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Signals of Success and the EMOOCs Summit #emoocs2014

Earlier this week, I was in Switzerland at the EMOOCs Summit. I was there, along with Paige Cuffe, to present a collaborative paper entitled ‘Signals of Success and Self-directed Learning’. It seemed a little weird at first, considering that this time last year I had barely cut my MOOC teeth (who had?), and I’d certainly never presented at such a conference before or had a paper published (collaborative or otherwise), so testimony to the power and possibilities that MOOCs and open education can afford and, more importantly for this story, testimony to the power of connection for collaboration and ongoing learning that’s now possible in this new era of learning.

Reflecting individually, collectively and openly
Paige Cuffe, Iwona Gniadek, Briar Jamieson, Penny Bentley, Helen Crump and Sheila MacNeill –
“How do learners define success in a MOOC?”

So what’s the story? As you might know, this time last year I participated in OLDSMOOC and you might be forgiven for thinking that once a MOOC has finished that is it that, the learning is over, but not so because via the OLDSMOOC hashtag and other various social networking activities, connections made in the MOOC continued; the true awesomeness of which was realized when, six months after the MOOC, a group of us responded to a tweet from one of the OLDSMOOC design team wondering if anyone was thinking of submitting a paper to the EMOOCs conference. Hey presto, what do you know; spontaneously and enthusiastically out from the internet emerged six individuals to reflect on their learning and to deliberate what success in a MOOC meant to them. You can read the full paper in the conference proceedings here (p.18) and get more of an insight into our back story in the video below:

The premise of our paper is interesting in that it tries to go beyond institutional evaluations and measures of success to offer an alternative perspective to the pervasive discourse about completion rates and dropouts in MOOCs. Hence, in the conference session entitled ‘Dropouts in MOOCs’, I was heartened by the findings presented by Tharindu Rekha Liyanagunawardena that shows that “MOOC participants are challenging the widely held view of dropout, suggesting that it is more about failing to achieve their personal aims”. Yay!!

On the other hand though, I was a little dis-heartened because although there was a session devoted to connectivist style MOOCs at the conference, cMOOCs seemed to be something of a Cinderella topic. Don’t misunderstand me, there were some excellent presentations given pertaining to cMOOCs (Christine Sinclair, p.245 and Jutta Pauschenwien, p.277) but the overarching concerns of the conference seemed to be xMOOC oriented with concerns about platform provision, production quality and costs and the optimum way forward for higher education dominating.

Not that the conference was all about higher education, indeed one of the four tracks was dedicated to business. I’m glad I opted to go to the panel discussion in this track, ‘MOOCs as a training instruments for employees and partners’, because it really was excellent.

The panelists:

  • Donald Clark, Plan-B Learning, UK
  • Ralph Wieser, SWISSCOM, Switzerland
  • Gregor Erkel, Deutsche Telekom, Germany
  • Marcelo Di Pietro Peralta, WIPO, Switzerland
  • Yannis Angelis, Fresenius Kabi, Germany
  • Carl Dawson,, UK

Certain of their application and with a can-do beta attitude, the panelists were very convincing in aligning MOOCs with vocational skills, competency, CPD and lifelong learning for a corporate market, which was in stark contrast to the presentation entitled ‘MOOCs: an alternative perspective’ given by Debra Humphris of Imperial College, London who didn’t really seem to say what purpose MOOCs might serve and whose institutional policy was to go away and formulate a strategy.

It’s widely agreed that MOOCs are a phenomenon of transition, pointing the way to some future landscape of learning. Right now though, the term seems to signal different things to different people with discussion easily conflating learning contexts, learning cohorts and pedagogies for learning.

In the policy track session, ‘Bringing new challenges to Higher Education’, that I attended on the last day, Gerhard Fischer, Center for Lifelong Learning, University of Colorado noted that many reflections on MOOCs seem to be based on economic and technical perspectives rather than on perspectives of learning science. He suggested that in the main MOOCs are currently geared towards ‘learning about’ and to topics for which there is a known answer, as opposed to ‘learning to be’ and when the answer is not yet known.

Overall, I enjoyed the experience of attending the conference and learning something of the flavor and the fervor of MOOC development and debate, but I think what I was struck by the most was that despite the general nod towards social learning there is a real lack of awareness or understanding for learning in networks and distributed learning environments. Attending the conference as just such a learner (or researcher) made me wonder if I belong to a secret sect because so many people seemed oblivious to these developments.

Image source: Davinia Hernández-Leo.

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Context is key: unlocking the chains of semiotic meaning for HE digital literacy #oldsmooc

Week 2 of OLDS MOOC focuses on context and asks:

  • What is learner context?
  • How do learners’ contexts affect the ways they interpret and enact learning designs?
  • How can we use context in learning design?
  • How can we personalise designs to individual learner’s needs and contexts?

In order to understand the importance of context in learning design the use of personas (see Nielsen, 2007), force maps in scenarios (see Mor, 2012) and the ecology of resources design framework (see Luckin, 2010)  were offered as ways to understand and design for learners’ context. To start, we were asked to develop scenarios and personas for those involved in the learning design. 

So, whilst my “design partner”, Jane Challinor, developed the persona of a “traditional” undergrad student, I developed the persona of a mature student. It seemed to work really well and it helped kickstart our thoughts relating to context. At this point, Jane noted that we needed to add some new personas to the scenario as we have to recognise that without wider acceptance within HE of the need for digital information literacy, the module that we plan to develop isn’t going to achieve the transformation that we’d like. Here, I was able to provide a number of interviews that I’d conducted with HE lecturers that helped develop new, wider, personas and locate our design project in its situated context. 

Then, Friday’s task (already Sunday), directed me to “share and scan resources about contextual approaches to learning design”. Here, I chose to look at two resources, “learner-centered teaching” by Phyllis Blumbeg and “cognition, context, and learning: a social semiotic perspective” by Jay Lemke. Scan!! It took me all day Sunday. Admittedly, I didn’t just scan the article relating to situated cognition because it really did start to provide me with some valuable connections relative to our specific context. Literacy, you see, is not just a matter of skill or competency, it’s a social and situated practice, as I’m reminded by Doug Belshaw’s work, “context is key” (p. 222). Lemke explains context in terms of ecologies; “material environments endowed with cultural meanings; acting and being acted on directly or with the mediation of physical-cultural tools and cultural-material systems of words, signs, and other symbolic values” (p.2). He goes on to point out that how individuals act, or react, depends not just on what other parts in the ecology does to them, and what they in turn do to the other parts of the ecology, but on what these doings mean to the individual, and that these meanings of things vary from person to person and from context to context (p.2). 

Going on to describe context more accurately as an ecosocial system, Lemke says that in order to understand its behaviour you have to take account of economics, politics, and other sorts of cultural beliefs and values. He also notes that ecosocial systems have histories; histories, which in some cases matter to their present reactions, and sometimes matter to new systems of their kind “not yet born” (p. 6). Interesting stuff, seeing as the context of this design project is one of change (disruptive) set within higher education, or the academy. That is to say, an institution with a deep-rooted history and one which carries immense cultural meaning today. Even so, Lemke’s article also notes that although ecosocial systems have a relevant history, they’re also developmental systems that have a trajectory of development where each stage sets up conditions without which the next stage could not occur. 

Another interesting point that the article raises, relative to the design project’s goal of developing digital information literacy within an undergraduate Health and Social Care course, is the question of the mix of beliefs and values at play in our context; beliefs and values relative to academia and being a student, or lecturer, and the beliefs and values relative to being a health and social care practitioner. How conducive, I wonder, are either of these fields to adopting practices that align with the open web and the ideologies that the web embeds? 

digi grad
Digital Scholar

In addition, the students within our context are, to some degree or another, developing identities as academic scholars and/or health and social care practitioners, and what’s more, they come to our context with previous and other identities, with learnings gained from participation in other communities. So the question that arises is how in this case do we add digital literacy practices to the mix and how will these practices be received in relation to the identity, digital, or otherwise of those involved. 

Now, turning to a particular objective of the course, namely the development of specific digital literacy practices in order to support and/or improve the academic practice of sourcing information and referencing, Lemke’s article offers an interesting point that links practices to the development of identity within a Community of Practice (CoP). Giving the example of maths, he relates how the teaching of maths came to lose its chain of semiotic meaning; how very specific practices like naming, finger-reckoning, verbal counting and cardinal quantifying are linked together, and how through this linking of practices and their recapitulation that aspects of an individual’s identity may be developed. Such fragments of practices represent a small scale chain that links the social practice and activities with their historical formation. If, as in the case of maths, these practices become increasingly abstract, less context-specific, they run the risk of leaving behind what it was that was being counted in the first place (people, pebbles, sheep…); it leads to practices where the principle element is just a number. As such it also leaves behind the identity links for many students, thus creating a “discourse and repertory of practices to which they [the students] literally do not know how to relate; from which, to them, theirs and all human identities are excluded” (p.10). As Lemke’s article noted, some branches of learning do not help students construct identities in relation to their practices, they simply display the practices. I think this is highly pertinent to the practice of academic referencing and the production of academic texts. The historical links of this practice are no longer visible to many students, never mind the fact that currently within the context of higher education there’s no real recognition of the digital element already present in the construction of an academic essay. It’s still widely regarded as a traditional text. The essay-as-finished-text appears today very much as it would have done thirty or forty years ago, but through its production and the practices that students, or lecturers, engage in, the essay-as-social-practice has been utterly transformed by the digital. (Gourlay, 2011, p. 2). 

Therefore, to be truly effective, it would seem that our learning design must not just take this into account but actually seek to make visible again the links pertaining to academic practices and their historical formation, only now recast to show the digital elements that have evolved to form the latest part in the chain of semiotic meaning.

Returning to the course (and it’s “optimistic” schedule), the OLDSMOOC Daily 11 in summarizing Sunday’s learning activity noted that within the OLDS MOOC people are “still discussing context, exploring differences between ‘situated learning’ and the Ecology of Resources” (my emphasis). At this stage, I don’t know what the differences are; it took me so long just to consider the situated meanings pertinent to my design context. However, the synopsis in the OLDS MOOC brief stated that “the EoR Design Framework can be used to help understand learner context and support the design of learner centered interventions and/or technologies that fit contextual constraints and exploit available resources”. In which case, it seems that an EoR approach would be particularly beneficial here. I haven’t actually got down to the nitty gritty of applying the EoR design framework to this scenario yet, but in a way I’m glad because having caught up with the convergence session from yesterday, I can appreciate that the real effectiveness of the design framework is in its participatory aspect and that it envisages the learner as designer, or co-designer. For me, this again harks back to the work of Doug Belshaw when he argues for the co-construction of definitions of digital literacies, or in this case the development of a learning design for digital literacies. If the various forms of ambiguity and meaning surrounding the topic are not embraced and developed in conjunction with all those involved anything that gets designed “is likely to either be so vague as to be meaningless, or so specific that it is irrelevant” (p 222).

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Belshaw, D. (2011) What is Digital Literacy. Available at:

Gourlay, L. (2011) Cyborg literacies and the posthuman text. Available at:

Lemke, J. (1997) Cognition, context, and learning: a social semiotic perspective. Available at:

Enthusiasm and Expectancy for eLearning and Digital Cultures MOOC #edcmooc

Anticipation for the upcoming MOOC “eLearning and Digital Cultures” is almost palpable, and it’s not just down to the massiveness of the course, which has enrolled a staggering 36,000+ up to press. It’s down to all the network-focused pre course activity that’s built up around it.

I signed up way back in September so some level of expectancy on my part is understandable, but what’s truly awesome is the level of enthusiasm that’s developed amongst expectant participants in the mean time. In mid November the course team issued a mail shot extending an “early welcome”, (this links nicely to my previous post on hospitable pedagogy!!), encouraging participants to try out some of the social media services that they anticipate using during the course. As a result, there’s been sustained activity around the course hashtag #EDCMOOC, but even more fantastic is the level of participant-led networked activity initiated in the #EDCMOOC Facebook group.

Set up at the end of November by a preparative bunch of individuals (or was it just one individual?), the group has developed a whole host of resources and initiatives, including Twitter lists, Diigo lists, YouTube playlists, feeds for blogs, technology tips, assorted discussions and a quadblogging scheme, which this post forms part of.  However, seeing as the course doesn’t start until 28th January, this post isn’t a course reflection, it’s more a statement of intent about what I hope to get out of the course.

Post Human
Post Human

“The course is about how digital cultures intersect with learning cultures online, and how our ideas about online education are shaped through “narratives”, or big stories, about the relationship between people and technology”. I’m particularly interested because the course not only takes a look at how learning (with technology) is represented in popular digital/cyber culture but also how literacy (something which I have a real passion for) is represented too. Besides considering multimodal literacies and digital media, the course also asks what it means to be “human” in a digital age. This intimates the concept of post humanism, which since reading Cyborg literacies and the posthuman text by Lesley Gourlay, is something that I’m eager to learn more about. In the article, kindly added to the e-Learning and Digital Cultures Diigo group by Chris Swift, Gourlay proposes the notion of “posthuman literacies”, which draws upon “Haraway’s cyborg (1991) and Hayles’s (1999, 2006) conceptions of emobodied virtuality – to examine practices of meaning-making in a context where the boundaries between analogue and digital, ‘human’ and ‘machine’ are ambiguous and problematic” (p.1). I’m intrigued to say the least, just as I’m intrigued by the reference to “uncanny digital literacies”  that I came across when researching the work of Sian Byrne, one of the  course tutors.

I wonder how many others registered on the course, like me, are interested in a literacies perspective. It’s interesting because I just saw this tweet (modified) from another of the course tutors, Dr. Christine Sinclair .

I can’t wait to discover just what we’ve let ourselves in for.

Image source:

References: Gourlay, L. (2011) Cyborg literacies and the posthuman text. Available at: