Saturday, 22 September 2012


BA LTR will help you develop creative technology skills, the process of making many kinds of media has become a lot less complex over the last decade and digital photography has become the norm where it once was a rarity. Making a poster using a photograph, and overlaying a text message on it, is something you can do even in the most basic graphics software. At the start of this semester  our new year 1 LTR students will create a poster at the start of their journey.

The first image below might not go so well on touch screen devices as it is a Flash .swf file but the same effect could be done using animated gifs or a slide show file. The aim was to identify and add an appropriate image to go with the text message. This is a skill that is often very useful when working in PowerPoint. It is not unusual to see PowerPoint presentations where clip art or even a seemingly random set of images has been used. This activity is the start of the journey towards developing good media design skills, BA LTR students will study this theme over the three years of the degree by working in a wide range of digital literacies. We always get very positive comments from the external examiners about the standard of digital literacies achieved by our students.   Throughout this post if you click on any image it will open in a larger size. This first is a set of related images that might take a few moments to start rolling through.

This next one was to promote a new course, the course director wanted a simple message along with an image that projected the sense of starting a journey. I have taken the contact details off it as they have changed since it was made.
In each example the images and text relate to each other to reinforce the message. The link between boats setting out at sunrise on a voyage obviously parallels the idea of students setting out on their journey of discovery. The course also had a strong technology theme, the other perhaps less obvious link is to the technology of the boats. When this design of boats was first used  they were a cutting edge technology ideal for purpose and local conditions. To achieve this, innovative solutions were developed to refine technologies that have been around for thousands of years. Every student has access to a range of modern technologies, they are the vehicles that enables the fully online learning journey. Every student finds their own collection of technologies that work for them, they develop creative and sometimes very innovative ways of building their own boat to steer their own course towards the future. It took a fair few words to describe all of that, I could have written many more, maybe even a thousand, far too many to put on a poster. The imagery of a poster is important, it may not always replace a thousand words, but it can be the thing that embeds in memory and provides a hook for retention of the wider message. 

In this one I have tried to link between tangible reality and the reflective world, I though about post processing the holiday snap to bring out the texture and colour of the corner of the pier but I sort of like the reference to black and white against the colourful depths and my shadow down there in reflection world. Are you seeing the world as black and white; immerse yourself in reflection. 

The next snapshot is from a meeting of the TEL MAP cluster in Manchester this September. The aim was mapping the future direction of Technology Enhanced Learning. Vana Kamtsiou is explaining concepts put together by Debbie Holley using sticky notes and Richard Millwood is adding them to the Cmap map. Aesthetically it is not a prime poster image but the content has relevance to the Technology for Dissemination module (T4D) where students will make preparations for a dissemination event that is held in the following semester. The findings from their Work Based Major Project will be shared via a presentation in their workplace.

The image shows two presentation technologies used in parallel, neither is PowerPoint :-)
The students will explore a range of potential technologies and decide on which one or combination will best suit; their competence level; the material they need to show and the needs of their audience.

There are some good examples of using images with text amongst Hamish Scott Brown's introduction sequence on his web site. Hamish worked at the Ultralab and had a lot of input into the Ultraversity learning design as well as being a key part of the facilitation team for many years. He has won prestigious awards as a result of his MA work and in his current work as a professional photographer. The web, TV the outdoor world are good sources of using image and text to convey or promote a message. Look around you for influences, pause and look deeply into the images, think about the elements that have been brought together on posters, banners, on the packaging of products, adorning vehicles, buildings, in shop windows, magazines etc.

This one was for our Wallwisher (now Padlet) wall, the photo was taken from the little ferry that takes people over to St Michael's Mount at Penzance. Hopefully the notion of a journey and of creating solid foundations/building something wonderful are conveyed:

What message will you put on your poster? The process of designing a poster can also be a valuable one for the designer. Immersion in the task helps to deepen engagement with the subject and that can lead to new insights. When you are in the final semester of year 3 and heading towards graduation you will look back at your learning and reflect on the journey. It might be useful to have an initial poster that conveys your future aspirations, you could also reflect on your current skills or any aspect of who you are. Another approach would be to promote a local service or an event in your workplace. Choose a theme and see if you can find a photograph you have taken, or go out and take one, that relates to your message.  If, like Julian, Toby and many other of our students, you decide to try a blog as a learning journal, you could add your poster and share it with others. If you do post it somewhere public please post a comment on the bottom of this post with a link to the location. You might want to keep it less visible in which case it would be a good opening image for a more private reflective learning journal in a Word document.

If you enjoy the activity or can't decide on one theme to focus on your could always do a set of posters, there are many questions you could ask - here is one group:

How am I feeling...
What skills do I have…
What are my choices…
Where do I want to go…

Friday, 21 September 2012

Learning Plans

Individual learning plans, independent learning plans, personalised learning plans I really don't mind what our students call them I do encourage them all to use one and when they do it is usually a  good decision.

As described in earlier posts we do work based online learning where students can study asynchronously without the restriction of timetabled lectures, live streamed workshops, summer schools and all that stuff that can be great in its own right but just doesn't fit with everyone's life / work patterns.

We do provide a recommended study schedule that maps activities in a suggested time-frame. There are many variations and this is a very simplified example but it may well go something like:

Week Patch / learning outcome Suggested activity Assessment product.
1 All Read through the resources, raise any uncertainties in the community discussion. In your reflective learning journal create your own personal learning plan. No assessment product - preparing for study.
2-3 Patch 1 LO 1. This may be a literature review or a knowledge consolidation activity. Analytical report on theory.
4-5 Patch 2 LO 2+3 Planning and preparing for research activity. Present a proposal.
6-8 Patch 3 LO 3 Implementing theory through real world research - often reflection or inquiry based. Initial research report.
9-10 Patch 4 LO 4 Reviewing research activity - analysis and findings. Evidence based presentation of analysis and findings.
11 Stitching All LOs Retrospective commentary identifying meta-learning, may include re-evaluation of theory from Patch 1 in the light of the experience of applying the theory. Reflective account - may be first person, alternative genre.
12 Preparing for hand-in Time for a meticulous proof read for meaning and grammar. Honed and refined e-portfolio.
Uploaded by 5 pm on hand-in day.

Blimey that was very simplified but will serve a need in this post.

So what does a student need to do to turn that into an ILP? Not easy to answer as all students have different contexts, cultures and personal lives, these all exert forces that push and pull at the time available for study. Again simplification is going to have to suffice.

Generally the detail of life happens in hours, days and weeks, not so much in chunks of weeks. So the first step is developing a usable framework. Gantt charts, spreadsheets, flow charts (hand drawn or digital like Cmap), tables, pages in a paper book, sections in a Word document, slides in a PowerPoint, Etherpad - there are many ways to approach planning. 

So its time to think things through.

The planning:
Week 1 - Tuesday is busy at work + evening meeting, Wed-Thurs evenings free, Friday doctor + shopping. Weekend is free. =>3 hours per night Wed-Thurs read module resources and monitor discussions. Saturday is family time. Sunday pm 2-4 work on ILP, 7-9 read everything again - do I know what I am doing?
Week 2 - Residential outdoor activity trip with year 5. Mon - Thursday. => Can't guarantee good connection so need to download literature to iPad on Sunday before I go so I have a chance to read it if I get some free time during residential. Friday evening + Saturday am is family time but I need to pop into the online community as well. Study Saturday pm + most of Sunday - read and make notes in Learning journal/share ideas in online community.
Week 3. Staff meeting Wed evening, otherwise fairly OK week. => 2 hours each Monday + Tuesday evenings write up notes into critical review.  Thursday 3 hours to look for / review additional literature and add to notes. Friday  - Sunday evenings complete literature review - turn notes into proper text. 30 mins each day in VLE discussions.

And so on, transfer the thinking onto a clear framework that is editable. Do not just plan then hide the plans away - they are dynamic and need annotation if they are to be of high value.

Using the plan:
Week 1 went OK I even think I think I know what I am doing.
Week 2 very little free time at residential. Children do not sleep it seems. Need to add a late night on Saturday to get through the literature on time.
Week 3. Oh Blow, news on Monday am that OfSTEDare coming in week 5 so week 3 Thursday is also an after school meeting, I need to negotiate less family time on Saturday and block out Monday -Wednesday of week 5 as non study days. 
And so on.

If a plan is created then stuck on a wall and forgotten it is not much use at all.

If a plan is created then stuck on the wall and not annotated to show what was achieved, and not adapted to cater for unexpected circumstances, it shows how much was not done and makes you feel less than happy - that is not conducive to good learning.

If a plan is created, referred to on a daily basis, annotated and adapted to cater for unexpected events, including barriers and opportunities, then it is a useful device that tracks successful learning and engenders a feel-good feeling - that is conducive to good learning.

Friday, 14 September 2012

TEL MAP meeting

Two day meeting with the Technology Enhanced Learning Mapping group making progress towards developing a road map for the future. I think I need to indulge in some introspection to make sense of what happened. I had a very productive 6 hour journey up from Liskeard to Manchester still somewhat baffled as to why a first class ticket was cheaper than a standard one and why a first class ticket was not available had I started at Bodmin Parkway 7 miles down the track from Liskeard - there were only two others in the carriage for the first hour or so and it never got filled. I made progress towards mapping the Ultraversity online community model and reflected on what it might look like in the future. 

It is always refreshing to meet colleagues from The Ultralab and review foundations I have met with Stephen Powell and Richard Millwood a few times and published with them since we went our separate ways but this was the first reunion with Pete Bradshaw since 2006 many days had passed but it felt seamless.  We grabbed the essence of The Ultralab, rekindled the flame in a few bytes of intense discussion. It was great meeting Li Yuan after so many emails, Li was who I expected Li to be - are we getting more adept at knowing who people are from text I wonder.

We spent the first afternoon with the cluster getting to know each other and Bill Olivier and Richard facilitating a review of TEL MAP aspirations and what was done in the previous meeting as many of us were new to the cluster. Over coffee, and later over the evening meal, new collaborations were developed and ideas for projects emerged tangential to the main focus. 

The previous meeting had lead to a set of Axes to try and define what is. In attempting to define what might be, we sketched them and placed our selves and institutions in the diagram and then tried to vector towards the future. We got slightly distracted into semantics and discussed the linguistic problems of commonly used labels. ‘Face-to-Face’ placed as the other end of the spectrum to ‘Online’ was not a comfortable axis. As a fully online course facilitator I spend a fair bit of time Face to Face with colleagues and students in real conversations via online digital interfaces even though we are often hundreds of miles apart. Situated, located, dislocated, remote, nothing quite fitted.  

We considered how the weight of institutional needs such as economics exerted a gravitational pull and whether axes would converge towards a singularity. Debbie Holley's paper cone was pulling this kind of convergence into the concept:
It became fairly clear that there were several places on the diagram where the future would draw in, to differing extents, a range of elements to develop new models appropriate to clusters in the heterogeneous mass of individuals (students and staff) with different needs. Fully online is fine for some learning contexts, it works very well for the Ultraversity process driven work focused context for example, however; Students such as aspiring sculptors would have call for real world resources -  an online furnace for smelting bronze is beyond current technology so is an online mass spectrometer.  Do those needs require students to spend significant proportions of their study time at institutions or might they work largely from home and draw on the physical resources that are geographically nearest their home? Some horse trading swapping students and resources in the short  term between institutions might be possible and would save travel and accommodation impact.

Defining our personal visions via a google Drive Spreadsheet and pulling together the commonality was quite a task but there was not a lot of disagreement the difficulty was getting the terminology right. Richard used to build the common map - a great piece of software. Vana Kamtsiou suggested stickies and Debbie and I went with that route. I was totally impressed with how much Debbie fitted onto one sticky. It was lovely watching two levels of technology working together glued by dialogue.

So where did we end up? The Cmap is a good starting point defining some elements of a possible future landscape but is still a haiku compared to the complexity of the full landscape. it became clear that roadmapping the potential futures is not a case of building one autovia, HE institutions sit in a culturally and aspirationally diverse landscape, the future holds some certainties but a vast amount of uncertainties. Stephen Heppell coined this well with his 'certainty of uncertainty' concept and Steve Wheeler also has some good thoughts on digital futures.  

So we have a partial future landscape and some thoughts on a network of roads that we might travel through that landscape. As the train flows along the Cornish coast I wonder whether we need these roads - there is something wonderful about the open potential of the sea as long as we avoid the head in the sand feet in the clouds and eyes looking at the past inversion I am sure we can find many ways of letting technology enable 'happy and engaged students' to journey alongside 'happy and engaged tutors' as co-learners heading towards a fulfilling and empowered future.

Thursday, 13 September 2012


A page to aggregate publications about the Ultraversity approach to learning and prior publications that lead to the development of the model.
 Title  Abstract
Millwood, R., Powell, S. and Tindal, I. 2009. The Undergraduate Student as Action Researcher. UVAC.  This paper describes and evaluates an approach to online supported, work-focused learning where undergraduate students operate as action-researchers; planning and implementing action for improvement in their work-place as a basis for award-bearing credit in higher education.  A model is proposed for a meaningful, ongoing tripartite relationship between Higher Education Institution, learner and small and medium enterprises that is viable. The way the design enables the learner to develop their "higher level skills that embody the essence of higher education" (Willis, 2008) is an important issue if the ideas and approach are to be widely adopted. The paper outlines the curriculum design and the nature of the students work-focused inquiries. Data from final year research reports was analysed to identify the characteristics of the projects undertaken by students uncovering 'who they have become'. Challenges and issues of the approach are discussed.
Millwood, R., Powell, S. and Tindal, I. 2008. Developing technology-enhanced work-focussed learning - a Pattern Language approach Proceedings of Special Track on Technology Support for Self-Organised Learners 2008 This paper identifies issues in developing a three-year duration, work-focussed undergraduate degree programme with a model of inquiry-based learning supported through online communities of inquiry. On the course, students examine their current work-practice to identify issues and then plan, implement and evaluate an improvement strategy. Negotiated learning activities and facilitated networking environmentsare key to providing students with a highly personalised and relevant learning experience.  Students were surveyed and interviewed through questionnaire, telephone and face-to-face meeting. Staff were asked to produce accounts identifying major issues within their particular role, describing and evaluating steps taken to mitigate them. In both cases, transcripts were examined using interpretive phenomenological analysis and this grounded approach was used to identify key issues.
The findings show that challenges for the improvement of the learning experience included a range of issues unified by concerns regarding diversity of approach and complexity. It is proposed that this was partly
due to knowledge held tacitly but unarticulated. To improve practice, a Pattern Language approach is proposed. In order to articulate values and ideas, a Pattern Language category of Online Community of Inquiry is outlined.
These patterns are framed as instructions to inform an approach to new working practices, technologies and systems local to the context in which they were found. It is suggested that this approach helps teaching staff, developers, administrators, and students working together to understand and overcome problems in their own contexts, by adapting these and other patterns. 
Millwood, R., Powell, S. and Tindal, I. 2008. Personalised Learning and the Ultraversity Experience. Interactive Learning Environments, Volume 16, Issue 1, pp. 63 - 81. Routledge. This paper describes a model of personalized work-integrated learning that is collaborative in nature, uses emerging Internet technologies and is accessed fully online. The Ultraversity project was set up by Ultralab at Anglia Ruskin University to develop a fully online, 3-year duration, undergraduate degree programme with an emphasis on action inquiry in the workplace. The course design aimed to provide a highly personalized and collaborative experience. Students engage in the processes of inquiry together as a cohort, making it possible to collaborate and support each other in the online communities. The focus of this paper is on three aspects of personalization: students' use of technological infrastructure to develop online communities; integration of study in the workplace; and the work-study-life balance. Students were surveyed and interviewed after completion through questionnaire, telephone and face-to-face meeting. Transcripts were analysed using interpretive phenomenological analysis. This grounded approach provided evidence of impact of the design on personalized learning. The course design made the assumption that blended learning was not necessary to ensure a rich learning experience and would be a barrier to those who could not attend, and this decision is vindicated by the accounts of participants. It was also confirmed that facilitated online communities can be used to support deep learning that is focussed on action inquiry in diverse and individual workplaces. The course was designed to impact on both the work practices of the individual and the wider institution. Participants reported this as a strength. Overall, the evidence presented shows that a course design that emphasizes a high degree of trust in students' ability to self-manage learning can lead to a challenging, personalized and rewarding online student experience. Students demonstrated high levels of competence in managing work, study and life. This assertion is further borne out by the high degree of success achieved in terms of outcomes, judged by the degree results obtained by the cohort studied.
Arnold, L., O'Dunne, V. and Pickford, S. 2007 Real world research: Inquiry led undergraduate work-based learning in the virtual paradigm

This paper seeks to explore how a combination of work-based learning and inquiry-based learning can be blended together with social technologies and balanced facilitation to create a highly personalised fully online undergraduate experience. Whilst the literature base is established for each element separately, less is known of the combinational possibilities of these approaches to learning. Based around the experience of the highly successful BA Learning Technology Research degree based at Anglia Ruskin University, Essex, the paper shows how elements of the blend can act to enable participation in higher education from previously excluded groups. The case study establishes the benefits and challenges of this real world approach to learning for the students as individuals and with respect to the emerging calls for particular skill sets in the super-complex age, where learners have multiple frameworks of understanding, of action, and of self-identity. The paper goes on to explore how learner defined inquiry based learning is both scalable and replicable and suggests lessons for other courses and institutions. Within the case study the paper also identifies challenges posed by the blend combinations and makes tentative suggestions on how they may be addressed.
Millwood, R., Powell, S. and Tindal, I. 2007 Undergraduate Student Researchers – the Ultraversity Model for Work-Based Learning. Proceedings of the 2nd TENCompetence Open Workshop - Service Oriented Approaches and Lifelong Competence Development Infrastructures, pp. 157-166. Manchester UK: The Institute for Educational Cybernetics, University  Technology is creating a global learning landscape for the 21st century; if Higher Education Institutions are to continue to meet the needs of today’s learners they must explore approaches where the role of technology is central to new models for learning. The four year long Ultraversity project was set up by Ultralab at Anglia Ruskin University to explore the development of a wholly online, three year duration, undergraduate, work-based degree with students using action research
methodology. The experience is designed to be highly personalised and collaborative in nature, rather than individualised and isolated. Students engage in the processes of inquiry together, making it possible to collaborate and support without plagiarising because they are studying in their own work context. This paper describes this model of personalised work-based learning and the Internet technologies used to connect the distributed student body and teaching team. Issues are identified relating to the model and the tools used to support it.
McGuire, L,, Tindal, I., Revill, G., Roberts, G. and Arnold, L. (2006) Patchwork media online: Achieving high levels of personal and professional reflection through Ultralab's BA Hons (Learning, Technology and Research) degree. Paper presented at BERA Conference, Warwick. Ultraversity, a research project conceived by Ultralab, Anglia Ruskin University’s learning research and technology laboratory in Chelmsford, attempts to provide social learning opportunities for reflective practitioners to gain graduate accreditation. The qualification is a BA Hons (Learning, Technology and Research); the context is the researcher’s own workplace; the medium is online discussion communities, resources and e-portfolio; the accrediting University is Anglia Ruskin.
‘Patchwork Text’ is a concept conceived by Richard Winter while Professor of Education at Anglia Ruskin. His concerns at the absence of the creative imagination in formal assessment in universities, and the dominance of the traditional, text only essay, led him to introduce story-writing and reflective writing into professional inquiry courses. His patchwork text approach allows different forms of writing to be shaped, fashioned and assembled in order to explore the relationships between various perspectives. The resulting pieces of work are then shared among learners, discussed and interpreted in different ways, then stitched together, accompanied by a reflective commentary to form the final assessment product.
When developing the new Ultraversity model, the patchwork approach appeared ideally suited for socially constructed learning in collaborative online community environments, where sharing pieces of work in learning sets, or communities could provide a valuable context for students to explore peer review and critique. It was felt that Winter’s approach could be re-contextualised for the online environment and extended beyond text to encompass different media as well, enabling students to embrace the creative potential of online technologies, and transforming the patchwork text approach into one of ‘patchwork media’.
In this paper, Ultralab facilitators attempt to review the ‘patchwork media’ experience by producing their own patchwork piece reflecting on a chosen aspect or perspective of the patchwork approach. Each piece was then presented to a specific online community of students for their feedback and reflections. Students were asked if they valued the approach and found it professionally enlightening; if they had experimented with different media and genre; and if they had experienced any conflict between the requirements of the approach and those of the examiner. Their responses provided the data for the case studies.
Roberts, C. M. and Tindal, I. (2002) An internet based postgraduate respiratory medicine learning resource and its potential application in the communication of regionally generated training resources across regional and international boundaries.

Presented to British Thoracic Society meeting 2002. 
 Current Information Communications Technology provides us with the opportunity to present, assess and consolidate innovative new constructions in learning methodology and practice. The Chestnet project utilises this potential to provide training material, resource based on an open intranet web site. This consists of tutorials and quizzes with self-assessments aimed at the specialist registrar (SpR) grade but useful for all interested in respiratory medicine.The project aims to achieve a paradigm shift in SpR learning methodology encouraging users to view information and communications technologies as valuable and enjoyable "cognitive tools" (Jonassen 1994) with which they can access contribute to, and interact with, high quality learning resources at their convenience. Training traditionally delivered, in the form of instructional lectures and workshops, to a located, regional audience can now be captured and communicated to a global audience via the internet. Multimedia offers the possibility of incorporating greater interactivity than is possible in the traditional one to many face to face delivery. The annotated content generated by the project will be of value to an audience beyond UK respiratory trainees and in a global context. This paper reviews current provision and discusses intended developments.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Remote working - getting some air

I have been a remote worker since 1999, I started working for Chelmsford based Ultralab when I lived close to Land's End, then moved to working for Anglia Ruskin Faculty of Education from the same location. I spent almost 4 years working for Anglia from Galicia - NW Spain, then moved to Sussex and now back in Cornwall on the edge of Bodmin moor near Liskeard. We do not have any mobile signal in the little village we are in - it nestles deep in a valley and access stops at where our road starts. BT needed 5 weeks from my application to them actually being able to supply a router and activate phone / internet - as Telefonica managed the same in 5 days in very rural Galicia I have no idea why BT are so inefficient, however; I still have 9 days before the line is active so have been working via a borrowed USB mobile internet thing from the moors above the village. Last time I used one it gave me around 3-5 kbps and was barely functioning, fortunately the only thing that did work reliably was Centrinity's FirstClass Client -the software we used to host our online communities in. I did a speed test today and am getting 4.9MBPS that was more than enough to participate in a departmental meeting via Adobe Connect video/text interface. 2 hours into the meeting my MacBook batteries started to run low so I had to start the car and idle it for 20 mins to charge the laptop via my inverter - no car should be without an inverter. 

On the other side of the road some new friends reminded me it was time for a drink - glad I brought my flask today.

A few meters down from where I park is a standard country gate leading into a designated footpath, there is no fence, no visible remains of a fence or signs of an about to arrive fence; just a gate. It has been a constant reminder of how easy it is to become fenced into being in buildings when freedom is just a few steps away. 

After several days of sitting in the car I headed out and used the gate - it should have been no different to not using the gate but it was different. Stepping through the gate rather than going round it reminded me that I had fenced myself into my car, so for a little while I had a totally unfenced office experience. 

I really would recommend getting out in the sunshine every now and then, I will be buying my own USB connector and working outdoors more often - there is not much in the online world that requires sitting indoors at a desk these days.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Online Community

Wenger discussed the concept of Communities of Practice (COP), he acknowledges that the term represents behaviour that has been part of how humanity organises itself for a long time, the concept is not new but he does provide some very useful illustrations of how communities work and the contexts they work in. He also provides a concise and well articulated statement that summarises the concept well:

"Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. "
  Wenger (2006)

This short video provides an excellent example of how rhythm and movement bond an African group, it conveys a sense of community participation, shows the passion for what they do, how rhythm is integral to who they are, how interaction with rhythm fills their lives and that there are many skills to be learned and challenges to be overcome to achieve their shared passion.  

There are many other practices that this community share but the making of rhythm is the key element that fille their being, it is embedded deep in their culture, awareness of rhythm is evident in every footstep they take, in almost every move they make. 

The Ultraversity project considered Wenger's perceptions at the design stage and it became a core element of the learning design. The notion of 'Community of Inquiry' (COI) has similar concepts to COP and was also incorporated:

An educational community of inquiry is a group of individuals who collaboratively engage in purposeful critical discourse and reflection to construct personal meaning and confirm mutual understanding.
Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000)

The COI concept map provides an excellent insight into the potential structure of a COI.

In this model there are three core 'presences':

  • Teaching presence is linked to design and facilitation of the community.
  • Social presence; the ability of learners to project their personality into the community.
  • Cognitive presence; the ability of members to construct meaning through communication.

The two concepts are combined in our approach and the aim of course tutors is to Facilitate the development of vibrant Communities of Practitioner Inquirers. The common passions of community members (students and staff) include:

  • Improving personal practice in the workplace.
  • Becoming adept at Professional Development Planning (PDP) and achieving PDP targets.
  • Identifying problems, applying systematic processes to arrive at viable and effective solutions.
  • Using technologies creatively to achieve high standards in communication of information to others.
  • Becoming agents of change, inspiring others in the workplace to aspire to high standards of operation.
  • Developing into critically reflective practitioners unafraid to challenge orthodoxy or authority.
  • Aspiring to a brighter future.

The processes used to achieve these aims include, but are not limited to:

  • Personalisation of learning - learners take a significant level of responsibility for designing their own interpretation of how they will meet learning outcomes.
  • Negotiation of learning - Individual Learning Plans are reviewed by course facilitators and appropriate tasks are negotiated.
  • Identifying gaps in knowledge and how these can be bridged or filled.
  • Examine theory - apply theory to personal practice - re-examine theory in the light of experience. This can be summarised as; Reflection - Inquiry - Reflection.
  • Carry out small-scale action based research projects in the workplace.
  • Analysing the quality of experience of stakeholders impacted by the individual's actions.
  • Sharing, caring and offering support through critical feedback in the spirit of friendship.

Making learning delightful is not always an easy task but it is one that is worth aspiring too. Designing tasks that are easy may lead to learners achieving, but there can be an empty or anticlimactic feeling as there was little sense of overcoming challenge, of personal development or of developing expertise. It is through overcoming challenge that we tend to feel higher levels of satisfaction or even elation. If a challenge is perceived as being 'beyond attainment' this can lead to despair or frustration. If the challenge is not beyond attainment it is important for tutors to identify the governing values that are holding a student back and offer the encouragement and support needed to alter perspectives and improve motivation. 

If a learning task is well designed it will inspire a learner to aspire to excellence, it will imbue the learner with a perception that there are achievable steps towards expertise and that the journey will be worthwhile. The concept of 'Optimal Learning' suggests that learners engaged in well designed tasks will become willingly immersed in the experience and feel a sense of 'flow'; a state in which it is often reported that time has no meaning. Studies carried out by Csikszentmihalyi into Optimal Learning found that:

"...the phenomenology of enjoyment 
has eight major components. When people reflect on how it feels 

when their experience is most positive, they mention at least one, 

and often all, of the following:
1. We confront tasks we have a chance of completing;
2. We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing;
3. The task has clear goals;
4. The task provides immediate feedback;
5. One acts with deep, but effortless involvement, that
removes from awareness the worries and frustrations
of everyday life;
6. One exercises a sense of control over their actions;
7. Concern for the self disappears, yet, paradoxically
the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow
experience is over; and
8. The sense of duration of time is altered.
The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep
enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great
deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it."

Csikszentmihalyi (1990)

Below is an extract from a discussion post by a student who in 2005 had been lacking in confidence with her relationship with technology. It seems clear to me that, at the outset of the module she was doing, the challenge was evident, that tasks she was set were appropriate, motivating and perceived as achievable:

Let battle commence!
Although I am becoming less afraid, I still regard technology as a bit of a “Me vs. It” scenario. Battle plans are drawn up, in the shape of:

  • What do I hope to achieve?
  • Is it achievable?
  •  Can I do it?
Tentatively I approach my enemy. Cautiously I set to work. With every step forward I take, there are now fewer I take back, although not yet my friend technology is becoming less frightening and more intriguing to me."

Having worked her way through a Reflective Practice module, in which she was required to use technology to generate creative approaches to sharing information, she emerged more confident and articulating a sense of achievement:

"Now here I stand in March 2006 on the summit of my own personal “Reflective Mountain” and look at me now!
My confidence has grown and I now have belief in my ability as both a teaching assistant and a student.
This lady who once stated “ I feel like I am climbing Mount Everest in flip-flops” (previous module) can now categorically state that the flip-flops are off and the hiking boots and backpack are on. 

As I complete the descent I know that this will not be the last time I climb this mountain. I will undoubtedly return many times, and each time the view will be different, no less challenging, but just as beautiful."

Vygotski's notion of the Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotski, 1978) is often discussed in relation to learning in schools, however; it can also be useful to consider in relation to adult learning. The approaches used in mentored learning and facilitated learning are examples of where the learner can be provided with scaffolding to help them bridge the gap between existing and new knowledge. A weakness with the theory, in my opinion, is the concept that there is an upper limit to what is ultimately achievable, this is a difficult limit to define. When Piaget's developmental stages are taken as absolute in defining what a child of a certain age might be able to achieve this can limit perceptions of what else might be achieved. Thankfully in more recent years these stages are less influential in teaching practice, although it seems to be a fundamental aspect of humans that they are very much capable of designing their own limiting perceptions of what they might, or might not, be capable of achieving. Raising awareness of limits students place on themselves can help them develop the perceptions and motivation to face challenges in a positive way. When reflecting on part of her message: 
  • What do I hope to achieve?
  • Is it achievable?
  • Can I do it?
this student described how she had not quite had the confidence to say "I can do it" and that she felt that, in an academic world, she should not say 'I can' until she had evidence that she could. The message sits in the nexus between doubt and confidence and shows some understanding of the need to be credibile by constructing statements that are appropriately tentative.

The Ultraversity project developed an approach where students are provided with contextualised assessment criteria and where there is constructive alignment between these and negotiated learning tasks. Fundamental to the community learning process is collaborative learning. In our online communities this involves students supporting each other through constructive and critical discussions, offering existing knowledge to scaffold others, sharing and reflecting on personal experiences, discussing and debating ideas for the good of the whole community and highlighting where improvement to work in progress could be made and where better alignment between task and assessment criteria is needed. In line with the COP and COI concepts, course facilitators (tutors) share the same passions about learning and improvement aspirations as students, they are open about identifying and addressing their own strengths and weaknesses and about aspiring for excellence. They are part of the collaborative learning process, learning with and from students, facilitated learning places no value on the old style concept of teachers as gatekeepers of knowledge; the aim is to become catalysts of learning. Social interaction provides students with insight into who the person inside the teacher is and this in turn helps students project their own personality into the community.

The place of community for students was traditionally on campus - being on site they had the cues of physical spaces to reinforce this feeling of belonging to academia. For online students the learning places are sometimes referred to as being "virtual". I have always felt this to be a misnomer as the experience of belonging to and working in an online environment is very real, although the actual physical existence of the community spaces and interactions is via electron flow, much of which is hosted in machines that may be thousands of miles from the users, it is still a physical phenomenon that is as real as bricks and mortar. When I first started teaching online it was often done in closed communities made with bespoke or proprietary software as shown in this 2007 diagram:

There has been considerable evolution in the range of software used and in the scope of communities that students belong to since that diagram was constructed but it is clear that the role of 'in house purpose built' software was rapidly abandoned. This was a decision made in part due to cost of software development but also related to the rapid expansion of proprietary and open source provision that was becoming increasingly useable and reliable. In 2012 the core community activity is located in the closed University supplied VLE but students now supplement this with interactions in a wider range of open community places such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. The location and kinds of community interaction currently available to students will be covered in a future blog post.


Csikszentmihalyi, M., 1990. FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper and Row [Online]

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., and Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105. [Online] Accessed 13 08 2012 via:

Piaget, J., 1977. Intellectual evolution from adolescence to adulthood (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1977)

Vygotsky, L. S., 1978. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological proceses. Chapter 6 Interaction between learning and development (79-91). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. and Snyder, W., 2006. Cultivating communities of practice: a guide to managing knowledge. Harvard Business School Press, 2002. More information available online at

Friday, 10 August 2012

Distance Learning

I was reading this post on how to get the most out of a distance learning course yesterday and reflected on how negative some of the thoughts are. There are some valid points but much of it does not reflect the approach we have developed on the Anglia Ruskin fully online BA LTT course. Words in italics are from the article.

"If you don’t have to attend tutorials and you have the flexibility to study when you want it can be easy to not do as much as you need to...You may have access to a tutor, but it isn’t quite the same communicating via email as it is talking to someone face-to-face.

As far as I am aware most f2f courses also offer optional tutorials, there is no compulsion to attend. Online tutorials via Skype, Facetime or the good old fashioned telephone are little different to f2f tutorials. Tutorials held via VOIP offer the potential for group tutorials and the advantage that the audio can easily be captured and listened to again and again to help students induct the learning and tutors review their approach.

"You therefore have to be extremely determined to take a distance learning course, as you have to be able to focus on what needs to be done.

I am not sure 'extreme determination' is needed any more so than on a f2f course, on both you need to 'focus on what needs to be done', taught time on a f2f course is fairly minimal and autonomous study prevails unless you are on a course such as geology where a lot of field-work / lab time is built into the time-table. 

"If you’re having difficulty with reading or writing essays this may not be picked up on unless you actually get in contact with your tutor.

I guess this can happen, however; in our online community of practitioners (Wenger, 2001) and dialogue based approach, students are required to participate on a weekly basis, tutors notice if a student is not participating. There is a requirement for students to read and respond to discussion posts, to share their work for peer review regularly and to offer peer review to fellow students. Tutors monitor peer review and intervene when needed to ensure that review comments are constructively aligned with assessment tasks and criteria. Tutors also provide digitally annotated reviews of work in progress. This makes sure that weaknesses are picked up at an early stage and appropriate support is in place. 

"Clearly, if you’re having difficulty understanding certain concepts you have to ask someone else, as it is better to ask for help than to give up your course because you can’t understand something." 
This is good advice, we open each module with a week where students are advised to read all course resources and raise any uncertainties in online community. They are encouraged to articulate what they think the resources are asking them to do, this in itself can help conceptualisation but also provides other students the chance to add their own interpretations and for tutors to affirm or clarify as needed. We also make sure they understand that there is no concept of  'A stupid question' and it rapidly becomes clear that other students either have the same question in mind or have the answer. This period of negotiating and clarifying meaning can be critical in developing community bonding. 

The notion of balancing work life and study is one that was identified in 2000 when I was working with North Thames Thoracic medicine students, online asynchronous learning was an emergent pedagogy at that time but very much appreciated. 

“You have the fabric there of exactly what we want; we want to go home, relax and when the kids are asleep, we can say this is the time to learn."
 Respiratory SpR. November 2000.

It was also identified as theme in our 2008 paper 'Personalised Learning and the Ultraversity Experience'. Most students manage to create a good balance fairly quickly. We provide a work focused course so a proportion of study is based in the workplace during normal working hours. A significant proportion of students reported that they were able to negotiate some study time with their employer, this ranged from a few hours to a whole day per week and varied during the course timetable with a greater likely-hood of time being given close to assessment points or at key points during the implementation of work based research projects. 

This extract from a paper, co-written by course tutors and a student provides an insight from a student that evidences the benefits of online learning and of work-based learning in helping her achieve a good balance between life, work and study:

One of the key features of the BA LTR was the autonomy that it gave me, autonomy to not only devise my own learning timetable but also the autonomy to judge where and when to apply my evolving research skills to real life situations in the work place.  Work based learning empowered me, with full support from my employers, to identify areas for improvement in the workplace, resulting in powerful impact on my academic, personal and professional development.

The action research led modules enabled a fusion of work and study, as a mother of two with an extremely busy life the ability to combine these two elements of my life so seamlessly was a significant contributing factor to the fact that I completed and committed to the course.  The sole reason that I had never undertaken a traditional degree course was my perception that I would need to carve up my time, redress my priorities and fit my life around study.  With the BA LTR course study fitted quite comfortably into my life. Whilst it was not easy and had high demands the way that it dovetailed my work allowed me to access higher education.
Arnold, Pickford and O’Dunne (2007)

Negotiation of study time with family can be critical to getting the balance right - the benefits of a higher qualified parent who is more likely to obtain a higher paid job are clear to partners and older children if they are overtly discussed and feedback from students indicates that negotiation is often successful. Balancing some quiet study time with focused family time can help younger children accept the change. We have since done some research into study patterns and identified a range of approaches to fitting in online study time outside of the study time at work.

  1. Early birds - some students set a pattern of doing an hour or so of study every day in the morning before work or before family get up at the weekend. 
  2. Evenings - a more common pattern is starting online study in the evening when family are settled, this may well be a fairly regular log-in to the online community between 7 and 10 pm.
  3. Night owls - a significant proportion of students start their study in the late evening and make use of quiet time after children go to bed. Some will study over the 11pm - 2am period although this is a minority sport it is more frequent close to assessment points.
  4. Weekends - Some students put aside a whole day at the weekend as the main study time and augment this with occasional forays into the online community during the week at convenient but not preset times.
  5.  Random scatter - study is done as and when needed or when inspiration strikes. 

These patterns are not always adhered to strictly, students may have a dominant pattern augmented by opportunity or, as Julie articulates in the short video below, will log in when inspiration strikes.

Tutors also work flexible hours and it is not unusual for a tutor to be in the online communities anywhere from 6 am to 2 am on weekdays or at weekends. This flexibility is enabled by home working and allows tutors to make use of times when inspiration strikes. For example I woke early a few weeks ago with some new thoughts about how to convey the value of using an online learning journal and recorded, then uploaded, a podcast on the topic before 6 am on a Sunday. As the thoughts were fresh in my mind and I was fairly pleased with them the enthusiasm was also conveyed in a way that might not have been so apparent were I to have waited until the normal working hours to do my work.

"It can be tough to stick with a distance learning course, but if you use all the materials provided and make contact with your tutor and other students you will find that studying in this way is a rewarding experience.

I totally agree with this statement, as with an on-campus course, participation is essential, students who have a light engagement during the earlier week of semester then try and cram it all in in the final weeks rarely flourish. Students who do not take an active part in learning, ignore the suggested learning schedule and hope they can wing it do not flourish. Fortunately we rarely have students like this and as mentioned earlier the community of practice approach makes participation visible. Tutors can also monitor attendance / interactions using the statistical trackers in the VLE software and will contact students if they have concerns about lack of attendance.

Below is one of our fairly recent 1st Class Hons students talking about her approach to study and some of the benefits of this kind of learning. Julie also gained recognition by the workplace during her studies and after graduation achieved promotion to the post of Business Operations Team Leader.


Arnold, L., Pickford, S., and O’Dunne, V. (2007) Real world research: Inquiry led undergraduate work-based learning in the virtual paradigm. Presented to the All Ireland Society of Higher Education Conference, Maynooth – 31st August 2007. Available at

Millwood, R., Powell, S., Tindal, I. (2008). Personalised Learning and the Ultraversity Experience.Interactive Learning Environments, Volume 16, Issue 1, pp. 63 - 81. Routledge.

Wenger. E., 2001. Supporting communities of practice: a survey of community-oriented technologies. Self-published report available at

Thursday, 9 August 2012

The Ultraversity model for online learning

Back in 2002 the Ultraversity project was set up to explore how to provide a delightful and effective fully online learning experience for undergraduate students wishing to use their work as a focus for study, the first cohort started in July 2003. As I write this we are recruiting for the 15th cohort of students who will start in September 2012. Many elements of the original vision continue to be mainstays of the current learning design. This post aims to summarise the key elements of the 2012 model and provide an insight into the experience prospective students can expect.

When we say fully online we mean it - students will not meet each other or course tutors face-to-face until graduation day. Some students do decide to move from online friendship to meeting occasionally face to face but this is not a planned part of the course design; many students are far to remote from each other geographically for this to be practical. This does not seem to be a barrier to developing deep and trusting relationships as illustrated by the email tag a year 3 student used: "Life-long learning - life-long friends."

Unlike many distance learning models dialogue between tutor and students is central to the learning experience. We believe participation in dialogue is of more value than mere reading and regurgitation of facts. Discussions are held in a Virtual Learning Environment forum and do not require attendance at particular times or on specified days. Tutors start themed discussion threads several times a week and work with students to develop a vibrant online community. All students are expected to read the discussions and to participate by responding to messages and starting message threads of their own. Discussion posts may also include audio recordings from tutors, this helps convey a sense of person and can also aid interpretation of text based posts from tutors.

As well as the discussions there are online course resources including a module schedule table that sets out a recommended pace for the learning tasks. Students personalise their learning by developing an individual learning plan that is shared with the tutor. This helps convey how the student has interpreted the learning tasks and how they have related them to their personal work context. It also allows the students to vary the pace of study to an extent if this is needed as a response to events in the workplace. For example; a teaching assistant may be faced with an OfSTED visit or a residential school trip and need to adapt the activities accordingly.

Work centred focus - developing professional competences - learning how to become more proficient at doing what you do.

Process driven learning - learning about processes such as Professional Development Planning, Reflective Practice and Action research. Theory is explored through a critical review then by practical application of the theory in the workplace and further review of the effectiveness of applying theory. This provides a good balance between theory and practice, this is something that employees are increasingly looking for when considering applicants for jobs.

Facilitated peer review model - students use constructive alignment strategies to self assess their work in progress. This is supported by peer review where students help each other progress by reviewing each other's work in progress and offering commentary in the spirit of critical friendship. Tutors monitor this process and ensure that review comments are aligned with expectations.

Professional Development Planning - personal target setting, reviewing progress and achievement of targets.

Organisational learning - considering how the individual can contribute to the development of the whole organisation by improving personal practice, involving others in research and sharing what has been learned.

Reflective practice - this is a very effective process and one that is used by professionals in many contexts; healthcare, social work, education, management and many more.

Small-scale practical research projects - using action inquiry methods to identify and implement changes for improvement of personal practice.

Developing use of online search technologies - for locating and retrieving information.

Developing creative use of technologies - using a wide range of technologies to develop presentation skills.

E-Portfolio - assessment products are not limited to the standard essay.  Assessment is by a patchwork of text and media files in an online e-portfolio. Although a proportion of formal writing is required, students are encouraged to use alternative genre and media to present aspects of their assessment products.

Recognition by workplace - with study being focused on workplace competencies and designed to improve performance in the workplace, our students often report significant recognition of their growing abilities by the workplace.

Preparing for employment/further learning - this theme is developed throughout the three years. It culminates with a focused module in the final semester where students develop a systematic approach to preparing for future employment and further learning. They review their progress, create an evidence based impact study, define their strengths and show how they are planning to address any weaknesses. They also identify potential routes to achieve their aspirations. Anglia Ruskin also have specialist employability advice available from: Follow them on Twitter @ARemployability

The course has a significant green impact - learning is paperless, assessment is paperless, there is no transport to and from a university, no requirement for on-campus built spaces. The consumption of domestic electricity can be reduced by accessing the course via portable devices such as laptops, iPads, smart phones etc. that can be powered by solar chargers or in-car inverters.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Viable systems approach to managing diversity

We are considering how to manage complexity in course structure at the moment, this prompted retrospection on past work and analysis of our current course structure. The process of evaluation and improvement is undertaken regularly by staff and draws on student review of their learning experience. This comes from analysis through conversation on module discussion boards and feedback via the University formal module review forms. Tutors combine this data with personal reflective analysis of their own experience and collaborative discussion with the teaching team to devise steady improvement. The cyclical implementation of these processes places action inquiry at the heart of the course evolution.

The Ultraversity project developed to identify and explore a new approach to learning design that was based, in part on cybernetic principles, in particular Beer's (1985) Viable System Model (VSM). The initial analysis of the variety and complexity of commonly used approaches to course design in 2003 lead to what has become a time tested viable system. Some of the key components are:
  1. Learning that is process rather than topic driven, this places strategies for research and professional development at the heart of the course so allowing significant personalisation and the application of the principles to a wide range of work contexts. This maximised the diversity of workplaces one course would be relevant to and consequently the potential range of students that might be attracted to it.
  2. Minimising the number of modules by placing variety / flexibility within one fixed set of modules rather than achieving it via students selecting from a bank of modules. This required negotiation of study focus between student and tutor to ensure personalisation of study was appropriate to meet the learning outcomes of any one module. This is achieved via module specific ILPs or research proposals. 
  3. Maximising the one-to-many aspect of the tutor voice by developing a dialogic approach to learning in collaborative online communities of practitioner inquirers. This evolved from the traditional distance learning model where a tutor would speak separately, but less frequently, to each individual and so often end up repeating the same message many times.
  4. Reducing complexity within module resources by breaking down the activities into a range of smaller patches that accumulate over the semester to create a cohesive assessment product.
  5. Self assessment of meta-learning through a retrospective analytical commentary.
  6. Assessment by online media rich portfolios amplifies the potential for students to express themselves creatively by using a range of digital literacies. 
The resulting work-focused approach was validated in 2003 and continues to be current almost a decade later. The approach has proved to be effective for many students who come from a wide range of workplaces. These include, but are not restricted to: teaching assistants, university administrators, librarians, nurses, parents, logistics managers, charity workers, ICT coordinators, Bursars, small business managers, mentors, trainers, sports coaches and many more. The process driven nature of the course enables this diverse set of learners to learn together in a collaborative online community of practitioner inquirers.

To organise and deliver such a course, staff needed to:

Have an interdisciplinary background and be prepared to to widen their knowledge base.
Be confident in replacing tutoring of subject knowledge with facilitation of process driven learning.
Support students in an asynchronous online environment rather than through real-time campus based sessions.
Provide facilitation of reflective and action based inquiry activities.
Be adept at negotiating personalised learning foci with students.
Support students via modelling good practice in using a range of digital literacies.
Be prepared to assess media rich e-portfolios.
Contribute to collaborative team teaching.
A tutor to staff ratio of 1:25 on each module would give the opportunity for high quality teaching and feedback.

In 2005 the VSM process was applied to further evolve our pedagogy as student review had mentioned initial feelings of overload in relation to course resources for some modules. The solution to attenuating complexity was in the form of telling the story of a learning journey and was expressed as an interactive map. This reduction of variety assisted with initial conceptualisation of tasks. As students click on each stage on the map they follow the progress of an avatar and read concise text relating to each activity, the augmentation via more expansive audio story clips amplifies the subsequent understanding.

Fig 1. Screenshot of an interactive learning journey hosted in the Anglia VLE.
One student’s reaction to this approach conveyed a sense of excitement rather than overload:
“ exciting is this!!!
The climb begins.
Good luck one and all”

Another student reflected the journey metaphor in her assignment and implied a change in motivation:
 “I was ready to hang up my walking boots [after the previous module] but I pulled them on, tightened the laces and began the climb. I soon found myself at the first plateau and learning activity...I thoroughly enjoyed this module and I hope it is reflected in my work. I really liked the mountain and loved the climb as much as the descent!!!”

Although this solution was not entirely audio based it was the concept of storytelling that led to the conceptualisation of the journey and the audio clips that provided amplification and a cognitive bridge to the more detailed course resources. The example above was also designed to model to students how they could take creative approaches to telling the story of their journey through the module. Students submit work that evidences their ability to communicate using a range of digital literacies including: creative video, animations, play scripts, poetry, newspaper or magazine style reports, audio podcasts, PowerPoint presentations and much more.

Beer, S., 1985. Diagnosing The System for Organisations. John Wiley, London and New York, NY.

Bradshaw, P., Powell, S. and Terrell, I. 2005. Developing engagement in online community of inquiry: lessons for higher education. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, Vol. 42 No. 3, pp. 205-15.

Chapman, C. and Ramondt, L. 2005. Strong community—deep learning: Exploring the link. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 42(3), pp217–230.
Millwood, R., Powell, S. and Tindal, I. 2008a. Personalised learning and the Ultraversity experience. Interactive Learning Environments, Vol. 16 No. 1, pp. 63-81.

Millwood, R., Powell, S. and Tindal, I. 2008b. Developing technology-enhanced, work-focused learning – a pattern language approach. Proceedings for TSSOL 2008, Technology Support for Self-Organised Learners. Austria. pp. 84-105.

Robin, B. 2006. The Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling. In: C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2006 (pp. 709-716). Chesapeake.