Open Learning Designs

I came late to the Teaching online open course #TOOC14 discussion on learning designs. But wanted to think about this both for tooc as well as courses I currently have a hand in designing.

There were frameworks presented. Personally I take a checklist approach evolved from a number of frameworks:

  • Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) Principles
  • Kolb’s (1984) cycle
  • Brookfield’s (1995) lenses
  • Activity theory (Engeström 2001, Vygotsky 1962)

Over the years I have distilled a set of terms from these and others, which work for me to capture something of good teaching practice. I presented these terms in #FSLT14: outcomes-led, experiential, activity-based, dialogic, participatory, community learning. I ask myself how what I am doing allows at least some outcomes to be intended in advance. Is it linked to any external benchmark reference? How does it draw on or explicitly use activity to create an experience for the participant? How is conversation enabled with co-participants or collaborators? Where do the tutors stand on the participant-observer axis? I would have them stand toward the participant side. For learning to be authentic and to engage learners, tutor engagement works. And, so does group-work. We may not build persistent communities around any one course but we will use support techniques that are based in community-building practices. Some of this will involve peer evaluation. Previous students are invited back as teaching assistants.

Now I am working on a book idea in a similar vein. The organising principles are emerging from a series of conversations with David Jaques.

  • Learning in groups, which picks up on themes of activity, community, identity, discipline, teamwork
  • Authentic learning, which picks up on learning from experience, professional work-based learning, problem-based learning, simulation
  • Technology and learning, which expands on spaces and places for learning, physical and digital
  • Criticality and reflection, which picks up on group and public evaluation, incident analysis, direct and indirect objects of learning, diversity, inclusivity, perspectives, models and theories that might explain or predict learning


  • Brookfield, Stephen D. 1995. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publlishers
  • Chickering, A., and Zelda Gamson. 1987. “The Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education.” American Association for HE Bulletin, no. March 1987 (and frequently reprinted): 3–7.
  • Engeström, Yrjö. 2001. “Expansive Learning at Work: Toward an Activity Theoretical Reconceptualization.” Journal of Education and Work 14 (1): 133 –156.
  • Kolb, David. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
  • Vygotsky, Lev. 1962. Thinking and Speaking (first Published as Thought and Language). Edited by Eugenia Hanfmann and Gertrude Vakar. Lev Vygotsky Archive transcribed by Andy Blunden. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.


Reflecting on reflections

I have just spent a rewarding hour reading initial reflections on teaching by participants on First Steps into Teaching in Higher Eduction. The people on this course are, for the most part, new to teaching in higher education and are entering into the identity of a teaching academic in their many ways. There are many ways of being a teacher. It is not like there is one way that we can teach. But, I suppose there are some broad areas of practice, which might be considered widely useful. And – no surprises – reflection is one of these.

But it is hard. It is especially hard to take a critical perspective on yourself! So we put some structures in place. Brookfield’s lenses and Kolb’s cycle are the two opening moves made on this course. Patience and kindness come out of these writings as virtues for new teachers. I am tempted to add mindfulness and compassion, but that might be for a later stage! Patience and kindness have to be applied to one’s self as well as to students, of course.

History – ones own history – is crucial but sometimes the fact that we have done something for a long time can stand in the way of growth and development. How can we turn our history into critical learning? Self questioning is important. It is not always easy to ask why we did things in a certain way, but if we can’t answer that question, maybe we need to try again. Self-criticism of the negative sort can be unhelpful. Scaffolding helps, and that’s what frameworks like Brookfield and Kolb offer. FSLT is, itself a framework, breaking things up and arranging them propped in a way that they won’t easily fall down, even if we are unsure of our footing.





FutureLearn Pedagogy Platform: does big matter

Went to a webinar yesterday: OWLET – Open Webinars for Learning and Enhancing Teaching from University Campus Ipswitch. First time using Hangouts. (does not afford “proper” chat).

There were according to the G+ post 9 people who “watched” Mike Sharples, Professor of Education Technology speak on “Innovating Pedagogy”.

Very much a “presentation” with some interaction at the end. Mike spoke much about the big numbers on FutureLearn courses and MOOCs generally. The focus shifted. Was that Future Learn, the Open University, or everyone studying everywhere on things called MOOCs (or similar) or even just DL? There were, or I took, implications that big really was better.

There was much mention of social constructivist pedagogy framed in a wide millennial disruptive discourse of “drivers” for change. The avalanche rumbles on. A long list of literature-was reviewed on change and innovation. Woah! They spotted MOOCS. In twenty twelve! They are now noticing badges and analytics.

The talk was quite focussed on the massive (OpenU DL is massive) and analytics. Badges will be next year’s big boom? You read it here first ;-)

The Future Learn platform attempts to facilitate relationship between people. Peer evaluation and feedback is not anonymous. Real names used throughout. But, tutors did not appear to be engaged in a participatory way. I asked about the role of the Associate Lecturer in Future Learn. FutureLearn is relying on the “power of the crowd.” Junior academics and PhD students are “monitoring” discussion. If you want added tutorial support you can get it but you have to pay for it.

Much Britishness is promoted and is distinguished by an underlying pedagogy. (Is it?)  Connectivist and instructivist approaches were contrasted. Individualised teaching was also put aside. Could not compete on technology.  So they took a deliberate approach to design based on social constructivist and experiential learning: (see John Hattie). Design principles are or aspire to be realised through:

  • visible learning pathway
  • goal directed
  • social
  • conversational
  • rewarded
  • reputation management
  • contribution to social capital (following, liking)
  • review and feedback including automated acquisition of “sentiment” content
  • peer review
  • MCQs
  • Branching pathways and breadcrumbs.

And to do all the above in internet clock (tight time) cycles.

Interesting in all the talk of massiveness there were only 9 people in the hangout. Take out the presenter and facilitator is 7 and 3 of those were from Oxford Brookes. A tight circle of people thinking about Open Online Learning practice. I briefly feared it might be me one-on-one with Mike Sharples. Thankfully Richard Francis joined the room. We got a lot out of it. Thank you. But, the conversational tools in the webinar/Hangout were difficult. Maybe I just didn’t find the chat interface. Richard and I used the “Question” facility to chat. But that confused us and the presenters. Another viewer suggested using the G+ stream of posts. But, both interfaces loaded each post with so much relational context, that ironically the conversation decohered.  There did not appear to be a possibility for the audience to take the audio mic and actually ask a question.

[Makes me feel the Adobe connect decision we have taken is the right one at the moment.]



Renewing our PG Cert in Teaching in Higher Education

After an 18 month period of analysis and reflection involving the course team, student representatives, feedback documents, coursework, outcomes, and external and internal examiners and advisers, we are putting Oxford Brookes University’s Postgraduate certificate in teaching in higher education (PCTHE) forward for periodic review and revalidation.

Why? We wish to:

  • Enable contextualised workplace-based professional learning and other aspects of academic practice from outside the course to be recognised within the course, especially where there is development of pedagogic scholarship and community (group) working practices.
  • Widen provision for academics and others in positions of direct support and facilitation of student learning processes from other institutions and contexts.
  • Widen provision, globally, to the best introduction to teaching in higher education that we can provide.
  • Enable participants to focus on specialisations in particular disciplinary locations, or modes of practice.
  • Provide a fully online mode to the course increasing the flexibility with which staff at any  institution of higher education, globally, might participate in the programme.
  • Strengthen peer and community evaluation and assessment.
  • Enable closer articulation with supported individual routes to professional recognition by the Higher Education Academy (HEA).
  • Continue working at the leading edge of academic literacies and technology enhanced learning.

Outcomes-led learning in an open online course, #FSLT14

“Outcomes-led” is still very contentious for many (e.g. Hussey and Smith 2003; Scott 2011). On the one hand, there will be outcomes. Taking any of the reflective cycle models (Kolb in particular) allows one to anticipate some outcomes through an intentional design process. These may be expressed as “intended” outcomes or “expected outcomes”. There may, of course be many “unintended outcomes”, many of which may well be beneficial, though not necessarily expressed in the curriculum.

The contentious point for me is when anticipated outcomes (predictive) become intended outcomes (prescripticve). That said, is there something inherently inappropriate in expecting practitioners in a community to have shared practices?

So, I feel it is OK to have courses with intended outcomes. And, I think outcomes may be correlated with some measures of learning gain. [Need to check this.] On the other hand, having intended outcomes means you can measure their attainment (SMART objectives, anyway). And the fact that you can measure means you do measure and consequently you would expect there to be a correlation (because it is all just circular, really). If you give a target to a group of people with a reasonable skill set in a domain, the chances are that some (many?) will hit it.

Hussey, Trevor, and Patrick Smith. 2003. “The Uses of Learning Outcomes.” Teaching in Higher Education 8 (3): 357 – 368

Scott, Ian. 2011. “The Learning Outcome in Higher Education: Time to Think Again?” Worcester Journal of Learning and Teaching (5).

Designing FSLT14 week 3 – a reflection

Week three is a fulcrum point in the #fslt14 open online course: First steps into learning and teaching in higher education. I have decided not to introduce a new tool, wiki or Google Doc at this point. I had briefly considered a doc-based exercise developing Kolb and Activity Theory.

In addition to two short (4 min) video talks (with transcriptI – you do not have to listen to or watch!), I do intend to do a “cycles” (Kolb) v. “frameworks” (Activity Theory) summary (4 min) video and invite participants to continue the discussion, but that would be a lot to get through in a week of this course!

I decided to keep week 3 activity based in discussions. I thought it should build on what went before so I have linked it to the Collaborative bibliography. It is reflective in that it asks participants to ask themselves why students learned on their course.
It uses this course as a model. Tries to explain why we think people learn in this way. Makes our course underpinnings clear.

My explanation (theory) is that learning takes place here (not everywhere, necessarily) because it is:

  • Outcomes led (Laurillard 2002), there is a curriculum and aims. The programme is validated by Oxford Brookes University and contributes towards Higher Education Academy professional recognition as an Associate Fellow (HEA 2011).
  • Experiential, self-evaluative, practitioner-centred, pragmatics – what works – drawing on your own experience (Dewey 1916; Dewey 1997; Kolb 1984).
  • Activity-based, social constructivism; we do or make things in groups – maybe communities, using tools, with acceptable practices (criteria) and different roles. (Vygotsky & Luria 1934; Leont’ev 1978; Engeström 2001).
  • Dialogic (Bakhtin 1981) we talk synchronously and asynchronously, even back into deep time (Henderson 2013).
  • Reflective (Brookfield 1995), bringinging experience into scholarly evidence through four professional “lenses”: self, students, colleagues, the literature.
  • Participatory (Warhurst 2006; Whitchurch 2008), tutors engage as and with participants.
  • Community-located (R. Scollon & S. W. Scollon 2001, Wenger 1998) disciplines, institutions, others, work, the world and society.

It links forward to the assessed Virtual Conference presentation. It asks participants (probably as a teacher or tutor of some description) in respect of a course, with which they are familiar,  to explain why and how the learners learned.

In terms of Kolb, participants who engage in the discussions in week 3 will have gone round the cycle once and one more time around will largely crack the conference.

College of Higher Education: a third space or a thousand miles?

Colleges of (or including) higher education teach – among other courses at other levels – courses leading to degrees of higher education: Foundation Degrees (UK QCF levels 4 and 5), Bachelors Degrees (sometimes just called higher education degree, UK QCF levels 4, 5, 6) and Post Graduate Certificates, Diplomas and Masters Degrees (UK QCF level 7). Staff who teach on these programmes may have doctorates or be undertaking doctoral level study, but the institution probably is not, itself, teaching doctoral level courses.

Personal disclaimer: I attended a College of Higher Education in the USA for my first degree. There were about 2,800 students (600 in each of four undergraduate years and about 400 Post Grads). There were niche pockets of research (Super Glue “Locktite” was developed by a Prof there). I worked for 3 years about 20 hours a week in kitchens: initially the College Kitchens where “student-aid” work was a source of cheap labour (Buildings and Grounds was also a big employer of student-aid “leaf sweepers”). I would have failed the university league tables for graduate-level employment. I have since taught briefly in UK FE: I taught IT to brickies, sparks and chippies. I taught community and adult education courses for many years in rooms in schools, FE colleges, adult colleges, polytechnics and universities mostly in Oxford, Reading and Newbury.

Colleges have a particular resonances in the UK: Eton is a college. Oxbridge has colleges. There is Sheffield College, Coleg Gwent and Oxford and Cherwell Valley colleges. There is Ruskin College and Coleg Harlech and Lews Castle College. Lews Castle, for example, has research centres of excellence in a few niche areas: renewable energy research, health, and rural development and Education/pedagogical research. How does that coffee smell?

It is probably not right to describe Colleges of HE as places “between” FE and HE, though the institutional (political, cultural and economic) structures in the UK at present encourage this “between-ness”. As long as “we” feel “we” are between “them”; or “we” feel “they” are between “us” there are power or “face” differentials applied that can be converted to some kind of symbolic (often employment: principal or labour) capital.

But, this categorical thinking is also problematic. Should HE Colleges have a new and identifiable status against FE and HE and on a par with both? OK. Which ones? Those in country parkland or special output areas? Those with 14-18 provision included in the mix? How much HE does there have to be? My plumber is grounded in German Literature. The builder who knocked our brick terrace ground floor into one studied politics.

Are HE colleges hybrid (Simmons and Lea 2013, 4) “third spaces” where institutional identity is negotiated against two originary cultures (HE and FE)? Or are HE colleges a thousand miles apart? And if so apart from which originary culture?

Simmons, Jonathan, and John Lea. 2013. “Capturing an HE Ethos in College Higher Education Practice”. QAA 576 1 2 / 13. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.



More philosophical wondering

Popper says that there is a method of gaining knowledge that IS better than other methods (the scientific method) but we have to understand that there is no outside observer and that all observations are infected with our beliefs. Different people have different belief systems (Popper calls these frameworks). Armed with the understanding that all observation is infected with beliefs and that each person has her own framework we can apply the scientific method to the examination of evidence, come to understand different frameworks and advance knowledge without falling into the kind of ideological blindness that led to the Holocaust or the Gulags.

Feyerabend seems to be saying that there is NO method that is better than any other method and that the scientific method is a “fairy tale” that inevitably(?) becomes corrupted by power.

Creative work and inspiration – scientific or otherwise – seems not to require a scientific method. The bed-bath-bus phenomenon for example or “Flow” (Csikszentmihalyi 1990).

I am not quite sure what you do about the “truth” conditions of inspiration. Would Feyerabend say it was just an ego/power trip to gather evidence in support of an inspired insight? I don’t think so. He seems to rate observation and suggests the world does have a material reality.

It is that tension whereby description so easily becomes normative prescription. But if there are no norms then are there no differences? For me this is becoming yet another 1000 mile question. If it interests you to follow this thread, here is where I have been working on these thoughts:

Philosophy and science

A question was put to me yesterday in a session on Philosophy and Policy of Higher Education about the universality of Popperian positivism (a position I think I was unconsciously and unintentionally promoting). The discussion subsequently led me to read Paul Feyerabend. So far I have only dipped my toe in through this very accessible (and online) extract from Against Method, one of his seminal works (Feyerabend 1975).

I find much in this refreshing, particularly the idea of an anarchist epistemology of “anything goes”. I think this aligns comfortably with Barthes’ bricolage. But, there is also much that I want to think more carefully about, as there seems to be a sort of absolute relativism of belief implied, which might accord equal validity to all perspectives. That might be a radical postmodernism in action but it makes me question whether I would be happy for my children to be taught creationism as a theory of equal validity to say, Stephen Jay Gould’s or even Dawkins’ Darwinism.

I do not find in this extract any essential rejection of the test of falsifiability. Quite the opposite, it seems a glorious revelling in the essentially falsifiable nature of all good theories.

The fact that science is I would suggest, frequently appropriated by bullies, suggests that there is power in the method and is a manifestation of the persistent assertion of ideology over theory to serve various elite interests. But many scientists are not bullies, do not buy into the complicity of the common-sense/state/industry/science nexus, and some actively resist it (see for example Scientists for Global Responsibility, Mike the Mad Biologist, and Carl Hart).

Resilience: Or, the dog ate my homework?

On Wednesday my laptop failed. I was teaching all afternoon and couldn’t do anything about it. Yesterday afternoon, Thursday, under warranty, following diagnosis by Brookes Help Desk and, Apple Support, it was delivered to Western Computer in Oxford for repair. Estimated time 10 working days.
I need a temporary replacement machine. I work across three campuses. I have a meeting today off site at 1115 another at 1200-1300.. I then have a Skype call booked 1400-1500.
However, I am told that the laptop loan desk is only open from 1100-1300.
There are work ’rounds until Monday. I am using a library Chromebook now. I have an iPad, but it doesn’t work with Moodle forums. Is this good enough? I really do not know. Maybe it is? However, there are people expecting stuff from me today, and a broken computer feels like the dog ate my homework.
Would it be different if I were based at a stationary desk? Would it be different if I used a Windows laptop? In 7 years this is the first time a MacBook Pro has failed on me. I feel beyond the Pale.