Questions about online ‘openness’

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Source of image

  • What motivates academics and teachers to get involved in areas of practice that are NOT supported by their institutions?
  • Why invest even longer hours in supporting educational practice? My dentist doesn’t give me free root canal treatment outside of work?
  • Why personally finance conference attendance and travel, and what are the implications of this for the education sector?
  • What is in it for those willing to ‘go open’?

These are interesting and pertinent questions from Viv Rolfe in the wake of her attendance at the Association for Learning Technology Conference this year. They prompted me to look back in this blog to see what I have written about openness in education and going open. I am surprised at just how many posts relate to this topic; this has been one of my main areas of interest since 2008 and before.

I can remember clearly the point at which I realised I was ‘in the open’. It was during CCK08 – the MOOC which coined the term MOOC and was convened by Stephen Downes and George Siemens. I started this blog for that MOOC and about a month later made a post in which I questioned the need to be online to be connected. At the time, because I was new to blogging, I thought I was fairly anonymous and invisible and it gave me a tremendous jolt when I saw that Stephen Downes had included this post in his blog aggregation. Since then I have often considered (for example in this blog post) how open I am or want to be, because the feeling of over exposure and discomfort has never completely gone away.

So as Viv asks – Why do I do it? For me Viv’s first question is easy to answer.

  • What motivates academics and teachers to get involved in areas of practice that are NOT supported by their institutions?

I work independently of an institution, and have done for 10 years, so any support that I do have comes from my network. The big question for me is ‘who do I want to be in my network?’ I am not interested in collecting numbers for the sake of it. When I get a friend request on Facebook, or a connection request on LinkedIn, or a follower on Twitter, I don’t automatically connect. If I don’t know the person or ‘of ‘ the person, I look them up (Google them etc.). If I think we have topics of interest in common, then I will connect. I am not looking for social connections, but for professional connections. Sometimes these overlap, but I don’t assume that they will or even want them to. I have found the increasing blurring between public and private, personal and professional, troubling and constantly find myself wavering about what the difference is. I use ‘open’ social media as an information source. If and when I share information online, it is in the hope that it will be useful to others – but I am never sure of whether it will be and whether it is a conceit to be sharing in this way. I am thinking this as I write this post.

Then Viv asks:

  • Why invest even longer hours in supporting educational practice? My dentist doesn’t give me free root canal treatment outside of work?

Again for me this is fairly straight-forward to answer. In my career I can’t remember ever sticking to the statutory hours. I have always done more hours and sometimes many, many more hours than in my contract. There have been various reasons for this, but I think the main reasons have been to do with wanting to learn more and to do a better job – not for any recognition, although it is great when this happens, but simply because that’s what I find fulfilling. Currently most of my work is voluntary, unpaid research, which I hope in some small way supports educational practice. I am committed to publishing in ‘open’ journals, although this isn’t necessarily what all my research collaborators want or need for their career advancement, so it doesn’t always work that way. Collaboration usually does involve some degree of compromise 🙂 and I value openness between friends and collaborators, far more than openness in the online network.

Viv’s next question was:

  • Why personally finance conference attendance and travel, and what are the implications of this for the education sector?

I have been doing this for the past 10 years. I try to physically attend one conference a year but I have to weigh up costs against gains. Sometimes it is interesting to meet people face-to-face, but I am looking much more for something that stimulates my thinking and sets me off in new directions. There is something about being physically present that can be much more powerful than attending virtually. For many people a conference is about networking and meeting people. For me, when I am paying for myself, that is a luxury. I need more than that. I need to be able to come away and feel that my thinking has changed in some way – and I need to know that I have invested my time and money wisely and that the costs will pay dividends in terms of my future work. What are the implications for the education sector? I think that in the years to come there will be many, many older people, like me, who are already drawing their pensions, who will want to attend conferences and contribute to presentations. Hopefully conference organisers will see these contributions as welcome, but also realise that current costs are often prohibitive. And it is usually the case that people who are paying for themselves can have higher expectations and be more demanding of processes 🙂 This could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on whose perspective you are taking!

Viv’s last question is the key one.

  • What is in it for those willing to ‘go open’?

I would describe my practice as one of ‘guarded openness’. I haven’t thrown myself out there and revealed all, as I see some people doing. I find it disturbing when people seem to ‘wash their dirty linen’ in the open. Some things are not meant to be discussed in the open, but should be reserved for private communication between the parties concerned. I also find that group think, constant self-affirmation and self-validation, either individually or as a group, that fails to stand back and look critically at this online behaviour, makes me feel equally uncomfortable. In the past year I have seen so much of these behaviours online. When I joined CCK08, I was really excited by the altruistic sharing of knowledge and learning behind the idea of ‘openness’, but recently it has seemed to me to be more about narcissism than altruism – about getting noticed and building up ‘numbers’ of followers, tweets etc.

So why am I still here? To be honest, I am no longer sure, but I am hanging on to Stephen Downes’ and George Siemens’ original and hopefully ongoing aspirations for open education. And I am not expecting any response to this post because what I have learned in the last year is that the internet favours consensus and punishes dissent. I should have paid more attention when Dave Snowden told us this in the Change 11 MOOC – another MOOC organised by Stephen Downes and George Siemens.

The Micro and the Macro of the EdTech World

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This year’s Association for Learning Technology Conference in Manchester, UK, focussed on Shaping the Future of Learning Together. By all accounts the conference was a great success trending on Twitter as never before.

I attended two keynotes virtually: Jonathan Worth’s keynote (I’m not sure if there was a title for this – if there was I didn’t see it) and Laura Czerniewicz who talked about Inequality in Higher Education.

I found both keynotes thought-provoking. It seemed to me that they presented micro and macro issues being faced by the Edtech world at the moment.

Jonathan’s keynote addressed issues of vulnerability, privacy and trust in open learning, at the local level of the learner. Laura took a global perspective, providing evidence for Inequality in the Higher Education landscape, particularly between the global north and the global south.

Jonathan is of course well known for his photography and Phonar MOOC so it is not surprising that he is used to looking closely at the world around him and took a local, intimate perspective of learning in a digital age. He talked about the difference between the image and the photograph and told us that there have been two major paradigm shifts in photography, the first when photography broke away from painting and became an art in its own right, and the second is happening now as the image breaks away from the photograph. Unlike a photograph, an image is not about evidence; an image is about experience. The image is an algorithm, it is what is behind the photo. Thinking about this I have wondered whether this is just a play on words and what the significance is for learning. My understanding is that all photos are images, but not all images are photos. For me the significance of thinking about this is that online we mostly see photos – not images – i.e. it’s hard to get behind what you see, which is why people still value face-to-face meetings and recognise what a difference that makes to online relationships. But to get behind the photo, to see images, we have to recognise that this can make people vulnerable. Audrey Watters has said that vulnerability is essential to the learning dynamic, but this brings with it issues of trust and the right to privacy. If we want to see more images, rather than photos, then we need to recognise the vulnerability of the subject or in the case of education, the learner. This shouldn’t be a surprise. It has been written about for decades and longer, but perhaps in recent frenetic digital times has been forgotten.

Similarly Laura’s talk about inequality on a global scale should not have come as a surprise. The surprise should be that people still need reminding. As she pointed out, inequality is literally a life and death issue, but the challenge these days is to address inequality in an austerity environment and particularly in new online landscapes. Inequality is about power, agency, ownership and choice, about the nature of relationships and who decides. Laura’s message was powerful and affective. She suggested that we need critical research, inequality-framed experimentation, policy and advocacy. We also need to shift from a broadcast culture to one of equal partnership and foster global partnerships. She said she is a researcher – she can raise the questions, but doesn’t have the answers. I suspect that the answers will rely on attention to both macro and micro views of the problem. Jonathan’s focus on vulnerability and trying to see the image clearly will inform issues of inequality and Laura’s focus on inequality will inform Jonathan’s concerns about privacy, trust and vulnerability.

ALTC14 – Two keynotes: the power of stories

Today has been the last day of the ALT Conference for 2014.

As an online participant, I was able to listen to two really great keynotes, given by two women who are always worth listening to.

  1. Keynote Speech from Catherine Cronin – Navigating the Marvellous: Openness in Education
 NB: Audio does not start on this video until 4.26.

Inspired by a Seamus Heaney poem, Catherine will explore “navigating the marvellous”, the challenge of being open in higher education. To be in higher education is to learn in two worlds: the open world of informal learning and the predominantly closed world of the institution. As higher education moves slowly, warily, and unevenly towards openness, students deal daily with the dissonance between these two worlds; developing different skills, practices and identities in different learning spaces. Both students and educators make choices about the extent to which they learn, teach, share and interact in bounded and open spaces. If, as Joi Ito has said, openness is a “survival trait” for the future, how do we facilitate this process of opening? The task is one not just of changing practices but also of changing culture; we can learn much from other movements for justice, equality and social change.

  1. Keynote Speech from Audrey Watters – Ed-Tech, Frankinstein’s Monster, and Teaching Machines (See also http://hackeducation.com/2014/09/03/monsters-altc2014/)

What does it mean to create intelligent machines? What does it mean to create intelligent teaching machines? What does this mean in turn when we talk about using these technologies to create intelligent humans? A romp through literature and the cultural history of ed-tech to talk about teaching machines and monsters.

Both talks were powerful and I wonder if that was because they both took a ‘story-telling’ approach.

Catherine talked about levels of openness, quoting Jim Groom as saying that ‘Openness is an ethos, not a license’. We cannot know who will benefit from the resources we share, but we have to take the risk. I don’t think we should underestimate this risk for our students and have discussed the pedagogy of risk elsewhere on this blog. I don’t think Catherine underestimates the risk.

The title of Catherine’s talk Navigating the Marvellous: Openness in Education was inspired by Seamus Heaney’s poem – Lightenings

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

She used this poem to explain that things that are so normal to us may be marvelous and strange to others – so strange that they cannot breathe – and that the dichotomy of formal and informal learning can make students feel ‘other’ and unable to breathe. She believes that as educators we need to try to understand the spaces that students occupy – physical, bounded online (e.g. VLEs) and open online spaces – and what is possible in these spaces to ensure that students can ‘breathe’ in them all. She then shared many stories with us of the ways in which she and her students are working to come to grips with the process of openness in education.

Audrey also took a storytelling approach. She described herself as a folklorist who is interested in hidden and lost stories – stories from history, literature and science, which she weaves together to illustrate her point – in this case that monsters have been created in the name of Ed-Tech. She drew on the poetry of Walt Whitman and Lord Byron, the history of the Luddites, the science of B.F. Skinner’s teaching machines, the work of Ayn Rand and Mary Shelley’s story Frankenstein, to make a compelling case for the dangers we face from technological monsters which she believes we have created through a lack of care and thought. Near the end of her talk Audrey left us with a quote from Hannah Arendt:

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.

She noted that in an age when many jobs will be replaced by automation, we must love and care for our machines lest they become monsters.

Whilst listening to both speakers, I was struck by the power of a story and was reminded of the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who in this Ted talk  explains, from personal experience, the danger of the single story and says:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

 Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 16.33.13This is not a video, but an image. I have provided a link to the video above

Both Catherine and Audrey seemed to be aware of alternative perspectives; Catherine that her students have ‘other’ perspectives and different stories, and Audrey that stories are multi-faceted and that we can confuse the characters within stories.

As listeners to stories (and keynotes :-)), we have a responsibility to be aware of alternative perspectives and to engage critically with the stories, particularly since they can be so powerful in getting across a point.

Anticipating new open courses and conferences

Next week sees the official end of the summer break for many people, particularly those working in education. The days are getting shorter, the nights are drawing in, but the autumn fruits are still ripening (here in the UK).

In my career in education, these coming months up until the December break have always been very busy. The renewed energy and enthusiasm that emanates from people as they start again after the summer break is almost palpable and, I find, motivating.

There seem, at this time, to be many open courses on offer and conferences of interest. It’s impossible to follow them all, but those that I will be keeping an eye on are:

ALTC website

ALTC 2015: 1st to 3rd September. Riding Giants: How to innovate and educate ahead of the wave #altc

I cannot attend this in person, but there are a number of live streamed presentations which I am hoping to listen to. ALTC is usually a stimulating conference.

Connected Courses. Active Co-Learning in Higher Ed. Sept 2nd to Dec 14th 

This has caught my attention because of the number of well-known names involved in the course design.

Modern and Contemporary American Poetry Coursera MOOC. Sept 6th to Nov 15th.

I completed this course last year, but there is plenty more to learn and it was so good last year that I am looking forward to joining it again. I know very little about poetry, but this does not seem to be a barrier to enjoyment. Last year I didn’t join the discussion forums. They are somewhat overwhelming and move too fast for me. I might give them a try this year, but I think I am once again more likely to watch the videos and do the close readings. Also, having already completed the course once, I will be selective, this year, about the parts of the course that I follow.

Networked Scholars Oct 20th – Nov 16th.

An open, free course being offered by George Veletsianos. I think/hope this course will be relevant to my own research. If it is then I hope to be fully engaged.

8th Eden Research Workshop. Challenges for Research into Open and Distance Learning; Doing Things Better – Doing Better Thing

I would like to go to this conference. I particularly like the look of the programme structure which seems to focus on discussion rather than presentations.

I think this is the limit of what I could possibly hope to keep up with. Usually I only manage to focus on one course at a time.

It’ll be interesting to see whether I manage all this in the coming months, on top of other commitments, and if not, then which topics/courses will claim most of my time!