Monthly Archive: December 2015

Using social media and blogs to enhance social presence – a quick chat with some online educators

skepticalsquirrelIn week two of The #HumanMOOC, participants were encouraged to consider using social media to enhance social presence in online courses, using Twitter as an ideal example. I was sceptical. Like this squirrel.

There are a few basic steps my organisation takes in online courses to maximise social presence, for example:

  • Asking participants to fully introduce themselves
  • Making forum participation mandatory to get a certificate (at least 1 post per weekly forum)
  • Regularly encouraging the participants in the weekly news posts
  • Using volunteers as ‘guest facilitators’ to increase activity in the forums, so participants know they are likely to receive a helpful reply
  • Peer learning via peer assessment activities

I’ve also picked up some additional tips via the HumanMOOC, which I mentioned in a previous post.

I’ve heard social media mentioned several times as the most effective way to maximise social presence, but also probably the most difficult. What added value does social media or blogging add to online learning? Shouldn’t we concentrate on improving the interaction within existing forums in the online course?  I’d heard much about ‘dual layer’ online learning, but is this combination of different platforms just going to confuse people and discriminate against those people who just don’t want to have to sign up for another social media account? Are we at risk of just throwing technology and tools at problems? Am I being too sceptical of technology?

I was struck by an earlier tweet by one of the courses facilitators, quoting George Siemens:

In the context of my own work – coordinating online courses for developing country researchers, librarians and journal editors – there are sometimes significant literacy issues: English language literacy, academic literacy and digital literacy. Social media literacy just adds another barrier to overcome – Its difficult enough getting people to interact within a forum without asking students to learn more skills first, especially when they are already pushed for time. For these reasons, social media and external blogging don’t seem very appropriate tools to use. And while Facebook is becoming increasingly popular in developing countries, Twitter is still fairly obscure.

However, many researchers, academics and journalists worldwide do use Twitter, and it does have a lot of potential as a resource – we want to encourage developing country researchers to utilise tools that will give them the ability to communicate their research to a larger audience. Dunlap and Lowenthal (2009)¹ observed that Twitter is great for forcing students to write concisely, and also to be sensitive to the huge audience of an open online community. There is also potential to communicate and get feedback directly from authors and other contacts who they might not be aware are online. xxxx

Blogging also has some potential benefits for practising research writing. My organisation has considered blogging as an internal discussion/collaboration tool, or reflective exercise, but I’m unsure of the benefits of public blogging. Our courses already have (internal) peer assessment activities in which students write a reflection piece and practice writing a research abstract, then get feedback from their peers. Could be an alternative, or compliment this activity? Should the blogging be open and public? That might be an exciting option!

Using the #humanMOOC hashtag I cajoled some online educators and ed tech experts to answer some questions on their experiences of using social media and blogging in their online training. I thought this might also be a good opportunity to test out Storify as a way of recording interesting Twitter discussions:

Full Storify page here

In summary then:


  • Students are not always prepared for using social media in a professional/academic way.
  • Twitter can be confusing at first. There is a need to explain it’s particular conventions by way of modelling – using examples, perhaps through Storify (in a more exciting way than the above!), and getting students to share tips.
  • There are ways to get students more interested in using Twitter: Embedding a widget to display a Twitter feed in the course, highlighting accounts of known authors and other important accounts – perhaps via pre-create Twitter ‘lists’ (however, they need to sign up to see these).
  • Twitter as ‘microblogging’. Some people are nervous of posting things publicly – Twitter could be a first step towards more advanced public writing like blogging.
  • The Direct Messaging (DM) functionality in Twitter is a useful tool for directly communicating with people, and for students to communicate with each other.


  • Easier to learn and customise for students.
  • More popular than Twitter in some contexts – well known as a way of promoting oneself, or showcasing for personal development/CV.
  • Public blogging highly motivational as a way of encouraging writing.
  • Possible to make into a collaborative activity by use of a ‘hub’ such as Inoreader.
  • Some people very nervous about posting their work openly online, while still being a learner and making mistakes.
  • In many fields and regulated industries posting publicly might not be a good idea – really depends on context of course/subject/demography

What about developing country researchers?

So now to consider this for the specific context of an online course in research writing for developing country researchers. Would Twitter or blogging be an appropriate component on the course?

Twitter pros:

  • Great potential for connecting with other learners and researchers externally
  • Ability to communicate with other students informally outside of the confines of the course, or on their own projects
  • Twitter is probably the most popular platform for researchers to communicate their work to a global audience, which is an increasingly important aspect of research communication.
  • Encourages concise writing – a vital skill required for research communication
  • Potential for further collaboration with fellow students once course has finished
  • Potential for further content discovery outside course

Twitter cons:

  • Not popular or well-known in developing countries
  • Could model poor English
  • Steep learning curve – unusual conventions
  • High level of digital and social media literacy needed – having more than one platform can confuse some people.
  • Potentially addictive and distracting

Overall, I think the pros outweigh the cons and there is potential for Twitter to be used in a course for research writing, especially if it is integrated into the structure of the course to show the importance of online research communication and collaboration. It could be argued that this approach is not inclusive, that it requires additional skills that not everybody will have. I think there is a fine balance, but it is arguably more important to offer students the additional skills they need to navigate the social media landscape so they can communicate with an international audience – they can then decide for themselves whether this tool is useful for them long-term.

Some possible Twitter activities for an online course:

  1. Find at least 5 authors in your field and ‘follow’ them. Retweet at least one tweet that you find interesting (optionally quoting the course hashtag)
  2. Find 5 journals you would like to publish. Retweet at least one tweet you find interesting, such as recent article or issue.
  3. Look for educational writing tips, for example via the #acWri hashtag and retweet.
  4. Connect with at least 5 other students on the course by ‘following’ them.
  5. Reflect and write about one interesting thing you discovered from the people you follow on Twitter.
  6. Tweet about an interesting journal article you have read, using a concise summary and linking to the article. If you can find the author on Twitter include their ‘handle’.
  7. Respond to the weekly question on the course hashtag.

Tasks 1 & 2 could be facilitated by creating list of relevant authors and journals to get them started

In conclusion, there may be potential for using social media with online courses, but with caution – we first priority is providing our students with a simple to understand, low-bandwidth environment which provides good quality learning and social interaction. As long as including Twitter does not distract from this, and is carefully integrated into the course through signposting, how-to guides, modelling, and a clear explanation of the purpose of the exercise; then it has potential to add value to the course – through added social presence, collaboration and content discovery.

Blogging pros

  • Excellent for practice writing and reflection.
  • Possible to share blog posts with rest of course via hub feed.
  • Public posting motivates students to do a good job.

Blogging cons

  • Our students tend to know English as their second language, so might not want to share their work publicly if language is not perfect.
  • Students may be reluctant to share certain work publicly in case it is copied or reused by others before they’ve had chance to properly write up their work for publication.
  • Students may be reluctant to publicly share reflections publicly on certain subjects on our course – publishing ethics, for instance.

I don’t think public blogging currently fits with the online courses we do. Our current research writing course has a ‘peer assessment’ component which has worked very successfully, but the work is not shared with the outside world. I suspect that students would not want to share this kind of work on public blogs, but it may be worth considering for other courses with a more intensive writing focus. There may also be a scope for internal blogging as a reflective exercise, and giving the students the option of blogging this publicly.

¹Dunlap, J. C. & Lowenthal, P. R. (2009). Tweeting the night away: Using Twitter to enhance social presence. Journal of Information Systems Education, 20(2).

5 ways to build social presence in online courses, from #HumanMOOC

I have survived into week 2 of “Humanizing Online Instruction” – the HumanMOOC! I will admit that I had some slight reservations at the beginning, and I was initially disappointed that the course syllabus and assignments seemed to be about throwing multimedia technology at online courses to make them more human, and so my impression of the course was a bit like this:


Now, I enjoy a bit of technology, and like experimenting with tools (as per my previous post), but I’m approaching online learning from a low-bandwidth (and simple ‘LMS’) angle and my original objective was more about picking up some general tips and ideas on how to ‘humanise’ online learning, which can seem quite lonely and boring at times.

However, having delved deeper and watched/read the discussions, common themes have emerged around putting pedagogy ahead of technology (or informing and leading the use of technology), and the small changes we can make to appear more human and add social presence and value to online learning. So here are five things that I have learnt that seem to go beyond ‘using social tools’ (or what should inform your use/selection of such tools).

  1. Creating a personable teacher profile
    Do we provide enough information on ourselves? How can students get a sense of our personality? What are our interests? What are we passionate about? Where can they find out more about us? Alec Couros looks more in depth at Digital Identity / Digital Presence here. One of the things I’ve done as a result of watching this is starting up an page.
  1. Showing you care
    How much does your course design and facilitation show that you actually care, and that you are really interested in seeing your students succeed? This reflective blog post from Lisa Hammershaimb suggests that teacher presence might be as simple as “…showing myself as caring enough to draw out the intentions and ambitions of my students?”. Ok, so maybe that’s not a ‘simple’ task, but how can you show you care about the student’s progress and what they achieve from the course? This might be particularly difficult in a MOOC.
  1. Humanising announcements
    Why not make general announcements/news more interesting? What is news in your world, or the world outside the course? What did you find interesting this week? In my zeal for all things low bandwidth, I never considered the effectiveness of including simple pictures in announcements – we could, for example, share a picture of our workspace (that might be brave for some people *hides McDonalds boxes and beer bottles*). We could also encourage participants to post a picture of where they work – this would be fascinating if you were running an international course/MOOC. Also, does your infectious enthusiasm for the subject rub off in your posts and announcements? You do have enthusiasm right? 😉
  1. Encouraging participant bios and digital stories
    In the courses I work on, we encourage participants to provide plenty of background information in their bios, but perhaps we need to give them more specific guidance. We also encourage them to post a forum welcome message to introduce themselves. This didn’t work brilliantly in the last course I did, perhaps because it wasn’t a prominent part of the first week’s activities. It would be great to flesh this out a bit – get them to share their ‘digital stories’. Where are they in their career/learning, what do they want to get from this course? What could other learners potentially identify with?
  1. Presenting yourself as a co-learner
    Does it help us to seem more human (and therefore more approachable) if we can show that we are also co-learners? Definitely! A good way to do this is to invite ‘expert’ guests onto your course for interviews/guest posts/guest facilitators/ask the expert sessions. On a course we recently run, we were lucky to be able to call on a team of about 20 volunteer “guest facilitators”¹ with various levels of knowledge and experience in that field – I think we all ended up learning from each other, and that only helped the learning experience for the students.

I’ve picked up many other tips on #HumanMOOC (follow the Twitter hashtag for loads more), but for now these are my goals for adding social presence to online courses

¹ This might be unrealistic for many – we are a charity ( with a very helpful network – the volunteers were either mentors on our website database or trainers we have trained in our previous face-to-face online courses. I know of other MOOCs who have enlisted experienced/post-grad students or particularly enthusiastic participants of previous courses!

Instructor videos in online courses – pros and cons

So week 1 of the Human MOOC required participants to do some reflections on the pros and cons of using instructor videos in online courses. We were also required to show competency in demonstrating “usage of [an] interactive educational tool to connect with learners”. One of the reasons I like (and am simultaneously terrified of) this MOOC is the choice of ‘stream’ of ‘garden’ path. The stream path offers set exercises to complete. The guidelines suggested using two tools – an audio tool called ‘voice thread’ and an ipad app called ‘FlipGrid’ where you can have collaborative discussions with short video clips.

The online courses I’m involved in are for participants in developing countries, so we have to be very conscious of bandwidth. Whilst some of our participants could have excellent broadband (and we know some have), many have poor or intermittent connections. In our last research writing course we had participants from Yemen, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan.

Fortunately, the ‘Garden’ path means being able to interpret the exercises using whatever tools we decide are appropriate. So I thought I would use the most low-bandwidth tool I could find. One tool that I have been meaning to properly trial is called ‘Tricider’. This allows people to collaborate and argue/prioritise about different ideas. So I thought this might be an interesting platform to collaboratively ‘reflect’ on the pros and cons of instructor videos.

Firstly, I set up a free Tricider page, set a question and added some basic pro/cons ideas.  I then sent out an invite on the #HumanMOOC hashtag (one of the best things about HumanMOOC is the discussion happening between participants outside of Canvas, where the course is based).

I got some great comments and ideas from my fellow participants (most of which know a lot more about online pedagogy than I do). It was kind of like a focused crowdsourcing of a group of online educators :). Here are the results:

Ok, now the first observation is that Tricider might not be the best tool for a simple ‘pro/con’ argument over a single point (How essential are videos in online learning). Perhaps I could have worded this differently, or perhaps set up two separate Tricider pages with “What are the advantages of videos for online learning?” and “What are the disadvantages of using videos in online learning?”. Tricider worked well as a collaborative tool, but the results don’t display as nicely as I would have liked, so here is my breakdown of what I feel I have learnt from this ‘reflection’:

Some Pros of using videos:

  • Video is a powerful visual means to express our identity – it would be a waste not to utilise this medium if we have the opportunity.
  • Video can be more nuanced than text communication – i.e. through facial expression, tone of voice etc.
  • It can be culturally important to have non-textual communication, or at least see the face of the person you are communicating with.
  • Video isn’t necessarily time consuming. If done properly, short videos can be reused again in future courses.
  • Videos do not necessarily need to look ‘nice’ to be effective. A simple video shot on a webcam can be just as human, perhaps even more human than a polished video production.
  • Making mediocre quality videos can also encourage students to try it out themselves!
  • Videos can be a window on the instructor’s passion for the subject, which may not come through in text.
  • Videos aren’t necessaily encouraging passivity – they can be signposts/triggers to exploration and inquiry (if done ‘well’, of course).

Some Cons of using videos:

  • Human presence can be achieved without video (e.g. images/audio).
  • Video is not necessarily a replacement for F2F presence – social interaction online can be as good, e.g. lively forums, social media and other asynchronous activities).
  • A short ‘hello!’ video can make teachers think they have ticked the ‘human presence’ box before the course has begun.
  • Video can be high bandwidth, so not ideal for developing countries – audio can be used as an alternative (but we could also provide both).
  • Making videos can be time consuming (especially for first-timers and people outside their comfort zone)*.
  • Videos can have a limited lifespan and can be difficult to change content (sure, you can make re-useable videos if done well, but does this risk making them ‘generic’ and therefore less human?).
  • Writing does not have to be impersonal! Simple text writing can have character and humanity (although this too requires skill).
  • “Some topics lend themselves to visual presentation” – this is certainly the case with the research writing courses my organisation runs. Scientific writing methods tend to be quite a fact-based academic subject that’s best explained through text examples, quotes and links.

In conclusion I would say that video can be an excellent addition to online learning, if well thought-out and well planned. However, you have to weigh up the ROI of spending the time to make video content. My organisation is very small, with limited time and resources, and in context of training developing country researchers, videos are an optional addition that could be worth trialling further if they add value to the course. Our courses are designed to be extremely low-bandwidth and so we will need to focus on social learning through activities that encourage learner-learner interaction, while continuing to improve and build on our teacher-learner collaborative activities such as peer assessment exercises.

* I have recent experience of trying video for the first time on a MOOC with over 1000 participants. Myself and my colleague in India attempted to record a Google Hangout hosted video introduction, which ended up taking nearly two hours, due to the number of takes. Here is an outtake from our attempts (the idea was for us to introduce ourselves one after the other):

The ‘super-wicked problem’ of climate change mitigation in South Africa


Soweto, South Africa (A.Nobes, 2015 CC-BY)

(This blog post is a task for the “Climate Change Mitigation in Developing Countries” MOOC being run by the University of Cape Town. The objective is to give an example of a ‘super-wicked problem’ and possible solutions).

After the landmark consensus to cut the global official warming target to 1.5c at the Paris Climate Change Conference (COP21), all countries are under increasing pressure to convert these commitments into action.

In the case of South Africa, as with most developing countries, this may hinge on making some big political decisions at the domestic level, as well as relying heavily on international aid and investment. South Africa is extremely energy intensive for a developing country – mostly generated from coal, which goes mainly into electricity and industry, or imported crude oil, which goes straight into fuel for transport, and so if South Africa wants to meet its INDC targets by 2030 (the Peak Plateau Decline Trajectory) it will need to switch pretty rapidly from coal power stations to green energy or nuclear power, and also switch its transport system to mostly electric by 2025.

This is a big undertaking in itself, but as Hilton Trollip from the University of Cape Town pointed out in his recent interview with SciDevNet, there is a profound difference in opinion between climate scientists and big industry on whether this is actually possible without making sacrifices elsewhere. According to Trollip, economic modelling has demonstrated that it is possible to have economic growth, employment and income distribution AND reach their environmental targets. However, industry voices argue that there has to be a choice between either environmental action or poverty alleviation (through economic growth).

Trollip calls this a battle between political statements vs. actual evidence. Big industry has more power over policy than climate scientists. Civil society groups are still in their infancy – they have won some small concessions – but just don’t have the power yet to challenge big industry and the political status quo.

International aid is a double-edged sword.  Funding for climate research comes exclusively from aid countries, but this is ultimately unsustainable. Those countries also push for economic development as the way to alleviate poverty, but through investment of their own firms in the country. For example, DFID has increasingly been pushing private sector investment as a way of increasing economic growth – this merely subsidises big business growth into developing country markets, and increases their influence over policy decisions in country. The private sector exists to make a profit, and therefore tends to invest in short-term profit through coal and oil, and does not necessarily invest in the domestic job market or community.

South Africa needs to make urgent and radical changes to industrial and transport infrastructure, which will require significant policy change, but there are different actors with different priorities which conflict with each other – climate scientists, politicians, aid donors and big industry. This adds up to a ‘super-wicked’ problem with no obvious solutions, which likely means that neither policy change nor genuine poverty alleviation will occur anytime soon.

Donella Meadows’ “Places to intervene in a system” identifies 12 leverage points for change in complex systems – for example the ‘power of self-organisation’. It’s possible that people will self-organise and mobilise, as they are already doing through civil society, but in bigger numbers – but this is difficult to predict and also engineer! The 2nd most powerful leverage is in changing the ‘goals of the system’. The goals of profit and economic growth mean that the private sector dominates the system and becomes the barrier to change – it is not in their interest to put radical change before profit. Changing the economic system may not be realistic, however. We may need to go beyond this and challenge the paradigm that human prosperity and security is through economic growth. The commitment of 195 countries to reduce emissions at the Paris climate conference may be the closest we get to a paradigm change – that even our world leaders now recognise a more urgent priority which trumps economic growth. However, it remains to be seen whether these grand statements will be enough to force urgent system change in developing countries like South Africa.


Pamela Duncan (2015) “Critical mass of states will reach emissions peak by 2030 under climate deal”, Guardian,

Lou Del Bello (2015), “Climate scientists battle South African industry”, SciDevNet,

Mark Anderson (2015), “DfID to pump £735m into investment arm for private sector projects” , Guardian,

Alex Scrivener (2015), “Does the UK government really believe multinationals are the answer to global poverty?” ,Guardian,

Meadows, D. (2009). Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Solutions. Vol 1, No. 1. pp. 41-49 –


I hate blogging

No, I really do. I’ve started about four blogs now, with great enthusiasm and grand visions, only for them to slowly fade away due to neglect, busyness or writer’s block.

The latter is the worst. I think my mental block with blogging is that I’m not sure who I’m speaking to, or for what purpose I’m writing. As it’s unlikely that anybody will read this (unless I pick up some kind of following, which is unlikely unless I overcome said mental blocks…. (I think there is a vicious circle in here somewhere)) blogging feels like I’m talking to myself.

The reason I mention this (Why am I justifying myself? who am I talking to???) is that I have recently started a MOOC – Humanizing Online Instruction: The #HumanMOOC in an attempt to understand more about ‘humanizing pedagogy’ (a phrase which I first heard at the ICDE Conference at Sun City back in October (which was great by the way)). Some of the lovely enthusiastic teachery participants on there are very keen on this blogging thing.

I also have another problem with blogging – it doesn’t seem much like a collaborative activity to me. Apparently, there are ‘blog hubs’, although I haven’t seen many. Sure, you can reply to a blog post, but it’s not the same as on a forum, or on Twitter, where you can easily switch between conversations in a social group. And I much prefer the shorter form of electronic written communication – the nature of blogging makes me feel under pressure to write something ‘extended’ or ‘noteworthy’ and the writer’s block kicks in (as opposed to the pressure to write something profound in 140 characters in Twitter, which is a different kind of pressure, and which leads to me taking half an hour to write a single tweet, which I’m still not happy with, and then I remember I’ve got to include a @handle and a damn #hashtag!)

Also, I suspect that the key to blogging is spontaneous writing. If I sat down and planned what I was going to write I would end up with a nice plan but no blog post. And unfortunately, when I start spontaneously writing I lose sense of structure. A bit like when I start speaking publicly.

In conclusion, the jury is still out (that little tiny jury in my head with little versions of myself (that reminds me, I need to watch Inside Out at some point – heard lots of good things about that)) for me on blogging. I think perhaps the key is: spontaneity, which is both Very Difficult To Spell and also Not At All Natural To Me. And also a change in mindset: perhaps I should start all blog posts with a question or a challenge, so I have some kind of purpose. So I feel I’m talking to somebody else outside of myself (or said jurors in my head).

Ok, I’ve given it a go. I’ve blogged something for the first time this year.

p.s. It seems like nested brackets…