The dream behind the Web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished. There was a second part of the dream, too, dependent on the Web being so generally used that it became a realistic mirror of the ways in which we work and play and socialize. […] Once the state of our interactions was on line, we could then use computers to help us analyse it, make sense of what we are doing, where we individually fit in, and how we can better work together. The potential of the mixture of humans and machines working together and communicating through the web could be immense. Tim Berners-Lee (in 1998)

I love the ‘webness of the web’ for learning, I love the relationships I am building and am full of wonder about the kindness and gentle nature of the people in my network. Yet there is a dark side to it all that makes me wonder what role I want to play as I engage in online dialogue with others going forward. Each day I learn a little more about the implicit norms of behaviour a given collection of individuals shapes as they come together online. Decisions about belonging or ‘liking’ are often made on the basis of unstated group norms. I have spent my life offline noticing these patterns and the web does ‘make sense of what we are doing and where we individually fit in’. It is easy for me to see pattern even without engaging in fancy analytics.

As I reflect on my role I notice a world where acronyms abound. This is similar to the insular organisational cultures I visit offline in my consulting work. They are a marker of belonging as much as a marker of exclusion.

I learn about OER, about the OpenEd, about MOOCs of assorted varieties, about the pros and cons of the LMS, I observe confused metaphors about what it means to teach online – is it a course, it is the open web, is it the platform, is it blended or BYOD or all of the above? Am I a teacher, a learner, a peer learner, part of personal or professional learning network? Am I part of a community, a group, a CoP or a network? Can we measure my BC (between centrality) to see if my life is worth living? I can go on. All of this has felt quite unsatisfactory to me as I reflect on how to engage those people who have not made the transition to working in the open web. It is not self-evident that this is a ‘good’ thing and historically it is often just thought a ‘good’ thing by those who stand to benefit from it.

In this post I clarify an online role for me personally that aligns with evolving values and beliefs about open practices.

I could go the theoretical route and review literature and ideas. Yet, this is not that kind of post, it is more of a manifesto than a critical review.  Who am I in this meditated world that is the open web?

My first conclusion is this.

By Laura Gibbs at
By Laura Gibbs at

I want to be part of the larger whole, not just the subset.

We form into various hashtag classrooms to feel a little less overwhelmed by the access to the small part of the earth the web gives us (a significant part of earth does not have a presence on the web, if I may be allowed to bring a little reality to the idealism above). This is a great first step. I would never have ‘joined’ the largest MOOC if I had not had a bunch of lovely people to guide me in a small corner of it first. I like Catherine Cronin’s idea of ‘open practices’ to help students; one of which is to give her students the safety of using a hashtag on Twitter as they get started on their journey on the open web. #ld10dot was my hashtag when I started and it did give me a safe container to experiment.

My ‘hashtag home’ now is  DS106, that is the ‘subset’ home I have used to get comfortable with the immensity of the open web for learning . I ‘belong’ there  and yet do wonder why ‘there’ and not ‘elsewhere’.

I have joined several cMOOCs, learnt stuff and met lovely people ‘there’ but I did not stay #4life as I have with DS106. We have a common interest in DS106: we make art, Damn it!  and are all equal to the task at hand, that of making art. Piers Ibbotson as an expert in the creative ensemble says it well and I have discussed this at length elsewhere,

” Innovation may occur where people are creatively engaged, but it cannot be dictated and it cannot be planned, it must be found from the emergent actions of people who are struggling with a task. “

This describes clearly what DS106 is about for me – learning digital storytelling with all the challenges it entails. As we struggle with the task we follow a set of norms and learn something off-book – how to live and learn on the open web. This is in the background not the foreground and I think this matters when I compare it with other experiences.

The implicit norms of most online learning communities I have experienced are similar. The tension between freedom of speech and member equality plays out in a more or less explicit way always. After all, people begin relationships in order to satisfy their needs for inclusion, control and affection, as Schutz maintains, wether you call the grouping a community or a network or a collection of individuals.

We talk about tolerance, equality, and goodwill, power dynamics exist in the shadow of groups perhaps too often. These get played out covertly, unspoken and our options when we do not like it are limited. Stay and comply or leave. Sometimes it is possible to shape the conversation, yet in order to do this one needs to meet the majority where it is and speak ‘their’ language before being heard. The type of  interaction remains unchanged as the players change. I see people arrange themselves in tribes of like minded people and travel together. Humans do this physically as well as virtually. We choose our clubs.

This sorting process, by definition, includes some people and excludes others.

The exclusion may be benign – as when I do not get chosen for a team because I need to improve a skill. Or it may not be – as when we threaten to kill people who do not share our views. In online learning communities, it seems to me, we are using hashtags as our ‘brand’. DS106 has been criticised for doing this ‘too much’ through its use of #4life as a slogan,

It creates a mantra, the chanting of which identifies you as a member. People who are ‘in’ are quite willing to surrender to this higher authority. People who are not ‘in’ are ‘out’ and are subject to various sanctions from the group, including hostility.

I am ‘in’ so I find it hard to see how DS106 is excluding. Yet, people who I respect do tell me consistently that the language used can feel unwelcoming at the start. And it is also true, that an integral part of the ethos is you either join in or move on to something else that suits you better. So it excludes those who do not get the ‘make art #4life, damn it!’ ethos.

I thought it interesting that Stephen Downes once said “the slogan ‘DS106 4Life’ is like yelling ‘Hort Hort Hort’ to create group identity” in a football team. Harmless at one level and with the potential to be harmful too.

Most but not all hashtags classrooms try to shape an ethos of belonging – what do we stand for here? – and this process can create interesting dynamics when there is no common task to focus the attention. A reviewer to one of my papers said  ‘that the practice that many share in virtual courses is just studying online and that in less structured communities people just end up talking about their experience of studying.’ I see this happening in cMOOCs I have joined beyond DS106 – the task is coming together online and this leads to a bias towards consent not dissent. This is problematic for diversity.

In the initial forming period, people come together and at a group process level are asking ‘who is in and who is out?’ To deny the inclusion/exclusion dynamic is to say we are not developing a group identity as we come together to learn online. Attempts to talk about nodes in networks, suggests the idea that a node self-directs and does not cohere to a group identity. My experience of interpersonal behaviour tells me this is at best an idealistic notion.

You need only scan how people wear their cMOOC attendance as an online resume or badge of honour – are you a CCK08 or a PLENK or a Change11? Where you a co-facilitator or ‘just’ a participant? Also I notice how cMOOC ‘elders’ are treated in the online EdTech community as a whole – not naming any names here- with deference. The hashtags are created to stand for something and as with any collection of individuals who identify with something, the quality of the interaction can ‘go south’ as people find their feet and implicit norms a majority share evolve. This is what happens when a group is left to self-organise.

This is not the case in a physical classroom as I have a clear role to shape group norms, a duty of care towards all and students have recourse to university procedure when things ‘go south’. Online learning is not like this, open practices in hashtag classrooms are the practices of the open web. Norms self-organise as people do, they are implicit. There is no explicit contracting upfront and no consequence for non-compliance that I have found in any of the MOOCs I have joined. Sub-groups form and individuals do not always know how to work with multiple perspectives. Rhiz014 is an example of this. I wrote about it previously and I was clear the rules of the game were not for the faint hearted. Dave Cormier describes the pattern he observed in that course and attributes the cause to his design. I see the cause as simply human nature,

How MOOCs go south from Dr M Funes on Vimeo.

I have only recently become aware, that these issues have been playing out and being researched since the early days of online communities shockingly exemplified by the rape in Lambda Moo written in 1993. In the video above Bertrand Russell speaks to the problem in 1959, before I was even born! People interact in dysfunctional ways if left to their own devices more often than not. Online it seems a ‘escape clause’ for making any behaviour acceptable  is “it is not real, it is the internet”  and “you can always move on if you don’t like it”. Again, this conversation has been going on for a long time and I am not arrogant enough to think I have anything new to add that would change this archetypal pattern in human behaviour.

So, my second conclusion is this. People smarter than me have tried to create the ideal open web environment and have not been very successful – just look at the dropout rates in MOOCs. May be the environment cannot be fundamentally changed without losing the ‘web-ness of the web’ – witness what xMOOC platforms are producing.  I am okay with the ‘law of two feet’ and the ‘choose your tribe’ ethos as I make choices to live and learn on the web. I can live with the serpent given that Eden is just so full of possibilities – thanks Gardner Campbell for this metaphor.

Yet I realised recently, as I read about extreme harassment cases, that my issue is with applying this free for all ethos to spaces we are calling ‘a classroom’. In creating an online community for learning it seems we are saying – the ‘virtual is real’ and the ‘real’ needs to guide our behaviour,

We tune-out the people who are inconsistent or with dubious motivations. Imagine someone walks in on Monday, introduces herself, is pleasant and then leaves. Tuesday she comes in, you go to say hello and she ignores you. Wednesday she says hello but Thursday she’s back to ignoring you. Friday comes around, you’re chatting with your old friend and she barges into your conversation only to start asking favours. Nobody wants to know that person online or offline. Their inconsistency breeds mistrust. You cannot fake interests so the connections we have to be real. They are relationships like any other that have to be nurtured, grown and attended to, if it feels like work then its not working. Chances are, there are no extrinsic rewards for this, we’re looking to draw on and exploit our intrinsic motivators. Jonathan Worth, 2014

Jonathan tells us we build trust online in the same way as we build trust offline. Hence making a equivalence between online and offline life.

I admit to being confused.

If the norms and behaviours we expect in open online learning communities mirror those of the physical world, then best practice as regards contracting and agreeing acceptable/unacceptable behaviour (and importantly consequences) applies in both. Yet, this is not  what happens in most MOOCs.

If the rules are those of the open web where ‘anything goes’ and to participate we must accept that the web is just ‘a realistic mirror of [all] the ways in which we work and play and socialise’ in physical life then I have serious questions about its viability long term as a ‘formal learning classroom’. My classroom in physical life does not bring ‘the whole of life’ into the learning situation and I would not want it to do so.

In a cMOOC I self-manage interactions. There is no recourse to a teacher, a process facilitator, or an institution. There are no consequences bar peer pressure or the ever present backchannel to balance the conversation and give space to minority voices. I find the concept of the backchannel  interesting. It seems at times that talking offline is the only way to resolve issues in an online group. My understanding of this dynamic in offline life is that it simply discourages honest feedback in a group. If overused, then online life becomes a performance in the way that our working lives can be a performance where we learn to comply with accepted behavioural competencies as our character gets corroded in the act of compliance. Meantime, we talk about third parties at the proverbial water cooler and never offer direct feedback on impact. Yes, it is self-censoring mostly, we could just say what we are thinking. We could. But if the risk is to be fired from my job or receive death threats, then my self-preservation instinct kicks in. Call me a coward. I will comply and work hard at being acceptable. This is not just a gender issue, it is what human beings do when they come together and it is not always pretty.

I have been reflecting deeply about all this. I too have been gone figuring for a while. If I believe there is no way of shaping an open learning situation to keep my students safe, then I need to let go of my rose-tinted spectacles that see this as a potential educational space? Yet I see so many possibilities and I know that I was guided to operate in this space safely and joyously by great open educators who held my hand – often without even being asked to do so. I do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater…

What prompted this post was a small realisation that has helped me keep the baby and let the bathwater out. May be we are overlaying the wrong construct on our online lives. May be this is not ‘a classroom’ and I am not ‘a teacher’ or ‘a learner’. May be I am just a human being using a technology to interact with other human beings  for a variety of purposes – one of which can be learning to make art, to knit or to be a good digital citizen.

Some  thoughtful researchers are considering a fuller picture of what learning online means beyond acronyms and hashtags ,

As we are considering risks of various shapes and sizes, from stolen identity to privacy breaches, it seems worthwhile to reflect on these more pervasive kinds of risks or exclusions, silencing and just feeling plain old overwhelmed.

All too often the quality of MOOC research is low and interaction driven by what Jenny Mackness frames as  competitive self-interest at the expense of mutual respect. I was struck, when I first came to learn online, that all too often ideas exist in the vacuum of a small group of people who do not acknowledge the work that has gone on before. I have never been in an educational environment where words are coined, claimed and counter claimed with as much regularity as in the open education world – even with attempts to trademark openED in some countries. We use blogging for personal reflection, words get coined and lineage of concepts is ignored as we seek to understand. Yet often these speculative posts get generalised as truth (or truthiness as Alan Levine is fond of saying) associated with a given individual instead of discussed as plain old unattributed speculation. It is this kind of thing that makes some academics skeptical about the potential of this medium and makes them ask me: what is this cult you have joined?

Accepting that in making the choice to live and learn on the open web I am also part of its dark under-belly, how do I want to be?

Alan Levine talks about the yin-yang of the web. Garner Campbell talks about how we bring the snake into the garden of eden. I talk about the psychology of open and its shadow. Jenny Mackness talks about the ‘tyranny of open’ as do others.  Some are exploring new ways to engage that make the dark side more explicit,

Participation in heterotopian spaces is disturbing and ambiguous, but it offers a space in which to imagine, to desire and act differently.

As a participant I can choose to be part of disturbing and ambiguous spaces. At least I am not being sold this space as all ‘cupcakes and rainbows’,

The downside of being an open educator – PERNILLE RIPP

How do I want to be?

I do not want to be a teacher, an educator, or get my very own hashtag to promote and chant, or do I?  I do not feel comfortable with making the equivalence ‘a MOOC is like a university’.

Actually, I am starting to see all of these hashtags groupings much more as offering access to people who can curate a domain of expertise, what Jonathan Worth refers to at accessing and sharing our inner nerds, than as a formal classroom. I see what Paul-Olivier Dehaye means when he talks about a Stanford study that equated MOOC activity with watching TV. We MOOC instead of watching TV. This may be a more accurate image to overlay on my own online learning experiences than that of a classroom. Entertainment. Some of us watch educational programmes, others of us prefer reality TV or war movies. I prefer educational programmes as entertainment and enjoy finding others who share this affinity. The downside of this construct is that I am unlikely to seek those who prefer to watch a different kind of programme.

How do I want to be online?

A human open educational resource to those who seek my help navigating this disturbing and ambiguous space so full of wonder. For me this is about sharing ideas, it is about knowing a person not what she/he can do for me, it is about having fun together exploring stuff and not being afraid to disagree with each other and ourselves regularly. It is about seeing other humans and being seen by them.  As Gardner Campbell described my role in #thoughtvectors, it is about being a

“network Provocateur, or a wonder-guide, in essence someone who would keep interacting with the network but without an obvious role (teacher, writing specialist, librarian, etc.). A kind of blithe, benign spirit, an observer-participant with the particular assignment of prodding and enticing the network of participants into ever-more-thoughtful-and-joyous engagement.”

This is something my online friends already value about me and that describes pretty accurately the role I was put on this earth to play in any group I join. I like the idea of being somebody who supports physical classrooms around the world to realise that ‘there are humans who care about this stuff’. Whatever ‘this stuff’ happens to be – in my case the human mind, technology and how they interact.

The hashtags that have worked for me are those that have a link to a physical classroom: #phonar, #thoughtvectors and #ds106. I have enjoyed being the ‘outside world’ to help students in the classroom learn and use the open web. I paraphrase Gardner Campbell here: We cannot keep our students safe, but we can be there for them and not leave them. Much of this for me goes full circle to just ‘Being there’ .

I realise that I have now evolved a ‘design principle’ for being online.  I am a human OER that wants to explore how to use technology to learn to be more,

“open to ourselves and creating learning experiences that open us up to self-awareness or metacognition. The thing about the personal cyber infrastructure is that once you have begun to build it, it can then be the object of narration, curation and sharing itself at a meta level. Let’s get together and talk about the cyber infrastructures we built and what it represents about us as people.”

And that explains why DS106 is ‘my’ part of the web. I have shared its ethos for a lifetime: live life as inquiry, learn not to be afraid to look in the mirror, narrate your work and show your workings.

Meme by Laura Gibbs in response to a previous post of mine.
Meme by Laura Gibbs in response to a previous post of mine.