What does learning look like?

‘Find an online image that represents something about learning… share a link to the image and explain why you selected it.’ That’s the H880 icebreaker task that the 2020 cohort have been engaging with. For the second year running, Spiderman reading a book while perched in an archway is a top choice. For those who chose or responded to the image it represents using any spare minute to study, there’s always more to learn, learning can take place anywhere – not just in the classroom, it takes you to new heights, and it can be totally engrossing.

What else can learning look like? It can look like teenager Angela Michaud, studying on a laptop while in hospital. ‘Since starting her freshman year of high school in fall of 2015, Angela has taken classes online to allow her more flexibility to complete schoolwork while maintaining her leukemia treatment regimen.’ The picture and associated story show how technology can be used to extend learning opportunities.

Sometimes, as the video above shows, the technology that enables learning can be unexpected.  The 12-year-old boy in the video could only do his homework under a street light because his family was unable to pay for electricity to light the family home after dark. TEL varies by context, it’s not all about the latest gadget.

What else does learning look like? All sorts of things. Books, and trees, cogs and lightbulbs. A stone skipping across water. The key to success. An energy drink. This year’s most popular image was two children studying together, sitting outside on a step. For those who commented on this image, it is about learning with others, journeying together, providing support, discussing ideas, creating a good learning environment, and exchanging knowledge and experience.

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The role of teachers in an ‘open’ education

This article first appeared in the March 2019 edition of Snowball, the newsletter for associate lecturers in The Open University. The author,  Anita Pilgrim, teaches in two Open University faculties (FASS and WELS). She is a member of the AL Assembly, and is also currently studying H880: TEL Foundations and Futures.

Professor Martin Weller

Martin Weller – one of the authors of H88o

The other night Professor Martin Weller gave his inaugural lecture: Aspects of the Open: The evolution of the meaning of open education. One question was about artificial intelligence (AI). What role might AI play in delivering teaching in the future?

In this partial write-up of the lecture, I’m picking out the points which I found of interest as an associate lecturer at The Open University. Professor Weller has had a long and deeply engaged career working in open and online education – in fact this lecture is 15 years late! He became a professor 15 years ago.

That’s our luck in a way, as this is a timely moment for such a statement. Not only are we celebrating 50 years as The Open University (a name which Professor Weller commented has remained remarkably current during the whole of that time), it comes as we look to welcome a new vice-chancellor, who will surely be taking Professor Weller’s informed views into account as they take us on into the brave new world which the internet has opened up for higher education.

Poll runner

Throughout his lecture, Professor Weller drew on audience participation in a rigorously open way – including from online participants – using polling technology to get our views. This was an exemplary display of how polling can contribute to teaching online, and this is a tool we are encouraged to use in our Adobe Connect tutorials. At the start he asked us what ‘open’ in The Open University means, and produced a ‘wordle’ from the results. I tried and failed several times to log into the poll but I don’t think my contribution would have made much difference as I would certainly have said the most popular word: ‘accessible’.

Probably the main concern we have as associate lecturers seeing our teaching move increasingly online is around accessibility. At the beginning of the development of open education resources (OER) a broad-brush understanding saw these as opening up the world of education to all. However, we at the coalface of delivery (or rather, delivering learning in places where former coal-mining communities have been brutally abandoned by neoliberal economic strategies) have noticed that to gain access to online OERs, you need to have both a computer and good broadband (and the full instructions on how to join the poll…). This early understanding also assumed a level of study skills which is fundamentally middle class.

Professor Weller acknowledged this, partly in outlining the circumstances of MIT’s early entry into the OER movement. At this time, people felt that content was key and could not see a business case in giving away free content; however it turned out that MIT course content made little sense outside the MIT context. Open University content, by contrast, has been designed to make sense in an open context. Professor Weller has different arguments to support a ‘business case’ for making that material openly available, which he did not really have time to outline in his 45-minute lecture. (Personally I would like to know why we should have to present a ‘business case’ for providing humanity with skills, knowledge and greater understanding, but we unfortunately still operate under neoliberal economics.)

Resistance is not futile

We ALs probably all wanted to jump up and cheer when a student asked about ‘resistance’ to technology and Professor Weller admitted that he used to be quite grumpy when students weren’t keen to engage in new cool online learning, but has now come to see that there is something ‘real’ in that ‘resistance’. He acknowledged that seeing the thoughts set out in an actual book can often lead to that important ‘click’ of the knowledge for the student.

There are many diverse ways of learning; I have had at least one student burst into tears on finding that the module only had two text books and she had to engage in the virtual learning environment to pass. While welcoming the new internet kid onto the block, ALs have argued strongly that it would be a mistake to edge out other media. This is not least because academic learning remains profoundly text-based. If we want to support and encourage students from different backgrounds into postgraduate study and academic careers, we need to support them in learning to learn from books and densely textual articles as well as videos and online information.

Professor Weller touched briefly on the key importance of The Open University’s contribution to higher education, which has been recently neglected here in the UK. (David Willetts went so far as to acknowledge on public radio that it was a bad mistake not to properly fund part-time education in England during his time as education minister.) In the US, 72% of students are ‘non-traditional’, in that they are parents or are studying part-time or in other ways similar to our students in the OU. Professor Weller gave a shout out to Wales among the nations of the UK for recognising the importance of part-time study in the Diamond review of higher education funding.

There was so much more in his talk. However, I had better let you go to the openly available recording to hear his overview of the opportunities the internet is providing for the development of open research and teaching.

Do androids teach of electric sheep?

What of AI? Will we ALs be replaced by AILs? Professor Weller expressed scepticism as he said that although he is cautiously in favour of AI, it seems as if it has been about to take off ever since his did his PhD on AI some years ago. He said he is not interested in technology that seeks to replace the human educator, and that he would be concerned that such technology may inadvertently lead to disenfranchising certain students: the ones who don’t fit. In fact, the very ones we ALs work in many and complex ways to support and guide through what Bernstein would argue are middle-class ‘codes’ of academic learning.

Martin Weller's final slide, showing his dogProfessor Weller’s final word (I mean apart from the picture of his adorable new puppy Teilo) was to say: “The story we tell the world about ourselves isn’t a luxury.” This is not really a message for us ALs to take on. I mention it because a recent study within the university found low public awareness of the OU and its potential to support ‘non-traditional’ students. Inside our bubble. I think we do take for granted the high quality of our module materials, of our (human and humane) teaching and pastoral support from ALs, student support teams, the computing helpdesk and other resources. Let’s make sure in this 50th year we tell it loud and proud, so many more people realise what an Open University gives to society here in the UK and well beyond, and what more we can offer – as Professor Weller has begun to outline in his brief account.

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Mobile learning around the world

Post contributed by Rebecca Ferguson, Module Chair.

Man using tablet

UNESCO mobile learning

The second week of H880 included an activity on mobile learning around the world (if you haven’t encountered mobile learning before, here’s an overview from Professor Mike Sharples). One of the things that emerged from discussion is the increasing convergence of online and mobile learning, now that many students expect to be able to continue their learning seamlessly across a variety of contexts.

Students were asked to conduct an internet search for examples of mobile learning in their own country or work/practice area, pick an example to share, and then ‘like’ interesting examples shared by others. So far, there have been 127 contributions. In this blog post, I’ve picked the ten examples that proved most popular on the basis of likes and replies.

BBC Bitesize – a site with a great variety of short lessons learners can study anywhere and at any time. Popular, and easy to engage. However, there are no opportunities for collaboration

YouTube – an example of just-in-time learning or learning on demand. Students cited examples of being able to fix a broken door, mend a strimmer while in the garden, learn new make-up techniques, and improve crochet skills. They also gave examples of discussions and further investigations prompted by watching YouTube videos.

Red Cross First Aid – an app with easy-to-learn skills for a range of situations, together with tips on how to prepare for emergencies. The information is all in the app, so it can be used in emergency situations even without Internet access.

Mobile learning research – this research paper prompted discussion about setting boundaries before initiating mobile learning activities, so that work time and free time do not merge into one, with teachers perpetually on call.

Learning German as a foreign language – ways in which mobile phones can be used to enhance learning both inside and outside the classroom, taking into account both intended and unintended learning.

UNESCO’s use of mobile learning to increase literacy in countries that are both book poor and mobile rich. And – a timely discovery – UNESCO Mobile Learning Week 2019 is next week.

Youth for Human Rights – an app designed for teachers and youth leaders, with the objective of educating young people about human rights.

Duolingo language-learning app that has a go-at-your-own pace style and rewards progress.

Dyslexia blog – a collection of free apps and online tools that can help dyslexic students to work more effectively wherever they are studying.

Sunshine Classroom – initiative driven by Beijing, together with one of the biggest ICT providers in China, to eradicate inequality of access to education for rural children in remote areas.

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Citizen science around the world

Post contributed by Rebecca Ferguson, Module Chair.

The second week of H880 included an activity on citizen science around the world (if you haven’t encountered citizen science before, here’s a brief introduction from NASA)

Students were asked to conduct an internet search for examples of citizen science in their own country or work/practice area, pick an example to share, and then ‘like’ interesting examples shared by others. So far, there have been 118 contributions, covering citizen science in countries including China, Nigeria, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Tibet, UAE, UK, and Zambia.

Home page of nABUBelow are the top ten choices. I was intrigued to see that several are aimed at citizen researchers rather than at citizen scientists.

  1. Cloudy with a Chance of Pain uses an app to collect self-reported pain levels from participants with conditions such as arthritis to investigate whether there is a connection between pain levels and the weather.
  2. The Oxford English Dictionary appeals to readers to contribute examples of new and rare words in order to inform their corpus. Even the availability of billion-word computerised corpora hasn’t taken away this long-standing role of the general public.
  3. In the UK’s Big Garden Birdwatch, each person records birds visiting their garden in one hour, enabling scientists to track populations and trends. Many H880 students commented that they had taken part in this project.
  4. In Germany the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) is the oldest (1899) and largest environment association in Germany. It offers citizen science projects throughout the year, including the ‘hour of the garden birds’. As with the Big Garden Birdwatch, people are asked to sit in their gardens, on their balconies or look out of their windows, and count the birds they see. For those who are unsure about birds, there is an app covering more than 300 species, books to download and an e-learning tool .
  5. Examples of citizen science in the Netherlands proved difficult to find, but a slightly different search produced this Dutch-language site and its investigation of air quality in different cities and villages.
  6. The 1961 UK Census is a valuable record, but much of it is still in microfilm format. Volunteers process data content from the census, which will be available publicly as a digital dataset that can be used for research.
  7. ELMO is a citizen science project, which serves as an interactive database to help monitor Southern African shark, skate and ray (Elasmobranchii) populations through public participation.
  8. A mermaid’s purse is the pouch that protects baby sharks and rays. These pouches are often mistaken for seaweed. The Mermaids Purse search project is run from Ireland by Marine Dimensions, a community-driven enterprise dedicated to marine environmental education, research and conservation.
  9. Corpora are large samples of naturally occurring language use (e.g. 30,000 newspaper articles on the topic of terrorism). The reliability of research findings in corpus linguistics is achieved by demonstrating repeated patterns of language use through many examples. For this, it is necessary to classify every word or phrase in the corpus. This can be done automatically using corpus software but needs to be manually checked. Published work based on corpus analysis needs to show how the reliability was verified by humans.
  10. Capturing Our Coast finished last year and was designed to engage members of the public in collecting records of marine species along the coast in order to explore how our habitats and species are being affected by climate change and other human impacts. This was the baseline study, with others expected in the future.

Capturing OUr Coast website image

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Breaking the ice

Post contributed by Rebecca Ferguson, Module Chair.

Spiderman sitting in an archway reading

Photo by Raj Eiamworakul on Unsplash

H880 went live a week ago. As it’s the first Open University module to be presented on FutureLearn, it has been a new experience for both staff and students.

I’m pleased to say that most students have already engaged actively with the conversational learning pedagogy. They/you’ve engaged in discussions and have posted views, comments and resources related to technology-enhanced learning.

The most active step of the week was the icebreaker, which currently has 319 comments, contributed by more than 60 people.

The activity asks students to: ‘Find an online image that represents something about learning. It can be a metaphor, a joke, an image of a learning context, or anything else that you think is relevant.’ They’re then asked to browse some of the suggestions, ‘liking’ those that they feel represent learning best. Based on the number of likes they received, I’ve included some of the most popular in this post.

The Spiderman image above resonated with students at the start of an OU module. They pointed out that learning isn’t simply something that happens in ‘school’ hours. You have to be willing to fit it in where and when you can, whether that’s on your daily commute, while your toddler is asleep, or when – as in the picture – you’re taking a brief break from the great responsibility associated with superheroic powers.

This image shows a mother studying on her laptop and simultaneously looking after her baby twins. This image was chosen to represent the process of using education to achieve goals, as well as passing on knowledge and values to the next generation. It’s an inspiring picture, showing someone who’s determined to overcome obstacles. And, as one student pointed out, the mother could be studying anywhere in the world – she could even be an OU student.

One quote came from Nelson Mandela: ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’. Another image showed a quote attributed to Tony Rothman (who, in turn, said it was a saying used by  Sebastian van Hoerner), ‘If you ask a stupid question, you may feel stupid. If you don’t ask a stupid question, you remain stupid’. This prompted comments about the value of asking questions when studying, the concerns that learners often have about doing this, and the possibility that online learners may feel more confident about doing this.

Some of the images represented the path to learning – leading into the distance, winding, or the complex interconnections of an Escher stairway. Whatever, the case, there might be the need for a map or a compass. Other images represented the barriers in the way of teaching and learning, the excitement and the frustration, the tensions between studying with old and new technologies. There were ideas from Calvin and Hobbes, and from Sesame Street.

So what is learning? From this one activity, it’s a complex blend of care, challenge, collaboration, context, conversation, curiosity, discovery, emotions, expansion, experience, exploration, feelings, flourishing, fulfillment, head, heart, passion, questioning, reason, reflection, sharing, thoughts, transformation, and the unknown. The multiple postings made it clear that learning means different things to different people, and that understanding of the term is rooted in both personal history and wider cultural context.

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Your chance to shine: the H818 Online Conference

This post has been contributed by Dr Simon Ball, H880 and H818 Tutor and H818 Conference Organiser.

Even though it feels like we teetered onto the stage for the first time just a year or two ago, this February sees the sixth (sixth!) annual online conference for the module H818: The Networked Practitioner (a module of the Open University’s Masters in Online and Distance Education). The conference takes place on February 15th-18th 2019, and by its end, we will have racked up a total of over 160 student presentations since we began back in 2014. All H880 students are invited to attend, along with MAODE students and alumni and departmental staff.

In order to maximise the value of the conference (and to fully terrify the students!), we also invite keynote speakers – well known names and faces in the Open Education field who give their time to present to our students, and to comment on the student presentations they get to see. This year Dr Leigh-Anne Perryman and Professor Martin Weller from The Open University itself will be speaking, as will Dr Robin DeRosa from Plymouth State University in the US. Previous speakers have included the likes of Sue Beckingham, Jane Seale, Patrick McAndrew, Sarah Chesney, Bart Rienties, Helen Beetham, Terry McAndrew, Allison Littlejohn, Gráinne Conole and Chris Pegler, all of whose names will be, or will become, familiar to anyone studying the MAODE or H880. Oh, and I did a turn too, so it’s not always rock stars 😊

Good-looking man by laptop

Me just after delivering my keynote presentation (please note here I am being portrayed by Mr V. Handsomeperson in a stock photo by Bruce Mars from Pexels).

Each student on H818 works during the module on a project related to an aspect of Open Learning that is meaningful in their own context, and this forms the basis for their presentation at the conference. The conference theme is Open Education in an Open Landscape, and each student’s presentation also falls under a subtheme of Inclusion, Innovation or Implementation.

Polishing the rough diamonds can take a bit of work, as many of the students have never presented before, or never presented online before, or both. Thus far almost all of them have been amazing and have showered themselves in glory with excellent presentations, and I am certain this year will be no exception. Many former students keep in touch via Twitter and we have a sizeable #H818 community there these days. Some of them have shared all sorts of handy tips for students to follow, such as wearing a suit and standing up to deliver your presentation – even though nobody can see you and you’re probably in your bedroom! It can certainly help with confidence and gives your voice a more authoritative air. As conference host, I always wear a suit too, much to the amusement of my cats, who use the opportunity to coat me and my suit in as much hair as possible.  It is also important that students practise the timing of their presentation as they are limited strictly to their allocated slot, in order to keep the programme on schedule. This can be quite a tricky task initially!

The conference takes place over three days, at different times of day, to ensure that wherever in the world they are located, all students can attend without having to get up at 4 a.m. (although we did have a student one year who did do that!). This year there are sessions on the morning of Friday 15th, afternoon of Saturday 16th and evening of Monday 18th February. People who are interested but can’t make it in real time can keep up with the conference via the #H818conf tag, and this can also be used for discussion afterwards. We also keep an interactive programme on Cloudworks https://cloudworks.ac.uk/cloudscape/view/3030 where you can read more about each presentation (all students have to produce an abstract and poster advertising what they will talk about) and can ask questions or make comments. Here’s a stunning poster from a few years ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sF5FraMBh2A

Dog wearing glasses by a computer

One our attendees enjoying the conference. (Image from Pixabay.com)

As if delivering an online presentation were not reward enough by itself, there are also Open Badges available. After each session we ask attendees to vote for the most effective three presentations from that session, and the students receiving the greatest number of votes in each session win a H818 Presentation Star badge. As yet, not a single presentation in any of the conferences has come away with no votes at all (and no, students are not allowed to vote for themselves!) – so every single one of our students can take away the knowledge that they impressed, informed and educated someone.


As we approach this year’s conference I’m running around behind the scenes making all of the arrangements and ensuring everything runs as smoothly as possible – as well as welcoming our new H880 students and making sure everyone’s settling into the module and starting to move forward with the activities and learning. It’s my busiest time of year but I wouldn’t change it for the world, because every year it puts wind in my sails to hear students who, just a month before, were saying “I’m terrified, I can’t speak in public, I’ll make a mess of it, people will be bored” and after their conference session say things like “I’m so glad I did it, I thought it came across really well” and “I never thought I’d be so pleased with myself, I might try submitting a paper to another conference now!”.

I hope to see plenty of the H880 cohort among the attendees this year (the registration link is on the Cloudworks page mentioned above) and, who knows, maybe you will be among our speakers next year?

Woman wearing headphones using laptop

Will you be among our speakers next year? (Image by Christina Morillo on Pixabay.com)

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No student is an island – you and your study buddies

This post was contributed by H880 student, Anita. As well as studying with The Open University, Anita is also a tutor on other OU modules. In this post she writes about study buddy groups from a tutor’s perspective, following on from the previous post from Anha, who would like to set up a Study Buddy group for H880 students.

Cats at a study window

My esteemed colleagues enjoy bird-watching from our ‘office’ in a leafy suburb of Cardiff. ©ANPilgrim 2018.

In campus universities, students are renowned for collecting in groups – often apparently for the purpose of consuming large quantities of alcohol. While the OU Students Association occasionally runs an online bar, this is a highly suitable venue for anyone who has given up alcohol after over-indulging at Christmas; attendance is not particularly high.

I think OU students imagine that when they sign up, all they will get is a voice like the computer on Starship Enterprise saying ‘Your studies will commence on Stardate 52264.8.’ When I phone to say, ‘Hi, I am your tutor and will be around to answer questions and support you’, there is often a short pause as the student absorbs the news that there are humans on the Mothership in Milton Keynes. (Actually most of us live elsewhere, working from our living rooms all over the United Kingdom.)

I urge my students to get together and chat about their assignments. I think they also misunderstand this, they imagine that talking about the assignment is cheating. Newsflash: cheating is emailing someone the whole written assignment, and them copying and pasting large chunks of it. (This gets picked up on the university’s plagiarism software so it isn’t worth doing. If you are struggling, you’re much better off contacting your tutor for a bit of advice and perhaps an extension – see my blogpost on extensions. (H880 students should check their Assignment Guide for information on plagiarism and cheating.)

The calculus students

A study done in the United States shows that getting together with other students is an important part of university learning, and the best means to improve your marks/grade. (Yes, better than constantly phoning your tutor.)

Treisman (1992), cited in a book by Steele (2010, pp.100-102) describes a study he undertook on young men studying calculus. One group was very similar to OU students: they came from backgrounds stereotyped as non-academic. They were extremely keen to prove themselves and would spend long hours alone poring over the books. They were anxious about asking even teaching assistants and lecturers questions, in case what they then wrote up wasn’t really their work any more. (They were from African-American families.)

Another group (white) didn’t put in much formal effort. They were known for surreptitiously drinking beer in the lectures and looking at magazines of a kind which I will not name in these august online pages. However, they would chat about their assignments casually when out in bars or cafés, and were happy to ask for advice from teaching assistants and lecturers.

A third group (Asian-American, which in the States means of Chinese and Japanese origin) would spend long hours in the library together. Their idea of a fun party was to sit round talking about the assignments, sharing their understanding and exploring their ideas about calculus.

No surprises that the third group did very well. However, you may be surprised to hear that the beer-swilling second group of students did significantly better than the first group – who tended to work much longer hours, but alone. Even chatting casually about your studies has a good impact. After studying so hard only to do worse, the few African-American students came to believe they must be bad at calculus after all and would often give up studying it.

Meeting up in the OU

OU logoIf you are sitting in your living room waiting to open your module website, you may be asking: ‘Great! And how am I supposed to get from my home to the Library in Milton Keynes to chat about my assignment with other students?’

Good news! you don’t have to. A premier meeting place for OU students is tutorials. Online tutorials can be a good laugh means to gain better understanding of the assignment.

Just as we have migrated most OU study materials and exercises online, so we have set up online meeting places. One of the strengths of the FutureLearn platform is its support for conversational learning, so at any point you can share opinions, ideas and resources, or you can use your study group area to talk to others in your tutor group.

WhatsApp logoRecently I’ve encouraged my students to get together by setting up WhatsApp groups in which we share pictures of our pets in fancy dress … and remind each other of upcoming tutorial events or link to additional material we found. You can easily start a group yourself. You can ask in one of the discussions if anyone would like to join one: I do recommend 3-10 students in a group. Less than 3 means that if one drops out, it’s not really a group any more. (Tips on how to set up a group here.)

My daughter uses Instagram chats to exchange homework tips with her school friends; I’m looking into that, I’m not quite clear how it works yet. When I find out, I’ll write up about it on my blog. You could possibly use Pinterest too?

Pinterest logoBasically, any means you have to chat with your mates is also a medium you can use to chat with study buddies.

It’s academic

Far from cheating, this is how academics work in the big ‘real’ academic world. We do not write our material in isolation, we get into teams. We send papers to journals who ask three or four other academics to comment on them. We have workshops at which we present our ideas and invite feedback to help us develop them better. (I recently presented in a Faculty online seminar series about using WhatsApp to support student groups.)

There are very few jobs out there which demand you work in total isolation, never communicating with colleagues – even astronauts call up Houston if they have a problem. If you apply for jobs and you add that you have managed to work in groups during your distance learning studies, showing your aptitude for teamwork as well as for working independently – this will considerably add to your employability.

Party emojiAnd who knows. It might even be fun!


Steele, C., (2010) Whistling Vivaldi: how stereotypes affect us and what we can do. New York: W.W. Norton. [OU students can access reviews of this book via the OU Library.]

Treisman, U., (1992) Studying students studying calculus: a look at the lives of minority mathematics students in college. The College Mathematics Journal, 23(5), 362-372. [OU students can access this paper via the OU Library.]


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Study Buddies

This post was contributed by H880 student, Anhha. Anhha is interested in setting up a Study Buddy group for students on H880. If you’re interested, connect with her via @Ana_Chowh on Twitter, or via this blog.

Two women working together

The original ‘study buddy’ definition: A schoolmate with whom schoolwork is completed, often somebody one sits next to in a classroom. In the Higher Education context, the definition of ‘study buddy’ could be: Two university students on the same module who interact with each other through different mediums for the purpose of study.

Study buddies are quite popular with students because of several reasons. It’s important you share similar study goals and those informal discussions about the study material help to enhance your understanding of it. The requirements for a perfect study buddy vary from person to person, which means you are not going to be a study buddy with everyone on your module. It’s always good to pair with motivated people who are also encouraging.

So, once you’ve found a study buddy – you can decide how to interact with each other. If you’re doing an Open University distance-learning course, then you may not be able to meet each other, as timetables might clash. You could schedule chats over the phone, or keep in touch via email. Or you could use Instagram!

In a hypothetical situation, the module team at H880 have prompts on their Instagram related to the module; you could tag your study buddy/buddies and either discuss on the post itself or in private messaging. Or you could repost it to your story and with your study buddy/buddies, design an Instagram poll for your followers and use the outcome as part of research or point of further discussion.

The possibilities are endless, really.

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Module briefing: Technology-enhanced learning – foundations and futures

This blog’s been quiet for a few months, while we were making the decision to present the module on FutureLearn and waiting for the go-ahead to announce this. We’re now back on social media, and kicking off with this blog post on our recent module briefing for tutors. The post was contributed by Associate Lecturer Chris Douce.

Title slide from event. Image from http://bit.ly/2wFfBNb CC BY 2.0On Saturday 17 November 2018, I attended a module briefing for H880 Technology-enhanced Learning : Foundations and Futures, a module that enables students to gain a postgraduate certificate in Online and Distance Learning.

H800 may be of interest to many OU associate lecturers, but also to other online teachers or tutors in other institutions, since the module “is aligned with the Professional Standards Framework developed by the UK’s Higher Education Academy (HEA), a framework used for benchmarking success within higher education teaching and support.” The module description goes onto say that: “Students working towards HEA Fellowship will be able to use their work on the module to help them build a fellowship case”.

Unlike other OU modules, this postgrad certificate module will use the learning platform that has been developed by FutureLearn. An alternative description of the module (which is described as an ‘online degree’) can be found on the FutureLearn website as a Postgraduate Certificate in Online and Distance Education.

For anyone who might be interested, a ‘taster version’ of this course available through FutureLearn, which is called The Online Educator: People and Pedagogy. Also, on the OU’s own free course website, OpenLearn, there’s a course called Take Your Teaching Online.

What follows are some of the more interesting notes that I made during the briefing day. A point that I will add is that I haven’t shared everything for two reasons: there’s a lot I don’t know, and I also understand that the module is still being worked on in anticipation for the new students starting in February.

A final point is that although I am considered to be appointable (which means that I am eligible to tutor on this module), I don’t know whether I’ll have a group of students; everything depends on student numbers.

Pedagogic principles

During the start of the day, Rebecca Ferguson and colleagues from FutureLearn introduced us to the FutureLearn platform. I was interested to hear that there are some clear pedagogical principles that underpin the design of the platform. There are four principles: (1) telling stories, (2) provoking conversations, (3) celebrating progress (through visible feedback), and (4) developing of skills. Of these, I understand that conversations was the most significant, since there is a link to something called the conversational framework, which was something that I blogged about some few years ago.

Platform differences

One of the sessions during the briefing was to talk about the similarities and differences between the OU virtual learning environment (which is based on Moodle), the FutureLearn system, and differences between the terms that are used within the two organisations. One key difference is that the FutureLearn platform is all about learning at scale, whereas the OU VLE is all about facilitating and managing small group access. Another observation is that some pedagogic approaches can be difficult (or can degrade) with scale. An example of this is you can’t apply coaching or small group methods to hundreds of students at a time (unless you have many tutors, like the OU does, of course), but you can deliver lectures to large groups of students.

This difference in scale has influenced the design of the FutureLearn platform. Rather than having a separate area where students can contribute to discussions through tutor group or module forums, students can participate in discussions that are attached to ‘articles’. Articles, in FutureLearn-speak (as far as I understand it) are just webpages, where concepts are presented or explained.

Unlike the OU system, the FutureLearn platform doesn’t have a module calendar that covers the whole period of the presentation. Instead, the course is split up into four units which take place over several weeks. The module registration page gives a bit more information: “H880 is divided into four eight-week programs: Foundations of TEL, Adapting to Contexts, Opening Up Education, and Educational Futures. Each program ends with reflection and assessment. There is a week’s break between each block.”


During their time studying H880, students will have to use two different systems: the FutureLearn system to access the module content and to participate in discussions, and the OU system, which students will use to submit their assignments.

The module consists of 3 TMAs (tutor marked assessments), and 1 end of module assessment (which is an extended essay). From what I’m told, students will have to create a learning resource that relates to their own professional teaching practice. In some respects, this reminds me of what students had to do when they studied a module that I used to tutor on, H810 Accessible online learning, where students had to create their own accessible learning resource.


I always enjoy module briefing events, and this was no exception. I also felt that this face-to-face meeting was important, since there was a lot of information that needed to be shared with the tutors. There were a lot of differences between the ‘OU world’ and the ‘FutureLearn world’ that needed to be understood, and this could only be really grasped by having a conversion.

A few things strike me: the first is that the module is expected to have an international reach. In my experience of tutoring on H810, there were students studying from all over the world, and I understand that this is an expectation that continues with H880. It was also interesting to learn that due to some of the differences between the platforms, students might have to use different tools to share information and resources with tutors. This, in some respects, can be considered both a challenge and an opportunity!

H880 is going to be the first OU module that will be presented using the FutureLearn platform. In many respects, the choice of the platform appears to fit with some of the aims of the module materials. I also understand that the university will be learning from the experience with the aim of potentially influencing future decisions. From my perspective as a tutor (and secondly, as a staff tutor), this looks like an important and an exciting thing to be doing.


An earlier version of this blog was published on 19 November 18 on Chris Douce’s personal work blog. The event was facilitated by Rebecca Ferguson and Leigh-Anne Perryman from the OU with contributions from Isabel Drury and Kerry Houchen, from FutureLearn. The H880 module chair is Rebecca Ferguson. H880 material authors include Prof Martin Weller, Mark Gaved, Mark Childs, Andrew Brasher and Prof Agnes Kukulska-Hulme.


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Can I trust that research?

Road sign with 'trust' sticker on it‘Under 5s should be banned from using tech on their own’; ‘Computing education across the UK is patchy and fragile’; ‘Google says children could learn from technology instead’. Every week  a new story appears in the media that relates to educational technology.

One of the areas covered by H880 is how to judge whether such stories are trustworthy. A key step here is looking behind the headlines – digging down to the underpinning research. Sometimes no research can be found – the story is an opnjon piece or entirely made up. At other times, the original report seems to bear almost no relation to the attention-grabbing headline that attracted your attention.

When the headline is based on research, what then? With the bigger news stories, fact-checking agencies such as Full Fact may have checked what lies behind the headlines and have laid out the evidence. Most of the time, you’re on your own. You can see how other news sources have presented the same story, but looking at the original research gives you a far better picture.

When the findings are based on statistics, there are four main tests for the research.

  1. Is it reliable? If another group of researchers had done the same thing, would you expect them to have got a similar answer?
  2. Is it valid? Did the research measure what it was intended to measure?
  3. Is it generalisable? Do the findings apply just to one case, or would they apply in any similar situation?
  4. Is the research credible? Was it carried out in an appropriate way by people who knew what they were doing?

You can also look for common problems with the interpretation of data. The Data Literacy team at Geckoboard pulled a set of these together and made them into a ‘Common Data Mistakes‘ poster you can download. If you can’t read the text on the poster, it is available from Data Central.

Section of the poster dealing with the Gambler's Fallacy and the Hawthorne Effect



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