Journal paper: p-Learning’s unwelcome legacy

My latest paper is now available in the open journal, TD Tecnologie Didattiche.

The paper summarizes and expands on much of what I have been talking and writing about over the past year or two, looking into the ways that the boundaries that heavily determine the pedagogies of p-learning (collocated learning and teaching) have been imported wholesale into the e-learning environment, despite the fact that most were only needed in the first place because of those boundaries. I pay particular attention to the systemic harmful effect this has on intrinsic motivation: a vast proportion of what we do is designed to attempt to overcome this central inherent weakness in institutional p-learning.

Bizarrely, when we teach online, we tend to intentionally add those same boundaries back in (e.g. through logins, closed walled gardens, differentiated roles, scheduled courses, grades, etc) and actually make things worse. We replicate the stupid stuff but only rarely incorporate the saving graces of p-learning such as the value of a diverse learning community, easy ways to show caring, responsiveness, tacit knowledge transfer, modelling of ways of being, etc. Meanwhile we largely ignore what makes e-learning valuable, such as diversity, freedom, connectivity, and near-instant access to the knowledge of billions. We dumbly try to make better courses (a notable by-product of physical constraints, seldom a great way to learn) when what we actually need is better learning, and force people to stay on those courses using threats/rewards in the form of grades and accreditation. I explain how, historically, this came about: from a technology evolution perspective it is quite understandable, as were horseless carriages, but it is still very foolish. The paper begins to explore how we might flip our institutions and adopt practices that make more sense, given the algorithmic, fuzzy, metaphorical, emergent, illusory, temporally indistinct, space-crossing boundaries of e-learning, and it includes some descriptions of some ways this is already happening, as well as some ways it might.


Formal teaching of adults has evolved in a context defined, initially, by the constraints of physical boundaries. Classroom walls directly entail timetables, norms and rules of behaviour, social segregation into organized groups and, notably, the course as a fundamental unit of instruction. Our adult education systems are well adapted to provide efficient and cost-effective teaching within those boundaries. Digitally embodied boundaries are far more fluid, open, permeable, scalable, metaphorical and fuzzy.
This has helped to drive the increasing dominance of e-learning in intentional informal learning and yet methods that emerge from physical boundaries dominate institutional e-learning, though they are a poor fit with the media. This paper is an exploration of the implications of the removal of physical boundaries to online pedagogies, many of which challenge our most cherished educational foundations and assumptions.

Address of the bookmark:

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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