Questions for Iain McGilchrist on the implications of the divided brain for education

At the end of next week I will attend, for the second year running, Iain McGilchrist’s four-day course on Exploring the Divided Brain  organised by Field & Field and taking place in the Cotswolds, UK.

At the end of last year’s course, Iain talked very briefly about the implications of left hemisphere dominance for education. I know from another of Iain’s talks that I attended in Edinburgh a couple of years ago, that he is now writing a book which focuses on education – The Porcupine is a Monkey . I am hoping that we will hear more about this on this year’s course.

I have been interested in the links between Iain McGilchrist’s ideas about the Divided Brain and teaching and learning, since I was pointed to his book by Matthias Melcher (@x28de) in 2011. Matthias and I have often discussed the possible links between McGilchrist’s work and Siemens’ and Downes’ work on connectivism. As such I am hoping that the following questions might be discussed on the course next week.

If (as discussed in the book The Master and his Emissary) we are living in an age of left hemisphere dominance, then how can a left hemisphere dominant population recognise the merits of right hemisphere thinking?

A recently developed theory for education in a digital age is ‘connectivism’. This theory has been proposed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. The theory posits that knowledge is in the network of connections between people, concepts and neurons, and that learning involves the creation and navigation of networked connections. In addition, Stephen Downes claims that knowledge is pattern recognition, although in a paper critiquing connectivism, Clara and Barbera have questioned how we can recognise something that we don’t already know. In what ways does the theory of connectivism align with the functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain in relation to recognition and representation?

Connectivism is a theory for a digital age. Advances in technologiy increasingly focus on virtual and augmented reality and machine learning (e.g. the use of pattern recognition machines to study paintings ) Given these sorts of developments, can we say that technology can function like the right hemisphere and if so, what might be the implications for left hemisphere dominance?

Last year’s course was very thought provoking. I wrote a blog post about each of Iain’s sessions. Here are the links – The Divided Brain – A four day course with Iain McGilchrist.  I am expecting to find this year’s course equally thought-provoking.

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.

Academic blogging

George Veletsianos is running a four week open course about networked scholarship and the implications of academics’ presence and visibility online for their work and careers.

The first week is already over and there has been plenty of interesting discussion and two interesting events.

On Wednesday Michael Barbour  joined the course for a day to answer any questions that participants threw at him and he generously shared his strategies for working in the open.

On Thursday there was a webinar with Laura Czerniewicz  who shared her work on open scholarly practice in relation to presence, visibility and branding, including her guide to curating open scholarly content:

An 8-step guide to curating open scholarly content 

and with Sarah Goodier a Four Step Guide to online presence

Also shared in the course was this slideshare by Sydneyeve Matrix about academic branding –

There has been some discussion about whether academics should blog. Some have said that open scholarship means sharing all aspects of your life (I have blogged about this in the past ), but as Laura Czerniewicz said ‘Some people are not comfortable blogging – some people have a blogging voice, others don’t’.

For me it’s not either/or. Sometimes I feel that I can’t get the blog posts I want to make out fast enough. At other times I feel that I have nothing to say, nothing to add to the conversation that has not already been said, nothing that I think anyone would find interesting to read – but sometimes you just have to force yourself and start writing, because as others before me have pointed out, writing is a practice – use it or lose it.

Catherine Cronin has recently said  (I can’t remember where – sorry Catherine) that you can never tell whether something you write might be of use to someone, and you might never know.

Stephen Downes  (a most prolific blogger) has written somewhere (or maybe it was said – again I don’t remember – sorry Stephen) that if you can’t find anything to write about, you must be a boring person, ‘or words to that effect’. I think what he meant was that everyone has something to say – we just need the confidence, the belief that there is someone out there that might want to listen.

This echoes what the poet Bernadette Mayer said in a Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC webinar this week –  ‘You can’t have writer’s block – as that would mean total lack of thought’. It’s not lack of thought, it’s lack of confidence. Various bloggers have written about this (see references at the end of this post).

Bernadette Mayer has provided loads of possible starting points for writers in a long document Bernadette Mayer’s List of Journal Ideas. In the webinar her advice was to find something completely impossible to write about and write about it, such that the problem becomes the material and we use the constraints. Write against the reality that is presented to you – she says.

Bernadette’s advice is for poets, but works equally well for academic bloggers. The advantage of blogging is that it can release you from the conventions of academic writing of the type done for journal articles. You can simply start and ‘let it all hang out’ and include images and multimedia. You can write a line or two or you can write at length. There are a whole host of genres you can experiment with.

I think it would be a shame to think about blogging only in terms of scholarship and academic branding. Blogging is much more than that, even for academics. It is about ‘finding your voice’ and building an identity. As Laura said: ‘So much scholarship is embodied in a person.’

Some references that might be of interest, that I have come across or been reminded of this week are:

Trust and security in open networks

The second topic (unit) of the ccourses MOOC (Connected Courses. Active Co-Learning in Higher Ed) is Trust and Network Fluency .


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Each unit in ccourses lasts for two weeks. For me this is good. For those who want to do a lot of reading – and there are plenty of resources listed on the ccourses site – then there is time to do this. For those, who simply want to interact with others, or think about the topic and reflect on it, this is also good. Reflection takes time as we can see from Mariana’s blog post in which she reflects deeply on trust, privacy and interaction in networked environments. It is a great post and has prompted me to respond, but also to add some of my own thoughts.

What happens when trust breaks down in online relationships? At the very worst level your life or career can be destroyed as in the case of Kathy Sierra – but even at the level of just one relationship the damage can be irreparable. (See Kevin Hodgson’s blog post).

Perhaps the answer is not to assume that trust in an online environment is a possibility. In a post a few years ago Stephen Downes wrote of person to person trust

We don’t trust each other (and we shouldn’t). Spam, viruses and phishing are the most manifest cases of this sort of breach of trust. Consequently, we have attempted to create walls around ourselves – spam filters, social network buddy lists, so-not-call registries. We seek control over the flow of information into and out of our systems through technology over which we have less and less control (because of the needs of the other forms of ‘trust’).

He concludes that

….. for the network to work, we must all give up control – but at a measured pace, in step with each other, to avoid one element of the other abusing this greater openness

Give up control. Keep in step with each other. Is that possible?

In our research into emergent learning, trust is one of the factors we consider to be essential for emergent learning in open learning environments. We discuss it in terms of the tension between competitive self-interest and mutual respect, support and growth.

Perhaps it’s competitive self-interest that we must give up, rather than control. Competitive self-interest can lead to voices that are ‘too loud’ in the online environment. Mariana writes about the ‘silencing’ effect that some online personalities can have, either through overt harassment or simply by being over-present and dominating every conversation.

How do you cope with the person who is not overtly harassing, not a troll, but whose voice is too loud in the online environment, given that people’s perceptions of what constitute a loud voice differ? This is something I used to discuss with teaching colleagues in the past when we were just beginning to run online courses. i.e. how present should we be as online tutors and what should we do about the over-present dominating student. Gilly Salmon describes this type of student/online learner as ‘The Stag’ and suggests giving them a job to do, which keeps them busy enough to prevent them from ‘spamming’ their fellow students. But not all dominant voices online are students. What of those everyday users of the internet who are trolls or who are simply always ‘in your face’; then the only alternative response is to walk away, as Kathy Sierra has done, or ‘unfollow’ or ‘block’ i.e. to disconnect.

But where does this leave the development of skills of systemic dialogue that Mariana talks about?

The more choices to be ‘public’ one makes, the more likely one will find people who disagree with one’s world view and are unable to engage meaningfully with disagreement. The open web does not come with a built in facilitator to teach people the skills of systemic dialogue.

We need more meaningful dialogue and less shallow answers.

Trust should not have to mean always agreeing with each other and establishing cozy echo chambers. In fact quite the opposite. The people I trust the most both on and offline are those I can speak my mind to and who will engage with me in what I perceive to be meaningful dialogue. They do not have to agree with me, but neither do they attack me. There is as I mentioned above, mutual respect, support and growth.

I have a lot of sympathy with Dave Snowden’s comment that he made in a talk to the Change11 MOOC and which I recorded on my blog at the time

Negative stories carry more learning than positive stories. Appreciative Inquiry is often unethical and used in inappropriate contexts; it tells people what stories they are allowed to tell.  Open space is also like this in that it rewards consensus and punishes dissent. Anyone who survives in an open space does so because the only people there are those who listen – everyone else votes with their feet.

So trust in the online environment is a complex issue. It should not be taken lightly.

Theoretical influences on the characteristics of open learning environments

This is the fourth in a series of posts written in preparation for an e-learning conference keynote that Roy Williams and I will be giving on September 17 in Graz, Austria.

First slide in presentation

Previous posts relating to this presentation are:

  1. Evaluation of Open Learning Scenarios
  2. Characteristics of Open Learning Environments
  3. Emergent Learning in Open Environments

In the second post in this series I wrote about the 25 factors that we consider to be characteristics of open learning environments.[1] [2] The evidence from our research suggests that the presence or absence of these factors influences the potential for emergent learning in any given environment.

We have been asked a few times where this list of factors has come from.[3]

The factors are not arbitrary. They are a result of much reflection and discussion and of our combined extensive experience of teaching and learning, and personal knowledge of open learning environments and theoretical influences. Here is the current full list of clusters, factors and their descriptions. Clusters and Factors Mapping Sheet

Experienced educators recognise the importance of prior learning in developing knowledge and understanding. In retrospect, it is easy to see that a career in education means that this prior learning has often been associated with specific learning theories and theorists, even if this wasn’t consciously recognised at the time.

On a personal level, it is interesting to consider which past learning events may have been associated with which learning theories. In the Table below I have attempted to make these links between significant prior learning events in my career and the associated theorists and theories that have probably influenced my thinking about emergent learning.

Image for blog post 4

This Table is necessarily a summary overview, but reflects some of the influences on my thinking and therefore the discussions I have had with my colleagues in relation to our work on emergent learning and deciding on a list of factors. It is not that we sat down, drew up a list of theories and from these decided on the factors. At the start of this work we drew on our very recent experience of participating in CCK08 (Connectivism and Connective Knowledge MOOC, 2008) and on our experience of autonomy, diversity, openness and connectivity within it. These are the four key principles of learning in a network, which Stephen Downes introduced us to in CCK08.[4] As we shared and discussed our experience, we recognised that we were describing it in more detailed terms than the four principles for networked learning. We realised that the language we were using to describe this experience reflected our past experience and knowledge of theorists and theory.

Discussion also included how to cluster these factors. Pragmatically, and after some testing of different ideas and numbers of clusters, we knew that in order to draw the Footprints of emergence (see the second post in this series for an explanation and example of a ‘footprint’) it would make sense to organise them into four clusters. This works well. We have two clusters that relate to the learning environment – Open/Structure and Interactive Environment; the other two clusters relate to the learner – Agency and Presence/Writing.

The clusters and factors have been tested and refined many times, with different groups of learners in different learning environments. The most difficult aspect of this work has been to develop concise descriptions and associated questions, which we hope will support people who use the Footprints of Emergence framework to reflect on their learning in different learning environments.

So whilst we can each explain how we arrived at a list of factors from our own perspectives [ See 5, for Roy’s perspective], we are doing this retrospectively. At the time, the process was hard work, but complex, messy and unpredictable. It has been what Stephen Downes referred to as design-led research in his talk – Digital Research Methodologies Redux. [6]


  1. Williams, R., Mackness, J. & Gumtau, S. (2012) Footprints of Emergence. Vol. 13, No. 4. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. Retrieved from:
  1. Footprints of Emergence open wiki –
  1. Mackness, J. (2013). Footprints of emergence – so what? Retrieved from:
  1. Downes, S. (2009). Connectivism Dynamics in Communities. Retrieved from:
  1. Williams, R. (2014). From here to CAN. Retrieved from:
  1. Downes, S. (2014). Digital Research Methodologies Redux. Retrieved from:

Beyond Assessment – Recognizing Achievement in a Networked World

Beyond Assessment slideshare


This was the third in a series of 3 talks that Stephen Downes gave in London this week.

Jul 11, 2014
Keynote presentation delivered to 12th ePortfolio, Open Badges and Identity Conference , University of Greenwich, Greenwich, UK.

ePortfolios and Open Badges are only the first wave in what will emerge as a wider network-based form of assessment that makes tests and reviews unnecessary. In this talk I discuss work being done in network-based automated competency development and recognition, the challenges it presents to traditional institutions, and the opportunities created for genuinely autonomous open learning.

For recordings of all three talks see OLDaily

Beyond Assessment – Recognizing Achievement in a Networked World
Jul 11, 2014. 12th ePortfolio, Open Badges and Identity Conference , University of Greenwich, Greenwich, UK (Keynote).

Beyond Institutions – Personal Learning in a Networked World
Jul 09, 2014. Network EDFE Seminar Series, London School of Economics (Keynote).

Beyond Free – Open Learning in a Networked World
Jul 08, 2014. 12th Annual Academic Practise & Technology Conference, University of Greenwich, Greenwich, UK (Keynote).

This was perhaps the most forward thinking and challenging of the three talks. I wasn’t at the talk, but listened to the recording. What follows is my interpretation of what Stephen had to say, but it was a long talk and I would expect others to take different things from it and interpret the ideas presented differently.

Educators have been wrestling with the issue of assessment, how to do it well, how to make it authentic, fair and meaningful, how to engage learners in the process and so on for many, many years.

Assessment has become even more of a concern since the advent of MOOCs and MOOC are symptomatic of the changes that are happening in learning. How do you assess thousands of learners in a MOOC?  The answer is that you don’t – or not in the way that we are all accustomed to – which is testing and measurement to award credentials such as degrees and other qualifications. This has resulted in many institutions experimenting with offering a host of alternative credentials in the form of open badges and certificates.

Stephen’s vision is that in the future assessment will be based not on what you ‘know’ but on what you ‘do’ – what you do on the public internet. The technology now exists to map a more precise assessment of people through their online interactions. Whilst this raises concerns around issues of privacy and ethical use of data, it also means that people will be more in control of their own assessment. In the future we will have our own personal servers and will personally manage our multiple identities through public and private social networks. Prospective employers seeking a match for the jobs they want filled can then view the details of these identities. There is some evidence that learners are already managing their own online spaces. See for example Jim Groom’s work on A Domain of One’s Own.

Why might new approaches to assessment such as this be necessary? Here are some of the thoughts that Stephen shared with us.

It is harder and harder these days to get a job, despite the fact that employers have job vacancies.  There is a skills gap.  The unemployed don’t have the skills that employers need. We might think that the solution would be to educate people in the needed skills and then employers could hire them, but employers don’t seem to know what skills are needed and although learning skills inventories help people to recognise what they don’t know, these inventories don’t help them to get to what they do know.

Education is crucial for personal and skills development and more education leads to happier people and a more developed society. The problem is that we confuse the outcomes of education with the process of education. We think that we can determine/control learning outcomes and what people learn. See Slide 14

instructional design

But useful outcomes are undefinable (e.g. understand that …..) and we need an understanding of understanding. Definable outcomes such as ‘recite’ and ‘display’ are simpler but behaviourist (Slide 18).   There is more to knowing than a set of facts that you need to pass the test.  Knowing something is to recognise it, in the sense that you can’t unknow it.  Stephen used ‘Where’s Wally’ as an example of this:

Wallywhere's wally

Knowing, according to Stephen, is a physical state – it is the organisation of connections in our brain. Our brain is a pattern recogniser. Knowing is about ‘doing’ rather that some mental state.

My understanding of what Stephen is saying is that if we believe that knowing is about pattern recognition, then achievement will be recognized in how good learners are at pattern recognition as evidenced by what they ‘do’ in their online interactions. ‘Assessors’ will also need to be good at pattern recognition.

Learners are increasingly more sensitive to the patterns they see in the huge amount of data that they interact with on the internet, and machines are getting closer to being able to grade assignments through pattern recognition.  As they interact online learners leave digital traces. Big data is being used to analyse these internet interactions.  This can be used for assessment purposes. But this has, of course, raised concerns about the ethics of big data analysis and the concern for privacy is spreading – as we have recently seen with respect to Facebook’s use of our data. (Slide 55)

Facebook research

A move to personally managed social networks rather than centrally managed social networks will enable learners to control what they want prospective employers to know about them and human networks will act as quality filters.

Stephen’s final word was that assessment of the future will redefine ‘body of work’.

assessment of the future

All these are very interesting ideas. I do wonder though whether it’s a massive assumption that all learners will be able to manage their own online identities such that they become employable. What are the skills needed for this? How will people get these skills? Will this be a more equitable process than currently exists, or will it lead to another set of hierarchies and marginalisation of a different group.

Lots to think about – but I really like the move to putting assessment more in the control of learners.

26-09-2014 Postscript

See also this post by Stephen Downes – – which provides all the details of this talk

Beyond Institutions – Personal Learning in a Networked World

This was Stephen Downes’ second talk in a series of 3, which he is giving in London this week. This is how he introduced it on his blog Stephen’s Web 

In this presentation I look at the needs and demands of people seeking learning with the models and designs offered by traditional institutions, and in the spirit of reclaiming learning describe a new network-based system of education with the learner managing his or her education.

Although I have only listened to the recording of this talk, I found it more interesting than the first talk, which I listened to live, having been a delegate at the conference, although there was plenty of interest in that one too. What I like about Stephen’s talks is that he doesn’t pull any punches. He always challenges my thinking.

The thrust of this talk, from my perception, is, as the title suggests, that learning is no longer in the control of institutions, but increasingly personal and in the control of learners as they occupy a networked world. There is a distinction between personal learning and personalized learning. Institutions don’t understand personal learning because personal learning has to be in the control of the learner. It is made to order. Learning is built not from a kit but from scratch. Institutions think they are catering for personal learning, but in fact are offering personalized learning – which is ‘off the shelf’ learning; one package with a bunch of options.

There is evidence that today’s students are demanding change and want more control. Learning is no longer about remembering. The content, nature and means of learning are changing on a daily basis. Learning today is more about play and socializing. Lecturing is also changing. Lecturing today is not so much about content as creating the potential for dialogue.

A particularly challenging point that Stephen made was ‘Do away with models’ – learning models and design models.  The right model is no model. New versions of old models don’t produce results. It is obvious that people learn differently, have different objectives, priorities, goals and times when they want to learn, but if you use a learning model you are attempting to predefine the outcome, whereas learning should be about discovery and exploration. I would also say from the work I have done with Roy Williams, that we need to recognize that  learning will often be unpredictable and emergent. (See Emergent learning and learning ecologies in Web 2.0)

Autonomy rather than control is the essential in education. Autonomy does not mean no structure, it means choice of structure. Personal learning is based on self-organization and self-organizing networks. Learners need to reclaim management and organization of learning. The way forward will be for students/learners to have their own personal web server and run their own web services from their own home networks.  The University will be a box in your living room. Learning should be cooperative and networked. It is not content that is important, but the making of connections. Learners need networking skills.

What do we need from institutions?

We do not need

  • more models, more designs
  • more learning theories
  • more standards, measurement and centralization
  • more control
  • more of making the same mistakes

We do need mechanisms to support people in learning and bettering their lives. Institutions need to think in terms of serving many different people in many different ways and supporting personal learning, rather than attempting to control and personalize learning.


And here is an interesting blog post about this talk by Sonja Grussendorf – Beyond institutions: Stephen Downes at NetworkEDGE

See also Arun Karnad’s post: