So, what have I learnt? And what are the next steps?

Finally, here are my thoughts on key learning points and possible next steps. I will not highlight points for each course topic, but will instead try to distil the top three lessons for me in terms of what I have learnt about learning–and learnt about leadership.

First, to me it was a genuine insight that education is about more than learning. We have become so fixated on learning: on the idea that whatever we do as academic teachers, it needs to result in learning. Of course, I would not at all deny that learning is a crucially important component of education, but all this talk of learning–to the extent that we are no longer supposed to talk about teaching but have to add learning (‘teaching and learning’ or even, increasingly,  in reverse order: ‘learning and teaching’)–deflects attention from other important dimensions of education: what Biesta (2015) calls “socialisation” and “subjectification”.

Of course education–and higher education–is about learning, but it is also about values, developing as an individual, and becoming a responsible member of society. The emphasis on learning, evidence-based approaches, qualifications, and teaching excellence tend to focus attention on one dimension only–quality–at the expense of the others, in particular values and norms. Moreover, unwittingly it also tends to privilege learning outcomes over learning process: not just what one learns, but the enriching process itself should, however, matter. The initial course readings, though I found them a bit disappointing in some ways, nevertheless very effectively set the stage for the ONL171 learning journey by getting us to reflect not only on learning, but on PBL and–more broadly and deeply–about education.

Lesson 1: learning is crucial to (higher) education, but it is about more than learning outcomes, and it is about more than learning.

Second, when I think about the learning process in ONL171, a key lesson for me is the importance of the teaching approach taken–and how this connects with teaching as itself a form of leadership.

Obviously I knew beforehand just how significant one’s approach as a teacher is. But boy, does it make a difference! Like most of my peers in PBL Group 1, I really did feel lost for the first weeks. And I craved more direction from our PBL facilitators. But it all started coming together over time, as the group tentatively and then more securely started connecting. To me, the leadership that Lars and Beata provided exemplified the recommended approach sketched by Hannah and Lester (2009, p.35) for leading a learning organisation from a multi-level perspective: leaders should “set the conditions to maximize the emergence of knowledge creation and diffusion, while limiting leader intrusion into the actual creative processes”. In other words, they should proceed by “setting the conditions for knowledge emergence, [while] yet allowing the creative process to self-organize”.

This can be painful, and was in my own case and that of our PBL group as we were not always able to notice the “conditions” that Lars and Beata had earlier set and felt as though we were floundering. But as they say, less can be more–and I can see this being true in the case of leadership. The lesson is: provide the conditions for creativity, the scaffolding (frameworks, communication tools, schedules, readings, and so on) to support the members of the organisation–in this case, of PBL Group 1–and then trust these members to “self-organize” and be / become creative. And: it worked!

Lesson 2: leaders, in particular in knowledge-intensive learning organisations such as universities, need to create the conditions for creativity, which involves focusing less on what people should do and more on how to set up the conditions for creativity–and then, as leaders we need to trust people.

A third important point relates to the importance of community for learning. Once again, of course I was aware of this point before taking the course, but the experience was valuable in making quite concrete what can be abstract theory. While I was familiar with Wenger’s work on communities of practice, and have found it useful for thinking about academic development, the community of inquiry framework was new to me though I had heard colleagues, in particular Alan Soong and Jeanette Choy, talk about it before. The notions of social, cognitive and teaching presence seem really useful for thinking about ways of supporting online and blended learning, and of course the idea of openness and sharing is fundamentally important for growing practice. Paying attention to these dimensions, as indeed our facilitators in ONL171 did, and using open resources such as blogs to aid reflection and develop online portfolios, could help us in the NUS Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning as we refine not only our support for blended learning, but also more generally for early-career (and other) academics who are learning about teaching.

Lesson 3: pay attention to models of community that can provide concrete ways forward to collaborate with academics who are developing and enhancing their practice.

Next steps:

  1. As an academic development unit, our Centre will reflect on our collective OL171 experience: 7 of us participated in the course!
  2. We hope to provide feedback to the course leaders on our experience.
  3. We would like to explore the possibility of continuing the connection with ONL.
  4. We will plan to implement some of the good ideas from this course to our own context.

I would like to thank Lotta Åbjörnsson in particular for the invitation extended to me and my colleagues to join this course: it’s been a challenging and enlightening experience!


Biesta, G. (2015). What is education for? On good education, teacher judgment, and educational professionalism. European Journal of Education, 50(1), 75-87.

Hannah, S. T. & Lester, P. B. (2009). A multilevel approach to building and leading learning organizations. The Leadership Quarterly20(1), 34-48.


Topic 4: Communities of Inquiry and Communities of Practice

In moving towards the end of ONL171, the focus was on design for learning in online contexts. Topic 3 of ONL171 focused on learning in communities, specifically ideas around networked and collaborative learning. Among the recommended optional readings was a good overview of communities of practice (Wenger, 2010). A potentially very powerful framework was then introduced for Topic 4, namely Vaughan et al.’s use of Lipman’s (2003) idea of a community of inquiry. Though we learnt about a number of different models, for example Gilly Salmon’s Five Stage Model, on which PBL Group 7 did a thoughtful presentation, CoI seems especially powerful since it offers a good framework for thinking about online and blended learning. As became apparent in the course of taking ONL171 (if it was not apparent before!), building community is essential for online learning. The CoI framework suggests that one needs to work at fostering a CoI through social, cognitive, and teaching presence, and suggests ways of doing so through deliberate design decisions so as to ensure that such a community be established and sustained through a learning environment of trust (“social presence”), which would foster sustained reflection and discourse (“cognitive presence”), and provide direction and cohesion to the learning community (“teaching presence”) (Vaughan et al., 2013, p.12). This conceptual framework also suggests some key principles for operationalising the framework, updated from Chickering and Gamson’s 7 tried and trusted principles of good practice in undergraduate education (1987), in order to take account of the changed learning environments that characterise learning today:

While these principles have served higher education well in directing attention to good teaching and learning practice, we believe that these principles need to be updated to address the changing needs in higher education to become information literate in the age of the Internet. These principles must be consistent with the ubiquitous connectivity afforded students today.

A key aspect of the CoI approach is that of shared responsibility: “The pioneering innovation of virtual communication and community requires both teacher and student to engage, interact, and contribute to learning in new ways” (Vaughan et al., 2013, p.14). This is in part achieved by means of a “joint enterprise”: a common project that needs to move towards resolution, which very much reminds me of the idea of communities of practice (CoP). The CoP model presents a powerful framework for thinking about learning organizations: i.e., “groups of people informally bound together by shared expertise and passion for a joint enterprise” (Wenger & Snyder, 2000, p.139). CoP is essential for thinking about learning and teaching in universities and other educational institutions and has been used extensively for considering how academic developers can support and foster enhancement in higher education (Mårtensson & Roxå, 2016, 178-179), highlighting among other things the importance of:

  • collegial conversation about learning and teaching, in particular informal conversation (also Roxå & Mårtensson, 2009);
  • a sensitivity to the local contexts of academics–in particular their orientation towards other dimensions of their academic practice, most especially research: i.e., the CoPs that are already in place;
  • shared learning projects, which help constitute the joint enterprise by deepening the mutual commitment of members and thereby push their practice further by fostering connections within the community
  • such projects require a rhythm of regular engagement as well as concrete (“reified”) artefacts that result from the work and document it so the work can benefit the community.

It seems to me that, in view of the above points, CoP is in principle very relevant also for online learning of the sort that we have engaged in over the last weeks in ONL171. It is possible to distinguish between CoPS and other forms of organization, as below:

A Snapshot Comparison.png

(Wenger & Snyder, 2000, p. 142)

How does CoI fit into this picture? Given that both CoP and CoI emphasise communities for learning, I wonder how they relate to each other. The notion of CoP did not evolve specifically in relation to online or blended learning, so what are the key difference and similarities between these CoP theory and the CoI framework? To what extent are they compatible, and can each learn from the other? How can we use the important insights of both to take an effective and efficient approach to academic development? This is a question that I would like to explore further, in particular with regard to what seems to me one of the key strengths of CoP theory, namely that CoPs can become self-sustaining if cultivated in appropriate ways (Mårtensson & Roxå, 2016). Given the ephemeral nature of online communities, which seems part and partial of their virtual character, what what can we learn from this theory to strengthen CoIs so that they persist, survive, and indeed thrive?


Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education. American Association for Higher Education Bulletin, 39 (March), 3–7.

Lipman, M. (2003). Thinking in Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mårtensson, K., & Roxå, T. (2016). Working with networks, microcultures and communities. In D. Baume & C. Popovic (Eds.), Advancing practice in academic development (pp. 174–187). London: Routledge.

Roxå, T. & Mårtensson, K. (2009). Significant conversations and significant networks – exploring the backstage of the teaching arena. Studies in Higher Education, 34(5), 547-559. DOI: 10.1080/03075070802597200.

Vaughan, N. D., Cleveland-Innes, M., & Garrison, D. R. (2013). Teaching in blended learning environments: Creating and sustaining communities of inquiry. Edmonton: AU Press.

Wenger, E. (2010). Communities of practice and social learning systems: The career of a concept. In Social learning systems and communities of practice (pp. 179-198). London: Springer.

Wenger, E. & Snyder, W. (2000). Communities of practice: The social frontier. Harvard Business Review (January-February).

Topic 3: Challenges in online learning and the importance of community: guided instruction and the value of informal conversation

The two compulsory (or strongly recommended) readings for Topic 3 of ONL171 both explicitly deal with challenges in online learning, stressing the importance of community–including aspects that relate to participation and communication–not only for mitigating these challenges, but for enabling learning to occur (Brindley et al., 2009; Capdeferro & Romero, 2012). Ultimately, the most fundamental of these challenges is that of creating “access to a rich learning environment that provides opportunity for interaction and connectedness” (Brindley et al., 2009).  Despite the fact that social media are social, which by implication suggests “an information ecology … organized around friends” (boyd), nevertheless there is a difference between hanging out and goofing around with friends, and deep, sustained learning. Put most simply, despite its many affordances, online learning lacks at least one key advantage of traditional, face-to-face learning: the kind of rich environment made possible by real-time dialogic interaction with knowledgable others who are physically present. Lack of scaffolding and sufficient attention to instructional guidance in an information-rich environment, such as that afforded by online learning initiatives, can lead to frustration and impede learning on account of problems in relation to cognitive load, in particular in the case of instruction to novice and intermediate learners  (Kirschner et al., 2006).

Because of the highly mediated character of online learning, as evident from the absence of direct (or less mediated) access to a knowledgeable other in the form of the instructor, and consequently dependence on peer support (Weller & Anderson, 2013) in which there is no guarantee that one peer is more knowledgable than the others, it is crucial to address the challenges and potential frustrations of online learning experiences by paying attention to good ways in which to foster community. One way of doing so, as described by Garrison (2007), is through the creation and maintenance of three kinds of presence: social, cognitive and teaching.

I plan to write more about the community of inquiry (CoI) framework, from which this set of ideas is derived, in my post for Topic 4. Meanwhile, one key point in relation to this framework concerns the centrality of critical discourse for ensuring that learning occurs. By means of these three kinds of presence, an environment needs to be created that encourages and supports such discourse, which requires a shared goal or group project that needs to move towards a resolution phase (Garrison, 2007, p.66) as well as clear “structure (design) and leadership (facilitation and direction)” (p.67). This is a recognition of how important guided instruction is (and thus “teaching presence”), in particular in online environments; but it is also a recognition of the importance of meaningful interaction that moves beyond dialogue and towards discourse (p.67). For such interaction to occur, the point is that guided instruction within a strong community is required.

In the case of PBL Group 1, it has been interesting to observe how guided instruction by our facilitator has moved us as a group from dialogue and towards the kind of resolution of projects enabled by critical discourse. That said, as my fellow group member Tore Nilsson writes in an interesting post, we should not dismiss the value of apparently aimless “social small talk“: of dialogue that does not move towards critical discourse, in Garrison’s terms. Far from it: as Tore writes, in the case of face-to-face interaction such small talk is fundamental for establishing community, and one would expect the absence    of such informal conversation to be detrimental for establishing social presence, a precondition for a supportive and productive community of inquiry. This is because such informal conversations are essential for creating the kind of “personal but purposeful relationships” (Garrison, 2007, p.64) that are needed for such a community. Interestingly, however, as Tore notes, in the case of our group such small talk did not really occur very much at all, which raises the question as to “what [may] have been the catalyst for this successful online community“. Tore’s question is a fascinating one, and his tentative answer is that it has to do with two factors: the role our facilitator played, and our synchronous online meetings with the visual cues that are part and parcel of such meetings.

My own view is that our facilitator indeed played a role in fostering community and hence learning in our group: this speaks to the importance of guided instruction and sufficient scaffolding. However, though our group definitely managed to establish trust and move toward resolution, more informal small talk and undirected dialogue would have strengthened social presence considerably. Studies have shown that these kinds of conversations in the “backstage of the teaching arena” (Roxå and Mårtensson, 2009) are essential for shaping teachers’ attitudes, beliefs and behaviours in relation to their teaching. It therefore stands to reason that the absence of such conversations will limit learning about (open, online) teaching: the key and overarching aim of ONL 171. A key challenge for us is therefore to think about how such informal conversations can be fostered in the case of online learning.


boyd, d. (2008). Understanding Socio-Technical Phenomena in a Web2.0 Era

Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M. & Walti, C. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3).

Capdeferro, N. & Romero, M. (2012). Are online learners frustrated with collaborative learning experiences? The International review of research in open and distance learning, 13(2), 26-44.

Garrison, D. R. (2007). Online community of inquiry review: Social, cognitive, and teaching presence issues. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11(1), 61-72 Apr 2007.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J. & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86. DOI: 10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1

Roxå, T. & Mårtensson, K. (2009). Significant conversations and significant networks – exploring the backstage of the teaching arena. Studies in Higher Education, 34(5), 547-559. DOI: 10.1080/03075070802597200.

Weller, M., & Anderson, T. (2013). Digital resilience in higher education. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, 16(1), 53.

Topic 2: Openness in education: digital resilience

Our group, PBL1, is working on Scenario 2:

I’m interested in opening up some of my courses, maybe even offering them as MOOCs, but I don’t really know where to start. What options are there for offering courses that are open to all? How should I change the course structure, pedagogy and use of technology? What are the opportunities and dangers of “going open”?

I will focus on the following set of questions in relation to the scenario:

What does “open” mean? In what way is a course “open”? Looking into different dimensions of openness… What are the risks and downsides (security issues) of making content freely accessible?

  1. The “open”

In thinking about these questions, it may be helpful to focus on what it means for a course to be “open”, and then to focus on MOOCs. With regard to openness, we might consider the differences between a learning management system (LMS; also known as a Virtual Learning Environment/VLE) and Web 2.0 software that is open and free (Watson, 2014). One key consideration when opening up one’s courses, or using open educational resources (OERs), concerns the matter of privacy and confidentiality. When a course is hosted and thus accessible via an LMS only, then student data, ranging from assignments to grades to identifying information such as student numbers, are password protected and in principle secure. These data can only be viewed by the student and instructor concerned, as well as other parties from the university who administer or otherwise have access to the LMS for professional purposes.

If, on the other hand, one were to open up a course, one should most certainly be aware that whatever information is published is accessible to anyone with access to the web. This means one would need to be very careful as to the kind of information one includes, since a danger of “going open” may be the potential loss of privacy and confidentiality associated with openness. Though an LMS affords greater control to the instructor, in the sense of providing knowledge of which students are active and which  may need support (compare analytics), there is something artificial about it as it is a collection of special tools that need to be navigated by students, whereas they are more used to the digital environments of social media. On the other hand, as already implied, against this one needs to weigh issues of privacy and thus, of course, the reality that OER poses problems for thinking about assessment.

All in all, though, OER requires us to consider the need for fostering digital resilience given the reality of profound shifts in established educational practice that accompany the digital revolution (Weller & Anderson, 2013). Such resilience needs to function not only on the individual, but especially the institutional level as universities adapt to this revolution.

But what exactly is resilience in the context of higher education? And how can universities remain true to their core mission while adapting to the affordances or opportunities and challenges or threats of the digital?

In terms of higher education practice … resilience is about utilising technology to change practices where this is desirable, but to retain the underlying function and identity that the existing practices represent, if they are still deemed necessary.

Weller & Anderson are here thinking of  scholarship (and they refer to Boyer, 1990): resilience would preserve the essential character of scholarly practices, but “allow them to be realised in new forms” / “a resilience perspective would seek to ensure [that] core practices [such as peer review] were protected”, though the ways these practices are articulated may change. Example: scholarship requires peer review, which traditionally occurs through the processes of academic publication. However, while preserving peer review as an essential requirement of scholarship, such peer review may now occur through different means, for example in Open Access publishing (one of the cases examined in terms of resilience in the face of change in the article). So openness has the positive potential of making one’s work and ideas as an academic, and also as a student, very widely available–of disseminating practice and scholarship more widely.

  2. MOOCs

In terms of Walker’s model of resilience, Weller & Anderson highlight a few areas where MOOCs require institutional as well as individual resistance. In terms of latitude, both since they are free and since they are massive, MOOCs often are unsupported, at least by the instructor. So they tend to be peer-supported, which presupposes a facility for autonomous learning and critical literacies from the side of the learner. However, these literacies cannot simply be assumed but would need to be developed. If we were to turn a class into a MOOC, providing scaffolding of this kind would need to be considered in the absence of instructor support.

In addition to support, if one were to offer a course as a MOOC, one would need to consider matters that Weller & Anderson discuss under the rubric of resistance, in particular infrastructure requirements (e.g. via a MOOC provider) as well as how the course would be accredited and certified.

The lack of fees and, often, qualifications in the case of MOOCs leads to the factor of precariousness: how does one gain revenue as an institution or instructor if one’s courses are free? At this point I will not discuss panarchy, possibly leaving that for a separate post.


Watson, K. (2014) Learning management system or the open web? Cofa Videos, Learning to teach online UNSW.

Weller, M., & Anderson, T. (2013). Digital resilience in higher education. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, 16(1), 53.

Visitors and Residents (David White)

White persuasively criticises Prensky’s digital natives and digital immigrants binary, and the conceptual assumptions underpinning it. In particular, White makes the important point that learning literacies are needed to use technologies effectively, and in particular the web, especially when it comes to study. Critically evaluating digital resources and formulating cogent arguments online, for example, do not come with the latest gadgets or tools.

Instead, White proposes a different model, that of digital visitors and residents, which is premised on the modes and degrees of engagement. How and why do we use digital platforms? As White says, these categories do not exclude each other (unlike the digital natives/immigrants binary), as we are likely to engage with the web in different ways at different times depending on our purpose and the context that we are in, so that we combine these modes. “In visitor mode, we leave no social trace being online”: we see the web simply as a toolbox. At the resident end, we see the web as a collection of space or places, where we want to be present with other people, “living out a portion of our life online”, which then leaves social trace also when we go offline. People who ar residents have some form of presence online, such as social media accounts: this means most of us.

White additionally distinguishes between personal and institutional practices. White seeks to investigate resident forms of practice an how they relate to our identities, whether they be professional or personal.

Part 2 of the video focuses on credibility. White starts off with a key difference between analogue and digital sources of information, with the former–books–having been written by experts and carefully curated. Libraries are therefore highly selective and also much more limited in reach than materials online, which can be found by anyone who uses a search engine;  audiences can be vast, which also among other things suggests huge potential in extending the reach of education.

But online, curation takes place by means of algorithms (likes, search engines), not librarians, so convenience often outstrips credibility, one key reason why academics are skeptical of information from the web and why they discourage students to use the web for finding (academic information), including for such sources as Wikipedia. Interestingly, this then leads to what White terms a “learning blackmarket”: students are using online sources for their learning, but more often than not, they are not being upfront about because of fears of institutional opprobrium (which has implications for plagiarism, though White doesn’t go into this area). Consequently, a tension arises between students’ personal learning practices and the demands of institutional, formal academia.  The resident/institutional quadrant remains relatively empty as students, perhaps because students are wary of mixing their private residence online with their institutional commitments, but also because institutions see themselves as operating in a visitor rather than resident mode: students come to university for a few years, and then they depart.

However, given that learning needs to become more liquid, as Savin-Baden argues, educational institutions will need to find ways of engaging student in such a way as to ensure that that they become lifelong learners: residents rather than visitors. And certainly, if universities are to draw on the affordances of technology to foster liquid learning, then some basic assumptions about education and learning more generally will need to change.



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