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 on Speaking Openly UK, 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

Book Chapter Published

Just received a desk copy of Mastering Digital Librarianship for which my colleague, Julie Mitchell and I contributed a chapter last year. We wrote, case study fashion about the Digital Tattoo project that we co-lead. It is interesting that (with academic publishing), by the time the thing is published and out there in public, it’s outdated. That’s what makes blogging so satisfying – it’s published when it’s fresh. That said, we had awesome editors, Alison Mackenzie and Lindsay Martin – whose excellent suggestions contributed to the coherence of the final product.

If you’re interested, here’s the pre-print copy of our chapter: Learners and Digital Identity: The Digital Tattoo Project

Generalists in specialists’ clothing…

My colleague and friend, Novak Rogic, wrote a thought-provoking post recently, arguing the value of the generalist in the climate of rapid change and experimentation that we are embedded in at the University.

We work (teach, design, code…) in the environment of rapid and constant change (perpetual beta) and by building so many layers between the faculty member who wants to experiment and embrace change, and the developer who wants to give, hack and create change, we are actually killing the experiment and killing the change itself.

The layer he is talking about here are the “specialists” that are (currently) dominating our workforce and being assigned to projects – often without a clear role but with a very specific set of specialist driven goals to accomplish and measurements to document (time, progress, budget, etc). The problem (as I see it) is not with the people themselves in those roles (I am a learning design strategist after all) it’s with the orientation towards the work. I am not a specialist, I am a generalist – despite a job title to the contrary. I align myself with the person who wants to “give, hack, and create change” and with those who like to approach projects by divvying up the work around the table – based on what we can contribute. There are others like me who “operate at the edges, intersections and overlaps where innovation thrives”. We know a little about a lot and a lot about some things. And while my knowledge of frameworks and approaches specific to learning design may come in handy for some projects, I can easily set that aside when the more immediate need is to rapidly understand the broader context and potential impact of a particular project. As generalists, we can draw connections, translate between technologists and teachers, encourage wild ideas and wide vision and (if the stars are aligned in the right way) create an environment for true creative collaboration to flourish.

As an example, I remember a project that Novak and I worked on a number of years ago (the seed project-LEAP for the now flourishing Learning Commons) The core of it was to build a website (but really a community) where content would be aggregated, openness encouraged and students the authors. Sure, he brought his experience as a web designer and architect to the table, and I my experience with designing learning experiences, but (more often than not), we were imagining and experimenting together with collaborators, including students, most of whom who had no experience with web development or learning design. We were trying things out, working together, seeing what worked – designing on the fly. We didn’t have a web graphics expert at the table, just someone with a great design eye. We didn’t have a project manager, that role shifted and changed depending on what the focus was at the time (shifting from web design to learning design to content development to blogging to…). We won a Spencer Innovation award for that project – not because we were a committee of specialists but because we approached our work as generalists: problem solving, communicating, translating, drawing connections with other work and projects on campus and working in collaboration WITH students not FOR them – a novel idea at the time!

Despite the administrative structures that are encouraging specialist approaches and tightly managed projects, some of us (call us generalists in specialists clothing) continue to do what we can to break down the silos, work across disciplines and share what we are learning (not just what we are paid to know). And we respect the role of the true specialist when specialists are required. When I had cancer, I wanted to be treated by someone who knew about cancer – alot about cancer. But when I go to my GP feeling generally unwell, I don’t expect to be shuffled off to the MRI.