Archive for category Methods

Evidence Café: Accessibility on MOOC Platforms

Selfie taken by the evidence café leads after the eventEvidence Cafés are designed to bridge the gap between research and practice, enabling practitioners to explore how research could inform what they do, and giving academics access to practice-based insights on the research. Evidence Cafés usually run for two or three hours with participants discussing objects of interest, sharing expertise, and drinking coffee together. (Download a guide to Evidence Cafés here.)

This was the plan for our Evidence Café, which was designed for knowledge exchange around the accessibility of MOOC platforms such as FutureLearn. However, as the Covid-19 lockdown came into force, it became clear that a face-to-face meet-up wasn’t feasible. It was time for the world’s first online Evidence Café.

Tina Papathoma explains how she organised and ran the event in her blog post Virtual Evidence Cafés amid COVID-19; guidance on how to run one.  The discussion went well, bringing researchers and practitioners from Spain and Ireland together with UK experts. Among the participants were students, teachers, accessibility researchers, production staff, administrators, and platform representatives.

The discussion was recorded for analysis and will lead to a report on how technology and pedagogy can be designed to support access for learners and teachers alike.

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Moving through MOOCs at ECTEL 2015

ECTEL TweetDoug Clow and I took a new approach to presenting at ECTEL 2015. Our paper Moving through MOOCS: pedagogy, learning design and patterns of engagement was jointly authored with researchers from Edinburgh, Leeds and Birmingham. It combined a number of studies, involving cluster analysis of different MOOCs. An enormous amount of information to cram into a 20-minute talk.

So we produced two sets of slides. The first, available on my Slideshare account, takes viewers through the paper in detail. The MOOCs, the methods, the clusters. The second, available on Doug’s account, focuses on a simpler message – that massive open online courses vary enormously in pedagogy and in learning design. Before making grandiose claims for generalisability, we need to check whether our findings really apply widely – or if they actually only apply to MOOCs on our platform or in our subject area, or within our university. While almost all the people in our audience had visited at least one MOOC, the majority had not visited more than one MOOC platform.

You can investigate our research further, taking  the detailed route via one presentation, or the route with a simpler message and better pictures via the other, or the complex but clearly mapped route by reading the paper. Or, if you have the energy, you can explore a combination of routes and find out which works best for you.

Of course, this isn’t a fair test. The presentations aren’t offered in the same way and in the same place. Nevertheless, Doug and I will be looking at the stats for each of them, and making anecdotal use of those figures for some time – so choose your route wisely.

As I type, one of the Slideshares has 636 views, 5 likes, 5 downloads, 5 LinkedIn shares, 1 Facebook share and 24 Tweets.

The other has 571 views, 3 likes, 0 downloads, 0 shares on LinkedIn or Facebook and 25 Tweets.

The paper, following the link above, has 99 downloads and 2 Tweets

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CALRG: Computers and Learning Research Group

Building Knowledge seminar slide

Building Knowledge seminar slide. Credits: and

Along with colleagues – Liz Fitzgerald, Janesh Sanzgiri, Jenna Mittelmeier – I am responsible for organising weekly meetings of the Computers and Learning Research Group (CALRG). The group brings together research staff and doctoral students within our department, as well as people from other areas of the university who have similar research interests.

We have established a pattern of events that continues throughout the year, with breaks where necessary for major events and holidays.

First Thursday: CALRG Seminar Regular slot for internal and external speakers to share and discuss their research.

Second Thursday: Reading Group Discussing key papers in the area from the past and the present. The contents of this forthcoming book help us to identify ‘must-read’ papers. In the autumn, Janesh and Jenna will be running short sessions before the reading group in order to give new doctoral students the confidence to share their views.

Third Thursday: Building Knowledge Seminar An opportunity for us to share our expertise by talking about our research, introducing methods and discussing new opportunities. At a recent session on writing up quantitative and qualitative research, I introduced ways of presenting and evaluating these types of research and then group members discussed how they had done this themselves, and the challenges they had faced.

Fourth Thursday: Cake Drop! An informal session. Chat to your colleagues and enjoy cake. Mmm.


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Visual analytics

Example photograph with SIFT keypoints (shown by circles)Suzanne Little has developed our Ed-Media 2011 paper, which she presented in Lisbon in June last year, into a full-scale journal article. The article focuses on visual similarity search, which uses features of images in order to find material that is visually related, thus supporting navigation of educational materials in a variety of ways, including identifying the source of an image, finding items that offer different ways of understanding a concept, or finding other content in which a given image or video frame is used

Little, Suzanne; Ferguson, Rebecca and Rüger, Stefan (2012). Finding and reusing learning materials with multimedia similarity search and social networks. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 21(2), pp. 255–271.


The authors describe how content-based multimedia search technologies can be used to help learners find new materials and learning pathways by identifying semantic relationships between educational resources in a social learning network. This helps users – both learners and educators – to explore and find material to support their learning aims. Exciting new technologies are emerging for designing and deploying multi-modal, interactive educational tools such as video, 3D models, games, remote sensors or collaborative community-created resources (e.g. wikis). With the increasing availability of open educational resources in online, semantically marked-up and socially connected spaces, users are building their own learning pathways by exploring and remixing content. In this article the authors look at how the integration of multimedia search into the SocialLearn platform for shared learning spaces can contribute to this vision.

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Use of Visual Analysis to Investigate Networked Learning in Online Forums

At the beginning of April, I took the Eurostar to Belgium and then travelled on to Maastricht to attend the Networked Learning conference at the School of Management. The conference included at a drinks reception at the nearby government building, where the Treaty of Maastricht was signed 20 years ago, leading to the introduction of the euro a decade later.

I presented a methodological paper on visual analysis, drawing on work in my doctoral thesis.

Ferguson, R. ‘Use of Visual Analysis to Investigate Networked Learning in Online Forums’. In: Hodgson, V., Jones, C., de Laat, M., McConnell, D., Ryberg, T. & Sloep, P., eds. Eighth International Conference on Networked Learning, 2012 Maastricht, The Netherlands (2-4 April 2012).


Asynchronous online forums such as FirstClass are frequently used in many educational settings to link networks of learners. They offer opportunities for knowledge-building dialogue and for the exchange of learning resources, but many students struggle to make effective use of them. Researchers have therefore been concerned to investigate how learners successfully build knowledge together in online forums and which skills and literacies are likely to help users to learn in these environments. To date, much of this research has focused on the textual elements of online forum dialogue. This paper acknowledges the importance of studying these textual elements, but presents visual analysis as a complementary tool that can significantly extend understanding of activity in these forums.

Asynchronous dialogue, like written text, is typically both verbal and visual, with much of its meaning carried by a range of visual features, including layout and typographical elements. These aspects of forum data require analysis of the composition of the dialogue alongside its content. In the case of such composite texts, with meanings realised through different semiotic codes, visual and verbal elements interact and should be analysed as an integrated whole. This semiotic approach draws attention to the syntax of images as a source of meaning and to the structuring principles that enable viewers to make sense of the layout of text and images. These principles include salience, frames, vectors and reading paths.

This paper demonstrates ways in which analysis that makes use of these structuring principles can increase understanding of online exchanges between learners. It takes as an exemplar a series of forum postings that were shared in the formal setting of an online course at the UK’s Open University. It shows that the construction of knowledge in an online forum is heavily reliant on visual elements of the online interaction, and that a focus on words alone does not make it clear either how this construction takes place or why it fails to take place on some occasions. Visual analysis shows that groups of learners use affordances of forum software to increase the salience of some elements of the dialogue and to increase the coherence of their discussion.

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Learning to know, knowing to learn

Informal learning with technologyTogether with Denise Whitelock, Dorothy Faulkner and Kieron Sheehy, I successfully bid for money from the university’s Children’s and Young People Network to carry out research into children’s informal learning with technologies and so, in May 2010 I was in school collecting data in focus groups (see picture of some of the pictorial data).

Research Plan in brief

The proposed research will ask ‘How do young learners make use of the collaborative tools available online to support informal learning?’ The aims of the research will be to identify tools used by Year Six children (aged 10-11) to support their learning outside school; to examine the ways in which they learn of, about and with these tools; and to investigate the constraints and affordances of these tools for learners in this age group. These findings will then be used to identify ways in which these, or similar tools, can be used to support children’s learning in formal settings.

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CAL conference, Dublin

I had a great time at the CAL conference in Dublin.

My first attempt at liveblogging – including taking pictures with my laptop’s inbuilt webcam.

We took a couple of posters along. The first on our joint research into blogging (download by clicking this link Blogging poster pdf) and the second on my research into online communities (download by clicking this link CAL communities poster pdf)

Blogging: The Postgraduate Research Student Experience















Image of communities poster

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