Education as a liminal state

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I have been reading Thomassen’s (2014) ‘Liminality and the modern: living through the in-between’. Liminality comes up in my work on a daily basis, whether I am thinking about the connections we make through models of hybrid learning, interdisciplinary learning, or learning spaces – topics from the last week for me.

Right from the outset Thomassen explains liminality as ‘peaking in transfiguring moments of sublimity.’ (p. 1) Thank you! I have written and talked about intersections, boundary crossing and networked and non-formal space as being the richest spaces of all for the learner. In the post Learning Walks with Awe are Good for You I explore the sublime and note it is the rare experience of the world at the extreme.” Even though it is defined by its rarity, it creates a worthwhile challenge for the academic as designer: how can we accommodate the potential for sublime experiences?

Thinking about liminality gives us a starting point. As Thomassen says,

the concept of liminality can help us understand transition periods and social processes of change in a different light… Liminality reminds us of the moment we left our parents’ home, that mixture of joy and anxiety, that strange combination of freedom and homelessness; that pleasant but unsettling sensation of infinity and openness of possibilities which – at some moment, sooner or later – will start searching for a new frame to settle within.

Thomassen (2014, p.4)

There’s plenty to think about in this book including a good account of how the anthropologist van Gennep developed the concept of liminality, though struggled to gain recognition. There is some irony in that struggle given that one of the ways I think about liminality, learning, knowledge and innovation is moments of personal struggle, stretch and acute transition and motivation. I find it is often referred to quite simply as threshold challenges that are constructed by others to form rites of learning passage. If Thomassen says, “‘liminality refers, quite literally, to something placed in an in-between position” (p. 8), a student-centred and ecological perspective requires us to ask who places the ‘something’ and to think more about open-ended situations good active learning design should foster – spaces of self-determination and discovery.

He also describes liminality “as a loss of home and a ritualized rupture with the world as we know it” and this signals a role for the university in creating secure spaces for personal discovery and, for me, helps to explain the importance of non-formal learning and non-formal space – neither formal nor informal, but opportunities and space that accommodate each learner, individually or socially, in their learning transition; a regular theme for me here.

I thoroughly recommend this book. It is helpful and thought provoking.


Thomassen, B. (2014). Liminality and the modern: living through the in-between. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing

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Unified Active Learning – our commitment to #activelearning wherever and however we access learning

Photo by Clint Adair on unsplash

I am in reflective mode – it’s summer 2021 and in the West we’re trying to get over the pandemic, catch our breath, and decide what we value, what we have done, what changes will stick. It is both a time to explain what I have been doing and to think about what this means for the future. So I give you Unified Active Learning.

I like to use this space for musing: it is a ‘public thinking’ space, but like many colleagues in similar educational development roles, I have been working flat out to support academic colleagues to respond to the pandemic over the last year or so. Key to that has been helping colleagues look beyond one-size-fits-all emergency ‘solutions’ to find ways that are meaningful for them and their students. For me, this has involved devising an approach called Unified Active Learning, a principle-based approach which emerged through the academic response group I lead at Anglia Ruskin University.

I went to ARU because of its Education Strategy – specifically its commitment to inclusive student-centred learning articulated in its Active Curriculum Framework. Other posts here discuss what this means to me. So when we all had to go online in March 2020, given we had spent the previous year running Course Design Intensives to develop an active learning culture, we were clear about our philosophy, even if like everyone else, making the shift online, or to a form of blended learning, was going to be a practical heave for staff and students alike.

Principles provide clarity

Unified Active Learning is a straightforward principle-based approach. It is consistent with, indeed it is a restatement of, what we had recently implemented in our Active Curriculum.

One principle we didn’t write down was ‘don’t panic and fall into the trap of relying on teacher-centred delivery-based strategies.’ In many ways the situation has helped us to think about what learner engagement means. It was not the time to start spoon feeding students. A higher education has to be about creating exciting challenges and stretches – even in a crisis.

At ARU we have established Unified Active Learning as the basis for teaching and learning during the pandemic. It is captured in the following adoption framework.

UAL Adoption Framework

The framework allows the academic to evaluate their approach:

“In their formal engagement, all of my students, however and wherever they access their learning, normally:

  1. Identity: Learn alongside each other, being aware of each other and their common purpose, having a strong association with their course and feeling a strong sense of being part of something.
  2. Connection: Learn through regular interactions in their connected class and through formative and summative group work in which they have a clear and equal role. They learn from their different perspectives, regularly working as supportive teams.
  3. Commitment: Value each other, coming to refer to each other habitually in all that they do as co-producers of knowledge and co-creators of their learning experience.”

The first dimension, Identity, reflects the essential idea that being on a course should feel like being part of something. The other two levels extend this to reflect a course experience that is active, inclusive and collaborative by design.

From this, our academics are supported to use their ingenuity to involve every one of their students, as they work out how to put these principles into actual practice: “This is your starting point. What can you do with it?”

What will stick?

A lot of academics have had to turn to technology, where in the past it may not have felt necessary to explore its possibilities. Like many universities, ARU has had a minimum expectations approach to learning technologies. To be honest, I’ve never been comfortable with such strategies.

Change comes from intrinsic motivation; essentially this means teaching is a matter of curiosity, imagination, measured risk, and design. ‘Want’, not ‘need’, is the byword. In the pandemic technology has given professional academics what they want – real options to teach. Zoom initially, then Teams, have turned out to be amazing learning spaces. Used simply at first, some great pedagogies have emerged, connecting well with the more familiar LMS – Canvas in our case. Indeed an ecology of digital-physical space for hybrid learning has taken shape, adaptable to specific contexts.

I sense that course teams have done more to share good practice amongst themselves too. A culture of peer support is even more important perhaps than advocacy of specific technologies and techniques. Facilitating further sharing and co-developing of good emerging practice is where my new academic year will start.

Looking ahead, we all need to decide how we want the blend to work. There is still so much to be done, but now this feels much more about sharing and building upon war stories than feeling embattled. People have created and experienced rich blends and begun to understand that the possibilities are endless for creating active, inclusive and collaborative learning environments.

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Transparency, turbulence, ambiguity and uncertainty in #activelearning

“One student’s safe uncertainty is another student’s chaotic nightmare.”

(Orr & Shreeve, 2018)
Photo on Unsplash

Based on research I conducted with others into student satisfaction of learning (Heaton et al., 2015), being clear with students about what is expected of them has become a key principle in my thinking about good teaching. Indeed, it is part of the ‘Cs’ framework I use (see my post ‘C is for course of course’):

Clarity – good, inspirational teaching is founded on clarity. Students are well-briefed and supported and their formative and summative experiences are designed holistically so they make sense and promote learner confidence.

However, this seems to conflict with my interest in Studio for All in which uncertainty and ambiguity are celebrated as defining attributes of experiential studio-based learning (Orr & Shreeve, 2018; Austerlitz et al., 2008).

In this post I consider the compatibility of these two apparently opposing positions.

I remember being a very frustrated Fine Art student. I wanted direction and instruction. Even though I had done an Art Foundation pre-degree course, as an undergraduate I still saw an Art education as a very technical matter. I was wrong, but I didn’t yet know this.

Painting students must approach their paint, their brushes and canvas with such a technical confidence that the tools and techniques become invisible – like the keyboard to the writer, they should become second nature. Knowledge and ideas develop alongside technical proficiency. This involves a lot of failed attempts at finding one’s artistic voice. Or academic voice.

While I wanted direction, my tutors were determined to stand back and let me struggle. This created a real turbulence. It didn’t work for me. I felt adrift and unsupported. My tutors were not present enough to realise this. It was only years later that I began to realise how all this was meant to play out, and I have to say that as an experienced educator now, I am quite critical of the tutors I had – who better remain nameless!

Clarity, direction and active learning

My student experience shows there is a difference between clarifying a technical process and what knowledge discovery involves. Tools are more than the brushes and keyboards of course, they are the methods and processes we rely upon too.

Learning should be a stretch, but students need to be sure that their struggle has purpose and that they are on track. Ambiguity must feel positive as a space for self-orientation. Ensuring students have clear goals is part of this. These can be given or, even better, negotiated and navigated.

Learning design usually falls into periods of directed, self-directed, and self-determined learning. Active learning aspires to high degrees of self-determination, however this requires self-efficacy – the student must feel good about their self-pursuit of knowledge: they must know what to do, why they are doing it, and how to go about it, even if the personal route is not prescribed. In my own case, I knew what I wanted to do and why, but I was not sure how. On reflection, it is possible that I was using methods appropriately. I may have given the impression of being competent and even decisive. But looking like a good student is not the same thing as being a good student. Internally, I was lost and in turmoil, unable to make sense of what I was doing. I lacked a critical system to continuously evaluate and reconstruct my artistic strategy. In Art, this is compounded by the value put on originality and creativity – one is expected to work through a struggle to discover one’s original voice.

To be successful, all students need to find their confident academic voice or persona. This is what is known as academic fluency.

If I was giving my previous tutors feedback (a strange idea, but they really didn’t have a clue about teaching back in the day of the romantic art school), I would talk to them about the need for providing clarity within the open bounds of the art studio – establishing some guiding parameters.

Teaching is essentially quite simple in reality and has much in common with parenting. It involves,

  • a small number of ground rules to establish parameters
  • encouragement to play and to surprise oneself
  • a strong concept of scaffolding
  • regular light touch contact with tutors
  • opportunities to talk, reflect and negotiate
  • a social environment in which to learn alongside others i.e. do you own thing but find and give support through co-presence
  • modelling epistemic culture – learning to ‘be’

All of these things require minimal effort, but together establish a healthy exploratory learning environment.

Good teachers create a scholarly network around them. My tutors were absent, busy being artists in their own right. I never saw my tutor outside of the termly assessment. Modelling practice and thinking in an active learning environment brings benefits for students and tutors alike – together you can inspire each other, with the tutor being available to guide when needed.

The need for clarity in active learning should not be mistaken as a need to provide epistemic knowledge. Clarity can come from explicit direction, but it can also come from creating the right challenging and supportive learning environment.

A well-briefed student is one who is scaffolded: they are challenged and supported in equal measure, so they feel confident to enquire, explore, experiment, design, solve problems, or undertake other actions that raise their curiosity and drive themselves forward.


Austerlitz, N., Blythman, M., Grove-White, A., Jones, B., Jones, C., Morgan, S., Orr, S., Shreeve, A., & Vaughan, S., (2008). Mind the gap: Expectations, ambiguity and pedagogy within art and design higher education. In: Drew, Linda, (ed) The Student Experience in Art and Design Higher Education: Drivers for Change. Jill Rogers Associates Limited, Cambridge, pp. 125-148.

Heaton, C., Pickering, N., Middleton, A., & Holden, G. (2015). Exploring perspectives on good, inspirational teaching. SEDA Educational Developments, 16(1), 15.

Orr, S. & Shreeve, A. (2018). Art and design pedagogy in higher education: Knowledge, values and ambiguity in the creative curriculum. Routledge Research in Higher Education

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Between states: metaxis, connectedness and fluency

In-between (Photo by boris misevic on Unsplash)

Learning, for me, often describes a state of being between. This betweenness may refer to ideas, knowledge and understanding, modalities, or spaces.

In this post I examine the nuances of terminology used to describe these states; terminology that goes beyond the impersonal notion of ‘journey’ to reveal nuances of experiencing learning and how they can help when thinking about learning, embodiment, interdependence and agency.


Falconer (2011) identifies metaxis as a term used by Plato to describe the human condition of ‘in-betweenness’. It points to a sense of suspension in an ecology of polarities or binaries. This reflects the idea that learning exists in a social web of continua, a constant theme in my consideration of spaces for learning. Learning can be thought of as acts of transition through this multidimensional constellation of affordances (Middleton, 2018). In other words, learning is less about transaction and accumulation of knowledge and more to do with inter-actions (hyphen intended), immersion, and being engrossed in states of becoming. The quality of time and place, and movement therefore, matter.

Falconer (2011) notes Linds (2006) use of metaxis as “the state of belonging completely and simultaneously to two different autonomous worlds.” For me, this echoes the idea polycontextuality.


Polycontextuality describes being present in more than one context concurrently. The idea of presence is significant here in relation to agency – polycontextuality recognises the effect of spatial affordances on the person, and the effect of the person on the contexts in which they are simultaneously present. I have blogged about polycontextuality on many occasions, mostly considering the bridging effect of social media, however polycontextuality during the pandemic has become a familiar condition to all of us as we have navigated (often with great difficulty) our conflicting identities of home, work, school and leisure.


Connection, connectivity and Connectivism (Siemens, 2003) allude to our networked and ecological lives. For education, it is the connectivity created by the socio-technological and semantic nature of the situations we experience that interests me: how one thing relates to another, and through that, how connection creates new value.

Connectivity is a multidimensional phenomenon; one that reflects the influences of spatial and interpersonal affordances. Connectivity is a way of describing interactivities and agencies. For example, the idea of the lab is only given meaning by the potential for human interaction within it. Without this understanding, ‘lab’ is, at best, a room with objects in it. Equally, the potential users of the space bring their own affordances or contexts: what they know, what they have done before, what they expect, what on a given occasion they want to do with the knowledge they glean, etc.

Thinking about hybridity by analysing and reflecting on accounts of academic innovation during the pandemic, the idea of ‘digital advantage’ emerges as a way to understand that new concept of learning environment we are trying to put our finger on; the 1+1= 3 factor of the post-digital world in which ‘digital’ can no longer be problematised as distinct, separate, or other. The idea that through association or connection something greater than the sum of the parts emerges. This new space signals a potential for interactivity in the hybrid connected space.

It is fascinating to wonder how all these interweaving and connecting factors can be used to enrich the experience of learning.

Tethers and ties

Savin-Baden (2015) uses the term ‘tether’. It alludes to a changed space in which the presence of the personal digital device has disrupted previous conceptions of learning space, though it means more than this. It reflects some of the ideas of connectivity discussed above, but takes us closer to understandings of human behaviour rather than technological determination.

Savin-Baden defines digital tethering:

as both a way of being and a set of practices that are associated with it. To be digital tethered would generally be associated with carrying, wearing or holding a device that enables one to be constantly and continually in touch with digital media of whatever kind. Practices associated with digital tethering include the practice of being ‘always on’, ‘always engaged’: texting at dinner, or driving illegally while ‘facebooking’.

Savin-Baden, 2015, p. 1

This is similar to what I have previously called ‘smart learning’ (Middleton, 2015).


Savin-Baden talks about liquid learning. Certainly fluidity, fluency and flux are relevant to thinking about learning and agency in a post-digital age. It raises questions about embodiment and corporeality, and our state of ‘being’ or self-identity. Who or what is in motion? What is being changed? What is between states? And how do our respective changing states influence others?

Fluency ultimately concerns our sense of our self. Our self conception is our perception of our own unique identity in change. It bundles what we know about ourselves: our personality traits, abilities and knowledge, likes and dislikes, our beliefs and moral code, and motivation. It is how each of us answer the questions, “Who am I and who am I becoming?”

I think these questions are fundamental to university learning. They explain why developing meta cognitive skills through reflective learning is important in an undergraduate education.

Flux, then, refers to our state of continuously changing self, with the implication that knowledge itself must be understood as fluid too.


Liminality is frequently used in association with the idea of threshold concepts; a passing from one state of knowledge to another. In this context, it implies a planned incremental progression: do this first, then you are ready to move on up to the next stage.

This idea of liminality tends to focus on knowledge and skills though. Its original conception was more anthropological and concerned with a rite of passage and a conscious shift in a person’s state of being (Turner, 1969).


Hybridity, for me, simply means exploiting two or more modes or systems effectively.


A permeable state is one that is infused with qualities. I often imagine social media in terms of this infusion of media in ways that it can adapt to context. The media is malleable. It is accessed to the extent that it is useful. It interfaces smoothly with a given situation.

This leads us to instercies.


The interface or meeting point between two or more spaces, a phenomenon which asks us to consider how communication or exchange happens between spaces. In education, for example, how can feedback from one interaction come to affect learning so that it influences subsequent learning?


The exploration of the terminology covered in this post shows that we have many ways of thinking about connections and hybridities.

I have also indicated some of the benefits of developing a more nuanced discourse when thinking about learning as being a shift in a person’s state of being.

I have expressed such ideas of in-betweenness as being to do with inter-actions, implying that learning actions are relative to two or more states of being; an example of this being, the learner’s awareness of who they are and who they are becoming.


Falconer, L. (2011, November). Metaxis: the transition between worlds and the consequences for education. Presented at Innovative Research in Virtual Worlds.

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

Middleton, A. (2015). Smart learning: teaching and learning with smartphones and tablets. MELSIG and Sheffield Hallam University.

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

Savin-Baden, M. & Falconer, L. (2016). Learning at the interstices; locating practical philosophies for understanding physical/virtual inter-spaces. Interactive Learning Environments, 24:5, 991-1003, DOI: 10.1080/10494820.2015.1128212

Siemens, G. (2003, October 17). Learning ecology, communities, and networks: extending the classroom. Online at:

Turner V.W. (1969). The ritual process: structure and anti-structure. Chicago: Aldine.

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Crisis – what crisis? A time for academic innovation

RSA Future Change Framework

At Wonkfest I attended a panel session titled Changing the Culture of Changing the Culture in which Charlotte Summers, who is Head of Commercial Development at the RSA, referred to the RSA’s excellent Future Change Framework.

Admittedly, I am a sucker for a framework, but this got me thinking. Given that I believe many academics have had to leave certain teaching practices behind and have had to discover new practices, I am hopeful that more people will have discovered not just new methods, but new teaching identities – individual and collective identities.

No going back

It would be wrong to generalise, but I can see in my own working life some ingrained practices that have had to change and will never return to their pre-crisis state. Here are a couple:

  • I haven’t printed anything on paper, but I used to carry a rucksack to work weighed down with journal articles to read. I used to like making written notes on them. I am now reading papers digitally. I am not sure I have created an equivalent reading and note making habit yet, but I will.
  • It seems like I use Teams for everything I do at work. I hadn’t used it previously but now it is an integral part of my working ecosystem. While a physical room has its own affordances, my digital ‘room’ is always with me. Many of us are asking if we’ll ever go back to campus. Even though I am making plans for working back on campus from time to time, I can’t with all honesty work out what will work better, and indeed what ‘better’ means. I am actually a lot more productive being away from campus – at least double. It’s incredible what I can achieve in a day, and I believe I was very productive before. It’s not that simple though: is the quality of my working life as good as it was? No. I do miss real people (as opposed to pixel people) and there are some situations where I want to stretch out with a coffee and just cogitate with colleagues or walk up to a whiteboard and think through ideas visually with others. I don’t want to go back for the sake of presenteism though – we must leave that behind and focus on the good reasons for being with others. The productivity is indicative perhaps of a more instrumental ethos. I find myself having to make more decisions, whereas my natural inclination is to be more consultative.

Stop, start, pause, resume

The RSA framework is not so new – it’s a version of the stop, start, pause, resume workload management approach I’ve used for years, a system that clarifies when you realise that to start new work you have first got to relinquish existing work.

But the context is different. Now is a brilliant time to remind ourselves that we all have an excuse at the same time to stop things – those things we assume are unassailable and are part of who we are but are probably just old habits that serve to reassure us that we are indispensable. Letting go of ingrained behaviours can be extremely difficult when socially we are not all in the same place. But we are all in the same place – for a moment. It is a good time for change through reappraisal.

Become a social innovator

My appeal, and I think the appeal of the RSA Framework, is to redefine yourself as an innovator, socially. Innovators are usually cast as exceptional people who buck the trend in pursuit of higher goals. I have written about them being outlaws and risk-loving ‘work arounders’ (Middleton, 2018). But now we have a great opportunity to adopt innovator mindsets collectively – it is easier for more of us to spot the opportunity and give each other courage to think and act differently.

So academic course teams, think differently and give each other the courage to imagine positively. Discourage the naysayers and Devil’s advocates (Kelley & Litman, 2005) and start getting exited together about what you have just achieved and how doing more new things (and shedding more old habits) can make your lives better and your students’ learning experience better.

Don’t snap back

Peter Bryant blogged a few months ago cautioning about the tendency we may have to fall back into the old normal – when “staff and students want to stop feeling liminal and transition back to certainty.” I agree, the desire for certainty is possibly the danger here.

Peter discusses what the urge for normalcy means for teaching and learning. For me, snapping back to lectures, discarding technologies that can connect our classrooms with people and situations around the world, allowing confident voices to dominate proceedings when the digital has shown us how to be more inclusive and egalitarian, are just three that spring to mind for me. Peter lists others. What would you list?

The crisis?

Peter is right, our crisis would be giving way to the temptation to snap back – the unthinking desire to reclaim a kind of normalcy. Even an overbearing romanticism based on the mis-belief that the past was perfect.

The crisis would be that we ignore that we have been through hard times together – it often feels we forget about the power of acting together. Instead, notice how much we have cared for each other, and missed each other.

Now is the time to co-operate and become social innovators. Keep hold of the good stuff and shed those worn out academic habits once and for all. Give each other courage to change.


Bryant, P. (2021, blog post 12th January). SnapBack. Peter Bryant: Post Digital Learning

Kelley, T. & Litman, J. (2005). The ten faces of innovation. New York: Doubleday.

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

RSA (2021). Future Change Framework : a way to think about how we respond to crisis and how that can drive positive change –

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Photopedagogy and photovoice

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Loopmans et al. (2012) observe that photographs incite public debate about place and community. When that public context is the university course and where there is a desire for learning engagement and community building, how can photography empower the learner?

A useful baseline for thinking about media-enhanced pedagogies is Sfard’s two ‘metaphors for learning’ (1998) – learning by acquisition and learning by participation: the learner is user or producer of the media, and in some cases will have both roles at the same time.

The act of making photographs or of seeing representations of what you know, or what you know differently, is under theorised and under practised in higher education. As Marguiles (2019) notes, photography lends agency to the constituent community – we can think of this as photovoice, where ‘voice’ means agency (see also the charity PhotoVoice).

In studies of audio-enhanced learning, I have discussed the learner-as-gatherer driven to interrogate the world (Middleton, 2011). Photography also enables the learner to gather as an act of learning providing “ways of sensing for exploring human relations with other kinds of life and enactments of difference.” (Marguilies, 2019).

The ubiquitous connected camera and the equally ubiquitous screen create a rich and stimulating learning environment for the teacher and the student alike. The photograph captures a moment in time, and whether author or viewer, it demands that we reflect on the significance of the moment. But this challenge is imbued with subjectivity and begs the question, “How do we see the world and how is this different to the ways other people see it?” Photography, then, has an integrity that helps to clarify why learning is a form of perception and interpretation – an ecological force. This is photography’s paradox: apparently fixed, definite and evidential, it demands interpretation and is experienced differently. Susan Sontag (1977) explores this, and also asks us to consider the pre-eminence of the image over the event it captures. Indeed, making the picture is an encounter in itself, as previously discussed.

In this introductory post on photopedagogy, I outline some of the ways we can think about the photograph as a site of learning. Before proceeding, let’s be clear this post is not about teaching photography: we can assume that if we have a screen we must be critical of what we see and if we have camera we have the essential skills to operate it including sharing what we produce. This post is about any discipline and the role for the photographic image in the way it is taught and learnt.


An interpretation of Collis’ Contribution-oriented approach to learning activities framework

Drawing upon the framework presented in an earlier post on co-production and epistemic fluency, I briefly outline some of the ways afforded by photography as a site of learning.



The idea of using the camera to gather evidence or visual information is relatively straightforward. This can be quantitative data (e.g. the number of shoppers parked in an out-of-town supermarket carpark at a time of day) or qualitative (e.g. evidence of the different ways people interact with a place).

Analyse and adapt

The use of photo elicitation as a research method (Harper, 2002), for example, shows how the photograph can be used as a stimulus for analysing a situation and, in Design or Planning, how visual stimuli can be used for mocking up ideas in the course of a development. A photographic analysis of a process as the basis for its enhancement is an example of analysis and adaption; potentially the basis of a student assignment.


Using the camera and photography to create artefacts is well understood. Educationally the challenge is understanding the value of this to any discipline, beyond those usually associated with visual media. In some cases the obvious applications are found again in the act of photography as a stimulus on the journey to creating an argument or a scenario. The making of visual artefacts is easy to do and the creation of visual metaphors can help to open thinking. The assignment to take a picture of something that conjures Winter, for example, will generate a wide range of images that individually or together may provide the basis for a poetry assignment, consideration of childcare, global warming, seasonal business requirements and opportunities, diversity, etc. The photograph, and the decisions involved in its making and selection, all serve to provoke engagement and deepen thinking.

Knowledge creation


Location is immediately associated with ideas of place, experience and belonging (Tuan, 1977). The ubiquitous camera can chart our progress and its retelling. Digital storytelling as a pedagogy incorporates photographs to evoke deep explorations of experience (McLellan, 2007). Whether in the form of photomontage, photostory comic strip, or portfolio, photographs create records of place and experience. Photographs act as aides memoire, or they can be presented to illustrate context or detail, and they can be annotated.


The X-ray of a fractured bone presented alongside a healthy bone is an obvious comparison that, in this case, allows the radiotherapy student to learn about what they should be capturing in the images they make. Other types of change can be photographically recorded for analysis: erosion, development of a process, growth, aging, urban planning, layering of paint on a canvas, and so forth. Visual timelines showing photographs of places as they used to be adjacent to contemporary views are inherently fascinating.

Add and update

The editing of photographs and the superimposing of new elements or annotations onto photographs can be useful in assessment, but also project planning.


Incongruity can be a powerful stimulus for learning. “What is wrong about this image?” can be a engaging opening question. Combining and juxtaposing one idea with another, or editing out or editing in a critical element can, for example, engage students in discussions about critical literacy. Collage – the assemblage of disparate visual elements to create a new image – can help to establish new associations – what happens when the image of a white person is replaced by a non-white person, or a man for a woman? Could that be a basis for discussion!?

Use and value

‘Use and value’ in Collis’ framework, pedagogically, asks us to focus on audience and user of the media. Whether the photograph is found or produced by the teacher or student, it is interesting to think about its use over time.

Single course use

Nowadays immediacy is associated with the digital photograph. Unlike analogue photography, the digital changes the inherent value of the photograph as artefact. Today, there is an abundance of imagery and, should we not find what we need, making a new photograph is technically straightforward, even if the situations we want to capture are inaccessible.

Single use photography brings currency and authenticity. We, the teacher or learner, can vouch for their authenticity and it is that direct association with the image that sometimes matters. As such, photographs are more understood as being ephemeral and inexpensive commodities.

Course re-use

Re-use changes the inherent context of the image. Its author may be forgotten, its currency may fade, but its meaning can be reassigned. As a record of what has happened before on the course, the photograph can help to model expectations and provide insight to previous work, experiments and outcomes.

Non-course use

Photography can have many audiences. The publication of photographs is commonplace. People use social media photography to inform, attract and chart their world: life blogging is part of life itself.

The photograph demands to be seen by others. Academically, then, this public thinking through the media of photography can become a powerful incentive for presenting research and ideas to a general or specific audience.


I have been looking at the photograph and the act of making photographs as a site of learning since the first camera phone came out. I tried to run an academic innovation project in about 2006 called ‘Picture This!’ It struggled. I found it fascinating that we could grab a visual note so easily. But it wasn’t easy then. It is now.

I would love to hear from anyone who has examples of how photography is being used in the higher education curriculum.


Collis, B. (nd). A pedagogy for learners in the co-creation of knowledge and the problems that confront it in practice. Online:

Collis, B. & Moonen, J. (2006). The student: learners as co-developers of learning resources for reuse in web environments. In D. Hung and M.S. Khine (eds.), Engaged Learning with Emerging Technologies, 49-67.

Harper, D. (2002).Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation. Visual Studies, 17(1), 13-26

Loopmans, M., Cowell, G. & Oosterlynck, S. (2012). Photography, public pedagogy and the politics of place-making in post-industrial areas, Social & Cultural Geography, 13:7, 699-718, DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2012.723734

Margulies, J. D. (2019). On coming into animal presence with photovoice. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 2(4), pp. 850-873

McLellan, H. (2007). Digital storytelling in higher education. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 19, pp. 65-79

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

Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing
just one. Educational Researcher, 27(2), 4-13.

Sontag, S. (1977). On phography. London: Penguin Books.

Tuan, Y-F. (1977). Space and place: the perspective of experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Posted in Academic Innovation, Academic Innovation and Possibilities, Active Learning, BYOD4L, Creativity, Digital Placemaking, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place, Media-enhanced learning, photopedagogy, Smart Learning & BYOD, Social Media for Learning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deviation and self-determination #activelearning

A learning constellation

In a previous post I suggested that the art of teaching to an active learning philosophy is about creating loose structures so that each and every student has the space to bring their own knowledge, experience and imagination to their learning. Designing for learner deviation is about valuing learning as an ecology, therefore; the learner, whether they know it or not, brings value to the learning situation and the teaching challenge is to accommodate and orchestrate the riches that students bring. Students are not inert; each learner represents a wealth of knowledge, experience, motivation, ideas, and answers.

The learner is part of the assemblage of the learning environment; part of the dynamic constellation (Delander, 2016). They will find their own way.

Deviation – finding your own way

The use of ‘deviance’ to describe learning may grab your attention. I have selected it purposefully, not in its rebellious, oppositional or moralistic sense (though that is healthy too), but in its psyschogeographical sense; that is, to deviate or wander, perhaps aimlessly, and certainly without recourse to provided structure in the spirit of the flâneur. It is the most extreme form of self-determination reaching beyond intention, accepting the innate desire to observe and be part of life. It is where wander and wonder collide, and establishes a space to be curious.

Heutagogy and self-determination

In education, deviance is more often known as self-determined learning. Self-determination Theory (SDT) was developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan and provides a theory of motivation in psychology. It highlights three innate psychological needs of human beings: for competence, for autonomy and for relatedness. (Ackerman, 2021) It is sometimes referred to as heutagogy although, strictly speaking, this means the study of self-determined learning (Hase & Kenyon, 2015). In a heutagogical approach,

“Teachers don’t teach, I have long believed. Learners learn. ‘Teachers’ (the quotes are deliberate) provide a context within which learning is encouraged and enabled.”

Dick, 2015, p. 51

Heutagogy is “where the learner has the autonomy to determine and direct his/her own learning path and process.” (Hase & Kenyon, 2000, p. 86)

Blaschke looks at the web as a context for self-determination.

“the learner’s ability to be self-determined is inherent in the system: the web is non-linear, allowing the learner to decide in a random way what and how she will learn.”

Blaschke, 2013, p. 57

The routes beyond the confines of the classroom clarify and make prescient ideas about wandering as learning. It suggests a connective infinity, and makes digital and spatial fluency aa relevant and important matter for educators.

Creating a space for deviance

That space, for me, is encapsulated in the idea of studio: a place of connectivity and curiosity. A place to wonder/wander. Learning involves encountering problems and conducting inquiries, facing and embracing the challenge of inspiring your peers or ‘publics’ (people who represent an authentic audience) and your teachers. It involves making things: written, visual, time-based media, or events. It involves working in isolation, in collaboration, and through co-operation (‘learning alongside’). It involves negotiating and defining your own terms (and criteria). It involves being aware of (and open to be inspired by) your peers navigating similar territory, albeit in their own way.

“teachers do not play a less significant role; they play a different role and it is one that is at the heart of good teaching.”

Eberle, 2015, p. 149

As I work with academic teachers on developing active learning strategies, that point is so important. The role of the teacher is much more than the lecturer. It requires the knowledge and credibility that we associate with lecturing, but it also requires an artistry for designing learning situations and a commitment to the continuous exploration of knowledge.

The teacher, then is game-maker, guide and agitator. Deviant learning does not threaten formal learning: it recognises the value of curiosity, intrigue, and scratching an itch as part of the act of building one’s knowledge, as well as learning how to develop and use those important deviant tendencies wisely through life.


Ackerman, C. E. (2021, 15-02-2021). Self-Determination Theory of motivation: why intrinsic motivation matters. Blog post, online at:

Blaschke, L. M. (2012) ‘Heutagogy and lifelong learning: a review of heutagogical practice and self-determined learning. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, l(13), pp. 56-71.

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

Dick, B. (2015). Crafting learner-centred processes using action research and action learning. In: S. Hase & C. Kenyon, eds., “Self-determined learning: Heutagogy in action.” London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Eberle, J. H. (2015). Lifelong learning. In: S. Hase & C. Kenyon, eds., “Self-determined learning: Heutagogy in action.” London: Bloomsbury Academic. pp. 145-15

Garnett, F. & O’Beirne, R. (2013). Putting heutagogy into learning Eberle, J. H. (2015). Lifelong learning. In: S. Hase & C. Kenyon, eds., “Self-determined learning: Heutagogy in action.” London: Bloomsbury Academic. pp. 131-143 .

Hase, S. & Kenyon, C. (2015). Heutagogy fundamentals. In: S. Hase & C. Kenyon, eds., “Self-determined learning: Heutagogy in action.” London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Narayan, V., Herrington, J. & Cochran’s, T. (2019). Design principles for heutagogical learning: Implementing student-determined Learning with mobile and social media tools. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, August 2018.

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Vertical and horizontal learning networks: implications for #active learning

Slideshare presentation on Horizontal and Vertical networks

This presentation is useful for thinking about the difference between collaborative and co-operative learning. My interest in social media for learning, studio-based learning, and hybrid learning centres on how people work and learn together. They often return to ‘working alongside’ (co-operation) and purposefully working together (collaboration). It comes down to goals ultimately and the meaning of an association to those involved in it.

These distinctions help us to think about learning design and learner motivation in active learning.

Daniel Bassill presents a more global view as he discusses examples of horizontal and vertical networks, but I think the ideas help to clarify associative networks working in a more granular way too. It should be noted that the idea presents a binary. As is usually (always?) the case, binary presentations are useful for presenting ideas conceptually but, in reality, practice tends to exist on a continuum.

Horizontal networks

As I understand it, the unifying factor of a horizontal network is its common interest. The network becomes visible in an event or a place. People network around a topic, but are not focused on a specific goal. Horizontal networks consist of people who have different personal or organisational agendas, so there is sometimes verticality nested within the horizontal. In a horizontal network there may be vertical groupings, for example made up of people from a single organisation who attend a conference with the aim of learning something that will help them achieve their project by drawing upon ideas or experience from across a broader horizontal network. A special interest group is a good example of this where people may represent organisations and be involved in leading an organisational change, but they come together giving their respective work a common validity and accommodating serendipity, and sharing specific successes, and comparing different experiences.

In teaching and learning, people create a sense of place by being together and sharing ideas and commitment. A learning studio exemplifies this idea of learning alongside each other as co-operators. The art student’s goal is their picture, but their co-presence alongside their peers reinforces their cultural identity and personal motivation.

Vertical networks

In a vertical network the unifying factor is a vision, shared purpose, or goal. People work together on a common problem towards a single solution in joint enterprise.

In such networks people are interested in the overarching topic and in applying ideas and knowledge as a collaboration for making a better world.

In teaching and learning, students enact vertical learning in group work, for example in project-based learning, problem-based learning, or team-based learning assignments. They collaborate to make a collective object (e.g. report, presentation, prototype).

Graphic showing vertical networks as focusing on common purposes and horizontal networks focusing on common interests
Vertical & Horizontal Networks

Crossing the boundaries – benchmarking

As noted, the convergence of the horizontal is interesting from a learning and teaching perspective. This is seen in acts of discussion and presentation for example, where one group asks another for feedback or where a ‘show and tell’ or ‘crit’ activity is used. Such connecting activities affect the motivation and reflective thinking of students as they compare their own ideas to those of their peers.

This crossing of the horizontal and vertical space should result in a race to the top in which competition finds spaces within a co-operative space.

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Simulation – storyboarding and paper prototyping #activelearning

<img src="" alt="Photo by <a href="">Matt Popovich</a> on <a href="">Unsplash

Photo by Matt Popovich on Unsplash

Educational simulation is an interesting and, in my view, underutilised area of active learning. Often associated with technology-based approaches, educational simulation is in fact a broader field. In this broad sense it creates a space for authentic learning.

In this post I want to capture a few ideas about simulation techniques that I believe are valuable pedagogically and highly usable and accessible.

Paper prototyping

Paper prototyping can be used in educating students in any discipline where learning involves the application of knowledge to a given situation or problem.

This UXPin site provides an introduction to paper prototyping and notes that the benefits to paper prototyping include: rapid iteration of ideas, cost, increased creativity, team building, easy to learn, and documentation can be produced through the prototyping process. Familiar to computer scientists, especially those responsible for HCI (Human Computer Interface) design, paper prototyping aids rapid iterative development and testing of technologies. Why build, at great expense and taking considerable time, when you can achieve a very similar result by building early versions of devices or software using paper?

You can do the same for the design and construction of other tools and products – US design firm Ideo, for example, showed how the design of a shopping trolley, the first computer mouse, or other products could be rapidly progressed by rapidly building and adjusting full-scale workable models using cheap and recycled materials. (Kelley, 2001)

There are two ways (at least) educators can think about using prototyping for learning:

  1. Learn by designing a prototype
  2. Learn by using a prototype

In the latter, learning happens in a simulated environment or situation. In effect, the educator says, “I would like to have a budget of several £1Ks, but I haven’t. I can’t employ a software/media company to build the glossy tool I dream of. But I can design a very similar experience using cheap materials like paper to communicate instructions, options, or quotes to respond, etc).”

There are two reasons not to do this – 1. Because paper wasn’t in your dream, you dreamed your solution was a real phone app (etc). 2. Because you think your students will think this is ‘cheap’.

1. Now I have suggested it, dream it! 2. In fact, design the right experience (not tool) and the student experience will be very rich! I say this second point with confidence because, as with the Ideo approach, its real value is that you can design, evaluate and rapidly iterate based on student input or user feedback. And that can be educative too.

Role play

Role play is a form of simulation in which you ask people to enact and respond to a situation. Such role plays can be very short and create a wonderful stimulus for learning about the application of knowledge, e.g. learning by “demonstrating a process”, exploring possible outcomes in a situation by asking smalls groups to perform “what happens next?”, or asking small groups to generate multiple viable “alternative outcomes”, for example). Role plays can also be longer and more considered productions containing multiple acts in which the actors can be the students and/or the audience can be the students. In this longer Theatre of the Oppressed approach, interludes allow participants to reflect on and interact with the performance. Developed by Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed creates a powerfully immersive experience potentially.


Storyboarding is the technique used by film makers to prototype films. It’s a relatively familiar visual approach to setting out time-based episodes in a comic strip-type approach.

Such storyboard strips are often produced by talented artists who have what it takes to create very stylistic sequences. This is helpful for planning multi-million dollar blockbusters. But it doesn’t have to be so hard or perfect. There are plenty of sites that explain the essential steps of creating storyboards using paper, Powerpoint or photography.

Making or using simulation as a pedagogy

There are so many other ideas for using simulation techniques in education. It is easy to get distracted by preconceptions of what you already know about or have experienced yourself.

Explore the potential for designing learning activities that involve your students as designers or makers of simulations (etc) or the potential of them running simulations (being the performers). Between these two views of how simulation works educationally is the third space: as with Theatre of the Oppressed or scenario-based learning (which offers another set of approaches), consider giving your students enough information to start a performance and allow them to interact by changing ‘variables’. Imagine a role play, for example, in which a teacher or student facilitator pauses the performance to ask the audience questions like “What happens next?”, or “Which of the two options does the protagonist choose and why?”, or “What unexpected disaster happens that the cast should respond to?”

Simulation, paper prototyping, storyboarding and role play can provide rich and rewarding activities for stimulating learning. They can involve problem, design and scenario-based learning strategies that resonate with learners. They can be good fun, stimulating, authentic feeling, and highly immersive. Such activities do not have to be dependent on technology and media, and once you have an idea for using them, they can be great fun for the teacher too.


Kelley, T. (2001). The art of innovation. Currency Publishing.

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Conversation-based #activelearning – exploiting the differences between dialogue and debate

Photo by Olga Guryanova on Unsplash

Active learning is essentially conversational – a ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ of ideas, whether this is a collaborative exchange or personal cogitation and reflection. Pedagogically, there is a lot to exploit here.

I was recently involved in a discussion about the difference between dialogue and debate which referred to Daniel Yankelovich’s The Magic of Dialogue (1999). Yankelovich’s interest is conflict resolution and, in that context, debate is obviously confrontational and not the best strategy. However, from a pedagogical perspective, there is a lot to be said for debate.

First, let’s compare dialogue and debate as outlined by Yankelovich.

assumes there is a right answer – and I have it.assumes that many people have pieces of the answer and that together, they can craft a solution.
is combative – participants attempt to prove the other side collaborative – participants work together toward common understanding
is about about exploring common good.
entails listening to find flaws and make counter arguments.entails listening to understand and find meaning and agreement.
I defend my assumptions as truth.I reveal my assumptions for re-evaluation.
I critique the other side’s position.I re-examine all positions.
I defend my own views against those of others.I admit that others’ thinking can improve my own.
I search for weaknesses in others’ positions.I search for strength and value in other’s positions.
I seek a conclusion or vote that ratifies my position.I discover new options.
from The Magic of Dialogue by Daniel Yankelovich (1999)

I write about co-operative learning frequently on this blog. The ideas in the Dialogue column epitomise co-operation; a word that Yankelovich uses in the title of his book. Does that make Debate the bad guy, pedagogically?

Assuming any pedagogy must first be consensual and that, ethically, all participants have their eyes open before immersing in any activity, I argue that debate is also a powerful learning framework.

Another look at Debate, as a conceit or constructed situation, presents several reasons for using debate pedagogically.

DebatePedagogic rationale
assumes there is a right answer – and I have it.As learners, it can be helpful to ‘try ideas on’ and see how far an argument can be sustained. Many people like to play devil’s advocate when considering a contentious idea conversationally. This deploys the same principle of putting an idea out there to test it – and possibly reveal flaws in accepted opinion.
is combative – participants attempt to prove the other side wrong.If you are going to test an idea, then it helps to do it with rigour and vigour. Being combative suggests an unhelpful attitude that should be avoided – slanging matches don’t help anyone – but being confident and committed to an idea in order to assess and defend it can add to the excitement of exchange.
is about winning.I always start from a commitment to co-operation. A competitive desire to win has always made me uneasy, but of course ego is an essential part of human nature and, ultimately, people compete with and against their own ideas to test their beliefs of what is good and bad or when re-assessing their personal goals. Ipsative assessment and competing against our personal goals can be very empowering.
More than this, friendly competition within a spirit of co-operation (cricket! Any sport?) shows how they are not the antithesis of each other.
entails listening to find flaws and make counter arguments.Simply, isn’t that a way of defining critical analysis? Again, it comes down to context, intent, and, in terms of teaching, how the conceit is presented.
I defend my assumptions as truth.I have already referred to the value of conviction, but within the conceit of debate it is critical to have a period of debriefing and reflection; to step away from the narrowness of positions that may have been taken to redraw personal conclusions ideally in a social setting in which debating protagonists are involved. I am reminded of the excellent BBC Radio 4 programme ‘The Reunion’ in which key players in headline-hitting news stories or cultural affairs are reunited many years later to retell and reflect on earlier events.
I critique the other side’s position.Learning how to critique positions taken by other people is an important skill. In a world of fake news we need to be able to challenge assumptions and lies propounded by others. Again, it comes down to how the conceit it framed by the teacher and the ground rules and etiquette that are put in place.
I defend my own views against those of others.If you have done your research it is one thing knowing and another thing to apply what you know. Often this comes down to a person having developed the skills of explaining and influencing; being leaderly. For example, being able to see a situation from another person’s perspective can help you to show that person what might be of interest to them in a way that is acceptable to them. These skills are learnt through practice. Debating is a way of practicing.
I search for weaknesses in others’ positions.I have addressed finding flaws and critiquing another person’s position, but this alludes to the art of active listening too. That idea of ‘search’ sounds antagonistic, but when reframed as ‘inquiry’ we can see that debate, to be useful, must open our inquiring mind. It cannot be a matter of taking turns to hail missiles at each other, it needs to be clever – an intellectual exchange. The legal pedagogy of mooting is a refined and highly structured enactment of debating in which arguments and counter arguments are prepared and presented. It is a constructive process.
I seek a conclusion or vote that ratifies my position.This can be part of the conceit, but is not at all desirable pedagogically. As the teacher frames a debate, space is needed to top and tail the activity to ensure safe and critical reflection happens.


In writing this post I have sought to present extreme positions and then reflect in more detail on their respective virtues. This, in effect, is what a well-framed debate should also achieve pedagogically. A debate is a conceit – an idea or tool that serves a purpose; just as an experiment serves a purpose. Good teaching, in both cases, creates a meta space in which to get closer to meanings and truths and their implications, and to discover the new options noted as the culmination of the dialogic model.


Yankelovich, D. (1999). The magic of dialogue: transforming conflict into cooperation. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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