“I found a village of humans from many parts of our planet. How strange is that? I found a small village that seemed caring. Not all of them to be sure. Some were more distant than others, some more polite, some more fearful. But I found them to be, in the rectangle before me on my desk in Swaffham, humans who shared some similar purpose. And I was part of it. The villagers would help me if I needed assistance. Not just the “professor” Jim Groom, but the students themselves offered assistance. Just like my town of Swaffham. There was caring and there was camaraderie. And chaos, but that is another story for someone else to tell.” Dr Oblivion who retired, played Suduku and lived peacefully in Swaffham before his mysterious death.

or is it?

I have been trying to find a cogent critique of the University of Mary Washington’s digital storytelling course – DS106 and I have not managed to find anything that addresses my need to evaluate this course for the Masters in Online and Distance Education I am doing at the Open University (OU) in the United Kingdom.

I have to admit a bias upfront – I love DS106 and I am putting my Masters on hold in order to join the next run DS106 charmingly (?) called ‘Headless 13’  I also believe in the ethos demonstrated by the yearly questions set by The Edge – particularly the 2008 one ‘ What have you changed you mind about recently and why?’ I set up this blog to challenge my own thinking beyond those things that seem to me to be self evident and obvious.

So, I set myself the task to look beyond the self evident truth that DS106 is the best thing to have happened to higher education generally and to open education specifically since 1373 when ‘the people of Florence petitioned the Signoria of Florence to provide public lectures of Dante’s work, resulting in a year’s course where a lecturer, paid 100 gold florins, spoke every day except holy days’ (Peter and Deimann, 2013).

One thing we can say about DS106 uncontroversially is that is nodal online learning, a hashtag classroom and that a syndication engine plus the web are the bare bones of any DS106 like course. Once we start to talk about the kind of nodes and links or the directionality of the links we get into a more difficult terrain. It is not my intention here to repeat analysis already available elsewhere. Instead, I want to offer an outsider’s view of DS106, I am utterly uninterested in wether DS106 is a cMOOC but not an xMOOC – although it may be. I daydream when reading arguments about whether it can be put in a box and whether this is desirable – although it may be. As an outsider coming in, I see that it succeeds at getting a level of participation and commitment many can only dream about. It is easy to join in without questioning its limits and boundaries. But then, I was not put on this earth to join anything unquestioningly and I have an assignment to complete damn it!

Here I want to test its limits and say something about who this course is not for.  It seems to create strong emotion for or against, as I found out in my research for this post. For example, Guy Cowley a fellow OU student tells us that ‘ Anyone worrying that the US will covertly take over the HE world via MOOCs can be re-assured by watching the intro video by Jim Groom.  The toe-curling ‘we are just a tech-savvy in-crowd having FUN’ would not seem remotely relevant to education in cultures taught through conventional didactic pedagogies.  They might think they had tuned to Friends by mistake!’ (Cowley, 2013) I assume that from this world-view the Friends comparison is meant to be derogatory but may be not.

The rest of his review takes a fairly swift and mechanistic approach to describing the course and concludes that with a philosophy to ‘be cool! [where] hating Elluminate [is] symptomatic of the establishment-denying ethos’ and without a clear ‘business model’ its success may be short-lived. Interestingly, even though the tone of the review is fairly negative it concludes that ‘the course is a phenomenon; there would seem no lack of commercial interests who would like to target this high energy, poster-child group.’ There is no further exploration as to a rationale for this conclusion, but it seems clear that Guy was not smitten by his initial contact with the DS106 experience unlike some others who believe that DS106  ‘is the world’s most powerful course – a gale-force of 106-mph so intense it literally knocks socks off your feet’. Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes lies a critique of a course that is suitable for some and unsuitable for others. A balanced account of DS106 as compared to Udacity has been written by Hendricks (2013). In what follows I will assume familiarity with the DS106 format at least to the level explored in Hendricks’ post. The rest of this post attempts to give a balanced overview of its nature and limitations. I will also address the claim that it is a cult and how I came to become the DS106 Headless Shrink.

The nature of the open element of DS106 does fit Siemens original definition of a massive open course (Young, 2011) as neatly summarised by Rees (2013),
‘Siemens saw MOOCs as 1) Experimental 2) Open 3) Intended for people who already have college degrees and 4) Not designed as a replacement for college courses.’

DS106 is always experimenting with its format and execution; it is ‘of the web’ not ‘on the web’ hence utilises the Internet’s open architecture as much as it can; mostly only people who are already independent learners will have the motivation to engage; it is not replacing the course at the university but running alongside it and enhancing its reach. Although this may foreground the positives it also offers limitations in the background.

There are a few familiar distinctions from my work as a psychologist that will help me determine where the limits of DS106 lie. I look at these in the rest of this post and whilst for ease of discussion I set these up as conflicting opposites, I actually understand them as polarities or educational dilemmas which educators always hold in tension. By the nature of our role we are (or should be) expert polarity managers. Or in the words of Carl Gustav Jung ‘ the greater the tension, the greater is the potential. Great energy springs from a correspondingly great tension of opposites’. We simplify at our peril.

Learning outcomes or community

DS106 subscribes to what Cormier calls ‘community as curriculum’ . Using the image of a Rhizome to discuss education he states ‘curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process. This community acts as the curriculum, spontaneously shaping, constructing, and reconstructing itself and the subject of its learning’  This is succinctly summed by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel (2013), ‘the action of interactivity is itself a learning experience’. Potential learners who have a strong need to follow set learning outcomes and to have these aligned with clear assessment should think twice about signing up to DS106. Seely Brown makes the distinction between using peer support to understand or to construct knowledge and, depending on one’s pedagogical position, one can argue about feasibility and validity of knowledge created within a community. What is relevant here is that in DS106 the community is more what Thomas and Seely Brown (2013) call a collective,

” A collective is very different from an ordinary community. Where communities can be passive […], collectives cannot. In communities, people learn in order to belong. In a collective, people belong in order to learn. Communities derive their strength from creating a sense of belonging, while collectives derive theirs from participation.”

The collective aspect of DS106 is very striking when you join it. It has its own oral tradition and it is no secret that shared narrative creates group cohesion. As storytelling is the focus of DS106, it is clear that community/collective members understand the importance of a shared oral tradition and they use technology in order to foster it. Should you choose to do DS106 you will soon come across a tapestry of stories that are continually being added to by members; from talking dolls  that embody care and empathy, to tough military men who bully you into ‘making art, damn, it’. Then there are the dead bodies, the headless photos, dancing professors and not forgetting the re-invokation of missing people via animated gif creation. Yes, it takes a particular kind of learner to engage with the mythology of DS106 and understand that the learning is in the engagement. There is no linear guide for new members, the stories weave in the interactions of those who ‘get it’. By definition there must be those who try to join in but never ‘get it’ and leave without a trace. What students slowly learn is that the process of interacting is as much part of the digital storytelling to be learnt as working through tutorials in the handbook. There is a richness in this that cannot be put in a box, and what is also true is that there is a great deal of unpredictability in it and the danger of it raising fears about inclusion/exclusion always latent in us humans.

Expert or novice

Keith Brennan (2013) writes an article aptly named ‘In connectivism no one can hear you scream.’  As a nodal online learning process, DS106 is focussed on networks and on how knowledge can be said to reside in the network rather than the individual. This is not the place to discuss is DS106 cMOOC or not – although we said before it may be – but it certainly relies on a level of digital fluency that betrays its origins in a department of computer science. In trying to think about colleagues in my own institution who may benefit, I struggle to name one who would not simply ‘drown’ as Christina Hendricks comments on the same article: ‘The problem is that those of us who have succeeded in cMOOCs, for whatever reason we did so, often don’t see the ones who drown. They might ask for help in the beginning, and we might try to help, but if it doesn’t work they just quietly disappear and we hardly notice.’  Brennan uses the notion of self-efficacy and cognitive load to explain what psychologists know well but often technologists forget: just because x is good, it does not mean 2x is better. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a prestigious psychologist and the originator of positive psychology, expresses the same idea with the concept of flow. Learning is not supported when the external environment is not aligned with the learners’ ability to cope. When we design learning experiences we need to manage the level of challenge with skill/confidence levels to enable students to learn, as the diagram below shows:

…or as succinctly put by Brennan in his excellent article: ‘This is partially why, when we treat experts like novices, we bore and lose them. If we treat novices like experts we depress and lose them.’

DS106 tries to address this by a 2 week ‘bootcamp’ at the start to allow students to develop their digital fluency with the tools they will need. I think that this will help, but will this convince any of my colleagues to attend? The response has been negative so far – I just don’t have the time to set up blogs, learn new tools and what about privacy? If you are thinking about DS106 then you do need to factor in the fact that there is an expectation that you will be fairly fluent in ‘web-speak’ and social media. Even if you are, you will still need to learn many tools and workflows for producing digital stories. DS106 teaches you how to do it all: Audio, video, photography, writing, poetry… I could go on. The tools are myriad as are the potential applications you could learn, and this says nothing about the creative process and the psychology of creativity. I have been teaching and researching creative thinking for many years and whilst I see inspired educational technologists in the DS106 collective, it does seem to me that either you come to it as a creative thinker or you may run away in panic at what you may be asked to produce. if I am honest, even with a high level of digital fluency, creative thinking skills and self-efficacy, I am still in awe of the quality of output I see daily under the #DS106 Daily Create and a little scared to try! The psychology of creativity involves a great deal and as the new self appointed DS106 Headless Shrink I hope to bring some of that capability into the collective. I digress.

Divergent or convergent thinkers

A simple and fairly old concept in creativity theory is the difference between divergent and convergent thinkers. It is possible to learn divergent thinking skills but some say individual differences exist and we choose our careers and education based on these preferences. As Robinson tells us in the video below – whilst divergent thinking is not synonym with creativity it is a core component of it. It is our ability to push the envelope to see beyond the givens of a situation – a paperclip hold papers but many more uses can be thought for it by those with ease in divergent thinking. The creative process requires both types of thinking at different times but you cannot converge on a solution to a creative endeavour if you cannot first diverge on possibilities. Creativity requires that we suspend disbelief and ask ‘if we could think of a way to x, how would we do x?’ If you are one of those people who is more likely to see obstacles to a solution than possibilities, then you are less likely to thrive in DS106. Those of us who thrive in a world that presupposes possibility – I know it can be done, I just don’t know how yet, or the digital equivalent: I want to do it, there must be an app for that – may find our spiritual digital home in DS106.

Backstage or invisible tools

One of the issues that also becomes relevant here is one’s position on how the vehicle for learning is designed. Terry Winograd talked about how well designed tools are invisible artefacts. When studying learning design recently I learnt (Funes, 2013)  about this and other design patterns for developing digital artefacts. DS106 is not designed according to this pattern. The idea behind it is that the tool merges in the background whilst we engage in creative endeavours, it does not get in the way of what we are trying to do. DS106 is intended to teach you about the tools as well as the creative endeavour. It is also fundamentally about choice and proud to offer all the choice the internet has to offer. This means that you have to be willing, nay enthused, about delving backstage at the internet show (Funes, 2013). My recent experience with backstage in a walled garden registration driven LMS was (without exaggeration or irony) a nightmare; trying to do new things with old tools, is just fool hardy. I digress again.

DS106 understands that to be ‘of the web’ means open with no walled garden in sight.

This does make the backstage experience both more fun and less frustrating. However, there is still a need to delve backstage and there is no hope of invisible tools. The list of tools I need to learn grows daily and I have not even started the course yet. I love learning new tools. I love learning. Yet, the familiar sense of infowhelm is starting. There just is too much to learn and not enough time to learn it. And yes, I know how to manage that and how to be a good digital citizen and my resilience threshold is off the scale. I know about Data aikido (Battaglia, 2013) as a lifetime practice. So here is the trade-off: to do DS106 this fall I have decided to dedicate myself to it almost full time. Invisible tools and walled gardens would enable a more expedient way to learn content,  but DS106 is for life and I have heard a narrative in the community about how if something frustrates you, you should just ‘DS106 it’ – advise not coming from psychological theory but very much aligned with it. I have the luxury of being like Dr Oblivion of Swaffham quoted above; I am almost retired, I play Sudoku and live peacefully. Hopefully, without disappearing mysteriously at the end of Headless 13. I do work, but only when I want to and this fall I am DS106ing. The general point to this story is that I am very lucky to be in this position. Most of my clients and colleagues simply ‘do not have enough hours in the day’ or so they believe. Unless, you can make the necessary lifestyle changes to integrate DS106 in your life – you should not do it. You will drown.

Above I explored polarities that need to be considered from the type of learner/student you might be. Hopefully, I have offered you a sense of the limit of this ‘poster child’ of open education. You need to be honest with yourself about your personal limitations, your stage of development and your life circumstances to decide if you are ready for DS106. Fortunately they now have an excellent in-house psychologist available on Tumblr to have developmental conversations and help you decide if, or how, to participate.

Next, I want to explore two aspects about course design and culture.

The first is the danger of the Super-professor (Yes, Jim. I am talking about you, of course).

MOOCs of all persuasions have been accused of providing a forum for professors with big egos to become rock-stars in their own minds at least. After all, when thousands of students sign up for your course (even if most just disappear a little after registering) it is bound to affect your sense of self in some way (a topic for the DS106 headless shrink to explore this fall, no doubt) and whilst many MOOCs of the x-persuasion are designed as a vehicle to encourage a distorted sense of self, DS106 explicitly sets out to avoid this, with a co-constructivist pedagogy underlying its design.

The question is, given that human beings are what they are – herding animals,  how well does DS106 manage to avoid blind following of those at the centre of the network?

When discussing Coursera, Rees (2013) says that some learners may be self-managed enough to learn without becoming sycophantic and indeed,

‘be able to work it out for themselves because they’ve already learned how to learn, [but] the vast majority of the rest of them will just keep blindly following one superprofessor messiah after another, thinking that they’re learning something important about life when in fact what they’re really doing is helping the enemies of higher education keep more people from ever becoming enlightened at all. ‘

It is clear that DS106 is not intending its students to fit in this category.

They are sticking closely to Siemens original recipe and not trying to freeze a product in time or have the course be dependent on its designer. The experiment they are carrying out this fall of running the course headless is an extreme experiment in participant pedagogy ‘There is no “head of the class” in an online learning environment, not even the illusion of one. Students must, instead, construct their own strategies, without a recipe, in the moment. And they should even be called upon to help map the terrain in which that can happen.’ Hence the course is the  ‘Headless 13’ run of DS106.

Yet, we need to unpack and question this further. Whilst an attempt is being made to avoid rock star status for anyone (bar Talky Tina, perhaps) in design at least, the community follows the structure of many open other source communities (Seely Brown, 2008). It is worth quoting him in full when discussing the Wikipedia example and the nature of its community (bold italics mine to highlight elements I believe echo with DS106):

‘Becoming a trusted contributor to Wikipedia involves a process of legitimate peripheral participation that is similar to the process in open source software communities. Any reader can modify the text of an entry or contribute new entries. But only more experienced and more trusted individuals are invited to become “administrators” who have access to higher-level editing tools. The openness of Wikipedia is instructive in another way: by clicking on tabs that appear on every page, a user can easily review the history of any article as well as contributors’ ongoing discussion of and sometimes fierce debates around its content, which offer useful insights into the practices and standards of the community that is responsible for creating that entry in Wikipedia. (In some cases, Wikipedia articles start with initial contributions by passionate amateurs, followed by contributions from professional scholars/researchers who weigh in on the “final” versions. Here is where the contested part of the material becomes most usefully evident.) In this open environment, both the content and the process by which it is created are equally visible, thereby enabling a new kind of critical reading—almost a new form of literacy—that invites the reader to join in the consideration of what information is reliable and/or important.’

There are those in the centre who are most influential, informally if not formally, and what determines how you get to the centre is a meritocracy model of legitimate participation – wether ‘you make art, damn it!’ A meritocracy may be more desirable than the use of positional power, but a hierarchy exists nevertheless. For example, a current assignment in preparation for Headless 13 has Jim Groom dancing all over the world. The intention is to have fun and to show it is okay to mock the professor whilst learning to make animated gifs. But are there some serious questions to be asked about psychological motivation for the setting of this type of assignment?  The ephemeral currency in which professors like Jim may be getting paid could be just ego boo or  the joy of teaching, but the nature of the network has within it the potential for a more dysfunctional dynamic embodying the unconscious shadow aspects of a benign magician archetype and this  needs critical self-reflection on the part of all members of the collective.

My personal experience has been nothing but positive with a passion and commitment for what DS106 stands for coming through in everyone involved, but dangers lurk that this same dynamic of passion and commitment could be misused by new members, if not current ones. Some see this interactional pattern and have accused DS106 of being cult. I joked about this at the start of this post and the community jokes about this often, but again there are some serious issues to be raised within the humour,

‘A website associated with the group describes it as “an internet gathering” with “a very loose and decentralized command structure that operates on ideas rather than directives.’

A past participant talking about DS106? An educator talking about the nature of MOOCs? No. It is Brian Kelly (2013) in his Boston University Law Review article on hacktivism and its potential influence on homeland security policy. The quote refers to the Anonymous group and its organisation. Anonymous is one amongst many groups set up  ‘against the overt censorship of politics and the internet [it is a ] self-proclaimed torchbearer of Internet freedom. Anonymous is defended as a bastion for rights and freedom, as much as it is vilified for being just a destructive criminal outfit. The truth, inevitably, lies somewhere in the middle.’

It is of interest to me that I started this post talking about how DS106 elicits strong emotion for and against; defended as a bastion of creativity in education and vilified for being an elitist outfit only accessible to the few. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, but an internet gathering that has so much in common with hacker culture may not suit all. And those of us choosing to participate, may do well to remember there is an inevitable shadow side to a participatory dynamic based on strong identification with ideals or leaders. Health warning: It is not my intention to imply that anyone in the DS106 community is a hacktivist in any way shape or form, simply that the organisational structure of DS106 is similar to other open internet groups and not all have educational purposes in mind.


And finally, to add some gravitas to this post, I need to mention the Mr. Men test for DS106 attendance to the open course. You should not do DS106 if you are a ‘squary’, but you will fit right in if you are a ’roundy’.

Of course, if you want to become a roundy DS106 may just be the right place to learn.


(I may be just lazy, but  have started to believe this section in any article is just like the appendix in the human body – a vestigial organ. Why do we need to list stuff linearly here when hyper writing enables us just to click in context? #overlyhonestmethods. I have listed some but not all sites I linked to above.)

Battaglia, E. (2013)  Data aikido: On data digestion. [online]  http://www.semanto.me/data-aikido-on-data-digestion-v1-0/
Brennan, K. (2013)  In Connectivism, No One Can Hear You Scream: a Guide to Understanding the MOOC Novice [online] http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/Journal/files/Guide_to_the_MOOC_Novice.html#sthash.FwwXf8NM.dpufhttp://www.hybridpedagogy.com/Journal/files/Guide_to_the_MOOC_Novice.html
Cowley, G. (2013) Comparing MOOCs. [online] http://jugu.org/gblog/2013/04/11/comparing-moocs/
Funes, M. Design patterns for H817 learning design block [online asignement]  https://www.evernote.com/shard/s292/sh/b173c48c-176f-46b9-8baa-210c53adb5ab/cf8443b2aab04c478f55dcc85470728d
Hendricks, C. (2013) ‘Contrasting The XMOOC And The … Ds106’ [online]  http://blogs.ubc.ca/chendricks/2013/04/24/xmooc-and-ds106/
Kellly, B. (2013) INVESTING IN A CENTRALIZED CYBERSECURITY INFRASTRUCTURE: WHY “HACKTIVISM” CAN AND SHOULD INFLUENCE CYBERSECURITY REFORM [online] http://www.bu.edu/law/central/jd/organizations/journals/bulr/volume92n4/documents/KELLY.pdf
Morris S. M. (2013) and Stommel, J. (2013) MOOCagogy: Assessment, Networked Learning, and the Meta-MOOC [online]
Peter, S., and Deimann, M. (2013) On the role of openness in education: A historical reconstruction. Open Praxis 5.1 (2013): 7-14.
Rees, J. (2013) ‘You have to do it all for yourselves’ [online]   http://moreorlessbunk.wordpress.com/2013/07/03/youve-all-got-to-work-it-out-for-yourselves/
Young (2011) Why University should experiment with massive open courses. [online]  https://chronicle.com/blogs/techtherapy/2011/10/06/episode-88-why-universities-should-experiment-with-massive-open-courses/
The Edge (2013) Annual question ‘ What have you changed you mind about and why?’ [online]   http://www.edge.org/annual-question/what-have-you-changed-your-mind-about-why Accessed August 07, 2013.
Thomas, D. and Seely Brown, J.  (2013) Learning in the Collective. [online]  http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/Journal/files/Learning_in_the_Collective.html