Learning by Design

A traditional university course is not simply a matter of uploading content online and hoping that the same learning outcomes to be achieved, although the majority of lecturers had little choice but to proceed in this manner in 2020. Pandemic-era teaching has probably been the best demonstration of how much more thought is necessary to prepare for online learning. The final major topic for ONL202 allowed me to explore the pedagogical concepts behind the design of online and blended learning, and in particular, the Community of Inquiry (COI), a little further with my group.

The COI was proposed by Garrison et al. (2000) as a tool to create an educational experience through online learning, with the core of the model being three overlapping dimensions:

Cognitive Presence: “extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse”

Social Presence: “ability of participants in the Community of Inquiry to project their personal characteristics into the community”

Teaching Presence: design of the educational experience and facilitation (by teachers and/or learners)

A fourth element that we also explored in our group was the Emotional Presence, defined by Cleveland-Innes and Campbell (2012) as “the outward expression of emotion, affect, and feeling by individuals and among individuals in a community of inquiry, as they relate to and interact with the learning technology, course content, students, and the instructor”.

Venn diagram of how the ONL202 course incorporates the Community of Inquiry
A representation of the indicators of the four Presences from the Community of Inquiry framework, within the ONL202 Open Networked Learning Course (From the presentation by group PBL04 for ONL202 Topic 4 Design for online and blended learning)


In investigating the ONL202 course and categorising the different aspects of the course within each Presence, I could appreciate how well-designed the course is. I have been wondering if the overwhelming positive emotions our group experienced is something that could be designed for, or if it has an element of luck? We seemed to have been grouped mainly based on our preferred time of day for meetings. Yet somehow our different strengths and quirks has helped us to have fun learning and working together over the past two months.

Of course, if I return to the diagram above, then I would see that it’s not all about luck, as there were many aspects of the course that was designed in a way to help us build that trust within the group, from the scaffolding of the topics to the extremely vital presence of our group facilitators, who provided a master class in facilitation by listening actively and providing occasional nudges to steer us in the right direction, but only when necessary.

The expert facilitation we experienced has made me reflect on my past experience as a student taking part in group projects and the way I have incorporated group work in the class that I teach. I hope to be able to apply the COI to my own course by re-evaluating the ingredients and modifying the recipe to adapt to this new dish (to me), that is online blended learning.

Free-Photos / Pixabay



Cleveland-Innes, M., & Campbell, P. (2012) Emotional presence, learning, and the online learning environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(4): 269–292. DOI: 10.19173/irrodl.v13i4.1234

Garrison D.R., Anderson T. & Archer W. (2000) Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3): 87–105. DOI: 10.1016/S1096-7516(00)00016-6

Learning collaboratively—online

Digital network of faces
geralt / Pixabay

Group-work has not always been something I looked forward to as a student and I took those past negative experiences into account when I planned for group projects for the course I teach. The scenario we were given to discuss for Topic 3 of ONL202 about learning in communities—networked collaborative learning contrasted “group-work mode from school” vs collaborative learning that encourages learners to “collaborate with their peers…makes use of all the different competencies”.

During the webinar for this topic by Kay Oddone, we looked into how learning could be developed within a community, e.g., a course or our individual ONL202 discussion groups, and within a network, e.g., the ONL202 cohort or connections on Twitter. It does seem like depending on the context, the goals and approaches to encourage collaborative learning would differ accordingly. Professionally, it is appealing to build a personal learning network (Warlick, 2009) to continuously learn throughout our respective career journeys. I began to using Twitter professionally mainly to expand on my research network, but it would definitely be useful grow my pedagogical network too.

Within our discussion group, we went in-depth on the topic of encouraging better collaboration. As usual we explored a variety of topics and what was most impactful was our shared reflections of our journey with ONL202, e.g., how frustrated we had been in the early orientation weeks, when we repeatedly had to introduce ourselves through the early meetings and by using Padlet—two months into the course, we could appreciate that those steps were necessary to:

  1. orientate us with using digital tools
  2. build familiarity and trust in the group

We could also see the importance of our facilitators, who were vital in getting us started but quite quickly let us take the lead the discussions. They only stepped in when necessary to provide guidance or pointers when we got stuck. I reflected that students are usually left on their own to discuss and navigate the thorny path of group work, with instructors only seeing the end result of a report or presentation. It does seem like an intriguing alternative to sit in on group discussions to provide necessary scaffolding and intervention along the way to enhance the collaborative learning process. This may also be helpful to avoid the usual ‘group-work mode’, where each person is assigned to cover different aspects of the task, instead of discussing and working out the problem together.

Because of my past experiences as a student and instructor, I was interested explore the aspect of making collaborative learning inclusive. Without addressing the communication/collaborative ability gap within a class/group, everyone would be struggling to learn together or complete the task.

As usual we found too many readings to go through in two weeks. From selected sources, I gathered a non-comprehensive list of strategies for effective and inclusive online collaborative learning:

  • Use appropriate technology
  • Set appropriate topics/tasks to build group interdependence
  • Have clear goals, strong articulation between discussion topics and assessments
  • Combine synchronous and asynchronous activities
  • Keep groups small and diverse
  • Give students autonomy, e.g., to select topic or decide on process
  • Establish peer evaluation
  • Regular, ongoing instructor presence
  • Orientation: explain guidelines on behaviour, goals, technology, expectations of learners

(adapted from: Dirkx & Smith, 2004; RIT, 2014; Scager et al., 2016; Bates, 2019)

Collaborative learning is a powerful pedagogical method, with far-reaching consequences beyond the classrooms, and it is taken to another level online. I look forward to applying the knowledge and experiences gained from ONL202 into my teaching practices.


Bates, A.W. (2019) 4.4 Online collaborative learning. In: Teaching in a Digital Age. Available here.

Dirkx, J.M. & Smith, R.O. (2004) Thinking Out of a Bowl of Spaghetti: Learning to Learn in Online Collaborative Groups. In Roberts, T. S. (Ed.), Online Collaborative Learning: Theory and Practice (pp. 132-159). IGI Global. DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59140-174-2.ch006

Pang, L. & Jen, C.C. (2018) Inclusive dyslexia-friendly collaborative online learning environment: Malaysia case study. Education and Information Technologies, 23: 1023–1042. DOI: 10.1007/s10639-017-9652-8

RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) (2014) Online Design: Collaborative Online Learning. Available here.

Scager, K., Boonstra, J., Peeters, T., Vulperhorst, J. & Wiegant, F. (2017) Collaborative Learning in Higher Education: Evoking Positive Interdependence. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 15(4). DOI: 10.1187/cbe.16-07-0219

Warlick, D. (2009) Grow your personal learning network. Leading and Learning with Technology, March/April 2009: 12–16. Available here.

Open learning is not black-and-white

I had initially assumed that the second topic of the ONL202 course, Open Learning—Sharing and Openness,  would be a relatively straightforward one. But as we went through the introductory material and began our first group discussions, I started to realise that the topic was, for lack of a better word, really open

The first aspect that we explored was regarding the concept of openness. With students in a course, I suppose that sharing and openness should come intuitively as an educator, and may be less of a problem. However, when it comes to casual sharing with other educators, it was trickier ground for me. I suppose my feelings may reflect the presence of structure, i.e., in a class setting, vs an absence of it, i.e., in casual sharing sessions. I learnt about the 5-stages of an educator (Kugel, 1993) from my ONL colleague, and perhaps as I move on from the earlier stages of focussing too much on myself, hopefully that fear and uncertainty about sharing with others would eventually dissipate.

Open By John Martinez Pavliga via Flickr


Moving onto another aspect of openness and sharing was looking into the concept of Open Educational Resources.

“Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching, learning and research materials in any medium – digital or otherwise – that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.

UNESCO, 2019

Butcher et al. (2015) provides some basic facts, including the following:

  • OER ≠ Online learning; openly licensed content may be used offline too
  • OER is not synonymous with, but may aid, open learning, which follows a certain structure and is within a different scope

I guess this understanding is important as there are areas which either have unreliable internet access, insufficient bandwidth, or restricted access to certain websites. If OER can be made available freely for an educator to download and share hardcopies with students, that would also fulfil the spirit of OER.

With regards to open learning, we have not investigated its concept and structure as much as we have explored massive open online courses (MOOCs). By definition, such courses have no student quotas—100,000s may register for a course, admissions are open without any particular processes—anyone may register, and everything is conducted online (adapted from Classroom Central).

Besides ONL202, I have had no prior experience with MOOCs, but I am intrigued by the concept of such open learning courses providing universal access to education.

I found this TED talk by Daphne Koller in 2012, a co-founder of Coursera to be very insightful, especially how they applied evidence-based pedagogical methods to build the courses. From Koller and also another TED talk by David Wiley in 2010,  I realised that the online teaching methods that they were talking about a decade or so ago, are only recently being introduced in on-campus teaching and in particular, being actively promoted for the present era of ‘forced’ online teaching.

While it appears that MOOCs could be test-beds for on-campus teaching and learning, among other things, I am continuing to explore what OER and open learning would mean to traditional institutions and lecturers, like myself. I do appreciate that companies and institutions have to seek returns for services they provide, but measures are definitely needed to ensure that open learning platforms remain ethical (Marshall, 2014), and don’t go the way of social media, where users become the product (see Netflix documentary Social Dilemma and/or read this).

This week I popped into some presentations at two different virtual conferences—Creative Commons Global Summit and Biodiversity Information Standards (TDWG) 2020—and was impressed by their dedication to making information openly available to as many people as possible. As we take care to look out for the pitfalls with open learning, I do feel inspired to move towards more open teaching practices (with experience) by following the example of openness in the CC and TDWG communities.

In the closing minutes of this week’s ONL202 webinar, Alastair Creelman, provided some interesting food for thought with regards to saving time and (public) money by being more open, sharing more, and exploring new ways of teaching.

Could you be a good teacher if you just give people a playlist, instead of giving the lecture yourself? Let people hear lecturers or experiences from different universities or countries, and your job [could be] to lead the discussion afterwards or more in-depth analyses…

—Alastair Creelman, ONL202 organiser & facilitator


Butcher, N., Kanwar, A. & Uvalic-Trumbic, S.  (2015) A Basic Guide to Open Educational Resources. UNESCO, Paris. 133 pp. Available here

Kugel, P. (1993) How professors develop as teachers. Studies in Higher Education, 18 (3): 315–328. DOI: 10.1080/03075079312331382241

Marshall, S. (2014) Exploring the ethical implications of MOOCs. Distance Education, 35 (2): 250–262. DOI: 10.1080/01587919.2014.917706

Moving back-and-forth: Digital Visitors or Residents

Over the past two weeks, we have been diving deep into the first topic of the Online Networked Learning course: Online participation and digital literacies, starting with a webinar by David White and Jörg Pareigis.

The concepts of ‘Digital Natives and Immigrants’ (Prensky, 2001) and ‘Visitors and Residents’ (White & Le Cornu, 2011) were discussed during the session. The Native-Immigrant concept was perhaps applicable in the context—and era—of the situation presented by Prensky (2001), where educators may see themselves as immigrants to the digital world compared to their younger students who were perceived to be native speakers of the online language. Given that the paper was presented nearly two decades ago, some of the ideas may not be as relevant today, especially as many educators are themselves ‘Digital Natives’. For more in-depth critiques of this concept, look up the work of Margayan et al. (2011) and White & Le Cornu (2011), among others.

There was a point brought up during the webinar that touched on, that struck me as something to bear in mind:

ownership ≠ capability

The examples given included: just because we see someone with a shiny new laptop, it does not mean that the person would be really good at using the laptop. I guess it is useful to move away from seeing things in dichotomies or categorising students (or ourselves as educators) according to a narrow/biased set of requirements.

My digital presence along a vertical 'Personal-Professional' axis, and a horizontal 'Visitor-Resident' axis
My digital presence


There may be other alternatives to the dichotomy, but during the webinar, we did an exercise to map out our digital presence along a vertical axis representing the ‘Personal-Professional’ spaces, and a horizontal axis representing ‘Visitor-Resident’ spaces. Mapping out and visualising this spectrum was an interesting one to provide perspective and understanding of my digital presence (or absence, at least to the general public). Also, while certain digital tools may require a permanent residency in a particular space, depending on how and why one uses the tool, there are also options to occupy more than one space at one time.

What I found useful about the Visitor-Resident mapping exercise was that by seeing it in this way, it does provide me with more confidence to move into or around the spaces and improve my digital literacy.

The building of digital literacy was part of the problem given to us to discuss and explore in our respective groups and was also discussed in a tweetchat among some of the ONL202 participants. Some takeaways from the group discussions and tweetchat:

  • Students are probably as anxious as ourselves in using tools for online learning
  • There is no shortage of tools to help us with online teaching and learning
    • there is no need to learn them all
    • there is no need to feel anxious when we hear about another new tool, because it may not be better/applicable to our needs
  • Important to maintain a network of like-minded educators, such as through this ONL202 course to exchange ideas, learn what works/doesn’t, and continue growing as an educator.

My group struggled a little to get started with the problem presented to us, and I guess that is part of the problem-based learning (PBL) process, but hopefully we will be able to complete our tasks for this first topic by the end of the week (which is soon…). Once we get a better hang of things, perhaps I would be able to reflect a little more about PBL in future posts.



Margaryan, A., Littlejohn, A. & Vojt, G. (2011) Are digital natives a myth or reality? University students’ use of digital technologies. Computers & Education, 56(2): 429–440. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2010.09.004

Prensky, M. (2001) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon, 9 (5). Available here [accessed 8 October 2020]

White, D. S. & Le Cornu, A. (2011) Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement. First Monday, 16(9). https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v16i9.3171

Hello ONL202

Welcome to my blog, where I will be sharing reflections from ONL202 Open Networked Learning over the next few weeks.

I am a lecturer and curator at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, National University of Singapore (NUS). I started teaching for the first time last semester and it was an interesting time adapting and managing students’ expectations week-by-week as the semester (and pandemic) progressed. I was lucky to be able to complete all my lectures face-to-face with a few of the final sessions conducted in a hybrid manner (live + Zoom). But the group project, which was to be a mini museum showcasing biodiversity conservation topics, had to be moved to an online presentation.

Museum showcase
Only one student showcase was completed before the lockdown

As I mulled over the student and peer feedback from that first challenging semester and was looking into making the necessary modifications to the course, I received the email about signing up for ONL202 and was intrigued by the course description (though with some hesitation, more on that later). I figured that the course would be an excellent opportunity to learn more about teaching online.

The first two weeks of the course were a time to connect with other participants from NUS, followed by our respective PBL (Problem-based Learning) groups. My group (PBL04) consists of a mix of participants, who are mostly based in Europe, with only me and another NUS colleague being based in Asia. Our backgrounds represent quite a good diversity—both culturally and professionally. Having only started this job last year and being a novice lecturer with little exposure (or rather, awareness) to pedagogical techniques, I look forward to learning from, and together with, the rest of my group as we tackle a variety of scenarios related to online learning over the next couple of months.

As I went through the course description prior to the start of this course, I felt a little anxious as it felt like returning to school and having to face the first day of class all over again. Upon reflection, it is a good chance to experience this feeling from the point of view of students, especially those who were thrown into the deep end (along with their lecturers) six months ago. I hope that as the weeks go by, I will find that these early jitters are unfounded, and also learn to accommodate similar anxieties as an educator.

Neon lights spelling out: Think about things differently [with differently flipped horizontally]
Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi from Pexels