• What Do I Know? A Reflection on Influences

    For the first time in years, I’m taking a postgraduate course myself: H812: Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice, which I’m doing both for personal development and to provide theoretical groundwork in educational pedagogy for my Ph.D. work in educational technology.

    A recent activity asked us to reflect on influences on our teaching practices, considering: practices arising from personal experiences as a student; practices from our departments; and practices we can attribute to other sources. In addition, we were asked to consider aspects of our workplace that favoured or hindered good practice. I starting making notes on the 14th of October. I did not post them to my group because I felt this was a really important activity. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, it can be difficult to move ahead in a purposeful fashion. I wanted this activity to serve as a good baseline, so I invested a substantial amount of effort into thinking about it and writing it up in a coherent, cohesive fashion.

    What Do I Know?

    A Reflection on Influences

    Activity 3 (The Open University n.d.) mentions research by Peter Knight revealing that our experiences as students can significantly influence our teaching practices. This is very reminiscent of the commonly held belief that, try as people might, they often end up behaving like their parents did when they have families of their own. Considering both ideas, they are obviously generalizations that do not always hold true. Anecdotes abound of cases where a student or a child exposed to some very extreme practices rebelled by going to the other end of the extreme. Exposure to negative or adverse practices can make us better people and better teachers, as can exposure to good practices.

    Practice Effect

    Reading from the book or slides.

    Negative effect.

    It does not add value.

    Learning by doing.

    Positive effect.

    Doing something builds stronger associations than just reading or watching something.

    Lack of enthusiasm.

    Negative effect.

    If you are bored and uninspired, the students will be too.

    Table 1: Practices learned as a student and their effects.

    While enumerating my positive or negative teaching practice influences, I realized that adversity has made me a stronger person and I did l learn some important things about teaching while a student (see

    Table 1
    ). For example, reading from slides or teaching directly to the book does not add any value to the learning experience because students can do that for themselves; and a lack of enthusiasm from the instructor is clearly communicated to students, resulting in a dismissive, disinterested attitude to the material. The latter might not technically be classified as a “teaching practice”, but its effect is just as important, if not more so, than teaching practice. Enthusiasm and passion can overcome defects in materials and teaching experience, just as learning by doing can.

    Practice Effect


    Positive effect.

    If you do not know what works or does not work, improvement is difficult.


    Positive effect.

    Feedback on your practices helps you improve.


    Positive effect.

    Advice on practices and culture help ensure your practice is in line with what is expected.

    Table 2: Practices learned as from the Faculty of Technology at the Open University

    These are not the strongest influences on my teaching practices, though. Practices at the Open University, which I joined in 2000, have very significantly affected the way I view and practice teaching, even though I had considerable experience and more responsibility at bricks-and-mortar institutions previously. The Faculty of Technology—now the Faculty of Maths, Computing and Technology— first introduced me to the closely related trio of: monitoring, reflection, and mentoring (see

    Table 2
    ). Mentoring is where an associate lecturer is given a more experienced colleague to give advice on practices and culture at the Open University. Monitoring is where another colleague—staff tutor, experienced associate lecturer, or course team member—double marks some of your assignments and provides feedback on how closely you are adhering to the marking guidelines and on the quality of your correspondence tuition. Reflection helps tie these two other practices together. If you think about what you have done and how it has worked or has not worked and you take into account advice and feedback you are being given, you can actively plan ways to improve your practice.

    Aspect Effect

    Professional development events.

    Positive effect.

    Presentations, courses, and networking opportunities to be exposed to new courses, new ideas, and the practices of others.

    Research into good practice.

    Positive effect.

    The Institute for Technology actively researches factors into effective e-learning and distance education incorporating technology. This research eventually manifests as practices at the Open University.

    Grants/fee waivers for professional development.

    Positive effect.

    Associate lecturers and staff can take advantage of postgraduate courses being offered into educational practice and theory, such as H812, at no cost to themselves.

    Table 3: Aspects of the Open University that Promote Good Practice

    Possibly surprisingly, the biggest personal benefit I derived from mentoring and monitoring was not from receiving it myself but in providing it to others. One of the aspects of the Open University that hinders good practice is the geographical distance between associate lecturers in the same faculty or even on the same course. While the faculty does try to encourage good practice by holding staff development conference (see

    Table 3
    ), these are few and far between. Prior to the recent explosion of social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Plurk1, associate lecturers tended to be fairly isolated. The Open University tried to overcome that by having various FirstClass discussion forums, but the opportunity to directly observe the practices of others was non-existent for most associate lecturers due to the digital divide2. Seeing and reflecting on the practice of others as a monitor and as a mentor has been extremely rewarding. I highly recommend volunteering to mentor or monitor if you have the opportunity. You can learn as much by teaching others as others learn from your teaching in some cases.

    Being in an institution that actively research into good practice is also extremely beneficial. The Open University’s Institute for Educational Technology (IET) is comprised of many individuals who are passionately interested in exploring what makes for good teaching in an online world and how our pedagogical practices can be leveraged through the use of educational technology. That research and expertise eventually makes its way into postgraduate courses that the Open University offers, such as their latest course H810: Accessible Online Learning3. Many of their courses can be taken free of charge by Open University staff to help further their personal development either via a fee waiver or through a staff grant4. These are excellent opportunities to explore recent advances or to acquire a firmer pedagogical grounding for existing practice.

    Aspect Effect

    Developing materials in advance of use.

    Negative effect.

    If you do not know what works or does not work, improvement is difficult.

    Geographical separation of associate lecturers.

    Negative effect.

    Feedback on your practice helps you improve.

    Distance of course teams from learners.

    Negative effect.

    Advice on practices and culture help ensure your practice is in line with what is expected.

    Human resources hiring and retention practices.

    Negative effect.

    Phasing out experienced people at age 65; hiring inexperienced people over experienced people because of contract holdings (or lack thereof); awarding contracts at the last minute so income and job security is not predictable; little incentive to do better as not likely to be fired.

    Cultural ethos about the role of the associate lecturer.

    Negative effect.

    People who feel unappreciated or taken advantage of are less motivated to improve or to do good work.

    Table 4: Aspects of the Open University that Hinder Good Practice

    Although the Open University has been very good about encouraging professional development of associate lecturers, in my position as a course chair and content developer I have been exposed to the negative sides of Open University practices (see

    Table 4
    ). For example, even on courses delivered completely online, like H812 or TT281, course authors are strongly encouraged to have all the material developed or updated months in advance of the course’s start date. Furthermore, once the course has begun, there is very little opportunity to change any material. That means it cannot be adapted to the needs of the current cohort easily if need be. It is what it is. The production schedule does help ensure quality content but it sacrifices flexibility and situation adaptation as the course unfolds.

    Closely related to the lack of flexibility is a factor that Will Swann, Director of Students at the Open University, commented on a year or so ago5: course teams tend to be divorced from the learners. Typically a course team develops the content but the learning process is overseen by associate lecturers who, in the current corporate ethos, are not seen as teaching but as supporting learners. Who is teaching the learners then? Nobody! The students, in this model, have no interaction with the course team who developed the content and therefore no contact with any “teachers.” The reality is actually quite different, with many associate lecturers engaging in traditional “teaching” activities. However, perception of the associate lecturer role, while a negative factor, is tangential to the other important issues listed in

    Table 4

    Factor Effect

    Forum facilitation

    Positive effect.

    Personal experience from working with online bulletin boards and building virtual communities since the early 1980s has been crucial in forming my e-moderating practices.


    Positive effect.

    Information processing disability requires an ability to organize my thoughts and materials. It has also encouraged me to be very clear about elucidating the steps involved in problem solving.


    Positive effect.

    “Less is more” philosophy of slide development, so that slides are not text-heavy, forcing the audience to pay more attention to the slide than me. Slides provide visual support of the points I am verbally making. To keep myself on track, I produce a mind map of my talk. This enables me to focus not just on delivering knowledge (“sage on the stage”) but on actively communicating the big picture and encouraging participation and immersion in the topic.

    Input from learners

    Positive effect.

    Understanding how students feel when receiving four lines of commentary for their essays or seeing firsthand the problems they have grappling with concepts provides excellent feedback about how to better prepare and present materials and assessment commentary. Some of this information is gained by interacting with students of other courses in social networking sites, through observation in forums of what questions students pose, or by directly asking students.

    Participatory teaching

    Positive effect.

    Ties in well to learning by doing and students can become highly motivated and feel a sense of “ownership” if they have control over what and how a topic is presented by doing the work themselves. I was able to do this several times as a undergraduate and I’ve been actively following Howard Rheingold’s latest effort in participatory teaching with his Virtual Communities & Social Media course at Stanford using the Social Media CoLab software he co-developed6.

    Social collaboration/social knowing

    Positive effect.

    E-Learn 2.0 is all about social collaboration and social knowing. The paper “Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0” (Brown, 2008) has been influential in coalescing my ideas for building knowledge socially and the advantages of that.

    Table 5: Other Influences on My Practices

    I have not relied solely on the Open University and my own educational experiences to shape my teaching practices. I am also influenced by a community of educational technologists around the world and my own experiences with information processing and learners.

    Table 5

    outlines some of the other factors I have drawn upon. The first three —forum facilitation, organization, and presentations—have been crucial in molding my approaches to higher online education and content delivery and they are based solely upon active reflection of my own experiences and attempts. The last three reflect my interest in community building and the power of social knowledge. These are the topics underpinning the phenomenal success of a Web 2.0 world with Facebook, Flickr, and Wikipedia. Like John Seely Brown, I believe there is great potential there for learning and teaching outside the very staid “sage on the stage” model so much in favour still in higher education, which is why I have chosen to work in this area for my D.Phil. research. This is also a topic of interest at the Open University. Martin Weller and Simon Buckingham Shum are involved with the SocialLearn project7, which is looking at developing tools to facilitate social learning online.

    So where do we go from here? Should we be belittling academics at universities for their poor teaching practices? With the exception of the Open University, which is not a university using a traditional teaching style, it is difficult to be critical of lecturers in higher education, because the vast majority of them, unless they are in a department involved in the teaching of educational principles, have received no training in how to teach. Their practices are the result of what they have been exposed to. The other issue is that universities are also driven by different demands at different times. At the moment, many universities seem driven to improve their research so as to get more research money; as a result, teaching tends to get short-shrifted. There also previously was very little incentive to be good at teaching, at least from the institutions themselves. Even students were fairly resigned to the endless, boring lectures. With the advent of HEFCE monitoring of the “student experience” plus the change to students paying fees, I am hopeful we might see a resurgence of institutionally-supported professional development and accreditation for lecturers in higher education. I recognize that I am lucky to be situated where I am in the Open University, with a wealth of resources and opportunities for improvement and practice available to me.


    1. Twitter and Plurk are so-called “microblogging” sites where you have friends and fans who follow your postings. Postings are extremely short, limited to 140 characters. Facebook is perhaps more well-known, sometimes negatively as people post compromising pictures of themselves that result in lost jobs or denial to universities. Used in a positive way, though, these sites can reduce isolation caused by working in a digital world. Twitter:

    . Plurk:

    . FaceBook:


    2. The Wikipedia quick and dirty definition of “digital divide” is “the gap between those people with effective access to digital and information technology and those without.” (Wikipedia, 2008). The term originates, as far as I can tell, in a paper reporting the findings from a national survey done in 1996 by James Katz (Katz & Aspden, 1997) contrasting those who have computer and Internet access and those who do not.

    Although the Faculty of Technology did not have this problem, I am aware that other faculties at the Open University have been slow to embrace initiatives like the eTMA system, TutorHome, etc., due to a lack of comfort with computers or lack of access in their own personal lives. The OU branch of the UCU (University and College Union) was just recently (October, 2008) conducting a survey of ALs about workload and computer-related conditions and expenses, as I think hard data that is accessible is in short supply.

    3. H810: Accessible Online Learning: Supporting Disabled Students is currently in its pilot presentation. More information is available from


    (Accessed October 26, 2008).

    4. Information on course fee waivers is available from

    . Information on the Associate Lecturer Development Fund can be found at


    (Accessed October 26, 2008).

    5. Unfortunately, I don’t have a reference to this on hand. I believe I read about it summarized in


    or another OU publication aimed at staff.

    6. The Drupal-based Social Media Classroom is now available for download and use by other educators. It is also being used to build a community of practice, led by Howard Rheingold, around the use of social media in education.


    (Accessed October 26, 2008) for more information.

    7. The SocialLearn platform is a collection of tools with the intention of making the education system adapt to the learner by leveraging the values and principles found in new social web technologies.


    (Accessed October 26, 2008).


    Brown, John Seely, and Richard P. Adler. 2008. “Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0.” Educause Review 43(1) :16-32. Available from


    (Accessed August 22, 2008).

    Katz, James, and Philip Aspden. 1997. “Motivations for and Barriers to Internet Usage: Results of a National Public Opinion Survey.” Internet Research 7(3) :170-188.

    The Open University (n.d.) H812-08J: Activity 3:

    What Do You Know?

    The Open University. Web page.


    (Accessed October 26, 2008).

    Wikipedia (2008.) Digital Divide. Web page.


    (Accessed October 26, 2008).