I have been on many back channel conversations of late that have led me to reflect on Bateson’s idea that only  ‘a difference which makes a difference’ is information.  It makes me smile to think that so much of what I read and write may be just noise and not information.

Let me explain.

Just this week a paper that looked at the light and shade of one MOOC was extensively discussed on the web. Jenny offers a balanced view of the discussion in answering some of the commentary. I must say that her description of the reaction to their paper is much kinder than mine would be – I have seen a great deal more defensiveness and unwarranted personal attacks than her post may indicate to the casual reader. Of course, unless you have a Facebook account, you will be unable to see the full conversation. The joys of the not so open web. I digress.

What I see foregrounded in these interactions are categories and the application of those categories to a given idea. Interaction is about whether the reported research applies cMOOCs, or to  xMOOCs, but not to our MOOC because it is different. Ah! but this research applies to networks not communities, communities have people and networks have nodes. Networks lack caring, no they don’t. Each position taken can, of course, be defended (and I chose the word purposefully) with a long list of references depending on what your particular perspective and interest might be. Clearly there is value in making distinctions that map a territory. Perhaps there is less value in arguing if my food map is truer than your road map of the same territory. I am not interested in taking a position on the issue here, I learn each day from the wisdom with which Jenny and Frances deal with dialogue online. Read their article and make up your own mind about the value of some of the commentary about the paper.

Personally, I have been led back to an old idea in my knowledge map, that of the expert linchpin. A facilitator role to support individuals navigating the tacit seems an important element in any conversation of what can make these open educational spaces safer for us all.

This is what this post is about and the above is offered only by way of context. It feels to me that, sometimes, after we create our ideal structures, procedures and technologies we start to wonder about where and how people might fit in. Do networks have nodes or people? Do communities care about people or not? To me this reasoning is a little back to front.

What is a difference that has made a difference to me in my journey into open education?

Whatever the category of the online educational event – course, event, happening, un-course, cMOOC, xMOOC, CoP, CoI, LMS based, Connected Course, I could go on…human capacity to categorise and reify knows few bounds – it is the people who take an interest and help me learn that have mattered always. Of course, I may be just an anomaly.

For me it has not been about undiscerning Teletubby Love , no. What took me from being a skeptic about the potential of the open web for learning into a fully fledged participant has been the gift of what I call expert linchpins in each new experience I entered.

I have used that term way back since the days I used to go into companies with a brief to develop ‘expert computer systems’. We went in and always looked for the ‘linchpins’. People who had expertise but also whose expertise was considered indispensable in the system by their colleagues across departments or areas of expertise. At the time I did not know it, but what we wanted to find was experienced practitioners who also knew how to connect and share across the network that was the company. After much searching I managed to track the original paper where I came across this idea. It is old by web standards, 1996. It was research looking at the feasibility of using the internet to extend training in team problem solving. A quaint read with the benefit of hindsight,

“One strategy consisted in the use of a linchpin expert: one member of the trainers’ group who gave all training subsequent to the initial FTF training. This trainer was the communication bridge between the other trainers and the trainees.”

“A central element of the approach was the linchpin expert, a trainer who served as a communication bridge on the Internet between a team of trainers and a team of trainees.”

I note a couple of things in this paper that are relevant to my post here. This linchpin expert is seen as a communication bridge. He or she operates between at least two groups but has the expertise to belong to either.

Of course, we have trialled a similar approach when bringing the open course DS106 into 3M as reported in the Journal of Interactive media in Education. In that paper we talk about a network connector facilitator role,

“In the 3M-DS106 Salon a specialist facilitation role, we refer to as the ‘Salon Patroness’, acts as a supportive network connector both within 3M and outward to the open DS106 community. We believe this role requires full membership of both communities […]. Our 3M-DS106 Salon model incorporates the idea of ‘an open organisational web’ facilitated by [the] network connector who brings together the organisation and open educational resources”

Once you start categorising in this way, in terms of role rather than structure or design, you see that many of those open educational experiences that are successful have this kind of role embedded in their design somewhere.


Simon Thomson in his design for an open online course, after attending the Connected Course MOOC last year, saw this as a way into helping skeptic academics learn about connected learning. He used his unsuccessful attempt to engage colleagues in this MOOC as a way into learning, surveyed them and learnt about their reasons for non-participation. His way to address the objections? Use local facilitators from a given institution who also knew about open education.  Simon says, “the course will run with a set of local (to their institution) facilitators with a particular remit to support & guide staff new to open and online. The facilitators will be asked to provide face-to-face support sessions, with a flipped classroom model being the main approach to the facilitation.”

The qualities in the facilitators are similar to those of the expert linchpin or network connectors discussed earlier. Individuals who can be a bridge between domains of expertise because they belong to both and who can act as guides and advisers to participants new to one of the domains without judging their reluctance.

It is people who informally rather than formally took (and continue to take) this role on vis-a-vis my participation who have made the difference to my engagement in open education. It is a kind of virtual sitting-by-nellie approach. Physical Nellie may well be dead in education because it is a very resource intensive method but I see ‘her’ alive well in in the open web (who is Nellie anyway?). It is by taking tentative steps into something with the guidance of an expert linchpin that I have learnt more (so much more) than any qualification might have taught me about open education. It is a kind of role modelling on a case by case basis.

And whilst some in 2003 thought that “role modeling may be the function of mentoring that is least efficiently done in a virtual setting.” These same authors observed  that “anecdotal evidence suggests that mentors and proteges in spontaneously developed relationships are taking advantage of this medium as well.” In this mentoring view the expert linchpin is a coach, a friend, a counsellor who support learning. If you are trying to learn to engage in the virtual it makes sense that role modelling becomes possible.

David Hawkridge from the Open University said in 2003 that,

“Without doubt, in modern distance learning the mentor is the ‘human in the machine’. For students, the mentor is the human face in the machine that is the university.”

He also pulls together some distinctions between a tutor and a mentor,

‘Mentoring’ and ‘tutoring’ have acquired similar connotations, but ‘mentor’ is from ‘mens’, Latin for mind, while ‘tutor’ meant a watcher. A watcher is a guardian or protector, but ‘tutor’ was later applied to those who supervised youths in private households or the work of undergraduates at universities like Cambridge. In US universities and colleges in the 19th century, tutors were teachers subordinate to professors, according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.”

I like the term expert linchpin because it makes it clear that the role requires experience and indispensability within at least two separate groups. A communication bridge that teaches informally how to join a new domain or field by understanding fully the domain the new participant comes from. This means that the expert linchpin has a greater chance to know how to guide to avoid resistance or drop out.

Jonathan Worth uses the informal mentor role in his Phonar Nation Course. He  ‘recruits’  ‘old hands’ online to help out with new participants either in a one-one online relationship, or more akin to Simon’s idea of local facilitators to ‘run a local class’. This is done in the informal network not as a formal element of the course and I think this matters. When I teach networking skills at my business school, I talk to them about the ‘real’ organisational chart and how it matters to tap into it beyond what the formal organisational chart says,


They laugh when they see the image above but it leads to an interesting discussion about how things get done ‘around here’. The expert linchpin is fully embedded in the informal organisational chart of at least 2 domains. This means that the person can pass on to the newbie not just just formal but also the tacit knowledge that will help the newbie learn more than words can say.

When I am asked what is a difference that made a difference for me in joining the DS106 community, I always point to people who unselfishly and informally took me by the hand without setting themselves up as anything more than learners alongside me and taught me ‘how things got done around here’.

The informality mattered because I felt under no pressure to perform as I might with a teacher. The fact that they were ‘doing’ alongside me meant I could learn about the ethos of the community. I now do my best to monitor new arrivals into DS106 and at least offer a hand – no agenda, no positional power plays, just somebody to walk alongside until you get to know the backroads.

Productise that, I dare you.

Update April 2015.

A number of conversations  about the introductory paragraphs in this post happened elsewhere on the web. I wanted to make sure I kept the links for those who might want to follow up:

  1. Frances Bell summed up her views on networking around a scholarly article well. In this blog post she explains her choices to leave the Rhizo14 Facebook Group
  2. Dave Cormier posted this blog post on Facebook. The comments might be of interest to some
  3. Simon Ensor posted this blog post on Facebook. The comments might be of interest to some
  4. I had a conversation with Dave Cormier on Twitter about this post. In the conversation I offered to clarify that this blog offers only personal views. I did not get a response to my question, but may be the link to our interaction will serve to clarify my perspective. I have not changed my mind on any of the content in this post, and I never offered to delete any of its content.
  5. Heli Hurni wrote an insightful summary about the interactions since the publication of Jenny and Frances’ paper and my blog post.
  6. Heli also wrote several posts on the paper, here is the link to the first one. It is worth reading the comments as well as the actual blog posts.
  7. Heli also found another post of mine a year on and commented that she had found it useful, this led Simon to write a long comment on that post which I responded to and might also be of interest to some. It was the post I wrote after I finished #Rhizo14.

In spite of my request to both Dave and Simon that they come to my blog to comment on this post as I was unable to engage on Facebook – I have no account – they haven’t. I would have appreciated being offered the courtesy of being talked to directly and the actual content of the post being addressed rather than the unpleasant circumstances that led to my reflections.