Working space as learning place

Graham Attwell challenged me to describe my working place as a learning place: illustrating my description with five photographs. For me, like Steve Wheeler, work and learning are pretty much inseparable – indeed I’ve used the term ‘Personal Work and Learning Environment‘ in a few papers I’ve written exploring how an individual’s informal learning during work might be supported through technology:

So in the following pictures and descriptions, the learning (articulating challenges, formulating plans, adapting practice, reflecting on successes and failures) occurs right where and when the work occurs, and is inseparable from it.

I’ve just moved office (coinciding with a change of role) and now share an office with two other team members. One of our first tasks in this new team was to quickly analyse some qualitative data, and the benefit of being able to slip between focused individual analysis and team discussions to refine codes and report progress was immense. It really helped the new team come together, recogniseour strengths and weaknesses and fill in the gaps. I’ve always preferred sharing an office, perhaps going back to my origins as a lab scientist: labs are a great example of an integrated (and very social) work and learning environment.


Nevertheless, working at home does save a commute of almost an hour each way, so I try to work at home at least once a week. I usually try to save work that does benefit from solitude (writing and reviewing) for these days. My wife and I have a study/home office setup – mostly used for our out of hours working. While C tends to use the home PC, I bring my laptop home with me so there is the inevitable changeover and swapping of cables. Usually, I also have to clear work papers out of the way too – I’ve never had to formally hot-desk, and am not sure I’d like it. While it is a bit impersonal, and can take a bit of settling in to, the printer, second screen and mouse (no need for a keyboard) makes this an effective space to work.


But when I work at home, I’m usually the only one in the house. And when that’s the case, I rarely slink off to the study. Instead (like now), I usually find myself at the kitchen table, close to coffee (and biscuits) and a stereo.  I usually have music on, I don’t usually find I have a problem concentrating. If I am at home, I tend to move around more – I’ll sit away from the PC if I am reading.


Most of my PhD thesis was written on the No 17 bus between Byres Rd in Glasgow and Paisley. My funding had finished and I was working creating distance learning materials at the University of Paisley. I’d print out the current draft of a chapter each night, edit and expand on it on the bus journeys that day then slink into the lab late at night to use the PC to type things up and print something else to work on the next day. The key here, is that while the physical space on a bus is never ideal, it worked for me because it was a regular time (10 times a week, for 40 minutes) when I could immerse myself in writing up that didn’t get in the way of my new work responsibilities. Bus journeys have always been a key learning space: after I left Paisley,  I spent five years commuting to Heriot-Watt and read for a couple of hours on the bus everyday during that time. I’ve also spent a lot of my life living and working between Glasgow and Edinburgh regularly  ‘crossing Scotland’s waist‘ on the No. 500 bus – giving me even more time to read and learn. I’m ashamed to say that I read much less nowadays and I’ve always maintained that during that time I got out of the habit of reading at other times when I had so much time to read on buses. Now my commute is car and bike based, so reading isn’t an option, but I routinely use my commuting time at each end of the working day to plan and reflect.


Finally, to reiterate a message from what I wrote above, work and learning is about time as well as place. Like many, I am a terrible procrastinator, and I do my best work against hard deadlines. That often means working late into the night. As a student I never started studying before 10pm – my studying was soundtracked by John Peel – and I still feel this is when I am at my most focused. I remember finishing writing the JOLT paper ‘Patterns of Engagement in Connectivist MOOCs‘ (ref. below) deep into the night, finally submitting it after 3 am in the morning (the deadline must have been midnight EST). I can use late night sessions to finish work, but also to break the back of a problem – so that I can be in control of timescales further down the line.

I read Steve’s, and Graham’s and Angela’s pieces while I was writing this – one thing that stood out is that Steve highlighted the resources that stimulate his creativity. In contrast, only my work office has any resources in it – and if I am honest, they don’t really get much use on a day to day basis. Instead, my resources tend to be in my PC. I suppose that helps for the portability of my workspace.

PL-MOOC study reflection



We’ve now reached the end of the funding period for PL-MOOC and, while there is still some analysis to conduct and some papers and outputs to write, the final report is written and the main findings synthesised. Allison and I have tweeted about the recommendations and the main findings but I thought i would take an opportunity to reflect more broadly on the study over here.

Professional Learning
Our research interest at the Caledonian Academy is in professional learning – the learning for work that an individual undertakes to support their practice. We’re interested in the increasing responsibility that professional learners must take for their learning, monitoring their learning needs continually to maintain his or her expertise. Our focus is primarily on informal learning, and the learning networks that professionals maintain. We tend to ignore more formal learning activities but we understand that formal learning has a role to play and indeed how formal learning fits with organisational systems within which professional learners are operating. In her writing on ‘Integrative Pedagogy’, Tynjälä has described four different types of knowledge that make up professional practice – the formal theoretical knowledge you can get from books; the practical knowledge you get from doing the job, the socio-cultural knowledge you get from being part of a community of professionals, and finally the self-regulative knowledge you use to keep on top of the continual learning you have to do. A critical element of each professional’s self-regulated learning is to assimilate learning of all four types of knowledge through an ‘integrative pedagogy’

We’ve seen the rise in popularity of MOOCs over the past few years and thought a lot about how MOOCs might serve professional learners: they provide an excellent mechanism to bring learners with common interests together, they are flexible and open, providing opportunities for close integration with practice. But can they support professional learning. While our previous study ‘SRL-MOOC‘ looked at learning in a cMOOC (Change 11), for this study we focused on an xMOOC, the format favoured by the major mooc providers (EdX, Coursera, Futurelearn). We explored the learning behaviours of health professionals studying the ‘Fundamentals of Clinical Trials’ MOOC. The MOOC was designed by Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, and Harvard Catalyst, The Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center and offered through the edX initiative founded jointly between Harvard University and MIT. Our reason for selecting this MOOC was because a) the course was likely to attract a high number of participants working in the health domain, allowing us to examine how professionals learn and b) the course design was typical of the so-called ‘xMOOCs’.

Its probably best to read the report and formal summaries to get a full picture of the findings, but in a nutshell, we didn’t see much evidence of professional learning occurring in the Fundamentals of Clinical Trials MOOC. There was little in the way of integration of theory and practice that is essential for effective professional learning to occur. Activities not central to the course (discussing in the forum,or elsewhere) were given less priority than viewing videos and completing assessments. Evidence of impact on practice was limited. Now we should point out that the Fundamentals of clinical trials course doesn’t claim to offer professional learning, and the course participants overwhelmingly like the course. But somethings going on here. Health professionals signed up for the course … so there seems to be a demand for learning from the community. We asked professionals about their expectations/motivations and can demonstrate that these were articulated in terms of practice – meeting professional learning needs. Yet when we asked about goals (4 weeks into the course), these were articulated not in terms of practice, or even in terms of the learning content, but instead were articulated in terms of consuming content, passing assessments and completing the course. I think the design of the course shaped their expectations.

But if there is a demand for professional learning, can xMOOCs (Downes is right, we’re not talking about cMOOCs, which  would more naturally support it – though our study of change11 suggests that it is not so simple) be designed to support it. Building on the recommendations provides some pointers:

  1. MOOCs bring together learners with a great diversity of motivation, expectation, and prior knowledge and experience. Don’t expect everyone to start from the same point – nor indeed finish at the same point. Even if the course is content focused, you should allow your learners to personalise their learning to ensure that they are focusing their attention on what they need and want to learn. Personalising learning (and goals) also enables the learners to clearly link their learning to practice.
  2. Help your learners to find others to learn alongside – they might want to find people who speak the same language, or who work in similar contexts, or who have a similar level of experience. In our studies we have  learners expressing frustration at not finding peers (of each of these types and others) to learn alongside, often because they don’t have the confidence to look for them themselves – in a MOOC they are probably there.
  3. Capitalise on the real world experience that professionals bring to their learning by getting them to specify problems and provide solutions. Get learners to create content and contribute it back to the course as resources for other learners (now and in the future).
  4. As well as fostering networks within the course, remember the pre-existing networks that the learners already have outside the course. In our study of Change 11 we saw that some learners kept their internal and external networks separate – seeing Change 11 as a course, while others linked their networks, recognising that the course cohort was merely an extension of their existing network.

We’ve put our findings and ideas out there, but of course the study was by its nature limited and more work needs to be done, not least trying to put them in practice. We welcome responses and reactions to the recommendations we formulated, and hope others can take the instruments we developed and use and refine them.

I really enjoyed working on this study, the compressed timescale meant that we had to make decisions quickly, and work through challenges. Thanks to Allison for the many discussions we had throughout the last 9 months, to Obiagele Ukadike from Harvard for being our contact within the course team, and to Lou McGill for conducting the interviews.

This study was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as part of the MOOC Research initiative led by George Siemens. Thanks.

And of course a special thanks to the participants of the course for answering our survey, and agreeing to be interviewed.

For a readable summary of Integrative Pedagogy, try Tynjälä, P. & Gijbels, D. (2012) Changing World: Changing Pedagogy. In P. Tynjälä , Stenström, M-L and Saarnivaara, M. (eds.), Transitions and Transformations in Learning and Education. pp 205-222. Dordrecht, Springer.


Piloting the WLBK survey instrument. Help Needed

We have been developing a survey instrument for the ‘Work and Learning at the Boundaries of Knowledge’ project. ( and would like to test it out before sending to the main study participants. Would you be able to spend a little time piloting the survey for us.

The survey is at and includes space to provide feedback inline.

The instrument should hopefully help you to think about the learning you undertake at work.

We are interested in gaining feedback on:

  • Whether the survey functions properly (any broken questions etc)
  • Whether the questions make sense (the questions are aimed at knowledge workers)
  • How long you think it would take to complete (we have estimated 25 minutes, there are 50 items).

We will be collating any feedback this Friday (March 1st 2013). Many thanks in advance for your help.

SRL MOOC Study Update and Background


Many of you will remember that the Caledonian Academy planned to conduct some research on the Change11 MOOC which ran some months ago.  There is some background to the study here. It’s taken a while (there have been other priorities like our Mock REF and various papers) but we’re now making good progress with the data analysis. We always said we would be open with the results we produced and in preparation for a series of blog posts to be posted over the next few weeks, I thought I would put up a quick post today describing some of the details of the study.

The study (given Ethical approval by an internal GCU Research Ethics Committee) comprised two components. First, participants were asked to complete a survey which asked them to respond to a number of statements regarding how they learn and plan their learning. Second, participants were invited to take part in a semi-structured interview exploring their participation in the Change11 mooc and their learning practices within it.

  • A version of the SRL survey instrument is available on dropbox: here.
  • The interview script for the semi-structured interview is available on dropbox: here.

We managed to recruit 35 participants for the study, and conducted interviews with 27 of these. The sample seems robust – with representation from many countries, different education sectors (and beyond) and different motivation for participation. We have 26 hours of interviews (394 pages of text)

Posts over the coming weeks will concentrate on: the srl profiles, emerging themes from the interviews, what these results tell us about moocs, what we can say about srl within moocs and many more things. Please get in touch if you want to know anything about the study or its findings and I will try to include it in a forthcoming blog post. Of course we also plan to publish the studues once we have done more extensive analysis.

One year Post-doc position at the Caledonian Academy


We are recruiting for a one year post-doc to work on a project exploring ‘Work and Learning at the Boundaries of Knowledge. This project will follow knowledge workers in prestigious software engineering and financial services organisations to better understand their self-regulated learning practices.

Full details and how to apply for the post on the GCU website: [You must have the right to live and work in the United Kingdom to apply for this vacancy]

Find out more about the project through this project outline:

Even more on MOOCs. Am I obsessed?

Here’s an old post (written in December 2010) I found which seems not to have been published. I don’t know why

In my first post on MOOCs I ended up hinting at a link between our concept of Charting and MOOCs. This was probably as far as I was going to go on that front, but then this morning I saw a post by Tony Hirst about MOOCs which included a link to this video by David Cormier. The image at 3:13 of this animation is so relevant to our own thinking about collective knowledge management that I decided to dust off the blog again …

Where I plan to be during EARLI 2011

Following on from Anoush’s post summarising her chosen sessions at EARLI this year, I thought I would do the same. This is where I provisionally plan to be over the next 5 days.

Tuesday August 30
1030-1100 Opening Session, Peter Chalk Centre, Newman A
1100-1230 A7 Motivational, Social and Affective Processes, Queens Seminar Room F
1330-1500 B16 Training of Young Researchers, Peter Chalk Centre Newman C
1530-1700 C5 Metacognition, Queen’s, Seminar Room D

Wednesday August 31
0900-1030 D5, Differing Perspectives on Understanding Learning in the Workplace. Queen’s, Seminar Room B
1100-1230 Session E, undecided
1330-1500 F18 Training of Young Researchers, Streatham Court, LT B (this session includes a paper presented by my PhD student Elena).
1530-1700 Keynote, Anders Ericsson, Queen’s, LT2
1700-1830 either G4 Motivation, Queen’s, Seminar E or G16 Goal Orientation, Peter Chalk Centre, Newman B

Thursday September 1
0900-1030 H10, Challenges of Developing Academic Futures … Streatham Court LT D
1100-1230 I14 where Anoush, Allison and I will be participating in a roundtable discussion with our paper ‘Typology of Informal Workplace Learning‘. Queen’s, Seminar E.
1330-1500 J14, The Relational Dimension of Collaborative Learning, Streatham Court, LTB

Friday September 2
0900-1030 K4 Methodological Perspectives on Researching Learning with ICT, Queen’s Seminar B
1100-1230 Session L, undecided
1330-1500 M13 Professional Development, Newman D – though I would have liked to have gone to Dane’s session (M12)
1530-1700 Keynote, Mien Segers, Newman A

Saturday September 3
0900-1030  N3 Online Collaborative Learning in Higher Education, Streatham Court LTB

Further thoughts on MOOCs

After a bout of bid writing, I’ve finally got time to reflect on George Siemens’ visit last week when he came to the Caledonian Academy to talk about “Connections, Clouds, Things and Analytics“. Over lunch, we spoke a little about the recently concluded PLENK10 MOOC (see my earlier thoughts here). Having been a little sceptical about the wider relevance of MOOCs (e.g. in formal education), I’m slowly being won round.

One of the things about the MOOCs run so far is that there have only been a handful -and almost all have been about the learning in networks (therefore attracting a very unusual cohort of very ‘connected’ participants). Stephen Downes ran one on critical thinking, but again, I think his position in the community will have influenced the way the course ran.  What we really need is someone from a completely different field to decide to run a MOOC. This brings up questions of What topics would suit the MOOC treatment, and What level of education? here are some initial thoughts.

TOPICS: I think the MOOC concept lends itself to emerging fields – where disciplines need to talk to each other, where there is no one source of knowledge and where new ideas and knowledge construction can benefit the topic significantly. An example off the top of my head when discussing this with George was the Large Hadron Collider at CERN – in hindsight this might draw too broad a spectrum of participants. I should try and think of something better.

EDUCATIONAL LEVEL: This is a little more tricky and the thoughts here perhaps betray some prejudice on my part. I think the CCK/PLENK MOOCs felt like Masters Level courses – using primary sources, encouraging new contributions from attendees etc. Also, a MOOC is never going to provide everyone on it with the same learning outcome, so it is less suitable for formal undergraduate education where assessment is often rigidly controlled.

I think motivation is key to understanding where MOOCs will end up. As I’ve said before, I dropped out of CCK’08 before I really started. Initially I rationalised my non-participation as ‘I wasn’t interested in learning’. My second hypothesis was ‘all the information hits you like a tsunami and if you are not prepared for that then you will be immediately demotivated’. I’m now onto my third hypothesis, ‘that participants need to set some learning goals at the start of the course, to narrow what they are interested in’. So participants on a MOOC need to be intrinsically motivated. Even if they are, I think they probably need a little bit of guidance at the start to get them to actively consider their motivation for participation. In fact, if I were running a MOOC, I would make the first week an activity where each participant defined their learning goals for the course. Then I’d engineer networks with common goals … hmm, this starts to sound a bit like Charting.

I’ve no time to explore the ideas further just now (got another post being written in parallel), but all this talk of fluid learning outcomes and inter-disciplinarity got me thinking of some work which now seems very old (bit no less relevant): Ultraversity


@kathtrinder kindly offered to let me try out her new kindle. I’m firmly wed to the paperback so I don’t feel I’d use one for my day to day reading, and part of the joy of reading is to pass books on to others – so I’m not interested in an e-Reader for that reason, but I do like the idea of using it to read journal papers. How practical is it for this purpose?

Kathy put a couple of papers on for me – each as pdf’s and converted into kindle format. here are a few first impressions.

  • Screen etc.: Fantastic – as pleasant as reading off paper – though in truth I don’t ever complain about having to read from the screen – I just know I should minimise it.
  • Ergonomics: very good – easy to turn pages etc, though I can imagine preferring to hold it if it had a flip cover which made it feel more like a book. Also, anyone who uses a touchscreen phone will find the lack of pinch/zoom etc a bit of getting used to.
  • Readability: well this was the key test. The PDFs display well but an A4 journal results in text which is far too small to  read comfortably: even smaller format journals are slightly too small to read. This is frustrating as these PDFs often have significant whitespace. Do you think the journals would change their layout to make it more kindle friendly? You can of course change the zoom on PDFs, but there are only limited options (100%, 150% etc.) so no option to have the text area fitted perfectly into the screen. The kindle format solves this problem and reading papers in this way is probably most convenient. One of the papers had some full page tables though – which the kindle seemed to (in)conveniently forget to convert/display, though the smaller inline figures converted well.
  • Annotation: when I read papers, I usually scribble notes in the margins. Despite PDF annotation tools being available through adobe, I’ve never really used them that as they seem too closed. Indeed the initial charting tools we are developing are trying to find ways of breaking ideas and notes out of silo’s (email pdfs etc). Interestingly, you can make notes on the kindle, and it seems to offer the possibility to share with social networks – I didn’t try this out but it could be very interesting if it let you post to any network (i.e. not just ones they promote) and highlight short excerpts to accompany the links.  The note feature seemed more usable than I expected, especially given the keyboard.

Anyway, thanks to Kathy for the tryout – very impressive, but still as unsure as when I first saw it announced back in August.

A MOOC from the Outside

I’m not registered for George Siemens’ PLENK 10 MOOC but like anyone following edtech feeds over the past few weeks I’ve found posts relating to it impossible to miss. Every post I read seems to stimulate a thought and eventually I decided that I should record some of them. This is an outsiders view – I obviously don’t know how the course is being run from within – so apologies if I misrepresent anything – this post isn’t meant to be at all judgemental.

So, why am I not participating? – well ultimately because I registered for last year’s mooc and didn’t participate, so I decided to save myself the guilt this year. Also,  I suppose somewhat arrogantly, I don’t really consider myself as part of the target audience: I’m familiar with the concepts, and have colleagues locally with whom I can exchange ideas. But perhaps I could benefit from participation  – the course creates new knowledge, so even if I am familiar with the input I am sure I would learn from being exposed to the new ideas stimulated by the course readings. As it is, this post (as close as I’ll get to participating) becomes an orphan, separated from the rest of PLENK, despite including some reflection about Personal Learning Environments and Knowledge Networks.

Engagement with the course. A couple of people I follow on twitter have been participating (@pfidalgo1 and @aeratcliffe), and I have been impressed with the level of engagement they’ve shown there (as opposed to in the elluminate sessions or moodle forums which I have not visited). Indeed to return to the point above, Patricia has highlighted a few good resources in her tweets.

Pedagogy and MOOCs As well as posts from participants, there are of course posts from the organisers. Dave Cormier’s recent post reflecting on the challenge of information overload offered by the MOOC – Dave talks about cluster and focus – refining your network and defining a focus. This got me thinking about ‘goals’. The ‘lack of structure’ inherent in the MOOC demands that the individual develops a clear goal for what they want to achieve, then use this to drive their participation in the course – without a clear goal, the individual ends up trying to comprehend everything, and quickly becomes overwhelmed.

I got this far with the post then hit a block with it. Not happy with the substance of it, I published it  and left it there – didn’t tweet the link etc – and given this is a low/no readership blog knew that it could languish without an audience.

Now another post comes along. This time from Steve LeBlanc, a MOOC participant. Steve reflects on the MOOC he has participated in, focusing specifically on the difficulty of having none of the traditional safety features – tests, common goals etc. Steve gives a great summary of the problems and outlines his approach to coping with the tsunami of information and knowledge a MOOC. I particularly liked this quote:

Chart out a plan to learn all you can about some small slice of the puzzle.

This is the key to participation in the MOOC – it relies on participants actively deciding what they want out of the course. I’d go a step further – find other people who want to learn the same thing. Or in other words, set your own learning goals, and find others with similar learning goals. … this starts to sound a bit like Charting. I can imagine a shared learning goals system which allowed people to adopt other people’s goals  would work well within the context of a MOOC.