Researcher looking to hook up with a groovy open course

One of the people I have felt very lucky to work with at TRU is Michelle Harrison, an Instructional Designer with Open Learning. In addition to being an astute practitioner of online learning, she is someone looking to push what it possible here, to expand the range of approaches for our courses.

Michelle is framing an interesting research proposal on the question of “what effects do virtual learning spaces have on the development of a learning culture in networked learning environments?” Ideally, she would like to apply her research work as a participant/researcher of an open course that has elements open and “informal” spaces. In addition to being a participant in the course, she would like to have access to whatever interaction data can be shared within the usual ethical considerations. I’ll paste her current proposal in full below the jump. If anyone knows an upcoming cool open online course — cough ds106 cough — let me know via the comments field below or an email. If you are reading this blog, there is a significant chance I may be sending you an email soon.

Michelle is a sharp operator, and a fine person, and I am confident that her interactions with your course would benefit all concerned.

Research Context

With the rise of and ubiquitous adoption of social technologies in mainstream society, post-secondary educators have been adopting social technologies as alternatives to traditional learning management systems, perceiving them to be more open, participatory, student-centered, and appropriate for social-constructivist as well as connectivist approaches to learning. At the same time, researchers have characterized these spaces as “uncanny” or troublesome when co-opted into traditional, hierarchical learning models as they challenge traditional references, roles and norms of the academy with respect to identity, conceptions of the roles of learning/learners, teacher and students, as well as knowledge construction, literacy and textual representation (Alevizou, Galley, & Conole, 2012; Bayne, 2010; Hemmi, Bayne, & Land, 2009; Ryberg, 2008). Alevizou, Galley, & Conole, (2012) highlight that the participatory culture afforded by social technologies are “blurring the boundaries between creative production and consumption, and open up novel, public spaces for, and styles of, networked learning; social spaces that promote communities of enquiry, collaborative knowledge building, and shared assets (e.g. interests, goals, contents, ideas)” (p. 75).

But researchers also point out that the pedagogical implications for social technologies in higher education are still relatively unexplored and little formal research has been published (Alevizou et al., 2012; Hemmi et al., 2009). Recent research has also shown that social technologies as educational tools may not always live up to their hype. Though they have be shown to support self-directed learning, reflective practice and social connectivity (Robertson, 2011; Ryberg, 2008; Top, 2012) learners have reported that the use of multiple technologies and tools can be disruptive and time consuming (Saadatmand & Kumpulainen, 2012). Deng & Yuen, (2011), O’ Donnell, (2006) and Harrison, (2012, unpublished Module 5 paper) all found that the use of blogs focused more on personal broadcasting and engagement with content, and only promoted a limited amount of social interactivity and collaboration.

Many continue to argue that social technologies will start to redefine our spaces for learning, both in traditional and online contexts, and new cultural, pedagogical and social practices will emerge as learners and teachers inhabit them.  The aim of this research project will be to investigate how virtual learning “spaces” created by social technologies may affect the types of learning spaces that are available, perceived and used by learners, particularly when they intersect formal and informal contexts. To capture how learners use these spaces for both formal and informal learning, I propose to investigate an instance of a “course” that embodies the spirit of networked learning principles, and blurs the boundaries between the formal institution and the less formal uses for personal and professional learning. Innovative educators such as David Wiley, George Siemens, and Alec Couros have created courses that Martin Weller (Weller, 2012) has termed “Open Boundary Courses”. These courses use social technologies to support learners who are formally registered through an institution, but invite participation from the wider community. Williams, Mackness, & Gumtau (2012) highlight that these courses can be described as having a high level of interactivity, personalization and learner autonomy and that activity is usually distributed over a variety of platforms and tools.

Much has been written in the blogosphere and in community discussions about these open courses (Cormier, 2013; Downes, 2013; Groom, 2013; Weller, 2013), and researchers are now investigating the impacts of networks (particularly personal) on learning (Bonzo, 2012; Saadatmand & Kumpulainen, 2012; Sclater, 2008), as well as emergent vs. prescribed learning pathways (Williams et al., 2012), but there is little about how these “loosely knit” learning spaces are effecting the learning processes and the learning cultures that are being created. In an previous project, I investigated how the learning space created by blogging software (WordPressMU) for an online graduate course impacted on the development of social and cultural processes. This exploratory case gave me an opportunity to experiment with new methods (spatial analysis combined with content analysis) and provided a kind of “proof-of-concept” that led me to believe there are interesting elements at work when designing and using social technologies as learning spaces. I hope to expand the boundaries of this case to include formal and informal spaces, but also consider “space” more broadly as not only a “physical” space, but also one of “being” and how these two conceptions of space interact for learners in online environments. Considering that learning spaces are likely impacting on the development of a learning culture in a networked learning environment, through ways that may redefine pedagogical practices, social interactions and institutional norms, how do we explore these effects?

Using a networked learning perspective I hope to investigate the following research questions:

  • What effects do virtual learning spaces have on the development of a learning culture in networked learning environments?
    • How do learner’s perceptions of learning spaces as being open/closed, formal/informal, private/public, online/offline effect how they use or inhabit these spaces?
    • How do characteristics of the virtual learning environment both enable and constrain elements of student participation and creation of their own learning processes?
    • At the same time, how do learner practices, both online and offline, help shape the learning spaces?



8 thoughts on “Researcher looking to hook up with a groovy open course

  1. I had the good fortune of working with Michelle and her husband Kevin when I lived and worked in China. Michelle is a thoughtful, gifted educator – looking forward to reading her research when it emerges.

  2. Thanks to Brian for this posting and sharing out to his network and Grant for his kind words! I am so lucky to have such great colleagues.

    As this research will form the basis for my doctoral work (at Lancaster, UK), I am hoping to find an “open boundary” course to follow for this fall (or earlier!). If you are interested in seeing the whole proposal please let me know and I can send it.

  3. Not that it would fit entirely within your purview here, Michelle, but I will be taking a second crack at offering an open online high school philosophy course in the fall. The open/online portion of the course ( supplements the face-to-face / for credit activities and lessons that the kids taking the senior level course in our physical school building will be undertaking, and might serve as an interesting piece of how these modes of learning are adopted by younger learners (16 – 18 years old) in a more conventional setting.

    Either way, best of luck with your work!

    (And thanks, Brian, for the heads up!)


    1. Thanks Brian for the interest – looks like a great course! It does not quite fit what I originally planned but if I did broaden my focus, I think it would be an amazing opportunity to get a K-12 perspective. I am just re-working a few aspects of my proposal, so will definitely be in touch.


  4. ETEC 522 at UBC is getting a revamp for Fall 2013.

    We’re just planning the publishing output part for students now. That is, student projects will feed an open learning environment for teacher colleagues and others wanting to learn about current edtech practices.


    1. Hi David,
      Sounds interesting! Will you still be using WP as the platform? Will the student projects feed into something else for sharing – or will that also be by in WP? It would be great to chat more about the redo (we are also looking for ideas for the EDDL courses offered through OL as well).


      1. We’re looking at the student projects feeding something like the recent edX code release to produce an open course for K-12 teachers on emerging technologies.

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