Learning design principles: educational pragmatists

I am trying to write a proper academic paper about the principles we used when developing FSLT12&13. But, as I do I find myself getting bogged down. So in the spirit of Digital scholarship (Weller 2011) I am going to exercise some of the ideas here.

We are educational pragmatists. Change is brought about through critical, experiential, social learning activity in connected communities where people collaborate to achieve outcomes. All actors and contexts are hybrids and knowledge is distributed through the network of connections between people, places and things (and ideas are things).

Our principles flow initially from a particular epistemological orientation and a belief that teachers (in all sectors) can use an awareness of their orientation to knowledge as one among several means with which to approach developing and improving practice. We further believe that it can help learners if teachers act with reflective self awareness of their orientations to knowledge, making those orientations as explicit as may be appropriate to the level and topic being addressed. This is to say that, whatever other underpinnings, we are pragmatists, grounded in experience (Dewey 1910/1997) and we are engaged (sometimes participatory) scholars with a purpose to bring about change through activity as much as understanding (Dyrness, 2008)

Our perspective is broadly sociocultural and critical-theoretical. Socioculturalism “…focuses on the link between language and learning, both of which are viewed as fundamentally social phenomena…” (Lillis 2003, p.xv). Neither language, nor learning, exist outside communities of use. Beliefs, dominant and oppositional, shape orientations to action (Herman & Chomsky 1988). Further, all language is suffused with cultural assumptions that makes learning highly context-dependent. (Galison 2007a; Galison 2007b; Kuhn 1962). As Popper would have it, “All observation is theory laden” (Popper 1996 page).

Our epistemology takes a middle road between relativism and realism. There is a reality “out there” but knowledge of that reality is a quality of the knower: one reality; many interpretations. In essence we are critical realists (Collier, 1994). Knowledge is not simply a quality of the individual. Knowledge is distributed and inheres also in the artefacts and abstractions of culture (Pea, 1993; Moll, Tapia, & Whitmore, 1993). We might say that knowledge is in the network (Downes 2009), or simply that knowledge, like language is sociocultural. With respect to learning we would recognise ourselves as social constructivists (Vygotsky, 1962). The learner builds knowledge and understanding of the world through language and activity engaged in with others, some of whom are more knowledgeable and practiced, and others who may be less so. Learning can be expressed as a journey through a zone of proximal development with more experienced and practiced individuals providing “scaffolding” (Wood, Bruner & Ross 1976, Anghileri, 2006; Rourke & Coleman, 2010) to aid that journey.


Anghileri, J. (2006). Scaffolding practices that enhance mathematics learning. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 9 (1), 33–52.

Collier, A. (1994). Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy. London: Verso.

Dewey, J. (1910/1997). How we think (unabridged republication of the 1910 edition). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Downes, S. (2009). What Connectivism Is.  Retrieved 17 July 2013 from: http://halfanhour.blogspot.co.uk/2007/02/what-connectivism-is.html

Dyrness, A. (2008). Research for Change versus Research as Change: Lessons from a Mujerista Participatory Research Team. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 39 (1), 23–44.

Galison, P. (2007a). Using Linguistic Anthropology to See How Scientific Disciplines Talk | Berkman Center. Berkman Centre for Internet and Society, Harvard University. Retrieved 22 July 2013, from http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/events/luncheon/2007/09/galison

Galison, P. (2007b, July 10). De-localized Production of Scientific Knowledge. Presented at the Berkman seminar series, Berkman Centre, Harvard University. Retrieved 22 July 2013 from http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/mediaberkman/2007/09/21/de-localized-production-of-scientific-knowledge-2/

Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lillis. (2003). Introduction: mapping the traditions of a social perspective on language and literacy. In S. Goodman, T. Lillis, J. Maybin, & N. Mercer (Eds.), Language, literacy and education: a reader (pp. xiii–xxii). Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books.

Moll, L. C., Tapia, J., & Whitmore, K. F. (1993). Living knowledge: the social distribution of cultural resources for thinking. In G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations (pp. 139–163). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pea, R. (1993). Practices of distributed intelligence and designs for education. In G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed cognitions: psychological and educational considerations (pp. 47–87). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Popper, K. (1996). The myth of the framework: In defence of Science and Rationality. London: Routledge.

Rourke, A. J., & Coleman, K. S. (2010). A Learner Support System: Scaffolding to Enhance Digital Learning. International Journal of Technology, Knowledge & Society, 6(1), 55–70.

Vygotsky, L. (1962). Thinking and Speaking (first published as Thought and Language). (E. Hanfmann & G. Vakar, Eds.) (Lev Vygotsky Archive transcribed by Andy Blunden.). Cambridge MA: MIT Press. Retrieved 17 July 2013 from http://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/works/words/index.htm

Weller, M. (2011). The digital scholar: how technology is transforming scholarly practice (Kindle.). London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Wood, D., Bruner, J. & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17, 89–100

Many worlds of teaching in higher education

The intro week of #fslt13 has zipped past and things got off to a good start. Will the substance of the course hold up as well as the intro to the process? There is still a lot to do over the next five weeks but it is much better than starting with a raft of problems!

This is a brief reflection on week 0, from my perspective. What made it work. The team, the participants and the platform. And within these there are many subcategories, of course.

I put the people first: team :: participants. But, there is a continuum and that itself is one of the key features of this course. Guest speakers are participants, some “expert participants” are alumni from last year, tutors are engaging in the discussions, no one has a role that is “pure” one thing and not another.

This goes to my exploration of third space theory as an approach to understanding open online courses – and maybe many other educational phenomena.This is a theme I will return to. We are all hybrids; there is no privileged origin to which we return. As much as we may yearn for some ideal academy or celebrate transiting national or social divisions we all bring the echoes and interpretations of all our many cultures. In one sense everything is always new and in another even the newest shiny gadget has within it all the history and ancestory of its making.

Activity and interaction in #fslt13 open online course

The #fslt team sat down today and thrashed out the mid-level detail of how the four activities that are at the heart of this course will work this time and how badges will be awarded for completion of activities.

We had some principles to work with. Learning is dialogic. Everyone has the opportunity for peer feedback. Assessed and non-assessed participants will mix as equals. Peer feedback works best in small groups,  therefore feedback groups should have a max size of 5. Peer feedback has to be opt-in. It is an open course. You can make your own way through. We struggled over persistence of peer feedback groups. Benefits and detriments both ways, but we decided that we had to allow for all sorts of variable participation. If people want to self-organise a persistent group that could be done but the course default will treat each activity grouping independently. We wanted consistency in the interface We didn’t want to use a different subset of tools for each task. We know MOOCs are daunting and want to keep it as easy as possible for participants.

Continue reading “Activity and interaction in #fslt13 open online course”

MOOCs and teaching: a reply to Stephen Downes

Stephen Downes is unfairly hard on teachers and teaching in this post (The Great Rebranding), or may have fallen into a (rare) category error. Yes, given the way the world is organised the 25:1 or 50:1 ratio of students to teachers can be seen as a luxury that few can afford. Downes says, “Having one instructor for 20-50 people is expensive, and most of the world cannot afford that cost.”

MOOCs (x or c) provide some remediation. The cMOOC model is a radical challenge to institutionalised education. But, I do not think it is the elitist preciousness of “instructors” – or not JUST their preciousness – that seeks to preserve a 25:1 kind of interaction. I do not really even need to preserve the 1. But, I care a lot to preserve the 25, or some number between maybe 7 and 35 people as an optimum size for a culture circle, a seminar, a class… or a tutor group.

And, I do think there is something useful about having skills to help the 25 or so to learn. I do think teachers are – or can be – important. If this is a luxury, that is a problem with the world of money and power, not the form. I have made suggestions in this direction in recent posts about stadium rock and my big question. Teaching does not have to be done by institutionalised academics. Groups can self-organise. Freire struggled with the problem of educators who were not from the social milieu of those in education. There is a fine line between liberation and neo-colonialism.

We, as human beings, need to have meaningful relations with other human beings in order to learn meaningful things. I do not suggest we can’t learn stuff on our own from books or other forms of resource-based learning. I do not mean that this stuff is not (or cannot be) meaningful. But to put whatever we have learned into practice we need to do it with (or for or even to) other people. As far as I can see the purpose of learning is to be able to have some kind of influence, some autonomy, some self and community realisation. Media of all forms can be a surrogate or a simulation for some of this. We can practice with a tape in front of a mirror. But at some point we are going to have to inter-act (I hyphenate deliberately) with other people.

Therefore the challenge for me in working with a team to design a MOOC about learning how to teach in higher education (#fslt) is how to make sure that this MOOC is about enabling people to communicate with other people.

FSLT Open Online Course Accredited!

In a very positive move, Oxford Brookes University has accredited two open online courses to our Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education (PCTHE). The two courses are:

  • First steps into learning and teaching in higher education (FSLT)
  • Teaching Online (TO)

Both courses are offered as open online courses and the accreditation commences in semester 2 of academic year 2013-14 (February-May 2014). The courses are rated at 10 credits at level 7 (postgraduate level: see Credit in Higher Education and Higher education credit framework for England and  The frameworks for higher education qualifications and credit: how they relate to academic standards). This will make FSLT one of the first accredited open online courses in the UK. Formal accreditation begins in Academic Year 2013-14.

The pricing model is a little complicated. We are currently testing the “freemium” model of free participation/pay for credit.

Anyone can participate in the courses for free. We call this “Open participation”. Open participants have access to all the course facilities, content, discussion forums, virtual classroom. We are developing an informal badging system for completion of the activities. Open participants get everything except: personal tutor feedback, summative assessment, a certificate and the transferrable credits.

Transferrable credits are recognised throughout the UK higher education sector (credit accumulation and transfer scheme CATS). They can be applied to Postgraduate Certificates, Diplomas and MAs in Education.

Enrolled participants may be required to pay a fee as follows:

  • Staff at Oxford Brookes University, no charge
  • External participants pay a fee for summative assessment, tutor feedback and accreditation, currently GBP £345.
  • Staff at affiliated colleges currently can enrol at 50% of the external participant fee.

That is correct at this writing. But watch this space for developments.