Building an introductory physics course – cMOOC meets xMOOC

Problem: How do we create a free, online introductory physics course for students transitioning into AP (advanced placement) or first year introductory physics?

Solution: Lets get all the physics teachers we can together and build it as a team.

Yeah but…: lots of those folks may be good physics teachers but they haven’t all taught online before.

Better solution: Lets build a four week ‘maker course’ for physics teachers where we talk about the best ways to build online resources and build those together at the same time!

Lets start that on the 4th of March. (Course opens on the 28th of February)
UPDATE: Dave Pritchard has agreed to come onboard to serve as one of the facilitators for the course!!!

The project – Making introductory physics prep together
Our goal is to gather as many physics educators as we can find and make resources. Specifically, we want to make resources that can be turned into a free course for students transitioning into AP or university level physics. Our hope is to end up with more resources than we need and that all participants (and other folks) can find resources and ideas that can help them in their teaching and learning. Want to find other people working on physics? Want to learn to build new things online and/or share the things that you know about building things? read on.

Who should join this course?
We’re hoping for two types of folks in the course.

  1. People who are interested in teaching physics, whether you’ve been doing it for two years or twenty years.
  2. People with lots of experience building stuff online.

Bringing together people’s experience and collaborating on our ideas will make the work better.

What’s the fine print?
First of all… the maker course is free. All and any materials created in the course (by everyone, including the course facilitators) will be licenced Creative Commons, so that we can all benefit from the work we are doing together. You are free to participate to whatever extent you wish, but if you join a ‘maker team’ you are committing yourself to doing the work for that team. The central part of the course will use the EdX platform, but we will also have facebook, twitter and google + groups. No need to join them all but different people like to work in different places.

It’s a four week commitment. The ‘maker teams’ will each be responsible for one area of introductory physics and will focus on those. Other participants are welcome to help, contribute, and collaborate as they see fit. This is our first time trying this, so the more help we get the better.

Classroom scholarships
At the end of the course we will award a number of scholarships to teachers working in the course. Prizes will be awarded in a number of categories, but only to participants who ‘finish’ the course. We are hoping to encourage completion, on one hand, but also to provide people with the tools and resources in the classrooms to create new and interesting resources to support physics teaching.

Project Background
This project is the brainchild of Piotr Mitros (Chief Scientist at EdX) and I (dave). We spent 12 hours driving around on a bus together in June arguing about how we could integrate the work that I’ve been doing with cMOOCs with the work that he’s been doing with xMOOCs. This project is our first run at it. Imagine a community of educators coming together once a year for four weeks to work on the curriculum for a transitions course for physics students from all over the world. How cool would that be? Well… if it works, we’ll see 🙂



Grant information
The University of Prince Edward Island is a successful applicant of a competitive grant competition run by Athabasca University (Principal Investigator: George Siemens). This project, the MOOC Research Initiative, will advance understanding of the role of MOOCs in the education sector and how emerging models of learning will influence traditional education. The MOOC Research Initiative is a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Rhizo14 feedback results and explanation

Well… we got 65 responses to the week 2 feedback form. How representative is that? We have about 400 folks registered on the P2PU course page, 177 members of the facebook page, 150 members of the google + page over 3000 tweets of the #rhizo14 hashtag. Your guess is as good as mine in terms of how many people that is. I would say that 65 represents a reasonable enough percentage that we can talk a little bit about what people had to say an draw some vaguely warranted stories about what that might mean.

This is real teacher geek stuff… I can’t imagine who’s going to read this blog post… but i love talking about it!

Full answers available here. If you want the spreadsheet send me an email.

Question 1
Are you currently engaged in #rhizo14?
This is a context piece really. Naturally you’d expect the people who respond to the survey for an open course to generally be the people who are engaged. What I was hoping to get a sense of was what number of people who cared to respond felt like they weren’t ‘fully engaged’. I feel pretty good about this result. Even if those 59 people are the only people fairly engaged in the open course that’s pretty solid. I suspect that there are a few engagees who might not have gotten round to filling out the form. So, from what i can tell, Win!

Question 2
Have you made real people connections in this course?
Not a great question in retrospect. I was looking for the sense people had of the value of the connections they had made. I thought it might be interesting to ask the same questions at the end of the course. This one skews slightly towards more real connections, but is probably representative of the inclusion challenges of this decentralized a course. We’ll call this one a draw.

Question 3
Dave is considering shortening the formal part of this course to 4 weeks. How would you feel about that?
Took some grief for this question. Some people thought I was quitting. 🙂 I was trying to understand how much people were attached to the framework of the course itself. If you wander through the answers, you’ll see that that questions were all over the place. It gave me the answer I was expecting – inconclusive. I was encouraged to see a number of different perspectives. I particularly like the ‘That’s help your completion rates’. I think it could have been better asked, but still, I like this one.

Question 4
Is Rhizo14 a MOOC?
I couldn’t help myself. The majority seem to both understand the question and be beyond it. I still feel sad about the word MOOC losing it’s collaborative edge. Maybe it’ll come back 🙂

Question 5
How would you describe your role vs. Dave’s role in #rhizo14
This elicited all kinds of answers. Among many gems i have to point to one in particular

Somehow Dave got into the room without anyone checking his pockets and there are now frogs jumping around on the linoleum and swimming in the punch bowl. I pick another frog and we hop around for a bit. Seriously, Dave seems ethereal and backgroundy but also attentive like a good tour guide.

how awesome is that? I think if you take the time to look through the question, it provided many with an opportunity to not only reflect on the course, but on the topic of the course as well. There certainly still is a power division there between the roles, but the irreverence must speak to some deconstruction of it 🙂

Question 6
What would make the rest of this course better?
Never hurts to give people a chance to reflect on improving the format. A fair number of people suggesting that they are having some technical challenges. Some excellent advice about people being explicit about their own learning context rather than talking about ‘learning generally’. Some people not liking the timing of the live event (I hear you, we’ve changed it). Someone suggested an IRC channel.

I think, in many cases, people would like the social contract re-explained. They think that people aren’t accustomed to sharing in mixed environments and don’t necessarily know how to play as well with others as they could. This question of the social contract between participants is extremely important and bears further thought. We have people from MANY different cultures, from all over really. How do we find a common ground in which we can exchange our thoughts freely. It’s a good question.

Question 7
Finally… tell me what you like about this course.
Some folks said some nice things about me… and I thank you. More often, however, people are happy to have met people that help them think differently. Hell. What else could you want from a course.

Connection Activity – how you can help make more community

Five days into the course and I’m thinking that the next few days are critical for those who haven’t been connected to people yet. It’s hard to be new, and often an outreach of a hand isn’t seen in the jumble of a crowd. Now, I don’t really think you can ‘make’ community, but I use the word in the ‘maker’ sense. Making people feel welcome, including them in your work, these things are actions you have to take. Here is a suggestion for a thing that you can do to help include our outliers into the #rhizo14 fun.

Week 1 moving to 2 twitter assignment
The excellent Martin Hawksey has once again blown my mind. (not a great struggle you might argue, but nevermind). Below is Martin’s tagsexplorer uh… explorer. In it you will see all tweets hashtagged #rhizo14 and what connections/replies they got. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find as many unconnected tweeters (five sounds like a nice number but YMMV) as you can and reply to them.

  1. Make sure you’re logged into your twitter account
  2. Click on lonely dot in Martin’s tag explorer
  3. Reply to them
  4. Tell us about it.

It might easier to do this on the Martin’s actual site rather than doing it here. Up to you.

note: I had to take out Martin’s tags explorer here for performance reasons.

Please let us know how it goes. I’ve never asked folks to try and do this before, so if any unforeseen happenings happen, come back here and let us know about it!

What problem does rhizomatic learning solve for me?

Had a wonderful conversation with Mozzadrella from P2PU today about #rhizo14

I’m running an open course on rhizomatic learning, you can sign up here. Apparently i wasn’t clear about this in my last two posts 🙂

In trying to understand what I was trying to do with the 6 weeks she asked me a variety of questions, some pedagogical questions, some philosophical, some technical and some administrative. I’ll get to each of these questions as time passes but I’d really like to address her question about why I think rhizomatic learning is important or, more specifically, what problem does it solve?


Rhizomatic learning is a story of how we can learn in a world of abundance – abundance of perspective, of information and of connection. A paper/location based learning model forces us to make decisions, in advance, about what it is important for students to learn. This was a practical reality – if we were going to have content available for a course, it needed to be prepared in advance. In order to prepare the content in advance, we needed to prepare the objectives in advance. And, given that we know what everyone is supposed to learn, we might as well check and see if they all did and compare them against each other.

What happens if we let that go? What happens when we approach a learning experience and we don’t know what we are going to learn? Where each student can learn something a little bit different – together? If we decide that important learning is more like being a parent, or being a cook, and less like knowing all the counties in England in 1450? What if we decided to trust the idea that people can come together to learn given the availability of an abundance of perspective, of information and of connection?


I wonder what I’ll say after #rhizo14 🙂

P.S. Yes. That was a test I once took.

Some things MOOCs are good for

Now that we’ve gone up and down the panic adoption curve for MOOCs it seems like it’s possible to talk about them with a bit more remove. It’s been 5 years since the first MOOC (so called) and my chance inclusion on that first CCK (connectivism and connective knowledge) course by Stephen and George has led to the privilege of participating in many of them and talking to lots of people about lots more of them. There have lots of new acronyms, where people change a letter or two, lots of criticisms about how the new MOOCs are not ‘real MOOCs’, and pearl clutching of many other descriptions. (note below) The simple fact is that there is something about a course designed in the way that George and Stephen designed CCK08 that uses the internet in a way to push education into new spaces. That’s interesting. This is the language we have… so I’m going to use it.

What is a MOOC?
When i first talked to Stephen and George about their course in 2008 I was fascinated about the opportunity of impacting a field of thought by actually learning together. If you could get enough people co-creating knowledge, at the same time, on the same topic, think of the effect you might have. It would be like doing a manifesto writing, except by having hundreds of people talking at the same time. (I jump to wild conclusions in my head at the drop of a hat) I was also quite compelled by the possibility of the possibility of the community being the community for the time the course was going in and potentially continuing to be so after the fact.

The massive, for me, extends beyond the idea of massive in terms of numbers to include, I think, diversity. The openness is not only ‘free’ but also the idea of open syllabus, the space for multiple threads of belief coexisting in the course. The online speaks to the weaknesses and strengths of online connection… both, i think, in the sense that they need to come back to ‘yes/no’ math type connectivity. The course is about structure being applied to the internet. I spent many years working in internet communities… they are the best, but they are also tons of work. A course is like that… just not as cool. Easier to commit to.

XMOOCs… telling people what they might need to know
I had a chance encounter in June of this year that had a great impact on my feelings about MOOCs. I ran into Piotr Mitros (EDx scientist dude) at a conference and by a fine stroke of luck, we both had a surprise Friday off when we were there (to our surprise the second day of the conference was in Spanish). We decided that we would head around the city on one of those ‘jump on’ ‘jump off’ sightseeing buses. We argued for 13 hours. We left there with a few projects we wanted to work on together, and I left convinced that somethings are better taught by xMOOCs. In particular, I started to see it as an excellent way to conquer the gatekeeping courses being taught at our university. A good xMOOC, clearly laying out the common ground in a field, with pre-determined opportunities to self-remediating, could be a fantastic way of levelling the playing field. Imagine a networked textbook, created by lots of people, centralized in a nice solid MOOC-styled LMS.

BrandMOOCs – love me or hate me, we’re here to stay
thesummerofleaarning experience was my first encounter with what I think of as a brand MOOC. I love the model. A company uses it’s influence to create a course that their clients and service providers can learn from and use. Lots of people get a chance to learn some thing they wouldn’t have otherwise, the brand gets recognized for leadership and development in the field, they get a chance to maybe find some new connections… Everyone wins. I’d prefer it if the content they were using were open source… but they might get there. I think there’s a real opportunity for more companies to get out there and share some of the knowledge they have with others and give lots of people who wouldn’t normally have the connections or the right guidance a chance to break into a field of knowledge. There are far more ways this can go awry than ways that it can succeed (in the positive social sense that i mean success) but this is meant to be a positive posts. The pitfalls of this should be obvious. Fodder for a future post.

cMOOCs – where my heart lies
I love the idea of finding new ways for people to fail together, to cheat from each other and to rob from their betters. If you can go out to a worldwide group of people and have them take your work to task, to improve it, to take bits of it and incorporate it into their own… what could be better? Open research. I’m going to be running my own open course on rhizomatic learning in January, and while i will probably fall short of the threshold of ‘massive’ i’m still hoping that working on it in the open, with friends, will help me see clearer. I’m also really excited by a number of MOOC projects popping up all over the world where people are realizing that they can band together to learn the things that they need to learn. I’m not trying to be coy, but some of the coolest ones i’ve heard of are still under wraps, but they follow a similar pattern – subsection (cultural, political or otherwise) not served by dominant narrative on the internet. Band together to learn what they need to know. etc…

For most of the people i know in online learning, even those complaining that ‘real online learning isn’t being paid attention to’ are being listened to more than they were. Of course… people aren’t really liking everything they have to say “elearning isn’t a silver bullet” “we can’t just take all our courses and turn them into MOOCs”. But I think more people are starting to see that the abundance of knowledge and connection made available by the internet has made things possible that simply weren’t before. I think that’s good. You may not 🙂

MOOCs are good for…
They are, maybe more than anything, good as a lens through which we can ask the same questions we’ve always wanted to ask. What is learning? Why do we teach? What responsibility to we have to our students? To society? To ourselves? I have been in more of these discussions in the last two years than in the rest of my career combined. And, for that, I am thankful.

(note: some concern from @patparslow on twitter (see below) that I’m suggesting that ANY critique of MOOCs is illegitimate. This reference is meant to refer to the ‘what about the children, death of education’ type responses to MOOCs, not legitimate concerns from people about xcabcMOOCs)

Self-assessment and self-remediation

Driving down the road listening to the Anne of Green Gables soundtrack with my kids i found myself thinking about remediation in rhizomatic learning again. I have this problem in my classes… and it involves how to explain to people who have literacy gaps that they can go ahead and fill them on their own. I’ve been thinking about strategies for building remediation into my curriculum and then throwing them away as antithetical to the rhizomatic agenda (creating independent learners, preparing people for dealing with uncertainty blah blah blah) and then a term popped into my head ‘self-remediation’.

I don’t know quite why i like the term so much… as remediation still suggests that there IS a curriculum and to some might suggest that that curriculum is fixed and stagnant. I do know that some people seem to have a basic sense of what most people mean by words in a given context and others don’t. I can very well look around my classroom and see that some people ‘get it’ and other ‘don’t get it’. I have also noted that there is often not a perfect 1:1 relationship between people thinking they do and don’t get something and whether they actually do 🙂 So i’m basically trying to give people something they can work with… a strategy rather than content… that can get them ‘in the know’ so that they can participate in the community effectively.

A search of ‘self-remediation’ on the googles brought me to an excellent chapter by Janet Gale from a book Independent Learning in Higher Education (1984). Seems I have company in my thinking. In her tidy chapter she lays out five purposes for ‘self-assessment and self-remediation’ that while they are certainly grounded in a pre-internet world, still speak to fundamental concepts that are as important today as they were in 1984. I’m going to go through them and try to spin them my way…

  1. Overcoming isolation
  2. Gale refers particularly to the loneliness of the independent distance learner, but i would suggest that being ‘outside’ the conversation is lonely whether you are embodied or not. It is easy to forget when you are immersed in a field that many people not only lack an understanding of the meaning of particular words, they are excluded from the context. Addressing this feeling of loneliness as a natural part of the process and something that a person can do something about with focused effort might be just the thing that some students need.

  3. Active learning
  4. The text quoted in this section suggests that “Learning is maximized by an active information-processing strategy which requires the learner to respond to and at times reinterpret the information he or she is being provided with.” Imagine how much more important that is when he or she is being provided with a cagillion more pieces of information on the internet. It seems like a vital transition between passive textbook learning and active internety learning.

  5. Controlling learning behaviours
  6. This one is very interesting and speaks to behaviourist research in education which i mostly avoid. Gale refers to research that shows that testing and feedback mechanisms change the ways in which people choose to learn. And suggests that the critically important question of who’s objectives are to be achieved, the learners or the teacher’s. It is something that i continuously struggle with as a course needs some kind of structure if it is to be called a course, and if people are going to be able to pick one course from another… but ideally those objectives would lean more on the learner’s side than the teacher’s. The introduction of self-assessment and self-remediation strategies (and the way it is done) could further reinforce the idea of student control of learning behaviours and suggest a transfer of power from teacher to learner.

  7. Diagnosis and remediation
  8. I’ve spent more time, i think, on the idea of remediation than diagnosis. The author is very clear that these are separate acts. I think of this as a useful distinction as often discovering that you don’t understand what others seem to does not often coincide with the time required to remediate. Encouraging students to create a list of ‘things i don’t get’ and following it up with strategies of remediation would not only be useful for the learner but for the whole community of leaners.

  9. Student responsibility for learning
  10. And this, of course, is what i want in the first place. The chapter is bound by the possibilities of paper. Much of the discussion is of the challenges of creating pieces for self-assessment that doesn’t include prescripted options. We can, i think, allow people to go out on the internet unscripted and allow them to remediate those things that they have ‘diagnosed’ as something they don’t quite get.

In terms of strategies the discussion focuses on planning self-assessement questions and encouraging uptake. I think i would say, rather, encourage the writing of self-assessment strategies by the students. I’m thinking that this should be included in the syllabus as a structuring piece around student reflection… both reflections in the blog and reflection in their own learning plan.

Teaching students how to make good questions for themselves, to ask them in ways that are going to lead to effective searching and learning, is something that should be overtly done. Taking time to specifically say that people are allowed to look at their own knowing, plan their own path to catch up, and that this will allow them to participate more fully in the community.

Top ten things my android phone does for me – a tech/life post

Well.. I haven’t written a technology post in about three years, but I’ve been thinking about trying to make the most out of the supercomputer in my pocket recently, and have been really quite amazed by the technologies I haven’t been using. I resisted the pocket computer when they came out, got an Iphone 3g eventually, then a samsung S2 and now have the Note II in my pocket. It has a hugegantic case on it and, up until a few weeks ago, I was basically using it like a laptop with a camera – browser, photos, videos and Skype. (and, of course, as a flashlight)

A couple of weeks ago i happened upon this little treasure of a post from time magazine where my new best friend Jared layed out fifty apps that you might want to use on your android phone. I normally turn my nose up on those kinds of posts… until i remember that I don’t put the time into technology that I might have once, and really, really need the hints. That being said, Jared’s post starts with the technology and forces you to scope through it for the uses one might have for each piece of software, I’m going to do the reverse. Here are the top ten things my Android phone (now) does for me.

Flashlight/nook looker
Let’s start with an easy one. I can’t overemphasize how often i use my phone as a flashlight. It’s in my pocket, i need to see something, I turn on my Brightest Flashlight Free app, and I’m off to the races. It might even be more useful as a nook looker. Can’t see through that hole in the wall to find out what’s behind it? Shove your phone in, take a picture with the flash on, now you can see!

Task management
I have been looking for a task management app that was simple enough for my caveman mind to understand. I don’t want huge complexity, i don’t want a frickin’ gantt chart. I want to remember to call someone. I want to remember to go fix that door in basement. And, most importantly, i want a really simple way to procrastinate. Enter It has a simple ‘delay this for 1 hour, 3 hours, do it tomorrow’ kind of approach that allows me to keep things on my todo list but put them off over and over again. So far so good. I’ve remembered to do several things that I usually forget to do. That’s what victory looks like on Villa ave. 😛

Text messaging from my computer
I am not someone who carries their phone with them ALL THE TIME. I tend to leave it in my purse when i’m at work, or dragging somewhere around the house. People assume, for some reason, that I have the damn thing with me all the time. I spend alot more time with my computer, and when i do, my phone is entirely forgotten. Enter Mighty Text. It talks to my phone, and lets me know when i’ve gotten a text message, lets me answer the text message, or even manage four of five conversations in one window. Now i don’t miss my messages when i’m in front of my computer. win.

Travel coordinator
I’m bitter about this one. Turns out half the people i know have been using Trip it for years. And no wonder. It’s fantastic. Email it your travel details, it combs through your emails and attachments for the travel information, organizes it all up, sorts it by trip and makes life on the road worth living. Where’s my hotel? oh wait… i’ll just click that button on trip it which automagically gives me the directions. I tried hard to hate it… and then i bought the $40 pro account so i could have even more fun tools. You don’t need the pro account, but it is cool. 🙂

The GPS – finding my way
It’s a basic function of most phones, but i keep talking to people who don’t seem to use it. I use the navigation app that comes with my phone. What i love is the bluetooth integration with my car. I can blast the stereo and when new directions come up, it overrides the stereo and tells me to turn left in 500 Metres. Simple, efficient, and mostly right. Mostly. Because it relies on googlemaps, which tends to fall apart a bit when you are driving through the back woods. And I come from the back woods 🙂

My alarm clock
This is probably the thing i use the most… strangely. I have a complicated wake up schedule. I go to the gym at 6am (yes, i know) on some days, some days i need to be up at 6:45, sometimes 6:55 sometimes… well you get the idea. The standard clock app on android is pretty flexible. I have about 7 or 8 configurations that i can turn on and off to adjust to whatever schedule i’m running and I have different volumes of alarm clock, depending on how important it is for me to wake up and how careful i’m being about waking other people up. I don’t care what you say, i’m not obsessive about my alarm clock. IT’S IMPORTANT DAMNIT.

Link Management
I bought a purse, because i like to shove interesting things in my pocket, and my pockets aren’t big enough for all my interests. Same problem with things i find on the internet. I have been unreasonably thick witted in my attempts at finding one tool to remember web pages i have found. I’ve used most of the ones out there, and they offer lots of functionality i don’t need. I need something i can just shove anything into. Amazingly I found a tool called ‘pocket‘ which does exactly that. I can just shove things into it! From my phone, from my computers… i heart it.

File management
Where’s that picture? Where is that presentation that i did last year? How can i send you this video of oscar eating oysters without posting it on youtube? Dropbox. Integrated on my phone. It solves these problems and more. I started using it when i got this phone about 6 months ago… it’s made a huge difference. It’s worth investing the time to get it setup.

Brain soothing
Like many of my peers, i gots lots of things spinning around in my head. That can sometimes mean that at 3am i wake up thinking ‘oh shit, i should totally fix that door downstairs’ or ‘wow, that meeting totally went great now i can…’ or ‘mmm… beer’. Lots of things. But if my brain starts to engage, my sleeping is going to be done for a while. That feeling of being overspun happens sometimes during the week as well. I have a solution. I listen to audiobooks. Of books that i’ve read before. Preferably many times. I use the audible app, have ten or fifteen books of different styles in it at any time, and a headset nearby. Turn on book, plug in headset, put in ear, fall back asleep.

Guitar chords
Yup. I read chords off my phone. It’s one of the nice things about the big screen. I use the Tabs app and can find the chords to most any song. From there you hit ‘start’ and it scrolls the words and the chords so you can play along. As i can’t remember the words to anything, it works out perfectly for me. While i still prefer reading out of a song book, and would FAR prefer just being able to remember, having the chords on hand is awesome.

Other stuff
I also use my phone as a phone. I use skype, and use it for a notepad, and as a camera etc… but thought the list of things that aren’t that might be more interesting. Would love to hear about what I’m missing 🙂

MOOC to cultivate networked textbook Part 2 – experience U a practical example

Because we had nothing else to do, we launched a new (maybeM)OOC this week. It’s called Experience U and it’s intended for first time university students. You can check it out at It will hopefully help address the many, many questions that students have in preparing themselves for the university experience. I tried to run it before, 2 years ago, but i clearly didn’t have the concept clear in my head. I’ve been interested in running a MOOC with high school students, but have been struggling for an approach.

In my last two blog posts I’ve covered the idea of using a MOOC to cultivate a textbook and the different ideas of openness, both, i think, are lessons that inform the structure of this project. From the textbook perspective (from hereon in I’ll call it ‘the guidebook’) it gives us the organizers something to work towards from an artifact perspective. It provides focus for the team. It provides a fall back if the M part of the MOOC doesn’t quite come together. It gives a good solid reason to keep coming back year after year. From an ‘open’ perspective, I’ve spent so much time thinking about open source (even though in cases like gmail and collaborate i overlook it) that I missed the other side of open. The ‘widening participation’ side of open. That’s why we’ve chosen to run the course in facebook this time.

The Open Course (maybem)OOC
We’re running the official part of the course for five weeks starting April 25th. We’ve got some pre-canned videos that do an overview of the topics for each week and are going to do a live session that we are going to post. We are also going to have an assignment that students can optionally do each given week.

We originally had some pieces in a wordpress blog and were going to do a few other things… but we’ve changed our mind. Facebook only. I think the more complication we throw at it the more difficult it’s going to be to keep everything going.

Video response
We’re going to try and answer every (most) questions we get with a video response by a student. A student for a student as it were. We’re doing this in part, obviously, because we’d like people to share those videos around, but we’re also looking for that daily content that can lead to people getting absorbed enough in the process to start getting some of the culture of university. I’m hoping that this excess of student voice might provide that for some of the participants.

Getting the word out
This is tricky. We’re running a few facebook ads, some newspaper ads (yes, i know that’s odd) and stuff for this. I got a grant to run this project and am near the end of the funding and am hoping to prove that it has value enough to get more support down the line. The simple fact is that my social networks aren’t so connected to the target market for this course… So it’s making that part interesting.

The Networked textbook
We’re designing a flexible html5-ish design for the guidebook that should be responsive to any screen/platform. We’re going to pull in some of the videos were using the answer straight up questions, but I’m also hoping that we can pull from assignments and discussions to build a richer artifact that both reflects a successful project (he says) and can be helpful to students anywhere on their way into university for the first time.

Having built a hundred webpages to help people do things… having the MOOC there next year as a curation engine is really encouraging. I’ve gotten to the point where i hate building information pages because I always seem to come back to them a few years later to find a pile of deadlinks and outdated info. The goal here would be to run that MOOC ever year and rebuild that guidebook along with it.

Another experiment with the internet to see what we can do with it. I’m slowly getting comfortable with the idea of it all going on on facebook… which, frankly, i was pretty resistant about when we started. My staff convinced me. I always say that you shouldn’t confront people who are only partially invested with two unknowns. Facebook is a comfortable space for the students i’m hoping to work with… this time i go to them.

What do you mean… open?

So I’m writing this book… (with some friends see

And then i go to write the part of the chapter I’m working on about ‘openness’ in education and I ask myself “self, what does open in open education.* mean anyway?”

And then i fell down the rabbit hole. A rabbit hole full of paths from the Open University’s saving by Margaret Thatcher in 1970, to the table around which ‘open source’ was coined in 1998, and any number of debates on neo-liberalism. Fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

This post is a mixture of my own research and lots of v. interesting input I’ve gotten from colleagues on Twitter. I’ll make my best effort to mention those people who contributed… feel free to let me know if I’ve forgotten you.

The story that I’m trying to tell here is about the values that underpin the word ‘open’. I know many of the people involved in open education/learning/educational resources as deeply principled people who are engaged in the idea of openness for reasons that are important to them. In examining these values i have found two strands: one openness that speaks of valuing the creator/teacher/artifact, and another sense of openness that speaks of the user/learner. Most of us, I would imagine, borrow from both sides. But this story is particularly about how the ideas of around ‘open source’ influence a pull towards valuing the creator over the user, and how that pull might affect the field of learning going forward

The brief retelling of how we got ‘open source’
The first article sent to me when I started this little personal quest was the meme hustler – Tim O’Reilly’s crazy talk by Evgeny Morozov. Any of you familiar with Morozov will know that he makes his business in attacking dominant narratives and confronting the status-quo. In this particular post (which is very long, and, I think, worth the skim if you can look passed his anger) he takes on Tim O’Reilly for shaping the techno-discussion of era (and maybe more in the future) through his unique blend of brand development, crafty conferences and publishing supports. Now… I’ve always had suspicions about O’Reilly (see 2006 post) so I’m a little biased… but I’ll leave you to your own interpretations of Morozov’s broader argument, of specific import to this story is the thread of research i never made it to in ’06, and that is the original table around which the term ‘open source’ was coined and put into circulation.

So there’s (still) this thing called the Free Software Foundation. It’s founder/luminary in residence is a man named Richard Stallman. Google him… it’s worth it. Anyway… Stallman was a giant figure in programming in the 80’s and 90’s working on, among other things, a free as in freedom version of the operating system for computers. His views were very much about things being built with the rights of the users being foremost in his mind. He warned that if the users freedom weren’t paramount the software (and the people who designed it) would control things. hem. Facebook. hem hem. Google. hem.

From my understanding, Stallman doesn’t actually have a problem with people making money for a living. His interests in free are famously represented as being about ‘free as in speech’ not ‘free as in beer’. It’s the freedom of choice. He very much wanted everyone to contribute their software in like manner… he valued freedom in a way that was not connected to whether he made money or not, whether the not-free software might be better or more powerful. He judged the ‘value’ of the software to be used by freedom first and other considerations second. The GPL (his free license) and his influence on free software dominated that end of the industry.

After a long battle with Microsoft, Netscape lost the browser wars (yes, we used to say that) and at one point in 1998 a bunch of folks get called together by Eric Raymond (of Cathedral and the Bazaar fame) to talk about what should be done in the light of Netscape releasing (making free) the code to its browser. My interpretation (and there are lots of others out there) is that they were trying to find an angle on it that they could leverage for themselves. Broadly speaking people had decided that Richard Stallman’s ‘free software’ approach was too confusing for business. They needed a new narrative that they could use to profit from the free software model.

“The meeting’s agenda boiled down to one item: how to take advantage of Netscape’s decision so that other companies might follow suit?” Raymond doesn’t recall the conversation that took place, but he does remember the first complaint addressed. Despite the best efforts of Stallman and other hackers to remind people that the word “free” in free software stood for freedom and not price, the message still wasn’t getting through. Most business executives, upon hearing the term for the first time, interpreted the word as synonymous with “zero cost,” tuning out any follow up messages in short order. Until hackers found a way to get past this cognitive dissonance, the free software movement faced an uphill climb, even after Netscape.

[Christine] Peterson [who coined ‘open source’], whose organization had taken an active interest in advancing the free software cause, offered an alternative: open source.

Looking back, Peterson says she came up with the open source term while discussing Netscape’s decision with a friend in the public relations industry. She doesn’t remember where she came upon the term or if she borrowed it from another field…

A shift in values
Take this quote that Morozov cites from O’reilly in 2001

I want to return to the idea of freedom zero as my choice as a creator to give, or not to give, the fruits of my work to you, as a “user” of that work, and for you, as a user, to accept or reject the terms I place on that gift. If that is power, so be it.

In Stallman’s words

The two terms[free software and open source] describe almost the same category of software, but they stand for views based on fundamentally different values.

In reading this (and this certainly meshes with my feelings in the ’06 post above, in Morozov’s polemic and with stuff like this) I see a value switch from a socio-cultural ideology (freedom) to a something else. A move from valuing the freedom of the user to valuing the freedom of the creator of the software. You might also say, and many people have, that it is a replacement of ideology with ‘practicality’. The removing of ideology from the equation. I don’t happen to believe this. I don’t think that you can ever be ‘without ideology’. We use some standard to judge what we should do, whether a project is worthwhile or which of two things should go first. For some it’s money. For some it’s whether it will help other people…

If you’re interested in more side by side detail about the difference, here are the two philosophies written side by side:

The value shift is a subtle one for most of us… it certainly has been opaque for me before i started doing this research. It is further confused by the fact that the ‘user’ in the Stallman case was still likely a programmer, where the user in O’reilly’s case was more ‘customer’. All that being said, I still think there’s a critical difference. The value set attached to the free software movement is fundamentally about user freedom first, product/producer second. In the open source discussion, the product/producer comes first, and the user may, as O’reilly suggests, take it or leave it. The purpose behind the creation and initial spreading of a word may not have forever impacts on its meaning, but Raymonds words are telling “In conventional marketing terms our job was to rebrand the product and build its reputation into one that the corporate world would hasten to buy.” Both Morozov and Stallman credit Open Source as being focused on making a better stronger product. Stallman particularly worries that this is not what you want as your first value.

What the hell does this have to do with education?
Frankly, I’m not sure that Stallman would still be right about his approach in a day and age where 99.9% of computer users are blind users of software. Pure consumers who will never understand code. It may have been better had things gone differently and we had stuck to understanding code and the machines that are so deeply embedded in our lives… but i’m pretty sure that opportunity is gone. Hopefully not so with education.

At many conferences and in many discussions I’ve heard people suggest that the ideas of ‘open source’ have had a deep impact on the open in open education. And my concern starts when that particular model of ‘openness’ is applied to education. In that same twitter conversation David Wiley, coiner of the term open content, suggests that the open of open content is by analogy to open source but different…

How is it different? Does it value the user or the creator? As I’ve said… I care less about this in software (as i think the battle is over) but I care a tremendous amount about it in education.

Lets take a look at Wiley’s recent work with Cable Green, Director of Global Learning at Creative Commons. In their 2012 article on openness in education they claim the following

We discuss the three principal influences of openness on education: open educational resources, open access, and open teaching. From David Wiley and Cable Green in Educause

  • The OER influence of openness makes a strong case for “extremely efficient and affordable sharing”. A business case for the effectiveness of open resources and how they can effectively replace (or partially replace) existing options.
  • The Open Access influence is about the ability of a researcher to openly share their research and have access to the research of others.
  • “”Open teaching” began as a practice of using technology to open formal university courses for free, informal participation by individuals not officially enrolled in the course. In the university context, open teaching involves devising ways to expose the in-class experiences to those who are not in the class so that they can participate as fully as possible.
    • posting syllabi in publicly viewable blogs or wikis, where everyone can view them;
    • assigning readings that are freely and openly available, so that everyone can access and read them;
    • asking students to post homework assignments and other course artifacts on publicly viewable blogs or wikis, so they can catalyze further discussion of relevant topics; and
    • using a wide range of traditional and social media, including e-mail, microblogging, and blog comments, to carry on the course discussion.

In each of these cases, we see a strong focus on the creators of the content being central to the openness. The first two of the three ‘principal influences of openness’ are clearly about the creators, and the third allows the user to participate as much as they can by interacting with the content that is given made available in the open. While I certainly would not suggest that the statement is as strong as the ‘take it or leave it’ take that O’reilly offers for users of open source software, I sense a creator focused ‘offering’ to the outside world.

I’m not trying to pick on David (and he can certainly take care of himself anyway :)) but i’m going to continue to focus on the relationship between his work and open source. Here is one of the other resources that David sent me during this discussion around the meaning of open. He quotes “Wiley (2010) assumes common understanding of the term educational resources, and argues that open is a matter of (1) cost and (2) copyright licensing and related permissions”

We have a definition of open that has, as its values, the price of a thing and the ways in which it’s creator can license it. Here is the tie, I think, to O’reilly and Raymond. In an earlier paragraph, the long history of the meaning of openness as imprecise is cited from a 1975 book called “Open Learning: systems and problems in post-secondary education

“Open Learning is an imprecise phrase to which a range of meanings can be, and is, attached. It eludes definition. But as an inscription to be carried in procession on a banner, gathering adherents and enthusiasts, it has great potential”

Later in the same paragraph Wiley suggests that the meaning of open has changed little in the last 40 years. This would mean, in effect, that openness is about making content available to students for free. I don’t want to spoil the point I’m making by taking too close a reading on someone i look up to as a luminary in our field… but i think there is a pattern of discussion here that focuses on the creator, not the user. To fully make the point, however, we would need to establish the Stallman end of the equation, the ‘user focused openness’, and to do that we must cross the pond.

Open as in “Open University UK”
I have long heard from my colleagues in the UK that there is part of the openness discussion missing and that it involves the Open University.

This from the excellent Professor Martin Weller author of cool books and many papers, much of which deals with openness in education. So I decided to dig in a little.

Discussion with Dominic Newbould
During my debate on twitter I was sent a few messages from Dominic Newbould, 30+ year veteran of the OU who dropped this on me.

I asked him if he would mind having a chat with me to give me a sense of what he meant. We had a broad ranging discussion (lots of interesting (to me) detail for a future blog post) about the history of the OU and what openness meant to the institution from the early inklings in 1963 to launch in 1969 and through the time he spent there from 1975 onwards. The part of that discussion of direct relevance here are the four kinds of open

  1. Open = accessible, ‘supported open learning’, interactive, dialogue. Accessibility was key.
  2. Open = equal opportunity, unrestricted by barriers or impediments to education and educational resources.
  3. Open = transparency, sharing educational aims and objectives with students, disclosing marking schemes and offering exam and tutorial advice.
  4. Open = open entry, most important, no requirement for entrance qualifications. All that was needed were ambition and the will/motivation to learn.

This position is supported by a quote from a recent JISC review of openness in the Open University
“The university was given the mission to be “open as to people, places, methods and ideas” by its founding chancellor in his inaugural address”

Or, to go a little further down the page on that 1975 book quoted by Wiley

“open has many meanings, and the aura of the most of them seemed generous and ‘charismatic’ – open-handed, open-ended, open-hearted, open house, open choice. ‘Open’ as contrasted with ‘closed’ carried suggestions demolishing or lowering established barriers between subject areas; of enlarging and enriching the areas of activity and experience graded as educational. It symbolized a shift in the relationship between teacher and pupil towards that of student and adviser.

Perhaps the most commonly used sense of ‘open’ has been the idea of creating opportunities for study for those debarred from it for whatever reasons, be it lack of formal educational attainments or shortage of vacancies, poverty, remoteness, employment or domestic necessities. Open Learning: Systems and problems in post-secondary education Mackenzie, Postgate and Scupham, 1975

Here then, we find a version of openness that takes as its starting point the user/learner. I certainly sense a shifting of goals in the Open University from its original incarnation to what it became and is becoming… but no matter. What we’re looking for here are core values. How does your openness influence the decisions that you make. Important to remember the comments that Stallman made about the difference between free software and open source “Different Values Can Lead to Similar Conclusions…but Not Always”.

MOOCs and beyond
I don’t mean this article to make any claims on what ‘values’ drive David Wiley or anyone else to make decisions. What I’m speaking to is the way we’ve spoken about openness and the values that one can extrapolate from that. When I coined the term Massive Open Online Course in 2008 the open part of it was the most important element. I don’t think my exact view of openness coincides with the ones that Stephen and George had (designer/facilitator of the first MOOC, so called) or necessarily exactly matching up with my UK friends or anyone else. Openness was very much about ‘demolishing established barriers’ of all sorts. It is a political act, regardless of how unpopular that position is to many.

I do think that with all the talk and work going on right now around the idea of openness and the way so many people are trying to use the word for their own devices that we need ways to talk about the strands of openness that appear in our work and see where they come from.

I think there is something fundamentally troubling about a creator focused value system for open learning. While I understand the ‘value’ of open content, and believe in it’s value, I think the fundamental decision making process needs to be from the position of the user, not the content.

I think the content becomes the neutral ground, the thing that we can all agree on across our politics and our feelings about what a just society could be. The other side, the ‘what do we want to encourage our learners to be’ the social justice side of this is much, much harder.

How do we want to open our society? That, in the end, is the open learning/education that I want to talk about.



Other research referenced in the twitter discussions but cut out of the blog post.

Note: The Margaret Thatcher part of this post I removed as I started writing it before she died, and have no interest in making my post about her. Here is the quote i was going to use and spoke about on twitter.
“quite apart from the political considerations, the unit cost per graduate produced in this new institution could well be substantially less than in the orthodox university system.” Margaret Thatcher on why they shouldn’t close down the Open University, 1970.

25 year old book on open education

Jim Groom Keynote on openness… which is classically awesome jim.

On the value of Open Access and it’s incredible importance.
“I recently met a physician from southern Africa, engaged in perinatal HIV prevention, whose primary access to information was abstracts posted on the Internet. Based on a single abstract, they had altered their perinatal HIV prevention program from an effective therapy to one with lesser efficacy. Had they read the full text article they would have undoubtedly realized that the study results were based on short- term follow-up, a small pivotal group, incomplete data, and were unlikely to be applicable to their country situation. Their decision to alter treatment based
solely on the abstract’s conclusions may have resulted in increased perinatal HIV transmission.”

Briefest, laziest history of Open the word
The word itself seems one of those rare birds that hasn’t changed much in the last thousand years or so. Open as in ‘the gate is open’, ‘public’ that kind of stuff. According to The Online Etymology with the exception of some racy connotations, it pretty much has always meant what we think it means… not shut. My favourite bit is “Meaning “public knowledge” (especially in out in the open) is from 1942, but cf. Middle English in open (late 14c.) “manifestly, publicly.”