Principles of assessment for learning

This post discusses and suggests key principles of Assessment for Learning, part of Block 4 of the OU Master’s module H817 Openness and Innovation in elearning

walking ladder

Assessment for Learning (AfL) is not Assessment of Learning. Assessment of Learning broadly equates to grading, marking and comparing students with each other and is usually done (by learners) at the end of of a course. I suppose that is what most people might understand as ‘assessment’, drawing on their own experience of school and higher education, where the final exams and tests are what really matters, at least in terms of the results.

This week’s readings covered the motivations of the Assessment for Learning movement, which was a response to the assessment of learning approach and drew upon research that AfL can help improve learning outcomes (ARG 1999). Assessment for Learning

is the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning,where they need to go and how best to get there. (ARG 2002)

In an  AfL, assessment is ’embedded in a view of teaching and learning of which it is an essential part’ (ARG 1999) – where learners know what they are aiming for and may take part in self-assessment. Other characteristics include believing that every learner can improve and that the type of feedback learners get empowers learners to understand how to take the next steps in the learning journey.

Some key principles of assessment FOR learning might be that the assessment:

  • Is integrated as part of the learning activity
  • Is formative (informed feedback to learners)
  • Gives learners clear goals
  • Involves learners in self-assessment
  • Is adaptive – teaching adjusts in response to it
  • Motivates and raises the self esteem of learners
  • Enables teachers and learners to reflect on the evidence collection.

The AfL paper was written in 1999, and over a decade later I recognise many of the AfL practices and principles, although they may not necessarily be recognised as ‘assessment’ but as good teaching practices. However, assessment of learning still seems relatively entrenched, although there might be more of a blurring of boundaries between the two. For example a project-based activity may have an end grade but milestones along the way may involve feedback, peer assessment and formative feedback.


Assessment Reform Group (ARG) (1999) Assessment for Learning: Beyond the Black Box [online], 25 June 2013).
Assessment Reform Group (ARG) (2002) Assessment for Learning: 10 Principles [online], (accessed 25 June 2013).

Image courtesy of chanpipat /

Storyboards and prototypes

This post reflects on constructing a storyboard  and a prototype for a mobile learning outdoors activity as part of the Learning Design Studio for H817 Openness and Innovation in elearning

Imagining – the storyboard
The storyboard is a visual mapping out of the proposed learning activity. Although we were working in a group, we created individual storyboards first. My storyboard grew out of the work done at the research phase, and I also used the personas’ forces to inform the design of activities. I created mine in Linolit, which worked well for the creation but was not easy to output into a format that could be embedded in a website or document, so in the end I took a photo of the screen.

Sukaina_storyboard_pic copy

Storyboard (click for a larger image)
My storyboard spanned three phases and detailed a number of activities. While I was developing this, it became clear that I was designing for two audiences: school groups and day visitors but that the school trips would need activities that spanned beyond the site visit. I therefore developed an approach that had classroom activities either side of the site visit, but that the activities at the site visit could also be done stand-alone using resources available either at the Visitor Centre or through the website. During this time, it was the case studies that I had analysed that provided the greatest influence although I also referred to the personas when thinking would this persona be interested in this activity?

Two team members completed storyboards and three members discussed the storyboards in Google Hangouts and agreed to synthesise the two boards using the Google template provided as there were considerable similarities, adopting the overall approach of a learning activity that spanned classroom and on-site learning. Following this, one team member agreed to construct a team storyboard which would be approved by the whole team in another collaborative meeting. This stage also saw a narrowing of the scope to just myths and legends, rather than a more general all-encompassing approach that might have covered other subjects. The team discussion was a strength here as the team members were able to use the visual aspects of the storyboard to discuss options and differences. The advantage of the collaborative storyboard was its visual display of the learning activities; we could see which activities were cluttered and unclear, and we could move them around, to see what we were expecting participants to do. I could see that the process was important for helping the activity form in our imaginations; for example we placed activities for a given stage in a non-linear way, which intuitively showed that the activities did not need to follow a prescriptive stage and were more fluid.

The storyboard was not without its problems though as in order to fit text into boxes and even into the overall canvas, we may have oversimplified some things and the level of granularity needed for description was not always clear. The storyboard worked at an activity level, but I am not sure how it would work at a course level with the level of collaboration and discussion that was required.

Making it real – creating a prototype

Before we could build a prototype, the team had to decide what features to prototype. The mechanism for this was in developing a features table from the storyboard, extracting features from the storyboard. This provided to be a useful activity, not only for deciding which features were important to prototype but also served as a reality check of whether the activities on the storyboard made sense. The features table comprised a list of items broken down into discrete components such as creating the text instructions for a page, the actual page (say a web page), any media elements associated with that page, and any functions that might need to be built into a web page. There was initial confusion about the task  as it required some understanding of what was meant by a ‘feature’ and also re-translating the original instruction of organising by ‘scene’ (as in a movie or series of screens?) to something that made sense to our project. For this, I split our activity into 4 scenes: scene 1 was activity in the classroom prior to the site visit, scene 2a was activities at the Visitors’ Centre, scene 3 was Activities in the outdoors at the Giant’s Causeway and scene 4 was post-visit activities to create the artifact. Once this organising principle was in place, it became easier to extract the features.

Creating a prototype for an outdoors activity for a mobile learning app was a challenge as we did not have a realistic chance of actually building an app, and we were working in a virtually distributed team. However, putting myself in the learners’ position helps prompted me to suggest that we could develop the website that would serve as the ‘home’ for the activity – where users could go and download the app and the brochure, where users could go to see what stories had been told, where teachers could go and find more information. This at least would serve as an authentic experience for someone deciding whether to partake in the activity, planning the field trip or who wanted to submit their story.

Further in order to prototype the app functionality, we agreed to create PowerPoint presentations of the steps the user would go through to see the augmented reality and the other features about the app.  There was no time to actually develop the app but we were able to create one example of augmented reality which was recorded and uploaded onto the site.

I quickly created this site using Google sites adding holding text into the relevant sections, and then another team member made the powerpoint presentations that demonstrated the some of the screens of the app, showing what functions were available.


Screenshot from prototype website showing mobile app interface mockup

Constructing the prototype and seeing parts of the possible product come to life was a motivating moment as there was something tangible beyond the discussions, ideas and the storyboard.

Prototypes such as this have their limitations. In this case, the heart of the activity is the mobile app, but without the time or resources to build the app, we could only demonstrate in a presentation how some screens and features of the app might work. This is a limited way to assess whether a mobile learning activity is going to function in the context, where connectivity, speed as well as other environmental variables might be a factor. These aspects might not be picked up in a prototype, and I’d argue for a mobile app, that a beta version would be required for adequate testing in the field.

However, the prototype we built was useful to communicate what the activity might involve for learners and field trip organisers and would be useful for a situation to establish a proof of concept or to get buy-in.  Simple mockups can prevent expensive programming that has to be discarded or (possibly worse) continuing with a problematic product because it is too late or expensive to make changes.

Researching the design challenge

This post reflects on the research conducted at the Inspiration and Ideation stage of the Learning Design Studio, which is part of the OU module H817 Openness and Innovation in elearning.

The Inspiration and Ideation stage of Learning Design was to review case studies and theoretical frameworks to develop design patterns and principles. The purpose of this was address the design challenge based on evidence of what might have been done before and from case studies of learning designs in similar contexts.

The challenge

In my previous blog post, I described the process of articulating the context. The context refers to the design space and the concerns of the learners and is what the designers have to work with. The challenge is the change that is desirable to be effected in that context. For our project, the challenge was: 

to design a mobile learning application that will facilitate learning through the exploration of the UNESCO world heritage site the Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland. The project is geared towards young people from the ages of 10-14, but will also be applicable to overseas tourists and students. The challenge is to engage the learners while at the site as part of a broader seamless learning approach, where the learning can be consolidated when back in the classroom. Typically, the learners will visit the site as part of a field trip, and the challenge is to use mobile and social devices to support the learning goals around understanding and appreciating the historiography of the site including discussion around legend, myths and how people in history have interpreted the site and how it came into being.

It was important to articulate the challenge so that the type of research conducted would look for a similar contexts such as field trips, local history, learning in outdoors environments (as opposed to museums) and use of mobile devices.

Reviewing the evidence

I chose two case studies which seemed to align with the context and the challenge. This was an enjoyable and interesting  activity that increased my own understanding of mobile learning ‘in the wild’, approaches to learning about history using augmented reality and geo-location, and group interactions in informal learning contexts with mobile devices.

  • The first case study was a comparison of offering audio tours around Nottingham, UK (Fitzgerald et al., 2013) which compared a people-led tour (with human guides narrating scripted audio) and a technology-led tour (with smartphones where GPS activated audio at selected points) on the subject of the issues around the interpretation of the 1831 Reform riot.
  • The second was an account of designing field trip activities for primary level students visiting the Chinatown area of Singapore using mobile devices (So et al., 2009), where the learning outcomes were to facilitate knowledge building in an outdoor location. This study demonstrated how the design evolved from an instructivist approach of consuming information at points in the field trip to one where students used Google Maps to track their own journey, making and sharing  notes and observations with peers and culminating in a review of the artefacts students made.

For each case study, I wrote a design narrative summarising the key points and lessons that might be derived for designing mobile learning in the field. Another team member contributed case studies and narrative, so the team had a body of evidence from which to derive design patterns and principles.

The Learning Design process instructed the team to write design patterns and principles derived from the insights gained from analysing the case studies in order to ‘formulate [the] insights into “building blocks” for design’ (OU module materials, Mor, 2013).

Despite the existence of a template, deriving the patterns was challenging partly because I wasn’t sure what level of granularity or generality to aim for in the patterns. Using the design narratives as the source, I devised a pattern about promoting critical thinking and higher order skills when on a field trip through clear learning goals (preferably learner derived) as well as specific activities.

In addition to the case studies, I also chose a Theoretical Framework for Mobile Learning (Herrington et al, 2009), which informed writing a principle of using the learners’ own devices and one about using mobile devices to produce as well as consume knowledge. These were uploaded to the group’s project site for review and discussion.

The case studies, design narratives, patterns and principles helped to develop some key design directions which the team could agree on. The possible tensions between mobile devices as distractions in an outdoors setting and the possible negative effects of group cohesion was something we had already identified in the personas’s factors and concerns and which surfaced in the patterns and principles. so we knew we’d need to take account of this in the design. The opportunity of using the affordances of mobile devices for enhancing learning in contextualised situations and at outdoors sites was an exciting prospect to inform the design, especially where co-creation of content and development of an artefact could be part of the activity.   Thus, the process also informed what we would not do, in this case only deliver media to users on mobiles at points at the site, and we would not make the activity linear and prescriptive. These insights helped when it came to developing the storyboard.


Reviewing case studies of similar contexts and challenges and finding theoretical frameworks that can inform a design is something that I’d do instinctively, especially if it is a context I am unfamiliar with. This activity took a more structured approach to reviewing  case studies and theoretical frameworks with the additional instruction to derive patterns and principles. The idea is to have a bank of patterns and principles that a learning designer can call upon. Writing a pattern was unfamiliar  and it took some time to conceptually understand not only the purpose but also what a pattern looked like. Was it a recipe? Was it a FAQs? Was it a do’s and don’ts? What is the level of detail? Who is the pattern for? How makes a good pattern? Are patterns peer reviewed?

Looking at some other patterns was useful, but many of the examples we were pointed to seemed incomplete. This is one of the activities I would like to go back to, understand better and consolidate, as although I derived a number of patterns and principles for our project, I am not sure that in a future real-world project,  I would go out and seek other patterns (where would I go? Wouldn’t it be better to read the actual case study or design narrative?), nor would pattern writing be something I would necessarily include in a learning design process I was managing, where time becomes a constraining factor.

One final thought about the importance of evidence-based design is that it brings a level of objectivity to the process.  While this was not the case in our team, developing narratives, patterns and principles could also help diffuse tensions and disagreements in teams or with stakeholders holding differing views about a design direction, by using the objective (but still interpreted) evidence to inform design.


FitzGerald, Elizabeth; Taylor, Claire and Craven, Michael (2013). To the Castle! A comparison of two audio guides to enable public discovery of historical events. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 17(4) pp. 749–760. Available at:

Herrington, A., Herrington, J. and Mantei, J. (2009) ‘Design principles for mobile learning’ in Herrington, J., Herrington, A., Mantei, J., Olney, I. and Ferry, B. (eds) New Technologies, New Pedagogies: Mobile Learning in Higher Education, Sydney, Faculty of Education, University of Wollongong, pp. 129–38.  Available  at edupapers/ 88/

So, H.J., Seow, P. & Looi, C.K. (2009). Location Matters: Leveraging Knowledge Building with Mobile Devices and Web 2.0 Technology. Interactive Learning Environments, 17(4), 367-382. Available at:

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 /

H817open Representing open education

Activity 3 of the Open Education MOOC was to make a visual representation of openness in Higher Education. Here is my effort as a mindmap (click image for larger version).

What Openness Means In Education_final


Update and reflection on this activity

This mind map was a bit of a brain dump after I read the two set readings for this activity. I quite enjoyed seeing what came out without too much thought and angst. It represents a snapshot of how I see openness at the moment, with some acknowledgement of the chatter, hype and questioning around who pays and who accredits as well as the general acknowledgement that openness is a good thing.

H817open Great MOOCspectations

Block 2 of H817 Openness and Innovation in e-learning started this week and takes the form of a MOOC on Open Education. As a first impression, I am enjoying the injection of energy into H817 with the tutors and MOOC-Master Martin Weller’s active involvement. I’m enjoying the novelty of moving into the OpenLearn space and away from the OU Moodle environment.
Although I have participated in MOOCs before , I’m not quite sure what I am expecting of this MOOC but as an enrolled formal student on H817 it will be interesting comparing the experience of being in a closed, formal space and the more open and chaotic space of the MOOC. As a formal H817 student, I still have the tutor and group support if I need it so I think my experience could be a MOOC+ type of thing (the best of both worlds?).

In this context and considering that for me this MOOC is part of a larger formal learning experience, I’m planning to reflect on these specific areas:

1. How will the experience of the MOOC compare to the formal learning and tutor support of H817? Will Blocks 3 and 4 be a relief after the chaos of the  Block 2 MOOC or will they seem a bit flat?

2. There is a formal assessment for H817 following the MOOC, so how will focus on this assessment affect the way I participate in the MOOC?

3. What will the open students bring to H817?

4. Is a MOOC for time-consuming than studying the formal OU way, (as effectively it is the same material and activities but in an open format)?

I also hope that it will be possible to focus on the actual content and topics of this MOOC as well as on the fact that this is a MOOC, although I don’t think it will be possible to get away from a discussion on the relative MOOCness of this MOOC and all the associated hype that goes with this.

H817 Analysis of connectivism


This post analyses connectivism and is a response to Week 3 Activity 13.

Opening comments – I’ve been procrastinating on writing this post because I am struggling to say anything particularly new about connectivism based on the plethora of blogs, posts, videos and wikis that seem devoted to it. I am still undecided as to whether connectivism is a learning theory, but in the spirit of experimental blogging, I am going to present some initial thoughts with the caveat that I can change my mind about what I say if at a later date something inspirational occurs to me or my thoughts become more settled.

What is connectivism?

It’s a ‘learning theory for a digital age’ (Siemens 2004). Siemens contends that the theory is  necessary due to the abundance of content and information made possible by networked technologies. In short, it’s not possible to know everything and learning resides in the connections a person makes, starting from their own personal networks to the wider network they are part of. Siemens contrasts connectivism with other learning theories (behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism) which were ‘developed in a time when learning was not impacted through technology’.

Connectivism espouses a notion of learning that focusses more on the capacity to learn more or keep learning rather than what is learned, based on the assertion that what is learned today is likely to be out of date. Siemens illustrates this by saying that  that ‘the pipe is more important than the content of the pipe’, seemingly stressing the importance of the process of connecting rather than the content or information itself, which is Siemens’ view might well be out of date. In contrast, Siemens categorises other learning theories as focussing on knowing something in a static sense but that cannot deal with the speed and complexity of learning needs in a digital age.

There does appear to be a contradiction though with the pipe analogy. In Siemens’ own paper, he extrapolates what a learning theory should be, criticising that ‘Learning theories are concerned with the actual process of learning, not with the value of what is being learned’. By this he seems to be saying that what is being learned is more valuable than the process, but the pipe analogy seems to suggest the opposite – it is the connection (process) rather than the content that is important in connectivism.

As to what learning is, Siemens talks about the ‘primacy of the connection’. He also says that knowledge and learning  cannot reside inside your head (as in cognitivism) but can reside in the network – in other people, in databases etc. and that learning is about the ability to manage and access those connections.

Connectivism has generated much debate, supporters and detractors. I’m just going to focus on a few points of discussion which are interesting.

Analysis: Is connectivism anything new?
Siemens’ assertions in his 2004 paper seems to gloss over the history of social, informal and situated learning and ideas about Communities of Practice, which also focus on networks. Theorists of social learning and CoPs have espoused that learning happens with other people, in communities and that knowing who and where is important to learning. While connectivism appears to be  less hierarchically organised than a CoP,  some of the basic ideas about ‘knowing who’ rather than ‘knowing what’ manifest in a CoP.  Furthermore, Siemens’ ‘weak ties’ in connections can also be seen in the role of legitimate peripheral participation (LPPs) in a CoP.

There are other ways in which connectivism isn’t necessarily new. Siemens talks about knowledge residing in non-human appliances (which sounds a bit scary), referring to databases for example. Yet, it’s probably fair to say that an important non-human appliance has been the book!

Siemens also  talks about self-organised learning, which might broadly equate as learner centred or learner controlled learning. This contrasts with behaviourism and congnitivism, which has a stronger role for the teacher and instructor and where there is one right answer. However, there is an alignment with constructivism in the sense that learners are encouraged to self-organise and where there isn’t necessary a right answer. Even in cognitivism, the notion of scaffolding has its aim of getting the learner to the point here they do not need the scaffold.

Analysis: Does the digital age need a new learning theory?
Considering that connectivism does seem to be an evolution of some social learning thoeries, what’s new about connectivism and the digital age? Weller (2011) acknowledges the importance of the ‘pedagogy of abundance’ that is changing education and teaching, where ‘we are witnessing a change in the production of knowledge and our fundamental and our relationship to content’. In The Digital Scholar, Weller reviews pedagogies that appear to support this fundamental shift – one of which is connectivism, which he calls the only ‘post-network’ theory. However Weller also cautions that that ‘abundance does not apply to all aspects of learning…an individual’s attention is not abundant and is time limited. The abundance of content puts increasing pressure on this scarce resource…finding effective ways of dealing with this may be the key element in any pedagogy’. So could we say that connectivism is an attempt or option to deal with this – for the knowledge to reside in the connections.

But we need more research to see if this is actually the case. c-MOOCs are one way where connectivist principles are tested — self-organising, aggregation, co-construction of curriculum. How successful are they? Take-up rates are very high but there is anecdotal evidence that students struggle in the chaos and drop out rates are high. However, in the connectivist approach, drop out rates should not be a problem, as the whole system is designed not to mimic a start to end course. Students are free to take what elements they want and don’t want. Judging the success of a connectivist course is difficult because it’s not clear what to judge it by – if the ‘old’ rules of course completion, assessment and objective assessment of learning don’t apply (c-MOOCs don’t have assessments).

Final reflections
Connectivism seems suited to many contexts as an approach or mindset — where problems are complex (difficult to predict), where there are no right answers and the process of learning is fundamental to achieving a solution. Using the abundance of connections, resources and people now more tightly connected by digital technology as a way of learning is attractive and sensible – and is happening organically in some contexts. As a teaching and learning pedagogy, it’s not an easy solution and requires learners to take responsibility and teachers and designers to take multiple roles. It also may make learners out of teachers – teachers are no longer the sage or the guide but perhaps just another node in the network. It seems to suit a style or method of learning in a context of abundant content. I am not convinced that it is in itself a learning theory (how people actually learn), which I believe is still to some extent an individual process.

In writing this blog post, I think I have learned about connectivism using a plethora of learning approaches. I am enrolled in a Masters’ course which appears to be structured along constructivist principles – of developing this blog post in a way that is most relevant to my context and which is meaningful to me. I have approached the research in a cognitivist way (using my prior mental models of what a theory is and what questions I can apply to interrogating connectivism). I have taken a connectivist approach to  the connections I have in my personal learning network, harvested my social bookmarking and Twitter feeds and used Google to find videos and presentations to enhance my understanding of connectivism. I’ll tweet its publication and invite feedback and comments. And now I’ll reward myself with a cup of coffee (in the style of behaviourism).

Image courtesy of blplanet /


Siemens, G. (2004) Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age [online]. Available from

Weller, M. (2011) The Digital Scholar: How Technology is Transforming Scholarly Practice, London, Bloomsbury Academic [online].  Available from

Hello WordPress, goodbye Posterous


I have just set up this blog as I heard that Posterous, which until today hosted my blog, is being shut down by Twitter as confirmed in this official blog post. This isn’t a great surprise as Posterous has often been patchy since its acquisition by Twitter. Although I was slightly annoyed, it’s not as if I have a leg to stand on, as the Posterous blog platform has been completely free.

I decided to get my blog exported straight away as soon as I heard. The process was quick and efficient. Kudos to Posterous for making the backup available quickly and to the WordPress import tool for importing the blog fairly seamlessly. I’m looking forward to exploring the blogging features WordPress has to offer.

It’s somewhat ironic that this week on H817 Openness and Innovation in elearning, my tutor group has been discussing the difference, advantages and disadvantages of ‘open’ and ‘free’. We all like ‘open’ I think, in the sense of access and making it possible to get content, services and tools made possible by new technology. ‘Free’ though has evoked more mixed reactions around the idea of whether it is possible for anything to be really ‘free’. We have also discussed that  ‘free’ lacks credibility and trust and you ‘get what you pay for’; indeed, in the case of Posterous, it was completely free and liable to be pulled at any time. I couldn’t demand continuity of service or any level of support. I am also currently using the free and hosted version of WordPress for this blog, but at least WordPress has a ‘freemium’ model whereby it is possible to upgrade to a paid versions depending on use and need. This gives me a level of comfort that there is a business model, and that if I need something more reliable, secure, or with greater storage capacity, it will be available. Along with Evernote, Dropbox and Survey Monkey, these models with a low-cost options and tiers of service are great examples of the ‘long tail’ made possible by digital storage capacity, bandwidth and networks.

photo credit: woodleywonderworks via photopin cc