Living in a state of conscious incompetence

learning-path2Source of image:

Thoughts about conscious incompetence came to mind in the light of Bonnie Stewart’s recent blog post – The Story of Education: A Grimm Fairytale  in which she recounts her loss of her blogging voice and how she feels that her voice has been ‘wrong-footed and is shaky’. I don’t want to oversimplify her post. You will need to read and interpret it for yourself, but I did wonder whether her recent entry into the academic world of a PhD student – “I did not fully understand the extent to which my own voice and formal Academic Writing did not/would not mix” had pushed her into the conscious incompetence zone. (This of course raises all sorts of questions about academic writing, but I don’t want to go there just now).

I have heard others speak about losing their blogging voice and wonder if they too have been pushed into the zone of conscious incompetence in some way.

I feel as though I live in a permanent state of conscious incompetence and I wonder how much this is to do with working so much online, having Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Flickr and other accounts, following people’s blogs, participating in MOOCs etc.

It seems that I am constantly reminded of what I don’t know and how little I know, in the face of so much information about what other people do seem to know.

The internet is a great leveler. I have worked for most of my life in education, but only online for the last 14 years or so. Before that I worked either in schools, or with students in Higher Education, and was, for the most part, blissfully unaware of expertise beyond my limited circles. When teaching school children, although I could easily recognize those children who were brighter than me and would definitely go further, I had the advantage of age and life experience. Even with students in Higher Education I had this advantage. But in recent years my work has been ‘out there’ in the big wide world and it is difficult not to be conscious of your incompetence.

At the ALT2013 conference which I recently attended, I briefly discussed this with Stephen Downes, who was a keynote speaker for the conference. His response (one to remember) was that there will always be people ‘out there’ who know things that you don’t, no matter what your reputation and level of expertise, but it’s worth holding on to the fact that you will always know something that they don’t. So maybe this is what is meant by the internet being a great leveler and maybe conscious incompetence in these terms isn’t so bad!

Emily Dickinson and Emergent Learning

Black-white_photograph_of_Emily_Dickinson_(Restored)Source of image – Wikipedia

I would never have suspected that two separate activities this week could come together so closely. At the beginning of the week I was at the ALT-C conference with Roy Williams, running a workshop on Emergent Learning. I have already blogged about this a few times. Attending the conference has meant that emergent learning, which we have been researching for a few years now, has, this week, been right at the front of my mind.

This week also saw the beginning of the ModPo MOOC (Modern and Contemporary American Poetry). I wrote a post about its start. I also dipped into the three Emily Dickinson poems we were asked to read and discuss and during the week have been watching and rewatching the videos in which the poems have been discussed.

I am amazed at how much these poems seem to relate to emergent learning. Al Filreis in one of the videos mentions that he uses the poem ‘The Brain within its Groove’ when he talks to businessmen. I think all three poems could be used to encourage educators to think about open learning as they encourage a shift from a didactic approach, to thinking in terms of infinite open possibilities.

I dwell in Possibility – by Emily Dickinson
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

The words ‘I dwell in Possibility’ and the idea that the sky is the limit, an everlasting roof, in relation to learning, were ringing through my head throughout the ALT-C conference.

‘To tell the Truth but tell it slant’ also relates very closely to be work we have been doing in trying to describe the factors that influence learning and may need to be considered for emergent learning to occur. We have found this very difficult. One person’s interpretation is different to another’s. Each learner’s experience is unique. I have above, briefly selected two ideas from ‘I dwell in Possibility’ to write about – but is this selection an example of slanted truth?  As Al Filreis has said, ‘Any power structure is encoded in the language we use’.

In the ModPo video it was suggested that we have an ethical responsibility for the way we use language, which also relates to the difficulties we have been having in our emergent learning research. Al Filreis describes words as ‘elastic’, but this is so counter-intuitive for many teachers and learners who want everything cut and dried and neatly packaged. With Emily Dickinson’s poems we have to work at making our own meanings more meaningful.

Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant – by Emily Dickinson
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

And finally ‘The Brain’ within its Groove. Emily Dickinson’s poem perfectly describes the move from the prescriptive zone (learning in the safety of a groove) to sweet emergence and beyond (being out on the multi-pathed plateau of an open learning environment). I have explained this further in a past blog post.  What is wonderful about this poem is the idea that once you have opened the floodgates (of learning), there is little chance of turning back. This must be what every educator, at heart, wants to achieve.

To quote Al Filreis:

This (MOOC) is open learning in the open about the meaning of openness and being open – opening the floodgates

The Brain, within its Groove by Emily Dickinson
The Brain, within its Groove
Runs evenly–and true–
But let a Splinter swerve–
‘Twere easier for You–
To put a Current back–
When Floods have slit the Hills–
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves–
And trodden out the Mills–

In the same  previous post  I tried to explain why I am so interested in emergent learning – why, as an educator and learner, I have spent hours, weeks and months researching this. Al Filreis has captured it in the following sentences, far better than I have been able to:

With 30,000 participants you have to give up the dream of control, give up the dream of teaching people stuff that they will package and walk away with and be able to point to like a vending machine – with 30,000 people we are so far beyond a pedagogy of I know you don’t, I have you want, I give you take, I speak you listen.

In other words we must trust that learning will be emergent.

ALTC2013 Blogging connections

One of the pleasures of ALT-C 2013 for me was that I discovered/met two readers of this blog who I was not aware of.  These contacts were very meaningful for me and from them I was reminded of two reasons why blogging works for me.

1. Blogging for me is about personal reflection. One of these two readers told me that for him his blogging days had dried up two years ago. I can easily relate to that because I go through phases when I feel that I have nothing to say/write about, which always brings to mind a comment that I once heard Stephen Downes make (or it might have been write) – that if you have nothing to write about then you can’t be a very interesting person. I remember feeling completely demoralized by this – but on reflection I don’t think it’s true. Writing/blogging is not for everyone. There are many ways of expressing oneself and reflecting on practice, and many of these ways will not be in the public eye.

I’m not sure why I persevere with blogging, but at ALT-C I did say to the person who was kind enough to comment that he enjoyed reading my blog, that I use my blog as a place for recording my thinking and reflection. I often feel uncomfortable about it, but for now the benefits seem to outweigh the tensions I feel between privacy and exposure.

And when I’m really on a roll, for me Jackson Pollock’s sentence –  “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing” could equally apply to blogging.

“When I am in my blogging, I’m not aware of what I’m doing”

2. Blogging props up my appalling memory. The other person I met who reads my blog, reminded me of a post which I myself didn’t remember. I have long been aware that I have a very poor memory and blogging is a way of making sure my thinking is recorded – a sort of memory bank. I think Lisa Lane once described blogging as a tool for compensating a failing memory – or words to that effect. I rarely read back through my blog, but I am sometimes surprised in the stats by the posts that people are reading and so go back to remind myself about what I was thinking at the time.

I have recently realized that perhaps I should make more effort to organise my blog in such a way that it would be easier to remember what I have written. This was sparked off by Matthias Melcher’s new blog – where he has a wonderfully organized Contents page.

Since Matthias recently moved his blog to this WordPress site and set up this contents page, we have been discussing how tagging might be able to help me and others find and remember what I have on my blog. I have been aware for some time that my tags are a mess, which is why I don’t have a tag cloud in the side-bar, but I have not yet sorted out a way forward out of this mess.

In the meantime, it has been great to make two new connections through this blog.

Footprints of Emergence – so what?

I anticipated that we would get this question at our ALT-C workshop, Learning in the Open, and we did get it. Or rather, we got the comment – ‘I can’t see the point of all this’.

I anticipated the question because it’s a question I have been asking myself, and Roy and I had a long discussion about it on Monday evening.

Having written a couple of research papers and run a few workshops on our ideas about emergent learning we know that this is not an easy question to answer. We also know that what we have been thinking about and discussing since 2008, is not easy to put over in an hour’s workshop.

So I will try and answer this question, ‘Footprints of Emergence – so what?’ in this blog post, as succinctly as I can.

For details of what we mean by Footprints of Emergence, see the Executive Summary on our open wiki.   Briefly, we see the drawing of footprints as a means of creating a visualization of a description of learning in any given learning environment.  Here is an example of one (click on the footprint to enlarge):

Vicki Dale ELESIG workshop

This description and visualization will tell us something about the balance between prescriptive and emergent learning. It is a snapshot in time, which describes the perspective on learning, from a learner or designer viewpoint, or a collaborative group viewpoint. In this process we are increasingly aware of the difficulty of describing the learning process.

So that’s the ‘what’ about footprints of emergence – what about the ‘so what’?

Imagine you have now figured out what we are talking about, you know what a footprint is and you know how to draw one and you now have one that, for you, describes your learning experience in a named learning environment or course. So what?

Roy and I have had to consider why we have invested so much time on this and continue to spend literally hours discussing it.

What follows is where I am up to with my thinking.

As was discussed at the ALT-C conference, we live in an age, where much of what we know about traditional ways of learning and teaching, is being challenged. As someone said to me at the conference, students know a lot more about social media and IT than their lecturers and always will, and they are no longer content to ‘sit in a VLE’ and do what they are told. They are literally all over the web, doing their own thing, in spaces of their own choosing, interacting with people far beyond the confines of their own course or learning environment. They have scaled the valley sides of the prescriptive learning zone of a traditional course and are out on the open plateau.

3D view of footprints

Source: Williams, R., Mackness, J. & Gumtau, S. (2012) Footprints of Emergence. Vol. 13, No. 4. IRRODL

In these complex open learning environments, it is impossible for the tutor to see or know about everything that is going on. Much of the learning is surprising, unpredictable and emergent. MOOCs in particular, which are designed as open learning environments promote a wealth of emergent learning. This emergent learning will have a profound effect on learner identities and their sense of who they are and who they are becoming. You only have to scan through the discussion forums of cMOOC to see evidence of this. Since more and more learners seem to be gravitating towards open learning environments, emergent learning can no longer be ignored. But how can we ‘capture’ and articulate its meaning?

This is what we are trying to do through the process of drawing Footprints of Emergence. The drawing process relies on consideration of 25 factors which influence the balance between prescriptive and emergent learning. 25 factors is a lot – so it is not a quick or easy process. It is messy and difficult, but then learning is messy and difficult. Determining how these factors influence the learning or design process requires careful thought and discussion and the surfacing of tacit knowledge and understanding. It is this surfacing of tacit knowledge and understanding that we believe to be the ‘so what’ of Footprints of Emergence.

To learn and work effectively in open learning environments, learners will need to have the ability to reflect on who they are and who they want to be. Depth of reflection is a skill that all learners need, and will increasingly need for professional development in an age when they can no longer easily predict their career paths. We believe that the Footprints of Emergence offer a process for supporting this development.

Emergent Learning at ALTC2103

ALT-C is in its second day. I am no longer there and am trying to follow what’s going on via the Twitter stream, but it doesn’t work for me. It’s like being in a crowded room and catching snippets of conversation, which are difficult to follow up or follow through.

But I was there yesterday and Monday evening and thoroughly enjoyed it for the handful of people I met and conversations that I had. I don’t need a room full. Just one meaningful discussion would have been enough for me, and I got more than one. Not least I had a chance to talk face-to-face with my colleague Roy, who I have worked with online since 2008, but I think we have only met face-to-face five times!

Our session – Learning in the Open – went reasonably well, but on reflection I think we could have done a more ‘out of the box’ presentation. It’s ironic that we were talking about emergent learning and the factors that might need to be considered to promote it, but we still fell into a fairly conventional way (a trap?) of running a workshop, even though the ideas we are working on and were presenting are, I think, far from conventional. As we have discovered in running these workshops, the idea that learning is messy, is difficult to control and is unique to each individual learner is as counter-intuitive as it is obvious for many who work in education.

So what about the conference itself? The title is altc2013 Building new cultures of learning – but how much does the conference design promote this.

I was only there one day, and I rarely go to conferences, but it seemed to me to be in a format not dissimilar to conferences I was going to years ago – keynote speakers, breakout sessions, parallel paper presentations, workshops, exhibition hall etc. This is not intended as a criticism. It’s a reflection. As I said above I enjoyed my day and feel that the handful of connections I made were well worth the time and money I spent going to ALT-C, but if I think about it in terms of emergent learning – did I have a transformative, surprising, unpredictable experience, then ‘No’ I didn’t.

Perhaps this is not the purpose of a conference, even one that is considering building new cultures of learning. I am familiar with ‘Unconferences’ – and have even attended one some years back, but that didn’t have the numbers that ALT-C has. How could a conference like ALT-C, with more than 450 delegates in a physical space, do it differently? Should a conference like ALT-C even consider doing it differently?

Thinking off the top of my head – perhaps the place to start, and thinking about building new learning cultures, would be to think in terms of ‘open’ learning environments and the factors which influence that. Which brings me back to footprints of emergence (for examples of what I mean see this page on our open wiki). My colleague Roy is at the conference for the full three days. Perhaps he will draw a footprint of the conference when it is over, and that might provide some further insights into conference design. And we would certainly welcome footprints from conference participants.

Thanks to the conference organizers and to Rose Heaney, our session moderator, for their hard work and support.

New Special Issue on MOOCs published today (JOLT)

Today has seen the publication in JOLT  of a paper I worked on with Marion Waite, George Roberts and Elizabeth Lovegrove from Oxford Brookes University, in which we examined learning in the First Steps in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education MOOC (FSLT12).

Waite, M., Mackness, J., Roberts, G., & Lovegrove, E. (2013). Liminal participants & skilled orienteers: A case study of learner participation in a MOOC for new lecturers. JOLT

In a brief overview of ocTEL which Martin Hawksey gives in the video below, he mentions that one thing they would like to address in the next run of ocTEL is learner support.

In FSLT12 we were also concerned about this. We noted in our research into participation in FSLT12, that whilst many of the participants found themselves in that liminal zone of uncertainty about who they are, what they should be doing, how to navigate the environment, how open to be and so on, there were also many experienced MOOCers, who we called ‘skilled orienteers’. These participants voluntarily took on the role of supporting participants new to MOOCs and this way of working in the open. In the following run of the course, FSLT13, alumni from the previous course were invited to act as ‘expert’ participants, with the expectation that they would support those new to MOOCs and also provide feedback on the outcomes of the course activities.

Martin Hawksey is running a session today at ALT-C on Tues 10th Sept, 1.55 -2.55 pm, Horses for Open Courses: Making the Backend of a MOOC with WordPress – experiences from ocTEL .

The main thrust of this session will be, as the title suggests, the design of the course using WordPress. The design of the ALT-C website, which Stephen Downes has decribed as ‘masterwork’  is a development of the design for the ocTEL MOOC.

I’m looking forward to Martin’s session and hearing not only what he has to say about the ocTEL WordPress platform, but also his plans for future developments in relation to participant support.

I’m also looking forward to hearing what Stephen Downes might have to say about learner support in MOOCs. I remember, as a participant of CCK08, being aware that I was very much in a ‘sink or swim’ environment. My perception at the time was that this was an intentional part of the course design, and since I ended up ‘swimming’, but not without difficulty, I didn’t see this as a bad thing. But I do still wonder how much learners should be expected to sink or swim. Is there a conflict between the principles for learning in cMOOCs – autonomy, diversity, openness and interactivity/connectedness – and learner support, i.e. can the principles be constrained by support and if so to what extent?

Full Circle to Stephen Downes at ALT-C 2013

ALT-C 2013

Stephen Downes is the final keynote speaker at ALT-C this year. His session will be broadcast LIVE on Thursday 12 Sept at 2.00 pm (See the programme here ). Unfortunately I won’t be there, but it will be recorded.

As I mentioned in this blog post the only other time I have been to ALT-C was in 2005 when Stephen was also the keynote speaker.

I clearly remember that talk and in particular that he said ‘Collaboration is the joining together of things that do not naturally want to be joined’, which drew audible sucking in of breath from the audience.

Why did his talk have such an impact on me?

In part it was because I was ready for it. At the time I had just left a job in Higher Education to become an independent consultant. I had been running an innovative online/distance learning teacher training programme, which was described by some of my Higher Ed colleagues as a ‘poisoned chalice’. Online learning in their eyes was definitely second rate, even when the programme was proved very successful. So I was ready to listen to someone who thought ‘outside the box’, and who could see the potential of online learning. It was not the idea that collaboration might not be all it is cracked up to be, but that this somehow epitomized for me that there was a new and fresh way of thinking about education ‘out there’.

So when CCK08 was offered, although I was still light years behind the likes of Stephen Downes, I was even more ready for a completely new way of thinking about learning. By this time I was familiar with Etienne Wenger’s work on communities of practice and I was intrigued by what Stephen was saying about groups and networks.

And that was the start. Not only was I introduced to the principles of connectivity, openness, diversity and autonomy, for learning in online environments – principles which have had a huge effect on my thinking – but CCK08 was also the start of my venture into research. I think it would be fair to say that what I learned in CCK08 has influenced all my subsequent research, and it was good to know from Stephen in a recent online conference talk he gave that our early understanding of the principles of learning in MOOCs was not so far off the mark. There were one or two things which we hadn’t completely understood (as he points out in the presentation) but for the most part, on reflection, I think we ‘got it’.

And next week I am back at ALT-C again, with my colleague Roy Williams, who I met on CCK08. We have come a long way since then and our interest now lies firmly in trying to understand what we mean by emergent learning. Ironically, if there is one thing that we can predict about learning in a cMOOC that follows connectivist principles, it is that the learning will be unpredictable and emergent!

Hope you will join us at ALT-C for our session, Learning in the Open, on Tues 10th Sept at 3.00 p.m to discuss this further, or follow along through these blog posts and our open wiki.

This is my last plug for our session, but hopefully also a plug for Stephen’s keynote  – not that he needs it 🙂

Almost ready for ALT-C 2013

ALT-C 2013 is now less than a week away and I think we (Roy Williams and I) are almost ready for our workshop on Tuesday 10th Sept at 3.00 pm – Learning in the Open.

There’s nothing like having to be ready for a conference presentation to focus the mind. People have always told me in the past that the value of conferences lies in networking and of course keeping up to date with the latest ideas – but I wonder if the real value lies in the necessity to reflect on your own work and its value.

In our session we will share the work we have done on Footprints of Emergence. This has been ongoing for a couple of years. I drew my first footprint in May 2011. I remember really struggling to sort out and make sense of the first tentative ideas that we had. This was the result – a very crude drawing around some very tentative ideas.

EBINSince then we have published our paper ‘Footprints of Emergence’  and continued to work on improving the clarity around the drawing process and the learning factors that we consider when doing this. This work is ongoing and is not easy. We continue to have lengthy discussions about what we mean by the language we use and the results of these discussions and our thinking is recorded on our open wiki.

Our latest work, in preparation for ALT-C has been to clarify the drawing process, which we have now described on the video below (we are still working on improving this video too!), and to improve our descriptions of the factors that we use for drawing.

We are looking forward to some critical discussion about the Footprints of Emergence at ALT-C and invite people to look at or join our open wiki.  We also have an open Moodle discussion forum on the SCoPE community’s site, courtesy of Sylvia Currie and BCcampus.

ALT-C 2013 Learning in the Open

Earlier today I attended the online platform preview webinar for ALT-C 2013. The platform is impressive and easy to navigate.

The webinar was useful because it prompted me to get organized and to blog about the workshop that Roy Williams and I will run on the first day – Tuesday 10 September at 3.00 pm. The title of our session is Learning in the Open

Here is a link to the Abstract for our workshop –

The session will be interactive and, if past experience is anything to go by, result in stimulating discussion about the balance between prescriptive and emergent learning in open learning environments, and visualizations (i.e. drawn footprints) of participants’ learning experiences in these environments. For an example, see the one below which was drawn by an OLDsMOOC participant, which shows that for this participant OLDsMOOC was for the most part a chaotic experience, but there is a lot more to be learned from this footprint. (Click on the image to see it enlarged).


We will be explaining how to draw and interpret these footprints in our workshop. You can also see many more footprints on our open wiki.

We have been working on the development of the Footprints of Emergence framework since the publication of our paper in 2012.  We believe this to be a unique approach to describing the complexity of learning in any learning environment (but particularly in open environments), which has already caught the attention of some bloggers and communities. See for example:

We’re looking forward to a lively session in which participants will not only take away ideas which stimulate their own thinking and work, but also that our own work and understanding will be developed through the questions and issues discussed

For further information about our ongoing work, see our open wiki – Footprints of Emergence