Rantflections on Politics, Pedagogy, Education & Covid-19.

Force-mapping for design narratives in CV-19 times…

As part of the design narrative for Block 3 of the Open University module on ‘Openness and Innovation’ we were asked to create a force map and then reflect. The university might wish they’d never requested such a task from me….

I duly created the force map drawing from discussions with my cohort of five (based internationally in different settings and roles), the personas they created for the project, discussions with teachers in wider contexts…Within the force map the teacher, in the end, appears a fragile and lonely figure firmly situated at the centre it all, surrounded by responsibilities and appearing easily crushed or broken. See zoomable force-map image here.

The push has been to maintain ‘business as usual’. And to an extent that has been achieved. Teachers and organisations have hastened to transfer their existing practices to digital, keep the classes running at all cost. Some have succeeded, some have not, some have been left behind in the response to the emergency. I look at my map. Is it any wonder student motivation is maybe suffering along with teacher confidence? Just look at what the teacher is dealing with. The opportunities for experimenting with best practices must be fleeting at best. I know I myself would be likely to revert to didactic methods as the easiest route while I struggled to re-organise myself, my resources and my strategies, all the while trying to absorb the constant barrage of information coming my way… I followed this thought process and took the opportunity to Google ‘Education and CV – 19’. Every single item that came up was an information notice issued either, for the attention of educators, or by educators for the attention of students. Endless lists of whats, whys and wherefores ensuring that everyone had covered all the health and safety and required information guidance. Overwhelming. And there seemed to be little if any acknowledgement of what all this means in real, on-the-ground terms. The nitty-gritty reality of it. The publicly visible response to the crisis currently taking place in education is all about covering the appropriate arses. I was audibly relieved even in my isolation to come across Maha Bali’s 28-05-20 Blog Post “Pedagogy of Care: Covid 19 Edition” https://blog.mahabali.me/educational-technology-2/pedagogy-of-care-covid-19-edition/. Someone attending to care and well worth a read…Though interestingly it’s all about caring for the students. I get it, if you feel your students are cared for everything is a bit less stressful, but still…what about that fragile figure at the centre of it all?

Not just the publicly visible response. I started thinking about this course. I’m fortunate as I’ve been put into one of two cohorts tasked to research the current situation. But the other five or so are researching the pre-set topics, such as exploring local history and reflective practice. This is how the course has been prescribed since at least 2011 (to my knowledge). Only two cohorts may petition to choose a topic of their own, lucky me got one. All groups are following the pre-ordained design narrative script. I haven’t looked yet to see if they are finding ways to make this relevant to their own work environments and the current situation, I know I would be trying my utmost. But I start to feel angry as I begin to find that many of the links provided for our project are broken, out of date and lead to nowhere. For me personally one of the most frustrating aspects of this is that two of them are to university platforms where I’d been encouraged to do a lot of work on a previous module, now apparently inaccessible. But, worse than that – people, real teachers dealing with the current crisis, are trying also to complete this project. The broken links are just one indication of the inadequacies of the university and I start to feel really angry. Why haven’t they been able to respond to this emergency, like the teachers and education leaders they prepare have had to? Why are they sticking to a copy and paste of instructions that would be out of date at the best of times with their broken links? Why have they not been able to seize the opportunity to support their students to access the vast networks they must have available to them in order to find and generate relevant, high quality research dedicated to the global need? Why not?  Why? To me, it seems to epitomise everything that is wrong with education, especially HE as that is where it is all supposed to lead. Ponderous, laden down by tradition and investment in the establishment, painfully, and in this instance ludicrously unable to respond appropriately to social need.

I’m about to finish my ‘rantflection’ when a dangerous thought flits across my mind…I wonder what the links are between countries ranked as successful educationally and countries who have managed to control the CV-19 pandemic in a reasonable manner? I can’t help but do a quick search. Immediately Google tells me that according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)  (https://www.undispatch.com/here-is-how-countries-rank-in-education/) South Korea is leading the field in terms of ‘highly educated young adults’. I think we already know the South-Korea Coronavirus story…South Korea have been focusing their education for years now on supporting their students to operate effectively within their context and culture. That has included fully embracing technology at all levels of education, arguably at cost to other more creative arts, but they’ve determined what their citizens need in order to survive and are actively and apparently efficiently pursuing this. Close to South Korea in the education stats sits Finland. They’ve taken a totally different approach and recently became the first country to abolish all subjects at school – also in an effort to prepare its students for the unknowable future: https://curiousmindmagazine.com/goodbye-subjects-finland-taking-revolution-education-step/?fbclid=IwAR3w5I9Ybk5aoiY2yyQS7sPA8VaRqVofBOs4MY-xfYjfr2NKa_kCW20zzSQ . I haven’t looked up the Finnish coronavirus stats but somehow I don’t think I need to.

https://data.oecd.org/eduatt/adult-education-level.htm#indicator-chart Accessed 29-05-20

The sluggish response of our educational power structures…Not just the willingness to subject their (paying) educators to shamefully outdated resources, practices and pedagogies but to insist they adhere to a design narrative created ten years ago and in no way relevant to the current situation. A narrative in no way designed to help them to cope with the current situation, because the establishments themselves have no precedent for knowing how to cope and dare not step outside the known for fear of breaking with the traditions that are long since no longer relevant.

I see my fellow students struggling and lashing out in frustration. Tempers frayed and too many balls in the air. The course that should be helping to manage this situation hampering instead. What I guess I want to say is: dare to be a design narrative rebel. Write your own based on what you’re having to deal with now, and how you’d like the landscape that you and your responsibilities have to inhabit in the future. This education ‘machine’ that is causing you so much grief, find a way to use its own tools to create a narrative that works for you and those for whom you feel responsible. A narrative that helps you to exist within a pedagogy of care that encompasses all parties, including yourself. Be kind to yourselves.

Whispers of Despair from the Forgotten Frontline?

Image by Oriel Butcher

Unless you’ve been a teacher, or lived with one, it’s hard to imagine how much they actually care about their students. Apart from the occasional anomaly I think that applies across the full range of what could loosely be covered by the word ‘teacher’: from pre-school to doctorate level and everything in between. Questions of how best to help their students keeps a teacher awake at night. Preparing materials and marking work consumes your evenings and weekends, dealing with statutory and administrative requirements…sometimes parents, guardians, social services, probation services, deprivation…It all adds stress to a teacher’s working day, but they care deeply and a small part of them is invested in every single student…Every student, whoever they become, is part of our future. Teachers know that and they dedicate their energy to those futures in the best ways each knows how. Over years they hone their skills and available resources within their setting. And then almost overnight it all went on line…

The shift to online happened almost silently to the public eye and ear, as organisations rallied internally to rise to the challenge as quickly as possible. Emails and online-meetings flew back and forth between management, colleagues, admin, students…a few weeks of mayhem, then business as usual. Except of course it’s nothing like usual and the silence is almost ominous.

First, lists of resources began to appear, hastily compiled and shared on social media. Dave Cormier’s collection from across his network is the most comprehensive I’ve found so far: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Rz4qjMRLA9dVx2ExxTwBg1FtXMVh5ruQMQTs4eG3_oc/edit

Then the almost silent, fleeting whimpers of pain started to appear as excellent teachers and educators suffered multitudes of difficulties while trying to continue serving their students. The result: stress, self-doubt and even self-hate. This morning I read a Tweet from an educator I deeply respect along the lines of “Please God help me to pass today without screaming at my child”. My heart broke for her as my respect grew. Respect for her honesty. Another educator Tweeting in a cry of despair said “I waited ten years to have my daughter and now I just want her to shut up so I can get on and sort my students out.”.

Everything has changed for teachers and their students, and now they are in limbo again waiting for the next directive that will impact their entire lives. And as with every single one of the policy changes they’ve had to deal with over the years, they’ll do their best to do what they’re told, or make it up when they’re not told, with just occasional whimpers escaping.

Stepping back from the stress

I’m in the slightly strange position of not being directly involved in any of it but feeling totally invested. Having spent the 10 years up to 2016 more or less full time as a teacher educator and then a further two mentoring teacher educators, I cannot help but think about all of them right now. My ‘thing’ from the beginning was integrating digital technologies, leveraging the Web 2.0 applications and trying to ensure that teachers and organisations were adequately equipped for the inevitable future. I worked with many cross and multi-sector organisations on different Professional Development programmes, almost all based around effective use of technology. It was a very, very slow and surprisingly difficult process with many wide-ranging barriers. As we are all now painfully aware, embedding of digital skills and technology in education has not progressed quite as much as it might have. Innovation needs a driving force to create change. We have that now, big time. At first it was really hard for me to watch from such a distanced perspective. My instinct was to get in there and help where I could, but realistically I can’t just now, so I observe with a growing pride in the profession as they just get on with it. They don’t even get any clapping. But there’s also a growing worry as the whimpers begin to emerge…

And I remember, there’s value in being outside and able to look at the bigger picture, not just my own corner which is where I’d inevitably be (along with everyone else) if I was actually teaching….With four international colleagues on my Open University MA in Online and Distance Education, we are tasked to create a website. The focus of the task is the design process, but the content of our site is ‘Providing teacher support in response to CV-19’. Our group meets and discusses how we’ll address the challenge and we find that actually, despite being based in England, Wales, Ireland, Brazil and Malawi, we are all at base, finding the same problems. I root around a bit and discover, unsurprisingly, that there’s little research out there as yet so it seems the obvious thing to do is to collect our own. I’ve been collecting my own data for many years, a habit I think I started as a means of tracking and evidencing outcomes when piloting new ideas and initiatives so I was a little surprised that others don’t seem to have done the same. There is another cohort working on the same topic as us. I was surprised to read that as there was no research available specifically relevant to the current situation, they plan to draw on previous research. That led me to wonder why large, well-networked organisations haven’t implemented some wide-scale, snapshot research themselves? With a sigh I return to typing out my survey and surmise that it sums up the lumbering, slow moving education system that has, until now, viewed technology as an optional add-in. A system whereby changes have to be justified through longitudinal studies or cabinet changes – both outpaced by the exponential advances in technology and how we use it and access learning.

I’ve been surprised by the responses so far. Maybe not surprising is that 80% of teachers say they’ve suffered a lot or some stress as a result of going online. It’s interesting that 80% also identify student lack of motivation as a cause of most student difficulty. I’ve also been surprised by comments that answering the questions helped to prompt personal reflection about practice and the teachers and students under someone’s responsibility – bonus! Comments expressing interest and surprise that I’m inviting participatory research. How else to find out I wonder? If I was teaching I’d be questioning my students, my colleagues and my professional networks constantly, trying to gauge the route to take in this unprecedented situation…Then I remember – if I was teaching I would be consumed by keeping my little little bit of world going and exhausted by my efforts. Trying to think outside of even more boxes is just too much to ask so maybe that’s where already being on the outside can help.

I’m excited about being part of this project. For me it’s not about the university outcome of the design process. It’s about actually understanding what’s going on for educators and their students in different contexts around the globe and seeking ways to support them now and into the future.

Be kind to yourselves

That’s become a sort of motto within our little cohort. It’s impossible to be kind to everyone else in your life if you’re not kind to yourself and just because you’re dealing with a world of change doesn’t mean you’re a bad teacher, or a bad parent, or a bad manager. Find the moments, however brief, to step back from the stress and let your mind wander. Dwell on the successes, the moments of elation and the all the solutions to problems you’ve found so far.

When I wrote the survey it was with the thinking that responses would help to inform future, more focused questions. Immediately I want to drill down much deeper into the question of motivation. Ideally I’d like access to students as well to get their perspectives. Please share (and complete) if you find yourself reading this. the survey

Connectivism, Dromology and the Compression of Time

Dromospheric pollution on the information superhighway

“From dromological perspectives puzzling paradoxes emerge. The massive proliferation of information leads not necessarily to greater understanding but potentially to disinformation and confusion. ‘The sudden multiplication of “points of view”’ heralds not diversity and difference but media-controlled conformity”

Land, 2006

Dromology. I like the shapes the mouth has to form to produce the word. There’s something about how it’s all centred towards the front of the mouth that I like, and the particular way the combined movements of the jaw, lips and tongue control the escapes of air as the rhythm of the syllables are uttered. Especially if you say it slowly…But that’s about the only likeable thing about it, and, it isn’t about slowness. In fact, in a dromotological landscape stopping to consider how a single word feels as it is spoken, and other such contemplations, could become obsolete. Unless perhaps you’ve read it in a meme or seen it on a GIF. I’ll explain more about dromology in a minute.

On my MA this week we’ve been looking at ‘connectivism’. It’s presented as a contender for a learning theory relevant to harnessing opportunities afforded by 21st century technology. The original proponent was George Siemens (2004). An early guru of the still rapidly emerging online learning scene. Siemens talks about the ‘half life of knowledge’. That is to say, how quickly knowledge becomes obsolete. Siemens quotes Gonzalez (2004) as putting it at a 10 year half life. He goes on to quote the American Society of Training and Documentation in saying that “Half of what is known today was not known 10 years ago. The amount of knowledge in the world has doubled in the past 10 years and is doubling every 18 months”.

That was in 2004. It’s hard to imagine what that stat would be now, although, as I write this out my attention is caught by the use of the word ‘knowledge’. I can’t help but wonder if it should read instead ‘access to knowledge’. Or perhaps better still ‘access to information’?

Siemens saw that a new form of learning was already emerging and sought to establish a framework under which this could be defined and developed. This became connectivity. I like that connectivity is based on principles drawn from chaos, network, complexity and self-organisation theories. There’s also a fair sprinkling of constructivism in there. The learner as central in the process of decision making, choosing what to learn and valuing diversity all sound great. However, the shifting reality of information acceleration and access to wider communities places the emphasis on the principle that “Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known” (p.5). In other words, the quest is on to acquire more information as fast as possible. A guiding principle for this is that focus is on how to access and filter information in order to remain current and up-to-date. This is described as ‘currency’ within connectivism. But how can those judgements be made if what you know already is given no value?

Decisions are based on rapidly shifting foundations. This currency is achieved, in Siemens’ theory, by networking. Connecting to a series of learning communities seen as ‘nodes’ or information sources, which can also be ‘non-human’. Siemens opens his conclusion with the somewhat concerning statement that “The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe. Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today”.

What damage is it likely to cause I wonder if we are enticed to dissociate our present understanding and interpretations of the world around us in favour of an unknown coming our way? Be prepared by all means, but by looking away from the present and past surely we are relinquishing control of our futures? Arguments around connectionism abound both among my course colleagues in our forums, and in online debate. There’s a particularly good one to be read at the end of the Downs 2007 post What Connectivism Is. All of these debates seem to centre on the theoretical questions of whether or not connectivism can be considered a ‘learning theory’. I think this is a red herring and quite irrelevant in the scheme of things. It could perhaps better be described as a prediction of what learning would (has) become left to its own devices while the academic world ponder the theoretical frameworks.

As traditional academic establishments grapple with how to best exploit the constantly emerging phenomena that is technology, informal learning has exploded as we are bombarded with information. The incessant dings, buzzes, pings, chimes and etc that we now live with are testimony to our connectedness. Not only do these connections all too frequently distract us from the here and now, in order for us to deal with the continual input of information highly complex ideas have been reduced down to simplistic memes or GIFs. Siemens’ ‘nodes’ have self-formed throughout the connected world but the world has no foundation of knowing how to deal with it. Knowledge has become information and multitudes of connections based on human desire for different forms of capital and self-gratification have been formed. Collectively humanity doesn’t have the tools needed to filter the vast quantities of information. Nor does it have the resilience to manage the number of connections. Or grasp the meanings and implications of messages originating across cultures from such a diversity of experience and background. When such vast amounts of our time is consumed making and managing connections in order to process ever increasing quantities of information, where are we to find the time to delve beyond the superficiality of instantaneity? To think beyond the oversimplified meme? Where does the space for sense-making come in? My mind can’t help but wander back to the question of dromology…

Dromos is from the Greek meaning ‘race’ or ‘running’. The term “Dromology relates to an idea argued by theorists such as Virilio (1999; 2000) and Purser (2000). They say that one of the biggest challenges and ‘hazards’ of our era is the inexorable acceleration and compression of time as a direct result of our digitally connected lives, Land (2006, p. 1) describes it as “a defining characteristic of our society”

Slightly concerning?

The theory of Dromology centres around the idea of compression of time and the associated impacts (as a result of technology)…

Virilio talks about a shifting of time perception from ‘chronological’ time, marked out by a horizontal trajectory of ‘before during and after’ to which humanity has previously related, to a new ‘chronoscopic’ phase of instantaneity where time is ‘vertically stacked’ and carries a sense of immediacy. Land (2006) argues that this immediacy leads to “the erosion of deliberation.” He quotes Virilio:

For Virilio new digital technologies are the primary means of instantiating a globalised or, in his preferred phrase, a globalitarian reality. Drawing on Halévy’s (1948) Essai sur l’accelération de l’histoire, he argues that in this transformed reality citizens give up their understanding of the broader political context in which they have their being and in which their lives are conducted”

Land states that “From dromological perspectives puzzling paradoxes emerge. The massive proliferation of information leads not necessarily to greater understanding but potentially to disinformation and confusion. ‘The sudden multiplication of “points of view”’ heralds not diversity and difference but media-controlled conformity”

I wonder how he had this foresight in 2000 but it has sobering implications from where we’re sitting right now in history.

Interestingly, rather than seeing the online setting as the democratising platform its supporters promote, Virilio goes on to argue that digital environments discredit the value of action in the name of interaction, and that interaction is more of a ‘reactivity’. In total contrast to Siemens’ view he cites this as “eroding difference and diversity, and removing human prioritising and agency.”

Land follows this with Eriksen’s

Six dysfunctional effects within an informational society:

  • speed is an addictive drug
  • speed leads to simplification
  • speed creates assembly line (Taylorist) effects
  • speed leads to a loss of precision
  • speed demands space (filling in all the available gaps in the lives of others)
  • speed is contagious – when experienced in one domain the desire for speed tends to spread to new domains.
  • gains and losses tend to equal each other out so that increased speed does not necessarily even lead to greater efficiency.

In accordance with these effects, or principles, duration and continuity lose out whilst spontaneity and innovation (per se) win. Everything becomes, in principle, just as important as anything else and, as in Virilio’s observation, distance becomes bracketed. “

(Eriksen, 2001)

Purser further links this to the idea of our collective perceptions and sensibilities having been shaped by the evolution of communication media throughout history. Mostly this has been slow moving, bound by the realities of geographic space and the media of the time following a ‘before, during and after’ chronologic time pattern. McLuhan’s (1977) “The medium is the message” springs to mind – whereby the medium itself constructs a message that is disseminated into society. Similarly to Siemens, McLuhan believes that the medium is more important than the message itself. But, if we don’t understand the medium how can we possibly understand the message, much less begin to frame it? The current mass flow of information, the instantaneity of our current medium…what is the message being sent and how do we address this within society and learning?

There are concerns over a number of “post-modern forms of malaise” brought on by the shift from chronological to chronoscopic time, where instantaneous consumption and production are the rulers. “The shift from chronological to chronoscopic time involves a radical change in temporal orientation, and the very means by which we make sense of our lives. Chronoscopic time signals an intense compression. The extensive time of history, chronology, and narrative sequence implodes into a concern and fixation with the real-time instant. What used to comprise a narrative history—sense-making based on a knowledge of the past, present and future–contracts into the buzz of a flickering present.” (Land)

Speed has always equalled power and Virilio (1999) points out that today nearly all technologies are operating at the speed of light, no more ‘before during and after’ as it all becomes present. If we are to take Virilio’s (1999, p.15) premise that “Speed is power itself” does that make us all into superheroes? No, because although Erikson (2001) argues that fast time will always drive out slow time and like Virilio points out that our history has been based on acceleration, in my view we haven’t evolved fast enough to cope with the current speed of change, or not cope well at least. The problem is that thanks to having speed of light communication at our fingertips we might feel like superheroes but we aren’t. And there lies the disconnect.

Purser in “The Coming Crisis in Real-Time Environments: A Dromological Analysis” (2000) looks at how technology is shifting us from chronological time towards chronoscopic time and the impacts it can have.

“The Coming Crisis in Real-Time Environments: A Dromological Analysis” Purser, 2000

There is much here for us to be mindful of both as educators and as part of society as we see the effects of dromology being enacted. How do we then harness the enormous potential offered by modern technologies without allowing the Information Super-Highway to run us into a state of crisis? I do prefer the somewhat slower rhizome based learning eco-system described by Cormier, yet still the learner is fully adrift. Engestrom’s Intentional Enquiry goes some way towards addressing that, but to me the contradiction seems to be that you should find these hubs in which you can learn and contribute to learning but are essentially given no framework to support the decision making process. It’s altogether too easy for many to become lost.

As a student I don’t want to be told how I should learn. For example, I resent being ‘told’ to blog. As far as I can tell that is just one way of promoting the connectivist structure. One that has been latched onto by the academic community, but may not be my preferred way. I’m always lagging behind. Once I get stuck into something I want to get right in there, look at it from different perspectives, sit and contemplate it… and understand it. Is that so wrong? But what with the blogging, the forum discussions, the building connections and the next topic appearing on the syllabus horizon there is little opportunity for this to happen. We are asked to engage briefly then move on with little time to follow up or actually to really explore a subject in all its actual connectedness. So busy we are in the fast paced pursuit of fresh knowledge. It feels like study is in some ways simply promoting the ‘magazine mentality’ of fleeting, surface-scraping information that we then re-label as knowledge.

What exactly then are our responsibilities as educators? Nearly two decades have passed since technology as we now know it started to emerge as an unavoidable feature of our lives yet we are still trying to figure this out. Surely it’s time we got a grip on ourselves and start looking at what is actually here now instead of trying to re-imagine and mould it into a future that will only continue to morph and change to its own rhythms regardless? Would it not instead be more useful to engage in a series of activities designed to support the learner through a thorough exploration of the options available, the types of connections and situations that might be encountered and how to negotiate these and seek out the most useful experiences? An opportunity, for example, to co-create with course colleagues and tutors a framework of parameters drawn from personal experiences on how to deal with shifting realities, which could then be passed on to our own future learners? How to filter information, make the right decisions and choices and how to capture these processes? How to actually respond to evolving experiences not simply engaging in ploughing on through an out of date pre-determined syllabus regardless of what is occurring in the world around you? Why are we still bickering over learning theories and who is right or wrong when it’s been long acknowledged that every person will learn differently and will learn different things in a variety of ways depending on the subject or skill? Why are we not just supporting each learner to understand how to best achieve that for themselves? If formal education is to survive, should it’s aim become to support students to be better self-directed learners? Effective self/directed learning doesn’t mean just letting go of our students and seeing what happens. It means understanding who can be ‘let go’, when and how. What scaffolding they might need to help them on their way. It might also mean helping our students to find a balance. A point where they can pull back from the power rush kick provided by operating at the speed of light and back into chronological time. Back into a time frame away from instantaneity, where they can learn to appreciate the sensations created by a word being uttered and other similar delights.


Downes, S. (2007) WHAT CONNECTIVISM IS, Half An Hour, [Online]. Available at https://halfanhour.blogspot.com/2007/02/what-connectivism-is.html (Accessed 18 April 2020).

Kop, R. and Hill, A. (2008) Connectivism: Learning theory of the future or vestige of the past?, The International Review Of Research In Open And Distributed Learning, vol. 9, no. 3, [Online]. Available at http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/523 (Accessed 18 April 2020).

Land, R. (2006) Networked Learning And The Politics Of Speed: A Dromological Perspective, Glasgow, University of Strathclyde [Online]. Available at http://www.networkedlearningconference.org.uk/past/nlc2006/abstracts/pdfs/P16%20Land.pdf (Accessed 16 March 2017).

Nerdwriter1 (2015) The Medium Is The Message, [Online]. Available at https://youtu.be/gCr2binb4Fs (Accessed 18 April 2020).

Purser, R. (2000) The Coming Crisis In Real-Time Environments:  A Dromological Analysis, San Francisco, [Online]. Available at http://online.sfsu.edu/rpurser/revised/pages/DROMOLOGY.htm (Accessed 15 March 2017).

Siemens, G. (2005) Http://Www.Elearnspace.Org/Articles/Connectivism.Htm, ITDL.org.

Virilio, P. (1989) WAR AND CINEMA The Logistics Of Perception, London & New York, Verso [Online]. Available at https://www.academia.edu/9698260/WAR_AND_CINEMA_The_Logistics_of_Perception_PAUL_VIRILIO_Translated_by_Patrick_Camiller (Accessed 15 March 2017).

Revisiting Second Life for Education – Ten Years On…

Cyber Explorations and Adventures of the Learning kind!

It’s a pretty lonely place, at least on the Open University ‘Deep Think’ Island and the University of Southern Queensland’s ‘Terra Incognita’, and…well, pretty much everywhere else I went!

Screenshot 2020-02-06 at 19.50.10

Seely Brown and Adler’s 2008 paper “Minds on fire: open education, the long tail and learning 2.0.” provided quite a blast from the past – it was published at just about the time I was co-opted into teacher training and starting to realise that technology wasn’t going away. The article touches on many of the things that were firing me up at the time. Ideas on ‘Situated Learning’, Openness, collaboration, learner generated content and democratisation of learning. To be an effective teacher and to help nurture future teachers technology was obviously something that needed to be mastered, and quickly. Fuelled by a highly motivational mix of fear and excitement I plunged right in at the very deep end. The excitement stemmed from a growing awareness of all the emerging web2.0 tools and their world changing potential. The fear came from my own total lack of skills and the more and more frequent appearance of articles about Virtual Worlds and Environments such as Second Life potentially becoming the learning places of the future. I didn’t even own a Smart phone at the time!

Second Life in 2008

So, having purchased a cute little white Macbook and self taught the basic skills I ventured into Second Life. It wasn’t a happy experience. I stumbled about randomly, mostly with arms above my head as that’s how they somehow ended up and I had no idea how to get them down. When I lost all my clothes and couldn’t replace them I abandoned my avatar, naked and arms held high in some unknown location having never actually found one of these much written about learning spaces.

Second Life in 2020

So, having just read Seely Brown and Adler’s now dated article I decided to venture back and have a look for myself before delving into any research that’s been produced since. Pleased to say it was a somewhat happier experience in terms of navigating and managing to move the avatar around, though not much more successful in my mission to discover learning places than 10 years ago.

Welcome Hall

I didn’t hang around long in the ‘Welcome Hall’. Just long enough to change my avatar and figure out some basic manoeuvres – the Welcome Hall leads you through a series of tutorials and was full of ‘new arrivals’ all fairly disorientated but I was keen to see what sort of education spaces I could discover. Seely Brown and Adler talk about the University of Southern Queensland’s ‘Terra Incognita’, so I set off there first…Disappointment and some initial concerns about my skills when I found myself unable to get there. I was later able to find out why (see below in the research section) but in the meantime…

University of Southern Queensland’s “Terra Incognita” appears to have been demolished!

I decided to extend my cyber adventure and see what, if anything, I could find. The obvious place to start being the Open University. A number of locations came up in my search, but most were course specific. At the top of the pile sat ‘Deep Think’ inviting any staff or students to join. Now this looked promising…

Things appeared even more encouraging when shortly after arrival a welcome message popped up inviting me to to join the group by emailling a real person, which I did immediately before setting off for a look around.

Someone has clearly spent a lot of time building Deep Think with carefully landscaped spaces populated with interesting looking objects inviting interaction almost everywhere you look. ‘Anonymous Reflection’ boxes were dotted around suggesting you post your thoughts. I was unable to make anything happen, reflect or to get any info. There was no one else to be seen despite the multiple styles of ‘lecture halls’ and ‘study areas’ available, not to mention the enticingly named ‘Path to Enlightenment’. I decided my inability to access any learning must be because I wasn’t yet a member, but the total lack of any other avatar people seemed odd…

…And then I found the ‘Postmaster undeliverable’ response to my optimistic email. It seems that whatever might once have taken place in ‘Deep Think’ was no longer in action. I felt quite disappointed by now and although there appeared to be a number of course specific OU ‘islands’ after another disappointing visit to an English language class I left to try some online research regarding developments without stopping to see if any of the other courses are still live.

More Recent Research on Learning in Second Life

Considering the fanfare given to this platform and others of its ilk back in the first decade of this century, there seems to be remarkably little follow through. Follow up research on educational initiatives in SL is quite hard to come by. For Deep Think I was only able to find an 2010 outline of the project (http://oro.open.ac.uk/21641/1/ICALT2010submission-poster.pdf (accessed 06-02-20)) An early evaluation taken from an introductory tour for tutors says feedback is positive. They liked the “visual design of deep|think and the important aspects of usability in terms of being user friendly and well signposted to aid navigation. A wide range of activities could be envisaged by the tutors in deep|think, from standard lectures to more social events.”

I have been unable to locate anything that might explain why it has been left to fossilise but perhaps the next sentences are somewhat telling: “their
first consideration seemed to be the migration of standard lecture format activity into the 3D world…”
It’s my opinion that the continued difficulties that many teachers seem to have adapting their delivery methodologies and resources to match the medium have had a significant impact on effective use of technology and helping students to build their skills. They also raised doubts about the students’ skills levels in using Second Life and the additional load this would cause. This is still an oft cited problem but I think stems from a fear that their own skills are inadequate to support a student who needs help.

Similarly, with the University of Southern Queensland project, I have been unable to locate any further research. However, there is still a partial thread online that says the site was shut down in 2014 http://sled.577505.n2.nabble.com/Terra-incognita-will-go-offline-tomorrow-9th-Jan-td7582536.html. It appears it was being maintained by a single ‘owner’ who could no longer sustain the responsibilities.

Clearly at that time there were great aspirations that SL should fill some gap in education and perhaps for some it is still something to aspire to. There is plenty of more general research available as well as guidance on how to set up and manage learning in virtual worlds (see bibliography). The SL Education Wiki lists a number of different universities and learning centres who all appear to be thriving, though I didn’t try to visit any others. I had also thought it might be a place where language learning would flourish but was unable to find much going on in that department either and was surprised not to find a British Council space there. I did venture into one supposed language group that looked innocuous enough but having only just registered was kicked out for being too young!

Looking at the more recent research, and the lists of learning spaces available on the Wiki, it seems to perhaps be identifying as a good space for accessible learning. There is still quite a bit written promoting situated learning in Virtual Worlds and SL themselves are certainly still promoting their platform and claiming a ‘Premium User Base’ of over 60,000. But from my brief foray it’s hard to imagine anything very much useful happening there or anywhere being particularly busy. It’s possible the spaces I visited were never intended to be enduring, but I don’t think so. It’s also possible that if a tutor specifies a meet up in SL an area might become busy at certain times for focussed activity. But it certainly isn’t the melting pot of activity that I’d imagined it might be by now, there’s no sign of people hanging out and learning, in fact, no sign of any people anywhere except in the Welcome Hall.

https://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2019/05/sl-premium-subscriptions-linden-lab-tyche.html (accessed 07-02-20)

Reflections on my cyber explorations

Second Life is a pretty amazing set-up. First up, it’s definitely pretty with it’s fantastic architecture, trees wafting in unfelt breezes laden with cherry blossom and peacocks strutting their stuff in the gardens that overlook idyllic looking seascapes, birds tweeting from the bushes and flying overhead…I stopped and hung out with a peacock for awhile, trying to figure out if anything I did had a reaction from it, I don’t think so – it could walk right through me! I’ve never played a video game so have nothing really to compare but it looks like a fairly complex and cleverly built software and easy enough to follow the tutorials and figure out how to get around. I guess for some, another positive could be the anonymity, the possibility to be whoever you want, although I’m not sure that would work in an HE group setting.

Although not specifically related to education, I did find Bloustein and Wood’s “Visualising disability and activism in Second Life” interesting. It has, according to their findings, become a place where identity can be explored and social activism can be nurtured

“In sum, identifying as having a disability in both SL (as an avatar) and in off-screen lives is for many of our respondents both a significant personal and political statement. In SL it can also be interpreted as a public statement of activism. It is a statement about identity and about the real or authentic self. For many of our respondents this also increased their claim to personal integrity. Criteria for belonging and acceptance, even of oneself, rely on the judgement of others for one’s sense of self is always ‘socially mediated’ (Gilpin et al., 2010: 260).”

So why doesn’t it appear to working as the educational utopia it was thought to become? Perhaps actually it is, just not at the same times and places as me. It was a bit of a whirlwind visit so more time researching and looking around to see if anything was missed would be helpful, but somehow I don’t think so. I’m also not sure I really want to. Although I’m a fan of Seely Brown and his ideas around Participation and Situated Cognition, I think stretching into Virtual Worlds is perhaps still a step too far. Those Deep think tutors were possibly right.

I also felt irritated by the suggestion that the whole world should need or want to access Higher Education (p.18). This seems to be in contradiction to much that the web2.0 resources can bring to educating the world. A further example of being so entrenched in current models it’s impossible to look beyond.

Personally, I also feel a resentment and slowly rising panic at the ever increasing amount of time we are expected to spend online. I work on a computer all day. My friends and family and family’s carers (two different lots, one of which also comes with their own App I have to monitor) expect me to keep in touch by text, email or messenger and respond within a reasonable time frame when they contact me. I’ve signed up for a distance MA so that brings a heavy load more of screen time just in reading, forums and writing assignments. Now we are required, on top of the forums, to blog and read each other’s blogs as well. If anyone dared to ask me at this point to go and hang out in study groups on Second Life as well I might be tempted to commit a virtual tantrum! Seely Brown (p.30) tells us that the world is speeding up and we need to speed up with it.

“In the twentieth century, the dominant approach to education focused on helping students to build stocks of knowledge and cognitive skills that could be deployed later in appropriate situations. This approach to education worked well in a relatively stable, slowly changing world in which careers typically lasted a lifetime. But the twenty-first century is quite different. The world is evolving at an increasing pace. When jobs change, as they are likely to do, we can no longer expect to send someone back to school to be retrained. By the time that happens, the domain of inquiry is likely to have morphed yet again.”

He’s right, we need to adapt but it seems that technology is speeding things up beyond a level that we are able to cope with and it’s possible that spending time learning in a virtual world such as Second Life is just one overload too many for the majority. Perhaps we’re thankfully not yet ready to slip fully into an unreal world when we’re still trying to make sense of the rapid changes in our real one, and so without outright rejecting it, uptake on Second Life hasn’t been what was anticipated. Perhaps it’s our addictions to other forms of Social Media that simply don’t allow time for another distraction?

Purser in “The Coming Crisis in Real-Time Environments: A Dromological Analysis” (2000) looks at how technology is shifting us from chronological time towards chronoscopic time and the impacts it can have. I feel that is a whole new post but will leave you with this thought.

“The Coming Crisis in Real-Time Environments: A Dromological Analysis” Purser, 2000


Bloustien, G. and Wood, D. (2015) Visualising disability and activism inSecond Life, Current Sociology, vol. 64, no. 1, pp. 101-121.

Gregory, S., Lee, M., Dalgano, B. and Tynan, B. (2016) LEARNING IN VIRTUAL WORLDS RESEARCH AND APPLICATIONS, Edmonton, AU Press, Athabasca University [Online]. Available at http://www.aupress.ca/books/120254/ebook/99Z_Gregory_et_al_2016-Learning_in_Virtual_Worlds.pdf (Accessed 6 February 2020).

James, W. (2019) The Economics of SL, New World Notes, [Online]. Available at https://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2019/05/sl-premium-subscriptions-linden-lab-tyche.html (Accessed 7 February 2020).

Kafai, Y. and Dede, C. (2014) “Learning in Virtual Worlds”, 2nd ed. in Cambridge Handbook Of The Learning Sciences, Second Edition, [Online]. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305426213_Learning_in_Virtual_Worlds/citation/download (Accessed 6 February 2020).

Land, R. (2006) Networked Learning And The Politics Of Speed: A Dromological Perspective., Glasgow, University of Strathclyde [Online]. Available at http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= (Accessed 7 February 2020).

Purser, R. (2000) The Coming Crisis In Real-Time Environments: A Dromological Analysis, San Francisco, San Francisco State University [Online]. Available at http://online.sfsu.edu/rpurser/revised/pages/DROMOLOGY.htm (Accessed 6 February 2020).

Second Life Education – Second Life Wiki (2020) Wiki.Secondlife.Com, [Online]. Available at http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/Second_Life_Education (Accessed 6 February 2020).

Seely Brown, J. and Adler, R. (2008) Minds On Fire: Open Education, The Long Tail, And Learning 2.0, Educause Review [Online]. Available at https://er.educause.edu/articles/2008/1/minds-on-fire-open-education-the-long-tail-and-learning-20 (Accessed 7 February 2020).

Disruptive Technologies and the more Democratic Future of Education?

Nearly every education based report I read these days is reiterating in some form the message that change is needed. There is general acceptance that these changes need to support students to be able to function effectively in an unknown and rapidly changing world. The life and work skills being defined as ‘necessary’ are evolving nearly as fast as everything else. Except it seems, our policy makers, educational institutions and even our teachers, who for the most part simply don’t know how to respond and certainly not as quickly as circumstances appear to require.

In journalist Adi Bloom’s TES article “Ofsted wants a change in the law so it can inspect multi-academy trusts”  Luke Tryl, Ofsted’s director of corporate strategy, is quoted as having said: “There has been a huge amount of change in the structure of education, and actually inspection legislation hasn’t kept pace with some of the changes”. The context for this comment was with reference to multi-academy trusts but can be equally applied across many areas of education today.

I was recently asked how OFSTED inspect 100% online delivery. I couldn’t answer and neither can anyone else I’ve asked. It’s conceivable that they will simply be able to extrapolate the existing Common Inspection Framework (CIC) to cover online delivery, but how effective is this? The updated ‘Further education and skills inspection handbook’, in use from September 2017, contains scant mention of online delivery. In fact, other than referring to their own surveys and safety online, it is mentioned just once on p. 45: “how well learners attend learning sessions and/or work regularly and punctually, including through participation in any distance learning activities, such as online learning and the use of virtual learning environments“. I would suggest that in light of the exponential proliferation of on-line education somewhat more than this is required.

I suspect though that things are beginning to overtake the education establishment faster than any care to admit. I’ve been reading reports urging change since around 2006, when the wonders of Web 2.0 first began to make their way into our classrooms. While the changes suggested, by researchers; case studies; forward thinkers; have remained fairly consistent, the urgency behind them has increased almost to panic level. The message is now closer to: ‘change or become extinct’.

I also suspect that in large part this paralysis in terms of the bigger shifts has as much to do with assessment as holding onto old habits. It’s all very well to suggest that students need new ‘collaborative’ skills or to choose their own learning paths, but how on earth do you keep control of this? How do you assess it, especially if they are all busy developing their collaborative skills in a whole host of new ways that aren’t necessarily constrained to the classroom? And how do you inspect organisations where this happens?

IMG_1779 (1)
  Stuck in the assessment equation? How to remove bricks without the wall crumbling?

Ok, the establishment is taking some steps to try and address these questions but in my opinion they are way too small and way too slow. Just take a look at the government’s proudly announced plan to introduce new “T Levels”. Julia Belgutay‘s TES article “First T levels subjects announced” (11th October 2017) quotes Justine Greening, Education Secretary, as having said the “government was transforming technical education in this country, developing home-grown talent so that Britain’s young people have the world-class skills and knowledge that employers need”. 

Have a closer look at the proposed timeline. Really? I fear that by the time this is implemented these will be obsolete.

The government’s plan for T levels:

•        2020 – three pathways delivered by a small number of providers

–        childcare and education (education pathway)

–        digital (software applications design pathway)

–        construction (building, services, engineering pathway)

•        2021 – all pathways from the first six “priority routes” delivered by selected providers

–        legal, finance, accounting (full route)

–        childcare and education (full route)

–        digital (full route)

–        construction (full route)

–        engineering and manufacturing (full route)

–        health and science (full route)

•        2022 – all pathways from all routes available to be delivered by providers that want to/are able

–        hair and beauty (full route)

–        agriculture, environment and animal care (full route)

–        business and administration (full route)

–        catering and hospitality (full route)

–        creative design (full route)

•        2024 – vast majority of providers offering T levels

What does Blockchain have to do with education?

IMG_0026 (2)
Blockchain is like a huge networked ledger – curated by the world and unchangeable.

Perhaps it’s time that we all really start to take on board the fact that the internet is no longer the disruptor in education, we’ve missed that one, too slow, it’s been around for 30 years now after all. Time for another disruption and this time it could be one that actually does lead to the extinction of education as we know it. Unless of course we educators figure out how to harness it and adapt our systems, structures, assessment processes, organisational cultures, methodologies and pretty much everything else.

I’m guessing that disruption will come in the form of Blockchain or something similar that democratises ownership of, well, pretty much everything. If the world can store open but unalterable records of every transaction, then power is shifted dramatically and could bypass the need for the traditional gatekeepers. If, for example, students collaborating in the common room or canteen, via online chat, through Web 2.0 platforms, their VR headsets or IoT devices, could log these as ‘learning events’, credits for learning could evolve in a whole new direction.

Some while ago during discussion with colleagues about how assessment could evolve to encompass change, I suggested that it might be shifted from the hands of educators, to the hands of employers. My idea was that students could study whatever interested them and as they progress through the education system this could become more guided and fine tuned towards their employment goals. However, rather than being examined at the end of school, college or university the ‘testing’ could fall to the employers, who would be free to decide how they would measure whether an applicant was suitable for their organisation. In this way ‘students’ could develop sets of skills useful for specific industries or wider employment. This suggestion was met with…total silence soon followed by a change of topic. As if I hadn’t spoken. I tried again on my module forum to a very similar response. But really, is it so bonkers?

I was of course delighted to come across this article by Audrey Watters (07-04-16) “The Blockchain for Education: an introduction” where the idea of using Blockchain to  tie learning to earning is presented:

“Onsite in Austin, the promotion of the “Learning is Earning” initiative was framed as a “think like a futurist” game and intertwined with a keynote delivered by well-known game designer and writer Jane McGonigal, who is a research affiliate at the Palo Alto-based IFTF.”

An excerpt from the “Learning is Earning” promotional video:

Welcome to the year 2026, where learning is earning. Your ledger account tracks everything you’ve ever learned in units called Edublocks. Each Edublock represents one hour of learning in a particular subject. But you can also earn them from individuals or informal groups, like a community center or an app. Anyone can grant Edublocks to anyone else. You can earn Edublocks from a formal institution, like a school or your workplace. The Ledger makes it possible for you to get credit for learning that happens anywhere, even when you’re just doing the things you love. Your profile displays all the Edublocks you’ve earned. Employers can use this information to offer you a job or a gig that matches your skills. We’ll keep track of all of the income your skills generate, and use that data to provide feedback on your courses. When choosing a subject to study in the future, you may wish to choose the subject whose students are earning the most income. You can also use the Ledger to find investors in your education. Since the ledger is already tracking income earned from each Edublock, you can offer investors a percentage of your future income in exchange for free learning hours. Our smart contracts make these agreements easy to manage and administer. The Ledger is built on blockchain, the same technology that powers bitcoin and other digital currencies. That means every Edublock that has ever been earned is a permanent part of the growing public record of our collective learning and working.

The article goes on to say “There’s a lot to unpack ideologically in this vision of the future of education and work…But the video hits on many of the key themes that are echoed across various other education-related blockchain discussions – that is to say, the blockchain could be utilized to better manage assessments, credentials, and transcripts. (See, for example OTLW or BadgeChain.)”

The article is well worth a read in full. For me it starts to bring focus to possible alternatives to our current outdated structure. Could a model really begin to emerge from this where we are not only able to choose where, when and how we learn but have a ‘recognised’ and valued system for logging this?

My own relationship with education sits in the ‘complicated’ category. This started when at the age of 15 I announced, to the horror of parents, teachers and school friends, that I was done with formal education and would do just what I wanted without the ‘stupid qualifications’. A rash stance for a 15 year-old to take but I was fortunate in that I was able to prove myself right, over time using my accumulating ‘life-learning’ to get my next job role and eventually some qualifications of my choice. I deliberately sought out situations that I knew I could enjoy and where I could learn as I worked, and sometimes these opportunities sought me out. However, I’m very aware that this strategy couldn’t work for everyone so while I’ve long been a promoter of ‘do what you love’, the flaw has always been there, alongside the argument “that route won’t get me, my son/ daughter, my student a job” which admittedly, while not true for me could be an issue for many. So, how great would it be if we could collect the crumbs of all our experiences to turn them into the currency of learning via something like Blockchain? And where would we teachers fit into that? I’m not worried about the future of teachers – I know there’s a place for them, but in what guise will that be?

IMG_0028 (1)
Curating the crumbs of experience into something meaningful or following a disappearing trail?

Educators, still holding on to old practices and struggling to accept digital technologies?

Testerman’s article (15-06-17) in ‘Testin Tech’ got me thinking about the divide between real-world use and academic use of tech.

Employers are looking for new skills and traits, influenced by digital technology. Students and most of the rest of the population spend vast amounts of time connected in various ways and yet as Testerman points out in her article “Blended and Hybrid Environments are Driving the New Global Movement in Education” (Testin Tech, June 15 2017)

“Students today are bringing a whole new set of skills to the classroom, yet the classroom is one where teachers ask students to “power-down” when entering it.   Students are ready to learn – at home, on the bus, in the grocery store, in the community, and students can multi-task in part due to the digital world that surrounds them. Unfortunately today for many students, they are in a state of “passivity” with learning. Learning is done to them, not with them. According to Shibley (2014), the influx of technology has not changed this fact yet. Instead of the possibilities opening up, students sit placidly by while instruction is shown to them, instead of engaging with it. She suggests instead that students take “the driver’s wheel” and lead where the content and activities go. This is a change to an instructor’s role in the classroom. “Instead of the teacher being the only one who works with technology to create learning objects, students become creators of learning objects” (Shibley, 2014).”

Why is this? Testerman goes on to say that it is the reason “blended and hybrid environments are driving the new global movement in education.”

The trouble is, as I see it, they aren’t. For some reason much tech is still viewed with suspicion by many teachers, a bit of joke sometimes, and very often still as some sort of ‘bolt on’ to their teaching, definitely an optional extra. Researchers it seems also largely still treat ‘it’ as some entirely separate aspect of learning, when in reality it long ago ceased to be that.

I’m interested in exploring the reasons behind this practitioner resistance and which areas are particularly affected.


Testerman, K. (2017) “Blended and Hybrid Environments are Driving the New Global Movement in Education”, Testin Tech, [online] Available from: https://kctestandtech.org/2017/06/15/blended-and-hybrid-environments-are-driving-the-new-global-movement-in-education/ (Accessed 24 June 2017).