[This post was published elsewhere in 2015]

This is a response to Heli’s deep and honest reflections about open online learning.

I titled the post with a quote from Heli in the comments to her post as it resonated with some of the concerns I have been experiencing recently. I was deeply touched by the post and how in listening to a book review of a book about one topic new frames of learning opened for her.

She has the courage to share her views in ways that I would find tough and embodies Alec Couros’ idea of publish first, filter later:

It will take many of these imperfect models and raw conversations to create and shape the future of education. Believe in the conversation, throw out your ideas, engage with others, and teach and learn with the passion that this process breeds. This is openness at its very best.

It strikes me in her writing that she seems to be working hard at creating new meaning rather than thread together a bunch of inauthentic cliches. I really value that in your writing, Heli.

I was reminded of an old cartoon,



Heli is worried because ‘I am missing basic exploratory orientation, thinking, assessing, evaluation, critics and I see mostly preaching. I am sad and worried, that’s why I wrote this post.’

The book she heard reviewed was a book on ephemeral social phenomena and what creates and destroys them, I hope I have understood this right. She suggests we could look at MOOCs as such a phenomena and that we might benefit from this comparison.

Social phenomena are needed in to help human beings connect and meet our inclusion needs. Perhaps content and purpose are less important than that we find connection.

Heli asks ‘What is needed for an successful phenomenon (event, case) to occur?’ and the rest of the post is an account of the conditions as described in the book she heard reviewed on the radio. My summary after reading is:

  • shared interests
  • act jointly yet choose our own way
  • commitment to an ideology
  • commitment to a cause
  • individual must believe s/he is freely choosing
  • individual identity is mirrored by the crowd not
  • enforced by the crowd
  • event can be designed or unintentional
  • innovators followed by strengtheners are needed
  • strengtheners may be individuals or things the crowd will appreciate and hence accept
  • innovators need sensitivity to needs of potential crowd – belong to what, be against what
  • a frame that combines new and old for sense making
  • and have a place
  • memorabilia helps
  • negative events can support cohesion
  • an attitude to reject the rejectors or critics: How dare you resist this lovely event?
  • common enemies to bring cohesion

This resonates for me with much of the literature on community/group formation. This particular list seems more aligned to the dark side of groups than the light, but I see how attending to these elements can lead to quick group cohesion and hence a ‘social phenomenon’.

Heli speaks to the way in which this checklist helped her make sense of the ways in which ‘rhizo14 FB group refused to accept some negative results’. My understanding of what is meant by negative here is misalignment with the ‘current awesome story’ a group is telling to themselves and others. There are elements in the conditions for a phenomenon that would close a group from change. The group is more likely to dissolve than evolve if they allow counter-narrative in.

She has a great turn of phrase when speaking about new grouping coming together,

New tribes celebrate around their totem poles and the irrational elements are connecting people, not only rational actions and discussions.

Newly created ‘tribes’ come together via emotion as well as rational action and discussion. I also wonder if when the community is the curriculum there may be more emotion and less rational action and discussion as there is less shared content to apply critical thought to? The social phenomenon of the MOOC may just be about meeting needs of belonging rather than following a course of study.

The basic need is to be charmed by something with other people and take part in something jointly, yet feeling like an independent individual. Research is not the right way to do

The basic human need of belonging appears to be met without commitment.  This reminded me of Sherri Turkle:

We’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we’re designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control.

If this is the intent of coming together online then research and theory has little place in such frames of reference. What matters more is that the group validates me and tells me I belong to something special and durable. I become a hashtag classroom groupie. I have written about this before in relation to DS106 and it criticism that is it a ‘cult’. Heli asks,

What are the common mistakes? One of the blunders is to fall in love with one idea and forget other people’s needs

If somebody is so attached to a given way of seeing the world (be it as a rhizome or a tree or thingamajig) they will only want to convince you of the truth of their view and never ask themselves how it look from where you are standing.

Walking in the other's shoesLoop the loop animated gif

The title of the post is ‘The stories we want to tell ourselves’. An element of these stories is also the performance element of the MOOC as social phenomenon. What is the message we want to send those outside the group? Heli again ‘please come here everyone, this is awesome’. So, the need to ‘sell’ the phenomenon kills it. As those selling the idea refuse to acknowledge the limitations of universals (everyone, all the time, never) as it applies to their own narrative. At least this is what I understand Heli to be suggesting, she may correct me.

I think that the [ ]pattern of [a] phenomenon describes well the rhizo-like courses without content, where community is the curriculum.

In this framework, something becomes a phenomenon not based on painstaking research over time but on something else entirely – our human need for belonging and validation. We sometimes join the chuch. We sometimes join affinity groups. And sometimes we join digital mobs.

I am missing basic exploratory orientation, thinking, assessing, evaluation, critics and I see mostly preaching. I am sad and worried, that’s why I wrote this post.

And that is why I gave your post several close readings and offer here the kind of interpersonal attention that has helped me understand and (hopefully) may start us making new meaning together rather than defending positions. May be here we can reconnect with the true spirit of inquiry which is, after all, what research and human learning are about. I let Bohm speak to cultural revolution.

May be not all the stories we like to tell ourselves are free from compulsive urges, self-deception or distortion and Heli is looking for research that embodies these ideals. She finds instead a bunch of ideologues defending their positions and calling it research. I too am sad and worried when I see this. Thankfully there are still true inquirers. And Heli is one.