Confessions of a distance learning refusenik-linear courses

An occasional blog, pulled together from my research diary for the Teaching and Learning Online Module for the MA: Digital Technologies, Communication and Education at the University of Manchester.

from Pocket

The post above is written by a colleague and friend of mine, Ange Fitzpatrick. Ange is a student on the Digital Technologies course at the University of Manchester. It is a brutally honest post about the ways in which she engages with the course she is taking, and in it she talks about her engagement with the course structure, and the technology through which it is enacted.

The post resonated with me for several reasons. I’m interested in the way that Ange is taught, in comparison with the way that I am, in the similarities and differences between the two offerings. Empathy is a big thing too – like Ange, I’ve juggled this course with a family (occasionally in crisis, like most families) and a demanding job. I can snatch time here and there during the week, and usually am able to carve out more time at weekends, but it means I’m not always available (or awake enough) for much of the pre-fixed ‘teaching’.

Like Ange, I’ve been an independent learner for a long time; I fear it’s turned me into a really bad student. I like finding my own stuff to read rather than going with what is suggested. I feel as though I don’t need much support (though others may disagree!). I’m neither proud nor ashamed of this, but it does put me at odds – and it makes me feel at odds – with what has been an extremely supportive cohort of students and teachers. I have a laissez-faire attitude to assessment: I’ll do my best, and I do care a little about the marks. But more than anything I’m here to be ‘contaminated’ (to borrow the term of Lewis and Khan) by ideas that are new to me. I’d rather things got more complicated than more simple.

The reason I really wanted to share this, though, was that I feel that Ange’s post highlights and exemplifies the entanglements of digital and distance education. It reveals the complex assemblages and networks at play in how we engage with course materials, in how we define ‘engagement’. It uncovers the dispersal of activity, the instability, the times when instrumentalist approaches feel like the only option. It epitomises our attempts to stay in control, to centre and recentre ourselves at the nexus of our studying. It underlines the networks: the multi-institutional, political, cultural, familial, social, soteriological networks that combine and collide and co-constitute. It exposes the totalising sociomateriality of experience, “the delicate material and cultural ecologies within which life is situated” (Bayne, 2015, p. 15). And it does so from the perspective of the student.

But it also, I think, emphasises the – I say this tentatively – relative redundancy of these ideas and critical assessments. Recognition of the networks and rhizomes does not provide Ange with a more navigable path through her course. This doesn’t mean that these considerations are not important but it does – for me at least – point to a disjunction between theory and practice.


Bayne, S. (2015). What’s the matter with ‘technology-enhanced learning’? Learning, Media and Technology, 40(1), 5–20.

With many many thanks to Ange for letting me share her post.


Life(stream) comes at you fast: Week 7 summary

The most remarkable thing about my lifestream this week is the massive increase in content, particularly compared to the past couple of weeks. In a deliciously meta twist, the reasons for this are also, weirdly, the themes of my lifestream: reaction and community.

The mid-course feedback I received quite rightly suggested that I consider additional ways to feed content into the lifestream. I wrote about a specific (albeit rather miniature) dilemma I faced in response to this. The feedback also encouraged me to reflect further on how I’m using IFTTT. Adding posts from Pinterest, for example, like this one, require readjustment to make them fit, and the time it takes to fix them often feels double the time it would take to add the content directly. This helped me to shape a presentation given to grad students at work, focusing on employing IFTTT in a far more instrumental way than I am here. [Click the image below to see the slides].

Reaction and community intersect evidently in terms of the response of EDC community to the micro-ethnographies posted by me and my supremely talented classmates. This is demonstrated in a series of comments (here, here, here), many tweets, and follow-ups to read in our post-netnography haze (here, here, here). I also included my personal reaction to tweeting a piece of academic work. One particular thing I was intrigued by is the way our expressions of community on Twitter were often non-verbal; they were endorsements, RTs or favourites. I considered this further in a blog post about a viral meme.

It’s been a week of reconsidering what ‘community’ can mean, and the assortment of ways in which cohesion might be considered in relation to it. It isn’t necessarily active and present; the question might be ‘to lurk or not to lurk’, but this affects your community status, not membership.

Someone made Windows 98 for your wrist, because why not?

There’s the recent re-launch of the Nokia 3330, which comes with the much-beloved game Snake. Then there’s a wireless keyboard that looks and feels like an old-school typewriter. And someone recently made a browser extension that brings Clippy back to life. 

from Pocket

One of the themes of the course – and indeed, something I’ve picked up on this blog – is the historiographical approach we’re taking. I’m interested in the role that nostalgia takes in this, and the ways in which it might influence our understanding of technological development. I included this article in the lifestream because it appears that this nostalgia, although not exactly new, is now considered to be totally commercially viable.

Albert Borgmann, the philosopher, argues that the structure and practices of our lives are being changed by technology, and he doesn’t necessarily see this as a good thing. He talks in terms of focal practices and focal things, the two being connected (the focal practice of ‘cooking’, for example, connected to the focal thing of ‘the oven’). For Borgmann, technology disburdens us from having to manually manage certain focal practices – he calls this technology the ‘device paradigm’. But Borgmann also thinks that we ought to make time for these pretechnological practices because technology, while disburdening us, does not make us happy – this is part of his critique.

[NB There is considerably more to it than that, it must be said].

Brittain sees this perspective of Borgmann’s as ultimately nostalgic, almost a yearning for pre-technology (something which Borgmann denied, in fact – cf. Higgs et al., p. 72). I wonder though if there’s any connection here to our nostalgia for the technology of our past:

indeed, it is difficult to know how anyone these days can be nostalgic for a pre-technological culture […] when none of us has lived ever lived more than momentarily in one (p. 72)

On the other hand, Borgmann denied that he was nostalgic about our past, and he criticises Heidegger for it. Instead, it’s about having an awareness of the past, and using that awareness to assess our present use of technology. He’s writing strongly in favour of that historiographical approach.

I don’t particularly agree with his line of thought, and certainly have some critical issues with the instrumental way he’s conceptualising technology, as well as using ‘technology’ as a catch-all term for a variety of fundamentally different things. But my question right now is whether our natural (?) nostalgia for technologies of the past – for the phone we had as a 17 year old, for the computer games we played as a 9 year old – can be reconciled in a meaningful way to the way we conceive of technology now.



Borgmann, A. (1984). Technology and the character of contemporary life: a philosophical inquiry. Chicago, Ill. ; London: University of Chicago Press.
Heikkerö, T. (2005). The good life in a technological world: Focal things and practices in the West and in Japan. Technology in Society, 27(2), 251–259.
Higgs, E., Light, A., & Strong, D. (2000). Technology and the good life? Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from

Comment on Nigel’s blog

Nigel, this is brilliant! Your visual artefact is so rich in detail and I’m in awe of your ability to pack meaning into it. I really like the (ethernet, perhaps?) cable, not plugged into anything, and with an obvious kink in it: a sign of being slightly removed, not quite connected, perhaps?

I’m also interested in your decision to put a union jack on the keyboard when – as you say above – lots of people were posting in Spanish and possibly using an online translation site. Does that mean that within the image are the course leaders’ expectations as well as what you found in the reality? Or is it that what appeared on the screen was Spanish, but what was put into the text was in English? And if so, can I infer that you’re thinking of the computer in this particular experience as having a fairly instrumental role – a means to an end, rather than integral to the experience?


from Comments for Nigel’s EDC blog

Comment from Eli’s blog

Gosh, Eli, this was not only such a clever idea, but your micro-ethnography is so stylishly presented. It’s beautiful!

One of the points you made that I’m really interested in is the idea of taking into account a peer’s intentions and goals in the feedback offered, and how that might reframe the feedback offered. There’s little point, I suppose, in commending or castigating someone’s ability to take photos of seascapes if their absolute dream is to photograph faces – I know nothing, but imagine they’re different techniques. The scale of MOOCs would seem to rule out the possibilities of a more intimate community, but do you think there was any way that the MOOC organisers might have encouraged more discussion around hopes and dreams?


from Comments for Eli’s EDC blog

Comment from Cathy’s blog

Hello Cathy! Thank you for sharing this excellent video and commentary; I’ve watched the video twice now and it’s packed full of interesting ideas and expressive, imaginative ways of describing what sounds like a rather arduous and very complex experience.

I was interested in comparing the three video clips of movement or cars – the first so quick, so intentional, so bright; the second in slow motion, with the snow, and with an entirely different perspective (a pedestrian perhaps); the third quick again, but quieter on the roads, less bright. I wondered if you might be making a point about the quick pace of the MOOC but also its rigidity in terms of the list of topics you showed. This, then this, then this, then this, ad infinitum, but without any real control over the order in which things are covered. The second clip, then, was a sign of both brake and break as you attempt to make sense of the complexity of the topic and of the micro-ethnography. The third clip of driving, then, perhaps the home strait.


from Comments for Cathy’s Lifestream

Comment on Stuart’s blog

This is a really interesting post, slides and video, Stuart – thank you for sharing. It doesn’t sound like you had the most edifying time and your video encapsulates perfectly the experience you describe in your blog post.

I’m really interested in what you describe as the ‘lack of direction’ in the MOOC, and the way in which this contributed to feelings of being overwhelmed. The MOOC I did was structured clearly, but more than that was well signposted – it was easy to get a sense of how the course had been constructed.

I think you also have a super point about motivation, particularly this:

“participants seemed to want to satisfy their own needs rather than assist in the learning of others”

While I can see that this would have had a hugely detrimental effect on the development of community, I also get the sense that you can hardly blame them! If someone is treating the MOOC in a strictly instrumental way (like, to make money) then they’re not necessarily going to want to invest in the experience. It’s probably false economics, and I might not be able to explain this well, but I wonder if the fact that the MOOC was free to join contributed to this? If the MOOC had charged a small nominal fee to join (£5, for example), do you think it would have put off a lot of the people who joined for such instrumental reasons?


from Comments for Stuart’s EDC blog