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Guide to discussion and collaboration spaces

28/03/2013 in About this course

Discussion and collaboration are central to the experience of ocTEL. But it’s a challenge to arrange the online discussions of 850+ people (that’s how many registrations we’ve had for the course at the time of writing). We want to make things as simple and easy to use as possible. However, we also want to provide maximum flexibility to suit individual preferences and to make it possible to manage many conversations for small groups at once – which makes it hard to keep things simple.

There are three main ways you can take part in ‘asynchronous’ (not real time) discussions in ocTEL:

  • post in your own space, for example, your blog on twitter
  • if you don’t have a blog or just prefer email, participate in a jiscmail list for the whole course
  • for ‘specialist’ interest items or working in smaller groups and learning sets, use the web forums

In your own online space

How does it work?

  • You tell us about your blog or twitter account, via the registration form (if you forgot, or if this has changed since you registered, please email
  • Whenever you write about the course, you include in the #ocTEL (not case sensitive) tag in your blog title or tweet.
  • We pull everyone’s ocTEL blogs on one page on this site as well as providing some aggregate views of tweets (links to come when these are live).
  • You can browse and read them from there, and ‘star’ individual discussions  if you want to keep following them.
  • We will indicate the most read and most popular items on the site and via daily ‘digest’ emails.
  • (We can aggregate anything with an RSS feed and the #ocTEL tag – if you’re also producing material in another space, please let us know by sending the feed address to – unfortunately Facebook does not provide RSS feeds).
  • If you’re slightly technically-minded, Martin Hawksey has done a screencast of this and the discussion aggregation system — a more user-friendly overview is coming soon — and has also blogged about the design approach.

When and why?

The idea is that you should write about your participation in the course in the place where you feel most comfortable and are used to writing. The course is not designed to be separate and sealed off from the rest of your life, but to be part of your life, intertwined with your other interests. This approach to online courses being distributed across the open Internet rather closeted behind virtual walls was pioneered a few years ago one or two of the early open courses.

Jiscmail list

How does it work?

  • You indicate you’d like to join this list, via the registration form (if you forgot, or have changed your mind, you can apply to join via the web interface).
  • We will add you to this list just before the course starts.
  • You can choose whether to receive every message from the list, a daily or weekly digest, or whether to participate via the web only on the list page.
  • From there you send, read and reply to messages just as you would with any other list.

When and why?

If you don’t have a blog or twitter, and don’t want to get one, this is the channel to use. Some discussions work better with the ‘push’ approach of email (for example, if quantity of responses is important) so anyone can choose to start topics there. Many of the main activities in the modules will have dedicated ‘threads’ where you can discuss your take on the activity.

Web forums

How does it work?

  • You will be sent login details after you register for the course.
  • Log in and edit your profile details if you wish. (If you have difficulties logging in, see the FAQ.)
  • Visit the forums. You may now post new topics or reply to existing ones.
  • Forum discussions are lightly moderated by ocTEL tutors.

When and why?

As we were designing the course, we realised that many of the activities could be overwhelming unless there was some way to set up discussions with a tighter focus, either in terms of people – small groups and learning sets – or in terms of topics – niche interests that might run across several modules.

This also gives us the opportunity to set up Q&A forums for the course, such as the Help, I’m Stuck peer support forum.

Additional shared spaces


The weekly webinars (every Wednesday, mostly at lunchtime in the UK) are the one ‘live’ part of the course where we have a guest contributor who presents some ideas relevant to the theme of each module and then leads a discussion. This is also the only part of the course where the technical requirements go beyond the ‘lowest common denominator’ web browser and Internet connection. If you haven’t used Blackboard Collaborate (previously known as Elluminate) before, it might be worth checking your technical setup to see if it will support Collaborate, and checking the support information.


We have an open public group on Diigo for sharing bookmarks related to the course. You can join the group and add your bookmarks there. If you prefer to use Delicious, that’s fine, just use ocTEL as a tag and we will pick it up in our bookmark aggregator. If you’re using another bookmark sharing service (with an RSS feed), please email and we’ll see if we can pick that up too.


Large scale online discussions are an example of ‘complex adaptive systems’, which means no one can predict how they are going to turn out. It’s unlikely that things will turn out quite how we planned them.

ocTEL tutor support: what you can expect

21/03/2013 in About this course, Uncategorized

Online learning in ocTEL is designed to encourage participants like you both to engage actively with the concepts in the course and to reflect on what you are learning through discussion. So learning conversations are central to the course. We will help you get the most from these conversations through a combination of

  • support from peer learners, for which we rely on you to self-organise using the communicated channels we provide, and
  • support from tutors who facilitate conversations with a range of feedback techniques.

ocTEL tutors, like the course authors, are volunteers. We’ve had an encouragingly large number of offers of help with tutor support, mostly from within the Association for Learning Technology community (and including many with CMALT accreditation), and we’re very grateful for this enthusiastic response.

In most cases, there will be different tutors in each module of ocTEL. There will be at least one ‘specialist’ tutor and three or four support tutors. They will monitor and take part in ocTEL discussions on the jiscmail list for participants, and on blogs, tweets and other forums (as long as you use the #ocTEL hashtag). The kinds of contributions they will make to discussions may include:

  • summarising key points in a conversation, drawing out alternative perspectives;
  • encouraging reflection on particular issues and how these may relate to your own experience;
  • questioning and sometimes challenging assumptions;
  • suggesting other resources and people that you may want to look up to explore an area further;
  • providing further explanations to complement the course text and materials.

Specialist tutors are more likely than support tutors to make the latter kinds of interventions, but there is no hard-and-fast distinction. All tutors in ocTEL are here to facilitate, not to assess. They will mostly be ‘non-directive’ and, though they may express opinions, they’re not here to give marks out of ten. In other words, tutors are very much the ‘guide on the side’.

We hope the arrangements we have put in place will provide you with timely feedback and support as you make your way through the course, whether this is from tutors or peers. Please bear in mind that tutors are volunteers, have limited time available, and deserve to maintain a work-life balance. We are organising the tutors with the aim of providing at least 10 hours tutor support for each week-long module. If you divide this among, say, 300 participants, it’s clear that you should not expect a great deal of individual attention from tutors. Tutors may be available to respond during evenings and weekends, but this is at their discretion.

We very much hope you will have no cause to complain about the support you receive during your participation in ocTEL. If you do, please email with details of exactly what has gone wrong, and some indication of how you would like us to solve the problem. You should normally get an acknowledgement of your complaint within one working day.

Note on technical support

Tutors are there to help you with your learning on the course. They are not there to solve technical problems. When the course starts there will be a Help button on the menu bar above. That will route you to sources of technical help, both among fellow participants and from the core project team from the Association for Learning Technology.

New course outline and confirmed dates

12/03/2013 in About this course, course design, progress report

We now have a complete set of draft materials for our course, which we will be reviewing and revising during the rest of the March, so that we’re ready to start the course in April. While finalising the course and planning the support, we’ve changed the order of the modules in the course. There have been subtle changes of emphasis in the modules since we published the draft course outline.

Here’s the outline as it stands now, with confirmed dates and with my personal take on what you might get from each part. We’ll post a more definitive outline nearer the start of the course.

Induction and Reception (“Module 0”) — 4-14 April
If you haven’t done an open online course like ocTEL before, it can take a little getting used to, particularly at the beginning when a lot of people are introducing themselves, sharing expectations and experiences. Hence we’ve created a “soft” introductory session to help you get familiar with how the course works, how to participate in discussions.
There will be practical activities related to Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL), but informal ones which you can use as a “sandbox” to try out alternative ways of approaching the materials and interacting with others.
This module is deliberately longer than a week to allow maximum time for this exploration. We appreciate that many people may be on holiday during the first week of April. You won’t miss anything by not joining until 8 April; you’ll just have a little less time to play.

Foundations of TEL
1. TEL concepts and approaches — week commencing 15 April
How can I use TEL to improve my teaching and learning practice? An introductory overview of the field, covering different ways technology can make learning better, online and offline. In case you thought Technology Enhanced Learning was just about putting course notes on a Virtual Learning Environment and prodding students through them, you will learn about diversity and concepts behind TEL.

2. Understanding learners’ needs — w/c 22 April
How do I take account of students’ requirements? What we know about learners’ needs in general, including digital literacy and readiness to engage with TEL. Plus how you can find out more about the specific needs of your learners, and how to ensure that teaching and learning are accessible to people with diverse needs.

3. Active learning — w/c 29 April
How do I ensure participants learn through active engagement? An overview of theories of active learning and invitation to critique them. What these mean for TEL, and how to design activities that maximise learning. When and how social media and games can help.

TEL Methods and Tools
4. Producing engaging and effective learning materials — w/c 6 May
What makes good learning materials, how to find them, how to assess them, and how to produce them. The licensing principles of Open Educational Resources and using them to make better learning experiences.

5. Platforms and technologies — w/c 13 May
How do I choose the right tech to support effective learning activities? The unique features of online, mobile and classroom technologies as learning platforms. The implications of these features map for learning, and the comparative benefits of ‘open’ and ‘closed’ technologies

6. Assessment and feedback — w/c 20 May
How do I give timely feedback and collect the evidence to support it? Theory and practice of assessment and feedback, and where technology fits into this via the range of e-assessment approaches. Choosing the types of technology that will best fit the needs of assessment and of your students.

7. Tutor and peer support — w/c 27 May
How do I design and manage support for online learners? Focusing on the roles of human, as opposed to automated, support, including how online tuition differs from face-to-face contexts. How to organise peer support and review among learners, including practising peer review.

Managing TEL
8. Maximum learning for minimum cost — w/c 3 June
What can the ‘enhanced’ in Technology Enhanced Learning stand for? Exploring techniques for making richer learning experiences without adding costs, increasing scale, reach and access, as well as improving productivity and flexibility. Assessing the opportunities of open content, free Web 2.0 tools and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

9. Cheating Murphy’s Law: expecting the unexpected — w/c 10 June
How do I keep my project or course on track by anticipating and overcoming problems. Some case studies of what can go wrong with TEL, including implementation issues, risk analysis, troubleshooting, and dealing with technology that doesn’t work.

10. Evaluating TEL — w/c 17 June
How do I tell what difference I’m making with TEL? Evaluation, research evidence and measuring impact. There will also be time to reflect on and evaluate this course, both as a general example of evaluation practice and to give us specific feedback on this first run. And we will be hosting a discussion on where you might like to go after the course, including nurturing new collaborations and outlining what ongoing support is available via ALT and other channels.

If this looks interesting and you haven’t already registered for the course, please do so now via our home page.

As this is an open course, you’re free to pick and choose from the above and do as much or as little of the course as you like.

So far we have over 300 people registered for the course, from around the world, on the back of near-zero publicity. Now that we have firm dates for each of the weeks, we’re going to do a little more publicity. Any help you can offer in spreading the word would be very welcome. Please follow us on twitter, retweet and share.

In the remaining weeks of March we’ll be blogging some more about:

  • our line-up of guest contributors for the live webinars we’ll be hosting every Wednesday as part of the course;
  • our approach to tutor support and what course participants can expect;
  • possibly how experienced learning technologists can get involved and help us run the course (hint!)
  • and possibly some more about our guiding principles in designing the course.

There’s nothing new in MOOCs

10/01/2013 in About this course, Evaluation

Towards the end of last year I started working with the ocTEL team on how to evaluate the Massive Open Online Course or MOOC they’ll be running in 2013. There is a *huge* amount of discussion on MOOCs at the moment from tips for those taking a MOOC to the future of MOOCs and HE. This article from the Chronicle provides a rather US centric timeline of developments and responses to MOOCs. There is also the recent launch of the slightly mysterious Futurelearn in the UK. There has been some very interesting discussion on this on the ALT mailing list. The list is members only, but quoting from a recent list posting by Diana Laurillard “Everyone in the field knows there’s nothing new in MOOCs” but we do need to meet the “massive demand for education, across all sectors from primary to lifelong, all over the world… It can’t be done without technology… It’s time to start looking seriously at what those models could be.

For me at the moment, the focus is on evaluating just one MOOC, which is still under construction. Nonetheless, when I started asking the ocTEL team what they hope the MOOC will provide, one of the themes that emerged quite strongly is the desire for a sustainable community to come out of the MOOC. This has led me back to work I undertook over ten years ago on the theory and practice of online learning communities. At that time, I was influenced by Etienne Wenger’s insights into Communities of Practice and Jenny Preece’s perspective of designing usability and supporting sociability in online communities. Figure 1 summarises the dimensions of practice Wenger attributes to ‘community’, and Figure 2 shows the relative similarities in Preece’s online community key features.

Dimensions of practice as identified by Etienne Wenger

Figure 1 – Dimensions of practice as the property of a community
(Wenger, 1998, p73).

Online Community Features as identified by Jenny Preece
Figure 2 – Key features of an online community, with associated characteristics
(Adapted from Preece, 2000)

These models will be reviewed and elements drawn into the ocTEL evaluation framework. I’ll also be looking at the concept of sustainability in relation to community. This has been addressed before by Bell et al in their 2007 book chapter entitled Evaluation: a link in the chain of sustainability. They highlight how the lack of persistence could come down to coordination failure or when the “costs of participation exceed the perceived benefits“.

So perhaps there is nothing new in MOOCs, or maybe it’s just a reminder to put old lessons into practice.

Bell, F et al (2007) Evaluation: a link in the chain of sustainability. In Lambropoulos, N & Zaphiris, P (Eds.) User-Centered Design of Online Learning Communities. Idea Group Inc.
Harris, RA & Niven, J (2002) Retrofitting theory to practice – a reflection on the development of an e-learning community. In Banks et al (Eds). Proceedings of Third International Conference on Networked Learning. Sheffield University.
Preece, J (2000) Online Communities: Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability. Chichester, John Wiley and Sons.
Wenger, E (1998) Communities of Practice. Learning, meaning and identity.Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

** Adapted from a post on the Inspire Research blog. **

Course outline – first draft

17/11/2012 in About this course, course design, progress report

The ocTEL project team have now had a chance to discuss and digest the results of our survey, and to think about what implications they might have for the course design.

The results are most useful in terms of what they tell us about objectives and topics that people would like the course to cover, and which we hadn’t included in the description we gave in the questionnaire. These included areas like pedagogic theory, how to evaluate and measure the impact of Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL), the wider context of digital literacy, specific technology platforms like mobile, how to deal with technology failures, and so on. We’ve endeavoured to add as many of these into the mix as we can.

The topic areas that came out as most important are what you might call the ‘practical coalface’ aspects of TEL:

  • designing learning materials
  • tutoring students online
  • students perspectives
  • designing and managing online activities, and social interactions

Less popular are the dry-but-worthy topics like openness and standards. However, since these are important and, well, worthy of inclusion, we don’t want to drop them. Instead we tried to think of how we could weave them into the course in such a way that their value is made clear. This led into a more general discussion on a topic that bedevils learning technologists: do you organise round the learning and show how the technology serves those goals, or do you respect the interests of those who are concerned with particular technologies or means of delivery. We want to demonstrate, not just assert, the interdependence and interaction between learning and technology.

So the solution we’re going with for now is a organised round practical challenges and problems that teachers and learning technologists face. We hope this will ensure that the technology and learning strands are bound together, as well as enabling the course to cover underpinning issues like openness and standards in a relevant context. You can see a ‘live’ working version of our course outline in this Google spreadsheet. In summary, the outline at the time of writing looks like this.

  1. The Future and Technology Enhanced Learning — induction and finding your feet — 1 week — Challenge perceptions about TEL, and opportunity to check familiarity with basic tools and services
  2. Designing the learning experience — 20 hours over 4 weeks
    1. Work out what your course or learning opportunity is going to feel like — Historical context of TEL and range of TEL approaches, brief overview and orientation of issues on the rest of the course and how they contribute to the learning experience, comparison of approaches (e.g. different kinds of MOOC, classroom-based TEL, simulations, discursive & constructivist etc)
    2. Be clear about how learning is going to take place — Design and organisation of group activities, social media in learning, games in learning, pedagogical theory
    3. Produce engaging and effective learning materials — Design of curriculum and course materials, pedagogical theory, authoring tools and environments, producing OERs, copyright and licensing
    4. Choose the right platforms and technologies to support activities and communication — Mobile platforms, VLEs, open platforms & integration, cloud services, accessibility
  3. Supporting learners — 15 hours over 3 weeks
    1. Understand learners’ needs — Learners’ perspectives, supporting learner transitions, accessibility and access needs, prerequisites for course, familiarity with technology and digital literacy issues
    2. Provide timely, effective assessment and feedback — e-assessment, formative and summative assessment, feedback, peer evaluations, e-portfolios
    3. Support learners with tutor and peer communications — online tutoring and facilitation skills, peer support and networking, Personal Learning Networks and CPD
  4. Managing the process — 15 hours over 3 weeks
    1. Get maximum learning for minimum cost — Openness (especially Open Educational Resoruces) and standards, technologies and techniques for achieving economies of scale (VLEs, MOOCs etc), using free Web 2.0 tools and platforms
    2. Keep your project or course on track by anticipating or overcoming problems — Implementation, risk analysis, troubleshooting, dealing with technology that doesn’t work
    3. Work out what difference you’re making — Evaluation, research evidence and measuring impact of TEL

In case it’s not apparent, I should stress that none of this is fixed: we’re publishing it now to expose the outline to the widest criticism while it is still not too costly to change it. Please don’t be shy about saying if you think we’ve got this wrong.

If you’d like to track changes to the course outline, here’s the RSS feed.

We’re aware of some remaining issues. For example, how to allow learners the maximum flexibility to focus on some areas of the course in greater depth than others, within what may be a linear timetable.

We’re also aware that our market research is not the last word or the whole story. Our questionnaire was (deliberately) short and may have been superficial in part as a consequence. Though we circulated it beyond the standard Association for Learning Technology channels, the balance of the responses seemed to suggest that the respondents were more likely to be learning technologists (and less likely to be teachers) and more TEL-savvy (in that 22% had already done a MOOC) than our target audience for the course.

So we are always interested in more feedback.


Rough cut analysis of market research survey

08/11/2012 in About this course, course design, progress report

We closed the OCTEL market research survey a couple of days ago — many thanks to all the 140 people who completed it.

Tomorrow members of the project team are meeting in London to review the results of this, as well as considering other sources of intelligence that should guide the development of the OCTEL course. To inform that discussion, I’ve done a summary of the key results in the slideshow below.

This includes a rough analysis of the free text responses people made concerning the objectives they’d like the course to deliver, and the topics they’d like it to cover.

This is a preliminary account, subject to revision and development from further discussion. So comments are welcome. I’m also going to see if I can make the data (stripped of all personal information) available under an open licence [Update, 19 November 2012: here is the dataset on the ALT repository].

We are trying to run this project in as open and transparent way as possible. Suggestions for other ways of doing this are also welcome. And, on the off-chance that you are free and in London tomorrow between 11am and 3pm, you can join the project team meeting at Stewart House, University of London, Room STB2, Stewart House Basement (map, please report to reception on arrival). Please email to let us know we should expect you (and best to bring a sandwich in case we don’t have enough lunch to go round).

Introducing the team

29/10/2012 in About this course, progress report

It’s still early days on the OCTEL project, but we are starting to assemble a team and build some momentum.

If you haven’t already done so, and you’re interested in the kind of course OCTEL may become, please complete our questionnaire to tell us what would make it a useful learning experience for you. And if you have a creative disposition please enter our competition to make a visual representation of technology-enhanced learning.

OCTEL is being run by a small core team (no full-time staff) and a support network of advisors, volunteers and kind helpers:

  • Maren Deepwell and John Slater (project direction on behalf of ALT)
  • David Jennings (project manager, DJ Alchemi Ltd)
  • Anna Davidge (web and admin support, ALT)
  • Rachel Harris (evaluation, Inspire Research Ltd)
  • Martin Hawksey (learner discussion management, JISC CETIS)
  • Linda Creanor (advisor, Glasgow Caledonian University)
  • Shirley Evans (advisor, JISC TechDis)
  • Peter Hartley (advisor, University of Bradford)
  • Terry McAndrew (advisor, JISC TechDis)
  • Phil Tubman (advisor, University of Lancaster)
  • Nicola Whitton (advisor, Manchester Metropolitan University)
  • Clive Young  (advisor, UCL)

Update, November 2012: we’re very pleased to announce that Stephen Downes has agreed to join the extended team as a ‘critical friend’ to the project. In case you’re not marinated in recent learning technology developments, Stephen is one of a handful of pioneers of the early Massive Open Online Courses, and continues to work prolifically charting the possibilities of the approach.

Openness is one of OCTEL’s foundation concepts, and we will try and experiment with practical ways of achieving this in our methods as well as what we deliver.

Have you got any tips or suggestions for open project management?

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