attending to the shadow of living and learning on the web



Social Networks then and now

As is often the case with my learning online many paths start with a tweet.

In my digital storytelling work I have of late become interested in Twitter Bots. There are wonderful bots as well as crappy spam ones. Just as in the rest of life amongst humans. Some make art for you, others poetry, and yet others make a fine go at sounding wise mediated by text at least, like @everyadage above. I have made several posters illustrating the sayings as they are in that uncanny valley space of almost making sense and that interests me.

The saying made me stop and reflect. The sense it made for me was in connection with the light and shadow side of groups of people who come together to learn (apologies for the long description but other terms such as communities, connections or networks come with too much baggage for my purpose here) in open online learning events. I have written before and often about the implications of a free-for-all ethos where no social or psychological contract is agreed upon or followed through by participants or facilitators.

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The expert linchpin

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?

Continue reading “The expert linchpin”

A human OER

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.

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Texting #X

Animated Gif by
Animated Gif by

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”

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