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An online discussion forum should be an effective way of engaging students in careful and considered reflection, yet often they represent time-consuming and frustrating experiences for faculty. Getting students to share thoughts and ideas, balancing contributions and knowing when to stimulate, moderate or step-back can be challenging. I’ve long found the advice to faculty, much of it still rooted in Computer Mediated Conferencing (CMC) models of the early mid 1990s-mid 2000s, unresponsive to the context of learning and the changing nature, and expectations, of learners.

It is remarkable how quickly Gilly Salmon’s Five-Step-Model (Salmon, 2000) became for the majority what Stephen D. Brookfield might describe as a paradigmatic assumption (Brookfield, 1995). The need for familiarity with the tool or context, a first-step, is itself now profoundly complex. Learners have hugely differing understandings of the function, and etiquette, ‘within‘ a given online communication tool. One of Brookfield’s lovely example of ‘hunting assumptions’ is the illustration of a common-sense assumption that to circulate around the classroom having assigned group tasks shows engagement, interest and commitment, whilst he suggests it may well be interpreted as a lack of trust and distorts learner responses to the task in hand. How quickly have we adopted Salmon’s notion of responsiveness, encouraging faculty to respond to each student posting, as common-sense, our paradigmatic assumption. Salmon herself is not to blame for this, the context of her original model had a very different digital landscape to underpin it, that notion of personal presence less well articulated, learners experiences of commenting, rating, sharing, reviewing in a myriad of different online contexts is something ‘new’.

So this week, while I watch colleagues around the globe initiate MOOCs and discuss global OER standards, I set myself a more modest task. I wanted to explore what we thought worked well in online threaded text-discussion and why there appeared to see an enduring negativity, from students and staff, about the dreaded ‘discussion board’.

Screenshot from asynchronous staff workshop in VoiceThread
Screenshot from asynchronous staff workshop in VoiceThread

I set up a one week asynchronous online continuing professional development (CPD) workshop for faculty and learning support staff discussion effective thread text-based discussions online (we have Blackboard 7). The workshop was to run during the working week, from Monday 9am to Friday 5pm, with a ‘new’ topic added each day and an encouragement for colleagues to ‘dip-in-and-out’. What was different from our usual institutional practice was we did it in Voicethread (

A VoiceThread is a collaborative, multimedia slide-shot that holds images, documents, and videos and allows people to navigate slides and leave comments in four different ways. Users can use text, voice using their computer microphone, upload a pre-recorded audio file or capture a video on their webcam. In the US they can also use the telephone.

Users can also draw on the slides while commenting, allowing them to annotate a diagram, image or schematic; they can also zoom-in to the image for more detail. Users can also create multiple identities, allowing them for instance to take on a group leadership role whilst remaining a member of the group, or adopt more playful and creative personalities. VoiceThreads can be embedded in the existing VLE or another web page and can also be archived. It is primarily a web browser based tool, now also available on iOS mobile devices and available in an accessible screen reader version or very low bandwidth version, and users have no software to install.

The tool itself has strengths and weaknesses and, whilst I declare it is a tool I’ve used and evaluated previously (Burden & Atkinson, 2010), I am not seeking to promote it. Rather what I wanted to do was to take faculty away from their existing assumptions about discussion threads and have the conversation in a very different context. As we explored each day a different theme it proved remarkable how some contributions followed the ‘discussion board’ convention, whilst others playfully sought to exploit the new technological opportunities the environment afforded them. One colleague made a series of short, positive and responsive contributions in response to others, what might be seen as rather appropriate netiquette in online discussions. However, because the comments were all appended to the end of a timeline, those responses (unless clearer ‘tagged’ as such) appeared as ‘hanging interjections’ without context. None of the 79 contributions during the week, except for my own, used anything but text which I felt was disappointing.

In coming weeks I will analyse the pattern and nature of the responses in more detail, and critique my own model of facilitation in this context, but what has emerged immediately is how quickly some ‘assumptions’ have been set and are subsequently modelled even when users find themselves in a different communication context. This is perhaps one of our biggest challenges as educational technologists and developers, or instructional designers, is to recognise our quickly solidifying paradigmatic assumptions and move beyond them. The digi-ecology is in constant flux and we need to consistently challenge how we do what we do.

Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. John Wiley & Sons.

Burden, K., & Atkinson, S. (2010). De-Coupling Groups in Space and Time: Evaluating New Forms of Social Dialogue for Learning. In L. Shedletsky & J. E. Aitken (Eds.), Cases on Online Discussion and Interaction (pp. 141–158). Hershey, Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

Salmon, G. (2000). E-moderating : the key to online teaching and learning. London: Kogan Page.

Teaching quality interventions are always a challenge for an Academic Developer, walking a thin line between sanction and support, between reassurance and patronizing. Yesterday I ran a small workshop with new classroom tutors teaching Statistics. The challenges of teaching a dozen international students new statistical concepts at 5pm on a wet windy Friday evening in London needs little unpacking.
I sought to provide some tools for staff to think about their role, to reflect on how they might meet discipline goals. We focussed not on 'tips and tricks' but on the fundamentals of space and voice, and how to develop engagement with both.
We explored some classroom layouts, including the one we were in, and identified the social conventions of space that determine the learning and teaching styles that are adopted. It's a nice activity which prompts participants to identify three different disciplines being taught in three layouts illustrated when in fact all three real examples are from the same course on the same day. It prompts the question 'am I using this learning space effectively or does it constrain, and indeed determine, how I teach?'
The tools available in the space, projector, whiteboard, PowerPoint, Prezi, etc were then discussed in relationship to this space. One of the questions I like to ask is how would you teach if the familiar tools fail you (in this case, the decorators say have removed the whiteboards). On this occasion I was walking the talk because my PowerPoint presentation had no means of being projected on rhe day and I had rearranged the seating to be able to run the session differently. Useful demonstration however unwelcome! It was a nice exploration of the nature of the whiteboard as a 'canvas'. I suggested students might be encouraged to photograph the whiteboard (the mobile phonecam being almost ubiquitous) to support the idea that this was a group creative process which rewarded engagement not simple the instruction from the board.
We then explored , with some amusing examples, the nature of the English language as a stressed language and the relationship, interplay, between intonation and connotation. This is always fun, not least because I get to remind myself why I never went into acting!
This combination of being more spatially aware, of using the tools with engagement as the intent not information delivery, and of simple appreciating the power of the human voice, will hopefully develop confidence and a sense of each tutors' unique abilities to communicate.
It was a fun session to run and one I hope I get to run again soon and I would love to run it overseas too.

Looks like this book chapter with Kevin Burden on the conceptual modeling of emerging technologies is finally going to see the light of day. I note the publishers site now has chapter details, download prices and chapter ISBNs. So after a long wait it's going to happen:

D'Agustino Book
Adaptation, Resistance and Access to Instructional Technologies: Assessing Future Trends In Education

Atkinson, S., & Burden, K. (2011). Using the 3V Model to Explore Virtuality, Veracity and Values in Liminal Spaces (Pages 199-215). In S. D'Agustino (Ed), Adaptation, Resistance and Access to Instructional Technologies: Assessing Future Trends In Education. Hershey, PA: Information Science Publishing.

It's been an interesting processes this one. We had a journal article rejected and I was beginning to wonder if this was just too 'left field' and whether anyone would engage with it as an idea. I'm still convinced that the 3V concept has an interpretive and evaluative value but it needs a professional conversation and that means at least getting it 'out there' in a form that can be referenced in the hope dialogue follows. Here's hoping.

I attended a seminar run through the London Learning Lab yesterday focused on the future of education and the implications for ethical research. You can read more about it here. By chance I came across this presentation by Helen Beetham which she gave at Greenwich University recently. It covers a vast range of issues related to digital technologies in Higher Education but a lot of what she is saying is pertinent to what we are interested in achieving with the DiAL-e framework. Have a watch and listen if you get a chance!

Yesterday I posted some early thoughts on how visual rhetoric might be important to us in thinking about how we communicate in the teaching process, not just what we have to say but HOW we say it.

I said I'd have a crack at a PREZI presentation to illustrate my point - and here it is 🙂

I have begun writing a paper on visual rhetoric. I sat on the 7:31 commuter train to St.Pancras and watched to commuters, hunched over their laptops, working in PowerPoint. Their screens, filled with words, varieties of fonts, and formatting tricks in abundance. These comprehensive essays in landscape, perhaps to be printed and distributed but more likely projected illegibly for a bewildered business audience later that day reminded me again of the fundamental misuse of a very powerful and effective technology. The same day I showed my wife a Prezi presentation that I was preparing for a workshop the following day. Her comment was that it made her feel seasick as I moved fluidly, but somewhat distractedly, from one block of text to another. I suggested the term ‘see-sick’.

So I began to consider the power of these visual tools in our classrooms and the very superficial understanding that I, and I suspect the majority of my colleagues have, of their use. In such circumstances I often find it useful to turn to Merlot or Aristotle. Since I had no Merlot I turned to Aristotle.

Aristotle, identified three branches rhetoric: judicial, epideictic and deliberative.  Judicial rhetoric is concerned with justice and injustice, the defence or advocacy of charge or accusation. Epideictic rhetoric refers to speech or writing in praise or blame. Perhaps the most familiar notion of rhetoric is that of deliberative, in which speech or writing attempts to persuade others to take or not to take some defined action.

Much of our teaching is the incitement to learners to do something, to take an action. Teaching may in many circumstances be considered deliberative rhetoric, an invitation on the part of the student  (as reader, listener or participant) to pause and consider in response to a carefully timed performance and managed argument, the pace and rhythm control, the deliberate self interruption, punctuated silence, exclamations, questions, punctuating gestures. The teacher’s role is not simply to highlight an argument but to ensure that if a vote were cast the learner might make an appropriate judgment.

Teaching in face-to-face contexts supported by presentational technologies, the ubiquitous PowerPoint or some more contemporary form of visual media, requires a new mastery of rhetoric - that of visual rhetoric. This branch of rhetorical studies that concerns itself with the persuasive use of images, in isolation or in harmony with words, is a powerful tool in the classroom.

We live in an intensely visual world, surrounded by images in advertising, music, news information and educational media. Arrangements of words, in tag clouds, Wordle (,  or PowerPoint arrangements are visual objects. Text projected on the wall is either a visual representation, discursive, provocative, motivating or informative, or it is ‘just words’. Not every projected arrangement of light and dark on the classroom wall is easily inferred as a visual object, as visual rhetoric, “(W)hat turns a visual object into a communicative artifact--a symbol that communicates and can be studied as rhetoric--is the presence of three characteristics. In other words, three markers must be evident for a visual image to qualify as visual rhetoric. The image must be symbolic, involve human intervention, and be presented to an audience for the purpose of communicating with that audience." (Smith, 2005, p. 144)

Kostelnick and Roberts in “Designing Visual Language: Strategies for Professional Communicators”, detail six canonical criteria through which to interpret the rhetorical impact, primarily of written text. These six are: arrangement, emphasis, clarity, conciseness, tone and ethos.

  • Arrangement – is the organisation of visual elements to demonstrate structure (and relationships)
  • Emphasis – differentiates elements giving some prominence through changes in size, shape and colour.
  • Clarity – avoiding unnecessary elements to assist the reader in ‘decoding’ quickly and completely the ‘message’
  • Conciseness –appropriately succinct designs that serve a specific audience need
  • Tone – the writer/presenter/designer’s tone provides evidence of their attitude to the subject
  • Ethos – developing the trust of the audience

These six visual criteria provide a helpful starting point in beginning to see images as objects for visual rhetoric and appropriate interpretation.  (Kostelnick & Roberts, 2010)

Since Zaltman suggests that thoughts occur as images, which are essentially visual, there is a direct inverse relationship between the power of the visual to provoke an emotional non-verbal reaction, a thought. Research by Joy and colleagues using the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique suggest a range of interesting relationships between viewers sense of space and depth, related directly to the positioning of objects, to the juxtaposition (overlapping, transparency, distortion) of images in support of a narrative. They conclude, “(U)ltimately, images and words are separate building blocks in the telling of stories but the two amplify each other. Researchers need to enrich and supplement the abstractions that accompany visuals with the details and particulars that accompany the verbal.” (Joy, Sherry Jr., Venkatesh, & Deschenes, 2009, p. 566)

Back in 2001 I did (what I still think was ) some interesting work with Nicola Durbridge at the Open University’s Institute of Educational Technology looking at how to overcome some of the restrictions of text based discussion boards, the ‘drudgery’ of CMC (Computer Mediated Conferencing). I explored a simple ‘visual metaphor’ of a classroom so that individuals posting items to a forum did so ‘spatially’ as icons rather than simply adding the posting to list. (Atkinson, 2001). I have just scanned the resulting conference paper and it is work I would be keen to extend now in looking at Prezi and its use of visual rhetoric.

A Prezi that explores visual rhetoric is on its way.


Atkinson, S. (2001). Re-Tooling Online. In Book of Abstracts (pp. 154-156). Presented at the Online Educa Berlin 2001, Berlin: ICEF Berlin GMBH.

Joy, A., Sherry Jr., J., Venkatesh, A., & Deschenes, J. (2009). Perceiving images and telling tales: A visual and verbal analysis of the meaning of the internet. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 19(3), 556-566. doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2009.05.013

Kostelnick, C., & Roberts, D. D. (2010). Designing Visual Language: Strategies for Professional Communicators. Longman Publishing Group.

Smith, K. L. (2005). Handbook of visual communication: theory, methods, and media. Routledge.

Back in 2007, Kevin Burden at the University of Hull and myself (then at Hull) were writing a chapter for a book by John O'Donoghue called 'Technology-Supported Environments for Personalized Learning: Methods and Case Studies' (2010).

o'Donoghue (2010)

The chapter was based on earlier work, mostly by Kevin and Theo Kuechel, with the (then) QIA and a variety of colleges in Further Education. The project explored the synergies between the DiAL-e Framework and the GloMaker. We haven't followed that work up but the GloMaker tool caught my attention again with conversations at the 2010 European LAMS and  Learning Design Conference in Oxford last month and I've been exploring. I have created a new DiAL-e 'pattern' file for GloMaker2, editing the XML template to provide a DiAL-e 'process flow' to GloMaker. I'm impressed by the ease of use of the tool now, but less so by the two existing default patterns. Will be interesting in the coming weeks to see if DiAL-e patterns make sense to others. Will share them here and at the GloMaker community wiki in due course.

It's been a rather hectic summer personally. Arriving back from New Zealand in mid July I have been organising all the personal issues that go with a 12,000 mile move and starting a new job. My new role at the London School of Economics and Political Science is with the Teaching and Learning Centre and is concerned primarily with helping to support, develop and deliver of the in-house PGCertHE.

I'm looking forward to getting into my own research, and writing again with Kevin Burden as well as extending the work of both  the SOLE Model and the DiAL-e framework over the next few years. The LAMS Learning Design conference in Oxford in July was inspiring but there is a lot to do to reorient my own understanding to fit the work of the UK sector. I have had a lot of interest expressed in SOLE since Easter, and have begun exploring the opportunities of the GloMaker tool to provide DiAL-e framework learning patterns so there will, once I'm settled be more resources and more activity here on WordPress.

Why is it that whenever we want to reward academic staff, the incentive is to "buy yourself out of teaching” and at the very least “offload some marking”. Of course the answer is often that the alternatives are to remove yourself from service or administration (and the place grinds to a halt) or, God Forbid, let up on the research outputs. So teaching it is that is the malleable element and assessment all the more so.

Shame. How do you really know if your teaching is effective if you don't see the results? How can you revise and improve your paper if you don;t complete that feedback loop for students?

Of course marking can be a fairly tedious process, even a favourite movie gets tiresome after the twentieth viewing, but it's a necessary process and anything that makes it a little easier has to be a good thing.

So I picked up this application here at Massey University called Lightwork. a development project led by Dr. Eva Heinrich, the desktop client intergrates with Moodle and its gradebook. Once 'paired' the Lightwork downloads student details and allows the creation of marking rubrics and assigned markers, these are then synchronised back to Moodle so the end result is that approved grades in Lightwork are uploaded into the gradebook along with a PDF of the completed marking rubric. Well worth a look. I confess I'm playing in a paper with only 10 students, but just the admin time saved not having to save feedback forms under different student names etc, must be worth it.

Screenshots of Lightwork Assessment Tool
Lightwork: Rubrics and Student PDF Feedback form generated in Moodle

How is VoiceThread changing our ideas about communication?

Kevin Burden and I gave a short paper at ASCILITE in Melbourne Dec08 called "Evaluating Pedagogical ‘Affordances’ of Media Sharing Web 2.0 Technologies: a case study". In the paper we looked particulalry at how the DiAL-e Framework might be used to explore the opportunities of a particular tool, in this case Voicethread. Off the back of that we bagan to get rather interested in how the various Web 2.0 technologies are actually chnaging the way people think about communication. We're writing that up now and part of the process is to use the tool to talk about the tool! So Kevin has created a VoiceThread called "How is VoiceThread changing our ideas about communication? "

I've embedded the VoiceThread below. It's free to sign up and make contributions. Although we're looking for people to share their existing expereinces, the novice perspective is also welcome. Making comments is really simple and you can delete and re-record as many times as you like.
If you didn't know already......
A VoiceThread is an online media album that allows a group of people to make comments on images, videos, and documents, really simply. You can participate 5 different ways - using your voice (with a microphone or telephone), text, audio file, or video (with a webcam). It's easy to control who can access and comment on a VoiceThread, which makes it a secure place to talk about almost anything: business and academic presentations, travelogues, family history, art critiques, language study, tutorials, book clubs and digital storytelling. A VoiceThread allows an entire group conversation to be collected from anywhere in the world and then shared in one simple place.

So here's our invitation to a dialogue ! How is VoiceThread changing our ideas about communication?

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