Archive for category Thesis

Edinburgh degree ceremony

Duygu in her doctoral robeThis weekend, I travelled up to Edinburgh to see one of my PhD students, Duygu Bektik, receive her doctorate in the Usher Hall.

As always, the ceremony was a very emotional occasion. Several people told me they were near tears while watching the opening video, which showed some student journeys to graduation, and the subsequent stirring organ music. I missed that – as an academic I was standing in a robe in a corridor, waiting to process in – but the entire event was very inspiring.

The ceremony was one of two OU degree ceremonies to be held in Edinburgh that day, while another took place in Birmingham. The OU is such a big institution that degree ceremonies are held from March to November, from Edinburgh to Torquay, and from Dublin to Ely. In our case, the graduates filled half the stalls of the massive Usher Hall, while their family and friends filled the rest of the stalls and the theatre circle.

For everyone concerned, this is a very big occasion. It is the culmination of many years of part-time study, typically alongside work, or family responsibilities, or caring responsibilities, or sometimes all three. Some have also been dealing with serious illness or disability. Many had their families out in force, cheering and whistling at their success. One young boy was waving encouragement to his mum from the aisle.

Some students walked or wheeled on steadily, others waved or bowed or danced or dabbed. One did a Morecambe and Wise ‘Bring Me Sunshine’ dance. Many were dressed in their best clothes, one was in evening dress and another in full-on Scottish punk. This being Edinburgh, several of the men were in their kilts, and the ceremony ended with a rousing rendition of ‘Scotland the Brave’ by a piper.

Amongst the robed university staff on stage were not only me, as Duygu’s supervisor, but also her husband, who works at the university. She was one of just two students receiving their doctorate that morning, and was the first to walk up and claim her new status. Once that was done, she joined us on stage, as a new member of the Open University academic community. Well done, Duygu – a great achievement.


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PhD examining: open learner models

University of Birmingham railway stationOn 26 October, I was at the University of Birmingham for the viva of Matthew Johnson. His focus was on ‘The Impact of Technology on Metacognition in Computer-mediated Learning’ and, more specifically, on the use of open learner models.

For those who haven’t encountered open learner models before, they begin with a domain model. This takes a subject area and sets out which knowledge underpins other knowledge. For example, in primary-school mathematics, pupils will struggle to understand multiplication if they haven’t first understood addition, and they will struggle to understand addition if they haven’t first understood number. Multiple-choice tests can be used to assess where a learner is in terms of the domain model. The result of these tests is a learner model, which can be used to make automated decisions about which subject knowledge a student should cover next. An open learner model exposes the logic behind this model to the learner. For example, a learner might wonder why they have been give work to do on simple multiplication, and they could explore the open learner model to find out it was because they had got three specific test questions wrong. This would provide a basis for reflection on their learning and on the subject area, and could also give an opportunity to challenge the learner model.

A thesis abstract remains a work in progress until the final version is printed and agreed, but this paragraph from it gives a sense of what Matthew has been working on:

The thesis finds it is possible to measure metacognition using indirect methods that correspond to post-hoc learner accounts, and that technology does not influence metacognition for all learners. Evidence supports claims that: technology can support elements of interaction important to the regulation of cognition; significant themes of metacognition transfer to OLMs; defining a profile for those identifying as stronger self-assessors is possible; and that OLMs remain relevant in metacognition research.

Matthew was originally supervised by Susan Bull and later by Chris Baber.

Postscript: Matthew was awarded his PhD in 2018. His thesis can be downloaded here.

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Dr Bektik: Duygu’s viva

duygu-vivaOn 14th December, Duygu Bektik defended her thesis successfully, and now only minor corrections stand between her and her doctorate.

Learning Analytics for Academic Writing through Automatic Identification of Meta-Discourse

When assessing student writing, tutors look for ability to present well-reasoned arguments, signalled by elements of meta-discourse. Some natural language processing systems can detect rhetorical moves in scholarly texts, but no previous work has investigated whether these tools can analyse student writing reliably. Duygu’s thesis evaluates the Xerox Incremental Parser (XIP), sets out ways in which it could be changed to support the analysis of student writing and proposes how its output could be delivered to tutors. It also investigates how tutors define the quality of undergraduate writing and identifies key elements that can be used to identify good student writing in the social sciences.

Duygu was supervised by me and by Denise Whitelock, Anna De Liddo and Simon Buckingham Shum (now at .

Her viva examiners were Paul Mulholland and Gary Wills (University of Southampton). The viva was chaired by John Richardson.

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Digital Historians in Italy: a doctoral success

Claudia and I, with examiners Martin Weller and Tim Hitchcock

Claudia and I, with examiners Martin Weller and Tim Hitchcock

My EdD student Claudia Favero (co-supervised by Jan Parker) successfully completed her viva on 9 June. Claudia’s thesis was on ‘Developing digital historians in Italy’, a country where she has taught at university level for many years.

Claudia’s thesis showed that the training of future digital historians is an investment that the whole profession can and should make, not only for its future inside and outside academia but also for the future of the discipline itself.

Her study highlighted the need, and the marked absence in Italy, of a supportive, enabling professional and institutional environment. An environment like this makes digital history research and the education and training of future historians in digital tools and methodologies not only possible, but also effective and sustainable.

Claudia’s study contrasted the situation in Italy with the situation in the UK where there is a professional role specifically associated with digital history, where digital historians have access to funds/resources and incentives/rewards and where dialogue is pursued and valued with the adjoining field of digital humanities. In this environment, it is possible for digital historians to build sustainable educational and research frameworks.

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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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Digital Literacies Conference

Start of the Prezi presentationIn May 2011, I presented at the CREET one-day conference on Digital Literacies at The Open University.

My presentation, Size matters: use of visual elements to support knowledge construction in asynchronous dialogue, was based on a small section of my doctoral thesis, and on a similar presentation I had given at the Open University’s CALRG conference the previous year.

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Improvable objects and attached dialogue

The first publication resulting from my thesis appeared in Digital Culture and Education.

Ferguson, Rebecca; Whitelock, Denise and Littleton, Karen (2010). Improvable objects and attached dialogue: new literacy practices employed by learners to build knowledge together in asynchronous settings. Digital Culture & Education, 2(1), pp. 103–123.

Asynchronous online dialogue offers advantages to learners, but has appeared to involve only limited use of new literacy practices. To investigate this, a multimodal approach was applied to asynchronous dialogue. The study analysed the online discussions of small groups of university students as they developed collaboratively authored documents. Sociocultural discourse analysis of the dialogue was combined with visual analysis of its structural elements. The groups were found to employ new literacies that supported the joint construction of knowledge. The documents on which they worked together functioned as ‘improvable objects’ and the development of these was associated with engagement in ‘attached dialogue’. By investigating a wider range of conference dialogue than has previously been explored, it was found that engaging in attached dialogue associated with collaborative authorship of improvable objects prompts groups of online learners to share knowledge, challenge ideas, justify opinions, evaluate evidence and consider options.


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