Archive for category Thesis

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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My husband and I at my graduation ceremonyMy husband and I at my graduation ceremony in Milton Keynes: 22 June 2010.

The official date of my PhD award is 17 January 2010.

You can download my thesis  The Construction of Shared Knowledge through Asynchronous Dialogue.

Or just read the abstract…

This thesis investigates how groups of learners use asynchronous dialogue to build shared knowledge together over time. To do this, it takes a sociocultural approach, with a situated focus on learners’ social and temporal settings as well as on the tools they employ. It utilises concepts developed to support understanding of knowledge co-construction in face- to-face environments, particularly the social modes of thinking identified by Mercer and his colleagues (Mercer, 1995, 2000, 2002; Mercer & Littleton, 2007; Mercer & Wegerif, 1999) and the improvable objects described by Wells (1999).

Analysis shows that, over short periods of time, groups of learners construct shared vocabulary, history and understanding slowly through the use of a series of discursive devices including those identified here as ‘constructive synthesis’, the ‘proposal pattern’ and ‘powerful synthesis’. Over longer periods they may engage in ‘attached dialogue’, a form of asynchronous dialogue that is mediated by improvable objects. The development of these improvable objects involves learners engaging in exploratory dialogue that builds into progressive discourse, a coordinated form of co-reasoning in language. While doing this, they actively work to avoid unproductive interaction by consistently shifting responsibility from the individual to the group.

Previous studies have suggested that asynchronous dialogue may act to limit learners to cumulative exchanges (Littleton & Whitelock, 2005; Wegerif, 1998). The analysis over time presented here shows that asynchronous exchanges are enriched by the use of textual affordances that are not available in speech. In the case of attached dialogue, groups of learners are prompted to share knowledge, challenge ideas, justify opinions, evaluate evidence and consider options in a reasoned and equitable way. They do this more successfully when their co-construction of knowledge is not solely task-focused but also focuses on tool use and on the development of social knowledge about the group.

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Post-viva tweet

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