attending to the shadow of living and learning on the web



A human OER

The dream behind the Web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished. There was a second part of the dream, too, dependent on the Web being so generally used that it became a realistic mirror of the ways in which we work and play and socialize. […] Once the state of our interactions was on line, we could then use computers to help us analyse it, make sense of what we are doing, where we individually fit in, and how we can better work together. The potential of the mixture of humans and machines working together and communicating through the web could be immense. Tim Berners-Lee (in 1998)

I love the ‘webness of the web’ for learning, I love the relationships I am building and am full of wonder about the kindness and gentle nature of the people in my network. Yet there is a dark side to it all that makes me wonder what role I want to play as I engage in online dialogue with others going forward. Each day I learn a little more about the implicit norms of behaviour a given collection of individuals shapes as they come together online. Decisions about belonging or ‘liking’ are often made on the basis of unstated group norms. I have spent my life offline noticing these patterns and the web does ‘make sense of what we are doing and where we individually fit in’. It is easy for me to see pattern even without engaging in fancy analytics.

As I reflect on my role I notice a world where acronyms abound. This is similar to the insular organisational cultures I visit offline in my consulting work. They are a marker of belonging as much as a marker of exclusion.

I learn about OER, about the OpenEd, about MOOCs of assorted varieties, about the pros and cons of the LMS, I observe confused metaphors about what it means to teach online – is it a course, it is the open web, is it the platform, is it blended or BYOD or all of the above? Am I a teacher, a learner, a peer learner, part of personal or professional learning network? Am I part of a community, a group, a CoP or a network? Can we measure my BC (between centrality) to see if my life is worth living? I can go on. All of this has felt quite unsatisfactory to me as I reflect on how to engage those people who have not made the transition to working in the open web. It is not self-evident that this is a ‘good’ thing and historically it is often just thought a ‘good’ thing by those who stand to benefit from it.

In this post I clarify an online role for me personally that aligns with evolving values and beliefs about open practices.

Continue reading “A human OER”

Working virtually: Treat each thing as if it were alive


When I started thinking about this post I wanted to write about ‘team’ work and how to do it virtually. Team seems such an overused word it means little anymore when used to refer to groups of people working together physically or virtually.

In my work I am often asked often how to manage groups of people who are not co-located but have to collaborate. There is literature on it but it mostly says just ‘use what we know about teamwork in the physical and find ways to apply it to the virtual’.  Trouble is, this advise does not work very well. Or, more accurately, if you have the right people for the job they will make the advise work. But then, they would make any advise work. It matters to me to find out what is the difference that makes the difference practically not theoretically.

I set out at the beginning of this year to learn about virtual collaboration by becoming a student again. It is easy to think about the theory of effective team work and say to my own students, this is how I would apply it to working virtually. It is quite another to say, this is how I made it work. This post is about how I made it work. All I offer here is a personal view, informed by many years of teaching and facilitating groups for the purposes of learning and getting business done.

I want to compare a negative experience with a positive one. I studied with the Open University (#H817) earlier in the year and we had to to get a project done in project teams. This ‘teams’  were little more than a collection of individuals mandated to work on a disposable assignment, in the sense the sense David Wiley uses the term:

These are assignments that students complain about doing and faculty complain about grading. They’re assignments that add no value to the world – after a student spends three hours creating it, a teacher spends 30 minutes grading it, and then the student throws it away.

Much of that course was designed through disposable assignments, this was managable when working in isolation, but took a new level of complexity and learnt helplessness when having to engage others in order to succeed at something nobody (including the educators) cared about.

Continue reading “Working virtually: Treat each thing as if it were alive”

Of introverts, trolls and hangouts on air….

Learning about introverts

My explorations backstage at the Internet Show continue looking at privacy issues on Google Hangouts and reflections on digital privacy as part of building a personal cyberinfrastructure.

Whilst I reside on the Internet, I am a visitor when it comes to privacy. I don’t want strangers to know I am there and I certainly don’t want uninvited guests on my video calls. It turns out that when you record a video call on a Google hangout it has to be set to public – you have a ‘Hangout on Air’ or a ‘Hangout’ but no ‘private recorded hangout’ feature yet. So, as I had a team meeting on a hangout on air, I discovered the delights of Trolling behaviour that YouTube is (in)famous for. Well, I say that as if I have known about it all my life, but I found it out researching for this post. It turns out that a troll is ‘any person that comments or leaves their response to a video that negatively effects the community, or provokes the emotions of others in a negative way’. You can also go online to learn how to do it, with some handy student guides or by visiting certain forums. I learnt that some trolls have even been jailed for extreme behaviour…but back to my hangout.

I signed off after an eventful (technical problems saw us lose a team member again this week) hangout, looking forward to working out how Google managed to get a video of my hangout on my YouTube channel automatically. Let me own up – I use YouTube but have always refused to post anything on it as was concerned about privacy issues and had no time to navigate backstage to ensure my settings were aligned to my personal values on internet use. Well, as soon as I logged on I had to get a crash course on YouTube privacy. I was glad that I did not know how to use the software so that all the commenting had happened in the background and we just did not see comments as we got on with our work. I saw 24 comments and frankly, panicked. Yes, I have unresolved issues that lead me to protect my privacy online – more on this later in the post – but it was not an overreaction to feel angry when I found out that strangers had been listening to my private conversation.

So, I read the comments. I noted that it was only 2 users interacting with each other and attempting to get a reaction from us as we talked. I calmed down a little. I used the transparency of the Internet to find out about them. It turns out one of them (scary, but not really, as you will see later) had tracked me down on Google Plus and sent me a message ordering me to ‘Look at your comments’. From there, it was easy to find him and no, I did not want to add him to my circles, thank you very much Google Plus. A photo of a kid who could not be older than 8 at the top of the profile. What did I do? Nothing. I did not know then that this is the advise given to deal with this behaviour in sensible places but after thinking about the many ways I could make him suffer for scaring me – I figured out I was better off blocking him, deleting all my comments from YouTube, blocking both users on YouTube, changing my privacy settings to Unlisted by default, Unlisted my video, blocked all comments on the video, and asked any viewer to sing the national anthem of their country of origin before they could click play. Just kidding on that last one. The  whole process took 3 hours – the issue is, of course, that none of these social media sharing sites make it easy for you to be private. There were other factors at play for the length of time it took me to sort out: I was exhausted and trying to get a task done that had nothing to do with navigating privacy settings on YouTube and Google Plus. I was annoyed that I was having to do this at all, and hence not exactly in the frame of mind to learn how to use yet another service. As it turned out, there had been no need to panic, it was just 2 silly kids messing around, nothing malicious about it. It left a bitter taste in my mouth, nevertheless. I set out to learn from the experience. I needed to tackle my unresolved privacy issues. I could not have it both ways – stay private and become an open scholar. Or could I?

Firstly I needed to challenge my fear of ‘being seen’ on the web by strangers. I started to think about the similarities between my home in the physical real and the different ‘homes’ I am establishing in my virtual life. What rules apply? Are the rules for the physical and the virtual regarding privacy the same? Can I expect the same reasonable behaviour from people online as I expect in real life? I did a little thought experiment – How did what has just happened online translate to the physical?

Continue reading “Of introverts, trolls and hangouts on air….”

Learning backstage at the Internet show

There is not map to backstage

This post is a summary of ideas from a reflection post I wrote when undertaking a learning design project with the Open University on a module on openness and innovation in online education this year. This module forms part of a Masters in Online and Distance Education (MAODE) which I am currently undertaking. The project was full of frustrations that I tried to turn into opportunities for learning and feedback. At the time I had a sense of splendidly failing at achieving any learning outcome for the project and being lost backstage at the Internet show. This post offers a view of online learning from the perspective of a new user who happens to also be a technologically savvy and experienced educator.

 My sense of failure on the project was not due to lack of trying on the part of my project team or to lack of choice in finding a place for our team to ‘live’ virtually. It was due to the infowhelm I felt l as we tried to set up disparate systems to enable us to work together as a project team. I am reminded of the paradox of choice, how a culture of abundance robs us of satisfaction. Psychologists find that the more choice we have the less satisfied or happy we feel with what we choose. And although there are ways to choose well, we are not great at applying them.
In the context of online education, as evidenced by this project experience, it seems to me that the argument of ‘more is always better’ rules supreme when it comes to online learning design. I notice blogs that talk about developing infotention skills that, in the main, say it is the learners who need to learn to be selective and learn new tools to handle information overload. Yet, as a psychologist I know that humans cognitive systems are poor at inner work unless the mind is consciously and purposely trained to increase its measly 300ms attention span before it jumps to the next thing and that we are hardwired to attend to novelty rather than for sustained attention. It is not as simple as saying, learn to be selective and choose the right tools to augment your mind.
I am left wondering if as online educators we are to taking the easy way out. We offer choice, no matter how overwhelming and how unmatched to the learners’ skills or confidence levels and they ‘just’ need to learn to choose. I believe that my job as an educator is to gage the flow channel  for my learners not just offer infinite choice. In what follows I describe an experience of too much choice from the perspective of an adult learner with a full time career and life in the physical real. I hope to illustrate that the need to spend time backstage requires set up time and a willingness to engage with minutiae that not all learners have and that in themselves have nothing to do wit the topic they may be learning . I believe it is this that stops non-technical people engaging with open education more than they do and that those of us who like to hang out backstage need to work even harder at making unnecessary for the actors to stage manage.

My reflections on the project blog started as follows:
‘This morning I said to my team that I was feeling a little like I was backstage at the Internet. What I meant by that was that I was lost behind the scenes having to deal with a whole lot of things that as an actor on the stage I know nothing about nor am I interested in. My job as a learning specialist is to create learning experiences in a context that meets the needs of my users/learners. In the non-virtual world I do this by being given a design challenge from a client, lock myself in a room either alone or with others with lots of paper and post it stickers to create an event, a training module or an OER that is innovative and meets a need. It was my intention on this project to do this very same thing but in a virtual environment. My expectation was: log on, say hi to your team mates and co-create.’

What I found instead was a sea of conflicting email addresses that did not enable us to share or meet virtually in the way we wanted. We spent the time we had available for synchronous conversations checking that we were logged on with the right account, that we had invited each other to the right environment with the right email addresses. There is gmail, there is the university address, there is our home email address, our work address…

Moving on to the spaces available for us to meet. There was Google Plus where we created a community, there was the University Forum where we logged on daily to find out how many more activities we had to do that week if we wanted to pass the module, there was Facebook, there was Twitter, there was the MOOC community we had built earlier in the module, there was the project website we set up, there was the virtual board we tried to learn how to use to be creative together, but of course there was not just one virtual board but several that we needed to choose from and wait…we had to do this quickly as there were only 25 days left to showcase our work, reflect, write an assignment, make money at work to pay the bills, look after the family, walk the dog, take the dog to the vet but wait….real life did not count as somehow I needed to overlay my virtual life onto my real life and never the twain shall meet. Out of breadth already.Then when we finally settled on one community and one virtual board we are not done. Shall we hook it up to our shared drive? And if so which one? We have cloud based storage associated with each email address we are using. The G+ community will give us a place and it is easy to use, isn’t it? Yes, and at least one of us loves it and has used it before. Phew. And then, we wake up in the morning to a brand sparkling new UI for G+! Hoorah? or Darn it? Well, that depends on how much time we have allowed for interacting in the community. If we have no time, then learning a new UI is not what we want to do in that moment. I want to talk about the great ideas and resources I have found, engage in dialogue with my team and instead I find myself backstage again – where has the hangout button gone? I don’t see the Hangout on Air button either? And how… oh…how does the new Auto Awesome feature work?

So we looked at the email addresses (which, do not forget, we have to multiply by each team member), at the virtual spaces our account gave us access to (which, do not forget, we have not all learnt how to access or use yet) and now finally it is time to get to the work of designing together for this project. Or is it? No. Not yet. It turns out that we still need to learn another system in order to communicate with other teams on the course and it is part of our job to also familiarise ourselves with their websites and comment on them as they build them. This new space is experimental and hence not without its challenges. Still, some of us manage to upload, comment and even choose favourites that give us smiley emoticons, little red hearts icons, and all the while I am wondering what on earth is the point of this? I got it working, but do not know why. Lost backstage at the internet show for hours without a learning outcome in sight. And furthermore, I just do not have time to manage the behind the scenes of it all as well as sound half sensible when engaging with the content of our project. Once again,  as I start to think I will be able to do what I am good at – offer feedback, look at the educational designs of the other teams, get interested in other people’s ideas – I find myself lost backstage: do I have to be logged onto the university site to access? Why can I not comment on each page? What is the point of this site at all? Wouldn’t it be nice to sit down with the other teams over a cup of coffee and just share ideas?

Whilst the above example may not show it, I happen to like being backstage as well as being on the stage. If I had all the time in the world, I would have set up the perfect project home connecting up every possible app that could have helped us and would have had fun doing it. But I did not have the time, and had signed up to learn about innovation in learning design not how to replace my IT manager.

 Reich (2013) says:
“Humans have built a system for online social learning: it’s called the World Wide Web.”

What is clear to me now, months after the project experience I have just recounted, is that the issues we had were almost entirely due to having to work with systems that were behind walled gardens attempting to blend with the open web. These two approaches do not seem to co-exit well. Reich (2013) also explores the assumptions behind different approaches to online education and shows that walled gardens may not be the way forward. I believe that to  ‘whisk people away from the open Web into a walled garden’ is a strategy that has had its day. Innovation in online education will thrive from ‘the assumption that people should do their learning work for a course in the same spaces that they do their other online activities.’ Our project might have thrived had it been designed to work only on the open web without registration walls.

As long as institutions act from a place of fear of openness, we will get lost backstage and this will limit access to what open digital education has to offer. The open web requires we visit backstage enough without having to tackle password conflicts and denial of access due to non-adherence to an open education ethos. For myself, my experience as a learner in this hybrid experiment of open education from a walled garden was one of being lost backstage most of the time, having forgotten my lines with opening night just around the corner – not one of learning in flow.  Hence, this was an experience I would not be keen to repeat as a learner or purposefully design for my students.

Mind-shifting on assessment

Assessment is the process of measuring a person’s knowledge or skills. It’s not a science; it doesn’t prove anything, but passing a test or completing a practical task implies a certain level of competency. A special type of assessment (called formative assessment) is used to aid the learning process (this is called ‘assessment for learning’).

Bobby Elliot, 2003.

Assessment 2.0

This table has changed my life! Well, may be not quite, but it has changed my perspective on assessment. My environment is higher education, private higher education. This has its own issues when assessing student’s work. I teach on a Masters in People an d Organisational development at a business school in the United Kingdom. Sometimes, students come from client organisations, sometimes they can become clients after the course, and sometimes they come to work for us as consultants. Transparency in assessment is important here, as is layers of peer review and checking standards of assessment across the faculty. How do we know that standards are comparable across the faculty? We implement a riguourous assessment process that is defined each time we start working with a new cohort – self managed learning works within a framework  that Elley (1993) defines as collaborative assessment. Her focus is on how power is used in the process – ‘power together’ as compared to ‘power over’ the student or the educational establishment:

This model of power assumes that student, peers and staff work together to secure a common view of assessment and its outcomes, based on hearing and understanding different perspectives, and seeking to secure agreement which values all perspectives. This model is essentially collaborative, dependent on reaching consensus.

There are delightful and tangled issues that arise from this assessment model, not least the point of friction between traditional university assessment methods and how we assess students at my business school. Until today I had always seen collaborative assessment as a cross I had to bear for working at a non-traditional university. Now I see that I have been working at the leading edge of assessment for many years and have never stopped to critically reflect on the heutagogy that is implied in self managed learning as an approach to education.

Notification Center

What Elliot (2008) crystallised for me in his table above is that in traditional education we shoe horn evidence for learning into a shape fixed by the educational establishment in order for it to award its accreditations. This is contrasted with what in the literature is defined as ‘assessment for learning’:

“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).

This definition obscures the core question: who determines what counts as evidence of  arriving ‘there’? In my world of work this is a collaborative process revisited afresh at the start of each cohort. Most of the literature I have read on this focusses on schools and how assessment needs to be redefined to support pupils on learning rather than exercise power over them by assessment of learning. This is not my area of work, so I will say no more than that I understand that there is a lot of prescriptive work that needs to be done to help teachers and educational government departments understand this distinction. Self managed learning is being used in schools by some pioneers but I know little about how successful these initiatives have been. I count myself lucky that my focus on assessment is in dealing with the downsides of being at the other extreme of the assessment for learning continuum: When I started to read about assessment for learning from my ivory tower, I just asked: Is there any other kind?

I want to focus the rest of this post on the content of Elliot’s table above. A key insight is summed  up by Al-Rousi (2013) and focuses on the type of evidence that supports learning:

Elliott [is] focused on the use of digital evidence [… ] naturally occurring, [ i.e.] already existing […] not created solely for assessment purposes, [manifested] through multimedia, [and] distributed across different sources.

Elliot is indeed saying that instead of shoehorning evidence we might choose to purposefully build in the use of naturally occurring evidence into our assessment process. He is further saying that we need to use web 2.0 tools to develop an e-assessment strategy and this he calls Assessment 2.0. Self Managed learning works with naturally occurring evidence, but has no e-assesment strategy embedded in its approach. Collaborative assessment in self managed learning ensures that the evidence to be sought is outlined in the learning contract upfront and this can be any type of evidence that supports the learning outcomes being defined. We encourage students to use wide sources of evidence such as video files, audio files, essays, reports, flowcharts, lesson plans, storytelling, painting, spreadsheets and self-assessment statements.

What we are not doing enough of is looking at the use of digital evidence to support learning in an embedded way. If we define e-assessment as anything that involves digital media, then we have been doing it for years – word document are submitted, we add our formative feedback via Track Changes, use spreadsheets to tabulate data, create research reports, etc. This is not what Elliot intends to suggest when he talks about assessment 2.0 in my view. He quotes Downes (2006) notion of a personal learning environment and posits the need for a Personal Assessment Environment (PAE) where students use the type of web 2.0 tools exemplified in his table to critically reflect on what it means to provide evidence for learning, set it up before getting on with the business of learning, harvesting it for insights regularly and then ordering it in a meaningful way to demonstrate achievement of a given standard which in my domain is Masters standards. This notion is game changing for me. It implies that digital literacy would  no longer be a choice for our faculty or our students, that an e-assessment strategy has to be agreed and implemented to further support students that goes beyond just allowing students to present their evidence as e-portfolios (which by the way we still do not allow for administrative reasons: students have to print to copies of their portfolio on paper and hand in by a specific date…).

Whilst Self managed learning meets most of Elliot’s characteristics when assessing for learning in terms of its principles of operation (e.g. being collaborative, peer and self assessed) it falls down when assessed against his ‘tool supported’ characteristic. Some may argue that what matters most is that the principles are adhered when developing effective assessment strategies in any educational domain, that tools used are a secondary consideration. I disagree with this assertion. Our thinking is shaped by the tools we use. Writing a blog is not the same as writing a letter or and essay. Assessment for learning in a self managed learning Masters means supporting students in the creation of a PAE to gather tangible evidence through their 18 months learning journey. Our challenge in this is almost as hard as that of other educational sectors when shifting from one preposition to another. We already assess students for learning, but how might we design assessment 2.0 into our work?

Notification Center-1

A modest experiment I am carrying out is the use of Pin-Interest to support evidence gathering and dialogue for one of my student’s learning contract. The board’s theme only makes sense in relation to the student’s learning contract, we agreed to keep comments general enough for the board to be public but specific enough that the student could track her learning journey when it came to writing up. We also agreed that the board would be part of the evidence used to support her self assessment statement on achievement of learning goals for the Masters. However, whilst we are using it for formative feedback, I fear that, at best, screenshots of the board will be all that makes it to the final portfolio.

My understanding of what Elliot proposes with Assessment 2.0 is that we need to incorporate the distributed nature of digital evidence (amongst other characteristics he discusses) into the way we assess students rather than students having to shape their evidence into a fixed format limited by low digital literacy in certain sectors of the educational establishment. In embedding these tools into the formative stages of learning we would be enhancing the quality of their thinking and preparing them to develop a digital identity that can support them in their future career goals – given the ever increasing need to learn to function effectively online for most professionals.

Al-Rousi, S. (2013) ‘Does WEb 2.0 = Assessment 2.0’ 

Assessment Reform Group (2002) Assessment for Learning: 10 Principles

Eley, Ginney. “Reviewing Self-Managed Learning Assessment.” , 1993.

Elliot, Bobby. “Assessment 2.0.” , Sept. 2008.

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