CALRG is 40

CALRG40 log on a laptop screen The The Computers and Learning Research Group (CALRG) is based at the Open University. In October 2018 it celebrated the 40th Anniversary of its foundation. Located in the OU’s Institute of Educational Technology, with membership across the University, CALRG is proud to welcome staff and students who have an interest in researching the use of technologies in formal and informal learning. The group organises weekly events throughout the year and runs a very popular annual conference in June. For details of current activities see

CALRG celebrated its 40th year with an event at The Open University on 19 October 2018 that welcomed back former members and friends. Talks that day looked back at the group’s history, traced the trends in our research over the years and looked forward to the future of learning with computers. It included talks from EIleen Scanlon, Diana Laurillard, Neil Mercer, Tim O’Shea, and Mike Sharples.

Despite being one of the event’s organisers, I was unable to attend on the day. However, the event was comprehensively live-blogged by Doug Clow. Readers with access to the OU can also watch replays of the event’s four sessions.

CALRG40 logo


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Stories of Tomorrow

Stories website image and logoOn 27 September 2018, I was in Luxembourg as one of the project reviewers on the EU Stories project.

This 30-month project is using storytelling as a catalyst for effective interaction between art and STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) disciplines. It takes the view that these disciplines share similar values, similar themes and similar characteristics.

The Stories project proposes to use creative approaches in STEM education in order to generate alternative ideas and strategies that can be used by individuals or groups when engaging in scientific inquiry.

The project is currently designing and testing its vision for teaching and helping develop strategies that will help teachers to support and enable deeper learning for students. To do this, the project will include and use digital technologies, including advanced interfaces, learning analytics, dashboards and augmented/virtual reality applications. It is also building a storytelling platform where students are developing and publishing stories about a Mars Mission.

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Building on previous research: FLAN Glasgow Meeting

This account that I wrote of a meeting of the FutureLearn Academic Network at Glasgow University was originally published on the FutureLearn Partners’ blog.

The meeting took place three weeks before the network’s fifth anniversary on 26 September 2018.

Tweet about Glasgow FLAN meeting alongside a picture of Glasgow UniversityTogether, we’re building a substantial body of work related to learning at scale. This was clearly evident at the autumn meeting of the FutureLearn Academic Network (FLAN) held at the University of Glasgow on Friday 7 September.

Adriana Wilde from the University of St Andrews and Conchúr Mac Lochlainn from Dublin City University both linked their research work to earlier work by the FutureLearn team that had identified FutureLearn archetypes. Each of these seven archetypes has a characteristic motivation for joining a particular MOOC, and is associated with a set of needs and values. Conchúr related these archetypes to student motivations on a specific course, while Adriana was interested in exploring different ways of clustering learners, dependent on their activity on the MOOC.

Two speakers presented research-supported tools that could be used to support exploration and learning. Phil Tubman contrasted the utility of the FutureLearn platform – what it does – with the usability of the platform – how this is conveyed to learners. He noted that a focus on progression may distract learners from reflecting on what has gone before. Phil’s Comment Discovery Tool, reported at earlier FLAN meetings, has proved to be a useful way of navigating comments on specific MOOCs. Another tool was introduced by Mike Sharples, who presented NQuire tool, the result of research into science teaching and learning. Mike explained how the tool could be used to support inquiry-based learning in FutureLearn MOOCs.

Three speakers from Dublin City University presented work related to the university’s series of MOOCs that provide an introduction to Irish language and culture. Each study dealt with the courses from a different perspective, building up a rich picture of motivations, identity, emotions and social media activity.

Shi Min Chua’s work built on previous research in conversational analysis and linguistics. She is exploring why some learners’ comments provoke response, while others go unanswered. If you want a response, it seems it’s good to use words like ‘please’, ‘wonder’ and ‘why’ when you comment, inviting opinions and expressing uncertainty. And, if you’re a language educator who wants to get a Twitter conversation going, Mairéad Nic Giolla Mhichíl revealed that it’s really helpful to start sharing images and text about your dog!

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Playful learning conference

Ghost sitting on the stairsFrom 11-13 July 2018 I was at the Playful Learning conference in Manchester, where I met a ghost carrying out research (pictured).

Conference description

Playful Learning is pitched at the intersection of learning and play for adults. Playful in approach and outlook, yet underpinned by robust research and working practices, we provided a space where teachers, researchers and students could play, learn and think together. A space to meet other playful people and be inspired by talks, workshops, activities and events. Based in the heart of Manchester, we also explore some of the city’s playful spaces with evening activities continuing the fun and conversations after the formal programme ends.


Among the activities I enjoyed at the conference was the Tiny Epic Battles ice-breaker game designed by Alex Moseley. The game scaffolds the creation of teams by getting people to work with each other in increasingly large groups while working on creating something together – and competing to defeat the other group.

I attended a keynote where we described song titles entirely in emojis, before going on to design beer mats. I took part in an escape-room challenge to learn first-aid techniques and unlock the box (apologies to all my patients who didn’t make it), dressed as a pirate, learned about a research methods game, tried out the learning game tool Kahoot, made some lasting research links through playing Pokémon Go, and found out how some Australian students are getting to know each other and their campus by helping out an alien.

Overall, it was great fun and gave me some new perspectives on how people around the world are supporting and encouraging learning. I’ve just submitted a proposal for a workshop at the 2019 conference, where we’ll be trying to establish balloon modelling as a legitimate research method.

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Hannah Gore: all-round success

Tweet about Hannah's award successEdD student Hannah Gore completed her viva successfully on 9 July 2018 with her thesis on Engagement of Learners Undertaking Massive Open Online Courses and the Impact of Design.

She’s now been awarded her doctorate and attended her graduation ceremony. Not only that – she’s also just been announced as the bronze ‘Learning Professional of the Year’ at The Learning Awards 2019.


This thesis investigates the low levels of student engagement after registering to study for a massive open online course. To do this, it adopts a mixed methods approach (Gray, 2013) by analysing two large-scale surveys (120,842 and 1,800 responses respectively) and interviewing 12 learners. This was possible because access was given to 76 presentations of 19 MOOCs produced by The Open University on the FutureLearn platform. The aim of this thesis was to answer two research questions. Why do learners engage in massive open online courses (MOOCs), and what elements of the design of MOOCS encourage learner engagement?

The analysis of 120,842 survey responses illustrated that learners across all the MOOCs investigated in this study were very focussed on personal interest, regardless of subject. Courses with subject material which focussed upon the future use of technology and educational technology were embarked upon for professional purposes secondary to personal interest. Learners interviewed who had not completed the MOOCs did not see themselves as disengaged but as having achieved their study goals.

Learning designs of 19 MOOCs with learner activity and dashboard data from 800,038 enrolments and 425,792 learners were analysed with respect to the second research question. The activity data from 425,792 learners demonstrated they were more likely to engage with comments and to like comments on steps such as articles and videos than on discussion steps. Findings from the performance dashboard data (for example enrolment numbers) and learner activity data, coupled with learning designs, were analysed. From this, high-engagement steps (‘Super Steps’) were identified and isolated for analysis. This study discovered that learners preferred to engage with steps that the learning design framework classified as communicative or assimilative. Learners were more likely to engage with steps that posed questions within their titles, a previously unconsidered element within learning design.

Exam panel

  • Exam panel chair: Dr Ursula Sticker
  • External examiner: Dr Susan White The University of Southampton
  • External examiner: Dr Lisa Harris, University of Exeter

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FutureLearn Fellow

FutureLearn Partners logoOn 20 August, I became a FutureLearn Fellow – an appointment that runs from August 2018 through to July 2020.

FutureLearn Fellows is a scheme launched in 2018 to recognise individuals across the FutureLearn partnership who contribute significantly to exploring the future of online social learning with FutureLearn. The aim is to provide richer support to partners who already carry out research on and around their courses on FutureLearn. The intention is to enhance both FutureLearn specifically and the understanding of online learning more generally.

I’m currently looking at conversational learning on a set of MOOCs put together by the OU, Glasgow, Leeds, Birmingham and Monash universities. My intention is to expand this work by understanding wider enrolment behaviours and patterns in cohorts taking history courses. I’m also studying educators and how they transition to becoming MOOC educators.

There are currently eight other FutureLearn Fellows, as well as two student fellows.

Lisa Harris, University of Exeter

Working on how MOOCs can be used to support the development of effective personal learning networks, drawing upon tools created with Nicholas Fair on the Learning in the Network Age MOOC while at University of Southampton. Also investigating how MOOCs can be integrated live within university modules and as building blocks of full degree programmes.

Philip Tubman, Lancaster University

Exploring the question of ‘How can an interactive visualisation encourage social learning practices on the FutureLearn platform?’ Exploring social learning practices using conversation as a unit of inquiry and has developed a taxonomy to indicate diversity and continuity in conversations.

Eileen Kennedy, University College London

How can we (re)design online discussion to make it a much more powerful pedagogy? Can we use carefully constructed discussion prompts (in combination with other tools or exercises) to elicit participants’ (mis)conceptions more effectively and scaffold mentor-learner or peer-peer feedback opportunities to provide more effective support? We will identify courses where participants are not currently engaging in substantial and interactive discussion in comments and redesign the prompt for subsequent runs to examine the effects. Working with Diana Laurillard and Yarik Kryvoi.

Neil Morris, University of Leeds

The impact of MOOCs on learning, university students, digital skills and employability; investigating the role for unbundled online education to support the digital skills gap. Using FutureLearn data to expand previously conducted research on these data with colleagues from the OU, Birmingham and international universities.

Diana Laurillard, University College London

Working through professionals, in challenging contexts in vocational education and in working with migrant populations in other countries, to develop courses that support them in using digital and non-digital methods with their own students and staff, in their diverse locations, and in sharing and collaborating on appropriate pedagogies with their peers on the courses. Working closely with Eileen Kennedy and Yarik Kryvoi.

Bronwen Swinnerton, University of Leeds

How learners comment in MOOCs – and if that bears significance on how they are retained. Looking at how their evaluation reports and wanting to extend beyond the just data offered – asking how else to evaluate it further or how does such an evaluation live beyond a project? Keen to take code that visualises FutureLearn course data and how this may be extended further into the Partnership.

Kerrie Douglas, Purdue University

Exploring learner behavioural data from pre and post -course surveys using the old SurveyMonkey data collection format. Analysing over 300k responses and cleaning up response data. Generating insight from post course surveys on what worked well, and what could be improved. Working with a number of students studying and researching at Purdue.

Giora Alexandron, Weizmann Institute

Learning analytics and educational data mining. Exploring issues such identifying ‘optimal’ learning paths and discovering resources that are helpful for answering questions correctly and identifying cheating, unauthorised collaboration, frustration, etc. Exploring courses form the learning design to understand the context and then using clickstream data, forum discussion, and meta data on course structure.

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FutureLearn Academic Network: London

Tweet about the event

One of my roles is the Academic Coordinator of the International FutureLearn Academic Network (FLAN). On 22 June 2018, we ran a meeting at the FutureLearn offices in Camden, London.

The theme of the meeting was ‘New Research Directions’. This was the network’s annual opportunity to catch up on the work of the many doctoral students who spend their lives researching aspects of FutureLearn.

Keynote speaker Alyssa Wise, from New York University, encouraged FLAN members to pool ideas and research, identify overarching concepts, and develop a framework that can be used to structure research into learning at scale. She asked two questions: What are the MOOC learning outcomes that are valuable, and that are valued? What are the unique qualities, the core characteristics, of MOOCS?

Alyssa identified massive scale as one of these core characteristics. Massive scale brings its own opportunities, challenges, interactions and pedagogies – all of which need to be investigated. At the same time, it’s also important to look at the smaller elements that make up the massive, taking opportunities to examine what is happening at a smaller scale, and exploring the diversity that is another core characteristic of MOOCs.

Rebecca Ferguson and Alyssa WIse

With keynote speaker Alyssa WIse

Several speakers focused on what we can tell about learning and teaching by analysing discussion threads. Alyssa talked about her work on the MOOCeology project, which looks at how people interact in large-scale learning environments. Her team are currently working on ways of telling automatically whether an online discussion is focused on course content. They’re also using network analysis to study content-related discussion networks. The people in these networks interact with each other, they keep engaging, and they keep the discussions going. Alyssa suggested that how people engage in content-related discussion could be one of the most important indicators of their learning.

Apart from teaching, learning and discussion, the other main focus of the day was on diversity and accessibility. Janesh Sanzgiri compared the experience of Indian learners on FutureLearn and on the Indian MOOC platform NPTEL. Shahrzad Ardavani and Monty King examined a MOOC-based CPD course for English Language teachers from different perspectives, including the perspective of learners in East Timor. Francisco Iniesto looked at the motivations of FutureLearn’s disabled learners, as well as the barriers they have to overcome. Each of these speakers identified ways in which FutureLearn could be made more accessible and inclusive.


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