities is high, as well as the danger of outside intervention from commercial interests seeing Africa as a huge untapped ‘educational market’.


H800: discussion on Richardson’s ‘Students??? approaches to learning and teachers??? approaches to teaching’



Some discussion in response to guided questions for Week 12, A2 following reading and summary of Richardson’s ‘Students’ approaches to learning and teachers’ approaches to teaching’:

Do you think the innovations described in Weeks 8 and 9 as ‘learning design’ would induce more desirable approaches to studying on the part of the students?

The theory or premise is that learning design may  promote desirable approaches to studying by the nature of what students are asked to do. According to Richardson’s evidence it might do if it helps to change perceptions of learning to one that is deeper. Learning Design as outlined by Beetham (2007) focus on activities rather than tasks and provide alternative approaches through material and in offering different forms of representation. The type of activity design would seem to imply or promote a particular learning approach e.g. a task to search for information suggests a more learner-centred approach.

However, according to Richardson’s research, the learning designs  would induce more desirable approaches  only if they applied to students whose perceptions of learning are (already) deep, or if the activities can help foster this kind of approach. For example, within the design of activities, the existence of options and choices or of activities that promote a more learner-centred approach such as peer review or group work. Asking students to choose might in itself help make the process for learner-centred.

So, yes the nature and options within learning design could ‘induce more desirable approaches’ but there is no guarantee as there may not be much control over other factors (such a students’ own perceptions).

Compare Marton’s idea that some students regard learning as something that just happens to them with Sfard’s account that you read in Week 3.

Marton’s idea implies a very passive approach to learning and one that I have experienced where a student just sits back and expects something to be poured into him/her. Perhaps Sfard’s idea of acquisition in terms of an ’empty vessel’ seems to be similar, although Sfard’s learning metaphors (both acquisition and participation) do seem to suggest that more active learning is taking place. It’s the difference between learning as a verb (Sfard) and learning as being done to someone (Marton).

A valid question is whether Marton’s idea of learning should be considered as ‘learning’ at all. Even the activity of a quiz or a test involves having to do something on the part of the student!

Do the concepts, theories and evidence described in my [Richardson’s] paper fit your own experience as a learner?

I hadn’t really considered that my own perceptions of learning would affect my approach to it directly. I would have thought that a well designed module and or/activities would be interesting enough to allow for deep learning or the type of learning that is required at that point, which may well be of a shallow kind. What this means is that I trust the module designer ‘s expertise to overide any notions of learning that I might have.

However, what seems to be missing here and which heavily informs my experince is the notion of strategy and student choice, rather than a rather deterministic approach to how students and teachers will behave. Perhaps students would like to partake in deep learning, but the constraints of time and learning might mean that they choose to take a more strategic approach that means that in some cases, shallow learning will do – either to get through the required stage or to meet the specious requirement. Richardson mentions strategy, but he doesn’t expand on this. Taking a strategic approach to learning aligns with Brown et al (1989), where students outside of an actual and situated context learn about “going to school” rather than the subject itself and learn the techniques required to operate within the system.

As to my own experience as a learner, I think I flit about the learning approaches; I’d like to be able to be at the deeper end of learning, but sometimes I have to make the decision that a shallower approach is initially needed. To that end, the trajectory of learning and relevance of age and stage of learning resonated with me. I am a more committed and goal-oriented learner now than for my first degree.

Which of Säljö’s five conceptions of learning best fits your own definition?

Apart from ‘learning as memorising’ I see merit in the other conceptions. I’d probably be at the ‘learning as  abstraction of meaning’ and ‘learning as an interpretative process” depending on what I need to do at any point (and therefore what I need to learn to do it!). I think it is difficult to stick to any one conception as a ‘true’ definition of learning thus echoing Richardson’s argument there is rarely ‘truth’ to be found in social sciences/humanities, but potentially interesting applications.


H800 Reading Richardson: Students??? approaches to learning and teachers??? approaches to teaching in higher education???.


Week 12, A2, on H800 asked us to read “Students’ approaches to learning and teachers’ approaches to teaching in higher education’ by Richardson, written in 2005 and answer some questions. This post serves as a record of my thoughts on reading the article. The next post will record the discussion questions.

Summary of Richardson’s argument:

As regards students’ approach to learning: The initial thrust of Richardson’s argument is that module design may have an impact on type of studying that happens (deep, shallow, strategic) but also students’ perceptions affects this and is independent of module design, so some interventions (module design) have proven to be ineffectual.

However, he posits that students with the same perceptions of their course also display different approaches to studying and that possibly this relates to their conception of learning and of themselves as learners.

This provides another reason why educational interventions may be of limited effectiveness: students who hold a reproductive conception of learning through exposure to a subject-based curriculum may simply
find it hard to adapt to a more student-centred curriculum (e.g., Newman, 2004).

He also discusses ways of characterising notions or levels of learning, using Säljö’s (1979) five different
conceptions, and seems to make the argument that students move through these levels in the form of a hierarchy.

Criticisms of Richardson’s argument, as suggested by himself in the module discussion, include the notion that correlation (links or relationships) between variables do not imply causation.

As regards teachers’ approach to teaching, Richardson says that a more student-focussed approach to teaching leads to a deeper learning approach by students. Teacher’s perceptions are also important in informing their approaches to teaching and that

teachers who adopted a student-focused approach were more likely than teachers
who adopted a teacher-focused approach to report that their departments valued
teaching, that their class sizes were not too large, and that they had control over what
was taught and how it was taught.

Richardson’s posits a number of different theories as to what informs teachers’ approach to teaching and the research appears to be quite mixed and that ‘different teachers still adopt different approaches to teaching.’ In some cases, different teaching approaches might be due to underlying conceptions about what teaching is, but even where teachers have a more student-centric teaching belief, this does not necessarily translate into a more student-centred approach. He also addresses the issue of change over time and says there is , ‘little evidence that teachers’ conceptions of teaching really do develop with increasing teaching experience (Norton, Richardson, Hartley, Newstead, & Mayes, 2005).

Richardson offers criticisms of this section in that it is not really analysing how teacher’s approaches may change over time and what factors influence this.

I found that reading this paper offered a speciously comfortable view of how students approaches to learning might be influenced, but realise that the point of reading this is to question how research can be presented. Even empirical research can be interpreted in a number of ways. What also struck me was the difficulty in dealing with some 25 years of research and trying to extrapolate patterns across such a wide scope. The paper asked more questions than it answered, but I think that was the whole point.