attending to the shadow of living and learning on the web



Texting #X

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I have been reflecting for a long time now on what is the online voice that is emerging as I navigate open education practices on the web outside my ‘home’ space in ‘DS106’. What has been lovely about joining #ccourses is to work with educators who really care about ‘this learning stuff’. I have enjoyed adding to the flow and helping get things started. I realise this is the thing I enjoy the most about open online experiences. For me it is less about the content and more about seeing the interactions and the sub groups under a hashtag form.

I came to life online at the end of a successful academic career. I no longer work full-time, I only teach courses I want to teach and write as much or as little as I want. I am an independent learner and educator with weak links to many organisations but not one organisation can determine how or what I teach. I have also made a choice to live life as an 8-precept contemplative with a possible future of life in a monastery. This implies many things but one thing that is relevant here is this: I am an honest broker with no personal agenda as my work online is simply one of service and personal interest. No more publication targets, climbing career ladders, no need to work at hard at being Someone as my practice is now one of ‘being nobody and going nowhere’

In reflecting on #whyIteach over the last few days, I realise that I am no longer teaching in the sense I would have understood it when I was affiliated full time to an academic institution. I realise that the reason I am drawn to being an open educator, learner and researcher is that open practices enable me to do the one and only thing I have ever been motivated to do wether I am teaching or learning – ask why. Mike Wesch calls it ‘soul making’ and I resonate with that.

Asking why, finding roots

To be honest, I now feel that this distinction between my ‘why’ in the classroom or outside is a little artificial. Every conversation I have, if attended to, is soul making for all involved. This is my intent with every tweet and every blog comment. I see myself as a human open educational resource (OER) in relation to the people I meet online. I also keep asking more high nerd questions such as: How can we better use the web to augment our intellect? How do we best interact to shape the notion of the distributed mind or ‘inter-being’?

Our answers come from the domains we have expertise in. For some, it is about how technology can augment mind. I am more interested in exploring how the psyche gets in the way of the augmented mind. We humans have individual agendas and blind spots. It is this very selectivity that make us valuable as human OERs. We wonder, we have passions, we have hobbies….And we also have views we keep seeking to confirm; some of us know this is true of all of us and others of us still believe ‘it’s not me but the person sitting next to me’ that is a slave to her cognitive biases.

A lifetime of meditation practice has taught me a little humility. I know that mental patterns are hard to shift and that technology can only augment mind if I am able to disagree with myself often – that is, be self critical. What technology does more often is ‘collude’ with our dysfunctional patterns and allow us to play them out in a distributed virtual space. Our project over at the still web aims to offer a resource to help people who see this side of reality and want to learn more about digital contemplation. It is only just starting.

Here is the thing. I like depth. I like to find sources. I like to understand what people need and get to know them as people. This takes time and I have the time. But if and only if I let go of self-imposed dysfunctional patterns such as the pressure to respond or the fear of missing out or my need to behave like  a rat on a variable intermittent reinforcement protocol pressing that lever for one more +1.  I am a little uncomfortable with learning spaces set up to ‘gamify’ life. Are we designing learning systems to test positive for addiction? Is being addicted to cMOOCs any better or worse than being addicted to heroine? I need to reflect on my own part in this.

Howard also reminded us that we can think of this course a a stream not a queue and that means I can sample the stream any time. So I am texting #X to #ccourses.

I have been feeling pressured to move on from looking under the hood. After all, there is such abundance of riches under the #ccourses hashtag. And Jonathan is next and he is so dreamy 🙂 And there is the un-conference where many a great conversation will be had and an anonymous board to heckle Howard 🙂 And….

I have decided to stay under the hood for a while. As I have listened to Blog Talk over the last few days, I have stopped arguing with myself for and against having a domain of my own. I now hear a different thread in the Brothers’ conversations.

Whatever we decide to do about a domain, it is our responsibility as online educators to understand what is under the hood. Or, perhaps less starkly, as Alan puts it,


I said to Howard in a comment the other day when he asked us ‘How is it going?’:

I think you are all doing a great job and I love the role modelling I see around the team of educators involved in the facilitation of #ccourses. It has motivated me to create a WP multisite, export/import various blogs, play with php files, install Known and create my own site there, even if I may conclude after the experiments that I do not want to spend my days doing this type of work. The great value is having embodied experience of what it means to be the sys admin of your own domain (shamefully <smile> I admit I have the technical skills, have had my own domain for many years yet have always paid others to do the implementing). But then I only recently made the decision to work as an open educator – to be ‘of’ the web rather than just ‘on’ it.

I will be over at my garage in building my car, learning how to be a mechanic and working on letting go of my dysfunctional patterns. Feel free to drop in for chat there and do ask if there is something specific you want me to do to help #ccourses. But forgive me if, in needing  time to absorb this content before I move on, I do not get around to commenting on the content everyone is crafting as much as I would like.

I am going back ‘home’ to DS106 to develop my understanding of telling ‘the story of me’ through a sandbox domain. So what is next for me? A sequential read of  WordPress tutorials as I enjoy breaking things in my new virtual home.

And by the way, how stunning is that domain name I found thanks to the Blog Brothers insistence that I get my own car?




Of monsters, contemplation and information


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:

Continue reading “Of monsters, contemplation and information”

The psychology of open: On wrestling your inner MOOC

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



The Higher Education Academy is running a conference called  ‘Heroes and monsters: extraordinary tales of learning and teaching in the arts and humanities’ . I have been invited to run a workshop on the psychology of open education ‘You cannot be half-open: On wrestling your inner MOOC’. I want to focus on the inner barriers academics wanting to operate in the open web encounter and how they can overcome them. This is what I am defining as the psychology of open education and I have decided that my next book will be about this. I do not mean to patronise those who know, but some people new to open education are reading this post and may not know about MOOC monsters, here is a good start. There are numerous references to MOOC monsters and even some sound academic dialogue. What follows are my notes for the conference session.

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.

Continue reading “The psychology of open: On wrestling your inner MOOC”

Wanna do a cMOOC?

rhizomeI participated on the P2PU course called ‘Rhizomatic Learning – the community is the curriculum’ (#Rhizo14)   on a previous post I talked about how it was an unplanned participation driven mainly by my own need to be a helper – I knew the organiser Dave Cormier from my DS106 connection and somehow I found out he wanted some help on Google Plus.  I volunteered and he accepted my offer.

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.

In this post I want to use a recent talk by Stephen Dowes to help me explain my learning.  For me, this MOOC very much reflected what Stephen describes in this talk as ‘a MOOC of one’. It raised a lot of questions about the role of online educators on a cMOOC. My experiences of open online learning have been limited to Digital Storytelling 106 (DS106) and H817open, a MOOC on open education taught by Martin Weller where I learnt about the possibilities of open digital scholarship and about DS106. As my first open education experience – it has a special place in my open learning life as does Martin Weller who introduced to so much I value on the open web today.

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:

recite-16601--717716810-1u39sqrThe 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.

Continue reading “Wanna do a cMOOC?”

Learning backstage at the Internet show

There is not map to backstage

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.

 Reich (2013) says:
“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.

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