Challenges of the Physical: slides from my keynote at XII Conferência Internacional de Tecnologias de Informação e Comunicação na Educação, September 2021

Here are the slides from my opening keynote today for the XII Conferência Internacional de Tecnologias de Informação e Comunicação na Educação in Portugal. first slide of the presentation

The conference theme was ‘challenges of the digital’ so I thought it might be fun to reverse the problem, and to think instead about the challenges of in-person education. In this presentation I imagined a world in which in-person teaching had never been invented, and presented a case for doing so. In fairness, it was not a very good case! But I did have fun using some of the more exotic voice changing features of my Voicelive Play vocal processor (which I normally use for performing music), presenting some of the arguments against my suggestions in different voices using a much better mic than my usual (pretty good) Blue Yeti. I might not use the special effects again that often, but I was quite impressed with the difference the better microphone made.

My central points (mostly implicit until the end) were:

  • That the biggest challenge of the digital is all the baggage that we have inherited from in-person teaching, and our continuing need to interoperate with in-person institutions.
  • That pedagogies are neither universal nor neutral. They are solutions to problems of learning in a particular context, in assembly with countless constraints and possibilities provided by that context: people, tools, structures, methods, systems, and so on.
  • That solutions to learning in a physical context – at least in the one-to-many model of traditional education systems – inevitably lead to a very strong power imbalance between teacher and learner, where the teacher is in control of every moment that the teaching event occurs. This has many repercussions, not least of which being that needs for autonomy and competence support are very poorly addressed (though relatedness comes for free), so it is really bad for intrinsic motivation.
  • Thus, the pedagogies of physical spaces have to compensate for the loss of control and achievable challenge that they naturally entail.
  • That the most common approach – and, again, an almost inevitable (i.e. the shortest path) follow-on from teaching a lot of people at once – involves rewards and punishments, that massively impair or destroy intrinsic motivation to learn and, in most cases, actively militate against effective learning.
  • That the affordances of teaching everyone the same thing at once lead fairly naturally to credentials for having learned it, often achieved in ‘efficient’ ways like proctored exams that are incredibly bad for learning, and that greatly reinforce the extrinsic motivation that is already highly problematic in the in-person modality. The credentials, not the learning, become the primary focus.
  • That support for autonomy and competence are naturally high in online learning, though support for relatedness is a mix of good and bad. There is no need for teachers being in control and, lacking most of the means of control available to in-person teachers, the only reliable way to regain it is through rewards and punishments which, as previously mentioned, are fatal to intrinsic motivation.
  • That the almost ubiquitous ways that distance educators inherit and use the pedagogies, methods, and structures of in-person learning – especially in the use of coercion through rewards and punishments (grades, credentials, etc) but also in schedules, fixed-length courses, inflexible learning outcomes, etc – are almost exactly the opposite of what its technologies can best support.

Towards the end, acknowledging that it is difficult to change such complex and deeply entangled systems (much though it is to be desired) I presented some ways of reducing the challenges of the physical in online teaching, and regaining that lost intrinsic motivation, that I summarized thus:

  • Let go (you cannot and should not control learning unless asked to do so), but stay close;
  • Make learning (not just its products) visible (and, in the process, better understand your teaching);
  • Make learning shared (cooperation and, where possible, collaboration built in from the ground up);
  • Don’t ever coerce (especially not through grades);
  • Care (for learners, for learning, for the subject).

It’s a theme that I have spoken and written of many, many times, but (apart from the last few slides) the way I presented it this time was new for me. I had fun pretending to be different people, and the audience seemed to like it, in a challenging kind of a way. There were some great questions at the end, not all of which I had time to answer, though I’m happy to continue the conversation here, or via Twitter.

Why do we work from home but learn remotely?

I am slowly getting used to the ugly abbreviation WFH that has emerged during the pandemic, though I don’t much like it because it’s not always accurate. Even in pandemic times I often work from my boat (WFB). In non-pandemic times I’ve worked from a tent (WFT), a library (WFL), a hotel room (WFHR), a park bench (WFPB), a conference (WFC), a plane (WFP), a bus (WF… OK, you get the picture), and much, much more. I have even worked at Athabasca University’s own buildings (Working from Work?) on rare occasions. But why do most of us in the trade so rarely use terms like learning from home when working from home (WFH) is so ubiquitous?

Terms like e-learning, online learning, distance learning, remote learning, and so on, are weird. Learning is never remote, electronic, online, or at a distance.  There is more sense to terms like distance education, online education, remote teaching, and so on, because education and teaching describe relationships between people, and there are different ways that those relationships can be mediated, that do (or should) deeply affect the process. There is also a whole slew of intentional and implicit structures, systems, methods, and toolsets that are assumed when we prefix education with terms like distance or online. But why online or distance learning?

As teachers we are (rightly) taught that it’s not about the teaching, it’s about the learning. For at least the last 30 years or more we have, for instance, therefore been strongly encouraged to use the term ‘learning & teaching’ instead of ‘teaching & learning’ because learning must come first. I’ve corrected people myself for getting the order wrong, many times. Charitably, therefore, it might be that we are trying to draw attention to the fact that it’s about learning. But, if so, why distance or online?

Ricardo Liberato, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons I think something nasty has happened to the term ‘learning’ when it is used this way, because I think that what we actually mean by it is ‘teaching’.  Some British English dialects take that dubious elision fully on board. When something nasty happens to someone as a consequence of something they have done that is perceived to be wrong, or even when some punishment is inflicted on them by someone else, it is common in some circles to say ‘that’ll learn yer’ (the ‘yer’ is important – don’t imagine the Queen saying in received pronunciation ‘that will learn you’ because it would be wrong). When I hear the phrase I imagine it being said with a snarl. It’s a cruel thing to say, though it can be used kind-of humorously, at least if, as many of my compatriots do, you appreciate a particularly crude form of Benny-Hillish shadenfreude (‘Ha ha, you fell flat on your face and hurt yourself. That’ll learn yer’).

Outside a subset of British and perhaps some other minor English vernaculars, learning is never something that we do to people. It’s something done by people, with what and with whom is around them (and that might include a teaching website, textbook, or course pack). So let’s stop calling people distance or online learners because it devalues and obscures what they are actually doing. They are not being learned at. They are being taught at a distance, and learning from home (or wherever they happen to be).

Educational technology: what it is and how it works

This is a link to my latest paper in the journal AI & Society. You can read it in a web browser from there, but it is not directly downloadable. A preprint of the submitted version (some small differences and uncorrected errors here and there, notably in citations) can be downloaded from The published version should be downloadable for free by Researchgate members.

This is a long paper (about 10,000 words), that summarizes some of the central elements of the theoretical model of learning, teaching and technology developed in my recently submitted book (still awaiting review) and that gives a few examples of its application. For instance, it explains:

  • why, on average researchers find no significant difference between learning with and without tech.
  • why learning styles theories are a) inherently unprovable, b) not important even if they were, and c) a really bad idea in any case.
  • why bad teaching sometimes works (and, conversely, why good teaching sometimes fails)
  • why replication studies cannot be done for most educational interventions (and, for the small subset that are susceptible to reductive study, all you can prove is that your technology works as intended, not whether it does anything useful).


This theoretical paper elucidates the nature of educational technology and, in the process, sheds light on a number of phenomena in educational systems, from the no-significant-difference phenomenon to the singular lack of replication in studies of educational technologies.  Its central thesis is that we are not just users of technologies but coparticipants in them. Our participant roles may range from pressing power switches to designing digital learning systems to performing calculations in our heads. Some technologies may demand our participation only in order to enact fixed, predesigned orchestrations correctly. Other technologies leave gaps that we can or must fill with novel orchestrations, that we may perform more or less well. Most are a mix of the two, and the mix varies according to context, participant, and use. This participative orchestration is highly distributed: in educational systems, coparticipants include the learner, the teacher, and many others, from textbook authors to LMS programmers, as well as the tools and methods they use and create.  From this perspective,  all learners and teachers are educational technologists. The technologies of education are seen to be deeply, fundamentally, and irreducibly human, complex, situated and social in their constitution, their form, and their purpose, and as ungeneralizable in their effects as the choice of paintbrush is to the production of great art.

Originally posted at:

DT&L2018 spotlight presentation: The Teaching Gestalt

The teaching gestalt  presentation slides (PDF, 9MB)

This is my Spotlight Session from the 34th Distance Teaching & Learning Conference, at Wisconsin Madison, August 8th, 2018. Appropriately enough, I did this online and at a distance thanks to my ineptitude at dealing with the bureaucracy of immigration. Unfortunately my audio died as we moved to the Q&A session so, if anyone who was there (or anyone else) has any questions or observations, do please post them here! Comments are moderated.

The talk was concerned with how online learning is fundamentally different from in-person learning, and what that means for how (or even whether) we teach, in the traditional formal sense of the word.

Teaching is always a gestalt process, an emergent consequence of the actions of many teachers, including most notably the learners themselves, which is always greater than (and notably different from) the sum of its parts. This deeply distributed process is often masked by the inevitable (thanks to physics in traditional classrooms) dominance of an individual teacher in the process. Online, the mask falls off. Learners invariably have both far greater control and far more connection with the distributed gestalt. This is great, unless institutional teachers fight against it with rewards and punishments, in a pointless and counter-productive effort to try to sustain the level of control that is almost effortlessly attained by traditional in-person teachers, and that is purely a consequence of solving problems caused by physical classroom needs, not of the needs of learners. I describe some of the ways that we deal with the inherent weaknesses of in-person teaching especially relating to autonomy and competence support, and observe how such pedagogical methods are a solution to problems caused by the contingent side effects of in person teaching, not to learning in general.

The talk concludes with some broad characterization of what is different when teachers choose to let go of that control.  I observe that what might have been Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest creation was his effective learning process, without which none of the rest of his creations could have happened. I am hopeful that now, thanks to the connected world that we live in, we can all learn like Leonardo, if and only if teachers can learn to let go.

Strategies for successful learning at AU

Earlier today I responded to a prospective student who was, amongst other things, seeking advice on strategies for success on a couple of our self-paced programming courses. My response was just a stream of consciousness off the top of my head but I think it might be useful to others. Here, then, with some very light editing to remove references to specific courses, are a few fairly random thoughts on how to succeed on a self-paced online programming course (and, for the most part, other courses) at Athabasca University. In no particular order:

  • Try to make sure that people close to you know what you are doing and, ideally, are supportive. Other people can really help, not just for the mechanical stuff but for the emotional support. Online learning, especially the self-paced form we use, can feel a bit isolating at times, but there are lots of ways to close the gap and they aren’t all found in the course materials and processes. Find support wherever you can.
  • Make a schedule and try to keep to it, but don’t blame yourself if your deadlines slip a bit here and there – just adjust the plan. The really important thing is that you should feel in control of the process. Having such control is one of the huge benefits of our way of teaching, but you need to take ownership of the process yourself in order to experience the benefits.
  • If the course provides forums or other social engagement try to proactively engage in them. Again, other people really help.
  • You will have way more freedom than those in traditional classrooms, who have to follow a teacher simply because of the nature of physics. However, that freedom is a two-edged sword as you can sometimes be swamped with choices and not know which way to go. If you are unsure, don’t be afraid to ask for help. But do take advantage of the freedom. Set your own goals. Look for the things that excite you and explore further. Take breaks if you are getting tired. Play. Take control of the learning process and enjoy the ride.
  • Enjoy the challenges. Sometimes it will be hard, and you should expect that, especially in programming courses like these. Programming can be very frustrating at times – after 35 years of programming I can still spend days on a problem that turns out to involve a misplaced semi-colon! Accept that, and accept that even the most intractable problems will eventually be solved (and it is a wonderful feeling when you do finally get it to work). Make time to sleep on it. If you’re stuck, ask for help.
  • Get your work/life/learning balance right. Be realistic in your aspirations and expect to spend many hours a week on this, but make sure you make time to get away from it.
  • Keep a learning journal, a reflective diary of what you have done and how you have addressed the struggles, even if the course itself doesn’t ask for one. There are few more effective ways to consolidate and connect your learning than to reflect on it, and it can help to mark your progress: good to read when your motivation is flagging.
  • Get used to waiting for responses and find other things to learn in the meantime. Don’t stop learning because you are waiting – move on to something else, practice something you have already done, or reflect on what you have been doing so far.
  • Programming is a performance skill that demands constant and repeated practice. You just need to do it, get it wrong, do it again, and again, and again, until it feels like second nature. In many ways it is like learning a musical instrument or maybe even driving. It’s not something you can learn simply by reading or by being told, you really have to immerse yourself in doing it. Make up your own challenges if you run out of things to do.
  • Don’t just limit yourself to what we provide. Find forums and communities with appropriate interests. I am a big fan of for help and inspiration from others, though relevant subreddits can be useful and there are many other sites and systems dedicated to programming. Find one or two that make sense to you. Again, other people can really help.

Online learning can be great fun as long as you are aware of the big differences, primarily relating to control and personal agency. Our role is to provide a bit of structure and a supportive environment to enable you to learn, rather than to tell you stuff and make you do things, which can be disconcerting at first if you are used to traditional classroom learning. This puts more pressure on you, and more onus on you to organize and manage your own learning, but don’t ever forget that you are not ever really alone – we are here to help.

In summary, I think it really comes down to three big things, all of which are really about motivation, and all of which are quite different when learning online compared to face-to-face:

  1. Autonomy – you are in control, but you must take responsibility for your own learning. You can always delegate control to us (or others) when the going gets hard or choices are hard to make, but you are always free to take it back again, and there will be no one standing over you making you do stuff apart from yourself.
  2. Competence – there are few things more satisfying than being able to do more today than you could do yesterday. We provide some challenges and we try to keep them difficult-but-achievable at every stage along the way, but it is a great idea for you to also seek your own challenges, to play, to explore, to discover, especially if the challenges we offer are too difficult or too boring. Reflection can help a lot with this, as a means to recognize what, how, and why you have learned.
  3. Relatedness – never forget the importance of other people. You don’t have to interact with them if you don’t want to do so (that’s another freedom we offer), but it is at the very least helpful to think about how you belong in our community, your own community, and the broader community of learners and programmers, and how what and how you are learning can affect others (directly or indirectly).

This advice is by no means comprehensive! If you have other ideas or advice, or things that have worked for you, or things that you disagree with, do feel free to share them in the comments.

Recording of my TCC2016 keynote: The Distributed Teacher

This is the recording of my keynote at the TCC2016 online conference, on the nature of learning and teaching: the inherently social, distributed nature of it, why e-learning is fundamentally different from p-learning, and how we harmfully transfer pedagogies and processes from physical classrooms to online contexts in which they do not belong. If you want to watch it, skip the first 5 minutes because there was a problem with the sound and video (I hate you, Adobe Connect): the talk itself begins at a few seconds after the 5 minute mark.

Downloadable slides and details of the themes are at

Address of the bookmark: