As I start some associative trails for Connected Courses I took time this morning to listen and make some notes on Catherine Cronin’s keynote at #Altc recently. I will be writing another post as I explore and read more associative trails, but here I wanted to offer my Vialogue notes as an open resource for others of you who may want to join this conversation.
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.
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.
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: http://youtu.be/cjUmvHBgHr0)
Monsters dwell in the hinterlands of the known world, symbolic expressions of cultural unease. Inhabitants of an imagined realm adjunct to the everyday, monsters offer powerful tropes and tools for learning and teaching in the arts and humanities
I have come to believe that the success of open education may rest on our ability to support new adopters in wrestling these inner monsters and find spaces to tell epic stories about inner battles with open sharing. Without this inner viewing, interest and learning about infotention and other digital literacies may be tactical but not sustainable. I am not alone in this belief. Jim Groom was quoted as saying recently:
You don’t need new technology to change your teaching… you need a new you.
I made a choice to only use the social media spaces I normally use for the course. I only engaged on Twitter and Google plus. I went to the course site only to get links for G+ and access link not to join the discussion. I do not have a Facebook account and did not participate there. I used Netvibes and created a dashboard just for the course, fed by the hard work of Matthias Melcher – he made it so easy to follow everyone’s blogs.
It is worth me disclosing here that I consider DS106 an example of best practice of what learning on the open web can be. I also believe that its power is not due to the technology or its design, but to the actual people involved in the learning process. They could make a group of people learn inside a paper bag and even paper bags get to register for it! No other MOOC does that, for sure.
All this said, any other course I attend has a lot to live up to in terms of alignment with my own pedagogy of engaging the contemplative mind in any educational endeavour. I believe in the transformative power of awareness and educational presence. This is what I offer my students over and above my extensive academic practice. This matters enough to me that in order to practice what I preach I stopped a full time teaching career in 2012 and entered a 3 year supervised part-time buddhist retreat – in order to put in place the lifestyle that allows me to practice offering full attention to those I engage with.
In plain English this has meant letting go of ‘being important’ and embracing an ongoing inquiry into the quality of the inner mind and its interactions in the world. As Pema Chodron often reminds us, when you stop to be in truly in the present moment the demons are all right there to walk with you. They are. I have made a commitment to open up my life, no longer too busy to attend, but with all the time in the world to watch my own demons and offer a better quality of awareness to the few students I still choose to work with. This choice has led me to the open education movement and the many shared themes it has with life as a contemplative in the world, particularly the shift to self-disclosure on the open web. I am a-work-in-progress still unpacking all the threads that are part of this inquiry. Even this blog was set up to challenge my own thinking, by blogging ‘from the other side’ of what I take as given. My last book ‘Lived Time’ was my inquiry into how to make a change between a life driven by the clock, and the one I am fortunate to have now driven by awareness…on a good day at least!
So, when I did DS106 as a course for the first time in 2013, life was already set up in such a way that I could give it my full attention.
The situation was different with Rhizo14 as I intended my participation to be bounded. I had little interest in the subject matter as I have been using self-directed pedagogies in my teaching for nearly 20 years. My intention when joining was very much one of supporting Dave Cormier as he set up this learning experiment. I was also interested in seeing how an approach that relied on extreme learner control in its design strategy would play out online. I am used to working this way in my face to face work, so my background questions on joining were the two key questions Stephen raises in his talk:
What is it to teach in this type of environment?
What is an educator supposed to provide in a self directed learning environment online?
In what follows I borrow liberally from Stephen’s talk. I wanted to bring a different voice into the sense making process, rather than use conceptual frameworks already operating within this course. I suggest you listen to the audio before you continue reading – so that you can judge for yourself where my gaps in understanding may be. This post is intended as a personal reflection and I offer it under my usual health warning for this kind of post:
The post is a long read, but I make no apologies for this. I engaged with the course for 6 weeks and have learnt a great deal.
When I started thinking about this post I wanted to write about ‘team’ work and how to do it virtually. Team seems such an overused word it means little anymore when used to refer to groups of people working together physically or virtually.
In my work I am often asked often how to manage groups of people who are not co-located but have to collaborate. There is literature on it but it mostly says just ‘use what we know about teamwork in the physical and find ways to apply it to the virtual’. Trouble is, this advise does not work very well. Or, more accurately, if you have the right people for the job they will make the advise work. But then, they would make any advise work. It matters to me to find out what is the difference that makes the difference practically not theoretically.
I set out at the beginning of this year to learn about virtual collaboration by becoming a student again. It is easy to think about the theory of effective team work and say to my own students, this is how I would apply it to working virtually. It is quite another to say, this is how I made it work. This post is about how I made it work. All I offer here is a personal view, informed by many years of teaching and facilitating groups for the purposes of learning and getting business done.
I want to compare a negative experience with a positive one. I studied with the Open University (#H817) earlier in the year and we had to to get a project done in project teams. This ‘teams’ were little more than a collection of individuals mandated to work on a disposable assignment, in the sense the sense David Wiley uses the term:
These are assignments that students complain about doing and faculty complain about grading. They’re assignments that add no value to the world – after a student spends three hours creating it, a teacher spends 30 minutes grading it, and then the student throws it away.
Much of that course was designed through disposable assignments, this was managable when working in isolation, but took a new level of complexity and learnt helplessness when having to engage others in order to succeed at something nobody (including the educators) cared about.
I made the decision to not join #rhizo14 as I like to focus on one course at a time when I learn. It was all too tempting though. Many people from my online network were doing it and I wanted in too…
I decided to help out with Google Plus as it seemed an unloved branch of the course. I visited, created a few categories, added some images and resources, offered to support Ron who was really keen to moderate the community and who had actually been moderating it since before the course started welcoming new members and simply being present on G+ – he just did not have the label.
I then moved on to DS106 and what is next for me there. Or so I thought. This morning I thought what harm could it do to watch Dave’s introductory video and then get on with work? I was fascinated by the notion that ‘Learning as cheating’ had been set up by Dave as a way to disrupt and challenge preconceptions about learning.
The whole ethos of this blog (some might say my life…) is the idea of looking into the double mirror of life. Humans get so comfortable with our preconceptions and certainties that I make it a daily practice to live in a state of ‘epistemological hovering’ as Tyler Cohen likes to say. I live life in uncertainty and no longer look for certainty. I ask as often as possible: What have I changed my mind about recently and why? and worry if the answer is nothing. I set up this space to help me look at the other side. Given a chosen field, what are the themes that are being backgrounded or in the shadow? What are we not paying attention to that we might benefit from exploring? In keeping with this, one of my first posts on the #rhizo14 community was one that offered some challenge to the idea of the rhizome as a descriptor for deep learning. A ‘weedy’ rhizome did not seem inspiring and less so this statement:
Bamboo and other rhizomatic plants are great at spread, survival and colonisation of new territories. But as ecologists and gardeners know, if unchecked they become weeds and can dominate and suppress a plant community or a garden instead of enriching it. They are also clones – the rhizomes produce exact copies of the ‘mother’ plant.
So instead of free exploration and exchange of ideas leading to rich and unpredictable learning – the story of rhizomatic learning can equally be a story of domination and monoculture, with rarer and more delicate ‘flowers’ getting pushed out, suppressed – not able to grow.
I can probably spend the next 6 weeks unpacking the implications of the statement above in relation the psychology of learning – which is my passion as a cognitive psychologist. I will come back to this I am sure.
Right now, I was grabbed by the idea of using ‘cheating as learning’ as a construct to challenge dusty beliefs about how we teach and learn. Juxtaposing old beliefs about copying and creating; using the apparent clash to reflect on what it means to learn. Of course, coming fresh from doing DS106 more than full time ( I took a sabbatical from teaching last year to do this) this is not an unfamiliar concept. After all, I now know that ‘everything is a remix’ and find it much easier now to teach creative thinking to my students through this construct than many hours of experimental psychology evidence that shows that a focus on individual creativity is only half the story. It is only when we ask, where is creativity that we see that individual creativity relies on a domain of knowledge, a community of shared contacts and that systemic creativity is the only sensible way to describe creative thought.
Whilst I reside on the Internet, I am a visitor when it comes to privacy. I don’t want strangers to know I am there and I certainly don’t want uninvited guests on my video calls. It turns out that when you record a video call on a Google hangout it has to be set to public – you have a ‘Hangout on Air’ or a ‘Hangout’ but no ‘private recorded hangout’ feature yet. So, as I had a team meeting on a hangout on air, I discovered the delights of Trolling behaviour that YouTube is (in)famous for. Well, I say that as if I have known about it all my life, but I found it out researching for this post. It turns out that a troll is ‘any person that comments or leaves their response to a video that negatively effects the community, or provokes the emotions of others in a negative way’. You can also go online to learn how to do it, with some handy student guides or by visiting certain forums. I learnt that some trolls have even been jailed for extreme behaviour…but back to my hangout.
I signed off after an eventful (technical problems saw us lose a team member again this week) hangout, looking forward to working out how Google managed to get a video of my hangout on my YouTube channel automatically. Let me own up – I use YouTube but have always refused to post anything on it as was concerned about privacy issues and had no time to navigate backstage to ensure my settings were aligned to my personal values on internet use. Well, as soon as I logged on I had to get a crash course on YouTube privacy. I was glad that I did not know how to use the software so that all the commenting had happened in the background and we just did not see comments as we got on with our work. I saw 24 comments and frankly, panicked. Yes, I have unresolved issues that lead me to protect my privacy online – more on this later in the post – but it was not an overreaction to feel angry when I found out that strangers had been listening to my private conversation.
So, I read the comments. I noted that it was only 2 users interacting with each other and attempting to get a reaction from us as we talked. I calmed down a little. I used the transparency of the Internet to find out about them. It turns out one of them (scary, but not really, as you will see later) had tracked me down on Google Plus and sent me a message ordering me to ‘Look at your comments’. From there, it was easy to find him and no, I did not want to add him to my circles, thank you very much Google Plus. A photo of a kid who could not be older than 8 at the top of the profile. What did I do? Nothing. I did not know then that this is the advise given to deal with this behaviour in sensible places but after thinking about the many ways I could make him suffer for scaring me – I figured out I was better off blocking him, deleting all my comments from YouTube, blocking both users on YouTube, changing my privacy settings to Unlisted by default, Unlisted my video, blocked all comments on the video, and asked any viewer to sing the national anthem of their country of origin before they could click play. Just kidding on that last one. The whole process took 3 hours – the issue is, of course, that none of these social media sharing sites make it easy for you to be private. There were other factors at play for the length of time it took me to sort out: I was exhausted and trying to get a task done that had nothing to do with navigating privacy settings on YouTube and Google Plus. I was annoyed that I was having to do this at all, and hence not exactly in the frame of mind to learn how to use yet another service. As it turned out, there had been no need to panic, it was just 2 silly kids messing around, nothing malicious about it. It left a bitter taste in my mouth, nevertheless. I set out to learn from the experience. I needed to tackle my unresolved privacy issues. I could not have it both ways – stay private and become an open scholar. Or could I?
Firstly I needed to challenge my fear of ‘being seen’ on the web by strangers. I started to think about the similarities between my home in the physical real and the different ‘homes’ I am establishing in my virtual life. What rules apply? Are the rules for the physical and the virtual regarding privacy the same? Can I expect the same reasonable behaviour from people online as I expect in real life? I did a little thought experiment – How did what has just happened online translate to the physical?
This post is a summary of ideas from a reflection post I wrote when undertaking a learning design project with the Open University on a module on openness and innovation in online education this year. This module forms part of a Masters in Online and Distance Education (MAODE) which I am currently undertaking. The project was full of frustrations that I tried to turn into opportunities for learning and feedback. At the time I had a sense of splendidly failing at achieving any learning outcome for the project and being lost backstage at the Internet show. This post offers a view of online learning from the perspective of a new user who happens to also be a technologically savvy and experienced educator.
My sense of failure on the project was not due to lack of trying on the part of my project team or to lack of choice in finding a place for our team to ‘live’ virtually. It was due to the infowhelm I felt l as we tried to set up disparate systems to enable us to work together as a project team. I am reminded of the paradox of choice, how a culture of abundance robs us of satisfaction. Psychologists find that the more choice we have the less satisfied or happy we feel with what we choose. And although there are ways to choose well, we are not great at applying them.
In the context of online education, as evidenced by this project experience, it seems to me that the argument of ‘more is always better’ rules supreme when it comes to online learning design. I notice blogs that talk about developing infotention skills that, in the main, say it is the learners who need to learn to be selective and learn new tools to handle information overload. Yet, as a psychologist I know that humans cognitive systems are poor at inner work unless the mind is consciously and purposely trained to increase its measly 300ms attention span before it jumps to the next thing and that we are hardwired to attend to novelty rather than for sustained attention. It is not as simple as saying, learn to be selective and choose the right tools to augment your mind.
I am left wondering if as online educators we are to taking the easy way out. We offer choice, no matter how overwhelming and how unmatched to the learners’ skills or confidence levels and they ‘just’ need to learn to choose. I believe that my job as an educator is to gage the flow channel for my learners not just offer infinite choice. In what follows I describe an experience of too much choice from the perspective of an adult learner with a full time career and life in the physical real. I hope to illustrate that the need to spend time backstage requires set up time and a willingness to engage with minutiae that not all learners have and that in themselves have nothing to do wit the topic they may be learning . I believe it is this that stops non-technical people engaging with open education more than they do and that those of us who like to hang out backstage need to work even harder at making unnecessary for the actors to stage manage.
My reflections on the project blog started as follows:
‘This morning I said to my team that I was feeling a little like I was backstage at the Internet. What I meant by that was that I was lost behind the scenes having to deal with a whole lot of things that as an actor on the stage I know nothing about nor am I interested in. My job as a learning specialist is to create learning experiences in a context that meets the needs of my users/learners. In the non-virtual world I do this by being given a design challenge from a client, lock myself in a room either alone or with others with lots of paper and post it stickers to create an event, a training module or an OER that is innovative and meets a need. It was my intention on this project to do this very same thing but in a virtual environment. My expectation was: log on, say hi to your team mates and co-create.’
What I found instead was a sea of conflicting email addresses that did not enable us to share or meet virtually in the way we wanted. We spent the time we had available for synchronous conversations checking that we were logged on with the right account, that we had invited each other to the right environment with the right email addresses. There is gmail, there is the university address, there is our home email address, our work address…
Moving on to the spaces available for us to meet. There was Google Plus where we created a community, there was the University Forum where we logged on daily to find out how many more activities we had to do that week if we wanted to pass the module, there was Facebook, there was Twitter, there was the MOOC community we had built earlier in the module, there was the project website we set up, there was the virtual board we tried to learn how to use to be creative together, but of course there was not just one virtual board but several that we needed to choose from and wait…we had to do this quickly as there were only 25 days left to showcase our work, reflect, write an assignment, make money at work to pay the bills, look after the family, walk the dog, take the dog to the vet but wait….real life did not count as somehow I needed to overlay my virtual life onto my real life and never the twain shall meet. Out of breadth already.Then when we finally settled on one community and one virtual board we are not done. Shall we hook it up to our shared drive? And if so which one? We have cloud based storage associated with each email address we are using. The G+ community will give us a place and it is easy to use, isn’t it? Yes, and at least one of us loves it and has used it before. Phew. And then, we wake up in the morning to a brand sparkling new UI for G+! Hoorah? or Darn it? Well, that depends on how much time we have allowed for interacting in the community. If we have no time, then learning a new UI is not what we want to do in that moment. I want to talk about the great ideas and resources I have found, engage in dialogue with my team and instead I find myself backstage again – where has the hangout button gone? I don’t see the Hangout on Air button either? And how… oh…how does the new Auto Awesome feature work?
So we looked at the email addresses (which, do not forget, we have to multiply by each team member), at the virtual spaces our account gave us access to (which, do not forget, we have not all learnt how to access or use yet) and now finally it is time to get to the work of designing together for this project. Or is it? No. Not yet. It turns out that we still need to learn another system in order to communicate with other teams on the course and it is part of our job to also familiarise ourselves with their websites and comment on them as they build them. This new space is experimental and hence not without its challenges. Still, some of us manage to upload, comment and even choose favourites that give us smiley emoticons, little red hearts icons, and all the while I am wondering what on earth is the point of this? I got it working, but do not know why. Lost backstage at the internet show for hours without a learning outcome in sight. And furthermore, I just do not have time to manage the behind the scenes of it all as well as sound half sensible when engaging with the content of our project. Once again, as I start to think I will be able to do what I am good at – offer feedback, look at the educational designs of the other teams, get interested in other people’s ideas – I find myself lost backstage: do I have to be logged onto the university site to access? Why can I not comment on each page? What is the point of this site at all? Wouldn’t it be nice to sit down with the other teams over a cup of coffee and just share ideas?
Whilst the above example may not show it, I happen to like being backstage as well as being on the stage. If I had all the time in the world, I would have set up the perfect project home connecting up every possible app that could have helped us and would have had fun doing it. But I did not have the time, and had signed up to learn about innovation in learning design not how to replace my IT manager.
“Humans have built a system for online social learning: it’s called the World Wide Web.”
What is clear to me now, months after the project experience I have just recounted, is that the issues we had were almost entirely due to having to work with systems that were behind walled gardens attempting to blend with the open web. These two approaches do not seem to co-exit well. Reich (2013) also explores the assumptions behind different approaches to online education and shows that walled gardens may not be the way forward. I believe that to ‘whisk people away from the open Web into a walled garden’ is a strategy that has had its day. Innovation in online education will thrive from ‘the assumption that people should do their learning work for a course in the same spaces that they do their other online activities.’ Our project might have thrived had it been designed to work only on the open web without registration walls.
As long as institutions act from a place of fear of openness, we will get lost backstage and this will limit access to what open digital education has to offer. The open web requires we visit backstage enough without having to tackle password conflicts and denial of access due to non-adherence to an open education ethos. For myself, my experience as a learner in this hybrid experiment of open education from a walled garden was one of being lost backstage most of the time, having forgotten my lines with opening night just around the corner – not one of learning in flow. Hence, this was an experience I would not be keen to repeat as a learner or purposefully design for my students.
“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.
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!