Reflective practice: the need for open questions

Use of open questions in (e)learning

Open questions are more likely to lead to in-depth discussion in face-to-face or online learning contexts than closed questions. A simplistic example:

  • “Is A better than B?” (closed) invites just a yes or no answer.
  • “What makes A better than B?” (open) invites the learner to justify and explore the rationale behind their decision.

This is not to say that closed questions should never be used, just that their use should be limited – in the above example, the two questions could provide a useful sequence for initiating discussion.

Use of open questions in reflection

Similarly, when encouraging teachers to reflect on their own practice, we need to encourage them to consider and respond to open questions. A reliance on closed questions tends to discourage in-depth reflection. Why? Because in-depth reflection requires consideration of causes and significance of events, and open questions are required to really explore these.

In a recent project, I developed an app which allows the user to reflect on, create and store responses to reflective prompts (questions) relating to e-learning practice. The questions are drawn from one section of the eLearning Guidelines (eLG).

During the development process, I decided to make small adjustments to the wording of many of the questions to make them more open questions. For example:

  • The original question “Do learners have the opportunity to self-assess their readiness for eLearning?” seemed to invite a simple yes/no answer, so it was reworded as “What opportunities do learners have to self-assess their readiness for eLearning?”
  • Likewise, “Is it clear at the start of the course what support teaching staff will offer learners?” was reworded as “How is it made clear at the start of the course what support teaching staff will offer learners?”

I feel these open versions of the questions will encourage teachers to review the evidence and reflect on effectiveness more deeply.

Whether or not you are currently using the eLearning Guidelines, you might find the app a useful tool for reflecting on your e-learning practice. The Android app is free and is available to download from the apps page.

Learning communities


There are many definitions of what makes a community. But if we consider a physical community such as a village, most would agree that it is not the collection of buildings that makes a village but the people who live there and the relationships between them.

We can imagine in this small French village the types of interactions that the inhabitants would have with each other and how a sense of community might arise.

But what makes it a community, and how is this different from an online community?

George Siemens states that:

A community is the clustering of similar areas of interest that allows for interaction, sharing, dialoguing, and thinking together.

Most definitions share at least this concept of communicating around shared common interests or purpose.

Check out Nancy White’s How Some Folks Have Tried to Describe Community which brings together some useful definitions. She also includes the concept of a ‘bounded’ community in a recent vieo clip: Communities, networks and what sits in between.

Some excellent readings covering key concepts are available on the website of Etienne Wenger (one of the key figures in the field) and Beverly Trayner:

Online and physical communities

Siemens describes how online and physical communities share similar characteristics:

  • A gathering place for diverse people to meet
  • A nurturing place for learning and developing
  • A growing place – allowing members to try new ideas and concepts in a safe environment
  • Integrated. As an ecology, activities ripple across the domain. Knowledge in one area filters to another. Courses as a stand alone unit often do not have this transference.
  • Connected. People, resources, and ideas are connected and accessible across the community.
  • Symbiotic. A connection that is beneficial to all members of the community…needed in order for the community to survive.

Note: Some writers use the term ‘virtual community’ rather than ‘online community’. For the sake of simplicity, we use the term ‘online community’ here.

Types of online communities

Communities of interest

These are based around a shared professional or other interest.


  • A support community for teachers (and others) using Moodle.
  • LBC Support Services: Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand (LBC)’s community for patients and families living with a blood cancer or condition.
  • Technology & Innovation in Education/: A community for the intersection of research and practice relating to innovation in teaching and learning.
  • Google communities: Explore a wide range of communities of interest.

Social community platforms

These generally have no obvious shared interest other than meeting social needs, but may incorporate sub-groups based around specific interests.


  • Gaia: an online social community with appeal to a mainly younger audience.
  • Facebook: the largest social network.

Communities of practice

These are based around sharing good practice and professional matters within a specific professional or occupation. A key reading is by Etienne Wenger, one of the primary thinkers in this area.


  • Edmodo: a community for teachers, students, administrators, parents, and publishers.
  • a community for nurses and nursing students.
  • a community for schools in the European Union.

Learning communities

Although any community can be seen as have a learning aspect, the term learning community usually refers to the incorporation of community approaches by an educational organisation into its courses and programmes.

Recent developments in technology such as Web 2.0 have given rise to some differentiation between communities and networks. The concept of a community being bounded or closed to outsiders is now being contrasted with more open networks, where the emphasis is more on connected individuals than on a community as a closed group. Chatti’s LaaN vs. Situated Learning provides a useful summary of this distinction. However, when applying learning community approaches in a course setting, we can incorporate elements of both communities and networks.

Although the principles of online communities tend to be consistent across the types, here we are primarily concerned with Learning communities and, in particular, how educators can incorporate these principles into the courses they develop and teach.

Learning communities and collaboration

Palloff and Pratt (2004) suggest that a sense of community is an essential component of collaboration, and that collaboration in turn supports the development of a community.

In other words, community and collaboration are interdependent and reinforce each other cyclically. In other words, the communication within a learning community is not just about interacting socially but about working together for some shared purpose.

Palloff and Pratt (2004) also point out that while the social interaction within a community increases student satisfaction, the collaboration provides a real opportunity to ‘extend and deepen learning experiences, test out new ideas… and receive critical and constructive feedback.’


Village photo: Yvan Tisseyre / OT Vallée d’Aulps

Community-collaboration cycle: Paul Left after Palloff & Pratt (2004)


The NKK Learning Design Model

In 2005 I worked on the Nga Kiwai Kete design model as part of a collaborative professional development process with members of Te Runanganui o Te Arawa:

The Nga Kiwai Kete Design Model

The Nga Kiwai Kete Design Model
Translation by Tutu Kautai

The model is intended to specify both the components of an effective learning design as well as an approximate sequence for the design process.

The model was intended to build on work such as the ARIA Model with which I was involved in 1999.

Note: The model is reproduced here as the original Nga Kiwai Kete site is unfortunately no longer available online. Released under a Creative Commons licence by Ako Aotearoa.

Blogging in the classroom: a professional development scenario

Classroom photoProfessional development of teachers, especially in relation to integrating learning technology into the curriculum, is problematic. This scenario is intended to initiate discussion of some key issues and principles involved – what can go wrong? How do we ensure that professional development is effective?

Q: Mary, tell us about your school’s learning technology project…

Mary: Well, we’re meant to be using blogs in the classroom as part of our learning units. So if we’re doing a unit on families and communities, say, there’s a blog where what we find out is recorded on the blog with words and pictures, maybe even some videos of interviews. I guess the purpose is to make sure students develop some skills in using the technology…

Q: You say you are ‘meant to be using blogs’ – how is it working for you?

Mary: To be honest, I haven’t got started with it. I know some of the other teachers are probably doing great things – they’re very confident with using the technology but I’m a bit out of my depth. Sometimes I think the kids know a lot more than I do – scary! And I’m not sure how I’d manage the whole process, whether I’d need to upload everything into the blog or just let the kids do it.

Q: What professional development have you had?

Mary: We had a training session at the end of last year. Someone came in and did a demo of what you can do with a blog – I think it was a high school they had worked with, amazing stuff. They were obviously a real expert but some of it went over my head a bit, and I couldn’t really see how it would work in my classroom.

Since then I haven’t had a chance to get started with using blogs – the start of the year is very busy and stressful. But now the term is underway I’ll give it a go – maybe this weekend if I can remember what she showed us. It’s just a matter of sitting down and putting in some serious time – maybe I could check out the public library to see if they have any books on blogging. It’s all a bit daunting but I need to get started before my performance review at the end of term!

Professional development for teaching with technology

Photo: U.S. Census Bureau

MOOCs, sustainability and the business model

A MOOC is more than just a free sample!

Anyone with a Moodle site can offer a MOOC: two fundamental questions we need to ask are How do we make it effective for learners? and How do we make it a meaningful and worthwhile activity for the organiser / provider? This post focuses on the second question, which relates to the need for educational offerings to be sustainable for the provider.

If the provider is a large institution such as a university, sustainability is ‘cushioned’ by the existing staff and other resources. That is, the costs of developing and delivering it can be subsidised by the university’s other income-generating activities. A MOOC can be justified in rather the same way that a business may offer free stuff online as a way of gaining other benefits such as raising their profile. It’s similar to handing out free samples of new products in the supermarket. But taking the same approach for an educational institution is risky, because its core activity cannot be reduced to such a simplistic model.

Of course, a MOOC may be justified not in business terms but in philosophical or ethical terms such as a commitment to open learning and overcoming barriers to education. But as Jeff Haywood points out in No such thing as a free MOOC, there are always costs associated. These may be direct or indirect, such as taking teaching staff away from other activities.

So it’s essential to ask, as Hayward does, How will we sustain it? He goes on to state that his institution plans to impose a ‘modest charge for the ‘certificates of completion’, and we will use that income to pay for our support for learners, offered in the light-touch form that these types of MOOC use.‘ Since he does not mention the cost of assessment, I assume that these ‘certificates of completion’ are similar to what used to be called in face to face courses ‘certificates of attendance’. That is, they confirm only that the participants took part in the MOOC, not that they necessarily learned or achieved anything. Indeed, ‘light-touch support’ is perhaps only going to be appropriate where assessment is not rigorous!

Hayward also acknowledges that there is a lot that still needs to be learned about delivering MOOCs, including ‘Is the experience helpful to learners, and do they get value from their certificates of completion?‘ In my experience, a certificate of participation is often seen as having little relevance since it is not based on any rigorous assessment of achievement. Professional development activities in institutions many years ago often used to incorporate such as certificates but over time there was a move away from them as they provided little real value.

I fully support MOOCs as a worthwhile professional development activity. But because they are unlikely to incorporate a high level of learner support and rigorous assessment, they will not be appropriate for all students in all contexts. They may used to provide a ‘taster’ as a marketing exercise, but this involves applying a business model which may not be appropriate. It’s essential to find a model of resourcing their development and delivery which is sustainable and which enhances rather than undermines the institution’s existing programmes.