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Category: General Review of Things in General

A funny thing happened on the way to the museum, and other musings prompted by my travels to China and Mongolia.

I just got back from a month long trip where I spent a couple of weeks exploring both China and Mongolia, well exploring bits of them at least because they’re massive, and I thought I’d put together a bit of a blog post to share some of the things that the trip made me reflect on, things loosely to do with learning that is.

It’s true, a funny thing did happen on the way to the museum. In Xi’an, my husband, Steve, and I wanted to gen up on Chinese history and the Terracotta Army but we’d read that the queues for the museum were gargantuan and that early arrival was advised. So one morning, armed only with the number of the bus that passed by the museum and a city map splattered in Chinese writing, we set out sharp. Believing we were somewhere in the vicinity, we got off the bus and began to walk in what we thought was the general direction of the museum. Happy days, almost immediately we found a large modern building with a ginormous queue snaking its way around.

Xi'an: the queue for the library.
Xi’an: the queue.

Naturally enough, we tagged on the end and joined the queue. After a while, I told Steve to wait in line whilst I checked out the front of the queue – to see if I could glean any info about entry to the museum. I scoured the front of the building for clues, anything written in English. There wasn’t much to go on, but eventually, above the main door, I spied the words ‘Xi’an library’. All these people were waiting for the library to open!! I couldn’t believe it. The queue was enormous. On closer inspection though, everyone in the queue had books under their arm. They were indeed going to study. When I got back to Steve, I said “this isn’t the museum; you’ll never guess what all these people are queuing for; they’re queuing to get into the library!”, to which he replied “if you told people back home, they’d never believe you.” It’s true. Here you just don’t associate libraries with queues, or with that much ‘pulling power’, I guess.

Anyhow, the incident got me thinking about the difference between studying and learning. Those in the queue were obviously going to the library to study (obvious once you allow the notion of queues and libraries to hang together that is). To me, studying seems to imply formal learning with motivation largely influenced by extrinsic factors, whereas learning seems to be something more ‘natural’ and somehow more intrinsic. However, when I looked at the definitions I got

  • to learn = to gain knowledge or skill by studying, practising, being taught, or experiencing something
  • to study = to read, memorize facts, attend school, etc., in order to learn about a subject

So, regardless of the motivation, a fraught topic in itself, it seems that studying is the action required to reach the learning goal.

The incident also made me reflect upon the role that libraries have played in my life. Certainly, I remember going to the library as a child and picking out my ‘reading books’, but the incident particularly made me think back to the time when I was nineteen and when, having returned home from a working holiday in Norway eager to know more about Polar exploration and the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, I received from the British Library, via an inter-library loan, a first edition copy of Amundsen’s account of his 1912 South Pole expedition. Well, at least I think it was a first edition copy; certainly, it was old and certainly, it was a thrill to get my hands on it. Also, I’ve long said that the thing I miss most about no longer living in a city is the library, the hours I spent in Nottingham City Library, all those free books and Ordnance Survey maps!!

So, although libraries aren’t exactly synonymous with eager queues, they’re a valuable, often unsung, public resource that, as we hurtle into the digital and online era, hopefully won’t be sidelined or diminished or, more worryingly given the current economic climate, won’t be axed as cuts in public spending are more keenly sought.

That was in China, but with my propensity for wandering around and my particular affinity for nomadism the other part of the trip was to Mongolia, and notably a “Ger to Ger” homestay with Mongolian families. This part of the trip was fabulous as we stayed in the guest ger (yurt/tent) of four different families and were able to interact and observe their daily life, which totally revolved around herding and milking their livestock. Getting an insight into the macro world of domestic life that takes place in a ger was a real privilege, and the ger itself is a real triumph of human ingenuity: not only simple, easy to erect, dismantle and move but cool in summer and warm in winter (temperatures on the Mongolian Steppe range from plus 30 degrees to minus 30). Though what I really would’ve liked to have discovered was where could they move to, who owned the land and what was the system for allocating it and/or enforcing the land rights. However, with just a phrase book that tellingly gave more space to the vocabulary of animal husbandry than eating and drinking (ooh, the food’s very basic, and at best might only be described as is “sustaining”), I wasn’t able to get to the bottom of this. It’s an important question, and one that transfers directly to matters of the Internet and digital technology. Where can I go and who says so; what affordances and constraints do our new technologies sanction? It’s questions like these, as a matter of critical technology literacy, that I always try to keep to the forefront of my mind.

Just where can a nomad pitch their ger?
Just where can nomads go?

In “gerlife”, technology is pretty much limited to a light bulb and a TV (powered by a solar panel) plus a mobile phone, with the mobile phone being a really valued piece of kit. In fact, if you’ll pardon the antediluvian metaphor, in every ger we stayed the mobile phone was “ringing off the hook” as families and neighbours chatted away the day and, ha ha might I suggest, “narrated their work” (Harold Jarche just jumped into my head there). Without all the other tech and the myriad of distractions that we’ve got in our lives, it was just plain obvious that at heart people are social beings who need to be connected. Our new digital and social technologies just amplify or scale this.

One final thing that my trip to Mongolia made me think about was open/digital badges. On the very first day we arrived, gathered in the main square to take wedding photographs or photographs to mark a special day out, were groups of Mongolians all finely dressed in traditional outfits. What struck me though was that a lot of them had medals, not military medals but civic/community medals, pinned to their outfits and that these medals were clearly a source of great pride. Back in the ger these medals were also proudly displayed. I don’t know how the “credibility” of open/digital badges will play out, but I’m certainly interested to follow the discussion in the MOOC that starts next week, Badges – New Currency for Professional Credentials. I can definitely see the appeal for the learner, being able to digitally display with pride the learning achievements that mean something to them.

Display your achievements with pride.
Display your achievements with pride.

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The passionate affinity that’s PELeCON #pelc13

Tying into the topic of personal learning networks (PLNs), my previous post highlighted the fact that I was about to attend PELeCON, or rather the 8th Plymouth e-Learning Conference, where I was looking forward to meeting up with people whom I consider to be a significant part of my PLN. I attended the conference last year, where I’d experienced its friendly, energetic buzz so, in spite of a 9hr journey, there was never any question of me not returning again this year. And, I have to say that I wasn’t disappointed; not only did I meet familiar faces en route, Doug Belshaw and Steve Bunce, but I received a warm welcome from Catherine Cronin and Mary Loftus, part of the the Irish contingent who had sensibly travelled the evening before, and all of whom were congenial in making further introductions to what turned out to be another terrific conference. Equally, it seems that others who attended the conference share similar sentiments too.

The reason for such enthusiastic bonhomie, it seems to me, is that PELeCON is not just a conference. By combining networked and online presence with an annual physical event, PELeCON is more akin to what James Paul Gee would call a “passionate affinity space” than a common-or-garden conference.

A passionate affinity space, and the learning that goes on in it, requires some people associated with the space to have a deep passion for the common shared endeavour. It does not require everyone to have such a deep passion, but it does require them to recognize the value of that passion and respect it, in some sense.

Quite right. I’d like to think that not only have I developed a valuable personal learning network, but through PELeCON, I’ve found a great “passionate affinity space” in which to learn as well. The satisfied smiles on the journey back to Ireland would suggest that I’m not the only one who thinks this way.

Being Social PELeCON 13 Back: Steve Warburton, Doug Belshaw, Zak Mensah, Mark Smithers Front: Mary Loftus, Helen Crump, Catherine Cronin, Pamela O'Brien
Being Social PELeCON 13
Back: Steve Warburton, Doug Belshaw, Zak Mensah, Mark Smithers
Front: Mary Loftus, Helen Crump, Catherine Cronin, Pamela O’Brien

Ok, but what did I learn?

After, attending a delightful first session in which Steve Bunce engagingly got everyone finger knitting in order to demonstrate possible approaches to involve children in computer programming, I made my way to listen Mike John’s presentation, “Talking with lecturers: What happened to Web 2.0?”. I was especially keen to hear of his observations in relation to the uptake of Web 2.0 amongst university lecturers as this chimes with my own interests and recent research. The thrust of the presentation was in terms of the gap that exists between the hype surrounding Web 2.0 and the actual take-up of such networked and participatory practices amongst lecturers. Citing examples of activity levels in everyday applications, he pointed out that Web 2.0 gets few ticks from lecturers in their professional practice, and concluded that within higher education, Web 2.0 “is a minority sport; it’s not a mainstream activity”. All very interesting observations, but as Donald Clark noted, the presentation relied largely on the presenter’s observations and not on actual data.

In her excellent presentation entitled “Enacting Digital Identity”, Catherine Cronin called attention to the fact that “different contexts have different legitimacy practices” and highlighted the dis-joint between academic learning practices and networked learning practices (see slide 44).

The theme of digital identity, or online presence, or personal online branding even, re-occurred on the final day of the conference in Joyce Seitzinger’s practical keynote, in which she referred to the term “cloud academics” and talked about her emerging role, akin to a “personal digital coach”, with its focus on instilling networked practice for personal learning, teaching and research amongst lecturers.

Then, giving the final keynote of the conference, Donald H Taylor, with his insight from industry, painted the big picture. Flagging the enormity of impending disruption and change soon to be wrought upon higher education as venture capital seeks optimum return, he plotted pace of change axes to locate those either too tardy, or just plain unwilling, to change and to mark them as being somewhere on the road to “comfortable extinction”. A memorable phrase indeed, and one that made me think back to the lecturers that Mike John observes on the other side of the gap, to the different identities that must be enacted within academic and networked practice and to the “cloud academics” that Joyce Seitzinger’s presentation brought forth.

All of the PELeCON keynotes captured something of this air of change, but more importantly, they all went some way to laying out ways in which education might effectively meet these future challenges, be it Grainne Conole’s advocacy of learning design, Doug Belshaw’s belief in open badges as a “trojan horse”, Steve Bunce’s knitting hypotheses or Karin George‘s hands-on leadership.

Finally though, the air of change came to PELeCON itself when Steve Wheeler announced in the closing session that the “passionate affinity space” that has become PELeCON will no longer be found in Plymouth, as the conference is looking for a handier location and is to henceforth become the Professional Enhanced Learning Conference. All of which can only be a good thing, if it allows more people to access the event and to share the passion. And I’m sure that wherever PELeCON lands, it will still be a unique friendly event with excellent keynotes speakers and ever topical presentations. 🙂


Gee, J. P. and Hayes, E. R. (2011). Language and Learning in the Digital Age. Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.

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Connection and Digital Literacies at PELeCON 2012

PELeCON  is the Plymouth Enhanced Learning Conference #pelc12 @PeleCON. I have just returned home from attending it for the first time and would like to share my experience of how I came to be at PELeCON, what I learnt from it and how much fun it was to be there.
Fairly and squarely I have Twitter to thank. Just over a year ago, through either random or astute following, I discovered Steve Wheeler @timbuckteeth whose tweets opened up mind-blowing access to resources, current information and a network of people interested in Web 2.0 technologies and digital literacies. This was in tandem with Jane Hart from the Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies @C4LPT and her advocacy of Twitter as a tool for professional development. So how lucky was it for me that these two forces came together at PELeCON 2012.
The conference theme, importantly for me, was create, connect and collaborate with digital literacy and literacies presenting a strong influence on the programme. It was this call to connect and the role of digital literacies that greatly resonated with me during the conference. For me digital literacies are not simply skills or the competent use of technologies but social practices embedded in contexts that carry meaning for those involved. This was brilliantly highlighted by David Mitchell @DeputyMitchell who spoke about the impact that blogging has had in his school, transforming reluctant or ambivalent classroom writers into enthusiastic bloggers. The reason for this, one insightful and honest pupil explained to him, was the he, the teacher, “wasn’t real”. They wanted to write with purpose for a real audience. In matters of literacy, it must be acknowledged that power, access and identity are ever present considerations.
The desire to connect with a real audience, I feel, chimes with sentiments expressed by Alec Couros @courosa in the conference’s closing panel discussion. He sees the central challenge to learning as being “the movement of education to life”.
The call for improved connection was also made by Nick Laycock @alc47 and associates in a panel discussion looking at the disconnect between learning and the workplace. This was re-inforced by Jane Hart’s keynote, which highlighted the learning practices that smart autonomous learners/workers are increasingly turning to.
Connection amongst delegates was a key feature of the conference as plenty of time and space was made for networking. Here I must thank Catherine Cronin @catherinecronin and Sharon Flynn @sharonlflynn, my travelling companions, who helped with introductions allowing me to settle in to the PELeCON swing and make connections of my own.
Useful Websites:
David Mitchell’s keynote –
QuadBlogging _ a leg up to an audience for your class/school blog.