Making (personal) sense of learning theories

It isn’t easy to identify clearly what constructivism is – a number of ideas seem to have shaped it, as McLoughlin and Lee (2008) point out, including cognitivism and more general socio-cultural learning theory. When I think about constructivism I understand it to be highly context –dependent and therefore referring to the third of McLoughlin and Lees’ metaphors:

“learning as a sociocultural dialogic activity – a social constructivist or sociocultural approach in which learner interaction and dialogue are central to the learning process (Vygotsky, 1978; Bandura, 1977)” (p. 642).

It focuses on what learners say, think, do and produce, as long as these activities involve thinking, analysis, making connections, synthesis and the use of the learner’s own words. This involves personalization – ‘reading’ resources from a variety of audio-visual media and re-presenting them in ways that have meaning for the individual. The discoveries of learners are as valid as those of the teacher and the content authorities – breaking down some of the power dynamic of traditional academia.  Activities we ask learners to do should be purposeful and ideally based on authentic inputs with practical tasks that constitute real-world activity or rehearsal for real-world activity.

In implementation of constructivist theory, collaboration must be involved, as it acknowledges that learning is shared, enriched and deepened by social interaction. In an earlier article describing Pedagogy 2.0 McLoughlin and Lee (2007) emphasise participation as a central to learning with technologies. This implies that teachers need to carefully consider process – how to introduce a new technological tool, how to mesh it with an authentic and purposeful task and how to encourage learners to collaborate while respecting individual levels of contribution.

In production (the third ‘P’ of Pedagogy 2.0) the information and ideas which learners have generated are propagated among a wider community of learners for comment, feedback and/or evaluation – so relationships and reciprocity are emphasised.

Also skills to negotiate way around resources and reshape knowledge are important. A theory called Navigationism has been identified around this, according to McLoughlin and Lee (2008) but the term ‘information literacy’ seems to me more useful.

Connectivism seems to emphasise the importance of both connections between people and among resources. The rationale for this seems to relate to connected thinking, the idea of collective intelligence and synergy – that we can be more creative, diverse if we share and help each other to generate ideas. In some respects connectivism seems to be the logical conclusion of social constructivism; I wonder if it’s necessary to have a separate ‘-ism’ to describe it.

I’m not sure I agree with all the principles outlined by Siemens (2005, p. 7) but these are some that seem to be keys to effective learning:

v. Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning;
vi. The ability to see connections between fields, ideas and concepts is a core skill;
viii. Decision making is in itself a learning process; choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality; while there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision” (cited in McLoughlin & Lee, 2008, p. 646-647).

Ohr, R. (2012, April 27) Innovation and diversity. [Blog post]

McLoughlin, C., & Lee, M. (2008). Mapping the digital terrain: New media and social software as catalysts for pedagogical change. Paper presented at the ASCILITE Melbourne 2008, Deakin University, Melbourne. Retrieved from

McLoughlin, C. and Lee, M. (2008). The three P’s of pedagogy for the networked society: Personalization, participation and productivity. International Journal of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, 20(1), 10-27. Retrieved from


Ways to look at collaboration…

I’ve been on a hunt for video material that would cover some of the course content of our Social Learning Technologies course – thinking that yes, I could read articles, but in terms of my prior learning that is not a new tool. Surely I thought there would be video material that would stimulate my thinking and my practice. Well, some time later I don’t have a lot to show for the time but there were some interesting student comments and reflections on Web 2.0 such as this one

perhaps a bit staged, but it reminded me of the power of consulting students about their observations on uses of technology by their teachers, themselves and their classmates.

Then there was this animated presentation. I liked the way this got political and suggested it might be helpful to stop thinking in terms of fitting students into a mould. If we keep going down the collaboration track will the whole system gradually change? I kept thinking of Ivan Ilich’s book DeSchooling Society and Postman and Weingartner Teaching as a Subversive Activity. We talk about the speed of change in relation to technology, but in terms of our systems change is mighty slow. We’re till trying to do new things in old ways.

This started out as a comment on Julia’s blog post on group assessment and social learning techs, but has now become a post on my blog because I haven’t found the way to put hyperlinks into a comment.

Yes, these questions about group assessments don’t go away, do they? I agree that group assessments are extremely valuable but as a learner have also found them personally hard at times. It’s another activity that needs scaffolding if it’s to work. In my current learning development role, students talk about issues with their group work. Visiting or revisiting the reasons for and issues in doing group work seems to be helpful, as it isn’t just about the marks at the end.

In terms of using technology, I was thinking that blogging while doing group assessment could be quite good. Would it be good if students blog the work for a group assessment as they go so that other group members and the teacher could see whether different group members are taking part and support if not? The task might still be to produce a group presentation, but the individual work could be shown on blogs. Mindmaps, audio, photos and video could also be part of the group pres – using 1 tool. I think you said earlier the students are using blogs as journals, so they’d be familiar with the tool. Perhaps journals could be suspended for a while.

When I’ve facilitated group assessments with students, I’ve always tried to give students some class time to talk together about the work face to face – say 20 minutes every so often. Actually some of this time could be collaboratively composing rather than just talking about their planned work. It gives the teacher a chance to see the dynamics and help out if need be.

If we tell them they have to work on it out of class only I think the group thing is much more risky. For practical reasons, partly. Students have such varied and usually compressed timetables – what with part-time work, family commitments, transport issues etc so it actually is often really hard for them to get together. And relationships are not necessarily comfortable or safe.

In situations where students are prevented by distance from getting together, I notice that block courses still play a large role – it’s hard to substitute for face to face. Video conferencing could help though, and the Google Plus option Vickel showed us.

This relates to Hugh’s thought-provoking comments on Flipped Classrooms here

Class time to focus on things like effective group processes might be one benefit of flipping. It means enabling / trusting students to do some of the content gathering out of class, as we are doing in this course. Reflection, as mentioned in the Miller (2012) article Hugh cited, is important for all forms of learning. The most important learnings are not always comfortable.

The affective aspects are at least as important as the cognitive domain – and a key factor in success and retention too. Thinking about this in relation to our development as educators, an implication of the Gillen and Barton article is that that we could use technology to collaborate more as teachers, so that we combine our strengths in using different tools rather than having to be expert in everything. I’m rapidly realising that there aren’t enough hours in my life for this!

Miller, A. (2012). Five best practices for the flipped classroom.  Retrieved from

Gillen, J. & Barton, C. (2010). Digital Literacies: A Research Briefing by the Technology Enhanced Learning Phase of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme. Retrieved from

What digital literacies are about…

Mostly I don’t get a lot out of viewing presentations on Slideshare, but there were aspects of this one that interested me. For instance Doug Belshaw’s memorable code for definition of digital literacies, even if it does not emphasise the social quite enough and does SHOUT somewhat. I think you don’t really need to watch the videos….

on blogging… blogging on

I’ve been reading about blogging today – trying to follow one thread in the loosely-woven fabric that makes up social learning techs.

Quite high-falutin’ claims are made such as Farmer & Bartlett-Bragg (2005) “through the use of blogs, it is suggested that teachers  and  learners  are  becoming  empowered,  motivated,  reflective  and  connected practitioners in new knowledge environments” (p. 197). Actually I don’t doubt the potential for this, just see it as quite challenging to get started, maintain and sustain. And as in any teaching, to have it work for all the learners in a class.

One point these authors discuss is the benefit of setting up class group blogs so that they aggregate – you can go to one place and see all the blog entries that your classmates have been posting rather than having to track each one down individually. This sounds really useful – it would make commenting much less time-consuming.

A article by Stephen Downes from 2004 was useful for its emphasis on the advantages of blogging as a way to get students to both read and engage with readings assigned by teachers. Thin on techniques for actually doing this though. A couple of questions raised:  First if we require blogging by making it an assessment is it real blogging? Is it a failure if students don’t do it past the end of the course or the submission of the relevant assessment? I’m finding in my reading that a lot of teachers say that they have to make blogging and commenting an assessment component if they want to get students to do it. Downes points out (something we all know from experience) that we can lose interest in assigned tasks and they can lose a sense of authenticity partly because the assessor is the main audience.

Downes cites the words of a teacher “if a student has nothing to blog about, it is not because he or she has nothing to write about or has a boring life. It is because the student has not yet stretched out to the larger world, has not yet learned to meaningfully engage in a community” (p. 25). I think this may reveal an unrealistic expectation. We engage in many communities throughout our lives and a particular course is probably for most a waystage in a much longer journey. A reluctant blogger may be active in a number of other communities. Can we expect class activities that we set up to engage most students? If so what are the strategies that hook them in? I’ll have to track down so more recent  articles on this.

Downes, S. (2004). Educational blogging. EDUCAUSE Review, 39(5), 14-26.

Farmer, J., & Bartlett-Bragg, A. (2005, December 4 – 7). Blogs @ anywhere: High fidelity online communication. Paper presented at the 22nd ASCILITE Conference: Balance, Fidelity, Mobility. Maintaining the Momentum?, Brisbane.

Can academic writing be collaborative?

In a search for articles that discuss uses of Web 2.0 tools in the work of learning advisers I found one about a collaborative academic project. Staff at the Writing Centre at London Metropolitan University set up an evolving essay online with one of their student mentors as the writer. They wanted to open up the writing processes the student (or any academic writer) goes through – planning, notemaking, drafting, revising but importantly, thinking.

The student wrote a psychology essay, using a wiki, over 6 weeks. The project was carried out over two and a half years and is still available at She kept a blog and other people could comment on both the blog posts and the wiki. The authors claim it created “a project-focused knowledge-building community” (p. 67) and that we can see the student writer, prompted by the contributors’ comments, developing awareness and competence in writing. They say she developed awareness and ability to follow academic conventions and ‘moves’, expressed positive and negative feelings and overall developed a sense of identity as an academic writer. It’s interesting that both student and staff contributors to the wiki didn’t actually edit the essay, which had been the initial intention – they preferred to make suggestions and encourage.

The project seemed to enable participants to reflect on the process and confusions they themselves go through. One tentative claim made is that people are more ready to disclose feelings online than in the real world – not sure that I agree with this.

However this project lays bare the social aspects of writing – and in fact people may collaborate on texts (reports, news publications, articles) in their future workplaces so that’s one justification for a project like this. Now, are blogs and wikis the best ways to get collaboration going in my own teaching / learning project about post-graduate supervision?

Harrington, K., O’Neill, P., & Reynolds, L. (2011). Using wikis and blogs to support writing development: The online evolving essay project In S. Little (Ed.), Staff-student partnerships in higher education (pp. 16-30). London: Continuum.