e-Learning: Independent Experimentation Plan

Over the next few weeks we are expected to undertake an independent research project investigating a facet of technology enhanced learning. I had intended to formulate an experimental exercise to do with my students for this but as we’ve just commenced our Easter break I don’t have much of an opportunity for that without instituting a session artificially, which I’d prefer not to do. As an alternative I’ve decided to build on some of the existing reading and writing I’ve been doing and look instead at the politics and priorities of online teaching platforms with a view to considering how far they embody particular ideological priorities, and reconstitute potentially undesirable power relations.

As Neil Selwyn forcefully argues, online teaching technologies are often discussed in uncritical terms, with advocates tending to view them in neutral terms, or even as inherently liberatory and democratic. There is relatively little questioning of the extent to which they reconstitute familiar classroom divisions and hierarchies and even generate entirely new ones. My current plan for my investigation is to attempt a forensic dissection and examination of one of these technologies, cross sectioning it and analysing it’s different elements in an attempt to reveal the ways that it might encourage or enforce a particular understanding of teaching, and might create certain inequalities between taught, teachers and institutions. Some of the topics I might consider include:

From Sage on the Stage to Sage on a Webpage: Even in its name Blackboard implies a very Victorian notion of teaching and learning. Does it replace the potentially very hierarchical, didactic teaching model of the face to face classroom with something more diffuse and democratic, or in fact does it create an environment where the ‘sage on the stage’ approach is perpetuated because that is what the technology has been engineered to permit and other possibilities have been closed off. Do the quite draconian tools provided to teachers/moderators serve to produce a dictatorial environment compared to the inherently negotiated space of the physical classroom, or is that control illusory.

Towards an Uber Model of Teaching: Thinking about the extent to which the spatially and temporarily decentred teaching made possible by these platforms encourages a view of teaching that caters to a de-formalised ‘gig economy’ and the implications of that change for students and teachers. Issues to consider within this include the recording of lectures, emphasis on informal hours, the break down between work and non-working space, the gathering and use of data generated in the course of teaching and learning. Does all of this encourage a different way of thinking about the purpose and form of teaching and learning, and if so is that change positive or negative, and for whom?

The Classroom as Private Space: Teaching technologies are typically licensed commercial products rather than in house developments, which has implications for transparency in their development and implementation. To what extent do the priorities of developers align with the agendas of institutions and the needs of teachers and students, and what other activities do developers undertake besides simply building teaching platforms (what happens to data gathered for example).

Some of the research methods I will use for this will include, further reading on the topic of educational technologies and power, interviews with former and current students on their experiences of the platform, possibly also a request to meet representatives from Blackboard who are headquartered in Washington D.C where I will be visiting in April. All this will lead up to a visual and textual deconstruction or dissection of the platform in an attempt to reveal and consider what lies beneath it’s surface. Ultimately the aim (in the spirit of Selwyn’s book) will not to be to criticize or find fault for the sake of it, but with the intention of identifying how facets of these technologies serve to shape ideas about what constitutes desirable teaching, and how these might develop for good or ill in the future.

While we have been prompted to produce the results of our investigations as an essay I would like to create something a little more novel which still meets the requirements of the unit. I am currently considering creating a ‘networked essay’, essentially a cluster of tightly interlinked webpages dealing with different aspects of this topic and heavily illustrated with visual examples of the topics I am discussing.


Reading: Distrusting Educational Technology

Neil Selwyn’s book Distrusting Educational Technology was introduced to us by Siobhan Clay in a recent session on inclusivity in the context of technology assisted learning. Her summary of some of the book’s arguments chimed with a few things I’ve already been thinking about here, in particularly the seldom unconsidered politics of these technologies, which tend to be heralded in uncritical, even evangelistic terms by their users. I’m currently thinking about making this issue the topic of investigation for the independent experiment I need to undertake for the technology enhanced learning unit and so reviewing Selwyn’s ideas in more depth seemed like a good starting point. His critique of these technologies is lengthy and intricate and so for the purposes of this post I’m just going briefly summarise the introduction, which gives a good overview of his rationale for critiquing these technologies, and the first chapter of the book which examines their ideological pinnings and the political reasons that these technologies appeal to some of the disparate groups that employ them.

In the introduction, Selwyn sets out an overview of the prevailing attitudes towards educational technology and offers a justification for a more involved critique of these technologies. He questions the deceptive simplicity of these platforms and is critical of the tendency towards unquestioning evangelism that is often encountered in this field, quoting Langdon Winner’s description of a ‘technological somnambulism’ that seems to pervade western society. Selwyn notes the lack of critical voices in the field of technology enhanced learning, writing that the tendency is towards only asking questions rooted in technical and procedural matters (i.e. an over emphasis on the how rather than why). More nuanced critiques tend to be rooted either in psycho-neurological concerns over the effects of these technologies on our minds and bodies, or in ideas about their moral tolerability. He argues we should in fact presume these technologies to be ideologically loaded and ‘to acknowledge the differences that persist throughout educational technology between those who produce and those who consume, those who are empowered and those who are exploited.’ He argues that as such they need ‘to be understood as a knot of social, political, economic and cultural agendas that is riddled with complications, contradictions and conflicts’ and as a result also that technology enhanced learning is a field as beset with value preferences; ‘social imaginaries and ideological formations that present common (and often persuasive) understandings of how things ‘should be’ and ‘will be’.’ As if anticipating criticism in return for his critical stance, Selwyn also somewhat defensively makes a case for the importance of pessimism in this field, suggesting doing so is not simply being difficult for the sake of being difficult, but is a case of realism and an important part of breaking free from educationalist hype. He summarises this as ‘approaching educational technology from a position similar to Gramsci’s notion of being a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will’.

In the second chapter Selywn attempts to view educational technologies in light of the ideologies they support by offering a deliberately political analysis of education and technology in counterpoint to the ‘commonsensical’ discourse often used about them in educational circles. In doing so he also seeks to create a framework for identifying these ideological interests and their consequences. He starts with a discussion and definition of ideology, aptly starting with Marx and moving through to more contemporary analysis. Selwyn reviews the evolution of ideas about ideology to produce an eventual definition which could loosely be summarised as the idea that ideology seeks to decontest or naturalise the meanings of certain things in order to create a common consensus about them. One can, he suggests speak of a dominant ideology of technology assisted learning or teaching in general, which permits certain activities and frowns on others.

Next Selwyn proceeds to identify the dominant ideologies of our present moment and of the technologies that define our moment. Referencing Andrew Feenberg, Selwyn suggests technologies are often rightly seen seen as sites of struggle between competing ideologies, and this view of them should also extend to digital realm. Selwyn sees our contemporary moment as underpinned by several key ideologies. One is libertarianism, a basic trust in the moral and political primacy of the individual and in North American context particularly their pursuit of individual self-interest. Libertarian ideology is basically humanist Selwyn suggests, having at it’s core a basic trust in the good of people, but also often tips in other directions. Liberatian ideas are heavily connected also to ideas about the power of technology, and extend into the digital as ‘cyber-liberalism’. Selwyn argues that ‘digital technology offers a ready canvas for various strains of libertarian thinking to be imagined and (in part) operationalized – in particular the privileging of the sovereign user and the principles of self-responsibilization and self-determination.’ The internet as a largely unregulated sphere of activity, exists as an example of this.

Next Selwyn discusses neo-liberalism, essentially an extension and updating of libertarianism but with a particular emphasis on consumer choice, free markets and private interest above communal activity or the interests of the state. Under this system every area of life becomes potentially subject to reorganisation along the lines of market principles. While neo-liberialsm is arguably the dominant ideology of our age, Selwyn suggests it is important to see it ‘an unfinished project seeking to remould the world in its image.’ Finally Selwyn discusses what he terms the new economy, a less clearly defined ideology articulated as the changing form of capitalism over recent decades away from Fordist models of production towards modern flexible, information based economies, the products of which are often immaterial in nature. In this new economy profit is gained from the production of knowledge and information, which is produced through a globally networked capitalism with the computer as the steam engine of the modern age. In turn these technologies help to colonise ever more areas of life as profit generators, including interpersonal communication, a transformation suggests Selwyn (quoting Antonio Negri) from the ‘mass worker’ of the factory to the contemporary ‘social worker’. As a result of this ‘the work skills of the new economy are based around skills and dispositions relating to multitasking, autonomy, creativity, ‘innovation’ and networked and cooperative forms of working, as well as malleability of working practices’.

Next Selwyn argues we should see educational technology itself in terms of the ideologies that give rise to and promote it. In doing so he acknowledges that ‘it is difficult at first glance to see educational technology as entwined with any aspect of the dominant ideologies just described. Yet, as was noted earlier, one of the core characteristics of hegemony is the ability of dominant ideologies to permeate commonsensical understandings and meaning.’ Selwyn identifies five key ideologies within educational technology. The first, learner centered learning is maybe the most obviously pedagogical, and reflects that the origins of much interest in educational technologies is in a progressive ideal for education designed to better meet the needs of learners. He suggests that ‘this approach frames digital technology as a key means of providing learners with enhanced access to sources of knowledge and expertise that exist outside of their immediate environment.’ Equally it ties to aspirations for education to be dispersed, non-authoritarian and autonomous. In this sense educational technology is sometimes seen as a so-called ‘trojan mouse’ intended to introduce agendas and ideas into the institution which might be difficult in the traditional classroom (although Selwyn also questions the extent to which technology is really necessary to realize these subversive goals).

Next, the efficiencies of education, emphasises the importance of maximum effectiveness and efficiency in education over and above individual or collective empowerment. Seen through this prism educational technologies are more about the economics of education rather than the result for it’s users, with online teaching facilitating ‘efficient logistics of educational provision; the idea of technology contributing to the profitability and commoditization of education; and the idea of technology contributing to countries’ economic competitiveness and efficiency of labour and knowledge production.’ Selwyn suggests that amongst some groups there is a clear sense that technology can be the means to realise a largely corporate model of education planned along market lines and without state intervention. This is counter-balanced at the same time by the perception in other groups that technology can be the means to ever greater national economic competitiveness, reconfiguring workers mindsets towards a knowledge drive economy, and the exporting of education as a product overseas, in effect serving state goals rather than breaking free from them. Next, communitarianism and anti-establishment thinking also underpins some advocacy of educational technology. Selwyn highlights the origins of the computer industry in 1960’s Californian counter-culture and efforts to reposition the computer as a social rather than war machine, and argues this extends to the present in the form of contemporary counter-technology. This thinking most often manifests today in a communiatarian ideal of technology as a way of reimagining and reorganising society along the lines of mutual empathy, understanding and cooperation, an ideal partly played out in debates about net neutrality.

Somewhat related to this is the ideology of Anti-institutionalism, which might be seen as a more active process of sabotage against existing institutions and norms. Selwyn writes that ‘The key here is the perceived ability of digital technologies to support ‘self-organization’ within networks that is decentralized, distributed and bottom-up, therefore opposing the planned and controlled nature of institutional organization.’ He suggests these ideas have informed some contemporary strands of critical pedagogy, advocates of which sometimes view educational technologies as a potential means for revolutionary ends, breaking beyond the rigid structures of conventional schooling and education. ‘In these terms, digital technology is seen as a potential means of resisting the ‘banking model’ of accumulating ‘knowledge content’, and instead supporting open discussion, open debate, radical questioning, continuous experimentation and the sharing of knowledge.’ Lastly, techno fundamentalism, the enchantment with technology and technological progress, might seem a less obvious value but is still, Selwyn suggests, an important one. He writes that ‘the techno-fundamentalist mindset reflects an implicit belief that technology offers a means to substantially improve current forms of everyday life and social relations – including education.’ Part of this is what has been termed ‘computationalism’ or the idea that the world can be framed in terms of data, algorithms and Boolean logic. This perspective assumes digital technology has the means of expression to understand and ultimately resolve the world’s problems and to some extent reflects a deeply ingrained western belief in technology as progress, something which at times borders on a new religion.

Selwyn notes how interesting it is that educational technologies can comfortably incorporate such different, even contradictory ideologies reflecting the idea of these technologies as a contested space. Partly he suggests this might be explained by the fact that dominant ideologies need to attract and retain a wide array of groups, and these technologies may offer precisely that compromise in their flexibility of use. What is also common amongst these disparate groups is the view of educational technology as a means to improve or better education. He calls on educators to think critically about these issues through a series of six questions that end the chapter: These include to routinely question the ideological dimensions of educational technology, to ask what forms of engagement are promoted through these technologies, and which are marginalized or silenced. What freedoms and unfreedoms are associated with these technologies. How they alter the relationship between individual and commons and public and private, and what are the emotional and human outcomes from their use. Lastly and maybe most importantly we should be aware of the continuities and discontinuities they create between new ways of teaching and learning, and the old.

e-Learning: Inclusivity in the Online Classroom

For our latest Technology Enhanced Learning session, educational developer Siobhan Clay talked to us about the issue of inclusivity. While inclusivity is something that tends to be much considered in relation to the real-world classroom there is a tendency to make assumptions that online platforms do not pose the same obstacles and almost inherently inclusive. Clearly this is not always the case and while these platforms can lower barriers in some areas they can also create new ones.

Siobhan talked us through a few ideas and texts of interests, introducing concepts along the way. One was Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant’s idea of ‘habitus’, the innate qualities we derived from our upbringing and experiences. Our habitus predisposes us to successful navigation of some situations and a more challenging experience in others. Online teaching is an example of this, students who perhaps come from homes and backgrounds where digital technologies are extensively used and who do not regard them as intimidating are likely to inherently find these environments more accessible than those students who have not had this experience.

Siobhan also introduced us to Neil Selwyn’s Distrusting educational technology which looks at some of the pitfalls of online spaces and questions the extent to which they can support detrimental agendas. Issues of social exclusion (low income, lack of motivation, exclusion through physical and mental health disabilities) digital exclusion (Lack of hardware, access to internet) and accessibility (Urban vs Rural, ICT and information literacy) all need to be considered before praising the openness of these platforms.

Siobhan also shared some interesting statistics gathered from students at UAL which questioned the idea of young people as ‘digial natives’. A quarter of students were mildly anxious about sharing work online. A third felt overwhelmed by the digital information they received from the college and course. We also discussed community building around these platforms particularly in light of our experiences over the past several weeks with Tweetchats. Does social media generate a community? I think to some extent you can view things like social media are a framework or scaffold for communities which may or may not survive in their absence. In the context of Twitter and photography has become an alternative space, photography exiles not really welcome in the traditional venues of discussion and debate. Are they really community building?

Lastly for this session we discussed plans for our self-initiated projects for this unit. I’m still undecided about the course I will take with it. One idea I had was to look at how various platforms could be used for collaborative online teaching, testing some of them out with students. However the impending easter break and the timescale for this assignment means it would be difficult to do this to the extent I’d like. Alternatively, building on the discussions of this session and some of my previous writing on the topic I may look at the ways that these online platforms and spaces incorporate certain biases and obsctacles and perpetuate sometimes unhelpful power relations. I’ll be researching both of these ideas over the coming week and for the latter I think the Selwyn book will be a particularly useful starting point for.

e-Learning: Power in the Online Classroom


Online technologies are frequently spoken of in democratic and liberatory terms, and clearly many have such potential in the classroom and beyond. As I’ve noted here before, one of the things I really enjoy about teaching on the part-time MA Photojournalism and Documentary course is engaging with course groups made up of students from across the globe, who might not otherwise be able to study our program because of geography and their commitments elsewhere. This geographic diversity is reflected in the work that is shown in our sessions, where even quite prosaic assignments (for example to take a portrait of a stranger) can result in an incredible diversity of subjects and approaches. While similar financial barriers might remain as those that curb access to traditional face to face courses, the democratic possibilities of online teaching are clear, even if they are unevenly realised.

Beyond overcoming the tyrannies of geography, online teaching can be seen as more democratic in some other respects. Since recently rereading and writing about Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, I have been thinking about the ways in which the online classroom challenges the traditional hierarchies of the classroom, in particular the spatial hierarchy of tutor and students facing each other apart, or at least with arrangement of the space focused on the teacher. These are arrangements which, as I noted in a piece on Focault’s text, have certain panoptic qualities. These hierarchies are so familiar and expected, ingrained into us practically from the moment we first enter school, that I think they often hardly register on students, who obey them without thinking. I have few fixed teaching rooms and often arrive to find rooms laid out in a wide variety of ways. Almost regardless of these arrangements, or where I decide to position myself in a classroom, students have a tendency to array themselves around the teacher as they have no doubt been taught to do from an early age. This tendency is something I’d like to explore and experiment with counter-acting  in the future.

The online classroom clearly dispenses with this student-teacher arrangement, and the hierachical and panoptic qualities that come from this, but there are questions about the extent to which these tensions and tyrannies are replaced by new ones. These feed into wider questions about the extent to which the liberational or democratic qualities of these technologies are tempered by other more authoritarian characteristics. While we might worship the cult of the small tech startup and the innovative entrepreneur, the reality is that technologies are still invariably developed and deployed by those with greater power than those who actually use them  on a day to day basis. Because of this I think it’s always useful to ask questions about the extent to which old and new technologies incorporate elements of the power relations of the time and place that given rise to them, or the ways initially positive innovations might open up repressive possibilities in the future. As an example Facebook have recently announced plans to use artificial intelligence to detect suicidal users, a move which to me smacks of rolling out ubiquitous surveillance disguised as humanitarianism (it’s notable they are also looking at ways to use the same technology to detect potential terrorists).

In the context of online teaching these issues seem very important and yet not all that much discussed. In some respects you can see online classrooms as functioning in a way which is very top down and controlling. In the online classroom, physical hierarchies might be dispensed with, but I can see them being replaced by a different set of challenges, new hierarchies and forms of control which are in many ways more total, and more unchallengeable for students (and perhaps for tutors also). In contrast to the physical classroom, where sessions are always something of a negotiation between teacher and taught, in the online classroom the teacher/moderator is given a far more complete control over the session. Through the various options afforded me through the classroom software I am able to control what the class sees, who participates, who speaks, and so forth. This control is also highly limited of course, and in practice I have no idea of what a student on the other end of the connection is actually doing, indeed whether they are even still there or have left to make a cup of tea or hang out their washing. At the risk of getting making predictions best left to science fiction, one could see future iterations of such technologies seeking to address these blind spots, for example giving tutors live feedback on individual student engagement based on techniques like cursor or eye tracking. This could massively improve teaching and learning, but it could also be worryingly authoritarian.

This connects to the broader issues of the type of information we are generating through our interactions in these online environments and how that is being used. Data, like heat, is generated with almost every movement in the modern world, and like heat, data is highly persistent. It would be naïve to think there is not a certain amount of data logging taking place in the online classroom, whether by the software developer (perhaps to aid in future development or troubleshooting) or from the institution who operates it. Tutors are sometimes rightly concerned about the prospect of their online sessions being recorded and reused, but at least it is clear when it is taking place. What is less apparent is what other information we might be generating and what it might later be used for. This article suggests some of the end applications will be benign, indeed educationally powerful. However, the issue with individual data, rather like the technologies that generate it, is its ready applicability also to more malign purposes. What this means is that not the online classroom is not only a space where I as a teacher have an enlarged set of powers over my students compared to the real world, physical lesson, but it is also one where as a group we are caught within a large network of technologies and operators which may be monitoring our teaching, learning and more besides.

e-Learning: Social Media in the Classroom


After discussing our recent experience’s with MOOCs, the last part of our third Technology Enhanced Learning session focused on the use of Twitter. For homework, we’ve been asked to engage in a Tweet Chat, a group twitter conversation on a particular topic, thoughts on which come at the end of this post. Before coming to that I thought I’d highlight a few of the conversations that emerged in the classroom as a result of the request that we all sign up to Twitter and use the platform for this exercise, because I think they are interesting exemplars of the frankly rather old fashioned attitudes to technology and social media in higher education.

When this assignment was introduced our tutor asked how many people in the class were already regular Twitter users, the result was only a handful of people out of the twenty or so present. This opened up some interesting conversations about people’s attitudes towards social media, both as teachers and users in their own right. The familiar reasons for not wanting to use social media were raised. Issues of data privacy and online footprint (echoing the residents and visitors exercise done in our first session) revealed that for many people there was concern about how much information could be deduced about them from their social media accounts. Another issue raised was that of the noise of social media, and the fact that 99% of what occurs on Facebook or Twitter is completely inconsequential information which only serves to distract. Both of these concerns are legitimate, but also I think represent a fundamental misunderstanding of how to use social media.

As well as learning to use a social media platform the way it was intended, part of your responsibility as a user is to get to understand what risks a given platform presents, what information the owning company is looking to extract in return for your use of it, and finally how you can game the platform to use it for purposes other than its original intention. Keeping these in mind I think you can start to mitigate the inherent risks involved in social media (and the web in general) while also looking for ways to maximise the potential benefit. Clearly if the benefit dosen’t exceed the energy you put into it (at least over the medium term) then either you’re not using a platform the right way or it’s not the right platform for the sort of thing you do. I’ve found Twitter pays off in terms of the work that goes in, whereas some other platforms like Facebook usually don’t. Likewise in terms of the amount of useless content on social media, I see my accounts as projects in curation where I filter what comes through to me through the tools available. I’m fairly ruthless about who I follow on Twitter, and a large part of that is trying to keep my feed to mangeable flow of useful information. That’s still an ongoing project and something that might sometimes lead to hurt feelings if I don’t follow someone back, but it’s key to getting the benefit from these products (and they are products, not services).

From here the classroom conversation developed into a bigger one of the behavioural impact of technology on students and the learning atmosphere. It was a commonly held view in the room that mobile phones and their like have no place in the classroom. It’s an idea I have often encountered in higher education but still can’t completely reconcile myself with. As someone who has doodled his way through more than his share of lessons, I know that anything can be potentially distracting, and my secondary school maths workbooks are testimony to this. Banning pens and paper because of this capacity to distract would be considered inappropriate, and I see phones and other technologies in similar terms, as something which can and should be used to further learning and engagement in the classroom even at the same time as acknowledging that some students will allow themselves to be distracted by them. Besides being impractical, banning these things also doesn’t show much respect for students who are after all adults who need to learn to take responsibility for their own behaviours (but that’s not to say I won’t sometimes challenge or call out a student who I think is using their phone for something unrelated to the current classroom activity). It’s also worth not underestimating the ability of students to multi-task, I spent most of this third TEL session working on my laptop, taking notes, looking up references and so on at the same time as following along with the discussion.

One such reference was to John Locke’s book Why We Don’t Talk To Each Other Anymore, which I haven’t yet read but seems to make a familiar argument for the importance of speech and the challenges posed to it by technology (this superficially calls to mind Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep which makes a similar argument about another core human practice). While there are certainly arguments against technology in the classroom, those I heard during this session felt too generic and draconian, and didn’t readily enough recognise the benefits these technologies can have if you’re prepared to make them part of the session, I also think it’s important to challenge the notion that spoken conversation is intrinsic to forming trusting relationships. As part of my online teaching I work with the same students sometimes over the course of two years, never having met and sometimes not even knowing what they look like, but I would still say the connection can sometimes be as strong as those I have with my full time face-to-face students. In other words, perhaps we actually need to widen our definition of ‘talking’ rather than trying to desperately preserve it as the domain of direct unmediated speech alone.

Turning back to Twitter, on Wednesday evening I joined the Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Tweetchat. Started in 2014 this weekly session brings together teachers from across the globe to discuss a particular topic related to Higher Education. In this case the topic was e-portfolios, quite relevant to some of the other research I’ve been doing on online collaborative platforms. Like most social media platforms Twitter has it’s own etiquette and I quickly discovered the Tweetchat’s have their own in turn. It felt like a bit of a free for all at the start but gradually made more sense with people prefixing their tweets to make it easier to follow what questions they were responding to. One thing that was notable was that while people responded to questions set centrally and posted by the LTHE Tweetchat account, these responses didn’t seem to engender that many conversations. I have to admit that for my part I didn’t really help with this, as after a solid days teaching I didn’t really feel I had the mental energy left to do much more than lurk and read people’s Tweets as they came in. I wonder how typical this is of these Tweetchats or whether people are normally more discursive. In conclusion, devoted Twitter user though I am, I can’t see myself becoming a regular Tweetchater, but it was still a useful experience and one I might refer students to if I come across relevant discussions in the rather enormous lists of Tweetchats that exist.


e-Learning: Joining a MOOC II


Last week I enrolled in Rice University’s Introduction to Python Programming MOOC. This was an assignment for my elective in technology enhanced learning but I thought I would take advantage of the task to start learning something which has been on my to do list for sometime anyway. I’m under no illusions about becoming a great coder (or even a functional one), I don’t really have the time or I think the brain for it, but I like the idea of having a grip on the fundamentals if only so I’m a bit better able to talk to someone who does understand how to do it. I began with the introductory session, which sets out the structure of the course, teaching materials. and offers a very basic introduction to Python.

The introduction was very clear, introducing the staff, covering what the course would cover and also critically setting out the course ethos (something I didn’t really expect). The tutors seemed to try hard to establish a relaxed atmosphere to the course, not least by centring the projects on some nerdy pop culture references, the first project for example was titled ‘We Want a Shrubbery’ in homage of course to Monty Python. This is a tricky calculation and of course there is the risk that for some students this sort of obscure humour will just fall flat. For me this reflects one of the issues with MOOCs. Teachers to some extent adapt their style to the class (I quickly learn with a new group of students if they find my jokes funny or just painful), but that of course isn’t possible with these courses. You either take a calculated risk or guess at the type of students you might have (in this case I think they’ve guessed that most would be rather nerdy men) or you go for a monotone neutrality that ought to appeal to, and bore, everyone more or less equally. As one of tutors for this MOOC admitted during the introductory video ‘sometimes we’re lame but we’d rather be that than boring’.

Diving into the basic lessons, the pace was gradual enough for me to follow along without getting too lost. It is supremely useful that you can return, rewind and revisit anything unclear as many times as you want. For me trying to get my head around coding for the first time this is pretty vital. A transcript of the lecture is also avaliable and this is particularly useful as I found the Cousera site rather tedious, continually hanging and with Firefox occasionally failing to respond at all. I also realised pretty quickly that this was going to be far more of a weekly commitment than I’d realised, partly because the classes were more in depth than I expected and because of my basic maths skills which required a fair amount of refreshing.

In the lessons there was a nice use of a digital whiteboard to spell out information as introduced. An advantage of pre-recording these sessions is obviously that a tutor can appear to do a lot of things simultaneously which have in reality been produced separately and combined. This makes the classes feel very fluid and professional in a way real life classes rarely are. Also interesting that one member of the course team had developed a platform called CodeSkulptor specifically for the course (perhaps not so surprising since they’re all coding professors) but a nice surprise. This allows remote access, saving and editing of code via a web browser, and makes the learning and sharing process feel much more fluid and interactive than I had expected. Video instruction gradually introduces this platform and simple expressions, with tests scattered in to the video to help reinforce the ideas asked for. Finally after covering the expressions we were presented with a series of practice exercises to try out and reinforce what we’d learnt.

So the first session was an interesting introduction both to basic coding and to MOOC’s. One of the course tutors prefaced his class by telling us that ‘by the time you’ve taken this class you will know enough to be dangerous’. While I doubt I’ll ever know enough Python to be a danger to anyone (apart perhaps from myself) the smoothness of the all important first session definitely encouraged me to continue with this MOOC.

e-learning: Collaborate Ultra


I’ve been teaching online classes through LCC’s MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography part time program for several years now. The part time program is taught entirely remotely, using a variety of platforms but with most sessions taking place in an online classroom environment somewhat akin to a group Skype call. As a teacher, this online environment poses quite different possibilities and challenges to a face-to-face lesson, but I have to admit I hadn’t thought that much about the effect of it for a student beyond the relative convenience it offers for people unwilling or unable to relocate to study in London. Anyway as part of my PG Cert I entered the online classroom as a student for the first time recently. Aside from the actual content of the lesson the experience of being taught online was both slightly disconcerting and rather useful, and gave me some cause for further thought on the advantages and disadvantages of this form of teaching.

For this session we were working in a virtual classroom platform called Collaborate Ultra. This was quite different from the regular Blackboard Collaborate I’m used to using, with Ultra being browser based, and rather very shiny and slick looking but also it seemed not quite so fully functioned as Blackboard. The session was crowded, with about twenty participants including speakers. While this would hardly be a large class by conventional standards it felt large in online terms. I’m used to teaching online classes of rarely more than about ten people. Having so many more can create some minor problems, for example when a question is asked the rush of answers in the text box comes so thick and fast that it’s hard to read them as they rapidly get pushed up the chat box.

Other shortcomings are ones I’m already rather aware of, the reduced possibilities for presentations and embedded media like audio and video for example are a shame, and something I hope the platform evolves to accept in future iterations. Most obvious to me though was just how easy it is to get distracted as a student participating in online sessions. Besides the multitude of locations that a student might be logging in from and all the environmental distractions that might pose there is just the ever-present temptation to check e-mails, social media and so forth during the session, and I have to admit I didn’t fully resist these temptations.

In terms of our speakers and the actual lesson content; James Swinson took us through some examples of innovative uses of the Workflow platform. Then Tim Morgan talked to us about the use of Moodle in the context of teaching an online only course and also about Padlet, a platform for e-collaboration (Google docs also works well for this I’ve found). Also worth noting was that Tim was speaking with webcam video. I never use it in my classes so it was an interesting chance to assess whether I’ve been missing something in the process. In this case I don’t think so, at least for talks that simply involve talking. It did occur to me that this might be a useful tool though when talking to students about things like books where the webcam could be used to show something physical and explain how it works, pointing out interesting details for example in a way that would be difficult in a real-world classroom.

Finally Tim Williams spoke to us further about some of the tools used for e-learning, including ways for collecting information on student usage of the platforms. With my interests in data and surveillance I found this a little alarming and it took me back to some of my thoughts about the power dynamics of teaching, when I mused that it was worth thinking about power relations also in relation to the online teaching space. Of course, this data could and should be used to refine courses and teaching to the advantage of students and teachers, but I also worry about ways it might easily be misused (it also inevitably makes me wonder to what extent similar monitoring goes on of staff usage of these platforms).  In all though it was a useful session which gave me reason to think more carefully about how I prepare online classes in future and an awareness of the need to find ways to engage students as fully as possible during my own classes.

e-Learning: Joining a MOOC I


Our homework for the first session of my elective in technology enhanced learning was to participate in a Massively Open Online Course (or MOOC) for at least a few weeks. Given my subject area I thought it might make sense to join one on photography or journalism. I assumed this would narrow down the field but actually that proved to be far from the case as there are an enormous number of photography related MOOCS out there. With a bit more reflection it also seemed like a bad choice to do one in a topic I’m already fairly knowledgeable in. I wouldn’t learn much in return for the time spent and would probably find myself being overly critical of the course materials and approach to the topic as a result.

Instead I decided I’d use the opportunity to get a grounding in something that has been on my ‘to-learn’ list for some time; basic coding. Those two words obviously also encompasses a very wide field, not least in terms of the number of languages I could opt for. In the end, I went for Python, partly because of its alleged simplicity and also because I’ve been told and read that it’s an effective language for some basic data mining techniques, something which is increasingly a part of my photographic work. For a course I opted for Rice University’s An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python after reading some favourable reviews of it and also because it’s latest cycle was starting in a few days. Like many MOOCs this one seems to follow the model of essentially free participation, with a paid for final assessment and certificate. If you’re only really interested in learning how to do something as I am and don’t have any interest in the accreditation then that’s fine. It’s also worth noting that Coursera, the site that the MOOC is conducted thought, also does everything it can to trick you into subscribing even though the content can be accessed for free with a bit of navigation. Anyway, I enrolled and awaited the start of the course, something I will discuss in a future post.

While waiting for the course to start I had a few thoughts based on my previous MOOC participation. While the idea of a basically free course of education is great, in other respects the experience can leave a certain amount to be desired, and they are certainly not an analogue for face to face courses. The massive nature of them means that inevitably interaction with tutors is virtually non-existent. That might matter more or less depending on the subject, and the student. For me it’s a bit of an issue, since my best educational experiences have been those where two-way exchange with a tutor have made it possible to subtly shape the learning experience to my particular interests as a student. Based on my past experience that just isn’t possible with a MOOC, what you are offered is a very rigid and linear framework within which to learn (or not).

I think it’s also worth considering some of the assumptions about what MOOCs are (and why they are). Providers are invariably world leading institutions, who advertise their MOOCs based on the quality of their provision in other areas. On the face of it this would seem to make little economic sense, to undercut traditional courses with free ones, but of course what is offered for free often seems to be a compromised or watered down version of what the institution’s traditional courses might offer, a concession both to the nature of the teaching methods and the economic necessities of creating and running MOOCs. On that note, it is clear that the institutions providing these free courses do not regard themselves as charities (indeed some of the earlier adopters of the approach were amongst the more hardnosed in the university world), so what really is the thinking behind creating these courses, which require considerable effort to establish? Partly it might be good public relations and advertising, but that is only part of the story. The extent to which MOOCs are ‘really’ free is a key question here. I see definite parallels in them with so-called pay-to-play games (which are themselves also often massively online), where the base game comes for free but the player is enticed to pay to unlock various rewards and add ons. The designers of these games introduced a range of constant, clever pressures on players to part with their money at almost every stage of the experience. I wonder if MOOC providers might start to take note of this in the way they design their own courses, offering students a panoply of upgrades and enhancements as a way to make MOOC’s ever more profitable.

More thoughts once I begin the Rice University MOOC in a few days.

e-Learning: Introductory Session


Following the first session of my elective unit in technology enhanced learning I thought I would summarise a few of the things we covered during the session.

Some unit tenets: 1. Openess – Try to assume that technology works. It’s easy to complain about glitches and tech problems in e-learning but problems also occur in real life teaching. Spaces are inappropriate, plans go wrong and so on. My thoughts on this is that while this is all true, technological problems in e-learning have a greater chance to completely derail a session. Real life teaching at it’s simplest just requires two people and a space. 2. Experimentation – Play with technology, appropriate tech to context, don’t turn pedagogy and technology to fit the technology. My thoughts are that this is again true but to some extent the specific characteristics of these technologies force teaching plans and classroom experiences into certain contortions because of what the technology allows (or disallows). Blackboard, the platform I’m most used to teaching with, provides an example. The nature of the audio stream means multi-participant conversations can’t occur as they do in real life and classes and activities have to be planned accordingly. Inversely the platform allows other things that wouldn’t be possible in a physical classroom, like a constant flow of feedback and comments via the chat box without interrupting the main lecture or conversation. 3. Documentation – Document and reflect on the unit and what is learnt through it, something I’ll primarily be doing here on this blog and also to some extent through a Workflow profile which will eventually exist here.

Workflow: We had a brief introduction to Workflow, an online portfolio platform which will form part of our assessment. One feeling coming away from the session is the slightly overwhelming proliferation of technologies demanding time, energy to learn, maintain, update. Unlike some others in the group who seem more anxious about approaching new technologies, platforms, and services, I feel generally undaunted by them, but I am very aware that it takes time and energy to learn new interfaces, populate platforms with even minimal content and then to maintain them on ongoing basis. I’ve already put my primary photography blog in stasis in order to free sufficient time to work on my teaching and learning blog, and adding workflow to the mix and it starts to feel like once again like too many platforms to pay proper attention to. This is something to keep in mind in my own teaching and comes back to the title of this blog to some extent, the feeling that whether as learners, teachers or just as citizens we are under a significant burden from the various technologies we employ. As much as feeling empowering they can also become a persistent nagging presence that demands our attention, and they can generate a sense of resentment and guilt as much as a sense of empowerment or learning.

Mapping our online footprint: We also did an exercise to start thinking about our online activities and engagement with different platforms, using the grid below. We started to think about the extent to which personal and professional lives overlap (or don’t) on different platforms, and also the extent to which we use different platforms to engage in different ways, behaving socially or simply lurking, acting variously as residents or visitors. We each mapped this for ourselves briefly:


MOOCs: Lastly we had a brief introduction/discussion of MOOCs or Massively Open Online Courses. These are something I’ve been interested in for a while and I’ve participated in a couple as a student. We discussed some of the background to them, a few notable examples and also some of the issues arising from them. For me a particular question is the motivation of universities in providing these courses, there is a sense of public good will at the idea of these free courses (Harvard university for example recently got a large amount of positive press when they put photography course materials online) but what exactly are these institutions getting in return?