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Manifesto for Teaching Online, rewritten for 2015

Online can be the privileged mode - image by James Lamb
Online can be the privileged mode – image by James Lamb


The Manifesto for Teaching Online is a series of short statements first written in 2011 by the Digital Education group at the University of Edinburgh. It was designed to articulate a position about online education that informs the work of the group and the MSc in Digital Education programme.  It was also intended to stimulate ideas about creative online teaching, and to reimagine some of the orthodoxies and unexamined truisms surrounding the field. Each point was deliberately interpretable, and it was made open so that others could remix and rewrite it. In 2015, we revisited and reassembled the manifesto ourselves. The new manifesto text can be found here:

I’m really looking forward to discussing and debating the new manifesto!



Quite inadvertently, I’ve become immersed, and interested, in MOOCs this year. It started with the work of Jeremy Knox, whose PhD research I’m supervising, and who’s doing some fascinating work around open online education. He’ll be in various places over the next few weeks, including #ir13 tomorrow for an ignite session; and at the forthcoming SRHE/University of Edinburgh event “Critical Perspectives on Openness in the Digital University“. I like how Jeremy is applying critical and posthumanist perspectives to the MOOC, and I really like how he’s working to put his research in the path of his posthumanism: developing creative and interesting ways to let elements of his learning network – like books and rooms – contribute to the data his project is generating.

I’m also part of a team developing one of the first MOOCs at the University of Edinburgh – E-learning and Digital Cultures, which will run for the first time in January 2013. Along with developing a great MOOC (of course) which is based on some of the ideas from our MSc in E-learning course of the same name, we’ve been working hard to understand what the MOOC can – and can’t – accomplish; what scale and the ‘massive’ might be good for; and how we should think about the role of the teacher in “MOOC pedagogy“. As my colleague has said, the powerful hype around MOOCs can make it difficult to sort out what is actually going on here. More research – and a variety of kinds – in this area is clearly needed. (in that vein, I’ve been very fortunate to have met and had some delightful conversations with Amy Collier at Stanford University, who (along with her doctoral students) is beginning what seems like important work in analysing MOOC data.)

People are already lamenting the MOOC as a flash-in-the-pan, but that doesn’t trouble me (then again, I still love what we do with our students in Second Life, so maybe I welcome the stage after super-hyped-ness). It’s clearly making a new sort of space for what continue to be vital conversations about what contact means, about presence and pedagogy, and about the nature of higher education, and these are things I like to think and talk about.

Manifesto for teaching online

One of the outputs from the Student Writing Online Project was our manifesto for teaching online. It’s a set of statements that try to capture something of what is generative and exciting about teaching at a distance, and in digital environments.

The manifesto has had some press in the past few weeks, and it’s been exciting! Its web site is at


Here’s a video interpretation of the manifesto, created by James Lamb.










Jen’s PhD Series: Part 3. The masks

It’s been a while since my last post, but in the interim I had my viva (examination) and am pleased to say that it went well! And I’m even more pleased to say that it’s all over. Hooray!


Very early on in my research I started to explore the idea of the ‘mask’ as a useful metaphor for high-stakes online reflection. A mask is artificial, in the sense that isn’t a natural part of the body, but it has a profound relationship with identity and with the idea of the face. That relationship has been explored in theatre, anthropology, sociology, literature and culture. Like the experiences of students and teachers, the mask turned out to be complex, and by the time I came to analyse my data I had identified six mask ‘genres’. These have structured my thesis. I’ve written about them a bit in this blog, and there’s a recently published paper of mine that describes them in some detail. In this post, I’ll describe how the mask metaphor worked, and what issues I focused on in the research.

The six mask types I used were: performance, trace, disguise, protection, discipline and transformation. Each of these helped me think in a different way about my data, and about what I was trying to do in arguing for a different kind of approach to online reflective practices.

Here’s a brief rundown of how I used the masks:

performance – masks worn to portray a character, for the benefit of an audience. In my thesis, I used this mask to explore how students perform particular sorts of reflective identities, and their awareness of different sorts of audiences.

trace – death masks, which are commemorations of a person who has died, and are more or less faithful representations, or “traces”, of that person, formed from an impression of their face after death. I asked how we might see digital archives and databases, which store the reflective writing of students, as traces, and what this implies about control and ownership.

disguise – masks that are intended to hide a person’s identity. I applied the metaphor of the mask as disguise to reflective practices themselves, showing how ‘authenticity’ and ‘development’ disguise practices of surveillance and confessional (in the Foucauldian sense* of constructing and legitimising certain kinds of knowledge as “truth”).

protection – strong masks worn to protect the face and head while doing dangerous work. I argued that the way online reflection is taught and structured through digital templates can protect students from the vulnerability of confession, but at the cost of limiting and constraining other possibilities of expression.

discipline – masks with two purposes: to restrain or injure the wearer, and to display the consequences of unacceptable behaviour to the wider community. I suggested that reflection in professional education produces identities through processes of repetition and training, with the aim of shaping the practice of would-be professionals.

transformation – masks worn during rituals or ceremonies to produce transformative effects on the wearer and the community. Reflection is intended to transform practice and selfhood through contemplation over time, but I explored how online reflection can make use of speed, risk and fragmentation to produce different kinds of identity or subjectivity shifts.

*I think it would be a good idea in the next post to talk a bit about how I used the theories of Michel Foucault to make certain kinds of arguments about reflective practices. That will be fun to write!

Here’s the paper that describes some of the conceptual issues in my research, including the masks:

Ross, J. (2011). Traces of self: online reflective practices and performances in higher education (PDF). Teaching in Higher Education, 16/1.

Mask images copyright info:

[1] Creative Commons licensed work by Giant Gingkgo,

[2] L’Inconnue de la Seine, Retrieved 6/8/11.

[3] Stock image by Brasil2,

[4] Stock image by KeithBinns,

[5] © 2005 David Monniaux; Retrieved 6/8/2011.

[6] Stock image by stellalevi,

Jen’s PhD Series: Part 2. My data.

In the last post, I explained the idea for my research – to look at the increasing use of assessed and online reflection in higher education. Not many people seemed to be talking about this particular combination of factors and how they might play out in practice. I really wanted to know how teachers and students were negotiating what I saw as a tricky dilemma: reflective writing is supposed to be authentic and personal, but assessment and being online pull it in other directions, towards an awareness of an audience and a fear of losing control.

To find out more, I interviewed 12 teachers and 20 students from across six higher education programmes in the UK. All had been involved in assessed (or what I’ve been calling “high-stakes”) online reflection for a year or more (1 teacher was no longer doing so, but all the rest of the interviewees were at the time of the interviews). A range of subject areas were included in the research, but all of them were professional or vocational in focus, which seems to match the way that online and assessed reflection is being adopted. Half the programmes were at undergraduate level, and half at postgraduate. Some were online, some campus-based, and one was a blended programme where students spent blocks of time on campus and other blocks interacting online.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from my interviews. Would any students or teachers describe a problem with high-stakes online reflection? If not, what would they say? If they did, how would they get past it in order to do what needed to be done? What strategies did they use to make sense of their practices?

Here are some examples of the kinds of questions I asked students and teachers in my interviews.

For students:

  • How much did you write reflectively in your portfolio/blog? How often? What motivated you to write?
  • Did you get as much feedback as you expected? Was it the right amount?
  • While you were writing, how aware were you of the assessment criteria or of being assessed?
  • Who is your audience for this portfolio/blog? How do you hope they will see you?
  • Can you write personal things in your portfolio/blog? Have you? What happened/ would happen if you did?
  • How is it to do this writing online?
  • Who owns your portfolio/blog? Why?
  • Have you edited the portfolio/blog at all? Would you?
  • What do you think is going to happen to your portfolio/blog after this course?

For teachers:

  • How are students on your course supported to be reflective?
  • How do you understand your own role in terms of supporting or guiding reflection?
  • Are there any problems for you with the notion of reflective writing?
  • How ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ does your students’ reflection seem to you?
  • Do students ever address you in their reflective writing (implicitly or explicitly)? What do you make of that? How do you respond?
  • Do you think your students enjoy doing reflection?
  • Has a student ever shared information in their reflections that you felt was too personal? How have you responded to this?
  • What makes a good reflection? A bad one?

I also asked interviewees to describe or draw a metaphor for their e-portfolios or blogs. I got some really funny and insightful responses this way. Here’s one, where a student describes her e-portfolio as being like a “ball and chain restricting my thoughts”, and like a “tick box exercise”:


It turns out I was right to think there were some tensions around these practices. Different people experienced them differently. For example, some students very straightforwardly wanted to do what was required of them, but didn’t know how. Others understood what was expected, but felt constrained by those expectations. Some of their teachers felt uncomfortable about the possibility that they exercised power over their students through assessing reflection, but at the same time believed that they could help their students be empowered through reflection.

Many students worried about what to say, and what not to say, in their online reflections. Some teachers worried about that, too, and wondered what consequences online disclosure might have for students down the road. They tried to address this by doing things like policing students’ reflections, or producing very structured templates for students to fill in. Both teachers and students sometimes imagined they weren’t actually doing things “on the web”, in order to feel safer.

Some teachers saw reflection as a way of ensuring that students were “fit for practice” in their chosen profession, and welcomed more visibility of students’ learning processes. But students often struggled to produce the sorts of reflective writing that their teachers wanted, which was often very different from other kinds of writing they’d had to do before.

In short, there was a lot going on, and a lot that wasn’t really being discussed or even necessarily acknowledged. It seemed to me that certain kinds of practices and concerns were being “masked” or disguised by the way that high-stakes online reflection was being understood and explained to students.

In the next post, I’ll talk about the way that I ended up using the metaphor of the mask – which I’ve been talking about for a few years now – to structure the PhD.

Jen’s PhD series: Part 1. Why?

part one

So, I said I would write some blog posts about my phd research – what it was about, what I did, and what conclusions I’ve drawn from it. This is the first one of those. It explains what provoked me to do this research. I’ll follow it up with explanations about the questions I was trying to answer, the arguments I made, and what I’ve learned and concluded – that will be for future posts.

The idea for the research came back in 2005/06 because I wanted to understand more about a practice that seemed to be increasingly common in higher education courses in the UK at least: assessing online reflection. There’s still not a lot of evidence that shows exactly how widespread this is, but some research that the Centre for Recording Achievement in the UK has done over the past few years indicates that it is a fairly common practice, especially in professional programmes (like teaching, medicine, social work and law).

If you’re wondering what ‘reflection’ means in this context, so was I. A fairly standard definition of reflection is that it’s a way of deliberately looking back at things you’ve experienced, done or thought in the past to understand and know yourself better. Writing reflections down might also allow you to capture and review how you change over time. Different people say that the point of this self-knowledge is: to become more authentic; to be more aware of how you’ve been shaped by external influences; to be more flexible and able to develop yourself; to become a better professional; to make your learning more personal; to learn more effectively.

So, why assess reflection? One explanation is that students won’t willingly engage in anything that doesn’t ‘count’ in assessment terms. The argument is that they need the motivation of marks in order to make them do this thing – reflection – that is good for them. Giving something a mark also shows that teachers value it, and that’s important, especially as university education gets more time-pressured for both teachers and students.

But what effect does assessment of reflection have? Questions have been debated in a few academic articles about the relationship between self-development and external requirements, about how to prevent students from censoring themselves or trying to write to please their assessors, and about how something as individual as reflection might be assessed fairly. The most interesting questions for me were: aren’t there really profound tensions between assessment and the concept of self-motivated, personal, authentic reflection? How do teachers and students negotiate those tensions, and what does reflection become in those circumstances?

What about doing reflection online – what were the issues there? When I started my research, online environments, like e-portfolios, were being talked about a lot as a wonderful development in helping students record their development through reflection and also through storage of ‘evidence’ of learning and achievement. These environments were often visually attractive, offered a lot of support and structure, and they were trendy and digital. Doing reflection online could also solve practical problems like storage of and access to reflections.

Some people were concerned about the effect of having reflection stored on the web – they were worried about surveillance, about privacy, and about accidental disclosure of things that were confidential or too personal. So online reflection as a concept seemed to involve a delicate balance between disclosure (which is the whole point of reflection) and caution and control (which you need because the web is ‘dangerous’). In attempting to deal with these new concerns, some of the earlier unanswered questions about assessment and reflection seem to have been abandoned.

I wanted to know: what happens when you throw all of this stuff together – reflection, assessment, and the web? That’s what my phd research was about.

If you’re interested reading more about some of this, I suggest these references:

Ayala, J. (2006). Electronic portfolios for whom? Educause Quarterly, 29(1). Retrieved: 21 July 2011.

Boud, D. (2001). Using journal writing to enhance reflective practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2001(90), pp. 9-18.

Creme, P. (2005). Should student learning journals be assessed? Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 30(3), pp. 287–296.

Kimball, M. (2005). Database e-portfolio systems: A critical appraisal. Computers and Composition, 22(4), pp. 434-458.

Strivens, J., Baume, D., Grant, S., Owen, C., Ward, R., & Nicol, D. (2009). The role of e-portfolios in formative and summative assessment: Report of the JISC-funded study. Wigan: Centre for Recording Achievement. Retrieved: 26 July 2011.

Strivens, J., & Ward, R. (2010). An overview of the development of Personal Development Planning (PDP) and e-Portfolio practice in UK higher education. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, Special Edition: Researching and Evaluating Personal Development Planning and e-Portfolio Practice, pp. 1-23. Retrieved: 26 July 2011.[]=114