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John Cook: Using Design Research to Explore the Use of Mobile Devices and Social Media to Mediate ‘Informal Learning’ …

John Cook: Using Design Research to Explore the Use of Mobile Devices and Social Media to Mediate ‘Informal Learning’

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  • 1. Two Cases of Design Research that Explore How Mobile Devices and Social Media Mediate ‘Informal Learning’ to Drive the Debate: Can Learning Design Hack it? John Cook Learning Technology Research Institute London Metropolitan University Email: Learning Design Grid Theme Team vision ( makes it clear that “Social andmobile technologies offer learners unprecedented opportunities ... yet these are constantly shifting withescalating complexity”. If we add to this the increasing overlap between formal, „informal‟ and work-basedlearning then we truly have a world in flux. Consequently, this paper describes two small to medium sizedprojects that have taken a participatory, educational design research approach to investigate how mobile devicesand social media can mediate “informal learning” in a variety of contexts. My first aim is to uncover designprinciples based on these complex case studies and raise issues about possible approaches to scaling up thesetechno-pedagogical designs. However, due to space limitations I can sometimes only hint at the complexitiesthat pervade my practice. Furthermore, The Art and Science of Learning Design workshop call ( states that: “Participants will be able to use learning design support tools and methods that they may not have engaged with before. Attendees will prepare for this by bringing along an exemplar learning design from their own practice, which they will attempt to implement in software using one of several learning design tools. At the same time, exemplars of learning designs will be considered from the perspective of design methods and frameworks.” (my italics)My second aim is to provide the workshop with exemplar „designs for learning‟ (the two cases) for designdiscourse; the purpose of this is to see if the learning design tools and software available in the workshop canimplement all or perhaps aspects of these complex design-based research driven cases/scenarios that I present. Ianticipate, based on my knowledge of learning design, that the productive workshop discourse that follows willextend into design methods and frameworks. I will use the results of this discourse to expand this paper into anassessment of how the „Art and Science of Learning Design‟ meets my needs as aresearcher/designer/practitioner. Indeed, with over 20 years previous experience of Technology EnhancedLearning research, which included 10 years in the start-stop-start area of AI in Education (see Cook, 2010, for asummary) I feel obliged to pose the critical question in this paper‟s title: Can Learning Design Hack it? The paper is structured as follows. Firstly, I briefly delineate what I mean by “informal learning”,opting for the term „task-conscious learning‟, and outline the characteristics of educational design research. Thisis followed by a succinct distillation of some key participatory perspectives and design based oriented outcomesfrom two European projects that I have worked on as a partner: CONTSENS (using devices for context sensitiveand location-based vocational education and training) and MATURE (social learning in work-based knowledgenetworks). The descriptions are by no means exhaustive and instead aim to provide the workshop with aresource for design discourse (see above). I will conclude by pointing to the design implications for sustainableapproaches to developing technology enhanced approaches for mediating informal task-conscious learning.Informal learning and design researchWe are always learning from different contexts in the world. It is for this reason that Cook et al. (2008) seeformal and “informal learning” as being part of a continuum of a multi-dimensional clustering of informal andformal learning activities, rather than positioned in an either-or relationship. Indeed, “informal learning” hasbeen used of late as an en vogue term by various governments who have specific agendas. Rogers (2006, p. 7)makes the helpful distinction between „task-conscious learning‟, “where learning is not conscious but takesplace while engaged in some activity and when achievements are measured not in terms of learning but of taskcompletion”, and „learning-conscious learning‟, “where learning is intended and conscious and achievementsare measured in terms of learning”. The two cases below are generally in the area of „task-conscious learning‟,but inevitably there exists overlaps with „learning-conscious learning‟. Educational design research tends to have interventionist characteristics, is process oriented andcontributes to theory building (Plomp, 2009, p. 17). Indeed, design research (as I will henceforth call it) iscontext bound in nature, which means generalizations from this type of work tend not to be context-free.However, design researchers do strive for generalisable design principles whilst generalising to a broader theory(Plomp, 2009, p. 33). My own approach to design research, described below, spans the last 20 years; it is user
  • 2. centered and aims to provide a lens through which to systematically inquire into approaches that orchestrate andempower educators, trainers, technology and social media designers/developers, users and learners as theyparticipate in design discourse and practices surrounding Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL).Case 1 CONTSENS: Augmented Mobile LearningIn the CONTSENS project ( LTRI successfully explored how the use of physical space couldbe augmented using mobile devices so as to mediate task conscious activities in areas as diverse as landscapearchitecture, urban planning, marketing and second-language learning (for detail see Smith et al, 2011). Weaimed to augment a variety of contexts for learning in such a way that would, we predicted, allow collaboratinglearners to interact: with each other, with the mobile phones and with the physical environment in order togenerate their own context for development within a Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978 / 1930).Design research was introduced in CONTSENS with the expectation that participants would systematicallyadjust various aspects of the designed context so that each adjustment could be tested and fed back into the nextiteration of the intervention. Mixed reality scenarios were used on Smartphones to allow for adaptations in thecontextual designs. Of particular interest (for the workshop) is the successful reuse of the context of one subject(urban education) in another (language learning) through a rapid reconfiguration of the requiredscripts/information within the mobile device mediated augmented space for learning. The initial tour was developed with the aim of enabling HE students to visualise urban educationthrough various collective images and representations 1. A tutor had developed the original tour in North Londonand was closely involved in the creation of the mobile tour. The development and production process involvedthe following elements: (i) Initial field work and documentation of the site; (ii) Learning narratives/scripts foreach task episode in a GPS zone, (iii) Capture and digitisation of oral histories, Pathé news clips and localhistorical stories, (iv) Capture and digitisation of material elements that detail changes in the urban form, such asphotographs depicting the evolution of school buildings and historical maps, and (v) MEDIASCAPE (location-based mobile production to support the underlying pedagogy of the tour). Both tours (urban education, n = 22,and each of the language tours, n = 9) use the same physical space and have been used and evaluated withrepresentative teachers and learners, feedback was very positive (see Smith et al, 2011, for detail). Of particularnote is the fact that in several group interviews participants commented that the mobile tour promoted “activelearning” and that students were less passive than they would have been on a tutor-led tour (some learners hadalso taken the „analogue‟ tour). In one group, whilst talking about the difference between the two tours, onestudent said, “I felt like I was more passive [in tutor led tour], like I was just taking in information, and with thisone I felt like I was, it was triggering my own thoughts and I was getting to think for myself about the area andthe buildings”. The tutor, who assisted in the design, was interviewed after the evaluations tours had taken place,stated that he believed that there are lots of benefits to the Urban Education mobile tour and that it provided aneffective learning experience and opportunities to utilise new and different pedagogies. Points made by the tutorinclude the observation that students move from being passive to active learners, they can take more controlover their learning, and they can be engaged in more productive pedagogical approaches, such as small groupwork and investigative problem-based learning. The tutor also noted that mobile tour afforded the opportunity tobe more focused, but at the same time provides a multi-tasked and multimedia experience that allows students toget below the surface of the tasks. He also felt that the mobile technologies employed excited and intrigued thestudents, and helped them to become more engaged in the tour. Whilst different issues have emerged from each of the iterations, one aspect that is common to both ofthe studies is that our design has fostered active learning, which has occurred through a combination of factors.As the content was pushed to the mobile devices it engaged the learners in the task, and encouraged them tointeract with the material and learning content on the devices, the physical environment and the other students intheir group. The tasks then made them think and reflect on what they were looking at and being asked to do (afinding from Iteration 1). Another common aspect was that the whole learning experience was “more concrete”and “real” because it took place in situ, and was directly related to the learning context. We claim that themobile tours appear to be acting as part of what Vygotsky calls the „more capable peer‟ and were assisting thelearners as they move through stages of development in the Zone of Proximal Development. However, furtherissues about scaling up were surfaced which we return to in the conclusions.Case 2 MATURE IP: People Tagging in Workplace Learning The MATURE Project ( conceives individual workplace learning processes to beinterlinked (the output of a learning process is input to others) in a knowledge-maturing process in whichknowledge changes in nature. This knowledge can take the form of classical content in varying degrees ofmaturity, but also involves people, tasks and processes or semantic structures. The goal of MATURE is tounderstand this maturing process better, based on empirical studies with users, to give guidelines and to build1 See
  • 3. tools and services to reduce maturing barriers. MATURE systematically makes use of a design researchapproach that has included Use Cases that were linked to personas (developed from an ethnographicallyinformed study) and particular knowledge maturing activities. One important continuing aspect of theMATURE work is the „people dimension‟ aspect of the project, which aims at improving the development ofknowledge about other‟s expertise and improved informal relationships based on a people tagging approach(e.g. see Braun et al., 2010) developed by the FZI, the scientific coordinating partner of MATURE. Thisapproach has surfaced design implications for „task-conscious learning‟ in work-based social networkingsettings and is consequently expanded upon below in more detail. A tag is typically defined in online activities as a “non-hierarchical keyword or term assigned to a pieceof information (such as an Internet bookmark, digital image, or computer file). This kind of metadata helpsdescribe an item and allows it to be found again by browsing or searching. Tags are generally chosen informallyand personally by the items creator or by its viewer, depending on the system” 2. Social networking approachesto workplace learning have tended to focus on describing and augmenting employee profiles from theperspective of those profiles being used for expert finding and community formation. These platforms aremainly based on the self-promotion paradigm whereby people can represent themselves with a profile andindicate their connections to other users. Further, in some of these approaches, the principle of social taggingand bookmarking is transferred to people; for instance Linkedin (, Xing( and Collabio3 (the latter is no longer active). „Knowing-who‟ is an essential element forefficient knowledge maturing processes, e.g. for finding the right person to talk to solve a task oriented problem.Many approaches like self-descriptions in employee yellow pages, or top-down competence managementapproaches have largely failed to live up to their promises. This failure is often because information contained inthe directories becomes outdated quickly; or is not described in a manner relevant to potential users. In MATURE, FZI are using a lightweight approach based on collaborative tagging as a principle togather the information about persons inside and outside the company (if and where relevant): individuals tageach other according to the topics they associate with this person. FZI call this „People Tagging tool‟ and claimit can be used to gain a collective review of existing skills and competencies. Knowledge can be shared andawareness strengthened within the organisational context around „who knows what?‟ This tagging informationcan then potentially be used to search for persons to talk to in a particular task-oriented situation. Braun et al.(submitted), have observed that “each target context of a people tagging system will require a different„configuration‟, which depends on cultural aspects as well as the actual goals that are associated withintroducing people tagging. An analysis of the state of the art has shown that there has been little research onidentifying design options in a systematic way so that we [FZI] have developed a framework for engineeringpeople tagging systems”. FZI‟s conceptual design framework is based on results and experiences with the fieldexperiments, expert focus group together with an analysis of the design of folksonomy-based systems in generalin the literature. The framework has five main aspects: (a) involved people, (b) control and semantics of thevocabulary, (c) control of tag assignments, (d) visibility of tag assignments, and (e) search heuristics for flexiblesearch strategies. For example, in terms of who is allowed to tag (a), restrictions can range from: anyone beingallowed to tag, or a limited group of persons are allowed to define tags – limited either by organizationalstructures (e.g., team colleagues) or individual relationships (e.g., friends, or approved contacts in a socialnetworking service) – or allowing only self-annotation. These options may be combined with each other. The People Tagging tool was introduced to and formatively evaluated in two phases with ConnexionsNorthumberland (Careers Guidance service, UK, n = 18) between October 2009 and July 2010. Resultsspecifically showed that: the simplicity of the system was attractive and important (being perceived as a„Facebook for work‟); although little knowledge maturing could be observed within the limited period of use inphase 2 (i.e. one month) there were insights into related notions of sharing and building expertise, reflectivepractice. Furthermore, Braun et al. (submitted) have reported that participants stated that they “also liked theway it can give them lots more information than they currently have and the basic philosophy of democracywhich empowers the individual and where nobody is in charge but has all possibility to contribute (currentlythey often feel out of control because there is no possibility to easily contribute to a shared knowledge base likee. g. the intranet).” However, various areas of concern were also identified: (i) there should be a „use by date‟for tags, it is important that a person tag is time-bound, so people who have this tag do not feel they are makinga completely open-ended commitment; (ii) „lazy-practice‟ issue, here some practitioners may abuse the systemwhere, for example, lazy colleagues may resist entering details about themselves and may tag others withexpertise they may have (to deflect additional queries); and (iii) „sharing could increase workload‟. On the lastissue, Braun et al. (submitted) note that “there were concerns about sharing whole people tagging informationwith other services in general because it could also increase the workload”. It can be noted that the organization2, accessed 19 Jul. 113, accessed 19 July 2011
  • 4. currently continues to use the system, and FZI are collecting usage logs to study the tagging behaviour moreclosely; I will pick up on this analytics in design issues for task-conscious learning in the conclusions below.ConclusionsThe CONTSENS case took a participative design research approach to developing a reusable design forcomplex, location based, task-conscious mobile learning (a small- to medium-scale of task conscious learning).Furthermore, the MATURE case has deployed design research to developed four successful „demonstrators‟,one of which has shown that the tools and services for „People Tagging‟ can be successful when formativelyevaluated with users (a small- to medium-scale of learning). However, for these cases to become sustainable,issues of up-scaling needs to be addressed so that a large-scale view of design for learning can be attained.Indeed, the people tagging tool is currently being developed into a larger scale „instantiation‟ within MATUREand as such it faces certain challenges. Although MATURE has systematically considered aspects in therequirements engineering process of informal task-conscious learning support, its essence is arguably onewhere, at most, medium groups are implicitly seen as the focus of design. Personas are a useful first step, butcan they be generalized to a population of thousands of users? Therefore, I have recently suggested with FZIcolleagues (Cook et al., 2011) that the useful „customising tools to meet cultural factors‟ methodology deployedsuccessfully by FZI needs extending when we attempt to design for the large-scale use of TEL that is embeddedin, or that perhaps embeds, sustainable communities and networks of practice. As mentioned in the introduction, one of the aims of this position paper has been to provide theworkshop with exemplar „designs for learning‟ (the two cases) for design discourse at the workshop; thepurpose of this is to see if the learning design tools and software available in the workshop can implement all orperhaps aspects of these complex design-based research driven cases/scenarios that I present above. I lookforward to debate surrounding the critical question posed in this paper‟s title: Can Learning Design Hack it?AcknowledgementsCONTSENS was funded by the EU Leonardo Lifelong Learning Programme. MATURE is funded by FP7.Thank you to the reviewers for their comments.ReferencesBraun, S., Kunzmann, C. and Schmidt, A. (2010). People Tagging & Ontology Maturing: Towards Collaborative Competence Management. In: David Randall and Pascal Salembier (eds.): From CSCW to Web2.0: European Developments in Collaborative Design (Computer Supported Cooperative Work), Springer, 2010, pp. 133-154.Braun, S., Kunzmann, C. and Schmidt, A. (submitted). Semantic People Tagging & Ontology Maturing: An Enterprise Social Media Approach to Competence Management submitted to International Journal of Knowledge & Learning, Special Issue on e-HR (editors Gianluca Elia & Mustafa Jarrar).Cook, J. (2010). Longitudinal, Educational Design Research Investigation of the Temporal Nature of Learning: Taking a Vygotskian Approach. Journal of Interactive Media in Education. Available from, J., Pachler, N. and Bradley, C. (2008). Bridging the Gap? Mobile Phones at the Interface between Informal and Formal Learning. Journal of the Research Center for Educational Technology, Spring. Available from:, J., Schmidt, A., Kunzmann, C. and Braun, S. (2011). The Challenge of Integrating Motivational and Affective Aspects into the Design of Networks of Practice. In 2nd Motivational and Affective Aspects of Technology Enhanced Learning and Web 2.0 (MATEL), European Conference-Technology Enhanced Learning 2011, Palermo, Italy.Plomp, T. (2009). Educational Design Research: An Introduction. In Tjeerd Plomp & Nienke Nieveen (Eds.), An Introduction to Educational Design Research. Enschede: The Netherlands: SLO Netherlands Institute for Curriculum Development.Smith, C., Bradley, C., Cook, J. and Pratt-Adams, S. (2011). Designing for Active Learning: Putting Learning into Context with Mobile Devices. In Anders D. Olofsson and J. Ola Lindberg (Eds), Informed Design of Educational Technologies in Higher Education: Enhanced Learning and Teaching. IGI Global. Due 2011.Rogers, A. (2006). Informal learning in lifelong learning. Paper presented at Informal Learning and Digital Media: Constructions, Contexts and Consequences. University of Southern Denmark, Odense. Danish Research Centre on Education and Advanced Media Materials (Dream).Vygotsky, L. (1978 / 1930). Mind in society. The development of higher psychological processes. Edited by M. Cole et al., Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.