Impressions, feelings, and senses of things



I recently had the pleasure to meet with Ceiren Bell from the Department of Media and Communications (Goldsmiths, University of London) to talk about the VLE space. Here I post my reflections about designing online learning spaces after our conversations.

Jesse Stommel says,

When we teach online, we have to build both the course and the classroom. A good learning management system is a tool that can help with this process; however, we should never let its design decisions — its architecture — dictate our pedagogies.

Indeed, teaching online requires good design thinking because the web architecture, the structure of the space, is more or less malleable. The space itself can change and should change with students, with their activities and with what they bring to the class, but at the very least, instructors should know how to create a welcoming and engaging living space. “It’s all about media and communications!” Ceiren said at one point in our conversation, and I couldn’t agree more.

Media, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, affects how we perceive the message. Imagine an instructor posting a welcome video on her site rather than text based content during the first week of class. The video will have a different feeling than text, even if the content is exactly the same. Or let’s say, even if the content appears the same because, as Ted Nelson explains,

“The character of what gets across is always dual; both the explicit structures, and feelings that go with them. These two aspects, exactness and connotation, are an inseparable whole; what is conveyed generally has both. The reader or viewer always gets feelings along with information, even when the creators of the information think that its “content” is much more restricted” (p. 319).

Nelson also talks about how technical manuals, for example, might carry with them an air of authority, non-imagination or competence depending on the readers’ perceptions of how the information is presented. Because, he says, “people receive not only cognitive structures, but impressions, feelings and senses of things.”

Yes! We need to think about content, resources, activities, assessments… but beyond all of that… beyond the “deliverables,” isn’t there a need to pay more attention to “impressions, feelings, and senses of things”? Decisions about media do matter in an online course, where visual clues and bodily experiences are limited by the two dimensional structure of the web.

If we are going to pay attention to the visceral experience, we may also ask, is the VLE a space of reflective (or social) engagement or is it a space of isolation and disengagement? As instructors, how can we make it a space for and of creativity, critical and radical thinking with our intentional choices? How can we make it a place where the whole person can exist? (By whole person I mean acknowledging students with all their complexities, as political and social beings – not just brains to be filled in with new knowledge.)

These are big questions but it may be surprisingly easy to create an engaging online space. Posting informal videos, asking students to post media on the site, allowing them to work on projects that personally matter to them, giving them choices and the agency to further shape the environment are all ways to achieve a vibrant learning environment. It’s, as Ceiren said, all about media and communications, understanding that the VLE is a space we can all co-construct together – for better and or worse.

Ending my post with a smiley face! Below on the left is my default profile picture on Dropbox. How would you compare it to my default profile picture on learn.gold (Goldsmith’s VLE)?

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Values in Open Education

There are so many things going wrong these days that I want to talk about something positive, something that gives me hope and energy.

Thanks to the great efforts of Teresa MacKinnon and the open ed community, the ALT Open Education Sig has recently held a webinar where they talked about values in open ed:

I couldn’t join the webinar (recording will be available here) but I went through all the latest #openedsig tweets and got a sense of the nature of the conversation, at least on Twitter. Here is what I celebrate in this convo and where my thoughts are taking me to:

1. Open education isn’t a single thing.

2. There isn’t a single set of values in open education.

I think I mentioned before that open education has an ethos of social justice and transparency in its core, but this doesn’t have to be the case for all organisations and people. Open education communities, people who work in this field, have many interrelated and sometimes controversial values (value for money? doing open ed for business?). There is “plurality of interests” (Michael Apple talks about this in Official Knowledge) in open ed.

3. Open education community should celebrate its divisions and embrace plurality.

Because, as Michael Apple says:

Culture—the way of life of a people, the constant and complex process by which meanings are made and shared—does not grow out of the pregiven unity of a society. Rather, in many ways, it grows out of its divisions. It has to work to construct any unity that it has. The idea of culture should not be used to “celebrate and achieved or natural harmony.” Culture is instead “a producer and reproducer of value systems and power relations.”

4. However, we need [to learn] to recognise the tensions in open ed and respond in a compassionate and considerate way: this is critical literacy in open ed contexts.

5. And critical literacy is only possible by embracing “an ethics of care and listening” and by developing our understanding of the complex social and political systems in which we operate (this I draw from Michael Apple).

It’s evident from the Twitter conversations that there was this ethics of care and listening in the webinar. I’m happy to be part of the education community, the open ed community, which I see and experience as a “caring” and “connected” community, a community which is ready to recognise its limitations as well as its successes and challenge the status quo. That’s a good thought. It’s a happy thought.

Going Beyond Humanizing Online Learning

If “democracy is a system of self-governance where governance is justified by consent of the governed,,” then are our educational institutions democratic? How about our classes? How about the online learning areas we set up for our students like the VLE?

Join this talk to discuss ways to create a democratic platform in online and blended learning. We will talk about shifts and tensions in teacher identity when we move to online spaces,  our imagined audience and community building. Students are welcome to join the discussion!

This is my session abstract for a talk I will be giving at Goldsmiths tomorrow titled Going beyond humanizing online learning: Creating a democratic platform for and with our students.

The session is discussion based, so I am hoping to tackle this complex topic with the participants on the day and also here on this blog prior and after the event. The motivation for this talk comes from my recent reflections on Parker J. Palmer and  bell hooks. I’ve started to think increasingly about democracy in education and how we might achieve that in online settings. We talk a lot about humanizing online courses, making it a social experience for both teachers and students, but we don’t talk much about how that social space is organised; we don’t talk much about the politics of it. I see a strong need to focus on that, especially to critique and improve our institutional learning spaces.

Palmer (2011) says:

“If students are to be well served and are to serve democracy well, we need to invite them into a lived engagement with democracy’s core concepts and values. There are at least two ways to do this: by engaging students in democratic processes within the classroom and the school and by involving them in the political dynamics of the larger community.”

So what are democracy’s core concepts and values? Well, there is civic responsibility. There is this expectation that you will be “a productive, responsible, caring and contributing member of society.” Palmer mentions many ways to achieve this but what struck me was his argument on creating democratic habits of the heart – the qualities we need to be able to “listen with an open mind” and “respond respectfully”:

  1. We must understand that we are all in this together.
  2. We must develop an appreciation of the value of otherness.
  3. We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. (This is about turning a seemingly negative event into something positive.)
  4. We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency.
  5. We must strengthen our capacity to create community.

But there is a problem I observe in online spaces: even the most democratic educator, the most caring instructor, can easily shift to quite authoritative teaching methods and ways of being online, if he/she has limited understanding of possibilities. It is not uncommon for instructors to use online spaces to ask students to do things (“submit your assignment,” “book a slot for your one-on-one,” “read this book,” etc.). Students are expected to do things in a space that is designed for them but not with them. The learning space becomes a space that reflects institutional choices and preferences and personal tastes of course designers (I once knew an instructor who had purple background on her site because she liked the color) more than a communal one.

One of the reasons why this shift happens is the heavy emphasis on content. It is so much easier to deliver content online than to build an active and supportive learning community.  A learning community open and responsive to diverse voices… a learning community that welcomes students as a whole person to the environment – real people. The former requires resources and tools, the latter requires commitment and care beyond all content.

In the talk, I will propose that the first step to democracy, to creating democratic habits of the heart, is by enabling open structures in learning (I draw from bell hooks and Parker Palmer on this). An open educator:

  • makes the initial structures of working and/or studying explicit to students and open to discussion (imagine a teacher encouraging her students to comment on the syllabus, on the class activities and assignments);
  • co-constructs the structures of working and/or studying with students (imagine modifying the assignments with the help of students; imagine students co-constructing a code of conduct for their online interactions);
  • doesn’t confine education to a certain space and time (imagine learning “on the web and with the web,” with the public and for the public; imagine a teacher tweeting a resource to the class hashtag long after the course ends);
  • centers education around dialogue (imagine a teacher using conversations with students as content to work with).
  • recognizes the whole person in education (this is complex, but imagine a teacher making the emotional well-being of her students a priority, a lot more important than assessing in-class/for-class “performances.”)

Can our educational institutions be democratic when there is so much reliance on standardized tests, when we want to get accreditation for our programmes, when teachers have so much more power over their students on deciding how things should look like in the learning space, and how the learning should be organized? How can we help students “practice in real responsibility, real dialogue and real authority” (Palmer,  2011) despite institutional and curricular constraints? And how about the limitations of democracy as a system of governance? (Think about how the rule of majority can be a problem in educational settings.)

What do you think? Please join the discussion and let me know about your thoughts.


Emotional Violence in Education

“When writer Sir Terry Pratchett died in 2015 he was working on one last story: his own. … Back in Black reveals that Terry’s road to success was not always easy, from his troubled school days to being dismissed by literary critics, to his battle with Alzheimer’s.

This is how BBC 2 introduces a documentary exploring the life of Terry Pratchett on their website. This narrative highlights three very different events that marked Pratchett’s life: bullying at school, his talent not being recognized, and a terminal disease. According to a Guardian article, this is how Pratchett describes bullying in his “incomplete biography”:

I had a mouthful of speech impediments that left me with a voice that sounded like David Bellamy with his hand caught inside an electric fire. But it was not the kids that really got to me, it was the crushing of my boyhood dreams by someone 3ft taller.The headmaster of Holtspur School in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, took a “rather vicious dislike to me” and thought “he could tell how successful you were going to be in later life by how well you could read or write at the age of six.

Can you imagine this? An old man on the verge of dying with Alzheimer’s describes something that has become part of his self-narrative here: the bullying, his bully, the headmaster of a school. I imagine that he doesn’t need to make an effort to remember this. He knows it all by heart; it is part of his identity. It is not forgotten. Yet.. When Pratchett looks back on this experience, what does he see? Rage? Shame? Humiliation? Puzzlement? Perhaps, at that time he wasn’t able to articulate any of those but could name them years later, when he became an adult.

What Pratchett experienced as a six year old boy was emotional violence at its very best. It was violence because, as Palmer argues, it violated somebody’s integrity, his sense of self.

Emotional violence is, and has been, happening in our society, in families, communities, and in our institutions, in the north and south, west and east and the middle. I believe often times we confuse it with “tradition” or we simply don’t recognize it because it’s quite well disguised. When a teacher tells a black student excelling in maths and science that she should go into a career in sports because that’s what she’s naturally good at, that’s abuse. It closes down possibilities for a person and imposes a top-down, often times false and misinformed, identity.

bell hooks writes about the detrimental effects of emotional abuse in education; she tells the stories of young women and men who end up leaving formal education because they become  paralyzed with racism, hatred, and simply ignorance. Her stories are familiar, and, yes, I can relate to most because although I’m not a black American, I can recognize oppression (i.e., “prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or exercise of authority”) when I see it.  I’ve known advisers who crashed their students’ spirit with cruel remarks. I’ve known teachers who openly scolded students because they were in a position to speak with authority. I’ve known many teachers in my life whose presence simply meant fear and shame for their students.

In an authoritarian educational system, emotional violence can easily occur because authority feeds from violence. The heads exercise their power over teachers, teachers exercise their power on students, students exercise their power on weaker ones–it’s a vicious cycle. If you are questioning whether authority exists to a great extent in our educational institutions just reflect back on your own education, think about those around you – you’ll find examples.

I believe that by opening up education, we have a better chance of moving from fascism to democracy because the structures of learning and teaching become explicit; they are open to debate and change. Opening up education certainly doesn’t mean everything will be and should be public and online. The kind of openness I’m talking about is not about a change in the delivery method; it’s a change in structure: the structures of thinking and operating.

I talk about these open structures in my next post.

Boundaries of Openness

“Space without boundaries is not space, it is a chaotic void, and in such a place no learning is likely to occur.” Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach

Reflecting on her recent #selfOER exercise (If You Were an OER, What Kind Would You Want to Be?) Maha said:

As I was reading Parker J. Palmer I found my personal answer to my Maha’s question. I’ve become open and stayed open (although intermittently) mainly because it’s a learning space for me, and because learning is social, it’s a social space for me too.

In his book The Courage to Teach, Palmer notes “six paradoxical tensions” that for him form the basis of good pedagogical design in (what I understand to be) formal educational environments:

1. The space should be bounded and open. (Bounded by a subject but open to interpretations and new directions of inquiry.)
2. The space should be hospitable and “charged.” (A safe space for learners to be present with their authentic identities, yet challenging enough to create tensions and aha moments.)
3. The space should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group. (Receptive and responsive to the learner voice and the group artefacts.)
4. The space should honor the “little” stories of the students and the “big” stories of the disciplines and tradition. (Connects the personal with larger theoretical frameworks, worldviews.)
5. The space should support solitude and surround it with the resources of community. (Learning can be self-directed and personal as well as communal).
6. The space should welcome both silence and speech. (Both silence and speech are equally respected.)

The networked spaces, in particular Twitter and the blog you are reading, have become learning spaces for me, spaces that are organically designed around the principles of paradox. I’m not expected to participate in open networks as part of my job but what I learn from open spaces directly feeds into my work. (As  Simon Ensor says, “I think of my online friends. They, the ones, who have fuelled much of my creativity.”)

What are some boundaries of openness for me? Well, first of all, most of my open activities are professional – my blog is the most personal of all because it’s a reflective medium and I write not as a gift but to think and connect with others (a lot to critique about the gift cultures but that’s another post). Second, even when I’m in a seemingly chaotic space like Twitter, I create boundaries by focusing on a specific subject (For example, education > open education > #OER17) and by following certain hashtags and people. I might learn from the chaos (mostly by lurking on random discussions) but I get the most out of Twitter when I have a systematic approach to open.

As we go forward with our research on selfOER, or the open self, we need to “identify the precise interpretations and contexts of openness being explored,” as Catherine Cronin suggests in her recent (really awesome) paper, because we are dealing with a complex construct that is perceived and practised differently by people.

Recent discussions on Twitter with Sally Burr and Helen Crump and the DMs with Maha have helped me think about some boundaries to our research, although they are still quite fuzzy.  The four dimensions of identity by James Paul Glee is an interesting theoretical framework which has a lot of relevance to what we are doing. The tensions between discursive identities (emergent, defined by relationships) we create in open spaces and our institutional identities might be one area we might focus on. As Maha argued in a recent post, most of open scholarship is “based around volunteering models”, around (most of) us carving time outside of our paid work” and this “is problematic,” it’s “not sustainable.” Our research might be helpful to draw some implications to better bridge our work in open spaces with the work in institutional spaces and get recognition for our hard work! It might also help us create more sustainable models for open connections and learning. (Having said that, I’m also aware that research often time takes you to unexpected places, provides new insights, so who knows what the implications of our research will be at the end?)

Drawing boundaries to our research might mean we’ll miss important stuff along the way, but as Maha noted:

You cannot possibly know every individual or see every blog post, comment, or tweet. This often means that you will miss some things, and in missing them, miss entire consequences built upon them. So there will also always have to be a humility of “knowing we do not know.”

What do you think? If you were to research the open self how would you define the boundaries for research and participation? Please leave a comment here or join the hashtag #selfOER, we would love to hear from you!

#selfOER in Open Educational Connections

I am really excited to read Jim Luke’s post The OER Content Trap as it gives me a framework to think about my work on Self as OER with Maha.

Jim says:

… by focusing on the “resources”, the content, we’ve fallen into the content trap.  We worry about how to finance the costs of production of “free” textbooks. We worry about competing for adoption of OER texts vs. the publisher texts. We’re trapped into focusing on the content.  Even when we talk about open educational practices or pedagogy, OEP, we’re still focused on the content because we focus on how the content is used.

We’re not alone in this trap. Nearly all higher ed institutions are there too.  They almost all think their special sauce is are the courses they teach or the research publications they produce. They’re wrong.  Similarly, the special sauce in open education isn’t the OER, the resources, books, videos, and content. The real special value is in the connections people make, the community that forms, and the identities they forge.

So what should we be focusing on? Open Education Connections or Open Educational Communities. OEC.

I believe by focusing on Open Education Connections we can avoid the “polarization and antagonism” that so often occur in our discussions on open pedagogy. We can abandon our “fixed positions from the foxholes of the pedagogy wars” as Palmer wisely said. It’s a meaningful and productive way to bridge OER and OEP and 5Rs and Content and Relationships.

Where does Self as OER, or as we are now considering, the “Open Self,” fit in Open Education Connections? I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to this or can we ever firmly establish its position, as it’s tied to identity, and identity can never be understood from a single fixed point. This was reflected in the responses to Maha’s Twitter exercise If You Were an OER, What Kind Would You Want to Be? (I’m just posting a few ones that I picked from the latest stream):

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There were so many good and thought-provoking and fun posts in the stream (@sensor63 in particular really pushed the boundaries of OER with his responses).

Maha then reflected on the tweets saying:

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Yes! And because those values and attitudes are so diverse and rich, and often unpredictable, we can never fully understand the Open Self. As I said before it’s one of those concepts that is hard to define just like the notion of the “whole person” because it’s tied to identity. I return to Palmer again to explain this. The following is from “The Courage to Teach” and is about the meaning of identity and integrity:

…Identity and integrity have as much to do with our shadows and limits, our wounds and fears, as with our strengths and potentials. …. They are subtle dimensions of the complex, demanding, and lifelong process of self discovery. Identity lies in the intersection of the diverse forces that make up my life, and integrity lies in relating those forces in ways that bring me wholeness and life rather that fragmentation and death.

Those are my definitions –but try as I might to refine them, they always come out too pat. Identity and integrity can never be fully named or known by anyone, including the person who bears them. They constitute that familiar strangeness we take with us to the grave, elusive realities that can be caught occasionally out of the corner of the eye (Palmer, 2017; emphasis mine).

So what’s the best way to research something if we can’t ever fully understand it? How can we capture the everchanging and shifting reflections of the Open Self in public spaces? Does this make sense?

From democracy to educating the whole person – My associative trails

I had a quiet time reading Parker J. Palmer’s most recent book this morning and in the spirit of  thoughtvectors I am sharing my associative trails here before they start fading away.

Palmer says,

…war is not the only setting in which violence is done: violence is done whenever we violate another’s integrity. Thus we do violence in politics when we demonise the opposition or ignore urgent human needs in favour of politically expedient decisions.” (Parker J. Palmer, 2011) (emphasis mine)

The quote above sparked my interest as just recently in my Tech and Ethics class one brilliant student, Grace Wengler, had raised questions about the meaning of integrity. Wasn’t it culturally constructed? “Might someone NOT feel humiliation if they were never taught to be embarrassed?”

I searched for the meaning of integrity, out of curiosity to see what would come up.

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To my surprise, the second Google dictionary definition mentioned “the state of being whole,” which was something I remembered reading in bell hooks:

“Denying the emotional presence and wholeness of students may help professors who are unable to connect focus more on the task of sharing information, facts, data, their interpretations, with no regard for listening to and hearing from students. It makes the classroom a setting where optimal learning cannot and will not occur.” (bell hooks, 2003) (emphasis mine)

Wholeness of students made me think of this great interview with Gardner Campbell, Educating the Whole Person. At the very beginning of the interview Gardner says:

“We are talking about lives. We are talking about minds. We are talking about ideally, As Randy  Bass puts it, the whole person. And the whole person is much more than accessories bolted onto a body. It is about a life lived in space and time with the potential to touch many other lives.

I mentioned the whole person in education in my dissertation but I didn’t explore the concept in depth and I didn’t have the opportunity to ask Gardner myself (I examined a course he co-designed and taught with a group of faculty at VCU). It was intriguing to come back to it almost a year after my defense. In the interview Gardner talks about how learning can be made personal with meaningful connections, he talks about the importance oftapping into the very meaningful and deep ways to students’ disposition to connect,” and “[helping students] have an understanding of their own needs and identities”... Now I felt like I got a gist of this complex concept because it was discussed in context.

Still, I wanted to find out more about this so I followed Gardner’s shout out to Randy Bass and found really interesting resources, one of which is the Designing the Future(s) of the University project – described as an integrative initiative engaging the whole Georgetown [university] community. And here below, I think I found good summary of educating the whole person. The italics in the quoted section reflect my thoughts:

“[The Formation by Design Project is] dedicated to shaping students to be fully human [so education is not all about the intellect], to cultivating their authentic selves [the relational selves, the way learners feel and live in the world], and to inhabiting a sense of personal responsibility for improving the world [working towards something larger than personal goals, ambitions]” (Formation of Design group).

From democracy to educating the whole person… there are interesting connections remain to be made…