Archive for category SocialLearn

Technology Coffee Morning

In June 2011, I gave a presentation about SocialLearn at a technology coffee morning organised by The Open University’s Institute of Education (IET).

View the podcast.


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Visual Similarity Search

In June 2011, Suzanne Little travelled to Ed-Media in Lisbon to present a paper I had co-authored. In this case, I must admit, my contribution was at most 0.01% of the effort involved in writing the paper.

Little, Suzanne; Ferguson, Rebecca and Rüger, Stefan (2011). Navigating and Discovering Educational Materials through Visual Similarity Search. In: Ed-Media 2011 – World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia & Telecommunications, June 27 – July 1 2011, Lisbon, Portugal.


We describe the development and implementation of visual multimedia similarity search within a platform for social exchange of educational experiences and material to provide services for finding related media. The SocialLearn project develops tools to support the building and exploration of personal learning networks. With the ever-increasing volumes of educational resources being made available, it is a challenge to find new material and forge appropriate learning pathways. Visual search can help when it is difficult to describe your interests in words (“search terms”) or when you want to browse for inspiration without a specific result in mind. In this paper we present the usage scenarios for visual search within education and describe the design and implementation of visual similarity search within the SocialLearn platform. The outcomes from this work are not only directly useful for the SocialLearn project but also for others who are interested in the challenges of using multimedia for education.

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Learning Analytics Symposium

At the CAL Conference 2011 in Manchester, I set up and ran a symposium on learning analytics.

‘Learning analytics is the use of intelligent data, learner-produced data, and analysis models to discover information and social connections, and to predict and advise on learning’ (Siemens, 2010). Educators have a long history of using data to examine, analyse and evaluate teaching and learning. The recent increase both in the number of students engaged in online learning and in the variety of tools available to support this activity can mean that the amount of data and resources available proves confusing and overwhelming. Educators and learners urgently need analytics that will help them to evaluate and use these new tools and resources effectively to support teaching and learning.
This symposium presents research carried out at The Open University, the UK’s largest provider of online education with over 180,000 students currently registered, and many thousands more accessing its learning materials through open learning programmes such as Open Learn, iTunesU and iSpot. The OU has been producing wholly online undergraduate courses since 1999 and has, since its foundation, made use of learning analytics to support its students and tutors.
The four papers in this symposium deal with issues that have prompted the current worldwide interest in learning analytics: the need to improve learners’ experience, the emergence of new tools to support data analysis, the overwhelming increase in online resources, and the development of new tools for learning and teaching.

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Use of questions to facilitate social learning in a Web 2.0 environment

New year, new publication – and the first to emerge from my work on SocialLearn, due to the confidential nature of most of the research work to date.

Ferguson, Rebecca (2011). Use of questions to facilitate social learning in a Web 2.0 environment. Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento (Globalisation and Internationalisation of Higher Education), 8(1), pp. 316–327.


Online social learning involves distributed learners interacting through the use of Web 2.0. In many cases, Web 2.0 interactions are limited to information exchange and do not provoke knowledge construction. Studies of concept mapping suggest that engaging with social learning via a question could encourage meaningful interaction, although this would be likely to depend upon affective conditions and the effort involved in asking and responding to these questions. In order to investigate this, the interactions of 1,229 participants on a social learning site were studied over an 11-week period. Data were also collected from a questionnaire distributed to all participants, and from feedback contributed during the project. These were analysed thematically to investigate the ways in which questions can be used to facilitate learning in a Web 2.0 environment. Analysis showed that participants were interested in broad topic areas, themes and issues rather than specific questions about these areas. They did not treat questions related to learning about the community and the website in the same way as questions related to learning about subject areas and content. The social use of questions online was identified as supporting meaningful learning interaction in nine ways.


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What is social learning, and why does it matter?

Despite Vice Chancellor going public with SocialLearn at ALT-C in 2009, my research work remained largely under the radar, resulting in a series of internal reports that were not available outside the university. As the restrictions relaxed we began to move toward wider dissemination – starting with the project blog.

In January 2010, I blogged about online social learning – it’s one of my blog posts that I refer back to when I am thinking about the possibilities for social learning:

Web 2.0 extends the possibilities for social learning, making it possible not only to locate and access a vast amount of content from all around the world, but also to engage in extended interaction around and about this material. Learners – particularly those learning outside formal settings such as schools and colleges – may find themselves adrift in an ocean of information, struggling to solve ill-structured problems, with little clear idea of how to solve them, or how to recognise when they have solved them. It’s here that social learning has its place – helping people to use these resources to construct knowledge together effectively.

Social learning can take place when people:

• clarify their intention – learning rather than browsing

• ground their learning – by defining their question or problem

• engage in focused conversations – increasing their understanding of the available resources.

These three actions help us to build meaningful connections online, and offer learners the benefits of co-operative activity and of collaboration.

The challenge for SocialLearn is to support and encourage users to clarify their intention, ground their learning and engage in focused conversations.

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SocialLearn – official announcement

In 2009, the SocialLearn was considered to be commercially sensitive, and therefore external presentations and publications were restricted unless confidentiality agreements were in place.

Everyone on the project was pleased, therefore, when the university’s new vice-chancellor, Martin Bean, used his keynote at ALT-C as an opportunity to announce SocialLearn to the world. I wrote this up on the SocialLearn blog, and was also one of those liveblogging his talk on Cloudworks and on my own blog.

Here’s a section of Doug Clow’s liveblog from the Cloudworks site

Many students never known world without web, sms, MP3s, etc. Heavy use, including social networking. Uptake of technology in homes, roughly 70% in 2008, when up by 2m homes in a year.  We need to continue conversation about access, but must get real about their expectations.

What do they want? Values: autonomy, authenticity, connect and share, creativity, constant stimulation. Priorities: friends, fun, music – real-time interaction and self-presentation. Likes: Devices, cool stuff. Hates: Complexity, bad design, costs, things that get in the way of expression. Really the Internet enables what students wanted before, but faster and at bigger scale.

Crisis of relevance in Higher Education. To be more relevant, blend digital lifestyles and digital work styles: don’t unplug them, make best of both. Future jobs will require those skills.  Lifelong learning – we can’t depend on young graduates. Continual development, learning in the workplace needs to be integral. Breaking down barriers between informal and formal learning – HE must remove artificial barriers, so people can knit pathways together to weave in and out of HE as they need. Our systems look like they’re designed to stop this.  That’s not what everyone needs, not what a quality HE experience should be. Must put learner in the middle; HE is about making sure that learner is at the middle, the support revolves around them.

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Research Fellow – SocialLearn

At the beginning of January 2009, I took up a job at The Open University as Research Fellow on SocialLearn.
Here’s my job description:

  • Develop a research strategy for your own and joint research initiatives to improve the project’s pedagogical understanding of learning in SocialLearn
  • Conduct a state of the art review as an individual research project of approaches to analysing learner activity, particularly in social networks
  • Define, gather and analyse SocialLearn user data, working with programmers as a collaborative research project to instrument the SocialLearn platform with analytics
  • Work with the software team to translate these findings into design improvements, for further evaluation
  • Liaise closely with the rest of the SocialLearn team
  • Liaise with other technical and non-technical audiences within the Open University
  • Disseminate results to the Web 2.0 educator community, and international research community, as peer reviewed publications, presentations, and via blogs and screencasts
  • Track potential funding opportunities and take the lead in drafting proposals for external grants.
    Other duties
  • You will have the opportunity to assist in PhD supervision and training in relevant projects
  • You will be required to attend project meetings and contribute appropriately.

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