Landing : Athabascau University

Why isn’t the Landing better integrated with coursework at Athabasca?

By Jeffrey Pinto July 23, 2015 - 6:03am Comments (6)
I’m currently scrambling to pull together my research proposal, the final assignment for MDDE703 Research Methods. This will also be my last piece of coursework for the MEd - I can’t believe how fast it went by. Back to 703, the first assignment was a literature review and the second was a critique of an existing thesis and research proposal. Part of the reason I’m scrambling is that I’ve had to redo the lit review since it is a component of the final assignment. While the first lit review was helpful (possibly necessary) to help me identify the topic I was going to study, I’m unable to reuse the majority of that work.
Which leaves me wondering - should I have delayed writing the literature review until my research idea, or at the very least, my research topic, was more fully formed? I understand the necessity of instilling an action orientation in students in a 13 week course, but for me, further reflection would have saved me a great deal of work. In addition to reflection, I would also have benefited from targeted feedback earlier on. I’m going to explore whether students who engage in courses or activities on the Landing persist in using the Landing and networked / connectivist practices after the course. This topic connects one of my main interests (connectivism & learning analytics) with my existing skills and experience (building educational technology).
I arrived at the topic after a short chat with George Siemens in which he revealed that the Landing data was available for analysis. I followed that lead by connecting with Jon Dron, who in a series of very helpful emails helped me further refine my initial ideas. In the end we came up with something that addresses my requirements for completing the Master’s and provides a needed widget for the Landing (a tool to visualize activity a group’s activity across time). 
I would have saved myself at least a week of work if I had those conversations before writing my literature review. The way 703 is setup, we rely initially on the feedback from our peers to guide our thinking. I don’t think this always works in a small class (n=8).  For instance, only the instructor responded to my first post in which I shared my initial idea for my thesis. This, and my ever-growing reading backlog, coloured my view of the utility of these discussion forums. I’ve since reluctantly and semi-consciously prioritized my reading over peer interaction on the course. 
I recognize this is not ideal, and I have a couple ideas how this could be avoided. Perhaps students shouldn’t begin 703 until they’ve focused their ideas to the point where a detailed literature review would be of use. Yes, the core courses of MEd program do frequently allow students to shape assignments to their interests, but of the 8 courses I took before this semester, only one instructor encouraged the class to begin to try to link an assignment directly to their thesis. I accept my fair share of the blame here - we are ultimately responsible for our own learning. I also understand that there are now two streams of the MEd, a thesis route and a portfolio route, and so too much focus on the thesis would be inappropriate. But I would have benefited from anticipating some of the content of 703 earlier in my course work. At the very least, rough ideas for research could have been surfaced in the Quantitative (701) and Qualitative (702) research methods courses that are taken almost exclusively by students intending to complete a Master’s.
Secondly, why are we relying on such a small peer group for feedback on our thesis ideas? This seems especially short-sighted given that Athabasca has a platform in place for connecting with the wider community. My initial topic didn’t interest any of my colleagues in 703 but was of great interest to Dron. I chose to pursue my MEd at Athabasca based on the quality of research coming out of the Centre for Distance Education - I’ve long been applying that research in my work. I feel I know many of the faculty because I have read so much of their work. Why is 703 not setup so that faculty and peers can see and comment on what students are considering in terms of research? This would allow students to (safely) get their toes wet with networked scholarly practice - you could restrict your post to the AU community. Why aren’t earlier courses integrated with the Landing so that faculty and peers can connect around shared interests, perhaps in a way that would allow feedback to help students focus their work in the core courses towards their theses? 
I see the irony here - I’m studying whether students can embrace connectivist practices such as reflecting on their work and disseminating these reflections through the network of peers and role-models they have created. At the same time I’m complaining that I wasn’t required to use such practices, despite knowing that requiring students to use things has detrimental effects to their intrinsic motivation. I still have concerns about sharing half-baked ideas publicly and I’m expecting my research to reveal that I’m not alone. Connectivist approaches are so unlike anything I’ve experienced in my education so far.  At the same time, I think it’s a shame that so much of our work and ideas are siloed in the small groups we happen to be placed in during the course work - especially given a platform has been developed here at AU to break that silo.
Back to work.


  • Wow, Jeffery, we're going through a very similar experience. I'm in the doctoral programme and had to change my dissertation topic after I'd finished my course work due to changes in my work environment. I have many of the same questions as you do and would like to see the courses come out of their silos. It seems that as a work in progress, it takes time for people to learn to use the site to achieve their goals. I'm looking at teaching presence in un-paced undergraduate courses and am still discovering the most effective ways to use the Landing. One question, did you put questions about your thesis topic out on the Landing? I know it's really a tough thing for me to do. I often think that there would be no one interested, or that it's a question I should be reading about instead of asking about, but that is what the Landing's for.

    Mary McNabb August 8, 2015 - 11:31pm

  • Mary, 

    I only found out about the Landing late in my Master's. I've since noticed that it is briefly mentioned on the CDE MEd website, but it wasn't mentioned during the coursework. Actually, I only got excited about the possibilities after reading Dron & Anderson's (2014) Teaching Crowds, in which they get into the thinking behind creating the Landing. 

    So no, I didn't share my thesis ideas. I have to admit though, I was aware of the Landing while coming up with these ideas, so part of my reluctance did have to do with the fear of putting half-baked ideas out into the world.

    Things quickly get meta when studying education. Engaging in networked / connectivist learning requires a very different mindset than the one needed to succeed in instructivist learning environments. It's one thing for more established scholars to advocate blogging for example. They have deep experience to draw upon that contributes to the value / utility of their posts. I am hesitant to share my thoughts on something I am just beginning to understand. I see the benefit for me, but not necessarily the benefit for other readers. Also I don't want an embarrassingly sophomoric post languishing for eternity on the web.  Scaffolding is essential, which is why I think the Landing should be better integrated with the coursework in general, as well as 703 in particular. 

    Some EDD course are integrated with the Landing though, aren't they?


    Jeffrey Pinto August 12, 2015 - 8:18am

  • Hi Jeffery,

    I understand what you are saying. If you'll let me practice using teaching presence (summarizing discussions), I see two issues here. The first is that the Landing isn't a tool that's used by many profs/tutors. The second is that it uses a new learning paradigm. I guess they both spring from the newness of the form.

    Profs and tutors' reluctance to use the Landing comes, I think, from a lack of familiarity with the site and how they can use it for teaching. Using social media as a teaching tool is very new and has not been broadly studied, so there are few studies that show that learning can occur and there are no examples to learn from. To give profs/tutors their due, it takes a deep understanding of the site to be confident in using it to deliver a course and some are probably being prudent sticking with what they know. There are a few profs (John Dron and Terry Anderson being two leaders) who understand the power of learning on a site like the Landing.

    Leaving the position of being an expert is another factor in using a site like the Landing. From my (evolving) understanding of how the Landing works, profs/tutors do not provide all the learning content and, at least in theory, the learning comes from student interaction with content, other students and the prof/tutor. Stepping out of a traditional teaching role into one of a co-creator of knowledge can be very scary for people who have invested years in becoming very knowledgable about their topic. Their focus on creating new insights in their field of study combined with teaching duties leave them little time to learn a new teaching paradigm.

    The new teaching paradigm couples with the fact that the Landing uses a new learning paradigm. Part of this paradigm includes learners exerting more control over what they learn and so rather than learning from an assignment on a topic chosen by the prof/tutor, students use their own interests to explore what they are learning. Some of the tools for this are blogs and posts in which students can flesh out their ideas and thoughts. This is very scary, especially for those of us who spent years learning in a very directed way. Finding someone who is willing to interact with your ideas is rare (because of the size of the audience or lack of familiarity with the strategy?? I don't know which), so thank you Jeffrey for responding to my post. 

    I agree that networked/connectivist learning requires a different mindset and I think one of the big hurdles in adopting the mindset is getting over the idea that it takes a lot of experience to have something useful to say. One of the advantages of sites like the Landing is being able to hash out ideas in a safe place. If I hadn't seen your first post, I would have missed the opportunity to write to you which has allowed me to flesh out a lot of ideas about learning on the Landing and proved to me that it can work. When some of us confessed that we didn't feel like experts in one of last EDDE courses, our prof told us to fake it 'til we made it and that it was natural to feel like others were experts. I still don't feel like I know much about teaching even after having done it for years and after sitting listening to experts tell me to do what I've been doing all along because it seemed the right way to teach. I also worry like you that I am posting sophmoric regurgitations of what I've read. So I guess it's just a matter of jumping in and seeing what happens. This has been very positive for me. 

    As for EDDE courses on the Landing, I think the only one that uses the Landing is 802, which is a real pity because the Landing would really support cohort learning well. I do know that EDDE students have used the group tools on the Landing to complete projects and discuss ideas that were giving them trouble. It's not as widely used as it could be and I think that it's because profs don't understand how to use the Landing. I hope to have a better idea in about a year's time, once my research and dissertation are finished. I'd say, stay on the Landing even after you're finished your Masters. People like you who are willing to post on the Landing (even when it's a very scary thing to do) are the people who will help it grow. Maybe it's kind of reverse scaffolding - the commments help the Landing grow, just as the Landing helps students' ideas grow. That thought's giving me a headache. I'd better get back to my research - it's a little more concrete. I'm looking forward to seeing what you think.

    Mary McNabb August 22, 2015 - 7:58pm

  • Forcing people to use the Landing because it is required on a course goes much against the grain and is, indeed, entirely out of kilter with connectivist thinking. I am guilty of it for several courses, because it does make a great learning platform if you want to gain the benefits of the presence of others and give learners greater control. But, in using the Landing to try to make my courses better and empowering my students that use it, I fear I am doing damage to the Landing itself.

    There is an argument to be made that being here for a course is a gateway that might draw people in so that they contribute, and continue to contribute, beyond the course. The big problem with that argument is that, as long as force is applied, people will engage but, as soon as that force is removed, they will stop doing so. Worse, if they are made to use it for one thing, they will mostly be disinclined to use it for anything else. Extrinsic motivation kills intrinsic motivation. This is basic self-determination theory writ large, and it does seem to be borne out by what we actually see (and by what I saw in community@brighton, a precursor of the Landing I was involved with in the UK). A few people are inspired and motivated to continue to engage, but they are quite a small minority, overall. 

    I'd be really interested in a study that uncovered in more detail what makes that minority persist. I am fairly sure, from observation and theory, that one of the biggest reasons is diversity of primary uses (inspiration here from Jane Jacobs as well as more generic ecology and biodiversity). One of the consistent factors in ongoing participation seems to be that people find other things and other people to engage with outside of their courses, centres, or whatever.

    I've pushed really hard from the start that there must be many reasons for being here if the Landing is to be more than a useful adjunct to Moodle.  It's as a learning commons, not as a delivery tool for courses, that the Landing's greatest potential value lies. Courses - fixed-length chunks with specified assessed outcomes - are a contingent and unnecessary cross that education continues to bear thanks to its past evolution, and they really get in the way of learning. It would be a lot different if, say, we thought of them more like clubs or communities of people with shared interests, without fixed goals and schedules, and without coercion to drive their engagement. The Landing makes that possible but it's a bit at odds with the system in which it resides. On the bright side, at least a year or two ago, and although they were the largest identifiable subset of people on the site, course members accounted for a fairly small minority of those on the site overall.

    For reference, these are Jane Jacobs's principles from The Death and Life of Great American Cities that we (well, I) try to follow, paraphrased...

    • Density of population (there must be many eyes)
    • Diverse primary uses
    • Mix of old and new (interpreted here as carefully-designed-for-purpose vs evolved-or-throwaway)
    • Short blocks (interpreted here as high connectivity - easy passage from one place to another)

    All are quite interdependent and all are necessary - three out of four won't do. Though we have made some headway with diversity, and the others are part of the software design, that density problem remains a big one, at least in part because, though we theoretically have nearly 7,500 users (more than enough), many passed through as visiting students or moved on after using the site for a single course.  Last time I looked, only about a thousand or so were actually active, though it is hard to tell how many others are still passively tracking it via notifications and it is mostly not the same thousand at any one time - there's a lot of dipping in and out.

    So - do encourage your cohorts and connections to join in! In a perfect world, the Landing would grow organically through connections but one of our problems at AU is that there are likely at least 30,000 students passing through every year that don't even know this space exists and, because there is no space like the Landing to learn that (I don't count Facebook groups etc as being like the Landing) it is hard to discover it. My next plan is to embed it more deeply and invisibly into other systems, but that's expensive, difficult, and it demands a level of organizational buy-in we don't yet have. This is especially tricky as the general IT thrust for the past couple of years has been to move to generic commercial platforms that demand little management but that cannot integrate well or at all with anything else - we are currently moving towards the opposite of a NGDLE.

    Jon Dron August 24, 2015 - 12:09pm

  • Mary,
    First of all, thanks for sharing your interesting perspectives here - I’m enjoying your posts. I think the two reasons you raise for limited use of the Landing are good ones: instructors may be unfamiliar with the Landing and the Landing may require a discomfiting change of role and pedagogical approach. You also surface the underlying barriers of limited research support and a lack of clear good / best practices. The use of social networks for learning remains speculative, exploratory work. Amidst competing priorities for limited funding and already over-filled schedules, pedagogical experiments may suffer. I think it’s a shame that new models of peer learning don’t attract the same kind of attention as relatively “higher-tech” models like the intelligent tutoring systems / personalized learning tools now being employed at scale at Arizona State University to name one example.
    Jon’s brought some interesting background to the discussion in raising the challenges behind increasing use. He’s put cold water on the seemingly most obvious option - making it mandatory - by outlining the documented detrimental effects this has on students’ intrinsic motivation to use the site.
    I wrote about how the Landing could have been of use in one course (MDDE703), but what I was really arguing for was better overall integration with the Master’s of Education program. I imagine the lack of organizational buy-in you mention above may be a barrier. Surely there is middle ground between demanding students use the Landing for individual courses and an “if you will build it they will come approach.” I think that, properly set up, the Landing could help provide a unifying thread through the coursework and increase the chances of unplanned yet productive collisions between fellow students and between students and faculty (doubly important since Master’s theses involve pairing students and faculty - a process now currently done after the coursework is complete via email). For every peer I’ve connected with during the coursework there must be several that share my interests who I haven’t shared a class with. I think something as simple as allowing / encouraging students to share posts on the Landing rather than in Moodle would help. I’m now curious if making this sort of Moodle / Landing cross-posting easy is one example of the deeper embedding you mention in your reply. A course-by-course strategy can only achieve so much. 
    "I'd be really interested in a study that uncovered in more detail what makes that minority persist.” This is what I’m going to explore this fall for my thesis.
    Thanks for the thoughtful responses.

    Jeffrey Pinto August 25, 2015 - 2:06pm

  • Yes, there's definitely scope for a middle ground. For instance, it would not be unreasonable to firmly encourage program students to fill in profiles as part of the enrolment process, and perhaps to join a group or two (e.g. the CDE group). I don't think that's a bad kind of coercion. It's not unlike issuing library cards - they don't have to use it, but it's good to have the option. The problems only come when there are prescribed activities though, as I say, it has not stopped me from going down that path myself because it is a mighty useful learning platform at a course level. It just has to be part of a balanced and diversity-inducing strategy. 

    Moodle is and has always been firmly on the list of sites to integrate with. We've got a request in to help build in LTI support, and the beginnings of a plugin on this end to help with that, but it has taken more than 5 years to get this far and progress is slow. Also on my list of strategies is to try to encourage site owners to add 'bookmark on the Landing' links on their pages - still a bit of a challenge to make that a two-way process, so comments etc, or at least counts of bookmarks, can be displayed on the originating pages, but I think it is do-able.

    I'm really looking forward to your study!


    Jon Dron August 25, 2015 - 4:35pm

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