Navigating away from my comfort zone

It may surprise anyone who knows me (f2f or online), but I am a terrible networker. I am that person at the conference hugging the wall, studying my phone and looking for someone I actually know to talk to quickly before someone I don’t know strikes up a conversation.

And so, my current (and last) H818 module- The Networked Practioner- is really pushing me out of my comfort zone. I have learnt a lot since I started my Masters in Online and Distance Education, back in 2016 (!), not least, how to survive having twins and how to juggle 3 kids, full time work and part time education in a lockdown.

This module though is really rounding off and cementing in all of my masters learning. As I write, I think I really must do a post about where I was in 2016 and where I am now, because the difference is palpable.

For now, I am going to focus on H818, a module I have barely blogged about, a module I am over half-way through.

As you might expect, there is a focus on networking. That is, networking with peers. Including those you don’t actually know. For my project I have needed to ask the ed tech community for feedback and help on my project development and output. What I have learnt so far:

  • Word Press automatically changes hyphens to bullet points when it thinks you are writing a list
  • Unless you are an influencer with a massive following OR writing something incredibly controversial (and get piled on) the scatter-gun approach to Twitter posting doesn’t work.
  • Tagging people does work, but this presumes that you know who to tag in the first place.
  • Twitter DMs are great. I got in touch with some well respected professors and was blown away by the generosity shown to me, a part time masters student.
  • The ALT mailing list is much better for ed tech networking than Twitter. I was hesitant to use it for fear of spamming people, but I had 3 responses from people interested in my (theoretical) flipped learning website. I am confident I will have more responses when it’s not Christmas (what a time to try and network with people) and when I have an actual tangible website to show them.
  • Getting replies from people about your project is exciting and invigorating and makes you feel like you can change the world.

I also have learnt about giving and receving peer feedback on projects in development.

  • Getting feedback from peers can be painful at first, but you quickly become desensitised and see it for what it is, valuable constructive criticism.
  • Giving good feedback is time consuming and a learning process in itself. Also, it can be addictive. I loved seeing other peoples projects take shape, and I feel like I have really got to know my classmates in a much deeper way than on other modules. I want them all to succeed.
  • I recently checked to see how much feedback I had given and was shocked (and a little embarrassed) to see that I had replied to a whopping 137 comments.

What are my main takeways so far? I think what I have learnt will really help my career, I have taken myself out of comfort zone and emailed, Tweeted and DMed total strangers asking for help, asking to collaborate. Some of them replied and it was great! I have started to learn the true value of networking.

Busking for ideas


Amanda Palmer paints an arresting scene, standing atop her plastic crate, holding out a daisy. She immediately draws you into her talk in which she details how she crowd funds her music. A very entertaining 12 minutes, she is certainly very watchable.

In a nutshell, the TED talk is about asking the crowd for what you need when you need it.

I am not going to unpick the fine detail in Palmer’s story, and leave aside just how far-fetched, naive even, this idea seems to me. I am going to take it at face-value and interpret what I take to be the wider message. Which is ask for what you need when you need it in exchange for something (like a busker I suppose).

I am thinking about the idea of asking and sharing more broadly as it applies to my H818 project. For my project, money does not need to be exchanged. What I need is people’s ideas and knowledge to help build up a shared open resource.

Even in the Twitter-sphere I hestiate before asking for help. I don’t have masses of followers but I do have enough for me to not want to have (more) tumbleweed moments.

I have Tweeted a couple of times about OER on blended learning. The first one yeilded no concrete replies, though I did get some re-Tweets. The second time I focussed on asking for case studies on blended learning in the global south. I got a reply on Twitter and an email (via one of the module tutors), this email rather excitingly originated from an academic whose papers I have read over the past number of years.

So what does this mean for me now?

  1. I think I need to be more focussed- and ask about specific countries to attract the attention of the people I need. E.g. tagging Pakistan, or Bangladesh. I will get the demographic list from my colleague to try and target these more.
  2. Also, learning from Palmer, I need to offer something in return for info. People do like to help people, but perhaps they need to know what they are contributing to and why their help is needed. I need to think about how to include this information in a Tweet. You don’t get many characters to play with.

Thoughts, comments and questions always appreciated!

How blogs put me off openly reflecting and why they won’t any longer.


If asynchronous forums lead to overly formalised peer discussion, is blogging just more of the same?

My opinion on the standard VLE forums is that they are not fit for purpose. Their sluggish nature discourages spontaneity and genuine conversation. Course designers can completely ignore how students will use them and ask them to post long responses to questions. Long posts don’t get meaningful replies for a variety of reasons and so this approach is essentially asking students to perform a monologue that will go unheard. Probably.

In a face-to-face classroom, genuine discussions can be had, students will chat informally but on task. The teacher won’t be listening to them all and won’t be trying to get them to reply in a constrained way (“talk to your peers using 200 words or less”).

I started this WordPress blog in April, at the beginning of lockdown. My intention was to blog highly thought-provoking and articulate posts that the word of ed tech would find incredibly useful and wise. A tall order I am sure you will agree, and the pressure of this is probably what led to me only posting 3 times up until today.

So many students and academics blogs are well written, full of useful citations and insights. You can tell a lot of thought, time and effort goes into them. This adds to the pressure.

What I really want is a place to reflect on what I am reading and learning in an informal way. As I write this post I realise this blog can be whatever I want it to be. If I want to post uncited musings then I can.

And that’s what I’ve done.


Hello world!

Would this even be a website if my first post wasn’t called “Hello world!”? Here’s a photo of a cat 😉


I aim to make this blog as jargon-free as possible, as overly-wordy text is one of my pet hates.

About me

I am about to start the final year of my masters course- MA in Online and Distance Education (MA ODE) at the Open University. Sadly this course is being discontinued- I may blog about that in the future.

I have come far!

grand canyon path

A year ago, I wouldn’t have even understood the “hello world” joke I just made.

I recently found some notes I wrote back in 2016 (my first year on the course), and I wrote “TEL= technology enhanced learning”. I probably would have considered “TEL” to be jargon, I also remember bristling at terms like “asynchronous” and “pedagogy” and I now use them all the time.

Food for thought though.

A year from now, will these posts be full of acronyms, backronyms, intialisms and words that only those involved with ed tech use?

My pledge for this blog

As I progress through the course, I will force myself to write posts here of at least 500-1000 words in length based on the week’s material. I have been inspired to do this by a colleague, who is studying on a similar course at a different university. She has to write 3 blog posts a week. I think this is a good idea, and am trying out myself -“dog-fooding” as one of my very charming colleagues would would it (hello Stephen ;P).

I pledge to keep this blog public, to ensure that my posts are ordered and make sense. Well that’s the idea anyway.

I suspect I will maintain my private journal too, for when I want to rant about something, as my rants are usually sweary and incoherent 😉

I also pledge to make this blog as accessible as possible, and free of copyright theft.

Until next time!

Secret confessions of an online learner aged 39 years and 1/6

Learning is definitely a social thing for me. I like to ask classmates for help, advice and opinions. In the online learning world, this can be frustratating. We are all self-paced. Several students are ahead of me, several are behind. *Whispers* some will have skipped the activity I have questions about.

Yesterday I really wanted to ask my classmates how they got on with a particular tool we were told to try out (MentionMapp). I can’t seem to access all of the features in MentionMapp and I am wondering if it’s just me. Pretty simple. In a face to face setting, I would ask them, in class and would find out in minutes.

Online I have the following options:

  1. The asynchronous forum. For those of you unfamilar with online education, asynchronous is a fancy word meaning “really really *really* slow” and forum means “90s version of a Facebook group”. If I post there, I may get a reply from a classmate, more likely I will get a reply from my long suffering tutor, who will probably say “it works fine for me, not sure what to say really”… which is fair enough as he has enough to be doing without providing support for external tools.
  2. I can post in the WhatsApp group. I am sure you all know what a WhatsApp group is. It has 15 members all of whom joined when I posted the join link in the forum. I expect I will get a couple of replies from classmates to say they haven’t got to the activity yet. I post quite a lot in there and something stops me from posting again about this, I don’t want to be annoying and cause everyone to leave because they are sick of insessant notifications from the group.
  3. I can Tweet, tagging MentionMapp and the course code H818. This will almost certainly yield no results. I will get a Twitter equivalent of a tumble weed. No replies, no likes, no re-tweets… it’s a bit of a niche question for Twitter.

And so you see, in the online world, getting support from your online classmates can be frought with anxiety. Things that would normally take minutes, take an age. Classmates might not have got there yet, or may have been there done that and forgotten.

As for my question… I may post in the forum. I’ll let you know where I get 😉

Constructive procrastination

In the spirit of writing down any reflections and not trying to make my blog academic, I wanted to add a quick blog entry.

Constructive proscratination I think I’ll call it.

I have been very busy at work, last week I worked solidly and into the night to make sure I can meet some deadlines ahead of my week of annual leave. I totally abandoned my studies for a week, rationalising that I can give them more attention during my week’s holiday.

For the past 2 days I have been trying to get back into my studies… but I was finding that despite reading the activities I was not taking anything in. I was also getting distracted by Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, the cat, my thoughts, my phone, ebay, WhatsApp, mini Mars Bars, cups of tea. Sadly I didn’t do anything helpful such as get a sudden urge to clean the bathroom (it’s rather gross at the moment) or fold the washing (momumental washing pile is building up).

I find it takes me a couple of days (at least) to get into my studies. It’s like my mind needs warming up, the sections to that part of my brain are in hibernation and need to be gently awoken.

Today, however, I found myself constructively procrastinating. My study task was to read around some seminal readings on open education. I have made a note for myself to write up my thoughts on this (open education) in a blog post, which probably means I will never do it.

I have been following a number of EdTech academics and suddenly something clicked and I remembered the names of some very specific academics who defintely Tweet about open practices (I am not going to pretend to go to all of the conferences, but I know that *they* do). I found one of them on Twitter, clicked her bio and found her blog. The blog led to an amazing open resource of curated activities for building online communities. Something I am really interested in.

As well as being useful and practical it’s attractive. So here’s a screenshot


My H818 project will not be about building online communities, but I will be attempting to make an open resource of curated content for those who are new to blended learning. I hardly ever run live sessions, my day job is designing online courses to scale. So the list of resources was not directly relevant to my work or my H818 project… but it has:

  • given me ideas for when I make my own open resource
  • given me ideas for when I write guidance information for our online tutors
  • got my head into the zone of open education and networking.

I have a feeling that this week will now be a productive one study-wise.

My first meta post

So much of my learning is meta. Or rather, the reporting of my learning is meta.

This post is in answer to a set of questions I have been asked at the end of week 1 of my course.

First of all a little shout-out to my OneNote journal. As I continue my studies, I am always very proud of the progression of my notebook. In my analogue note-taking days, I was proud of those notes too, by the way… so I probably would have treated you all to a photo of my notes. Now I show you a screenshot….

OneNote pride

What ideas have you been looking at and can you relate?

Amongst other things, we have been looking at MOOCs. I love reading MOOC research, no idea why! I find it interesting to read how learners engage with them, why the learners are engaged, what content is used and, most importantly, the pedagogies that underpin the learning design.

I very much enjoyed the seminar by Mike Sharples. It took me longer than the suggested hour, I think more like 2 hours. This was because I paused to make notes/take screenshots. It was very engaging and a fine example of how to host an engaging online seminar.

I also liked that the seminar was recorded in 2018 live (with questions from participants) and then posted in the course for later cohorts to watch. Excellent reuse of resources.

Sharples discussed the pedagogies that underpin FutureLearn and the difference beween the MOOCs designed for FutureLearn (social/networked and based on Human Learning as Conversations), vs MOOCs designed for platforms like Coursera and Khan Academy (based on the transmission model popularised by the 1970s OU). Though I would add here, that I know that there many Coursera MOOCS that do not depend on transmission… the style depends on who has designed the course.

Sharples described a feature in FutureLearn that enables learners to comment on individual activities, as opposed to in one forum. This is to encourage conversations around a specific concept. Though he mentioned that these activities can get thousands of posts which is overwhelming for many… So thought needs to be put into how that can be managed.

Was what I learned relevant to my professional practice?

I design courses for a living so yes! Lots more food for thought here.

I love the idea of having a conversation around a learning activity rather than a forum. As each study year passes, I like my OU forum less and less. I find it clunky and cumbersome. Also, the questions asked lend themselves to long posts that frankly, I have no motivation to read most of the time.

For social learning I love Twitter, I will get back to you on how I find blogging 😉 I am enjoying it now but it is a commitment.

Has anything you’ve studied prompted you to try something new?

This is the meta bit…

I am noticing that these specific types of open questions are prompting me to remind myself about the week’s learning, some nice consolidation being encouraged here.

I am trying to build up a bank of nice open questions for my own courses. Questions for private and public reflection. This very activity is showing me that it is very important to ask students to reflect on a block of time and not just on a specific question for one particular concept or learning outcome. Reflecting on a block of time enourages student direct learning AND human learning as conversations.

MOOCs again? That old chestnut

I have been tasked to respond to Carole Cadwalladr’s article, Do online courses spell the end for the traditional university? (2012)

I have also been asked to pretend it’s 2012 as I read it. Here is my response…

I remember the hype around the MOOCs, and frankly then I didn’t believe it. Then I thought claims were overblown. To be honest, in 2012, I didn’t even approve of ebooks, preferring to read the real thing. Cynical young me thought that the ebook was a way to cut corners and save money, whilst providing a worse service to students. And I hated the MOOC acronym.

Anyone who knows me may be surprised to read this. I am now a passionate advocate for digital education. I am happy to read from a screen and all of my notes are written up in OneNote. I hardly ever use a real pen and highlighters. My colleagues tease me because OneNote seems to be my answer to everything…. but seriously OneNote is amazing… a recipe book, journal, planner and wiki all in one.

A screengrab of my OneNote from my last OU module… a thing of digital beauty

Back to the point about MOOCs…

So in 2012 I didn’t believe that a free online course could replace a university degree. I always assume that loud articles trumpeting revolutions are in fact hyperbole. This goes for self-driving cars, android assistants and Second Life (which I am sneaking in a mention of, as all of my OU study material seems to mention it).

Back then, I knew little about digital education and learning technology.

Should I even admit that I didn’t learn about the job title learning technologist until 2015?

Yes, I am a learning designer now and an advocate for ed tech.

Point is, if I was cynical, I imagine many others were too. Yes, newspapers like to make headline and announce The Next Big Thing, this doesn’t mean that they are reflecting the word on the street. I don’t think they even believe it themselves. They have to write about something.

The question posed by the OU on my course, is “back in 2012 would you have agreed that the MOOC would lead to the end of the universities”? NO. My short answer.

Back then I would have been very dubious that something provided for free would have been good quality. Don’t we all think that? If it’s free, what’s wrong with it? I assumed that the course would have been clunky, bad to navigate, and that the contents would be flat and boring.

Ask me the same question now, in 2020.

Could the MOOC lead to the end of the universties?

My answer is still no. I am coming it at from a different angle, and have different reasons now. Since the article was written I have participated in two MOOCs- one excellent and one mediocre. The mediocre MOOC funnily enough was indeed badly designed, flat and boring. The excellent MOOC was well put together, engaging, though provoking, active, practical and interesting.

Even so, I don’t think it’s a realistic model to compete with a university education. I may expand on my reasons in another post, but I am finding it hard to concentrate on this backward-looking question when I keep on returning to a question that everyone in edtech is asking at the moment…

As face to face universities are having to pivot online, will the way in which education is delivered post Covid-19 change forever? Will those in their ivory towers deam edtech worthy? Perhaps, more importantly, will we ever convince students? Will the powers that be ever realise that an online course is not necessarily a whole bunch of video lectures? Or that the online pivot need not mean a switch to hours of live Zoom lectures.

These are different blog posts. And ones I will have to write, even if they turn out to be amusing time capsule s to look back on in years to come.

Wiki, wiki, wiki, wild wild west

Students learn better in groups. I am sure most trained teachers will have heard of social constructivism, connectivism or active learning. I will not dwell on these theories as this post is practical and not theoretical.

In a face to face environment this usually involves group projects or class discussion. Students could debate a hot topic, or work together on a piece of work to present to their peers.

How can you encourage group learning in an online only environment?

I have been studying at masters level in an online only environment for a couple of years. Last year, I was compelled to do group work (summatively assessed!) and these were the issues I found:

  1. We all worked to different schedules, I for example like to get a jump on things but others were further behind. Some of us logged in at lunchtimes or in the evenings, whereas some could only study at weekends.
  2. Not all the students in my group had access to the same technologies as me, for example, no mics or an unreliable internet connection.
  3. Despite being students of “online and distance education” some of my classmates were techno-phobes.
  4. We were in different time zones, making arranging synchronous meetings a pain to organise.
  5. The task we were given was arduous, confusing and poorly described.
  6. Some of the group did not pull their weight, and I wondered how the tutor was allocating marks. I felt rather disgruntled as I assumed (rightly or wrongly) that the tutor would not notice those who half-heartedly contributed.

In the end, I learnt a lot from my peers, but perhaps most of what I learnt was not directly related to the intended learning outcomes!

The main thing I learnt from participating in this group work was the limitations of online synchronous learning. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the occasional online tutorial, but these cannot be relied upon for social learning. For one thing, they have the potential to revert to a standard chalk and talk lecture with little interaction.

I would now like to focus on the humble wiki. Often maligned (by myself previously, I must admit), I have come to realise its potential for online collaboration.

OK, so what is a wiki?

I am sure you have heard of Wikipedia, though probably because is looked down on as a source of information. Why? Because anyone can add a page. But then, anyone can edit it too (and the edits are published). Publish an uncited page of nonsense and it’ll be removed by the Wikipedia community before you can say “open source”.

The citations and edits are the best bits of Wikipedia for me. I love going down a research rabbit-hole by clicking on the citations and finding more information –more input.

I also enjoy looking at the edits, which are like geeky soap-operas. I spent a lot of time looking at the early MOOC edits where key MOOC players appear to have been in an editing war over the definition of MOOC. There is an interesting article on OpenLearn about civil servants alledgedly editing the entry on the Hillsborough disaster on Wikipedia.

Right, so that’s Wikipedia, how does that actually help my students?

Students can create their own mini wiki- a course/module wiki. What better way to get online classmates to work together than to ask them to research specific topics and build up a bank of resources to refer to later? The wiki can be used by them to write coursework or revise for exams.

Great, so what tools can I use?

If you are using Moodle, there’s a few wiki plugins. Of the Moodle plugins available, I recommend the free plugin OU Wiki, as it’s a bit more user friendly than the standard Moodle wiki plugin.

You could use a cloud doc, such as Google docs to get students to add and organise information collaboratively.

My favourite way is to use a cloud-based notebook, such as OneNote or Evernote. You could make one for the whole module and students can organise and categorise their information using the tabs. I am a massive OneNote fan but I am sure similar software is just as good.

OneNote allows students to sort, write, link, add emails, insert screengrabs and draw in their wiki.

You can use a browser-based collaborative tool such as Padlet (which has a free version) to get students to collect and collate information informally. This is not suitable for writing long pieces of writing though, think of it as a large piece of paper with post-its, great for collecting links, notes and images.

I hope I have given you food for thought.

If you do decide to use a wiki of some kind in your lessons, make sure that the task is clear and well defined. The tool you choose should be simple and easy to use, so that the students can focus on the activity, rather than trying to understand what to do, or learning how to use a complicated app.