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Given that most of the posts on this blog concerned my MSc in digital education, I’ve decided to give it a new, separate home at

Please hop over there if you’d like to read more recent posts.

Planting spring bulbs in concrete

TulipsI’ve just finished ‘digital education: strategy and policy’, the last compulsory course in my MSc in digital education. (Next up: the dissertation, eeeek.)

One metaphor from the early weeks of the course stayed with me throughout the semester: the idea of institutions forming their strategy for digital education by ‘letting 1000 flowers bloom’ (Meredith and Newton 2003, p. 50).

Now this might sound laughably naïve in such austere and authoritarian times, but the idea goes something like this: that strategies for e-learning can emerge from a dialogue between individual teaching practice and institutional policy, rather than flowing down from strategy-makers at the top of an organisation. At the heart of this process are individual teachers experimenting with digital technologies in their subject area; around them, the institution creates systems of support, feedback and development that translate small-scale experiments into strategies.

Why should we form strategies in this way? Well for one thing, the academic ivory tower and the management awayday have terrible track records when it comes to devising strategies that can be implemented in digital education. And secondly, if innovation in teaching and learning isn’t led by university teachers then consultants, technology firms and so-called edu-businesses will soon move in to fill the vacuum. (If you’re wondering why that might not be a good thing, Audrey Watters and Martin Weller‘s blogs are great places to start.)

Easier said than done, obviously. The processes around strategy-making will be radically different (and keenly negotiated) from context to context, but we could begin by asking ourselves some questions. How are teachers trained, managed and incentivised at my institution? Have we asked our students what they want and need, or are we telling them? What (human and financial) resources have we devoted to nurturing experimentation and translating this into strategy? And does our academic leadership welcome and actively role-model innovation?

Answering these questions requires a critical re-examination of some of our most dearly held assumptions about teaching and learning. Unfortunately, in many cases the underpinning culture and ideology of an institution  is simply not up for debate. And you can’t expect 1000 flowers to bloom if you’re planting spring bulbs in concrete.


Clegg S. (2011) ‘The context and emergence of strategic thinking’, in S. Clegg et al. (eds), Strategy: Theory and Practice. Los Angeles, CA: Sage, pp. 3–44.

Hannon J. (2011) ‘Incommensurate practices: sociomaterial entanglements of learning technology implementation’, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 29, pp. 168178.

Meredith S. and Newton B. (2003), ‘Models of elearning: technology promise vs learner needs literature review’, International Journal Management Education, 3 (3), pp. 43–56. DOI: 10.3794/ijme.33.73

Singh G. and Hardaker G. (2014) ‘Barriers and enablers to adoption and diffusion of elearning’, Education and Training, 56 (2/3), pp. 105–121.


Strategy and ‘anti-strategy’

I’ve just started the final course for my MSc (‘Digital Education Strategy and Policy’). Week 1 has thrown up many interesting questions, including this one: what exactly do we mean by strategy, particularly in the context of digital education?

One of the main tensions in strategy seems to be between a classical definition (where strategists think they can control outcomes through reason and analysis) and ecological approaches, where ‘strategists [are] virtually powerless in the face of uncontrollable, and in many ways unknowable, forces’ (Jones 1998, p. 494).

Middle of nowhereSome see the latter as ‘anti-strategy’. But how can you ever formulate a meaningful strategy based on empirical analysis in a rapidly changing landscape such as digital education?

There are plenty of examples of organisations suffering due to a failure to adapt their strategy to the demands of digital (e.g. in publishing or music).

Are ‘born digital’ sectors – e.g. software development, digital marketing – any more successful at adapting to a constantly changing environment? And can organisations still take an evolutionary approach when they have profit-hungry shareholders demanding evidence of a more conventional strategy (e.g. Facebook)?

I started out thinking that a rational, analytical strategy was as desirable as a roadmap, even in a sometimes messy and fuzzy place like digital education. But now I’m not so sure…

Jones G. (2004) ‘Perspectives on strategy’, in Segal-Horn S. (ed.), The Strategy Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 491–508.

Old habits die hard

A desk with lots of paperI’m constantly surprised by how old-school my learning habits are. When I started my MSc in digital education last year I thought I’d be reading and sharing articles entirely online, perhaps using some kind of futuristic tablet-cum-hoverboard.

So how come my desk is creaking under the weight of several hundred pages of printouts, with highlighter pen and handwritten notes all over them? I also have a little notebook (the low-tech version – ask your parents, kids) where I draw lots of diagrams and tables to get things straight in my head.

(I find that very strong coffee and instrumental music – particularly Mogwai’s Rave Tapes – help too.)

I’m not a complete luddite, by the way. I’m creating video and audio, using blogs and wikis, finding articles online and putting course materials together in Moodle and iTunesU. Meanwhile Dropbox saves my bacon on a regular basis. But when it comes to getting to grips with new concepts it looks like I’m still a print-and-scrawl guy.

That’s my third MSc module (course design) done. It’s been a demanding, intriguing and satisfying 12 weeks. My brain is looking forward to a complete rest before I tackle research methods in the spring.

I might have to ask Santa for a new highlighter pen, though.

Time to hit the (e-)books again

So the leavesHomer Simpson's learning juice are turning here in Scotland, there’s a nip in the air and the kids are watching Strictly Come Dancing. It must be time for the MSc in digital education to start again, woop!

I’m about to start number three of five courses before the dissertation. This time it’s course design, which I’ve been really looking forward to since I started the programme last year. I’m hoping for a practical, hands-on semester that gives me the skills I need to put together a new course or (more likely) revamp existing ones.

As some of my fellow students said in this week’s ice-breaker, the reality of redesigning a course is a bit like rebuilding a house in front of all its current and former residents. (Cheers Paul and Candace.) And to make the whole thing even more awkward, you might also have to keep the architect of the old house (most likely a senior colleague) happy too. Diplomacy could be the name of the game here.

Hitting the (e-)books again also means I’ll be welcoming back my old friend learning guilt, who creeps into the darker corners of my mind and tells me I should be contributing more on the forums or reading that 13th secondary reading when I’m sitting on the sofa or surfing the web.

Expect sporadic postings on as-yet undefined topics over the next 12 weeks (learning juice permitting).

Online assessment: it’s complicated

Assessment cartoon

So that’s semester two of the MSc in digital education done. Online assessment was a challenging but enjoyable subject, with lots of lively debate and activities.

Here are five things I think I’ve learned:

1.  Assessment ‘defines the de facto curriculum’ (Rowntree 1987, p. 1). So a course may claim to be about concepts X, Y and Z but if only X and Y appear on the exam / are assessed in the coursework, then students don’t give a damn about Z.

2.  Many current assessment practices aren’t working. They’re ‘not only unfair but … intellectually and morally indefensible, and statistically invalid’ (Rust 2007, p. 233). Exams are ‘very poor predictors of any subsequent performance, such as success at work’ (Gibbs & Simpson 2004–05, p. 7). Universities regard assessment practices as ‘negative’, ‘pernicious’ and ‘difficult and problematic’ to change (Carless 2007, p. 60). So what can we do?

3.  We could try using collaborative (rather than individual) assessments to help change this, and digital tools like blogs and wikis handle collaboration well. But ‘collaboration needs to be orchestrated if it is to be successful’ (Naismith et al. 2011, p. 229) and this is extremely difficult to pull off (see my earlier post). In one of the groups studied by Naismith et al. (2011), 41% of students said that collaborative projects were ‘time consuming and inefficient’ (p. 237). I was thinking similar thoughts as I sat up until 1am working on the collaborative assignment that was worth only 25% of my final grade…

4.  It would be nice if we could say that one assessment form, particularly a digital one, could do everything we want assessment to do. But (obviously) it’s more complicated than that. Assessment can have a positive effect on students’ motivation, engagement and skills if we’re able get the balance right between assessment for certification (summative assessment) and assessment for learning (formative assessment). Entire books have been written about how to do that, so I won’t even try here. But it can be done, and digital can help: writing a blog for IDEL was the most enjoyable and productive assessment experience I’ve had so far.

5.  Maybe the best thing online assessment can do is expose students to experiences that are not neat, tidy and predictable – and therefore more like the real world:

The only things we can be sure about are change and connectedness with others in a complex society. Those who are skilled and flexible learners will flourish in these conditions; others will languish (Boud 2000, p. 154)

Online assessment can help to challenge and disrupt some long-established conventions of education. Whether universities see that as an opportunity or a threat is the $64,000 question.


Boud, D. (2000) ‘Sustainable assessment: rethinking assessment for the learning society’, Studies in Continuing Education 22 (2), pp. 151–167.

Carless D. (2007) ‘Learning-oriented assessment: conceptual bases and practical implications’, Innovations in Education and Teaching International 44 (1), pp. 57–66.

Gibbs G. and Simpson C. (2004–05) ‘Conditions under which assessment supports students’ learning’, Learning and Teaching in Higher Education 1, pp. 3–33.

Naismith L., Lee B.-H. and Pilkington R. M. (2011) ‘Collaborative learning with a wiki: differences in perceived usefulness in two contexts of use’, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 27, pp. 228–242.

Rowntree D. (1987) Assessing Students: How Shall We Know Them? London: Routledge.

Rust C. (2007) ‘Towards a scholarship of assessment’, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 32 (2), pp. 229–237.

Reclaiming the language of learning

Neil Selwyn

Neil Selwyn’s ‘bullshit bingo’ card

Being a student at a research conference like Networked Learning 2014 is a bit like being the bloke from work who the bride and groom invited to the wedding but they didn’t actually expect to turn up. You get the feeling that absolutely everyone else knows each other, you’re not sure who to talk to and you don’t get some of the jokes. Make that all of the jokes.

Anyway, one of the main things I left the conference with was the sense of universities needing to push back against critics and reclaim certain terms like equity, freedom of thought and independence, which MOOC providers and for-profit educators seem to be appropriating to serve their own ends. That won’t happen if everyone rushes to comply with Coursera’s definition of what constitutes a 21st-century course, for example. But it might happen if we disrupt and challenge that definition; if our course design engages with technology, rather than being defined by it. And if we reframe the conversation around research rather than business models.

Also, some of the people in the room and following the Twitter feed really didn’t take kindly to Neil Selwyn exhorting them to be critical in his keynote. You can get a flavour of the debate at

Do you know your free riders from your social loafers?

Until this week I would probably have said that ‘free rider’ and ‘diligent isolate’ appeared in the lyrics to the Manic Street Preachers’ ‘Motorcycle Emptiness‘. And that social loafers was a brand of high-end slippers aimed at ageing hipsters.


Are these social loafers?

However, as I worked through my MSc readings on collaborative learning, I learned that they’re all terms to describe behaviours that people can exhibit in a group activity. For instance, a free rider doesn’t contribute to the task but still takes their share of the credit/grade, while a social loafer is someone who contributes diligently at first but notices that others are free riding; they feel they’re being taken for a mug, so they decide to down tools as well.

Like many people who’ve been through a western education system, I’ve not had much experience of group assessment. (Quick rant: the propensity towards individualism and self-interest in assessment is strange, given that in the workplace very few tasks are undertaken in complete isolation and everyone has to learn how to negotiate, organise and communicate with others in the real world. I blame Adam Smith.)

I suppose one of the main questions is whether these behaviours are more or less likely to occur in a digital space like a wiki compared to a physical classroom. Certainly, forming some kind of social connection with the other people in your group seems to be a key factor in successful collaboration. And you could argue that tools like Facebook and Skype are just as good at facilitating this ‘connectedness’ as the breakout room or the cafeteria, if not better. But will some people find it easier to free ride when they don’t have to look the other group members in the eye afterwards? Or is that underestimating the power of the human conscience?

Hmm, at the moment I’m thinking that people who do selfish or altruistic things will do so regardless of the context or medium. But maybe there are ways to structure an online group activity that make good collaboration more likely.

A bit of inspiration for a Monday morning

Here’s a wonderful video put together by James Lamb to represent the manifesto for teaching online of the MSc in digital education at Edinburgh University:

Manifesto for online teaching

(Here’s a text link too: A manifesto for teaching online (2013 remix))

Some days I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall with this stuff, so James’s video and the manifesto are pretty inspirational. Vive la résistance.

Check out James’s other videos at

Confessions of a first-time wiki contributor

Alf Stewart

‘Strewth mate, talk about a lazy stereotype…’

This week I was contributing to a wiki for the first time. Here are some things you might like to know about wikis:

– wiki comes from a Hawaiian word meaning ‘fast’
– there are over 300,000 educational workspaces on PBworks, one of the net’s largest wiki platforms
– to a first-time contributor, they’re a total minefield in terms of online etiquette.

There are parts of working collaboratively on an educational wiki that are really quite awkward, especially when you don’t know the other contributors particularly well. As we grappled with the format, all sorts of questions came up. Will we all just write a rough draft and see how it looks, or will we divide the work up to sub-teams or individuals? Should we make notes and ask questions in the main text field? And do we put our names next to our contributions?

This last idea of attaching our individual names to the things we write seems a particularly hard one to let go of – particularly if you’re writing as part of a group project or assessment.

Ideas of originality and singular authorship go right to the heart of what we consider reading and writing to be:

The reader assumes that the text derives wholly or mainly from the author’s ideational effort and that the author has distinguished himself or herself from the work carried out by others, even if he or she cannot disregard the existence of texts by others. (Simone 1996, p. 242)

Our main tutors this semester, both Aussies, recommend that when it comes to wiki etiquette we should all embrace our inner Australians: i.e. relax, don’t worry about offending anyone, and be brutally direct in your comments.

Unfortunately my inner Australian seems to be Alf Stewart, from Home and Away. So next week my co-collaborators had better brace themselves for some ‘stone the crows’, ‘ya flamin galahs’, etc.*


Simone, R. (1996) ‘The Body of the Text’, in G. Nunberg (ed.), The Future of the Book. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, pp. 239-251.

*Apologies for the extremely lazy national stereotyping. Feel free to call me a tight-fisted, dour Scotsman on Twitter if you like.