Turning to the community: my open learning journey

Image attribution: CC0 James Sutton via www.unsplash.com

This blog details my learning journey for the Education and Digital Cultures module 2017, as part of the Digital Education MSc at the University of Edinburgh. As the final assignment for the module I am going to put this open learning journey on trial* to examine the benefits and drawbacks of being open. The link has been submitted officially via the institution VLE and I am turning it over to you, the open community for critique and comment. In some ways I am putting ‘community’ on trial as much as ‘open’.

This assignment was inspired by OER17 The Politics of Open. Despite being unable to attend the conference I read all of the blogs posts arising from and found it really resonated with me being able to look through the lens of an open learner, rather than previously through the lens of a ‘frustrated’ open practitioner.

I have presented my case with supporting evidence, witness contributions and expert opinions. Considering all of this I have made a verdict and am now opening it for comments. Therefore, your comments:

WILL NOT affect my judgement that was submitted for assignment purposes

MIGHT affect the final mark or the feedback from my tutors, that decision is entirely theirs

WILL potentially have greatest impact on my future professional practice as an educational technologist and may even open new conversations/connections.

Of course, the absence of any engagement with the assignment will in itself be evidence in the trial of open learning.

Before going to the trial I want to provide a short background to provide context. I primarily chose this module to push me outside my comfort zone. The three blocks of Cyberculture, Community Culture and Algorithmic Culture were each structured around readings and group/individual tasks and the majority of the content was totally new to me. However, the bulk of the content and learning was to be built entirely by each of us in a personal blog area. This content was ‘fed’ into our blog daily via IFTTT. All information about the module is available openly on the website, including the handbook, assessment details, tutors and links to each student blog.

* Disclaimer: any errors surrounding the courtroom metaphor are entirely mine and poetic licence abounds

Go to trial >

Final summary

My Education and Digital Cultures journey was certainly a rollercoaster ride, blending the new such as IFTTT with prior experiences such as MOOCs. Each of the three blocks presented content challenges alongside practical ones, and many times cognitive dissonance was at the fore, pushing and pulling my actions and beliefs against theory.

Image: tug-of-war-monument-wismar on Pixabay CC0 – falco

It all culminated in the final weeks with a focus on theories and critical approaches to educational technology (Plant, Haraway, Bayne, Gardner, Watters). Many of my stream elements lauded technological achievements yet balanced by calls of caution such as this from Neil Selwyn (2016):

“First and foremost, we need to recognize that all these claims of ‘fixing’, ‘disrupting’ and ‘game changing’ are being made for a reason. These are not value-free extrapolations of neutral technological innovation.”

What went well

Finding content to feed into my Lifestream was straightforward (but too little?) and using Twitter was by far the most seamless method. It afforded the ability to add metadata on the fly, the space where I felt most connected to peers and resulted in interactions from an external audience. However, I continued adding different types of feeds into my stream to increase variety. Some of these were new to me and I will continue to use in the future, such as Pocket.

Another element of my stream that I enjoyed immensely was creativity. I have coloured in, made videos, created sketch notes, visualised networks with toys and software, curated images and employed music.

Adding metadata was one of the push-pulls for me. Feeding the Lifestream continuously, and reflecting at the end of the week in my summary came naturally. However, after my mid-way feedback, I tried to change this to a continuous reflection with shorter summaries, which hopefully shows in my stream.

What didn’t go well

The integration of IFTTT with my installation of WordPress was not a happy fit. Frustration abounded with embed problems as time was lost attempting to find solutions. Eventually, I resorted to manual intervention which, despite eating into reflection time, ensured the visual elements and hyperlinks worked.

Keeping up with other blogs proved difficult as feeding my own, reflecting, reading and creating my artefacts took significant time. I tried to comment on as many posts as possible but setting up separate RSS feeds for each person was time consuming, with many IFTTT recipe failures. However, replying on Twitter was an instant solution which also afforded conversation better than blog comments.

The end of the road?

Overall, the experience has been fun, tiring, challenging and ultimately very rewarding. As my feed developed, my learning through a multitude of modes, together with the realisation that the journey is actually only beginning – I want to delve more into critical pedagogy theory and also ethnography as a research method. Throughout, my common threads have been the human, connections and critical approaches. With that in mind I’ll say farewell to my stream with words from Paulo Freire (1994):

“One of the tasks of the progressive educator, through a serious, correct political analysis, is to unveil opportunities for hope, no matter what the obstacles may be.”


Freire, Pauolo. Pedagogy of Hope, Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Bloomsbury Academic, 1994. Print.

Selwyn, Neil. Is Technology Good For Education?. 1st ed. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016. Print.

Trapped: Edtech feminism, Sadie Plant and Librarian Superheroes



Edtech feminism, Sadie Plant and Librarian Superheroes #mscedc

A post shared by @thomsonphoto on

Dr Macleod recommended Zeros + Ones in my Understanding Learners in Online Environments and I thought it sounded perfect for this course. I went to the library early on the way in to work, found it quickly and went through the self check out. Upon trying to exit I set off the alarms and security told me I had to go back in. Checking my phone I had a confirmation email confirming the book was now checked out to me. So I could neither leave with the book nor leave the book behind, and risk getting fined in a month’s time. I returned to the self service machine and it cheerfully told me to report to the desk, which being early was still closed. Trapped!

It was then a matter of waiting inside for the librarians to arrive. As it turned out it took quite a few attempts on their part and several different machines to ‘unsecure’ it and set me free.

All in all a very timely experience demonstrating the need for human intervention in a machine driven world. Librarian superhero!

Pinned to #mscedc on Pinterest

We have discussed, shared and debated the pros and cons of all things digital in today’s world but over the last week technology has allowed me to connect with someone that I had no physical access to. This link, simultaneously fragile and strong, was nothing short of miraculous at the centre of an extremely difficult time.

Just Pinned to #mscedc: Close Up Photography of Spider Web · Free Stock Photo

Books, gardens and streams


A really great bunch of Edtech women have done a lot of work  with very little visibility from which femedtech is emerging – slowly. We have created connections with each other and explored how we can make space for people in education and technology to support each other.

from Pocket http://ift.tt/2ov4ELd

Tweets Deleted


I’m deleting all my old tweets. I’m deleting all my old tweets and will delete them on an ongoing basis – every tweet older than three months.

from Pocket http://ift.tt/2nOhKzY

This blog post by Audrey Watters caught my eye after seeing her Edinburgh talk and it really brought home just how serious people are beginning to take having their data out on the open web. The reason for the deletion activity given by Audrey is:

I am growing increasingly uncomfortable about the way in which our historical data is weaponized online. Tweets are particularly susceptible to this – they’re particularly easy to decontextualize.

This is a perfect example of the necessity of context and made me wonder how all of the items in my Lifestream would look in isolation.

Week 11 summary

This was a slightly strange week as I initially was thinking about finalising my Lifestream and chatting with others about reflecting and ideas around artefacts.

The Brainpickings article on Dewey and reflection not only served me well for this course but also seemed perfect reading for Understanding Learners in an Online Environment. Strangely, it was only after the formal teaching period was over that I began to increase the level of leeching knowledge, information and thinking from one to the other. It also resulted in an enjoyable international conversation about whiskey and coffee!

Then I turned more to the final assignment both with regards the delivery method and the critical perspectives. Therefore, I returned to Sian Bayne’s talk, given last November at Dublin City University, which I had actually attended in person.

Then I came across a Gardner Campbell interview, the title ‘Educating the Whole Person’ jumped out at me. This tied together many of my threads around learning analytics and personalised learning.

Going a bit further, the article with the tagline ‘Edtech caught in industrial capitalism’s narrative’ by Benjamin Doxtdator again seemed timely to my end assignment. Pushing me to consider technology in the widest sense. A theme further highlighted during Audrey Watters talk on ‘Automating Education and Teaching Machines’. This talk was wonderful as always from Audrey, not least as it is based on a metaphor, which never fails to draw me in.

This week also was a difficult one personally so overall I felt I wasn’t able to engage with my stream but it was still ever present in my mind.

Tweet: Personalised Learning, Gardner Campbell interview


Having come across this video by chance, it really spoke to me regarding my themes of connections and student data. During the first section of this interview Gardner Campbell speaks of how personalised learning is when your teacher really knows you. The difficulty being how to scale this ‘thick, rich experience‘ up to hundreds of students.

One possible answer is to ’empower the individuals to scale their own meetings on the network’ and here the meaning of ‘meeting’ is ‘spaces in which humans encounter each other in particularly rich meaningful ways‘.

This desire for connection is something that the web was built for. Yet Gardner asks ‘Is higher ed ready to tap in, in very meaningful, deep ways to students dispositions to connect?‘.

So why the continued resistance? Why the avoidance to teach and integrate communication processes effectively online? Again and again the response to blended or distance learning is to create resources, put them online and let the students work through. The culture mountain is tall and we are still near the bottom as a sector.

Liked on YouTube: Professor Sian Bayne – Digital Learning Research Symposium 2016


via IFTTT, YourTube

I attended this talk at Dublin City University in November 2016 and thinking about the course content nearing the end of our stream lead me to revisit it and Sian’s paper from block 1. The topics covered arose from the Digital Education manifesto and reminded me of how we can look to the future whilst still weaving in the human.



This Tweet caught my eye as it was by someone who is going to delivering a keynote at an institutional event in April and the Tweet prompting the comment is added below. This is relevant for my human thread in that it isn’t the technology that is the worry it is our implementation of it, and whether or not it is for the good of the people.

Week 10 summary

Unbelievably it is the end of week 10 and it will be strange easing off to move onto thinking about the final assignment without having any formal additional reading or activities to attend to.

This week continued the theme throughout the course, with me remembering the human within technological achievement. The week began with a Jisc video which includes a message from Sheila McNeill : “...it is really important that we don’t forget the human element of learning analytics. It is easy to get carried away by technology, by the data, by the dashboards…”

Many other entries focused on visualising data and some of the beautiful objects and art that arises from (I suspect the assignment might be on my mind).

Finally, through the analysis of the Tweetorial and discussions during the Hangout I began to suspect that I look at the data perhaps somewhat differently.  It was raised that the data privileged quantity over quality and it was clear that in the data sets those who shout loudest and most often win the day.

Even out and about in the park I was seeing ‘networks’ in everything

However, I saw the data as how I experienced the tutorial. I generally hang back and think about replies for quite a while before pressing send. Throughout the two days I probably deleted as many tweets as I sent. For me, it was more about being in a class, yes the topic was serious and I did file away papers and links but I chatted and learned from my classmates and felt part of #mscedc, something I chatted further about off lifestream.

The data will never be simply numbers to me, I will always want to analyse thinking of the humans as the nodes, joining and connecting. Maybe lots but maybe less, like the organic nature of a tree with many branches and buds, as the ‘visible’, roots and seeds as the ‘invisible‘. I still believe our networks are too complex to be reduced to this binary referred to in Knox (2014).


Knox, J. (2014). Abstracting Learning Analytics. Code Acts in Education ESRC seminar series blog. http://codeactsineducation.wordpress.com/2014/09/26/abstracting-learning-analytics/

Comment on LARC learning analytics report 13/03/17 by cthomson

Hi Jeremy, my annotations were an attempt to critically consider the data that was gathered yet not actually used, as well as what was used. So in answer to your question I think context could be measured to some extent without more sophisticated analytics.

For example, if the report had considered my weekly average with the class weekly average (rather than the displayed course average) then it could have acknowledged ‘something’ going on across the class. So the low numbers would look less stark against the class numbers for each week.

Going a step further by combining this with the data that it was one week before the end of the course it could have provided supportive feedback such as “Congratulations, you are nearing the end of course, keep up the good work. You may be finding it difficult to stay motivated at this point but don’t forget to login/join conversations for the last week – it may help with your assignments(exams).”

Essentially, flipping the existing data into supportive encouragement rather than demotivating ….

from Comments for Clare’s EDC blog http://ift.tt/2nwu9ut

Week 9 summary

At the beginning of the week I focused on looking around to get some basics about Learning Analytics (LA), adding links to the HEA and Jisc for example. Overall in general I got the sense that the advantages of LA for the learner was for the institution to be able to provide support and guidance. The proof of this seemed to be increased retention. However, I then explored many examples of algorithms gone wrong and the human impact of this.

I have been a LA sceptic without having an in-depth knowledge on the topic and I was quite surprised that during the tutorial many shared my cynicism and highlighted the need for more qualitative and contextualised analysis.

As education has higher and higher student numbers and fewer teachers LA is yet another way to solve this problem – I tried to show this on my image – but I don’t believe that it will. In any conversation I have ever had with others LA is always framed in terms of surveillance. Essentially, ‘we need to track our content to prove student didn’t engage’.  Every time I ask why.  ‘Proving’ the student has clicked on content is absolutely no proof of engagement. Only a human making contact, face to face or virtual, can deduce this and know if the student is having problems or is simply working at their own pace and timetable. I added my own annotated LARC report to help me frame this.

In addition, there is also the issue of ethics around the collection and analysis of all this ‘big data’ and I tried to highlight this by including the blog post by Lorna Campbell who tried to question a software company on its collection of data policies.

I ended the week by including a Storify and a TAGS Explorer map of the, very informative and enjoyable, Tweetorial as I tried to visualise the conversation as this helps me see past the numbers.

TAGSExplorer: Interactive archive of twitter conversations from a Google Spreadsheet for


from Pocket http://ift.tt/2nJ6Afx

I really enjoy creating these visual representations of social networks – I try to focus on the connections and not the ‘top’ quantitative data. Knowing that the software is open and free for all to use also highlights the community feel to the process and Martin Hawksey, the creator, always welcomes interaction. A true example of online community.

LARC learning analytics report 13/03/17

from Dropbox



It seemed only fitting to include my LARC report for the week after discussions around learning analytics. I have annotated it briefly with some notes but it definitely serves the purpose of highlighting the need for context. Without any context it would baffle an outsider, showing a poor level of social interaction, engagement or attendance.

A quick overview is that it was week 9 of a ten week course and two assignments were looming in my mind. I was focused on working on my learning challenge for the first of these and prioritised this along with reading and planning my writing. None of this was captured in the ‘numbers’. It also didn’t compare the week with my fellow classmates but to the course average which meant there was no direct comparison. This might have served to show some of the context as many of the others would be generating similar reports for the same week.