Designed for learning

learning – teaching – research – design – technology

A note on educational web communities: learning, communication and collaboration

I was invited by Prof. João Filipe Matos to contribute to a strategy paper addressing an initiative for a national portal for mathematics teachers in Portugal. I am thankful for the opportunity. My comments were written in three parts, in reposnse to questions presented by the project team. With Prof. Matos’s kind permission, I am sharing my ideas here, under a creative commons licence. Comments are most welcome.

I have tried to maintain a holistic socio-technical perspective, bringing together state-of-the-art web arts, legal ethics and social dynamics of learning in what I hope is a coherent argument.

The format represents the structure of the working drafts. Please ignore, I’ll pretify it if there’s enough interest.

Educational web communities: learning, communication and collaboration

Commentary prepared by Yishay Mor for the Project Comunidades Educativas em Rede, led by Faculdade Ciencias Universidade Lisboa

Creative Commons License Yishay Mor. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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Part I: Principles and Guidelines

(3.2.2) Recognizing the nature of the adequate tools to support online communication and collaboration spaces that will take part of the Webportal

The first principle to acknowledge is that the nature of the tools needs to be defined by the nature of the activities the community wishes to engage in, and that those will change over time. Therefore, any effective design of tools which should done in consultation with the community, through a process driven by articulation of actual usage scenarios. Nevertheless, a few high-level general guidelines can be proposed upfront:

Openness, integration, synergy

Many people use popular social media services, such as facebook and twitter. These should be integrated into the portal, and seen as a way of drawing users in rather than a competition.

Multiple modes of engagement

Some users will form passionate groups, which will visit the site frequently and conduct vibrant discussions. Others will visit the site occasionally when a particular need arises or when their schedule permits. Design the interactive parts in a way that would fit the full range of users. e.g., provide facilities for email notification of new and relevant content.

The wisdom of the crowds, the judgement of the editor

Today’s web is no more a medium of passive consumption. User-generated content is now taken for granted. Users expect to be given opportunities to share knowledge, discuss issues of interest with peers, and present their work.
User contributions – be it comments or monographs – should be encouraged and highlighted in order to foster a vibrant community. Yet in order to maintain a standard of quality, a site needs to support editorial procedures. The editorial mechanism should follow the rule “publish, then filter”:

The order of things in broadcast is “filter, then publish.” The order in communities is “publish, then filter.” If you go to a dinner party, you don’t submit your potential comments to the hosts, so that they can tell you which ones are good enough to air before the group, but this is how broadcast works every day. Writers submit their stories in advance, to be edited or rejected before the public ever sees them. Participants in a community, by contrast, say what they have to say, and the good is sorted from the mediocre after the fact. (Clay Shirky, Broadcast Institutions, Community Values)

As Matt Locke notes (“Publish, then Filter” – Clay Shirky at the Edinburgh TV Festival) this approach also has financial implications.

Multiple modes of content

An effective medium of communication must support multiple modes of content, as appropriate for the conversations is it expected to contain. In particular, the design of an interactive site should observe two patterns: Objects to talk with and Narrative spaces:

Objects to talk with When we talk we point at objects. When we talk on-line we should be able to do so too.
Learning activities involve the use or construction of artefacts. When providing tools for learners to discuss their experience, either as part of the activity or at a reflective meta-level, allow them to easily include these artefacts in the scope of their discussion. If the activity is mediated by or aims to produce digital artefacts, then the discussion medium should allow embedding of these artefacts. Whatever the nature of the objects, the medium should support a visual (graphical, symbolic, animated or simulated) 1:1 representation of these objects.
In the case of the portal, this pattern entails that teachers should be able to embed the electronic resouces they use in any discussion medium provided. These would include lesson plans, moodle and LAMS sequences, youtube clips, spreadsheets etc.
Teachers, parents and learners should also be able to ember representations of non-digital resources, e.g. images of art projects.
Narrative spaces Constructing narrative is a fundamental mechanism for making sense of events and observations. To leverage it, we must give learners opportunities to express themselves in narrative form.
Provide learners with a narrative space: a medium, integrated with the activity design, which allows learners to express and explore ideas in a narrative form.
The implication of this pattern is that the portal needs to provide space for participants to describe their work in their own words. Sharing artefacts is not enough: we need to share the stories behind them.
See also Classroomdisplay , Paper20

(3.2.5) Structuring orientations for promoting a widespread use of learning platforms in different forms, not only for e-learning initiatives but also for support face-to-face classroom activities

Technological innovation offer learners, parents, teachers and learning designers new opportunities as well as new challenges. New tools allow us to do old things better, and allow us to do new things altogether. Given the current rate of innovation, and the rapid decline in the cost of technology, the limit on growth is not the capacity to produce, but the knowledge of how to do it right. This is what we call “the design divide” (Mor & Winters, 2008): the gap between those who have the expertise to develop high-quality tools and those who do not. This gap is lateral as much as it is hierarchical: new uses of technology can emerge anywhere, and thus the knowledge of how to use it is distributed globally. We are facing a challenge of sharing design knowledge in complex networks, where each one of us has a fragment of expertise – only through effective egalitarian communication can we create a coherent picture of our knowledge.
The design divide is most acute in education, where practitioners, who are already stretched by their professional commitments, are constantly facing demands to keep up with technological developments. Teachers will often find themselves as learners, acquiring technological knowledge from their peers or students. Students are operating as researchers, habitually experimenting with new tools and practices. We all need to make daily choices as to what knowledge is critical for us and how to acquire it – essentially becoming designers of our learning paths. Technology does not only offer us more power, it creates distractions, frictions and social and cognitive loads. When designing for learning – ours as well as others – we need to consider both the positive and the negative effects of the new tools at our disposal.

The new portal has a potential for empowering users to direct and enhance their educational experiences. In order to do so, it must allow them to share, discuss, and collaboratively develop a canon of design knowledge in education. It is obvious that a site like this should contain a rich and accessible repository of high-quality learning and teaching resources. But this is not enough: it should also facilitate the process of communities building knowledge of how to use these resources, and even create new ones. To do so, the portal must allow users to share their stories of educational journeys, discuss them and extract generalisable design knowledge from them. It should support the participation of educational experts, teachers, parents and students. Participants should be able to share rich multi-media accounts of the problems they face, resources they use, and the practices they employ. Such accounts can take the form of illustrated text, multi-media presentations or video reports.

The table below presents a few illustrative examples. This is by no means a comprehensive or representative list. The examples where chosen to highlight a range of possibilities and provoke thought. German portal offering comprehensive information on didactical, technological, and organizational aspects of e-learning at universities. Teachers TV is the digital channel for everyone who works in schools. It is viewable on cable tv and on the internet. Registered users can engage in conversations around the resources on site, and can edit and reuse them for their purposes. Curriki is an online environment created to support the development and free distribution of world-class educational materials to anyone who needs them. It is based on wiki technology, but has an edit cycle to ensure content quality. This website is the global online community for all teachers, administrators and developers that use LAMS. Within the various subcommunities, you can access the latest news about LAMS, many different discussion forums, and a repository of shared LAMS sequences. The Pattern Language Network (Planet) project facilitates the advancement of design knowledge in education by a structured process of sharing case stories, design patterns and scenarios. Scratch is a new programming language that makes it easy to create your own interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art – and share your creations on the web. The Scratch website provides resources on using the language, but also allows users to share and discuss their work. UK National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics. EU funded WebLabs project platform for collaborative learning and teaching in science and mathematics.
CoMo (inactive) The CoMo project involved students and teachers in the royal veterinary school, using social software and mobile phones to support collaborative reflection. A case study of the project is available at:

(3.2.6) Defining a policy of privacy and security to be implemented in the different spaces for communication and collaboration what will take part of the Webportal

Issues of digital identity are a growing concern as web technologies penetrate our lives. These have several aspects: legal, ethical, social and pedagogical. These apply to the site’s management as well as to its users. In other words, there is a set of two-way obligations which both the site managers and its users need to be aware of. As a rule, the site will apply a cautious approach to identity and a liberal one to content. This means that users personal details will be protected and only visible when and when they specify, while content will be offered under the most open and sharable licence possible.


Any published material is subject to national and international copyright laws. In order to allow effective use of the materials published on the portal, it has to define a clear licensing policy. This applies to content provided by the site owners, commercial 3rd party content and user-generated content. A more permissive policy encourages reuse, but may inhibit commercial contributions. A more conservative policy might limit the utility of the resources on site, and inhibit user contributions. Apart from the general licence and usage policy set for the site as a whole, it is best to allow contributors to set their own terms for the content they present. This is nowadays the approach taken by many sites, such as Flickr ( and SlideShare ( The content provided by the site itself will be licenced under a creative commons non-comercial attribution share alike licence, and this would be offered as a default option for any user or 3rd party contribution.

Any site that allows users to register and participate creates a de-facto risk to the privacy of these users. This risk needs to be minimised and managed, and users should enter it with informed consent.

Any site which allows user participation risks being exploited as a platform for inappropriate content. Moderating all communications is too costly to be feasible, and therefore the sites responsibility to user contributions needs to limited to adequate response within reasonable time. Practically this entails a mechanism for reporting inappropriate content and a commitment to review such reports as soon as possible.

Special care needs to be applied to the protection of minors. The portal will apply mandatory full protection of minors’ identity. Content contributed by minors will only be shared in protected areas, accessible to their peers, teachers and parents. This content will be periodically archived and removed from public view.


While there is a fair level of flexibility in setting a legal framework, any decision taken has ethical repercussions, and thus should not be seen as technical. Any framework of licensing, security and privacy needs to balance the needs of private, institutional and commercial players. An approach which favours the individual will be based on open licences (such as creative commons), and strict privacy and security with strong user control.


Likewise, a framework with an open orientation will facilitate active communities and a culture of sharing, whereas a closed one would encourage a consumerist model.


Managing ones digital identity and intellectual property are becoming essential skills for citizens of the 21st century. As a portal dedicated to education, these need to be regarded from a pedagogical perspective as well as an operational one. The social and ethical considerations in setting policies should be made visible so that users interaction with the site will become an opportunity to engage with the underlying issues. Additionally, the portal will include specific instructional materials presenting the current debates regarding intellectual property, licensing policies, privacy and identity.

(3.2.7) Defining orientations and basic norms to commercial services suppliers to follow before being able to be plug in the Webportal

In addition to the legal and technical framework implied by the policies of digital identity and intellectual property, the portal needs to set a policy regarding content formats and micro-formats. In order to ensure robustness and stability, it is important to ensure compliance with accepted web standards as defined by the W3C ( and IETF ( Special attention will be given to standards related to accessibility, privacy and security. Other standards specific to educational content will be considered where relevant, such as SCORM ( and IMS LD (

Additionally, the portal will support emerging “open stack” standards such as OpenID ( and OAuth ( to enhance interoperability and user experience.

Any commercial partner wishing to provide content or services through the portal will be required to maintain the same standards and conventions.

Part II: Operational Framework

(3.2.2) Recognizing the nature of the adequate tools to support online communication and collaboration spaces that will take part of the Webportal

In order to ensure a cost-effective and efficient operation of the portal, we will employ an open, participatory, user-centered, agile development process:

All discussions and resolutions regarding the portal design, its functionality and priorities will be conducted on a section of the site visible to all users. While it would be unyieldly to conduct the development of a portal as a fully democratic process, there is no extra cost to commiting to a fully transparent approach.


Participatory Design (PD) is an approach to the assessment, design, and development of technological and organizational systems that places a premium on the active involvement of workplace practitioners (usually potential or current users of the system) in design and decision-making processes. (

A participatory approach sees the users of the portal as potential full partners in its design and development. The users involvement and influence on the evolution of the portal is only limited by their ability to commit time and effort. The demands of a participatory approach needs to be balanced with resource limitations and deadlines. To do this, the portal team will make use of standard open source and open content tools and techniques, such as revision control ( and issue tracking ( More important, the portal team will identify a development methodology which allows for users to engage and contribute at critical points. An example of such a methodology is IDR (Winters & Mor, 2008).


In broad terms, user-centered design (UCD) is a design philosophy and a process in which the needs, wants, and limitations of the end user of an interface or document are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process. User-centered design can be characterized as a multi-stage problem solving process that not only requires designers to analyze and foresee how users are likely to use an interface, but also to test the validity of their assumptions with regards to user behaviour in real world tests with actual users. Such testing is necessary as it is often very difficult for the designers of an interface to understand intuitively what a first-time user of their design experiences, and what each user’s learning curve may look like.The chief difference from other interface design philosophies is that user-centered design tries to optimize the user interface around how people can, want, or need to work, rather than forcing the users to change how they work to accommodate the software developers approach. (


Agile software development refers to a group of software development methodologies based on iterative development, where requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing cross-functional teams. (

An agile approach entails early releases and rapid iterations, and resonates well with the demands of openness, participation and user-centricity.

In order to facilitate rapid and cost-effective design and development under such strict requierments, it is essencial to make maximal use of prior design knowledge. Fortunatly, such knowledge is available in abdundence and high quality through various collections of design patterns. These collections will be consutled, and used as an active resource in the development process:
van Duyne, Landay and Hong: design of sites

Jenifer Tidwell: Designing Interfaces: Patterns for Effective Interaction Design

Till Schümmer and Stephan Lukosch: Patterns for Computer-Mediated Interaction

Michael Mahemoff: Ajax Design Patterns

Martijn van Welie’s interaction design patterns

the Yahoo! Design Pattern Library

Tom Ericson’s interaction design patterns (a collection of collections)

Interface design patterns

Mobile UI design patterns

Fluid project open source design pattern library

The Pattern Language Network

(3.2.5) Structuring orientations for promoting a widespread use of learning platforms in different forms, not only for e-learning initiatives but also for support face-to-face classroom activities

Most people adopt new tools and practices through their participation in a community of shared interest, by imitating and consulting trusted peers. An effective portal would leverage such vernecular learning dynamics by supporting and structuring them through a set of activities and on-line tools to support them.
The portal will engender and facilitate collaborative reflection in communities of learners as a means of identifying, elaborating, advancing and dissiminating educational innovation. Communities will be given the means to self-organise and share case stories, design patterns and future scenarios. These means will include tools, techniques and facilitation, using a validated methodology such as the Participatory Methodology for Practical Design Patterns (

(3.2.6) Defining a policy of privacy and security to be implemented in the different spaces for communication and collaboration what will take part of the Webportal

Technology is constantly creating new possibilities for us to express ourselves and engage in conversations. These opportunities also create new risks and complexities in terms of identity and intellectual property management. These issues are subject to current debates in technology and standards groups, such as the  W3C Social Web Incubator Group ( Futhermore, as the technology shift, so will the forces which effect privacy, security, copyright etc.
It is therefore impossible to point at a fixed specification to implement. Instead, the portal will maintain an evolving specification, and an attached protocol for dealing with issues as they arise. Any incident will also be recorded as a case study and whereupon it has general interest, communicated to the relevant standard groups.
Some examples of such case stories can be found at:

(3.2.7) Defining orientations and basic norms to commercial services suppliers to follow before being able to be plug in the Webportal

While commercial vendors may initially object to an open approach to educational content, a national portal has the power to set a standard and generate the critical mass needed to sustain it. Open models, and in particular Open Educational Resources, are gaining growing recognition worldwide. Adopting such an approach and co-ordinating it with similar initiatives will give the portal imidiate access to a wealth of content and experience. Commerial providers could then engane with the project on the basis of providing services rather than locked-in content.

Examples of organisations and sites commited to Open Educational Resources (OER):

UK Open University’s OpenLearn
Includes an on-line course on creating OER
Hewlett Foundation’s OER programme
ISKME sponsored OER Commons


Part 2: Orientating actions to provide articulations and relations between the Web portal of Schools and the learning platforms already in place in schools (e.g. Moodle)

What strategic orientations should we provide in order to articulate the work of educational communities on Moodle platforms in schools with the national web portal?

If the articulation of the work of local educational communities is to be genuine and meaningful it needs to be driven and owned by these communities and the individuals within them. Effective articulation of the work of existing educational communities needs to engender a multitude of feedback loops. This is in contrast to linear models typical of “web 1.0” systems. The source of power of participatory systems is in their affordance for reuse, remix and amplification of positive contributions. A linear system is one that only supports the flow of information, artifacts and ideas in one way. Such a system can serve the purpose of disseminating existing knowledge, but does little to promote the creation of anything new. A participatory system, on the other hand, allows for cyclical and spiral flows: users can access content, modulate it, and feed it back into the system. Such dynamics enable accumulation of knowledge – each user starts from where the previous one left off, and adds her own modest contribution. The aggregation of these individual contributions, as small as they may be, is more powerful than any single contributor – individual or institutional – could produce.
The distinction between linear and cyclical systems is irrespective of the source of content, and applies to bottom-up systems (“user-generated content”) in the same way it applies to top-down systems. Thus, the articulation of the work of local communities in the national portal is worthwhile only insomuch as this is done in a manner that enables feedback loops, by providing for seamless from of materials in and out of the system, and sustains lively conversations around and with these materials. To achieve such a goal, three dimensions need to be considered: the content, the social dynamics and the technical interoperability.


The portal should provide for the flow of three types of content from and to the local school platforms: primary artifacts, stories around these artifacts, and expert situated abstractions of these stories and artifacts.
Primary artifacts are the objects and resources developed by practitioners to support their work. These include Moodle courses, teaching aids, curricular resources, exams, games, etc.
Each such artifact was developed for a purpose and used in a particular manner, which achieved certain results. Sharing an artifacts “life story” is perhaps even more important than sharing the artifact itself.
Both the artifact and its story are specific to a unique set of circumstances. In order for them to be useful for other practitioners in different circumstances, a degree of abstraction, or generalisation is required. This abstraction needs to rise above the original circumstances without completely detaching from them, less it loose its applicability to any concrete circumstances.
The portal should provide users with streamlined facilities to contribute primary artifacts, tell their story and extract abstractions from them.

Social dynamics

Vibrant communities are powered by complex social dynamics. In every successful social space – be it a cafe, staff room or Internet forum – we share objects and ideas, promote them, argue about them, overhear, copy, form alliances, partnerships and rivalries, and engage in a million other ways with people and the things they do. The utility of a medium for sharing content is contingent on the social dynamics it affords with respect to this content.
The first condition for the emergence of social dynamics is a sound representation of identity, groups and links. Without individuals and relations among them there is no society, and therefore no social activity. Any content brought in from local communities originates in an individual, and needs to maintain a link of attribution. Once an item is offered to the larger community, others should be able to save it for use at a later time, share it with other individuals and groups, rate it, tag it, comment on and discuss it.
The ideal of a cyclical system, which promotes reuse and re-purposing of content, seems to be at odds with the notion of identity and ownership. This tension can be resolved by maintaining a clear trail of attribution for any object in the system: where ever it build on previous resources, the link will be clearly noted and maintained with the object.
Teachers operate in a high-demand environment, their time and attention is at a premium. The initial excitement and curiosity can be leveraged to draw in an initial body of contributions, but in order to sustain interactions and contributions, participants need to see a clear benefit in their activity. The system needs to reward participation, both automatically and deliberately. Automatic rewards can include a “badge” system for active members, up-front listing of most recent, most visited and most popular contributions, and so on. Deliberate mechanisms include a front-page slot for “teacher of the week”, a personal recommendation feature and themed competitions and awards. Yet the most powerful rewards, in the long term, are intrinsic to the social dynamics: reciprocal relations in emerging communities which provide peer feedback and a “gift economy” of teaching and learning resources. The system should provide facilities and activities which would engender such dynamics.
One of the challenges of systems which host user contributions is maintaining quality standards. If such a system is successful, the volume of contributions and activity in general is such that monitoring is infeasible. To overcome this challenge, the system needs to enable, promote and support the emergence of self-regulating communities. Providing space and administrative tools for sub-communities within the system, and prioritising the work done within such sub-communities.

Technical interoperability

The guidelines regarding content and social dynamics have direct technical implications in terms of functional and user interface specification. Their success also relies on having interoperability with external systems at the core of the portal technical design. Some specific notes are provided below, but it is worthwhile providing some fundamental principles highlighted at this level.
The first principle to maintain is the provision of two-way open APIs. These APIs should support the flow of identity and content to and from the portal. They should be based on the two systems most popular in schools at the moment (e.g. Moodle and Joomla) but should not be specific to these systems (“no pet ponies”), to maintain school’s technological freedom and to support innovative tools as they emerge.
The second principle, implied by the first, is the support for mobile identity. Users of the portal will already have their identity established in their home systems, including list of resources they own or use, personal profile, etc. In order to make participation in the portal a habit, the user’s need to duplicate work should be minimised and her ability to easily move items between the local to the national space maximised. An emerging set of Internet standards and protocols makes this a viable goal.

What kind of scenarios can we imagine to articulate the local platforms with the national web portal? What phases should we recommend?

The expected scenarios fall into three categories, which also define three phases for development: personal productivity, support for existing communities, emergence of lateral communities.

Personal productivity

Individual use tends to precede social use of web systems. Providing private space for personal use allows users to familiarise themselves with the portal, gain confidence, and establish a presence before exposing themselves. This space should be oriented towards simple and practical functionalities. For example:

  • Find, file and download resources per my immediate needs.
  • Maintain a folder where I can collect resources to use in my teaching
  • Maintain an on-line backup of my materials (teaching resources, Moodle courses / teaching sequences, etc.)
  • Maintain a contact list of friends, colleagues and experts in my field

Support for existing communities

Once users are comfortable with using the portal for personal productivity, the next natural step is to use it to support their interactions in existing professional communities, such as school staff and discipline peer groups. The use of social features should flow naturally from the combination of familiar personal features and indigenous social interactions.

  • Share items from my folder with colleagues
  • Discuss my materials with trusted peers
  • Send messages to my contacts regarding materials or conversations on the portal

Such scenarios should lead to explicitly community oriented activities, such as:

  • Create and maintain a mailing list for school staff or a professional group
  • Create and maintain a shared workspace for a team developing materials together

Emergence of lateral communities

Users’ participation in the web space of their “natural” communities should make them adapt to a social mode of action, and lead them to seek, join, and formulate new communities. Such communities are likely to emerge around focused themes which are represented sporadically in the local context. For example, a specialist teacher from a small town could join a national community concerned with her field of speciality. A teacher with an interest in a particular teaching method or technology could find peers with similar interests across the country. Example related scenarios would be:

  • Search for existing communities by topic, location and other criteria
  • Join a community and its activities
  • Create a new community and promote it to relevant audiences
  • Serendipitously find new communities by following my peers’ membership, or by links from resources used or created by these communities.

What solutions and scenarios should we provide regarding interfaces between the local platforms (Moodle, Joomla) and the national web portal? What technical specifications should we suggest as necessary?

Ideally, the interface between the national portal and the local systems should allow users to:

  • Transport objects between the two in a single click.
  • Search for content on the national portal from within the local system.
  • Maintain their identity when moving from one site to the other.

Additionally, the portal should support similar functionality for popular services such as SlideShare, YouTube, Flickr,, bibsonomy, and twitter, and provision for any new services as they emerge.
Such requirements would seem unrealistic only a couple of years ago, but emerging social web standards and protocols make them a viable possibility.
A possible implementation of such an approach would include:

  • Support for open web / social web protocols, such as OpenID and OAuth, would allow users to link their identity in other services with the portal, and automatically or selectively import resources from other sites.
  • Support microformats for synchronisation of meta-data and content items with other sites. For example, using the rel-tag microformat ( tags assigned to resources in other sites can be used in portal searches.
  • Support e-learning standards such as IMS-LD and SCORM for providing meta-data for portal content.
  • Support content microformats for embedding resources in portal pages. For example, a moodle course outline could be infused with XOXO descriptors to allow other systems to extract it from a portal page (
  • Provide a simple authenticated REST API for other systems to send or request resources from the portal.
  • Provide bookmarklets and browser plugins for steamlined integration with other sites, e.g. a bookmarklet for “save this to my portal folder”.
  • Use frameworks such as OpenSocial ( to streamline the development of social featrues.
  • Consider building the portal on the basis of an existing open source social web / knowledge sharing platform, such as Elgg ( to reduce costs and development times.

Using such an approach would enable scenarios such as:

  • I link my slideshare account to my portal account, and have my slideshows imported into my personal folder. Then I can share and discuss slideshow with a group I am a member of.
  • I construct a course description page in my space on the portal. I start with a general description, then switch to the course page on my local moodle and click the bookmarklet “import this to portal”. The course outline is read by the system and displayed in a box on the course description page on the portal. I then switch to YouTube, and locate a clip I used in this course. I click the bookmarklet again, and the video is embedded in my course description page.
  • In my contacts page on the portal, I click “import facebook contacts”. A dialogue appears, prompting me to select which friends list I want to import. I select the lists and friends I want, and the system checks if they are members of the portal, then lets me add or invite them.

Which functionalities should we recommend to be integrated / provided in the local platforms in order to stimulate the use of those platforms in articulation with the web portal?

The requirements on local platforms should be minimal, to maximise participation. Some teachers may be located at institutions which would not have the capacity to install customisations and complex functionalities. Most of the desired interoperability functionalities can be invoked by the portal software, using knowledge of the standard organisation and format of content in popular local platforms.
Nevertheless, independent developers should be encouraged to produce plugins and modules for various platforms which take advantage of the portal APIs. These components could provide services such as:

  • Search portal content from within a local system, and import resources as needed.
  • Select and send content from a local system directly to my social connections on the portal.
  • Receive notifications on new portal content and services directly in my local dashboard / messaging system.

Notes, Links and References

The DiSo project:
Insightful presentation regarding identity, sharing, and the social web:
The Elgg platform:
Bibsomony social bookmarking and citation service

Part 3: Structuring orientations for promoting a widespread use of learning platforms in different forms, not only for e-learning initiatives but also for support face-to-face classroom activities

How to establish an effective and widespread pedagogical use of learning platforms as a new channel for communication, sharing and collaboration within educational communities?

Deep Embedding in Practice

Teachers are required to achieve ambitious goals under demanding conditions. One of the barriers to the adoption of new tools and modes of operation is that they are position on top of and in conflict with existing systems. If a teacher is required to use a new platform in order to share knowledge in addition to her commitments in teaching, reporting, administration and professional development, then this demand will be perceived as a chore to be diverted.
In order for it to be successful, the use of new learning platforms, and the associated practices, needs to be positioned as a way of achieving existing goals with lesser effort. The new tools and practices need to be actively adopted by all levels of the teaching institutions.
For example:

  • Teacher training should be delivered via the same platforms, and should be aligned with a participatory approach, highlighting and crediting teacher contributions.
  • Teachers should be provided with means for maintaining a portfolio of their contributions and synergistic interactions, which would be evaluated towards their professional progression.
  • School management and administraton should be provided with tools that will allow them to use the learning platforms to streamline their tasks.

Circles of Use, Place for Lurking and Protected Spaces

Newcomers to a locus of social interaction, be it physical or technological, need to adjust and observe the tacit rules of interaction before they are ready to participate. Premature exposure would lead to awkward behaviour and consequenctly to discengagement. In technologicaly-supported social spaces this problem is compounded by users lack of competence in using new tools. To overcome these obstacles, the system must afford a trajectory of gradual exposure. Users must first see immidiate advantages in using the tools for personal productivity. This mode of use will inevitably enduce familarity and confidence with the technology. Having mastered the tools for personal use, participants are then ready to engage with growing circles of peers. However, each circle needs to be clearly deliniated, to provide a sense of security. Furthermore, participants need to have an option for “lurking”See, or “periphiral participation” (Lave and Wenger, 1991), as a means for learning the norms and permissive forms of social interaction.

Leverage Social Dynamics

A common mistake in designing technological systems for social interaction is to assume sharing and collaboration will emerge unattended. In any community, those who have the most to contribute are also those with the highest demands on their time. As a result, new collaborative spaces often attract massive contributions of low quality. Nevertheless, it is easy to avoid such pitfalls by utilising innate features of human social dynamics. In order to encourege high-quality contributions, we need to reward them. The most effective rewards in a social environment are social reward: prestige, reputation and peer acknowledgment. A system aiming at social construction of knowledge should embody social monitoring and reward mechnisms. The obvious examples are the features dominant in any popular “web2.0” system, such as: “friends” or “fans” counts, rating and commendations, highlighiting of popular items.

How can the use of learning platform promote the development of more innovative and transformative teaching practices and learning activities?

Eliminate Unproductive Classifications

The discourse around education and technology tends to differentiate between new and old media, hi and low tech. While these distinctions are understandable, they are not always useful. Teachers, and even more so students, utilise an ecology of resources (Luckin, 2008); they will use whatever tools at hand to get the job done. They do not constrain themselves by structural classifications of technology, as these do not reflect the nature of their learning environment or serve any functional purpose. Detaching a classroom discussion from an on-line forum is akin to segregating pencils from pens.
Effective strategies for promoting educational innovation should address available and desired ecologies of resources in a holistic manner. The use of a learning platform needs to be considered as part of a cohesive system, including classroom resources, home learning, and human actors.

Participatory Design

Teachers are the primary agents of change in any educational system: they are the only people directly interacting with students and constantly guiding their learning trajectories. Their position not only gives them the greatest power to affect learning, it also provides them with the most immediate and detailed observations of the effects of any intervention. Thus, they are also the initial source of design knowledge. Yet teachers are often dis-empowered in the process of educational design: the educational agenda, curriculum, teaching methods and tools – are all dictated from above. Even where teachers are given the opportunity to design and develop their own resources, they rarely have access to the tools that would allow them to succeed in this task.
A collaborative learning platform has the potential to redress this situation by providing teachers with an arena for design-level discussion, allowing them to experiment, consult peers and experts and critique the national-level educational strategies and detailed designs.

Collaborative Reflective Practice

Successful innovation is contingent on constant monitoring and adjustment. If we want teachers to adopt, appropriate, share and lead educational innovation – we need to provide them with mechanisms for reflecting on their practice. Such mechanism are ever more powerful when they include a social element, of peer critique and dialogue within trusted communities. The learning platform, and its framework of use, should provided opportunities for guided collaborative reflective practice, where teachers can share their experiences and learn from them together. Teachers investment in collaborative reflective practice needs to be accredited as part of their professional duty and development path.

Open Knowledge Culture

The last few decades have demonstrated the vitality and effectiveness of open source communities in producing quality innovative software. Similar models are emerging in science and education, in the form of movements for open content, open knowledge and open educational resources. Laurillard (2008) argues that open teaching is key to acheiving the ambitious goal for education in the 21st century. Open models promise products characterised by cost effectiveness, robustness, diversity and flexibility. Lessig (2007) argues that even regardless of these advantages, open models represent a crucial social and moral value. The viability and sustainability of open models relies on three tiers of infrastructure: technical, legal and cultural. The technical tier provides the means for communities to share, audit, refine and select resources. The legal tier provides the licencing structures that establish the creators’ and the community’s rights. The cultrual tier is the most elusive. Yet without accepted norms which promote sharing and respectfull critique, open models cannot thrive. As Shirky (2007) notes, the success of the open source model for software development lies with the “fork and fail” model: at any point in the development cycle, sub-communities can venture with variants of the product. Some of these variants fail, but these failures leave a trace which can be learned from. Some succeed to a degree, and the usefull ideas they produce are incorportated back into the “trunk” of development. Some succeed, and may even result in new products alltogether. However, Shirky also demonstrates why extending this principle to other domains is far from trivial. Embracing an open model means also being open and honest about mistakes, tollerating and even celebrating them – as long as they are contained, corrected and guarded against repetition.

Corollary: Teaching and Learning with Technology as a Continuous Cycle of Participatory Design Science

There is a growing acknowledgement of the need for a design science perspective on educational research, innovation and practice (Kelly et al, 2009; Lesh and Sriraman, 2005; Wittman, 1995; Mor & Winters, 2007). So far, the outputs of design science / design based research have been impressive but their impact limited. If we are striving for large-scale innovation we need to eliminate the barriers between research and practice, and engage teachers in the scientific process of educational design (Laurillard, 2008).
Doing this requires availability of the appropriate technologies, but no less important – the mechanisms for engaging and guiding teachers in such complex processes (Mor & Winters,  2009).


Laurillard, D. (2009), ‘The pedagogical challenges to collaborative technologies’, International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning 4 (1) , 5–20 .

Winters, N. & Mor, Y. (2009), ‘Dealing with abstraction: Case study generalisation as a method for eliciting design patterns’, Computers in Human Behavior In Press ( Corrected Proof) .

Kelly, A. E.; Baek, J. Y.; Lesh, R. A. & Bannan-Ritland, B. (2008), Enabling Innovations in Education and Systemizing their Impact, in Anthony E. Kelly; Richard A. Lesh & John Y. Baek, ed., ‘Handbook of Design Research Methods in Education’ , Routledge, New York, NY , pp. 3-18 .

Laurillard, D. (2008), Open teaching: The key to sustainable and effective open education, in Toru Iiyoshi & M. S. Vijay Kumar, ed., ‘Opening up education: The collective advancement of education through open technology, open content, and open knowledge. Boston, MA: MIT Press’ , pp. 319-336 .

Laurillard, D. (2008), ‘Technology Enhanced Learning as a Tool for Pedagogical Innovation’, Journal of Philosophy of Education 42 (3-4) , 521-533 .

Laurillard, D. (2008), ‘The teacher as action researcher: using technology to capture pedagogic form’, Studies in Higher Education 33 (2) , 139-154 .

Luckin, R. (2008), ‘The learner centric ecology of resources: A framework for using technology to scaffold learning’, Computers & Education 50 (2) , 449-462 .

Mor, Y. & Winters, N. (2008), ‘Participatory design in open education: a workshop model for developing a pattern language’, Journal of Interactive Media .

Mor, Y. & Winters, N. (2007), ‘Design approaches in technology enhanced learning’, Interactive Learning Environments 15 (1) , 61-75 .

Lesh, R. & Sriraman, B. (2005), ‘Mathematics Education as a Design Science’, ZDM 37 (6) , 490-505 .

Lessig, L. (2005), Open Code and Open Societies, in Joseph Feller; Brian Fitzgerald; Scott A. Hissam & Karim R. Lakhani, ed., ‘Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software’ , pp. 349-360 .

Luckin, R.; du Boulay, B.; Smith, H.; Underwood, J.; Fitzpatrick, G.; Holmberg, J.; Kerawalla, L.; Tunley, H.; Brewster, D. & Pearce, D. (2005), ‘Using Mobile Technology to Create Flexible Learning Contexts’, Journal of Interactive Media in Education 22 .

Shirky, C. (2005), Epilogue: Open Source outside the domain of software, in Joseph Feller; Brian Fitzgerald; Scott A. Hissam & Karim R. Lakhani, ed., ‘Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software’ , pp. 483-488 .

Wittmann, E. C. (1995), ‘Mathematics Education as a ‘Design Science”, Educational Studies in Mathematics 29 (4) , 355-374 .

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. Pea, R. & Brown, J. S., ed. (1991), Situated Learning. Legitimate Peripheral Participation , Cambridge University Press , New York, Port Chester, Melbourne, Sydney .

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June 18, 2009 Posted by | design patterns, Social Software | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

This is a Man’s world

BBC gloats over a new Harvard twitter study. See – its not so social, is it? You’re just another broadcast medium. Ha. We know broadcast.

Yeah, well, its called the power law of participation, dude. So far all the BBC has proven is that Twitter is a social networking site. Broadcast medium? Let’s talk when the BBC hits the 10:90 producer:consumer ratio. The Harvard statistics included the majority of people who just registered for a glimpse of what the noise is all about but never came back. Again, typical of social nets. All that reflects is the fact that such sites are valuated (as in money) by the number of subscriptions.

What the BBC missed, however, is the huge gender gap:

Of our sample (300,542 users, collected in May 2009), 80% are followed by or follow at least one user. By comparison, only 60 to 65% of other online social networks’ members had at least one friend (when these networks were at a similar level of development). This suggests that actual users (as opposed to the media at large) understand how Twitter works.

Although men and women follow a similar number of Twitter users, men have 15% more followers than women. Men also have more reciprocated relationships, in which two users follow each other. This “follower split” suggests that women are driven less by followers than men, or have more stringent thresholds for reciprocating relationships. This is intriguing, especially given that females hold a slight majority on Twitter: we found that men comprise 45% of Twitter users, while women represent 55%. To get this figure, we cross-referenced users’ “real names” against a database of 40,000 strongly gendered names.

Even more interesting is who follows whom. We found that an average man is almost twice more likely to follow another man than a woman. Similarly, an average woman is 25% more likely to follow a man than a woman. Finally, an average man is 40% more likely to be followed by another man than by a woman. These results cannot be explained by different tweeting activity – both men and women tweet at the same rate.

Twitter’s usage patterns are also very different from a typical on-line social network. A typical Twitter user contributes very rarely. Among Twitter users, the median number of lifetime tweets per user is one. This translates into over half of Twitter users tweeting less than once every 74 days.
At the same time there is a small contingent of users who are very active. Specifically, the top 10% of prolific Twitter users accounted for over 90% of tweets. On a typical online social network, the top 10% of users account for 30% of all production. To put Twitter in perspective, consider an unlikely analogue – Wikipedia. There, the top 15% of the most prolific editors account for 90% of Wikipedia’s edits.

I don’t have the reference at hand, but I remember that FaceBook, for example, is dominated by women in the 25-35 band. What is it about Twitter that makes it a masculine medium? Is it the exhibitionist style of the tool? Or the fact that it is perceived as a marketing / business venue more than a social one? Whatever it is, is there a causal link between the gender bias of Twitter and its unique social dymanics? In other words, are woman better at listening and sustaining a conversation, while men just want to shout “Look at ME – I’m BIG!”

June 9, 2009 Posted by | Social Software, technology | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

attribution bugs in the formative e-assessment report

The report I posted a few days ag0 had some serious faults in terms of links, credits and references. If you’ve downloaded it, please discard and get a fresh copy. Sorry for the inconvinience.

March 1, 2009 Posted by | London Knowlege Lab, Social Software, technology | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

brainbook roundup

I supose this was expected. The Susan Greenfield story is going through the usual dance moves, with the old media and new media playing their typecast roles (Radio 4, so I’ve heard, balanced and sensible. well, surprise).

So, some of the good coverage I’ve seen so far:

Aleks Krotoski has seen it all before, but can’t avoid four poignant comments and a few good links.

Ben Goldacre gives the story the solid bad science treatment it deserves, and pointing us to

Vaughan‘s review of the  relevant literature at mindhacks.

I have to quote:

He points out the Dr Sigman quoted a 1998 paper called “The Internet Paradox”. This paper did indeed find a (weak) relationship between internet use and depression, loneliness, etc. This was 1998, at the very dawn of widespread use of the web, but more importantly, the very same authors went back and looked at the very same families, and found that the effect had disappeared. That seems relevant to me, especially if you’re going to quote the 1998 results, Dr Sigman?

You can read the paper in full online as a pdf. It says “This sample generally experienced positive effects of using the Internet on communication, social involvement, and well-being.”

There is no excuse for not knowing about this finding. Type the internet paradox into Google. Go on, do it:

Flessisgrass shares some notes from a recent talk Susan Greenfeld gave at the Jewish book week, giving us a glimpse at what she might have actually said at the Lords’ (as opposed to what the DM reported).

Those notes, as do some of the commentators, bring up the TV vs. Internet argument. Worth mentioning Clay Shirky‘s talk and Nick Carr‘s response.

Finally (ht @paternosterlift) here’s some new data on how we twit. Sorta related, and my way of saying, right, nuf, move on.

February 25, 2009 Posted by | neuroscience, Social Software | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

facebook will eat your brain

update: I don’t mean to suggest that this is what Susan Greenfield actually said. I have no knowledge of that. This only refers to the media recounting of her message.

or your children’s. so saith neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, according to the Daily Mail (ht @josiefraser).

Typical neuro-media: “Games make children violent” is not news. We’ve seen that one before, and probably by now most people are over it. But hey – we’re not talking about behaviour. We’re talking about your kids’ Brain. Let me spell it out: washing the dishes changes your brain. Dumping the rubish changes your brain. Its called memory, learning, experience. Anything you do that leaves the tiniest imprint, well, changes your brain, duh.

Ok, so we’re back to “social networks / video games make you Autistic, narcisistic, hyperactive, ADD, violent” (Lady Greenfield pretty much says it all) but hey, someone did some fMRi to prove that? wow. this is interesting! er, not exactly:

‘I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues’

Lady Greenfield told the Lords a teacher of 30 years had told her she had noticed a sharp decline in the ability of her pupils to understand others.

She pointed out that autistic people, who usually find it hard to communicate, were particularly comfortable using computers.

Hard-core science. My favourite is the bit about Autism. I mean, are you suggesting that it is an acquired deficiency, or that FaceBook is affecting our genes? Or maybe this is a matter of natural selection? Survival of the fittest for facebook? Never mind evidence. What exactly is the argument here?

One more thing, can’t help noticing the imagery.

Exhibit A: Mark Zuckerberg. Young, American CEO. Grinning in a corporate frame. He will steal your kids souls and sell them to shareholders wholesale.

Exhibit B: robot child, faceless. lonely. surrounded by electronics. mechanical pose. Looks like we’ve lost this one.

Exhibit C: the concerned Lady Greenberg. Closeup, kind eyes, gentle smile. Lots of books in the background – hardcovers, of course. Our saintly mother, she will save us.

And they say bloggers rejoice in low standards. (ht @kevglobal) (and ta @clarionjulie for reminding me to add the link)

February 25, 2009 Posted by | games, neuroscience, Social Software | 2 Comments