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.