CC by Michael Branson Smith from a poster CC by D. Kernohan

I have seen this animated gif many times but only this week I focussed on the quote ‘a tsunami of poorly understood pedagogy’. It really does seem as if the word MOOC carries some kind of magical properties.  The miracle tonic that will cure all the ills of education for some, as soon as faculty agree to drink it; the evil monster that will destroy all in its path if it is not stopped. I have learnt in my old age to be a more than a little skeptical of polarising constructs and am with Bateson on the need to keep stamping out nouns rather than keep creating them.

Recently I run a session at Higher Education Academy Conference ‘Heroes and monsters: extraordinary tales of learning and teaching in the arts and humanities’.  My extraordinary tale was DS106, of course! (I may have talked about other online experiences but not with the fervour I talked about DS106 I am sure).

I was only there for a day due circumstances beyond my control, and was struck by the kindness of those who came to my session – the first time I was talking about emerging ideas on the psychology of open education.

This post is about how lucky I feel to have somehow managed to join a community of people who believe in open distributed online education and my new found awareness that I have learnt much about the nuances of the online experience, when all the time I thought I was just learning to make art, damn it!

Whilst at the conference, I was saddened that both those supporting faculty and faculty itself see the potential and the barriers of open education as something that is in some way dependent on the chosen platform or some other external circumstance. So I listened. The biggest barrier is that faculty just do not want to deal with the technology. The biggest barrier is that the university does not support us. The biggest barrier is….I kept being reminded of ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ and the famous scene ‘It is beyond my control’. I am sorry but it is beyond my control….


Gif by @gifadog (Film Source:

My session aim was to focus on the barriers – the psychological barriers- to open education. Yet most of the session I listened to the external barriers my audience had encountered. After a while, somebody said ‘But I would never do that!’ and I said ‘And that is exactly what I mean by inner monsters’  – our limiting beliefs about what is possible when working in the open web. Then the flood gates opened. The issue of intellectual property was high on the agenda as was the issue of not publicly showing ‘unfinished thoughts’. I would never publish a half baked idea. I would not put my ideas out there for others to do with as they choose.

It was really like being on a different country.

I used this simile in the session. When you go to a new country you learn its language and its ways, you don’t try to force them to be like you. You change yourself. This means changing stuff that we are attached to. In the case of visiting the open web as a new country – it may mean learning to let go of our sense of self-importance or our sense of ownership of ideas. These are hard things to let go of for both academics and artists. We have a lifetime of putting our own name to what we do and being rewarded for that very thing. Until I got to DS106 nobody had ever got excited about me taking their work and remixing it in any way. I spent a lifetime keeping track of where/how/who I had come across an idea always with the aim to ensure I knew which was ‘mine’. Like Wiley says, my spoilt 2-year old was rewarded for the activity. And it was exhausting.

A unique feature of DS106 is that ‘we riff each other ideas’. I went looking to see what exactly this word meant – I was curious. I loved one of the meanings I found ‘a melodic phrase in jazz’ ‘an ostinato phrase’ that keeps repeating in a piece of music. A ‘repeated pattern of notes’ in a song. synonyms are: interpretation, version, adaptation. So we reward copying from each other, I bet your university course does not do that. And no,  I am not going to get diverted to the issue of assessment here.

I have talked about how to overcome inner demons at length elsewhere. I am using this post conference post to explore the states of mind that come before I am willing to look in the mirror and say: I need to change.


P. Hobler

My thinking is to support academics who may be at step 3 in this Growth Mindset idea but who know there are other options. One day at a conference is admittedly as small sample but I can add my own institution to this sample; and it seems a majority of faculty is at stages 1 and 2, with no desire to make feelings that arise when at stages 3 or 4 public knowledge by becoming open scholars.

When a couple of years ago I became willing to look in the mirror and fight my demons, I recognise I was already at stage 5 – let me give it a try and work with my fear of being seen as incompetent or failing. I think my audience at the conference would have preferred me to offer ideas for how to get faculty from stage 1 upwards. I note that stage 1, by definition, includes dissociation from any limiting beliefs that may be stopping change. The inner belief is: I do not need to change. It is not me, it is them.

A key reflection I have is that at the core of the battle for open is the issue of locus of control. If the locus of control is external, then inner change is perceived as unnecessary. Years of being told not to copy and protect and put your name to what you create cut deep. Contrary to popular belief, opinion change is not easy and it cannot even get off the ground if you are not even considering that your opinion needs to change.

Thomas Gilovich: Science Cafe – Will People Believe Anything? The Psychology of Gullibility from FABBS Foundation on Vimeo.

The more I try to engage faculty with the idea of open scholarship the more strongly I agree with David Wiley that it is our unwillingness to let go of invoking our 2-year old when it comes to our output that is at the core of our inability to learn and live in the open web.

This determination to distil the ‘right’ pedagogy before dipping your toes in the MOOC tsunami, or the reasoning that ‘we cannot control what happens out in the open but we should’ seems to come from that very visceral place of ‘I am not going to let go and you can’t make me’. Let us instead talk about how the technology needs to change or about how we need much more research before we adopt this approach. Meantime massive open online experiences are what most of our lives are made of – it is called the Internet.

We keep talking about the effect of the adoption of technology in higher education (and our careers, actually) and yet I am with Godfrey Reggio when he says:

So it’s not the effect of, it’s that everything exists within [technology]. It’s not that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe

If I am honest, I felt like an interpreter at the conference where I feel like the proverbial fish who asks ‘what the heck is water?’ when I am operating in the open web generally and in DS106 specifically. We seem to understand that we live technology, no need to turn it either into a demon or a saint. We can learn to use it to augment our lives as we make art together. Yet often we do not learn balance in its use, but addiction.

CC by Lorna Alkana

This is why we are now developing the mindful web, a place to learn that we have seen the enemy and it is ‘us’. Yes, as Jim Groom may or may not have said, you need a new you. One who is willing to stop invoking their 2-year old and learn to play well with others – the web as inter-mind. Change your mental habits and you will see that all you need to offer your students an online experience as motivating as DS106, is the open web curated for your purposes. Oh, and a willingness to start to ‘show your workings’ even if it seems terrifying…there is always a catch 🙂

Reggio also says that our language is ‘in a state of vast humiliation’ no longer describing the way in which we live. Yes, that is how I feel at times when trying to explain what it means to become an open educator – my lips move but they cannot hear what I am saying. I am describing something that those outside it cannot not imagine.

Once life gets complicated there are no easy answers – we need to live out our contradictions to know where next. Or as Alan Levine said after reviewing my pre-conference post:  ‘How do you overcome barriers to open? Out in the open!’