Mar 14

Start Writing Fiction

ILOOC is near completion – well at least the videos are recorded – and, after an interesting meeting with my supervisor we agreed that it would be beneficial to my research if I actually did a MOOC, start to finish, for real.  We agreed I would do something completely new so I was engaged with the content and after a brief chat creative writing emerged as an idea.

On 28 April the OU’s ‘Start Writing Fiction’ MOOC on FutureLearn kick’s off and I’m registered.  I’ll try to participate as actively I can,  connect with other learners and blog my learning journey here.  I’m more than a little bit excited.


Feb 14

Leaping before ILOOC

The guest blogging continues, this time with Dr Simon Sneddon giving his reflections on working on ILOOC

When I was asked to be part of the ILOOC project at the tail end of last year, I thought it would be an interesting and useful project to be part of. I was already developing the larger CPD course into which ILOOC will slot, but that is a much more linear, traditional type course (and it is not open access!)

There are many interesting comparison between this type of non-linear MOOC and the previous style of delivery I have been involved in, but the most interesting to me is the level of creativity and teamwork that is involved. The first ever online delivery I was involved in (different times, different rules) involved posting (yes, in the actual post!) the students a 250 page A4 document, which included all the course materials, assignment titles and submission dates. That was pretty much it. Those days are (hopefully) gone for good, but even so, anyone can sit in a darkened room and pull together a few lecture slides (Prezi or PowerPoint, it doesn’t really matter), and even filming the delivery with something like Panopto is no longer the game-changer it used to be.

What is interesting with ILOOC is the range of things I have realised we are able to do – if anyone is considering something similar, it is crucial to get decent technical support (thanks Simon!) otherwise the office floor will be full of pulled-out hair and remnants of gnashed teeth! The OOCy nature of the course means that a range of other sources can be imported – YouTube clips, open access documents, and so on –and this widens the possibilities for delivery. As every unit within ILOOC is self-contained, the students can choose their own path and individual learning interests and priorities can be met. There are 5 sub-units with in ILOOC, which means there are 120 different routes which are possible (assuming students want to cover all 5 options), and will all allow the student to reach the same end-point. This is simply not possible with a linear style of delivery, and for me is going to be the great strength of ILOOC.

Feb 14

Goodbye NILE … Hello Course Sites

Another member of the ILOOC project team, Simon Thompson, gives his thoughts on working on the project…

Lots of firsts for me on the ILOOC project – first MOOC I’ve ever set up, first time working on a project with Nick and Simon and first use of a number of enhancements to the Blackboard platform. Not the University’s first MOOC on CourseSites.com though – we have an excellent ‘Study Skills for Academic Success’ launching on 5th May 2014.


Based on a course successfully developed in our own version of Blackboard Learn (we call it ‘NILE’ – Northampton Integrated Learning Environment), it made sense to host the MOOC on another Blackboard platform. This isn’t without its problems. Some of the tools we have integrated into our own learning environment and use all the time (such as Kaltura and Panopto) are not available on Course Sites so the whole course needed re-evaluating and re-written to accommodate these changes.


It is a huge advantage developing material in a familiar environment, but we have had to regularly upload material to Course Sites to ensure that things still work as expected. It is also a bit of a wrench not to have the full control of systems administration, so striking a balance between  pushing at the boundaries to deliver an exciting site and eliminating the technical ‘cheats’ has been an issue. First and foremost we want to deliver a great experience for ILOOC learners without technology getting in the way. And we will be actively seeking user feedback to help us improve the delivery of material as we go along.

Jan 14

Opening Panopto’s box

Having written some of the material for ILOOC and seen some of it uploaded I decided to spend time yesterday recording some of the micro-lectures using Panopto.

I downloaded the software to my home desktop – less disruptions than at work – and tidied the parts of my study that were in the webcam’s shot.  I even shut the blind so I wasn’t a talking silhouette, not wishing to look like an interviewee on crime-watch having their identity hidden.

The sound worked well on a simple computer microphone, although the feedback from one colleague was that I need to cheer up!  The video, intended to go in the corner of the presentation to give a human face was less successful, clunking the keyboard to advance the animation was awkward so I feel that someone else needs to advance the slides so it doesn’t distract the speaker.  The window still cast terrible light and my now tidy study looked bare, even the prop of an international law textbook appeared clinical and staged, so we need an appropriate venue for lighting and general aesthetics.  My eyes darting down to my notes was painful to watch, I’m not used to lecturing from script and it showed – the script needs to be held up behind the camera so eyes are towards the camera, not the desk, teleprompter style.  The final problem was that the webcam just wasn’t good enough, we need a better one.

I’d already realised that the funding we received to buy out our time was woefully underestimated, I’m already running the project on goodwill, and more professional style recordings involving more people are going to require me to abuse the goodwill of others but that’s what we will do.  The end product will be something I can be proud of and future bids will better reflect the true time commitments of such projects!


In light of this I suggest we continue to prepare materials, including Prezis but that we set aside time together (and find space) to record the Panopto bits more properly than I am able to at home!


Jan 14

The nature of international law

Returning after an enjoyable Christmas break is a good time to look back and reflect on the second team meeting we had had to discuss ILOOC.

Having previously divided up the material this was the opportunity to discuss the first draft of the first unit – the nature of international law – which it had fallen to me to produce.  We had the snags you’d expect – multiple choice quizzes needing a fourth option etc… – but overall as a team we were happy with our progress.  More interestingly we were able to discuss the academic literature that’s out there, based on others’ experiences, and use it to improve our offering.:

  • We are going to make sure we include a very clear ‘about this course’ page, supplemented with description and introductory video.
  • We are going to try to clearly indicate on each unit how long we expect it to take.
  • We are going to keep it personal, ensuring there is a talking head in each video we produce.

This last point led to a change in our choice of tech, for all its strengths we are going to ditch videoscribe in favour of panopto.  The latter will record from a webcam, embedding the image in the corner of whatever is on screen, this will be our talking head.  Whatever is on screen will most likely be a prezi.  The other techy decision we made was to use blackboard as our platform, hosting ILOOC on their coursesites website.

The other lecturer involved is busy working on the next unit ahead of our next meeting on 10 January – something to look forward to – and all seems to be on track.

Dec 13

ILOOC is like a box of chocolates

Last week the bid we had applied for for the project we are calling ILOOC arrived with the school accountant so we made a start.  One of the conditions of the bid is that we blog our progress, although the purpose of blogging is much wider than this and we would love to receive your comments.

I described ILOOC (International Law Open Online Course) in a previous blog; in essence we are building an OOC that is hopefully along the lines of a cMOOC, focusing on connectivism by building a network of learners.  We intend to use learner diaries to assess the impact of ILOOC.

To encourage engagement I want to develop a course that can be studied in an asynchronous pick n’ mix fashion, more like progressing through a box of chocolates than a three-course meal. The team, consisting of another senior lecturer in law and a learning technologist, agreed.  In fact a lot was agreed upon at our first meeting on Monday It looks like we are using coresites as our platform and maintaining control of discussion through our own hosted forums, although we will use hashtags and encourage learners to explore building their own networks.  We are also exploring how we can utilise videoscribe and flipboard – in fact I’m to play with the iPad flipboard app next!

Numbering units seems odd in an asynchronous OOC but I have completed the final draft of the materials for the first unit, looking forward to getting feedback and seeing what it looks like when the learning technologist has worked his wizardry.


Nov 13

Researching cMOOCs and xMOOCs

I have received the pleasing news that a colleague and I have been awarded a research grant to allow us to create an online learning resource and assess its impact on pre-LLM students.

We will soon be launching an online course which will give non-law graduates the background knowledge necessary to be able to participate in an LLM, widening participation to include those from a non-law background.  The course will comprise five modules, four of which will be look similar to our current distance learning offering and one of which, funded by the grant, will be developed along the lines of a cMOOC.

The c in cMOOC stands for connectivity and this style of MOOCs is based on pedagogic research which argues that knowledge can be gained from a network of learners:

Learning is the creation and removal of connections between the entities, or the adjustment of the strengths of those connections.  A learning theory is, literally, a theory describing how these connections are created or adjusted. (Downes)

The job of the creators of cMOOCs is to facilitate the network and generate the spark that inspires learners to gain the knowledge which exists in the network itself.  This style of MOOC is a world away from the xMOOCs which characterise the offerings from providers such as Stanford, Coursera and Udacity and which are criticised by some “as glorified correspondence courses” (Degree Of Freedom) but without the tutor interaction.  In previous blogs I was dismissive of xMOOCs because of the lack of Socratic dialogue and cautiously optimistic about cMOOCS because of their focus on peer-to-peer dialogue.  My scepticism however remains about whether this peer-to-peer dialogue can be Socratic in the absence of someone taking the role traditionally assumed by the teacher.

There are good pedagogic reasons for preferring the ‘guide on the side’ from the ‘sage on the stage’ model of teaching in certain circumstances, however cMOOCs seem to require the loss of the ‘guide on the side’ and expect learners to be competent to distil knowledge from the network unassisted.  I am reminded of my analogy in an earlier blog with the Dora the Explorer TV show where toddlers are encouraged to ‘interact’ with the TV character by shouting in their lounges; having more toddlers in the lounge that interacted with one another would create a network.  Without a competent Spanish speaker I remain unconvinced that, however populated this network of toddlers became, knowledge of the Spanish language would be gained.  I am however hoping to have my scepticism checked and learn from this new project.

The grant will not only fund the creation of a cMOOC, it will also fund the collection of qualitative data from students engaged in the module, allowing me to compare their experiences of those parts of the course that look more like xMOOCs and the cMOOC offering.  I hope this research will serve as a pilot, helping me frame the main research project which will be the substance of my PhD.


Downes, S. Connectivism and Connective Knowledge: Essays on meaning and learning networks (2012) [online] http://www.downes.ca/files/Connective_Knowledge-19May2012.pdf [accessed 25 November 2013]

Degree Of Freedom, ‘xMOOC vs. cMOOC’ (April 19, 2013) [online] http://degreeoffreedom.org/xmooc-vs-cmooc/ [accessed 25 November 2013]

Nov 13

Should we give students what they want or what’s good for them?

In my previous blog post I argued that Socratic dialogue should be the cornerstone of education and I believe this.  Many students however try their best to avoid engaging in Socratic dialogue, and a significant number of those graduate with good degrees.  Maybe that’s because Universities are not always assessing ‘knowledge’ in the way Socrates meant it.

Some may argue we learn from books, but all we can know from a book is what the book says about, for example, public law.  Without prior knowledge of public law to assess the content against or being able to engage in Socratic dialogue with the author(s) in an attempt to falsify their claims  we can know nothing else.  Similarly if I give a lecture, but do not engage with my audience, or upload a video lecture, all my audience can know is what I said – they have no way of knowing whether what I said was true.  To have knowledge of the subject matter about which I am lecturing they would either need prior knowledge against which to assess the content of my lecture or the opportunity to engage with me in Socratic dialogue, for example in a seminar.  If I design my assessments to measure what the students know about what I said in my lecture then that is what I am assessing – I am not assessing what the students know about the subject that I lectured on.

Without wishing to investigate the entire nature of learning and teaching, at least yet, I am genuinely interested in what learning experiences students value – is the smorgasbord of innovation and technology many institutions strive to offer really what the students would have ordered for themselves?

University students are experts at being students – most have been in formal education for nearly two decades – therefore we may be able learn something valuable from students about how best to support their learning.  I think that something really valuable can be gained from discovering where it is that students feel they gain knowledge from.  This is the background to EStEnD (the not so imaginatively titled Enhancing Student Engagement by Doing project).

I have previously blogged about modules I redesigned to be based around learning by doing and I am guilty of regarding these as a success because they were applauded by colleagues – both at the institution I was teaching at and at learning and teaching conferences, commended JASB (the Joint Academic Studies Board, which represents the legal professions), and enjoyed by some students. This is not to say that the module wasn’t great for the students – it might have been, but equally it might not have been.  How could I know, I was more concerned with what we thought was best for our students than what they wanted.  I am still experimenting with learning by doing, and students in my seminar groups are having a different learning experience from students in other groups. The funding I have through URB@N will provide a bursary to an undergraduate researcher to interview students about their learning experiences, I hope this will help me understand how students really do learn and what they value, impacting on future work and, hopefully, the direction of my PhD.

Nov 13

Where’s the ‘Educational’ in Open Educational Resources?

I can at times be unfocused, receiving the news that I have been awarded a bursary to fund a student researcher re-focused my attention on that project.  A project in which I aim to consider how innovative teaching impacts upon different student groups.  My PhD – although tangentially connected – has therefore been slightly neglected, but better late than never here’s another round-up of my thoughts thus far…

Socrates is represented in the writings of Plato and Xenophon as a philosopher who communicated with his audience through the use of dialogue, a method also adopted by Plato who cast Socrates as a light-hearted although talented philosopher; below Socrates expresses his views on teaching through the voice of his protagonist who is addressing Ischomachus:

Can it be, Ischomachus, that asking questions is teaching? I am just beginning to see what is behind all your questions.  You lead me on by means of things I know, point to things that resemble them, and persuade me that I know things that I thought I had no knowledge of. (Guthrie W.K.C., 1971, 17)

Socrates key principle was that dialogue generates ideas from the learner: “Education is not a cramming in, but a drawing out.”(Clark, March 18 2012).  Socrates was also regarded as a formidable adversary, falsifying other’s claims in brutal dialogue – this is complimented by Popper’s concept of knowledge as that which has yet to be falsified.

The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy states that there are two competing models of education:

education as transmission of knowledge versus education as the fostering of inquiry and reasoning skills that are conducive to the development of autonomy (Phillips, D.C. and Siegel, H.).

This contrasts a model of cramming knowledge into the learner with the more Socratic method of drawing ideas out from the learner, which must be more prone to foster understanding and engender retention.  Whilst there may, arguably, be a role for the former model in legal higher education the area of legal education – namely that of teaching legal methods and skills – with which I am primarily concerned undoubtedly requires Socratic dialogue.

As Socrates infamously stated “teaching is the art of asking questions”, recognising that the acquisition of knowledge alone, however, is not sufficient to amount to education, education requires development of the learner through the acquisition of understanding and skills, or as John Dewey infamously stated:

“All genuine education comes through experience” (1963, 15).

In fact Dewey went further in his ground-breaking study, arguing that education is done best as groups, sharing experiences as opposed to by individuals, through lectures and textbooks.  Dewey’s experiential education draws on the Socratic method, actively involving learners in gaining knowledge through questioning.  Education requires Socratic dialogue, or activity and questioning, allowing the learner to develop through a process of self-reflection, that:

moves the learner from a state of defensiveness, dependence (on the teacher) and reaction to a state of self-actualisation, independence and self-direction”(Kolb, 1984, 140).

Socratic dialogue, to identify shared experiences, is essential to any model of experiential learning.

Peter Scott (2013), Professor of Higher Education at the Institute of Education, argues, when writing about Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), perhaps the most ambitious and novel form of OERS, that:

the best teaching has to be communal and reflexive, to allow for permanent dialogue.

This confirms the discussion above that education, at its best, is gained through group experiences and Socratic dialogue.  Scott is drawing on the Socratic tradition and the work of Karl Popper – Popper claimed that the closest we can come to knowing something is provisional knowledge that is, as yet, unfalsified – or what he calls ‘Socratic dialogue, and Popperian science’.  Whilst Karl Popper’s concept of knowledge ultimately limits that which is knowable to physics and pure mathematics the principle that the more vigorously we subject provisional knowledge to dialogue the more certain we can be that it is unfalsifiable can be applied to any discipline.  Scott concludes by identifying a debate not only about MOOCs but about the wider state of Higher Education, identifying a conflict between the “Socratic tutorial” and the “delivery of expert skills”.  Whilst Scott’s argument is generally convincing it is not with skills education but rather the delivery of what we label knowledge through large lectures, videos, textbooks or online resources where the learner is regarded as the passive recipient that the conflict with the Socratic tutorial is most evident.

Brent Chesley, Professor of English at Aquinas College, Michigan, in discussing MOOCs identifies the Socratic method as an effective teaching tool, highlighting the flaws in what we otherwise accept as self-evident truths.  Chesley asks:

Could students in a MOOC have a comparable experience?(6 August 2013)

If we accept Chesley and Scott’s premise that the Socratic method is effective, then his question is an important one which this discussion returns to and which, it is hoped, future research will go some way to answering.

Higgins identified that if we don’t engage learners in dialogue they may not realise that they lack a certain piece of knowledge which they need.  Through Socratic Dialogue and, particularly, Popperian science the process of critical self-reflection identifies learning needs and improves the learner’s chances to succeed in meeting their learning objectives.  It is less straight-forward to achieve this through open resources with limited direct involvement of the ‘teacher’.  However Tallent-Runnels notes, summarising previous research, that:

Of the yearly 1,000 hours of instruction in regular classrooms mandated by most states for elementary and secondary schools, only 300 to 400 hours are devoted to high-quality academic learning in which students are engaged in learning activities. (p.99)

If, however, OERs can emulate 30-40% of time spent being engaged in learning then it may be fair to assume they are, at least, as effective as classroom based teaching.

The key tenets of Socrates’ philosophy of education were that;

  • education is a worthy pursuit (this is echoed in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics);
  • learning is a social activity achieved through dialogue;
  • questioning, to draw out knowledge, is the crux of education;
  • that to learn we must accept the true extent of our own ignorance; and
  • that learning must be pursued with ruthless intellectual honesty.

It is the second of these claims that we have explored above and that forms the focus of the discussion that follows.  If we accept that both Socratic Dialogue and Popperian science are necessary to good education then any resource, online or otherwise, must satisfy the following propositions in order to be educational in a meaningful sense:

  • It must involve a dialogue/experience between the ‘teacher’ and the ‘learner(s)’;
  • What is being communicated must be falsifiable; and
  • All participants in the dialogue must be willing to adapt their position if anything being communicated is falsified.

Crouch describes the various OERs that are available to:

support the training of legal researchers and to guide them in their research (p.115)

beginning by listing two of the online databases of journal articles, cases and statutes, namely LexisNexis and JustCite.  She draws on experience and research in concluding that commercial databases are superior to free services as tools for locating legal information.  These repositories are useful as sources of knowledge; however they lack the Socratic dialectic that is crucial to education.  As efficient means of gaining information they are excellent, however if OER’s are about education – as the name suggests – then they need to be less passive.  These types of resources are beneficial in supporting education, but are not educational themselves.

Crouch next describes re-usable learning objects (RLOs), which she describes as primarily repositories for the sharing of teaching materials between educators.(Crouch, 2010116)  The three main RLOs she identifies are Jorum; The HEA RLOs for Law Librarianship; and Informs.(Informs)  Jorum is a repository as described by Crouch, primarily of benefit to educators.  Jorum, in common with online databases, falls into the category described as “presentational” by Larreamendy-Joerns and Leinhardt (Larreamendy-Joerns and Leinhardt, pp.585-586).  The HEA RLOs for Law Librarianship and Informs provide interactive activities, the latter being a tool for the creation of interactive, online tutorials.  Intute, who operate Informs, however closed in July 2011 and the site now operates as an archive.  One of the resources in the archive is a tutorial which claims:

to help university students develop their Internet research skills. (Virtual Training Suite)

Whilst the resource is broken down to manageable, well presented chunks the interactivity is limited to reflective questions and tasks with no opportunity of feedback, in large parts the resource is little more than an annotated selection of hyperlinks, many of which are now out of date.  Whilst reflective questions may encourage activity from the participant the lack of response means such resources still lack the Socratic dialectic necessary to be educational.

Crouch moves on to consider OERs and Open Courseware, citing Slideshare and YouTube EDU as commercial platforms that provide hosting of content, however they again provide material in a passive way as discussed above.  Open Courseware has developed hugely since Crouch’s article with the creation of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which are discussed below.  However we will first consider  Inquiry and Problem Based Learning (IBL and PBL), which Crouch addresses next in her article; she cites a project at Kings College London (KCL), funded by the now defunct UK Centre for Legal Education (UKCLE), which aimed to build a whole Legal Methods module in an open, online format.  Legal Methods is not currently offered as a module by KCL although a single page document describing the project is publicly available on Slideshare(Kings College London).  The project website was last updated on 21 June 2011 (UKCLE ceased to exist on 31 July 2011) and promised that “The new module will be rolled out to all first year students at the start of the 2010-11 academic year”(UK Centre for legal Education), it seems this did not happen.  IBL and PBL have been incorporated into many OOCs and the methodology I hope to discuss, where appropriate, in future posts when considering the potential for Socratic dialogue in OOCs.

There have been considerable efforts made to retain an element of dialogue in OOCs, especially as they grow to be Massive (i.e. MOOCs) and thus able to be designed once and delivered numerous times, to tens or even hundreds of thousands of individuals with limited resources.

Any parent of young children will have likely witnessed their child screaming the answer at the TV to a question posed by Disney’s Dora the Explorer or similar and wondered whether they are learning anything and what is the benefit of the exuberant praise children receive, regardless of the merits of their response.  There may be some benefit in engaging children and in eliciting a response from them, but if their response is not reacted to then this benefit is extremely restricted.  Similarly MOOCs have to do more than simply broadcast, in an unresponsive form, if they are to be of genuine educational use in teaching legal methods and skills.

Whilst not every educational activity can and should be assessed the summative feedback that comes with assessment, and the formative feedback that students receive continuously in traditional courses, are one of the main ways they receive active responses to their communication – the response to their dialogue – and Professor Warburton has identified feedback as a form of dialogue (Hatzipanagos and Warburton, pp.45-59), arguing that feedback can be sufficient to provide the dialogue in an online environment.  This is certainly one of the ways that distance learning providers have successfully overcome the criticism that the Socratic tutorial is absent without face-to-face teaching however feedback is, arguably, too onerous on the providers of MOOCs to be realistic.

Other proposed solutions include computer simulated conversations, (Nelson and Dawson) or “The promise of intelligent tutoring systems”(Larreamendy-Joerns and Leinhardt, 586). However Nelson and Dawson’s article demonstrates that currently computer simulated responses are not genuine responses but pre-programmed ‘dialogue’ triggered by the learner’s answers, in fact in their worked example(pp.8-9) they describe the correct response to a complex ethical dilemma in PhD supervision to be simply ‘maybe’ with no avenue to explore why the learner has decided that the scenario requires a more nuanced response than either ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  The learner would achieve the same response, and mark, if they had chosen the answer ‘maybe’ entirely at random or for any arbitrary reason such as preference for the letter ‘m’ or for 5-letter words.

Peer to peer dialogue appears to be a much explored option by the providers of MOOCs, such as Coursera, and this clearly has huge pragmatic advantages as the numbers of learners grow so does the number of peers who can be involved in dialogue.  If there is a way to generate a valuable, genuine Socratic educational experience in a group of online learners without direct and continuous intervention from a ‘teacher’ then it may be possible to teach legal methods and skills through MOOCs, and this is the pedagogy that inspired the creation of early MOOCs, now termed cMOOCS.  The c stands for ‘connectivism’, representing the idea that learning occurs through connections with others within a network.  The question remains however, how do we skill learners to be able to engage in and facilitate Socratic dialogue?



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Nov 13

Undergraduate Research Bursary for Learning by Doing

A colleague and I have just received the exciting news that we have been awarded an Undergraduate Research Bursary, or URB@N, the last bit referring to at Northampton.  We now have the pleasant task of encouraging students to apply for the bursary so they can support us in our project.

The successful applicant would be interviewing students to research the impact of different approaches to teaching the Introduction to Public Law module.  Ultimately this will feed back in to the teaching team and improve the learning experiences of students on our module so its really pleasing news.

We are running some seminars in a traditional format, whilst others are more experiential – a wordy way of saying that some of our students are learning by doing!  The doing is being grouped by political beliefs and encouraged to form political parties to compete to be the government of the newly independent State of Parkland.  The project will hopefully reveal how different students, with different learning styles, respond to different teaching formats.

If you want to read more, or if you’re an undergraduate at the University of Northampton and wish to apply for the bursary, please follow this link.