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LTSIG Dublin 2015: Making Learning in a Binary Landscape: Online Learning and Online Communities

What I learned about building online learning

This presentation took place in Dublin at the LTSIG Conference, 2015

Online learning and online communities: Starting with my cultural context of learning, which has been a blend of New Zealand Maori tribal cultures, of colonial culture and generations of family farming culture. I’m going to reflect on what learning has been for my family and what it is becoming for myself and then consider how it is impacting on designing our learning spaces, online learning and online communities, from my experience so far.

A Non-European Approach to Learning

A Māori concept of time is like an expanding helix, everything interconnected. Past present future happening all at once. The duality of the unseen world and the seen world. The natural world demonated these concepts as you can see in this New Zealand fern and they were visualised in carved language like this poupou depicting ancestors and ancestral lines, continuously unfolding. This carving is found in a meeting house. Sadly, I 'm unable to give you its provenance - where it comes from exactly within Aotearoa New Zealand.

Community is at the Heart of Learning.

You learn by sitting with the old people being quiet, respectful and observing. Humility in learning is important. When they think you are ready you can start doing stuff. In a nutshell community is the family, sub tribe, tribe with strong lasting ties. There is a high level of commitment and investment, with experts that are elected by the community. Some knowledge is shared, and some knowledge is guarded. There is a tradition that the first time you create something – a woven basket for example, you give it away. To focus you to make more, to know the importance of community.

My great-great grandfather spent much of his life working with Māori communities and schools. He observed a big difference between learner capabilities in a mainly Māori communities compared to those of the newer colonial-settler community.

  • Many colonials had migrated from situations that were untenable. They were possibly from a first or second generation of the displaced or broken up communities. They bore the legacy of urban drift and industrialisation. They had an experience of learning to do one thing, especially if they had been factory workers or even clerical workers of some sort.


  • Māori knew the weather. They knew movements of stars, the moon and tides. They knew bird life, ecosystems, hunting, gardening, housing and building. Formal institutional learning was oral and memory based, using a mix of narrative learning, music, rhythm and movement. The more memory-based learning was to remember important genealogical knowledge for a family or tribe including over 1000 names. The rest of learning was timely and relevant. They were masters of learning on the fly to improve performance.

So, we’re talking about agile learning: adaptable, flexible and social learning. All this was observed by my great great-grandfather at the end of the nineteenth century.

A Colonial-Settler Approach to Learning

Let’s go now to Apiti New Zealand, where the most recent generations of my farming family settled having left Cumbria. Our farming community in New Zealand was until recently very isolated geographically. People arrived there to find forest. They had a lack of resources, skills and knowledge. As a result, they had to pull together and reinvent themselves with whatever skills they had or were able to learn.

We’ve looked at Māori learning systems and contexts, colonial-settler contexts and my family’s farming community context of learning. I can see a lot of commonalities with what is developing today.

What are the Positives and Negatives of Online Learning and Online Learning Communities Today?

Reflecting on My Own Experience of Building Online Learning

We approached a colleague Jamie King about a course idea based on what we were seeing in the preparedness of candidates going through to courses such as the CELTA or Trinity Cert TESOL. Jamie, in his capacity as a teacher trainer, has seen some similar issues that we wanted to address:

  • The introduction of key principles in teaching for anyone who wanted to better prepare themselves for the courses that we know are intense and where there is little time to assimilate new concepts.
  • He came up with the content, which he had originally thought to be delivered face to face.
  • I wanted to try and make that face to face teacher training course go digital to make it as accessible as possible.

I had to harness all my training as a teacher, designer, visual artist, writer, but mostly as a learner.


  • have good house-keeping:
    • Tagging, filing
    • Working files - clearly ordered
    • Backups
    • Consistent web image naming and title conventions

The UX has to be intuitive.

  • The more instructions we need to give, the weaker the design layout is
  • Observe and notice how people interact with the content and the interface
  • Adjust assumptions about content and interface usability
  • As soon as I see the hesitation – oh, where do I go now? I know we have a problem.
  • Be constantly in Beta – the process is like build, test, react, adapt, test, adapt, test……cyclic


It's not just one interface – this is the challenge of designing when the parameters are constantly shifting – you need to be ready for the content to jump or evolve or adapt.

  • We have to consider the possibilities of a learning space that is liberated from the page turning frameworks
  • Really question ourselves about mobile learning and what the future is, we have to be agile.
  • How will AI affect the static slow to build LMS Platform when we have developments like WILDFIRE already out there?

 Cross Device

  • People’s everyday reality - on trains, noise, distractions
  • -chunks of learning, short, relevant
  • -Gimmicks, technology You have to ask yourself, what is it adding?
  • -What assists learning as opposed to being a cool feature?
  • it's got to work fast or I'm not interested.

 Variety and Choice – differentiate learning

  • Can’t assume someone is going to sit through a video.
  • Can’t expect someone to read a lot.


  • Maybe I just have to find a way with working with this by chunking information into smaller meals
  • Letting people know from the outset how long a lesson or input is going to take
  • Making it a put and down and pick up again course. One minute on the tablet, another on the phone


  • Language and Tone
  • Sense of fun
  • Human contact

 Community forum

  • Given that communities are evolving off platforms more than on, would it be better just to have an ELTCampus chat hashtag to reach a wider discussion of interested groups?
  • One objective is to show the presence of people – that there are tutors behind the project.
  • That attachment to specialists

 Being agile is a key factor to creating material in our current context. We aren't chipping the course out of tablets on the mountain, we can redesign on the fly. And much like the corkscrewing universe that we live in: just when we think we’ve got it, we have to return to the beginning.