Moorings and Black Holes

We have, in the past week, been establishing our own community of IDEL students, our own network, our own web of connections, communications and knowledge. We have been developing moorings. We have been provided with/pointed towards multiple streams via which to do this: Lino, the Moodle forums, the WebQuest and Twitter. We have been engaged in developing ‘patterns of concentration that create zones of connectivity, centrality, and empowerment in some cases’ (Graham and Marvin, 2001, quoted in Shelly and Urry  ‘The New Mobilities Paradigm’, Environment and Planning A 2006, volume 38, p.210).


This is my first experience of a fully online course and the experience  of connecting only virtually has been stimulating and curious. I’m not sure, however, that ’empowerment’ is accurate at this stage. I am more anxious, circumspect and reflective about what I write than about what I would say. That is, perhaps, inevitable. As Mary noted in her reflections on ‘The Black Hole’ story, discussion forums are public and permanent spaces and it is this permanence which can, for me, induce inhibitions. The lack of paralinguistic signals is also difficult; emoticons just don’t fill that gap ;-). At the heart of many of these concerns is, I think, the notion of what ‘self’ I’m creating and presenting and how that ‘fits’ within the wider community of users. How can I be ‘in a sense present while apparently absent’? (Shelly and Urry, ibid, p. 207). Additionally, when it comes to the ideas I’m presenting, I fear that this is the case:


From Information is Beautiful – David McCandless

This has been a salient learning point for me and one which I must bear in mind as I encourage the network of teachers I work with to interact on the various forums which are available to them. Many of them, too, will be nervous about contributing and being empathetic to this and considering ways in which I might support and encourage is vital. Lino is an ideal ice-breaking medium and a WebQuest will provide focus for the discussion and for collaboration and community-building.

However, I cannot abstract from my subjective response to this medium to all learners’ responses: it’s not all negative, of course. As Stig points out, one of the many benefits of engaging via discussion forums is that we become more reflective, taking our time in responding and returning to and reconsidering points that we wish to make. Some learners will find the slow, asynchronous nature of such forums reassuring: they can construct and draft before contributing.

The ‘Black Hole’, the first story I’ve focused on in detail on the forum this week, threw up many questions connected to community and self. Discussions around this story moved to explorations about how we interact in spaces and how interactions can be moderated, guided and enhanced. Given that many of us are, or have been, teachers, the discussion quickly moved to assessment and whether assessment would enhance or diminish effective discussion. Threads also hovered around the notion of what is ‘authentic’ and whether assessment would mean that discussions would become less ‘real’ and would become parallel grandstanding threads. (As an aside, concerns and worries about the calibre of contribution are intensified within this assessed forum. I must acknowledge what Rory helpfully defined as a form of stage-fright when it comes to constructing blog posts. I’m sure that this will lessen with time.)

Additionally, the story also highlighted the human ‘will to connection’ (Simmel, 1997, p.171, quoted in Shelly and Urry, ibid, p.215). The community of learners, without direction, followed their will to connect and formed a hub around their shared love of cats. As Simmel highlights, people are attracted to each other simply for ‘free-playing sociability’ and, without guidance, moderation and intervention, online forums can become unfocused and, to quote Joanne, ‘cliquey’.

In our IDEL community, we have, so far, reached broad agreement on the following principles which could mitigate some of the issues outlined in ‘The Black Hole:

  1. Tutor presence is key. They help to set the tone, to ‘model’ appropriate interaction and they can guide, encourage, moderate and help to structure discussion. A tutor’s presence shifts the context of the discussion from peer-to-peer and ensures that the community is more explicitly defined as a learning community.
  2. Guidance and ‘rules of engagement need to be established.
  3. Forums should have an explicit purpose.
  4. Multiple streams of communication, including those which facilitate more informal socialising, should be available.

As digital technology use is, as Shirky notes, a ‘hybrid of tool and community’ (Shirky, 2008, p.136), we must, when designing online courses/content, be attuned to:

  1. what tools should be used when and for what purpose;
  2. how communities are established and created within online environments.

We need to facilitate positive and meaningful communication and support the construction of healthy learning communities. We have to become builders of bridges, as the ‘achievement of connection reaches its zenith with a bridge that connects two places; it ‘symbolizes the extension of our volitional sphere over space.’ (Simmel, 1997, p.171, quoted in Shelly and Urry, ibid, p.215).

bridge header

3 Replies to “Moorings and Black Holes”

  1. Hello Helen,

    I think it’s natural to still be feeling uncertain at this point and I hope you’ll feel empowered as well as the course progresses. Your contributions to your blog are really thoughtful and engaging, so please don’t worry about those. I’m pleased to see you’ve started to make use of the multimodal possibilities of the blog as well. Great Forth Bridge pic, I live just North of there and get the train over that bridge most days.

    I think you’re right to be cautious of extrapolating straightforwardly to other learners. Many will feel inhibited or uncertain, as you do but others will find online learning more comfortable from the start. Personally I really love learning and teaching online and have felt more easy in that space that face-to-face almost as soon as I started. My anxiety came earlier when I was worrying about whether I’d be able to use the technologies!

    I agree with all of your suggestions about how to deal with the Black Hole. I’ll add one more which is that I’ve learned from my experiences of teaching online that online learning activities seem to need more explicit and direct instructions about how to engage than face-to-face teaching. I think this is partly about the absence of visual clues but I think it’s also that the learning interactions spread out over a long period of time and the teacher can’t be present for all of that so the set up needs to be stronger I think.

    What do you think would be the characteristics of a ‘healthy learning community’?



    1. Hello Velda,

      Thank you for your response and for your reassurance about the blog. I’m sure I’ll find that writing the blog will get a little easier with time and I’m looking forward to tacking the more structured task next week.

      It is a super picture of the Bridge isn’t it? What a great commute! I used to go the other way out over the Road Bridge each day.

      I think I am settling into the online environment although keeping on top of the multiple discussion strands has been a little challenging during this week’s task: I’m interested to see how things change next week when we use Skype.

      Thanks for highlighting the need for explicit instructions re. engagement. I think that is absolutely true and all too often forgotten as we presume that everyone simply knows how to engage within online communities.

      As for what constitutes a ‘healthy learning community’, I think that, in an online environment, I would like to be part of a lively, inclusive community of engaged learners who felt comfortable engaging in positive debate – in consensual conflict. There’s more about conflict in my latest blog post…

      Thanks again for your support and feedback so far: it’s very much appreciated.



  2. Hello Helen,

    Consensual conflict sounds like an interesting idea. It flags up something I think is important which is that we allow diversity of views and disagreement in good communities, rather than trying to flatten out difference and make everything seem harmonious.



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