Being part of something – having a sense of presence #activelearning

Photo by ThisIsEngineering on

The idea of ‘being’ is about presence and is central to an active learning philosophy. It reflects two things: personal identity and social presence in the learning environment. Lehman and Conceicao (2010) describe this as ‘being there’ and ‘being together’. Both relate to embodiment and the ‘ways of being’ that are projected by individuals and those with whom they associate: who we are, how we come to present ourselves, and how we are received. Fostering presence by paying attention to ‘being’ potentially counteracts “transactional distance” and feelings of separation and even isolation (Moore, 1993). Teacher presence, on the other hand, encourages co-operation, community cohesion, and public discourse (Zilka et al., 2018).

Sung and Mayer (2012) explain that presence refers to the extent that personal connection with others is felt, i.e. being noticed; sharing; interaction; identity.

As such, being and presence connect with both enactment and belonging (association). These ideas also relate to becoming and social connection making.

Being, therefore, is really about being part of something. This is different to having a sense of belonging which describes an affective state; that sense is an emotional response to whether we feel part of something. Being is more active, conscious, intentional and agentic, as in ‘being in the moment’, ‘being there together’, assuming and developing an identity, and experiencing identity as it is mirrored in acts that respond to or affect others. This understanding leads to the teacher considering the nature of interaction and the role of intellectual, emotional and intrinsic feedback; the latter being the feedback that is integral to the learning activity and environment. Teacher presence, thereby, encourages a climate of co-operation, community cohesion, and public discourse.

Being, as embodiment, is about experiencing and curating identity and so is related to learning as reflection; especially reflection in learning – that heightened sense of self-awareness, or self-feedback, which can be equally fragile or exhilarating.

Being, therefore, has great value to learning design. It becomes a useful lens for the academic who, in a student-centred paradigm, can monitor engagement in learning by evaluating the nature of an individual’s active presence: what evidence is there that the learner has bought into the activity or the course as a whole? For example, to what extent has the learner adopted the disciplinary attitudes, tools and language? How do they wear (sometimes literally) their emerging identity? How does the learner position themselves culturally – as an insider, or outsider?

On the learning space walks I organise from time to time I like to look in on labs: what do the white coats mean? What do the lab books mean? What do the half-erased marks on whiteboards mean? What does the smell of the lab mean? What do the burn marks in the work surface mean? What does the apparatus mean? We start to see that our experience of a space is situated within, not only a disciplinary knowledge and tradition, but a culture through enacted behaviours and common beliefs. Our being is part of that story. For me, as a former art student (painting and printmaking urban artefacts as symbols of our own experience) the paint on the studio floor, the smell of turps, and the miscellaneous noticeboards and debris of endeavour were as significant as anything I may have been ‘taught’.

I suggest fostering being as a dimension of learning should be the concern of every academic involved in designing learning activities and creating their learning environment. Developing a supportive communal learning environment that is attentive to student needs will improve the learning and teaching experience and its outcomes (Chickering & Gamson, 2000).

Authenticity is a key word in achieving this. I often use the idea of authenticity to refer to activities that reflect a real world context (e.g. Herrington & Herrington, 2006), however, here I use authenticity to refer to the viability of the learning environment itself as one in which learning activities, teachers and students are in tune: the situation they create exudes commitment and their actions are understood by all as an expression of being and communal presence. The learning environment is not primarily perceived to be an abstracted or ‘pure’ academic construct.

Being, presence and hybridity

Being and presence are particularly recognisable in spaces such as studios, labs, field trips, workshops, editing suites, maker spaces, and those non-formal learning spaces to which learners and teachers gravitate between times (e.g. stair wells, cafes, lawns, social media, perching seats, and water fountains, are a few of the many examples). Such spaces accommodate a high degree of personal agency within a social context while also adding value to the adjacent or the associated formal learning spaces. Together these spaces create a spatial ecosystem, and may reflect an urban metabolism (an idea I am exploring for a future post).

But what about the online digital domain that, on the face of it, appears sterile and ‘other’? How do we penetrate its veneer to reveal “the signs of distress, embarrassment, difficulties with the material being taught” (Zilka et al., 2018) or, more positively, to explore it as affinity space (Gee, 2005) or a space of learning friendship (Middleton, 2018), characteristic of social learning?

Well, if you’ve stumbled across my blog, I know you know that the online domain is equally a place of being. If nothing else, our reading or engagement with what we find gives the domain its life. Online media are intrinsically stimulating – we react to them, even if it is to leave them as quickly as we found them. But as with any learning environment, the online learning spaces we use have their functionality and inviting affordances (Withagen et al., 2017). And by the way, that is no different to any other space: space becomes place once it is experienced (space + meaning).

A hybrid, blended and unifying space

Like any other educational developer in higher education, my challenge since March 2020 has been to understand, make recommendations for, and develop practices and infrastructure for supporting learning across the physical-digital domain. How simple it is to say that!

All of a sudden our academics have discovered that they cannot ignore the significance of space and its relation to either teaching or learning. For example, our students freak out our academics when they turn off their cameras and microphones, becoming invisible (the assumptions about that invisibility can be explored in another post)! So many things we may have taken for granted have melted into air to reveal real insight! C’est ne pas une pipe!

Without exploring the detail of the Unified Active Learning model we have developed to understand the possibilities for engaging all of our students (however they access their learning), there are questions we need to ask: how can the academic designer create hybrid spaces in which a sense of being and a heightened sense of presence have a role? How do we epitomise that notion of authenticity in the ecosystem of personal environments that are experienced each time we meet our students, even when they are co-located temporally but not spatially? Or when they meet each other? How do we manage our own voices and encourage the voices of our students to populate the environments we create together? How do we foster learning cultures and identities in the connected space? Beyond enactment, how do we promote being and presence to ensure becoming and social connectivity follow? What are our ‘lab coats’ and unifying signifiers (Norman, 2013) in this hybrid space?

These are the sorts of questions the academic, as designer and orchestrator, needs to be answering for themselves. Zilka et al. (2018) observe that physical separation between teacher and learners in the blended space may lead to transactional distance. That is the challenge. That distance needs to be reduced by developing teacher presence and social presence. They make the following recommendations from their research,

It is preferable to create a learning environment that supports the learners
and is attentive to their needs and to the creation of an active learning community. It has been found that these factors greatly influence the process and the quality of learning in the course.



Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (2000). Development and adaptations of the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. In: M. D. Svinicki (ed.), “Teaching and learning on the edge of the millennium: Building on what we have learned”, pp. 75-81, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gee, J. P. (2005). ‘Semiotic social spaces and affinity spaces’. In: David Barton & Karin Tusting, eds, “Beyond communities of practice: language power and social context.” New York: Cambridge University Press.

Herrington, A. & Herriington, J. (2006). What is an authentic learning environment? In Authentic Learning Environments in Higher Education, edited A. Herrington and J. Herrington, pp. 1-14, Information Science Publishing. Online at:

Lehman, R. M. & Conceicao, S. C. O. (2010). Creating a sense of presence in online teaching: How to ‘be there’ for distance learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Metabolism of Cities website:

Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining spaces for learning in higher education. Palgrave Learning & Teaching.

Moore, M. G. (1993). Theory of transactional distance. In: D. Keegan (ed.), “Theoretical principles of distance education”, pp. 22-38. London, New York: Routledge.

Norman, D. (2013). The design of everyday things: Revised and expanded edition. New York: Basic Books.

Sung, E. & Mayer, R.E. (2012). Five facets of social presence in online distance education. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(5), pp. 1738-47.

Withagen, R., Araujo, D., & de Poel, H. J. (2017). Inviting affordances and agency. New Ideas in Psychology, 45, April 2017, pp. 11-18.

Zilka, G. C., Cohen, R.,& Rahimi, I. D. (2018). Teacher presence and social presence in virtual and blended courses.. Journal of Information Technology Education: Research, 17. Online at:

Posted in Active Learning, Belonging, Digital Placemaking, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place, Studio and Studio-based Learning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Non-human actors and experience

Photo by Benjamin Thomas on Unsplash

I have touched on Actor-Network Theory (ANT) in a previous post and the challenging idea that many actors are non-human – they are therefore actors without the potential to intentionally affect change. Objects, ideas, and processes have a role and may be share the stage with sentient beings, so to speak, but to what extent can they interact? In that earlier post, I was trying to work out the extent to which studio could be considered as more than an inanimate setting with no meaning and influence over the human actor(s).

One way of putting this, picking up on the comment from Ed Mayo to an earlier post, is what power does it exert? Or I could ask, does the studio have agency?

Power, agency, and influence are present at the very least as latent values: dimensions of a cultural landscape. My use of the word latent, rather than implicit, suggests a hidden influence or one that is waiting or ready to be enacted. For example, the presence of a technology in a given setting (e.g. a studio) speaks loudly – Why is it there? How did it get there? What is its usual function? How else might it be used? What does it amplify about identity? etc. It is not only on the stage but part of the conceit and of the plot that might unfold. If, in this example, it is ‘my’ studio, what does it mean to me?


I dug out my block printing press over the summer and bought some news tools and materials. Now I am back at work, too busy to engage in the process of printmaking again, they haunt me. Really, I must put them away for a while.

Objects, ideas, processes and other non-human devices are indisputably part of the context and they have a role to play. Intention, on the other hand, maybe viewed as no more than a distinguishing characteristic of the human actor in the same way that non-human actors have their distinguishing characteristics.

This, of course, raises the question of whether ANT has any value to understanding spaces for learning in which the primary interest of the educator is the human act or experience of learning. As I noted, ANT seems to depersonalise the idea of learning space in which nothing is anterior (Fenwick & Edwards, 2010), distancing us from the ontological position of seeing learning as an outcome of doing, being, becoming, belonging and connecting. However, it is a socio-material construct and, for me, usefully makes us think about the significance of context on learning and specifically the idea of embodiment – how the environment as a whole speaks to us.

The actual environment, the tools we use, the things we and others make, the things we find, stumble across and take notice of are all very important influences upon us as professionals and learners but, as actants, in a learning ecosystem, such objects and artefacts have a sub-ordinate role because they do not have intention. 


Fenwick, T. & Edwards, R. (2010). Actor-Network Theory and education. London: Routledge.

Posted in Belonging, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place, Studio and Studio-based Learning | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The problem with communities… a consideration of alternatives

Photo by Pixabay on

Why do I explore ideas like being, belonging and becoming in relation to networks, but I hardly talk about communities any more? In this post I will look at why networks and affinity spaces more than communities have come to dominate my thinking. My professional context is as educational developer and innovator – that means I think about staff development and the spaces we devise for learning in equal measure. However, my outlook is shaped more by my own history of being a musician in bands and an artist in studios – these settings have attuned me to the significance of creating co-operative spaces for creativity. Learning is the ultimate, unifying act of creativity – we all continually experience, struggle, resolve and learn independently in a social context.

The concept of Communities of Practice (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder, 2002; Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998) sits within this learning ecosystem. A community of practice (CoP) is a,

“learning partnership among people who find it useful to learn from and with each other about a particular domain. They use each other’s experience of practice as a learning resource”

Wenger, Trayner, & de Laat, 2011, p.9

Wenger (2004) explains that a CoP is composed of :

  • Domain – topic of common interest
  • Community – the group for whom the topic is relevant and who interact with the purpose of learning
  • Practice – “the body of knowledge, methods, tools, stories, cases, documents, which members share and develop together”

I agree with J.P. Gee (2005, p. 215) that “the key problem with notions like ‘community of practice’, and related ones like ‘communities of learners’, is that they make it look like we are attempting to label a group of people.” He argues that there may be various ways of describing a group as a community but people within the group, or beyond the group may not perceive or experience that grouping as a community. Even where they do, the reasons for, and the levels of, commitment may vary to such an extent to make the intended description of the group meaningless. Further, the dimension of change over time makes the labelling of a group in this way problematic. How is a community of practice delimited, and who decides?

A CoP, then, is a convenient way of organising and communicating how a group has/can coalesce around a topic and engage with it for mutual benefit. Knowing that you are part of something and having a shared understanding and commitment to that something is important. For a band (and I have been in many!), making an initial commitment to some creative endeavour needs to be simple, clear, bold and well-framed because you are forever basing your artistic decisions on one of the few solid things that you have. It’s why manifestos and ‘frameworks’ and principles are important in my world – everyone can sign up to these things or not. They create tangible roadmaps. But the trouble is such things do need to be refreshed and renegotiated – especially when you come to the ‘difficult second album’!

My own reservations about the term CoP are to do with its inadequacy in representing fluid learning networks; a concept which I believe reflects learning through online social networks and which is potentially of great use in understanding blended learning and hybrid learning, as well as the spatial design needed to support fluid learning. Savin-Baden (2015) calls this ‘liquid learning’.

Hence, we would like CoPs to be solid and well-defined, but experience tells us creative bonds are pragmatic, never solid and always fluid.

Affinity spaces

“many young people today have lots of experience with affinity spaces and, thus, have the opportunity to compare and contrast their experiences with these to their experiences in classrooms”

Gee, 2005, p. 223

Affinity spaces are places of,

  • common interests, endeavours, goals or practices
  • sharing of common space
  • portals or ways of engagement
  • internal grammar (practices) shaped by external grammar (evidenced notions of accepted practice)
  • intensive and extensive knowledge
  • individual and distributed knowledge

Gee’s ideas extend CoPs usefully. For example, the idea of a space that is shared recognises the dynamic nature of mutuality. I still worry about that idea of common goals – or rather, how it may be read. In my band analogy, that idea of goal is, in reality, tenuous and pragmatic. Only this morning I have been discussing aesthetic decisions with band members and can see how, after all these years, we still have to sensitively negotiate around some very deeply held values. In fact, the more experienced you get, the clearer and more entrenched you get potentially. Negotiation requires a creative maturity – more than ‘thick skin’, it is an ability to stand outside of and observe what you are doing.And to be generous in doing that. Aspirations and senses of becoming are very subjective and emotional. As learning advocate, the teacher’s role is to ensure a learner’s goals have space to develop, grow and form in relation to the student’s own changing world view and to help facilitate the social space so that it works well for the individuals who become associates in joint enterprise.

Hodkinson (2004) proposes that CoP theory needs to be extended by, integrating individual learners into social theorising about learning, considering and accommodating what we know the impact of power differentials in relation to access to learning, and going beyond the binary of formal and informal conceptions of learning.

Good learning is an outcome of common experience, one in which mutuality and shared repertoires frame our creativity. Ultimately, such a space is dynamic and fleeting in nature. As teachers, our attention may be on ‘the now’ and how we establish the construct of a communal endeavour. However, the bigger lifewide, and lifelong interest is better served by recognising the need for the individual learner to develop themselves in terms of ‘owning’ their knowledge and identity, valuing their social capital, enjoying their cultural identity, and curating their resilience.

A networked learning paradigm and appreciation of constellations, affinity spaces, distributed cognition, and assemblage theory (Delanda, 2016) catch my eye more than the CoP construct.


Gee, J.P. (2005). Semiotic social spaces and affinity spaces: From the age of mythology to today’s schools. In: Barton, D., & Tusting, K. “Beyond communities of practice (Learning in doing : social, cognitive, and computational perspectives).” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Delanda, M. (2016). Assemblage theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Hodkinson, H. (2004). A constructive critique of communities of practice: Moving beyond Lave and Wenger. OVAL research working paper, 04-02. [Sydney]: OVAL Research. (

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. London: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.2307/2804509

Savin-Baden, M. (2015). Rethinking learning in an age of digital fluency: Is being digitally tethered a new learning nexus? London & New York: Routledge.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E., R. McDermott and W. M. Snyder (2002). Cultivating communities of practice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of practice and social learning systems. Organization, 7(2), 225–246.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wenger, E., Trayner, B., & de Laat, M. (2011). Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: A conceptual framework. Heerlen, The Netherlands: Ruud de Moor Centrum, Open University of the Netherlands.

Posted in Active Learning, Belonging, Co-operative pedagogy, Creativity, Digital Placemaking, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place, Studio and Studio-based Learning | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Feedback: where learning begins #activelearning

Photo by Pixabay on

While the title of this post is intentionally contentious, it allows me to reflect on one or two recent discussions and reinforce some key ideas about active learning design, especially in the context of ‘unified’ active learning (UAL): how it is recorded and how activity inputs and outputs are key to identifying knowledge moments, producing feedback and giving focus for learner reflection.

Unified Active Learning is central to our teaching and learning response at Anglia Ruskin University as we approach Trimester 1 this year. It encapsulates our extant strategy for active, inclusive and collaborative learning and emphasises the value and opportunities our thinking allows for engaging all of our students as one, however they have chosen to access learning on their course. As I review lecture-based strategies on Twitter in which academics elsewhere bravely state the extra effort they are making to find new ways to lecture, I remain convinced that a response based on the learner’s deep engagement with knowledge, rather than its delivery, is the right approach. ‘Content’ has its place, but what does it look like and how does it integrate with learning?

Feedback has an important part in this paradigm. To be brief, feedback’s role in active learning should be mostly forward-looking and, if understood as ‘the end of something’ – the final full stop following summative assessment – then its possibilities and value have been lost.

This week, I have been responding to the question of how we support late-comers and students who fall ill. Inevitably lecture capture surfaces as a response. Leaving the irony of that to one side, it is useful to ask “Well, what do we capture from our teaching then?” What can we put in front of those students who need to catch up?

This reminds me of non-Covid era questions that arise around active learning like, “Where’s the content our students need to revise?” “What is solid/static enough to call content?”, “Is content, or context king/queen?” etc. These questions are riddled with assumptions that knowledge is static and packageable, rather than an outcome of learning within the context of student-centred learning ecologies.

It is not only late-comers and students who fall ill that we should think about, but all students who in the course of their learning need to have ways of revisiting key ideas and critically reviewing what they have learnt.

Without going further into detail, the answer to such dilemmas lies in understanding active learning as a matter of,

  1. Inputs and stimuli
  2. Activity and exploration
  3. Outputs, objectives and outcomes

The iterative idea of learning presented in these three phases reflects and simplifies other familiar ideas of learning cycles. It also reflects ideas such as flipped learning, especially when the aim of activity is understood to be generative – a matter of producing representations of knowledge that have real purpose – again, part of something and not the end of something.

1. Feedback as stimulus

Feedback is a personalised asset which should be revisited to provide a personal context for future learning activity and practice.

2. Feedback as self and peer assessment in learning

Feedback is a dimension of the negotiation and navigation that characterises exploratory activity. The learner can record and annotate their deliberations (e.g. sketchbooks, lab books, notebooks, sketchnoting, audio notemaking, etc).

3. Feedback as reflection on learning

The third phase of the active learning schema above considers what we are left holding after the activity is over, and the need to curate this. For example, portfolio-based learning and assessments ask the learner to evaluate their learning, not as a backwards-looking closing-down process, but as a metacognitive learning activity. It’s about making sense of activities that can be frenetic and confusing when they are happening. By representing their experience of exploring a topic, the learners process their experience by asking: What have I done? How well did I do? What do I draw from this? What do I need to do next? This process of active reflection can take many forms for the individual or the group, making presentations and producing reports being other assessment strategies that garner feedback as part of reflection on learning.

4. Feedback on assessment

Feedback on assessment is what we mostly discuss and understand feedback to be. As the extensive literature confirms, there are many ways to approach and think about this, but perhaps one key idea in the context of this post is understanding of ideas about feedforward – how, with careful course-focused design and learner development, feedback can motivate, challenge and clarify the student’s understanding of a topic but also, and critically, their understanding of how they learn.

Reflective learning – how one thing leads to another

The second conversation this week in which I turned to this three-phase model of inputs, exploration, and outputs, was looking at the new Reflective Learning project we are running this year. While a key theme in the Course Enhancement Intensive programme we have just run across the University, we will be developing and evaluating best practice in this area. Reflection here, and the idea of self-assessment and self-feedback, is captured in the idea of ‘becoming’ and the need for each and every learner to define and moderate their aspirations and directions. Fittingly, this project is an outcome of the employability in practice project I have been leading for the last two years – one thing leads to another!

Feedback, when understood as an evaluation of activity and as a stimulus to further learning, helps us consider what we should record, how we should use note-making, and how we should understand reflective learning as being about generative learning activities: the beginning of further and deeper learning.

Posted in Active Learning, Assessment & Feedback, Learner Engagement, Literacies and Intelligence, Personal & Professional Development Planning | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Networked authorship as a site of learning

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

The co-creation of knowledge is, I think, represented in the idea of networked authorship. It’s a term that works very well for me, though it is not widely used as far as I can tell.

It was Matt Johnston at Coventry University who asked me if I was familiar with the idea a few years ago. I had been talking to him about his Box of Books method for a case study I produced in my book Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education.
Matt talks about this project in an article he wrote for Hybrid Pedagogy. He discusses the book-based generative events he facilitated in over 30 cities globally and says, “From the outset of the Photobook Club, it was clear to me that in order to promote truly open and community-driven discourse and expression, my own authorial role would need to be either reduced or distributed.” Matt’s position is not one of feigning modesty for effect, but a matter of pedagogic realisation and principle.

Both the idea of book as passive artefact and the role of teacher as instructor are disrupted in the idea of networked authorship. The book, in the social context of the book club becomes a medium for interrogation and exchange. Like the comments on a blog, it is the thinking and conversation that it facilitates, socially and individually, that is important. In this case, the teacher’s role is minimal and certainly not dominant. For Matt, he had the idea of the book as a stimulus; one that could connect thinking amongst club members and, through the international postal system, a notebook of comments that travelled with the books, and Facebook Groups, he facilitated a slow discourse as the book box travelled the world. Because the selected books in the box were about the work of luminary photographers, conversation focused on exploring interpretations of image and this allowed conversations to be more open to possibilities. Ideas of ‘ownership’ over conversation and the knowledge it can generate become more feasible. I am not sure how well a dense academic text might work in this situation without access to greater teacher facilitation.

This points to the idea of co-ownership or distributed ownership; an idea that is risky but full of potential pedagogically. The analogue nature of the book box is important for me because it demonstrates that the significance of ‘network’ is not that it is digital, but that it is primarily facilitated through human interaction and exchange around common interests.

“The distribution of authorship encourages responsibility and a more genuine sort of meritocracy, but it also allows projects to be shifted and shaped in ways in which the original author could never have foreseen. My project became something much bigger than it had first set out to be. As a practical note, however, this networked authorship can morph into undesired areas and quickly become cumbersome, thus I found it helpful to create a short, and purposefully broad, project statement to refer back to on regular occasions in order to ground the work.”

Incorporating collaborative writing as a form of networked authorship

Recently I ran a workshop which involved collaborative writing. We needed to bring together a wide range of ideas into a structured form. This required negotiation of the knowledge exposed during several activities – moving from divergence and generation towards a convergence and synthesis of thinking. So, as I have done many times since the emergence of Writely in 2005 (before it became Google Docs), I set up a series of pages for the group to write up key ideas using my C is for Course-focused Practice framework.

In short, it worked really well, but it surprised me that only one or two people in this group of educators had come across the idea of collaborative writing. They did not immediately grasp the pedagogic value of writing as a largely negotiated process. Some people put their names at the top of ‘their’ page and this struck me as odd. It was only then that I realised ideas about collaborative writing and co-ownership were unfamiliar to them. Collaborative writing is an archetypal form of active learning, being social and person-centred, where the learning value comes from the flow of detailed negotiation as ideas are considered and joint commitments to ideas and the way they are communicated are made.

In this workshop, all this was apt given that our focus has been developing ideas around co-operative pedagogy, considering co-poduction, co-creation and connective learning. Only the day before we had spent some time considering learning and teaching ecologies while reflecting on the use of a learning walk as a space for learning. In both cases the opportunity, and challenge, comes from recognising ways in which we can accommodate and value diverse thinking.

But networked authorship is about much more than the idea of collaborative writing using a tool like Google Docs or Microsoft Word 365. It is more than being democratic or being a team – it is about generating ideas as an emergent collective mind in ways that reveal insight that could not be discovered by an individual. Networked authorship is about generating knowledge from contributions so that the knowledge is novel and greater than the sum of its parts. This perfectly reflects assemblage theory (DeLanda, 2016) and aligns to the principles of co-production.

Matt says, “I have consistently encouraged autonomy and self-governance throughout the Photobook Club.” This idea of authorship relating to assuming authority is, I think, where our interest lies. It is about empowerment – not empowerment given, but empowerment discovered. It is about learning as self-determination within a social context.

The idea also reflects distributed cognition (Hutchins, 1995) – the idea that knowledge resides across a network and can be accessed to (in)form new knowledge. The ‘teacher’s role is also redefined in networked authorship because it is centred on an idea of knowledge that cannot reside with a single person – that is the point. Knowledge is found to be a dynamic concept. As Matt says, “each community ultimately shapes how this space is seen and used.” Knowledge is a unique outcome of communal consideration, not of individuals within a community. Again, this epitomises assemblage theory (DeLanda, 2016).

Callahan (2013) discusses distributed authorship as a feminist scholarship “…that touts openness and accessibility through the tools of digital technology while simultaneously featuring an ever-growing concentration of wealth and control over resources.” It is fraught with difficulties.

Networked authorship threatens academia which, despite its appreciation of collaboration and team work, struggles with assessing and accrediting co-authored work in which the output is greater than the sum of its parts. If, for example, we see pedagogic value in networked authorship, can we conceived of a form of networked assessment? In a successful networked creation, the author is impossible to identify. Further, in networked endeavours it is the originality that comes from a collective voice that is valued. This is much more fitting for the times in which we live where sole authors and lone geniuses are increasingly anachronistic. Rather than denying this or passively resigning ourselves to this different paradigm, how can we reify the collective thought  in higher education?

Biggs (2020) points us towards ideas of diffused authorship and Latour’s concept of Actor Network Theory (2005). He notes the close relationship between agency and authorship. However, while ANT acknowledges and is interested in the role of non-human actants, it is not where my interest lies. For me, networked authorship is intriguing because it more closely reflects a non-hierarchical world of navigation and negotiation for the common good. In this way it is a fitting area for pedagogic innovation and one that seems to have greater authentic value than the legacy pedagogies and systems we have inherited. Technologies are certainly part of this, and increasingly so, but I think the greater and more immediate challenge is for us as academics to reconceptualise our practices to incorporate learning as a process of connected authorship.


Biggs, S. (2010). Authorship and agency in networked environments. Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice (ELMCIP). Online at

Callahan, V. (2013). Toward networked feminist scholarship: Mindful media, participatory learning, and distributed authorship in the digital economy. Cinema Journal, Fall 2013, 53(1), pp.156-163.

Delanda, M., (2016). Assemblage theory. Edinburgh University Press.

Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the wild. MIT Press.

Latour, B (2005). Reassembling the social: an introduction to Actor Network Theory.
Oxford University Press.

Posted in Active Learning, Co-operative pedagogy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

What is co-operative learning?

I was asked by the Co-operative College: ‘what do I understand by the term co-operative learning?’ My response will sit alongside others in an introductory online course on co-operative education. Here’s my answer to the question.

Flipgrid video version:

As a developer I often work with University academics and usually talk about teaching and learning ‘solutions’ when questions like this come up. But here, it is more useful to talk about values rather than specific methods. Understanding co-operative values provides us with all the pointers we need to answer this question.

Co-operative learning is about creating a learning space based on:

  • Self help
  • Self responsibility
  • Democracy
  • Equality
  • Solidarity and mutual respect

It’s about having an honest and open learning environment.

The answer then is about how we learn together based on these values so that the outcomes of that way of learning and the experience we have are as important as the substantive knowledge that we are addressing.

For me, the learning environment is empathetic and conducive to the benefits of inclusive learning. It is about giving each other confidence, giving each other voice and finding a collective voice through negotiating and navigating a topic for mutual benefit.

Posted in Co-operative pedagogy | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Curation as a pedagogy #activelearning


A collection of picture frames. Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

This article considers the agency of the learner in an active learning context. It considers curation as an act of making; more than taking, the learner processes artefacts to discover new knowledge. Curation is an iterative learning activity of collecting, collating, connecting, constructing and publishing.


Curation describes ‘the act of looking after’ and is most commonly associated with librarianship although it is related in meaning to the social role of the curate. My own interest in curation stems back to the mid-1990s when I realised that digital technologies had the potential to democratise access to visual archives. I set about digitising the works of British scultptor George Fullard and the Art’s Council’s collection of photographs which were held in the art library at Sheffield Hallam University at the time. Both of these acts of digitisation resulted in many transformations: the materials acquired new form and metadata; I became more knowledgeable about the subjects; and the wider public made their own connections with the materials now that they had digital access to them through the multimedia CD-ROMs and web-based sites I created and through the related exhibitions I curated (George Fullard ‘Playing with Paradox’ [1998]; ‘In Search of the English’ [1995]).

Later, with the advent of social media, my role as an educational developer with responsibility for academic innovation ensured I was early to the adoption and exploration of online tools, notably, which was established in 2003 as a free-to-use social bookmarking web-based service for storing, sharing, and discovering browser bookmarks. was a key tool for me and my colleagues in the Creative Development Team at SHU where we discovered and researched Web 2.0 technologies and their potential for teaching and learning in the context of the Learning & Teaching Institute and the CETL for Promoting Learner Autonomy. By using and other emerging Web 2.0 technologies, I became aware of a tendency to save, store, tag, covet and forget data – it was so easy to find information, skim read it, click save, formulate a folksonomy of tags on the fly and, metaphorically, throw the resource in the cupboard. I amassed many social bookmarks and while I had invested much time in collecting them (and learning by ‘scraping’ the Web), I was essentially involved in an act of what I called ‘cupboarding’ – collecting and stockpiling for the sake of it. I was not interrogating the resources sufficiently or making connections across my own expanding cupboard full of links or, through connection, to the collections of others in my emerging network. I admit, I still work in that way because it does have some value – now I have a massive Evernote collection and, more recently, I have begun to explore Notion which describes itself as “a collaboration platform with modified markdown support that integrates kanban boards, tasks, wikis, and databases .”

Of course, all of this apparent obsession with scraping and storing is of questionable value when the resources I find fall so easily out of Google searches and recommendations. In fact, there is a danger of storing anything in an age of exponential knowledge growth where the reliability of information must be questioned on the grounds of its currency – what was true yesterday is unlikely to be quite so true tomorrow. It is critical that a graduate learns to be digitally critical and fluent.

Finally, in terms of background, in the early 2000s, I had been involved in developing several online learning resources including InfoQuest (an information skills package) and Key Skills Online. From these developments, I had developed an interest in the role of note-taking as an academic skill. However, while considering how audio notes could be made as an act of gathering (Middleton, 2011), I came to understand the significance of learner agency in this act. In the same way that web scraping had some cognitive benefit, the act of the learner as a gatherer of notes took my interest beyond the undergraduate skill towards the act of making; an act involving critical intent and engagement. Note making, rather than simply taking, is what matters. Of course, you have to learn the skill, but as a person with agency, skill acquisition takes on new intrinsic energy.

Implications for active learning

Curation as a pedagogy, therefore, is rich, personal, social and multidimensional. It involves the skill of finding and selecting evidence and evaluating its worth. Both finding and evaluating demand imagination and cognitive agility – the ability to rapidly hypothesise and apply knowledge, like constructing a multidimensional jigsaw without access to a definitive picture. The learning is not procedural; it requires exploration and experimentation, false starts and revelations.

Pedagogically, curation can be understood as:

  • Purpose – having a context, either given or assumed, and a reason to use information;
  • Navigation – a personal plan for circumscribing knowledge (this ability to strategically deal with information and make sense and use of it becomes a key personal graduate attribute);
  • Ideation – having ideas that lead to knowledge or generate further ideas;
  • Association – the act of creating or applying folksonomies or cataloguing according to a personal or social construct;
  • Negotiation – the ability to weigh up the evidence to hand and make decisions about its value and role in a current challenge, especially in the context of other related evidence, e.g. a project or assignment;
  • Organisation and analysis – the ability to sift, sort, select and relate information critically, e.g. tagging, ordering, categorisation, cross-referencing;
  • Presentation – using select information to make or support an argument or demonstrate new knowledge, e.g. writing an essay, producing a project report, producing a blog post.

Curation as a pedagogical act demands creativity and develops critical thinking. It induces personal acuity through habitual use, but when used socially, either informally amongst peers or formally through group work, the acts of negotiation and collective moderation take on new significance. Curation, therefore, is a key active learning pedagogy and one suited to the blended domain.

Curation activities

Jenifer Gonzalez, who writes about the Cult of Pedagogy, explores the role of curation as a pedagogy to promote higher-order thinking (“To Boost Higher-Order Thinking, Try Curation“). The BYOD4L free online course with which I was involved used curation as one of its ‘5Cs’ as a basis for considering smart learning (Nerantzi, Middleton & Beckingham, 2014). Access to new personal smart technologies allowed us to consider a wide learning landscape in which active learning could become highly personalised through the exploration of knowledge using a personalised digital toolset and network.

For me, access to digital technologies and media has meant we can devise activities in which the learner is first challenged by dividing or negotiating their learning environment and presentational space. This allows the academic to assign challenges in which a student must deliberate, navigate, negotiate and make the case for claims to knowledge using a range of found and made media. As Gonzales says, “A person could curate a collection of articles, images, videos, audio clips, essays, or a mixture of items that all share some common attribute or theme.” This affords a basic level of assembling knowledge artefacts. Knowledge itself comes from making connections within the assemblage. Contributing these assemblages for the common good is the third level of assemblage, where we see the student as a legitimised agent of new knowledge for the common good. This gives us the following iterative structure of knowledge-based outcomes that helps us to understand curation as a pedagogy:

  • Assembling:
    • Collect
    • Collate
  • Making:
    • Connect
    • Construct
  • Publishing
    • Sharing
    • Reviewing
    • Co-creating


Curation as an active pedagogy – an iterative cycle of contribution to knowledge


Middleton, A. (2011). Audio active: discovering mobile learner-gatherers from across the formal-informal continuum. International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning, 3(2), 31-42.

Middleton, A. (1998). Playing with paradox: George Fullard, 1923-1973, exhibition catalogue. Sheffield: Sheffield Hallam University Press.

Middleton, A. (1995). In Search of the English – photographs from the Arts Council Collection. Exhibition catalogue, Sheffield: Graves Art Gallery.

Nerantzi, C., Middleton, A., & Beckingham, S. (2014). Facilitators as co-learners in a collaborative open course for teachers and students in Higher Education. ‘Learning in cyberphysical worlds’, eLearning papers (Open Education Europa), 39, 1–10.

Posted in Active Learning, BYOD4L, Learner Engagement, Literacies and Intelligence | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Teacher? Or what..?


based on Photo by Akson on Unsplash

I have an activity in a session I run on active learning where I ask ‘what is the role of the teacher in the active classroom?’ and ask people to come up with better suggestions than ‘teacher’ to describe the role. Giving the role a name helps us to focus on the range of roles performed by the teacher or lecturer.
Barrett and Moore (2001) have a good list in their book of problem-based learning. But we always add to it. So, the first few come from them, and then the rest are other ideas that participants (I say participants, but do I mean students, or learners, or..?!) have generated:

  • Facilitator – facilitates learning – not provider of content
  • Observer – observes and listens, ready to intervene
  • Interrogator – asks probing, challenging questions
  • Quality controller – sets expectations of students to evidence their thinking
  • Connector – sets expectations of students to apply theory to practice
  • Orchestrator – ensures individuals contribute through independent study and group-based learning
  • Co-ordinator – ensures students reflect on and in their learning
  • Reviewer  – facilitates the review of learning episodes through summary discussion

Here are other suggestions:

  • agitator
  • enquirer
  • supporter
  • enabler
  • energiser
  • inspirer
  • sharer
  • nurturer
  • negotiator
  • empowerer
  • space creator
  • acknowledger
  • winkler, teaser-outer
  • innovator
  • trier
  • guide
  • medler in the middle
  • carer
  • provocateur
  • mentor
  • tutor
  • animateur
  • activator
  • scaffolder
  • guardian
  • host

Obviously, most of these suggestions are derived from verbs, nevertheless they do provide an indication of the agility needed by the active learning… teacher!


Barrett, T. & Moore, S., eds. (2011). New approaches to problem-based learning: revitalising your practice in higher education. London & New York: Routledge.

Posted in Active Learning, Learner Engagement | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Energy and active learning Part 2


Photo by Husna Miskandar on Unsplash

In the previous post, I discussed the emotional energy involved in teaching in an active learning paradigm. Here, I will reflect on physical exertion entailed in teaching this way.

Clearly, a lot of this comes down to the type of activity we are talking about. This also allows us to reflect on strategies we might deploy for pacing ourselves to manage our personal energies and those of our students.

Talk the talk

The first strategy I will reflect on, then, is the conversational approach I use a lot. This essentially involves positing a good question, dilemma, conundrum or situation and asking the participants to respond by sharing their knowledge, experiences or opinion. For example, this may be presented as a think, pair, share activity. I often think of this teaching role as being similar to that of the daytime television host whose job it is to stir up an audience by seeking opinion and managing a degree of turmoil! Through conversation, the aim is to think critically together and to arrive at positions of consensus or difference, but at least clarity, as a precursor to self- or group-directed learning. We could stay with the psychological dimension of this performance type role, but I want to talk about the physicality of the role.

Teaching could stay in the defensive position that involves occupying the front of the classroom. However, in my view, one of the points of taking an active learning approach is to be collaborative and make use of the collective energy and wisdom. It seems disingenuous to the stated intention of wanting to show respect for the participants as equal contributors, therefore; active learning is essentially a collaborative idea of peer learning in which participants work through thinking together in a process of knowledge co-construction. Therefore, whatever the size of the space, the active learning teacher must be positioned in and amongst the other participants. This is not simply to be close enough to have a respectful exchange, it is also symbolic of the democratisation of the active classroom. One is physically representing the notion of parity and inclusion as far as is possible.

Walk the talk

At the same time, you don’t want to linger in any one space, physically or in terms of your eye contact. Further, there is something about the teacher’s movement as representing intentionality, commitment and an expectation of exertion within the learning space; modelling and normalising interaction.

As an aside, there is an important point here for learning space design in that more floor space is needed in active classrooms for several reasons, but importantly to allow the facilitator’s easy movement around and through the room.

Physically, then, we have a picture of the teacher as being in a state of constant flux ready to move from one group to another whilst turning to establish contact with other groups checking their engagement and reticence for picking up the batten.


There is something to note here about where exactly the academic should stand as the authority figure in the room – the person with the ultimate responsibility for establishing action and keeping students on task. Being alert to one’s proximity to students is important as the teacher neither wants to intimidate them or appear to be removed from what they are saying. The host’s movement can help to manage the perception of presence.

I have discussed body language before in this blog and it is relevant to mention it again here. Part of the duty of the teacher in the space is to communicate interest and respect, and to set and model expectations for engagement. I find this need to model physical presence quite difficult and I can become hyperaware of my posture and what I am doing with my hands. Specifically, I am as nervous as the next person and I am aware that I hold my chin and cover my mouth and odd things like that. Training that I have been on suggests that standing upright with your arms by your side and your legs slightly apart is generally the default position you should adopt if you are to inspire confidence and demonstrate your openness. That’s quite difficult and takes practice. My previous post on this noted there are differences in gender preference when it comes to taking an open stance or not. Apparently, women prefer to face the person with whom they are talking, while men prefer to be less confrontational and prefer situations in which they stand in a less direct way.  I don’t know about that and I hate to generalise, but the point here is that the host or facilitator may do well to consider their posture and body language and their effect on others.

Get up, stand up!

Beyond the conversational methods, then, there are those teaching strategies in which activity involves students getting out of their chairs and involved in something more physical and perhaps less cerebral. There are so many methods here, but consider writing at whiteboards and role-play as two examples. It is at this point where energy in the classroom shows itself as students demonstrate their excitement or reticence and begin to tackle the activity they have been given.

My co-teacher from earlier this week made an important point. She said one sign of an excellent teacher is their ability to remove themselves for a while to let the activity begin. We noted how difficult this can be in reality when, in teaching mode, we feel like there is always something else worthwhile to be said. I’ve always got something to add – but sometimes you’ve just got to shut up and stand back. Removing oneself from the action and becoming the observer and supporter in the room is usually what is needed.

In this mode of student activity, the teacher and the students are on their feet and it always surprises me how tiring this can be. The physical and psychological effort together can be taxing. I think this is compounded by the levels of concentration needed in an environment when it gets quite noisy. However, it’s always interesting to look at your step counter after you have facilitated such an active session! You can walk miles wearing out the carpet. On the one hand, it really helps with your fitness, but on the other, you don’t get the fresh air that would also help your well-being!

More on energy

There are many related dimensions to thinking about energy in the active classroom. I think a post on student energy would be valuable, for example. And perhaps a post on inclusivity and the implicit, or explicit, expectations present in an active learning paradigm – who might we be excluding? Then, I think I need to look at pacing strategies.

My intention now is to have a look around and see if I can find any useful resources on managing energy as an active learning teacher. Please do let me know if you are aware of anything or if you have your own thoughts on this.

Posted in Active Learning, Co-operative pedagogy, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Energy and active learning Part 1


Photo by Federico Beccari on Unsplash

One of the things I am trying to draw some conclusions on is what is involved in making a transition to active learning pedagogy and what that actually means for the academic. I will split this post into several parts. Here’s part 1.

I am writing this having spent two full-on days delivering active learning sessions to a group of 15 people. So it is with that in mind, that I am reflecting. It reminds me of what is involved in preparing and orchestrating active provision. It is salient, therefore, for me to look at a shift in my energy usage and the demands I put on the group. And I do mean energy rather than just effort.

Where is the active learning practitioner’s energy used?

First, let’s just note that making any transition requires mental and physical energy – change itself involves a mental shift of re-orientating oneself and establishing new ways of thinking and doing. A change can spark emotions of exhilaration or resistance, but whatever the reactions, change induces what can be a psychological rollercoaster and is undoubtedly challenging. Practical changes coupled with this shift in teaching paradigm point us towards the more obvious concern: redeveloping materials so they are fit for purpose. All of those lectures once delivered and re-used now need to be reconsidered and redeveloped. I think perhaps the energy dimension to this work is often overestimated because it is an unfamiliar process and the fist challenge is to estimate the scale of what it will entail. Equally, reorganising learning spaces, timetable and online presence. But we’ll come back to these transition-specific challenges at another time.

In this post, I want to focus more on the expenditure of teaching energy and the need for the teacher and their students to recover when using active learning pedagogies.

Beyond transition, material preparation is nevertheless part of what needs to be considered in the routine of teaching for active learning. I think an active learning facilitator must continually and actively review what works and, significantly, what will work with a specific group of people given their context on a specific day. This week I led several sessions, almost back-to-back. For each one, I began by asking, “What have I done before and will it fit?” The ‘it’ comes down to that mix of strategy, content and contextualisation. The implications of this are that, while the lecturer may largely develop and come to rely upon the slide pack and some key readings, for example, it is different for the active learning facilitator because the fundamental design challenge involves the intention to shift the attention of the class from that single point of focus at the front of the room, as far as is possible.

Yes, there are some key and favourite activities the academic will deploy, but I think the ability to design and evaluate sessions and then rework them is something that requires the teacher’s continual critical attention, right through to reflecting on how well things worked and registering the implications for future practice. Active learning, I contest, is first and foremost concerned with promoting learner curiosity, and stimulating and generally engaging students individually and collectively in their learning. In other words, the primary focus is not one of delivering knowledge, but of engaging students with it. Of course, this constant monitoring and evaluation of the situation will be draining and already it is obvious the academic’s resilience and skills in pacing themselves and others is needed.

This is about the active learning academic being agile. Agility is not just a seat of the pants or tips of the toes or edge of the seat skill, it is about being prepared and up-to-date, fluent and able to confidently interject and reorientate proceedings – after all, active learning is typically authentic. Maintaining one’s currency and being up-to-date is part of this, and I would suggest you need to be on top of the literature and on top of the news as the real-world application of knowledge and the role of analogies and metaphors in communicating knowledge are useful to engagement and interjections where clarity is needed.

But the word agility also reminds us that the teacher monitors the room and the activity ready to address lulls and celebrate and share highlights that help to make the learning clear. The active learning facilitator works on the tip of her toes looking into the whites of the eyes of the individuals in the classroom constantly checking levels of engagement or disengagement and making decisions about how and when to foster the further involvement of individuals and groups.

I was running a 1 1/2 hour session on Tuesday. It was complicated and I knew I had to be clear. I believed that to do this I would start by setting out the rationale for what we were due to focus on. After all, if the participant doesn’t believe in the purpose of the session why would you engage? This turned out to be quite a dilemma for a few reasons, but including one relating to energy – my own energy to look into the whites of the eyes of each student to continually assess whether I had ‘connected’ individuals. The problem was, Tuesday followed Monday and Monday had been active enough for all of us! We later reflected on how Tuesday had begun and we concluded that we should have started the day with ‘an energiser’ – possibly something quite physical – to make us alert and ready to engage mentally.

Establishing rationales can put the teacher in quite a defensive position and even if I knew the value of the session and had communicated this as learning outcomes, it all counts as nothing if each person is not all to connect with the proceedings. Quite honestly, I think I moved into that zone of defending the rationale, so this teeing up of the session got protracted. Thankfully I had the experience to stand back, take a deep breath and acknowledge with the class that we needed to find another way into exploring the topic in hand. I did this by asking them directly about their own relationship with that topic. And because of my fluency with the topic I was then able to reposition the class on the back of a dialogue with one participant who understood our collective dilemma and was prepared to ping-pong certain questions to establish a collective problem. This, I suppose, is an example of agility. In terms of energy, however, one’s mind is working overtime to monitor the situation, to continue to try to make sense, and devise new strategies on the fly. Somehow, this is what I did – but it was tiring!

This example draws our attention to energy within the classroom as a whole. I believe the participants were always on my side, however on reflection later in the day, it was confirmed that, like me, they felt lost and to some extent anxious about whether we would rescue the situation – and the day ahead of us.

The exchange in class revealed that I had unwittingly put a barrier in their way – I had used a term that, in effect, distracted them and prevented them from cognitively progressing. Even though I introduced the term I had failed to check they were ready to move on. Further, my topic was to be addressed through use of a conceptual framework, and they reported they didn’t understand what such a thing was and why it might be useful to them.

Later, when I brought up my concluding slide, I realised that I could have used that as my opening gambit and simply said, “This is where we’re heading.” With that clarity, I could have even presented a map of how I expected to travel there. I have to do a similar session on this topic – I will review my plan!

This then, is part of my reflection on energy for active learning. Taking this teaching strategy is psychologically challenging and draining, and without the confidence that comes from experience and preparation, it can induce anxiety and confusion. The lesson, at least for me, is to be prepared (I was) but to remember to keep monitoring that all participants are safely locked into taking the journey.

Part 2 will continue this theme of looking at the energy flows associated with delivering active learning by looking more at the physical energies involved in the class.

Posted in Active Learning, Co-operative pedagogy, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment