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

H810 Reflections on completing the module


Image courtesy of Victor Habbick/

H810 Accessible Online Learning is over! I submitted the H810 EMA last week with a big sigh of relief. This blog post is reflection what this module covered and what I learnt.

Overview of the module

Funnily enough this turned out to be one of the more conventional modules I have studied this far on the MA ODE. Conventional in the sense that it appeared to be the most structured and focussed one with a clear pathway through the content, with set out reading matter and activities that looked at models of disability in society including theoretical approaches and about what accessibility means in different contexts. The first Tutor Marked Assignment required students to write an essay setting out their particular context and the challenges of accessible learning and supporting disabled students in this context. My chosen context was supporting students with dyslexia at university. I chose dyslexia because as a writing skills tutor, I wanted to be more aware of the needs of students who struggle with reading and writing.

The next part of the module zoned in to more practical matters culminating the creation of an accessible resource. Evaluating this resource along with another student’s formed the basis of the second Tutor Marked Assignment, exploring the ways in which course material can be made accessible and what this means. I found this section to be the most difficult and time-consuming as I had to get to grips with creating a resource. Although I converted an existing learning module I can already created in Powerpoint, I used e-learning authoring tool Xerte Online Toolkits (XOT) to create this accessible resource. I was very impressed with the features of XOT but it took some time to fully understand how to use it. XOT is something I would like to use in my own practice, and I want to investigate installing it on a server and creating support modules for the training I do.

The last part of the module was heavy on reading as it required reading through the set text by Jane Seale, looking at all the different perspectives of the different people involved in providing accessible online learning (such as learning technologists, content authors, instructors, senior managers) and considering the broader picture of institutional change and transformation. This phase also involved looking at theoretical perspectives to online accessibility by analysing online accessibility through various frameworks including Activity Theory and Communities of Practice.

The EMA was a 6000 word essay focussing on three issues relevant to my chosen context that influenced the availability of online accessible learning requiring an analysis of how the issues conflicted and contradicted each other and ended with a reflection on how the module has impacted on my personal practice.

Reflection at the end of the module

Prior to starting this module, I had a fairly technical view of online accessibility. I believed that accessibility could be achieved by careful and clever programming, coding and production of electronic course materials so that disabled people could access the materials using assistive technologies or by producing alternative formats. I thought the module would focus on how to achieve this.

While this approach is part of producing accessible online learning, H810 expanded my understanding of accessibility in learning and teaching. Recognising how the various models of disability such as the medical model and social model influence policy and behaviour was illuminating as was an understanding that accessibility isn’t only about a making course materials technically accessible. In fact, it became clear that it’s very difficult to make a single resource accessible to the full range of disabilities. I also considered how universal design for learning (UDL) approaches to course design can effectively build in accessibility and choices for a large number of students (including disabled students) without the need for subsequent adaptations, although total accessibility is probably unrealistic.

I also appreciated how digital media and online tools can open up learning opportunities to disabled students. Apart from the advantages of flexible asynchronous online learning for students with mobility impairments, the delivery of course materials in multiple and adapted formats enabled dyslexic and visually impaired students opportunities to participate and access teaching and learning. In the (near) future, it is possible that technology will be able to serve up content and activities to students that is adapted on the fly.

One regret I have is that I didn’t blog more on this module. I was quite happy posting on the tutor group forums, but for some reason I didn’t manage to blog. I hope to remedy that as I start my final module H817 Openess and Innovation in Elearning.


MOOCing around: reflections on Curt Bonk’s MOOC


Free images from

There’s a lot being written about MOOCs (massively open online courses) at the moment and what they might mean for Higher education or education in general going into the future. I’ve particularly enjoyed reading Martin Weller’s recent blog post, which acts as a ‘state of the nation’ overview about MOOCs as well as Kate Bowles’ blog post, which takes a thoughtful view to whether MOOC-like approaches might work for post-graduate level .  

At this point in time, I don’t have any firm view about what’s going to happen in the long term across something as broad and fragmented as higher education, but it’s hard to be negative about a diversity of open education initiatives which may give an opportunity of some sort of formal education to many people who currently have no access to higher education in developing nations, a fact made stark with the death of a student on enrollment day at a university in South Africa .

In this blog post, I’m going to reflect on my experiences of being a participant in Curt Bonk’s MOOC ‘Instructional Ideas and Technology Tools for Online Success’, now in its fifth and final week.

Background, beliefs and history

To give some context, I’m going to compare this MOOC with my experiences of modules I have studied in the Open University’s Masters in Online and Distance Education (MAODE) and also my (rather limited) experiences of being a lurker on some previous MOOCs mainly Change11. These experiences are purely personal, but I’m drawing on my previous experiences as an online learner, as I think that what learners bring to a MOOC or any learning experience is a lot to do with their own beliefs and conceptions of how to learn, what constitutes successful learning and how happy or not their prior online experiences are. In an age of open learning, with a first come first served approach, I wonder how learning designers are  taking into account the very differing assumptions and starting potential online learners bring and how this colours their attitude even before the course starts.

What I think I am saying here is that my prior learning experience as an online learner gave me certain expectations of how I wanted to learn and not learn, and what works for me. This is why I think I struggled with the more open and disaggregated MOOCS of the connectivist type as I didn’t really know what to do, there was no obvious learning pathway and I am going to admit it, I was lazy. On the OU courses, there is a learning management system (Moodle), curated resources, guided discussion, small tutor groups, a dedicated tutor – a more standard walled garden approach. It’s a formal programme with assessments and accreditation and is not trying to be a MOOC. But the generally positive experience of this online learning experience has led to me want or expect certain things (even when I am not paying for it).

My understanding of MOOCs, on the other hand, is influenced by my readings of the original and older MOOCs (MOOC 1.0 if you will) and my admittedly lurker status despite signing-up. On Change 11, I read some readings, listed to one live lecture by Martin Weller, but did not have the motivation or an easy way of continuing to fully participate. I was at the time committed to formal study, and the MOOC took a backseat. I did allow myself to be generally permeated by being in the MOOCs by occasionally reading the newsletters and wishing I had the time to really get going, join some community somewhere (Second Life sounds good), or blog. But it didn’t happen.

The BONK MOOC on the other hand appeared more familiar with the CourseSites infrastructure. I joined up, partly out of curiosity about CourseSites, knowing that it was only 5 weeks long and had a finish date, and fell at a particularly convenient time as I am between modules on my formal Master’s programme. The topic looked interesting and practical and one which I felt I might immediately meaningfully in my own work.

Getting off to a good start

The set-up of the MOOC was familiar, and I was pleased to find the resources and LMS layout facilitated some kind of pathway. I was, however, somewhat put off by the discussion forums; there were just too many posts to go through in the first week with a veritable babel of ‘Hello, I’m x and I am here to….’ type posts. I also found some negative blog posts and comments about the set-up and closed nature of the blogs, wiki in CourseSites which seemed to turn the MOOC into a commentary on how to do MOOCS, rather than the subject/content/topic/learning outcomes aspect. There were various blog posts about how standard this MOOC looked, how it was aligned to nasty old Blackboard and that it was somehow lacking in MOOC credibility. I followed this compelling this blog post with interest for a while, but then became aware that I was being distracted from what I could get out of this learning interaction and worrying about what other people were saying before the MOOC had had much of a chance. My own personal view was that as far as I knew, this was a free course being provided, that it looked like an interesting course, and week one was a bit early to give up.

Things seemed to improve  after this (and as far as I know, the tens (or hundreds?) of other participants may not have noticed this chatter in any case). What was encouraging was the way in which the CourseSites team responded: engaging with critics, getting more support through the use of TAs and  acknowledging that the Discussion forums in particular were problematic. The next few weeks saw smaller and more focused questions to which fewer people responded. There was also, I think, a reduction in the number of people who chose to be in the MOOC, which seems to be common with many open courses. I nearly dropped out too, but found the readings interesting and practical sounding, and stayed on mainly because there were live lectures scheduled and at a time that just about suited me (10 pm in the evening).

The MOOC in action

I’ve already discussed the fabulousness of the live presentations by Curt Bonk, who really has to be seen to be appreciated in the live environment. This was a major motivator for me to continue. I’m pretty sure the live sessions helped me keep my own word to myself about participating in the course. I know I wanted to and I should as part of my own professional development, but knowing that and making me do it have not always happened. And I think that despite the flexible design of other more connectivist MOOCs, getting off to a good start and keeping with the pack at the begiinning is vital for many students to keep engaged. The live sessions gave focus to the week, prompting me to either review the resources, take notes, or think about questions I might have beforehand.

Lack of a community

One aspect that didn’t really happen (and that is seemingly so much part of a MOOC experience) is t
hat a community of students connecting and collaborating didn’t happen (as far as I am aware.) I’m not sure that 4-5 weeks is long enough for a community to form, at least one that feels accountable for and to each other (as happens on the longer and more formal OU modules).

What also surprised me was that Twitter didn’t play such an important role in this MOOC. Some participants did tweet around the hash tag #bonkopen, but not many. I’ve found in previous courses that Twitter does contribute to a learning community and for me is a vital part of social engagement. There were however, a few valuable connections and interactions I made in Twitter, and who I will continue to follow after the course.

Summing up

I’ll discuss what I actually got out of this MOOC in terms of professional development and subject matter in a future blog post, but for now, the course told me something about my own learning preferences, what motivates me, what I need in place to keep my word when there is no external pressure (such as I have paid for this, I am going to get accreditation, or there is a deadline and which I will look bad if I don’t meet it). I’m designing learning interactions for others, and this course reminded me about the different motivations for engagement for open courses where the traditional carrot and stick does not apply. I realise that in all of this, I may not be the model of a self-actualised learner that I thought I was and that I need systems and practices in place. My ideal online course environment comprises:

  • scheduled live events,
  • opportunity to connect with course author, instructor or teacher,
  • easy access to curated resources,
  • a community on Twitter, and some
  • some kind of validation or feedback/assessment

Wouldn’t it be great if students could choose the components of their ideal learning configuration before starting a course?

Future considerations for MOOCs

I think some sort of external assessment is a motivator. MOOC models of assessment could be  the type that students might pay for some formal feedback, or where there is machine-based assessment giving some kind of pass or score at the end. Whatever model it is, I think it should be an option for students. As an online student, I find assessment stressful but ultimately rewarding and transformative. The value is in the process as much as the result, the opportunity to reflect and respond. I think the CourseSites approach of giving badges for achieving milestones is a valid strategy for a MOOC of this short duration and self-directed study, but I am not particularly motivated (as yet) to get one because it seems to be ticking off tasks done, rather than any judgement of quality or actual attainment of anything.

In conclusion, I’ve really enjoyed the experience of this MOOC. In this case, the community ties are more vertical with a connection with the Instructor and team who have been very hands on in engaging with individual students, and with some looser ties with other students though Twitter and reading blogs. Although the community and social aspects of CourseSites didn’t really work out for me, (the longer term ties exist as connections on Facebook and Twitter), the virtual classroom afforded by Blackboard Collaborate (formerly Elluminate) and presentation of resources and clear course pathway within the LMS provided a reasonable foundation for the MOOC.

An evolution for the ‘Sage on the Stage’?



One of the tenets of ’21 Century’ education and learning is that the era of the  ‘Sage on the Stage’ is over and we should consider instead the ‘Guide on the Side’ who ‘facilitates’ learning; this is the instructor who creates a space for colloboration, who weaves discussions (in an online space) and does not teach or tell because that is SO not Web 2.0 or 21st Century.

By and large, that all makes sense. Nobody likes long drawn out presentations; the retention from lectures is generally poor and the flipped classroom method (while not new) is gaining in popularity and has probably tipped thanks in part to the Khan Academy’s popularizing it, so it has entered the mainstream education discourse.

However, some of this has been challenged by my recent experience as a student in Curt Bonk’s MOOC (massive open online course) entitled ‘Instructional Ideas and Technology Tools for Online Success’. The outstanding and affective part of this open course has been the live conferencing where Dr Bonk is indeed the ‘Sage on the Stage’ (or Elder of Elluminate).

I’ve attended 2 live sessions of the MOOC and the experience has changed my own emotional response to this MOOC and has made me decide I am going to stick it out until the end. Partly due to the sense of occasion a live session engenders anyway, but mostly to the manner of presentation and the intelligent use of interactive devices which together create in a space of two hours a community of students. Surprisingly, I’ve been interested and energised during the live sessions and can partly attribute this to the ways in which Dr Bonk makes the experience feel personal: through reference to participants’ locations, use of personal names, responsiveness to questions, use of quizzing and polling, props and even prizes. (Disclosure: I won a book in the last session!)

Yet the live session was still very much a ‘lecture’ using powerpoint slides to deliver content and subject matter defined by the presenter. And it went on for 2 hours including Q and A. What has made this live presentation ‘different’ from other live webinars more commonly found is the sense of occasion and unpredicability of where it will go and from feeling on the part of  a participant that they are really participating.  The affordances of Elluminate enabling chat, polling, as well as the slides and video in combination create an experience not replicable to the same extent in a face to face classroom, not to mention the international flavour of attendees.

I think what I am saying is that I am willing to attend a live session if I am given the opportunity of co-creating that experience and the ‘sage’ is interesting enough that meeting him or her in real time is an experience different from reading his/her papers, interviews etc. In this session, Dr Bonk answered two specific questions I posed and genuinely seemed to want to be there and help participants come to an understanding of the issues and topics. ??????What I think I am seeing here is a coming together of the power of synchronous classroom experience (which can happen face to face or online) mediated by the appropriate and intelligent use of a live conferencing software (in this case Blackboard Elluminate) which allows things to happen that cannot happen face to face so easily, such as:

  1. Global login and participation regardless of physical location and geography. (The only constraint is access).
  2. Co-construction and realtime development of the presentation through use of interactive quizzes, polls, video and chat functions.
  3. Critical and visible mass of students to enable meaningful participation and meaningful lurking.
  4. The capturing of the near-totality of the experience (results of quizzes, chats, recording of lecture) for others to share soon after.

On reflection, perhaps ‘Sage on the Stage’ is not longer an adequate description of this type of guided live instruction. There is definitely an element of co-construction of knowledge and understanding as part of the lecture, so perhaps something more along the lines of a ‘Catalyser for Learning’ better explains the function and role of the instructor.