Breaking Boundaries – Broadening Access

March 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

The second of our ESRC funded Breaking Boundaries seminar series was recently held at the Oxford Internet Institute and our speakers discussed the general issue of broadening access, with a specific focus on Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and Open Educational Resources (OER).  The seminar was led by three speakers: Sarah Porter, Professor Grainne Conole, and Dr Rebecca Eynon.  All three critically engaged with issues surrounding inclusion and the ways in which technology in the form of MOOCs and OER can and cannot facilitate greater access to educational opportunities for people who have traditionally been excluded from them.

Sarah Porter, Visitor at the OII, previously Head of Innovation and part of the senior management team at Jisc, acted as chair for the seminar and opened the session with a short presentation on the historical development of MOOCs, drawing on her extensive practical and research experience in the area.  She particularly highlighted the way in which Gartner’s Hype Cycle can be applied to MOOCs.  The cycle represents four main phases of the adoption of new technologies: the technology trigger; the peak of inflated expectations; the trough of disillusionment; the slope of enlightenment; and the plateau of productivity.  Sarah argued that hype around MOOCs increased significantly during 2012 as they became increasing visible in popular culture.  However, as negative news stories are beginning to emerge, 2013 and 2014 may represent the trough of disillusionment.  The shape the plateau of productivity may take, therefore, remains to be seen.

Following this presentation, Grainne Conole, Professor of Learning Innovation at the University of Leicester, expanded on Sarah’s discussion by exploring MOOCs and OER’s abilities to disrupt traditional educational structures by also contextualizing them within a historical timeline, charting the development of these, and other, educational technologies.  She highlighted the potential false dichotomy between xMOOCs and cMOOCs, arguing through the use of a self-created ‘taxonomy of MOOCs’ that inter-MOOC diversity is highly nuanced.  A key area she raised, that was touched on by all the presenters, was the ways in which high dropout rates from such courses should be interpreted.  Critics of MOOCs often point to such dropout rates as an indication that technology hasn’t necessarily broadened access to the degree that some of the positive discourses suggest.  However, Grainne argued that completion shouldn’t necessarily be thought of as a mark of success, and that with different users bringing different needs and agendas to their courses, they still had the potential to have valid educational experiences regardless of whether the course was fully completed.

Rebecca Eynon, Senior Research Fellow at the OII and Lecturer in the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, concluded the session with a presentation in collaboration with Nabeel Gillani and Isis Hjorth, focused on conceptualizing interaction and learning in MOOCs.  The presentation offered findings of an ongoing research project that undertook a mixed method analysis of two MOOCs, investigating the different ways in which users interact and communicate within them and how these relate to learner characteristics, experiences and outcomes.  Building on an extensive network analysis, the speakers presented a series of four typologies of learning and learners – just in time learning, just in case learning, life-long learning, and educational access – arguing that each had very specific goals and needs.  Therefore, they argued that recognizing these diverse needs and goals must be considered when discussing the ways in which such technologies should be conceptualized as supporting wider access.

The seminar was very well attended (with a large number of people also following the live stream on the Breaking Boundaries website) and the issues raised by all the speakers were extensively discussed over excellent refreshments provided by the OII following the session.

Recordings of the presentations and copies of the accompanying slides are available on the Breaking Boundaries website.  Don’t forget to come to the final session of this seminar series on Thursday 13th March, Room G/H, Oxford University Department of Education, in which Dr Niall Winters will discuss ICT for Development with a particular focus on the education of healthcare professionals in Kenya.

James Robson


Fear and the Internet

November 16, 2012 § 1 Comment

I’m currently researching how teachers interact with their professional peers in online social spaces. My focus has therefore been on ICT use for professional development rather than ICT use in the classroom.  However, as I’ve been sifting through the piles and piles of data I’ve collected over the last year, I’ve noticed a very interesting theme emerging relating to just this issue: the challenges teachers face when it comes to actually integrating technology into their teaching.

In the past, a number of studies have highlighted equipment related, economic and even competency barriers to effective classroom ICT use, although with the significant investment in this area under the Labour Government, these issues are perhaps less relevant.  More recently, studies have highlighted practical and environmental issues as preventative factors.  Selwyn, for example, offers a powerful example of the impracticalities of using state of the art technology in out of date Victorian school buildings.

However, an additional issue that I’ve been coming across a great deal in my interviews with teachers is more structural. It relates to a discourse of fear that often seems to pervade schools, particularly at the administrative level.  This fear generally appears to be manifested in relation to the need to ‘safeguard’ children from the dangers of the Internet, but also as a fear of legislation relating to teacher-student online communications, or even fear of embarrassing media coverage if ‘things go wrong’.

As one might expect, such fear is expressed in control over the ways in which teachers can use ICT as part of their teaching.  However, what has been particularly noticeable in my data is that the fear and control exists in tension with an apparent top-down promotion of classroom based ICT use and heavy investment in hardware.  For example, Melissa (not her real name), an RE teacher from a fairly average secondary school, describes how:

‘most departments have got a set of 30 iPod Touches and there’s now a suite of iPads…  we have all this technology, but we’ve got a policy where we’re not allowed to use anything that might allow a combination of a camera and the Internet together.  So in reality it’s all useless.’

Similarly, Jane (secondary school teacher) discussed problems with her school’s ICT policies:

‘one of the most incredibly frustrating things is we’ve spent thousands on web conferencing facilities and as yet have not found a single project that we’ve been allowed to do because of the concern of safeguarding because we don’t necessarily know who’s at the other end type thing making videos of children.’

These two examples (fairly representative of the 18 teachers I interviewed) illustrate the interesting situation where ICT investment is in conflict with the limiting power of the administrative structural bureaucracy.  As Charlotte (secondary school teacher) sums it up: ‘They’re willing to spend on all the technology because they can see it’s a good thing, but in practical terms they’ve wasted so much money because they won’t let us use it to full capacity, or sometimes even at all’.

The fear, which all participants highlighted as the motivating factor behind the restrictions, always appears to be ill defined with few concrete examples.  I wonder whether it fits into a wider discourse of fear of the Internet that pervades society at the moment: specifically that children online are always in danger.  If it’s not danger from pedophiles, then it’s the risks of cyberbullying, or the issue currently in the media, it’s the dangers of hardcore pornography.

While I would never want to diminish these clearly very real dangers, it’s likely that the any teacher attempting to do anything even remotely innovative with technology will struggle while fear remains such a dominant discourse in relation to children using the Internet.  Perhaps only when it is counteracted with more positive messages highlighting the benefits technology can bring to learning will innovation actually become embedded in the classroom.

James Robson

Has the Ed Tech Bubble already burst?

April 27, 2012 § 3 Comments

Today I read an excellent editorial by Neil Selwyn, soon to be published in Learning, Media and Technology (, in which he criticizes academics working in the field of educational technology for being content with restricting themselves to specialist publications and inward looking communications often via the very technologies they are vociferously advocating.

Selwyn argues that there is a significant gap between the ed tech rhetoric and the realities of the technology users on the ground, propagated by intra-mural dialogue and a lack of healthy inter-disciplinary exchange.  A major contributing factor to this gap, he suggests, is the fact that ‘many of the discussions taking place within the educational technology community about social media are actually being conducted through social media’ (2).  This leads to an ‘ed tech bubble’ – a skewed self-referential world view which has little communication with or affect on the outside world of education.  This bubble, he argues, needs to be burst.

I am, of course, acutely aware of the irony of the fact that I came across this editorial via a Tweet from the Selwyn himself and that I am discussing it on an ed tech blog.  That aside, broadly speaking, there are three main strands to Selwyn’s critique: that ed tech fails to engage properly with wider academia at an inter-disciplinary level; that ed tech fails to engage with wider society beyond both itself and academia; and that ed tech is too eager to uncritically enthuse about the transformative promises of technology.  I think these are extremely important points to make and whole-heartedly agree with them. However, I suspect the situation may not be quite as bleak as he suggests.

Firstly, the problem of a lack of inter-disciplinary engagement with wider academia (and the wider world in general) is certainly not unique to ed tech – as Selwyn acknowledges himself.  It is a problem that plagues all disciplines and one which regularly causes intra-disciplinary angst.  While ed tech is certainly a guilty party, I very much doubt it alone can find a solution.  Inter-disciplinary collaboration is necessarily a concerted effort by all disciplines involved – all disciplines involved in inter-disciplinary engagement must be engaged.  To a certain extent this engagement is taking place across many universities, as divisions increasingly emphasize the need for inter-disciplinary collaboration, and grant-giving organizations demand it.

Secondly, in the UK, it’s arguable that the discipline is still recovering from the shock of losing BECTA.  This was a formalized way for many academics involved in ed tech to communicate with both policy makers and a wider more general audience.  At present its loss has left a vacuum, and Selwyn is right to emphasise the need for different avenues of public engagement.  However, it would be wrong to overlook the fact that in the recent past the discipline (or parts of it at least) has been actively involved in public outreach.

Finally, while Selwyn is right that it is all too easy to find a large amount of literature enthusing about the promises of new technologies, there’s also a growing trend in research coming out of places like the IOE (unsurprisingly), Oxford, Manchester (and many more) that analyzes and engages with technology critically.  This can be seen in the upcoming student conference hosted by Oxford University Department of Education’s Learning and New Technologies’ Research Group – ‘Losing Momentum: Current Challenges in Learning and Technology’ (  This conference aims to explore the nuanced realities of the use of technology in an educational context and Neil Selwyn will be delivering a keynote address.  We’ll blog about it…

I think Selwyn is right to highlight the problem of the ed tech bubble, but would like to think that, with the emergence of new critical research approaches, it may already be beginning to burst.

James Robson

Leaving a mark: can you learn from a digital mistake?

February 27, 2012 § 1 Comment

Around my parent’s home you will find a impregnable burnt patch on my cooker where an attempt to make desert went badly wrong having been distracted by the football; there will be an peculiar dull  stain on a lightly coloured carpet where something spilt as a consequence of me driving a remote controlled car onto an Uncle’s toe; stitches on a patched up teddy bear whose head and body parted company after a heated sibling argument turned slightly barbaric.  These artefacts surround us – as dents on our cars, broken or damaged things all around our houses, even on ourselves through accidents or fights – reminding us of mistakes or blunders we might have made, hopefully prompting us to learn and not make the same mistakes again.

Interestingly, the underlying nature of digital technology does not allow for us to learn from our mistakes in technological endeavours in the same way.  As technology becomes more and more prominent in our day-to-day lives, the more it seems to provide backups and redundancies to ensure we can always “go back” – a digital luxury which I hope does not become an expectation outside of our digital environments.  These worries I agree do in some ways sound farfetched and possibly exaggerated – perhaps it could be argued that these issues will only become a real concern if we quite literally live and breathe in binary.

However, if take into account real facts – the lowering minimum age of technology users, and the increased usage of technology as a social medium – will future generations grow up thinking problems or wrong doings, both inside and outside of digital environments, is a just a “Ctrl Z” or “Respawn” away?

Bhaveet Radia

Becoming a Learning Citizen

January 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Becoming A Learning Citizen

Learning is about creating space for change and transformation. Given the complexity of today’s world, we all need to practice the art of enhancing our capacities in the light of this complexity. As learning citizens, each of us shall strive to bring new ways of thinking, being and doing to social challenges in the world. Being a learning citizen requires us to master some kind of digital artistry thanks to the plethora of Web 2.0nproviding new learning opportunities.  Learning citizenship is in fact about practicing some kind of social artistry that Wenger mentions in his article and that has the following underlying characteristics:

  • Social artists network because there is something they care about, some new learning they want to enable.
  • Social artists have a genuine intention to create a collective learning process.
  • Social artists care that people feel ownership of their learning spaces.
  • Social artists are patient with social processes, they do not seek control.
  • Social artists can tolerate chaos, dissension and negotiation.
  • Social artists inspire people to do things these people never thought they would do and end up feeling good about it.
  • Social artists are pragmatic …. Social artists have visions and aspirations even when they are quiet about them… They are able to navigate the complex politics of communities and organizations to promote and protect the learning spaces they care about.
  • Social artists live what they seek to bring about….They use their own experience and  identity, as a source of inspiration.
  • The work of social artists has to do with the heart as well as the mind, with passion and commitment…. And it is hard work.

Etienne Wenger in his comment referenced above talks about the need for us to become “learning citizens” and to consider how we can act as learning citizens in this world. Social artistry asks all of us to consider how we create and support learning in our lives. Based on this definition, I have been thinking of 3 kinds of learning necessary for becoming a  learning citizen here:

(1) learning as revealed by the blogger, as a critical and reflective learner, in form of “personal knowledge” as “integrated and curated” from his/her blog post and other posts/artifacts, as a broadcast/reflection/stimulus to conversation,

(2) learning as the conversation (of the concepts behind, in critical thinking & analysis), and as distributed knowledge, or online conversation, and

(3) the emergent learning, as a set of connections between nodes (revealing a pattern that consists of crystallization of thoughts and perceptions out of the minds, conversation of different nodes), and in these connections that knowledge could reside.

I would also add that this would become a valuable learning artifact for the digital artist, in further knowledge exploration and building in networks.

Relating to the proposition whether the learning citizen should be active, engaged, embodied, and if these were a product of engagement, the response would be a yes. If we were to conceive knowledge as conversation, & that a set of connections (the engagement), I could also interpret this as a development like the fractals, where such fractal would repeat itself but its shape would be based on initial conditions of agents, with “spirals” & re-birth or re-configuration of different fractals (patterns) emerging in different forms.  Such fractal formation would be dependent on feedback and looping back into other posts, via the linkage, and thus could be amplified or dampened as the pattern developed.

Jean Houston has more on what she sees as the necessary skills and capacities of social artists, including the skills to:

  • Work with diverse cultures and contexts.
  • Preserve existing culture, while helping a culture’s members move to new stories and ways of seeing the world.
  • See new trends and patterns in apparent chaos.
  • Help people work in collaborative networks and circles of connection, and move away from hierarchies and power structures.
  • Present a model for a constantly learning society and new frameworks for learning.
  • Use story, art and metaphor to draw out individual potential.
  • Be a fool, a humorist or a comedian when laughter is required.
  • Be a healer, recognizing that transformation is in some ways a process of creation and evolution that moves us to a higher order–to our best possible self.
  • Respect the individuality and unique qualities of each person he/she works with, helping people grow into their own possibilities, rather than teaching them how to conform.
  • Reflect on experience and embrace the role of the inner journey in creating outer change.

I think that these skills are equally valid for becoming a learning citizen. To this list, I would add the following skills in:

  • Inviting new ways of seeing and solving problems by asking good questions.
  • Creating a safe learning space for others based on trust
  • Facilitating the recognition of reality to create the necessary tension for change.
  • Listening for what is being said beneath the words and seeing what is apparent, beneath surface appearances

So, what is your way of practicing learning citizenship?

E-Portfolios: Modern Day Hagiographies

November 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

I filled in my e-portfolio yesterday, making a record of my learning progress over the last term.  Apart from the less than enjoyable aspect of having to rewrite everything when I discovered that the upload function not only uploads, but also deletes webform content, it was generally a very useful exercise.  Filling in the forms gave me a good opportunity to reflect on my progress.

However, once the reflection had been completed, the forms filled in, and the document saved, I began to think what the document itself actually represented.  It occurred to me that despite the very useful and honest reflection, what I had actually produced was not a neutral document.  It was tailored to the people I was expecting to read it.  The language and thought patterns I had used were dictated by the form and format, the implicit expectations associated with the medium and language contained in the guidance documents.  In short, I had entered into a highly structured context, operated within that structure and produced something that was highly stylized.

Furthermore, despite the useful reflection, the structure and language of achievement embedded in the form meant that I had created an idealized representation of myself: a self with a rigid focus, clear achievements, clear goals, and clear paths to further achievement; as opposed to the much more mundane identity that seems to regularly appear, where focus is questioned, achievements are lucky and goals are aspirational.

Of course no document is neutral and almost all documents are likely to contain a particularly representation of the self.  For example, right how, by using language of structure and the self, and hinting at power relations between author and reader, I am entering into a particular discourse which itself structures my thought and expression.  In doing so I have (although more consciously in this case) adopted a particular identity position.  However, while here I have decided to enter into this discourse myself, it is arguable that there is little room for agency in the case of e-portfolios.  Here the identity position one can adopt is determined by the structure embedded in the format of the forms and the language surrounding it.

Perhaps the purpose of e-portfolios, then, is to get the student to adopt an ideal student identity position.  Then through a process of normalization, the student adopts this position in other areas of their work.  However, I suspect this in itself is an idealized view of identity construction.   Instead I wonder if the e-portfolio is really a kind of modern day secular hagiography.  The structures surrounding it inevitably lead to a stylized and idealized biography of studenthood, which serves to propagate and perpetuate institutional concepts of the ideal learner and the ideal student: a retrospective biographical tool, used to promote a particular future.

James Robson

The Mind of the 21st Century

March 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

Whenever my 5 year old twin nephews come to visit me I could not help thinking that a child born at the dawn of this century will never know a world without the web, but most significantly, it will increasingly become a web that reacts.  The freedom of the web might chaotic and discomforting.  Yet, for the young of the 21st century, there will be an unquestioned confidence to of access to instant information. As the journalist Kevin Kelly writes in Time magazine:

“Screen culture is a world of constant flux, of endless sound bites, quick cuts and half-baked ideas. It is a flow of gossip tidbits and floating first impressions. Notions don’t stand alone but are massively interlinked to everything else; truth is not delivered by authors and authorities but is assembled by audience.”

The People of the Book, according to Kelly, fear that logic will give place to code, that reading and writing will die.  He claims that we might create whole new gardens of interconnected text and graphic for the user to explore. However, we don’t know yet whether this new type of environment might be ultimately beneficial or deleterious. It could be the case that multimedia stimulation facilitates faster cognitive processing.

Perhaps, rather than judging new minds by old values, we should simply face the fact that the new generation of brains will be fundamentally different from ours, in that they will be especially suited, both cognitively and physically, to computers and a cyber-world.  The essence of the human brain has been for years adaptability to new external demands. Of course, for those born at the beginning of this century like my nephews, technology will be changing even faster; more than ever. Succeeding generations will need to adapt to technical innovation.  However, one fundamental question is whether new generations will be able to integrate material that they can understand intellectually but not necessarily appreciate emotionally. Will the new way of life in the 21st century mean that young people are more mature, or less?

The impact of the Information Age is not simply that of the technological revolution but also an educational one as the maturing of the Information Age is to revolutionize all aspects of education from how we learn to what and where we learn with. In essence, learning as we know it might vanish in favour of a free-association hypertexting that is gradually rationalized. Yet, even in order to hypertext, we all need to have an appropriate knowledge-base first.  How will that knowledge be obtained in the minds of the new generation? Information is not the same as knowledge, and somehow core concepts will have to be in place in the young mind in order for them to assimilate incoming information. While interacting with each other from the other side of the screen, they may never take time to reflect on ways of putting those facts together in a way that we would currently characterize as understanding.

So, what do we want of the new minds of the 21st century? They will inhabit a world of experience, more specifically, screen experience, rather than abstract thought; answers will crowd onto their screens and compete for attention, no longer linked to any clear questions. There may well be nothing about this new world that they need to ponder. These minds might no longer believe that the truth is out there waiting to be discovered, let alone that it is beautiful. Is this intellectual heresy really what awaits them?

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