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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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 their 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.
  • I use Teams for everything. Previously I didn’t know about it. It integrates totally with my working ecosystem. A physical room can’t do that (though of course my digital ‘room’ is always with me). Many of us are asking if we’ll ever go back to campus. 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.

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 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 but probably just reassure us that we have a role and confirm our legitimacy. 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.

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’. 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, the crisis would be snapping back – the unthinking desire to reclaim a kind of normalcy. Even an overbearing romanticism. 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.

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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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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Learning walks with awe are good for you

Intense colour captured on a #nightwalk

Awe walks boost emotional well-being according to a recent study conducted by researchers from UC San Francisco and Trinity College Dublin. The study looked at the effect of a weekly 15 minute walk on adults in which selected walkers reported positive effects on their emotional well-being and stress levels.

The walkers were asked to focus on their surroundings rather than themselves and this connects with several activities and studies that I have discussed here previously. I have not, however, presented the well-being benefits enough perhaps, though during the pandemic I have thought about the benefit of regular awe walking (it’s good to have a name for it) for myself and, if I’d had the time, I would have advocated using the Twalk method more during this time. In fact, I have done several workshops on Unified Active Learning in which I have promoted Twalks as one of several innovative approaches to ‘Creating Some Warmth Through Active Learning’ (Global Festival of Active Learning) – Twalks (social media semi-structed walking conversations) can bring students together even when they are geographically dispersed.

There are social benefits from learning walks, though the study on awe walks focuses on the individual. Being part of something provides the individual with a way to come to know themselves – that something can be the wonder of the material world or the social world. The study does not distinguish between the rural or urban landscape – awe is wherever we look for it. That is the message: walk purposefully and look out for things that may be common place but which, on further scrutiny, may surprise you. As an art student I was trained to do that, but I think there is a strong message here for any educator and student: learning to look deeply promotes creative and critical thinking habits.

I live in a West Yorkshire town that is neither simply urban nor rural. I walk every day. I do the minimum 10,000 steps and more during the week, although this often involves road walking. I take pictures and listen to podcasts on my walks. I have walked these roads so many times that you have to scour the landscape to find a new image. Often it will be the shadows, vibrant night colours, textures and the negative spaces, not only the objects, that catch my eye. At weekends I range across the Pennines feeling the awe of the hills, the moors, the reservoirs, canals, and cloudscapes and sunsets. During the week, after a long working day when the nights extend too far, it can be a struggle to work out where to go to find awe. I need an ulterior purpose. Ulterior, meaning being beyond what is seen or intentional, seems apt. If necessary I will just walk to tick off the steps, but I much prefer a purpose, a destination or an idea. As part of my walking routine I have the mission of taking at least one photograph and posting it to my Instagram account. Having an excellent smartphone camera that copes admirably with my #nightwalk scenes really helps.

Finding awe by being on your own in the middle of the world doing its thing

I notice that such walking has its risks and dangers. Being on the street at night on your own is not for everyone, to say the least. Being on the moors at night can also bring dangers. I nearly got stuck on Holme Moss recently having got lost in thought and wonder.

View from Holme Moss – miles from anywhere at sunset

The sublime

Awe is an unusual word. Perhaps this is because we don’t tend to positively experience awe when we are caught up in the ‘day to day’ business of living. We don’t tend to talk about it. The study on awe walks implies we should be conscious of awe. Being awestruck is good for us.

Philosophize This!, presented by the excellent Stephen West, is one podcast I take with me. When walking on the hills around Peel Tower in Lancashire a few weekends ago I listened to the episode on Kant and the Sublime (connecting places to listening is a topic I have written on with my former colleague Anne Nortcliffe).

The sublime is a rare experience of the world at the extreme. It is more than awe, indeed it can be threatening, creating a sensation of humility that challenges the human tendencies of arrogance and omnipotence. In comparison, awe can be stupendous but commonplace and available to those who go looking with their senses open.

Bringing it back to learning

Good learning can be defined as that which satisfies curiosity. For good learning we need awe inspiring moments.

We can get these moments from excellent teachers, but as learners we should aspire to inspire too. Looking with the artist’s eye for both detail and that expansive sense of immersion, and becoming practised in navigating between these extremes, is something we can all develop and bring to our study and to our world views.

I have talked about looking deeply with the artist’s eye, but previously I have made similar points about using our aural senses and thinking about how we can use audio as active ‘learner gatherers’ (Middleton, 2011). Whether through isolated wandering psychogeographical expeditions or more purposeful or social meanderings such as learning walks and twalks, well-being can come from finding awe.


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), 31–42.

Nortcliffe, A. & Middleton, A. (2008). A three year case study of using audio to blend the engineer’s learning environment. Engineering Education: Journal of the Higher Education Academy Engineering Subject Centre, 3(2).

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Playing with time and crossing boundaries: multichronicity #activelearning

Warped clock face based on Dali's painting 'The Persistence of Memory'
after DALI ‘The Persistence of Memory’

In Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education I examine the inadequacies of binary descriptions of space and time for representing contemporary learning experiences. Within the exploration I considered social media for learning and two of the case studies described tweetchats. An analysis of the tweetchats revealed that neither synchronicity nor asynchronicity are able to capture the essence of what goes on in such a conversational space. Neither get close to capturing the value of the learning experience.

Tweetchats disrupt the binary of synchronous-asynchronous communication and instead present a ‘multichronous’ multidimensional flow of live conversation. While the tweetchat epitomises an intense multi-participant and immersive conversation, it also lives on as a learner-generated resource.

Middleton, 2018

Unified active learning – a pedagogy of connections

Quite rightly, during the pandemic our attention has been given to the operational matters of ensuring our students can access their course irrespective of their situation. At Anglia Ruskin University I continue to engage colleagues in the concept of ‘unified active learning’ (UAL) – a principle-based articulation of a design ethos and supporting pedagogies in which active, inclusive and collaborative learning provides a learning framework.

UAL is people and engagement-centred – the starting point for the academic designer must be the need to connect with every student: any design that does not accept the challenge of engagement is prone to failure as a teaching strategy.

A critique of synchronous and asynchronous conceptualisations of learning design, therefore, sits within this context. Such a binary conception of learning focuses the teacher only on the practical; the doing. That would seem to make sense in an active learning paradigm. However, it is not enough. The danger is that the academic designer asks “What am I expecting the learner to do at this point in time?” with the implication that the acts stand alone with no history or consequence for each learner. They are portrayed as being disconnected. As noted in an earlier post, it is not the act but the consequence of the act that indicates where we should look for value in an active curriculum: the ‘so what?’ of reflection in and on learning.

Multichronicity, therefore, provides a way of looking at the design of experiential learning in settings that accommodate learning ecologies: the academic designer must consider the quality of time spent in and navigating through a learning experience.

An analysis of desirable acts of learning is helpful to understand the role of time and flow in the design of active learning.

Ekeblad (1999) makes observations about the value of pace and fluidity in consideration of engagement with mailing lists:

Discussions on a scholarly mailing list typically do not proceed at an even pace, but swing between phases where contributors converge on a new object of intense discussion and phases of topical divergence and diminishing interaction frequency

Ekeblad, 1999

Returning to the tweetchat scenario (a learning environment defined by its simple affordances), a breakdown of interaction patterns quickly indicates the significance of time to thoughts on engagement and learning: the Twitter environment acts as a conduit for faux synchronous discussion, in a process that co-produces a persistent archive of multiple concurrent conversations (‘multilogues’ [Shanke, 1993]) demarcated by the hashtag spatial signifier. The act of posting is an act of intervention, production, creation, contribution and participation. It is inherently active, inclusive and collaborative. The act of posting leaves traces of evidence in which thoughts are made real and left abandoned to be found or ignored like embers from a fire. Each ember has latent energy with the potential to ignite further embers or to metamorphose into sooty deposits. Ekeblad (1999) refers to these as patterns of ’emergence and decay’.

Let’s trace the life of a tweet to understand this ecology and observe how, rather than being binary or linear, time is multichronous.

The life of a tweet

A tweet is a posting full of potential to provoke reaction. It finds its space in the tweetchat by incorporating its shared hashtag. Inherently, tweeting is an act defined by its latency: it demands acknowledgement, but may go unnoticed or be overtaken by other events such as other tweets that may capture attention, or may be returned to as its meaning and value become clear.

A tweet is a message. Simply, its primary purpose is to be read and its meaning conveyed. While it may be ignored, in the instant that it occupies the limelight, one or more people may like the tweet, retweet it, or reply to it. Any such act draws attention to the tweet and its essence. This attention gives it more energy potentially – it is no longer only associated with the tweet’s originator, it acquires new provenance, value and association. For each association, the tweet has both an immediate presence and one or more future lifelines that create traces, embers, or hauntings: memories that may spark new life or fade, decay, and disappear.

The tweet exists within the context of other tweets. Once released, it has its own life and timeline, but for the originator and those who interact with the tweet, it may hold up proceedings as the centre of a micro-conversation. In a tweetchat, for example, other participants may keep up with the pace set by the tweetchat facilitator as they release more stimulus questions or, instead, participants may get side-tracked into new micro-conversations. Such micro-conversations are like eddies in the flow of a stream, having their own energy.

Active learning as a multichronous learning ecology

At the Active Learning Conference 2021 ( #activelearningnetwork #ARUalc which I had the privilege of Chairing last week, I ran a session titled “Playing with time and crossing boundaries: beyond synchronous and asynchronous active learning” in which I began to explore some of these ideas and demonstrate how multichronicity characterises the real value found in many active learning designs, including in the hybrid UAL methods.

An analysis of activity patterns in flipped learning pedagogies, learning walks and twalks, co-created educational podcasting methods, crowdsourcing and curation activities, co-writing assignments, for example, all reveal the value of multichronicity in understanding why such methods work.

Undoubtedly, I will return to this idea of multichronicity and how we value it in active learning.


Ekeblad, E. (1999). The emergence of multilogue. Self-regulation of a scholarly mailing list (revised version). Symposium proceedings, ‘Time and coordination in a virtual community of learners. European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction conference (EARLI 99): Advancing Learning Communities In The New Millennium’, Guttenborg, Sweden, August 24-28 1999. Online at:

Shank, G. (1993). Abductive multiloguing. The semiotic dynamics of navigating the Net. Arachnet Electronic Journal on Virtual Culture v1n01 (March 22, 1993). Online at

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Learning with consequence #activelearning

Evening walk following the campfire session

It’s the Global Festival of Active Learning this week. Our secret question in the organising group is ‘so how do we make this a festival and not a conference?’ It’s got to be about people and attitude. Just feeling good with each other!

It’s really put me in a reflective mood. All sorts of ideas buzzing around my head on the back of conversations. So, having been for an evening walk after my campfire conversation, and enjoyed another fantastic April sunset, it occurs to me that we focus on the action when we talk about active learning, but of course it’s much more useful to focus on the consequence – for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Leaving the word opposite to one side for a moment, let’s just note that the AL teacher needs to think about the intended reaction of their activity.

One answer is the student’s reflection. So for me this evening I am reflecting on the nightmare I’m having with technology this week. I can hardly work. Everything is on a wing and a prayer, so when I turned up for my session I couldn’t run my PowerPoint. I really needed those graphics to talk about Unified Active Learning. Very conceptual stuff!

Well, of course, all you need really is experienced people ready to enter into a conversation (‘experienced’ here is a redundant word – all you need is people!). And some decent questions.

So I led our conversation. It was ‘my’ session/workshop. But a successful conversation is one that has parity. I loved listening to people talking about their practice. Whatever I may have had planned, it was the stimulating examples of practice that I will take away. All I did was to bring some really interesting people together. Thank you for getting me thinking and reflecting on my sunset walk – the consequence of a good session in which I played just my part.

What about ‘opposite’ reaction? Is it the to and fro of conversation, how we reflect back, contradict, challenge, echo, find complementary anecdotes and examples?

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Between states: metaxis, agency, connectedness and fluency

Photo by Maxime Horlaville on Unsplash

The human mind’s capacity for creative thought is unbounded, yet as we learn we adopt frameworks or find structures to help organise our thinking. We seem to live in a constant tension of working within bounds and across bounds. To some extent this reflects ideas previously discussed around convergent and divergent thinking. As humans we generally understand that learning is a constant process of creating and testing faux certainties and then building upon those foundations (and perhaps destroying them by thinking laterally or outside of the box) to make connections to other frameworks or new stimuli. Learning is a matter of crossing boundaries.

Learning how to navigate and develop our learning agency should enable any of us to learn through life, yet too often outcomes are expressed in terms of what we come to know, rather than how we learn to be. Learning, for me, often describes a state of being between or ‘in-betweenness’. There are many terms that reflect this and, appropriately perhaps, it is valuable to examine the space between these different ideas to discover their value in their nuances.

In this post, therefore, I will set out some terms which touch on the state of being between and then review them to discover what they may have in common. What we can learn about learning as a state of being between?


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 my own thinking about how learning exists in a web of continua. I look at this in my consideration of spaces for learning in higher education where I argue that learning can be thought of as acts of transition through this multidimensional constellation of affordances (Middleton, 2018).

Falconer (2011) notes Linds (2005) use of metaxis as “the state of belonging completely and simultaneously to two different autonomous worlds.” Linds’ context is performace and this helps us to understand how being between can refer to being in multiple states: the dramatised world, the ‘real’ world, and experience as the navigation and negotiation of both. Drama, especially in the context of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed discussed by Lands, is a matter of being in a state of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002) and being convincing to yourself and others.

This echoes the idea of polycontextuality which I have discussed here before.


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 person’s effect on the contexts in which they are simultaneously present.

I have blogged about polycontextuality on many occasions. I have noted how we can consider this in terms of augmented spaces, dissonance, and a complex multi-participant ecology of interaction. In all cases, it is the multiplying effect caused by one or more contexts on another that creates that spark I think of as learning. And this ties into ideas about learning ecologies and loosely tied social constellations (Ryberg et al., 2012), leading us to ideas about hybrid learning studios.

Mostly I have noted this as a bridging effect, picking up on Elstad’s (2017) idea of polycontextual bridging. My own specific examples point to social media tweetchats and twalks, however, during the pandemic, polycontextuality 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.

Navigation and negotiation

Navigation and negotiation appear regularly in so much of what I write. There is a danger that they lose their impact and meaning with overuse. ‘Exploration’ is another case in point of a term that has lost its acuity – it is a useful way of referring to how we learn in an ambiguous or ill-defined space, but the danger is that it is read as “I’ll leave you to take have a look around, pop out, have a fag, and be back in 15 minutes to see if anyone had any ideas while I was away.” When you look at the difference between the words/ideas ‘navigation’ and ‘negotiation’, the significant nuances are revealed.

Implicit in the idea of navigation is an expectation for learner agency that involves using their curiosity to examine and consider the meaning of objects they encounter (ideas, artefacts, conversations, and so forth). It is about being aware of yourself, the way you think, the decisions you make, the discoveries you find, and the conclusions you draw. Navigation, therefore, is central to research and experiential learning. It necessitates reflection (sense making), though this is easily neglected despite being the site of deep learning in the experiential learning cycle (Kolb, 1984).

Negotiation refers us back to the idea of dissonance, mentioned as a dimension of polycontextuality above, or decision-making and sense making. It assumes the human’s natural desire to make sense of things, especially with other people but sometimes as a purely personal process of synthesis.


Connection, connectivity and Connectivism (Siemens, 2003, 2005, 2008) allude to our networked and ecological lives. For education it is the socio-technological and semantic situations which connectivity describes that is of interest.

Analysing and reflecting on accounts of academic innovation during the pandemic this week, the idea of ‘digital advantage’ emerges for me as a way to understand that new concept of learning environment we are trying to put our finger on – the 1+1= 3 factor. Connection here is found in a new awareness derived from an actual problem (learning) (1) that comes out of being in a new situation (1) that demands a new valuable response (3), i.e. more than (2) (knowledge we thought we already understood).


Flux means being in a state of constant change. It is useful here because it encapsulates both movement and being in different states. Learning, knowledge and life are never stable.

This idea of dynamism, when combined with ideas about networks, leads us to the idea of the ecosystem. Change within a constellation of diverse entities or actants creates a sense of chaos in which knowledge can be only a personal attempt to create a momentary faux stability – just as paintings of people are a pretence at representing a reality. This idea of flux conjurs up a mythical fantastical picture for me – perhaps the art of English romanticist William Blake as found in his drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, or Stanley Spencer’s busy people in his Sandham Memorial resurrection murals. Such images are about the constancy of the life-death cycle. Spencer in particular deals with ideas of negotiation – saying goodbye or greeting a new day, as in his original resurrection painting in Cookham.


Savin-Baden (2015, p. 1) gives us the idea of digital tethering “as both a way of being and a set of practices that are associated with it. To be digitally 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’.”

The idea of tethering focuses our minds specifically on the importance of the link itself and its effect on the agency of the tethered actant. Is the tether constraining, securing, guiding, misleading, directing, facilitating, etc? What does the tether mean for that in-between space of experience and learning?

Above all, Savin-Baden presents us with ideas about liminality and the idea of learning being liquid.


In education many of us will most immediately associate liminality with the idea of threshold concepts (Meyer & Land, 2003). “Threshold Concepts may be considered to be ‘akin to passing through a portal’ or ‘conceptual gateway’ that opens up ‘previously inaccessible way[s] of thinking about something”. However, threshold concepts are often discussed more in terms of being key concepts – critical nuggets of learning that, once grasped, provide a key to unlock those conceptual gateways to provide access to further knowledge discovery. Indeed, one of its defining attributes is of being bounded. However, while our focus may be on the bounded concept, bounds imply unbounded space that awaits the learner. The promise of liminality is identified within the threshold concept model.

Savin-Baden and Falconer (2016, p. 993) usefully discuss liminality as “a psychological or metaphysical subjective state of being at the threshold of two existential planes”. In this way, liminality captures that sense of frisson or a feeling of expectation. They point to the original anthropological idea of liminality as being to do with the rites and rituals of small human groups: for education we can see the value of demarcating the rite of passage to aid metacognitive learning. As in this post, the authors are intrigued by liminality as describing “a sense of in-betweenness, [one that has] …a stronger sense of shifting identity than the concept of metaxis.” They say, “Liminality is a betwixt and between state often spoken of in studies or rituals or rites of passage as a kind of in-between state.” (Savin-Baden & Falconer, 2016, p. 997)


Thresholds deserve consideration beyond the idea of liminality. Dimensions of social and self-determinism come into play.

Granovator (2004, p. 1422) considers thresholds in relation to collective behaviour. While looking at a riot behaviour, the social setting and its effect on the motivations of individuals are interesting in terms of learned behaviours, influence and negotiation. “A ‘radical’ will have a low threshold: the benefits of rioting are high to him, the cost of arrest, low… People with a 0% threshold are ‘instigators’.” It follows that conservatives have a high threshold because the perceived benefits (derived from held values) are small or negative.

The decision to cross thresholds is dependent upon the way we perceive the benefits and risks of that decision. ‘Bandwagon effects’, ‘domino effects’ and peer groups in a social setting may have a lot to say about joining in, and a person becomes open to reshaping their perceptions or being convinced about the value of ideas. Equally ‘social leaving’ (e.g. the decision to stop doing something or to go home after a party, for example) is interesting here: when is ‘enough’ enough? For learning, how, why and when do we decide to bank an experience and call it learning? When and how is action closed down and learning constructed through reflection? There is something here about learning as being a continual interplay of closing and divergence – not only opening and divergence.

Self-determinism, in relation to thresholds, is about motivations to negotiate a system. “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) Perhaps the use of ‘random’ here is unhelpful, but the point is that webs continually challenge the learner-navigator to make decisions about crossing thresholds and that decision-making provides the site (no longer a fixed or contained notion) of learning.


Interstitial space describes the interface, adjacency, touching or meeting points between two or more spaces. It refers to the latent energy held within the threshold moment itself.

Is this useful to the educator? I think so. It focuses us on the moment of connection, perhaps signalling how or where inspiration can be found. It may point us to the moment a student sees the application of theory to professional practice in a Live Brief activity for example. Knowing that a moment can make impact if it is carefully situated is valuable to the teacher.


Hybridity is another term that is never far from my thinking. It implies ‘neither one thing nor another’ and the implication of that is that it is something else worth having. Again, 1+1=3.

Hybridity is also dependent on difference. Integral to this is the question of whether there is value to be derived from conjoining different dimensions. The question does not imply a single answer should be given, but perhaps that answers to the question might be as diverse as those who attempt to answer it. Hence, hybridity and learning ecologies seem to me to work together well.

In the pandemic, hybrid learning and blended learning have become common currency, often used interchangeably and synonymously. Both are used in many different ways and are ill-defined. However, I am not sure it is useful to tie their meanings down: both are inadequate for conveying what is meant and, usefully, they require further explanation. However, they provide a good start to a conversation.

Often, one of the uses for blended learning is to convey the relationship of the physical learning space to the ‘virtual’ learning space (sorry, I hate the word virtual in this context!). Alternatively, blend is used to describe the balance of synchronous to asynchronous activity. Fundamentally, however, both hybrid and blend assume the provision of a pre-determined space and, as such, that is useful, and even necessary, for those who design learning activities. Acts of learning are likely to be more personal and ultimately self-determined, however.


A permeable state is one that is infused with qualities. Permeability supports a sense of ecology. It also suggests something geological in terms of veins or seams that become, or are made, visible after being hidden, although often known about. Permeability implies rich promise – something that is there, but still to be discovered within a setting. Permeability, therefore, is essentially about possibility and agency.

Common ideas

Is there a common idea here?

In this common space exploration (a throwing together and analysis of ideas), I can see ideas about: being, agency and fluency. The implication of this is that the educator should focus less on the defined context (e.g. delivery of certain knowledge; formality; enclosure; etc) and adopt a learner-centred and inclusive appreciation of ideas like ambiguity, uncertainty, movement, patterns of divergence and convergence, reflexivity, doubt, curiosity, exchange, co-operation, and inconclusivity. And, of course, the list might go on…


Blaschke, L. M. (2013). E-learning and self-determined learning skills. In S. Hase, & C. Kenyon (Eds.), Self-determined learning: Heutagogy in action (pp. 55-66). London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: the classic work on how to achieve happiness. London: Rider.

Elstad, E. (2016). Educational technology and polycontextual bridging. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

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

Granovator, M. (2004). Threshold models of collective behavior. The American Journal of Sociology, 83(6), pp. 1420-1443

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Linds, W. (2005). Metaxis: dancing (in) the in-between. In: Jan Cohen-Cruz, Mady Schutzman (eds.) A Boal companion. London: Routledge.

Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2003) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practising. In: Rust, C. (ed.), Improving student learning: Theory and practice ten years on. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), pp 412-424.

Ryberg, T., Buus, L., & Georgsen, M. (2012). Differences in understandings of networked learning theory: Connectivity or Collaboration? In L. Dirckinck-Holmfeld, V. Hodgson, & D. McConnell (Eds.). Exploring the Theory, Pedagogy and Practice of Networked Learning (pp. 43–52). New York, NY: Springer New York.

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). Learning ecology, communities, and networks: extending the classroom. Online at:

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: a learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(10), pp. 3–10.

Siemens, G. (2008). New structures and spaces of learning: the systemic impact of connective knowledge, connectivism, and networked learning.  Online at:

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Fluency – standing, walking, dancing

Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash

Being able to distinguish between skills, literacy and fluency is a perennial part of my job as an educational developer. This is most visible in thinking about how to communicate and engage people in conversations to do with digital capabilities, as is the case for me again now. However, it is more fundamental than that – it comes down to how we think about educational development, learning, employability, professional development, and the academic ecosystem in its entirety.

Fluency first

In this post I explain why ‘fluency’ is the right discourse for framing any educational or professional development conversation. Skills and literacies have their rightful places within that discourse, but attention to fluency means attention is given to the agility and agency of the subject, whether academic or student, or the organisation itself. Let us begin by breaking things down. What do we mean by skills, literacy and fluency?

Skills, literacy, and fluency – what do we want?

A skills discourse is the most straightforward – a skill describes the ability to perform a given task. To perform a function. As such, we can see what we have achieved if we have learnt a skill, and it is easy to evaluate whether we can successfully perform that skill at a point in time and in a specific context. It is easy to certificate skills therefore, and this is gratifying for all concerned, especially people who we do not know yet but who, in the future, will seek proof of our abilities. There’s a lot going for a skills discourse, but that’s not with a higher education is about. Graduates and academics need to be more than that. Skills are limited and, after a while, their values diminishes as specific context change and new contexts become apparent. Still, certification also demonstrates that we are capable of acquiring skills and there is some value in that.

Literacy, or being literate, is a good term, especially in the academic world. Being literate suggests we are knowledgeable and well-read. It implies a degree of critical and creative engagement with the subject. It suggests we can interpret and apply some knowledge to what we have to do. However, there is a lot of implication and ambiguity in all that – the literate person is certainly aware of a knowledge domain, but there is no real sense that this awareness will cause the individual think through the implications of what having that knowledge means for their practice or that how it will help them to respond to contexts that are not yet clear. There is still too much suggestion that the knowledge is received rather than something to be considered and owned. Literacy promotes a laisse-faire attitude – we are allowed to engage with the knowledge, but the knowledge is not presented as having significant consequences that must be addressed. Knowledge exists within the intellectual domain.

Fluency, on the other hand, presents knowledge as something that is defined by its ambiguity. The knowledge exists within a complexity that can’t, and mustn’t, be defined or contained. It demands that strategies (e.g. skills) and critical lens is applied to the subject matter. However, what really matters is having a depth of personal knowledge that leads to the individual being able to respond wisely, almost without having to think. Fluency is about self-efficacy therefore.

What do we want? – We (in my case ‘education’) want people who are fluent and therefore relatively autonomous; people who are more than (‘more than’ is important) capable of making wise decisions in a given situation.

Postdigital fluency

As noted, developing digital fluency is an important focus for me in my work at the moment. However, this agenda exists within the context of the postdigital world (Fawns, 2019). This helps and adds to the complexity of how to address this.

The postdigital context refers to ‘the digital’ as being ubiquitous, pervasive, and integral to the lived experience. If we stop talking now about ‘the digital age’ and instead pay attention to our reality of ‘everyware’ ubiquitous technology (Greenfield, 2006), then a skills-led discourse shows itself to be a hinderance to what we really need to develop. It represents a pretence that we are equipping staff or students for the foreseeable future. Whereas the future can’t be foreseen, but we do know it will be significantly different.

Look back 10 years – how has your digital landscape changed since then? What are the implications of this to your life, then, now and the future? We cannot be satisfied simply if someone (academic, student or other) has learnt a new skill. That skill only has meaning and value now and if its acquisition is understood as evidence of a habitual engagement with a fluid context.

Any development activity needs to be labelled: “Use with Caution!” (and criticality).

In terms of complexity, then, an educational discourse requires the development of spatial fluency – that is, each of us must be able to critically and creatively assess the situations in which we exist and respond wisely, as though we have not had to analyse the situation, before participating effectively. Our attention, as developers must be given, therefore to positive ‘agency’ and ‘placemaking’.

Before moving on, spatial fluency allows us to think about other big, bold questions of our times too (Sparrow, 2018).

Dancing is the answer!

I don’t mind writing and thinking here if it sometimes means me tying myself up in knots! This is what this space is primarily for in many ways. However, top of my mind is how to communicate a shift towards fluency, and beyond skills and literacy. How can we all grasp and deal with a university experience as being a space in time to develop complexity strategies? How can I frame this discussion with academics, students and managers in a straightforward way that makes sense to anyone?

My immediate thoughts are to visualise the ideas and to use metaphors. I must acknowledge the excellent podcast Philosophize This! and the second episode on the philosopher John Locke in which the idea of dancing, not standing, was discussed.

Digital fluency reflects the innate agency at the heart of learning – especially in an active learning paradigm in which we have respect for the learner and their own motivations.

While we might be able to teach someone how to stand up straight, that is all we are teaching. Being able to stand up straight is a specific skill. It is a function that can be performed and checked. We can use that skill, but it is difficult to apply it with any versatility or confidence to any other situation that we may encounter. If we learn to stand up from a chair, or on a slope, for example, to what extent can we confidently say we can also stand up in a moving vehicle, or when the slope is down instead of up, when there is or isn’t something to hold on to? A particular skill, and its value, are necessarily limited. We can always teach those other skills, but when do we stop? As parents, we know that standing up is not the ‘be all and end all’ to a small child – they have greater purpose and curiosity that gives them resilience. Focusing on developing curiosity is a clue to how we teach in complex situations and, in fact, an individual’s own, unique context (their part of the ecosystem) is critical to their sense making.

So clearly, thinking about teaching the different skill of walking, rather than standing, would be a better idea. There’s more in it. But what are we teaching the nascent walker? We are still teaching them to stand, but we are also teaching them how to move their legs in the the ‘right’ order so as to move forward, or even backwards. And necessarily we are teaching them to balance and to stop. Of course, we must teach the walker some other basics including how to decide on what direction to travel in and for how long. And to not run before you can walk! Then, we need to consider when to introduce ideas about travelling. Travelling causes their sensory context to change because of the actions they are taking, so that they must be able to respond to that change. It goes without saying that the walker must begin to interpret their context and respond to it. As parents, we know that we don’t sit our child down with a script and go through the ‘how to walk’ manual ‘step by step’ (though this is an interesting thought -there may be a book opportunity there for the unscrupulous teacher!). No, we allow for a few scrapes and bruises and try to put reasonable safeguards in place, but also create a supportive and constructive learning experience. The teacher parent helps the learner walker to reflect on the decisions they made – and then we quickly move on.

Let us now consider dancing and why learning to dance might be more useful than learning to walk or stand up! It is about context, motivation, and agility. Fundamentally it is about agency though.

Dancing is such a joyous act. It is about life itself. It is about who we want to be and how we want to feel. It is that bigger, bolder picture of memorable moments. It is about the freedom, even in or especially in, a social situation that we desire. [nb. anyone who knows me may be surprised to hear me effuse about dancing – just enjoy the moment! ;-)]

Dancing conveys a fluency that is not necessarily so obvious in the functional act of walking. Walking is an intellectual act (usually – but also see ideas of wandering and psychogeography). We tend to approach walking as a perfunctory act that enables us to get things done. We have focus and purpose and, for most of us, we know how to do it and we don’t pay too much attention to it. We know its limitations and will turn to other forms of being ambulant when walking is not going to achieve what we need to do. We have walking literacy.

Dancing, on the other hand, is us at our joyous best – when we are able to respond to any situation with utter confidence and fluidity. We have a sense of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002) and being. Dancing, as an enactment of fluency, involves us in self-demonstrations of exuberance and deep engagement with life. Physically, this dancing fluency is a matter of audacious balance, especially when this involves dancing with a partner.

Balance as a dimension of dancing and movement, perhaps epitomises fluency. Our bodies are dynamic containers of energy in motion and the physical space around us is in a continual ‘split second’ flux. It only goes wrong when we stop to think – when we become too literate and so too conscious of the world around us: I heard the athlete Kelly Holmes on the radio yesterday describe how she lost a podium place by looking up to check her timing as she approached the winning line. Fluency would have carried her over – and later in her career it did.

Balance and fluency, underpinned by technique and a sure knowledge of one’s skills and ability to deploy them, mean that the dancer, the skater, the artist, the musician, the athlete, the theoretician, indeed any of us, all excel when we ‘know’ without having to stop and think.

I argue, then, we should aspire to fluency by focusing on the agency we desire within our learning ecosystem. This takes skills, awareness, and opportunities in which to positively apply ourselves as we explore our worlds being driven by our respective curiosities.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: the classic work on how to achieve happiness. London: Rider.

Fawns, T. (2019). Postdigital education in design and practice. Postdigital Science and Education, 1,

Greenfield, A. (2006). Everyware: the dawning age of ubiquitous computing. ‘Voices that matter’, CA: New Riders.

Sparrow, J. (2018). Digital fluency: preparing student to create big, bold problems. New Horizons: EDUCAUSE. Online at:, 132–145.

Posted in Active Learning, Applied Learning, Creativity, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place, Literacies and Intelligence, Walking | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lifewide learning domains: rich intersections or contested spaces

Deerhill in the snow. One of the moor top walks I take to wonder and wander

I noted in my previous post on mapping our learning that I would be engaging in the collaborative inquiry ‘Towards a Better Understanding of Our Own Learning Lives’ led by Norman Jackson, Rob Ward and Jenny Willis. I have just about managed to engage with this in week one (increasingly finding any space in my wide life feels tricky!) and I look forward to reflecting on how we compartmentalise or connect our learning lives across various domains as I pay attention to my own intentional and incidental learning.

This is essentially the focus of the study as I understand it. It coincides so well with my own thinking and questioning, and this blog space is one important strand in my own lifewide learning narrative.

My first task in the exercise has been to devise a Lifewide Learning Domain Map which I share below. I did it really quickly, believing that this cannot be a science and a rough and ready mapping will be as revealing as anything else. Indeed, I have added ‘connections and crossings’ to my map’s title because I think the intersections and contested nature of the domains will reveal more to me as I participate in this study – my role being mostly as a subject. Note, I have also used the word ’emphasises’ as I introduce each domain to again indicate the fuzziness and changing, ambiguous nature of (my) life: ‘If I say [domain name], then it is mostly to do with…, but note entirely or exclusively.’ And for me, this fuzziness is especially relevant to how I/we learn. That cliché of ‘I have my best ideas in the shower’ makes the point well – I find space to think and learn in apparently disconnected spaces and this gives us the concepts of third space and third place, as in the hairdresser’s fire escape fag break (Shortt, 2014).

Psychogeography is a surprising high level domain for me, and I may decide it is too much of a passing interest, however I see it as a broad set of ideas that connect and make sense of a lot of my life. This is quite ironic, because the literature on psychogeography, as far as I can tell, really caricatures it through the aimless nature of the lone wonderer. Obviously, for me, it turns out being aimless is an important dimension in my life, contrasting with the intense purposeful nature of pretty much everything else I do. My waking hours do feel as though I am on an intense mission most of the time. And that is the way I like it. I will return to psychogeography in a future post.

Colliding and compressing domains

In the introductory presentation given by Norman, he asked whether the domains in our lives had lost their distinctiveness during the pandemic. In these days of lockdown everything seems to happen at home. Being online happens at home – hence polycontextuality. The only time I leave the house is to walk or shop for groceries. I don’t expect this to change for a long time. If I’m right, there is an urgency for each of us to reflect on and develop new life strategies.

I think for most of us, this compression of domains will be most evident in those areas of life we have created to do with friends, family and leisure. Simply, friendship feels very different in Zoom. It’s the wrong place, because friendship is often quiet: friendship is about the space between words, being acceptant of social signals, doing things together for no other purpose than doing things with people just feels good. That’s much more difficult than the focused and purposeful activities we undertake at work or when we are being intentionally creative and productive.

Therein lies the crisis of schooling: the primary learning outcome of a formal education is to become a social being – it is not the ‘stuff’ we’re assessed on.

Quiet personal bubbles

And then, even though we are generally experiencing great social isolation during the pandemic, to what extent are we managing to find and protect those transitory dwelling places each of us needs? I get it in walking, taking photographs and posting them to Instagram, playing the guitar, writing, doing a lot of Skill Share courses, and watching a lot of YouTube videos (some ‘serious’, some not).

Often this could induce feelings of guilt though, given that a lot of this involves switching off in my bubble demarcated by my Bluetooth headphones. I can’t really imagine how on earth this plays out in families. Fortunately, I just live with my partner and we navigate our spaces pretty well! (I think?!)

Boundary crossing

As indicated, identifying domains feels somewhat arbitrary to me. It will be interesting to see how it works out for me over the next five weeks of the study. So much of what I think and write about is to do with experiential crossing points – I suggest it is the intersections of our lives in which we come across our meaning, when things get in the way (collisions) or when things add up or multiply (connections).

In terms of learning and what I am doing at work as an educational developer, this is informing what I am doing on Building Learning Communities: developments around non-formal learning space to enrich the student’s experience in a time of great alienation.


Shortt, H. (2014). Liminality, space and the importance of ‘transitory dwelling places’ at work. Human Relations, 6, 1-26. DOI: 10.1177/0018726714536938

Posted in Belonging, Digital Placemaking, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place, Personal & Professional Development Planning, Polycontextuality, Scholarship and Research, Social Media for Learning, Walking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment