Topic 5 – Lessons Learnt

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

So, here we are! The last day on ONL211. Its been a hectic, but very enjoyable 12 weeks for me. The happiest surprise for me, was how was much fun it was to learn together with my wonderful group members and facilitators. For me, the interactions with them have been the biggest benefit of doing the course. Of course, I have also learnt a lot outside that. To begin with, I feel more confident entering online teaching situations, armed with the conceptual frameworks we learnt about (e.g. Visitor-Resident, David White (White & Cornu (2011)) and Community of Inquiry (COI) framework (Garrison et al. (2000)), and the practical tools we tried (e.g. Padlet, Miro Board, ThingLink, The Learning Toolbox, Powtoon, Simple Show, Meme generator, Google Jam Board, Mentimeter, Zoom Annotation tool), to navigate teaching in online spaces. From a personal/philosophical viewpoint, I am now much more convinced than I was before the course, on the value and sense in going open!

How will this directly affect my teaching practise? In my Topic 4 blogpost, I mentioned some learnings from the course that I plan to implement in my teaching practise. Below, I will continue on this theme:

Implications of ONL211 for my teaching practise

As I mentioned last week,  I am keen to complement my transmissive lectures on technical topics, by allowing time during lectures for discussion on the application of taught content to real-world applications in science and outside science. The course will have a group-activity component and individual assignment component, which will respectively allow for collaborative learning and individual reflection respectively.

I am also interested to experiment with open syllabi, i.e. allow student input in some portions of the syllabus that will be covered during the course. Further, I envisage facilitating group exercises whereby the students collectively contribute authoritative, high-quality content to Wikipedia or Scholarpedia articles on relevant topics. I am also keen to share my teaching content/presentations through OER (Open Educational Resources) portals, as well as share my lecture content through Open Textbooks and MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses). I feel a lot more informed about entering the MOOC space after ONL211. Finally, I will solicit student expectations of the course and feedback from the course, through online means. I think online channels would make the students more comfortable sharing their expectations and feedback.

In all this, I feel the biggest challenge will be to keep the focus on student learning. It goes without saying but, the framework and tools I have learnt about are most useful when they are used as tools to facilitate student learning, and I hope I can employ them effectively toward that end.

Thank you ONL211!


  1. White, D. & Le Cornu, A. (2011) Visitors and residents: A new typology for online engagement. First Monday, 16(9)
  2. Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Posted by Nitin Williams

Post-doctoral researcher in Neuroscience Methods at Aalto University, Finland
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Topic 4 – Applying the COI framework

Figure 1. Influential Community of Inquiry (COI) framework developed by Garrison R., Cleveland-Innes M., and colleagues.

Teaching has traditionally been through lectures to large classrooms of students. However, recent advances in technology, combined with new theories of learning and new theories and knowledge, have opened up a plethora of possibilities for improving teaching practise. However, effectively harnessing these opportunities requires a conceptual framework relating new teaching methods to traditional forms of instruction. It is here that the COI (Community of Inquiry) framework proposed by Garrison, R., Cleveland-Innes, M. and colleagues is so useful (Garrison et al. (2000), Vaughan et al. (2013)).

COI framework – outline

The COI framework proposes that student learning happens best in the intersection between Social Presence, Teaching Presence and Cognitive Presence. Some facets of Social Presence are emotional expression, group cohesion and open communication. Some facets of Teaching Presence are instructional design, facilitating discourse and direct instruction. Some facets of Cognitive Presence are triggering event, exploration, integration and resolution. The COI framework is designed for learning that happens within small groups of students, in a problem-based learning setting. It emphasises the role of teachers as facilitators, hands more responsibility to students to direct their learning, and places emphasis on active means of learning, i.e. through collaboration, discussion and application of learnt knowledge.

In the near future, I plan to teach a course on my research interest, Statistical Analysis of Neuroscience Data. In this article, I will ponder the application of the COI framework in designing this course:

Social presence

I will send an email to students about a week before the course, asking them about what and how much they expect to learn during the course. I think this would make them feel valued and also more open to sharing their opinion in future (open communication). The course will have a group-activity component. I will divide the students into small groups of between 6-8 students for the group activity, and keep these groups constant through the course. I expect this will provide a sense of cohesion within the group (group cohesion), and allow them to be increasingly comfortable expression their opinion within the group, as the course progresses.

Teaching presence

I will prepare lectures on the technical aspects of the course (direct instruction). I will do this in consultation with a teaching and learning specialist, and I will also discuss other aspects of the course design with this person (instructional design). I will divide allocate time during each lecture for direct instruction of technical content, discussion within small groups on the technical content and possible applications, and real-world applications of the taught content both within science and outside. I will include examples from my own research for this last portion. Students will be given coursework on forming opinions on general directions in which the research field is progressing, giving them the opportunity to reflect and think critically. Course assessment will be a combination of examinations, coursework and group activity. Individual contributions to the group activity will be recognised.

Cognitive presence

The group-activity for each group will be on tackling an open research problem on statistical analysis of neuroscience data. Each group will be given a different problem. They will be asked to survey the current literature on addressing this problem, and propose novel solutions. They will also be asked to compare their proposed solutions against performance with the state-of-the-art solution. The incentive will be to publish promising solutions in Neuroscience Methods journals. I expect that tackling these problems within a group setting will unleash the student’s creativity and also strengthen bonds within the group.

It promises to be an interesting experience design and implementing this prospective course! Next week, I will share a few more thoughts I had about the design of this course, in particular those aspects I have thought about due to what  I have learnt in ONL211.


  1. Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.
  2. Vaughan, N. D., Cleveland-Innes, M., & Garrison, D. R. (2013). Teaching in blended learning environments: Creating and sustaining communities of inquiryEdmonton: AU Press.

Posted by Nitin Williams

Post-doctoral researcher in Neuroscience Methods at Aalto University, Finland
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Topic 3 – Synergistic collaboration

A painting of four monks, by Claudio Rinaldi (1852-1909 CE)

(Dorotheum, Munich) / Wikimedia Commons

Collaborative learning is when the learning outcome by a group, is greater than if the group members had learned individually. Learning often happens in group settings, but the learning outcome is typically similar to the learning outcome if the group members had learned individually. When does synergistic collaborative learning happen?

I have been pondering this question for the last two weeks. My first port-of-call, was to look into the theory of complex systems for answers. In gist, complex systems is the study of behaviour of systems with many interacting parts, so might provide some insight into group interaction. However, the insights I could gain were fairly basic: for example, complex systems help explain how interactions between only a few members (2 or 3) might be qualitatively different from interactions between many members (20 or more). Further, the principle of balanced segregated and integrative information processing, is observed in many complex systems. It also seems to be a feature of collaborative learning, wherein bursts of collaboration (integrative information processing) are often followed by periods of self-reflection or reflection within smaller groups (segregated information processing). However, I could not see any obvious answers to conditions for synergistic collaborative learning.

I also asked this question to Kay Oddone and Alastair Creelman after Kay’s webinar on the ONL211 course. They provided some very useful insights. Kay mentioned that groups which take time to build relationships with each other are often more successful in collaborative learning. Alastair observed that effective collaboration learning often happens when the learning task is difficult, because it requires everyone to contribute.

Further, I found some literature on the 4 dominant research paradigms on collaborative learning outcomes (Lai (2011), Dillenbourgh et al. (1996)). The effects paradigm proposes that collaborative learning happens best within heterogenous groups, as a result of conflict between different perspectives. The conditions paradigm proposes that collaborative learning happens best within groups comprising experts and novices, through interactions between experts and novices. The interactions paradigm proposes that collaborative learning happens best in a conducive learning environment, irrespective of the members comprising a group. The computer-assisted paradigm proposes that collaborative learning happens best when the most suitable collaborative learning technology is used.

However, the most illuminating example I found of collaborative learning is of a monastic learning community, especially some of these communities from the Middle Ages. Tellingly, these communities embodies many of the principles I have mentioned above, for e.g. they emphasised interaction between community members (integration), but also periods of solitude (segregation). Building relationships was also considered important, and community members collaborated on the complex task of interpreting Scripture. Community members assumed heteregenous roles (effects paradigm), and learning took place both horizontally and vertically (roughly, the conditions paradigm) and the conducive environment of the monastery provided the perfect setting for collaborative learning (interactions paradigm) (Long (2016)).

I believe these monastic learning communities offer three insights for synergistic collaborative learning. One, learning is a holistic process and should ideally be integrated its one’s lifestyle. Second, effective learning often involves hetereogeneity: in learning methods, in the roles of adopted by group members, the direction of knowledge transfer. Finally, technology can facilitate learning by removing constraints of space for members to be part of a community, but learning still needs the conditions I have mentioned above in order to happen effectively.


  1. Lai (2011) “Collaboration: A literature review” Pearson research report []

2. Dillenbourgh P., Baker M., Blaye A., O’ Maley C. (1996) “The evolution of research on collaborative learning.” In E. Spada & P. Reiman (Eds) Learning in Humans and Machine: Towards an interdisciplinary learning science. (Pp. 189-211). Oxford: Elsevier

3. Long (2016) “High medieval monasteries as communities of practise (COPs): approaching monastic learning through letters” Journal of Religious History 41(1):42-59

Posted by Nitin Williams

Post-doctoral researcher in Neuroscience Methods at Aalto University, Finland
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Topic 2 – The Teacher of Tomorrow

Image by Iñaki del Olmo from Unsplash

Open Educational Resources (OER) and Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have made it possible for several people to learn topics and subjects they would not otherwise have had access to. Furthermore, many MOOCs enable students to learn topics by listening to lectures by world-leading academics in their respective fields. While students have never had it so good, what about the teaching community? Will OER and MOOCs irrevocably change the role of teachers to something akin to knowledge managers? Will classrooms and classroom lectures ever be the same again?

In his excellent book, Tony Bates (2019) argues that “The role of the instructor then will shift to providing guidance to learners on where and how to find content, how to evaluate the relevance and reliability of content, what content areas are core and what peripheral, and to helping students analyze, apply and present information, within a strong learning design that focuses on clearly defined learning outcomes, particularly with regard to the development of skills.” (Bates (2019)). He forecasts that “students will increasingly look to institutions for learning support and help with the development of skills needed in a digital age rather than with the delivery of content.“(Bates (2019)). Therefore, according to Bates, the teaching landscape will indeed change radically, with teachers tasked with facilitating a student’s learning and Universities responsible for supporting knowledge acquisition rather than imparting that knowledge to students.

Tony is absolutely a world expert on this topic, but I do find myself at odds with some of his opinions. I do agree with him that MOOCs will not be a panacea to student learning, but rather might largely replace the one-to-many classroom lectures on core topics of a subject. This is what MOOCs do best – allow students to learn these core topics at their own pace, from world experts. However, I believe this will free up teachers to provide teaching services on what MOOCs can fundamentally never do, provide personalised instruction and feedback to deepen a student’s knowledge, guide them to form connections between a topic and related topics within a discipline as well as across disciplines, and essentially inspire them toward mastery of a topic. This process requires both professional mastery and sensitivity from the teacher, which I believe a MOOC or any computer programme could never provide. Hence, I believe the teacher’s role might shift to guiding the student’s learning, rather than guiding students on ‘how to learn’ as I think Bates suggests. Such personalised instruction and feedback has been demonstrated to substantially improve student learning (Bloom (1984)), though note this paper studied one-one instruction rather than small-group supervision. Notably, both Cambridge University, UK and Oxford University, UK, have for many, many years offered such small-group tutorials by domain experts, in addition to classroom lectures.

What would this mean for Universities? Will the most preferred Universities be those that offer the best learning support services? I am not so sure. I feel the most-valued Universities will still be those that offer the best teaching, leading to the best learning outcomes. Of course, the syllabi will be a combination of fundamental topics in a field and those particularly relevant to a modern-day digital context, for e.g. communication skills and knowledge management. Following on from my point above, I believe the emphases in Universities will shift toward teaching through interactive small-group supervisions while classroom lectures will be replaced by University-validated online resources for students to gain knowledge on the core topics on a subject. I believe assessment will remain a combination of coursework and classroom examinations, both assessing the understanding and depth of knowledge acquired by a student in a subject.

Most importantly, I have come to see OERs and MOOCs as an opportunity for higher-education institutions, rather than a threat. The opportunity is for OERs and MOOCs to free up time-resources for teachers to meet with much smaller groups of students, in interactive settings, to actively guide them toward mastery of the subject content and making connections across disciplines. Teachers would be valued and rewarded for the depth of their knowledge and their felicity in imparting it. The best and most valued Universities would be those that invest in substantial numbers of high-quality, teaching faculty to offer such small-group supervisions.  Such a path would keep learning at the centre, which after all is what education is all about! It promises to be an exciting time.


  1. Bates, T. (2019) Teaching in a Digital Age: Guidelines for Teaching and Learning. (2nd edition)
  2. Bloom (1984) The 2 Sigma problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring. Educational Researcher. 13:6, pp. 4-16

Posted by Nitin Williams

Post-doctoral researcher in Neuroscience Methods at Aalto University, Finland
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Connecting Week – looking back, looking forward

Image by TheAndrasBarta from Pixabay

I am a bit late on my Connecting Week post, which actually gives me an opportunity to reflect from afar on that week of introductions and on meeting my group members:

I am blessed with very pleasant and supportive group members and facilitators. While everybody teaches in some capacity, each member comes from a different cultural or geographical context, with different levels of experience. This makes it possible for everyone to share something novel from their perspective. Despite the diversity, I was struck by how much our situations had in common. Each of us was in some teaching organization/University, many have family and try valiantly to balance work and family, some of us have lost our loved ones recently, all of us feel a bit overwhelmed navigating digital technologies and we hope this course will help us cope and ideally thrive in this strange digital environment we find ourselves in!

For the Connecting Week, we created a Padlet to introduce ourselves to each other, and the ONL211 community. It was great fun contributing to the Padlet, and read what each of the group members had written about themselves. We each shared a fictional character we identified with. Rather than characters from real-life movies, it was striking how many of us identified with characters from comics or animated movies! How says those movies are just for kids? I suppose there is a kid inside all of us and importantly, we feel comfortable displaying that side of ourselves to the group. Looking forward to the ONL journey with these good people! 🙂

Posted by Nitin Williams

Post-doctoral researcher in Neuroscience Methods at Aalto University, Finland
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Topic 1 – reflections

Figure. Graphic illustration of my online software usage, categorised by use modes (visitor/resident) and use contexts (personal/professional)

It’s been a hectic but fascinating two weeks! We have received a massive amount of information on making sense of one’s digital identity, i.e. what characterises one’s online presence and behaviour. Below are some reflections on my own digital identity:

I find it very useful to think of online software as just a tool, to be used to do something faster and better than I would have otherwise. In this framework, I would use online software in a professional setting, for the purpose of promoting my own research (e.g. Google Scholar, Website – work), to participate in digital knowledge networks and disseminate one’s research (Twitter), to better communicate or collaborate with my colleagues (Zoom, Slack, Google Docs, Skype, Email – professional) or share my computer code with other researchers (GitHub). The above graphic illustration, following David White’s framework (White & Cornu (2011)), reveals that I should more actively maintain my work website and more actively use Twitter to effectively promote and disseminate my work, and to participate in digital knowledge networks. The same illustration reveals that I am way too passive on Facebook and Whatsapp, to maintain or nurture any relationships with family and friends. I need to change this!

Rather than a large digital footprint, I find it useful to think of a streamlined online presence. I have developed three principles that I will use to guide my online behaviour, 1.) Less is more: Only use the least number of online software possible, while also accomplishes your purposes. 2.) Use for purpose: Ensure you use the software/tool only for the purpose you intend for it. Think about its purpose beforehand 3.) Time-limited use: Ensure the time spent on any software is only a small fraction of your total time. The time spent with a software should reflects its importance in accomplishing your purposes.

With these principles in mind, I have decided to: 1.) Update my work website, 2.) Organise my ResearhGate profile, 3.) Close my two personal blogs since I no longer update them, 4.) Close my profile since I now use ResearchGate for the same purpose, 5.) Unsubscribe from many Facebook groups I am part of, to streamline my identity, 6.) Update my GitHub profile with recently released MATLAB toolboxes, 7.) Update my e-mail signature with some of these links, 8.) Build my Twitter profile once I have my own research group and 9.) Think about starting a YouTube channel once I have regular teaching responsibilities.

I will be completing points 1-7 during ONL211. I feel tired already! 🙂



  1. White, D. & Le Cornu, A. (2011) Visitors and residents: A new typology for online engagement. First Monday, 16(9)

Posted by Nitin Williams

Post-doctoral researcher in Neuroscience Methods at Aalto University, Finland
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