7 Designing-in Social Learning: A Potpourri from Open Professional Development Practices and how Aristotle, Socrates and Plato can help

Chrissi Nerantzi

This chapter focuses on the design and implementation of inquiry-based activities. In particular, those enabling distributed social learning in the context of an open cross-institutional development of professionals teaching or supporting learning in higher education as part of their informal or formal Continuous Professional Development (CPD) via social media within learning communities supported by facilitators that are empowering and have the potential to lead to pedagogic innovations.
Specific examples of activities from three such initiatives have been included, Bring Your Own Devices for Learning (BYOD4L), the Learning and Teaching in Higher Education tweetchat (LTHEchat) and Flexible, Open and Social Learning (FOS). These provide an insight into the pedagogical rational, design as well as facilitation strategies explored within the context of the teaching presence dimension of the Community of Inquiry Framework (CoL). They provide ideas for further application and implementation in similar or different learning contexts with the potential to aid distributed social learning and development and increase engagement and motivation.

Academic development, CPD, higher education, open education, social learning, open facilitation

“A man is a social creature” Aristotle

As such we often enjoy the company of others and we seek to learn together. Digital, social and mobile internetworked media have amplified such opportunities for all to participate and to create in digital spaces (Gauntlett, 2011). Educators and learners have started seizing the opportunities presented through these where the infrastructure is there and the cost is not prohibitive. Lane (2009, p. 5) talked about the “educational digital divide” as there are communities that are excluded from internetworked developments and the opportunities these bring to individuals and communities due to economic, social, and cultural barriers. And while this has been written in 2009, it is still relevant in 2016.

Learning happens everywhere and our support networks are dynamic and expansive. There are a plethora of opportunities to reach out to if we need help and to help others. Many individuals and practitioners already engage in such activities and practices. However, we often lack the understanding or confidence of how to get the most out of such opportunities in a learning and teaching context.

Academic Development focuses on working with academics, in the disciplines and other professional areas, who teach or support learning in higher education to enhance and transform their practices. This is done using a variety of approaches and initiatives, including accredited courses that lead to teaching qualifications in higher education and Masters qualifications which are common in the United Kingdom, workshops and short courses, as well as tailor-made support with individuals and programme teams. Open education has brought new and exciting opportunities to initial and continuous professional development of educators in higher education, such as open courses, the development and use of Open Educational Resources, webinars and tweetchats that bring practitioners together in distributed communities often in cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural and cross-institutional contexts. Immersing academics and other professionals who teach or support learning in higher education in such opportunities as learners, provides valuable opportunities for reflection, exploration and experimentation that will spark ideas for changes in one’s own practice.

The power of collaboration and inquiry is increasingly recognised as well as the social presence for learning (Armellini et al., 2015). Creating flexible conditions to learn where individuals are encouraged to contextualise their learning and have the opportunity to grow within a supportive community can make a real difference. Beetham’s (2015) recent research highlighted the importance belonging to a community plays for engagement in professional development together with gaining recognition. However, learning to learn with others and especially online is not always easy. Frameworks such as the 3E (Enhance, Extend, Empower) framework (Smyth et al. 2011) for blended and online learning as well as the Community of Inquiry Framework (Garrison et al., 2000, 2010) and the 5C Framework (Connect, Communicate, Curate, Collaborate, Create) (Nerantzi & Beckingham, 2015) provide useful scaffolds for supported and supportive social learning. The role of the facilitator in achieving this has been highlighted and will be explored in the examples included.

The Community of Inquiry Framework (Garrison et al., 2000) is especially valuable in the context of this chapter with its three different lenses: cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence and how these shape engagement and learning. It has been suggested to extend the framework by adding emotional presence based on research by Cleveland-Innes and Campbell (2012) and Stenbom (2014) who found that it is a distinct lense present in a community of inquiry. Teaching presence and related design features and practice are the heart of this chapter through which it is illustrated how teaching presence enables and supports social and cognitive presence within the inquiring community.

Open offerings and engagement in learning and development beyond institutional boundaries enable practitioners to become part of versatile and vibrant distributed networks and communities. And while this is motivating, institutions need to acknowledge this as an opportunity for CPD, and recognize such activities through flexible institutional offerings and schemes. CPD is not exclusively courses of which we participate or qualifications we get, but also practice-based activities we carry out on-the-job and just-in-time to enhance our practice as well as open CPD opportunities that are more widely available.

At Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) in the United Kingdom for example, the openly-licensed CPD initiative called FLEX plays this role locally at the institutional level and opens-up new formal and informal CPD pathways and recognizes such activities as valuable and important for professional growth where engagement can also be translated into academic credits. FLEX is practice-based and enables and empowers colleagues to self-select and self-organize their CPD needs depending on their priorities and aspirations. They have access to a series of FLEX courses and activities, many of which are openly licensed and cross-institutionally organized, while they can also engage in any other activities, formal or informal, internal or external, they find useful to develop their teaching practice further. Colleagues choosing FLEX, capture their development in a social media portfolio and are supported in this process by tutors and peers as the portfolio facilitates an exchange and conversation between practitioners, and also with the wider community if the individual decides to open-up his thinking and development space.

Social learning creates exciting opportunities for students, academics and other professionals who teach or support learning and universities beyond related formal and institutional provision. Learning how to harness open and cross-institutional CPD offerings and create new ones that are of value, for the educational community is something we have been exploring.

What follows are three mini case studies, examples from open and connected practice that are part of the FLEX offering at MMU. The focus of presenting these cases is on the pedagogic activities designed for inquiry-based social and collaborative learning using social media. Thinking of a possible way to visualize the open development construct or what Wenger et al. (2009) call “patchwork,” technologies or digital social spaces loosely connected for learning.

It is proposed that the learning landscape consists of the resources space, the contextual space, and the personal space. The intersection of these, form the community, space where individuals and groups come together to share, challenge, and be challenged, and to learn and develop. The spaces without people are just that, spaces. Individuals bring them alive and transform them into a dynamic and ever-changing and evolving landscape.

The three defined spaces have different functions. They are continuously co-constructed by course designers and the individuals who engage with it. They are spaces we live and learn and a recognition of the complexity of the learning process. However, it needs to be recognized that they are not seen as boundaries but the landscape itself is a fluid and expansive construct that links the digital and the non-digital, the collective and the individual, the formal, the informal and the non-formal bringing a plethora of dimensions together.The resources space is where we find, make and curate learning materials. This can sit in the digital world, but also elsewhere, in a physical library or at home for example but also in our connections if we see them as a resource and we are a resource for others.

The resources space is where we find, make, and curate learning materials. This can sit in the digital world, but also elsewhere, in a physical library or at home for example but also in our connections if we see them as a resource and we are a resource for others.

The contextual space is where individuals add meaning and personalize learning and development driven by their own priorities, needs, and aspirations. This space enables us to adapt what we find to what we need the most, and also to identify valuable connections and make links to the bigger picture.

The personal space is where the individual feels at home. Where they reflect, experiment and play with ideas and dynamically capture milestones and growth. This might be a portfolio, a diary, a visual representation, on or offline, digital or non-digital.

The community space is the intersection of these three within the learning landscape (Figure 1). It is often assumed that an online offering stays online. The same can be said about an open offering, that it is digital and online. However, the non-digital dimension as well as its possible local and offline character needs also to be acknowledged as it creates opportunities to bridge the gap between the two worlds, create a more fluid experience and extend engagement beyond what has been organized within the context of a course or an initiative that has a beginning and an end. It brings out the concept of continuity as well as the ideas of lifelong and life-wide learning.

patchwork learning landscape approach

Figure 1. “patchwork” learning landscape approach

Ancient Greek philosophers and some of their key thoughts and practices have been used to connect the old with the new and remind us of key diachronic educational values that are interwoven into our world. At the heart of what we have attempted are Socrates words: “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.” Learning and development are indeed about wondering and wandering. Being supported in this process when and where needed is vital. Often in open educational practices, the role of the facilitator is underplayed or even forgotten (Yeager & Nerantzi, 2015). In the practices that follow it becomes evident that the facilitator support or teaching presence within the context of the Community of Inquiry (Garrison et al. 2000) play a key role in scaffolding engagement and learning, as well as building a supportive and caring learning community.

Bring Your Own Devices for Learning (BYOD4L) and Aristotle

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” Aristotle

Aristotle is right and using story can connect us emotionally to achieve this. The value of story for higher education has been recognized as a way to use imagination, trigger reflection and engage emotionally as well as learn about a topic holistically (Moon, 2010). Stories become emotional learning hooks, curiosity triggers and can also be related to cognitive presence (Garrison et al., 2000). They help us contextualize, discover interest, foster reflection, inquiry and experimentation. The concept of storytelling was reinterpreted for BYOD4L using video and social media.

BYOD4L is an open course for academics and other professionals who teach or support learning and for students who are interested in learning how they can use their own smart devices for learning and teaching. It has been developed through informal cross-institutional collaboration between colleagues in Manchester Metropolitan University and Sheffield Hallam University, using freely available social media which are stitched together loosely using a “patchwork” approach (Wenger et al., 2009). Lessons learnt from the open FDOL course (Nerantzi & Uhlin, 2012; Nerantzi, 2014) have influenced and shaped the design. BYOD4L has been built using freely available social media and particularly WordPress.com, Google Plus communities, Facebook and Twitter. Special spaces for facilitators to communicate, co-ordinate activities, troubleshoot and support each other have been created and used in Google drive and Facebook. Facilitators supported individuals and the BYOD4L community as a whole throughout the course and were present and engaged as teachers and as co-learners contributing also to the creation of professional relationships and social presence and a community of inquiry. BYOD4L runs fully on smart devices and is therefore mobile, enabling engagement and learning on the go in a variety of ways if there is an established internet connection. However, learning and engagement is not restricted to the digital world as many of the activities can be carried out off-line, also with local groups, therefore creating opportunities for even more blended and integrated learning that fit around individual circumstances and learning preferences.

BYOD4L has been offered so far four times since January 2014, each time over five days (January 2014, July 2014, January 2015, January 2016). Individuals and many colleagues from institutions from the UK and further afield contributed and participated. In total there have been 16 informal institutional collaborations and 48 volunteer facilitators from the UK and elsewhere including the two organizers and course designers.

The 5C Framework (see Figure 2) connecting, communicating, curating, collaborating, and creating has been developed to scaffold engagement and learning in this particular course and is the backbone of the course design which has consequently been used to design activities in other open courses (see example 3 below). While the 5C was developed as a thematic framework (Nerantzi & Beckingham, 2015) its value was soon recognized also as a pedagogic scaffold for social learning in other contexts.

5C Framework


Figure 2. 5C Framework

BYOD4L’s is an inquiry-based learning practice. Suggested activities require personalization, contextualization and exploration, individually or collaboratively with a focus on collaboration as learning (Nerantzi & Gossman, 2015). The FISh model developed by Nerantzi & Uhlin (2012) described in Nerantzi (2014) for the open course Flexible, Distance and Online Learning is re-used to assist individuals and groups new to inquiry-based learning using learning scenarios provided as short films.

Proposed activities are bite-sized, encourage reflection and sharing within a learning community. There is a mix of synchronous and asynchronous activities throughout the five days that provide a variety of flexible engagement and learning opportunities that could be contextualized to one’s own practice and development priorities. The stories used, capture the educator and the student voice and are the starting point of daily explorations linked to a specific theme. Learners are encouraged to personalize the generic learning outcomes. They pick ‘n’ mix activities that are of value to them using different media and learning strategies. Progressively the challenges increase and more complexity is introduced. Course readings are provided together with suggested mobile apps per theme which encourage further exploration, inquiry, and experimentation. The evening BYOD4L tweetchats have been extremely popular and brought learners together for one hour a day while the Google Plus community was used throughout the week. Social learning is practiced throughout the course and learners are supported by facilitators in the community and the different activities.

A sample day of proposed activities linked to one of the 5Cs and particularly “collaborating” can be accessed at https://byod4learning.wordpress.com/topics/4-collaborating/. Explore the course site more fully to get a richer flavour of the whole course:

LTHEchat and Socrates
“Question everything” Socrates

Socrates recognized the value of questions. Not just any questions. Questions that tickle our curiosity; Questions which have no easy answer; Questions that challenge and are challenging; Questions that require thinking, un-thinking, and rethinking; Questions for open minds and to open-up minds; and Questions that enable individuals to engage in discussions and debates, be exposed to and consider alternative perspectives and viewpoints.

The #LTHEchat borrowed this approach and adapted it to facilitate distributed synchronous conversations around a specific learning and teaching topic in higher education contexts via a social media platform. Participation in the tweetchats is open and transparent and can be visible or invisible to the collective participating in these. Therefore the tweetchats enable a variety of participation modes.

The Learning and Teaching in Higher Education chat, or #LTHEchat for short, is an informal cross-institutional collaboration between colleagues at Manchester Metropolitan University, Sheffield Hallam University, the University of Sussex and the Liverpool John Moors University, who form the steering group. Weekly hourly synchronous tweetchats are organized around current topics via the microblogging social media platform Twitter. The #LTHEchat initiative started in October 2014 after the success of the BYOD4Lchats organized as part of this particular course. A rotating organizing group was introduced in September 2015 and since January 2016 the #LTHEchat has started collaborating with the monthly Higher Education Academy (HEA) tweetchat or #HEAchat. It might consist of at least one member from the steering group and two to three #LTHEchat community members. Steering group members take on the role of the mentor and might be supporting the organizing group in the background. The organizing group is responsible for the smooth running, organization and scheduling of the chats within a specific academic period (usually one semester), and plays the role of teaching presence in the context of a Community of Inquiry. However, the teaching presence is done in collaboration with guest tweetchat hosts and the community itself and therefore teaching and social presence are blended. This distributed co-organizing model helps develop tweetchat moderation capacity across the community and transform the #LTHEchat initiative into a multi-directional and multi-participatory community-based professional development opportunity.

Each tweetchat lasts about one hour. Often, however, the conversation continues for a bit longer. The tweetchats are scheduled every Wednesday at 8 p.m. UK time. Breaks are taken during Christmas, Easter, and summer periods. The #LTHEchat aims to engage the wider academic community, including staff and students, in the UK and further afield in discussions around learning and teaching in HE. Guest facilitators are invited regularly to share their experience and expertise with the wider community in an hour of rapid exchange through a series of open questions that aim to trigger reflection, discussion, and debate. Furthermore, thematic polls are occasionally organized for the community to decide on a specific topic, while all topics reflect guest hosts special interest or specialism as well as current learning and teaching topics that are also of interest to the wider community.

Freely available social media tools, such as WordPress, Twitter, Google Drive, and Storify are used for the operational needs of the #LTHEchat. The #LTHEchat community has grown and strengthened as the months passed and many participants are proud to display their Blue #LTHEchat bird on their website. Exceptional supportive and active members of the community that have a sustained record of engagement and contribution to the #LTHEchat are rewarded with the Golden Tweeter Award (see Figure 3).

Golden Tweeter Award

Figure 3. Golden Tweeter Award

Participants and guest facilitators value the opportunity for dialogue and exchange within an open and distributed setting. Increasingly they feel part of the LTHEchat community and there are many regular participants from different parts of the world. The open and often provocative questions as well as the inclusive facilitation style and the interest and respect participants show to each other seem to help individuals open-up and engage in meaningful conversations, support each other and share resources and ideas. The general format of the LTHEchat is based on a series of questions, between four and six. These are usually prepared by the guest facilitator around a specific topic of interest linked to learning and teaching and finalized with the supporting member of the LTHEchat organizing team for the specific chat. Coordination happens through a shared Google Drive that hosts all supporting resources for the chat. Questions are posted through the LTHEchat Twitter account about every 10 minutes. This enables a good flow of responses to be generated as well as discussions to emerge through these with the guest facilitator and also among participants. In order to avoid routine and keep the tweetchats fresh and dynamic, the organizing team changes tweetchat activities and spices them up encouraging media-rich engagement that mixes up the physical with the digital as well as multi-directional questioning now known as Question Showers first introduced during Day 5 of the BYOD4L course which has a focus on “creating.” Through these strategies it is acknowledged that learning is multidimensional and a variety of methods will spice up engagement and keep us alert and interested. Through the above, it becomes evident that teaching presence, here in the form of #LTHEchat facilitators, organizing team and steering group, play a vital role in the everyday life of the community of inquiry and changes and evolves responding to the community itself.

Student engagement has been relatively low at the time of writing. However, the steering group and organizing group are interested in exploring ways to attract more students as participants and guest facilitators so that the students’ voice is presented more fully and conversations can be extended into the student community.

A sample tweetchat around Learning gains with Prof. Simon Lancaster and related activities can be accessed at http://lthechat.com/2015/09/20/lthechat-no-29-with-prof-simon-lancaster-s_j_lancaster-measuring-learning-gains-join-us-23rd-sept-8pm/

The format from this tweetchat has been included in Table 1 which follows.

Table 1. An example of tweetchat flow

Date: 23 Sept 2015

Topic: Measuring learning gains

Guest: Prof Simon Lancaster – Supported by Sue Beckingham

Hello everybody and welcome to the #LTHEchat. We have the pleasure to have Prof Simon Lancaster @S_J_Lancaster with us today.
We will discuss measuring learning gains #LTHEchat
Are you ready? Let’s make a start… #LTHEchat
Q1: What do you understand by the expression “learning gain”? #LTHEchat
Q2: Do you currently determine the learning gain during your course? If so how? #LTHEchat
Q3: What approaches are there for robust quantitative determination of learning gain? #LTHEchat
Q4: What more readily measured proxies (indirect indicators) for learning gain might we use? #LTHEchat
Q5: Could / should learning gain be a component of the TEF? #LTHEchat
Q6: Have you experienced a learning gain over the course of the last 50 minutes? How do you know? #LTHEchat

The above format has worked well and has become the template for organizing tweetchats. We are interested in alternative ways to organize tweetchats in the future as well as find ways to evaluate #LTHEchat more systematically so that we can learn from the experience and take it into the future.

Explore the site and the Twitter account more fully to get a richer flavour of the #LTHEchat activities and community engagement:

FOS and Plato

“Life must be lived as play” Plato

Plato recognized the special role of play in humans’ lives, their relationships as well as learning. While we, for example, recognize the value of discussion for learning, play is something that remains still under-used in higher education. It is often regarded as “frivolous or a waste of time” (Whitton, 2010, p.37) as well as childish and inappropriate (Nerantzi & James, 2015). However, Brown (2010) reminds us that play plays a key role in all stages of human development. We wanted to give playful learning a chance in the context of an open course and FOS created opportunities for this.

FOS, or Flexible, Open and Social Learning, is an openly licensed course built on the existing openly licensed OER course FDOL developed by Nerantzi & Uhlin. It has also been influenced by the pedagogical approach used for BYOD4L by Nerantzi & Beckingham. Freely available social media platforms were used building on the technological model that has worked for FDOL, BYOD4L, and LTHEchat. FOS was offered for the first time in July 2015 over five days as a facilitated open course.

Who says OERs are not re-used and repurposed? Some of them are. When the designers of FDOL reached a crossroads, new and exciting ideas emerged taking into account research findings from FDOL and especially FDOL132, as well as the development, organizing and running of BYOD4L which led to the development of FOS, a playful and media-rich course that runs fully on smart devices. FOS was offered as a collaboration among practitioners from different institutions over five days and participants were supported by volunteer facilitators. Open badges, digital stickers with metadata, were used as a point system (see Figure 4) and a way to create a playful atmosphere and gamify engagement. Learners could collect up to 20 FOS points in total including five bonus points. The badges were peer-reviewed by participants. At MMU, FOS forms part of FLEX, therefore it potentially can lead to up to 30 credits at postgraduate level.

FOS point

Figure 4. FOS point

After reviewing activities from FDOL it was decided to use a media-rich approach which worked well in BYOD4L to share the stories which were used to introduce the daily theme. However, instead of films that showed real academics and students, stop-motion animations were created to provide perhaps a more inclusive engagement opportunity in addition to the text and audio format of the stories. All three formats were made available so that the learners could pick the one that worked best for them in a specific situation.

Through the stories, real problems experienced by educators or students were shared and linked to the daily theme that required discovery first and then inquiry to be resolved. The stories encouraged learners to engage in a meaningful way with the daily theme, reflect on their own challenges, and come up with possible solutions based on their individual or collective inquiry and the underpinning literature. In total three varied activities per day were made available and linked to each theme. These design decisions and strategies enabled contextualized engagement and experimentation and provided material for discussion within the community.

Learners were supported by volunteer facilitators from different institutions throughout the week in the community and the various other spaces. This was the way teaching presence was managed to scaffold support, engagement and learning and create a sense of community where participants felt safe to share, connect, and learn with others.

The inquiry-based pedagogical approach based on stories as learning triggers in text, video, and audio format has been combined with game-based learning strategies and a point system. Participants were invited to work on the suggested activities which can be fully contextualized and carried out individually or with others and submit their work for peer review. This process could lead to FOS points which can be collected throughout the course. Each day of the course a surprise bonus task was released that could lead to an additional FOS point. In total there were five bonus points, one for each day.

A sample FOS day of proposed activities around Flexible pedagogies can be accessed at https://foslearning.wordpress.com/topics/2-flexible-pedagogies/. Explore the course site more fully to get a richer flavour of the whole course.


The three cases presented here, BYOD4L, #LTHEchat and FOS, evidence a range of new ways for engaging in informal professional development for HE professionals afforded by inquiry-based and social pedagogies supported by social media and teaching presence. Choice, personalization, and contextualization but also opportunities for sharing, collective problem finding and solving within a supportive community create a positive atmosphere and environment for learning and development.

Teaching presence of Community of Inquiry seems to play a key role in achieving this as illustrated through the examples included here. Further research in this area will provide insights into the impact of facilitator designed interventions, presence and engagement. Establishing effective practices and frameworks that aid participation and learning in such communities have the potential to transform engagement and experiences.

Changes are happening rapidly in the world we live in. We can’t afford to stop learning if we want to keep up with these and co-design the future. Creating flexible, adaptive and versatile CPD opportunities that are fully integrated and wrap around practice and empower practitioners to experiment and make informed changes to enhance the student experience, have the potential to make a real difference. Designing such initiatives using collaborative and social learning approaches maximizes on connecting individuals with ideas and resources but more importantly with other individuals around the world, help us feel part of a community of practitioners and empowered to innovate.

I would like to use this opportunity to thank all my past and present collaborators and all who joined the initiatives included here, for their commitment, energy and valuable input. Special thank you to Dr. Stephen Powell who helped me visualize the idea around the learning landscape, Whitney Kilgore for her kind invite to write this chapter and Aras Bozkurt for his valuable comments and suggestions during the review process.


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Humanizing Online Teaching and Learning Copyright © by Whitney Kilgore is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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