Category Archives: Reflecting


Open, Connected and Optimistic: Reflections on PeLC

“Sharing with each other; this is the precious work we have to do.” John Davitt

I’ve enjoyed reflecting on the Plymouth eLearning Conference which took place last week. I summarised my initial reaction in a comment on Simon Finch‘s blog post on the conference:

So beautifully captured, Simon. The Plymouth eLearning Conference was an amazing combination of things: open, informal and full of laughs, as well as intense, reflective and thought-provoking. I just about wrote and drew my way back to Galway… ideas, plans, mind maps. Ready to roll! It was, indeed, a privilege to spend time with so many people hopeful and blazing with energy about the future of learning.

Steve Wheeler hosted an event which featured stimulating speakers and workshops, yet allowed time and comfortable spaces for conversations and connections to happen. I pay great credit to Steve and the talented team behind this event; the conference organisation was flawless. Somehow Plymouth even flaunted perfect summer weather (in April!).

Stephen Heppell set the tone in his keynote, describing himself as “more optimistic than ever” and calling this generation of newly-qualified teachers “the best I’ve ever seen”. He gave numerous, (literally) mouth-watering examples of student-designed learning spaces and student-led learning , e.g. creative seating, all walls as whiteboards, even classroom ovens for baking bread. Heppell inspired and challenged us, saying that this generation will astonish us with their learning — but only if we astonish them with the best possible learning environments.

John Davitt, playing with the concept of the keynote address, gave a talk which inspired, provoked and delighted. He reminded us that when learning is new and difficult, each of us walks a different path. Activity is key — so as educators we must seek to turn activity “from an afterthought to an artform”. I think this is a great challenge for higher education, particularly, where it’s easy to allow tradition and procedures to constrain us. Using the 4 axes of the sensory matrix: see, hear, touch and feel, John warned us to beware the Bermuda triangle of teaching. He demonstrated his RAG app, a Random Activity Generator for generating new ideas for learning activities — do check it out. Davitt concluded: “let’s celebrate our own learning curve”.

The future of learning is open and connected. Twitter continues to be a powerful tool, connecting learners across boundaries of sector, geography, culture. John Davitt gave the best definition of Twitter I’ve yet heard, describing it as a tool for “anarchic learning and peer support”. The Twitter backchannel during the conference (#pelc11) was a non-stop reflection and discussion of what was happening in the lecture theatres and beyond, with people sharing ideas, resources, questions and criticisms. Thanks to Twitter, this communication was real-time, open, raw. Educators tuned into the conference from far beyond Plymouth, contributing and interacting. When Stephen Heppell described great education as being “collaborative, collegiate, unstructured and global”, he was describing what we were doing at PeLC. How could we not offer this opportunity for great education to our students?

In numerous sessions, the call for mobile, open, connected learning was made. Conference contributors — including the wildly enthusiastic trainee teachers who presented at the TeachMeet (#tmpelc11), encouraged by the irrepressible @chickensaltash — shared their experiences of using Twitter, Facebook and blogging with their students. Let the students choose their own tools. These forms of public and connected writing can help students to develop academic literacy skills which go beyond basic writing skills to include reflection, online networking and giving and receiving feedback. School leadership must be brave and embrace openness. We are moving in the direction of more mobile, sharable devices and less single-focal-point classrooms.

As Stephen Heppell said, we live in a world of transparency; we just haven’t embraced this in teaching yet. More change will happen in education in the next 10 years than in the past 100. But very few at the Plymouth eLearning Conference doubted Heppell when he concluded his keynote: “the next decade will be the best in your professional lives”.

Postscript: Sharon Flynn and I were the only delegates to attend from Ireland, both of us travelling from NUI Galway. I hope that there will be more delegates from Ireland next year, for a learning experience that is more than the word “conference” can capture. Direct flights from Dublin to Plymouth — it’s an easy journey which I look forward to making again. (Postscript: Alas, no more direct Dublin-Plymouth flights, still looking forward to #pelc12 though!)

Related post: #pelc11 workshops

** More blog posts from the Plymouth eLearning Conference:


Willing to learn

“We are not what we know but what we are willing to learn.” –  Mary Catherine Bateson

I spent Saturday at the 27th annual PACCS Conference here in Galway (PACCS is the national body for parents associations of community and comprehensive schools in Ireland). In opening the conference on Saturday morning, I began my address with Mary Catherine Bateson’s quote. Bateson’s simple observation has always struck me deeply, both as a parent and an educator.

The day before the PACCS conference, I tweeted a request for resources that would be useful for parents of secondary school students. I sent this request from my own account and from the Twitter account I use for our school’s Parents Association:

My thanks to @fboss, @marloft, @celaV, @maireadflanagan and @frazzlld for passing on the word and offering suggestions, which were shared with parents (and added here). Tweets from the conference were also shared by @frazzlld, @EGSParents and @PACCSIrl, using #paccsirl.

I learned a great deal from the conversations I had with parents over the course of the conference on Saturday:

  • I learned that many parents of second-level students are not fully aware of recent advancements in further and higher education: moves towards online learning, e-textbooks and open educational resources; changes in the nature of learning and assessment; the growing use of blogs, wikis and social networking for learning. A few parents of teens engaging with Facebook, online games and instant messaging told me it was a huge shift in thinking to realize that many of these activities are, in fact, learning — and that the skills and sensibilities learned will help them in formal education and in the workplace.
  • I learned that some schools are happy and willing to embrace technology and to open up the learning environment beyond the 4 walls of the classroom, and that some schools are still wrestling with the cultural shift that this entails (e.g. policies on internet access, mobile phones, etc.).
  • I learned that many parents want to work in partnership with schools to create the best possible learning environments. Despite difficult economic times and an  uncertain future, I was in a room buzzing with energy from parents ready to engage and work with their schools.
  • And finally, I learned that parents want to know what’s happening outside of their own children’s schools. What’s happening elsewhere in Ireland? What’s happening in other countries? What’s happening at third level? What’s happening in primary schools? This larger context helps all of us to think about what’s possible, how obstacles can be overcome, and where to find support for our own efforts.

Thus, today we have started using #coolschools — a Twitter hashtag for examples of innovation in schools. Please feel free to use this hashtag, too. Let’s share what teachers and students are doing: experiments, successes, resources being created. We have much to learn from each other and YES! we are willing to learn.


Using an LMS in HE: Making compromises

Learning Management Systems… I have had the pleasure of using 4 (yes, 4!) different LMS’s in the past few years: WebCT, Angel, Blackboard and Moodle. I currently use two, primarily —  Angel and Blackboard — as the two programmes on which I teach use different systems. In each case, the LMS offers real advantages in a higher education context: seamless connection with student enrolment systems, easy access to online gradebook features, and password-protected security. However, I’ve also encountered limitations:

  • The tools within an LMS are not necessarily the best ones for the job — particularly in terms of social networking/discussion and blogging. For example, the blogging tool in Blackboard is pretty basic (in terms of functionality, not academic administration/grading) when compared with WordPress, Blogger, Posterous, etc.
  • Sometimes my students and I want our work to be “inside the fence”, but many times we don’t. Making work open, sharable and inviting feedback from others — not necessarily students in the same course, and not even necessarily students! — is difficult with an LMS.
  • I haven’t yet found a way to integrate social bookmarking seamlessly within an LMS.
  • There are many web applications which are just not available within an LMS, e.g. RSS readers, Diigo, Twitter, Skype, etc.

In addition to these is the paradox of putting links to wonderful *open* educational resources (OERs), like Ted talks and YouTube videos, inside the confines of an LMS.

In trying to learn more about what others are thinking and doing about this dilemma, I’ve found plenty to consider — if no quick solutions.

> Matt Crosslin, in a recent excellent post If we ditch the LMS, what else could we re-think?, imagines a browser-based social learning environment — perhaps similar to RockMelt, but with additional features. As Crosslin states: “the idea would be to minimize the LMS to be in the background so students can concentrate on the place where they are learning: the web”.

> A short Educause article published in 2010, 7 Things you should know about LMS alternatives, provides a concise, balanced summary of the pros and cons of using an LMS in HE. It concludes: “The use of LMS alternatives may hold the promise of a more student-centric approach, one that encourages students to reach across the boundaries of academic terms and learning disciplines and to see their education as a coherent whole that they can maintain using a range of applications. By going outside the LMS to use tools that allow for more student engagement, more effective collaboration, and more active learning in general, instructors could establish new expectations for the LMS.”

> Finally, in a recent interview prior to the webinar Facilitating Social Interactions: Measuring engagement and promoting academic success within the LMS, Stephen Downes discussed the idea of maxmizing the strengths and minimizing the weaknesses of the LMS: “The tendency [with collaborative tools] is to try to bring everybody into a single environment in order to foster collaboration, but my preference is to foster the collaborative activity itself outside the environment, and to use the environment only for reporting and communication.”

As an educator, what I’d like to do is to choose the tool which best suits the learning objective and which allows sharing and collaboration outside the specific course. And what I’d really like is to stop asking students to create work in course-specific silos — isolated in time and space from all of the work they are doing in other courses, in their workplaces, and in the rest of their lives.

In the meantime, I’ll make compromises. I’ll welcome the ease of use that the LMS gives me in terms of administration, grading and security. But I’ll use other tools, and suggest that my students try other tools, outside the LMS, where these provide the advantages described above. Not pretty, but workable.

I welcome feedback and suggestions, particularly from other LMS users in Higher Education who might be addressing similar issues.


A Digital Generation?

The first of the IT Sligo/NDLR Teaching and Learning Webinars of 2011 was yesterday’s Separating Fact from Fiction in the Digital Generation Discourse by Dr. Mark Bullen. Based at the British Columbia Institute of Technology in Vancouver, Mark Bullen writes the NetGenSkeptic blog.

Bullen summarised the Digital Generation discourse, based originally on Marc Prensky’s (2001) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants (ideas later updated in his Digital Wisdom paper, 2009). The prevailing discourse holds that young people generally have a different understanding of technology and consequently have different expectations of education. Bullen’s research challenges this. He believes that “using age or generation as a variable isn’t useful”, as it hides intra-generational differences and ignores second level digital divides. Because of these weaknesses, Bullen believes that the Digital Generation discourse should not be used by schools and higher education institutions as it has been — to inform educational policy.

Bullen did not directly challenge Prensky (whom he considers a “futurist”) but did challenge many researchers who have published work which supports the Digital Generation discourse. Bullen’s own research has not found significant differences between young and older respondents in terms of technology use, proficiency, or learning preferences. During the webinar, he cited the work of other researchers who have challenged the Digital Generation discourse including Bennett, et al (2008 & 2010), Ipsos Reid (2007), and Margaryan & Littlejohn (2008). Bullen particularly commended David White’s Digital Visitors and Digital Residents principle, formulated as a critique of the Digital Native/Digital Immigrant dichotomy, which defines a continuum from Digital Visitors (who use the web as a tool) to Digital Residents (who have an online persona which is a crucial part of their identity).

This was an engaging webinar and made me reflect on a couple of important questions: the persistence of the Digital Generation discourse and definitions of digital literacy.

While supporting Bullen’s (and others’) challenges to the Digital Generation discourse, I’ve found that many people find resonance in Prensky’s original metaphor. I’ve used Prensky’s article as a discussion starter when teaching in a variety of contexts (never fails!). In Internet Awareness & Safety workshops for parents, for example, I’ve presented the Digital Native/Digital Immigrant concept. Despite explaining that the idea is hotly contested, I’ve seen faces light up with recognition: “Ah, it’s not just me!”. The ensuing discussion can acknowledge this, while steering away from essentialist assumptions about learning and ability. Rather than age being the defining factor, perhaps it is simply opportunities for informal learning. Many young people have both the opportunities and motivation to learn about ICTs: social networking, gaming, access to music and videos, etc. Not all young people have these, of course — and this is one of the main arguments against the Digital Generation discourse. Yet even in 2011, there are still many adults who have not had the opportunities to develop a proficiency with ICTs. For these adults, the Digital Generation metaphor can be initally reassuring — they see themselves as one of many in the same boat. From that place of reassurance, a renewed motivation to learn and develop their ICT skills can arise.

Brian Mulligan, in introducing Mark Bullen yesterday, said he was attracted to Bullen’s NetGenSkeptic blog because he could not resolve the lack of digital literacy he observed in the 3rd level classroom with the prevalent Digital Generation discourse. In the first phase of Bullen’s research, the majority of respondents described themselves as having “high” digital literacy. There was no significant difference between the responses of young and older respondents. The definition of digital literacy is crucial here. Many people who might describe themselves as highly digitally literate may actually demonstrate poor literacy in the form of weak information search skills, poor critical analysis of online media, etc. I think it’s important to unpick “digital literacy” as a concept, and explore the specific differences among and between learners so that we as educators can address these.

At the end of the webinar, Mark Bullen explained that his latest work on Digital Learners is moving beyond a  critique of the Digital Generation discourse, towards exploring the relationship between social and educational uses of ICTs among post-secondary students. This sounds intriguing and valuable — I will stay tuned!


Feedback, Support… and Passion

Last week, 15 new MScSED graduates were conferred with their degrees at NUI Galway (fortunately, before the wicked winter weather arrived). At the programme reception afterwards, graduates and their families mixed with faculty and staff in a happy, celebratory atmosphere. It’s always a joy to attend a conferring ceremony, but for the MScSED programme the sense of anticipation and excitement is that bit greater. The programme is entirely online, so during the programme we meet most of our students only at the Orientation Day and Thesis Workshop. Students who live outside Ireland we may never meet at all! But we grow to know them well, over the course of the 2-year programme, based on our regular online interactions. Graduation, then, is exciting for students and staff alike, for the chance to celebrate with people we know well but may hardly have met.

At last week’s conferring celebrations, amidst all the happy chatter, three pieces of feedback stood out for me. They were recounted by our new graduates as elements of the programme which stood out for them and were instrumental in their success:

  • Feedback – Facilitators who provided rich feedback were praised highly, for helping students to stay engaged and to dig deep for real learning.
  • Support – Individual support from module facilitators as well as ongoing support from the programme team were considered essential “so we don’t feel like we’re all alone out there”.
  • Passion – Finally, one graduate said that the best advice he received was to “choose a thesis topic that you are passionate about”. He took that advice and his passion sustained him on the long path towards completing his (excellent) thesis.


MScSED graduates, we congratulate you on your success! And we thank you for reminding us why we enjoy this work so much; as one of our facilitators said, celebrating your achievements with you “refills the enthusiasm reservoir”. You help us to remember, in the midst of all our activities, the importance of Feedback, Support and Passion.