Leaving already, January? You trickster.

Dear January, we need to have a serious talk. Already you’re leaving and we have not done all the things that you promised I would achieve. This is not the first time. In fact, you do this every year. Let me remind you what it was meant to be like.

In early December, you looked simply wonderful. There you waited, hinting of cosy days and warm blankets, with the space to catch up on data analysis, writing, and frankly a lot of reading. I dreamed of you in December, when the days got darker and colder. As we crawled, exhausted, toward the winter break and realized that most things would now have to wait until ‘after Christmas’, you were all reassuring smiles and comforting words. You promised that we would have time to tidy up all those loose ends, and set off brightly into the new year.

Even in those first few days of the year, everything felt peaceful and calm. I had around 5 days of actually feeling on track. I even felt refreshed; I was one of the lucky ones to escape those sicknesses that catch you when you finally set the email auto-replies. Then it happened: You turned evil. Weeks shortened. Deadlines gathered speed. Everyone got sick, again. Meetings were cancelled, rescheduled, then cancelled again. Days have been lost just emailing. Preparation work for classes has filled all available space like a suffocating gas. And then we forgot about the exams and the marking – always a blind spot – until it hit us from the side. In brief, January, you tricked me again.

And so it is with academic months. Each has a set of characteristics that looks different depending on which side you are on. July, for instance, is an inverse tardis (huge on the outside, tiny on the inside). January, however, is a particularly devious month.  For those of you who also feel deceived by January and worn down before we even got started, take heart. I have a plan. Or at least some options on how to tackle this next year.

  • Option a: Go nocturnal for January. The nights are longer, so I’ll get more work done. With most people sleeping while I’m awake, I won’t have to spend valuable energy trying to be sociable when my head is still dealing with the trauma of January. The weather is better at night this month anyway.


  • Option b: Make a deal with an academic in the southern hemisphere, and hide/take a writing retreat there for the duration of January. You can return the favour in July. This may, however, cause slight friction with your colleagues and probably not worth the pain of dealing with this in February.


  • Option c: Deny the existence of January until midnight on 31st December. Plan as if you are heading straight into February. That way, January will not be able to tease you with unfulfilled promises and will instead be a nice surprise with 31 extra days that you didn’t expect.


It is probably best that I go for option c, should I want to keep my job and not be a complete nightmare for everyone else around me. So as we face February, comrades, be strong and let us not be tricked again. Remember: there is no January.


View from the top?

At the end of a 10-week-long online course (Open Networked Learning) and with the work complete, I am at that heady stage of accomplishment. Akin to climbing a mountain, it feels like I have reached the summit, and can allow myself at least 30 minutes of a warm-glow-of-achievement before I contemplate the climb back down[1]. The view from here looks pretty good; everything seems in perspective and connected together, and the jigsaw pattern[2] is complete. All the struggles and stumbles along the way are forgotten, or at least diminished in memory. It all seems worth it.

What have I learnt, then, in these 10 weeks? Some interesting digital tools (e.g. Scalable Learning, Google Classroom, Padlet, Voice Thread) that I hope to be able to weave into my teaching activities in some way. It no longer feels adequate to simply put some documents on the university’s internal server, for students to read before they come to class. I have reached that point at which, with a sense of panic, I realise that I might be heading swiftly toward the category of ‘older teachers’. This means that not only do I need to ‘keep up’ with new technologies, but also do this without any sense of awkwardness. Consider that when I began teaching, we used acetate sheets and an overhead projector, and printed out handouts (if we were nice) to give out to the students in class. I was one of the first wave to embrace powerpoint and to upload my slides onto the server. I thought I was the new generation. Now, as I glance at my wardrobe (yes, a fair amount of corduroy and sensible shoes), I need to face the truth: powerpoint is so old-school now.

No less important, I have also been reminded that it is possible to work effectively with people you have never met before, and with whom you can feel connected, even if they are working in different countries and disciplines. All within a few weeks. We only ever met through Zoom or Adobe Connect, or on Google+, but I felt like I was part of a real group. I was very fortunate to have such friendly and knowledgeable group members, and I learnt as much from them as I did from my own reading. Having used problem-based learning in my own teaching practice, it was nice to be a PBL student once again[3].

Finally, I have also learnt that I am not really at the top. There is no ‘top’. What do they say: that the day you stop learning is the day you stop living? That certainly applies to me. Sometimes I wonder if I am an achievement junkie (barely has one goal been reached before I am working toward the next one), or whether this is just a thing that everyone does. It doesn’t really matter either way. What is important is what am I going to do with these new shiny tools. Time for a coffee and to get back to work.

[1] Of course, this being an analogy, I will instead be continuing onwards and upwards.

[2] See the first blog post.

[3] I had a similar experience in an online Masters course in 2015, which also used problem-based learning, and where for the first time I worked with fellow students (in different continents and disciplines). It was at that point that I first learnt how amazing it can be to work together with relative strangers. Having the video-conferencing was essential, because then we could see and talk to each other directly: it provided the tools to help collaboration.

Melting the ice

The term ‘ice-breaker’ can frequently instill panic in even the most sociable of people. Picture the scenario: you have just signed up for a course (or been told by your boss that you need to take a course and were signed up anyway), and at the first meeting the course leader announces that you will begin by asking each other to name your favourite TV show or ‘an unusual fact about yourself’[1]. The horrors. If you search for ice-breaker activities on the internet (please don’t; there are much more productive things to do with your time), you can find endless questions, games or small activities that are designed to get people talking to each other and thus release any nerves or tension at the start of a course.

As a tutor, I have used ice-breakers in different settings. Most of them seemed to work well enough, but many have resulted in rather awkward and stilted conversations. As a student, my encounters with ice-breakers have also been somewhat varied. My recent experiences in an online course (ONL172: Open Networked Learning) did, however, provide an example of how an opening activity can work very well. We began by introducing ourselves to the rest of the group – with a small photo and a few lines of text – and with a focus on why we had chosen to take the course. We could also note where in the world we lived (more fun when you work with people in different countries, but still interesting within a smaller geographical area). The point was that we were not doing anything fake or contrived. The focus was on the course itself, and not some random fact about ourselves.

I wonder, then, whether we might change the term ‘ice-breakers’. Or maybe not even use the term at all. The analogy itself is a bit brutal: not only does it suggest that we might all be rather cold and hostile in social settings, but ‘breaking the ice’ only makes me think of accidents on frozen lakes and disaster movies. Besides, ice typically melts or thaws, as the weather warms. It is a usually more of a gradual process, like a transition, rather than an abrupt change.

There is good evidence to suggest that course-focused introductory activities are more effective than those which focus too much on ourselves as individuals. Research based on the Community of Inquiry model (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000; see also Vaughan et al, 2013), for example, suggests that what helps students to connect with each other – at least in those early days of an online course – is a shared understanding of their individual motivations for taking the course. It helps to know what brings us here, and what we might have in common with each other in relation to that. Any other shared interests – whether work based or not – can be discovered later. In Gilly Salmon’s five stage model, for instance, there are different stages at which we can facilitate students’ learning, or engage with our fellow course members, in a more developmental manner. There is a time and place to be more inventive and flamboyant with our fellow students, and it is not when we first meet them. All you really need to start with, is ‘hello’.


Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. Internet and Higher Education, 2(2–3), 87−105

Salmon, G (2013) The Five Stage Model. Available at: http://www.gillysalmon.com/five-stage-model.html

Vaughan, N. D., Cleveland-Innes, M., & Garrison, D. R. (2013). Teaching in blended learning environments: Creating and sustaining communities of inquiry. Edmonton: AU Press. Chapter 1 “Conceptual framework”. PDF available here.


[1] This one is particularly cruel for those people, like me, who feel they have led fairly nice lives but are perhaps lacking in the type of stories that make you look exciting. Having briefly met Prof Philip Zimbardo and sat next to him in a restaurant at a conference is only likely to impress a select group of psychology students.

The fine threads of collaboration

Collaboration is, almost without exception, treated as a Good Thing. I am one of those who reinforces this message. In both my teaching and research, I hear myself saying how beneficial it is to work with others, that group work is a great way to learn, and that we can gain so much more when we combine skills and perspectives. There are, of course, occasions in which collaboration is extremely difficult, unfeasible or even harmful, whether due to the individuals or the broader context of the work. While not the solution to all problems, it is often an inspiring and invigorating way to work. Like a patchwork, it can create something spectacular from small fragments of different materials. As you can possibly guess already, I can be annoyingly optimistic about this.

It is therefore with some sense of awkwardness that I admit that I am not really sure what collaboration looks like. Not really. Not in the way that I would like to be able to.

Sure, I get what collaboration means, in a broad sense. As I said, I’m a convert already. What I mean, however, is that when it comes down to what actually happens when people work together – whether in online settings, face-to-face, or through some other medium (phone, paper, carrier pigeon) – I am not sure that I could say, with pinpoint accuracy, that something is ‘collaboration’ rather than something else. What makes something ‘collaborative’ rather than simply ‘cooperative’ when we are discussing something with a fellow group member? At what point does the way in which we talk with each other become a collaborative thing? It is at this point that I should say that my research involves the analysis of small details of talk and interaction. Eye gazes, micro-second pauses and intonation are part of my analytical armoury. My discomfort therefore partially comes from a preoccupation with the minutiae of human interaction and a practical skepticism about definitions and social practices. There is a fine line between collaboration and cooperative learning when it comes to what this looks like at the level of conversation. Like the threads of patchwork, sometimes the things that bind us together are hidden within the fabric of other stuff.

Perhaps there are good grounds for this uncertainty. Let’s take online collaborative learning as an example, since it is here that we might wonder exactly how we should collaborate with one another. Brindley, Blaschke, and Walti (2009) note that collaborative learning in small groups with strangers can be a dreaded aspect of online courses. We may have had previous experiences which make us more cautious about group work, or we may just not know how to strike up conversations – and productive working environments – with other people when we never see them in person. We may also, as Capdeferro and Romero (2012) state, feel frustrated about online work because of perceived imbalances in contributions from group members, or the practical issues of working together when time and work schedules can be so difficult to align. My concerns are both as a tutor (in face-to-face teaching) and as a student in online courses; from both sides of the fence, I am uncertain as to what it is that I should be doing. My default approach is usually to use humour. If I can smile or laugh with other group members, then I feel like I am at least connecting in some way.

In moving forward, and in my explorations of what it means to collaborate, I find much of use in conversation analysis, such as the work on online interaction by Giles et al (2015).  In contrast to work that addresses communication as a means of sending messages or transferring ideas (see, for example, Siemens et al, 2002), conversation analytic work can examine collaboration in terms of how we make sense of each other’s talk, and how ideas become ideas in the turn-by-turn flow of conversation.

On reflection, and despite my uncertainties about the details, I still think that collaboration is a Good Thing. I am still curious about what happens in those spaces where collaboration is purported to happen, and for those reasons I will still focus on the details, and focus on the threads that make it all fit together.



Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M. & Walti, C. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3)

Capdeferro, N. & Romero, M. (2012). Are online learners frustrated with collaborative learning experiences? The International review of research in open and distance learning, 13(2), 26-44

Giles, D., Stommel, W., Paulus, T., Lester, J., & Reed, D. (2015). Microanalysis of online data: The methodological development of “digital CA”. Discourse, Context & Media7, 45-51.

Siemens, G. (2002). Interaction. E-learning course. October 8, 2002. Retrieved 18 November 2017 from http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/Interaction.htm

What’s MOOC got to do with it? Early reflections on the ‘engagement’ issue

Many of you will have probably heard of MOOCs (massive, open, online courses) and caught some threads of the related discussions around openness, connectivity, lurkers and learning (see, for example, Siva Vaidhyanathan’s (2012) blogpost). My initial reaction to MOOCs was curiosity. There is something rather appealing about the opportunity to learn while in the comfort of your own home, at any time, and without having to venture into the outside world (for inspiration, see: https://www.mooc-list.com/). But there is something more intriguing still about MOOCs, and it is the discussion around student engagement and how this might be related to retention rates and the viability of MOOCs. Forgive me, then, for taking a small detour and reminiscing. Stay with me; there is a point to this.

My own experiences of open learning began many years ago when, as a postgraduate student and keen to get more teaching experience and extra cash[1], I worked for the Open University in the UK (http://www.open.ac.uk/). While not open in the sense of being free (there are course fees), this is a university which offered distance learning and flexible part-time study programmes long before MOOCs (it still does, of course). Probably the best thing[2] about OU teaching was the students: they were enthusiastic, curious, determined and quite different from the students I was seeing at my ‘other’ (mainstream, campus) university. These students ranged from their 20s to their 70s, they typically had a full- or part-time job, juggled family commitments, and experienced all the usual life events. For a while, I was even tutoring (via telephone calls and written assignments) a student in prison; it is perhaps a reflection of my sheltered life that I found this rather daring and a little scary. I even took a few short OU courses myself, feeling the apprehension that comes from being a complete novice all over again.

The thing about the OU was that as a teacher you could see the students developing over the course; I had a group of around 15-20 students whom I tutored over six or seven months. We had monthly face-to-face meetings, but mostly communicated by email, telephone (either individual calls or telephone group tutorials; yes, these are possible) or post. That’s right: hand-written letters, sent in the post. This was in the early 2000s and the world was quite a different place. The luxury of small class sizes meant that as a teacher I could work more individually with the students in a way that is typically not possible in mainstream higher education. We could get a real sense of whether or not the students were ‘engaging’ with the course and the content. As teachers, we could stimulate learning of the course material through our discussions with students, and through encouraging discussions between students. The social interaction element was vital; without that, it was mostly just subject content. This is where the engagement seemed to enter, through the way in which we could interact with the students (face-to-face, by email, by phone, even by feedback on written assignments), and they could interact with each other. And this is what I felt was most important about the OU courses, that we could discuss subject material directly. This is where it felt like the learning became more real.

Now we can return to the MOOCs and this complex issue of student engagement. We may be concerned with the ease with which one can drop-out from a MOOC or not fully engage with fellow students. It is so much easier to close down a video conferencing window on your laptop than it is to walk out of a room in which you are physically present with other people; we can silently and, without warning, simply stop being on the screen. By contrast, those who immerse themselves fully in online courses may be criticized for disengaging with the offline world around them. It is easy to become absorbed in a screen and forgot the person sitting next to you. There are many layers to this engagement issue, in that students may drop-out or disengage in different ways. Doug Clow (2013) terms this the ‘funnel of participation’ in which there are reduced student numbers at various points in the course: from registration, to course involvement, to completion. There is also the issue of lurking: sometimes defined as when students do not actively engage with other students on the course. This is perhaps less of a concern if the MOOCs are the xMOOC type; those which are more similar to delivering information online and which still seem to retain an element of the teacher-as-expert (see http://degreeoffreedom.org/xmooc-vs-cmooc/ for some discussion of the differences, and Weller, 2015, chapter 5). By contrast, cMOOCs (or connectivist MOOCS, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eW3gMGqcZQc) are underpinned by networked learning, in which the students themselves are as important to the development of course material as the tutors. In such cases, lurking is more problematic since the lack of engagement with other students has repercussions for their experiences of the course as well.

But here’s the thing: engagement in any kind of educational setting is still a much-debated research object. It is theorized, measured and researched in many different ways. The term has almost become ubiquitous in pedagogical literature, and sometimes used synonymously with student participation. We still haven’t cracked it. We might have a sense that students are engaged – and it might be that interacting with the material (e.g. talking, writing, thinking) – is one way in which engagement develops or even becomes engagement. As a researcher of social interaction, I am probably biased in this regard. But still. Whether a course is face-to-face, distance learning, online learning, MOOCs, or a blend of these parts, we need to have a better understanding of what it means to ‘engage’. Only then, once we have figured out what engagement is, and how it works in MOOCs, can we come to any conclusions about MOOCs as a form of education in and of themselves.


Clow, D. (2013). MOOCs and the funnel of participation. In: Third Conference on Learning Analytics and Knowledge (LAK 2013), 8-12 April 2013, Leuven, Belgium, pp. 185–189.

Vaidhynathan, S. (2012, July 6). What’s the matter with MOOCs? (Blog post: The Chronicle of Higher Education). Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/blogs/innovations/whats-the-matter-with-moocs/33289

Weller, M. (2015). Battle for Open: How openness won and why it doesn’t feel like victory (p. 232). Ubiquity Press. Accessible at: https://www.ubiquitypress.com/site/books/10.5334/bam/


[1] To be truthful, it was really the money I needed, even if the wages were pretty meagre. Once I had begun, however, it was working with the students that made it all worthwhile.

[2] The second-best thing was the television programmes produced by the OU, designed for specific courses and broadcast on mainstream British TV channels, usually in the early hours of the morning. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7kz_8y0N9w for some discussion of the OU and these programmes (the Fry and Laurie sketch, circa 26:50 in the YouTube clip, is pretty much spot on).

On having the right kind of ‘digital literacy’

I have been thinking for a while about what it means to be ‘digitally literate’, and of what this means for my own identity as a tutor and learner in various domains. So, I have been starting to explore this area by reading articles, using various new technologies, and listening to podcasts (my favourite so far being BBC Radio 4s The Digital Human, now in its 12th series (The Digital Human, 2017). The trouble is, I often feel that I need to read more about a topic before I have a good understanding of the critical issues. A little bit of reading is never enough. Each thing I read just leaves more questions unanswered, and a lingering sense that I have missed something important. I wonder if I have read the ‘right things’; the key articles that will put everything into perspective and answer the big questions. This leads to a continual frustration that my knowledge is lacking and that I don’t have enough time to read. And this happens much of the time, no matter what I am studying.

It was at this point that I started wondering about digital literacies and identities. Now, there has been quite a bit of writing on this already, but it seems to focus on how our identities are produced within various social media and online forums. You can imagine the type of thing: Facebook for creating an uber-fun, exciting, interesting life filled with beautiful friends; Pinterest and Instagram to show how creative and inventive we are; LinkedIn and ResearchGate for creating an academic or professional brand to suit our career plans. So, we tweak, we edit, we filter ourselves. It seems that I am not alone in elbowing a pile of miscellaneous junk out of the way in order to make my photo look more stylish. Or adjusted the lighting. Or just deleted the ‘bad’ photos.

Within the digital literacies literature (try saying that quickly), the debated typologies of the ‘native/immigrant’ distinction (Prensky, 2001) and ‘visitors-residents’ continuum (White & Le Cornu, 2011) also resonate with digital identities and categories. They provide a means through which we can make sense of ourselves – and our interactions with digital technologies – as a particular kind of person. Even if that category is ‘fairly comfortable with social media but sometimes over-thinking what I write on Facebook’ type of person.

But I can’t help wondering about how digital literacies define our identities in other ways. I seem to be forever trying to catch up with the latest digital tools, devices, forums, and spaces. I feel comfortable in some domains (e.g. Twitter) but more cautious in others (e.g. Facebook). There are some digital spaces where I feel completely alien (e.g. Snapchat) and many others to which I am happily oblivious. Talking about digital literacies seems to carry with it traces of the morality with which (il)literacy itself was once tinged. It is not a simple thing to say you don’t know how to use (*insert latest social media or technological app here). You usually have to account for it. Especially if it is a technology that has been around for a few years; it either becomes a badge of honour to say that you aren’t on Facebook, or else an inconvenience for those who use it as the primary means to stay in touch with people. Sometimes we have to account for being ‘literate’ of a certain kind of media. It depends on who we are, who we are taking to, and what the social context is.

So, the concept of digital literacies feels a bit like the other kind of literacy, in that it can seem like we are having to account for reading – or not reading – the latest bestseller (even if the writing is, frankly, terrible). Or reading the wrong kinds of books, being ignorant of the cult fiction, or not having read the ‘classics’. I never did read much Dickens. I wonder, then, if with digital literacies I will perpetually feel as if I have not read or used enough, not read or become competent in the right kind of digital format. Always trying to catch up. Always trying to find time to read. But then, maybe, I know enough for what I need right now. I am literate, and it is just my kind of literate.


Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants part 1. On the horizon9(5), 1-6.

The Digital Human (2017) BBC Radio 4. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01n7094 (accessed 12th October 2017)

White, D. & Le Cornu, A. (2011) Visitors and residents: A new typology for online engagement. First Monday, 16(9). Available at: http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3171/3049


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Finding the edges of the jigsaw

There is a peculiar kind of uncertainty and confusion that accompanies the beginning of a learning task, whether it be a new course, language, or job. I begin tentatively, not knowing where to start, or even what it is that I am getting myself involved in. Feeling already that I have quite enough to be doing, thank you, I wonder whether this was a huge mistake. I am sure, of course, that everyone else on the course must be very nice and obviously have genuine reasons for doing the course but, really, it isn’t for me. I take another cup of tea, for comfort.

Learning something new may take us, as they say, out of our comfort zones. Some days I start to forget if I ever had a comfort zone in the first place. It can be pretty tough, feeling like a newbie, or starting from scratch again, feeling out of your depth. Especially when you are supposed to know much more by now, and no longer a 20-something. Actually, it is pretty tough even when you are a 20-something. No-one likes to be the new kid, still ‘green’ and naïve to the particular norms of this place. Waiting to make another mistake, wondering what else could go wrong.


As a child, I loved doing jigsaw puzzles and always started by finding the edge pieces. I needed to know where the boundaries were; what was to be contained within those edges. It provided a sense of scope and perspective. I could see how much space I would need, and could then focus on one edge and start working my way toward the middle. My jigsaws now take the form of any learning that I am doing, including research and teaching. Except there is no picture on the front of the box, and I am still searching for the edges.

But pushing myself out of my comfort zone is really the point of it all. It is through the process of trying to making sense of the confusion – of finding those edge pieces, and working my way through the rest of the puzzle – that I am learning. The end point is really just an added bonus.

I should not be surprised, of course, that confusion plays a part in learning. In some disciplines, it is referred to as ‘cognitive conflict’ or ‘cognitive disequilibrium’, and treated as absolutely necessary before any learning can occur. But it is more than just confusion. It is also, for me, about being prepared to let go of control. Sometimes we are at the mercy of others; sometimes we can feel utterly frustrated and powerless. Sometimes we never find the missing pieces of the jigsaw[1]. Being a learner brings with it a strange mixture of expectations, concerns and challenges that go beyond just getting your head around the content. After a while, the uncertainty itself becomes more static and predictable. You can begin to make sense of patterns within the jigsaw even if the edges are not yet discernible.  And so I get myself another cup of tea, and take up the search again.

[1] In my case, this was typically due to a proliferation of 1970s patterned carpets in my parents’ house; ideal camouflage for stray jigsaw pieces.

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