My Forum of Failure

One of the projects which I have been attempting to breathe some life into/resuscitate is an online forum for nominated ‘Digital Leaders’ from a number of schools within a multi-academy trust. The forum was established to support these DLs in the roll-out of new technologies, software and curricula within their schools by providing them with the facility to share experiences, resources and ideas.

I met with them in Manchester in July and we spent two days together, discussing and plotting e-learning initiatives and developing and extending their plans for the delivery of the Computing curriculum. During those few days, I introduced the forum to them and we began to use it as a collaboration space: resources were shared, conversations were started and plans were hatched. All left enthused and promising to keep in touch via the forum. And then…well, very little. A few more posts dripped through and then there was silence. Partly this was due to the summer break but my attempts to reinvigorate this digital space since then have failed. And the reason is that we/I haven’t created an effective community and the reason for this is, primarily, a lack of teaching presence.

I took a ‘field of dreams’ approach to the development of the forum…’build it and they will come’. Unfortunately, creating a space does not encourage presence. As the facilitator, I provided no ‘rules of engagement’: participation was informal, voluntary and unstructured. I had not effectively designed, directed and informed the transaction:

‘One of the difficulties with early computer conferencing was sustaining participation and high levels of discourse (Gunawardena 1991; Hiltz and Turoff 1993). Low levels of interest and participation were rooted in a lack of structure and focus resulting from an excessively ‘democratic’ approach. While there must be full and open participation, for a purposeful educational experience there is an inherent need for an architect and facilitator to design, direct, and inform the transaction.’ (Garrison and Anderson, 2003, p.29*)

I have been reflecting on this forum failure and contrasting it with the success of our engagement with the various digital environments we have been using during these first weeks of the course. We have been part of the successful development of what Garrison and Anderson term a ‘community of inquiry’, ‘a learning community’ which is ‘a fusion of individual (subjective) and shared (objective) worlds.’ (ibid, p.23). The key to the success of this is that there is ‘the right balance and blend of collaborative and individual learning activities’ (ibid, p.24). Our blog has enabled us to develop ‘cognitive independence’ (ibid, p.23)and the forums, Skype and Twitter have developed our ‘social interdependence’ (ibid, p.23):

‘It is the juxtaposition of both aspects of this seemingly contradictory relationship that creates the spark that ignites a true educational experience that has personal value and socially redeeming outcomes.’ (ibid, p.23)


So, my Forum of Failure can be turned around. And the key is not to look at the space but at the structure of the community, at how I can, through effective teaching presence, foster social and cognitive presence to deliver a meaningful and purposeful experience.  I need to define and share a programme for engagement and develop a blend of activities for participants to engage in. I also need to incentivise their participation – to provide a reason to be present. Our presence on the course is goal-driven: we are working towards an MSc. The incentive I can use with the DLs is the Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert (MIEE) programme. All of the DLs are, in November, to begin their engagement with this programme and this will provide the ideal framework through which we can inculcate a community of inquiry, to realise ‘personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes’ (Anderson et al, 2001 quoted in Garrison and Anderson, 2003, p.29)

*Garrison, D. and Anderson, T. (2003), E-Learning in the 21st Century.  Routledge-Falmer, London

Where am I? Somewhere in-between?

Clark* explored what am ‘I’ and how technology can redefine who we are. In his piece ‘Where am I?’ Dennett** fictionalised the philosophical quandary of where the ‘self’ resides. Is it in the brain – Yorick? Is it in the body -Hamlet? Or is it elsewhere? Can we create an AI self, like Hubert?

When his brain and his body are ‘severed’ he recognises that ‘he’ is both inside the vat where his brain is stored and outside of it too. We exist in at least two places concurrently: corporeally and cognitively. And cognitively we can range, explore, be ‘elsewhere’.

Greenhalgh and Spenser*** explore how the binary between the corporeal and the virtual has defined discussions and debates about traditional and online education. ‘Skeptics of online education’ they claim, ‘ have argued that online education is anti-real, anti-embodiment, anti-expertise, and anti-human.’ (p.315) They claim that a false binary has been established between f-2-f education and online education and that, instead, we should recognise ‘the possibility of hybridity, flow, simultaneity, and in-between-ness’ (p.315).

This is ‘where we are’ when we are online: we are somewhere ‘in-between’; we are Hamlet and Yorick and Hubert and more simultaneously. And we are creating that ‘self’ too.

Geenhalgh and Spenser go on to highlight Jenkins and Castells’ observation that ‘the digital sphere is reliant on human connections and linkage; reliant on spreading into multiple online and real world contexts, in order to stay relevant’. Successful technologies, they argue, ‘must link spaces, knowledges and people into relationships’ (p.318):



In terms of technologies which ‘augment’ ‘real-life’ experience, they highlight geo-caching, Strava and Google Glasses and they pose a challenge for edtech:


This is a germane challenge and one which, in my field of school technologies, is already being taken up. One school Yearbook which I worked on has within it augmented reality content: scan some of the content with your device and you are presented with voices, videos and animations which augment the printed text. I’ve also worked with schools to use the fabric of their buildings, the physical space, to generate virtual AR content. So, we have a science ‘murder mystery’ hunt which starts with the students scanning their seemingly empty school hall to reveal the prone figure of their murdered Headmaster. They must they follow the virtual reality clues to uncover the identity of the murderer. Many schools are now using QR codes and AR to bring their physical spaces to life, to add layers of digital content and information to the fabric of their learning spaces. Smart-signage is being introduced which knows who is looking at it – Year 7? Teacher? Parent? – and adjusts the content accordingly. Feedback and marking can be transformed through digital layering; when I was teaching a group of Year 8s with low literacy levels a few years ago, I didn’t provide written feedback; rather, they were provided with a QR code which linked to video content of me talking through their work for them. This had much more impact on their performance than written feedback.

These hybrid experiences are powerful and it is encouraging to see also the increasing use of Google Cardboard and 3D content within classrooms. However, these advances are, as yet, nascent and specific. Generalised adoption of such innovation requires, as Greenhalgh and Spenser note, boldness and imagination. Might it be that Zuckerberg’s Oculus or Nadella’s HoloLens bring the required impetus?

*Clark, A. (2003). Natural born cyborgs: minds, technologies and the future of human intelligence, Oxford: OUP chapter 1, ‘Cyborgs unplugged‘, pp.13-34
**Dennett, D.  (1981). Chapter 13:  Where am I?.  From Hofstadter, D. and Dennett, D. (eds) The Mind’s I:  Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul.  Penguin Press:   London.
*** Greenhalgh-Spencer, H., (2014). What Technology Reveals: Countering Binaries and Moving Toward the In-Between. Philosophy of Education Archive, pp.315–323.

Skin bags, holes and dialogic gaps

‘Why not reengineer humans to fit the stars?’ (p.13). This, as Clark (2003)* explains, was Clynes and Kline’s proposal in their paper (1960) which introduced the term ‘cyborg’ to the world. Since then, our understanding of what constitutes a ‘true’ cyborg has been informed by science-fiction concepts of deep human-machine merging, of complex bio-mechanicimages (1)al integration. From The Six Million Dollar Man to Inspector Gadget to Neo, fictional cyborgs offer a vision of embedded biotechnical coalition. As Clark states, ‘as the bioelectronic interface grows in complexity and moves inward, deeper into the brain and farther from the periphery of skin, bone, and sense organs, we become correlatively less and less resistant to the idea that we are trading in genuine cyborg technology’ (p.22).

But, he questions, ‘just why do we feel that depth matters…?’ (p.22). Clark claims that what is really important is the “fluidity of the human-machine integration and the
resulting transformation of our capacities, projects, and lifestyles” (p.24). As I read this, I became suddenly aware of my own ‘transparent technologies’. This is how I was reading Clark:


I was annotating Clark’s essay on my iPad using an Adonit Jot Pro stylus. My list of MSc tasks and readings was displayed in OneNote on my laptop.As I became conscious of my technology, I decided to take a photo of it using my iPhone. And all the time I was in bed.

Without these technologies, these ‘nonpenetrative modes of personal augmentation’ (p.24), my tasks as a student, as a reader and as a writer would be much more difficult. They transform my ‘capacities, projects and lifestyle’ (p.24). I am, it transpires, a ‘natural-born cyborg’ (p.26). My identity, ‘on that account, may be as much informed by the specific sociotechnological matrix in which the biological organism (me!) exists as by those various conscious and unconscious neural events that happen to occur inside the good old biological skin-bag’ (p.23).

‘The Man in the Hole’ series of tweets evidences the impact of this ‘sociotechnical’ matrix Captureon the self. Rather than call for help, he tweeted and the internet responded. He extended and augmented his capacity for solutioneering by going to his followers, to the social brain. And this social brain is one of the real benefits of online learning. In a classroom, exchanges can be transient and lost; online, we have a record of contributions, references, links and ideas. We are developing a learning text, a multi-modal, multi-authored sociotechnological educational space across a multitude of online places.

Wegerif’s definition of the dialogic mode of education offered by the internet is borne out by our experience as learners on the course thus far. We are, as Wegerif (2013)** notes, engaged in ‘dialogue with the Infinite Other’ (p.3) Our mode of learning is ‘intrinsically participatory’ and not singular in meaning or outcome: ‘meaning is never singular but always emerges in the play of different voices in dialogue together…a certain kind of infinity or unbounded potential is opened onto by dialogic…'(p.3). Further, the ‘dialogic gap’, whereby ‘at least two perspectives (are) held together in creative tension’ (p.4) is a space in which deep learning happens, where meaning is created. We inhabit shared dialogic spaces that we have generated. But where am ‘I’ in these spaces…?


*Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the future of Human Intelligence” Chap. 1 pp. 13-34 “Cyborgs Unplugged”
**Wegerif, R. (2013) Dialogic: education for the internet age. London: Routledge chapter 1. ‘The Challenge’, pp. 10-21 (ebook).

Losing the thread…

When I started this course, I was lucky enough to have a few weeks off work. This proved to be invaluable: I was able to become familiar with the different information and communication streams, spend time on the discussion boards and kick-start my blog. As a learner, I felt, in the main, in control and on top of things.

The asynchronous nature of the discussions in Weeks 0 and 1  served to reinforce this sense of ordered, systematic, linear learning. I was able to approach and engage in discussions as and when I could and, due to the slow pace of the threads, I didn’t feel that I was left behind or out of the loop. The one-off synchronous Skype discussion in Week 2, although frenetic, was also manageable: it was a commitment of one hour and I felt fully ‘present’* and part of the conversation.

This week, we’ve been using Twitter. In theory, this medium shouldn’t prove to be too different to using a discussion forum. I can log onto Twitter and participate on my own terms and in my own time; I can review tweets in a conversation in the same way as I can read posts on a discussion board and respond (or not) as and when suits me. So far, so like the discussion board.

And yet, so different.

Reflecting on why, I think Twitter is a more demanding technology:

  1. Twitter has, as part of its cultural norms, a demand for greater immediacy than discussion boards.
    • SO: once the first tweets started appear about the readings on Monday, I started to feel a sense of exclusion. I hadn’t yet got to the readings and yet there were conversations emerging about them which I didn’t feel equipped to participate in. This anxiety is, I acknowledge, is my construct, but I didn’t feel it when we were contributing via the boards.
  2. Twitter demands 140 characters or less.
    • SO: it’s often easier to convey your point by linking to other content, resulting in an ever-increasing list of things I felt I needed to read, watch or do.
  3. To follow and participate in the threads, Twitter demands a #.
    • SO: I spent a lot time deleting tweets and then tweeting them again with the #added
  4. Twitter demands more actions to view and follow conversations, especially via the mobile app.
    • SO: I had to work to find the start of conversations, in order that I ‘jumped in’ at the right point.
  5. To respond to others, Twitter demands a @.
    • SO: I spent a lot time deleting tweets and then tweeting them again with the right combinations of @ added.

Some felt differently:


But it was heartening and reassuring (if a little sadistic) to see that others also felt some sense of exclusion:



And that others were equally bemused and confused at times:


One of the anxieties I didn’t have which others expressed was that of our discussions being more broadly public:


Rather, I felt that the hastag provided a ‘walled garden’ for our learning community.

So, all bad?

No, not at all.

In spite of Twitter shifting me out of my controlled, linear, preferred PLE, it is an incredible tool for learning. This week, it has proved to be a brilliant way to crowd-source (albeit an overwhelming amount of) information, ideas and links. But, more importantly, I really feel that this week we’ve been able to develop more of an identity for our learning community by developing a greater sense of the identities of those who make up that community. At the start of the week, I reflected on the fact that it if ‘off-task’ activities that help us to build connections.



And Twitter is the ideal medium for off-task interchanges. These reached their inevitable zenith this week with a silly cat video. Susie rocks.


*I acknowledge the many caveats that should come with my use of that term…

What font are you wearing?

Last week, I reflected on the notion of online ‘presence’, and how we create ourselves in words online. At the end of that week, I tuned in to Saturday Live (with the Reverend Richard Coles of the parish of the Communards) and heard this item about fonts.

Sat 26 Sep 2015

The sensory experiments which graphic designer and font aficionado Sarah Hyndman conducted on the show, where she showed that fonts can be associated with different senses, were fascinating.

Sarah is fascinated by fonts and claims that the font you choose is as important as the clothes you wear. It’s an interesting proposition and one which pertains to some digital and printed communications (I judge users of Comic Sans harshly). However, within the media which we have been communicating in so far, we have little to no choice about the fonts which are used: they’re preset. As to which font I might choose to use, it would be Trebuchet or Segoe UI Semilight: I think those mark me out as dull…

You can find out more about this particular episode and about Sarah’s work more generally here.


A Jabber

On Tuesday evening, I participated in our group Skype chat which was focused on the notion of digital natives and digital immigrants.

It was a big conversation in many ways, not least because there were nine participants*, including Sian. Towards the start of the conversation, Karen, commentating on just how many of us were involved, asked if there was a collective noun for such a large Skype chat and Sian suggested a very apt epithet.


What followed was indeed a jabber. The conversation was multi-threaded and pacey. Some contributions were picked up and responded to, others were not: ideas disappeared into the stream of interaction, unacknowledged and lost. Dialogues weaved through broader conversations and some voices were lost in the babble.

One of the features of Skype is the alert which tells you who is typing. I found that this discouraged me from offering my views at times as I could see that there were already a number of people preparing their contributions for the thread. It was useful that Sian had laid out some ground rules in advance, thereby helping us to set our expectations about the frenetic and frantic nature of the conversation. This ensured that I didn’t feel anxious about the disjointed and hectic threads:


A number of key issues around the digital native/immigrant dichotomy were discussed. Firstly, Sian asked us to consider why the terminology persisted. Paul and Sai offered a concise rationale for the terminology’s refusal to die:


We went on to explore the problematic nature of using colonial metaphors and the fact that, if we are to engage with and critique the simplistic binary we have no choice but to use the terms.


The conversation moved on to exploring what other factors, other than Prensky’s reductive argument about age, might impact on whether we could be termed ‘native’ and some interesting points were made. Stig posited the notion that our ability to manage technological breakdowns defines the divide:


We explored who benefits from the embedding of the native/immigrant distinction. Both Joy and I have experienced teachers using the supposed divide as a way of abdicating responsibility, a way of avoiding trying to use technologies in teaching and learning:


The discussion broadened to consider the benefits and disadvantages of using technologies. As a technophile, I was surprised by some of the stances which my peers have adopted to technology. Stig, for example, is considering banning laptops from his lectures. Currently – and I’m sure that this will change as the course progresses and my understanding deepens – my stance is that we should, as educators, be inculcating good practice in using the medium rather than not allowing it to be used. Personally, I would be at a loss in Stig’s lectures as I don’t use paper and pens any longer: I rely on my iPad for note-taking. Sian pointed us towards a thought-provoking article about a ‘no-tech’ school and Joy mentioned a book ‘Toxic Childhood’ which also, in part, criticises the pervasive nature of technology within children’s lives. The notion of ‘solutionism’ was posited by Sian as a useful concept to explore when considering these arguments. Morozov claims that many of the problems for which we strive to find technological solutions might not require solutions as they might not, really, be problems. If we apply this line of thought to our examination of the introduction of technologies into schools, we might be advised to consider whether we are engaged in the folly of solutioneering where no solution is really required.

Some of the papers were discussed in a little more detail too, particularly Helsper and Eynon’s distinction between ‘being’ and ‘doing’; there was general consensus that this particular binary was helpful as it acknowledged the possibility of  acquiring what Paul termed ‘digital citizenship’ rather than excluding on the basis of age alone.

The last part of our discussion explored how to define what ‘nativeness’ is. Many of the definitions were considered reductive and Sian suggested that we shouldn’t perhaps, be trying to nuance – and thereby give life to – such a problematic term.

With regards to the dynamics of the conversation, Stig made some challenging and at times provocative points and it was interesting to see how the group managed this. Some of us quietened and some of us aimed to diffuse using humour. We also allowed Sian to step in as tutor to manage this:


Looking over the transcripts from others conversations, it’s interesting to see other dynamics at play. The Monday afternoon conversation, which had just four participants, was a more sociable conversation where the participants reflected on their technology use in less theoretical and more personal terms. The Tuesday afternoon conversation was focused on the readings but, with fewer (six) participants, the threads seem more coherent. What was also interesting was how the participants in this group supported one another in developing their knowledge and understanding of the tool (Skype) that they were using. Rory pointed out this ‘incidental learning’ as worthy of note. The Wednesday afternoon chat was another one which was characterised by personal reflections on technology use. One concept which I hadn’t come across before but which is of interest is that of the ‘digital tattoo‘, a far more effective metaphor than digital footprint.

Skype as a tool for discussion this week has allowed us to engage in wide-ranging discussions. However, by necessity, this synchronous medium doesn’t facilitate the detailed, rich, exploratory conversations which the asynchronous forums. There were practical difficulties too. Some participants were unable to join the discussions and others felt that they were not able to fully participate:


With regard to ‘presence’ I do feel that this week’s conversation enabled a greater sense of connection with the other students on the course. It will be interesting to see how our digitally connected community develops as we hear one another’s voices on Skype in a few weeks’ time.

*Sian, Stig, Sai, Karen, Sarah, Lorenzo, Joy, Paul and me.

Structured blog task

In his 2001 paper,  ‘Digital natives, digital immigrants’, and ‘Part 2: do they really think differently?’, Prensky posits that a significant discontinuity has occurred; this ‘singularity’ (p.1) is, he proposes, the emergence of a generation of students who have grown up with new technologies and, therefore, ‘think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors’ (p.1). Prensky terms this generation ‘Digital Natives’. To extend his metaphor further, he proposes that those born prior to 1980 should be considered ‘Digital Immigrants’ who can never lose their digital ‘accent’ and can never truly ‘go native’. If students are the ‘Natives’, teachers are the ‘Immigrants’ and this is therefore problematic for education as, ‘our Digital Immigrant instructors…are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.’ (p.3).  Prensky goes on to outline some of the ‘Digital Native’ preferences for learning which don’t align with the pedagogical practice of their ‘Immigrant’ teachers. He claims that educators therefore need to adapt their methodologies and the nature of the content they deliver to attempt to bridge the gulf between the digital student and their analogue teacher. The former group, he claims, have ‘little patience’ (p.4) for current educational norms.  In the second part of his paper, Prensky expands on his proposition the ‘Natives’ think differently.  Basing his argument on concepts of brain plasticity, he claims that the ‘twitch-speed’ digital space which the ‘Natives’ inhabit results in their having ‘hypertext minds’.

Prensky’s paper is based on postulations and hypotheses but he offers little evidence other than suppositions and anecdotes to support his claims for a dichotomous division between the ‘Native’ and the ‘Immigrant’. His argument is formed around presumptions, assertions and declarations, ‘Digital Immigrants think that learning can’t (or shouldn’t) be fun’ (p.4.) rather than around research and facts. He refers to experiments which offer supportive evidence for neuroplasticity along with concepts from social psychology which indicate that ‘people who grow up in different cultures do not just think about different things, they actually think differently.’ However, it is more than a conceptual leap to propose, as he does, that this evidence can be applied to the impact that technology has had on the thought processes of the so-called ‘Natives’; no causal evidence is offered. Many of his assertions about the ‘Immigrants’ are, at best, questionable. Any student of modernist literature and the ‘stream of consciousness’ via which authors tried to represent the chaotic and disassociated nature of thought would have cause to question Prensky’s description of linear thought which supposedly characterises the immigrant. Additionally, defining ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, logical thinking’ as ‘Legacy’ content (p.4) is an almost paradoxical proposition. Yes, multi-modal communication is a language which is offered by the Internet but how will the ‘Natives’ engage with or even create their digital world without these ‘legacy skills’?

Bayne and Ross, in their critique of a ‘poorly supported position paper’ (p.161) identify a number of other paradoxes upon which Prensky’s paper is founded. In ”Digital Native’ and ‘Digital Immigrant Discourses, A Critique’, they question the ‘over-simplistic binary’ of ‘Native’ and ‘Immigrant’ and highlight how this dichotomy disempowers the teacher, serving to commodify the transaction between student and instructor. Additionally, they tackle the problematic nature of Prensky’s colonial metaphor which has become a ‘conceptual given’ (p.161)

The binary and simplistic definitions of Native and Immigrant serve, they argue, to ‘homogenise diverse and varied groups of individuals’ (p.160). This over-deterministic stance can be dangerous; it ignores the differences and nuances in, for example, students’ use of technologies and ‘over-states the rift between generations’. They also criticize Prensky’s definitions as they create what Derrida would term a ‘violent hierarchy’, in this instance valuing the ‘Native’s’ position above that of the ‘Immigrant’. The ‘Native’, they state is associated with the future, the ‘Immigrant’ with the past; thus, the educator is not only disempowered but, they argue, ‘placed in a position which is both subordinate and impossible, within a discourse which situates her as both unable to change, and as being required to change in order to remain a competent, employable professional.’ (p.162′). This is the paradox which is at the heart of Prensky’s paper. If ‘Immigrants’ cannot lose their accent, can never become native, then how can they change to accommodate the requirements of the digital worlds dominated by the ‘Natives’? Teachers are, they claim, further disempowered by the discourse: they cannot criticize the ‘ruling’ digital power as ‘any critique of technology…as long as it comes from an ‘immigrant’…(belongs) to a marginalised, illegitimate voice’ (p.162). The violent hierarchy which creates the perception of the Native’s needs as being dominant also places the teacher in the position of service provider to the student; the past must capitulate to the needs of the future (even though, as they note, ‘there is little evidence…that students do desire more technologically-driven approaches to teaching and learning’ (p.163)).

Bayne and Ross also tackle the presumptions and prejudices which inform Prensky’s ‘unfailingly negative descriptions of immigrants’ (p.164). They argue that it is necessary to explore the metaphor’s wider meanings and connotations; in doing so, they expose more paradoxical presumptions, such as the powerful ‘Native’s’ reliance on the powerless ‘Immigrant’ for their education. They further argue that both groups are subjugated by a notion of a digital terrain which must be conquered. Quoting Sandford, they posit that teachers and students are creators of the space in which they are defined as ‘Natives’ and ‘Immigrants’: ‘whatever we have, we built ourselves and we can continue to shape ourselves (2006, online)’.

Bayne and Ross offer a compelling deconstruction of Prensky’s argument. They expose its paradoxes and outline the dangers inherent in a stance which subordinates the teacher and posits the impossibility of an ‘Immigrant’ ever being able to achieve the position of ‘Native’.  Prensky fails to separate the ‘doing’ from the ‘being’ (Helsper and Eynon, 2010) and this determinism is damaging to both teachers and students.

Prensky, M. (2001) Digital natives, digital immigrants, from On the Horizon, 9(5): 1-6, and Part 2: do they really think differently?, On the Horizon, 9(6): 1-6.
Bayne, S. and Ross, J. (2011) ‘Digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’ discourses: a critique, in Ray Land and Sian Bayne (eds) Digital difference: perspectives on online learning, Rotterdam: Sense.

Thought snippet: absence and presence

This mini-post is just to note that a lot of my thinking this week has revolved around “Being in a sense present while apparently absent” (Shelley and Urry, ‘The New Mobilities Paradigm, ibid, p.208)

The prompt for this strand of exploration was the story of ‘The Invisible Student’ and the comment that Rory made about online environments offering, on occasion, the chance to take a ‘holiday from the self’.

Ren? Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1928–29, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009
René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1928–29, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009

I started to think about what the last few weeks have been about is how to establish our presence and to feel present when, in essence, absent. Currently, we’re establishing our MSc selves in words, creating our presence in text; this reminds me of one of my favourite Beckett quotes, “I’m in words, made of words, others’ words” (Endgame). There’s the sense that words are not quite enough. Indeed, many of the issues highlighted in this week’s stories could be accredited to that Derridean gap between the sign and the signified. It will be interesting to see how our online selves and our community morphs as we develop our presence using other media – once we see others on Skype and engage through voice and video.

Slightly tangentially, this article was in The Guardian this week: maybe it’s harder than we think to escape from our ‘real’ selves when online.

Cartoon by Peter Steiner, published by The New Yorker on July 5, 1993



Discussions and Debates

Many of the discussion threads about the ‘stories from the dark side’, have circled around conflict. Conflicts in expectations, conflicts in communication and internal conflicts. Codes of interaction and defining the rules of engagement have been explored and debated. Amongst many other things, we have examined notions of the online self, of the danger of the gap between word and intention, the role of the tutor and the rights and responsibilities of the student.

One of the most involved discussions came about as a response to ‘The Black Hole’ story and offered an insight into a particular reaction to Hamish’s WebQuest. Yoyu’s response to what I had perceived as a light-hearted task offers a salient learning point. We cannot predict learner responses nor rely on learner engagement. Even with much scaffolding, encouragement and reassurance, online students may still feel disengaged, alienated and discouraged.

The disconnect between Hamish’s intention and Yoyu’s response highlights many of the issues which are explored within transactional distance theory.

Definition of transactional distance from:

Interestingly, in Yoyu’s case, dialogue didn’t help, in fact it served to further alienate her from the task and from her peers.

snipFrom the online discussion:

It is interesting to consider if the medium of the discussion board – the medium which we are using and reflecting on this week – compounded the issues which Yoyu experienced. Yoyu herself questioned the use of the forum in her response to ‘The Black Hole’ story: the online discussion:

The key advantages of forums, as the Blackmon paper notes, include:

  1. Their asynschronous nature allows for flexibility in response times: this is particularly useful for our international cohort of students.
  2.  They allow time for responses to be considered and crafted.
  3. They enable students to participate in knowledge co-construction.

The key disadvantages include:

  1. Their asynschronous nature allows for flexibility in response times: this can cause anxiety. Yoyu highlighted that she felt ‘behind’ in the WebQuest as she came to it two or three days behind some others.
  2.  They allow time for responses to be considered and crafted: this can cause stage-fright – students may feel inhibited about contributing anything other than well-crafted responses in this public and permanent space.
  3. They enable students to participate in knowledge co-construction, thereby excluding those who don’t feel able to participate or co-create.

It’s interesting to consider if a synchronous communication stream, such as Skype, would have mitigated the issues which Yoyu encountered. If she had been been able to express her concerns immediately and receive instant feedback and reassurance, that may have lessened her feelings of exclusion. Hrastinski (2008) suggests that synchronous e-learning is a more effective communication tool for such ‘getting acquainted’:

Asynchronous versus synchronous
Hrastinski, ‘Asynchronous and Synchronous E-learning’,

Perhaps the transactional distance between Yoyu and us, her peers, could have been lessened if we had been working together at the same time: the temporal gaps in the slow form discussion forum certainly appear to have been spaces where Yoyu’s anxiety and uncertainty grew.

Our discussions around the stories from the dark side have, therefore, contained much consensus and some conflict. I have learned a lot from reflecting on the conflicts in the stories and from the conflicts in our own discussion forums. The stories and our reactions to them highlight that it is, indeed, important not to be ‘nice all the time’. ‘Disputational talk’ (Mercer, 2008 – thanks to Renée for the reference), debate and disagreement enhances our learning.