#H800 Final Considerations

With the final assignment, the EMA, submitted, it’s time to look back and jot down some impressions of this online course, the only compulsory one in the road towards the OU’s Master in Onlineand Distance Education (MAODE).

It definitely made sense for me to study technology-enhanced learning, which includes e-learning, through an online course.  I believe that I learned as much from the course materials as from actively experiencing the online course as an ‘informed observer’.  As the course materials were rather heavy on papers, bringing the main debates about technology in learning to the fore, these two forms of learning were complementary.
Online courses are sometimes touted as bringing ‘flexibility in time and space’.  The two should be put into perspective though.  The course starts at a fixed date and features weekly activities and regular deadlines.  You can afford skipping a few days or a week at most, but all postponed work should still be caught up with. Besides, if you’re a few days late you probably miss all the discussion in the forum.  Flexibility in space is more realistic as all course materials and communication can be found online.  However, I found myself still printing most materials as I find it easier to take highlight and notes.  I also found myself working for 90% of the time at the same spot.  A fixed place to study helped me concentrate on my work. 
The weekly course texts are excellent and are one of the main draws of the course.  The texts are clearly composed with great care and written in a style that is accessible and motivating, like someone sitting in front of you is explaining the material to you.  These texts refer to different activities, readings and web links.  Usually readings come with some questions that can be discussed on the forum.  I enjoyed interacting in this forum, sharing my thoughts and readings others’ reflections.  The forum made the course more social and motivating for me, as well as the occasional Elluminate audio conferencing sessions.  Most participants were somehow active in the education sector and reading their take on the questions enriched the course for me.  Unfortunately, some participants preferred not to engage actively in the forum, and the little weight in the assessment didn’t seem motivating enough.

The course is designed by a course team, unlike courses in brick-and-wall institutions, which are often the product of one professor.  A group of about 20 people has contributed to the H800 course, most of them OU staff, some hired from outside.  I believe it certainly enhanced the quality of the course, as each topic has been written by a specialist and team work increases the likelihood that multiple perspectives would be considered.  For example, some of the course team members are clearly more sceptical about the role of technology in learning.  This diversity is for me also one of the advantages of formal studies, as obtaining a similar quality and range of viewpoints would be very hard.
Although the course team has designed the course, all student-teacher interactions are with a tutor.  Positively, my tutor was very active on the course forum and responded quickly to all kinds of questions.  Nevertheless, I would have liked more interactions with course team members, for example to discuss papers they’ve written that were included in the course.
It’s another two and a half months until the final results are published.  The course is a 60 credits one, or one third of a Master Degree.  In the meantime, I will be recharging, catching up on some of the suggested readings in H800 – there were so many, I could easily spend another year reading them – and thinking about the next course.  H807 is the most likely option.

#H800 Virtual worlds and Identity

Second Life is one of the topics in week 25 of H800, with in particular a focus on how people engage with an ‘online identity’, given shape by their physical manifestation online, their avatar.

A key element in the discussion on virtual worlds is the concept of identity or, better, multiple identities.
The issue of multiple identities reminds me of the identification concept of Wenger (1998).  Wenger considers identity as a social construct, formed by our participation (and non-participation) in a wide range of communities and our influence in those communities (our ability to negotiate meaning, as he calls it).  In this regard, participation in Second Life adds another identity component.  We have one identity (the ‘self’) according to Wenger, but it is composed of a range of ‘identifications’ in communities.  This resonates with the following excerpts:
What is changing is not the self, but the ability we have to explore different manifestations of this self. ‘In conventional terms of reasoning, post-modern identity can be considered schizophrenic; however, it should not be looked upon as pathology but as a virtue’ (Adrian, 2008, p369 in Peachey, 2009, p.4).
The role of groups in shaping ‘real life’ identities is implicit, as is the multiplicity of ‘real life’ identity. What is interesting and new about virtual worlds is that they make this group-shaping explicit and multiplicity of identity actionable. (Adrian, 2008, p368 in Peachey, 2009, p.14).
Peachey (2009) describes how people construct their avatar very carefully, like spending a lot of time in choosing a name and physical appearance.  First impressions matter, also or even more so, in virtual realities.  For some identification with their avatar can become very strong and spill over to their real life identity, blurring boundaries between the two.  For example, people create Facebook profiles with their avatar name or adapt their hairstyle to match with their avatar’s looks (Peachey, 2009).  Experiences with an avatar may result in increased confidence in real life, or, conversely, may also result in real emotional pain.  A strong identification with one’s online identity makes me wondering about the person’s satisfaction with his/ her real world’s identity.
The notion of extending avatar identity into the real world inevitably raises the possibility of overidentification and withdrawal from essential realities (usually where contributing factors in the real world might predispose such withdrawal). (Peachey, 2009, p.13)

For some students balancing ‘real life’ and ‘virtual’ identities may create tensions, fearing that their online identity ‘[takes over’ their real identity.

What comes through most strongly from the accounts … is that there is a tension in students’ narratives between the ideal of an embodied, authentic, anchoring self, the self that goes along to tutorial classes on Tuesday afternoon, and the possibility of other, deviant, less authentic selves which emerge online and which threaten the anchoring subject with the possibility of their autonomy (Bayne, 2005).

I found the discussion on people with disabilities interesting.  For this group of people a virtual world such as Second Life may provide them with an appearance that doesn’t generate the instinctive reaction of ‘patronising convention’.   However, some still choose an avatar with physical disabilities.  .
But what is the potential for education?  The author sees a lot of potential for collaborative learning.  I can see that you can re-create some of the visual clues that are absent in regular online interaction.  I can also imagine that community bonding could be stronger in a Second Life environment than in a regular forum or e-mail discussion.  On the other hand, it is another social network to engage in, another place to login and check updates.  I’m not sure whether the added value of Second Life weights up against this reluctance to engage in another network. 
Within H800 it could be an interesting experience to move some of the tutorials from Elluminate to Second Life.  A disadvantage in Elluminate is the lack of visual clues, which makes it difficult to engage in a muti-person informal discussion.  Second Life may provide a richer and more intuitive environment for discussions.  However, the considerable time investment to get started in Second Life would require using it at least a few weeks to make the effort worthwhile. 

#H800 Reification and Participation in Wenger’s Communities of Practice

Communities of Practice are a powerful and highly influential concept, developed by Lave and Wenger (1991) and later refined by Wenger (1998).  Based on sociocultural approaches to learning, it may seem an abstract and challenging concept, but, once understood, results in a better conceptual understanding of learning and design for learning.
Identity is a socially constructed through participation (and non-participation) in a range of communities.  There can be communities at work, school, family or nation-wide.  Identity is also determined by the way how we ‘negotiate meaning’ in those communities.  In other words, how we influence activities inside them.
Negotiability refers to the ability, facility and legitimacy to contribute to, take responsibility for and shape the meanings that matter within a social configuration.
Wenger identifies two ways of influencing within a community: participation and reification.  Participation is the direct interaction between members of a community.  Reification is the creation and use of artefacts such as lesson plans, guidelines or a curriculum to impose or affect others’ behaviour.  In learning design an optimal combination of both ways is necessary to achieve learning outcomes.
The balance between and participation and reification is a key duality in communities of practice.  Wenger refers to the ‘double-edged sword of reification’.  Too much focus on reification may stifle creativity and hurt group dynamics.  However, reified artefacts such as guidelines, ‘ways of doing things’ or a specific vocabulary provide an anchor point to novice members and help creating a community identity.

In a workshop for teacher trainers a sole focus on participation may have the result that participants find it difficult to ‘transcend’ their practice, cross boundaries and develop new conceptual understanding.  Too much focus on reification, for example by imposing a rigid lesson plan template, may create alienation and stifle creativity with participants, who feel they don’t have any impact on the design process.  It lowers the status of the participants who are likely to formally comply without taking any ownership.

#H800 Communities of Practice, Networked Individualism, Network Dynamics and Mycorrizhal Networks

Communities of Practice

The concept of Communities of Practice (COP) was introduced by Lave and Wenger (1991) to highlight and conceptualize forms of learning that focus on participation and are not limited to the individual level (don’t stop ‘at the skin of the individual’).  Legitimate peripheral practice is the conceptualization of the apprentice learning a craft with a master, thereby gradually gaining mastery in the subject. Learning was an inevitable aspect of all productive practices and not limited to a formal setting within schools or institutions.  The communities in the COP can be characterised as:

Clearly bounded structure, with rules for membership.

  • Single centre of supreme skill and mastery
  • A hierarchical structure where new members (apprentices) start at the ‘periphery’ and gradually move toward the centre of the community as they obtain mastery.  Also called a ‘centripetal’ structure.


However, recent work by Engeström (2007) challenges Wenger’s analysis by pointing out oppression by dominant figures in communities and rebellion by apprentices.  He argues that learning is not smooth and necessarily centripetal. Instead, the movement of learning is shaped by learning’s participants.  Those at the hub of the learning experience exert the greatest influence.
Jones (2004) recalls the successful application of network dynamics in domains like transport and politics.  He argues that mathematical network principles like power laws, clustering and the strength of weak ties can be applied on learning networks.  Networks can be identified from the level of societies and institutions down to individuals and ideas.  Individuals can be nodes in a network, engaged in linking to other persons, agents and resources.  Or, ideas can be considered as nodes with associations between them forming the links of the network.  His ideas remind me of Connectivism – discussed in an earlier blog post– which claims to be a learning theory for the internet age.  Connectivism describes learning as building networks, not only of physical persons, but of associated ideas.
Engeström considers COP as a-historical structures (unlike activity systems in Activity Theory) , which means they are not connected with the varying dominant organisational structures in a society.  Engeström argues that COP are mainly useful in a society dominated by craft and industrial production.  Craft is characterised by a master-apprentice relationship and industrial production is characterised by teams, small groups with well-defined membership and with members who have complementary competences and work together on certain task.  Gradually, however, a ‘co-configuration’ model is evolving in which companies are becoming more susceptible for input from customers and other outside sources (co-creation of value as described by Prahalad and Rawasmamy, 2004).  Adler and Hecksher (2006, cited in Engeström, 2007) call the organisational structure for the post-industrial society a ‘collaborative community’.
A collaborative community is different from a team in 4 aspects:
  • Boundaries become more fluid;
  • Very high level of division of labour and diversity of knowledge;
  • Authority based on knowledge and expertise instead of status;
  • Values are orienting and motivating elements for members of the community.
  • Increased importance of motivation follows from looser membership rules.
Engeström points out that such a collaborative community is no longer a team, but a network.
Social production and the mycorrizhae analogy
For Engeström the organisational structure of the information society is social production. The flagship example of social production is the open source movement.  Thousands of developers and bug fixers work together in a loosely-structured network without a clear centre – although a success factor of the Linux and Moodle open source networks is arguably the role of their respective leaders -, but with a compelling common goal, called ‘runaway objects’.  Examples are global warming and a free operating system.
Engeström develops an analogy with a mycorrizhae system.  This is a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and the roots or rhizoids of a plant.  The fungus delivers nutrients and water to the plant, which returns the favour by providing the fungus with energy-rich sugars.
The analogy plays out as follows:
  • A underground network of roots with interspersed nodes resembles a loosely connected and expanding network of individuals, exchanging information and with multiple loyalties.
  • Visible fungi resemble the visible, erect, bounded and institutionalised structures that emerge from this network.  Engeström uses the term ‘wildfires’ to describe sudden bursts of activity – in the same of a different place – with long dormant periods in between.
  • There is no hierarchical structure in mycorrizhae as is the case in the root system of plants.
  • The mycorrizhae work in symbiosis with plants as informal learning networks can work in symbiosis with formal structures.
  • The mycorrizhae is hard to kill, but also vulnerable due to the lack of clear leadership.
Networked individualism
The model is very suitable for a mobile generation of learners, who form very easily temporary networks, dominated by weak bounds.  Castells (2008) calls this a ‘networked individualism’, claiming that not mobile, but individual is the defining property of the mobile generation, since people experience a much higher freedom.

Final remarks

These post-industrial organisation modes seem fit to explain learning activity in a Web 2.0 environment.  Students are developing personal learning networks (PLE) as a complement to the institution’s learning management system (LMS), in which they communicate not only with peers, but with a wider network of friends, alumni, bloggers, staff and domain experts.  Twitter seems the ultimate tool to facilitate this kind of weak-tie dominated networks, much more than Facebook, which has a more personal and bounded network structure.  An interesting analysis how Google + mixes weak-tie and strong-tie networks was made here by George Siemens.  Traditional classroom practice can be described as a community of practice, with a clear master (the teacher), a bounded membership structure (the classroom) and a clear, externally defined objective (the curriculum and assessment).  The current trends in (higher) education towards a more student-centred learning approach, with a higher responsibility for the student to create a learning network, more flexibility in courses and more fluid boundaries between formal and informal learning seem fit with a network approach and a mycorrizhae analogy.

Main references

Engeström, Y. (2007) ‘From communities of practice to mycorrhizae’ in Hughes, J., Jewson, N. and Unwin, L. (eds) Communities of Practice: Critical Perspectives, London, Routledge.

Jones, C. (2004) ‘Networks and learning: communities, practices and the metaphor of networks’, Association for Learning Technology Journal, vol.12, no.1, pp.81–93

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge university press.

Castells, M. et al (2004) ‘The Mobile Communication Society: A cross-cultural analysis of available evidence on the social uses of wireless communication technology, A research report prepared for the International Workshop on Wireless Communication Policies and Prospects: A Global Perspective, held at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 2004

#H800 Alternative Representations of PLE

I reconstructed my PLE, reordering the tools according to their main function. When I couldn’t decide, I put the tool twice in the scheme.
If you use a wide definition of ‘technology’, reading articles on paper and jolting down notes in the sidelinemight still be the most frequently used technology.  However, whether using or not using a particular tool is often in the details.  Since my discovery of Instapaper, for example, my e-reader use has increased sharply.

Instapaper is a tool that lets you store interesting web pages such as articles and blog posts for later reading.  All selected texts are nicely ordered and can be exported to the e-reader friendly epub format.

Another way to represent a PLE is to place them along 3 axes (based on Conole, 2008; link here):

– individual vs social
– information vs experience
– active vs passive (like in immersive language learning)

This allows to make the relation between the use of technology, notably Web 2.0, and pedagogy more explicit.

#H800 Technology’s broader impact on education

Technology arguably has an impact on education which extends beyond the teacher and the learner. The broader impact of technology on education has been described in various reports. In week 22, we had a look at the Horizon Report (2011 edition) from the New Media Consortium, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Cyberlearning Report (2008) and the Becta Report (Harnessing Technology: Next Generation 2008-14). I compared the key elements of these reports with the Cambodia Master Plan for ICT in Education 2009-2013 (Third Draft version, 2009).

All reports consider technology as a major contributor to improving education and to meeting upcoming challenges.  In Cambodia challenges centre on dealing with an increasing influx of students as a result of demographics, reduced drop-outs and increased enrolments. In the US and the UK, they focus on globalisation and competition in a global workforce.

Both recognize the importance of aligning education with digital literacy and employability requirements for graduates. They regard technology in education as a prerequisite for improving the quality of education.

While reforming the public school system is well beyond the scope of our present task force, positive effects on schooling would certainly result from invigorating and inspiring learners through the rich new environments made possible by the Internet and developments in cyberinfrastructure.(NSF, p.12) 

One might say the reports suffer from a light to severe form of ‘techno-utopia’, regarding technology as the solution for all educational ills.  In this over-reliance on the role of technology in education, there is a lot of writing about ‘potential’ and ‘best practices’, but very little in the way of actual impact in real life contexts. There is hardly any discussion on the impact on students, teachers (apart from increasing training needs) and institutions. The Cambodian plan states the introduction of e-learning and a national Open University to reach remote areas and non-traditional students, but doesn’t mention deeply ingrained suspicion of e-learning and less teacher-dependent forms of education with students and the population. The NSF report considers all learners as ICT proficient ‘Millennials’ and brushes over indications that a deep digital divide persists, also in developed countries. 

Ensuring effective use of technology in education requires that also content and pedagogical knowledge are sufficiently developed. Merely focusing on technology provision leads to teachers letting students copy their notes into a Word document instead of a notebook or reading from a PowerPoint presentation instead from a book. There is no strategy in the Cambodian Master Plan how teachers will be trained from basic skills up to efficiently integrating technology, content and pedagogy, through an intensive in-service programme. Lack of content knowledge leads often to a teacher-centred approach with little room for experimentation, discussion and exploration, since these activities may expose the teacher’s alleged weaknesses.

There are some striking differences between the Cambodian Master Plan and the other plans though. The NSF report stresses the need for ‘cyberlearning’. This is learning mediated by networked computing and communications technologies. Students could experience more authentic learning by using large amounts of data, like climate data sets or databases generated by sensors. They could learn finding meaningful patterns in the datasets, tweaking parameters and ways of representing the data patterns. These kinds of activities require multidisciplinary approaches and networking between educators and scientists. The NSF report refers to the relevance of the ‘long tail’ in markets for education, allowing catering for students’ interests.

The global scope of networked educational materials, combined with “recommendation engine” software, helps individuals find special, niche content that appeals to their needs and interests.(NSF, p.16)

The Cambodian ICT Master Plan on the other hand stresses the alignment with the country’s curriculum. Software, textbooks and all ICT resources are to be fully in Khmer and explicitly approved by the Ministry of Education. The focus is more on an ‘isolated’ desktop model of ICT where learners access carefully selected resources, in contrast with a ‘web 2.0’ approach to technology-enhanced learning, let alone stimulating them to create Personal Learning Environments (PLEs).

All plans are surprisingly vague in pointing out evidence or strategies in how technology may improve learning outcomes. Monitoring is focused on measuring outputs, whereas improved outcomes on learning as a result of technology seem to be taken for granted. The NSF and Becta reports argue that better data collection can allow for better individual tracking of learning progress and better information for parents and educators.
Technology has an important role to play in ensuring greater participation by parents in children’s learning. It enables schools and colleges to report to parents on their child’s progress as it develops, rather than at a few fixed points in the year, and offers parents new opportunities to engage in dialogue with providers. Patterns in achievement, attendance and behaviour become easier to identify, so teachers and other professionals can make more timely and effective interventions (Becta report, p13).

Finally, the Cambodian plan is heavily focused on infrastructure, which seems logical given the low penetration rate of ICT equipment and internet connectivity. There is very little mention of mobile technologies however, although these may offer more chances to get large numbers of students connected to the Web than desktops in computer classes.  The NSF and Horizon plans put heavy emphasis on these mobile devices, including not only smartphones, but also tablets and e-readers.


Becta (2008) Harnessing Technology: Next Generation Learning 2008–14, Becta report on behalf of the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skill, Coventry, Becta; 

National Science Foundation (NSF) (2008) Fostering Learning in the Networked World: The Cyberlearning Opportunity and Challenge, A 21st century agenda for the National Science Foundation, report of the NSF Task Force on Cyberlearning, Arlington, VA, National Science Foundation

New Media Consortium (NMC) (2009) Horizon Report, report from the New Media Consortium and the Educause Learning Initiative, Austin, TX, The New Media Consortium

Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MoEYS), 2010, MASTER PLAN FOR INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATION TECHNOLOGY IN EDUCATION 2009-2013 , available online at http://www.moeys.gov.kh/ict_master_plan_2009-2013.php

#H800 Horizon Report 2011

The 2011 Horizon Report from the New Media Consortium (NMC) and Educause provides some clear indicators for key trends and drivers for technology in education. As ever the report outlines key trends, critical drivers and short and long term forecasts. 

Each year, the Horizon Report describes six areas of emerging technology that will have significant impact on higher education and creative expression over the next one to five years. The areas of emerging technology cited for 2011 are:

Time to adoption: One Year or Less
Electronic Books

Time to adoption: Two to Three Years
Augmented Reality
Game-based Learning

Time to adoption: Four to Five YearsGesture-based Computing
Learning Analytics

There is an extensive collection of resources, although there seems to be very little in the way of critical reflection on the role of technology in education, its relation with content and pedagogy etc.

The fact that the NMC was founded in 1993 by a group of hardware manufacturers, software developers, and publishers might have something to do with that. Current corporate partners include Adobe Systems, Apple Inc. and Pearson College.

The report is great if you want a short description of the key characteristics and potential for education of the upcoming technologies, as long as you don’t expect a balanced account, supported by research data.