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Networked Connectivity and Adult 

Learning: Social Media, the Knowledgeable 
Other and Distance Education 

Frederika Gerlanda Kop

Submitted to the University of Wales in fulfilment of the

requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy

Swansea University

May 2010

Over the past decades, information technology has had a disruptive effect on adult
education. Today, learners can access libraries from their pocket and shape their
thoughts while socializing on networks. The position of educators as ‘knowledgeable
others’ has been challenged as experts can be found online and learners can control
their own learning. Social media are changing adult education, because they offer
tremendous potential to enhance learning processes. But do they really?

This doctoral thesis questions the connectivist premise of epistemological

transformation. It investigates the position of the learner in the learning experience
and his/her level of control in comparison to the tutor and the institution. It examines
how social media can be used effectively in communication in learning. This
longitudinal qualitative study shows how students, tutors and staff negotiated the
intricacies of social media in a formal adult education setting. The researcher
surveyed learners participating in three online networks and immersed herself in one
for nine months.

The results show that Web 2.0 technologies can facilitate a high level of
communication amongst learners and educators, and consequently raise the level of
“presence” in the online environment. New technologies were seen to foster
engagement and self-directed learning. The role of adult educators was seen as
crucial for all learners, and for those displaying higher levels of autonomy, the
educator was perceived as a trusted “human filter” of information.

The research adds to the under-conceptualized field of networked learning in the

Web 2.0 era, and challenges the notion that knowledge and learning are
revolutionized by new social media. It shows that a trusted “knowledgeable other” is
still at the heart of a meaningful learning experience. Finally, the thesis provides
recommendations for adult educators and institutions to enhance their effectiveness
in networked environments characterized by changing attitudes toward interaction
for learning.


This thesis has not previously been accepted in substance for any degree and is not
concurrently submitted in candidature for any degree.

This thesis is the result of my own investigations, except when otherwise stated.
Other sources are acknowledged in brackets in the text giving explicit references. A
bibliography is appended.

I grant powers of discretion for the librarian to photocopy this thesis in whole or in
part without consulting me and to make the thesis available for inter-library loans.
This permission covers only single copies made for study purposes, subject to normal
conditions of acknowledgement. I have no objections for the title page and summary
to be made available to outside organizations.

Signed: Date: 20th May 2010

Copyright © Frederika G. Kop, May 2010


ABSTRACT ______________________________________________________________________  I 
DECLARATION AND STATEMENTS  ___________________________________________________ II 
TABLE OF CONTENTS  _____________________________________________________________ III 
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS  __________________________________________________________  VI 
LIST OF TABLES _________________________________________________________________  VII 
LIST OF FIGURES ________________________________________________________________ VIII 
LIST OF CHARTS __________________________________________________________________ IX 
ABBREVIATIONS _________________________________________________________________ X 
DEFINITIONS ____________________________________________________________________ X 
CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION  _________________________________________________________ 1 
1.1. CONTEXT  ___________________________________________________________________ 1 
1.1.1. Personal context  _________________________________________________________ 5 
1.2. PURPOSE OF THE STUDY  _______________________________________________________ 6 
1.3. THE STUDY __________________________________________________________________ 7 
1.4. THESIS ORGANISATION – A GUIDE THROUGH THE CHAPTERS  __________________________ 9 
CHAPTER 2: LITERATURE REVIEW  ____________________________________________________ 11 
2.1. INTRODUCTION _____________________________________________________________ 11 
2.2. THE INTERNET  ______________________________________________________________ 12 
2.2.1 Control and Power  _______________________________________________________ 12 
2.2.2. The World Wide Web as a Network  _________________________________________ 13 
2.2.3. Information abundance ___________________________________________________ 15 
2.2.4. Information Communication Technology and Communication  ____________________ 18 
2.2.5. New developments in Information and Communication Technology ________________ 20 
2.2.6. Access  ________________________________________________________________ 27 
2.2.7. Young people and technology ______________________________________________ 29 
2.2.8. Technology as part of everyday existence ‐ Identity _____________________________ 31 
2.2.9. Post Modernism _________________________________________________________ 32 
2.3. TECHNOLOGY ENHANCED LEARNING ____________________________________________ 39 
2.3.1. Adult Education and new technologies _______________________________________ 40 
2.3.2. The learning space _______________________________________________________ 42 
2.3.3. Theories of mind, knowledge and (online) learning _____________________________ 43 
2.3.4. Discussion of theories of online learning and knowledge _________________________ 57 
2.3.5. Online pedagogy ________________________________________________________ 59 
2.3.6. Institutional Change  _____________________________________________________ 84 
2.4. CONCLUSION _______________________________________________________________ 89 
CHAPTER 3: RESEARCH METHODOLOGY _______________________________________________ 95 
3.1. INTRODUCTION _____________________________________________________________ 95 
3.1.1. The move towards qualitative research methods _______________________________ 95 
3.1.2. Epistemological Perspectives within Qualitative Research _______________________ 100 
3.1.3. Objectivity and generalization in qualitative research __________________________ 102 
3.2. CHOOSING A RESEARCH METHODOLOGY ________________________________________ 105 
3.2.2. Design Based Research __________________________________________________ 105 
3.4. DECISIONS ON RESEARCH METHODOLOGY _______________________________________ 112 
3.5. RESEARCH METHODS USED ___________________________________________________ 113 
3.5.1. Research Methods ABCD Project ___________________________________________ 113 
3.5.2. Research methods online network  _________________________________________ 117 
3.6. ETHICAL ISSUES ____________________________________________________________ 119 
3.6.1. Setting One: the ABCD Project _____________________________________________ 120 
3.6.2. Setting Two: online network study _________________________________________ 122 
3.7. METHODS OF ANALYSIS ______________________________________________________ 123 

CHAPTER 4 FINDINGS OF THE ABCD PROJECT __________________________________________ 126 
4.1. CONTEXT ‐ BACKGROUND ABCD PROJECT ________________________________________ 126 
4.1.1. Why choose the ABCD Project? ____________________________________________ 126 
4.1.2. The Research Setting ____________________________________________________ 126 
4.1.3. The Programme of study _________________________________________________ 127 
4.1.4. The teaching and learning environment _____________________________________ 129 
4.1.5. Restraints and Flexibility in designing the learning environment __________________ 129 
4.2. DESIGN ISSUES _____________________________________________________________ 130 
4.2.1. Context _______________________________________________________________ 130 
4.2.2. Instructional Design. ____________________________________________________ 132 
4.2.3. Experience Design ______________________________________________________ 135 
4.2.4. Control – Constraints ____________________________________________________ 144 
4.3. THE LEARNING EXPERIENCE  __________________________________________________ 145 
4.3.1. Context _______________________________________________________________ 145 
4.3.2  Learning Preferences ____________________________________________________ 146 
4.3.3. Communication and dialogue _____________________________________________ 151 
4.3.4. Learning a social activity? ________________________________________________ 159 
4.3.5. Thinking Processes ______________________________________________________ 161 
4.3.6. Affective Issues  ________________________________________________________ 164 
4.3.7. Control and Constraints __________________________________________________ 165 
4.4. THE TUTOR EXPERIENCE  _____________________________________________________ 170 
4.4.1. Context _______________________________________________________________ 171 
4.4.2. Teaching Preferences  ___________________________________________________ 172 
4.4.3. Pedagogy _____________________________________________________________ 174 
4.4.4. Communication and dialogue _____________________________________________ 182 
4.4.5. Affective Issue _________________________________________________________ 194 
4.4.6.  Higher Order Thinking  __________________________________________________ 196 
4.4.7. What fostered learner engagement? _______________________________________ 200 
4.4.8. Control – Constraints ____________________________________________________ 201 
4.5. MOST SIGNIFICANT FINDINGS _________________________________________________ 211 
CHAPTER 5:  FINDINGS OF THE ONLINE NETWORK PROJECT ______________________________ 214 
5.1 BACKGROUND PROJECT ______________________________________________________ 214 
5.1.1. Research setting  _______________________________________________________ 214 
5.2. FINDINGS _________________________________________________________________ 215 
5.2.1. Accessing information and validating information _____________________________ 215 
5.2.2. Analysis of the online networks ____________________________________________ 220 
5.2.3. Knowledge on online networks ____________________________________________ 223 
5.3. MOST SIGNIFICANT FINDINGS _________________________________________________ 226 
CHAPTER 6: DISCUSSION  __________________________________________________________ 228 
6.1. THE INTERNET AND WEB2.0 TECHNOLOGIES  _____________________________________ 228 
6.1.1. Processing of information ________________________________________________ 228 
6.1.2. Affordances of the new technologies  _______________________________________ 230 
6.1.3  Design of learning experiences ____________________________________________ 231 
6.2.1. ‘Pedagogy of abundance’, or ‘pedagogy for human beings’?  ____________________ 240 
6.2.2. New interactive technologies and the learning experience  ______________________ 242 
6.2.3. The knowledgeable other  ________________________________________________ 252 
6.2.4. The relevance of learner autonomy  ________________________________________ 258 
CHAPTER 7 CONCLUSIONS _________________________________________________________ 266 
7.1 CONCLUSIONS – VIEWS ON KNOWLEDGE AND LEARNING  ___________________________ 266 
7.2 CONCLUSIONS ABOUT LEARNING AND TEACHING __________________________________ 267 
7.2.1. Web 2.0 technologies to facilitate communication in learning  ___________________ 268 
7.2.2.Recommendations and implications for adult education and institutions  ___________ 268 

7.3. CONCLUSIONS ABOUT THE RESEARCH METHODOLOGY _____________________________ 276 
7.4. AREAS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH ________________________________________________ 279 
7.5. RESEARCH CONTRIBUTION ___________________________________________________ 280 
7.6  FINAL CONCLUSIONS ________________________________________________________ 282 
APPENDIX 1 RELATED PUBLICATIONS _________________________________________________ XI 
APPENDIX 2 (SECOND) TUTOR INTERVIEW SCHEDULE ___________________________________ XIII 
APPENDIX 3 (SECOND) STUDENT INTERVIEW SCHEDULE ________________________________  XVII 
 _______________________________________________________________________________ XXI 
APPENDIX 5 PRE COURSE QUESTIONNAIRE  __________________________________________  XXV 
APPENDIX 6 EXAMPLE OF SURVEY ONLINE  NETWORK ________________________________  XXVII 
APPENDIX 7 CONSENT FORM ______________________________________________________ XXXI 
GLOSSARY OF TERMS ___________________________________________________________ XXXIII 
BIBLIOGRAPHY ________________________________________________________________ XXXVI 


I would like to thank everybody who has helped me over the past five years to finish
this project. I would like to mention in particular:

Lynne Jenkins and Patrick Walters who have been patient and kind and helped me
over numerous hurdles on my way to producing this substantial piece of writing and
thinking. Lynne helped me to keep organized and Patrick was always ready to come
up with a new title to read or another issue to critically assess. I am very grateful for
all the sparring and debating of particular issues in the thesis as it has helped me
grow and develop.

The participants in the research as this thesis would not have been written without
their input.

Alyce von Rothkirch for being kind enough to proofread this thesis. Her attention to
detail and knowledge of the English language have put my mind at rest and made me
feel confident about submitting this thesis in the English language.

Chaouki Regoui for working his magic on the page numbers and table of content of
this document.

My critical friend Paul Bouchard for spending hours and hours on the telephone with
me, discussing issues of adult education and networked learning. I have had to think
and re-think issues that I took for granted and that he made me reconsider. His love
for the written word has taught me a thing or two about the power of semiotics,
digital or otherwise, and has shown me the magic you can bring about with words if
you dare to use these symbols creatively. The mastodon has awoken!


Table 1 2.2.6. Reasons why people do not use the Internet_____________________ 28

Table 2 3.7. Research analysis matrix __________________________________ 125

Table 3 4.4.6. Relation between Higher Order Thinking and tutor level of support _ 197

Table 4 4.4.6. Relation between level of presence and engagement of learners ____ 200

Table 5 Who is in control? (Adapted from model by Grow, 1996) _________ 259 


Figure 1 2.3.3. Influences on education practices (Adapted from Leach et al, 1999) 44

Figure 2 Dimensions of learner autonomy (Bouchard, 2009b, p5.) ________ 76

Figure 3 3.2.2. ‘Integrative Learning Design Framework’ (Bannan-Ritland, 2003) 107

Figure 4 4.1.4. The ABCD online learning environment ____________________ 129

Figure 5 Layout of the ABCD online learning environment _____________ 136

Figure 6 Front cover of reference book _____________________________ 137

Figure 7 A page in the reference book______________________________ 137

Figure 8 An example of an ABCD learning activity ___________________ 138

Figure 9 4.4.5. Visualisation of a chat session ____________________________ 195

Figure 10 5.2.2. Visualisation of network development (Krebs and Holley, ND) __ 221

Figure 11 'Design is the process of evoking meaning' (Shedroff, 2009). ____ 233


Chart 1 5.2.1. Main reasons for using the network ____________________________ 218

Chart 2 5.2.1. Participants becoming more knowledgeable on the network ________ 219

Chart 3 5.2.3. What makes online experts knowledgeable? _____________________ 224

Chart 4 5.2.3. Level of truth in what experts disseminate ______________________ 225


ABCD Anonymised name of the researched project

DACE Department of Adult Continuing Education, Swansea University
ESF European Social Fund
Listserv Electronic mailing list software application
LT1 Learning Technologist 1
LT2 Learning Technologist 2
LT3 Learning Technologist 3
MOOC Massive Open Online Course
PLE Personal Learning Environment
PM Project Manager
S1 Student 2
S2 Student 2
S3 Student 3
S4 Student 4
S5 Student 5
S6 Student 6
S7 Student 7
S8 Student 8
T1 Tutor 1
T2 Tutor 2
T3 Tutor 3
T4 Tutor 4
VLE Virtual Learning Environment
WAG Welsh Assembly Government


Tutor In this thesis the term tutor is used as a member of staff teaching adult
students. This term is widely used in the UK in this context, but has a
different meaning in the USA and Canada



Technological change and the drive by the developed world for economic
competitiveness and globalization have greatly influenced adult education in recent
years. They have contributed to the shift in discourse from adult continuing
education to lifelong learning (Edwards & Usher 1998). This change has not only
encompassed new skills in the work place. Several commentators (Wellman et al,
2003, Shearman, 2000) have indicated that the introduction of Information and
Communications Technology (ICT) has blurred the boundaries between home, work,
leisure, learning and play, and has reshaped our life-styles and social interaction,
while creating a new form of literacy. Being able to read books is not enough to
function well in society, “effective” citizens also have to be able to “read” new
media, understand and learn from interactive learning programmes and adjust to new
ways of communicating. Self-directed and informal learning from videos, television
programmes and computers have gained in popularity and a more consumer-oriented
field of adult education has been born (Field 1996) in which the learner chooses
learning opportunities that suit him or her and which take place wherever he or she
likes at the time most appropriate to him or her.

Governments in the developed world have seen the importance of ICT in the advance
of the “knowledge economy” and in aid of economic development.
European Heads of State in Lisbon (European ODL liaison committee, 2004)
committed themselves to make Europe the world's most competitive and dynamic
economy, characterised by sustainable growth, more and better jobs and greater
social cohesion, by 2010. At the ‘Knowledge 2000’ conference, Tony Blair, the then
British Prime Minister, said:
I strongly believe that the knowledge economy is our best route for success
and prosperity. But we must be careful not to make a fundamental mistake. We
mustn't think that because the knowledge economy is the future, it will happen
only in the future. The new knowledge economy is here, and it is now. . . . The
Internet is dissolving physical barriers, and levelling the business playing field.
Blair (2000, p1)

In addition, the UK government highlighted the importance of enabling the UK to
engage with technology by stating that ‘digital engagement is important because it
can improve people’s lives, opening doors to things that really matter, such as
education, jobs, entrepreneurial innovation, entertainment and making contact with
family and friends.’ (Cabinet Office, 2004, page 9)

Learners, particularly adult learners, make choices about the level of control imposed
by others on their lives and their learning. Indeed, the choice to study at an institution
and with a tutor on a classroom-based course or to study on a course mediated
through technology will mean a different level of control imposed on the learning
process by different actors and on the different aspects of learning itself.

Much discussion has taken place about the impact of the introduction of virtual
learning systems on adult education, as technology in education has the potential to
change the traditional level of control over education, and to a certain extent, over
the creation of knowledge that used to be exercised by the authorities of knowledge,
academics in universities. The changed position of educational institutions such as
universities due to the altered sense of space, place and identity in a virtual learning
space has been lamented as a loss, as universities were seen as places where people
came together, where minds met and where new ideas were conceived, criticised and
tested and provisionally accepted if they were found to stand up sufficiently robustly
under criticism. Some academics have expressed reservations about the networked
alternatives (Greener & Perriton, 2005) suggesting that Virtual Learning
Environments (VLEs) have neither managed to be convincing in areas such as
communication and in engaging students, nor are they an effective alternative to the
actual classroom. However, proponents of the use of peer-to-peer technology in
education have argued that tools such as wikis and blogs, the new social media and
“Web 2.0 technologies”, can fulfil exactly this role (Downes, 2006; Lamb, B., 2004).

The openness of the media and the willingness of people to share in online
experiences encourage the discussion of ideas and collaborative development of
thoughts and knowledge that traditionally form part of a quality university
experience. The added advantage of the online tools lies in their globally positioned

communication forums, which provide immediate responses on a scale unimaginable
in the traditional university.

Education has its roots in age-old cultural traditions that have developed over
centuries. To move away from a teaching room bounded by doors and walls to an
open and undefined virtual environment has major consequences for education. In
traditional teaching there is usually a particular teaching room, and teaching takes
place at a particular time. Peters was reminded of rites with religious undertones,
which link location, time and action: ‘Learning and teaching might be based on
unconscious, but at the same time “deep-seated” patterns of behaviour, not only of
students but also of the teachers. Their ritualisation lends solidity and permanence to
the actions taking place in the teaching space’ (Peters, 1999, p. 1). Although informal
teaching has taken place before, it is only recently that suggestions have been made
to seriously change the education system and leave the traditional classroom behind,
initially in the 1970s through the radical perspectives of Freire and Illich, and in the
past decades, under the influence of developing technologies. Learning
Technologists, teachers and learners have started to question the effectiveness of the
teaching strategies developed over generations (Peters, 1999; Illich, 1971; Freire,

In E-learning over the past decades two different positions on the main aspects in
people’s learning have developed (Weller, 2007). In the first view, information and
resources are seen to be at the centre of the learning environment, while in the
second, communication is seen to be the most important to develop a positive
learning environment. Some argue that an emphasis on resources has lead in e-
learning to the delivery of education as a commodity, which suggested that
technology would not be suitable to bring into practice the ideas of Illich and Freire
that became prominent in the 1970s. Gur and Wiley (2007, p. 1), for instance,
discuss the concept of objectification in relation to online learning and conclude that
‘education is often reduced to the packaging and delivery of information, in which
the process of teaching is reduced to the transmission of information and courses are
transformed into courseware.’ The development of VLEs has facilitated this
depersonalization of learning, as communication in such environments has been seen
to be problematic, and turned teaching into “delivery” and the process of teaching

into a transaction consisting of the transmission of information. Intelligent tutoring is
another example of how the delivery of content could be at the centre of learning.

Weller (2007) highlighted that e-learning might be organised in quite a different way.
In the second model information would be related to two-way communication. In
this view of e-learning, ‘The Internet encourages discussion, dialogue and
community that is not limited by time or place. The role of educators in this world is
to facilitate dialogue and support students in their understanding of resources’
(Weller, 2007, p.6).

Communication has had a place in distance education since the 70s, when Turoff
introduced and developed the first conferencing system that progressed into
becoming full conferencing and personal messaging systems such as Lotus Notes,
Forum, First Class and Participate (Harasim, 1995), which contained synchronous
and asynchronous systems. In the late 1980s distance education institutions started
their development towards the use of the VLE, which has formed a natural
progression from the use of early conferencing systems such as First Class (Mason
and Bacsich, 1998). The VLE combines communication with the distribution of
resources and information.

In traditional “brick and mortar” universities, however, technology use has been
mainly limited to the use of VLEs to transfer information, or to store resources and
although a VLE has a variety of options for communication, these have not always
been chosen by users ‘as most people have a tendency to take the default path’ (Dron
& Anderson, 2009, p.2), the easy option of accessing resources, rather than the more
complicated option of using the tools made available for communication.

In recent years the new developments in technology have encouraged a higher level
of communication in technology-based learning. Especially the use of Web 2.0
technologies have been seen to make possible the development of lifelong and
lifewide learning with possibilities to facilitate informal and self-directed learning
and also opportunities to enhance communication in the online learning environment
(Siemens, 2008; Downes, 2009; Dron and Anderson, 2009). The new social media
have not long been used in an educational context. The first discussions about their

possibilities for education and learning started about five years ago, just before this
study was started (Downes, 2004) and the need for research that analyses critically
how Web 2.0 technologies might alter adult learning and teaching in and outside
educational institutions was also identified (Conole et al, 2006, Gulati, 2006)

The term “Web 2.0 technologies”, will in this study indicate the technologies that
emerged around 2004 and which are commonly associated with web applications that
facilitate interactive information sharing and collaboration on the World Wide Web.
Web 2.0 technologies include blogs, wikis, social-networking sites, video and photo-
sharing sites and bookmark-sharing sites. A Web 2.0 site allows its users to interact
with other users or to change website content easily, quite often through a content
management system. This in contrast to websites that were the norm in the Web 1.0
era, where hyperlinks were the main interactive feature and direct communication
with other Web users was more complicated. This will be further expanded upon in

This study took place in the political and pedagogical context just described. It aims
to challenge the assumptions about the nearly magical properties of the technologies
that have been made by enthusiasts, but also to find out if the technologies could
enhance the sometimes static online adult education provision at the time.

1.1.1. Personal context

My original background is in primary education. I used to be a teacher and head-

teacher in the Netherlands before moving to the UK and eventually working in a
University Department of Adult Continuing Education. Lifelong Learning “from the
cradle to old age” has been my background and interest for a long time. Working
with adults in community locations, my initial role was to manage a large project that
provided an ICT infrastructure in twelve community education centres. This involved
installing a computer lab and network connectivity as well as raising awareness in
the communities of South West Wales and the Valleys of what technology could
mean to local people’s lives, digital inclusion, and taking initial steps towards e-

It became clear very early on that digital inclusion not only involves access to
technology and networked connectivity, but especially gaining confidence and
realising that technology has relevance to one’s life, and breaking down barriers
similar to non-participation in learning.

This led to other e-learning projects, but always with the central premise of the active
involvement in learning of people who might otherwise not be involved in Higher
Education. My interest in educational technology, and the drive to make people
experience the creative and “fun” potential of technology made me apply for funding
for the ABCD project. This provided the opportunity to design and develop learning
opportunities that used Web 2.0 technology and to investigate whether their use
would enhance or hinder the communication of participants in the teaching and
learning process. In addition, it offered the opportunity to enquire if an environment
could be created that would facilitate a “human” form of e-learning that might
engage non-traditional adult learners.


Terry Freedman advocated robust research in the use of social software in education
to determine if the anecdotes by enthusiasts are a valid indication of the long-term
positive effect of the new social tools (Freeman, 2006). Moreover, Thorpe and
Godwin encouraged continued research in the interaction between learner and online
tutor that includes the ‘impact of the design of tasks and learning environments’
(Thorpe & Godwin, 2006, 204) as the design of the learning environment and the
tools used will influence the learning experience. Furthermore, Gulati’s research in
the learning experience of professional students on online and blended courses
questioned the use of institutionally controlled VLEs and in particular their
discussion boards. Students used informal strategies for communication and learning
outside the formal environment to complement the formal structures because the
discussion boards created difficulties in the communication process between
learners, and between learners and their tutors. She recommended that ‘the new and
existing strategies for online socialising needed to be studied for their effectiveness
in enabling group and social identities in the formal educational contexts’ (Gulati,
2003, p. 50).

It seemed important to find out what the learning and teaching experience might be
while using such tools. Learning technologists could see how they would help to
make the learning environment less formal, how they could create a social online
environment, while the discussions online amongst technologists also indicated how
they could cross the boundaries of institutional and informal learning. How they
would challenge educational institutions to change their practice was another
important issue raised, and worthy of research, as one characteristic of the tools
would be their ability to facilitate self-directed learning and people would be able to
consult experts and peers on internet networks to find information and validate
knowledge, rather than to remain within institutional boundaries. This would
influence the institutions themselves.


The speculations amongst technologists on the positive and negative effects of social
media and their possible disruption of adult education have raised two interlinked
research questions:

1. The interpersonal informal online networks that people build up throughout

their lives provide expertise and knowledge in addition to the guidance that
tutors offer in formal education.

Would it be desirable for the learner to be at the centre of the learning

experience rather than the tutor and the institution?

Other more specific questions will be discussed in answering this research

question: How much control could and should be passed over from the
institution to the learner in a technology-rich environment to enhance the
learning experience? Should students have more say in the content of the
learning opportunity and the route the learning journey takes? What would be
the implications for the institution? What would be the implications for the
concept, reliability and validity of knowledge if knowledge is investigated
and created on online networks independently from the institution?

2. What Web 2.0 technologies could be used effectively in communication and in

How could their use enhance or hinder the learning experience of adults?

In the literature review, these questions will be further explored. In order to research
all aspects of these questions it will not be sufficient to solely study formal
education. Research in the learning that takes place on online networks will also be
investigated and carried out.

The term “online networks” will be used throughout this study and will mean
networks of people who share information on the World Wide Web. A node on the
network will signify a person, or a group of people, distributing and sharing

The design of the online learning environment will be an important factor in the
educational issues researched as the design of the learning space influences the
learning experience (Barab & Squire, 2004; Cobb et al, 2003; The Design-Based
Research Collective, 2003) as well as the informal learning space.
Barab and Squire propose that ‘cognition is not a thing located within the individual
thinker but is a process that is distributed across the knower, the environment in
which knowledge occurs, and the activity in which the learner participates’ (Barab &
Squire, 2004, p. 1). The context is an important factor in the learning process, as has
been conclusively shown by educationalists and psychologists over the past decades
(Bruner, 1999; Lave and Wenger, 2002). This means that the contextual realities
need to be taken into consideration when researching adult learning and technology.
Moreover, the environment in which young people operate is also an important
consideration. This will, after all, give an indication of future possible changes, as of
course young people grow into adults. The above explanation and research questions
have led to the following research aim:

To investigate how people learn and teach while using social media, and the
challenges and opportunities they face, in two different settings: the ABCD project in
a formal education institution, and on three online networks.

The analysis of the data gathered will create an understanding of the positive and
negative effects of social media in learning and their possible effects on adult
education. It will draw conclusions on the effective educational practice when using
the tools as it will synthesise key influences on online learning and on the use of the
media in question, and it will generate recommendations for future practice.


The thesis is organised in seven chapters. Chapter one and two are introductory and
set the subject matter in context. Chapter two contains the literature review that
analyses the development of the internet, including political, social, and
philosophical influences. It analyses theories of knowledge and learning and how
technology has influenced these. It investigates issues of learner autonomy, online
pedagogy and the place of communication in the learning experience and it explores
changes in behavioural patterns in computer use between young and old people. It
also makes an attempt at re-evaluating the position of knowledge in a connected
world. It closes with a section on the place of the educational institution, in particular
of the university, in a world where life without technology has become unthinkable.

Chapter three deals with the research approach and methodology. It explores
different research methods in order to find out the best possible “fit” with the
research questions. It also explores the ethical issues that need to be taken into
consideration when carrying out research in a virtual learning environment and in an
open online environment.

Chapters four and five will report on the findings of the research in the two settings:
The ABCD project and the online networks. Chapter four discusses the context, the
methods of analysis, and reports on issues such as the learning experience and the
teaching experience, which also include learner and tutor preferences in using
technologies, the value of an online presence of participants and the significance of
communication in learning. Particular attention is given to issues of self-direction

and personalisation. An extensive discussion on the positive and negative sides of
Web 2.0 use in online education will also form part of the chapter. It will also report
on what activities lead to a higher level of engagement, and the skills and
competencies required to learn and teach in a semi-autonomous learning
environment. Design issues are also explored to find out what particular aspects are
of importance for the creation of engaging learning experiences.

Chapter five explains how the online networked research was carried out and
analyses how people communicate online and what makes them learn. It also
explores how important “other” people on the network are for learning and in
particular who the “knowledgeable others” are and why. An analysis of the network
will explain how particular nodes on online networks are perceived by learners.

Chapter six contain a discussion of the findings and the literature. It reports on the
affordances of the new tools and the design of meaningful online learning
experiences. It will show a view of networked mediated learning that consists of an
analysis of interactive technologies in the learning experience and their influences in
creating an online presence, including how to foster affective relationships. The role
of the learner and the tutor will be analysed and the level of control that each of them
has when the new tools are being used. Finally, the benefits and limitations of this
use on the educational experience and learner autonomy will be addressed.

Chapter seven brings the thesis to a close with the conclusions. It contains
conclusions on views on knowledge and learning. This section will provide some
recommendations for tutors, learners and educational institutions. The chapter will
close with conclusions about the research methodology and a section on possible
future research to advance the knowledge gained through this research. The final
section will deal with the original contribution to knowledge that this research study
has provided.



In recent years the traditional view of knowledge in a rapidly changing world has been
challenged (Lyotard, 1984; O’Hara, 2002; Lankshear et al, 2003; Lewis, 1999; Glaser,
1999). Moreover, technological change has had a major influence on lifelong learning
and has been a force for change in adult education. It has introduced a new flexibility,
with a range of new developments, including the introduction of VLEs, knowledge
banks, global online networks, knowledge management systems in the workplace and the
use of handheld and mobile devices for learning. Emergent Internet tools such as blogs
and wikis are also making their way into adult education classrooms.

Much discussion has taken place about these new developments as it is thought that
networked learning spaces could take over from lecture theatres and that libraries, which
used to be places where librarians were the gate-keepers of stores of paper-based
information, might be revolutionised by technology, for example with the exponential
growth in digital archives and online journal publications.

It is perhaps not surprising that a vast number of academics, librarians and teachers have
reservations about the pace of change and the need for change, wondering what kind of
knowledge may be acquired, how valid the created knowledge would be, what their role
should be in the learning process, and who is to control both knowledge and learning?

This literature review will explore the ways Information and Communication
Technologies and the Internet are changing the educational landscape. It will identify and
analyse the prominent theories of knowledge and views of learning and the most
significant changes that Information and Communication Technology might pose for
adult education and the possible consequences for educational institutions and education
in general.


Perhaps the most significant development in new technologies for education has been the
Internet. The Internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks that
developed from the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the major think tank
of the Ministry of Defence in the United States of America in the 1950s. In the late
1970s USENET (User’s Network), and in the early 1980s, BITNET (Because It’s Time
Network) and CSNET (the Computer Science Network) were created to facilitate
networking opportunities within the academic and research community (Harasim et al,
1995). When in 1982 ARPA adopted the TCP/IP protocol (Transmission Control
Protocol/Internet Protocol, the communications procedure to connect hosts on the
Internet) the Internet was born: a connected set of networks using the TCP/IP standard.
Up to that point the development had mostly been the work of scientists, but major
advances in the power and speed of computers facilitated the growth of the system. In
1986 the American Science Foundation Network was formed connecting the academic
and science community to five super computers. In 1989 the World Wide Web (WWW),
a global network of networks was developed by Tim Berners-Lee. It is a network of
interlinked hypertext documents that can be searched and on which information can be
retrieved by a special protocol known as a Hypertext Transfer protocol (HTTP). This
protocol has facilitated the automated searching of the Internet for particular sites and
greatly boosted its use.

A year later Berners-Lee developed a browser/editor programme and coined the name
World Wide Web as a name for the programme. The development of a browser and
Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) that could be activated by a mouse click enabled
simple searching (Cerf, 2003). By using a web browser people can view web pages that
might contain text, images, videos, and other multimedia and navigate between these.

2.2.1 Control and Power

Since its inception only limited control has been exercised over the Internet by nation
states. During the 1990s, the commercial world realized the potential of the WWW for
communication, for managing information flows and for retailing, while users saw its
creative potential. We have seen an exponential growth of the Web. Nation states have
had problems keeping up with new developments and consequently have only had
limited control over it. Although it is based in the USA, the global nature of its

development has been a factor in the lack of control by individual states over content
developed. Individual nations police sites originating from their own country and only a
number of nations have gone further than this, notably China and Iran, who have
imposed limitations on the web sites its population is able to access.
There has been an exponential growth in the use of blogs (Smith, 2008), and video-
sharing sites such as YouTube, on which, in October 2006, 100 million home-made
videos were downloaded per day, and personal presence sites such as MySpace and
Facebook that have been embraced by youth culture. They have shown the creative
potential of the WWW if left uncontrolled, which was acknowledged when the European
Union decided that ‘internet users should be left to police themselves within the bounds
of the law’ (Gibson, 2006).

It should be noted, however, that most new, successful grass-roots developments have
been commercialised and integrated in the corporate world. Increasingly concern is being
raised about the influence of commerce on the Web (Burke, 2007; Lanier 2010; Mejias,
2009). Lanier (2010) and Mejias (2009) emphasise the high level of influence by a low
number of companies, such as Google. The market seems to slowly but steadily
influence and control the new tools. Burke posits:
The connotations of freedom, democracy and egalitarianism are used to sell both
White House policy at one end of the spectrum, and the commercial dream of the
first “must have” personalized infrastructure (the net, cell phones, blackberry’s etc)
to the gadget crazed consumer desires of the middle classes on the other

(Burke, 2007, p. 55)

On the other hand, others highlighted the freedom to express oneself. Sim mentions for
instance how feminists, including Haraway and Plant, have embraced the Internet
because of a lack of control and hierarchy over the content. Men and women speak on
equal terms and ICT has been embraced in the workplace, where the Internet is being
accessed through the keyboard, the traditional female device (Sim, 2001).

2.2.2. The World Wide Web as a Network

It should be noted however that research is now available that shows that the Internet and
the WWW do not act as non-hierarchical networks (Barabasi, 2003; Jones, 2004; Mejias,
2009; Burke, 2007; Bouchard, 2010 forthcoming). Burke posits that:

Control, not freedom has become absolutely distributed and while we enjoy
unprecedented access to information and personal communications devices, we are
simultaneously smothered by the cloying ubiquity of networks that have no outside,
while our media is characterized as “the most highly controlled mass media
hitherto known.”
(Burke, 2007, p.54)

Barabasi looked at the mathematics of the Internet and Web as networks and found that
they do not perform as “random” networks, but as “scale-free” networks. The difference
would be ruled by two characteristics: “growth” and “preferential attachment”, showing
that this type of network grows “one node at a time” and that a node chooses to what
other node it connects. The more connections a node already has, the more likely it is
that other nodes will connect to it (Barabasi, 2003, P.86), thus creating “hubs”. This
implies that there are power-relations on the network and Barabasi’s research shows that
networks are not neutral. Bouchard (2010, in press) also questions the possibility of
hierarchy-free peer to peer connections on the Web:
However, the notion of 'supernode' predictably emerges when some contributors
are recognized by a number of others as having particular relevance to, or
knowledge of a problem. There seems to be a natural tendency within the 'perfectly'
democratic network to organize itself, over time, in a hierarchical system composed
of leaders and followers. We are then left with a social organization that resembles
the 'outside' world of government and commerce, with the difference that the
currency of exchange in the network is not money or power, but reputation and
(Bouchard, 2010, p. 3)

Wellman et al (2003) and Jones et al (2008) highlighted another issue relevant to

networks on which humans interact; that of the quality of the connection between the
nodes. On some networks, such as groups in online class rooms, people have “strong”
ties, while on other networks, such as the open online Web, people make connections
that are not as strong; they call them “weak” ties. There is a different level of
engagement between strong and weak ties. Dron and Anderson (2007) argue that there is
a stronger commitment to activities in “groups’, than on “networks”, where the ties are

Barabasi found that participants on networks are not only selective, but that the nature of
networks prevents network “surfers” from having access to all information at the same

The most intriguing result of our Web-mapping project was the complete absence of
democracy, fairness, and egalitarian values on the Web. We learned that the
topology of the Web prevents us from seeing anything but a mere handful of the
billion documents out there.
(Barabasi, 2003, p. 56)

These were just a few aspects of networks that should be considered when researching
learning in a network environment. Throughout this thesis reference will be made to the
hierarchical nature of the open online Web-based networks, the differences in ties
between users, and the level of access that people have to information on online
networks as they might possibly influence the learning taking place on these networks.
Open Web-based networks are meant when referring to networks in this thesis. When
reference is being made to nodes on the network, a node would signify a human being, or
human beings, as a member of the network who act(s) as filter(s) of information.

2.2.3. Information abundance

Fischer and Naumer’s research on people’s information habits found that most people
have ‘deeply engrained habitual patterns in seeking information’ (Fischer & Naumer,
2006, p. 2) Their research shows that people will first and foremost find information
from people with whom they have a strong relationship, which are usually found in their
circle of family, close friends and their local communities and in places such as doctors’
surgeries and libraries. Pettigrew et al state that the Internet is supplementing these
‘information grounds’ and is also creating new options for obtaining information
(Pettigrew, 1999). The exponential growth and wide availability of information on the
Internet has been seen by some as crucial for the new knowledge industries to perform
well and also to offer new opportunities for innovation of old ones. Others see this
development as problematic (Burkeman & Johnson, 2005; Bruce, 2000; Armstrong,
2004; Gandel et al, 2004; McKie, 2000; Sandbothe, 2000).

Burkeman and Johnson wonder if we really want all this new information? They
highlight that;
The end result of a perfect search world is that as fast as answers are generated and
consumed, new questions come quicker, with the consequence that ignorance
expands. . . What we know that we don’t know expands faster than what we know.
. . . there is this sense that the world is out there to be Googled. But linking from
one thing to another is not the same as having something to say. A structured
thought is more than a link.’
(Burkeman & Johnson, 2005, p. 5)

Furthermore, Hagel explains that there are other problems with the information
abundance and introduces the notion of the “attention economy”.

In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of

something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What
information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.
Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate
the attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that
might consume it.
(Hagel, 2006, p. 1)
Hagel argues that the more information is available, the less time we have available to go
into any depth when analysing the information. In addition, Goldhaber (1997) posits that,
by using new technologies, we might end up chatting, but not necessarily about anything
of substance. The abundance of information and the poverty of attention could be the
cause of changes in thinking processes. If we compare the information behaviour of
people in antiquity with current scholars, the former were able to spend their time
contemplating minute details and perhaps discuss findings with a small number of
people, while contemporary thinkers, if they make use of the Web, might be engaging
with gigabytes of information and possibly communicate with a wide variety of people
dispersed all over the globe simultaneously. Suggestions have been made that these new
ways of working might influence our thought processes (Bauerlein, 2008; Armstrong,
2004). Dennis and Al-Obaidi (2010) for instance compare changes in modes of thinking
and concepts through the new technologies with an “epistemic rupture”, while
Greenfield problematizes Internet use as opposed to the book.

When we read a book usually authors take you by the hand and you travel from the
beginning to the middle to the end in a continuous narrative series of
interconnected steps. It may not be a journey with which you agree or that you
enjoy, but none the less as you turn the pages one train of thought succeeds the last
in a logical fashion.
(Greenfield, 2006, p. 1)

She argues how in traditional education teachers and tutors compare and contrast
narratives with one another and help people with the building of a conceptual framework
in doing so (Greenfield, 2006, p. 1; Greenfield, 2004). The Web is changing this linear
process and of course not everyone uses books in the linear fashion she describes. New
Internet-based ways of obtaining information, such as following hyperlinks, which are an
integral part of the Internet experience, and the creation of knowledge by participation in
informal, interactive online phenomena, in which people take part at their leisure offer

opportunities for engagement in a wide range of subject choices according to one’s own
interests. This offers learners the chance to follow their own learning journey in a
manner suited to actively constructing knowledge and linking it to their own experiences
in an autonomous fashion, while collaborating with others. Greenfield is concerned
however, that if people do not have access to a robust conceptual framework developed
over time with the help of knowledgeable others, they might have problems constructing
knowledge (Greenfield, 2004).

The abundance of information on the Internet and other information sources have raised
concerns about the feasibility for individuals to critically analyse all that is available to
ensure reliability and validity and to manage the vast streams of information now
available. Bauerlein (2008) even goes as far as arguing that the lack of attention span
because of this overload of information and the different resources used today have
created the “dumbest generation of Americans” to date. CIBER (2008) researched how
people acquire information and how information behaviour has changed over time. They
surveyed literature from the 1980s and 1990s and carried out primary research on
internet based behaviour themselves and they found that “power-browsing”, the clicking
of hyperlinks and the skimming of web pages, replaced traditional chronological reading
and longer term critical thinking. Advanced information searching was lacking and the
level of information literacy, in the form of validating information and sources, was at a
low level (CIBER, 2008).

Sandbothe argues that the ‘comprehensive and systematic development of reflective

judgement at all levels of the population and on a global scale is the central task for a
democratic educational system in the twenty-first century’ (Sandbothe, 2000, p. 67). This
might not be promoted by the new ways of accessing information. Moreover, McKie
emphasised that people, when they start an information search, will take into account the
amount of time required for the search, where they expect to find the information and the
route to take to get there. Not everyone uses the same route as people are different and
have different learning preferences, cultural backgrounds and personalities. She argues
that to give too much guidance would be a mistake as it would constrict the experience
and the possibilities of finding the relevant information (McKie, 2000).

Walters and Kop (2009) argue that information literacy is acquired at a young age and
highlight that “information behaviour” is a developmental process at a deep level and
that this sort of behaviour will be very difficult to advance substantially later in life, eg.
on a course at university. Bass, on the other hand, highlighted that there is a great deal of
evidence to show that electronic environments encourage analytical and reflective
practice. In addition, ‘there are clear indications that the electronic era will provide an
unprecedented opportunity for immersion in archival and primary materials, and
consequently the making of meaning in cultural and historical analysis for all kinds of
learners, from novice to expert’ (Bass, 1999, p1.).

Bruce saw the information abundance as an advantage over earlier media in ‘the way it
can open up our questions. We ask one thing, but the Web leads us to ask more questions
and to become aware of how much we do not know’ (Bruce, 2000, p. 107). He would
like us to use the Internet not to “pick and choose” what fits in with our own points of
view, but also to take on board what discomfits, and to look for alternatives that make us
think. It should perhaps be questioned if people will do this of their own accord or that
they will need the guidance of an educator. He saw the greatest challenge as a change of
our search strategies from looking something up, to incorporating web-searching into
thinking and reflection processes in order to enable a fruitful investigation. New
emerging collaborative tools that facilitate networking and communication with others
might aid in developing such a referencing strategy.

2.2.4. Information Communication Technology and Communication

From its inception claims have been made about the exciting opportunities for interaction
on the WWW (Standish, 2000), ranging from clicking a mouse to engaging in in-depth
online communication. Tim Berners-Lee saw the development of the Web as follows:

The basic idea of the Web was that of an information space through which
people can communicate, but communicate in a special way: communicate
by sharing their knowledge in a pool. The idea was not just that it should be
a big browsing medium. The idea was that everybody would be putting their
ideas in, as well as taking them out. This [the Internet] is not supposed to be
a glorified television channel.
(Berners-Lee, 1999, p. 1)

His vision was that people would not only use the WWW for consumption, but also to
exchange knowledge by communication. Some, however, argue that there are numerous
reasons that inhibit people from expressing themselves online.

The scale and anonymity of the potential audience discourages the kind of personal
engagement that might be found in a conversation. The predominantly passive
experience of the Web may have reduced in users the capacity for a dialogical
response, in spite of the constant emphasis in the ostensible interactivity of Web
(Standish, 2000, p. 166)
Initially people have to overcome the fear of failure and gain confidence before realising
that the internet-experience can be quite pleasant: ‘The absence of the more rigid
conventions of letter writing may release a kind of spontaneity. Attentive and with the
freedom to innovate, you become absorbed in the writing, which elaborates, becomes
discursive and picks up speed’ (Standish, 2000, p. 166). During the past ten years and
through the inception of Web 2.0 technologies a different form of communication might
be possible online. Since antiquity communication and dialogue have been seen as the
crucial components in the creation of knowledge, but communication technology seems
to be changing its nature. Dewey saw communication as the most important aspect in
making people what they are:

mind, consciousness, thinking, subjectivity, meaning, intelligence, language,

rationality, logic, inference and truth – all of these things that philosophers over the
centuries have considered to be part of the natural ‘make-up’ of human beings –
only come into existence through and as result of communication.
Dewey (1958, p. 17)
Dewey argued that ‘the world of inner experience is dependent upon an extension of
language which is a social product and operation’. By communication with others our
inner thoughts become clear. In addition, meaning making in communication does not
happen for only one participant of the activity. ‘It is because people share in a common
activity, that their ideas and emotions are transformed as a result of and in function of the
activity in which they participate’. It is not one or the other participant that changes, both
participants will be influenced by communication (Biesta, 2006, p. 17-19).

Online communication is quite different from that in a face-to-face environment. It is a

fast connection between systems and networks, conveying messages produced by people.
Online messages are not necessarily the same as communications between people face-

to-face: they are one-way, the receiver might not know the sender, nor her intentions or if
she can be trusted (Kop, 2006). Meyerson (2001, pg.36) highlighted that in
technologically mediated communication we might replace a dialogue between people,
’the human pursuit of common understanding’, with an exchange of messages. He
analysed Habermas’ ideas of communication who questioned if it would at all be
possible to reach a shared understanding of the world through an exchange of messages.
Meyerson perceived a message to be a one-dimensional version of meaning and a
‘narrowed-down model of meaning’ (Meyerson, 2001, pg.40).

It might be possible to convey more meaning in online communication in the Web 2.0
era than was possible in the Web 1.0 era with the tools available today. Bass expects that
the distributive effect, namely ‘the shift from one-to-many to a many-to-many model of
communication is one of the most important features of new media, and provides a
fundamental groundwork for a great many changes in social structure and subject
formation’ (Bass, 2000, p. 6). Siemens agrees with this and argued that the more
connections with other people we can make, and the more networks we are connected to,
the better we will communicate, as long as we have effective structures in place to access
and syndicate the messages (Siemens, 2006a, 2008). If this is compared with Dewey’s
ideas of communication, it seems that the emphasis has changed from “communicating
with others and both learning and changing through the interaction”, to a much “looser”
form of communication. Wellman (2003) compared these differences forms of
communication as the differences between “strong” and “weak” ties” between people.
The intensity in the level of communication is different.

2.2.5. New developments in Information and Communication Technology Emergence of Web 2.0 technology

Over the past five years, the WWW has moved on from being a resource of information
(web 1.0) to emerge as an instrument of communication and networking (web 2.0.). Dron
and Anderson posit that the main dissimilarity between Web2.0 and Web 1.0 is
characterised by ‘a distinctive cultural shift in emphasis from total control of website
authorship by the technorati to a gentle relinquishing of control to the masses – the user-
generated Web’ (Dron & Anderson, 2009, p.2). The ease with which it is now possible to
produce and make changes to web pages, in addition to the ease with which it is possible

to communicate and collaborate in a many-to-many format rather than a one-to-many
format, have created a shift in the development of the Web. People can use informal
social software tools, such as blogs (web-logs), instant messaging, wikis (collaborative
websites), networked social spaces, including MySpace, Flickr (images) YouTube
(videos), social book-marking sites (such as and social searching, where
information streams can be shared and connected to those of others, thus creating
networked information. The key to social software is that it brings people in contact with
likeminded people, thus creating a community. McLuhan in his classic Understanding
Media suggested ‘The medium is the message’ (McLuhan, 1964, p.1), which is
especially appropriate in the new wave of Web 2.0 Internet developments. He argued
that ‘the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of
ourselves, results from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension
of ourselves, or by any new technology’ (McLuhan, 1964, p. 1). In other words, it is not
only the medium that is important, but the changes that the media cause. Through our
extended reach, our range of opportunities changes, which will have an impact on other
areas of our lives.

The emergence of Web 2.0 technologies seems to be something that has such an effect,
as for a number of years we have been using the Web to find information, much like
books in the past, but on a larger scale. The new social tools have changed our
relationship with the medium and made it possible for humans to move the Web on from
a one-directional broadcasting model into a many-to-many form of interaction. The new
developments have ensured that we are no longer solely consumers of online
information, but can also be online contributors. People in our local communities can
have a voice that can be heard all over the world (Shearman, 2000) using words, images,
film and music. It is very much a mix of consuming and creating: people might “mash
up” text, music or video produced by others and reshape it into their own image and
distribute it worldwide or within their online community.

A blog is one example of a Web 2.0 technology and is a variation of an interactive online
diary, usually written by one person, who would publish a number of date-stamped
pieces of writing, videos, sound or images. The most current will appear at the top, and
will offer the opportunity for people to post comments to which reactions are invited. A
blog reflects personal opinions and areas of interest of the “blogger” and can be a very

personal diary, although numerous academic, journalistic, subject specific and
educational blogs have emerged. Generally the aim is not only to publish individual
ideas and views, but to link these to friends’ views and other people’s ideas with
different visions, and comment on these, usually by providing hyperlinked evidence. An
argument and communication with others are important components of the blog, which
makes it more than a personal diary. ‘It reveals something about how we think that
would not be explicit in another medium’ (Mortensen & Walker, 2002, p. 249) according
to Mortensen and Walker, two academics working on blogs. They explain that

our blogs became tools with which to think about our research, its values,
connections and links to other aspects of the world. They altered the way in which
we approached online communication, and have influenced the writing of both our
(Mortensen & Walker, 2002, p. 249-251)
Most bloggers have a “blog-roll” showing a list of links to favourite blogs, which makes
that communities of interest are formed quite easily. In fact, blogs can be produced by
free, user-friendly software, containing search facilities, while possibilities to subscribe
to blogger news-feeds have contributed to the increased speed with which a steadily
growing web of interrelated searchable sites, has emerged. Downes argued that blogs are
revolutionising publishing on the Internet (Downes, 2004) while Johnson stated that
blogging has moved on from being a pastime of amateurs to a grassroots movement
resulting in a “network of interesting voices”. Blogs are created by individuals operating
outside institutional constraints who do not always “play by the rules” exposing
inaccuracies in traditional media publishing (Johnson, 2005, p. 1). Blogging has become
increasingly popular. Technorati (2008) have tracked 133 million weblog records since
2002 and have found that 1.5 million blogs are posted in an average week. Community
blogs have also materialized, where like-minded people work together on the
development of an interactive website. ‘Many-to-many’ communication features are
built into these sites to enable communication between large numbers of people.

Wikis are quite different. They do not have a diary format but are websites, which offer
people the opportunity to add text, images, video, possibly whole books. Moreover,
individuals are encouraged to edit entries from other people if they think they have any
knowledge to add. One or more people are responsible for the venture, but the aim is to
develop a project collaboratively. The best-known wiki is the Wikipedia

(, which has grown into a huge online encyclopedia in 80
languages in which people can find information about numerous topics.
One of the differences to blogs is that the form of communication in wikis is based on
documents rather than messages, which are much easier to edit and re-edit by a number
of people until they become coherent pieces of writing that are useful to anybody. Its
strength is its ease of use: it uses a simplified hypertext language – as with blogs,
technology does not have to stand in the way of the medium. A site can have multiple
contributors who can stay anonymous. There is a wide spectrum of wikis and ways in
which wikis are being used: on the one side Cunningham’s first system ‘The
WikiWikiWeb’ excels through its openness and simplicity, while on the other end of the
spectrum corporate wikis are being used as intricate knowledge management tools
(Lamb, B. 2004).

When discussing wikis, most commentators see their strength in offering a framework
for collaboration. Some even see them as the ultimate in democratic creation that
encourages participation by providing opportunities for anybody to add anything,
anywhere at any time. At the same time this is seen as their downfall as what has been
created today can be destroyed tomorrow. If we look at the best-known open content
wiki, the Wikipedia, surprisingly, ‘what seems to create chaos, has actually produced
increasingly respected content which has been evaluated and revised by the thousands to
visit the site over time’ (Lih, 2004, p. 3).

Social bookmarking and tagging gained in importance in 2003 when was
launched. Social bookmarking applications are web-based rather than desk-based and
enable users to store links to web-addresses online and “tag” their bookmarks with key-
words that have a relevance to them and make them available online to others. This
tagging is what makes them social and special. Instead of searches being led by
institutions or commercial search engines, the searching by keywords that were provided
by other members of a group, makes the searching social.

‘This form of organising information through user-generated tags has become known as
“folksonomy”. It implies a bottom-up mode of organising information as opposed to a
hierarchical and top-down taxonomy’ (Owen et al, 2006, p. 17). There is a range in the
formality of different bookmarking sites. Academic sites such as Connotea and

CiteULike have a planned style of tagging with a clear audience in mind, others such as
Flickr, a photo-sharing site, promote a more light-hearted and personal style of tagging.
Discussions amongst the user groups of tagging sites on the desirability of more control
on the tags used are extensive: e.g. a blog could be tagged as weblog, blog, blogs, or
blogging, making searching more difficult than a more regulated system, but so far the
choice has been to maintain flexibility and openness. Shirky (2005) argues that, if the
system would be turned into a normal search engine, the strength of the organic
organisation that emerges from user-generated tagging would be lost.

Other Internet based innovations are social networking spaces. Currently most popular
are personal spaces such as MySpace and Facebook, photo sharing sites such as Flickr
and video sharing sites such as YouTube, where people can share information, photos
and videos. Instant Messaging or “chat” sites such as MSN might be seen by some as
mere text chat sites, that are not much different from the chat sites that were used in the
80s and 90s for synchronous communication (Mason and Bacsich, 1998), but where the
current wave of chat sites differ is that people can communicate in groups, they can
incorporate multimedia files and use VOIP for sound and video communication and the
chat facilities can be integrated themselves on other applications such as social
networking sites. Further, the popularity of iPods has instigated the development of
downloadable music and videofiles called podcasts. These might be seen as an extension
of a radio or a television show. The difference lies in the easy opportunities for
responding by using online tools. With the press of a button and through fairly user-
friendly applications people can be in direct contact with the producer and can produce
and send sound and video files themselves in response, whereas this would have been a
much more elaborate process using traditional media. The latest development are
microblogging sites such as Twitter, which offer the opportunity for the fast passing of
short messages around a network, and, as with other social networking, following the
messages, or “tweets”, of particular interesting people. Networks – Really Simple Syndication (RSS) and The Semantic Web

The emergence of these sites and applications has meant that vast numbers of people
share files and communicate over the Internet, which has created huge information
networks. Really Simple Syndication (RSS) and other software have been developed that
allow people to organise web sites in searchable patterns through the use of tags. The use

of this filtering software to manage the load of information on the Internet is increasing.
Readers and environments to display the results of these aggregators are also in use and
have been developed. Also, in particular communities of interest, people have come to
the fore who do the filtering for other people and send out newsletters on a regular basis.

Tim Berners-Lee and a team of researchers are currently working on an even wider-
reaching organisation of the Web. He started the Semantic Web initiative, which is led
by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C, 2009). His vision was to ensure that routine
tasks related to the Internet no longer have to be carried out by humans, but that the Web
itself will take charge of them. The search engine is one example of this. Matthews
quotes Berners-Lee et al: ‘The semantic Web will bring structure to the meaningful
content on the Web pages, creating an environment where software agents roaming from
page to page can readily carry out sophisticated tasks for users’ (Matthews, 2005, p. 3).
In an interview with The Times Online, Tim Berners-Lee thought a new type of Google,
a big mash-up of applications, might be developed in the future:

Imagine if two completely separate things — your bank statements and your
calendar — spoke the same language and could share information with one
another. You could drag one on top of the other and a whole bunch of dots would
appear showing you when you spent your money. If you still weren't sure of where
you were when you made a particular transaction, you could then drag your photo
album on top of the calendar, and be reminded that you used your credit card at the
same time you were taking pictures of your kids at a theme park. So you would
know not to claim it as a tax deduction.
It's about creating a seamless web of all the data in your life.
(Richards, 2008, p. 1.)
A large research team is working on the development and it is not quite clear what the
impact on education will be. The most likely implications are that there will be more
refined information management and discovery tools, better search facilities for
catalogues of online libraries, better interaction between groups of people, and
applications for e-learning, including sharing learning objects, photos, videos, sound files
will be available over peer to peer networks. Some learning technologists, researchers
and educators (Siemens, 2008b; Downes, 2006; Arina, 2006) advocate that Web 2.0 and
semantic web technologies could be useful in the educational arena as they could foster
informal learning through communication and collaboration with others on online
networks in combination with intelligent recommender systems.

25 Convergence

The convergence of computers, telecommunications, broadcasting, music distribution,

and other media is expected to aid with network-forming, and, according to some, will
change our society forever (NetworkWorld, 2006). We can use mobile phones and
wireless technologies with cameras and state of the art music players “on the hoof”, and
our televisions, computers and telephones are all merging into one system.

Rapid developments in the mobile world means that the applications available only a few
years ago now seem almost prehistoric. The “brick”-size mobile phone that could just be
used to make a crackly phone call has been replaced in today’s era of convergence with
one small pocket size device containing a photo-camera, film camera, music player,
television, office organiser and computer. Palmtop size computers and laptops are also
widely used. The wireless network coverage and convergence of wired-up telephone-
lines, wireless broadband Internet access and wireless phone connections have opened up
a world of developments and innovative opportunities for commerce, consumers, and
educationalists alike. Wagner states:

Whether we like it or not, whether we are ready for it or not, mobile learning
represents the next step in a long tradition of technology-mediated learning. . . . It
responds to the on-demand learning interests of connected citizens in an
information-centric world. It also connects formal educational experiences with
informal, situated learning experience.
(Wagner, 2005, p. 44)
In Australia, Barbaux researched how mobile technology can be used in an educational

The ubiquitous pocket-sized mobile devices are the first digital technologies that
afford a “better fit” between everyday life and learning activities. Like pen and
paper and books did before them, they allow learning to take place in locations and
at a time chosen by the learner.
Barbaux (2006, p. 132)
Barbaux sees this element of choice by the learner as the biggest positive effect of
mobile and wireless technology on education, but also its biggest challenge. It not only
offers new opportunities for learning and communication on a global scale, but the
convergence of learning with everyday life will put the learner in control of the
experience. Learning will have to compete with other time pressures and perhaps with
interesting applications available on the device, which means that the learning

experience will have to be interesting otherwise the learner will choose to do something
else with her time. Of course learners have always made choices about where and how to
learn and how to spend their time, but the scale and availability of a vast amount of
information and communication channels through a small hand held device with the
click of a button makes this different. This might also bring new pedagogical challenges
(Barbaux, 2006). Clearly, the possibilities to customise and personalise learning to an
individual’s needs in combination with the options for communication and networking
on a global scale will challenge the way teachers have taught for centuries.

Broadband and Internet access, including VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol, online
telephone such as Skype), is now accessible on mobile phones, which will push forward
the boundaries and the further development of applications that are currently only
available on computers onto mobile devices, so they can be accessed at any place at any
time at a reasonable price. It is hard to predict what the implications of future
convergence will be for education. In the developments so far, the more applications and
technologies have converged, the lower the access threshold as the technology has
become more intertwined with everyday life.

2.2.6. Access

Governments clearly see the advantages of getting citizens engaged with Information and
Communications Technology (Blair, 2000; WAG, 2002). They call for everyone to have
the opportunity to acquire the necessary skills and to get engaged with ICT, but how can
this be done? Although broadband access has penetrated much of the UK apart from
some black-spots, 30% of the UK population does not have Internet access (National
Statistics, 2008, 2009). 34% of these say they don’t need Internet as it is not useful or not
interesting, while 24% say they just don’t want the Internet. Some still say that the cost is
too high, although that figure has dropped to 15%, while lack of skills has become more
important at 15%. Access has clearly increased compared to the UK figures in 2006,
when 47% did not use the Internet at all and 51% of the people who weren’t using the
Internet felt that they did not need it or did not want to use it, compared to only 17% who
did not know how to use it and 12% who could not afford it. In 2008 65% of UK
households could access Internet from home and of these 65% households, 80% had
broadband Internet access, up from 40% of UK households in 2006 (National Statistics,
2008). Of all home communications technologies, the Internet has the lowest ownership

figures and the highest ‘Voluntarily Excluded’ (no need/do not want) figures (Ofcom,
2008), although more and more people are engaging with the technology.

If we compare these figures with the Welsh adult participation in learning statistics from
the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Aldridge et al, 2007), the people
who do not participate in learning, e.g. people from social classes IV and V (partly
skilled manual and unskilled manual backgrounds) are least likely to have access to the
Internet at home or to access the Internet at all, while the older generation (those aged
55+) are the least predisposed to use the Internet. People over 65 are least likely to access
the internet of all age categories (70%), while 16-24 year olds have all used it (National
Statistics, 2008). The reasons why people do not use the Internet are varied as Table 1
Why do people not use the Internet? (National Statistics, 2008)
Don’t need Internet as is not useful or interesting 34%
Don’t want Internet 24%
Don’t have the right equipment 22%
Lack of skills 15%
The equipment is too expensive 15%
Access cost too high 10%

Table 1 2.2.6. Reasons why people do not use the Internet

People with access to the Internet at home are also most likely to access it elsewhere.
The reluctance to engage with technology is common across the globe as exemplified in
Stanley’s study, looking at the obstacles that prevent socio-economically disadvantaged
people in San Diego achieving basic computer literacy. Although approximately 20% of
the research respondents cited cost, again the vast majority emphasised psychosocial
obstacles, what Stanley refers to as “relevance, comfort zone and self-concept” (Stanley,
2003, p. 2). Whilst it is possible to teach people how to use technology or to give them
access to the technology if they cannot afford it themselves, it will be much harder to
convince the ‘non-believers’ of its potential. If governments are serious about the
potential benefits ICTs can offer to communities they will have a considerable task in
convincing the people that technology has relevance to their lives.

One approach could be to use mobile and wireless technologies to which many people
have access already, for learning, or to increase opportunities using digital interactive

television and reach people in their own homes. Most people prefer to access the Internet
from the comfort of their own home. Another issue preventing access was highlighted by
a study commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES). It identified
problems with the standard Internet interface for a number of non-users, which inspired
Laurillard to start work with the DfES on the development of ‘Cybrarian’, an interface
that will tailor the web to the needs of the individual. (Lamb, J., 2004). The
Massachusetts Institute of Technology is also researching the development of a more
intuitive interface between computer content and human beings and demonstrated for
instance how the computer can be projected and used on any surface available (Mistry,

Davies states that lack of engagement with technology ‘is a social, economic, and
cultural phenomenon, relating to motivation, confidence, assistance and the type of
content available on the Internet’ (Davies, 2005, p. 14). Fahy et al apply Bourdieu’s
concept of cultural capital, indicating that those who most need help in accessing
educational opportunities are most likely to be those who lack skills and hardware to use
the technology (Fahy et al, 2001). It is also important to bear in mind that excluded
communities do not consist solely of groups such as the unemployed and ethnic
minorities. They also encompass rural communities, disabled and older people. For these
groups technology has the potential to offer major benefits for communication and

2.2.7. Young people and technology

The new technological developments have been driven by technology, but also by youth
culture. Although this thesis is related to Adult Education, it has relevance that young
people use technology in the same way as older generations use books, paper and pen.
Marc Prensky was one of the first to argue that current institutions were not designed for
the students of today and tomorrow. He used the “native” and “immigrants” metaphor to
highlight possible distinctions between ‘digital natives’, who have been immersed in
technology all their lives, who are used to these immediate forms of communication with
peers, and who use technology in a very different way from ‘digital immigrants’.

They are used to the instantaneity of hypertext, downloaded music, phones in

their pockets, a library on laptops, beamed messages and instant messaging.
They’ve been networked most of their lives. They have little patience for
lectures, step-by-step logic, and “tell-test” instruction.

(Prensky, 2001, p. 3)
Greenfield mentioned that findings in a recent survey of 8-18 year olds indicate that
children now spend on average 6.5 hours a day using electronic media and be ‘multi-
tasking’ (using more than one device at the same time) for up to 8.5 hours a day
(Greenfield, 2006). She is concerned that the way young people use technology will
cause major changes in the way we learn: ‘The brain is very sensitive to what happens in
the environment, so we are going to be changing quite a lot because of information, bio
and nano-technology’ (Greenfield quoted in Keating, 2006, p. 1.; Greenfield, 2004).
Greenfield (2004) anticipated major changes and problems in the workplace as the
discrepancy between the young, ‘who speak IT as a first language’, and the older ones,
who do not, will cause friction as the young will increasingly feel that the old do not get
the best out of the technology and hold back new development and innovations.

However, these ideas are contested and refuted by current research (Bennett, 2008;
Bullen, 2009). Selwyn argues that the evidence is not yet available to show that the
young are engaging in a transformative way with technology but posits instead that they
use it in a mundane way and that they do not necessarily engage with technology at all
(Selwyn, 2006). UK National Statistics show that 96% of 16-24 year olds used the
Internet in the first quarter of 2009, while older people have a much lower access level,
e.g. 72% for people between the ages of 55 and 65, 30% for people over 65 (National
Statistics, 2009). This shows that the heaviest use of the Internet is by young people, but
does not necessarily indicate the level of engagement with any other applications than
contacting friends, looking for information or revealing issues about themselves in
personal space such as MySpace, or YouTube. Bennett et al (2008, p. 775) carried out a
critical review of the literature related to the ‘digital natives’ debate and likened it ‘to an
academic form of a “moral panic”, as they found a profound lack of empirical and
theoretical evidence to indicate that learners have actually changed all that much or for
the need of a changed educational system. They found a high number of position papers,
such as the one by Prensky, which had been used to highlight claims of change in young
people’s behaviour, but empirical research has been lacking and has only recently been
carried out. Bullen et al (2009) published research in which they showed that there is no
generational difference in use of the Web.

2.2.8. Technology as part of everyday existence - Identity

Technology seems to have become increasingly integrated in our existence. Heidegger

(1977) explored the principle of “ready-to-hand”: (Zuhandenheit), the way in which tools
in the hand of a human being nearly become part of that human. Standish mentioned that
we don’t realise how tools have become part of our existence until they stop working.
The car and the computer are prime examples (Standish, 2000). Another example is how
people experience immersive environments such as computer games. They use keyboard
and mouse unconsciously and are only partially aware what happens around them; they
reach a “flow state” (Metros, 2001) in which they lose awareness of the physical world
around them, and get totally absorbed in the playful activity. Bass states that ‘this kind of
multi-sensory computer design that resulted in some of the really basic components of
human-computer interaction, such as the mouse and the “drag and drop” file and
directory structure was based on a fundamental belief in the potential “fluidity”; between
human thinking and thinking technologies’ (Bass, 1999, p. 1). As McCarthy and Wright
(2004) point out, technological developers take into consideration the overall impression,
feelings, interactions that a user has; they make an effort to support the creation of
relationships with individuals and create an environment that connects on an emotional
level. This close connection between people and technology has raised questions and
concern about possible changes in identity in the “real” and face-to-face world.

According to Owen et al (2006) the two most important aspects in the shaping of our
identity while participating in online experiences are the interrelation of real and virtual
identities, and the way we construct our identity through producing and consuming
digital content. The “new” Internet offers us opportunities not only to have a real
identity, but also to invent a new one. Virtual reality games and related developments
such as “Second Life” thrive on this. Also in online communities and shared spaces such
as Flickr people provide feedback on actions, interactions, images and text, which
encourages reflection and adaptation of identity. The Internet can hide a person’s gender,
race, appearance or class, which has been seen to some as advantageous as this can take
away prejudices that exist in the actual world (Turkle, 1995).

Owen et al clarify that the virtual identity is inextricably linked to the offline identity.
Even if people sometimes play-act on the web, the online world is constructed in the

context of the real world (Owen et al, 2006). Online activities influence and possibly
colour our view of the world and one can assume that this process started with the
introduction of television. Baudrillard highlighted the “viral” development online
through applications such as Second Life and social networking sites such as Facebook
and YouTube where people make virtual “friends” and have been known to make money
out of selling their personae (Walters & Kop, 2009). The online self could differ from the
self in real life and start to lead a life of its own.

2.2.9. Post Modernism

Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition put forward a convincing argument

showing that the purpose of knowledge has changed in a changing world. His book
analysed the status of knowledge and the way it has transformed under the influence of
technology. In modernity the production and distribution of knowledge was justified in
relation to “grand narratives”, such as communism, social democracy, ones related to
religion – and narratives which incorporate the pursuit of truth, liberty and the betterment
of humanity. In postmodernity, he argues, knowledge is increasingly commodified: the
acquisition of knowledge is no longer an end in itself as it was previously, but has
become a commodity that can be bought and sold and that has exchange value. Scientific
knowledge in terms of its functions of research and education are judged and legitimised
by the way they relate to the performance of society; the principles of scientific
investigation have come under the influence of performativity. The validity of
knowledge is now judged by the way it relates to the performance of society. Spencer

Postmodernists contend that the search for an overarching philosophical world-

view based on truth and ethical purpose is illusory and doomed. They challenge the
post Enlightenment perspective that knowledge is liberating, that it is valuable for
its own sake and that educators are taking part in a great civilising mission to
encourage individual critical enquiry.
(Spencer, 2004, p. 9).
Lyotard questioned old certainties about ‘who decides what knowledge is, and who
knows what needs to be decided. In the computer age the question of knowledge is now
more than ever a question of government’ (Lyotard, 1984, p. 9). While in the past the
university would have been the authority in matters of knowledge, there are currently
multiple sources of authority (Siemens, 2006b; Delanty, 2001). In addition to the

university, governments, think-tanks and independent researchers have become
authorities on knowledge.

Lyotard argued that these developments have had a profound influence on the nature of
knowledge. As education is now concerned with providing people with the skills and
knowledge to function well in society’s institutions, rather than being an end in itself,
educational processes and curriculum content are changing considerably. The traditional
emphasis on knowledge organised in disciplines has been modified to encompass a
number of disciplines as well as key skills for employment and generic skills.
Lyotard envisaged that the teaching of subject knowledge might in the future be taken
over by new technologies, while teachers input would lie with providing learners with
the skills to use Information and Communication Technology effectively. He predicted
the demise of the role and the status of the professor as the authority of knowledge would
move towards other institutions. Teaching people how to access information sources and
how to evaluate information found, not only for the sake of its “truth”, but increasingly
for its use value would be at the heart of education.

Profound developments have indeed taken place in the field of ICT, notably the growth
in Internet use and the changes the Internet and broadband and wireless technology have
brought to accessing information and facilitating communication. As Lankshear et al
argue, ‘practices involving new ICTs and, notably, the Internet, occurring within non-
formal and non-educational sites have crucial significance for how we think about
knowledge and truth, and about their relationship to educational work’ (Lankshear et al,
2000, p. 25). Spencer argues that it is ‘the nature of knowledge itself not just the process
of delivery which has changed’ (Spencer, 2004, p.9).

Spencer discussed the shift from liberal adult education towards postmodern ways of
thinking and describes some critical views (Spencer, 2004, p. 7), e.g. by Taylor et al who
criticized postmodernism as ‘dangerous or ignorant or both’ and argued that it provides a
‘theoretical gloss’ for determinist views on technological change and apologies for ‘free
market cultures’. They called for institutions to revitalise Enlightenment humanism. On
the other end of the scale one finds people who attack postmodernism with a utopian
stance, and feel that the potential of ICT for knowledge creation is not emphasised
enough. Raschke (2003, p.102) compared ‘traditional teaching to listening to a Mahler

symphony on a CD player with headphones while online education is comparable to
playing the violin in the orchestra’. This is an analogy that would appeal to Downes and
Siemens who both argue that connecting to people in online networks and to online
information enhances knowledge creation (Siemens, 2006c; Downes, 2006) as the
forming of networks and extensive communication in communities of interest will
generate new ideas and a joint quest for new concepts. In section the different
views of knowledge will be discussed and analysed as the view that knowledge can be
created and constructed is contested.

Sim (2001, p. 40) discussed another one of Lyotard’s dislikes for computers, namely the
way they facilitate the thinking process. She highlighted how they are driven too much
by performativity rather than by the unpredictability of human thought. ‘In what we call
thinking the mind isn’t “directed” but suspended. You don’t give it rules. You teach it to
receive.’ Sim further explained: ‘Computers on the other hand are so directed, and lack
the element of rule-defying creativity-or, for that matter, sheer bloody-minded
contrariness that is built into the fabric of the human. Without such creativity, Lyotard
contends, thinking cannot transpire’ (Sim, 2001, p. 40). What is education for?

In a time of profound change it would be wise to reflect on the question “What is

education for?” Philosophers of education throughout the ages have pondered this
question, and the main issues identified were: the involvement of the state in education,
who should be educated, and if education should be a social endeavour or if it should be
tailored towards individual interests and abilities (Noddings, 1998). Some would argue
that the function of education is to facilitate individual growth in a person, who can then
live wisely and serve the wider community (Wheelahan, 2005; Midgley, 1989). Liberal
adult educators would argue that education is still the route to emancipation and social
change (Delanty, 2001). In a postmodern society, however, governments invest most
educational funding in upgrading the skills of the population in order for the country to
compete in a global market. Even though politicians aspire to education for social justice
in their rhetoric, in reality the majority of the money is spent on skills development
(Blunkett, 1998; Leitch, 2006).

34 Government Policy

Governments in the developed world have seen the importance of ICT in the
advancement of the “knowledge economy” and in aid of economic development. The
European Heads of State committed themselves in Lisbon in 2000 ‘to make Europe the
world's most competitive and dynamic economy, characterised by sustainable growth,
more and better jobs and greater social cohesion, by 2010’ (Commission of EU, 2003, p.

The British government emphasized the importance of enabling the UK to engage with
technology: ‘Digital engagement is important because it can improve people’s lives,
opening doors to things that really matter, such as education, jobs, entrepreneurial
innovation, entertainment and making contact with family and friends’ (Cabinet Office,

The Welsh Assembly Government has embraced the opportunities Information and
Communication Technologies offer to the people of Wales and set out its vision with
regard to ICT in its strategic framework Online for a Better Wales. It offers a positive
view on how the development and integration of ICT in all walks of life could have a
profound impact on Welsh communities. The Welsh Assembly Government wants Wales
to be:

United through the use of ICT, confident in promoting our achievements on the
world stage and be creative in exploiting ICT for the benefits of individuals,
communities and business. . . . Active in its use of ICT in local communities, where
the voice of local people is heard and Fairer- a place where everyone is valued and
ICT is used to give everyone an opportunity to play a full part.
(WAG, 2002, p. 3, bold in original)
At all policy levels (European, UK-wide and Wales-wide) strategies have been
developed for the integration of ICT in areas of development in education, economic
development, communication with the public, health care, and funding has been made
available to ensure ICT infrastructure will be accessible to the public in libraries and
schools (Kop & Woodward, 2004).

The Welsh Assembly Government, for example, has shown its commitment to improving
the use of ICT in Welsh communities by piloting funding programmes such as

Communities@One, which was linked to the Communities First initiative for the
development of communities, and which provided community groups with funding
opportunities to use technology for engaging with local people, while raising awareness
of online services and facilities. Another area of development emphasized in its strategic
programme was the need of ICT skills for all, and European structural funding has been
targeted to develop individuals’ ICT skills in Wales. The development of a Wales-wide
ICT infrastructure was also underlined as a priority and initiatives such as “Broadband
Wales” provided subsidised broadband internet access to small and medium-sized
enterprises, and “The People’s Network” offered free Internet access in all libraries in
Wales. European structural funding has been extensively used to provide ICT equipment
and broadband Internet access in local community centres through projects such as
“Connecting Communities Cymru” (Kop & Trotman, 2002).

Furthermore, e-Learning strategies have been developed to encourage the increase of

flexible and accessible online courses in the UK (DfES, 2005), and Wales in particular,
as it is a country with a dispersed population. The Welsh strategy holds 14 objectives
based on enhancing connectivity, content, confidence and competence in using ICT for
learning (WAG, 2004). What all policy documents have in common is a deterministic
view of technology and e-learning. Without exception they promote e-learning as a
positive step towards social inclusion and widening participation in learning (Gulati,
2006). Selwyn, who has extensively researched the use of ICT for social inclusion, is not
impressed with the mismatch between government rhetoric and real achievements in
overcoming social exclusion by using ICT. He feels that there is too much emphasis in
the debate on what ICT could do, rather than what it is actually achieving, which in his
view is compounded by the utopian visions of academics and policymakers alike
(Selwyn, 2006).

Claude Fischer, predicting the role of technology in daily life, wrote: ‘We cannot assume
that people use a technology because “it is there” or because it is “obviously”
advantageous. . . .We need to ask how and why purposeful actors choose to adopt
specific technologies and what they do with them’ (Fischer, 1985, p. 284). This will be
the key of engaging people with technology as Neil Selwyn also emphasized in a paper
on social inclusion, technology and young people (Selwyn 2006, p. 5.). He

acknowledged that some of the latest “bottom-up” approaches by governments have
resulted in the development of online communities for young people where they can
express their concern about the environment, education and political representation. He
would like to see ‘genuine efforts to empower young people to use ICTs for what are
truly their own modes of participation in society, rather than the continued pursuit of
official “digital divide” agendas based around macro-level interests of state, economy
and polity’. Education – formal learning to embrace informal learning?

The transformation of society by technology in the past 25 years has been all-embracing:
There are few workplaces in the country that have avoided using computers to streamline
the organisation, to increase choices for customers, to facilitate the automation, for better
or for worse, of customer service systems. The globalising effects of network-forming
and information systems on commerce have been immense. The effect of convergence on
entertainment is currently changing and shaping the way we will amuse ourselves in the
future. The education world has not managed to escape the influences of new
technologies. Governments have developed strategies to embed technology into
education and invested vast amounts of money to do so (WAG, 2002; DfES, 2005). The
uncomplicated way in which communication, multimedia and information sources can be
linked today is having an impact on education. Responses by teachers, tutors and
lecturers have been ambivalent. Standish shows some of the problems teachers identified
in relation to ICT:

The transformative power of the Internet for education should not be in doubt. But
neither is it doubted by many of those who fear its effects. Their hostility relates to
the potential of the Internet to reduce knowledge to information, to displace the
immediacy of classroom interaction, or to fragment and depersonalise learning.
(Standish, 2000, p. 153)
As the pace of change is fast it is hard for teaching staff to keep up with the changes.
Not all people see problems; some observers of the developments feel we should
embrace change and suggest that to get the best out of the new media, it is important to
let go of the traditional class-room ways of teaching and learning altogether and look at
teaching in a new light (Bereiter, 2002; Lankshear & Knobel, 2003; Lee, 2000, Siemens,
2008b). Lankshear and Knobel refer to school classrooms, saying that

all sort of contrived practices have been created in order to find ways to
accommodating new technologies to classroom “ways”. It has wasted the
potential of new technologies to provide bridges to new forms of social
and cultural practice.
(Lankshear & Knobel, 2003, p. 1)
Lee and Scardamalia and Bereiter are concerned that educational institutions do not take
enough notice of the ways in which learners use technology outside an educational
environment (Lee, 2000; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994). Lee identifies in the teenagers
of today a way of “chaotic” learning,

happily venturing into the unknown, and learning as they “do” and discover. . .
.The “Net” users appear at ease handling a variety of tasks at once, and moving
from one activity to another in a seemingly random manner. [They] not only make
extensive use of the electronic networks, but network with like minded folk across
the world in their learning.
(Lee, 2000, p. 1)
Moreover, the future possibilities of the Semantic Web with its ability to “understand”
information (Matthews, 2005) will have a profound effect on the role of humans in
developing and creating knowledge. The organisation of information and communication
into searchable and interlinked systems has become crucial and is seen to change the
overload of information into manageable systems. The business world has grasped the
potential fragmentation of knowledge and devised data and information capturing
systems that not only store, but also connect information, knowledge management
systems, in order to capture valuable knowledge in the workplace (Kidd, 2002). Downes
points out that knowledge acquisition does require evaluation and assimilation (Downes,
2003) while Drucker, when discussing e-Learning in the business sector, argues that
‘success depends less on the amount of information you have than on the number of
connections you can form and reform to link information and people’ (Drucker, 2000, p.
6). For information to transform into knowledge, human thinking and interaction will be
required. Furthermore, as Gulati (2003) and Selwyn and Gorard (2004) argue, for ICT-
assisted learning to really become effective, formal learning needs to be complemented
with informal online learning as students need opportunities to relate what they learn to
their own context.

In many education institutions a Virtual Learning Environment has been added to the
physical learning space and electronic libraries and knowledge banks are supplementing
their physical counterparts. Moreover, Web 2.0 technologies have made their way into

educational institutions and some learning technologists (Arina, 2006; Wilson et al,
2006; Lankshear & Knobel, 2006) envisage how they can be used to move from a
hierarchical teaching approach that is structured in courses, controlled by the institution
using a lecturing model in an enclosed environment, accumulating individual knowledge,
to a networked approach that is adaptive to learners’ needs, that uses an aggregation
model in a personalised open learning environment, that is a fluid extension of the wider
informal personal space and that facilitates a new way of knowing and learning.

A transition to the latter model could clearly lead to an undermining of the authority of
the knowledge-keepers of the past as people can communicate and find knowledgeable
others on a global scale, can collaborate informally on knowledge creation projects such
as wikis, and discuss topics of interest with others, while at the same time connect this to
information that is readily available. They can bypass academia altogether. Social tools
are already called disruptive technologies as they are changing the work-practices of
journalists and broadcasters and might also change educational practice (Kop, 2007).


Over the past decades Information and Communication Technology has changed
dramatically. Twenty years ago most computers were used to create efficiency in the
office, but ICT development has now moved very much into the realm of the home.
People used to use technology for writing letters, creating spreadsheets or databases and
perhaps emails, but now technology facilitates communication and the sharing of
information, documents and images on a global scale in a host of new ways. The move
away from connecting via dial-up telephony to Internet based protocols, and the
widespread availability and use of broadband has been one important factor in this
development. The other has been the playfulness and imagination especially of young
people when using the technology, which has led to a creative boom and the development
of more inventive applications.

The explosion of mobile phone photography, blogs and wikis and their fast distribution
and linkage via RSS feeds to networks of people in the blogosphere has already had its
influence on the traditional media, even disrupted them and pushed their development
into new directions, and changed their communication from a “broadcasting” to a “many
to many” format (Huffington, 2006).

Adult educators have been reluctant to engage with these technological developments
and have more likely than not seen them as undermining the traditions of adult education
(Martin, 2006). Technology has been too widely used by politicians to push for an
economic discourse with an agenda of upskilling the workforce (Blair, 2000; Leitch,
2006), something which took concrete shape in the vocationalisation of the curriculum.
Moreover, the naïve enthusiasm of learning technologists and the failure of initial high-
profile and well-funded e-learning programmes (Bacsich & Bristow, 2004) also
contributed to a scepticism of what ICT could offer adult education.

The discourses of adult education, such as the social purpose tradition and liberal adult
education, have been marginalised in favour of one promoting economic competitiveness
and free-trade globalization in recent years – lifelong learning in what has been termed a
“learning society”, rather than adult education for social change. Learning opportunities are
being created away from institutions in community centres, the workplace, at home.
Technology has accelerated this development and the effect of the latest Internet
technologies, and the possibilities they offer for personalization, community and network-
forming, are seen as drivers for further change in adult education.

2.3.1. Adult Education and new technologies

In Europe, the UK and Wales e-Learning strategies have been developed (WAG, 2004),
which contain objectives based on enhancing connectivity of individuals and institutions,
content of online courses, confidence and competence of people in using ICT for
learning. The European Union commissioned extensive research in the effective use of
technology in education, and innovation in education through the use of technology in
Framework 5, 6 and 7. Extensive research and development projects in the use of ICT in
teaching and learning, and in how teaching and learning can be innovated and supported
through ICT have also been carried out through funding by Joint Information Systems
Committee (JISC), funded by UK governments.

E-learning sparked the imagination of governments who could see a return on

investments because of expected economies of scale. This was shown to be an expensive
mistake at the height of the “”-boom in 2000, when the then UK Secretary of
State for Education David Blunkett launched the UK eUniversities Worldwide project,
investing £55 million and expecting to attract a million students by 2010. It was

envisaged that the future would lie in online learning, but after it only managed to attract
900 students by 2004 the project was abandoned (Bacsich & Bristow, 2004). One could
argue that a project of this size and nature needs more time to develop. It was also taking
place at a time that the majority of the population did not have access to computers and
might not have had the confidence and competence to study online (National Statistics,
2002). Gradually more people purchased computers and as funding for ICT
infrastructure in institutions, libraries, community schools and community centres
ensured ICT competence and a growing confidence in using ICTs in the general
population, ICT enthusiasts started developing their first online courses.

Clarke argued that it is important to address access issues and to realise that e-learning
cannot only be seen as a cheap educational fix : ‘in order for online learning to fulfil its
potential, the needs of disadvantaged individuals and communities must be carefully
considered and the use of online methods tailored to meet these needs’ (Clarke, 2002, p.
3). This is also emphasised in numerous publications by Selwyn and Gorard in their
research on adults and ICT (Selwyn & Gorard, 2002; Selwyn & Gorard, 2004; Selwyn et
al, 2005).

Some commonly used technologies are not perceived as learning tools by students. For
example, mobile phone texting, social networking tools such as Facebook and messaging
tools such as MSN are commonly used but may not be associated with formal learning.
Attewell in her research on mobile learning has suggested that integrating the technology
that students use in their daily life and giving value to for instance mobile phones and
chat, can help non-traditional learners fight resistance to the use of ICT in formal
education (Attewell, 2005).

In traditional “brick and mortar” universities the first online courses mimicked the face-
to-face classroom environment and were later developed and commercialised into
Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) and integrated in institutional administration and
management systems. Gulati questioned the wisdom of the purchase of VLEs by 86.3%
of UK Colleges and Universities by 2003 without too much evidence on how these
would actually improve the learning experience of students. It is only in recent years that
research in the use of VLEs has been carried out (Gulati, 2006; Weller, 2010).

In distance education institutions, such as the Open University in the UK, the VLE was
introduced as part of a progression via a long road of development in communication
with students. Educators there researched and developed communication structures with
students, which progressed from tutorials and telephone conferencing systems in the 70s
to synchronous and asynchronous computer mediated communication systems. These
evolved (Mason and Bacsich, 1998; Mason & Kaye, 1989) to more sophisticated systems
linked to resources in the 90s and their Moodle system with First Class and social media
applications today.

In the past three years, as the Web 2.0 tools are coming of age and mobile technologies
have been introduced in the educational field, other strategies are being tested. Learning
Technologists have been instrumental in the debate on teaching and learning, as the
technology used in a learning environment determines what type of interaction between
learners and tutors will be possible in a technology-rich environment. A number of
different theories of knowledge and learning have come to the fore under the influence of
new developments in ICT.

2.3.2. The learning space

The way we teach and learn is influenced by a number of factors and as already
mentioned in the introduction, “the place” in which teaching and learning takes place
influences the process. The virtual learning space could be perceived to be different from
more traditional sites of learning, which induces a different learning experience.

Peters (1999) described some of the characteristics of the virtual learning space: the
locations are not set, they are not surrounded by walls, but are open and infinite; people
can access learning spaces all over the world and people all over the globe, and the
amount of information is limitless; the distances between the people involved are
variable and varied – one moment people could be interacting with somebody from
another country, in another the interaction could be with friends in the same town.
Distances do not have an effect on the interaction, and the spaces appear more value-
neutral than in the traditional learning environment, and do not have a quality of
experience comparable with real spaces. The familiar spatial patterns are missing: left,
right, top, bottom don’t matter, it is the hyperlink that connects. In the words of Turkle:
all representation is ‘liberated from the constraints of physical reality’ (Turkle, 1995, p.

103) and for the viewer a new virtual world comes into existence with infinite
possibilities to learn. People can interact with objects or get immersed in playing a game.
They can communicate with their tutor as if they sit opposite them, seemingly closer than
in a lecture theatre.

Such enormous change in a relatively short space of time has an effect on the confidence
of the people involved. Older people, whose experience of teaching and learning has
been steeped in traditional teaching approaches will question the need for change. Of
course, the mindset of the people involved is an important factor. A tutor who has had all
her education in the traditional way, will need to be convinced that the new way of
teaching is valuable. On the other hand, the mindset of people born into the age of ICT,
who have been immersed in technology all their lives, will already be adapted to rapid
developments (Frand, 2000).

Teaching and learning is not only influenced by the space in which it takes place, or the
traditions in which they developed, but also by the views of the people who design the
learning opportunity and who work in the classroom.

2.3.3. Theories of mind, knowledge and (online) learning

Leach et al (1999) at the Open University adapted Alexander’s framework to give a good
overview, not only of the observable influences on institutional teaching practice, such as
the subjects taught, the administration and pedagogy used, but also of the views, cultures
and beliefs that act upon the curriculum in a more subtle way. These influences are not
always obvious in day-to-day practice, but teachers are steeped in ideas, beliefs and
cultures that influence teaching and learning; ideas rooted in past traditions but still
evolving. Figure 1 highlights the influences on educational practice.

Figure 1 2.3.3. Influences on education practices (Adapted from Leach et al, 1999)

Leach et al posit that values and beliefs of educators and those managing educational
institutions have an impact on activities taking place in teaching and learning settings.
The views on mind, knowledge and learning of educators will influence how people
teach, while teachers’ and learners’ context, interests and experience will also have an
influence on class room practice. Leach et al (1999, p. 9.) raise some key questions in
relation to education: ‘What is an educated person? Why should learners be educated in
this way? What should learners learn? And how should it be learned, taught and
assessed’? Their framework only deals with formal education based in an institution, but
as technology affords possibilities for different, more informal and personalised learning,
an informal, networked approach of learning will also be taken into account.

An important aspect of understanding how people learn is informed by psychology and

before considering the theories of the mind relevant to this thesis a brief outline of the
main developments in the discipline will be outlined.

Psychology as an experimental science began in the late nineteenth century with the
work of Wundt, James, and others and this was closely followed by the inauguration of
Freud’s method of psychoanalysis. Both of these approaches drew on a dualistic module

of the reality which posited the conscious mind as a reality on a par with the physical
world of matter and energy. (Lyons, 2001)

In the early twentieth century, Watson launched the behaviourist approach to psychology
in reaction to the perceived lack of success and objectivity of both the subjective
approach of Freud and the introspective studies of Wundt. Behaviourism emphasised the
method of laboratory based animal experiments which avoided any reference to the
conscious mind and focussed attention on the relationship between behaviour and the
environment. Behaviourist methodology had much in common with philosophical
positivism and dominated academic psychology until the second half of the twentieth
century. This broadly biological approach to psychology has much in common with
evolution as an explanation in psychology which has become important in recent
decades. (Lyons, 2001)

Behaviourism’s dominance began to decline with the powerful criticism of the

behaviourist model of language acquisition by the linguist Noam Chomsky. (Lyons,
2001) Technological developments during and after the second world war helped to
renew interest in psychological explanations involving mental states and representations.
The rise of computer science, ideas about information processing, and developments in
neuroscience led to the development of the broad field of cognitive science. (Lyons,
2001) A recent influential trend in cognitive science, influenced by ecology, is the
consideration of the importance of the environment in addition to the mind and body –
situated cognition (Robbins & Aydede, 2008) .

The thesis will mostly focus on aspects of the cognitive science picture of the mind – the
symbol processing / computational model and the situated view - although some
reference to behaviourism will be made. Theories of mind

Education theorists grappling with the way the mind works have asked a number of
questions to establish what influences our learning: How important is the world “inside”
our minds when we come to grips with the social processes and artefacts around us?
How important is context in the way we acquire knowledge? Educationalists have
wondered about the importance of our answers to these questions in devising strategies

for teaching and learning. The two theoretical traditions within cognitive science already
identified for further discussion of this issue are: 1. The “symbol-processing” or
“computational” view of mind. The focus of theorists in this tradition has been to
understand learning in terms of an individual’s internal mental processing and the
symbolic representations of mind. 2. The “situated” view of mind or “culturalism”. In the
situated approach theorists see human knowledge and interaction as inseparable from the
world in which they operate. (Bruner, 1999) The symbol-processing view of mind

Bredo explored the symbol-processing view of mind and provided following definition:
‘The human brain is seen as an information processing system that receives
encoded messages through its sensory and motor connections, which interact with
information held in its memory, to make sense of them by creating a symbol
representation of the problem and using heuristics to identify solutions.’
(Bredo, 1999, p. 28.)
He identified three dualisms on which this approach is based, Firstly a separation of
language and reality. The symbol-processing view of mind accepts that symbols mirror
reality. Knowledge is seen as a store of representations, which can be translated into
language, which can then be used for reasoning. The only way to find out if our
representations of the world are correct is by checking them against the world, which is
difficult in this view, as our only contact with the world is via these representations. The
second dualism on which the computational view of mind is based, is the separation of
mind and body. All learning is seen in terms of conceptual processes located in the
individual’s head, without physical interaction with the surroundings. Bredo describes
as the third dualism the split between the individual and society. In the symbol-
processing perspective thinking, learning and development are seen as processes taking
place inside the individual, with social influences coming from the outside. There is a
separation of the learner from the environment, with the learner seen as acting on the
environment, rather than as being immersed in it. There is a divide between the knower
and the known.

Bruner saw this view as involved with information processing: ‘how finite, coded,
unambiguous information about the world is inscribed, sorted, collated, retrieved, and
generally managed by a computational device.’ (Bruner, 1999, p. 148) In his view this is
not the only way the mind works.

46 The situated view of mind

Bruner argued that the symbol-processing theory of mind might not offer enough of a
view on how the mind works as ‘the process of knowing is often messier, more fraught
with ambiguity than such a view allows.’ He also highlighted that how the mind works
might depend on the tools it has at its disposal and that with the addition of computers to
books in recent years we might ‘change our mind on how mind works.’ Bruner further
argued that the mind would not exist without culture and that human knowledge and
interaction are inseparable from the world. ‘Although meanings are in the mind, they
find their origin and meaning in the community in which they were created. . . . It is
culture that provides the tools for organizing and understanding our worlds in
communicable ways’ (Bruner, 1999, p. 148-149). The mind is both represented by and
realized in the use of human culture. This mode is not only shared by a community, but
also passed on from generation to generation to maintain a culture’s way of life and
identity. Meanings are in the mind, but they find their origin and meaning in the
community in which they were created. Human knowledge and interaction are
inseparable from the world. The biological view

If we compare these views of mind with biological theories of the brain, starting with the
view of Galton in 1869, who argued that human intelligence was largely a matter of
genetic inheritance, we can conclude that views have changed considerably over the

The belief in innate capacities has influenced what was taught, who was taught and how
subjects were taught for many years. Research into the effects of coaching and practice
on IQ test results has challenged the belief in innate ability. In their argument for the
provision of opportunities for all, rather than only to support people with great aptitude
for music, Sloboda et al explained how early learning opportunities in music increase
musical ability greatly (Sloboda et al, 1999). Edelman who studied the nervous system in
detail, saw the mind as a mechanism that continuously communicates through the active
maps of the brain and he saw experience as active and constructed by the individual
(Sacks, 1999). This is in line with the situated view of mind, which sees the learner
acting with rather than on the environment. It is in contrast to the symbol-processing

view of mind and memory as a database. It also resonates with Resnick’s view of a brain
as being “plastic”: it will change through intellectual activity (Leach et al, 1999). Theories of knowledge

The Wikipedia described “knowledge” as:

what is known. Like the related concepts truth, belief, and wisdom, there is no
single definition of knowledge on which scholars agree, but rather numerous
theories and continued debate about the nature of knowledge. Knowledge
acquisition involves complex cognitive processes: perception, learning,
communication, association, and reasoning. The term knowledge is also used to
mean the confident understanding of a subject, potentially with the ability to use it
for a specific purpose. . . . Knowledge is the awareness and understanding of facts,
truths or information gained in the form of experience or learning “a posteriori”, or
through introspection “a priori”. Knowledge is an appreciation of the possession of
interconnected details which, in isolation, are of lesser value.
(Wikipedia, 2007)

This was its definition in 2007. The description of knowledge today (January 2010) in
the Wikipedia is quite different. The Wikipedia is a “wiki”, a social software application,
which according to its enthusiasts allows for “collective knowledge creation”. The
Wikipedia has been produced by the collective effort of numerous people all over the
globe. The following section will expand on the possible changes to knowledge that the
emergence of new technologies has brought about, but this definition of knowledge
illustrates how the concept of knowledge is currently contested.

Throughout the ages the concept of knowledge has been defined in different ways. The
earliest accounts of discussions on knowledge, which I will throughout this thesis refer to
as “traditional knowledge” were associated with Plato’s Republic (Lewis, 1999). Plato
made the distinction between episteme, knowledge, which was valued highly as it was
considered to be pure truth, and which was reached by means of intelligence and reason,
exemplified in mathematics. Doxa on the other hand was “opinion”, and included the
visible physical realm, culture, that could never be “true knowledge”. Knowledge was
identified with justified true belief and has a reliability that belief does not have (O’Hara,
2002; Delanty, 2001).

This idea was developed by the classical thinkers of antiquity and the medieval scholars
(Hadot, 2002) but even today there is an important sense in which Plato’s definition of

knowledge is still considered to capture an important aspect of the concept of knowledge
(Boghossian,2007; Gutting, 2009) . However, this changed in emphasis and detail
substantially with the invention of the printing press.

Since the Enlightenment and in the era of “mass print literacy”, the textbook was the
medium of instruction and the prime goal of the education system was effective
transmission of the canons of scholarship. This traditional form of knowledge was
shaped inside the university, which meant that universities were the authority of
knowledge. Knowledge was closely related to the sciences and seen to be objective,
based on facts. In the more human areas of science, e.g. ecology and psychology, the
objectivity started to be lost to a certain extent as the context in which these domains
were situated were seen to play a more prominent role. Usher et al state that

postmodernism enables a questioning of the scientific attitude and scientific

method, of the universal efficacy of technical-instrumental reason, and of the
stance of objectivity and value-neutrality in the making of knowledge claims.
(Usher et al, 1997, p.7)
In late modernity, in addition to traditional knowledge, “useful knowledge” became more
prominent. Knowledge became commodified and its main value was to be its usefulness
to society (Wheelahan, 2005; Delanty, 2001); the application of knowledge, which is
problem-driven and characterised by the context of its application. It crosses boundaries
of disciplines, is seen by some to be more creative and less hierarchical than traditional
knowledge, and is shaped outside the university (Wheelahan, 2005). ‘Traditional
knowledge is homogenous and relatively autonomous. Useful knowledge is
heterogeneous and, it is claimed, more socially accountable and reflexive’ (Delanty,
2001, p. 110).

Some argue that the authority of particular people in developing knowledge has been
influenced by the circumstances of the time. Gandel et al (2004) stated that in antiquity
the scarcity of written material ensured a highly controlled environment. Knowledge
dissemination was slow and access to knowledge and learning was restricted to the
privileged elite. The prevailing technologies did not allow for extensive distribution until
printing was invented and developed (Gandel et al, 2004). At that time the need for
expertise in social and economic development required universities to be developed, but
mainly disciplinary knowledge was valued and taught. Guy argued that ‘the debate –

indeed the war – over what counts as knowledge is intrinsically linked to who gets to say
what counts as knowledge’ and that the people who were the authority on knowledge
throughout the ages might have only shown one part of the knowledge picture because of
the context in which they operated (Guy, 2004, p. 142). Does this imply that a different
type of knowledge is called for?

Barnett (2004) had his own interpretations of knowledge in relation to uncertainty

and change. He would like to see curriculum and pedagogy to move away from
knowledge and skills to be a “pedagogy for human beings”. He discussed a third
form of knowledge which would involve learners thinking about and confronting
themselves with the uncertainties and dilemmas in their lives and in their field of
knowledge, in which the human being itself is implicated. This is similar to ideas
by Beck (1986) and Jansen & van der Veen (1992) on learning in the Risk
Society. Delanty broadened this from individual learners to society and
institutions: ‘By knowledge I mean the capacity of a society for learning, a
cognitive capacity that is related to the production of cultural models and
institutional innovation’ (Delanty, 2001, p. 5). He particularly referred to the way
knowledge has penetrated all areas of life. The notion of a knowledge society has
developed at a time when the distance between professional and lay knowledge
has diminished.

Wheelahan, when discussing vocational education, indicates that a person needs all three
modes of knowledge to live in an ever changing world:
Learning that is entirely based in the work-place or in the educational institution is
inadequate – both are needed, and students need to be able to make connections
between them. This provides the scaffolding students can use to consider
propositional knowledge – it is not to be learnt for its own sake or as dead
knowledge, but as an intellectual tool to be used in practice.
(Wheelahan, 2005, p. 639)
The Internet has added fuel to the debate on knowledge as learning technologists can see
a different form of knowledge emerging through the connective nature of new Internet
tools. Downes speaks of ‘connected knowledge’, Siemens of ‘Connectivism’. They argue
that ‘knowledge … is distributive, that is, not located in any given place (and therefore
not ‘transferred’ or ‘transacted’ per se) but rather consists of the network of connections

formed from experience and interactions with a knowing community’ (Downes, 2006, p.

The third form of knowledge, as defined by Barnett and Wheelahan (2005), and ideas of
distributive knowledge are contested. Paul Boghossian (2007) for instance rejects these
forms of knowledge. He emphasises the need for knowledge to be objective. He
particularly values ‘universality’ and ‘mind-independence’ of knowledge. In addition, he
sees ‘justified true belief’ as the best definition of ‘knowledge’ and rejects knowledge as
‘socially constructed’. He does not deny that knowledge could be produced
collaboratively, or that people’s social and political values may influence the knowledge
they produce; but he argues that ‘many facts about the world are independent of us, and
hence independent of our social values and interests’ (Boghossian, 2007, p. 20). He
further claims that there should always be evidence to support that particular beliefs are
independent from our social background to transform them into knowledge. He rejects
the relativist view that constructivists, such as Rorty, hold that there are no facts
independent from the world in which people live and that the justification of facts will
never be independent from us and our social context.

Rorty (1997) does not reject the traditional view of knowledge and truth, but argues that
they are always influenced by the context in which they are applied. He also states that as
soon as we try to think about these concepts in an abstract way and move away from
their contextual application, they lose their core critical content and do not provide us
with guidance to action at all; they become semantic ‘word games’ without substantive
meaning to everyday life. Theories of learning - From Behaviourism to Connectivism

Many theories of learning have been proposed over the ages and two main positions have
been identified in these theories, although some cross between the two positions: 1.
Didactic models linked to symbol-processing views of mind, such as behaviourism and
cognitivism, where the tutor is thought to transmit knowledge and the student will
acquire it. 2. Models linked to situated views of mind, such as social constructivism and
community of practice, where the learner is thought to build on experience and formerly
acquired knowledge by participating and interacting in a social context (Rogers, 2002).
Sfard (1998) related these two positions in theories of learning to the way learners

interact with knowledge. The first group was linked to an “acquisition metaphor”, while
the second group of views was linked to a “participation metaphor”. To provide clarity
about theories of learning, these metaphors will be used to highlight the major
differences for learners in each theory.

In the introduction of this section, 2.3.3. , psychological issues in relation to

behaviourism have already been highlighted. Behaviourism has developed a considerable
body of ideas and methods that show how to shape and modify behaviour and aid
learning. These approaches concentrate on overt behaviour. Behaviourists posit that we
learn by receiving stimuli from our environment that provokes a response. The teacher
reinforces the approved responses while discouraging the ‘wrong’ responses. An
example would be training how to ride a bike or car, or indeed the acquisition of almost
any skill. Once acquired these skills are no longer subject to any conscious thought and
this typifies the most important area of behaviourist method for this dissertation.
Indeed, behaviourist research has discovered a wealth of learning that requires no, or
almost no, conscious thought. This makes the acquisition metaphor the only one
applicable to this theory. Of course, conditioning by reinforcing, encouraging, and
discouraging, implies that the tutor is in charge in this interaction; he or she is all-
knowing and leads the process. This may be most appropriate for skills training but
perhaps less appropriate for more complex learning and thinking.

In cognitivism the subject material that the teacher-agent has chosen and that the learner
seeks to master dominates the learning process. On the one end of the spectrum a form of
computational learning takes place, but moving to the other side, more reflection and
reasoning take place in learning. There is an active engagement of the mind in learning .
Both behaviourist and cognitive theorists recognise that low-level and high-level
learning takes place. Learning is hierarchical and advances as more and more learning
takes place. Not all learners will achieve the highest level. In this view knowledge can be
thought of as a commodity, easily divided into ‘chunks’ which can be digested and
internalized by learners. The acquisition metaphor applies. Once acquired, knowledge
can be ‘banked’ as an abstract entity stored in the mind of the learner (Freire, 1972).

Constructivism developed from cognitivism and, in addition to the subject knowledge

that tutors supply, formerly acquired knowledge and experience of students is

acknowledged and students are encouraged to actively construct their ways of knowing,
while building an understanding linking what they learn with their personal experience.
There should be room for self-directed problem solving, so the participation metaphor
applies and a tutor will have to allow for a dynamic process, give more options to allow
for students with different backgrounds.

From this developed social-constructivism with which the name of Vygotsky is most
often connected. He identified two important elements in the learning process:
“language” and “scaffolding.” He noted that children used self-talk to work their way
through complex problems and externalized them through self-guidance and self-
direction. This is important as social interaction with others helps to formulate speech in
the child. In addition, instructional scaffolding, in the form of encouragement and
reviewing of materials provides support for learning and problem solving and reduces
complex problems into “manageable chunks” (Kop & Hill, 2008). Social interaction and
participation in activities with (more knowledgeable) others are key to this view of
learning and make the participation metaphor most appropriate.

Wenger, while arguing for social interaction, suggests that learning does not only take
place within a learning institution: ‘Our institutions . . . are largely based on the
assumption that learning is an individual process, that it has a beginning and an end, that
it is best separated from the rest of our activities, and that it is the result of teaching’
(Wenger, 1998, p. 3). He put forward that learning is lifelong and lifewide, embedded in
our lives. Other theorists have argued that most of our learning takes place outside a
formal classroom (Illich, 1971, Dron, 2002). With the introduction of new technologies a
new intensity in the debate on the role of informal and non-formal learning has ignited.
(Sharples et al, 2005; Gulati, 2006; Selwyn, 2005; Vavoula, 2005; Downes, 2006).

We learn across space as we take ideas and learning resources gained in one
location and apply or develop them in another. We learn across time, by revisiting
knowledge that was gained in an earlier, in a different context, and more broadly,
through ideas and strategies gained in earlier years providing a framework for a
lifetime of learning. We move from topic to topic, managing a range of personal
learning projects, rather than following a single curriculum.
(Sharples et al, 2005, p. 2)
Lave and Wenger researched the way people learn in their daily lives and suggested the
typology of a ”community of practice”, which is based on the premises that humans are

social beings, that knowledge is developed through active engagement in valued
undertakings. Learning is no longer seen as individual, but learners make sense of their
surroundings in a social setting, by communicating with others. Knowledge is situated
within a community, and knowledge is dependent on its social context. People build on
earlier experiences and knowledge (Lave & Wenger, 2002). Translating this into an
educational environment, they aim to leave behind a curriculum dominated by the
teacher, the institution and the government, and to embrace a curriculum in which the
students take control of their learning, make connections with their own experiences and
knowledge in cooperative activities with their fellow learners. Initially the tutor might be
the expert, but by engaging the learners in participation in problem-solving activities,
information gathering exercises and communication with peers, experts facilitate their
move from the periphery to the centre of the learning community, which they call
“legitimate peripheral participation”. They advocate an apprenticeship model, where the
master guides the apprentice to the centre of the community of practice. Active
participation in learning activities, rather than passively receiving knowledge from the
teacher is key in their theory and Sfard’s (1998) metaphor of participation would fit

Fenwick described the notion of ecological pedagogy that takes this one step further. She
argues that ‘pedagogy is grounded not only in community and in social relations, but also
in the natural, the cultural and biological. Learning is embedded in our lived-in world”.
(Fenwick, 2005, p.1.).

Siemens (2008a) and Downes (2006) have argued in the past few years that it is time for
a new learning theory fit for the 21st century that would take account of the new
technological realities of the Internet and the new tools it brings with it. They started a
debate via the Internet, in the blogosphere in 2005, through online global conferences
(200 participants in 2007) and large online courses (number of participants 2200 in
2008). As their ideas are pertinent to this thesis, their theory has been examined more
closely than the other theories. Is Connectivism a learning theory?

Kop and Hill (2008) in Connectivism: Learning Theory of the Future or Vestige of the
Past? provided an analysis of a body of literature to establish if Connectivism can be

seen as a learning theory. It was written after the 2007 online “Connectivism” conference
held by the University of Manitoba and draws on the relevant conference discussions and
conference wikis, while also drawing on discussions and papers available on the Internet
on the subject in addition to the literature. This sub-section will draw heavily from the

The concept of Connectivism as a learning theory has had some criticism, including from
Verhagen (2006), who argued that the theory remains unsubstantiated philosophising that
lacks substance, while Kerr suggested that existing theories, such as social
constructivism and Papert’s constructivism “satisfactorily address the needs of learning
in today’s technologically, connected age”. Proponents of Connectivism are ‘exploring a
model of learning that reflects the network-like structure evident in online interactions’
(Siemens, 2008, p. 12), but is this enough to constitute its formulation as a new learning
theory, and does Connectivism have anything new to offer?

Kop and Hill put forward the need for some criteria to establish Connectivism as a
learning theory. They used the criteria set out by Miller in “Theories of Developmental
Psychology” (1993) to clarify differences between a “theory” and a “developmental
theory”. Miller (1993) posits that an emerging theory should adhere to the principles of
scientific research, and thus use scientific methods, and be based on previously
conducted studies. A theory should be logically constructed and verifiable through
testing. A developmental theory would ‘describe changes within one or several areas of
behaviour, describe changes in the relationships among several areas of behaviour and
explain the course of development that has been described in terms of the first two tasks
(Miller, 1993, p. 5-6). They established that Connectivism could be seen as a
developmental theory, but not a theory (Kop & Hill, 2008, p. 3) as the documents written
about ‘connectivism’ did not include any verifiable evidence, but were describing
possible changes in people’s behaviour.

What exactly is Connectivism?

Connectivism is a view of learning that Siemens (2006a) characterised as the extension

of learning, knowledge and understanding through the expansion of a personal network.
In Connectivism, the starting point for learning would be the moment a learner feeds
information into a learning community. A learning community is described as a node,

which is always part of a larger network. Nodes are the connection points that are found
on a network and a network consists of two or more nodes linked in order to share
information and resources. Nodes may be of varying size and strength, depending on the
concentration of information and the number of individuals involved in a particular node
(Downes, 2006).

Siemens (2008a) asserts that knowledge is distributed across an information network and
can be stored in a variety of digital formats. Learning and knowledge are said to “rest in
diversity of opinions” (Siemens, 2008a) and in connectivism learning happens in
cognitive and affective domains and both contribute to the learning process in important
ways (Kop and Hill, 2008).

Boghossian (2007) with his traditional view of knowledge would have major objections
to the lack of justification of opinions and the perhaps somewhat naïve belief that once
people are connected on networks, the volume of information and people’s capacity to
filter out untruths will ensure the creation of knowledge. Downes understands that this
might be problematic and emphasised the importance of diversity, openness, autonomy
and connectedness for connectivism to work well (Downes, 2007a) and also started
discussions on “critical literacies” (Downes, 2009b).

Siemens further explains that, ‘The capacity to know is more critical than what is
actually known’ (Siemens, 2008a). The ability to make decisions on the basis of
information that has been aggregated from networks is considered integral to the learning
process. One might question if this is any different from how learning is explained in
other learning theories. The only difference seems to be that it happens on a larger scale
and with an exponentially increasing amount of information.

In connectivism there is not an overarching tutor, and there is no acquisition of

knowledge. The knowledge resides on the network (Downes, 2006) and is produced by
interacting nodes. These human nodes might produce digital artefacts and publish them
online and it is in this participative activity that learning occurs. One could argue that
acquisition takes place amongst the people “surfing the network” looking for
information. They go to trusted sources for their information, which could be compared

to a tutor in a formal education environment who distribute knowledge. So both Sfard’s
(Sfard, 1998) to acquisition and the acquisition metaphor would apply. This is not the
way Downes and Siemens see knowledge “movement” on the network, however, they
posit that knowledge is not acquired, but remains on the network and as people produce
digital artefacts related to their learning, which they distribute, that the participation
metaphor would be more appropriate.

As Sfard (1998) argues, people believing in situated cognition, who define knowledge
and learning to form an integral part of the context in which it is produced and advocate
the metaphor of participation, seem to forget that the knowledge is built on earlier
knowledge that has been acquired by learners. She further posits that ‘within the
participationist framework, some powerful means for conceptionalization of learning are
lost, and certain promising paths towards understanding its mechanisms are barred’
Sfard, 1998, p. 10), suggesting that theorists should not totally disregard one or the other
metaphor, and that it might be impossible to convey in a learning theory all aspects of
each learning context;

It seems that the sooner we accept the thought that our work is bound to produce a
patchwork of metaphors rather than a unified , homogenous theory of learning, the
better for us and for those whose lives are likely to be affected by our work.

(Sfard, 1998, p.12)

The next section will examine which of these theories actually applies to adult learning
and education in an era where technology is increasingly interwoven with the fabric of

2.3.4. Discussion of theories of online learning and knowledge

Lave and Wenger (2002) and Cobb (1999) emphasised constructivist and socio-cultural
perspectives, aimed at leaving behind a teaching curriculum dominated by the teacher as
expert in her discipline, and embracing a learning curriculum in which the students take
control over their own learning, making connections with their own experiences and
knowledge in cooperative activities with fellow- learners (Lave & Wenger, 2002; Cobb,
1999). Active participation in collaborative learning activities would be at the heart of
the learning experience, rather than passively receiving traditional knowledge from the
teacher. This active element, and especially in a social context, has been embraced by

developers of e-learning (Salmon, 2004; Laferièrre, 2006). The crux to active learning
and understanding of new concepts in these views would be online collaboration.
(Laferièrre, 2006; Mayes, 2002; Salmon, 2004, Gur & Wiley, 2007). Furthermore, as
Mayes suggests, ‘activity, motivation and learning are all related to a need for a positive
sense of identity shaped by social forces’ (Mayes, 2002, p. 169). In the words of Lyotard:
‘A self does not amount to much, but no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of
relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before’ (Lyotard, 1984, p. 15).

Sfard (1998) emphasised, however, that it might not be a good idea to totally disregard
theories that adhere to the acquisition metaphor rather than the participation one, as in
situated theories knowledge is not only based on participation, but also on experience
and earlier acquired knowledge that might have been acquired. Connected learning – networked learning

Siemens, Downes, and Rennie & Mason have all argued that something fundamentally
has changed with the latest developments of the Web: the ease of communication and
also the possibilities to use aggregators to bundle communications and information
together and filter them has meant that the context of learning has changed (Downes,
2006; Siemens, 2006; Rennie & Mason, 2004). Downes coined the phrase ‘connective
knowledge’, Siemens speaks of ‘Connectivism’, Rennie and Mason speak of ‘the
connecticon’. All three speak of connected learning. Goodyear et al (2004) and
Dirckinck-Holmfeld et al (2009) seem to prefer the term networked learning. There does
not seem to be a fundamental difference between the two forms of learning, apart from a
preference by particular authors to use one or the other term. Goodyear mentioned that
‘networked learning is a diffuse idea’ (Goodyear, 2009,p.viii) and to clearly understand
what we mean by “connected learning” or “networked learning”, it would be good to
look at how to define the term. Goodyear et al (2004) defined networked learning as:

learning in which ICT is used to promote connections: between one learner and
other learners; between learners and tutors; between a learning community and its
learning resources (2004, p.1.)

In the Web 2.0 era, where the affordances of the technologies allow for the making of
connections with humans and resources, this definition seems appropriate. The word

“connections” is seen to be the central word in this definition according to Jones and
Dirckinck-Holmfeld (2009) and this has also been the central term used by Downes
(2006) and Siemens (2006) in their explanation of the term “connectivism”.

The definition of networked learning as highlighted above does not preclude formal
education or informal learning and it could be used for behaviourist or cognitive teaching
and learning strategies, or (social) constructivist or community of practice, depending on
the nature of connections made. If they are one to many, from the top down, from the
tutor to the learner, networked learning could be completely different from a setting
where the connections are many-to-many and where they could run in any direction
between the participant (s) and resources related to the learning. Sfard’s metaphors are
relevant here again as well. Depending on people’s view of education, the emphasis
could be on acquiring knowledge from others, or on participating in knowledge activities
and communication and collaboration.

Siemens and Downes argue that in a traditional formal education setting, where the tutor
is in front of the group, or in an online environment where s/he is at the centre of
activity, s/he will most likely be transferring traditional knowledge to the students, which
would mean that the dynamics would be very different from a situation where the tutor
would have the role of facilitator, or where s/he would be completely absent. The
participation metaphor would come into existence and the acquisition one would become
less prominent. Technology could in the era of Web 2.0 and the Semantic Web offer a
person a wide range of tools for research and communication. This would alter the
learning setting as in the past the scope for online communication was limited (Mason &
Bacsich, 1998). Networked learning does not have to be restricted to formal learning,
and with the proliferation of technology, networked learning is increasingly associated
with informal learning.

2.3.5. Online pedagogy

The rise of technology has, apart from its perceived influence on the economic
competitiveness of nations, also pressurised society in a different way. It has lead to the
increasing bureaucratisation of institutions. Foucault mentioned the stifling influence of
technological systems on hospitals, prisons and education, while Illich discussed the
restriction on freedom, the ‘enclosure of the commons’, the increased policing and

surveillance of everyday life (Foucault,1977; Illich, 1992, p. 51). Owen et al explored
several models of knowledge building in which the new Internet developments could be
used to create a more open and less stifling learning environment. They drew on work by
Nonaka, Ashby and Bereiter and Scardamalia to link their findings to the ‘crit’, which is
the central feature in the teaching of creative practice in art, design and architecture
schools as they could see similarities between the ‘crit’ and Internet-based learning using
the latest technologies. ‘It consists of a critical dialogue between peers where work-in-
progress is exposed for developmental discussion.’ They identify five qualities for the
‘crit’ to function well:

Intention/aspiration to create knowledge: a passion which needs encouragement to

flourish; autonomy of workers: the students should have freedom to create;
fluctuation and creative chaos: there should be few boundaries to the resources and
the timescales across which students work (creativity is very difficult to fit into a
room with bounded resources and a 50-minute period); redundancy: working on
only one idea is counter-productive. Learners should not accept their first idea as
the only idea; requisite variety: in this context we might mean sources of
inspiration, cultural and physical tools, and sources of knowledge and so on. This
implies access to a lot of resources. Thus a good writer’s workshop or art and
design studio is not limited in thought, or by the walls, and should draw on all the
world’s knowledge.
(Owen et al, 2006, p. 36)
The online community of practice is seen by them as the ideal place to achieve these
qualities, as the judgement by a group of trusted people and the place where you can
present ideas without fear of rejection are important: ‘acquiring knowledge involves an
interplay between socially defined knowledge and personal experience which is
mediated by membership of a group’ (Owen et al, 2006, p. 37).

Other theorists (Arina, 2006; Siemens 2008b; Downes, 2006) identified how the second
wave of Internet technologies could be instrumental in moving from a hierarchical
teaching approach to a networked approach, where acquiring knowledge would be
replaced by participation in knowledge production. This could be wider than a
community of practice. Web 2.0 technologies could facilitate the transformation from an
educational model that is structured in courses, controlled by the institution using a
knowledge acquisition model in an enclosed environment, to becoming a model adaptive
to learners’ needs, owned by individuals, while using networked aggregators and
communications tools in a personalised open learning environment and a participation
model. This could become a fluid extension of the wider informal personal space.

Communication could be facilitated through the use of social software such as blogs and
wikis, while information could be validated by others on the Internet through social
bookmarking tools and recommender systems, in addition to tutors and experts further
afield being members of their network. This resonates with the ideas of Illich in the
1970s, who saw the need:
1. To liberate access to things by abolishing the control which persons and
institutions now exercise over their educational values. 2. To liberate the sharing of
skills by guaranteeing freedom to teach or exercise them on request. 3. To liberate
the critical and creative resources of people by returning to individual persons the
ability to call and hold meetings – an ability now interestingly monopolized by
institutions which claim to speak for the people. 4. To liberate the individual from
the obligation to shape his expectations to the services offered by any established
profession- by providing him with the opportunity to draw on the experience of his
peers and to entrust himself to the teacher, guide, adviser or healer of his choice.
(Illich, 1971, p.103)

His vision was to see people take ownership of the learning process, rather than
institutions to control education. In order for agency and participation to return to the
learning experience, Illich (1971, p. 2) called for ‘the possible use of technology to create
institutions which serve personal, creative and autonomous interaction and the
emergence of values which cannot be substantially controlled by technocrats.’ He saw
that the alternative to ‘scholastic funnels’ (Illich, 1992) would be true communication
webs. However, moving from an institutionally controlled learning environment towards
an Internet-based open environment creates several problems. An important question to
ask is whether communication facilitated by this type of technology would be effective
in the learning process? Would communication with global communities of (possibly the
same) interest help in knowledge construction? How would communication compare
with the pre-VLE communications tools and VLE-based discussion boards that are
controlled by the tutor? Would the move away from the acquisition metaphor towards a
participation one be beneficial for learners? Communication and dialogue in online learning

As mentioned in section 1.1., communication and dialogue have been seen by some as
crucial components in the learning process. There have been a range of communications
tools in education since the 1970s. Systems such as First Class, which could, and still can,
be used for synchronous and asynchronous communication have been used in distance

education institutions since 1994 (Mason & Bacsich, 1998) and have become more
sophisticated over time. Online communication is different from communication in a face-
to-face environment; people send messages to and receive messages from people they might
not know or trust. This causes challenges with communication, which have been seen as
problematic by many practitioners, particularly in terms of using discussion boards in
Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), but also in the pre-VLE era as problems with the
quantity and quality of messages by learners were already noticed with the earlier
conferencing systems (Mason & Bacsich, 1998). Issues of power and control, lack of
autonomy, high level of tutor support required, in addition to affective issues and a low level
of personalisation have all been identified as being challenging (Mason & Weller, 2001;
Mann, 2005; Kop, 2006; Conrad, 2005).

The relationship the learner has to the community he or she learns in is a determining
factor in the learning process. Emerging Web 2.0 technologies are seen to foster positive
collaboration as they create an immediacy that has been missing from the VLE. By using
videos to directly speak to tutor and learner, participants in the learning experience, a close
connection might be facilitated. Chat has also been highlighted as a powerful tool to create
social interaction and to enhance the social and affective engagement (Carroll et al, 2008).
This “transactional nearness” resonates with the thoughts of critical educators such as Freire
and Macedo (1999, p. 48) who emphasised that tutors should have a directive role. In this
capacity, tutors would enter into a dialogue ‘as a process of learning and knowing’ with
learners, rather than the dialogue being a ‘conversation’ that would remain at the level of
‘the individual’s lived experience’. Freire felt that this capacity for critical engagement is
not present if the role of educators is reduced to facilitators. It should be questioned if this
capacity for critical engagement is possible at all in a connectivist networked environment
where people are likely to communicate with likeminded people, rather than look for the
challenge that a local tutor would provide.

Siemens argues that the distributive effect of communication is one of the most important
features of the new wave of Web 2.0 tools and highlights that the more connections with
other people we can make, and the more networks we are connected to, the better we will
collaborate and develop ideas and learn, as long as we have effective structures in place to
access and syndicate the messages (Siemens, 2006b).

He does not make clear, however, how the transactional distance between people might
affect the learning. Dron and Anderson (2007) give this considerable thought and do make a
clear distinction between learning in groups, on networks and in collectives. They discuss
the concept of presence and argue that there is a difference in presence and subsequent
engagement in these three entities. They see the level of emotional engagement and presence
being the highest in groups, which would be a typical classroom or distance education
student group. They would be lower for online networks, which would typically be the
blogosphere, or the large informal online courses that are currently experimented with
(Siemens & Downes, 2008, 2009); and the lowest for collectives, which would use tags to
connect. Jones et al (2008) make a similar distinction, but define the differences as the levels
of engagement between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ ties. Dron and Anderson (2007) emphasise that
there is an interrelationship between “engagement in learning”, “transactional distance”, and
“emotional involvement”, based on organisation of learning, communication and learner
self-direction: the closer the feeling of connectedness, the higher the level of commitment to
the learning activity; the closer the relationship with the people involved in the undertaking,
the higher the inclination to engage in communication and learning. Chaves in his “On-Line
Curriculum Interaction Model” emphasises the need for the development of ‘virtual
community learning platforms’ that would incorporate tools facilitating verbal and non-
verbal immediacy (Chaves, 2009, p. 7) in order to really engage learners. The concept of presence

As technologies have proliferated and immersive environments and games have

emerged, the literature on presence has also grown (Metros, 2001; Carroll, 2008;
Shedroff, 2009, Anderson, 2008). In Lombard and Ditton’s (1997) literature review on
presence six conceptualisations of presence were identified. Even though their review
was carried out in the late 90s, the six interrelated variations that they identified on the
concept of presence appear to be valid today. They are:

1. Presence and social richness.

Scholars interested in communication and organisations identified the word

presence with a medium which was ‘perceived as sociable, warm, sensitive,
personal and intimate when it is used to interact with other people’ (Lombard &

Ditton, 1997, p.4). In communications theory it was seen that communications
media would have to overcome different communications constraints, such as
‘time, location, permanence, distribution and distance’ and also would be
expected to convey the ‘social, symbolic, and nonverbal cues of human
communication’. This form of presence is associated with ‘two important forms
of non-mediated interpersonal communication: intimacy and immediacy’ in the
form of body language through for instance smiling and eye contact, and also
voice quality, speech duration and laughter (Lombard & Ditton, 1997, p.4-5). In
this sense a medium high in ‘presence as social richness’ would convey a high
level of intimacy.

In addition, it is suggested that ‘choice of language can help create a sense of

psychological closeness or immediacy’ and that the ‘choice of medium for
interaction can also influence this sense of immediacy’ (Lombard & Ditton, 1997,

2. Presence as realism

Media that represent a realistic representation of people, objects and events also
contribute to the level of presence. Television and film are media that try to do
this. By creating a sense of reality in the pictures they produce and create an
experience that would be plausible in real life (Lombard & Ditton, 1997) and thus
make that people would like to be involved in the experience.

3. Presence as transportation

Presence as transportation could take three forms: it could transport people or

scenes from different times or different places to the here and now, it could move
us to other locations or other time zones, or these two are mixed to a time and
place where they are shared. The idea in this form of presence is ‘the degree to
which participants of a telemeeting get the impression of sharing space with
interlocutors who are at a remote physical site’ (Mulbach et al, 1995, p.293). This
could be in video or film, or through videoconferencing.

4. Presence and immersion

In this form of presence the participant perceives to be immersed in a virtual
environment. This could entail not only psychological immersion, but also
through the senses in for instance immersive virtual reality systems, simulations,
IMAX theatres wearing 3D-glasses. As in 2, this would heighten people’s
engagement with the experience.

5. Presence as social actor within medium

In this form of presence a para-social interaction is created. This would entail for
instance that ‘personalities use direct address camera views. . . informal speech
patterns, sincerity, and simplicity . . . . In a parasocial interaction media users
respond to social cues presented by persons they encounter witin a medium even
though it is illogical and even inappropriate to do so’.(Lombard & Ditton, 1997,
p.8). A heightened form of presence is created, where it seems that an interaction
with the viewer or another person is taking place on the screen, while in reality
this is not the case. Examples of these would be avatars, or examples have been
highlighted of people talking to people on television screens (Lombard & Ditton,

6. Presence as medium as social actor

In this form of presence participants in the media experience will interact socially
to clues provided by computer programmes themselves (not representations of
people). It seems that people respond to computers as social entities, especially if
there are associations in the activity with social activities in real life, such as
education. Lombard and Ditton (1997) gave the example of people being more
susceptible to praise by a tutor in an intelligent tutoring system if it was given by
a different computer than when their own computer praised its own performance.

The main characteristic running through all six conceptualisations of presence is that of
‘perceptional illusion of nonmediation’ (Lombard & Ditton, 1997). Lombard and Ditton
define presence as follows:

The computer user experiences the subjective feeling that a medium or media-use
experience produces a greater or lesser sense of presence is attributable to there

being a greater or lesser number of instants during the experience in which the
illusion of nonmediation occurs.
(Lombard & Ditton, 1997, p. 10)

In other words, if a participant in an online activity experiences the activity as if it was

taking place in real life, without the mediation of the computer there is a high level of
presence. For the research of learning in virtual environments not all concepts are
relevant, but especially 1. of “presence as social richness” seems appropriate, and also 2
“presence as realism”, 5 “presence as social actor within medium” and 6 “presence as
medium as social act” are relevant to a certain extent as they all relate to the social
interaction of people with other human beings on the screen.

Anderson (2008a) analysed how presence relates to online teaching and learning in
particular and posit that deep and meaningful learning results if three forms of presence
play a role in education. He highlighted cognitive presence, that ensures a certain level of
depth in the educational process, which could be compared to “intensity” as highlighted
by Shedroff (2009) and “Vividness” by Lombard and Ditton (1997) in the creation of
meaningful online experiences. Anderson also refers to social presence, which would be
similar to the social presence described by Lombard and Ditton, and in a formal
educational environment that of a teacher presence.

Lombard and Ditton (1997) further expand on the causes and effects of presence and
posit the most important factors related to presence are “sensory richness” and
“vividness”, which are also issues brought up by Shedroff (2009) as important factors in
enhancing online experiences in the form of “sensorial triggers” and “intensity”.
Moreover, they highlight that the higher the number of human senses engaged in the
activity, the higher the presence experienced will be. Lombard and Ditton (1997) argue
that ‘visual media have more social presence than verbal (audio) media, which in turn
have more social presence than written media. Particular camera techniques when using
video can for instance enhance presence by using close-up views, direct address
techniques where the person in the image speaks directly to the user, or by creating
views through the eye of the user.

Lombard and Ditton, and Shedroff , all emphasise that the level of interactivity is another
aspect that enhances presence. ‘The number of inputs from the user that the medium

accepts and to which it responds’ could affect presence and the level of experience, while
the type of input by the user, ie. through voice, video, or button clicks, and the type of
response received was also seen as an influence on the level of presence (Lombard &
Ditton, 1997, p.18), in addition to the speed with which the medium responds to user
inputs. Furthermore, the number of people involved in the activity was seen as a factor
in the level of presence, as was the content of the online presentation during online
activities. Moreover, Lombard and Ditton reported on a possible effect of the level of
enjoyment and “fun” that people experience on presence, while Metros (2001) described
how people moved into a “flow state” in immersive environments that had a positive
effect on their involvement in a learning activity.

So it is argued, that the higher the level of presence, the higher the level of involvement
in the online activity and the deeper the experience. The question of how to create
presence in the design of online learning would become pressing if its effect would be a
high level of engagement and depth of learning. The online learning place, space, environment

Earlier the importance of the learning space was highlighted. Moving from a face to face
learning environment to an online learning space can be a big step. Illich would like us
to use technology to achieve a holistic learning environment in which people themselves
are the agents who determine what there is to be learnt and which tools to use to achieve
positive outcomes. This idea is also at the heart of the “Personal Learning Environment”
(PLE) development (Owen 2006, Siemens 2008b, Downes 2006, Oblinger & Oblinger
2005). Different online learning environments have different affordances. The Virtual Learning Environment and its design

ICT specialists in design have drawn up a number of design principles that are of
influence in the experience people have when using a web site. For the design of a
learning environment some are more important than others. Nielsen (2003) emphasised a
number of Human Computer Interaction principles on usability and accessibility that
designers will have to keep in mind when designing an online learning environment. He
researched usability and identified a number of issues that will influence the experience:
‘If your pages don’t load quickly, users won’t wait; if your pages are confusing or hard

to read, users will look elsewhere; if users can’t find what they want, they will leave.
Nielsen, 2003, p.1.)’ Moreover, Shedroff, who researched experience design said:

‘While everything, technically, is an experience of some sort, there is something

important and special to many experiences that make them worth discussing. In
particular, the elements that contribute to superior experiences are knowable and
reproducible, which make them designable.’
(Shedroff, 2009, p. 1)
He provided six design principles which together ‘create an enormous palette of
possibilities for creating effective, meaningful, and successful experiences. . . . They are:
Time and duration; interactivity; intensity; breadth and consistency, sensorial and
cognitive triggers, and significance and meaning (Shedroff, 2009, p. 1). In the case of a
learning environment, cognitive and information design would be important, in addition
to instructional design in the learning experience of the students.
Shedroff further states that

The most important concept to grasp is that all experiences are important and that
we can learn from them whether they are traditional, physical, offline experiences
or whether they are digital, online, or other technological experiences. . . . Most
technological experiences-including digital and, especially, online experiences-
have paled in comparison to real-world experiences and have been relatively
unsuccessful as a result. What these solutions require is for their developers to
understand what makes a good experience first, and then to translate these
principles, as well as possible, into the desired media without the technology
dictating the form of the experience.
(Shedroff, 2009, p. 1)
The problem with commercial Virtual Learning Environments is that it seems they were
developed before much research in design of online environments had been carried out.
This has resulted in unsatisfactory environments. Most educational institutions have a
VLE that acts as a platform between face-to-face teaching and learning and the online
variety. Major problems have been identified with VLEs, the main one being the
restricted opportunities they offer for communication between students and between
students and educators. The development of the VLE has assisted in the
depersonalization of learning, turning teaching into delivery (McWilliam & Taylor,
1998) and the process of teaching into a transaction consisting of the transmission of

This is in spite of research showing that a dialogue between the lecturer and learner and
among learners, leads to a richer and more engaging learning experience (Freire and

Macedo, 1999; Biesta, 2006; Mason, 2006; Gur & Wiley, 2007; Carroll et al, 2008), in
addition to research showing the importance of affective issues in the online learning
environment (Gulati, 2006; Picard et al, 2004; Gur & Wiley, 2007). One of the biggest
challenges for tutors has been to intrinsically motivate the learners to use the
communications tools, while major problems with VLE based discussion boards have
also been identified. The integration of a variety of learning tools within one VLE, has
been the start of making them accessible to the learner and easy to use for the tutor. As
indicated by MacDonald (2008, p. 26) the use of a variety of media in learning could
enhance the quality of teaching as the choice would offer opportunities to ‘accommodate
a diversity of students needs’.

However, these systems are very much part of formal and institutionalized structures
derived from traditional face-to-face formal teaching strategies. The development of
online social tools, learner-centred learning spaces, availability of broadband and VOIP,
and the exponential growth and informality in which they are being used outside formal
education, for instance in online social networking areas, have shown that interest-driven
and user-controlled communication tools are attractive to millions of people outside an
educational setting (Conole et al, 2008). Towards a learning place

The crux of engaging learners in an online environment then would be to create a place
where they feel comfortable, trusted and valued. The task would be to move away from
using a VLE primarily as a space that holds content and imagine it as a community, a
place where dialogue happens, where people feel comfortable, and interactions and
content can be easily accessed and engaged with. Carroll et al (2008) argue that there is a
need for such a place in the online learning environment and posit that there are
similarities with the concept of “Third Place” as used by Oldenburg, who saw it as an
environment that ‘hosts the regular, voluntary, informal and happily anticipated
gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work’ (Oldenburg, 1989, p.16).
Beyond the first and second places of home and work, Oldenburg referred for his third
place to physical spaces such as pubs and town squares; informal public places where
individuals meet up with others and interact. He argued that the relationships forged in
these environments, both close and casual, add richness to society (Carroll et al, 2008).

Carroll et al (2008) also relate the “Third Place” to “serendipic learning”; ‘learning that
occurs by chance in a learner-centred environment in which participants are enabled to
build and maintain their online presence’. And they highlighted similarities with the
ideas of Pettigrew who writes about the creation of information grounds – ‘i.e. places
where individuals meet informally for one purpose but from whose behaviour emerges a
social atmosphere that fosters the spontaneous and serendipitous sharing of information'
(Carroll et al, 2008, p. 154). Fisher et al (2004 – later writing as Pettigrew) present the
propositions of the information grounds framework and Carroll et al (2008) explain that
there are aspects of this framework,

for instance the fact that different social groups play important roles in the
information flow, that people engage in formal and informal information sharing,
that people use information in alternative ways and that many sub-contexts exist
within information grounds, that can be present in a learner-centred online
environment if the concepts of personal and emotional presence are allowed to
(Carroll et al, 2008, p. 154) Interaction – Personalisation – Control

Several authors have suggested a particular model for e-learning, most notably Gilly
Salmon, who developed a 5-step model, initially facilitating access to technology and
fostering motivation, followed by online socialisation, after which information exchange
between tutor and learner is fostered, followed by knowledge construction and further
development (Salmon, 2004). Terry Mayes also developed a model, but that was based
on how technology can support three steps of learning: conceptualisation by presenting
the subject matter, construction by clearly outlining tasks, and contextualisation where
learners make meaning within their own contexts, at which stage communication and
feedback with the tutor are required. He also noted advantages in storing the
communications of current learners for future learners and creating a form of “vicarious”
learning (Mayes, 2002) as an additional dimension.

Salmon’s model is the most widely used and is linked to an institutionally controlled
VLE, where the tutor controls what is happening in the virtual classroom and only in the
latter stages of the model the tutor will relinquish some control to the learners. Moule
(2007) and Gulati (2006) criticised Salmon’s model. Moule (2007) identified especially

problems with the length of the period of engagement in the 5-step model and its
association to a constructivist view of learning. She contrasts it with the "e-learning
ladder model". The basic difference with this model being it’s acknowledgement of a
range of educational theories and pedagogical approaches, including an instructivist one,
and not just an over-emphasis on a constructivist learning method. Moule argues that not
all e-learning is constructivist, and that in each step the learner adopts different learning
approaches relevant to his or her requirements, rather than to follow each step set out in
Salmon’s model hierarchically.

Gulati (2006), in her PhD thesis, questioned if the model supports a constructivist
approach at all. She problematised Salmon’s approach by asking a number of questions:
Does this linear approach support a socio-constructivist view, in which knowledge
building on formerly created knowledge and experience would be possible? Does the
requirement to participate in online discussion offer enough options for personalisation?
Or is it mainly devised to conform to a tutor-led way of working? Do online learning
spaces facilitate trust and are they open enough for learners to ask questions and to
question others in line with a constructivist and community of practice view? Does the
stress on participation in discussion boards cause power relations that are to the
advantage of some and not to others?

She carried out an extensive review of the research literature to find answers to these
questions and found that compulsory participation in asynchronous discussion by
learners was more ‘driven by the need for online tutors to monitor their learners, than to
promote autonomous, flexible, meaningful, and social constructivist experiences’
(Gulati, 2006, p. 42). Meaning making involves the making of mistakes and reflection on
learning. It is doubtful that people will fully expose their thinking processes if their
writing is there for all to see and graded by the tutor. Aviv and Picciano found that there
is quite a range of difference in the students’ learning processes (Gulati, 2006). Learners
construct knowledge in a variety of ways and have a varying need to belong in a
community, which all depend on their own needs that originate in their own context.
Some people will perform well by not contributing much in discussions, but instead
spend time in self-directed study away from the course site, while others perform well by
communicating extensively with tutor and other learners. Nonnecke and Preece explain
that when people are not participating in the discussion board (otherwise called

‘lurking’) this is not necessarily a bad thing: ‘Lurking is not free-riding but a form of
participation that is both acceptable and beneficial to most online groups. Public posting
is only one way in which an online group can benefit from its members’ (Gulati, 2003, p.
51). Research by Bedouin in non-participation in online discussion found that the people
who were not very visible in the online classroom ‘spent most time reading assignments,
reading others’ comments, web searches, writing assignments and spent less time on
writing online messages’ (Gulati, 2003, p. 52).

Gulati’s research indicated that half of these learners identified themselves as self-
directed learners, rather than social learners. The way people participate in online
discussion depends, apart from a tendency to autonomous learning, also on a number of
other factors as argued by Mann and also Levy. They posit that the openness in online
dialogue and the power-relations within an online learner group are important issues in
creating relations of trust within the online community (Mann, 2005; Levy, 2006). This
resonates with Gulati’s research results that also identified that the power relations in the
discussion forum influence participation. She found that confidence and affective issues
were important aspects, while the level of knowledge displayed by some participants was
also a determining influence on the level of participation and confidence of others.
Moreover, she noticed that the lack of informality on the discussion board resulted in
people moving to other, more direct and informal forms of communication such as email,
while the presence of the tutor also deterred some students from participating (Gulati,
2006). This was confirmed by Levy (2006), who used synchronous instant messaging to
mimic the informality of classroom communication, which helped some students, but not
all. A few very much disliked this instant form of communication and did not use it
again, while others thought it a very poor substitute for classroom interaction.

Gulati indicated that ‘communication-overload’ and a move too soon from ‘lower
challenge’ discussion to ‘higher challenge’ discussion meant that learners did not engage
as much with the communication activities as anticipated (Gulati, 2006, p. 54). Levy
pointed out that discussions were more successful if they were linked to practical
activities than if they were used for topic-based and more abstract purposes. Her research
supports the view that multiple modes of communication are best to promote a wide
participation in learning, as it caters for ‘different communication styles, preferences and
purposes’ (Levy, 2006, p. 274).

Thorpe and Godwin carried out a large study in the student experience in e-learning
courses: 4512 students on 36 undergraduate courses were surveyed with a response rate
of 46.9%. They challenged the notion that interaction in e-learning should be person-to-
person. They researched the validity of learner-to-content interaction strategies. Since
online learners are not only networked to other people, but also to information, they
found it important to explore the impact of this on their cognitive processes. Students
were asked, in an open question format, if personal interaction in conferencing and email
had made a positive, and/or a negative impact on their study. They asked the same
question in relation to software, CD-ROMs and Internet opportunities included in the
They found that:

Communication with other students without barriers of place and time effectively
expands the learning relationships available. Identification with peers has important
effects on the quality of the attention and the impact of reading other students’
comments, which generates cognitive processes of explanation, self-explanation,
reflection and internalization.
(Thorpe & Godwin, 2006, p. 218)

This would also indicate that the development of a learning place would be beneficial to
communication and learning. They also found that the use of multi-media in a learning
environment enriched the learner experience and clarified hard-to-understand concepts.
‘There was evidence that students value both interpersonal and content interaction but
for different reasons, and it is not helpful to polarize the two or privilege one over
another’ (Thorpe & Godwin, 2006, p. 219) .

What Thorpe and Godwin ignored in the design of their research, were questions related
to the findings by Gulati on the importance, or desirability of self-directed and informal
learning. It is not unthinkable that if students communicate with others outside their
course group about the course content, the need for tutor-led discussion might become
redundant. Moreover, without knowledge of the level of students’ engagement with
others outside the student group, the findings are of less value. They hinted at the value
of autonomous study, through

access to resources beyond the course, enabling greater independence. They were
able to broaden their knowledge, access current information to deepen
understanding of issues. Others valued it for research or projects which would not

be feasible otherwise. What might look at first sight as merely electronic delivery
of information, is actually enabling a process of independent and active study,
and developing of research skills.
(Thorpe and Godwin, 2006, p. 213)

However, only anecdotal evidence supported this in their paper. The question asked to
the students related to “Internet resources included in the course, rather than outside the
course” which clearly left out of the research an important dimension of autonomous

The analysis of the papers in this sub-section suggests that tutor-led asynchronous
communication by itself is not enough to provide learners with enough feedback and
social engagement: it is not a natural way of communication, it is formal, and there are
major power-issues that influence learners’ confidence in their use. One could argue that
the level of presence is low. This might be boosted by the introduction of learning in
groups, although Roberts and McInnerney (2007) highlighted some problems with online
group learning. They found in their research that most problems are inter-related and the
seven most common ones ranged from student antipathy towards group work, the
selection of the groups, a lack of essential group-work skills, to “the free-rider”, possible
inequalities of student abilities, the withdrawal of group members, and the assessment of
individuals within the groups. These are similar problems as have been described for the
use of discussion boards.

Conole et al (2008) carried out research in the student learning experience and included
how people used technology outside the formal educational setting and found that
students used technology extensively. They highlighted the importance of Web 2.0
technologies and Voice Over Internet Protocol for communication, and web-searching
for information.

These new technologies provide opportunities for more self-directed learning, with only
a supporting role by the tutor: learners can communicate with anybody with a connection
to the Internet and find information that relates to their own interests. This strategy is
supported by a number of educators: McKie argues that ‘Students are autonomous
beings. They should be encouraged to explore for themselves, to make and take

responsibility for their own choices on the basis of their own interests and situation’
(McKie, 2000, p. 111). Standish would not use a curriculum that is too closed in online
learning: ‘A programmed curriculum dedicated to learning outcomes drains the life out
of what is to be learned, yet there are many well-intentioned educators who would
develop online education just the same way’ (Standish, 2000, p. 159).

Perhaps it might be a wise teaching strategy for tutors to relinquish some power during
the session and, as indicated by learning technologists (Walton et al, 2008), allow for
personalisation of the learning experience by including some Web 2.0 technologies in
their programmes and trust their students to engage in blogging or wiki-writing on the
Internet and be satisfied with the organic “growth” of understanding made possible by
wikis and blogs, which would also allow for learning from others. Arina indicated that
the learner motivation is higher if the student is in control rather than the institution, as
apart from control over the content the learner would also be in charge of the purpose of
the learning and of the process itself (Arina, 2006). Learner autonomy – self-directed learning

Gerald Grow (1991) developed a model of ‘matches’ and ‘mismatches’ of teaching styles
and learning stages and highlighted the fact that learners move through different phases of
self-direction. He also suggested that the tutor helps or hinders that development by
imposing different levels of control at different stages of the learning programme. Adult
learners make choices about the level of control imposed by others on their learning and
the choice to study through an institution and tutor, independently, or mediated through
technology will mean a different level of control being imposed on the learning process by
different actors and on different aspects of the learning itself. As Dron (2007) emphasised,
there is a fine balance between the control of an institution and a tutor on the one hand, and
the making of independent choices by the learner on the other. He referred to Knowles,
Moore, Boud, Schwartz and Laurillard when he argued that the learning process breaks
down if learners have more choice than they can handle, or, likewise, if the tutor imposes

too much control on the learning process. Bouchard (2009a, p. 96) has identified several
factors that are significant in learner control.


Social Confidence Initiative Motivation Life context



Learning Sequencing Pacing Resource Monitoring

activity selection Evaluation


Types of Text- Multimedia Search

social hypertext approaches

Perceived value Cost-benefit Opportunity Value

of knowledge ratio cost assessment

Figure 2 Dimensions of learner autonomy (Bouchard, 2009b, p5.)

He clustered them in four groups, the first one relating to issues of motivation, initiative and
confidence – the conative factors; the second group of algorithmic factors involving control
over the learning activity, such as sequencing of tasks, formulating goals and selecting
resources; the third group of semantic factors relating to issues of language and
communication used in the learning and teaching process; and the fourth group of economic
aspects, the choice to learn for personal gain such as for future employment, and the possible
cost of other study options. In short, learners will conduct a breakdown of costs and benefits
that the particular learning option would bring and make choices accordingly.

Clearly, an understanding of how people learn and what motivates them to learn is
imperative in order to create a good educational experience, and implicit in a sound
teaching strategy. In addition, an awareness of the factors of importance to foster learner
autonomy while designing online adult learning experiences and semi-autonomous learning
systems is crucial as learning at a distance will imply a certain level of self-direction by the

learner. Bouchard’s algorithmic factors, for instance, would be the instructor’s responsibility
in a formal classroom, but are in an autonomous learning system linked to tasks that
the learner will have to carry out independently, which could be problematic. Conative
factors would, in a traditional adult education class, be important aspects for learners either
to choose to participate in learning or not. If confidence levels are low, it is not likely that a
person will take up learning by using a Personal Learning Environment for instance. On the
other hand, the availability of particular semiotic features, such as multimedia, might
motivate the learner to take on a learning project. In addition, the language and multimedia
used play an important part in who is engaged by a semi-autonomous learning system and
who is not. This knowledge will allow tutors to relinquish control if and when appropriate
and provide learners with additional choices, without them feeling overwhelmed by
uncertainty about the new unknown that there is to be learned. The Net-Generation and (adult) education

Changes in pedagogy are not only demanded by the newly emerging tools, but also
because a new generation of students, with potentially different needs and expectations
related to their “connected” lifestyles, are entering our educational institutions. Research
by Kvavik shows that 72% of young students prefer moderate or extensive ICT in the
classroom, while 2.2% prefer entire online teaching and only 2.9% classes without ICT
at all, which indicates that teaching strategies will need to be adapted to make more use
of Interconnecting Technology (Kvavik, 2005). In addition, the current prominent views
of social-constructivism and “community of practice” support teaching approaches that
promote social interaction and active participation in learning activities.

As mentioned in 2.2.7., the behaviour of young people outside the educational context
has been a driver for the fast emergence and penetration of Web 2.0 technologies.
Although not all young people have made technology part of their lives (Selwyn, 2006),
most young people have embraced ICTs. Prensky (2001, p.1) was one of the first to
argue that a major shift is taking place in how people use technology. He said in 2001:
‘By the time they reach 21 most young people in the UK will have: Sent over 200,000
text messages, played 10,000 hours of videogames, watched over 20,000 hours of TV,
talked 10,000 hours on mobile phones, seen over 500,000 TV adverts, spent less than
5,000 hours reading [books].’ And although these figures are out of date, they indicate a
shift away from books and a move towards technology by young people.

Hartman et al see advantages in the way this new generation “multi-tasks” and focuses
on team-building, while the challenges they mention are the ‘shallowness of their reading
and TV viewing habits, a comparative lack of critical thinking skills, naïve views on
intellectual property and the authenticity of information found on the Internet’ (Hartman
et al, 2005, p. 6.1) ‘Doing is more important than knowing, and learning is accomplished
through trial and error as opposed to a logical and rule-based approach’. (Kvavik, 2005,
p. 7.1).

As continuous multitaskers, the Net Geners are adept at context switching, often
engaged in several activities at the same time (in the classroom, this behaviour can
be disconcerting to instructors). Four out of five students believe the internet use
has had a positive impact on their academic experience, and three out of four say
they use the Internet to research more than they do the library.
(Hartman et al, 2005, p. 6.3)
Barone even wondered if current education institutions will be able to engage the Net-

A wave of young people empowered to create knowledge, not merely absorb it,
now flows in and out of the classroom, calling into question the convictions and
processes that have served as the foundation of traditional higher education. It
remains to be seen whether traditional higher education will adjust sufficiently to
truly engage the Net Generation.
(Barone, 2005, p. 14.1)
Education institutions of today need to work with the new students to harness the
potential of ICT to ensure the continuation of the preservation of ‘true academic values,
such as pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge, the process of discovery itself, or
critical inquiry’ (Hartman et al, 2005, p. 6.11) Current learners’ learning environment
has changed dramatically. Their learning resources no longer solely consist of the
resources the tutor or lecturer has provided in the past, such as books, but will
increasingly include the Web. Does traditional Higher Education do enough to engage
the Net-Generation in developing intellectual depth and good judgement in evaluating
and using online sources of information? Hartman expected that the Net-Generation will
start to question the traditional ways of teaching they still experience in the classroom
and lecture theatre, as these ‘do not match up with the interactive access to information
and modes of communication by which they learn in other aspects of their lives’
(Hartman et al, 2005, p. 6.5). Major problems can be expected as the academy changes
slowly. We live in a just-in-time world of technology, where wireless technology is
changing classroom dynamics with instantaneous access to maintain relationships and

contacts with people beyond personal meetings. It ‘changes power relations and shift the
locus of control in the learning process from the faculty member to the student’ (Barone,
2005, p. 14.3-14.8).

Young people use communication tools in their private lives to facilitate their connected
lifestyles, and these could also be used to form a bridge between what happens inside
and outside education. The first young people who haven’t known a world without
technology have come to an age at which they might enter adult education, but adult
education has not shown many signs yet of adapting to the changes required to engage
the Net-Generation. Bennett et al (2008) undertook a critical review of the evidence for a
possible mismatch between the learning needs of young students of today and the way
educational institutions teach them and found that ‘young people’s relationship with
technology is much more complex than the digital native characterisation suggest’
(Bennett et al, 2008, p 783). They called for a halt to the ‘moral panic’ and for research
to be carried out as there is no evidence to suggest that current teaching styles are
rejected. This of course does not mean that in the light of major change in society a
critical appraisal of current teaching strategies would not be desirable. Social software and adult education

Communication and participation are at the heart of all peer-to-peer tools that are widely
used outside formal education and a number of academics have shown an interest in
blogs and wikis and have seen their potential in an educational environment (Downes,
2004; Lankshear & Knobel, 2003; Mason, 2006). Owen et al (2006) see collaboration
and access to much more knowledge as the two most distinct ways in which social
software will change education.

Comments from lecturers about the use of blogs in their classes include: ‘the push into
critical thinking, critical reading and reflection’ (MacIntire-Strasbourg, 2004, p. 1), ‘the
ability to achieve active back-and-forth discussions outside the classroom’ (Martin &
Taylor, 2004, p. 1), and ‘Students are blogging about topics that are important to them.
Students direct their own learning while receiving input and feedback from others.’
(Ferdig & Trammel, 2004, p. 5). ‘Students come to appreciate the value of collaboration
or develop confidence and find their own voices’ (Mason, 2006, p. 130).

Lamb also noted the openness of the wiki environment. He saw a number of
possibilities to use wikis in an educational context: as spaces for brainstorming, as
collaborative areas for teams to work on projects, outlining and managing
activities or research, or as repositories of shared knowledge (Lamb. B., 2004).
Paradoxically, this could also be their downfall as anybody can alter or edit any
document on a wiki. Wikis are believed to foster the notion of “communal

This would be supported by Surowiecki, who explored the idea that ‘large groups
of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant—better at solving
problems, better at fostering innovation, better at coming to wise decisions, even
predicting the future’ (Surowiecki, 2003, p. 7). Not all agree, as the consequence
might be a fragmentation of knowledge. Midgley is concerned that working in
larger teams and subsequent specialization could result in researchers limiting
their understanding to a small part of the whole project. Consequently people do
not understand the connections between things: ‘Traditionally, the value of
knowledge centred on understanding – on the power to see the connections of
things, to wonder at them, and so to live wisely’ (Midgley, 1989, p. 3).
Taking the Wikipedia as example of a collective knowledge development project one
could argue that the contributors could never have produced a “knowledge product”
containing this high a number of subjects and connections individually. Of course,
people believing in traditional knowledge might disregard the Wikipedia as resembling a
knowledge project at all.

Another important issue in the use of wikis is control. James and Lamb indicated the
need for teachers to hand over control of content in using wikis to ensure successful
knowledge-building. The role of the tutor would lie in “setting the scene” and thinking
up problems related to the subject being taught, while allowing students to develop the
wiki to their own liking (James, 2004; Lamb. B., 2004).

Papers by lecturers, who have used blogs and wikis in adult education, have contained
evidence to support that these tools provide opportunities to improve the traditional
learning environment, particularly with their features supporting communication,

collaboration, reflection, ordering thought and knowledge (Ferdig & Trammell, 2004;
Lankshear and Knobel 2006; MacIntire-Strasbourg, 2004, Mason, 2006).

Social tools are already called disruptive technologies as they are changing the work-
practices of journalists and broadcasters (Matheson, 2004; Huffington, 2006). Learning
Technologists expect them also to disrupt and change education. It is up to the Academy
to take up the challenge to ensure that students engage critically with the Internet, by the
framing of questions, by working with the learners on developing intellectual depth and
by a critical analysis of source material found on the Internet, as well as by fitting this
learning process into the institutional structure.

The way the gate-keepers of knowledge engage with the new developments varies; a
number of academics and librarians have noted the bias and unreliability of some written
material in blogs, wikis and personal spaces and do not want any engagement with the
new developments at all, while others have embraced blogs and wikis as tools for debate
and found out that they work differently from a traditional academic environment. North

The sites are no respecter of status. You don’t get any deference to professors or to
people who say: ‘research shows…’ People reply: ‘Post a hyperlink to the research
then, and we will see for ourselves.’ That is a virtuous kind of Socratic dialogue
model. You don’t know anything about the person you are having an argument
with, and what’s at stake is the argument itself.
(North, 2006, p. 6)
While Walker noted:

Blogging alongside other academics in my field . . . is a form of indirect

collaboration . . . . There is an openness and a willingness to share in blogging . . .
that means I know more about many of my fellow bloggers’ research than I do
about a colleague whose office is down the corridor.
(quoted in Glaser, 2004, p. 1)
It seems new developments are still at the realm of enthusiasts, who are trying out new
applications to see how they could be used in an educational context. Large-scale
research using these applications has not been carried out yet.

Other applications used are video and podcasts. They seem to have been mainly used to
explain difficult concepts. Not much research could be found on their use in educational

contexts either. Kamel Boulos and Wheeler (2007) highlighted the possibilities of
podcasts in the creation of scenarios in health care education, while Savel et al (2006)
reported on the use of podcasts for the fast and cheap delivery of media content. It is
only since access to broadband has become widespread and the availability of easy-to-
use and freely available audio and video production and distribution software have
emerged that it is now possible to produce and distribute video and audio easily. For
example, people’s use of sites such as YouTube is now substantial, ‘people are watching
hundreds of millions of videos a day on YouTube and uploading hundreds of thousands
of videos daily. In fact, every minute, 20 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube’
(YouTube factsheet, 2010). How can they be used in a meaningful way in an educational
context? Chaves (2009) would like to see them used to raise presence, create an
immediacy, to close the distance that is created by using text in online educational
environments rather than to use them solely to translate difficult concepts. Knowledge in a connected world

Jenkins (2007) argued that academia will have to engage with the new Web 2.0
technologies that are widely used outside educational institutions. He states that ‘the best
thinking (whether evaluated in terms of process or outcome) is likely to take place
outside academic institutions -- through the informal social organizations that are
emerging on the Web’ (Jenkins 2007, p. 1) and he would like educators to get involved
in the discussion by using the tools themselves.

From the literature in this review so far, it seems likely that the nature of knowledge in
an era of global connectedness is changing. Six aspects seem of importance in this:
1. Current theories of knowledge, such as (social) constructivism, and research of
the brain suggest that context and social interaction are vital components in
learning, in the internalising of knowledge and in the knowledge creation process.
2. Even though mixed evidence is forthcoming, it seems likely that young people
today, the adult students of tomorrow, use different technologies from the ones
that their adult counterparts used, including lecturers and tutors: their immersion
in technology from birth and their total absorption of the communicative and
connective possibilities of social software seem to make it possible that their
approach to learning will differ from earlier generations.

3. The new social media, such as blogs, wikis, pod and videocasts, and social
bookmarking tools make it possible for people to acquire knowledge outside the
formal authorities of knowledge of the past, for instance institutions of Higher
Education, and develop networks and connections with people all over the world
to develop knowledge, very much in a “conversational” way. Potential
knowledge is tested for reliability by groups of people that share an interest in
addition to the tutor in the formal learning environment.
4. The tools themselves invite changes in knowing and learning. If we look at wikis
for instance, they invite a collaborative knowledge creation process, rather than
an individual one as might be seen to be the norm in a cognitive view of
knowledge and learning.
5. New Internet technology makes personalisation of learning possible. ‘ICT has
embraced “personalisation” really well; it’s an easy concept to fulfil through
technology . . . . Personalised learning, of course, takes proper account of
learning styles, of the varied roles needed for collaboration to be effective, of
different intelligences and emotions. But it does not have to mean to work alone.’
(Heppell, 2006, p. 1)
6. The world outside education is changing dramatically. Technology is converging
and telephone, television and entertainment are merging into one, while the
workplace has changed substantially under influence of ICT. Some argue that this
will have a great effect on learning.

Over the past centuries, our organization of knowledge has been determined by the way
educators were able to transmit knowledge to others with the aid of books. In the age of
connected computers this is changing. A tutor has the availability of very different tools
than she had in the past and Bill Gates quite aptly remarked that ‘training the workforce
of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today’s
computers on a 50-year-old timeframe. It’s the wrong tool for the times’ (Siemens,
2006b, p. 31).

As new tools have emerged, institutions can no longer avoid at least thinking about their
implications for learning. Apart from books there are e-books, digital archives of books
and films, electronic papers and journals and communication tools that could connect
learners to more knowledgeable others outside the institution, but still within his or her

comfort zone of an online community of his or her choice. Young people use technology
more than they use books in their personal lives and as Gulati (2006) convincingly
argued, a linear approach to teaching will not necessarily be the most effective way to
facilitate learning for all students under these circumstances. Outside the educational
institution learners have instantaneous access to knowledge, organised in a variety of
formats that they can align with personal requirements and preferences, rather than the
often bureaucratic requirements of the educational institution.

2.3.6. Institutional Change The institution in a changed environment

According to some, educational institutions cannot remain the same under the pressure of
the new technologies (Bass, 2004; Walton et al, 2008).
Important are the broad changes that are occurring across all disciplines and subject
areas and that are the consequence of increasing amounts of scholarly work and
communications taking place in electronic environments: the increasingly
collaborative nature of knowledge, the shift from individual “ownership” of ideas
to ideas that are communally generated, the erosion of the idea of closure, the
movement from univocality to polyvocality in certain scholarly contexts, the shift
from linear to associational thinking, and the overall change in emphasis – in
scholarship and teaching- from knowledge as product to knowledge as process.
(Bass, 2004, p. 2)
Until now the changes in adult education institutions have been mainly driven by
transformations in post-modern society. The need for an up-skilled workforce to
facilitate the economic competitiveness of countries on a global market place has
required a modular education system with a curriculum aligned to the needs of the
workplace. Education is no longer seen as the main vehicle to gain wisdom and
understanding, to learn how to be a good human being who functions well in society in
all aspects of life: morally, emotionally, socially and culturally. The role of education has
moved towards a performative goal: To teach people the skills and knowledge required
for institutions and businesses to perform well in society. Readings speaks about changes
within the university, the institution is ‘no longer linked to the destiny of the nation-state
by virtue of its role as producer, protector and inculcator of an idea of national culture’
(Readings, 1996, p. 3). The institutions have lost their reason for being as they existed in
the Enlightenment era, where they had ‘the national cultural mission’ at their hearts. He
refers to Cabal in writing that the administrator, rather than the professor is now the
important figure in the university and that “accountability” and the pursuit of

“excellence” are at its heart as universities now compete in a global marketplace
(Readings, 1996, p. 3).

In the 19th century, the modern university developed into an institution that was crucial
to social, economic and political goals. Knowledge was related to disciplines, which
underpinned all practice (Delanty, 2001). Usher et al argued that postmodern adult
education has changed in such a multiplicity of forms, and in such a variety of places,
that the teaching of knowledge organised in disciplines is no longer appropriate. The
postmodern scepticism about “grand narratives” has led to doubts about the claims that
certain types of knowledge, certain disciplines, are “better” than others, which has had
consequences for education:
On the one hand, it has contributed to an erosion of the “liberal” curriculum and an
emphasis on learning opportunities that emphasise the efficiency of the economic
and social system. On the other hand, the decentring of knowledge has resulted in a
valuing of different sources and forms of knowledge and a corresponding
devaluing of specialist discipline-based knowledge.
(Usher et al, 1997, p. 8)
‘It does not mean that the disciplines need to be totally ignored. Instead, what needs to be
done is a reconsideration of their role and a reconfiguration of their place in the
contemporary postmodern scene.’ (Usher et al, 1997, p. 68). Furthermore, the
introduction of technology in education and the Internet and its ‘communications
revolution’ have made ‘clear that dominant conceptions of knowledge, curricula and
pedagogy are in drastic need of rethinking’ (Usher et al, 1997, p. 24). People can find
subject knowledge on the Internet and can communicate on the Internet with a wide
group of experts. Moreover, Illich’s ideas of allowing people to make connections in
learning webs with resources they feel they require, with people who can teach them
something that is interesting to them, and with people whom they can teach, are relevant
to adult education. The level of critical analysis of people and their level of autonomy to
be able to learn independently is debatable, however, and has not been extensively
researched. Evolution or revolution?

The way in which global networks and communities of interest are currently being
formed through emerging technologies is encouraging people to develop new and
different forms of communication and learning outside formal education. By creating a

personalised learning space linked to a local learner group, or possibly to a global
network of people and supported by a knowledgeable tutor, the learning space is very
open. It seems likely that “digital natives” will thrive in this environment, as it is what
they have been accustomed to outside formal education. For the “digital immigrants”,
particularly older learners and people from social classes IV and V, who traditionally
also have a low participation rate in adult education, it might be a step too fast and too
far. The factors in Bouchard’s model of learner autonomy would play a role here
(Bouchard, 2009a). These learners might have problems accepting that they are in charge
of the learning process and have a less structured learning environment than in a
traditional classroom, where the tutor will no longer perform at centre stage, but will
have the role of guide through the “information maze” and “connectedness”. In order to
keep up with the change, learners would initially need training in information literacy
and a more traditional learning space, structured by the tutor to gain confidence and

Of course, there is a steep learning curve for tutors as well, as they have been
conditioned in traditional professional patterns and might have to adapt to a change in
their role of providers of content to one of facilitator or supervisor. Some head teachers
of schools have started using their students to teach the teachers the intricacies and
opportunities for education of the new technology, as change has taken place so rapidly
in the last decade that it has become near impossible for teachers to go with the flow and
adapt to the next level of new technology (Dodson, 2006). Ronald Barnett pointed out
that in this world of “supercomplexity” the world of work is changing: ‘Work,
communication, identity, self, knowing and even life: the meaning of fundamental
concepts are no longer clear in a world of change’ (Barnett, 2002, p. 9). It becomes
increasingly important for tutors to learn about technology “on the job” and “in the job”.
It has been part of the academic brief over the centuries to research changes in society
and develop in order to accommodate these changes within the institution, but the
accelerated pace of technological change is problematic and will require some
professional adaptation.

In addition to changes for students and members of staff, institutions will also have to
contend with change in the way the learning space has been laid out over the past
hundreds of years. A need for inclusion of informal spaces has been identified, where

learners can access their online networks, as these would be an integral part of the
learning resources of the future:

In the new academy informal learning spaces take on new importance. Informal
learning spaces with wireless capability suit the Net Generation’s habits of being
constantly connected, social, and interactive with peers. Establishing vibrant
learning communities cannot be confined to class times or formal classrooms. A
significant percentage of learning takes place outside the formal classroom,
wherever people gather to interact-whether that is in the hallway or in a virtual
community of practice.
(Barone, 2005, p. 11)
The lecture theatre might need to be redesigned to include informal corners, or lecturers
might allow mobile and wireless technology to enter the theatre and be used to carry out
tasks with small groups, or to contact their virtual and mobile networks, rather than the
lecturer being the sole focus of attention:

During the computer era of the past fifty years, education has been re-
conceptualised around the construction of knowledge through information
processing, modelling and interaction. For the era of mobile technology, we may
come to conceive of education as conversation in context, enabled by continual
interaction through and with personal and mobile technology.
(Sharples et al, 2005, p. 6) Authority of knowledge, stability of knowledge

Over the past decades the authority of knowledge has shifted. In the Enlightenment era,
the university clearly held the position of authority of knowledge. This all changed in
postmodern time. Readings claimed that the university has changed into a ‘bureaucratic
enterprise without moral purpose’ (Readings, 1996, p.3). The university is no longer the
dominant producer of knowledge. Other institutions have become major producers, such
as think tanks, research institutes, multinational corporations, as knowledge is related to
the performance of society. In addition, what counts as knowledge has changed. It is
more dynamic and related to the social, political and cultural climate of the time
(Delanty, 2001; Lyotard, 1984; Readings, 1996). Lyotard lamented this change, saying

the process of delegitimation and the predominance of the performance criterion

are sounding the knell of the age of the Professor: a Professor is no more competent
than memory bank networks in transmitting established knowledge, no more
competent than interdisciplinary teams in imagining new moves or new games.
(Lyotard, 1984, p. 53)

However, Delanty saw a new role emerging for the university:

This restructuring in the mode of knowledge implies not the end of the university
but its reconstitution. The great significance of the institution of the university
today is that it can be the most important site of interconnectivity in what is now a
knowledge society. There is a proliferation of so many different kinds of
knowledge that no particular one can unify all the others. The university cannot re-
establish the broken unity of knowledge, but it can open up avenues of
communication between these different kinds of knowledge, in particular between
knowledge in science and knowledge as culture.
(Delanty, 2001, p. 6)
Delanty proposed that communication is the new tie at the heart of contemporary society
and could be the unifying factor in our supercomplex society. He referred to Habermas’s
ideas on communication in the public sphere. Of course mass media and commerce are
already heavily engaged in the arena of public communication and have shaped it to a
certain extent. However, this was in “broadcasting mode” before the Web 2.0
developments. The new digital media allow for a two-way exchange. They are
increasingly changing the mass media themselves: there is interactive television,
newspapers have blogs and podcasts and ask their audience to engage and produce
content. Matheson discussed the online news-blog in terms of ‘knowledge-as-process,
rather than knowledge-as-product’ (Matheson, 2004, p. 458). The new “bottom-up”
developments in communication through social software on the Web could ensure a new
platform of public communication and dialogue.

A substantial number of academics are already involved in communication of this nature

(Glaser, 2004; North, 2006; Mortenson & Walker, 2002; Mason, 2006). As is shown in
the development of the Wikipedia not only can anybody interested get involved in the
debate and development of knowledge, but the meaning of knowledge is changing. A
transition to this model of online dialogue could clearly lead to an undermining of the
authority of the knowledge-keepers of the past, the university, as people can
communicate and find knowledgeable others on a global scale, can collaborate on
knowledge creation projects, and discuss topics of interest with others, while at the same
time connect this to information that is readily available. They can bypass academia
altogether. This increases the need for critical analysis of online sources. Networks of
social sites such as blogs and wikis collating people’s ideas and views, aggregating these
through RSS feeds and social book marking could do this to a certain extent, but the need

for a knowledgeable guide through online resources will be pertinent to education in the
future. Validating knowledge

If knowledge is developing in a more communal way than in the past, the validation of
knowledge will be different from that in the era of accountability and individual
knowledge development. If the learner finds information on the World Wide Web and
communicates in the “blogosphere” to make sense of that information according to his
own interests and experiences while learning away from the institution in collaboration
with others, the institution will still have to devise structures to fit the learning into its
quality systems. It is a paradox that technology has facilitated a closer control of
assessment and validation of knowledge, while what will be required to use the new
technologies effectively are flexibility and a willingness to adapt to new assessment

The Web and its new developments will drive forward changes in assessment practices.
There are already moves towards the use of e-portfolios, where people work in any IT
format, and in which documents and other products can be stored, shared and validated.
In addition, voices are being heard suggesting the introduction of collaborative
assessment, where all involved in the learning community will also be involved in the
assessment process (McConnell, 2002). Applications such as “Turnitin” are increasingly
being used to detect plagiarism and there will be an important negotiating and facilitating
role for the local tutor in linking the online learning to a local community of practice and
accreditation structure.


Over the past ten years major changes in technology have taken place. The use of
computers has increased dramatically and the emergence of creative and
communications applications and tools has enriched the Web from a medium that was
mainly a source of information into a network of interlinked other networks on which
people communicate and share information, sound, video and image files which they can
produce themselves. The question that has arisen throughout this review is how the
potential of these changes can be harnessed to enhance adult education. In addition, the
need for research into the possible requirement of change in adult education in the light

of attitudes and behaviours of people in using these tools, but also as these technologies
are increasingly intertwined with everyday life. One interesting aspect is the distinct
change in communication that the new technologies have brought about.

There seems to be a discrepancy between the way people use communication technology
on their informal, personal networks and in their educational environment. Dron and
Anderson (2007) have given considerable thought to the transactional distance between
participants on these networks. They are particularly interested in the use of these
networks in an educational context and make a clear distinction between learning in
groups, on networks and in collectives. They argued that there is a difference in presence
and subsequent engagement in these three entities. They saw the level of emotional
engagement and presence being the highest in groups, which would be the typical
classroom or distance education student group. They would be lower on online networks,
which would typically be the blogosphere, or the large informal online courses that are
currently experimented with (Siemens & Downes, 2008, 2009); and the lowest on
collectives, which would use tags to connect. Dron and Anderson (2007) emphasised that
there is an interrelationship between ‘engagement in learning’, ‘transactional nearness’,
and ‘emotional involvement’: the closer the feeling of connectedness, the higher the level
of commitment to the learning activity; the closer the relationship with the people
involved in the undertaking, the higher the inclination to engage in communication and

Their ideas are interesting as they relate to a number of issues that have come to the fore
in this literature review. Eight issues seem most significant to the changing nature of
knowledge and adult learning in a technology-rich world:

1. Changes in theories of education, knowledge and learning. Current prominent

theories of knowledge, learning and education move away from the traditional
view that knowledge is true justified belief. The view that knowledge that has
been accumulated over ages through work by authorities in different higher
domains has become contested. In postmodern times the application of
knowledge and its usefulness to society has become more important.

Also the current notion that all knowledge is embedded in its context has meant
that the concept of “objective knowledge” is contested in addition to the “transfer
of knowledge” from tutors to learners. New views of learning, such as “social
constructivism” and “communities of practice” show that learning is not a
cognitive process that takes place solely inside a person’s head, but that it is
situated in the context in which it is created; that participation in a community
and interaction with other human beings foster the meaning-making process.

Current developments in communication technology have instigated a debate on

a potential new learning theory, named ‘Connectivism’, that some observers see
as the logical development in learning theory development to encompass the
informal learning people do on the Internet. Through interaction with nodes on
online networks, people can access information and communicate with others on
a global scale. ‘Connectivism’ is contested as it might only be a further
development from earlier theories. Even though in theoretical terms its existence
might not be justified, in a pedagogical sense the need to (re)-consider the
learning process has become apparent as new technologies open up new
possibilities for active engagement by the learner in non-formal and informal
learning through the use of emerging technologies, which could strengthen
student learning.

Indeed, current theories indicating that learning is socio-culturally situated,

advocate engagement in informal activities that provide opportunities for the
learner to make connections with his or her own context and experiences, to
personalise the learning.

2. Information Communication Technology has created an abundance of

information. On the one hand this has offered new opportunities for knowledge
creation as the information streams can be linked to other human beings through
ICT based communication tools. The spatial way in which information is laid out
and connected on the Web through hyperlinks, and, for instance, in wikis, rather
than the linear way in which an author leads an individual through a book have
been identified as advantageous as people will encounter unexpected information
that will aid new thought. It has also been seen to help self-directed learning as it

can be a way for learners to follow their own learning journey, rather than to be
directed by others. However, this has also been seen as a disadvantage as it could
encourage shallow “information-hopping”, rather than engaging learners in
higher-order thinking.

Moreover, it might diffuse information and mean that people lack the coherence
that the structured book would provide. Critical analysis of information sources is
important and social networks and social book-marking are seen as one way to
facilitate this. The bottom-up “folksonomy” of tagging by other people, rather
than using the mechanical commercial search engines are seen to provide more
reliable information that is validated by others. However, the influence of
inequality and power structures on the Web, which influence learners’ access to
information, have been seen as problematic.

Educationalists would like the local tutors to continue to be an active influence in

directing learners in their search for information. The age old debate on what is
true is still very relevant in the internet era as anybody can post “their own truth”
and their own story and the ability to filter information to distinguish between
facts and beliefs becomes an increasingly important skill.

3. The way young people use ICT outside an educational context, and the way in
which ICT tools and equipment have become an integral part of everyday
existence are seen to be important drivers for change in the way learning might
develop in years to come. Young people have been immersed in technology all
their lives and new innovations and creative application of technology emerge on
a daily basis and are taken up by large groups of young people worldwide outside
educational institutions, and increasingly by adults as well.

It is likely that some of the new developments will find their way into adult
education. The possible opportunities and innovation that for instance the use of
mobile and wireless technology, and the use of social software, VOIP and The
Semantic Web offer, are all seen as forces for change.

4. The distribution of home access to technology and the Internet amongst the adult
population is uneven. Older people and people from social classes IV and V are
seen to be least likely to use new technologies and the Internet, although the
growth of internet take-up is steadily increasing. This will have implications for
Technology Enhanced Learning. A slow evolution rather than a fast revolution to
make changes in adult education seems most appropriate if a large part of the
population does not yet access the Internet.

5. Students need support in the changing learning environment, but so do their

tutors. The role of the tutors and of the learners, and of the learning technologist
for that matter, need a closer study as the intricate interplay between these
participants in the online learning development are of vital importance to the
creation of meaningful learning environments and learning experiences.

6. Issues of learner self-direction, learner autonomy and learner control have shown
to be of importance. As the online learning environment is positioned between
the institution and the Web, depending on the level of personalisation and the
level of informal learning, different levels of self-direction and different roles by
the tutor are likely.

For instance, research is currently being carried out in Personal Learning

Environments. Such environments would be identifiably personal, not shared or
owned by an institution or corporation. Decisions on what application or
institutional learning environment to include in the environment would be made
by the learner. The learner would be in control, not a learning institution. Of
course a variety of questions have been raised about this type of developments as
validity and reliability of information for learning would depend on a certain
level of information literacy and critical thinking. How these affordances of new
technologies would fit with institutional needs and requirements will be of major
concern to adult educators.

7. Communication is seen by most educators as an integral part of the learning

process. The way it has been facilitated through Virtual Learning Environments
has been perceived as problematic by many practitioners and researchers. Issues

of power and control, lack of autonomy and lack of options for personalisation,
and affective issues have been identified as being difficult in research on VLEs.
These issues might be solved better outside the institutional structures as informal
social media have been highlighted as possible media that could help learners to
facilitate true dialogue in their online learning experiences.

Claims are being made that new social tools might facilitate the creation of an
“online place”, a trusted community to learn in, in a better way than discussion
boards have done in the past, and could provide more options for personalisation,
and self-directed learning in a communicative environment. Only small-scale
research has been carried out so far, and mainly anecdotal evidence from
enthusiasts has been used to substantiate claims.

8. Politicians and some observers would like adult education practice to embrace
technological change. Institutions such as universities are already losing their
autonomy as knowledge producers and disseminators of knowledge, under
influence of rapid changes in technological development and the
commodification of knowledge. The research indicates a need for institutions to
closely follow and influence the developments and the debate, and carry out
research in how institutions can evolve and use the emerging technologies to their



Learning theorists will no longer be able to study learning from the detached
pose of the empirical scientist. The days of the controlled study involving 24
students ought to end. Theorists will have to, like students, immerse themselves
in their field, to encounter and engage in a myriad of connections, to immerse
themselves, as McLuhan would say, as though in a warm bath.
(Downes, 2006, p. 1)
Stephen Downes and his ideas on Connectivism take researchers into new uncharted
territories, which might require particular research methods. He expressed the need
for researchers to immerse themselves in the field. Several traditions have developed
in educational research to lead to this statement.

3.1.1. The move towards qualitative research methods

The first educational research reports emerged in the late nineteenth century and
early 20th century. Educational research originated in psychology and was conducted
in the same way that scientific research had been conducted until then: using
quantitative methods by non-practitioners to gather and analyse empirical data.
Educational researchers at that time agreed that a rigorous research framework, based
on empirical knowledge produced by scientific methods, would be the way to
improve educational practice. They adopted a “positivist” approach to research,
which emphasised quantitative measurement of the educational process aiming to
transform education into a science (de Landsheere, 1993). Educational research was
characterised by the development of tests, intelligence, experiments, and stringent
observational schedules in order to gain an objective measure of educational practice
in order to facilitate improvements.

Psychology and its research methods greatly influenced educational research, but
from 1930 onwards the sociology of education became more influential. Sociological
research was also quantitative in nature, but was different in that it aimed to achieve
equal opportunities for people from all social backgrounds, which meant that
statistics and large surveys were carried out to establish how inclusive education
really was. In the 1960s the evaluation of education also became more prominent, as

did research in school effectiveness. These were all still carried out using quantitative

In the early 1970s major criticisms of the scientific approach were made. The
validity of “scientific” educational research was questioned, as it had been previously
questioned by thinkers such as Max Weber (1922) in other social sciences.
Hammersley et al were some of several researchers expressing their doubt:
The numerical evidence produced by such research has the appearance of being
“hard data” of the kind used in natural sciences, there are, in fact, fundamental
doubts about its validity; about whether it represents accurately what it claims
to represent.
(Hammersley et al, 2001, p. 13)
Donaldson analysed educational experiments by Piaget and questioned their validity.
She argued that experiments are social situations in their own right and that
interpretations of particular “situations” are in fact influenced by multiple areas of
the context that cannot be controlled. For example, test questions might be
interpreted differently by the participants than the researcher had envisioned and
could lead to a different outcome to the research (Donaldson, 1993). She believed
that qualitative research would be required to research the interpretive and
interactional processes taking place in an educational setting.

Stenhouse argued that while the research at the time was conducted to influence
educational policy and improve educational practice, the nature of the research, the
methods used and the pre-set parameters of it, would have been inadequate to
measure the complex interactions and situations arising in an educational setting
(Stenhouse, 1995). Furthermore, critics of the use of the scientific method in
educational research suggest that ‘human social life is not characterised by fixed,
mechanical causal relationships’, but it ‘involves complex processes of interpretation
and negotiation that do not have determinate outcomes’ (Hammersley et al, 2001, p.

In fact, a move towards a different model took place, following criticisms by people
like Schön that scientific methods are inappropriate for the measurement of
educational professional practice as scientific knowledge is basically different from
the ‘knowledge-in-action’ and ‘reflection-in-action’ so characteristic of the

development of educational practice (Schön, 1983). Carr and Kemmis followed
Habermas in claiming that the scientific methods ‘used in quantitative educational
research treats human relations as subject to bureaucratic manipulation and control.’
In their view it does not take into account the possible distortion of educational
practice by particular ideologies (Hammersley, 1993, p. 214-215). This is also
emphasised by Weiner when she queries the validity of “hard” data on gender
differences in mathematics (Weiner, 1995).

A new enlightenment model of research became more prominent that aspired to

provide policy makers and practitioners with insights into education. Its main
features were the use of qualitative research with ‘a focus on the natural setting; an
interest in meanings, perspectives and understandings, an emphasis on process;
inductive analysis and grounded theory’ (Hammersley et al, 2001, p. 49). Several
strands emerged, each with a different emphasis: ethnography, discipline-focused
inquiry, critical research and educational action research, which all use qualitative
research methods, as opposed to relying solely on quantitative methods. Advantages
of qualitative methods over quantitative ones were seen to be that deep exploration of
educational phenomena would be possible, that the voice of marginalized groups
would be louder, and more options for analysis of data would be available involving
interpretation of meanings and human actions rather than numbers. This shift in
research methods also made a change in the involvement of the people in the
situations researched.

One of the qualitative forms of research, which involves participation by the people
in the field that has grown in prominence, is “educational action research”. It takes a
distinct position in the role the practitioner plays in educational research (Weiner,
1995). People advocating action research and teacher research agree that carrying out
research in their practice should be an essential part of an educational practitioner’s

At this point it might be important to establish what is at the heart of educational

practice. Carr stated that the word “practice” is used in a variety of ways, which are
not always compatible. It is used to refer to ‘activity to acquire certain capacities and
skills’ and to ‘activity which demonstrates that these skills have already been

acquired’ (Carr, 1993, p. 161). Carr argued that the activity and theory are
intertwined and inform one another, as ‘practice has its roots in the commitments of
the practitioner to wise and prudent action’ (Carr, 1993, p. 182). This symbiosis
between theory and action, where actions in the classroom inform theory and where
theory impacts on actions in the classroom and the role teachers can or should play in
all of this, is at the heart of action research and teacher research. Researchers,
including Elliott and Carr, argue that it is not just the active engagement in education
that makes for good practice, but also the theory related to the activity and the ways
in which the activity is influenced by institutions, politics and society (Weiner,
1995). For an educational practitioner to carry out his work to the highest standard,
he will have to research issues related to his practice, according to action researchers.

In addition to questions about the validity of scientific approach in education, critics

have queried its political and ethical neutrality. A form of “critical” educational
research emerged that argued that

the focus [of research to date] had been on the distribution of education rather
than on the functions performed for capitalism by the educational system. The
effect of this, it was suggested, was to reinforce the widespread belief in the
political neutrality and value of the education offered in schools, when this
should have been challenged
(Hammersley et al, 2001, p. 18).

They proposed ethnography as the most appropriate method to research education,

and ‘to be of value, it is suggested, ethnographic research should be concerned not
simply with understanding the world but with applying its findings to bring about
change’ (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995, p. 15).

The ethnographic approach is one of the qualitative methodologies that has gained
popularity in educational research. ‘Ethnography is a method for collecting data, but
this cannot be distinguished from the broader theoretical and philosophical
frameworks that give authority to this way of collecting data. Because method and
methodology are so intertwined some authors describe ethnography as a perspective
rather than a means to collect data’ (Brewer, 2000, p. 7). At the heart of ethnography
is the focus on the natural setting. Researchers in this tradition attempt not to disturb
the setting they are researching, hence the name related to this type of research of

naturalism. There is doubt if this is at all possible as one could argue that
researchers’ presence does influence the research situation, and variations on this
approach have been developed, but an attempt is always being made to achieve an
undisturbed setting. In addition, researchers in this tradition work towards research
data and analysis that reflects as closely as possible what is happening in the chosen
setting. The researcher is interested in the processes taking place, the perspectives
and understandings of the people in the setting. They are not so much interested in
the “input and output” of education, but in what happens between the two: ‘it
presents detail, context, emotion and the webs of social relationships that join
persons to one another’ (Hammersley et al, 2001, p. 55).

Quantitative research can show that change has taken place before and after tests, but
qualitative research can show the detail of how change came about. Ethnographers
do not usually start out with a theory, but by examining a setting in depth theory can
be derived, and the theory ‘is grounded in the social activity it purports to explain’
(Hammersley et al, 2001, p. 56). Moreover, Hine (2000, 2005) highlighted that in a
technologically rich environment, such as the Internet, the technology itself and the
artefacts it produces should be taken into consideration in the ‘online’ ethnography,
as these are part of the research setting and might influence the human interactions

Ethnographers try not to make any assumptions about the setting before the research
starts. The methods applied therefore are open and try to capture the processes and
interactions that are taking place in depth. Usually observations and interviews are
the main methods of obtaining data. There are different ways of observation in
ethnographical studies, ranging from participant observation to non-participant
observation, depending on the cases studied and the setting in which they are
conducted. In current educational research a mixed approach is used quite often.

One of the main criticism of ethnography as a research method has been the place of
the researcher in the research and the possible theoretical and personal bias this could
cause, in addition to possible problems with sampling as usually a small number of
participants are questioned. In section 3.1.3. objectivity and generalizability in
qualitative research will be discussed more extensively.

Terry Mayes emphasised the need to not only research issues related to the
institutions and teachers, but to also capture the learner perspective. (Mayes, 2006).
His report on the LEX (Learning EXperience) project provided a convincing
argument to choose an alternative method to that used in the past to research e-

The mainstream approach reveals some influence of constructivist pedagogy,

but largely neglects a genuinely learner-centred perspective: that students
experience formal learning in emotional terms, that their motivation to learn is
only understandable by looking at their lives holistically, and that technology is
embedded in their social experiences.
(Mayes, 2006, p. 3)

He used Interpretative Phonomenological Analysis (IPA) and typified the method as

‘a method for exploring how participants make sense of their own experiences’
(Mayes, 2006, p. 6). It explores a particular phenomenon and tries to capture ‘a
detailed story of the participant’s own experience, rather than an objective account. It
assumes that participants are experts in their own experiences and can offer
researchers an understanding of their feelings, intentions and motivations, and
attitudes’ (Mayes, 2006, p. 6). In addition, it is interpretative:

the researchers enter into a process of interpretation. The researchers bring their
own expertise to bear on the reflective process in achieving meaning. The
interpretations can be drawn from a range of theoretical positions but they
should emerge as interpretations of the participant’s account, rather than
emerging from prior hypotheses.
(Mayes, 2006, p. 7)

3.1.2. Epistemological Perspectives within Qualitative Research

The discussion in chapter 2 on epistemological perspectives, the traditional view of

knowledge most prominent in formal education, and (social) constructivism
emerging in online and distance education, shows that different views of knowledge
will lead to different strategies in teaching and learning. They are influenced by
different views and understandings of the world, and different world views will also
influence the way in which we ‘define and address the problems we see’ (Gulati,
2006, p. 61) and how we analyse and research these issues (Guba, 1990). This means
that different views on qualitative inquiry have emerged. Denzin and Lincoln (2003)

highlighted three main philosophies: Interpretist philosophies, philosophical
hermeneutics and social constructionism. In an interpretatist view the main
difference between human action and physical movement is that human action is
meaningful. The researcher not only sees the action, but must also interpret it:
A wink is not a wink . . . a smile can be interpreted as wry or loving, or that
very different physical movements can all be interpreted as acts of
supplication, or that the same movement of raising one’s arm can be variously
interpreted as voting, hailing a taxi, or asking for permission to speak,
depending on the context and intentions of the actors.
(Denzin and Lincoln, 2003, p. 296)
The researcher remains objective, though: she interprets texts or observes actions, but
in the interpretivist view she is able to see and describe the action, or interpret a text,
without getting involved herself. In the hermeneutics perspective, however, the
researcher is involved in the action: his own tradition and views of the world are
included in the inquiry, which usually comes into being during a dialogue with the
research subject: ‘understanding is produced in that dialogue, rather than reproduced
by an interpreter through an analysis of that which he or she seeks to understand’
(Schwandt, 2003, p. 302, emphasis in original). And ‘in hermeneutics the researcher
is non-objectivist: Meaning is negotiated mutually in the act of interpretation; it is
not simply discovered’ (Schwandt, 2003, p. 302). Social constructionalists posit that
knowing is not passive – a simple imprinting of data on the mind – but active;
that is, the mind does something with these impressions. . . . In this sense,
constructivism means that human beings do not find or discover knowledge so
much as we construct or make it. We invent concepts, models and schemes to
make sense of experience, and we continually test and modify these
constructions in the light of new experience. Furthermore, there is an inevitable
historical and socio-cultural dimension to this construction. We do not
construct our interpretations in isolation, against a backdrop of shared
understandings, practices, language, and so forth.
(Schwandt, 2003, p. 305)
It is also called perspectivism and all knowledge claims are seen to be evaluated
through a conceptual framework on the world. It rejects ‘a naïve realist and
empiricist epistemology that holds that there can be some kind of unmediated, direct
grasp of the empirical world and their knowledge (i.e. the mind) simply reflects or
mirrors what is out there’(Schwandt, 2003, p. 305).

3.1.3. Objectivity and generalization in qualitative research

The USA National Research Council Committee produced guiding principles for
Scientific Research in 2002. Shavelson et al argued that all the sciences, including
scientific educational research, share principles. In their words,
all scientific endeavours should:
 Pose significant questions that can be investigated empirically,
 Link research to relevant theory,
 Use methods that permit direct investigation of the questions,
 Provide a coherent and explicit chain of reasoning,
 Attempt to yield findings that replicate and generalize across studies, and
 Disclose research data and methods to enable and encourage professional
scrutiny and critique’
(Shavelson et al, 2003, p. 26)
This seems to be a guide relevant to most disciplines of study. The aim of most
empirical research is to be as objective as possible. In fact, most researchers aspire to
be unbiased in their views, to be objective in their methods and to create knowledge
that is reliable and that stands up to scrutiny.

Most educational enquiry aims at objectivity, at knowledge whose validity is

independent of the researcher. Qualitative researchers, however, question whether
such knowledge is achievable. Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard rejected the possibility
of objective scientific understanding of the world on the grounds that this assumes
fixity of meaning which does not really exist. Eisner criticised procedural objectivity;
he argued that you cannot split the reality from the researcher. ‘Knowledge is always
constructed relative to a framework, to a form of representation, to a cultural code,
and to a personal biography’ (Eisner, 1993, p. 54). Moreover, Phillips posited that
the way evidence is collected and by whom will determine the research results
(Phillips, 1993). This would mean that all research has a subjective element, which is
supported by the views of researchers in the critical tradition, who argue that power-
relations in research in the past meant that the voice of the oppressed was seldom
heard. Phillips (1993, p. 59) argues that ‘there is no absolutely secure starting point
for knowledge’ and quoted Karl Popper to support this claim:

The question about sources of knowledge . . . has always been asked in the
spirit of: “What are the sources of our knowledge – the most reliable ones,
those which will not lead us into error, and those to which we can and must

turn, in case of doubt, as the last court of appeal? I propose to assume instead,
that no such ideal sources exist – no more- than ideal rulers – and that all
sources are liable to lead us into error some times. And I propose to replace,
therefore, the question of the sources of our knowledge by the entirely different
question: How can we hope to detect and eliminate error?
(Popper quoted in Phillips, 1993, p. 59, emphasis in original)
What Phillips proposed is ‘to open [research methodology] up to scrutiny, to
vigorous examination, to challenge’ (Phillips, 1999 p. 71). In other words, to ensure
objectivity in qualitative research, there should be an extra layer of discussion about
the research, either with participants or with outsiders to the research. We can use the
concept of truth, as long as we understand that what we regard as true depends on
shared frameworks of perceptions and understanding. Gergen and Gergen (2003)
spoke of objectivity in terms of “sunset maps”: ‘One might say the sun is setting,
while astronomers might at the same time say that the sun does not set. The
important issue is to not mistake local conventions for universal truth’ (Gergen &
Gergen, 2003, p. 587). They emphasised the importance of ‘being mindful of the
constructed, the ephemeral, the hyperreal, while not giving up on empirical analysis
of lived experience in a world that still seems quite real and solid to its inhabitants
(even if it doesn’t seem as solid as it might once have felt).’

In virtual ethnography there are other issues of objectivity to consider, such as

personal or theoretical bias, as the researcher might be intertwined with the setting
and with preconceived ideas about the setting. Some might argue that this will
compromise the unbiased collection of data. Beaulieu (2004) highlighted the
different approaches an online researcher can take to avoid bias; the main one being
the possession of a level of “discipline”. Several methods of discipline were
proposed, including approaching the setting as a network and distancing oneself from
it by taking different roles on the network, or to become a “lurker” and not
participate at all. She also discussed the opposite strategy, one of human interactivity.
The researcher would gain a full understanding of the setting by being involved. This
was also a strategy favoured by Hine (2000) who insisted on the value of
participating in online networks in order to check interpretations, and also on the
inherent value of the learning process while participating. The importance of inter
subjectivity as a method of objectification in online ethnography was also stressed by

Beaulieu (2004); the seeking of interaction and reflection on these interactions for
instance by blogging, emailing and involvement on discussion forums.
The uses of the technology are aligned to the cultural phenomena being
investigated (the blog and the phenomena studied ‘live’ in the same sphere).
The internet best speaks for itself and is best addressed via the blog, which
becomes the ideal instruments for knowing about it. Such alignments are
formative moves in the production of knowledge about the internet as object. .
. Blogs both help these ethnographers create the object, and make visible the
subjectivity of the researcher. The blog is therefore felt to be a context and a
mode of communication, a hybrid tool for making, presenting and reflecting on
the object that is furthermore exposed in a new way.
(Beaulieu, 2004, p.151)

She notes that it might be difficult to “leave the field” after a blogging episode.

Another criticism of qualitative research methods has been that their subjectivity
means that the research is embedded in its context and that generalizability is
difficult. Of course it has been one of the main aims of scientists to achieve
generalizability for their inquiry. Indeed, Lincoln and Guba, posit that scientists
increasingly aim for successful prediction and control of the living environment and
generalization fits well with this. To not take this stance would mean that not much
of value is left: What ‘would be left is knowledge of the particular – and they ask
“What value could there be in knowing only the unique?”’ (Lincoln & Guba, 1985,
p. 110-111). They argue that the belief that generalisation is possible for the social
sciences, as well as for the natural sciences, is based on false premises. They wrote:

It is virtually impossible to imagine any human behaviour that is not heavily

mediated by the context in which it occurs. One can easily conclude that
generalisations that are intended to be context free will have little that is useful
to say about human behaviour.
(Guba & Lincoln quoted in Schofield, 1993, p. 96)
Schofield stated that there is a consensus ‘that generalizability in the sense of
producing laws that apply universally is not a useful standard or goal for qualitative
research’ (Schofield, 1993, p. 97). He provided us with some guidelines on how
generalizability can be achieved in qualitative research. He advocated in particular
the use of “thick descriptions”, providing readers with a considerable amount of
background information, which will make it easier for researchers and practitioners,
who would like to use the research findings and developments to compare them to
their own context, to find the best fit with a particular situation. Thick descriptions

are also emphasised as a good way to increase generalizability in qualitative research
by Gergen and Gergen (2003).
Another way to extend generalizability is to increase the number of sites and cases
studied in order to increase and widen the sample and safeguard reliability of the
data. To make qualitative research projects relevant to a wider audience and to
develop collective professional knowledge, big research partnerships could be of


3.2.2. Design Based Research

In the relatively new field of Learning Technology, researchers have been grappling
with the question of how best to research innovations. As designing a new learning
environment is a multi-facetted process, researching if an innovation is effective in a
particular educational setting is complex as well. To add to this, Learning
Technology is a multidisciplinary field that has attracted people from a wide variety
of domains from the sciences, engineering, humanities, psychology to education, all
with different traditions in research approaches and methods. What then would be a
suitable research approach for the rigorous investigation of educational issues in the
context of innovation and design of new technology based learning environments?

A number of researchers in the field of Learning Technology, or as it is sometimes

called “Educational Technology”, have chosen to use a Design-Based Research
approach (Kelly, 2004; The Design-Based Research collective, 2003; Bannan-
Ritland, 2003; Barab & Squire, 2004), which is sometimes also referred to as Design
Experiments (Gravemeijer & Cobb, 2006; Sloane & Gorard, 2003), or as Educational
Design Research (van den Akker et al, 2006).

At the heart of Design Based Research is a methodological approach that examines

and analyses in a systematic way every aspect of a new learning design innovation.
From the moment the initial idea for the development is born, through an iterative
process of development and testing, to the dissemination, diffusion and adoption-
stage of the tested prototype of the designed environment, research takes place.

Design Based Researchers work with practitioners and designers to ensure that all
aspects of the innovation in the process are scrutinised.

Shavelson et al suggested that the

Strengths of design studies lie in testing theories in the crucible of practice; in

working collegially with practitioners, co-constructing knowledge; in
confronting everyday classroom, school, and community problems that
influence teaching and learning and adapting instruction to these conditions; in
recognizing the limits of theory; and in capturing the specifics of practice and
the potential advantages from the iterative adapting and sharpening theory and
its context.
(Shavelson et al, 2003, p. 25)
Shavelson et al also remarked that researchers using a design-based research
approach argue for ‘intensive, longitudinal studies that trace the design process and
capture meaning constructed by individual subjects over time’ (Shavelson et al,
2003, p.27). However, they are critical of the possibilities for generalisation if
randomized experiments do not form part of the research design. They gave as
examples the use of small trials to test the usability of particular software to increase
possibilities for generalisation. Moreover, Sloane and Gorard argued that ‘the
theories we hold, and the training we have received, critically affect the data we
collect and the lenses we choose in looking at such data. As one might expect, a
combination of theory and empiricism is usually the most fruitful’ (Sloane &
Gorard, 2003, p. 30). They argued for a mixed-method approach in research. Much
current educational research uses a mixed-method approach, even though some
researchers argue that qualitative and quantitative research stem from such different
traditions, and different suppositions about the nature of the events studied, that it
would be impossible to use both in the same research. The consensus amongst
educational researchers, however, is that mixed-method approaches are possible and
sometimes even desirable, as the differences between the two in educational research
are not so “deep” and “clear cut” as some suggest (Hammersley et al, 2001, p. 27).
Bannan-Ritland (2003) produced the ‘Integrative Learning Design
Framework’(Figure 3) that is being used as the basis for research in new
developments by some learning technologists. In her framework a heavy emphasis is
placed on the development of the design of the learning environment. Research takes

Figure 3 3.2.2. ‘Integrative Learning Design Framework’ (Bannan-Ritland, 2003, p. 22)

place before the learning environment is produced, for instance using methods such
as interviews, surveys of experts, or focus groups, while a needs assessment
document is formulated. While producing the learning environment, designers
produce logs, and expert reviews and audience reviews are carried out, while a
prototype model is being developed. Then an evaluation stage takes place in which
the usability of the design is being tested. Observational data, videotapes and
research reports forms the data.

This is an iterative process in which testing follows new developments and so on. In
the final stage the broad impact of the innovation is being evaluated. This could be
done by data-mining, extending the research to multiple sites, interviews and
observations, while the diffusion and adoption of the design will come to the fore. At
these stages, close attention is being paid to how the activities are integrated in the
design. One strand of the model would look at the instructional design, the writing of
the materials by tutors, and how this interplays with the design of the learning
environment. Another would follow the innovation through to diffusion and
adoption. The final strand would involve the educational research, in which
observations of users and facilitators, both in the classroom and the home
environment would be expected to take place (Bannan-Ritland, 2003). This approach
would investigate a number of aspects relevant to the research questions in this
study, but not all.


In order to find answers to the two research questions, it would be important to

investigate two different settings. Two settings were chosen.

Setting one was an educational setting, and to be more precise, a two and a half year
long project that had as its aim the development and delivery of an online
programme in a University Department of Adult Continuing Education. The
programme plan had a certain flexibility in the way it was developed. It entailed the
development of a bespoke learning environment, the use of Web 2.0 technologies on
an online adult education programme. The expectation was that tutors would be
encouraged to be facilitators; providing the tools for learning, signposting learners to
resources while the creation of activities that would encourage learners to direct their

own inquiry-based learning were also incorporated in the plan. The learners would
have access to a learning environment that they could personalise, where they would
be more autonomous than in a traditional learning setting. Moreover, it was
envisioned that they would be given the opportunity to direct their own learning by
using Internet-based collaborative tools and online networks. In the Design Based
Research Model, the research of the educational strand would be based on
hypotheses regarding the effectiveness of the innovation.

To answer the research questions, it would be important to capture the learner and
tutor experiences in a more holistic way. An ethnographic approach through the use
of Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis, as advocated by Terry Mayes (2006)
would allow for the close examination of the experience of 10 learners and 4 tutors
as a sample of the participants involved in the programme. A deep understanding of
learning experiences would be achieved through observing how they would use the
learning environment and tools. Through interviews at different stages of the
programme it would be possible to elicit their preferences for a tutor-led or learner-
led learning environment. By analysing the content of their blogs, wikis and
discussion board participation it would be possible to analyse their experience with
Web 2.0 tools for communication. In addition a deep understanding of the teacher
experiences would be acquired. Analyses of statistics generated by the learning
environment would provide an overall picture of how often people used the learning
environment and at what critical times.

The learning environment being used would influence the learning and teaching
experience. In order to investigate the other strands of the innovation, such as the
design of the learning environment, interviews with the project manager and the
developers of the environment and resources would be used at different stages of the
programme. A developmental blog that archived the experiences of the design team
at each stage of development, and the problems that they experienced in the process,
would also be used.

The Framework by Bannan-Ritland was regarded as useful for this part of the
research as it investigates all aspects that influence the learning and teaching
experience. It was thought better if the emphasis of the model was focussed towards

the educational strand, as the learner experience in the move from an institutional to
a personal learning environment are at the centre of the research question. It was
important however, to take note of the influences of the design of the environment on
the learning experience in the research. Carroll (2008) in her PhD thesis on aesthetics
in online engagement emphasised the importance of the visual experience in design.
This, together with issues of the modelling of tasks and activities, might be a factor
in learners choosing to use particular tools or not, rather than educational issues. It
would be important to obtain data capturing details that discriminated between the
two possibilities.

Coccioli reviewed the literature on Design Based Research and concluded that

Design Based Research is a set of methods that have much potential for
contributing to educational knowledge and reconnecting educational research
with real-world practice. Despite its many positive possibilities, certain
problems remain. Most notably, DBR employs liberal use of networked
technologies such as the Internet yet does not yet attempt to understand the
ways in which such technologies restructure traditional categories of things,
such as identity. Rather, DBR up to this point enforces place-based studies and
rely on more traditional ethnographic techniques.
(Coccioli, 2005, p. 14)
Design Based Research was considered an appropriate research method to research
the project indicated above as it includes a number of “place-based” elements. The
use of an ethnographic approach was suitable as it would encompass a longitudinal
study of the learning environment and the interactions between learners and tutors.
One aspect that the Bannan-Ritland model could not interrogate that would be of
importance to this study was the invisible and informal learning that takes place
outside the formal learning environment.

Research in the intricacies of learning taking place in the second setting, the online
network, was seen to be of importance to get answers to the research questions
related to the informal online networks. If people are encouraged to move away from
the institution for their learning, it would be useful to find out if the informal (online)
networks in which they do find their information and where they might develop
understandings, are important to their study and if they are good sources of reliable
information. Would information they find there be validated by other participants on
the network? As indicated in section 2.2.2. networks are not neutral places (Barabasi,

2003; Bouchard, 2010) and people access information through “hubs” or “central
nodes” on networks, while communicating through different quality “ties” (Jones et
al, 2008), which would influence the information retrieved. A network for this study
would be an open online area where people meet, as nodes on networks, while
communicating with others and while using blogs, wikis and other information

De Laat highlighted the complexity of researching networked learning in his PhD

thesis. He emphasised as key problems, the issues of human agency and the
multitude of issues involved, such as the dynamics of the network, power-relations
on the network, and the amount of content generated. Effective analysis would
require a multi-method approach. He suggested the use of computer-generated
content analysis to explore what people are discussing. In addition, interviews with
an emphasis on critical event recall focussing on the experiences of participants to
find out ‘why they are talking as they do’ and Social Network Analysis to find out
the dynamics of the network to see ‘who communicates with whom’ (de Laat, 2006,
p. 110). Social Network Analysis is a quantitative method and could illuminate who
the central nodes on the network were, in other words which people on the network
performed vital roles of connecting to the otherwise un-connected. It could also
provide information on the importance of “connectors” to other networks, which
would be important in finding out who the innovators on the network were, i.e. the
ones to link vital information streams (Krebs, 2007).

The network that de Laat investigated was a group of online learners at Masters level
in a VLE. I investigated a more complex learning environment: it was more open,
involving people on a global scale, not screened for any other reason than their
interest in the topic of discussion. His methods seemed to capture all activity on a
particular closed course related network, but I decided that the nature of the one
researched would be different and that I would need different research methods to
gain a deeper understanding of the activities on the online network.

To interrogate the research questions in the study effectively, the most fitting
research approach in this setting was seen to be an ethnographic approach. I became
immersed in the network for nine months, in which I posted on my blog and in which

I also commented on and linked to other blogs and became a participant observer,
taking part in the typical activity on the network. I wrote my own blog, www.u-, to see how easy it was to become enculturated in the network. I
became a member of the network of “learning technology”. I was to find the
“gatekeepers” and “key-nodes” of the network and research how these networks
“worked”. In addition, questionnaires were used with participants on three open
online networks to examine the nature of new knowledge generated and if learning
took place. This method was also used to establish how reliable participants found
the information available through the network, and how important communication
was in this process. Were there issues of power and control that prohibited learning
in online networks? How did participants’ knowledge develop? Did they need to
directly communicate with people, or was the communication that took place
between others and the information they provided enough to help the meaning
making process? This meant that a limited form of network analysis was used by
asking particular questions regarding the networks used by participants to add an
extra dimension to the ethnographic method of observation.


As indicated in section 3.1., the choice of research methodology in educational

research has caused some controversy over the past decades, with experts on
educational research leaning towards the need for qualitative research in order to
fully capture the processes that take place in a learning environment. It was decided
to choose Design Based Research as the main research method for this study, in
particular the model advocated by Bannan-Ritland (2003), to test all aspects and the
inter-relatedness of the aspects shown in her model. The model was used to get in-
depth insights in the learning and teaching experiences of participants on the online
programme and to establish in how far the design of the environment had an effect
on the learning outcomes and experiences. The particular focus was on the capturing
of educational data for which an ethnographic approach was used; observing what
took place on the learning environment, and carrying out (telephone) interviews with
participants and developers on two occasions during the programme.

An ethnographic approach is distinctly qualitative, which involves qualitative

observations and qualitative interviews with participants. It is possible to hold

quantitative interviews using a positivist approach. These would be characterized by
standardized questions; the same for each interviewee with not much space to
diverge from the original questions, nor for further probing. This method was
rejected as it would not be appropriate for this enquiry as the importance to “dig as
deep as possible” to ensure rich data that would reflect a personal experience was
recognised; the interviews allowed for an open discussion that ‘generate[d] an
authentic insight into people’s experiences’ (Miller & Glassner, 2004, p. 127). The
researcher used some questions and sub-questions that would allow for follow-up
responses to initial responses. The main challenge in this approach would be to avoid
bias as it is easy to lead interviewees (Miller & Glassner, 2004). The observations in
this part of the research involved a presence on the online environment, in each and
every area, to capture any activity that took place in order to achieve a complete
overview of the learning experience.

In addition, an ethnographic study of an online network was chosen, the immersion

in the network, yes, as if in a warm bath, to fully experience what it is like to
participate and become enculturated in an online learning network. In addition,
questionnaires with participants in three networks have been used to capture and
analyse activities on particular networks.


3.5.1. Research Methods ABCD Project

The aim of the research methodology was to capture a full overview of the learning
and teaching that took place on the ABCD environment in all its facets in addition to
the design influences on these experiences. Some of the main features of the study
were to capture in narrative how students and tutors used the learning technologies
employed on the project, in particular Web 2.0 technologies, and also their cognitive
development in the learning process. The aim was to capture some of the factors that
Bouchard (2009a) identified as related to learner autonomy: conative, semantic,
affective and social factors in the changing learning environment, in addition to
logarithmic issues of organising and sequencing their learning in the experiences of
learners and tutors, as described in chapter A methodology capable of doing
this would have similar characteristics to the ones described by Mayes in a his study

using I.P.A., which was slightly different from the ABCD project, but had enough
characteristics in common to justify using a similar methodology. The following
characteristics were seen to be important: ‘It should be ‘naturalistic’ (focusing on
informal as well as formal learning), it should be capable of capturing the complexity
and authenticity of case studies, it should sample purposefully (choosing learners
who are characterised by behaviours or qualities of particular relevance), it should
employ semi-structured interview schedules’ (Mayes, 2006, p. 4), and it should focus
on e-learning contexts relevant to the study.

As described in section 4.2. The Integrative Learning Design Framework (Bannan-

Ritland, 2003) was used as a basis for the research and analysis of the ABCD Project.
The different elements of the framework, namely product design, experience design,
usage design, instructional design, innovation developments and educational research
have all been investigated during the research period. There were different stages of
development, starting with a literature review and market research to ensure the
design would be fit for purpose and suitable for the target audience. The next stage
was the developmental stage, where an iterative process of development, testing and
re-development of the learning environment and resources were carried out. The next
stages were the evaluation of the local impact, the instructional design and
educational research, for which the I.P.A. has been used, and the final stage was the
evaluation of the broader impact; social network analysis on online networks, the
diffusions of successful tools, and the project dissemination.

Even though this is a thesis in adult continuing education, it was found to be

important to pay attention to issues of design, in particular of experience, usage and
instructional design of the learning environment, as they could influence the learning
and teaching experiences. However, in this thesis not all stages of the development
phase will be elaborated upon, only issues directly influencing the educational

Apart from the iterative process of design, development and testing, and once again
updating and testing, the main research approach has been an ethnographic one.
Through observations of activities and communications taking place in the learning
environment, and (telephone) interviews with learners, tutors and designers at two

stages during the programme, a rich overview of experiences, including challenges
and highlights, has been obtained.

The research process began early on, before the project started, as the design was
influenced by earlier e-learning projects at the setting, and by the literature on
communication in e-learning facilitated through VLEs, and the problems with
communication and lack of “true” communication possible in VLEs, as indicated in
sections 2.3. (Kop & Woodward, 2006). These issues influenced the design of the
research. Semi-structured interviews

A variety of qualitative research methods were used. In addition to semi-structured

interviews with tutors (Appendix 2) and students (Appendix 3), in which their stories
were captured, semi-structured interviews with the project manager and the learning
technologists (Appendix 4) have been vital in finding out the main issues influencing
the learning and teaching experiences and strategies. Before the online teaching and
learning started a survey was carried out to capture background information of
participants in the programme (Appendix 5).

Semi-structured interviews were used for all interviews, where the questions were
used as prompts to engage participants in providing as detailed an account as
possible of their experience. Rather than the interviewer controlling the interview, an
attempt was made to engage in a dialogue in which the interviewee’s answers would
be at the heart of the interviewer’s probes for deeper information to ensure that the
recorded experience was an accurate account of the experience.
Some interviews were lengthy conversations, while others were more akin to short
question and answer sessions. This was very much dependent on the preference of
the participants for elaboration or succinctness. The interviewer had a number of
questions and sub sections prepared to be able to probe deeper if interviewees’
answers would remain at the surface. All interviews were recorded on a digital
recorder and the sound files transcribed.

115 Observations on the online learning environment

In addition, the environment itself and all activities taking place in it (e.g. in wikis,
on discussion boards, in chat rooms, while using reflective journals, and resources
related to the programme) have been under observation for the two years of the
project duration in order to analyse the approaches to and levels of communication
and interaction taking place using the different tools. Moreover, learning materials,
including visual artefacts, such as videos and podcasts, have been scrutinized to
develop a holistic picture of the experiences of tutors and learners.

Field notes were made in addition to a research diary. A blog by the developers
during the development stage, reports of team meetings by project staff and informal
meetings with the project manager, tutors and learning technologists have all
contributed to a complete overview of the ABCD Project and all its facets. Interview
questions to all participants in the project have been used to gain an understanding of
the importance of the design and development on the actual learning and teaching
that was taking place. The sample: Students, tutors, project manager and learning technologists

The sampling criteria were based on the assumption that each learner is an individual
who learns in his or her unique way. Also each tutor approaches teaching in a
different way. Qualitative researchers disagree on sample size. Barteau and Barteau-
Wiame argue that you sample until ‘you reach theory saturation point, that is until
you know that you have a picture of what is going on and can generate an
appropriate explanation for it’ (Mason, 1996, p. 97). Lincoln and Guba suggest that
this point is reached when interviewing twelve people of a particular group
(Fenwick, 2003). Mayes indicates that the average sample size for Interpretative
Phenomenological Analysis research is ten and warns against too large a number of
students to avoid too large a dataset (Mayes, 2006). From the 17 students who moved
on from the face-to-face to the online course 10 were selected as participants in the
research. For this study care was taken to have a heterogeneous sample of students,
containing men and women of different ages and from different socio-economic
groups. Patterns of access and use of ICT are very different for people from different

ages and social classes (National Statistics, 2008), so a distribution of these factors
amongst the participants would make the findings more reliable.

A complication relating to the sampling was that the majority of participants

recruited to the programme were young men, as opposed to the usual patterns of
recruitment in adult education courses, where mature women are in the majority.
Most students were from lower socio-economic groups. A group of ten students was
interviewed twice over the duration of the project, eight men and two women, which
was a representative sample of the students in age and background. Three of the male
students “dropped out” during the course. They were still interviewed twice and
were asked some specific questions about this. Data from their reflective diaries and
from their communications and activities on the online environment were also
analysed for particular causes of their “drop-out”, which will be expanded upon in

Four out of the seven online tutors were interviewed, two men and two women. The
Project Manager and the three learning technologists taught the first face-to-face
module and were interviewed about their teaching experience and were also
interviewed twice during the programme to capture their involvement in the iterative
process of design and development of the learning environment and the online
activities and multimedia resources. In addition, they were questioned on the online
help desk support that they provided to students and the instructional design work
that they carried out with tutors.

3.5.2. Research methods online network

The methods used to research the online networks were two-fold: immersion in a
learning technology network, and a survey of members of three online networks. A
mixed methods approach was applied, using qualitative and quantitative methods; a
combination of an ethnography to get a deep understanding of the activities on the
network, and a survey of participants on three networks to widen the scope of the
inquiry to other networks and to directly question participants on the networks. It
would have been desirable to also include interviews with participants on these
networks, but because of time constraints this was not possible. As explained in the

final paragraph of section 3.2.2. Sloane and Gorard (2003) and Hammersley et al
(2001) indicate that a mixed-methods approach can be desirable and that an
ethnographic approach not necessarily should preclude the use of quantitative
measures. Immersion in a learning technology network

I immersed myself in the worldwide online network of learning technologists as

participant observer by creating my own blog (, where for
nine months I wrote regular blog posts related to learning technology: I commented
on blogs by other educational technologists, I participated in an online conference on
Connectivism and in a very large open online course on Connectivism. I took part in
discussions and wikis, wrote blog posts and comments on other people’s blogs and
analysed how others participated on the network. I also made an effort to find out
who were the important nodes on the network, i.e. the important participants and
aggregators of information on the network and asked what made them important. In
addition, I analysed who were perceived as being the experts on the network and how
easy or difficult it was to move from the periphery of the network to the centre and
become a more important member. A qualitative analysis of the network was carried
out to find out the roles of the different nodes on the network. Survey of members of three online networks

In addition to this, a survey was carried out amongst members of three online
networks to establish how they perceived their own learning on the network and the
role that other participants on the networks played in their learning. Questionnaires
(Appendix 6) were distributed amongst participants on the learning technology
network during the Connectivism course. The course leader included it as a post in
his daily newsletter. The two other networks surveyed were of librarian bloggers and
of ICT researchers linked to JISC, the Joint Information Systems Committee, a body
funded by the UK government to enhance the research and development of
Information Technology in education. An email was sent out on the listservs of these
two networks asking volunteers to participate in the research.

The research method in relation to the sample (size) has been a challenge. There
were 2200 participants on the “learning technology” network, but it was impossible

to know how many people saw the message that the course leader sent out to draw
people’s attention to the survey, so it was impossible to establish what the percentage
of respondents was. The same problem occurred on the other two networks. It was
impossible to know if all members on the group email list would read all their
emails, which meant that it was impossible to know the response rate. An additional
issue has been the self-selection of the participants, as it was impossible to know if
they were representative of the network. However, this method was seen as the only
way to gain in depth information from participants. The total number of respondents
to the surveys has been 65; 46 on the “learning technology” network, 13 on the “ICT
research network” and 6 on the “library blogger” network. The learning technology
network was worldwide, with an emphasis of participants from North America (n=20
- 43%) and Europe (n=10 - 23%), with the ICT network having an emphasis on
European participants (n=11 - 85%) and the library bloggers network being fully
European. The age of participants was varied. Amongst library bloggers the majority
of participants fell in the 31-40 bracket (83%), while the participants from the ICT
research network fell in a higher age group: 31% were between 41 and 50, and 23%
were between 51 to 60 years old. The age of participants from the learning
technology network was varied, ranging from 30% in the 31-40 category, 11% in the
41-50 bracket, 41% were between 51 and 60, and 16% were over 60 years old.

The research is interesting for this thesis as all people who responded were interested
in learning technology, so its results would be indicative of how the people most
positive about learning online would experience their learning on networks.
However, the low response rate meant that the research could only be used to
illuminate particular issues, but that generalisation from the results would not be
possible. Moreover, the sampling strategy (using networks related to learning and
technology) meant that respondents would be leaning towards a positive stance on
technology-enhanced learning which had to be taken into account in the analysis,
which also meant that the validity of generalisations from the research would be
limited. People were allowed to give multiple answers to one question.


Every researcher has to consider the ethical implications of their methods of

obtaining the data and the use they make of it in the study concerned. Sometimes

obtaining data is a matter of accessing statistics or documents, but especially where
people are involved in the research, careful consideration of the level of informed
consent by participants will be required. Lankshear and Knobel highlighted that

all research involving participation by human subjects, whether conducted in

physical settings, virtual settings, or both, is inescapably intrusive to a greater
or lesser extent. Participants’ routines and, indeed, to some extent their lives,
are changed from what they otherwise would have been because of the
researcher’s intrusion into their routines. Obtaining informed consent does
not obliviate intrusion; it simply gives the researchers permission to intrude.
(Knobel & Lankshear, 2004, p. 3)

Moreover, Miller and Bell argued that ‘gaining “informed” consent is problematic if
it is not clear what the participant is consenting to and where “participation” begins
and ends’(Miller & Bell, 2002, p.53). They would like researchers to reconsider
throughout the research process if participants need to be asked for additional

Furthermore, Anderson and Kanuka suggested that the most important issue is that of
‘creating and maintaining respectful relationships with the participants of the study’.
They also highlighted that there are additional ethical issues in an online
environment that are not always apparent to ethics committees. They advised
researchers to ensure ‘personal integrity and self-regulation, which includes openness
and honesty about all aspects of the study, as well as reflection on our actions before,
during, and after conducting a research project’ (Anderson & Kanuka, 2003, p. 56).

What particular ethical issues would be relevant for the study in the two settings?

3.6.1. Setting One: the ABCD Project

Access to the ABCD sites was obtained from the relevant people: the Head of
Department gave permission to access the setting and also the Project Manager.
Approval by the departmental Ethics Committee was obtained. Informed consent was
obtained at the start of the programme from all students on the course, this to be able
to observe the participants while using the learning environment and all applications
related to it, such as blogs, wikis, and an ePortfolio-application. In addition, consent
was sought for the analysis of content generated by using the learning tools and

systems, and for using the learning environment’s statistics. Furthermore, permission
was obtained from each participant interviewed, and for the use of the data gathered.
All data used in the research reports was anonymised; no student or tutor names
mentioned, and project and university names were changed.

Another ethical issue affecting the research was the fact that I, the researcher, was
working in the department in which the research was carried out. Moreover, I was
the instigator of the ABCD Project and applied for the funding and was involved in
the decision making process with regards to the programme curriculum and
appointment of project development and design team. Furthermore, I line-managed
the project manager for the duration of the project in educational matters.

Positivists might say that the lack of objectivity because of these issues would
adversely affect the research, but in Design Based Research, as with Practitioner and
Action Research, there are clear advantages of the researcher being at the heart of the
development. For instance, when looking closer at Bannan-Ritland’s Learning
Design Framework it clearly shows the advantages of a researcher immersed in the
research from the start as the “Informed Exploration” stage would be based on very
early exploration of the subject and informing the further development of the design
of the learning environment. It also would be at the heart of the iterative process of
development, testing and developing again of the design and development. Of
course, as an ethnographic approach was chosen for the educational research, and the
researcher had to be involved in documenting, observing and questioning the
developments and participants, objectivity in the positivist sense would not enhance
the research as it would have made it impossible to capture the intricacies of the
educational process fully.

I, as researcher, did do all in my power to ensure an unbiased approach during the

interview stage by piloting the main interview schedule and ensuring scrutiny of the
questions by four outsiders to the research for bias. All was done to create an
environment of trust between the researcher and the participants to ensure a close
working relationship and a willingness to discuss all possible issues. I was quite

aware that my close involvement with the project might prohibit participants to
disclose issues, but the opposite happened; learners asked me to pass on problems
they experienced with the learning environment to the design team, or on
pedagogical issues with the tutors, which I did and as such my involvement formed
part of the iterative process of development, testing and re-development.

3.6.2. Setting Two: online network study

Researching an online network has more complications from an ethical perspective.

What consent should be obtained when observing people’s behaviour on the Internet
and analysing their writing and multi-media contributions? Views on this vary, but
the main arguments put an emphasis on the question of how public the online space
is. According to Lankshear and Knobel, within the Humanities, consent is not
required for research conducted in public spaces. They emphasised however, that it is
not clear amongst online researchers what is a public or a private space. Some argue
that ‘the publicness or privateness of an online space should be judged according to
how it is perceived by the people who interact within it’ (Knobel & Lankshear, 2004,
p. 5). Password-protected communities are seen to be private places and researching
these would require informed consent. Open discussion forums and archivable
discussions are generally perceived to be public spaces. Some researchers set up their
own website in which they state their research intentions and to ‘which participants
to an online community can be directed’ (Knobel & Lankshear, 2004, p. 5).

I set up my own blog and website and I clearly introduced myself to the network and
posted my intentions to research it. I also wrote extensively on the nature of the
research on my website and provided opportunities for participants and non-
participants to contact me. Knobel argued that this type of ‘openness will contribute
to the researcher’s credibility as someone with nothing to hide from study
participants (Knobel, 2002, p. 9). I treated openly accessible blogs, wikis and other
resources as public spaces, and I obtained informed consent from any participant on
the network who filled out a questionnaire. Participants have been assured of their
anonymity in the research and of confidentiality. As expressed by Knobel and
seeking, obtaining, documenting, and honouring informed consent are
indissolubly related to issues of trust and honesty, and entail researcher

obligations to protect the privacy and to respect the dignity of every study
participant and others whose interests are impacted through collecting data
(Knobel & Lankshear, 2004, p. 6)

I posted a message on my website, which was linked to my blog, to indicate that I

was researching learning on online networks. This was to provide clarity with
regards to the research aims and objectives in addition to information regarding the
research. I have freely participated on open networks, on Massive Online Courses,
such as the Connectivism courses by Downes and Siemens in 2008 and 2009, and on
online conferences as part of this research.

Carrying out the online surveys on the other two closed networks was preceded by an
introduction and a link to the website so participants could find out more about the
research, and a message regarding ethics (see appendices 6, 7, and 8) to ensure that
participants would be fully informed about the research and would be able to provide
informed consent before filling out the online questionnaire.


All data have been analysed using qualitative methods, apart from statistics
generated by the environment itself and an online pre-course student survey
(Appendix 5) to capture student proficiency and confidence in using technology.

A practical approach to analysing qualitative data was sought that moved from a
descriptive to an analytical approach, and found in The Ladder of Analytical
Abstraction by Carney (Miles and Huberman, 1994, p92). The large amounts of data
had to be organised in such a way that categories, themes and sub-themes would
become clear.

All interview and observation data have been analysed using discourse analysis
techniques of coding, sub-coding and organising data in patterns and categories that
appeared. Initially exploring and describing what happened during the two years of
the programme, and how it happened, but then moving to an analytical stage; cross-
checking these initial findings against the research questions, and eventually moving

to a synthesis stage, integrating the organised data into an explanatory framework,
containing several stages of development. The analysis developed from describing
what actually took place over the two years of the research, to analysis and synthesis
of the data and visualising it for clarity. A conceptual framework of the analysis has
been included as Table 2, Research Analysis Matrix that shows this process.

Research site 1: ABCD Project

Learner experience
Critical Thinking Process Affective Learning Communication Control Context
events issues Constraints
Transition Critical Thinking Online - Face Face to face Autonomy Technologies
f2f to to face used
Spatial/Linear Level of Tutor Presence Personalisation Resources
Meaning making Engagement – Synchronous Technology Multimedia
drop out
Action Learning A-synchronous Tools
Research strategies available
Web2.0 Web2.0 Support
technologies in students
Learning a Student prior
social activity? experience
Tutor Experience
Critical Higher order Affective Teaching Behaviour Communication Control Context
events thinking issues Constraints
Knowledge Pedagogy Level of Face to face Autonomy Technologies
feedback used
Meaning making Personalisation Level of self- Presence Personalisation Resources
Differences Engagement VLE Learning Multimedia
tutors environment
and resources
Differences Web2.0 Institutional Tools
start end constraint available
Support and
Design Issues
Adoption Experience Instructional Control Context
process design design Constraints
User fit Interaction – Variety in Tutor IT Choice of
Communication knowledge and knowledge VLE
and Dialogue skills tutors
Readiness Meaning Role of tutors Tools Pedagogical
significance – and learning objectives
Cognitive and technologists

Critical Multi-sensory Pedagogical

events approach framework

Intensity - Institutional Change and

Presence constraints innovation
Usage Design Time

Site dynamics and transformation

Critical Initial user Changes in innovation Effects of Web2.0 tools on
events experience communication and learning

Effects on user Implementation problems Effects on teaching strategies
Programme problem solving Effects on organisational practice
Explanations for transformations
Student Impact (direct, meta-level and side-effects)
Research site 2: Online networks
Matrix related to research questions
Research Questions Student/tutor role, attitude and VLE/space/place Significance -Meaning
use tendencies design importance
Learning strategies
Teaching strategies
Self-direction - control
Knowledge change?

Table 2 3.7. Research analysis matrix



4.1.1. Why choose the ABCD Project?

As indicated in section 3.3 it was important to research an educational setting that

had a bespoke online learning environment, offering flexibility in the applications
used, and providing the option to use Web 2.0 technologies. At the time when the
research took place the VLE at the university where the research was carried out, did
not provide the option of using Web 2.0 tools. To have an adapted environment that
included these would make it possible to compare different approaches to
communication: the interaction in a face-to-face environment, the traditional
discussion forums used in a VLE and communication through using new Web 2.0

In order to answer the research questions, it was important that there was flexibility
in the level of control imposed by tutor or learner during the learning experience to
explore issues of learner autonomy and control in different approaches. These
conditions were all fulfilled by the ABCD Project. In addition, the researcher was
closely involved in the design and development of the curriculum and the learning
environment. This would be advisable in Design Based Research as any changes,
developments and experiences by the staff and students involved in the project could
be researched from an early stage.

4.1.2. The Research Setting

The ABCD Project was based at a University Department of Adult Continuing

Education and funded through the European Social Fund. This department had a
track record of Widening Access to Higher Education to non-traditional students and
a history of innovative practice. For example, higher education was provided in the
communities of the UK through a network of community partner centres. The
department ran a community-based, part-time B.A. in Humanities degree scheme
with confidence building foundation programmes, and was recognised for its success
in recruiting and retaining adult students from under-represented social groups. In

this regard it promoted the shared values of “bringing learning closer to home”,
responding to community needs and enabling equal partnership with communities. It
has provided a platform for negotiation by working through numerous projects to
bring about change both in the supply of and demand for learning. The department
has a history of technological innovation in the curriculum, and online courses were
developed through several projects. The ABCD Project was developed with the aim
of providing access to Higher Education to people “under-employed” in local
enterprises and making higher-level learning accessible to people in the workplace.

4.1.3. The Programme of study

The ABCD Project was a two-year programme for people working or managing a
small or medium-sized Enterprise (SME) or Social Enterprise, or volunteering in the
community sector, and lead to a Level 1 Higher Education Certificate, a total of 120
credits. Aims were to upgrade the technological, innovation, problem-solving and
action research knowledge and skills within their work environment. It was assessed
for quality through the usual university quality systems. Learners and tutors were
using the latest technologies in both learning and creating online content, which
meant that students would learn how to use and produce blogs, podcasts, wikis,
social bookmarking, videos and chats in addition to using these tools in their learning
and assessments. The first module took place in a face-to-face setting in four areas of
the UK. All other modules were online. The curriculum was varied and included as
compulsory modules: Introduction to online communication and new technologies;
Critical Thinking and Information Literacy; Reflection, Innovation & Creativity;
Understanding Action Research; From Theory to Practice: Research and Report. In
addition, E-commerce and Sustainable Development for Business were optional
modules. As the project was funded by the European Social Fund, the programme
was free to people living in the four counties closest to the university.

The rationale for the module choice was two-fold: some of the modules would
provide background knowledge and skills to be able to learn effectively in a semi-
autonomous online learning environment, such as ‘introduction to online
communication and new technology’ and ‘critical thinking and information literacy’,
while others would provide knowledge and skills to innovate the workplace, such as
“reflection, innovation & creativity” and “understanding Action Research”.

Students researched their work place and the expected learning outcomes were: to be
able to demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of a range of new technologies
and social software; various concepts of critical analysis, action research,
information literacy; the application of research techniques and innovative
technologies to their workplace, and developments in community enterprise and/or e-

These learning outcomes were assessed through formative assessments throughout

the programme in the form of activities and personalised communication and
feedback. Writing the reflective journal was compulsory, although the content was
not graded to avoid compromising the reflection process (Boud & Walker, 2002). At
the end of each module learners also took a summative assessment and produced a
piece of work, which could take the form of a digital artefact such as a video podcast,
or a research project, a presentation or a more traditional written assignment. In
addition, at the end of each module learners had to submit five of their own
contributions of their choice to discussion boards or wikis, which would be graded.

Built into the programme were activities and teaching strategies to facilitate a
“journey towards autonomy” for the students, starting with a traditional class room
based module, fully supported by a tutor presence at all teaching sessions and ending
with an action research project where the tutor was a supervisor guiding students by
online chat and the use of feedback in an online reflective diary.

Activities ranged from solving puzzles, working together in a wiki to produce a

video podcast, to responding individually or in a group activity after viewing
particular video resources, or engaging with learning objects or readers. Most
students attended the weekly chat sessions.

4.1.4. The teaching and learning environment

The ABCD Programme was taught using a fully customised online learning
environment. The university’s Learning Management System, Blackboard, was not
used for the programme as at the time it did not contain the tools regarded as
necessary for the programme, such as blogs and wikis. It was also regarded as not
flexible enough for the purpose of the ABCD programme. The open source Moodle
Learning Environment was being used and adapted to suit the needs of the

Figure 4 4.1.4. The ABCD online learning environment

The online environment as shown in figure 4 provided a supportive framework, and

included communications tools and resources. Course materials included tailor made
resources in a variety of forms, including video, documents, an interactive course
reference book, slideshows and podcasts. In addition to this, students were expected
to make use of resources more widely available on the Internet and elsewhere.

4.1.5. Restraints and Flexibility in designing the learning environment

The ABCD Project had a Project Manager, responsible for the curriculum and the
development of the learning environment and the pedagogical development of the
programme. In addition, the project had three full time learning technologists
available for the design and development of the learning environment, resources and
instructional design with the tutors. One of the technologists with particular

knowledge of Human Computer Interaction was responsible for the design of the
graphics as well as the design of the experience, accessibility and usability. Another
technologist had a background in multimedia and had particular responsibilities for
the development of the Moodle environment. The third technologist had a technical
background to ensure all applications would work and fit in with the university’s
technological environment. The availability of this team and their skills and
knowledge ensured that a bespoke learning environment could be created that would
have all features to support the aims and objectives of the project.


Accessing any website is a multi-sensory experience. Web 2.0 technologies have

made it possible to incorporate a number of applications and features to enhance a
webpage from the Web 1.0 information and read-write capability with hyperlinks
into an interactive experience using communication and visual elements. As
mentioned in section, careful design of the learning experience, involving
experience design and including information and cognitive design, as well as usage
design and instructional design, could be important in the learner and tutor

4.2.1. Context

The programme took place in a university environment. The university, however,

does not have extensive resources available for the development of e-learning. A
team of three technologists to support academic staff operates out of the Library and
Information Service, consisting of instructional design staff and staff who administer
the university’s Virtual Learning Environment Blackboard. No staff is available to
help with and develop the design of e-learning software, learning objects and tools.
Even though expertise in multimedia and web design is available, the resources to
use them for this new programme were very limited. As the ABCD programme was
funded by European Structural funds, it was possible to appoint a team of design
specialists. One of the learning technologists working on the project was an expert in
Human Computer Interaction (HCI), in particular in the aesthetics of the design,
which meant that extensive thought went into the initial design of the learning
environment. One was a multimedia specialist with expertise in the use of video and
sound in an online environment, while the third technologist had a more technical

background with the skills to develop learning objects and to ensure the integration
of the environment and its components in the university computing systems. The
Project Manager was a specialist in open and distance learning with a wide
experience in instructional design, and worked with tutors and lecturers on the design
of the curriculum to ensure the learning environment and resources would not only
be sound from the point of view of design, but also from an educational perspective.
She was responsible for the design and development of the curriculum and for the
educational integration of the programme into the quality structures of the university.

As mentioned previously, the project team decided not to use the university’s VLE,
but to adapt the open source Moodle environment to the distinctive needs of the
learners on the project. Learning Technologist 3 expressed concisely why a VLE
might not be suitable to support the needs of all students in the long term:
Moodle and Blackboard are good solutions out of the box but I think in the long
term, they’re no good. I think they just become very big containers holding
information and as soon as they get a certain size, everyone says “I can’t be
bothered anymore”. (LT3)

Tutor 1, who was also a member on the university e-learning team mentioned that the
project would be a good opportunity to compare Blackboard and Moodle, as the
university was keen to find out if Moodle was worth adopting. In addition, all
members of the project team had doubts about the possibilities of their design ideas
within the university VLE Blackboard Learning Management System (LMS). The
Project Manager spoke about the VLE as ‘being very linear and regimented, and
clunky, without much scope to make it engaging’. She would ideally have liked to
see an environment with a seamless interface between the LMS and different tools.
Neither Blackboard nor Moodle could provide that, and a variety of tools were
added, which caused problems, which will be explained in some of the following
sections. Change and innovation

The emergence of Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs and wikis in 2004, a year
before the start of the project, was one of the main drivers for change in the e-
learning practice of the department in which the project was based. Blogs and wikis
were in the literature seen as possible innovators of educational practice (Downes,
2004; Lamb, B., 2004, Mortensen & Walker, 2002) and there was great

dissatisfaction with the traditional VLE as it was seen to lack flexibility, a
contemporary layout and the opportunity to use peer-to-peer tools (Kop &
Woodward, 2006). It was envisaged that Web 2.0 communications tools embedded
in a Moodle LMS that seemed to have scope for adaptation could enhance the
communication in the online environment greatly. The fact that funding was
available to appoint three full time learning technologists and a project manager also
helped in this development. Pedagogical objectives

From the start it was important to include particular adult education values in the
programme, such as the development of learner autonomy, and a high level of critical
thinking in relation to the course content. The programme included steps in its design
to encourage students to move from dependence on the tutor to autonomy and to
engage students critically with the course content. The instructional design process
was important in embedding these values in the curriculum and in student learning.

4.2.2. Instructional Design.

The learning technologists had a great knowledge of technology, but they were less
experienced in instructional design work and it was the Project Manager who
initially set the direction. The introduction of Web 2.0 technologies was challenging,
as there was not much research available to learn from others on how to deploy them
in an online learning situation. Particularly research on their use in an adult education
environment with learners from a wide variety of backgrounds was lacking (Gulati,
2006). Learning Technologist 1 described how the process of development changed
throughout the programme. At the start her approach was to let the tutor decide on
the materials, provide paper-based materials and transfer these into online activities.
These would typically be work sheets on information literacy that would be
transferred online into text based activities by using “Course Genie”. Initially in the
courses that Tutor 5 and Tutor 2 developed and taught, course materials had not been
produced yet, not even for a face-to-face paper-based session, and they found it
difficult to judge the variety in materials and activity and communication required to
create a good learning experience. Many materials were developed and changed
again. At that point the Project Manager realised that too much of the developments
were content-based. She worked with the tutors to create communication channels by

using Web 2.0 tools to foster interaction between participants, rather than to create a
course that would consist of individuals accessing online information. As highlighted
by Weller (2007) there is a balance to strike between information and
communication in online courses. Consequently, the modules developed at a later
stage of the programme, contained more Web 2.0 communication than earlier ones:

What’s really come through from it as an experience has been that content for
this type of course is the least important thing and that the most important thing
is communication between the learner and the tutor and a sense of . . . presence
of the tutor…we’re kind of fixing that as we went along and that’s just because
of learning from it . . . doing the iterative process. (PM)

From the early modules as a team we realised that things needed to change . . .
the [the modules] just seemed too dead and I know every tutor has a different
approach, but it just seemed like that. (LT1) The roles of the stakeholders: tutors and technologists

Tutors came with very little understanding of what the project team were trying to
achieve, which was ‘to take essentially all traditionally “paper-based” material and
make them more visual, more engaging’ (PM). The tutors were all very pleased with
the support they received from the technologists to achieve this. In general, the
technologists would adapt to the needs of the tutors: ‘It was great, because she never
once said ‘no’ to anything that we suggested or wanted. It was always ‘yes, yes’ and
with that tune, you can’t go wrong really’ (T3).

Two quotations from Tutor 2 and Learning Technologist 3 have been included here
to illustrate the instructional design process:

They made things really jump out, you know, from a multi-sensory perspective.
It was interesting to know how we could bring in all the elements of the
sensory bits of learning. I found that really helpful, particularly working with
LT3. I absolutely loved some of the work he did on personality traits in
management…it was like games with pictures, it was just great. He brought it
to life, made it fun, more interesting, it wasn’t like a big piece of text. (T2)

After a time I started to understand what people tried to aim and achieve…T2
has asked me something and she’s gone with the information and I realised,
OK, T2 doesn’t know the technical side, she doesn’t understand, so she doesn’t
know what she is asking for, so I have to break that stuff down, talk to T2, and
then build something that is possible, and it worked pretty well. (LT3)

Learning Technologists clearly have to be very good communicators, listening and

“talking by design” in the learning objects they produce. The technologists’ role in
the instructional design process evolved from providing technological support to

getting involved in the conceptual development of the modules through extensive
discussions with tutors:
It changed drastically . . . it went from being a bit more passive in the early
ones . . . to me playing a more interactive role with the tutor in that I found
myself learning about the subject area and then interacting with the tutor in the
best way. I suppose the sharing of knowledge, the best way of putting it up
online so while the earlier modules I could go through everything and not have
an idea of what the module was about . . . [in the later one] I was very much in
there and learning too. (LT1)

That later module was the most successful and all three participants in the
development, LT1, T3 and T4 emphasised that the way the three of them had worked
together meant that something special had been developed, which in the end
achieved very positive outcomes in the teaching and learning process. The
importance of the relationship between the designers of the environment and the
tutors has also been highlighted by Siemens (2008b)

I wouldn’t do one by myself. I’d rather not. I could, I’m sure I could, I’m
confident that I could do it, but I think the added value is the social dimension.
Doing it with other people, that provides a much better milieu and it fits with
Action Research too, because we have different perspectives and we can act as
critical friends for each other. So, if I forego that and just deliver it, it will just
be another course. Another online course, you know. (T4)

Usually an hour or hour and a half long session and all three of us learnt quite a
lot, not just the subject matter, but about learning, and interacting and the
environment. It’s quite complicated and if I had to write down what’s going on
there, it’s quite complicated and a rich interaction of three people. Yes, and I
think that the sum of our parts was definitely much more, because what came
out of it was something quite unique I think. The way it was put across was
quite unique and much more than we could have done as individuals, because
of that sparking off of ideas and feeding off each other...I really learnt so much
more about the topic through actually doing it this way. (T3)

Then when T3 and T4 came along, it was totally different. They were all in
there; we’d meet once a week and we could be down there for two or three
hours and it was very much like a big discussion. And it was them teaching me
and then me getting an understanding of what it was about and what they
wanted and then working out the best way of putting that online. So it was
definitely more interactive and . . . in those sessions we kind of figured it out
together how to do it. (LT1)

They felt this was an ideal way of instructional design. Of course, it was very time
intensive and LT1 points out:

They taught me, but if you were designing twelve modules a year, you can’t
devote that much time to each subject area because you would explode with
information. (LT1)

She thought a good way to operate was to initially explain to the tutor which tool
would work best for what particular activity or mode of communication, show them
how they worked and had worked in earlier modules, get tutors to think about the
whole process first, before then getting involved in sessions to develop the online
resources. Tutors 3 and 4 felt the developmental process they went through with their
course was valuable not only in a technical sense for the development of engaging
resources, but also to further their own knowledge and conceptual thinking of the
course content:

Students have exercised my thinking & rethinking & LT1 has really challenged
me via her email questions – but ‘best’ for me remains face-to-face dialogue,
especially as a triad – that’s when my conceptualising is tested most and best.
(T4, reflective diary)

You know I think we got as much, if not more, out of it as the tutors as they did
as learners . . . I just got so much out of it in terms of learning about learning,
communicating, thinking, reflecting . . . I really learnt so much more about the
topic through actually doing it this way. (T3)
Tutor 2 also experienced this engagement with the learning technologist as very

The resources were far more exciting. LT1 was so clever. I mean LT1 has a real
artistic flair, which, you know, she gave me so many ideas. I’d take stuff in,
and she would tease things out. (T2)

Of course working in a team like this is challenging for the participants, and the tutor
loses control somewhat. As Tutor 3 described in section, being a co-tutor and
working in a team changes the tutor role and the control he or she has over the
learning and teaching process. Another major change is the move away from the
linearity of books towards an online learning environment that allows for a spatial
and multi-sensory learning experience.

4.2.3. Experience Design

Human Computer Interaction (HCI) has grown as a discipline within Computer

Science and is very much involved with the experience that people have while being

online. Included in this section are significant findings related to the online
participant experience. Meaning and Significance - Cognitive and Information Design

Before the project started the team had a clear idea of how the learning environment
should guide people through the learning activities. The Project Manager mentioned
that time constraints, given the limited funding period of the project, influenced the
possibilities to develop this to the full. She felt that the Moodle environment and the
structure the project team created on Moodle were a compromise between what was
intended, which was a visually mapped-out journey where the students would be able
to see their progress, and a fully self-directed course. The use of an interactive book,
where people could turn the pages to get to the next part of the course was
envisioned. The idea was to use something familiar, a book, to lead people through
the materials, but for technical reasons it could not be achieved. The interactive book
was used as a reference book for all course materials instead (figure 6 and 7).

In its place, the online ABCD Learning Environment was chosen because of its clear
structure, where individual modules would be identifiable, where tools would be
visible on the first page, and where some more playful information sources would
also be shown (Figure 5).

Figure 5 Layout of the ABCD online learning environment

In order to make the environment meaningful for learning, a variety of tools,
applications and learning objects were chosen to emphasise the cognitive
development and information sources. As mentioned earlier, an interactive reference
book of (information and learning) resources (Figure 6 and 7) was developed which
proved to be popular with students. It had the appearance of a real book, people
could turn pages and the book held all major information resources in the full ABCD

‘I like the reference book, the one that you virtually turn the pages on. Again,
because the sequence is very logical, just like a book, so you know you can go
back and forth through the pages and have a good idea of where you are in the
text. That’s a nice feature . . . That was quite fun, turning the pages and seeing
what information was there as a resource.’ (S9)

Figure 6 Front cover of reference book

Figure 7 A page in the reference book

The course structure was clear to the students after some initial confusion about the
navigation, which will be discussed in section on Usage Design. A concerted
effort was made to develop course content and resources that would be engaging and

visual and not in the usual written format, in addition to written resources. It was
quite often the combination of different resources used to explain concepts and
activities that would allow for reflection and communication and enabled deeper
meaning to be achieved. Tutor 4 valued this creative approach to e-learning on this
programme, rather than to use the university VLE Blackboard as approach:

[The use of Blackboard] that’s counter to the dynamism and student autonomy
that we value and has been very important, so I guess we have to be careful
about what we mean by e-learning or using technology if we want to keep it
educational, rather than just learning information. I mean, information
exchange is different. (T4)

He felt that it would be important to think about the resources and how to use them
before the start of the course. A different learning experience would be created if
they would be laid out and would be integrated in such a way what they would make
people think, rather than just make them retrieve information. The need for cognitive
triggers was also highlighted by Shedroff (2009). An example of the course structure
and type of resources are shown in Figure 8.

This format of instructional design has been of great importance in the development
of engaging courses. It was achieved through a negotiation process between learning
technologists and tutors to find the best possible media and solutions to clarify
sometimes difficult concepts.

Figure 8 An example of an ABCD learning activity

138 Journey towards autonomy

From the start of the programme it was envisaged that the learners would move from
a very structured learning environment that would be controlled by the tutor towards
an environment that would facilitate a higher level of self-direction in the students’
learning approach. There were two clear transitional phases in learner self-direction:
during the first phase the learners moved online and were expected to carry out
activities by themselves, in cooperation with others. The second phase began during
the Action Research module, where learners were expected to make choices about

From a design point of view, there were problems with creating an environment in
which students could move towards self-direction. The tutors came from a traditional
teaching environment and had different views on learning and education. Some
would create resources and expect students to work their way through them, while
others created a choice of resources to force students into a higher level of self-
direction. It was still the communication with the tutor and the direction that she or
he provided that ensured learners would feel comfortable in the transitional phases.
In addition the students valued the level of personalisation created in the learning
environment. Personalisation

The most important resource to personalise students’ learning has been the reflective
journal. Students valued the personal interaction with the tutor in the online journal
as it provided them with the feedback to move forward on their learning journey.
Students also valued the group interaction in, for instance, chat and on discussion
boards. Other areas of personalisation that students valued were the choice they had
in the use of resources and in the use of communications tools, which was much
greater than would have been the case in a classroom environment.

At the start of the project it was envisaged that a much higher level of personalisation
could be achieved through the learning environment, but most of the students valued
the structure of the environment and the direction the tutor provided. What they

would have liked was to have a higher level of integration with their personal
applications, such as the social networking site Facebook. Prompts on Facebook to
do some more learning on ABCD were seen as a good way of personalisation. In
addition, students indicated they would have liked more of a “homepage” on the
programme, as they would have on a social networking site, where they could hold
their course-related bookmarks to share with other students, for example. The project
team had made a start with a personalised environment that included a student
homepage and social networking aspects, as an attempt had been made at the start of
the programme to integrate the university’s adaptation of an educational e-portfolio
tool based on ‘Elgg’ software. This was abandoned after several months because of
navigation and technical problems. Dron and Anderson (2009) identified similar
problems with the software, but managed to adapt it to suit their institution’s needs.
These problems will be discussed in section Access to linear versus spatial resources

Tutors and learners saw the learning environment as a spatial design, where learners
could access a multitude of applications, tools and resources. Depending on the tutor,
they would lead students through these in a very structured and linear fashion, or in a
more loosely framed manner. Resources varied greatly and could be linear, such as
books or other readings. Alternatively, there could be internet resources containing
hyperlinks to other readings or multimedia resources: a plethora of linear and
spatially organised information that would be used depending on learner and tutor

All the links to do with resources and materials I found useful and interesting as
well. I didn’t want to switch off. It kept me in there and made me see it through
to the end. Like a challenge a lot of the links and the assignments as well that
are set. They follow on from each other nicely and once you are on a roll it is
like “yes, I’m enjoying this and I want to see it through to the end so I get the
satisfaction from completing it.” It is a nice feeling when all those ticks come
up. I know it sounds daft, but it does feel nice. (S8)

Students were happy with the balance of the resources and all participants agreed that
interaction and communication between participants discussing these resources have
been crucial in the cognitive development of students and their engagement in the
learning experience.

140 Interaction - Communication and Dialogue

The project manager had previous experience of carrying out research and
development in online learning in which it became apparent that communication in a
VLE can be problematic. Discussion boards, for example, can be problematic
because of a variety of reasons. One of these is the power-relations amongst
participants in the forum, another one is that forums are sometimes used as
“confessionals” and include long monologues, rather than a true dialogue (Kop &
Woodward, 2006; Conrad, 2005; Gulati, 2006). These were some of the reasons that
a multitude of communications tools were chosen in the design of the ABCD

The variety in communication available, ranging from individual email or journal

interaction, to group chat and discussion forums and wikis meant that learners and
tutors had a choice in the tools used, which they used depending on their own
preferences. They found this inspiring, as it was clear that each had her or his own
preference, which often depended on the learning situation and task. As will be
discussed in the learner and tutor experience sections 4.3 and 4.4., learners and tutors
requested a tool that would facilitate chat in synergy with other applications and
activities in the modules. A presence tool was developed which facilitated chat
communication simultaneously with other resources and applications on the site,
enabling students to communicate without clicking in and out and back in again. It
was felt that this would help students as they would be able to see who was already
present on the learning environment and chat with them over other applications as
soon as they entered the environment. The design and development process entailed
moving from a resource-based environment with some communication towards an
increasingly communication-rich environment, where participants were clearly
present. As was discussed in section, the level of interaction between
online participants can influence the level of social presence. This will be discussed
further in chapter six, section Creating meaningful learning experiences. Intensity - Presence

The main tools used to create a presence were video, chat and the reflective journals
in which very personal feedback was given to students by the tutors. The importance

of these will be further discussed in sections 4.3.3. on communication and on
presence in the tutor experience. Social interaction was at the heart of creating the
sense of presence, which confirms the ideas of Lombard and Ditton (1997) and
Anderson (2008). In addition, an intensity of experience was created by combining
these with other, often visual and interactive learning objects and resources. Shedroff
(2009) and Lombard and Ditton (1997) also emphasised that intensity and vividness
of experience wll raise the level of presence and engagement. When asking Learning
Technologist 1 what she thought a quality learning environment should contain, she

[F]or me [it means] an engaging interface, engaging content, so multimedia-

rich, logical, intuitive to use, functional and interactive. Interactive between the
students, between the students and the teacher . . . socially interactive, and then
I think the whole experience of belonging. [as a student] I’ve done a profile,
I’ve put my introduction up and I feel I’m belonging to this now . . . there’s a
clear logic and I like to see the structure . . . I am constantly aware that things
are moving and going on and I’m part of it. (LT1)

In addition, the students clearly indicated that the balance of resources was
important. Using different senses by using a combination of video, audio, written
words, and puzzle activities had been helpful in their learning. Multi-sensory approach

The multi-sensory approach held the learners’ attention. Especially in the action-
research module, which was often text-heavy, students valued the use of videos,
cartoons, interactive learning objects and audio. All of the students were happy with
the balance of the resources.

I am very much a hands-on and a visual person, so I like films and I like
looking at people telling me how to do things and explaining stuff . . . I do
think there has been a healthy balance; like I say with the chat rooms and the
emails, different discussion boards. (L4)

I prefer to use more videos because it is presented to me in as concise manner

as possible, whereas when you link into a website there is a thesaurus of
information that I can end up linking to and it can go on and on, but sometimes
with a video it can be more to the point of what I need, without me clicking
here and clicking there. (L8)
You know the video clips? Well, I absolutely thought they were astounding,
and some of the YouTube bits we had-brilliant. It really, really brought it to life

. . . . For people who don’t want piles and piles of books, you can just go and
look, or listen. (T2)
This confirms Shedroff’s research on the need for multi-sensory components in the
design in order to create an intense, engaging online experience (Shedroff, 2009).
This will be further discussed in section 6.1.3. Usage Design

An important issue in how people experience a web-page, or online learning page, is

the technical design related to the navigation and accessibility. Much thought went
into the navigation of the site by participants. As the original idea to use an
interactive book to lead learners through the resources had to be abandoned, the
Moodle site was developed in a way that would provide a not too elaborate structure,
so students would use their own choice of tools and resources to develop their
learning. Most students initially had problems navigating the site and understanding
its structure as an overwhelming amount of resources was available. But after initial
problems, all students were happy with the navigation.

There was one major problem at the start of the programme related to usability,
which was caused by the introduction of a piece of software and giving it the same
appearance as the Moodle site. To enhance the level of personalisation the university
e-portfolio software Oremi (derived from Elgg) was introduced, which destabilised
the structure and caused major problems for learners and technical staff alike:

Right from the beginning it was important for me to see how it looked . . . and
then the whole experience of it, which. again, is not solely the appearance. It is
tied into the functionality and I think we had big issues with using Oremi with
the Moodle site . . . Two very conflicting pieces of software so to speak. They
just didn’t work. The Moodle . . . had reached a certain level of usability and
then Oremi, which is just kind of kicking off had still a lot of usability issues
and merging the two together didn’t work. (LT1)

When we tried to take Oremi into it to use the social network aspects of Oremi.
That was a real disaster and we lost people in that first phase . . . Moodle had
one kind of navigation which they got to grips with. Oremi has a completely
different type of navigation which I think was very unclear and confusing and
when we put those together they didn’t match together at all . . . it was nowhere
near as far along the development as we had anticipated when we took it on
board. (PM)

Even though the features in Oremi that encouraged personalisation were seen to be
useful, it was abandoned as the technical problems and different navigation caused
too much disruption of the learning process.

As indicated in section, several students had technical problems, but these
were mainly caused by lower-specification computers and lack of broadband access.
A minimum specification of requirements to be able to fully appreciate the course
and its content was provided to students on commencement of the programme, but
accessibility remains an issue when adult students are using ICT. Learners will need
to know when they start a learning programme what the minimum technical
specification of their equipment should be for it to display the course materials
adequately and for learners to be able to access them in the mode that they were
designed to function.

4.2.4. Control – Constraints

Apart from technical constraints experienced by some of the learners, there were not
many other factors inhibiting design and development of the learning environment.
Initially attempts were made to integrate the programme in the university systems,
but this would have been difficult as lack of resources meant that technical support
would not have been available. This forced the team to develop a unique course
environment supported by the Moodle community and housed on external servers.
The only other institutional constraint was the pedagogical and quality framework.
This was the same as any other university course and would also be a safeguard of
the quality of the programme.

The four real constraints on the programme were: 1. the time that the funding was
available, which was initially two years with an extension of 6 months to achieve the
development and learning outcomes; 2. the level of competence of the technologists;
3. the level of IT literacy of the tutors and students, and 4. the tools chosen for the
development. The time constraints have meant that particular developments were not
chosen, but alternatives sought that could be designed and developed on time. Some
of the applications that the project team would have liked to use, such as Oremi, had
to be abandoned because of technological and navigation problems, while others,
such as the reference book were adapted to uses that would fit within the time

constraints. The tutors received one-to-one tuition in how to use the technologies and
in what tools would enhance particular pedagogies or hinder them. Tutors mentioned
how much they learnt themselves in the process and how much more they reflected
on their teaching during the development process compared with preparation for
face-to-face teaching. The Web 2.0 tools, including wikis, blogs and chat, were used
extensively, and did not cause problems to the design and development of the site.
They were seen to be opportunities to enhance the learning process, rather than a


During the research on the ABCD Project, a number of learner and tutor stories have
been collected on their experiences with e-learning and e-teaching compared to
classroom based practice, and more traditional formal e-learning. To date the learner
experience on e-learning has not been extensively researched (Sharpe et al, 2005;
Conole et al, 2008) as much of the research has been carried out into the
effectiveness of formal online learning and learner attitudes towards it (Hara & Kling
2000). Most research done to-date is course or programme focussed, looking at the
benefits and advantages of e-learning from the institution’s point of view and
emphasises traditional undergraduate and postgraduate HE contexts rather than adult
continuing education and widening participation. In addition, much of the research is
about the use of asynchronous computer mediated communications (Forsyth, 1998,
Sharpe et al 2005) rather than more holistic research that would look at the whole
student experience, and would emphasise the need for in depth qualitative research.
JISC has over the past years carried out two research projects into the learning
experience (Mayes, 2006; Conole et al, 2006) and this research will add to the
knowledge of how adult learners use and experience e-learning and technology
would be valuable for the development of tools, pedagogy and teaching practices in
adult education. This will be further discussed in section 6.2.2.

4.3.1. Context

As mentioned in section 4.1 on the background of the project, the students on the
ABCD Project started in a face-to-face environment, where they learnt how to use
online communication tools, such as discussion boards and chat, and Web 2.0 tools
such as blogs, wikis, in addition to video editing and podcast production. The aim of

the first module was for students to familiarize themselves with the tools, to get to
know the support staff in the future online modules, who were the learning
technologists, and at the same time teachers on this module. One of the aims was for
students to feel comfortable, and for a trust relationship to build up.

All students had used the Internet before the course, mainly for email, to find
information and to make purchases. 75% of students used the internet every day
before the course started. Their main motivation to start the programme was to learn
something new, and for 60% of the students, to use new technologies. Most students
indicated they were confident in using the computer to find information, in using
email (91%) and in using it as a word processor (66%). Confidence levels dropped
considerably for producing blogs (33%), posting on and using discussion boards
(25%), using wikis (16%) and for producing videos and podcasts (8%).

The student profile showed that 66% were male, while 34% were female,
contradicting the usual adult education profile, which is the reverse (Jenkins et al,
2005). Students indicated that this profile was related to the course content. Two
thirds of learners were between 35 and 40 years old, with a quarter between 50 and
64, and 8% between 25 and 34 years old. Most learners were from socio-
economically deprived areas of the UK and employed in SMEs and Social
Enterprises; sometimes as employees, but also as sole traders.

4.3.2 Learning Preferences Face to face or online learning?

Nearly all students indicated their preference for a blended approach; a combination
of classroom based and online learning. They would have liked a regular face-to-face
session, perhaps at the start of a new module, but then to continue online because of
its higher level of flexibility. Most students made a conscious decision for an online
course, but still found it hard sometimes to study via the internet, especially with
regard to the need for a certain level of self-direction and time management:

Learning in the classroom, even if someone is waffling on, within a 5 minute

window you have the chance to get feedback on what it is you are stuck with or
need to be doing next. The thing about having to shelf stuff or waiting for a
replay or a response or like me, in lots of instances forgetting to do anything

and then not getting a response and then thinking a week later, “O my gosh, I
should have asked about that”; that is a problem. (S4)

On the other hand, it was the lack of time-restrictions and flexibility in learning
that motivated most students to study online, as ‘you do it when you’ve got the
time. You know that’s the big bonus isn’t it? Because you’re not stuck with
“you’ve got to study at this time”. It’s when you’ve got the time to do it.’ (S6)

The students enjoyed the face-to-face module, which was very hands-on and
practical – learning how to use the technologies – but found it harder to move to a
more concept-based online module, where communication seemed more formal and
participants more at a distance. Many responses indicated the importance of affective
issues and a need for human contact in particular:

It is getting back to this whole kind of human interaction because you know as
much as you can talk to somebody online, you can’t really see their reaction not
unless you are on one of these video ones. You can’t judge whether people are
saying it to please you or because they are being called away to do something
else and they just want to say I’ll give you a quick answer because we are
doing other stuff. I think again it does go back to, to get the most out of people
every so often you do really need to interact with them and treat them as
people, not somebody in cyberspace at the end of a modem. (S4)

One of the students preferred the online experience to the face-to-face experience, as
he felt more involved because of the higher level of interactivity. Tutor support required by the students

In the online environment tutors supported the students in a variety of ways: in

videos to explain new concepts, on the discussion board to communicate regarding
different tasks, in weekly chat sessions where social relationships were fostered and
some concepts were explained. Tutors also provided individual feedback as
comments in the reflective diaries, and some tutors used podcasts and videocasts
when they found that students were “stuck” to give them a confidence boost. It
seemed that the combination of interactions in different formats supported the
students well:

My attitude is as well that if the technology is there and we have the option for
videos . . . and podcasts or whatever, then I think we should be using as many
different things as possible. I suppose if I were to compare it to the senses, your
eyes, ears, your speech whatever, then we don’t rely on one. Or if we do rely
on one we have to get that one so fine-tuned that we don’t miss out on the other

stuff. . . .Yes, please and as many as you can and one of those things is bound
to stick, or several are, or they will gel together to form a bigger picture
because that is how we react as humans. (S4)

The level of support required by students varied. Some didn’t make use of it at all,
while others needed support frequently. All students knew where and how to get
support; as they would usually make a remark in the reflective diary and a tutor
would respond to them. On technical matters they used the frequently asked
questions forum or emailed technical staff directly. Students missed the closeness
with the tutor who was present in the face-to-face environment. Student 8 felt that it
was difficult for tutors to support them without that emotional aspect that is present
in a face-to-face classroom, while others felt less connected with participants than
would be the case in a traditional classroom:

You get so used to being on the internet and not actually having a direct
contact; it’s all very removed from people that, although you have a direct
connection with people, I don’t really feel there’s a connection with anybody
doing the course. (S9)

Some forms of support were very successful. All students remarked on the usefulness
of feedback in the individual online reflective diaries, and how it increased
confidence in their own ability:

Oh, OK, perhaps I can do this”, whereas it was quite challenging and you don’t
. . . you know, independently, you don’t know whether you’re making any
sense or not. Then the tutor comes back and says: “Yes, you’ve got the point”
and will give you another kind of perspective on it then. Then you feel like
you’re taking a step forward. (S9)

Two of the tutors used video to summarise feedback to all students at a particularly
difficult moment in the course, which was very much appreciated:

I prefer more of the video and what I liked about Tutor 4’s was that he sat down to
give about five or ten minutes debrief on how he felt from feedback. You know, that
sort of interactive sort of video, in the sense that he’d digested what we’d given as
feedback and what he’d digested and he spat out his sort of summary of it in a really
good way. (S8)

It was felt that the weekly chat sessions were also helpful in supporting students,
often in combination with other tools, although one of the students who had technical

problems had expected more help to solve them. Students did recognise that the
project was a research and development one, where tutors in the later modules have
learnt from the experiences of tutors in the earlier modules:

In earlier modules we wouldn’t have seen so much of a video from Tutor 4

where he has taken the initiative and just gone for it himself. You wouldn’t
have seen that in earlier modules. It’s refreshing as a student to see that, to feel
that there’s no two tier system, to feel part of a circle. (S8) Engagement – student withdrawal

From the moment the ABCD programme started it was clear that not all students
would continue with the programme after the first module. This face to face module
provided learners with the practical skills to use Web 2.0 technologies and
multimedia editing tools and this was the module some of the students specifically
came to attend. The module was quite different from all other online ‘concepts-
based’ modules that followed. The decision to continue or withdraw from the
programme was taken by the students themselves. From the 47 students who did the
first module, 17 continued on the second one, but 5 withdrew early on in the 2nd
module, which left 12 students to continue after the 2nd module. From these students
5 finished the full 120 credits, a HE Certificate equivalent to 2 years of part-time
undergraduate HE study at Level 1, which has made the withdrawal rate higher than
the average distance education course (Woodley, 2004). However, the socio-
economic background of the students on the ABCD Project was different from the
average student taking a distance education course, which could have influenced
their outcomes on the project. Most ABCD students were also the first in their family
to take part in Higher Education. This has made it important to find out what would
engage and what would cause people to withdraw from the programme.

What then did the students find most important factors in engaging them while they
were learning online? There were two important issues: the human engagement; the
feeling that people cared about them and about their learning that came about
through the different forms of communication, but especially in the reflective diary,
where tutors provided feedback; and in the chat, where a community was created and
group dynamics fostered motivation for a higher level of engagement with the
course. The social presence as defined by Lombard and Ditton (1997) was an
important factor in engagement. It was clear from observing the environment, that

the higher the number of interactions in the diary between student and tutor, and the
higher the intensity of the interactions and the quality of tutor feedback, the higher
the motivation and engagement. This was the same in the chat; the sense of meeting
up in the fourth module and enjoying each other’s company created a positive
atmosphere in which students engaged more with the course, in the sense that they
learnt from each other, tutors and learners alike:

It’s crucial then to have that good feed-back from Tutors 3 and 4 and I know
they put a lot of their extra-curricular time into making an effort to make sure
we keep up top speed and it was encouraging. . . . Tutor 4 and 3 were the total
flip-side of the coin, they were constantly encouraging and giving us feed-back
regularly on our journals and taking the positive side. There was constructive
criticism where necessary, but it was always in a positive light, which was part
and parcel of the AR module to keep maintain some positivity anyway. (S8)

The main reasons students gave for withdrawing from the ABCD programme were
personal. The personal reasons given ranged from time-pressure because of work to
emotional upheaval and distractions in their lives. Others mentioned a lack of self-
organisation and discipline in their online learning and one student valued the course,
but already had a Masters level qualification and thought this caused a lack of
motivation in carrying out the tasks and work related to the course. Some students
who left at the beginning of the second module mentioned their different
expectations to what the second module actually turned out to be: not skills-based
teaching about technology, but concepts-based learning about critical thinking and
information literacy. Learning strategies

The students were asked if they had particular strategies for their learning, for
instance if they chose to interact and help other students, how they went about it, and
if receiving the certificate was their main goal. Most of them seemed to work for the
qualification, but there is evidence to show that they spent time encouraging other
students through communication in the chat, the discussion board and in the wikis.

4.3.3. Communication and dialogue Synchronous communication

The synchronous communication on ABCD was mainly facilitated through the

Moodle learning environment chat facility. Chat facilities have been used even
before VLEs emerged as online learning environments (Mason and Bacsich, 1998)
and were not usually used in VLEs in traditional universities, but as indicated in
section 2.5.1. could be considered as Web 2.0 tools while integrated with other
communications tools in messenger services. All but one of the students liked the
chat. One of the problems that people had with chat was its text-based mode, which
meant that slow typists had problems following the conversation, as it would already
have moved on to the next topic. This was especially seen as an issue at a time when
more than four people attended the chat. People had mixed feelings about the value
of the chats. Nearly all appreciated them as they were seen as the closest people
could come online to the informal contact that people have in a classroom. They built
up friendships and created a sense of community and they seemed to enhance the
social contacts and the group dynamics:

I really used the chat, yes, I felt that was one of the best parts of [ABCD].
People like Tutor 4 seems a really nice bloke online . . . towards the end it felt
like a group you know, a group of friends then, that’s what I got out of it. At the
start you didn’t know what to say because you didn’t know anybody, but
towards the end then the group grew sort of thing, we got used to each other’s
ways . . . it was new to all of us and then we all grew together . . . it was a bit of
fun as well towards the end. (S2)

Several students, however indicated that the conversations remained at a shallow,

superficial level and that chat was not really the tool to deepen their understanding of
the topic at hand. Further, some tutors were clearly better than others at keeping the
focus on the course topic. On the other hand, people liked the ‘light-heartedness’:

They were just that, just chat most of the time, with occasional input on the
course itself. Again “chat room” should have been a clue that it was just to chat
in, so it was just for meeting people . . . it seemed to me more at that sort of
level than focussed on course work. (S10)
There is this light-heartedness’ in the chat room which I agree with totally, it
did help the flow of the conversation. (S8)

The tool did work well for students to help each other out when problems arose.

Different tutors used chat in different ways, gave it more or less emphasis, which
influenced the learning experience:

Tutor 4 made sure he got the chats in. If I was to compare Tutor 4’s module
with tutor 6’s, sadly the chats in the latter’s didn’t work well. . . .That first chat,
it was good for me, because I could ask a lot of questions and he was giving me
the answers pertaining to my business, but the second chat didn’t go ahead and
then the interaction between tutor and students seemed to sort of fade away
really on that module. (S8)

Two people commented on the skills involved in “chatting” and how their children
use chat; the superficiality and complexity of it:

I think online chat is a skill of its own and I watch my son – he used to do a lot
of it. I would say “who are you talking to?” and he would be talking to about 5
or 6 different people on different chat rooms at the same time. I would never be
able to keep up with that, but they can. I find it so superficial as well. They are
chatting about nothing I think. (S5) A-synchronous communication

A number of a-synchronous communications tools were used that worked well for
different purposes. Discussion boards

The discussion board is the communications tool that has traditionally been used in
Virtual Learning Environments (Gulati, 2006; Weller, 2010; Mason, 2006). The
tutors on ABCD used them to ask conceptual questions after showing a video or a
particular activity or reading in the course resources. Students were expected to
contribute to the discussion, as they had to choose five of their postings, wiki or
video contributions per module as part of their assessment. There was a mixed
reaction by the students on their value to enhance the learning experience. One
student preferred them over wikis as it provided a personal space to give a point of
view. He also thought there was not enough discussion amongst all participants:

I find them better than the wikis personally. . . . I like the layout of the
discussion forums. . . . I found them useful as I felt I had a say, where I had my
own little space, whereas in a wiki someone can sort of modify it and possibly
change the content a bit of what you were trying to say. With the words you
know, without the body language, it’s difficult to convey exactly what you are
trying to say sometimes, unless you’re a master wordsmith. In the discussion
forums I felt I had more of a voice. . . . I still felt with all the modules really

that it was a case of “teacher says this”, “this is my opinion”, teacher replies to
my opinion, and that’s that. Rather than the mixing bowl. (S8)

This was confirmed by student 9 who found it very impersonal and not much like a
true discussion, even though tutors tried to facilitate a dialogue by participating in the
discussion. Student 7, however, moved from finding them sometimes useful in the
first interview, to questioning the value receiving other students’ opinions in the
second interview and also wondering about other students’ credibility as a source:

Sometimes other people’s thoughts are just their thoughts and not my thoughts
and I think, well I’d rather think about it myself really. If it was coming from
somebody with some sort of credibility then you tend to take a little bit more
notice of it, but if it is just another student, you think, well, you know … have
they got the right angle here? They could be misleading even. (S7)

He did value the time to reflect, while using discussion boards compared to online
chats, which take place in real time and provide less scope for thinking. This
ambivalence felt about learning from other students while communicating with
others on the discussion board was also felt by others, but for different reasons. One
student mentioned the lengthy postings by another student and the time it would take
to read them. Another would see it as a distraction from the actual coursework on the
one hand, as it required clicking and reading a lot of postings, while on the other
hand it stimulated reflection on one’s own point of view:

The danger is I go clicking round what other people have posted and that then
biases my answer. . . . So, it no longer becomes my work, or my input, but
subconsciously … yes, it is good to have ideas of other people and I agree with
that. It’s all about group work and learning from other people. . . . I know when
I’ve accidentally clicked on something someone else has put on there it has
actually given me a kick up the backside, or more importantly, it’s got me to
appreciate other people’s view point, which is a lot what this course is about.

Some students value them as sites for constructing understanding:

I made a posting and somebody else has used that to help their understanding.
They make a posting and it is like a building block process back and forth to
get to an ending where we understand more and we agree as a group on our
particular topic/subject. (S8)

Another student did not use them much at all and preferred to use the chat for
communication. There were clearly mixed feelings on the usefulness of the

discussion forums. There was one area where the discussion boards were seen to be
helpful, which was at sorting out problems, technical and academic; either through a
learning technologist, a tutor or another student. Reflective journals

The Moodle blog facility was used as a reflective journal. The learner would write
about his or her own learning. Tutors might sometimes ask students to carry out
activities and report on them in the journal and the tutor would use the comment
function of the blog to provide feedback. If students had particular questions or
problems they would quite often ask them here, as it was a confidential, closed
environment. Only the course tutor (and the researcher) had access to the diary apart
from the student:

The private journal, I can reflect on a lot of my progress through the course and
this place, well, I can retreat, I can feel comfortable, safe. I know the tutors
have access to that so I can be open and honest and I’m sure that some of the
lecturers can vouch for the fact that I have been quite honest. (S8)

All but one of the students liked to use the journal. It was a place for a personal
interaction between tutor and student. All students found them easy to use. Students
were expected to use the reflection in the diary as part of the course, but were not
assessed on the content of the journal. Students had different views on the need for
reflection. The comments amongst the ten people interviewed ranged from finding
reflection important and being happy to have a record of ‘his personal journey on the
course’ (S2), ‘I’ve learnt more about how to reflect . . . thinking, putting time aside
to think about things a bit more, not just on the ABCD, but generally as well’ (S8).
Conversely, some students did not like the journal. Responses ranged from: ‘I am not
very good at reflection’ (S9); ‘it wasn’t a priority (S4), to ‘reflection is not a new
concept, it is something I do on a continual basis’ (S10), and ‘sometimes it was
difficult to see the point of doing it. It was like talking to yourself then, which you
don’t usually do’ (S9).

An important function of the journal was to provide personal feedback at an

individual level by tutors to the students. All students valued this. Students indicated
that all resources and materials were on the learning environment and they needed
the tutors to clarify things sometimes, or to tell them they were on the “right track”.

Student 9 said: ‘[The journal was] very important. Just encouragement… I mean the
more that you feel your input is right, the better you feel inclined to crack on with it’
(S9). And Student 8 commented:

the action research course has been the best one so far… you can feel the passion
that they [tutors] both have for their subject and the encouragement that they give
you has been really amazing… the feedback reflects that it has been very positive
and very upbeat and I just think that they like you to contribute and that they
encourage you really. (S8)

The fact that tutors also provided reflective feedback on the process of learning was
very much appreciated by the students. An example is the following comment by
Tutor 4:

I’m also convinced (I mean this supportively) that your lack of clarity is
actually a good thing - action research is complex and messy and if you thought
it was clear and unambiguous I would be questioning your grasp of it all! The
important issue (easier said than done I know) is for you to try and tolerate the
ambiguities – I’m convinced that doing so will actually help you begin to see
your own understandings AND how they help you make your own choices
about how to do action research and learn through and from doing it.

One bit of advice I will offer - TRY TO LIMIT the reading - you won’t go far
wrong if you concentrate on McNiffs work and see its strengths and
weaknesses in your own terms.
AND do please keep letting us know of your concerns. (T4, Module 4) Wikis and group work

All students indicated the importance of collaborating in a group and learning from
each other. One of the tools used to facilitate group work were wikis. Students learnt
how to use wikis in the first module. Students saw positive and negative points in the
way wikis were used on the ABCD programme. At the end of the first module wikis
were used as online collaborative tools to produce a digital (video) narrative in
collaboration with people from other geographical areas, all working at different
times of day, which turned out to be a difficult exercise. It seemed to have been too
much too soon, as some students did not participate, which was problematic as it was
a group exercise, and also an assessment:

When we did the digital narrative we were split into teams and a lot of people
dropped out at that point leaving one of the team to do the whole thing… I am
not really keen on the team environment because not everybody participates …
it is very difficult to try to coordinate with other people … you have to wait for

other people, if they are contributing to your module. Then you are very
dependent on others. (S1)

I don’t think we helped each other out and supported each other in the way we
should have really… If you are there face-to-face, meeting up and getting on
with a piece of work, so you do it, don’t you? (S7)

One of the students thought that a different grouping of students, to include some of
their face-to-face group, might have helped in their group work. Several other
students mentioned the need for face-to-face contact to make the groupwork work
well. Students had different ideas on what they learnt from participating in wikis.
One student found it stimulating as it helped his thinking process:

I do like the fact that with the wiki I get a little sort of light bulb that comes in
from one of the other contributors that makes you think “ah, I didn’t consider
that” but I’ll think about it again. Whether I add to the wiki myself depends but
it certainly helps my thought process. (S8)

Another student, who had major technical problems in accessing the online tools,
said that he could not remember having learnt anything from them, although he did
read them all. One of the wiki characteristics that people found difficult to cope with
was that it is a collaborative learning space; anybody was able to change anything
other people had written. This might have influenced the level of unease as it
required a level of trust in the integrity of other learners: ‘I found the wikis a little bit
new to use at the start because you weren’t sure if you were writing over somebody
else’s work’ (S2). And Student 8 and Student 9 said:

it’s finding that balance between making sure that people know you’ve done
some work and put some effort in but at the same time not trying to damage
what other people have done, because you respect them as a student or as a
tutor. (S8)

Nobody wanted to kind of mess around with anybody else’s work. So it all
tended to be again to end up as a sort of discussion that people put their entry
on under the last one. Only a couple of times that I’ve really tried to edit what
was already there. But that was specifically when I’d been teamed up with
somebody and we had to collaborate and pull something together and it was
well understood that we were contributing together. (S9)

The problems identified by learners were similar to those highlighted by by

MacDonald (2008), and Roberts and McInnerney (2007) as discussed in section

156 such as an aversion towards group work, a lack of group-work skills, the
“free-rider” amongst the group members, the leaving of group members, and the
assessment of individuals within the groups. In addition, issues inherent to the wiki
tool were emphasized by the students, which were also highlighted in research by
Martinez-Carrillo and Pentikousis (2008). One of the students for instance found it
quite frustrating that students did not use wikis in the way they were intended and
wrote an email to the tutors of that module to ask if they could try to intervene so the
wiki would be used in its proper way:

Hi Tutors 3 and 4, I have mentioned this in previous journal postings, both in

this module and previous modules. Wikis, as you both know, and as us students
HAVE been taught, is a collaborative piece of work, which should be one piece
of work that builds as one piece as students contribute, rather than several
separate additions by each student…I wish a wiki could be a proper wiki, and
adhered to correctly, otherwise there is no point to it and it may as well be a
normal forum “Question & Answer” entry in the Course Discussion Forum.

He asked for clarification on how to use it from then on, and the tutors responded
positively, in that they set the ground rules on how to use wikis and monitored and
contributed to it themselves from then on, which was also asked for by another
student. But one of the interesting issues here was that the complaining student also
was the student who liked to be the first to write something down in the wiki:

I put down stacks of information from my perspective. And when I looked back
at the wiki several weeks later not much had changed. And in a way I felt a bit
guilty because I was thinking, I want to sort of express and give my views as
much as I can, I want to but at the same time if nobody is adding to it, am I
restricting their sort of creativity? (S8)

He clearly reflected not only on the subject content of the module, but also on the
learning process and what would influence it positively and negatively. He also
commented on how he felt to be part of a “process” rather than a “course”. That he
felt valued, also by being involved in the iterative research process. This was a new
educational experience for him, as his initial formal education had not been a
positive one.

157 Pod-casts

Podcasts and multimedia were used extensively on the ABCD project. Sometimes
ready-made YouTube videos were being used, at other times “talking head” videos
of tutors were being produced to introduce themselves, to explain new concepts, but
also to speak to each other at difficult times in the course. Students also used
podcasts to carry out tasks, introduce themselves and as assessments. The students
really liked the multi-sensory approach of using podcasts to explain difficult
concepts, but also to create a presence, to learn to know the tutor or other students
better, which helped to relate to each other in a positive way. An informal approach
was appreciated most: ‘Yes, I think it is good. I like to watch the videos. I like the
videos the tutors do of themselves’ (S1). And Student 4 said:

My attitude is as well that if the technology is there and we’ve got the option
for videos . . . then I think we should be using as many different things as
possible; I suppose if we do compare it to senses, your eyes, ears, your speech,
we don’t rely on one. Or if we do we have to get that one so fine-tuned that we
don’t miss out on the other stuff. (S4)

Students liked to learn the skills to download podcasts and to produce them, in
addition to finding it engaging when readymade materials were being used:

YouTube, MovieMaker, wikis really enhanced my learning I think; I found

them pretty good . . . They are more relevant to what people do outside as
well…more to everyday use because everybody uses YouTube and stuff like
that. And I think that’s what the internet is all about. (S2)

This was another student from a family with no tradition of Higher Education and
without any experience of learning in an academic environment. The “visual” rather
than the “read-write” resources helped him in his learning.

Students noticed a distinct development in the use and production of videos during
the programme. It was seen as a change for the better, more interactive than before:

In Action Research I found that Tutor 4 and 3 made great use of the video and
also the fact that, I don’t know whether it’s because it was further along in the
project and they’d learnt from previous modules. I don’t know if they looked at
the other videos that others did earlier on, and thought we could do that better,
or whether they just injected their own enthusiasm, which is what I think
happened, and their video presentations were fab. They were motivating, and
encouraged you to be more positive about your approach as a student. It wasn’t
like in-yer-face close up of one tutor’s head and them just monologuing to you.

They were talking to each other, which was nice. It was like watching a soap
opera. You could sort of empathise, and feel that you were part of it without
being directly there, and take a lot out of it. So I liked that. (S8)

In module 4 the tutors used videos at a time when students were having problems
grasping the concepts and felt uncomfortable as the tutor, consciously, gave them a
high number of readers from which to choose. It was at a transitional phase in which
students were asked to think and direct their learning more than they had before. The
students liked this: ‘what I liked about Tutor 4’s was that he sat down to give about
five or ten minutes debrief on how he felt from the feedback’ (S8).

Some students indicated that they had had technical problems watching some of the
YouTube videos, even though a minimum computer specification for taking part in
the course was indicated at the start of the course. This is clearly a problem when
using high bandwidth-using multimedia. Web2.0 technologies in learning

Some of the Web 2.0 technologies have already been highlighted as tools suitable for
communication. The students emphasised how the new technologies used on the
course have made an impression on them:

I think it is fantastic. I think it is excellent, all the tools are there from what I
can see and it will be something that we are actually going to try and model for
our business. The way you could use and that sort of thing, the wikis
and the blogs were good and you have the interactive videos and stuff and there
is the lounge at the end. (S7)

It was just very, very much fun. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed myself so
much when it comes to learning something. (S3)

And most liked the use of a combination of different tools, i.e. a multi-sensory
approach, where video, sound, text and external resources are all used to create an
engaging experience.

4.3.4. Learning a social activity?

The Web 2.0 tools made an impression as they facilitated an advanced form of
communication between students. It facilitated the development of social presence

which was seen to be important, as was also highlighted in section by
Lombard and Ditton (1997) and Dron and Anderson (2007). All students valued the
contact with other students because humans are social beings:

As human beings we are designed to interact and to meet up with one another
and as much as I value the online stuff, we need to remember the human
element as well . . . Now whether that’s a social thing, or a social thing linked
to an activity so it gives it a purpose I don’t know, but personally I would hate
to be doing everything distance . . . I think that is very important part, even [if]
you just sit down over a cup of coffee and say “my gosh, I found this really
difficult” and someone else would say “yes, whatever”. The human element is
important. (S4)

They valued social contact for support and felt the ABCD group was supportive,
tutors and students alike. Student 8 found that ‘it’s the team spirit, again there is no
hierarchy there and we are able to collaborate together as students and tutors and
learn from each other. I feel almost like friends with some of them now’ (S8), while
Student 2 felt ‘lucky because I work with one of the other students . . . That was a big
help, I’ve got to say. I might have found it hard if I was on my own but I was lucky
that I worked with student 6 and so we bounced off each other’ (S2).

The students could also see how communication with other students would enhance
their thinking process and their learning and valued the social interaction on the
course for this purpose. It would provide new ideas and made them reflect on their
own and others’ points of view:

If I was ever stuck on anything, I’d bring it up in the chat and then not just the
tutors but the other students then would throw in ideas and help me to come up
with my own. . . . Sometimes you’d go off in one direction and then they’d
come up with something and then you’d think differently about it and look at
another avenue. (S6)

When you do actually think about something you have your own views on it
but it is always good to have somebody to chat to and discuss your views. By
discussing your views you could come up with something completely different.
You could be biased in the way you are thinking but by talking to somebody
else it may prove to you that you are biased. (S5)

4.3.5. Thinking Processes

Students had different ideas about their own thinking. Some said it was an individual
process, some that it was a social one, but most students agreed that they first looked
for information, discussed it with others, i.e. with the tutor or learners, sometimes
look on the discussion board or wiki to see what others had said about a subject, and
that they would then process it in an individual way, relating it to what they already

I think best when I am prompted by questions that will guide me perhaps at the
start of the path I need to go down. I realise that I do need to be challenged in
stuff and it is quite surprising what comes out after that. I need that initial
challenge. (S4)

Thinking is a solitary thing in the end. I think you do need to read, you do need
to discuss, you do need to get other people’s points of view on things, but I
think thinking ultimately is a solitary process and once I have got the
information from wherever the source is, and I get it from all sources like most
people these days then I have to use my logical thought processes to come to a
conclusion which I’m happy with and which will determine my actions, so I
think the actual thinking bit of it is best done on my own but that is after a lot
of thought and discussion and I do like talking my things through and once I
have come to a conclusion I do like to go through that with people maybe to
reinforce my conclusion so I’m happy with it. (S7)

For me action research, has given me insight into how we perceive things and
how by completing action research, you can make changes and increase
knowledge just by collaborating with others. Working as a team can bring out
so many different views and skills, it just seems stupid not to question your
colleagues. The old saying is right, two heads are better than one. (S6,
reflective diary) Critical Thinking

The programme contained a module on critical thinking and special remarks were
made about how it had helped students to see which biases they have and what
prejudices they might hold. Students remarked on the need for critical thinking and
information literacy in the Internet age, which was also emphasised by Downes
(2009b) and Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2009) and will be discussed further
in section Student 3 commented that ‘this module it is all “thinking” and
trying to think outside the box and trying to break down the barriers in which we
have been taught to think’ (S3). Student 4 added:

Challenging me in lots of ways really; challenging not just having to analyse
stuff and go through stuff but also very challenging to realise just how biased I
have been in my thinking in the past and how I have taken things at face value
and this whole thing of having to take in other people’s points of view . . .
challenging in that respect; but then that’s got to be a positive thing. Hopefully
it will help me to have those skills for other stuff. (S4)

When I started going through the reference book it really opened my eyes as to
how much more there is to critical thinking and how much more broad-minded
one needs to be. It is so easy to make a snap judgement so it was very useful for
me to really broaden my understanding of it. (S8)

I think a lot of people don’t critically think, quite honest with you. I think a lot
of people on the course here didn’t see the value in critical thinking. They read
something in the paper, hear it on the news and they believe it, you know. They
very rarely think deep about it. It is something over years of experience . . . . It
is just over time I’m thinking I’m not really believing half of this now and bit
by bit you start questioning, and bit by bit you hone your techniques mainly
through talking to other people and living life, I suppose. (S7) Aids to thinking process - Linear/Spatial - Written/Visual

Nine out of ten students preferred the online ABCD environment over course books,
although they did like a backup to show where to find all resources and how to use
them as there was some confusion over that now and again. In addition students
asked for an “idiot’s guide” to guide them through the resources:

I would prefer the ABCD learning environment because I am one of these

digital make of guys who has 5 screens open at once doing 5 different things,
so it is a lot easier for me to kind of flip between and stop if I want to
concentrate on ABCD for a second and do something else, I am able to do that
quickly and then flip back. I find it much easier than having 5 or 6 books on the
table. (S2)
Another student liked it because it made him think differently:
Take a different way of looking at things, more laterally at things, rather than in
a course book; it can be training your thoughts in vogue in some way. I found
this environment much easier to think laterally and other people thinking
laterally and just throwing things in the pot. (S8)

One student preferred the book for two reasons. The first was so he could position
himself wherever he wanted, rather than in front of a computer screen, and the
second was so he could use his own imagination. Nine out of ten students liked the
combination of different resources to learn from: In addition to the written word,

spoken words and videos were used in podcasts; images were used to clarify issues,
and bespoke activities were developed specifically to create understanding of certain
concepts. The students appreciated the variety. This questions the propositions made
by Greenfield (2006) as highlighted in section 2.2.3. that a linear learning
presentation of learning materials, for instance by using books and lectures, might be
more appropriate for learning than a spatial one. It confirms Gulati’s findings (2006)
in that a linear approach to learning will not necessarily be best for all
learners. Meaning making

This variety of tools, activites, videos and communication helped the students make
meaning. In the videos new concepts were explained, which were analysed and
discussed on the discussion board. The chat room, discussion forum and wikis
created opportunities for students to generate new ideas around the course content by
bouncing thoughts off against one another, while the focussed feedback on activites
in the reflective journals meant that students made meaning at an individual level:

Tutor 4, my brain feels like the M25 [ring road around London] at rush hour-
this is brilliant! So many thoughts and adrenaline flowing – woo hoo! (S8)

An example of a series of communications, tutor feedback, student writing and more

tutor feedback in the reflective journal, illustrates the process of communication and
feedback between tutor and learner in the journal, and that of meaning-making by the

Hi Student 2, 12/06/08. Epistemology , it is a BIG word but its not only about
facts – its about what is to count as a fact – and how can we identify and
understand different types of facts. Instead of facts I’ll use the word knowledge.
What counts as knowledge? Can I know my opinion is right and someone
else’s wrong OR would I be more correct to say that I BELIEVE my opinion is
right? (Knowledge is different to belief and epistemology helps us understand
these types of differences)...I completely agree with your MPs example and it’s
really heartening to read your points about pupils reading and simple ideas
(colour book marks) being effective. Perhaps there is something here also
about your earlier points – sometimes simple things (like language issues) are
so obvious they become sort of camouflaged and hidden?? Then action
research (or maybe just some critical reflection) makes the hidden become
explicit and recognised?? Keep up the stirling work, (T4, module 4)

Section 6 Choose one of 3 images Ok I’ll like to choose image B) to depict my
evolving understanding of AR . Why?..., well for a few reasons , One of my
hobbies is to draw and so that helps me relate to a picture , but like AR making
a drawing is combination of methods and is always on going …You have to do
a bit of research on what you would like to draw, make sure you have all the
right equipment . Then when you start to draw , like with Action Research is on
going , you’ll keep coming back to the drawing , to add new things , or take
away parts of the drawing that don’t quite work , even when you’ve finished
the drawing , you’ll be analysing the drawing and thinking of ways you can
make or improve on the drawing next time , Like with AR, you can invite
people/groups to look at your work, and give them insight on what they think ,
and offer feedback and advise .
Like with AR everyone sees a image differently , one person masterpiece is
another person mess, so a bit like with AR , sometimes there’s no clearly
defined 'correct ' answer (S2, reflective journal)
19-06-08 Hey Student 2, THIS IS BRILLIANT!! The academic in me is
screaming that this is wonderful evidence of John Herons extended
epistemology - in street language that means you’ve understood and explained
illustratively - metaphorically - this tells me more than mere words will that
you understand key aspects of action research. ABSOLUTELY ...... GREAT.
You have made my day. Thanks for this - much appreciated. (T4, module 4)

4.3.6. Affective Issues

One of the threads running through the findings so far is the need for social
interaction, for human contact and of the importance of affective issues in student
learning. Remarks are made about the difference to their study the warmth and caring
attitude of the course development team has made, expressed metaphorically by
student 8: ‘I feel as though I’m sitting around a night time camp fire and the lecturer
with a guitar playing this song, telling stories; we all feed off each other and it’s very
interesting here’ (S8).

Participants talked about a feeling of trust and feeling safe:

There was a sort of comfortable feeling and not as if people felt threatened by
the others in the group. Yes, when I arrived in the chat room everybody said
hello which was nice, and at the end everybody would say goodbye. It was very
friendly and I felt safe in that environment because of the fact that it was

But not all students felt comfortable; some students described feeling distanced from
the other students and the tutor because of the online environment and the chat
sessions helped to build relationships:

You get to understand, through the chat that you have, what sort of people they
are. So yes, you build up a relationship with them online. I mean, it’s not as
difficult as meeting them now. (S1)

4.3.7. Control and Constraints Learner autonomy

Students had different opinions about the level of control by the tutor on their
learning. Most of them agreed with the need for clear instructions at the outset of the
learning, but after that they had different ideas on how much guidance they would
like from the tutor. Some liked clear tasks to help them deliver the right answers,
others liked a mixed approach in which there was some guidance, but not ‘spoon-
feeding’ the students.

Whilst I think it is wonderful to encourage people to think for themselves and

to find their way around, people in a learning situation do expect to be initially
led, but then also expect to be given the respect that they can work things out
for themselves. (S4)

Only one student had a preference for finding things out for himself. Some students
liked to be led by clearly formulated instructions, while others preferred to have
control over their learning themselves in addition to support by the tutor but felt the
choice was there in ABCD to design your own learning and participate in
communication, or just to access resources;

I think you can choose the balance from what you want really. You are in
control of using them really... I read the stuff, didn’t do so much of the chat I
suppose, did discussions but I think it is a balance you can set for your self,
isn’t it? At that level I think it is quite a good thing really. You engage with
your pc surely it is like talking to other people about things; it gives that
possibility but if you just want to read the materials and back it up yourself
somewhere else you can do that as well. It leaves a balance in your control
which is a good thing. (S7)

As indicated in section by Bouchard (2009) organising and sequencing work

is normally carried out by a tutor in a face-to-face environment. Online this needs to
be taken care of by students themselves, which was not always easy:

The only difference from the first one [the face-to-face module] that I actually
turned up for classes and put 2 hours a week of my time . . . to actually
concentrate on doing it . . . .The other course [online] I wasn’t putting a set

time or period for it and I wasn’t disciplined for it… it was a matter of
allocating my time and organising myself. (S7)

Several students indicated that there is an interplay between these factors of

discipline and organisation, with motivational factors as the need to go online or to
sort out technical problems, ensuring they would not fall behind too much. Coping
with this self-organisation was important and the lack thereof was one of the reasons
that some students gave up on the course in the end. Solutions that were suggested
were, for instance, regular contact by the tutor outside the ABCD environment. One
student suggested sending an email regularly, to give a little motivational push, while
another thought it would be good to personalise ABCD so it would fit in with other
computer applications, such as Facebook:

You actually combine the task within life, so people they are online; they are
doing their Facebook kind of thing . . . , but in amongst that every so often
instead of getting these crazy pop up ads or that flash rubbish, what comes up
instead is a reminder of hey this looks fun, this is part of ABCD, spend five
minutes doing this. (S8)

Of course to realise that contacting tutors and support team is a good thing to do,
rather than a bad thing is an important step and several students said that they should
have contacted tutors and support staff earlier:

The problem has been me trying to be superman and not relaying back to the
tutors how much I am struggling with different things and not getting on with
stuff, but the options are there; the option is there for me to email, the option to
add different things. (S4)

The interaction with the tutor and his or her feedback were important motivational
and confidence-building factors:

I know that tutors’ feedback helped a great deal. Even in so much that it gave
me the confidence of my own ability then. That I thought “Oh, OK, perhaps I
can do this” whereas it was quite challenging and you don’t . . . you know
independently, you don’t know if you’re making any sort of sense or not. Then
the tutor comes back and says “Yes, you’ve got the point” and will give you
another kind of perspective on it then. Then you feel like you’ve taken a step
forward. (S9)

The reflective journals were the best place to provide feedback, and to show
appreciation for each other; they showed that the students were benefiting from the

strong tutor presence and were building up their understanding of the material and
subject area:

Just wanted to say, journal, that it is great that Tutor 4’s feedback to the
students is so comprehensive so far - the fact that I can not only read and
absorb what other students' interpretations are, but read Tutor 4’s extensive
follow-ups too, helps me understand the subject so much more richly.
Thanks Tutor 4! (S8, reflective diary)

Putting things down in a diary, can also help to clarify things and get you
motivated. (S4, reflective diary)

Hi Both, Thanks again for the feedback. I am happy with the subject matter for
the project now - I really thought that I needed to change the world with my
assignment when in fact need to start the ripple effect! I'm doing quite a bit of
reflective thinking at the moment so the assignment is purely thought. I'd like
to say that I really enjoyed this module, your openness and positive support.
Thanks/Diolch! (S1, reflective diary)

However, sometimes working without tutor guidance can be a good motivator as

well, as one of the student said, who only found the tutor guidance after replying to a
discussion forum post. The “matches and mismatches” between tutor guidance and
student autonomy are clearly important, as discussed by Grow (1991) and
represented in table 5 in section Most students felt ambivalence about the
level of self-direction that they were comfortable with. This includes thoughts about
the usefulness of other students’ work for their own learning
I’d like to see it going towards more collaboration – no that’s the wrong word
– more interactivity between the students themselves rather than there having to
be a tutor present. I do like it when the tutor says “Blah, blah, blah read, digest,
give an answer back and that’s why I like the discussion forums, where you
have a voice... Maybe I should open up a bit more and make more effort to
engage with other students…I prefer to master it myself. There’s a sense of
self-fulfilment and achievement when I do it that way. I feel a bit guilty if I
don’t read the other people’s work first, because I know I’ll feel guilty, as if
I’ve cheated in a way. In a way I feel good about the fact that when I do read
other people’s work, it doesn’t, and it isn’t enough to make me want to change
my work then. So then I feel even better that I’ve done a good job in the first
place. I’ve done my readings, I’ve thought about it, before putting my answers
in. (S8)

There seems to be a fine balance between supporting and letting go. The tutor’s
presence had supported students to move on from a stage where they were struggling:

I am struggling a bit with this module as i am reading too many different
articles and neither are giving me a better understanding of visualising action
research. Although we have done a lot of thinking outside the box, i am
beginning to feel like i am looking into this too hard and that is why i am
struggling. So i am going to forget about it until Sunday. (S6, reflective

Later students moved to a level of understanding and feeling good about themselves,
and being able to move on. At that stage the tutor posted a video podcast in which he
discussed his own reflections and problems with the module and it helped students to
work their way through a hard part of the course and to become a more confident and
motivated learner, able to make their own decisions and to take control of their own
learning while personalising their learning as Student 8 shows here:

It was difficult to know which entries to choose to read in the links provided
after McNiff‘s, as there were so many different reports and readings to choose
from… I am using McNiff as the trunk of my current learning ‘tree’ and have
read through the subsequent links too, in order to gain additional knowledge on
the same subject, as they seem to form the same conclusions (I can learn little
‘extras’ from each one). (S8)

Students were expected to and could make their own choices of course materials and
resources to the courses. Student 9 for instance, showed her independence by setting
up her own containing her choice of 140 links related to the course that
she would like to share with others on her personal page on the learning
environment. Others did not venture outside the readers that the tutor provided in
some modules and saw problems with looking for materials for themselves because
of time pressure, as it is easy to be laid-back and do a quick search, rather than to
really look for quality resources:

I think it is easy for a student to fall back into lazy ways and just stick to
Google, type the word, click enter and just see what goes on there, rather than
making a more concerted effort to go into the scholarly articles, into different
search engines which give more reliable and accurate results really. (S8)

Issues of learner autonomy and the ‘matches and mismatches’ between guidance by
tutors and level of autonomy required by students will be further discussed and
related to the literature in section as these findings highlight the complexity
of learner autonomy and the interaction between tutor and learner.

Students emphasised the need for the resources to be presented in a “digestible” way,
small bites at a time, but related to communication with people, and as personalised
as possible. As highlighted in point 6 of the literature conclusion in section 2.4. the
technology is now available to personalise people’s learning. The challenge is how
institutions might cope with the transition to facilitate this. Personalisation

Students liked the personalisation of the learning experience, but had very different
ideas on what their ideal personalisation would look like. Their ideas ranged from
using a handheld device attached to their computer, using a pad where they could
write on the desktop and save their ideas, a little like ‘stickies’ on an AppleMac
computer, to including learning materials on YouTube. Some students liked the
programme to be more integrated with real life, where they would get alerts to do
some course work as soon as they were using another application:
If there was any way of mimicking or presenting learning or study in a kind of
social software setting . . . like people on FaceBook . . . so you are encouraged
to do that between people on the course, whether they are in your learning
group or whether they are perhaps in another group . . . so you are interacting,
socially interacting via Web 2.0 technology but you actually combine the tasks
within life. (S4)

It’s the motivation and sitting down, trying to get rid of distractions, which can
be difficult, so if there is any way of…if I were to log on to ABCD…there’s a
way of ABCD communicating to me? If I could set up something in ABCD to
say “give me little alerts by email” or give me a little email to say “Student 8,
get on with your work”. (S8)

Student 9 saw personalisation more in the sense of creating a Personal Learning

Environment. She would have liked students to have a homepage where they had all
their applications and resources, and where other students were able to access them:

I think in some ways I found it rather impersonal . . . One thing I vaguely

thought was whether people could have more of a home page. You know like
we’ve got a profile, which is just a photograph and a bit of text, whether that
could be made a bit more personalised, a bit like Facebook, because it’s a bit
more personal. . . . Like I say, to have your own homepage so it’s more
personalised, then you could put your own links in and not feeling that you
were ramming them down people’s throats Because if you do put it into a
discussion forum, and you email it to everybody, whether they want it or not,

they are getting them . . . and now you are building up your own learning
library. (S9) Technology

Several students had technological problems during the two-year programme,

ranging from the broadband connection not working, to extremely slow downloads
of videos, which would influence the learning experience. Lack of support for Mac
users was also brought up:

I wasn’t really as clear as all that about how to access the wiki and how they
worked, and as I say the other issue I had was sometimes difficult getting into
them. So if it took more than five minutes to get something open, I’d lose
interest and move on to something else. . . . that also makes you more isolated.
Other people, for example, have told me that the videos on the AR module
meant they felt ‘really connected’ with the course. So, if you can’t do that, than
you miss out on important motivational parts of it. (S10)

There’ve been so many occasions when I’ve had so many problems with
broadband over the last couple of months that I’d have about 6 or 7 tabs open
on my browser and I can pick and choose . . . and then if the internet
connection went down I’d have to start from scratch then each time. (S8)

The Project Manager however, emphasised that the level of technology required for
the programme was made clear to students at the start of the programme and it has
only been partly possible to alleviate learner’s technical problems if through changed
circumstances learners only had access to equipment that was not adequate for the
technical demands of the course.


The tutor experience in the online environment is quite different from one in a
traditional classroom. Communication between tutor and learners, teaching and
learning strategies, the learning environment, the assessment and levels of autonomy
of the learners have all been highlighted as having been profoundly different in the
past (Gulati, 2006). It was an enriching experience for all four tutors interviewed;
they all learned from the experience:

It really frightened me when I first became involved, because it was my very

first experience as an e-learning tutor. But those feelings, once I got into it, they

dissipated and now, genuinely on reflection, I think it’s one of the greatest
experiences that I’ve had. (T2)

I wasn’t sure what I anticipated at the outset, but whatever it was, I gained
more than I thought. (T4)

Well, it’s funny, and because I co-tutored, I think it makes it quite different.
The whole notion of co-teaching with someone, because I never felt in control,
ever, which was one of the main difficulties in the beginning . . . It was a major
challenge for me in the beginning and I felt uncomfortable for a few days . . . I
had to sit on it and not get in a tizz . . . It was good for me, to actually grapple
with that. (T3)

4.4.1. Context

The background of the tutors on the course was varied, ranging from being subject
specialists to learning technologists. Their background in using ICT for teaching and
learning was also diverse: some tutors had used a Virtual Learning Environment such
as Blackboard, but most had no experience at all in using technology for teaching, let
alone Web 2.0 technologies. This led to a number of challenges while developing the

It is generally agreed that the tutor in an online environment has a variety of roles to
fill encompassing pedagogical, social, managerial and technical skills (Bonk &
Cunningham, 1998; Salmon, 2004; Berge, 1995; Gerrard, 2002). Although some of
the skills required are the same as in a traditional classroom, online teaching differs
in many respects as McPherson and Nunes point out:
 ‘it places greater emphasis on written skills;
 produces a more formal tone; does not follow a linear conversation but
instead promotes multiple conversations;
 does not confine teaching to specific times;
 places greater emphasis on student-student learning; requires teachers to
develop new ways of encouraging participation;
 requires teachers to assess the worth of online contributions. ‘
McPherson and Nunes (2004, p. 1)

As there was such a disparate level of knowledge and skills in relation to technology,
tutors were given individual tuition to ensure their “up-skilling” and understanding of
different processes taking place during the online course as opposed to a face-to-face
learning environment. All tutors agreed that there were particular skills they had

identified as necessary to be able to facilitate and teach in an online environment,
including basic ICT skills, an understanding of online pedagogy, and an
understanding of how to facilitate online synchronous and asynchronous
communication effectively.

The experience in the hosting institution of teaching while using technology was in
the main restricted to using VLEs in a blended and distance education mode. After
evaluating the teaching and learning experience with VLEs in an earlier programme,
it was clear that, compared with a face-to-face learning environment, the teaching
was not of the same quality because of major problems and issues with
communication. The tutors used a variety of strategies for communication during
their teaching in that particular programme: most chose asynchronous discussion
board, announcements and email. All tutors on that programme, that was preceding
ABCD, emphasised their frustration with the rigidity of the university VLE,
Blackboard, at times as it did not allow them to see who was online and who was not,
for instance, in addition to issues with communication. This was one of the reasons
to instigate the ABCD research (Kop & Woodward, 2006).

4.4.2. Teaching Preferences. Face-to-face or online learning?

Most tutors indicated that the ideal situation would be a combination of face-to-face
and online learning as they each have their positive and negative sides. Clearly
positive in the face-to-face environment was the advantage of being able to “read”
the group, while online it is much harder. In addition, the possibility to see body
language and facial expressions helped to see students’ progress in understanding
and making of meaning, although one of the tutors thought this might have been
unhelpful as ‘you make assumptions about people very early on in a face-to-face
situation’ (T2) and these might be wrong. In a face-to-face environment it is also
possible to provide instantaneous feedback, which is not possible in an online

if you are all collaborating in a group, it is much more immediate and you have
to be aware of other things; the dynamics of the group with body language and
who is taking part and who is not, with a group of student working together.

I think that’s what makes it really time consuming for tutors online, because
you kind of can’t read them as a group. When you walk into a classroom, you
can pick up really quickly who will go off and do their own reading and who
will be hanging on your every word, but online you can’t . . . You just lose all
these signals so it’s very tutor intensive to work out where each student is; you
can’t treat them as a group. (PM)

The advantages of the online environment were seen to be a much deeper

engagement in conceptual thinking with individual students through very focussed
feedback in the reflective diaries, as a-synchronicity afforded a higher level of

I’ve never been in a teaching environment where I had the time to spend so
much time reflecting or responding to people’s thoughts, or things like that, as
you did in the journal, which was really, really good. You got much more of an
insight into individuals in some ways . . . I know some of those people better,
much, much better than if it had been a class. (T3)

Similar thoughts were voiced about the chat:

The things we said in chats, I wouldn’t say on a one to one. It does give you
some leeway to say things you wouldn’t say in a face-to-face environment.
And, that was surprising for me, because I’ve never communicated in this way
before, but I really, really liked it. It gave you an insight into other people that
you don’t get in a classroom, and so you were able to encourage, or direct their
learning to suit them as individuals a lot more. (T3)

The tutor highlighted the high level of creativity and opportunities for students to
express themselves in different ways than in a face-to-face environment. It was seen
to offer much richer resources than a face-to-face environment:

I think the ABCD environment is much broader, and it enables students to

respond much more creatively, I think than text-based materials, there are some
really solid examples of that . . . . I think it gives people alternative means of
expression, particularly video and auditory and more creative ways of
expressing themselves. (T4)
However, tutors have less control over how students use the resources offered, which
takes time to get used to, especially as the curriculum is designed by the tutors, but
they have to sit back and see how learners will use resources and learn from them:

This is so distinctly different to the face-to-face sessions that I am used to; it’s
quite odd seeing the curriculum and sitting back waiting for the participants to
experience their own learning environment. I have found myself jumping

around the topic, which I would not do in a traditional learning environment –
the curriculum would be delivered. (T2)

4.4.3. Pedagogy

The whole teaching experience was seen to be quite different from a face-to-face
experience and it was quite a learning curve for tutors to see how best to support the
learners. They expressed some insecurity in the methods used and the best way to go
about their teaching. But they all seemed to find the tools that suited them best,
sometimes by listening to the students:

I enjoyed the chat last night, but I think I must try to keep out of it more. I’m
getting into it and tried to help them focus at times. But should I do that? (T2,
reflective diary)

It was fun, lots of laughter along with very serious constructive module
development – AND the technological aspects – all very new and interesting. I
did/do feel part of something creative and truly educational. (T4, reflective

I was trying to do it not exactly in the same way, because you can’t and I think
that when there is a debate saying “you can’t take traditional methods and put
them” online, but I tend to think that those traditional methods are not
traditional methods I would have used. (T1)

When they said that they really liked the podcasts, and all that, well, we posted
more! And when for instance someone said how much they’d learnt, crowed
how much they’d learnt from one of the webcasts, you know, I was round
looking for other YouTube things on the same sort of things then, so the
feedback from the students was vital and if I was to do it again, then I’d build
on that. (T3)

The tutors were all of the opinion that the variety of methods of communication and
collaboration tools in addition to the learning objects and resources were vital for
student support and development. Especially the reflective journal, chat and
discussion board were praised for their usefulness in engaging the students: ‘Just
being able to give them feedback I think, from their entries into the forums, or the
personal journals particularly, as that got right to the heart of it’ (T4).

The need to create a presence was felt, for an environment where tutors and learners
would be clearly visible – or perhaps a better word would be clearly noticeable – was

seen as vital to facilitate engagement as it provided motivation to learn. This
confirms the issues of social and teacher presence raised by Anderson (2008a) and
Lombard & Ditton (1997) in section Enhancement of presence was
achieved through podcasts, chat and high quality feedback.

The tutors knew they had to have a strong presence and then my strategy was
to show them all the different options of how you can have a strong presence,
like you can have a strong presence when you use video, when you use the
feedback and in doing that it definitely motivated the students. (LT1)
I used the video-clip to say, look this is difficult, but there is a lot of evidence
that you are contributing and we’re working through this constructively and
that’s what we should expect. It’s just my opinion this, but I do think that doing
these videos, in that way was more reassuring to people than simply emailing
them and saying “you’re getting on fine”. I think the video added some weight
to those messages. (T4)

It was important to create a ‘community’:

Ideally you would create some kind of community of learners really and I think
we have got to that with a little core group now, that there is that sense of
community, but it’s slowly, it takes a really long time to build up because if
you don’t see people then you don’t have that physical rapport. It’s quite hard
to create it completely online. (PM)

It kind of gives the material a new meaning, a new kind of level, like you can
go in and have all these nice videos and the audio files, but just reading that
chat, or the discussion forums, you can see that it just brings it up a level. But
for that to work, it is half way between the traditional classroom and the
traditional online setting. It takes the traditional online one step further. (LT1)

Tutor 4 thought that some of the students were not closely enough involved at times.
He felt he should have done more to help and engage some of the students more, but
wasn’t quite sure how to do that. Tutor 3 realised that it enhanced the learning
experience if she were to be more personal with the students:

They would say something about stuff that was going on with them. One little
throwaway line and I chanced it, because I wasn’t sure if that was the done
thing to follow it up and say “Oh and how’s such-and-such a situation going?
And I found that was really great, because then I got a response and I found
that being personal was all right…so my teaching style was different in that I
was able to be quite personal with people in my responses to them. (T3)

Something else tutors had to learn, was to stand back; to not provide feedback
straightaway, to give learners space and time to reflect before providing guidance.

This was also emphasised by Anderson (2008a), who highlighted that if tutors do not
dominate the interaction too much, students might participate more and show a
greater commitment.

I need to visit private journals more often, appraise them & respond quicker.
Yet also, is it a “cop out” that I suspect that allowing for reflection is a very
useful strategy – that sometimes quick responses might somehow impede
student reflection and decision making. (T4, journal)

I was silent for quite a while and then someone said “What do you think, Tutor
1?” and wanted me to guide them in the answers which was one thing I was
determined not to do, because it is not for me to tell them how to think for
themselves and to broaden their views…my views don’t count, not in that
context. (T1)

At other times tutors were really exhilarated that their approach worked. This was
especially the case in the Action Research module, where students had to move
through a transitional phase of confusion and reflection and learning, and where they
came out of the process as more autonomous learners:

I did feel for them, for a couple of weeks when they were confused,
uncomfortable…Because we were pushing some of their personal buttons.
Because in Action Research it is about letting go of control. So again it is
reflecting on the actual process of Action Research, which is wonderful...It was
really, really good . . . in AR you have to go through that phase of floundering
and confusion and chaos and they went through that in their learning and I
thought we might lose some of them, but they stuck with it. (T3)

She thought that the use of videos and other visuals had been vitally important in this
process. The importance of reflection

Reflection has played an important part in the course. Students and tutors both
reflected regularly on the course work and concepts. Tutors thought about student
I saw that as absolutely vital in the whole thing. It is central to Action
Research, but I pushed it as part of their learning as well as learning about
something, for them to reflect on themselves (T3)

Certainly the elements and topics that I covered [reflection, innovation,

enterprise] really made people think. You know “What am I like?” and “How

do people perceive me?” and “What is my learning style?” . . . . ”How do I
learn?” and “How do I learn best?” (T2)

I’d like to think it [reflection] was important for them. Some of the work that
some of them have produced is really good, so I think that they’ve learnt
something very useful to them, practical, and based on real solid knowledge.

Tutor 3 reflects in her diary on the honesty in the reflection process and a particularly
funny Freudian slip by one of the students:

some interesting things - especially the gender thing!! the Freudian slip of
"bloke" in Student 2’s entry - "So sometimes it is hard for me to reflect as part
of my brain will try and bloke it out " is funny. Such brilliant honest inputs
though. (T3)

She also discussed her own reflections, in which she tried to be as honest as possible.
She valued the process, which they would normally not use while teaching, as it
made them more aware of the teaching process. Tutor 4 also emphasised the need to
“practice as you preach.” Boud and Walker (2002) highlight the possible challenges
if reflection is used in educational practice as the reflection process can easily be
compromised by assessment procedures, or can be difficult for teachers as they have
to have a clear understanding of their own limitations and need to signpost to
professionals if reflections highlight issues which might be too personal issues.
Reflection can also be used inappropriately to enforce power relations in teaching
and learning settings. On the ABCD project refection was only part of the assessment
in the sense that students were supposed to reflect, but their reflections were not
graded. Tutors did not highlight any issues of problematic disclosure and
observations did not show problematic power relations in relation to reflection.
In fact, reflection showed to be an important part of the AR course and tutor 4
highlighted that if you expect the students to reflect, you will have to engage in it
yourself as well. From the tutor reflective diaries it is clear that they have taken the
process seriously and not only reflected on student learning, but also on their own
learning and their and each others teaching. It seems that a lot more tutor reflection
took place than in a face-to-face environment; as Tutor 4 analysed it through
principles by Heron (on presentational, propositional, and practical issues) and

Carper (Personal issues, aesthetics, and ethics). His feedback has been integrated
throughout the section on tutor experience. Some tutor reflections:

Worry that my chat and feedback is not academic - is this OK? Should I sound
more authoritative? i decide no on balance - my role is tutor, supporter,
encourager - there to offer ideas and encouragement and prompt them and
question them. (T3, reflective diary)

Co teaching has NOT JUST worked well - IT HAS BEEN INSTRUMENTAL

in planning and delivering the whole module - absolutely in keeping with the
social learning and collaboration that AR is all about. BUT ALSO TOO - it
might have been an interpersonal disaster for us - so the most interesting thing
for me here is HOW and WHY did we work so well as a team? …

I feel like a student too - ME TOO - AND THATS partly WHY ITS WORKED
(T4 commenting on T3’s reflective diary) Feedback

All tutors provided regular feedback to students, either in the chat, usually in a light-
hearted way, on the discussion board which usually related to conceptual issues
related to course content, and most explicitly in the reflective diaries, where one-to-
one feedback and communication was possible. The level and quality of the feedback
has been different for different tutors, which did influence student learning I showed
in the section on learner experience. Learning Technologist 2 expresses the different
approach by different tutors in providing feedback.
about the Action Research course, they seem to be very involved and very
active, but apparently the tutors on that course have been very active in
encouraging them and giving feedback, whereas, I don’t know if you saw on
Tutor 6’s course, in the past three weeks, a lot of the activity has sort of died
down. I’m not sure what the reason is for that, …I think that tutor 6 has just
taken the approach that he’s stepped back a little bit and is letting them work at
their own pace, and do their own thing. A lot of the activity has died down
though, so maybe they do need the encouragement and support and being told
what to do. (LT2)

Feedback has not only come from the tutors. Students also fed back to tutors, and
learning technologists have also provided feedback to tutors, which they found
challenging and helpful to their own thinking and learning process.
Students have exercised my thinking & rethinking & Learning Technologist 1
has really challenged me via her email questions – but the ‘best’ for me

remains face-to-face dialogue, especially as a triad – that’s when my
conceptualising is tested most and best. (T4, diary)

What then were important issues in providing feedback in an online multi sensory
and “multi tool” environment? The most important issue seems to be to use a multi-
pronged approach: using different media, using different tools, and having a good
balance between affirmation and challenging the students, which was also
emphasised by MacDonald (2008):
What was most useful, I think, and that took me a while to suss it out, and it
was very useful to give people feedback, because you just had to use the
discussion forum, or the private journal, and you could see what everybody had
done, and so it was quite simple to give everybody the right feedback. (T4)

I’m learning how to mix affirmation (and support) with more challenging
prompts and it seems to be ‘working’ in terms of student contributions. (T4,

[On the importance of questions in feedback:] Questions - not just about

curiosity - but for me in learning and teaching are about helping others to
clarify - I always appreciate awkward, challenging questions - they help me
clarify my thinking and enable me to develop my ability to communicate my
thoughts, feelings, ideas etc. even though sometimes difficult - floundering,
unsure, inarticulate - even indignant at being questioned - always - on
reflection know that good questions are vital to learning - ones you ask
yourself as well. Am so interested and even a little excited by this “learning” -
the students and mine. (T3, reflective diary)

When you give feedback to people, there’s always a bit of positive, room for
development . . . . And I hope that when I gave feedback that it posed other
questions then. Not “You stop here”, but “Have you thought about this?”. I try
to be proactive almost. I used the reflective diaries to really encourage students.

The feedback the tutors gave was very much dependent on what the learners brought
up in the diaries, so it was crucial that they felt happy to disclose their needs and

I am very encouraged – the honesty of feedback is heartening and I get a strong

sense of the students trying to be as constructive as possible – I don’t sense any
blaming or opting out – it’s week 3 and we are “immersed in the messiness”.
(T4, reflective diary)

Our feedback was based on and dependent on what they wrote in the first place.
Sometimes I would go to the journals and I’d respond to a learner for example,
and I’d be waiting for them to pull something out, and they didn’t. . . . it’s so
frustrating because they’d touched on something interesting, and I’d responded.

Student feedback in the diaries has also been vital in decisions by tutors on which
tools to use at particular stages of the programme. Students were tempted to provide
feedback using particular technologies by particular tutor choices. In the Action
Research module for instance, at a moment when students indicated they were
floundering a bit in the diaries, the tutor produced and presented a confidence-
building video, to which students responded with videos of their own, showing their
increase in confidence:

So, instead of just typing who I am, Student 8 does a little video while he’s
driving along about who I am and then Student 6 thinks “Well, he’s done that. I
can do that! And so she does it. You think once you get a sort of critical point,
where suddenly, everything they’ve got, their confidence level rises and they
think “Well actually, why type, because I can do a video and I know how to do
it and I know how to upload it, and so they will start to do it. And this video
was really appropriate because they were talking about visualisation of things.
Tutor 1 highlighted that. He said: “Well an image tells a thousand words, and a
video tells so much more. (PM) Engagement

Different issues have been important in engaging the students. The main aspects have
been the quality of the communication and this has been different for different tutors:

I think Tutor 4 just really communicates with them. Real interaction and getting
in there. And he is down to earth. I think there are all different levels there, but
he’s reaching to all of them’ (Discussion between PM and LT1).

The Project Manager and Learning Technologist refer here to the feedback provided
by tutor 4, which raised the level of cognitive, social and teacher presence as
discussed in section by Anderson (2008a). The materials have been
important in some modules and Tutor 2 highlighted that the level of choice is the
most engaging and empowering part of the programme:

I think it is totally enhanced, because of the choice . . . .They can choose which
one they like . . . which you don’t usually have. You come to a class and you’re
in it! . . . if you have choice, again it’s about empowerment and taking hold of
that learning. (T2)

The Project Manager followed all learners, who started the online part of the course,
and she noticed that people either loved it and really got engaged in the programme,
or did not and eventually withdrew from the programme. Learning Technologist 1
felt the issue of belonging was important to engagement as she described her
experience with an online course. Group work

Working in groups has been challenging on the programme. Making students work
together online is logistically problematic: it inhibits flexibility as learners have to
wait for other students, who might have a completely different time-schedule and
planning of their course work. This confirms the findings by Roberts and
McInnerney (2007), which highlighted several challenges for group work in online
learning. Tutor 1 was very keen to work in groups and had distinct ideas on how to
do this derived from his work in Teaching English as a Foreign Language:
You have to find out where they are and use that as a basis and get them to do
the work, and be there as a resource and a guide. One thing that I tried and that
kind of worked, was a type of good pyramid type of discussion where someone
thinks on their own, and then with a partner and you try to build up, not a
consensus, but a view and a discussion from the whole class...Then we discuss
together to see what each group can learn from everybody else, and as a
collective discuss the things we need to do. (Tutor 1)

It did work, but it became clear that quite a high level of trust and confidence were
required to fully engage in an online collaboration, in addition to knowledge of group
dynamics. For collaboration to work, it needs building up over time, and it needs to
be visible and remain so for all to see:

It was a shame that that didn’t happen in the discussion forum when someone
said “I’m having a bit of a problem with my research proposal topic”, then
other people could have fed into it. We tried to encourage that more, and it
happened once or twice, but it didn’t really. I think it could have eventually, it
would come over a long time of engaging with a group. (T3)

In a classroom…you are watching the group dynamics; . . . at what instant you

can make some prompts, whereas it’s not the same way online, because you
don’t necessarily know what the group dynamics are. At least online you can
see if anyone has done something, but there is a bit more amenity in the
classroom. (T1)

4.4.4. Communication and dialogue

The Project Manager highlighted how fast online learning is changing. She
questioned the rationale behind the tools being used in a traditional VLE as new ones
are emerging that might be better at facilitating communication. Major changes were
made in comparison to earlier online courses in the department:

Moodle, Blackboard and WebCt, they are all very much 1990’s tools and
everything has been added on to them and they don’t make the most of the
strengths of the Web 2.0 technology, because they haven’t been designed with
those in mind . . . to try to create an environment where content can sit parallel
to the communication tool, rather than underneath or on top, that’s our aim to
create that. (PM)
In her view communication is at the heart of the learning experience and it is
paramount to ensure the facilitation of it in such a way that a seamless moving back
and forth between resources, applications and people is created. This confirms
Anderson’s ideas of online interaction (Anderson, 2008b), who defined four forms of
interaction: between learner and content, tutor and learners, learners and learners and
learners and their networks (this in addition to content-content, and tutor-tutor
interaction, which are not as relevant in this research) and will be further discussed in
sections and

The tutors were quite happy with the scope of different tools for communication. The
reflective journal was favourite for providing students with personal feedback, the
discussion board was used to discuss conceptual issues with the group. The chat was
mostly used for group forming, building of community and social interaction, while
the wiki was used for the facilitation of group work. The videos and sound files were
seen to work well to explain difficult concepts, but also to create some presence, as
emotional and bodily expressions are possible, so it expresses more than text could
do: ‘I was quite happy about the level and depth of communication with each of the
students, and I think in a sense the wikis and forums helped them interrelate to one
another’ (T4).

The project team spent quite some time working on the creation of a comfortable
place, where people would feel relaxed and trusted as advocated in, where
they would get a sense of who the other students and the tutors on the course were,
and where each person would be ‘present’:

The ABCD Project is the social object that connects participants-discussing,
posting, chatting in bite size bits, little or no reliance on books . . .
collaboration, cooperation, sharing ideas, reflecting, connections, everyone
participates, the learner is the teacher is the learner. (T2, reflective diary)

Communications tools were seen as the most important tools to create this sense of
“presence” and “place”. Students regarded themselves as being more “present” than
just by posting in the discussion board, which would be the main choice of
communications tool in the traditional VLE. The Project Manager was initially quite
concerned when a learner would not communicate for a week, but by looking at the
Moodle “back-office” course statistics, it was possible to see that learners spent a
long time accessing different resources. It seems that people need this “lurking” time,
when they do not speak to others, but when they are, as the Project Manager called it,
“being passively active” in addition to spending time communicating with others.
This shows a synergy with the research by Gulati (2006) who highlighted the need in
students for time to digest information, while she also found that this was most
profound in learners with a high level of learner autonomy.

Tutor 2 was quite surprised by the breadth of the programme. From the
communications she could see what amount of time people spent online and at what
time of day or night. It was truly 24/7. Presence

The development of presence has been important throughout the programme and it
seemed to materialize the further the programme progressed:

You have the sense that there’s the presence of a tutor who’s guiding you as
opposed to teaching you. Tutor 4 is really visible in that course, and you feel,
even if you don’t know him, you know his personality is coming out…I think
that makes an enormous difference. If we get this ‘presence tool’ to develop,
that could have a huge impact on e-learning…If you are to compare the earlier
ones [modules] with Tutor 4…it was the humour we were going to pull out,
and he knew [it] going into it, and he’s doing it. (LT1)

As highlighted in section by Anderson (2008a) and Lombard and Ditton

(1997) a sense of social and tutor presence can enhance the learner engagement. In
particular the chat has been seen as a powerful tool to create presence, and several
people had ideas on how to develop its use to make it more flexible:

I think it needs to be freed up a bit…it’s a great tool, but it would be so much
better if for example, rather than the tutors having to go into the news forum
and say OK would everyone be available at 8 o’clock on Wednesday and then
someone came back and said “No, I can’t do it”; that whole pre-booking thing.
The tool needs to be freed up in that just to say the tutor is online and there’s
three students there, so they could chat and speak; it’s more flexible. (LT1)

I would have liked the chat to have been continuous, so that would have
motivated some people I think, particularly people with difficulties accessing
the technologies, if you had this 24hr chat going on. I think that would have
been very helpful. (T2)

A new tool has been developed to accommodate these ideas, which will be discussed
in the section on design that follows. In addition to communications tools, such as
chat and discussion forums, informal videos and feedback were also seen to be
important tools in developing the sense of presence:

Well the …form of videos in which Tutor 4 and 3 were discussing, joking,
laughing, gave a very strong presence of the tutors of the module. I know
we’ve used videos previously, but a lot of them were formal interviews, views
of different people in different companies, but the actual informal setting…the
two of them discussing and teasing out, I think gave a good tutor presence and
again in the feedback as well, right through all the different sections, the tutors
were there and were around so the students always felt that there was someone
around to look at it in the near future. (LT1)

Learning Technologist 2 added that videos make it possible to see people’s

expressions and it also gets across affective aspects of a personality. He advocates
the use of sound files, rather than the sole use of text in the learning environment, as
it is more personal and helps to foster a sense of presence.

Using videos you can see the people and the people respond to it much better
than just plain text. In video you can get across humour and stuff like that,
which you can’t in text really, or if you try, can be taken the wrong way. May
be a video chat would have been good. It’s just the whole presence thing. Being
able to see people online would improve it…or just to be able to hear people
and to speak naturally as opposed to typing, as when you type you don’t type
how you speak; you type very short and concise and it’s maybe harder to get
your point across. (LT2)
The concept of presence in relation to online learning will be further discussed in

184 Synchronous online communication

In all modules chat was used as the main tool to facilitate synchronous
communication. Tutors were surprised by how powerful the chat tool can be:

There is one thing that I am struggling to put into words, and that’s the ‘chat
room’ thing. That was amazing. I did three of them and they were absolutely
amazing. And I am not sure why, but they are incredible. Very powerful arenas,
you know. But it’s difficult to put to words how they’re valuable, or how they
contribute to learning even . . . .It’s main function was to get people to engage
socially, really, virtually socially. But experiencing that . . . I mean, I typed the
words into the board and I was crying laughing. And if you’d said, ‘Oh you’ll
be laughing doing that’ I’d have said ‘Don’t be ridiculous’. There’s something
about it that’s really . . . Well, you’ve got to experience it I suppose. (T4)

I have not had so much fun in learning for many years... Tonight, I felt
liberated as a tutor, I was using my usual speech, decidedly no academic
language - not relevant. So, what does this mean? Have I been missing a whole
lot of fun from my teaching (this is highly probable from my frown lines) or
have I just been constrained by my traditional teaching and
learning environment? (T2, reflective diary)

The chats are great - it's funny how connected and close I feel to people
through communicating in this way - I feel lucky to be able to type so fast.
Getting the balance between encouraging shy students and responding quickly
to the 'fast' ones is tricky - but that's the same in a classroom anyway. (T3,
reflective diary)
The tutors felt isolated at the early stages of the course in an online teaching
environment and Tutor 2 looks forward to her first chat:

My first chat is planned for 28th – I’m looking forward to this. I think I will feel
part of a learning community, because I feel rather isolated now. This is so
distinctly different to the face-to-face sessions that I am used to. (T2, diary)
Despite this positive attitude, it has not been easy to use the tool. Tutor 1, for
instance, was confused by the several different talks that were running in the same
chat room simultaneously.

I found it really very difficult to watch what was going on, because I wasn’t
trying to control it, but I needed to be able to make sure where the flow was
going so I could prompt with questions and make sure some people weren’t
getting left out . . . It was quite difficult to make sure you were prompting
somebody, as they got somebody to ask me a question about something on the
module in the middle of the discussion about something else . . . and I thought .
. . . “Do I respond to that question and break the flow, or do I ignore it? (T1)

And Tutor 2 indicated the need to stand back as a tutor and let the students use the
tool for chatting ‘almost like the coffee-break’ (T2). It was an important tool to
facilitate socialising:

Positive was that it was so creative that it allowed people to get to know me. I
dunno, it was a bit of real-time get-together that we didn’t have, having no
face-to-face. (T2)
They were very useful, really useful. But more for the motive of the social
aspect. Yes, it would be an interesting bit of research to try to see if there’s a
relationships between people engaging in those chat activities and their
willingness to ask each other, and us, questions. (T4)

In terms of the social, it really seemed to gel and worked really well, so it is a
good way of getting people to meet, because some have never met. (LT1)

However, Tutor 4 would have liked the students to use chat more as he saw it as a
good way to learn from each other because ‘I think they are great resources for each
other’ (T4).
The chats were good for social interaction, and for students to encourage each other,
and for pastoral support. They were less successful when it came to academic
development. Tutors felt that it was hard to discuss concepts at a deeper level:

A lot of encouragement went on there. People were very nice and supportive
and kind to each other…even if they were grappling with some sort of concept,
you know, there was the banter. Which was good. The negative side is that
there weren’t any big discussions about any particular subject matter…you
know, someone would make a flippant comment, and off it would go again. But
I thought it was extremely useful. (T3)

I don’t know quite what I expected from the chats, but whatever it was, it
wasn’t what happened…The fact that quite random thoughts would come in
from somewhere, and I couldn’t work out how that thought had come in.
Obviously there was some thought process going on. The fact was that even
that was really quite disorganised and that some quite liked it. (T1)
It seemed to be the place to develop new ideas by bouncing them off each other:

Yes, point things out to people, and to give ideas, and share ideas. It’s not the
place to describe in depth any particular aspect, but it’s those sparky little
things. Little comments to encourage, little comments that trigger things off.

Several tutors commented on the group dynamics and how it changed over the course
of the programme. People became more active as time went on, depending on their
interests and the questions they needed answering, which made them more visible
and other students would react to that, which the tutors thought was valuable:

The group dynamics . . . yes, it did change as we had more and more chats.
Certain individuals became much, much more, active and confident in them,
and then the other members of the group were able to see these people much,
much more. They became much more visible. They disclosed part of
themselves and then the others took an interest in each other. That could be
encouraged more, I think, because I thought it served a valuable purpose for
them to feel that their peers were valuing them and encouraging them. I think it
meant a lot to them. (T3)

They changed all the time . . . the dynamics were shifting a lot all of the time,
so it was continually evolving . . . there was some distinct pairing. There were
couples who either worked together or who linked up and helped one another
more than everyone else. There were those sorts of dynamics. But generally I
think the dynamics kept evolving as the course went along and new questions
came to people. (T4)

Several of the tutors mentioned how the informality of the chats helped less
confident participants:
I could see how one or two of the less confident people, when Tutor 4 or I
made some silly comment, they would come in much, much more . . . For
example, a person who was not engaging so well with the text, but doing very
well with images from YouTube, we could say “Why don’t you think about it
like a film?” . . .Whereas he’d thought, up to then, that he had to do it all in a
particular way. (T3)

Tutor 2 thought that in general it was a good tool as people used it for mentoring one
another and to build confidence, and to help people develop and become more self-
confident, particularly for quiet learners in a classroom. But she found the influence
of one of the students not particularly good for the group dynamics:

The leader I felt was often so overpowering that he threatened other people,
and I would have pulled that if I had been in a face-to-face environment;
there’d have been a tutorial . . . But he was absent a great deal of the time
because of problems with technology . . . I think that was quite detrimental that
someone should be so in awe and monopolise so much of the tutor time. (T2)

The chats seem to have been important in raising the social presence of participants
and also in raising the confidence of learners. As indicated by Bouchard (2009a)

issues of confidence are important in the levels of self-direction of students while
using semi-autonomous learning systems.

The chats were demanding of the tutor because of the pace, while at the same time a
good grasp of the subject matter was required, as Learning Technologist 1 discussed
with Tutor 1 after one of his sessions:

It was really hard work to . . . maintain the chat but he said after a while it just
flowed; so he said he was kind of exhausted afterwards. If you are playing such
an active pivotal role as Tutor 1 was playing, it would be very energy sapping.
You have to kind of know and be one step ahead, and I know you have to be
one step ahead in the traditional classroom, but because of the pace of the chat .
. . . I suppose is a little bit more. (LT1) A-synchronous communication

In addition to synchronous communication, tutors used asynchronous communication

with mixed success as will become clear in this section. There is a variety of
asynchronous tools, of which discussion boards have traditionally been used most. Discussion boards

Tutor 2 found the discussion board not as good a communications tool as the chat as
it lacks spontaneity:

Written communication is hard. It is hard because, even though I’m

contradicting myself from the online chats, you know, it’s written, it’s there for
ever’, isn’t it, but because you’re posting I think personally more thought
would go into it. Which isn’t always what’s required. It’s not as spontaneous as
the real-time, and I think some of the real learning, some of the real ideas come
from that spontaneity and I don’t think you get that in that environment. (T2)

She also highlighted the literacy required to use the tool:

It showed up weaknesses in certain learners, that they didn’t proof-read any of
their work. . . . Because it is a discussion board, it really shows up your
weaknesses. Well, in class when you’re speaking, if you can’t spell something,
it doesn’t matter, does it? But gosh, does it matter in this environment! (T2)

Tutor 3 also indicated that it was not as spontaneous a tool as the chat. The learners
used it to answer questions posed by the tutor, but didn’t communicate with each
other about course work. Learning Technologist 2 was also disappointed with its use:

On some courses perhaps a little less activity than I expected, because most
people just write one post, and don’t reply to other people’s. They write what
they have to, and then that’s it, whereas I expected there to be more . . . like a
proper discussion, whereas it hasn’t really been that way. (LT2)

The discussion board activities were related to tasks given by tutors and the Project
Manager also thought the discussion boards were not a good medium for
communication as a continuous stream of monologues rather than a dialogue took
place. She discussed the literature on monitoring discussion boards which says that
by using the ‘5-stage Gilly Salmon model’ (which entails a welcoming stage, an
induction stage, a teaching stage, a knowledge construction stage, and a development
stage; Salmon, 2004) for instance the communication can be good, but the practice
on the ABCD project showed that dialogue at a deep level did not happen. Tutor 4,
however, did not think that was the case, as he noted that the sharing in the forums
was of much higher quality than he had envisaged. Learning Technologist 1 thought
that the strength of the discussion board was that it allowed for reflection before
writing, as opposed to the chat where you have “to think on the spot”. Reflective journals

The reflective journal consisted of the Moodle blog, where the student was the
blogger and the tutor provided feedback on the learning and comments by using the
“comments” feature. Initially the journals were meant to be solely journals for the
students, but in the second module they were changed to also be used as a medium
for responding to tasks that had been set by the tutor. Initially the Project Manager
was doubtful whether this would work as it might compromise the reflection element
that was valuable to the student learning, but the journal turned out to be one of the
most successful tools for personalised student support. The use of the reflective
journals was highlighted as very positive by all tutors. The blogs used in this way
offered possibilities for meta-cognition. They also supported the closed one-to-one
interaction between tutor and learner, which allowed for pastoral as well as academic

The journal was the one that I put the most time into and where I was putting in
most of the issues . . . the discussion boards were where they stated what they
know, what they understood . . . the journals have a lot of scope to talk about
other things, you know, personal things. (T4)

About student entries in the journal] Some of them are breathtaking. They are
insightful . . . It really was, and they’d only been learning this stuff for a few
weeks. (T4)
The tutors used the diaries to push student thinking further and to encourage less-
confident and less able students:

I hope that when I gave my feedback that it posed other questions then. Not
“you stop here”, but “ Have you thought about this?”. I try to be provocative
almost. I used the reflective diaries to really encourage students, those that I
thought were less able. (T2)

They found it a pleasant medium to work in, as it allowed for their own reflection
before responding and giving feedback rather than to speak to someone face-to-face.

We provided a lot of support through the journals, and as I said, we could

reflect on what they had written, so the feedback that we gave was very
thoughtful, I think, and very positive and encouraging. (T3)

According to Learning Technologist 1, the journals emerged as the powerful tool

they became through the high level and quality of feedback that was given by Tutors
3 and 4. Compared to their usage in earlier modules, where they were “something the
students had to do”, and they went through the motions of doing it, their usefulness
reached a higher level in the Action Research module. Wikis and group work

The tool identified at the start of the project as best suited to facilitate group work,
and the communication in groups, was the wiki. In section the problems
surrounding the facilitation of group work on the project were already highlighted by
the students, which confirms the findings of MacDonald (2008) and of Roberts &
McInnerney (2007). One of the main problematic issues identified when carrying our
group work was that learners had to participate to ensure that the group work had
positive, or any, outcomes at all. Learning Technologist 1 highlighted, for instance,
that group work took away some of the learner’s choice and self-direction. On the
other hand, there were some tools, of which the wiki is one, where the tool itself
lacks control, which had implications for the way it was being used in an effective
way. The Project Manager discussed the frustrations of one of the students regarding
how the tool had been used, which made her think about these issues more and

concluded that there is no control in wikis; not by the tutor nor by the students, which
is frightening if you are not used to using them:

It is quite a scary tool, I think, the wiki, isn’t it? Because again, it is completely
control-less. Whereas discussion boards are popular in institutional e-learning,
because they are so controlled: you can see who has posted and you can
respond to the person . . . It’s an institutional-friendly tool. Whereas a wiki is
just “free for all”. (PM)

Two issues were most important in sparking controversy and problems in the use of
the wiki, which were the option to change what other people had written down, and
the different use that students made of the tool. The Project Manager and Learning
Technologist 1 mentioned how one of the students would create a large post at the
start, which inhibited the others to contribute and add to the created document as
most had already been said from the start:

It’s knowing which activity will work in a wiki and lots of time they’ve been
asked to do things where there’s a really finite piece of information and when
somebody puts that in, it’s like, “well, what am I going to say now”, and then
there is the tension between who said what and how they will know what I did;
all those kind of issues. (PM)
The Project Manager even wondered if the wiki lends itself to a structured
institutional course at all, where activity is graded. She mused whether it would not
be a better tool to use in learning in the workplace, where people would use it to
carry out authentic tasks. She was not alone in thinking that wikis did not work that
well. Tutor 4 found it hard to motivate people to use the wikis, while Tutor 2 said:

When it came to them actually using them, there wasn’t that much fun. The
majority of the people didn’t actually use them to collaborate to do the end
product, so whether they understood them or not, they didn’t find it easy to do
the group work that way. (T2)

Tutors noticed that the communication happened in a discussion board style, posting
and responding to a post, rather than engaging with and changing what others had
written. Tutor 1 found it important to offer the students a space to work together and
he thought the wiki would be suitable for the activity, but it didn’t quite work in the
way he would have liked. The tutors found that wikis require quite a different way of
working than other tools. They agreed that it helped when they participated in the
wiki themselves and showed the students that it would be acceptable to make
changes to each other’s work. Tutors were not always sure themselves how to use

them and set boundaries on what was possible and what was not. It was seen as
interesting and helpful when one of the students described his displeasure with its use
and set out how they should be used in an email to the tutors, but the Project
Manager also thought that, in hindsight, the tutors might have needed more training
and knowledge on how best to use the tool. Podcasts

All staff liked the use of video podcasts as it provided the expressions that are also
available in a face-to-face communication, such as gestures and eye-contact. Tutors
liked to use them to explain difficult concepts, but in particular to allay fears and
insecurities that would appear at certain times in the course. In particular during the
Action Research module, where at a transitional phase in the level of self-direction
tutors noticed in the reflective journal that students felt uncomfortable with the level
of choices they had to make and the level of reflection that was expected, Tutor 4 put
out a video to reassure them, in which he discussed that all these insecurities, all that
‘messiness’ is part of the Action Research process and that he felt they were
contributing positively to the course. He reflected on his own doubts and insecurities
regarding using technology. It could be argued that he raised the level of tutor and
cognitive presence as described by Anderson (2008a) through the podcast. The result
was that several students gained in confidence and produced videos that they put up
on the site. It seemed to help the students to grow and move through this difficult

Tutor comments included how the video casts supported a multi-sensory approach,
as was also advocated by Shedroff (2009), and how they allowed for relaxing
moments in the course work, which also contributed to the learning experience:

Everybody likes a bit of a video clip, don’t they? It’s so easy, you know, I go
home and flop down in front of the TV and that’s what it’s like, but it was
taking in knowledge. I just thought it was relaxing, fun, and it’s not all about
words, is it? Thought-provoking! (T2)
An example of developing a video communication was mentioned by Tutor 3:

We used a few podcasts and webcams . . . ,and I think the students liked that,
which we didn’t anticipate at the beginning. Then they sent podcasts back to us,
which was really nice as we got more of a picture of them. (T3)

192 Web 2.0 technologies in learning

Several members of staff mentioned that it was the combination of tools that
enhanced the learning experience, which was in line with the findings of Macdonald
(2006). Issues discussed in chat, wikis and discussion boards, were reflected on in
the diaries, which had repercussions on other communications in the discussion
board. Compared to the possibilities in a traditional online environment that only
uses discussion boards and email communication, there were many more
opportunities to interact and reflect. There are numerous examples of the learning
environment that show this multi-facetted approach of communication, and the
different tools feeding off each other, through reflection by themselves, on a one-to-
one basis between learner and tutor, in a one-to-many mode on the discussion boards,
in a many-to-many format using chat and wikis, and in a multi-sensory approach
using sound and video. Learning a social activity?

Several tutors, Project Manager and Learning Technologists remarked that student-
to-student interaction was less common than they had expected at the outset of the
project. That was why ‘the lounge’ was introduced to provide an area where a social
presence could be fostered, and students could meet each other informally, but it was
not used extensively. In addition, the university’s adoption of ‘Elgg’, an educational
e-portfolio and social networking tool at the time, was also introduced, but was
problematic because of technical issues. The tutors saw the ‘chat’ as the most
successful tool in developing a community, a space where informal social activity
could take place, ranging from enquiring about personal matters to banter and

Something I learned towards the end . . . I think the tutor should stand back and
that’s what I genuinely did . . . If you asked me for a written evaluation, that’s
what I would have said, that should be their time for chatting. It’s almost like
the coffee-break or going to the pub afterwards. (T2)

I do think that the synchronous tools build up a sense of community, much

more than a-synchronous. And video I think is really engaging for people so
that you can make a connection with somebody if you see them regularly. (PM)

4.4.5. Affective Issue

Tutors also emphasised the importance of affective issues in the online learning
process on ABCD:

They disclosed part of themselves and then the others responded; such a nice
bunch of people who encouraged each other and took an interest in each other .
. . .I think that served a valuable purpose for them to feel that their peers were
valuing them and encouraging them. I think it meant a lot to them. (T3)
The use of videos has been very important in supporting affective issues in the
module to provide a sense of who the participants were and thus raising the level of
social presence as defined by Lombard and Ditton (1997):

I felt very familiar with the students, as I would expect on a course. You know,
you get to know your students . . . you get used to how they respond, and
perhaps you can reflect on it more than you could in face-to-face, because in
face-to-face the moment is gone. The moment’s gone and it is down to social
psychology then, your first impressions on seeing somebody. Whereas in this
environment you’d reflect on what was written down, how they write, and
you’d pick out who was reflective, because of the way things were written.

They were also used to get across feelings and emotions:

Forms of videos was Tutors 3 and 4 discussing, joking, laughing, gave a strong
presence of the tutor in the module…the tutors were there and were around.

Using video, you can see the people and the people respond to it much better
than just plain text. In video you can even get across humour and stuff like that,
which you can’t in text really, or if you try can be taken the wrong way. (LT2)

Video also helped learners to move through transitional phases as discussed in the
section on podcasts. In addition to chat, the use of videos was very good to transmit
emotions because of its informality. The level of emotional closeness that could be
achieved surprised most members of staff.

I am convinced in my stomach and my bones, that there’s real merit and value
in them and the merit and value in them is not tied to the course material
content or the learning outcomes or objectives or knowledge in that sense. But
there is much more about how these people get along, share, suggest, question,
and laugh together and I think those factors or elements contribute to an
educational milieu, rather than courses being an accumulation of facts and
knowledge. And I think that really surprised and shocked me because if I
hadn’t done it, I would have been really doubtful that it could be done, because

it’s online and I’ve never met these people. I never met them and if one walked
outside I wouldn’t recognise them and yet, I was laughing with them. It’s
amazing, isn’t it? (T4)
The use of chat was also valued highly to enhance affective connections between
participants, as shown in the following example during the Action Research module,
in which the acronym LOL (‘laugh out loud’) caused some confusion:

Yes, because when they said LOL, at first I thought it meant “Lots Of Love”
and that made a lot of them laugh. Then as soon as I discovered what it meant,
it’s true, I was just laughing out loud lots and lots at those things and I
presume, from what they said, all the learners were as well. I used to really
look forward to them, and once, we did, we spent two solid hours chatting. (T3)
Tutors 3 and 4 also used other media in their course to facilitate that feeling of
closeness, sometimes directly responding to issues that had been discussed or said in
one of the chats:

We used things like metaphors a lot and also images, in ours, well, it’s such a
wonderful environment to be able to do that, because you can’t just open a
book, but you can post a poem or a song or a painting or something and that
can spark all sorts of discussions and learning and enable people to grasp
various concepts and things. (T3)
They did exactly that. Figure 9 was posted by Tutor 4 the morning after a chat
session on visualisation to express his feelings about the chat.

Figure 9 4.4.5. Visualisation of a chat session

The need to be open and honest as a teacher as a way to get a better connection with
the learners was emphasised by Tutor 4. He referred to a South African author, Beryl

Hooks, who makes the case for “practicing what you preach” in reflection, and he
emphasised that it doesn’t work to ask your students to open up while you sit on the
sidelines and facilitate the process: ‘That doesn’t work, you know. So there are those
sorts of qualities really that I think are worthy’ (T4.) Tutor 3 was surprised at the
depth students reached during their module, the cognitive presence as highlighted by
Anderson (2008a):

Some of the concepts that we were trying to get across in Action Research are,
I hope, very deep anyway. I’m not sure how you get those sorts of things across
in a classroom environment…but I felt quite deep personal and deep conceptual
things were touched on, which surprised me in that sort of environment. (T3)
She conveyed the feeling of “being in this together” that also came across in some of
the chat discussions from the students, which helped in creating a sense of closeness
and trust that made the sharing of personal issues possible, even more than in a face-
to-face learning environment according to Tutor 3:

I, as an individual, certainly grappled with some stuff, some deep personal

things, and some conceptual stuff, which I found really, really exciting, and
very challenging at moments…But, I wouldn’t have done that in the classroom,
I’m sure.(T3)
I was present at a discussion between the Project Manager and Learning
Technologist 1 during the Action Research module in which they talked about the
dynamics between the two tutors in that module. According to them, Tutor 3 was the
one to always ask questions, while Tutor 4 was always at the centre of activity with
intensive and extensive feedback. They noticed that he started to sign his feedback
with his first name initially, but about halfway through the module his name became
shortened, which showed a familiarity and a sense of feeling comfortable. The very
personal feedback, that reached to quite a deep level contributed to this sense of
social and cognitive presence, and the building of relationships: ‘I can cite evidence
of mutual respect, sensitivity, challenge & honesty (I think). (T4, reflective diary)

4.4.6. Higher Order Thinking

It was interesting to see the thinking processes taking place in different modules,
with different tutors who used different resources. From my observations of the
activity on the learning environment it was clear that the combination of learning
resources and communication between participants made for a variety in levels of
thinking. On two modules tutors developed the materials, which were posted on the

site, but from then on their teaching approach was to stand back, which meant the
learners had to find their own way through the resources with an occasional chat and
discussion, but these were not used much and tutor activity was low. On two other
modules the tutor activity and presence was high after the materials had been put in
the learning environment, and this made for a different level of engagement and
thinking. Another striking aspect in the depth of conceptual thinking, was the focus
and the quality of the tutor feedback. One of these modules showed clear examples
of higher order thinking, while on another the depth of thinking was much lower, but
there was a much lower level of focus in feedback and student support. Table 3
shows a matrix to express the relation between tutor support, focus and feedback and
the level of thinking.

Low level of focus (of High level of focus (of

support and feedback) support and feedback)
Low level of support Lowest Order Thinking Medium Level Thinking
and feedback
High level of support Medium Level Thinking Highest Order Thinking
and feedback

Table 3 4.4.6. Relation between Higher Order Thinking and tutor level of support

Higher order thinking was facilitated through engaging activities , such as

‘visualising action research’ where images and podcasts hightened the “intensity” ,
as was also expressed by Shedroff (2009), and through interactive resources.
Moreover, the tutors all thought that especially feedback, the asking of pointed
questions and the challenging of beliefs, were the key to a higher level of thinking in
the students. Tutors found it hard to facilitate this by using technology. Using
different tools for different approaches worked best, but especially the reflective
journals were used effectively to ask students personalised questions to make them
think. Another example of where this worked well was on the critical thinking course
where for instance videos were used expressing views that were quite common
amongst the population, which set the scene for discussions and chats. When later
research reports were presented that showed the untruth of the depicted views, the
level of learning and thinking went up considerably, as not only were the producers
of these videos, who were national broadcasters, exposed and shown to lack in
integrity, but learners were also confronted with their own prejudices, which was

hard, as some had been campaining for issues that were shown to be based on
They took apart the arguments they didn’t agree with, but they didn’t look at
their own prejudices…the one that was against their own view point, they did
find that they did struggle with it…I had to prompt them in the end.(T1)

The tutors felt that there was a right balance to strike between reacting immediately
to queries and questions and answers to activities from students, and waiting with
responding to allow the student to reflect and think for themselves. Two tutors
noticed that by waiting for students to reflect on something without tutor intervention
would on several occasions mean that they would find the answer by themselves.
I need to visit private journals more often, appraise them & respond quicker.
Yet also, is it a ‘cop out’ as I have noticed that allowing time for reflection is a
very useful strategy – that sometimes quick responses migh impede student
reflection and decision making.’ (T4, reflective diary)

They wanted me to guide them in the answers which was one thing I was
determined not to do, because it’s not for me to tell them how to think. I was
trying to encourage them to think for themselves and to broaden their views.’

To get the best result interesting strategies were being used. As tutor 3 and 4 were
co-teaching, they divided the roles between one being the encourager and positive
supporter, while the other would be critical and questioning. It shows the potential
advantages of having two tutors in one module:
As Tutor 4 was such an encouraging and positive tutor, and my tendency is to
be more questioning and critical and prodding, we played good cop, bad cop
sometimes . . . I wanted them to like me . . . I wasn’t challenging
enough…that’s a way I could have helped them more. (T3)

The use of small tasks, as opposed to giving large amounts of reading helped to
engage students. Although, providing a lot of choice would also stimulate learning
and meaning making, as was advocated by Owen et al (2006) in section 2.3.6., when
they discussed the concept of the “crit” in which providing many resources to
develop ideas are seen to stimulate the creative process, as long as it was
accompanied with enough student support and well-focussed feedback. Tutor 4
indicated that the use of ‘other than text-based- materials’ made a distinct difference
to student learning as some of the students used the images to conceptualise some of
the course content, which he would not have been able to do in a text-based

environment. Tutor 4 went even as far as saying that for non-traditional students the
text-based and class-room based approach might not have been as successful. He
thought the ABCD environment provided more scope for creativity and expression.
I think the ABCD environment is much broader, and it enables students to
respond much more creatively, I think, than more traditional text-based
materials. There are some really solid examples of that. I’m just thinking of a
guy called xxx, one of the students, who was very visual. His work is about
visualising games and things like that. But I could tell from the imagery that he
used that he had conceptualised some of the things that I was after. And he’d
done that in his own way, quite creatively. And I’m pretty sure that if we’d
been using more traditional text-based approaches he would have struggled
much more. So, I think it’s broader. It gives people an alternative means of
expression, particularly video and auditory and more creative ways of
expressing themselves. So that was a real positive I think. (T4)

Tutor 3 felt that students would not go as deep into issues as she would have liked.
She referred to the discussion board, where she would have liked a ‘back-and-fro’
discussion about issues, to reach a higher level in thinking, but quite often it would
not go futher than a question and answer session that could have gone a level deeper.
One of the reasons for this could be time pressures, or it could be inherent in the tool
as several tutors and one of the learning technologists made remarks on the high
level of reading and writing that was expected in the course: not only did students
have to read course texts and resources, but also the chats, wikis and discussion
forums. Altogether a lot more than would be required in a face to face environment,
where the spoken word is more important:
You would have to do a lot of reading there as well in the discussion forum.
Yes, because if you want to post and ten people have already posted, you need
to at least scan through theirs in order to know that you are not duplicating
what they have already said.(LT1)

Similarly, while discussing the assignment, tutor 3 felt that even though she nearly
“begged” them to contact her if they needed clarification or advice, they would not
do this enough and the outcomes in terms of quality and depth were less good than
they could have been if they would have communicated more. Tutor 4, who taught
on the same module, felt that students sometimes were a little too distant, although
he did think the level of depth of communication was high enough.

4.4.7. What fostered learner engagement?

There was a correlation between engagement, emotionally and conceptually, and

eagerness to learn; to construct knowledge and to think at a higher level. The tutors
thought there were several important factors that contributed to engagement. A sense
of presence of tutors and learners was seen to be important. These would be social,
tutor and cognitive presence as discussed in by Anderson (2008a). Tutors
achieved this by using course videos, by providing feedback in the diaries, and
especially by using the online chat. The combination of the different communications
tools with multi-sensory and highly interactive resources raised the level of
engagement as expressed in Table 4. This also confirms the research by Shedroff
(2009) on interactivity and a multi-sensory approach to create meaningful online
experiences. This will be further discussed in

Text based resources Multi-sensory interactive

Low level of Low level of engagement Medium level of engagement
High level of Medium level of High level of engagement
presence engagement

Table 4 4.4.6. Relation between level of presence and engagement of learners

Tutor 3 indicated the importance of interaction to achieve a high level of


Am impressed with how much Tutor 4 is responding to the students and

impressed with the level of engagement by the students - I sense that it is
gaining momentum - I am visualising the slow start - the chaos - and next a sort
of settling down - and then some surges of learning and reflection - with some
chaos thrown in - then back to a settled pattern and some head down work and
more reflection, ending on a real high note with achievements and learning.
Anyway - this is how I am seeing it at the moment - who knows how it will be.

Also, halfway through the course Tutor 2 decided to cut out a lot of the text and
information as she felt a multi-sensory approach would be more engaging:

In the beginning . . . there was masses of materials . . . I realised that I was just
imposing my theoretical view on people, and with access to all these tools,
people could choose the bits that they wanted . . . we had to change what I had
prepared . . . I do believe in a multi-sensory approach to learning and I think

ICT offers that. You know, how exciting – well there’s a lot of written stuff
there, but soundfiles; . . . they could have sent in their views as an attachment.
And Tutor 4 described how the building of a presence contributed to a supportive
educational milieu:
There’s much more about how these people get along, share, suggest, question,
and laugh together and I think those factors or elements contribute to an
educational milieu, rather than courses being an accumulation of facts and
knowledge. (T4) Different tutors, different teaching strategies

Different tutors had different strategies of communicating with learners, and

engaging them. From my observations of the learning environment it was evident
that the tutors who achieved the highest degree of presence in combination with
interactive resources achieved the highest level of engagement. Progressive increase in quality of interaction during the programme

Another issue that became apparent during the course of the programme, was that the
tutors increased their engagement with the students and that the resources became
more and more interactive. It seems that there was a positive development in the
programme. Clearly the project team, project manager and learning technologists,
who worked with the tutors to develop the materials, could show and knew from
experience what “would work” and what would not and implement accordingly. The
module that was most successful in engaging the learners through the quality of the
interaction was the final one. It is difficult to establish if the positive outcomes of
that module were the result of a development in knowledge of the developers or of
the enthusiasm of the two tutors. Another aspect that might have have influenced that
particular module was that there were two tutors. They both remarked on how the
interplay between the two of them made for a more engaging learning experience.
They also mentioned that their combined work with the learning technologist had
been important in developing themselves conceptually, which led to better resources,
feedback and student engagement.

4.4.8. Control – Constraints

In each learning environment one can identify issues of power and control that
influence the learning and teaching experience. These can be related to power and

control by the institution, the teaching staff, or learners amongst themselves or
individually. In addition, there can be a number of constraints imposed on the
learning process. In an online learning environment, the most obvious ones, as was
the case in this research, are technical and institutional. Balance between control by the tutor and autonomy of the learner

In semi-autonomous learning systems, which the ABCD programme and its

environment were, it is clear that the level of control imposed by tutors, institution,
and learners influences the educational process, as also highlighted by Bouchard,
2009a). One of the aims of the ABCD project was to create a learning environment
where students would be given the opportunity to move from a tutor-controlled face-
to-face learning situation in Module 1 to a high level of self-direction in their
learning in the final project, in which the expectation was that they should carry out
an action research project in their workplace with only online supervision from the
tutor. The tutor and project team were to support the transition from “hand-holding”
to independence.
There is a path to autonomy that they have to go through like a journey . . . a
tutor . . . who treated them as though they were autonomous learners would not
have worked early on because they wouldn’t have been able to respond to it.
They need to go through and get confidence, and so the tutor needs to be very
sensitive I suppose to the level that they are at as individuals. (PM)

The programme was designed with a move to self-direction in mind, and the tutors
who taught on the programme from the beginning were aware of this and ensured
adequate student support. In addition a high level of choice was built in the
programme, including choosing resources, choosing the communications tools best
suited to the individual’s preference, the choice between a variety of media to carry
out activities, tasks and assignments, the choice to work independently or in groups
or in collaboration with others, the choice of asking for limited or extensive
feedback. The tutors thought this choice would enhance the learning experience as it
would allow for a high level of personalisation and it would be empowering. It also
made the teaching environment more flexible than to rely solely on books.
They could choose what bit they wanted. With a course book you know it is
there and you have to complete it. For example, with the wiki you could just do
as much as you wanted or as little. You could add a sentence, or you could do,
like some students, three or four sides of A4. So choice is there. With a course
book it is more defined what the outcome is going to be, whereas the

empowerment is far greater, and you think there’s more choice for learners and
I think that’s how people will enjoy learning. (T2)

The ABCD environment has got a lot more scope, because there is all sorts of
different learning there, whereas in a book it relies entirely on the text and
turning the pages. But in the ABCD you can have that, there’s plenty of scope
to actually put a lot of text there . . . but there’s also more . . . that people can
explore, because we posted pictures, for example, and then we could change
the pictures . . . We could put cartoons and then change the cartoons, and we
decided to put a little diagram in here. So it’s more flexible in terms of the tutor
and the learner I think. (T3)

Students were also invited to find their own resources online, which could be posted
in the central course area to share links, or on a personal or social bookmarking site.
Student preference was for their personal site, rather than the course site.

Of course students have to be ready to cope with a high level of choice. Clearly, this
type of teaching means that students have to carry out a number of tasks that would
be dealt with by the teacher in the classroom and by the institution, such as finding
and choosing resources, providing a class and a time-table so it is apparent when to
arrive and what activity to engage with. Tutor 2 thought that initially the students
seemed to be overwhelmed by the experience and that ‘they had to go away and do a
lot of the work on their own if they were going to be successful.’
There is a fine balance to strike for tutors and project staff between providing support
and pulling back:

I feel I want to make sure that they are ok and if they are not what the problem
is. I am aware that the worst thing would be to be firing of emails every five
minutes. I only email them if they haven’t been on for a week . . . that side of
the online has been quite testing for me, not knowing “are they doing it?” or
“are they not doing it?” and it is quite interesting if you look at that someone
has been online recently, say within the last few hours, and I’ll go into their
profile and check and see where their log is, and very often they haven’t posted
anything, but they might have spent an hour to two hours just going around it.
All tutors expressed unease with losing control themselves. This ranged from the
feeling to have to pull back in the chat room and not to give feedback too soon in the
reflective diary, to the experience of Tutor 3, who felt distinctly uncomfortable at the
start of the module with her level of control over the operation and at the level of
self-direction that the students should have. She saw it as taking risks to let them go
on the Internet by themselves for instance:

You know when you go through any course you develop your relationship with
your learners. . . . not in the beginning, I don’t think; I don’t think I’d have felt
comfortable with it, and wanted a more controlled environment and wanted to
know they were looking at relevant websites. But as I’ve just said, I wanted less
and less of my own materials in the end. Yes, I did take that risk in the end.
As she was co-teaching and Tutor 4 was the main tutor who was in charge, she felt
she had to conform to his teaching strategies. In addition, she felt that while teaching
online the tutor has no control over the learners or what activity they will participate

The whole notion of co-teaching with someone, because I never felt in control,
ever, which was one of the main difficulties for me in the beginning. That was
my main, big, learning thing. I had to really look into myself and think “O my
god, I’m not in control here”, because I was handing things to LT1, I was
bouncing things with T4, and sometimes he would go off and make a decision,
and sometimes I would and it would be my choice. And then the learners, well,
you can’t force them to come up with the discussion or post a wiki or write in
their journal. So I felt it was all out of my control. It was a major challenge for
me in the beginning and I felt very uncomfortable for a few days about it all. I
had to sit on it and not get in a tizz, you know. But it was good. It was good for
me to actually grapple with that one. (T3)

This was also seen to be a problem for Tutor 2 initially. She felt she had to wait with
the curriculum to see if the learners would come and participate. She was excited
when the learners eventually did turn up and participated. There is an equilibrium for
teaching staff between supporting and letting go, which confirms Grow’s (1991)
ideas on “matches and mis-matches” between learner choice and tutor control which
will be further discussed in section

Both Tutor 3 and Tutor 4 felt they were challenged and lost control to Learning
Technologist 1 to a certain extent. Initially that felt uncomfortable, but after a while
they all valued the experience as LT1 was very knowledgeable about instructional
design and knew how to transform their ideas into resources and even helped their
conceptual thinking with her questions for clarification. As highlighted by Siemens
(2008b) and Caplan and Graham (2008), something tutors will have to come to terms
with is that their teaching materials are developed in a team, or at least with someone
who understands the technical implications of disseminating course content online
and creating activities with it.

Another issue that the tutors thought was significant, was what tools, activities and
teaching strategies built student confidence. Two tools stood out as best designed to
build confidence and in motivating students. They were the “chat tool” and the
reflective diaries. Tutor 2 asked for the use of chat to be extended, and to be made
available continuously, 24/7, to provide informal support.

I think if that chat had been allowed to go on, quite often the quieter learners
are most reflective and under-confident and U think that tool would have really
help some people develop. That confidence would have come over then to other
elements of the course. (T2)
All tutors indicated that the chat was a very helpful tool to build up group dynamics
and for a supportive community to develop, where people trust each other and
provide encouragement.

The journal also helped in this respect as students were expected to reflect on their
learning and their progress, and tutors were to provide encouraging feedback on this.
My observations of the environment show that the positive feedback in the diaries
developed learner confidence. While comparing two different courses, Learning
Technologist 1 also emphasised that the level and quality of feedback is an important
factor in students determining whether to stay on the course or to withdraw. Tutors
also reflected on the learning and the learning activities they included on the learning
environment. Tutor 2 reflected on the differences between intrinsically and
extrinsically motivated students in one of the activities, where some learners quickly
made their way through a maze and achieved an outcome of sorts, while others had a
slower approach, intrinsically motivated,

Which is much like my approach to ABCD. I wander around different paths,

I’m curious, I see, I search, I make mistakes, I take time and I seem to enjoy
this a lot more than reading a piece of text. As Student 1 explains, it is about
the experience. (T2)

Most tutors tried to create experiences as described above for the learners, who were
invited to immerse themselves into the activity and the project itself. Feedback from
nearly all of the students, who followed the project until the end, shows that they felt
the project to be more than a course, which made them more motivated to opt for the
learning experience, rather than to look for a quick educational fix.

The Project Manager describes the process of tutors’ loss of control and the
frustration involved in the following terms:

it is that whole thing of losing control and relinquishing control, because in the
classroom you are very aware of who is doing what and if somebody is not
doing something you can tell that they are not doing it because they don’t
understand, or are, but they are not doing it because it is boring, or because they
don’t feel very well. But online you have no way of knowing any of that. They
are just not doing it because they have decided that they need a break and they
are going to do it all in one go in a couple of weeks time and I find that quite
frustrating and want to sort of get hold of them and say “you haven’t been on
for five days this week”, and say “what’s going on?” or something, but I feel if
you do that too much, you will alienate them and also part of the thing is to
relinquish control. (PM)

There were two distinct transitional phases in moving to a higher level of self-
direction by the learners, and the first one in particular showed that learners are not
“just ready” to learn independently. It seemed that they needed extra support before
they were able to move on and learn at the next level of self-direction.

In detail, the two phases were:

1. The move away from the face-to-face module to the online module. The first
module’s assignment was online and students were expected to work online with
people they had never met on producing a digital video using the tools they had
learnt to use in the first module. This turned out to be much more problematic than
the course team had anticipated. It appeared that there were too many unknown
factors: unknown people to work with, carrying out a task that people were unsure
about, using tools that were new in an environment that was new as well. It was hard
for the project staff, as they wanted the assignment to succeed for the learners to be
able to move to the next stage, the online part of the programme:

It got to me in terms of, it’s not our job to spoon-feed them. I really felt that
they all took this on board and they all knew what was involved…we all
worked, and if you sign yourself up to anything, your are expected to put an
effort in…some of them were active, but they were only active up to a certain
point. You are active, encouraging, encouraging, encouraging, but you get to a
certain point that you go: “right, I’m taking control, you do that, you do that
and you do that” and nobody seemed to take it further. (LT1)

In that final bit where we piled on being creative and making something with
the tools they had been given and collaborating using the online tools and
collaborating with people you didn’t know, it was just one thing too many and I
think people lost confidence because there was a bit of a hiccup in getting the
communication to work; they just lost interest. (PM)

I think it [working independently] would have been quite difficult at this stage
as this was the first time they were doing something like this, it would have
been quite difficult for them, considering the time constraints, and the issues
with collaboration, for them to decide what they were going to talk about, and
then talk about it. (T1)

The course was run a second time, and at that time, the learners were asked to carry
out most of the project in the face-to-face classroom, with people they knew. That
worked better, and all students enjoyed the assignment.

When we did it in Xxxx, it was all classroom based and there was PM and LT1
during most of them and I was one of them trying to guide them and when we
were working not online, but in the classroom, we got ‘hand-ins’ [participation]
from all of the groups. We expected them to all work by themselves, but then
we found they didn’t. (LT2)

When the students moved on to the fully online module, the tutor was aware of
potential problems and led them slowly to the next stage.

I thought it was important to choose activities that they feel comfortable with at
the beginning, to start with, and so they were not just thrown into it. I was
aware they had had quite a lot of hand-holding at the face-to-face and had been
guided through the first sections and then they were being dropped in to the
environment and if they were left to swim on their own, some of them might
have a problem. (T1)

Tutor 2 also thought the level of choice in the online learning environment was very
high, compared to the face-to-face course.

Perhaps people need to be directed because again, it is so diverse. “Where do I

go now?” and there’s so much choice. You’ve got choice of “Where do I go?”
and “When do I go there? How do I approach it?” that sometimes perhaps
people were overwhelmed by this new learning experience and so many
different aspects to the course . . . perhaps there ought to be more direction.

The Project Manager described her observations of the progression of learners to

become more autonomous:

At the beginning they were not autonomous at all and that was why we had
problems. They wanted to be told and taken along and stuff and I think they are
gradually becoming more comfortable with becoming independent and making
their own decisions, and they are getting used to the idea that they are not being
pointed at things but it is up to them to go to the book and pull out reading and
stuff. (PM)

2. The second transitional phase was during the Action Research module, where the
level of choice for the learners was increased exponentially. They did not only make
choices about the communications methods or the resources used, they were
expected to make decisions on the choice of readers on a subject they did not yet
know anything about. It was clear from the journals that students felt uncomfortable
about this. Tutors realised this and responded by providing more direction and
support through very personal videos and individual, positive and supportive
feedback. Tutor 3 highlighted that making the learners feel that they were in control
was an appropriate thing to do, as it reflects the Action Research process. She also
mentioned the use of alternative media other than text was important for the learners
to be able to pass successfully through that stage.

In Action Research you have to go through that phase of floundering and

confusion and chaos and they went through that in their learning as well. I did
wonder if we would lose some, but they stuck with it and I think posting
different things, other than text was key in that. (T3)

And Tutor 4 thought that the key was to use the appropriate technology to ensure that
what is a diverse group of learners are supported well.

It comes back to using the technology so that it respects individual differences

and autonomy, rather than using the technology to say “This is how it’s done”
or “This is the bench mark you have to attain”. I think, therein that a
standardised approach, that’s Blackboard again, isn’t it really. That would be
the watchword for me. Those watchwords of “using the technology that allows
difference” and “difference of expression and autonomy”. (T4)

Learner autonomy has been shown to be an important issue in the research and
learner self-direction will be further discussed in section

New technologies allow for personalisation of the learning experience and for
providing information in a variety of formats that allows learners, who have a variety

of learning preferences, to access it in the format that is best for them. She does
emphasise that current VLEs still do not allow for this approach much. Institutions
still want to control each aspect of the learning that takes place in their formal
learning environment. Personalisation

The Project Manager highlighted that it would be good if institutions would facilitate
a more flexible learning environment, in which students could link their informal
learning needs to the formal ones:

There needs to be a certain freedom . . . In terms of actually personalising it to

the extent that they can throw in their own . . . whatever tools they want and
stuff. Personally I think that is really good, but at the moment the VLEs don’t
allow them to do it…so ideally what you want is the space where students
can…add their own tools to that space . . . but the institution doesn’t have
control over adding extra things . . . but at the moment you can’t do that, so the
students can’t add Google to their Blackboard or something. (PM)

Tutor 1, however, states that a Personal Learning Environment is no longer personal

if the institution is hosting it and is part of the development of it.
The colonisation of the personal learning environment by the institution I think
is not a good thing. But I can see that in the university we provide lecture
theatres, seminar rooms and teaching rooms for the formal teaching, but the
university also always has bars and cafes and benches and areas of grass where
students can do their informal learning and the library is a bit hybrid and you
can do both. (T1)

Some of the tutors were of the opinion that within the ABCD project a lot of
personalisation was possible and actually took place. The Project Manager and Tutor
2, for instance, emphasised that the only aspect that was arranged by the institution
was the date that the learners started on a new topic. Otherwise it was very learner-
centred. Learners could read what they wanted, choose to write or not to write, to
participate in discussion, turn up or not turn up. According to her the only other
limitation was the number of words, or the equivalent in images or video, the
students had to write to pass the module in line with university quality standards.
Tutor 3 emphasised that ABCD offered a lot of scope to communicate on an
individual level or a group level using a variety of media. She said:

I’d say that is one of the strengths and things that I’ve gained from this, is
seeing how individuals learn so differently. More so than I would have in the
classroom, I think. It’s enabled me to really see that clearly. (T3)

Tutor 4 stated it was paramount to ‘use the technology that allows difference and
difference of expression and autonomy’ (T4).

He also emphasised that personalisation should not be seen as individualisation, but

as a facilitation of the process of development in learner autonomy in a social

I think that Freire was right in “Education for Liberation”. It frees people, and it
emancipates people, and I think those are wonderful values. But I think if we
concentrate on individuals, in isolation particularly, we would be less educative
ultimately and that really we have to remember the social dimension in that
domain. (T4)

Learning Technologist 1 believes that Web 2.0 technologies have shown to be

suitable to fit into a loose structure like that, where there is personalisation at an
individual level, but where the communications tools can also create a social fabric;
where learners feel comfortable allow let their voice be heard, and where knowledge
exchange can take place and learning development develop. Her only criticism was
that the Moodle VLE is still very structured and structuring, but she acknowledged
that it would be hard to let go of all structure completely. Technological constraints

The tutors were enthusiastic about the technologies and were eager to try out
anything the technologists offered them. There were no negative remarks about the
technologies, even though tutors became aware of particular problems that students
had. They made allowances and relied on the technologists to solve the problems.
Sometimes they thought technological problems helped their teaching as it meant
they had to teach in particular ways, as was the case with Tutor 1 who was excluded
from the chat on the first two sessions, and when he managed to log in afterwards
thought it had helped as he would have been too much influencing the learning
process, without giving students the time to reflect, react and participate in activities.
The Project Manager and the Learning Technologists, who also taught on the first
face-to-face module, dealt with most technological queries and problems in the other

modules. They could not solve them all, e.g. they were not able to help Student 10,
who used a dial-up internet connection when his personal circumstances changed,
which was inadequate for downloading videos. The only other problem that affected
all participants of the learning environment was the introduction of the university’s
adaptation of Elgg, but this was a design incompatibility issue and will be discussed
in the design section, 4.5.


Several issues have come to the fore through the research that warrant particular

The communications tools used on the ABCD Project have been important in
enhancing the student learning experience. The use of a combination of Web 2.0
tools, in particular chat, informal and formal podcasts, the use of blogs as reflective
diaries, have been important in creating a presence of participants that helped to turn
the VLE into a place where people felt comfortable and where a sense of trust was
fostered. In combination with engaging activities it facilitated the development of
affective relationships that were important in student motivation.

Student motivation and engagement were also increased by the change from using
mainly text-based materials, as would be customary in a traditional course at this
level, to combining these with visual, auditory and more creative activities, including
metaphors and poetry.

Two events were critical during the programme. The first was the assignment on the
face-to-face module. This was the transition to the online environment, where the
learners had to communicate online with learners from other centres for the first
time, and work with a wiki to produce a group digital narrative. This proved to be
problematic as students clearly were not ready to communicate independently with
unknown people over the internet using unfamiliar tools. A later cohort was given
the same task in a familiar face-to-face group of people and they had no problems
moving on. For the first cohort this was one unsettling step too far. The second
critical moment was in the Action Research module, another transitional moment,
where a conscious decision had been made to make the tutors stand back more than

in previous modules, and let the students, make more decisions about course
materials and expect the students to be more self-directed in their learning. This was
a difficult moment, but with extensive feedback from the tutor, the students grew and
emerged from the experience with enhanced independence.

The balance of control between the learner, the tutor and the institution has changed
over the course of the programme. Initially the tutor, and to a certain extent the
institution, controlled and supported the students’ learning. The emphasis on student
self-direction became greater the further the students went into the programme as
tutors empowered the students to carry out more tasks themselves. These tasks, such
as choosing information and resources, might in a face-to-face environment have
been carried out by the tutor. The significant issue in this was that it was the
provision of a higher level of support and encouragement by the tutor that lead to the
students feeling comfortable and confident in becoming more self-directed in their

This development was especially encouraged by the personalisation of the learning

through high quality individual feedback in the journal, in addition to very personal
videos by tutors and learners, and the social interaction in weekly chats. These
resulted in a successful student transition from dependence on the tutor to autonomy.

The best strategy in reaching a level of “Higher Order Thinking” has been the direct
personal and high quality feedback by the tutor in combination with a high level of
reflection by the students.

The tutors felt they were much more reflective themselves on the learning process
and on their own individual teaching than they would have been in a face-to-face
environment. They also felt that they had a better understanding of the student
learning needs than in a face-to-face environment because of the use of the online
journals, which fostered a high level of personalisation of support and feedback

The participants in the research all emphasised the need for a well-designed learning
environment and learning resources in order to create a valuable learning experience.
They expressed the need for an easy, intuitive and accessible navigation with a

particular focus on cognitive and information design. The Web 2.0 tools were seen to
be an important component in the development by all but one of the participants.



As discussed in Chapter 3, it was seen to be desirable to carry out research on online

networks in addition to research on the online ABCD project in order to investigate
all aspects of the research questions. If the balance of control between learner, tutor
and institution changes, and the learner moves onto the World Wide Web with a
greater emphasis on self-direction in his learning, it would be important to explore
what actually happens when people learn on online networks. We define online
networks in this chapter as the scale-free open online Web-based networks (Barabasi,
2003) that were discussed in section 2.2.2.

In particular the implications for the reliability and validity of knowledge generated
on online networks would be relevant, as knowledge is investigated outside the
control of the critical tutor and the institution, and is instead developed on the part of
the learner by accessing information and connecting with people on online networks.
Siemens (2006) and Downes (2006) advocate connected learning outside the sphere
of educational institutions and a small research project was undertaken to explore
these issues.

5.1.1. Research setting

The setting of the research consisted of three online networks. A worldwide open
online network of people interested in learning technology; a network of researchers
in ICT; and a network of librarians interested in blogging. These networks were
chosen as the researcher has a distinct affinity and interest in the three networks.
Also, the members of these networks were likely to have a professional interest in
participating in the research project as its research questions were very close to the
networks’ discussion topics. Participants on these networks might be blogging
themselves, or it could be expected that they would be prepared to comment on blog
posts or participate in wikis, for instance. As explained in section 3.5.2. the
researcher immersed herself in one open online Web-based network, that of

“learning technologists” and also surveyed a network of learning technologists,
library bloggers and ICT researchers. The survey of the learning technology network
was distributed through a blog post that was picked up by one of the main “hubs” on
the network, while the other two networks were sent an invite to participate via a
“listserv” emailing system.


5.2.1. Accessing information and validating information

As mentioned in the last section, I spent nine months as a participant observer on the
“learning technology” network. At the beginning of my participation I had never
used a blog, nor written a post or commented on blogs by others. I started blogging
in November 2006, which was several years after the early adopters of learning
technology started their blogs, but not long after blogging software was created that
allowed non-technical people to produce a blog fairly easily. I intended to write a
post once a week, to find out who were the main bloggers in the area of learning
technology, and to leave relevant comments on these people’s blogs as often as time
would allow to try to become a node on the network. I also installed RSS software on
my computers to ensure the ease of access to blogs and websites that I thought were
relevant. At the same time I started a social bookmarking site containing links to
relevant resources.

Writing and maintaining a blog is time-consuming. At the start it was interesting to

write a post every week, but it quickly became apparent that it would take too much
of the time allocated to the research and that it would be impossible to keep up with
writing and posting on my blog every week. After three months I decided to limit my
postings to two per month. I received 9 comments to my postings over that period,
which I felt was extremely low as I also commented and posted on other blogs at
least twice a month during that period. Writing and posting required considerable
reflection and thought on the issues to write and comment about. It also required
quite some time in reading, following and digesting other people’s blogs to
understand what topics were at that time discussed in the blogosphere and to be able
to participate fully in the enterprise. To become enculturated in an online network,
and to move from the periphery to the centre of a network is therefore not easy.

Although people on the network were friendly when I communicated with them, it
was not easy to entice people into communication with me. I analysed other learning
technology blogs to establish the level of communication and comments. The degree
of communication and dialogue is not always that extensive. I analysed three blogs
(Virtual Canuck, eLearningSpace and Half an Hour), which are written by experts in
online learning, to see how high the number of comments and the quality of the
comments would be. I define an expert on the network as someone who is an
important node, someone who creates, researches, discusses and disseminates
information about learning technology. I was surprised to find that the level of
commenting and communication was not notably higher than on my blog. They
ranged from no comments at all to a posting, to some congratulatory comments about
the posting, to some posts that were followed by an extensive discussion (such as that
would have made people think and learn.

This final category of blog posts was interesting as not only were people engaged by
the subject that they discussed to such an extent that they wrote a comment, and
sometimes a comment to a comment, but the discussion was followed by an
exponentially growing crowd as link-blogging took place and mention was made of
the discussion on other blogs. In addition, academic papers and posts by members of
the network were included in posts and discussions through hyperlinks, videos, audio
and/or slideshows, which facilitated an interest and subject based accumulation of
papers and opinions that made people reflect and think. Downes (2009a) and
Siemens (2008b) refer to this form of learning as “Connectivism” .

However it should be emphasised that this type of discussion did not take place very
often. Lankshear and Knobel (2006) and Shirky (2008) refer to the different
participation rates between bloggers and the power-relations that cause these. This
will be further discussed in section

Perhaps the network of bloggers is not quite the network of non-hierarchical

connections that “connectivism” enthusiasts such as Downes (2007b) and Siemens
(2006) might like us to believe. The central nodes on networks might perceive that
they create many connections to people, but it seems likely that for most other

participants the links to information and resources are similar to the ones that in
formal education would be provided by the library, albeit at a greater scale.
This is the effect shown in the link above, which was also my personal experience as
participant in the ‘blogosphere’. For instance, compared to several library searches
for papers available in paper-based and online journals in learning technology carried
out by librarians for me, the online network yielded a much higher level of
information from international academics. In addition, a discussion of pertinent
papers sometimes takes place amongst members of the network, which moves the
academic debate forward.

Although, it became quickly apparent who the main nodes on the network were, as
people referred to them on a regular basis, and their posts could have a huge
following; they can be compared to “superhubs” as described by Bouchard (2010) in
section 2.2.2. It is relatively easy to find out how to contact these people and to
respond to what they blog about. The problem is, however, the lack of volume in
high quality comments that would tempt people into a process of deep thinking.

When looking at why the participants of the surveys chose to use the networks, the
answers were varied. The results are displayed in Chart 1. Highest scores were for
making new friends and to learn new skills, while learning something new about the
topic, knowing “what is going on” and communicating with people with the same
interests was also an important reason to participate. Other reasons given for
participating in the networks were related to sharing of knowledge and learning new
skills and about the topic of interest on the network, while keeping up to date with
new developments and applications, was also mentioned. This points to the use of the
network for ‘networking’, and to a certain extent to learning.

Chart 1 5.2.1. Main reasons for using the network

To find out about the behaviour of research participants on the network a question
was asked about their actions online, when someone on the network was telling or
showing something interesting. The most popular responses were to tell someone
else, which could be someone else on the network but who was not necessarily a
member, perhaps by using Twitter or link-blog, a way to pass on bookmarked sites
on one’s own blog. People also indicated that they were likely to pass the link on to
someone else and that they would think about the information obtained, so the social
affordances of Web 2.0 as highlighted in section were important here. In
addition, people would file it away for future reference, investigate it themselves and
assess its usefulness, or blog about it and comment on the posting. People also
mentioned trying out and experimenting with the disseminated application. This
would indicate an active form of learning, where a certain level of analysis and
synthesis of the information takes place, where the information would be re-purposed
(Downes, 2009a) in the form of blog posts and comments.

All participants indicated that their presence on the network made them more
knowledgeable, and most activities helped. There was a different emphasis on which

activity made them more knowledgeable on the different networks. Participating in
network discussion was seen as most important by the learning technologists, while
the ICT researchers found it most important to formulate and post comments on
someone else’s blog. The library bloggers placed most emphasis on reading the
papers others have linked to their blogs and wikis. Some other responses were:
discussions and objects posted in Second Life, observation and exposure to various
new ideas, posting my questions on the network and getting the opinion of others,
testing ideas against one’s own experience and thinking about ideas. The connection
with others in combination to information was seen to be important by participants in
their learning as is also seen to be important in networked learning by Downes
(2009a), Siemens (2006) Goodyear (2009) and Jones and Dirckinck-Holmfeld
(2009). Chart 2 provides an impression of the data.

When asking what the most effective way of learning was for participants, the
majority answered ‘to discuss the learning materials with an expert and fellow
learners’ and ‘to learn independently’. Some of the other responses suggested that it
would be a combination of strategies depending on the context, e.g. listening to an
expert for some orientational scaffolding and then learning independently. Others

Chart 2 5.2.1. Participants becoming more knowledgeable on the network

would learn while writing about new ideas, or by asking questions and discussing the
responses. Interesting was that only 4.62% of respondents (3 participants) valued ‘an
instructor giving clear instructions so I know what task to carry out’. It seemed that
the participants were functioning at a high level of self-direction.

Participants were then asked how they think best, using the following categories: Do
you have to be on your own without distractions? Would it be talking and
communicating with people? Is it while you are reading? Is it while watching a
video? Is it while writing? Is it when an expert asks questions? Is it when you receive
feedback from a knowledgeable person? These categories were ranked equally high
in the responses, apart from ‘Is it while you are reading?’, which was considered
slightly less important. Apart from these categories, quite a few other issues were
seen to be significant. Many were related to having time to reflect. It was interesting
that this time was usually also related to relaxation, e.g. thinking while daydreaming,
while walking in nature, before falling asleep and at the time of waking up, and while
driving long distances. Other responses were: when someone asks a good question, it
doesn’t have to be an expert; during creating, producing and observing processes;
while visualizing the relatedness of concepts. It seemed that the circumstances that
make people think were varied and very much dependent on the context in which
they occurred.

5.2.2. Analysis of the online networks

An analysis of the networks has been carried out. This study only formed a small
pilot research project to provide background information on implications of students
taking more control over their own learning and move outside the realm of their
formal learning onto the internet and therefore, the depth of analysis is limited.

There are a number of quantitative software tools available now to analyse online
networks. They can show up who the nodes on the network are. Moreover, they can
show which people link most often with other networks. In this study these
quantitative software tools have not been used, as they will not provide any in-depth
data on how people perceived these connections to be present on their network. In
particular, the depth of information and the quality of information are aspects that

would be most important to provide a backdrop against which to judge if learners
who venture online have problems to validate information through these networks.
My own observation and analysis was used, in addition to results of the online
survey, which included open qualitative questions and more closed qualitative
questions. For instance, I asked participants on the network who they perceived to be
most important nodes, how many of these “experts” were available on the network,
whom they felt would form bridges with other networks, what their contribution to
the network might be, and how many ‘connectors’ to other networks there were. In
addition I asked questions related to how knowledgeable they thought the experts
were, and if in their opinion what these experts had to say contained a higher level of
truth than what others said.

Figure 10 5.2.2.Visualisation of network development (Krebs and Holley, ND)

I have included a visualisation by Krebs and Holley (ND) on how networks evolve as
figure 10. My observations and analysis of the “learning technology” network, the
largest network studied, confirmed their visualization to be similar to the way the
learning technology network evolved.

There are some important nodes on the network, which aggregate, produce, discuss
and distribute information and who seem to be at the heart of the network activity.
These bloggers, quite often academics or researchers, have gained in trust and
prominence and have a distinctive following. Their sites also contribute to the
construction of knowledge as new concepts, research and developments are brought
to the fore. These are discussed and developed, transformed into research ideas and
then investigated. One example of a “central node on the network”, or a “hub” is
Stephen Downes and his blog OlDaily. He uses the blog and a daily newsletter to
disseminate information from around the world that he has aggregated using his
gRSShopper software. He discusses articles, software or other media with people
who comment or email him. In addition, he used the huge following to his Oldaily
newsletter to create a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), which he presented
together with George Siemens, who is another important node on the network. The
course attracted 2200 informal learners who learned about and discussed
Connectivism (Siemens & Downes, 2008), which is, according to Downes and
Siemens, a learning theory that takes account of the rapidly developing learning
technology field.

They tried out the gRSShopper software to create a personalised learning

environment for participants on the course, which included a course blog, a course
wiki, a link to a Moodle VLE with discussion forums, presentations using Elluminate
software from thinkers in the field of learning technology. In addition, people could
find links to papers relevant to the topic together with their suggestions on a course
structure. The direct discussion by prominent people in the field of learning
technology with each other and with participant was stimulating the debate on
particular topics. This is an example of how Rennie and Mason (2004) would like
higher education to change, they advocated a form of teaching in which we enable
learning, rather than that it is delivered and directed. This will be further discussed in
section 6.2.3.

In addition to these prominent nodes, there are a number of other participants on the
network, who might at one moment be consumers of information, but become active
in the dialogue and contribute to the development of new ideas and possibly new
knowledge if the topic interests them enough or if they are knowledgeable about it.

One of these people, Michael Wesch (2010), a cultural anthropologist, explored the
impact of new media on society and culture and immersed himself and his students
in the YouTube community, and was participating in activities. His group’s videos
on Web 2.0 technologies were not only entertaining, but also introduced a way of
using videos to explain difficult concepts that were widely discussed, used and had
their style imitated by learning technologists. His way of using technology in
teaching and learning was also discussed extensively.

On all three networks, participants said that there were in excess of nine experts on
the network, and also in excess of nine “connectors” to other networks. The
“connectors’ brought, in equal part, new knowledge, connections and innovation to
the network, in addition to making participants think. One participant indicated that
‘they provide interesting resources and links to additional materials I would not have
found elsewhere’ (participant on the learning technology network).

5.2.3. Knowledge on online networks

The people behind the main nodes on the learning technology network believed that
knowledge is created on networks and made a case for the creation of knowledge on
online networks through their Connectivism theory. From my observations and
analysis of online networks, I believe they are correct. It was also illustrated by the
example of the Stephen Downes node as described in section 5.2.2 . People on online
networks do not only access information produced by others, but do also contribute
to knowledge development through their discussions and activities on the networks,
which sometimes results in research projects and collaboration in research projects.
This confirms Sfard’s (1998) argument on the importance of both participation and
acquisition in learning as discussed in section

Participants in the survey confirmed that they thought some people on the network
were more knowledgeable than others. When asked how they judged if someone was
knowledgeable, they found it most important that these people ‘talk about the work
of others that I know is interesting’, closely followed by ‘other people on the network
discuss what they say’, ‘many people include links to their sites in their blogs’, ‘I like
what they say’, and ‘they refer to books and sites that I have read’ (see chart 3). In
addition they commented: their work has intellectual integrity; people are inherently

knowledgeable, so everyone has some type of knowledge; their analysis resonates
with my experience; they can find quickly references to people or readings that
matter; they speak from years of personal experience; they provide me with deep
questions and new ideas that prompt my own thinking and questioning; they share
common interests; the discussion is furthered by their participation; they are
experienced and respected in their own field; I meet them at conferences; interesting
ideas, practical and theoretical.



Many people include links to their sites in their blogs

35 Other people on the network discuss what they say

They always include links to reputable authors in

30 their work
I like what they say
They refer to books on sites that I have read

20 They talk about the work of others that I know is

On numerous occasions they have shown that they
15 know a lot
Other people on the network discuss what they say























Chart 3 5.2.3. What makes online experts knowledgeable?

It was interesting to see that participants’ emphases on different networks was

different. On the learning technology network the emphasis was on how experts’
knowledge related to that of participants, e.g., ‘They talk about work by others that I
know is interesting’, while librarians find it more important that ‘they refer to books
or sites that I have read’. ICT researchers found that ‘including links to reputable
authors in their work’ was the most significant in making someone knowledgeable.

When asked the question: ‘What makes you think they are right, or what they say is
more true than what others say?’, the most popular answer amongst the learning
technologists and ICT researchers was ‘others refer to them a lot’, while library
bloggers found it most important that ‘they cite reputable/quality research. As shown

in chart 4, not all participants found it important that people are recognized and
trusted by others or that they use reputable research. 10.77% answered ‘I just know’
and 21.54% ticked ‘everybody likes them’.

What makes you think what they say is more true than what others say?


I just know
Everybody likes them

In the past they have said things I like


They always use links or book references to back

up what they say
Others regularly confirm what they say

15 Others refer to them a lot

They cite reputable/quality research



























Chart 4 5.2.3. Level of truth in what experts disseminate

This seems to suggest that even people using the internet a lot can show a lack of
critical awareness sometimes in establishing the truth value of online posts.
However, it should be mentioned that it was possible for respondents to tick multiple
answers, and the other answer usually ticked was an answer that included some
confirmation of a more critical awareness. Other answers provided in the qualitative
answer box were: ‘Trust is established in many ways’; ‘triangulation’; ‘I have met
them and found their prior work to be sound through my own investigation’; ‘their
analysis resonates with my experience or the experience of my students more
frequently than others’ analysis’; ‘I shy away from those who oppose every opinion
other than their own, but those who are willing to collaborate and discuss are
attractive’; ‘there are some who I don’t trust and by definition there must be some
who are more trustworthy’; ‘through an accumulation of postings they earn my
trust’; ‘what they say makes sense to me’; ‘they are respected scholars’; ‘it isn’t an
issue of more true – rather that their work shows intellectual scope’. Belonging and
reputation on online networks will be further discussed in section


It was clear from the survey that people visit and participate in online networks for
different reasons, but all these reasons involve communication and discussion with
peers and experts, in addition to learning new skills and finding information. The
major findings of the research were related to these issues.

People find that they become more knowledgeable and that they learn by
spending time on the network.

People’s behaviour on the network suggests that the most effective learning
strategies were to discuss, share and comment on materials and issues with peers and
experts, in addition to reflection quite often while in a relaxation environment.

People valued online experts, or central nodes on the network, as aggregators and
disseminators of (digital) information, and as creators of knowledge. Most
respondents to the survey indicated that they were critical of ‘nodes’ before trusting
them to be reliable sources of information. The reputation to provide valid
information was important before ‘nodes’ were accepted as ‘human filters’ of

Participants look for triangulation and traditional academic peer- reviewing processes
before accepting information. In addition to central ‘nodes’ on the network, people
access resources produced by “nodes” that forms a connection with other networks
as these provide new knowledge, connections, innovation and they make people

It is time-consuming to be a blogger and to fully participate on the network.

Observations on the learning technology network showed that most participants on
that network seem to be followers of blogs and discussions and do not often engage
in an extensive discussion. Only when an issue really touches them do they get
involved in the discussion.

It seems that the information that is disseminated over networks is tested for
reliability and validity by participants through verification with other participants.

Respondents appear to be very capable self-directed learners and personalise their

learning through making connections with resources they would receive or aggregate
from others on the network.



Both the literature review and the findings of this thesis indicate that shifts are taking
place in the way people use the Internet and that these changes are affecting adult
education. The considerable growth in Internet use and the growth in Internet access
and broadband use have made it clear that the Web can no longer be ignored as an
educational tool. There are three other major issues, which are of importance to the
“internet revolution”: 1. The high level of information available to anyone with
access to the Internet. 2. The availability of new tools to aggregate and process this
information together with the possibility of combining the processing of this
information with extensive options for communication with people. Were
communication, collaboration and social interaction made possible in the Web 1.0
era, they are at the heart of Web 2.0 technologies. 3. Another important change that
the proliferation of broadband has facilitated is the use of images, sound, text and
video as easily usable tools, which means that anyone interested in publishing their
creations, in a variety of formats, can do so and communicate about these with

This chapter will discuss these issues by connecting research findings in relation to
the literature on issues ranging from the design of learning experiences and how
these could make the most of the affordances of new technologies. In addition, the
chapter will examine how people think and process information and aim to develop a
theory of networked learning.

6.1.1. Processing of information

As indicated in 2.2.3., there is an immense wealth of information available on the

internet and, as suggested by Bauerlein (2008), Greenfield (2004; 2006) and
Armstrong (2004), this could affect the way we think. They are concerned that this
high level of information and our unchanged attention-span will mean a lower level
of depth of thought than was achieved using printed media, as there is really less
time available to process the information. In addition a research report by CIBER

(2008) suggested that people’s information-seeking behaviour is changing: they want
instantaneous access and use commercial search engines. They skim online pages,
jumping from hyperlink to hyperlink, and thus do not reach a high level of critical
thinking. Bass (2004) and Owen (2006), however, argue that electronic environments
encourage people to access diverse sources, sometimes unexpected and possibly high
quality, which could encourage people to make connections between these resources,
a potentially creative and critical process that enriches thinking.

The students on the ABCD project indicated that they did like to access a variety of
sources to gain information and to discuss the information with others – peers and
tutors alike. They considered, though, that after this access and discussion, thinking
itself is an individual process that requires reflection on all that has been found and
said in order to understand it. They liked a combination of ways to find information,
but most found it daunting when they were expected to find too much information
themselves and to make too many decisions on what to read. They liked the tutor’s
input and also went through a process of becoming increasingly autonomous in their
information behaviour as the course went on. Students took part in a module on
critical thinking which taught them a considerable amount about their own way of
thinking, their beliefs and prejudices, and surprised them as it clarified that they were
not as critical in accessing and assessing information as they had thought they were.
They acknowledged that without the course they would have missed incorporating
that reflective process into their analysis and ways of understanding.

The research on online networks showed that the “networks of interest” are
important places to gain information. Relevant information is not only available but
also validated to a certain extent by experts on the network, who function as ‘human
filters’, as they also have an information filtering role that helps others on the
network to find and validate information. In addition, “linking” nodes are important.
They are people who are on several networks at the same time and link networks by
feeding new information from one to the other, which adds different dimensions to
topics discussed and written about. IT driven filtering systems, such as RSS feeds,
were also considered to be important in dealing with vast quantities of information.

The research showed that people develop personal strategies to cope with the high
volume of information. It is clear that more advanced competencies in information

literacy and critical thinking are important in an unmediated learning environment.
Learners on the ABCD project agreed and indicated that they had never thought
about their level of critical analysis. It is doubtful if people outside a formal learning
setting will hone these skills to the same extent as people within, which highlights
one of the challenges of learning outside formal educational institutions. There is a
role for “central nodes” on networks, namely to act as “critical friends” as they are
the ones entrusted with the role of providers and disseminators of “valid knowledge”,
similar to educators in formal institutions. However, participating on networks is
informal and there rests no obligation with anyone to feel a responsibility towards
validating knowledge, or helping people in their journey of epistemic growth.

6.1.2. Affordances of the new technologies

The new interactive media and tools that have emerged on the Internet over the past
five years all have some characteristics in common: they are easy to use (bar some
starting-up problems), have a social dimension and can be shared. Moreover, they
have made it possible to incorporate visual elements in presentation and
communication to supplement the written word.

Furthermore, the rapid expansion of broadband at home and the way applications can
now be combined has instigated a move in computer use from office applications in
business in the late 80s to applications for personal pleasure and learning today. The
sharing of photos and videos, of the written and the spoken word amongst friends,
the making of new friends with a similar interest are all within the grasp of people
with access to a broadband line and a PC – or a mobile phone for that matter, as
mobile and wireless technologies have also advanced and proliferated in the past

When this research was begun, the use of Web 2.0 tools was in its infancy. The
increase in their sophistication and their uptake by the general population over the
past five years has been incredible. People now communicate on networks and
maintain online friendships, although some observers question the genuineness and
authenticity of the contacts online. They would like to see research on the positive or
negative effects of the exponential growth of information and communication
inaugurated by the new developments on society and on people’s learning (Walters

and Kop, 2009; Lyotard, 1984). The reality is that they do have an effect on society
(Benkler 2006; Bauerlein, 2008; Lanier, 2010) and that their development has been
so vast and has become so intertwined with people’s lives, that it is inconceivable
that they would fade away from our individual, social and economic lives. It seems
that the variety of the tools and the way they can be combined has had a powerful

Traditional media, for instance, are changing at a rapid pace: newspapers have an
online presence that includes blogs, photo-diaries, daily podcasts with commentaries
and videos from front-line battlefields (, while broadcasters have
web presences in multiple languages, and a selection of free online courses available
for their audiences. They provide listeners and viewers with the opportunity to react
and respond with their own photos and commentaries to events (BBC, 2009), thus
inviting interaction. The coming of age of Web 2.0 technologies means that the
traditional media are changing the emphasis from a one-to-many medium to a many-
to-many medium: communications media do not only broadcast from one person or
one organisation to an audience, but people can directly respond and interact with the
originator of the initial message. In the words of the anthropologist Wesch who was
speaking to a hall of university professors on the changes new technological
developments will bring to education: ‘Our “audiences” aren’t audiences at all, but
rather creators, and our job is not to lecture but to enable.’(Shedroff, 2009, p.1.).
Others question whether moving to an “enabling function” would be as beneficial in
an educational context as providing lectures by experts or offering resources like
books, which have to be read in a linear way. Acting on information and reflective
understanding might lead to deeper thinking than what would be the result of
superficial surfing online. This will be further discussed in The following
section discusses what the important issues are in the design and development of
online learning experiences.

6.1.3 Design of learning experiences

Each learner is unique and has a unique learning experience. The needs and
requirements of each learner are different, which makes the planning and design of
learning experiences a challenge, particularly when technology is used to support the
learning experience. In a traditional classroom a number of activities can be planned

and organised for a group of students and can be adapted to suit learners’ needs once
the tutor knows them and their background, and can take their experience and prior
knowledge into consideration in the course design. When technology is used in the
planning of learning it becomes more complicated. One can identify a continuum on
how technology can support a learning experience: at one end is an institutionally
driven Learning Management System (LMS), which currently is a repository of
resources that offers very basic possibilities for online communication but does not
offer a high level of personalisation to the learner. At the other end of the continuum
is a Personal Learning Environment that provides learners with the option to include
the technical tools of their choice, which would be loosely organised so that a much
higher level of self-direction is integrated in the learning experience than in an LMS.

Of course, in between these two options are a number of other possibilities, such as
an LMS with particular ‘add-ons’, or a social networking tool such as Facebook that
could be adapted to include formal learning components. For the design of the
ABCD project the choice was made to use a PMS with add-ons. The learners
indicated that it was a good compromise for their background and context: they
would have preferred some more face to face interaction, but highlighted that they
liked the tools and the learning environment for their learning. Their idea of
personalisation would involve some more linkages between the LMS and their own
informal online learning environment, for instance through messages in their
Facebook or through a home page that they could adapt, but in general they were
satisfied with the design of the environment. To a certain extent the online learning
environment has to be pre-produced with activities in learning objects that would be
appealing to a variety of students, and these were, on the ABCD programme,
connected to communication and group working tools to bring the learning alive and
to adapt it to the individual learners. In addition, there was room for individual
research online.

Learners on the online network were not questioned on the design of the environment
as the research would not have had any influence on it. Several mentioned, however,
that the informal and self-directed nature of the network enhanced their learning, so
for them the informal networking nature was positive to their learning.

232 Creating meaningful learning experiences

Nathan Shedroff investigated experience in design and proposed the central idea that,
for experience to become memorable, designers will have to be aware of some
(experience) design principles in order to create effective, meaningful, and successful
experiences (Shedroff, 2009) as visualized in figure 11.

Figure 11 'Design is the process of evoking meaning' (Shedroff, 209, p.122).

Shedroff’s six principles have already been highlighted in section , and the
research in the ABCD project confirms their importance.

Time and duration are central dimensions in the creation of learning experiences. A
learning experience may start long before the formal online learning experience
begins. An experience in a student’s life might mean that she is already thinking
about the learning, the information and the collaboration required to engage in
learning long before the learning activity starts. A learner might then get immersed in
the learning activity and still be thinking and digesting what has been learned long
after the actual activity has finished. An awareness of the time cycle involved in
building up of true engagement and the amount of time it takes up to move into the
next learning cycle are crucial in building structures to accommodate learning. In the 

ABCD project, there was an awareness by the project staff and tutors related to these
issues. This is why the first module was face to face and taught by the design team,
which was also “technical and help desk support” for the learners throughout the
programme. They were also the instructional designers and worked with the
teaching staff to design and develop the resources. They informed the tutors of issues
relevant to the continuity of the programme. The students even remarked that they
could see that particular issues that they had brought up, or technologies that did not
quite work, in the early stages of the programme had improved at the later stage
through the influence of the project team.
Interactivity is another dimension of importance when designing online learning
experiences as the interactions with people and resources give depth and meaning to
their learning. People can interact in a passive or in an active way. Learners might
follow a conversation on Twitter, or on a favourite blog, or on a discussion board,
without directly participating. On the other hand, someone could be actively
communicating with a tutor or an expert, or peers within the course structure or on a
network. People can interact with other people, but can also interact with resources
that they find in the learning environment or through aggregating information from
outside, or discussions with peers or more knowledgeable others than themselves.

Web 2.0 technologies have made it possible to make connections between

information and people to enhance learning. In designing learning experiences, it is
important to focus specifically on ‘the invisible space between people and between
people and things that form the experience with complex interactions that tax users’
(Shedroff, 2009, p. 134) to ensure that a meaningful experience is being created. It is
exactly in these invisible spaces that meaningful learning takes place. On the ABCD
project the tutors were the ones to make these interactions explicit and visible by
providing feedback in words, pictures, through metaphors and by using videocasts.
These were the moments in the course that learners had their ‘Eureka moment’ that
gave them confidence to move on to the next stage and level of learning.

Intensity is another dimension in the design that means that people are engaged in the
experience. The intensity with which people are engaged with the learning

experience does quite often depend on the level of these interactions. Lombard and
Ditton (1997) described how a high level of intensity positively effects the level of
presence and describes it as “sensory richness” and “vividness”. As has been
highlighted in the section on presence,, the closer people are involved with
other people who are participating in the learning activity or when interacting with
resources, the more the experience will attract them and will influence how much
time and energy they are willing to invest in the undertaking (Dron and Anderson,
2007). It is suggested that the creation of a place where people feel comfortable and
trusted will aid in this development. Another level of intensity can be reached by
immersion. Metros (2001) for instance described a continuum from a very low level
of engagement, eg. using email, to reaching a ‘flow-state’ in computer game
simulations, where people are so engrossed in the activity that they do not realize that
they are learning. Sensorial and cognitive triggers built into the learning experience
can aid a move towards a ‘flow-state’. 
‘There are many ways to view the same thing, though we often become so
accustomed to certain standard views that we take the possibilities for granted and
forget to even explore alternatives’ (Shedroff, 2009, p. 70). Trying to find new forms
to present, represent and visualize what we are trying to communicate has been
shown to be important on the ABCD project in order to engage learners in learning
activities. ‘The most important aspect of any design is how it is understood in the
minds of the audience’ (Shedroff, 2009, p. 60). Some people create mental maps of
what they experience and what they are learning. In designing an online
environment, he posits that the focus should be on what will remain in the user’s
mind. ‘New cognitive models can often revolutionize an audience’s understanding of
data, information, or an experience by helping them understand and reorganize things
previously understood in a way that illuminates the topic or experience’ (Shedroff,
2009, p. 60).

The combination of sensorial and cognitive triggers in the ABCD learning

environment were central to the learners’ engagement in the learning activity. A
surprising number of learners responded strongly to visual triggers, some to auditory
and most to kinaesthetic ones. Students valued the combination of activities, the
interaction with people, and the variety of sensorial experiences, such as audio and

video. As learning preferences are diverse, it is vital to incorporate a variety of
triggers in a design. In addition, visualisation can be used as a tool to communicate
concepts, or to represent information in understandable ways. For instance, maps and
charts, or learning objects have been seen to enhance understanding when used to
layer multiple data sets on top of each other to show relationships between the sets.

Another important principle in creating learning experiences are breadth and

consistency. People build up an image of themselves in the world, a ‘gestalt’;
experiences are experienced in a holistic way and the individual’s mind processes all
physical and mental aspects of the person simultaneously. For the design of a
learning environment this means that consistency in components design and a
relationship between the components will aid the development of a meaningful
learning experience. The experiences should ‘feel similar and related, even if the
details are quite different’ (Shedroff, 2009, p. 96). An example of how this failed on
the ABCD project was when the ‘Elgg’ e-portfolio software was introduced and its
‘look and feel’ changed to mimic the general ‘look and feel’ of ABCD. The
navigation, however, was different and the software was only in its ‘beta’ form of
release and had several problems. It confused the learners so much that it had to be
abandoned as it created an inconsistency in the operation of the learning environment
that learners found hard to cope with.

If these dimensions are all incorporated in harmony, an environment is created with

learning experiences that are significant and meaningful. Designers and developers
of online environments should ‘understand what makes a good experience first, and
then to translate these principles, as well as possible, into the desired media without
the technology dictating the form of the experience’ (Shedroff, 2009, p. 1). Different tools for different purposes

As mentioned before, different tools were used to enhance interaction and reflection,
to foster group work and include visual triggers in the ABCD programme. From the
start, the project team had been very aware of the need to design a learning space
where people would feel comfortable and in which all participants could have a
presence and Web 2.0 tools were used to facilitate this. It was often the combination

of tools used that ensured a quality learning experience. Clearly some tools are better
than others at enabling the provision of individual feedback, while others are better at
facilitating group work, or to ensure the ‘social interaction of a group of students. On
the ABCD programme blogs used as reflective diaries were important as the channel
for individual communication between learner and tutor and for reflection. They
proved to be the most important tool. Students were very open and honest in what
they wrote about their learning experience. The tutors used the comment feature to
give students personal feedback. Some tutors were particularly good at providing
feedback and on one particular course it was clear that the students’ confidence
levels and their knowledge and eagerness to participate increased because of the
personal approach to feedback in the diaries.

The journal entries show that the students were benefiting from the strong tutor
presence and were building up their understanding of the material and subject area.
The tutors also used videos to enhance their presence and used two types of videos
for this: the first one was used to clarify concepts, and the second to support students,
to raise levels of confidence, and to lessen anxiety at particular moments in the
course. The latter required a high level of reflection by the tutor on the learning of
students, but also on their teaching, and a willingness to show themselves as real
human beings rather than as distantly removed tutors, as the videos were very
personal accounts and observations about the course progress.

Videos of this nature, made on the spur of the moment, were very much appreciated
by students who said that the immediacy, which the videos created, made them feel
they were part of a group of people they felt close to. This also led to students
responding with their own videos, as part of discussions or to reveal more about
themselves. The use of video has had a positive effect on building up the
programme’s online place: it has offered a multi-sensory approach to knowledge-
sharing, reflection and communication of ideas which in turn has enhanced the
relationship between tutors and students.

Wikis are seen to be valuable in carrying out collaborative activities involving the
creation of a joint piece of work (Lamb, B. 2004), but as mentioned before, on the
ABCD programme this rarely worked well. Lack of control is a central feature of a
wiki and the adult learners were not used to the concept of collaborative knowledge

creation. In most cases they preferred to see visibly what their own contribution to
the learning task had been, rather than for it to become a joint venture. The idea of
making changes to contributions by others was alien to students and they did not feel
comfortable with this activity. Another major problem in the use of wikis has been
their asynchronous nature and the different time management and level of
commitment to contributing at times that suited others in order to finalise a particular
task on time. They seemed more useful in activity-based groupwork than in more
conceptual learning. In all modules extensive use was made of weekly chats,
especially to create a sense of “togetherness” and to facilitate social interaction. After
using a variety of Web 2.0 tools and more traditional ones such as discussion boards,
all tutors involved mentioned that they had come to know the students as individuals.
The use of the chat tool and the reflective diaries in particular helped to foster
affective relations.

The research of the ABCD programme indicates that before adult learners feel
confident enough and venture out to engage in online networks to find information
and to communicate by themselves, they first need nurturing by a tutor who is
genuinely interested in them as a person and in their learning. Yet, it has also shown
that there is a fine balance between supporting and letting go. As Bouchard (2009b)
emphasises, there are different aspects and levels of learning autonomy that adult
learners learning on semi-autonomous learning systems will have to reach before
they feel comfortable directing their own learning.

Educationalists increasingly agree that it is not only the media that have changed
under the influence of technology, but that educational institutions have no choice
but to change their practice as well if they want to harness the potential of the new
technologies (Siemens, 2008b; Delanty, 2001; Selwyn, 2008; Conole et al, 2008;
Rennie &Mason, 2004).

Conole et al (2008) for instance found through their research that more students
indicated a dislike for VLEs, rather than a preference. Also that an increasing number
of students preferred to use alternative communications channels than the discussion
boards provided by the institution and concluded that students need to be able to use
the tools that suit them, rather than that the institution imposes their structures on the

learners. Rennie and Mason (2004) posited that institutions do not have another
option than to change its educational ‘content and processes . . . because of the
impact of connectivity on society in general and therefore on the skills, attitudes and
understandings needed by tomorrow’s students’ (Rennie & Mason, 2004, p. 38). The
ABCD project provided this change in content, skills development of students and
the processes surrounding the learning and its environment. The participants in the
experience were positive about it.

Dron and Anderson (2009) proposed to call “learning management systems”

“teaching management systems” instead, which expresses their opinions of LMSs.
They would like to see a “mesh-up” of old and new technologies. They support
strategies by institutions to discover ‘different ways of assembling what we already
have in ways that match the needs of teachers and learners, giving them (rather than
technology designers and maintainers) the control they need over their learning
environments: (Dron and Anderson, 2009, p. 11).

This happened in the ABCD project, as extensive time was made available for the
tutors to negotiate, discuss and reach understandings with learning technologists on
the type of resources and communication tools they felt they needed. In addition, the
research was used to find out how the learners experienced the environment and what
changes they thought would enhance their learning experience. An example of this
was the “presence” chat tool that was designed and developed to accommodate their
communications needs.

Students on the ABCD project thought the tools were engaging as they were the
same ones they used outside the learning environment: applications such as YouTube
are used by millions of people every day. They thought the use of these tools made
the learning “fun” and several students could appreciate their positive application in
their own business.

The participants in the online network research indicated that the combination of
tools, but especially the communication on blogs and in wikis, and the information
exchange that takes place in the blogosphere, means that people reflect, think and
learn. They commented especially on the use of blogs, which they saw as an

excellent tool for networking, for discussion and for reflecting, and subsequently for
learning from others.

The research showed that another interesting characteristic of the Web 2.0 tools is
that they are enjoyable to use and empowering: once people master how to use them,
they have the possibility of linking and communicating with anybody on the globe,
to show, view and comment on photos, bookmarks, videos or pieces of writing.
Tutors and students alike indicated that their learning and teaching became a “fun”
experience. What then are their implications for adult education?


Learning online and using online resources provides an additional dimension to

learning in a face-to-face learning environment. As Peters (1999), Bredo (1999),
Bruner (1999), and Lave and Wenger (2002) indicated, the environment in which we
learn influences how we learn. The position of the tutor in the teaching space
influences who controls the process and the level of autonomy of the learner. The
level of communication between participants in the learning space determines how
and what people learn. Of course, these are based on people’s views of knowing and

6.2.1. ‘Pedagogy of abundance’, or ‘pedagogy for human beings’?

Some adult educators have now seen that perhaps technology is not just a burden, but
can have a meaningful place in education. Theorists have started thinking about how
the changes that technology and the complex world in which we now live affect
pedagogy. Weller (2009) for instance highlighted a move towards a ‘pedagogy of
abundance’ as a positive step in a technology-rich learning environment. He argues
that on the Web, amongst other issues, content is free and varied and can be shared
easily as social interaction is at the heart of the new Web 2.0 tools, and is not taxing
as it is at the level of a conversation rather than of a dialogue; it is lightweight and is
easy to organize (Weller, 2009). Learning can take place on informal networks rather
than in formal institutional structures. Others, however, feel that adult educators also
have a duty to be critical of the technologies and teach adults what the implications
of the technologies are for their lives. The views expressed by Wheelahan (2007, p.
145) seem more fitting than Weller’s (2009). She promoted a ‘pedagogy for human

beings’, where ‘pedagogy itself must be characterized by uncertainty, with
knowledge loosely framed, provisional, and open-ended’. She argued that different
forms of knowledge are required to be able to live and learn successfully in uncertain
times. The ‘pedagogy of human beings’ as proposed by Wheelahan (2007) was
applied in the ABCD programme, as not only the content of the course was its
central feature, but also the human beings involved and their coping strategies in a
complex learning situation, while applying propositional knowledge in their real life

That is of importance, as it is not just the Internet that has brought changes to
learning and living; in post-modern society education and work are being organised
in quite new ways, which means that lifelong and lifewide learning have become part
of everyday life. It is not just the transfer of content from tutor to learner that is
important, but also how the people involved in the learning take part in their lives in
the world. The acquisition and participation metaphors as used by Sfard (1998)
express once again the different ways that knowledge is been accessed and used by
people. The commodification of knowledge and its relationship to work, play and life
has put an emphasis on a different type of knowledge than propositional knowledge
(Lyotard, 1984; Delanty, 2001). The move towards lifelong learning means that
propositional knowledge as part of institutional education might no longer be
sufficient. Instead, knowledge might have to be related to real-life situations and the
workplace, ‘as an intellectual tool in practice’ (Wheelahan, 2007, p. 639).

The new technological tools provide additional aid to facilitate this: there are tools
available that have shown to be effective in making the connections between learning
in different life episodes and a variety of life situations, be it for work, learning or
play. Both the ABCD and the network research have shown that emerging Web 2.0
tools are especially good at this: they allow people to build up networks and create a
plethora of communication channels and links to aid learning in different ways. They
have also shown to be successful at supporting learning in other ways, for instance to
encourage reflection, to re-envisage and share what has been learnt. They also have
helped people dealing with the abundance of information and communications
through technical aggregators, which simplify the collection of information and filter
it for relevance to individual learners.

6.2.2. New interactive technologies and the learning experience

The learners on the ABCD project have very clearly endorsed the use of new social
media to enhance their learning experience. The technologies supported a variety of
aspects important for learning, such as communication and collaboration, the
fostering of affective relations and engaging the students in activities. Communication: dialogue or conversation?

Communication and dialogue have been seen as important aspects in peoples’

learning for centuries (Biesta, 2006). Freire and Macedo (1999) emphasised them as
the key elements to transformational learning, while Biesta (2006) identified
communication as central to the development of fully individual human beings as
feelings and thinking are quite often based on a language interchange between
people. In recent years major discussions have taken place about the level of
importance and the nature of communication in the processes of learning and
teaching. Questions such as “Is knowledge transferred from teacher to learner?” “Do
people acquire knowledge or is it produced through participation in activities?” as
suggested in Sfard’s metaphors (1998) and “Do people construct knowledge and
learn from each other in the context of their community (of practice)?” are at the
heart of this debate. As been highlighted by Weller (2007) there are different
“camps” in the e-learning community; some who put the main emphasis on “content”
while the other puts the main emphasis on communication, and people’s position in
this and their responses to the questions above will influence the learning process
and, in particular, the vexed question of who will control what takes place and what
is being learnt.

Will a learner explore his online network and find out from his friends what he
would like to know, or will the tutor provide him with a particular piece of
knowledge? The views of the controlling participant of knowledge and learning will
determine who the main communicator during the learning experience is and what
the role of the participants in the exchange will be. They will either be active or
passive depending on the view of education that the organisation or person in charge
holds. The learners on the ABCD project found communication immensely important
to their learning, while the tutors on the programme said that they would have found
it hard to only use the tools available on the university VLE. They valued the

additional chat, blog, and wiki tools, although not all new tools lived up to the
expectations raised by the descriptions in the literature.

The use of blogs for instance was not used to publish student writing on the internet,
but was used very effectively as a communications channel between tutor and
learner. The student would reflect, or respond to questions during the course and the
tutor would provide detailed individual feedback. This was done in combination with
other tools that enhanced the social aspect of learning. Weekly chat sessions were
very important in fostering a sense of togetherness and trust that meant that on
discussion boards people would not feel inhibited to participate, although tutors were
disappointed in how students used the discussion boards, namely more as
monologues, than active discussions between participants. One issue responsible for
the use of the discussion boards in this way might have been that they were
integrated in the assessment structure of the course and learners could choose their
five best postings for grading and might have been more concerned with receiving
good marks for a ‘monologue’, than a good discussion with their fellow students.

However, students did not participate as much as tutors had hoped for, which follows
the pattern that was observed in their use in the VLE by Gulati (2006).
The combination of the use of different tools did alleviate problems traditionally
occurring on a VLE, such as lack of autonomy, lack of affective engagement, lack of
personalisation and, to a certain extent, issues of power and control (Mason and
Weller, 2001; Mann, 2005; Kop, 2006; Conrad, 2005). The variety of tools ensured a
high level of personalisation and engagement.

The level of direct communication on online networks was low, but there was a high
level of indirect communication and listening to and digesting of what others had to
say or write. Analysing this through the lens of Sfard’s metaphors (1998), one could
argue that the level of participation was not high, but that the level of acquisition was
high, even though network enthusiasts such as Siemens and Downes would argue
that the mere presence on the network, and the sporadic participation through
producing posts would bring it into the participation metaphor.

Respondents to the survey indicated that blogs were important here as people’s
publications, thoughts, aggregated information and multimedia resources did make
them think. They also valued the validation of information by “central nodes” on the
network, but in the research people did not seem to engage as much and comment as
much as suggested in the literature, nor did they get involved in a dialogue, which
confirms Dron and Anderson’s theory that the closer people are emotionally to other
people in the learning activity, the greater their involvement (Dron & Anderson,
2007). Presence

The different levels of presence of participants in an online learning environment

have been highlighted by Dron and Anderson (2007). The research in the ABCD
project clearly showed that their observation that in group settings there is a high
level of social and tutor presence was accurate. It was very important for the learners
that the tutor was highly involved in the programme. Not all tutors were, but in the
course that was taught by two tutors who created an inter-play and showed a high
level of presence, students were highly engaged, more so than on modules where a
lower level of multimedia was used and where the tutor had a lower level of presence

This was different on the online networks where engagement was not necessarily
lower, but different. People would not participate much in an active way on the
networks, but learnt from conversations and communications between others on the
network, in particular from the “central nodes” on the network and their aggregation
of tools and of information in different formats. People moved in and out of
information streams, in and out of networks; the level of involvement was lower than
in the formal educational setting. The people on the network were more autonomous
as learners than the students on the formal course, which means that they did not
necessarily need the high level of presence that was appreciated by learners on the
ABCD project.‘Belonging’ - Affective issues in formal networked learning

Picard et al (2004) proposed that affective issues are important in learning. They
played a role in the ABCD research as the building of trust fostered an openness that

people would not show on online networks. The conscious effort to create a “place”
described by Fisher et al (2004) and Oldenburg (1989) meant that participants in the
ABCD project experienced their development emotionally from the start to the end
of the project and became friends with one another after the two years. Tutors were
surprised by the level of closeness reached in the online learning environment and
the possibilities of building up relationships, in addition to how humour and banter
would permeate especially the chat and create an informal cosy atmosphere and a
level of camaraderie. Nearly all students and tutors valued this atmosphere and
agreed that it created an educational milieu and enhanced the learning experience.
People knew each other so well at the end of the programme that a high level of trust
had built that meant students would take the time and were willing to help each other
out, and were not afraid to make mistakes in front of each other. Belonging and reputation on informal learning networks

A certain level of belonging and trust was also seen on networks. People are attracted
to “human filters”, particular nodes on the network, to validate their information. All
participants on the network research aknowledged that ‘reputation’ was the main
criterion used to grade knowledgeable contributions. Some users and even central
nodes on networks believe that networks are value-free and power-free, but it is clear
that participants’ reputation as reliable sources of information will attract others,
which makes these nodes powerful and influential as was also noticed by Mejias
(2009) and Shirky (2008). Their use of the network and what information they
disseminate influences the behaviour of other participants on the network. People
follow them and their writing, which creates a sense of belonging. The research
suggest that they are perceived as adult educators.

As also highlighted in 2.2.2. this shows that participants on networks are not equal
and that networks are not value-free. Moreover, some suggest that it is
mathematically impossible for non-hierarchical networks to exist (Barabasi, 2003),
and that equality on networks is a myth, which indicates that people will have to
learn how to negotiate these informal, non equal and non-power-free and non-value-
free networks. Kop and Bouchard argue that adult learners have different levels of
self-efficacy and self-regulatory abilities. They see as the main question how the use

of social media and adult educators can assist learners in their journey to self-
direction (Kop and Bouchard, 2010 in press).

There is a different level of responsibility between “central nodes” on networks and

“adult educators”. The research highlights that people learn in a wide variety of ways
and different people need different competencies and support to learn comfortably in
different situations and settings. It would be an important role for adult educators to
assist learners to negotiate these new learning grounds as there is clearly a lack of
critical and challenging behaviour amongst participants on networks because of the
unorganised nature of networks. Learning strategies and learning preferences

The tutors on the ABCD courses expressed that they learnt a lot about the differences
between learners and their learning preferences, more so than in a classroom,
because of the high level of reflection and interaction. One tutor even thought this the
most striking issue she had learnt while teaching on the programme. Tutors thought it
important to provide a wide variety of resources and activities to ensure that most
learners could find a resource or activity that would suit their learning style. One
example was the activity of visualising action research, that had interesting outcomes
as some of the learners thrived when visual materials were introduced. The use of
metaphors also stimulated the engagement of several students with the course
content. Their involvement, motivation to learn and confidence levels increased
above expectations.

Moreover, the tutors highlighted the importance of communication, which shows that
Weller’s analysis of e-learning and the need to close the divide between proponents
of either information or communication in e-learning, and the move towards a
combination of the two, would be the most conductive to people’s learning as
different people need different approaches to thrive online (Weller, 2007). Student roles, attitides and use tendencies

During the ABCD programme the role of the students changed from being totally
dependent on the tutor for resources, guidance and instruction, which involved

waiting for the tutor to provide resources and prepare activities, to carrying out an
action research project independently, with the tutor in a supportive role. Grow’s
(1991) ideas on the balance of control between tutor and learner and the effect of
matches and mismatches in the dynamics between the two has proven to be accurate
in the ABCD project. It showed the importance of an awareness of teaching staff of
the level of control students need and expect in their learning, but also an awareness
of their need to foster independence in students and to “let go”. It also showed the
need for tutors to be aware of transitional phases in the level of self-direction by the
students. These moments needed to be supported to ensure that the students would
move through them successfully. It was also clear in the ABCD programme that the
transitional episodes were quite often hard and demanding for students as a higher
level of autonomy was expected. However, if learners worked their way through
them, it boosted their confidence levels, stimulated them and motivated them to
move on to a higher level of conceptual learning.

The difference between the learners on the ABCD programme and the networked
learners was that their aggregation and feedback was initially mainly organised by
the tutor, while the networked learners and the students on ABCD at the final stages
of the programme would carry out these tasks more independently and would find
and collect resources and information themselves. The networked learners would
find ‘experts’ online for feedback, while the ABCD learners would receive feedback
mainly from the tutors. Both groups of learners relied on a group or network of
trusted fellow learners and experts for their information and their learning. Affective
issues played a role in the level and manner of communication and the people chosen
to communicate with. Learning experience and engagement

The majority of educationalists believe that most learning experiences are based on
five components, although researchers disagree on the emphasis put on the
components: 1. the gathering of information, 2. social interaction with peers or
knowledgeable others, 3. the learners’ experience in life and a level of activity while
learning, 4. reflection and conceptualisation and 5. repurposing of the information in
a particular context (Downes, 2006; Kop, 2006; Mason, 2006, Mayes, 2002; Salmon,

2004. These elements can all be incorporated in a technology-driven learning
environment, but their interconnectedness would be the determining factor in the
quality and depth of the learning that takes place on the environment. In addition to
these dimensions, there are several hidden factors to consider in the design of
learning experiences.

As Leach (1999highlighted, these influences determine why learning takes place in a

particular way and which components will have most emphasis. Institutional and
tutor views on knowledge, learning and education will be influenced by their ideas,
beliefs and values and in their turn will influence the ways they teach. The ideas by
Weller (2007) and Sfard (1998) have shown some of the different approaches tutors
take in their teachers based on their views on education, knowledge and learning.
Learners’ culture, beliefs, ideas and values will influence what type of learning they
choose to do, and which learning environment they feel comfortable in.

The theories of learning most widely promoted in e-learning are social

constructivism, communities of practice, and connectivist theories. These theories
consider ideas of a one-sided transfer of knowledge from tutor to student as
problematic. They see knowledge as situated in the learners’ context and related to
learners’ experiences and social interactions. Active participation in collaborative
learning activities, rather than passively receiving knowledge from the teacher is key
in these theories (Lave and Wenger, 2002). The connectivist theories as proposed by
Downes (2006) and Siemens (2006b) posit that knowledge is distributive, i.e. ‘not
located in any given place but rather consists of the network of connections formed
from experience and interactions with a knowing community’ (Downes, 2006, p. 1).
Social Constructivism, Communities of Practice and Connectivism form a powerful
basis for learning in a networked environment and are used by technologists and
educationalists, depending on their philosophy of knowledge. How then do these
theoretical frameworks relate to the learners on the ABCD project and on the

On the ABCD project there was still a high level of transfer of knowledge: tutors
worked with designers to incorporate packages of knowledge into activities and

podcasts and videocasts in the learning environment, which were discussed by using
online communications tools, and reflected upon in the reflective diaries. Feedback
and reflective videocasts by the tutor helped the learners to conceptualise the subject
matter. Synthesis and repurposing took place through carrying out active assignments
such as producing a video as a group work, or by carrying out action research and
writing a research report. The tutor was the key participant in the learning. He or she
played a dominant role during the whole process, apart from the final module where
he had a supervisory role in students’ action research projects.

The students valued the high level of tutor presence and support and indicated on
several occasions that it enhanced their learning experience as this high level of
presence was what made them think at a deeper level. Moreover, the high level of
feedback made clear to them that they had learned something new and provided the
confidence required to move on to the next part and next level of the programme.
The learners valued the learning in a community where they would learn from each
other, but mostly from the tutor, who provided the scaffolding for them to move on
to the next learning episode. The group dynamics enhanced their learning. This
would suggest that a combination of acquisition and participation in learning , to use
Sfard’s metaphors, and a combination of providing information and communication
would be most conductive to learning.

The high number of components and tools on the learning environment influenced
student learning. After learning how to use the tools, several students mentioned that
they had never had so much fun while learning. Initially, they experienced some
problems with the navigation of the site because of the sheer number of applications
available. They valued the high level of choice, however, and managed them well in
the following modules.

The participants in the networked learning research experienced their learning quite
differently. Although they valued the “central nodes” on the network, their learning
was much more independent. As Dron and Anderson (2007) indicate, the emotional
level of engagement while learning on networks is lower than in groups and their
engagement with the learning activity would typically be lower than that of the
learners on the ABCD project, who felt they were part of a group. There was a sense

of belonging, but it was less strong than on the ABCD project. The learners on the
networks would “dip in and out” to obtain information, but would not expect close
ties with the other participants, although they did show a sense of affinity with the
“central nodes” on the network. Between the learners on the ABCD programme these
strong ties did develop and influenced the learning experience in a positive way. Higher order thinking

Some doubt if moving towards a self-directed, personalised form of online education

enhances education (Norris, 2001). They propose that a high level of information, the
economics of attention (Hagel, 2006), and the ‘viral’ developments online all mean
that a high level of superficiality in thoughts and ideas is hard to avoid. In a
personalised informal learning environment, learners are challenged to reach a deep
level of thinking because they need to find their own information, manipulate it to
make connections with their own ideas, synthesise it and link it to what they already
know. In addition they have to find knowledgeable others to help them find and
organise valuable information. This is a much harder process than a more traditional
form of education.

The tutor or instructor in a formal education setting is always available to provide

that opposing point of view, and to ask these important questions and devise
activities that challenge the learner. How are people challenged into ‘higher order
thinking’ in an informal online environment? Kerr suggests that theories that
promote technology, including the Connectivist one, do not explain higher-order
thinking adequately. He challenges Downes and Siemens to explain ‘transferring
understanding, making understanding and building understanding’, and the internal
processes that lead to ‘deep thinking and creating understanding’ (Kop & Hill, 2008,
p.8). Some suggestions of ‘vicarious’ learning have come to the fore (Mayes, 2002),
where recommender systems based on learner data and on data of similar learning
experiences by others could help learners to access relevant information to further
their learning, but these systems are in their infancy (Downes, 2009a) and will
further develop in line with the development of the semantic web (Matthews, 2005)
and Personal Learning Environments.

The learners on the ABCD project were quite clear that their tutors on the course,
rather than their peers or people on online networks enabled them to think at a higher
level. In particular the feedback in the reflective diary helped the students to move to
a higher level in their thinking. The participants in the network research however felt
that online networks provide opposing views to challenge them as long as the
networks are open and diverse. Research observations and participation in networks,
however, suggest that people do not respond and comment in depth to what others
have written. It is rare that an extensive discussion is carried out, usually on a topic
people feel passionate about.

That means that what is written in the blogosphere remains, in general, in the sphere
of beliefs and opinions and highly tuned skills of participants to evaluate the content
on the network will be required to find alternative points of view, especially as there
is a tendency of people to sign up to networks where they are likely to encounter
similar views to the ones they already hold. (Mejias, 2009).

The increased access to relevant information through participation on networks will

facilitate access to a variety of points of view, but the help of a tutor to aid them with
this is missing. Respondents to the online survey also had a variety of ideas on who
can be considered an online expert. Participants in the network research were very
trusting, of the “central nodes” on the network and indicated that in excess of nine of
such knowledgeable people were available and helped to validate information. The
close contact in a course, with formal structures to communicate and contact each
other, where a high level of trust would be fostered has shown to make a great
difference in the level of higher-order thinking on the ABCD project.

The tutor in a formal education class has the responsibility to help people access
alternative points of view, while this is not the case with nodes on networks. The
research suggests that to reach a higher level of thinking, it is a better option to learn
in a semi-autonomous system, for instance in a university, where learners receive
support and guidance from a tutor in addition to their learning episodes on the
Internet. Important factors here would be the learner choice, the purpose of the
learning and the learner motivation.

251 Comparison of face-to-face and online learning

Little research has been undertaken comparing face-to-face and online learning
experiences directly, but the results that do exist suggest that outcomes achieved
using technology are at least at the same level as those in the traditional classroom.
(Gulati, 2006). However, these studies look at learning outcomes as opposed to the
learner experience. All students on the ABCD project expressed a preference for a
blended approach in learning. They would have liked a regular face-to-face session,
but still preferred the online option instead of a pure face-to-face course for its
flexibility. It allowed people to “wrap the course around their lives”, rather than the
course being the determining factor of their lives. They would have liked some time
for the tutor to explain concepts to them face-to-face and they found the human
interaction an important issue in a course, but were happy with the way the group
had grown together. This suggests that it is possible to achieve a high level of
affective and social engagement in a mediated networked learning environment.

The tutors, who all had taught face-to-face previously, were surprised by the level of
engagement possible through the online learning environment and through the chat
and reflective diary in particular. They also expressed a view that the online teaching
had made them much more aware of the students’ developments and learning
preferences than would happen in a traditional classroom. All interviewed tutors
would have liked a combination of face-to-face and online learning, to get the best of
both worlds: direct communication face-to-face, especially to explain complicated
concepts and to be able to gauge body language, and the higher level of interaction,
reflection and engagement in the online environment.

6.2.3. The knowledgeable other

Much has been written in the literature on education about the need for a
knowledgeable other in the learning process. This knowledgeable other can be a
parent, an elder in a community, a ‘master’ in a work situation (Lave and Wenger,
2002), a teacher to achieve transformational learning (Freire and Macedo, 1999) or
the transfer of knowledge (Rogers, 2002). In an online environment the
knowledgable other can be a member of a ‘community web’ as discussed by Illich

(1971), or a node on a network, not embodied in a person, but as a ‘connection point’
on an online network as envisioned by Downes (2009a) and Siemens (2008b).

During the two parts of this study, the knowledgeable other has been shown to play
an important role in the learning of others in an informal online setting, a formal one,
or a mixture of the two. Teaching strategies

The tutors on the ABCD project did not receive particular instructions on how to
teach as it was seen that tutors have their own personality and individual teaching
styles and preferences. The project team incorporated several principles in the ways
in which they worked with the tutors, which were based on the development of the
‘crit’, central feature in arts and design practice involving peer-assessment, an
abundance and choice of information, a creative and active approach to learning, and
the development towards learner autonomy (Owen et al, 2006). In addition, learning
technologists and the project manager ensured that tutors had the skills to use Web
2.0 communications tools effectively in their teaching through individual training
sessions. Learning Technologists would also provide tutors with examples of active
and interactive teaching, and teaching in groups while using technology.

This strategy led to very different teaching styles by different tutors on the
programme and a number of students remarked on this as they preferred some
teaching strategies over others. The teaching strategy that was most engaging was
also most interactive, not only in the sense that interactive activities were used, but in
the sense of facilitating the interaction with people, between tutors and students and
between students. Most students thrived in the learning environment where the tutors
were very active, provided lots of information and feedback on student thoughts and
work, were excited by the online teaching and also valued a high level of social
interaction amongst the students.

At the same time these tutors ensured that students had to move from a structured
environment to a more flexible and self-directed learning environment. You might
say that good tutors have always done these things, but to manage this in an online
environment is more difficult than in a classroom because of the transactional
distance between students and tutors. It was imperative that tutors would follow the

reflective diaries of students, for instance, to find out that some of them were having
difficulties and then produce a reflective videocast to ensure students would
understand that this state of mind is part of the learning process and ensure they
would continue the work even more enthusiastically. At the same time the
technology opens up possibilities as the course offered a continuous flow of
activities, interactions with tutor and fellow students that made for a more
encompassing learning experience than a -face-to-face session once a week would
have done.

In an informal online learning environment the vision of Illich (1971) might be

achieved. Learners have access to resources, access to tutors and access to the
possibility to teach themselves and thrive in the open learning environment, but it
was clear from the ABCD research that the ideas of Macedo and Freire (1999), who
promoted a high level of direction by the tutor, were more relevant in the formal,
semi-autonomous setting, as the students valued the level of tutor presence and
involvement. Illich’s (1971) ideas were more relevant for the online networks and
seemed to be achieved there, but their application remained at a basic level. It was
only rarely that the level of a ‘community web’ was achieved through extensive
interaction and network engagement.

It seemed people were consumers rather than active learners on the networks and it
appears that people need to reach a high level of epistemological maturity to be able
to seek information independently on networks, assess it critically, link it to earlier
knowledge and internalise it. In addition, it takes time and commitment to contribute
to online networks, to publish what has been learned to enhance the learning of
others. But that is exactly what is required to ensure that the knowledge on networks
matures and develops and does not remain at the level of belief for some, without
much questioning and critical assessment. Tutor role, attitudes and use tendencies

In the ABCD research tutors were very much present, and very much appreciated by
the students. As already mentioned, tutors on the project taught in a variety of ways.
Some would transfer material used in their face-to-face teaching to the online
environment and provide a minimum of support online and expect that this would be

enough to engage students. But other tutors would have a very different approach
and realise that a more engaged and engaging attitude to teaching online would be
required to create meaningful learning experiences. They used a plethora of
strategies and resources in their teaching. The materials could be transformed and
presented visually or aurally, or a combination of the two. Web 2.0 communications
were used to further enhance the learning experience by forging connections between
all participants on the course.

This different approach in teaching makes it difficult to define a particular tutor role,
or particular attitudes. It was possible, though, to ascertain which approach was most
successful. The tutors, who were most successful in engaging the learners were co-
teaching, enthusiastic about the online venture, themselves very much engaged in the
teaching and learning process and wanted it to succeed. The triangle between the two
tutors and the learning technologist who worked with them was important as well;
they “fed” of each other and all three found the process of course development very
stimulating to their own development, conceptual thinking and learning. The amount
of time or energy spent on the course was unimportant to them, they enjoyed the
teaching as much as the learners on their course did their learning; they all had fun.
There was an intensity, emotional engagement, and enjoyment to the whole
enterprise that very much depended on the people involved. An important part of
their success for instance was the superb feedback that these tutors provided the
students with, which was custom-made for the learners, insightful in their learning,
motivational and confidence building, but very time consuming to produce.

The question, of course, is if these tutors would also have had this attitude in a face-
to-face environment: were they ‘just’ good teachers? And would this level of support
and engagement and time spent on the course be sustainable and financially viable if
the course was not heavily financially supported by project funding? It seems both
were the case. Apart from their quality as teachers, it was in particular their
enthusiasm for the online project, and the new teaching strategies it offered to them,
that made it succeed.

In his PhD thesis Dron (2002, p. 91.) analysed the role of the tutor. He began by
setting out how a teacher’s role is firmly based on his or her expertise in a particular

subject matter. Communicating this subject matter to students and motivating
students, ‘making students curious’, are seen as other factors that are important in the
teacher’s kaleidoscope of competencies, although Dron emphasized that these
motivational factors are extrinsically motivational factors, not intrinsical ones. He
also identifies some other teacher roles: the sequencing and structuring of learning
activities, in addition to the gathering and organising of resources and the setting and
evaluation of learning objectives. Dron not only saw positive roles for the tutor, he
also pointed out that the tutors maintain potentially harmful systems, which cause a
rigidity and a ‘lack of adaptation to students’ needs and unwanted artefacts, which
are antithetical to effective learning, such as examinations and lectures’ (Dron, 2002,
p. 101).

These ideas are not new and have already been emphasised by Illich (1971) and
Foucault (1977) as they identified the damaging influence of bureaucratic systems on
society. Dron followed Illich’s ideas of a teacher-less society and questioned the
need for teachers in a networked world, by using his thesis to research the
development of an autonomous learning system and research recommender systems
for educational purposes, which might replace a teacher. He disregarded the effect
that ‘good’ teachers can have on learning while teaching others. Teaching experience

I have not had so much fun in learning for many years. Tonight I felt liberated
as a tutor . . . . Have I been missing a whole lot of fun from my teaching...or
have I just been constrained by my traditional teaching and learning
environment? (T2)

This is only one of the tutor remarks about their teaching experience in the reflective
diaries. Most remarks indicated that their teaching was invigorated by the new
learning environment, the new tools, the working in teams and the level of reflection
on their teaching. Learning Technologists have said for several years that not only
will the learning be enhanced by using current technologies, but also the teaching
(Bereiter, 2002; Owen et al, 2006). Tutors were surprised by what could be achieved
in an online environment: the level of deep thinking, the level of affective and social
interaction that they managed to establish. Of particular interest was how the use of
visual and auditory resources could enhance the learning, and how the use of

videocasts in teaching could instill confidence and motivate students at transitional
points during the course. Tutors were also aware of the aims of the project in
achieving a high level of self-direction in student learning by the end of the course
and enjoyed working with the team to achieve this. They did this by reflecting on
their course outline and identifying the right moments and strategies to achieve the
programme goals, for instance, through ideas of ‘redundancy’ as expressed in the
‘crit’: a high amount of materials offered a high level of choice to the learner (Owen
et al, 2006) and was incorporated at particular moments. Tutors and students felt that
this ‘redundancy’ enhanced student learning, but at the same time needed to be
controlled and supported by the tutor to ensure students wouldn’t get lost in an ocean
of materials online.

All tutors indicated that the experience of teaching online had been a valuable one
for them and that they learned themselves from the experience, for instance, how to
use Web 2.0 and chat tools, but also the use of reflective diaries by students and by
tutors themselves. It made them think more about the teaching process than they
would have done in a traditional teaching environment.
Not all of the tutors managed to engage the students at the same high level, and this
was mostly the case with tutors who relied heavily on materials and self-directed
activities, rather than on interaction and communication with students. The online expert

Access to knowledgeable others had been highlighted in the research as one of the
main factors to enhance learning; not only on the ABCD project, but also on the
online networks. The way the expert is accessed on the networks is different from
that in an online classroom, but the need for someone to lead, provide information
and communicate new ideas and beliefs, and critically analyse and evaluate
information is as necessary learning online as it is in the classroom. The participants
on the online survey emphasised that there were numerous experts on their network
and that the knowledge distributed and discussed by these ‘nodes’ was important to
ensure that the learners progressed in their learning. The difference with formal
education, of course, is that people can choose their own teacher on their own
network, choosing the information relevant to their needs, aspirations and interests.

6.2.4. The relevance of learner autonomy

The learners on the networks researched were operating at a high level of self-
direction. It has become clear from the research that the level of autonomy of a
learner is a determining factor in how confident and motivated she will be in
gathering information, in communicating with others on the network, in making
connections with other networks and in developing ideas and thoughts. However, as
Bouchard (2002) and Dron (2007) emphasised, learner autonomy is not a particular
quality or level of independence in learning that people have, but a relational
interplay between contextual and personal factors. Depending on people’s life
circumstances they will choose what is the right option for them at that time. If they
choose a formal course, they will choose to have a tutor who will carry out some
tasks for them, such as organizing and gathering of resources, and finding
challenging information. Control versus autonomy?

Gerald Grow (1996) (Table 5) indicated that there is a fine balance to strike in the
level of control between the tutor and the learner. In an online learning environment
learners can move on a continuum from being fully dependent on the tutor to being
autonomous in their learning. In addition, some learning environments, such as
games and simulations, encourage learners to be totally engrossed in their learning,
to be in a ‘flow-state’ (Metros, 2001). Each of these are related to the level of control
exercised by the tutor. The more control the tutor hands over to the learner, the more
the learner moves towards autonomy as represented in Figure 19. The level of
autonomy in a “flow-state-inducing” environment is a contradictory one, as the
learner can move and be active in the learning environment and feel in control, while
the underlying learning is still planned by an educator.

The support from a tutor proved to be important on the ABCD programme, where the
group of learners moved on the continuum from dependent to fairly autonomous
learners during the programme in line with their rising levels of confidence. They
achieved this with the help of tutors who were aware of the support required to do

this successfully and provided it. On some modules tutors expected a high level of
self-direction of the students from the start, which was difficult for the students, and
led to motivation diminishing and to a lack of engagement.

Dependent Interested Engaged Autonomous Learner in

learner learner learner learner flow-state

Tutor in x x

Directive x x x x

Tutor as x x

Tutor as x

No tutor x x?

Table 5 Who is in control? (Adapted from model by Grow, 1996)

Learners on the learning networks were directing their learning, and even though
there were no tutors present, they still looked to the important nodes on the network
for guidance, people they trusted to provide them with quality information.

The majority of participants used the networks to communicate with people with the
same interest and to learn something new, but the problem was, and will always be,
that the learners themselves have to verify the quality of the information, which they
did through trusted people on the network. When asked their opinion on who would
be knowledgeable online answers were surprising and ranged from ‘I just know’ to
‘their work has intelligent integrity’ in addition to answers indicating that it would
mainly depend on the “engagement factor” on the site, i.e. the level of activity on the
expert’s site, and the papers and books discussed, for instance. If people do not have

highly developed critical thinking skills, this might be a deficient strategy. During
the research it was noticed on several occasions that beliefs and opinions on blogs
were based on theories by ‘online experts’ that had been criticised for their lack of
proof and robustness in academic journals. A knowledgeable critical other, whose
job it is to be critical and who challenges these beliefs would help the learning on the
networks. Downes (2007a) suggested that as long as networks are open, autonomous,
connected and diverse there will be critical others to take on this role, but others
(Norris, 2001; Barabasi, 2003) find this stand point a little naive.

Research is available to show that networks are not neutral and that there are power
relations on any human network, similar to other situations where humans
congregate. Barabasi (2003)’s research on internet networks found that a network is
not ‘random’ and that participants on networks are not only selective, but that the
nature of networks prevents network ‘surfers’ from having access to all information
at the same level.
The most intriguing result of our Web-mapping project was the complete
absence of democracy, fairness, and egalitarian values on the Web. We learned
that the topology of the Web prevents us from seeing anything but a mere
handful of the billion documents out there.
(Barabasi, 2003, p. 56)

The level of research on this topic is not significant yet, and it would be important to
undertake further empirical research into how the Internet – a place at which human
beings congregate and, to an extent, replicate the intricacies of human society,
including commerce – impacts on learning. An analysis of the power relations,
democracy and equality would be valuable to establish if the initial digital divide of
access to technology has reconceptualised itself into inequality in access to
information. Self-directed learning

An awareness of the factors involved in learner self-direction (Bouchard, 2009a)

have been important for the project team on the ABCD programme, for instance in
knowing when to create a transitional phase in the course to advance students’ level
of self-direction in preparation for their move to online independent learning. It was
felt that the curriculum should entail courses in critical thinking and information
literacy to ensure that when people go online and find more information

independently that they would be confident in doing so. These modules were
developed and offered as part of the programme and students confirmed the
importance of these elements in the course as they were surprised by their own
prejudices and lack of a critical appraisal particularly of visually presented materials.
They valued the input and the opposite points of view that were provided by the
tutor. It gave them an awareness of the need for critical appraisal of information

Bouchard’s (2009a) model on learner autonomy showed in more detail the factors
that are important in learner autonomy and it has been useful to have this model to
analyse more clearly which factors were particularly important in learners
development. They clearly all play a role and are also interlinked. For instance, the
use of visual and multimedia features in the course made learners more motivated.
Tutor feedback through language and videocasts clearly raised students’ confidence
and engagement with the course.

Student withdrawal from the course was in most circumstances related to contextual
factors and factors related to having to organise oneself to free up time to do the
course work. In a traditional classroom a learner would have arrived at the classroom
at a given time, but that would be all the organising he or she would have to do. In a
semi-autonomous learning environment, however, it is up to the learners to choose
resources, to allocate time for activities, to free up time to be present at chats. It must
be acknowledged, though, that students did not have to organise everything; they
valued the ‘packaging of knowledge’ by the tutor in ‘bite-size chunks’ as they called
them, which made them easily digestible.

Economic factors have also played a role, particularly with the students who dropped
out. They mentioned that the course might not be relevant enough to their work to
invest the time required to successfully finish the programme. The students who
finished the programme were all ‘non-traditional’ students who would not have taken
a HE course if the programme had not been there. They were motivated by the fact
that they achieved learning at this level and would gain a Higher Education
qualification. Their motivation was also raised by the use of the combination of
different tools, namely the interplay between the learning activities and discussion

board, and the use of video in combination with the reflective journal to provide
feedback. Students found it important to be part of a group that was fostered through
the chats. Their attitudes changed as the programme progressed along with the rise in
their confidence levels.

They moved from being dependent on the tutor to independent study and research
supported by the tutor. Furthermore, they engaged in learning episodes where they
would venture online, find their own resources and keep these organised on social
bookmarking sites. They wrote extensively in their reflective journal, but tutors
found their participation levels in the wikis and discussion boards sometimes lower
than expected; evidently some students found ‘lurking’ while reading contributions
by others and digesting information more important in their learning than
contributing to the discussion themselves. Students indicated that this lack of
participation was usually caused by time management issues: they had only so much
time to spend on the course and had to be strategic in how they spent their time.

The learners on the network were performing at a high level of self-direction and
worked in quite a different way from the students on ABCD. Their learning was
informal and their motivation not led by factors such as obtaining a qualification, but
by the interest in the topic of discussion on the network and the increase in their
knowledge and skills. They would organise their own resources, know where to find
information and how to validate it. They were intrinsically motivated to learn and did
not need the promise of a qualification to motivate them to continue with their

The semiotics on networks suited them: the moving in and out of information
streams, using hypertext, multimedia, RSS feeds and trusted human filters to
aggregate the information. Gulati (2006) discussed factors that determine how visible
people are on networks and how actively they participate in formal online
discussions. The main factor is related to the level of a learner’s self-direction, and
other factors involve people’s learning preferences. They might prefer to read and
reflect, work on assignments, rather than to write posts online.

262 Informal learning

Gulati (2006) emphasised the need for formal education to also embrace informal
learning as it provides learners with the opportunity to make connections with the
knowledge and experience they already hold and to relate it to their context. Social
media and networks have shown to be a help. As learners use them inside and
outside the educational context, they form a bridge to make the somewhat artificial
formal learning situation more relevant to people’s lives and embed the learning in
real life, be it in home life or professional life. Web 2.0 technology makes possible
the ‘pedagogy for human beings’ (Wheelahan, 2005, p. 145) that seems most
appropriate at a time of change and complexity, where different types of knowledge,
propositional, tacit and constructed, come together and are called upon by the learner
when appropriate to enhance their lives. It also brings closer the vision of Illich
(1971) for people to learn informally in community webs, where people can call on
experts of their choice to learn, where they can find resources of their choice, and can
be the expert for other people.

Thoughts can easily be expressed, published and discussed with others on networks,
experts or friends as long as people are confident, competent, critical and
comfortable in using the tools, which is not always the case. The students on the
ABCD programme described their initial learning curve in mastering the tools as
steep. After that they referred to the joy of using them to advance their learning.
They also indicated that without the module on critical thinking and information
literacy they would never have thought about sources on the internet and would have
continued to take information at face value. Taking information at face value seems
to be the most important challenge for informal learning on the Internet, where a
wide variety of opinions are represented and where everyone can make connections
with everyone else. There are increasingly more pressures for learning to become
personalised, with the control in the hands of the individual, rather than the formal
education institution. (Heppell, 2006; Attwell, 2009b; Downes, 2009a). Personalisation

The research results have highlighted that the new Web 2.0 technologies offer
opportunities for personalisation. The students on the ABCD project provided some
suggestions themselves: they would have liked to have their own homepage where

they could have a personal profile and where they could show their links and other
resources and course related ideas they would like to share with others. Another
suggestion was to help students with their time-management and course organisation
by sending messages to the technology they use outside the course, such as social
networking sites like Facebook, to tell them to carry out a particular task or attend a
chat session. They expressed a preference for receiving course related messages over
advertising popup boxes. Especially the one-to-one interaction between tutor and
student facilitated an adaptation of the tutoring and learning experience to the
individual learner needs.

The available tools mean that a synergy between formal learning, informal learning,
and the use of similar technology in and outside the educational environment can be
established (Lee, 2000; Bereiter, 2002), be it in the work place or the home
environment, creating a milieu of lifelong and life-wide learning, to coincide with
political pressures for this to happen (Blair, 2000). Jenkins (2007, p. 5) also argued
that ‘it is likely that in the near future the best thinking will take place outside
universities as academics have already moved to this more open environment’, where
publishing happens with the press of a button, rather than through an elaborate
process of review and commercial publishing. Some argue that the reviewing could
take place in the open online environment, rather than through the traditional time-
consuming process (Siemens, 2008a) and that the discussions and publishing in the
blogosphere will help the generation of ideas, and the spreading of knowledge much
more rapidly (Glaser, 2004) than the traditional system does.

The participants in the online network research indicated that this is what they liked
about participating in a professional online network: to get ideas by thinking about
the postings, communications, the reading and writing aggregated from online
networks, reflecting on these, and repurpose the information by writing about them
or sending a video out on the subject in question. This whole process enhanced their
personal learning. They were in charge and made their personal decisions on the
sources and resources to use related to their personal interest, and to write and
critique what they found of importance.

Several observers have indicated, however, that there are problems with learning on
open online networks. These are concerned with the talents and competencies
required to be able to verify the quality of the information and knowledge on
networks, in addition to the way information is presented by the new media.
Literacies required to function well in a connective learning environment have, for
instance, been identified as media literacy, information literacy, critical thinking, and
an awareness of how statistics are presented (CIBER, 2008; Downes, 2009b,
Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2009).

The need for these skills was confirmed by students on the ABCD project who all
expressed the opinion that the course in information literacy helped them to search
effectively, and were surprised at their own lack of critical thinking, especially when
it concerned beliefs and ideas that they felt strongly about. Of course this is why
people learn informally online: to find out about issues that they feel strongly about,
so these skills are vital in an online learning environment. Responses by the
participants in the network research indicate that these competencies were developed
over time as they perceived themselves to be capable of validating information and
discerning quality papers from poor ones, and had strategies in place to evaluate who
were important nodes on networks, whom they could trust and who they used to filter
information for them.



What does this thesis mean in relation to the sweeping statements in the literature
that the authority of academia has been challenged by the advancement of
technology and that the nature and concept of knowledge have changed? This thesis
argues that the emergence of Web 2.0 technologies and the different levels and the
nature of connectivity do not necessary change epistemological concepts in
themselves. The research suggests that it is still produced by thinking and
researching human beings, and transferred and constructed in the teaching and
learning process. Claims that knowledge is distributed and resides on online
networks do not seem justified as there is not a high level of in-depth
communication, but rather monologues: central hubs on networks distributing
information. The scale and access to information and knowledge has changed and the
speed of the dissemination process has altered. There are possibilities for an
increased level of conversation about information that could help learners advance in
level of epistemological maturity, but the online conversations on the networks
researched rarely exhibited the level appropriate to a dialogue, in which more in-
depth discussion leads to new knowledge.

Different theories of learning have been highlighted in this thesis. In learning

settings supported by these theories, the relation between learner, educator and what
there is to be learnt has a different emphasis. Weller (2007) highlighted the
dichotomy in e-learning between content and communication and different
approaches supporting one or the other. Sfard (1998) highlighted the differences
between acquiring knowledge and participating in knowledge activities. In an
aquisition model where content is most important, the tutors are also important, as
they are responsible for the transfer of knowledge, while the learners will be fairly
passive and receive knowledge. In a participation model the learner will be most
important, communicate with others, peers and more knowledgeable others about the
content. In the ABCD research all different approaches have been used and the most
successful strategy proved to be the one with a high level of communication, but also
with a high level of resources that stimulated different senses. It was the adult

educator, the high level of presence created through the use of social media, and an
awareness of issues of learner autonomy that fostered learner development.


Putting information and inference to the test of inherent validity requires

specific skills without which the navigation of blogs and wikis might be a
journey towards futility or worse, towards falsehood and superstition. In this
context, careful guidance from ethically motivated adult educators may prove
to be an invaluable resource for web 2.0 cyber-learners.

(Kop & Bouchard, 2010, p. 5, in press)

The new technologies have provided opportunities to reshape the learning

environment and the way we teach and learn, but their implementation causes
challenges to educators, learners and institutions.

The position of educators as “knowledgeable others” has also been challenged in

recent years, as experts can now be found online. The research highlighted the
importance of educators who assist people in their learning in a formal setting, and
also away from institutions. The online equivalent might be called “nodes on
networks”, or “human information filters”, rather than adult educators, but their roles
have similar dimensions. They provide information, in text or digital format, they
point people to important information to advance their learning, and they “digest”
this information before disseminating it.

Where their roles differ is that adult educators have the obligation to critically assess
the information and provide opposing points of view to students as they have a
responsibility to ensure that the learners under their care receive an education and
become familiar with a “rounded” view of the subject under scrutiny. It is also the
responsibility of educators to ensure that all students in their care move on to a
higher level of development, growth, learning and autonomy. This is where the main
differences in formal and informal network-based learning reside: a Web-based
“node” can provide any view he or she likes: the onus is on the people negotiating
the network to find the opposing points of view in order not to build up a mistaken
view of the world. As research has shown, the open WWW has a hierarchical
structure and is not the power free environment that some would like us to believe

(Barabasi, 2003; Mejias, 2009). Negotiating the intricacies of the web requires a
high level of autonomy, critical analysis, information literacy and media literacy,
which not all adult learners possess.

7.2.1. Web 2.0 technologies to facilitate communication in learning

Where the Web 2.0 tools have proven to be effective is in enhancing the
communication in the learning process. In both the networked research and the
research in the ABCD programme, the use of Web 2.0 technologies has been
highlighted by learners and tutors for their effectiveness in the facilitation of online
communication. If the tools are being used for what they do well, e.g. chat for
socialising, wikis for group work, blogs as reflective diaries that people can respond
to, they can play a significant role in the facilitation of a meaningful learning
experience. The crux of their use in a formal setting, however, is that they depend
very much on the ability of the adult educator to integrate them in his or her teaching
in a way that engages learners and tempts them into a dialogue, similar to a
conversation. They can, for instance, be used to support the communication between
learner and educator, to support learners in making choices from the ‘large amounts
of poor content’ and in ‘identifying good content and finding coherent ways of using
it’ (Walton et al, 2008, p. 2).

7.2.2.Recommendations and implications for adult education and institutions

What do these new developments mean for educational institutions? Can institutions
continue to practice in the ways they have been used to for the past centuries, or does
the Internet and the way in which it is currently developing have implications for
formal adult education and the institutions that organise and provide it? Adult education in a new environment

Several commentators (Wellman et al, 2003; Shearman, 2000) have indicated that the
proliferation of Information and Communications Technologies has blurred the
boundaries between home, work, leisure, learning and play, and has reshaped our
life-styles and social interaction and created a new form of literacy. If self-directed
and informal learning in the past consisted of learning from people in face-to-face
networks, videos and television programmes (Field, 1996), computers and mobile

phones are now increasingly seen as the vehicles for people to learn autonomously.
Gulati (2003) emphasises the need for informal strands in online learning to allow
learners to construct knowledge effectively and link it to their own context and
earlier experiences, which might be impossible in a too prescriptive learning
environment. This brings us to the question of who in this process decides what
“worthwhile” knowledge is. The learner, who finds information on the World Wide
Web and communicates in global chat-rooms and in the ‘blogosphere’ to make sense
of that information according to his or her own interests, will experience knowledge
and learn away from the institution. How then can universities validate, respond and
be flexible enough to integrate such approaches into curricula, assessment and
accreditation systems? This will be one of the major challenges facing institutions in
future years resulting in an important negotiating and facilitative role for the local
educator in linking such changed learning processes and environments to the
university’s quality frameworks, local culture and values, and the local context.

The next generation of adult learners will be conditioned by dynamic images on film
and video games and will be very susceptible to the presentation of learning
materials via a website using multimedia, perhaps also using mobile phones and
wireless technology or digital television. It will be a great challenge for educators to
redesign their educational content in such a way that optimal engagement by the
learner will take place. To engage with a more diverse student population, teachers in
Higher Education institutions and other adult education contexts of the future might
no longer be solely experts with words, but might have to be proficient distributors of
visual images and links that offer a wider stimulus.

There are signs that activities of this kind are being moved from the margins to the
mainstream of institutions. Five years ago the development of online learning was
only pursued by enthusiasts and in specific distance education institutions, whereas
the use of technology for learning is currently integrated in universities’ learning and
teaching strategies (Swansea University, 2006). However, institutions do not always
embrace change and prefer not to lose any control to the learner.

Effective e-learning strategies will require a flexible curriculum relevant to the

learners’ aspirations and interests, informal opportunities for learners to learn away

from the institution, and experienced and creative tutors and development staff
willing and eager to develop their own ICT, negotiation and mentoring skills. This
will be crucial in supporting learners effectively in this new learning landscape. Personal Learning Environments

Online learning provides immense opportunities for learner-directed learning.

Yet the higher education courses continue to upload pre-defined learning
materials, at intervals defined by the tutor, and emphasise participation in
prescribed learning processes. This research . . . has surfaced central
importance of learners’ desire for personal control over their learning goals,
processes and learning pathways.
(Gulati, 2006, p. 44)

Examining the use of ICT by institutions so far, the rigid Virtual Learning
Environment has not been seen as the ideal vehicle to enhance learning, but merely
as a container of resources, easily accessible by learner and tutor. Different
educational structures and spaces are currently being developed. In response to the
lack of flexibility of the institutional Virtual Learning Environments, Personal
Learning Environments (PLEs) have risen in prominence as possible places for
people to learn. These are currently at research and development stage (Attwell,
2009a; Kop, 2009a; van Harmelen, 2009) and early indications are that different
models of PLEs are being developed; some still linked to educational institutions, but
others totally under the personal control of learners. Proponents of these
environments argue that each learner is unique and that each learning experience is a
unique one and that the more control the learner has over his or her own learning the
better the learning will align with his or her self and own needs and aspirations. That
is not to say that communication and collaboration should not be part of these
developments: some do not call them personal learning environment, but social
learning environment because of the interconnectedness with others in such an
environment (Walton et al, 2008).

There are clearly a number of problematic issues related to a PLE outside the sphere
of an ‘overarching tutor’ or institution, most notably issues of learner autonomy, and
an identified lack of critical literacies (Downes, 2009b) in learners, which could be
problematic as online networks are not value and power free (Barabasi, 2003).
Research is currently being carried out in PLEs of this nature and some can see how

these problems might be overcome through the use of information recommender
systems in combination with other tools (Downes, 2010). However, as research is at
an early stage, it is not yet known if this is the case.

In addition to social interaction, a form of vicarious learning (Mayes, 2002) is

envisaged in PLEs, where data collected during earlier searches, learning activities
and personal profiles will drive databases in finding relevant information for future
learning. This in addition to helper applications to make connections to formal
education institutions and communications platforms as ‘providing pedagogical
driven scaffolds and narratives to support new forms of learning is essential’ (Walton
et al, 2008, p. 2) to ensure that information and content for learning are not
approached in isolation. After all, particular skills and competencies are required to
learn outside an institutional framework. Areas for actively producing artefacts and
writing that can be disseminated and discussed online are also seen to be important in
PLEs to re-envisage earlier information.

Would it be possible to develop a PLE that would qualitatively be good enough at

aggregating valid information and provide a critical note and be capable of
substituting a tutor? Or would, as Dron (2002) suggested, the level of autonomy of
most adult learners inhibit their full participation in its use, including communicating
with experts and use of information recommendation? We will have to wait and see.
However, what the learners on the ABCD project repeated time and time again
during the research was that we should not forget the human element in learning.
Affective issues and building up a level of trust are important before learners will
feel comfortable in a learning “place” and want to share their resources, get feedback
from others on their learning projects and discuss and collaborate. These were the
hardest to achieve at the start of the ABCD project, in the transitional phase from
face-to-face to online: people had to work together with people they did not know or
trust and it went miserably wrong, people dropped out and did not collaborate. When
the same task was later given out in a new student group, and learners were asked to
collaborate with a group of people they had come to know and trust, there were no
problems carrying out the task. After the developers and tutors had worked at
developing a “place” where people felt comfortable, students were more willing to
collaborate with one another.

271 Changing role of the learners: learner autonomy in a social environment

For insight into the learning opportunities offered by the new technology, the
main focus should certainly be on the relationship of the learner to other
people, rather than to information.
(Mayes, 2002, p. 173)

As learners’ information behaviour and use of computers is changing, it has become

clear that their role in education in the future might also change (Rennie & Mason,
2004; Siemens, 2006). People can find information and experts online and, through
Web 2.0 technology, engage with knowledgeable others outside educational
institutions. Learners may want their role in education to change from dependency on
a tutor to a more self-directed one. This might mean for institutions a move towards
research projects with supervisors, in addition to teaching strategies that incorporate
the design and use of multi-sensory activities, rather than the use of a lecturing
format. The research highlighted that this is a natural progression in the development
of students. However, some observers might express reservations about the quality of
the online interactions and the depth of the thinking process taking place away from
a formal learning place, as participants on networks might lack the authority of those
who are paid “to know” and to challenge and advance the thinking of learning of
their students.

The ABCD research showed that there is an important role for educators in the
continued critical engagement of students and in advancing students’ competencies
and skills required to be self-directed learners on the Internet. But the research also
highlighted how the extensive use of technology can enhance the student learning
experience and student engagement by using new resources and tools, such as Web
2.0. The ABCD programme was successful in this as the trusted environment where
human contact was valued and where affective communications were an important
dimension in the motivation and confidence building of learners contributed towards
a rich and meaningful experience.

The new technologies afford opportunities to learn in a different way that is

personalised and adapted to the needs and requirements of individual learners, but an
increased level of autonomy is required to thrive in the new mediated environment.

272 Changing role of the tutors

If learners are increasingly self-directed in their learning, the role of the tutor will
move from the traditional lecture with seminars in particular subjects towards a role
more akin to supervisors, who will be engaged in the framing of questions and
devising of activities that make people think critically. Of course there are different
resources and tools available to enhance the learning experience, eg blogs as
reflective diaries, and video and sound podcasts have proven to be very effective in
the ABCD project. In order to get the best out of the tools, the tutors most successful
in engaging the learners, created quality learning experiences by not only providing
resources, but by being closely involved with the students, and at an individual level
following progress and provide personalised feedback through the Web 2.0 tools.
Teaching and learning should include a genuine dialogue, as Bonnett (2002, p.282)
suggests, tutor and learner are both required to ‘invest something of themselves’ in
learning, ‘which results in personal fulfilment and genuine receptivity’ (Walters &
Kop, p.282), which makes the experience worthwile for both participants involved.

In the formal environment, students appreciated the creation of a trusted “place”

where people felt comfortable and where social interaction would take place. At the
same time, students increasingly found their own resources, in text or other formats,
on the Internet. The use of the online networks for learning by the participants in the
online network research suggested that tutors working out of institutions might not
necessarily be required once learners reach a certain level of epistemic maturity and
self-reliance in their learning as it is very easy to find knowledgeable others online.
However, the learners in the ABCD research valued the central, human, critical role
that the tutors provided in their education. It has become clear throughout the
research that knowledgeable people interacting as “nodes” on the networks will still
be indispensable, and that a level of trust based on their reputation is required by
people before accepting their validation of knowledge and for accepting their
challenges and communication of information. Indeed, a dialogue will still be
required, rather than a conversation. The danger remains however that the “tribalism”
on the internet, the finding of people with similar rather than disparate ideas, will
mean that people will not make great efforts to find critical challenges to their ideas
and beliefs, but prefer a confirmation instead.

It is impossible to know if people will in the future choose to participate in teaching
in an online open environment; being important “nodes” on networks and “human
filters” rather than adult educators in an educational institution, as no remuneration
for the effort would be forthcoming. Some suggest, however, that the urge to teach is
‘built’ into human beings and that teachers will still continue to teach even without
institutions (Illich,1971; Shirky, 2008). Changes in educational institutions

The emergent changes in the environment in which higher education operates

present significant challenges to the hierarchical and “producer-led” drives
underlying education. The aspirations of the supporters of the internet- and
Web 2.0 – particularly in terms of individual empowerment and reciprocal
community may or may not be fully realised. It is nevertheless clear that new
generations of learners are coming along whose experience has been
fundamentally influenced by the impact of the internet.
(Walton et al, 2008, p. 5)

Educational institutions should adapt their practice of ‘expository teaching and

receptive learning’, as Peters called it, ‘that for centuries has been the model of
teaching and learning around the world’ (Peters, 1999, p.10). This model is based on
age old traditions stemming from the way the learning space had been laid out, and
the way in which the actors in the educational activity were positioned. This space
has to a certain extent determined the power relations in education, but has now
changed. The fast changes that technology has imposed on the world, do not only
offer opportunities for education institutions to change this structure, but the
overwhelming uptake by the population of the new technologies, and in particular the
social media make that change in educational practice is nearly inevitable.

It has been clear over the past years that the move to a post-modern era has instigated
change in disciplines and curricula in institutions (Readings,1996; Delanty, 2001;
Usher et al, 1997). Technological development has had a great influence on this
development. Walters and Kop (2009) suggested that there is still a place for the
university in the Internet age. They propose that universities in the contemporary
world should still play a central role for intellectual inquiry and critique, which are

sometimes lacking in online network discussions. They could be the central “hub”
where different forms of knowledge come together and are communicated.

The question is, however, whether the institutions will be aware of the changes
required to maintain a meaningful role in people’s education and learning, and if they
manage to survive the challenges that new technologies pose to their physical
presence and to their teaching practice. Apart from some visionary institutions such
as Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA, the Open University in the
UK, it seems that universities might be aware of their predicament as in several
institutions applications such as Facebook and Twitter have been banned as not being
“academic” enough, but it seems the bans relate more to a fear of losing control of
the learning space, rather than of an understanding of the opportunities for interacting
with their students being offered in a contemporary educational institution.

Institutions have to understand that to continue to play a meaningful role in people’s

education and learning, academic staff will also have to be aware of the changed life
realities with which most students of today and tomorrow are growing up. Younger
learners are used to a “library in their pocket” on a mobile device (e.g. the Kindle can
hold 600 books) and tools “in their lap” to actively produce content, in text or other
formats, to express and repurpose what they learn and publish it to the wider world.
They can have online conversations with anyone they want worldwide, and it is up to
tutors, teachers and lecturers of the future to realise that the functions of the
university might still be the same, in particular the validation and certification of
knowledge, but that the manner in which they engage with their students can no
longer remain the same. If they want to be meaningful to students of the future, and
intend to play a role in the critical engagement in online communications of their
learners to ensure it reaches the level of a dialogue rather than of a conversation, they
will have to engage within the online environment that is currently unfolding and on
which their students spend most of their time, even sometimes during their face-to-
face lectures. Rennie & Mason (2004) argued that the connected web, the
‘Connecticon’ as they call it, has empowered people in their learning more than they
have ever been before and that the interactions and collaboration around information
that the current technologies provide are significant and cannot be disregarded by
educators (Rennie & Mason, 2004). They posit that:

In the search to make sense of the information overload, to identify the good
ideas from the bad, and to spot “the next big thing”, we should realize that it is
not only “good” ideas that can grab our attention, but simply the ideas that are
best at replicating themselves. As competing ideas attempt to undermine our
trust in others, information from trusted sources becomes even more valuable.
Although there are increasingly sophisticated technological tools to identify,
transfer, and store relevant ideas, this does not undermine the importance of
peer support networks, and only serves to strengthen the role of the
tutor/teacher as facilitator of knowledge sources, rather than an oracle.

(Rennie & Mason, 2004) p. 140)

The ABCD project has shown one example of how new technologies can be used to
enhance the student and tutor learning experience. To change courses and
programmes in this way will require a more flexible approach to education than that
is shown in most institutions. In the institution of the future, the learning
environment stretches to include an online place and sometimes becomes informal to
give students room to align institutional knowledge with what they already know and
with their experiences outside the institution. And yes, institutions will have to
relinquish some levels of control to their students sometimes, by introducing
personalised learning environments that include technological components. The
experience and engagement of students on the ABCD project showed that this will
greatly enhance the learning of people in their care, if done at the right moment
during their learning journey.

Of course, a high level of professional development of teaching staff will be required

as the learning curve is as steep for tutors as it is for learners, as was realised at the
beginning of the ABCD project. The ABCD experience shows however that once
people know how to use the tools, a whole new world opens up that make learning
and teaching enjoyable and a creative endeavour. In combination with the critical
inquiry that educational institutions currently offer their students, it would open up
new avenues for learning.


The research methodologies used in this study have proven to be effective. The
Integrative Learning Design Framework by Bannan-Ritland (2003) was a robust
model to systematically interrogate all aspects of the innovation, ranging from the

design of the environment, the level of innovation to the educational research. Not all
aspects have been reported on as this is a thesis on adult education and not all aspects
related to the design of the environment were relevant to the study. The framework
offered an excellent way of studying and analysing each component of the learning
development. The ethnographic