#openedMOOC Week 4: Open Teaching

The topic for this week is ‘Creating, Finding and Using OERs and a lot of resources have been provided to follow up on this.  More interesting for me, was the initial discussion in the Week 4 videos about open pedagogy and how networks can enable learning. This left me with one or two questions to reflect on.

Those who advocate open education make a strong case for the advantages of learning in a distributed network rather than from one source, such as a teacher or a book. George Siemens tells us that his network is his brain and that learning is less about what we know and more about how we are connected. I found myself wondering whether it is as simple as this. Whilst of course it is possible that knowledge can be found in the connections in your network, it’s also quite possible that this knowledge doesn’t amount to much. As George says later on in the video:

“…. you get a lot of garbage in there, and you get a lot of stuff that’s not relevant. So then you need that feedback system that helps to push things to the surface.”

George explained that when he and Stephen Downes first began to discuss the meaning of ‘open’ in relation to education, they wondered whether it was possible to do for teaching what MIT had done for content. The story of how MIT opened its courseware to the world can be found on their website, but I remember MIT explaining at the time (in 2001) that what they weren’t offering for free to the world was their teaching, and it was their teaching that would make a difference.

In 2008, George and Stephen wanted to make not just content, but also pedagogical practices open and hence the first MOOC was born in the form of the open course ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge’, better known as CCK08. They wanted to demonstrate that their practice was different because it did not rely on the conventional method of the teacher being the exclusive or primary node in the online network. At the time, this was how many people understood education – small groups of students attending to one teacher/expert, i.e. the teacher was the hub of the learning experience, which was based on a hierarchical relationship between the students and their teacher. (Image A in the Figure below)

Image from – https://visualisingadvocacy.org/blog/if-everything-network-nothing-network

Instead, George and Stephen envisaged the learning environment as a network in which there is no primary node and everyone teaches each other. (Image C in the Figure above). The argument George makes is that given that everyone has a different knowledge profile then we can teach one another almost everything. Quoting from the video, George says:

“If I have an idea to express myself, if I have an infrastructure to share what I know, and if there are corrective mechanisms within that infrastructure that provide feedback to the users of that infrastructure, that’s all you need for global knowledge generation. It’s the ability to solve complex problems that are novel in our era and we simply cannot solve them with a hub and spoke model of the expert.”

George uses the example of finding a solution to the problem of the SARS virus to illustrate how networks can solve problems.

These ideas are often discussed in relation to open learning, but despite hearing this for the first time in 2008, and despite recognising the value of networks for open learning and collaborative problem solving, another question I have is: Does declaring what we know or sharing your ideas, equate to teaching?

For some time now I have been interested in Gert Biesta’s concerns about the shift from teaching to learning. Biesta (2013) describes the focus on learners and learning as ‘learnification’, writing:

“The quickest way to express what is at stake here is to say that the point of education is never that children or students learn, but that they learn something, that they learn this for particular purposes, and that they learn this from someone. The problem with the language of learning and with the wider ‘learnification’ of educational discourse is that it makes it far more difficult, if not impossible, to ask the crucial educational questions about content, purpose and relationships”. p.36

Biesta describes teaching as a gift, in which the teacher can bring something radically new to the situation. He says that being ‘taught by’ is radically different to ‘learning from’ and writes:

“… for teachers to be able to teach they need to be able to make judgements about what is educationally desirable, and the fact that what is at stake in such judgements is the question of desirability, highlights that such judgements are not merely technical judgements—not merely judgements about the ‘how’ of teaching—but ultimately always normative judgements, that is judgements about the ‘why’ of teaching”. p.45

For Biesta,

” …. teaching matters and [..] teachers should teach and should be allowed to teach.” p.36

Biesta’s work raises the question of whether large scale open teaching is possible and whether it is true that we can teach each other almost anything. If teaching is a gift, do we all have that gift in equal measure?

My final question relates to George’s comment, which he made more than once, that the network structure should incorporate corrective mechanisms. How does this happen?

In research that Roy Williams, Regina Karousou and I published in 2011, we argued that

“…. considerable effort is required to ensure an effective balance between openness and constraint’ and that in open learning environments ‘a system of negative constraints [is needed] which determine what is not allowed to happen, rather than specifying what does have to happen”.

George suggested that corrective actions might include the possibility of upvoting or downvoting posts and contributions to the network. The problem with this is that it could lead to homogeneous groups with only the people who agree with each other upvoted.

The issue with negative constraints or corrective mechanisms is that they leave us with the question ‘Who is responsible?’ and if we start thinking like this, then we are beginning to get back to hierarchies.

For me it’s not clear what we mean by open teaching. If it means do your teaching in the open, as in a MOOC, then that’s fine – but if it means that teaching is reduced to Biesta’s learnification, then I think there remain many unanswered questions as to how teaching works in open networks.


Biesta, G. (2013). Giving teaching back to education: Responding to the disappearance of the teacher. Phenomenology & Practice, 6 (2), 35–49. Retrieved from https://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/pandpr/article/download/19860/15386

Williams, R., Karousou, R. &  Mackness, J. (2011) Emergent Learning and Learning Ecologies in Web 2.0. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. Retrieved from  http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/883

12 thoughts on “#openedMOOC Week 4: Open Teaching

  1. Glenyan October 25, 2017 / 4:59 pm

    Hi Jenny, Thanks for this Biesta resource, I’m going to read it this morning. The quotes you’ve posted here remind me of what I have often posted about the terms ‘learning’ and ‘education’ being too often used interchangeably. The differences are important, and maybe similar to Biesta’s point about ‘purpose’.

    I love this question “Does declaring what we know or sharing your ideas, equate to teaching?” The teachers I admire the most and try to emulate are the ones that consider their learners in context, and have developed an ability to build context into the ways they plan their lessons and communicate content. What these teaches do not do is relate to learners as they are interchangeable black dots on a network map.

  2. jennymackness October 25, 2017 / 5:57 pm

    Hi Glen – thanks for your comment. I have to say that I have more questions than answers in relation to teaching in the open – and have had for many years. There needs to be more research into what constitutes teaching in open environments, and what is the relationship between teaching and learning in open online learning environments.

    No answers at the moment I’m afraid 🙂

  3. Stephen Downes October 26, 2017 / 12:07 am

    The account you offer of what George and I were thinking in 2008 is accurate.

    But I question this: “Does declaring what we know or sharing your ideas, equate to teaching?” I certainly don’t think that this is what either George or I were saying.

    For my own part, I have long said that “to teach is to model and to demonstrate”, and it is the partner of “to learn is to practice and reflect.”

    I certainly think we were modeling and demonstrating, and not merely declaring what we know or sharing our ideas. We had attempted that the previous year, during the online Connectivism conference, and the lack of uptake is what convinced us to run a course actually showing how our ideas apply in practise.

  4. jennymackness October 26, 2017 / 5:29 am

    Thanks for that Stephen. I didn’t intend to imply that you and George have said that declaring what we know or sharing your ideas, equates to teaching. It was my question – so it’s good that you have clarified that.

    I agree that you and George were modelling and demonstrating and not merely declaring what you know or sharing your ideas in CCK08. But whilst the network in CCK08 was very active and there was a huge amount of sharing ideas and learning from each other, I would still regard you and George as the primary nodes in that course – the teachers. I was not a teacher in that course. I was a participant who shared some of my thinking on my blog. If people learned from anything I wrote, that’s great, but I didn’t teach.

    If we agree that to teach is to ‘model and to demonstrate’ then this is more than sharing ideas and learning from each other. I saw a wonderful example of this on Lisa Lane’s blog recently – https://lisahistoryblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/13/the-problem-of-mr-byatts-house/ In this post she models and demonstrates her practice as a historian and researcher.

    It’s the idea (that I do come across in online networks) that anyone can be a teacher that I struggle with. I think Glen’s comment above about context is pertinent here.

  5. x28 October 27, 2017 / 6:12 pm

    Hi Jenny, I think you demonstrated that distributed teaching can work: If I had found this resource on an anonymous repository, I would have closed it probably after a few sentences. But since it was you who indicated that you have found something valuable in it, I read on, and it paid off. Now I understand better what motivates people who advocate for a swing back. And “content, purpose, relationships” is a good checklist for arguing point by point.
    What he writes about the ‘gift’, i.e. that it cannot be enforced by neither the teacher nor the learner, reminds of what you call ’emergent learning’.
    I also liked your point about the ‘corrective mechanisms’. I agree that up/down-voting is not sufficient. It does not prevent that, for example, learning to code via Stackoverflow is impeded by some arrogant experts who abuse their ‘teacher’ power to patronize the questioners.
    Thanks for the very constructive criticism. Matthias

  6. jennymackness October 29, 2017 / 4:19 pm

    Hi Matthias,

    You have been very polite, but I sense that you not only dislike this post, but also dislike Gert Biesta’s paper, but dislike and disagreement is not always a bad thing if the conversation is constructive, which it is here 🙂

    I just need to clarify that I am not advocating for a swing back – which I interpret to mean a swing against openness or open teaching and back to more closed environment and conventional ways of thinking about education. Definitely not. I have long been an admirer of the work of George, David and Stephen, but I am concerned by some of the negative online behaviours that openness seems to have enabled and I am concerned (like Biesta and to quote him), by “the disappearance of teaching and the concomitant disappearance of the teacher” (page 1 of his paper). As such I would like to see more discussion of what open teaching and teaching in open online environments means. Are we seeing the disappearance of teaching and in what ways is teaching changing as a result of open education?

    Finally, I realise on reflection that I used the word ‘gift’ in two senses in my post.

    Biesta writes of teaching as a gift in the sense that the learner can receive something from the teacher. Biesta writes that “it is not within the power of the teacher to give this gift, but depends on the fragile interplay between the teacher and the student.”

    I also wrote of the gift of teaching in terms of the particular skill and expertise that a teacher might have. Biesta does not write of teaching in these terms, but does say that ‘learning from’ is different to being ‘taught by’. A teacher is more than a resource.

    Thanks for your comment.

  7. Lisa M Lane October 31, 2017 / 4:48 am

    I’m delighted to be introduced to Biesta’s ideas, particularly as online teaching becomes more universal and more standardized. I’m also grateful to Stephen for reminding me here of the second part of his formula – I definitely internalized that my main job as a teacher is to model and demonstrate, but needed to be reminded what the student’s job is to practice and reflect. I can usually get them to do the former, but the latter I’ve found much more difficult.

    I do get confused when people talk about teaching “skill” – it makes me think that only those teachers I found interesting and inspiring should have taught me something. But the reverse was true just as often. I’ve had teachers who possessed little skill in designing exercises, motivating students to learn, or even lecturing enthusasticially, who have taught me more than those who were more skilled in teaching. And what they did (I tie it together now) is precisely what Stephen says: they modelled and demonstrated what it was like to be a professional in their field.

    Are those thus engaged in their own work and research, and who share that as professionals, “gifted teachers”? I don’t think they’d qualify. Is it as simple as that they led, rather than shared? When you are a leader in your field, and the learners are not, the roles are clearly defined. Although that gets disparaged these days as hierarchy, I have trouble seeing how I could have learned without it. And while you say, Jenny, that CCK08 did not rely on the “conventional method of the teacher being the exclusive or primary node in the online network”, I disagree and stand by my statement all those years ago that I learned more listening to the “experts” discuss and debate than I did from more than a handful of my colleagues. And it wasn’t just me – I distinctly recall the synchronous session when George and Stephen were not there, and the refusal of the participants to “take over” the session.

    I have witnessed what I consider to be the utter failure of “corrective mechanisms” in networks, beyond a bit of comforting on the sidelines. And although I hadn’t thought of it before, this does throw the idea of “open teaching” into areas of further debate.

  8. Glenyan October 31, 2017 / 2:25 pm

    Thanks for posting that link, Jenny. And, reading Lisa’s comment now, this thread continues to make me think.

    In the post you linked to, Lisa does a great job of modeling, demonstrating, making explicit, documenting…and creating a resource that is easy to learn from. Although, in describing what she did I wouldn’t include teaching. In this example, you are in the role of the teacher/educator by your comment on her post, and by including the link here as an example. You took the resource, gave it context and directed it at a specific goal/intention, so that we could learn from Lisa.

    I wanted to point out my thoughts on this because I like and agree with how you clarified ‘swing back’. Like you, I’ve never considered my views as being against openness, etc, and would be a bit surprised to have it interpreted that way. Yet (and this is where you and I maybe differ in our reasoning) many of the ideas about openness and connected learning are incomplete and out of an educational context.

  9. jennymackness November 1, 2017 / 7:56 am

    Hi Lisa – thanks for your response to my post.

    I agree that it’s possible to learn when you don’t expect to, e.g. you can learn what not to do by watching someone model and demonstrate badly. I hadn’t thought before to explicitly question whether or not modelling and demonstrating is a skill – a skill that can be learned. I don’t see why it shouldn’t be.

    And I agree that in the event Stephen and George could not avoid being the primary nodes in the CCK08 network, and that there was a hierarchy of nodes. I did blog once that it was a shame that the acronym MOOC which included the word ‘course’, was ever coined, because in a sense it reinforced the idea of primary nodes.

    I also agree about learning from ‘experts’ and perhaps one of the best examples of this for me was ChangeMOOC11 which had a different ‘expert’ speaker every week for 36 weeks! As far as I remember there was a lot of discussion and little agreement in CCK08 about the role of experts in teaching and learning in open networks. But as you say an ‘expert’ is not necessarily a gifted teacher.

    Perhaps the difference is in what we expect from a teacher. Biesta says that the teacher can be regarded as a ‘resource’ and maybe that is the role of ‘experts’. He argues that we ‘learn from’ a resource, but that being ‘taught by’ is different and writes in p.42 “… when we are being taught by someone, something enters our field of experience in a way that is fundamentally beyond our control.”

    Thanks for taking the discussion further Lisa. There is a lot to unpack here and as you say there must be a lot more discussion to be had about ‘corrective mechanisms’.

  10. jennymackness November 1, 2017 / 7:57 am

    Hi Glen – thanks for sharing this interesting perspective. For me, Lisa’s post was an example of modelling and demonstrating because in it I could clearly see how a historian works, which was new to me. I could also clearly imagine Lisa teaching her students by modelling and demonstrating the same processes in a class. The question of who is teaching who is interesting.

    I completely agree that many of the ideas about openness and connected learning are incomplete and I expect this will be the case for many years to come, because the educational context keeps shifting. David Wiley’s talk (Week 5 video) about research into the use of OERs and the slow adoption of OERs in educational practice relates to this. Changing a culture (especially when we are talking about a global culture) must be a mammoth task, don’t you think?

  11. Glenyan November 2, 2017 / 2:45 pm

    Sure, it really must be a mammoth task. From my experiences, mammoth would even be an understatement. I do think there are two separate issues though: the adoption of the movement and the nature of the movement. I would love to see its nature include more of the ideas like described in the Biesta paper. This might help to refine some of the important details, making it more inclusive, as ‘Open Education’ awareness increases globally. 🙂

  12. jennymackness November 4, 2017 / 11:25 am

    Hi Glen – from my perspective it’s not so much the adoption of Biesta’s ideas that I would like to see as more critical discussion of open education. Authors like Biesta can I think inform this discussion.

    Thanks for coming back again 🙂

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