image of network of people

Thinking About Learning Webs

Why webs for learning?

In designing the Teaching With WordPress course, we ran across a notion proposed by Stephen Downes that open course design should be more about creating a web than a website. The idea, as I understand it, is to create opportunities for cross connections between ideas, resources, people and their networks. The course is a connection point for people to share their thinking, ideas in progress, experience and learn from each other. We consider ourselves learners and teachers together.

This notion helped us make decisions about how to build in opportunities for people to connect with each other through comments, posts, tweets – inside and outside of the course hub. Many people connecting with #TWP15 seem to understand the value of connecting, sharing links, ideas and works in progress. Many of us subscribe to open practices and have had enriching experiences as we have exchanged with our growing and changing networks over time. Through practice, we’ve found deep and enduring value in those exchanges. We could relate to the idea of webs for learning mainly because our experiences helped us make the connection.

How do learners relate to/ connect with this vision for learning “webs”, networks and communities?

In my own conversations with a handful of very bright, motivated and sensitive learners lately, I have learned that their engagement with learning communities (associated with their formal learning courses) involve the following concerns:

  • what the teacher wants: what requirements to I need to meet for discussion and “participation”?
  • what the community offers: who knows what and what do I know that can help others?
  • insecurities about self: online learning communities are big – it’s intimidating.
  • how much time will I need to spend on this?

In short, the goal for many learners, is to maximize learning and make friends without the high cost of extra effort or public embarrassment.

So, I am thinking about this as I am considering whether/how we might use Twitter to connect learners between courses. I think appealing to the “maximizing learning” idea – may be a way in for some students. I want to pose three questions to students (and others who want to play):
* why would (or would) you contribute to an open, learning community/network online?
* how might an open, online learning community/network help you maximize your learning?
* what would you consider before using Twitter to connect with a learning community?

There may be other, more interesting, pertinent questions. If you have any, let me know.

I am starting an open G-doc to collect responses.

Further thoughts on trust, learning communities and our role as mentors and facilitators.
Amanda Hayden, grad student at CSU, Chico in California, posted an excellent and insightful video blog, where she shares some of her thoughts on barriers to and opportunities for the development of trust in a learning environment. She is my teacher for this piece. Some thoughts:
* institutional barriers to students developing own learning paths and practices. Students don’t trust themselves to “get it right” “learn what they need to fulfill a requirement”.
* teachers hold the power – as long as grades are currency – implications for peer assessment?
* vulnerability in learning – need to establish caring culture, mentor relationships with faculty, shared vulnerability.
* when students focus on self (and their own learning) it leaves very little room for creating meaning with peers.
* trust can happen quickly among students (think MMPOG). Needs: shared goals, reputation built on skill to help and support each other achieve goals.

Via my expanded Twitter network (thanks to #TWP15) I came across Laura Gogia, who shared this excellent resource on Twitter and learning – something I plan to propose to students as a resource for the blended learning course we are creating together.

I am thinking about my responsibility as a collaborator with students on the design of learning environments for their peers. I’m looking for approaches to scaffold networked learning and learning in the open.

Hackathon for Blended Learning 101

Lately, the big question[s], I am grappling with have to do with notions of learning community or learning webs:

  • what conditions are necessary for learning webs or communities to work?
  • why do we care about webs, networks and communities for learning, and how do we make that explicit to learners?
  • why would learners care about webs, networks and communities for learning – what would they need to know to help them decide whether or not to care?

I plan to explore these questions over a couple of posts. Starting with a course design project that I am working on with students.

The project is to make space (and provide guidance/mentorship on the design process) for a group of 7 students to design a short 2 week orientation course to prepare them to participate in a blended learning physics class. We’re calling it Blended Learning 101. I’m collaborating with Lucas Wight (for edX expertise) and Noureddine Elouazizi (for the Science and research context). We had some constraints:

  • time: we have three days with students to accomplish 90% of the build.
  • platform: we needed to use edX – given UBC’s new collaboration for open/flexible course development.
  • re-use: it has to be easily adaptable to other contexts (outside of physics)
  • community: one of the goals was to build a framework that would support the development of a learning community

My role in the hackathon was to guide the students through a design process. In the past, I had used a pared down versions of Stanford’s d-school (design school) bootcamp, so I decided to stick with that. The bootcamp includes some really great principles/mindsets to work from (including focus on human values, embrace experimentation, be mindful of process, etc,). I also appreciate their framework for the design process as follows:
design framework

The aspect of empathy building is so important to the process – through interviews with each other, students learn about different perspectives, values and approaches to learning. Discussion and debriefing of the process has led to some pretty important insights/questions as you can see below.

Learner Attributes 1

Learner Attributes 1

list of learner attributes

Learner Attributes 2

Mindsets about learning

Mindsets about learning

The aspect that students really seemed to get stuck on (when it came time to start building the course) was the aspect of learning community. Questions emerged like:

  • why would learners participate in a community, for just one course?
  • why would people want to interact with large, unknown groups of people when it can be so intimidating?
  • why would anyone want to use Twitter for networking – isn’t it just for celebrity gossip?

We spent some time talking through these questions, and deciding an approach for the first iteration, then revisit. It was helpful to have the visual map of #TWP15 Twitter connections to show them what was possible when a learning network was actively sharing.

Back to the questions I started out with in this post:

  • For learning webs to work (at least for new undergraduates) I think the value and rationale and relationship to learning needs to be made explicit in order to motivate learners to take a risk and try it out.
  • It helps to have enough people on the network, beyond a typical course enrolment, to make for rich interactions. That’s the only way learners will stay engaged.
  • As mentors/instructors/guides, it helps for us to model (through our own interactions/participation its value (sharing links, posing questions, commenting, bringing in new networks/people with a common interest.

Not quite sure how we help learners begin to see themselves as teachers, mentors and guides and view their peers as such. I see this as partly a developmental challenge, but not entirely. Any ideas?

I’m still reflecting on Christina’s course challenge – to build more of a web than a website – and I’m thinking that this is a big challenge for all of us. Many learners got to university not by collaborating, sharing and connecting – but by competing, keeping their heads down and grades high. Beyond building a web, maybe we’re supporting a shift in values.

video learning wrapper for the digital tattoo site

Learning Wrapper for Video

Learning wrappers take many forms (exam wrappers, homework wrappers, metacognitive wrappers). Their purpose is generally to provide learners with framework for reflection on their learning: what did they learn, what confusions surfaced and what do they need to explore further, change or seek clarification on as a result of what they learned? The use of learning wrappers need not be confined to exams and paper writing). Musician and scholar Jose Bowen, wrote a piece for his blog: Teaching Naked, where he described his use of cognitive wrappers to help students reflect on performance or rehearsal activities. The key is in the brevity and flexibility of the design of a wrapper. Bowen offers a 4 part model for designing a wrapper:

  • Rationale
  • Reflection
  • Comparison
  • Adjustment

Since reflection and self regulation are important aspects of learning in any self-guided learning situation, I wanted refine the learning design approach we were using for our Digital Tattoo website, and implement a modified learning wrapper for some of the video content we are curating or creating. Our goal with the site is to provide a space for learners to reflect on their own experience related to themes around privacy and online identity. We use questions as a springboard for reflection, video (or case studies) to help tell the story, and curated collections of resources to facilitate further exploration or taking action. We were inspired by the video wrapper design used for TedEd.


Since we are working in WordPress (CMS version), our wrapper was built for that environment. We chose the framework (headings):

  • Watch: obviously! leading with the video.
  • Think: a few questions in self assessment form to provoke thinking related to personal experience/reaction.
  • Explore: some curated content for wider context, further exploration.
  • Discuss: an opportunity to propose questions to encourage conversation

The coding work was done by my awesome colleague Rie Namba, with support from John Hsu. Plug-ins used include:

  • gravity forms: for the self-assessment in Think
  • display-comments plug-in shortcode: to get comments into the learning wrapper.


From Digital Tattoo:
Social Media Personalities
Privacy in the Cloud


* Learning Wrapper on the UBC Wiki: code for implementation on UBC’s CLF Theme in WP.

* plug-in shortcode for displaying comments in the wrapper: this was developed by Rie for UBC’s CLF theme in WP. Shared via GitHub

Whiteboards, round tables and a dash of humanity

OK, I should probably be sleeping right now. I’m cranky and exhausted from a long day of stringing things together that may be better left apart and solving problems that probably don’t exist. The bright spot in my day (the spot that got me wondering) was something that happened while I was listening in to the Educause webinar: Developments in Higher Education Educational Technology: The Horizon
Report in Action. Someone posted to the chat (Sam, I think) that students at his institution were most excited about rolling white boards and round tables – when surveyed about new technology use on campus. A wave of agreement swelled in the chat – and I reflected on my own campus at UBC in Vancouver – yep, it’s the white boards and round tables that students covet here as well. Gateway drugs to discussion and collaboration? (Sam’s clever question) . Mmmm, discussion and collaboration without the use of a chat room, twitter stream, tumbler, Flickr group? Don’t we need to document it, somehow? O.K. the kids are craving something. Maybe it’s a chance to talk and think out loud – with pens and drawings and without the compulsion to represent, hone their personas, hashtag, retweet, like, post and badge it all up with a big digital bow. That can be stressful.

I don’t know, but I’m reminded of something else that came up in the Educause chat – something about complication and complexity. Are we providing learning environments that encourage students to wrestle with the complexity that comes from way finding, questioning, creating, adapting, dealing with conflict and sometimes failing an attempt or two? Or are we complicating them with multiple carefully calibrated and automated assessments, sophisticated and sleek pre-packaged technologies, processes and accompanying policies (for their protection, of course)? When faced with complexity, I think we have a natural tendency to try to figure it out. But when faced with complication, the tendency shifts to want to simplify. Is that what we’re doing in the name of improving our learning environments? We’ve flipped, flexed and automated learning to the point that ( in some cases) we’ve almost excluded any unexpected, chance encounters with wild ideas that often occur around tables with a whiteboard nearby. Not everything can be reflected in an algorithm after all. Algorithms cut out the fat. They don’t account for complexity. You know, like the stuff we humans are made for.

In higher ed these days, it seems we view students as “producers”, consumers, research subjects to be analyzed, tracked and surveilled ad nauseum but do we ever just revel in the fact that they are (like us) complex and fallible human beings with a profound need to figure stuff out together around a table – with a whiteboard, maybe ?

image of person being recorded by video camera

this old learning community

Early this year, it became apparent that, as faculty were figuring out what it meant to create a flexible learning environment, many would turn to media development as a place to begin a whole series of DIY experiments in “transformation.” That meant, despite the prevailing atmosphere of competition and confusion, we, as a community of learning designers, technologists and media producers (who are accustomed to fee for service arrangements) needed to bring our collective skills to the table and figure out how to support a community needing consultation, curated/crafted resources, and inspiration. We felt like we were standing on quicksand and we needed a branch – that was the birth of the DIY Media Learning Community.

Learning communities aren’t really anything new. We have a long tradition of coming together and learning from each other – guilds as far back as the Middle Ages brought members together to exchange ideas and best practices of the day. Today’s learning networks mean that we can leverage online spaces for collaborations without the burdens of time and distance. But effective learning networks also require shifts in thinking. In a dated but succinct summary of this shift, authors Angehrn and Gibbert offer up:

The main shifts involved in the emergence of LNs are from

bureaucracies to networks,
training and development to learning, and
competitive to collaborative thinking.

Read more: Learning Networks – INTRODUCTION, BACKGROUND, Shift from Bureaucracies to Networks, Shift from Training and Development to Learning – Knowledge, Value, Lns, and Collaboration – JRank Articles

So, we decided to meet monthly in order to do three things:

  • exchange news
  • share something to get feedback on
  • create something together

We created a wiki space where we could easily collaborate on content for feeding into a website – which I created the structure for over the winter break. And we are creating in the open – so that anyone can re-use what we develop/curate.

People show up. Every month. People contribute content to the wiki (some people – this is still a bit of a hard sell). People are taking on roles (running focus groups to get feedback on the resources we are creating, trying out various tools and approaches for creating learning resources for different purposes and writing about the process). Boundaries between traditional roles and turf is breaking down just a smidge. And, it seems like there is less of an air of competition and more an intention of collaboration. People seem OK with a website that is “in development” – building as we go.

Navigating the politics of collaboration with senior management – more on that sometime later. Spoiler alert: when boundaries break down, everything shifts and new value propositions may need to be articulated.