Community as Curriculum – vol 2. The Guild/Distributed Continuum

“Community as Curriculum“, in: D. Araya & M.A. Peters, Education in the Creative Economy: Knowledge and Learning in the Age of Innovation, New York: Peter Lang, 2010.

This text is an extract of a forthcoming book ((Spring 2010) Education in the Creative Economy: Knowledge and Learning in the Age of Innovation, a book edited by Araya and Peters and Published by Peter Lang.

Chapter 23

Community as Curriculum

Dave Cormier

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you – just one word.

Ben: Yes sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Ben: Yes I am.

Mr. McGuire: ‘Plastics.’

Ben: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Ben: Yes I will.

Mr. McGuire: Shh! Enough said. That’s a deal.

—The Graduate, 1967

This classic scene from the 1967 blockbuster The Graduate illustrates the assumptions and premises of the traditional twentieth-century ontology of work and knowledge. The scene paints a world where access to knowledge is privileged, access to mentors and inside information key, and getting in on the inside of the next big thing a one-time stroke of luck on which an entire successful—and linear—future could be built. The film reflects the prevailing understandings of its era, including that a future could be chosen at the start of one’s career.

In the scene, Benjamin Braddock, twenty-one years old, recent university graduate and star student, stands uncomfortably in his parents’ living room being grilled by their peers about what he’s going to do with the rest of his life. The enigmatic Mr. McGuire lures him aside in a semi-satirical performance that emphasizes both McGuire’s delight in his own power and the bewildering weight of the choice ahead of Benjamin. The magic word that McGuire dangles promises Benjamin entry into a cabal of people who know who hold the future. As viewers, we can apprehend Ben’s dilemma and the critique implied in McGuire’s over-the-top delivery because the roles and the beliefs they were built on still carry power in our culture and particularly in our educational systems, where knowledge as a commodity with structured, gate-kept access paths to success is still a powerful narrative.
Benjamin Braddock has the package he needs to succeed in McGuire’s world. He knows how to access the world of knowledge through the books and journals that live in the library at his university. He knows how to work with experts, receive the knowledge and expertise stored in their heads, and serve that back in a format that meets specific requirements. Ben has acquired an education, and now it can be put to use. He has a store of knowledge and the requisite skills to acquire more. Even as the final act of the film closes with Ben’s rejection of convention and the world offered by Mr. McGuire, viewers are left with the assumption that he will be just fine. Benjamin Braddock is positioned not to fail.

This idea of learning as something that can be bought, acquired, and then completed is deeply ingrained in popular culture. It is a comforting model. If we are to believe that learning is as simple as this, then at any given time, we can simply find the “way to do something,” pay the requisite fee to acquire the knowledge in question and then go about applying it to our lives. If we are in a field like, say, plastics, we need only be able to tell one plastics knowledge salesman from another. If we are clever or choose a reputable institution of plastic sales, we will have the item that we need and will be able to progress a little further down our chosen path. The model implies that there is a way to know what the answer might be, and that a person (our plastics expert) could have this knowledge, and that the knowledge can then be acquired by a learner. In addition, most importantly, once the knowledge is acquired, the learning is finished.

It is a simple model. Unfortunately, it is false. If it ever worked, it will not work anymore. The promise of the twentieth-century model of knowledge is an empty one today.

As the job descriptions of traditional professions change and diversify, people are realizing that the myth will no longer hold. There will be no more “plastics” salesmen. A manager might also now be a social media strategist, administrative assistants are becoming Web managers, and mechanics are plugging computers into cars. Where once universities and colleges would market to an established clientele and rely on word of mouth and prestige for attracting students, they now market to the globe and find themselves in need of types of literacy that were hitherto the province of embassies and multinational corporations.
In this climate of change and adaptability, where money is being spent on “making things digital” and “making people ready for the digital age,” how does one know how to guide one’s professional course? How can one choose learning opportunities that will contribute to success? How is the policy maker to choose between options, either of which are potentially equally likely to succeed, and both of which are being presented in terms that break current frameworks of judgment?

Often the answer to these questions has been, simply, “more.” More training, more work, more hours spent in the office. More research, more money spent on research consultants. The training is too often too short, too boring, and too old-fashioned. The consultants are expensive, difficult to find, and come with no way to accredit their advice. People turn to passing fads in an attempt to stay current without the necessary experience or context to be able to make informed, professional decisions about them.

This is the climate that is now demanding a new way of learning and a new sense of what it means to learn. The implicit lessons of our educational system are still twentieth-century lessons: being on time, attentiveness, focus on single tasks, completion of tasks outside of context, and, perhaps most importantly, completion of tasks without any sense for why they are being done. These are the preparations for effective labor in the Dearborn factories of Henry Ford in the 1910s and 1920s. These are the skills for the members of a workforce who were not to sit down, not to stray from their task and earn their time in front of the fire from a hard day’s work. They are preparations for the industrial revolution.

Most of us have, in spite of ourselves adjusted—at least incrementally—to this transmission-focused military model of education. There is a sense in many educators’ minds that learners need to explore their way through their learning, and have the experience of learning, of searching out ideas and discovering them for themselves. This process, though, is usually bounded by the learning objectives laid out at the beginning of the course of study by the designer/instructor. There is still, implicit in most widely held conceptions of learning that the instructor, designer, or at least the institution knows what a learner should get out of a given course.

The problem, then, only comes into play when we are not sure what “people should be learning.” What is the curriculum for innovation? How do we impart creativity? Where do students turn to be guaranteed that they are learning what is new and current? These are the questions that face us on a more or less regular basis now. As knowledge becomes a moving target and the canon starts becoming less reliable, we need a new—or in fact an old—model of education drawn out on a new canvas: community.
The answer is to stop trying so hard, to stop looking for a systemic solution, and to return to a human-based knowledge plan. We need to return to community as a valid repository for knowledge, and away from a packaged view of knowledge and expertise. Knowledge can be fluid; it can be in transition, and we can still use it. We need to tap into the strength provided by communities and see the various forms of community literacy as the skills we need to acquire in order to be effective members of those communities.

Community as curriculum is not meant as a simple alternative to the package version of learning. It is, rather, meant to point to the learning that takes place on top of that model and to point to the strategies for continuing learning throughout a career. There is a base amount of knowledge that is required to be able to enter a community, and there are methods for acquiring the specific kinds of literacy needed to learn within a specific community. A learner acquires basic forms of literacy and associates with different peer groups. Networks begin to form and, occasionally, communities develop. Knowledge is created and sometimes discarded as the community interacts. Knowledge does not develop and spread from and through concentric circles. There are no “plastics” to be learned and no canon to consult to ensure that a new skill has been acquired. Knowledge is a rhizome, a snapshot of interconnected ties in constant flux that is evaluated by its success in context.
We need a move toward a more practical, sustainable learning model that is less based on market-driven accreditation and more on the inevitable give and take that happens among people who engage in similar activities and share similar forms of literacy and worldviews.

Learning and Knowing
The rhizomatic view of learning reflects an organic, practical approach to thinking about learning and knowledge. It has a distinct connection to the traditional academic knowledge model, with its interlinking references and people. Each piece of information and knowledge is interlinked and supported by at least one other element, with no one place where knowledge about a matter begins or ends. The rhizomatic model, in contrast to the academic one, keeps the knowledge in the people and in the community rather than distilling it into a paper based product – be it the final publication of a journal, book or other ‘changeless medium.. The problem with the paper publishing cycle is the time it takes to proceed through the entire cycle, and the constraints on time and space that go along with the medium place severe restrictions on the flexibility and applicability of the academic tradition. It is not to say that it is not valuable, just that it does not always—and cannot always, today—respond in ways that meet the needs of learners in a world where what is known in many fields changes from month to month.
If we are working in a field where what is new or current is continually in flux, then we need to have a way of keeping our knowledge up to date. With the huge increase of academic publications, the simple process of choosing has become more difficult, and the sifting through what is out there a significant task for any professional. Our ideas of learning and knowledge need to become more flexible to allow for this mutability. “The term [rhizomatic learning] encapsulates a sort of fluid, transitory concept; the dense, multi-dimensional development and integration of several different sets of tools and approaches, appearing in diverse forms under separate settings, using all the multidimensional networking information technology tools, the social web, etc.” (Szucs, 2009, p. 4). rhizomatic learning distributes the channels of knowing outside traditional hierarchical models and into the social realm, allowing for help in sifting through the flow of information and knowledge. These “social learning practices are allowing for a more discursive rhizomatic approach to knowledge discovery” (Cormier, 2008, p. 3). rhizomatic knowers use a variety of approaches and tools to blend together bits of information and knowledge in order to form what they need. They especially need a learning community to help them test ideas, filter information and knowledge, and seek advice.

The skills that Benjamin Braddock—as a representative for his generation—learned for acquiring knowledge were listening, accepting hierarchy, and learning how to identify sanctioned bits of knowledge to apply to new situations. The traditional testing and identification model that Ben would have been accustomed to operated along principles of “here’s what you need to know and here’s how I’m going to know that you know it.” These notions of hierarchy, sanction, passivity, and external validity are all further victims of the social shift we are currently experiencing. As learning becomes about participation and knowing becomes a negotiation (Cormier, 2008), it is no longer as practical to approach learning with a pre-existing notion of what we are trying to find out. Instead, knowledge production becomes a participatory process based in communities, with members trying to solve problems, tap into existing trends or simply exploring by helping someone else. The problem of how we know what we are taking out of a community environment might be true or useful or might, in some sense, be seen as knowledge is at the heart of the change that is needed to cope with the accelerated speed of change.

The knowing, then, exists out in the networks and should be seen in this rhizomatic way. It should not be seen as a network in a digital sense but rather as a culmination of the connections between people. Knowledge becomes a snapshot in time of what is known in a community on a given issue. Publishing is done in order to crystallize and make knowledge about the community public—as in “public”-ation. Its value is in its ability to reach out from the community to others, not in its inherent knowledge.
In this rhizomatic model, the roles of the expert, authority, and reference in knowing all change considerably. A side benefit of this transition is the expulsion of the plastics salesmen, vendors of the “next best thing” that you simply must think about. Our plastics salesmen can no longer fall back on the old adage “research shows,” or simply show us a major corporation using a given product or method and expect us to want to incorporate it into our work.

This being said, expertise and experience are still critical to the success of any community. Whether one believes in the 10-year-rule of expert-making (Ericsson, K.A., Prietula ,M.J., Cokely, E.T., 2007), a healthy community will work faster and move toward goals quicker when the people living in that community immerse themselves in the specific goals of that community. Novices certainly can come together to learn without the presence of master-style members, but the progress is likely to be slower. Access to pre-existing work on a subject and trial and error experience can be of great value to novices trying things for the first time. The negotiation of knowledge is going to be more productive if the people involved have access to the basic literacies for that field.

Community is a kind of network. A learning community is a specialized version that inverts the normal pattern of responsibility from being responsible to oneself to being responsible for the learning of the people with whom one is involved. More specifically, one is connected to these people in a variety of ways, be it professional lives, social networks, or other settings. There is a sense, however, that work goes better when people are working together. They are sharing information, working together to learn new things or sharing experiences. In a professional network, “taking care of oneself” is what is considered appropriate; in a community, lending a hand and helping to make sure that others in the same community are learning is the highest order. This idea of learning, that it happens between people on a relatively flat hierarchy, is the antithesis of the world that our Benjamin came from. In his education, having the right connection and having acquired the right information from the existing canon was critical. In the learning community view knowledge is rhizomatic, and learning transactional.

Joining any kind of community can involve a fair amount of research and time. Communities are about commitment. They are about responsibility rather than goals described by others. There are many interpretations of the word, many of which attempt to call on a possible past full of barnstorming, communal sharing, and mutual survival. There is another version of the word community that calls more to mind the inequality of high school group work, the inefficiencies of the communist farms and the tedium of the weekly meeting. There is no guarantee that a given community is going to work in a way that will satisfy every prospective member. The definition of community used here differs from both of those archetypes in the sense that it is about choice. A choice to be responsible to a group of people and a choice to join in with a group of people who, while they might not share similar distinct goals share equivalent mores, skills, or worldviews. They are, on some axis, on the same part of the long tail.

Conventional instruction is based on a hierarchical model in which those who know teach those who do not know. As Cross notes, “Institutions of higher learning were set up with the express intent of attracting people who know and the tools of knowing into regional settings in order to allow for the building of centres of knowledge. Students would come from outlying towns to come to the locus of this knowledge in order to get access to ‘those who know’” (Cross, 2005, p. 5). Communities, then, become this same kind of regional settings, allowing different kinds of members, some centrally invested and others peripherally so, to interact in centres of knowledge. The difference is, of course, that knowledge is negotiated in time. As this knowledge is negotiated, it is spontaneous rather than reified in books or articles. “Learning together depends on the quality of relationships of trust and mutual engagement that members develop with each other, a productive management of community boundaries, and the ability of some to take leadership and to play various roles in moving the inquiry forward” (Wenger, White, & Smith, 2009, p. 8).
The creation of a community in and of itself is not sufficient to guarantee the kind of life- long learning that promotes creativity in a professional context. Indeed, the creation of a community is often the easiest part of the process. It is important to understand, from each learner’s point of view, the goals he or she is to achieve as well as the available to obtain them.

The two types of learning communities presented here reflect two differing directions for learning. They should not be seen as mutually exclusive but rather as different in control. The first, the guild model of community, offers more control and better options for accreditation and verifiability and is also the easier one of the two options. If a guild style community can be established, then it gives a single locus of learning. The other, the distributed model of community, i.e., multiple membership roles in multiple communities, offers far greater flexibility , though less control. It would be difficult for an employer to track learning in this kind of environment, or for learners to take guidance on what they should learn. A combination of these two is certainly possible, or the path might lead from one end to the other.

Community as Guild
Creating communities for learning is the first path that many people take begin to believe that the Benjamin Braddock model is failing them. They are looking for a connection between the organized world of learning and the new connected world of the Web. Indeed, there is a sense that a classroom can be this way. The community versions of these kinds of classrooms emerge around a particular topic or perspective and grow and adapt along non-institutional lines. We also see the same in different social communities that occur around different topics and fields online.

They do offer a number of very significant advantages—perhaps the most important being quality control. A look at traditional guild models and how they deal with issues of quality control offers an interesting perspective to the current open classrooms and social networks.

It is clear from the records left by guilds that they [guild] were vitally interested in matters of “quality control” and quality assurance. The exclusive right of the guilds to sell certain goods in certain markets, coupled with quality standards written into the guild regulations, assured buyers that all goods under the guild’s jurisdiction would be of a certain quality. The guild “imprimatur,” in other words, took the place of the reputation of individual craftsman as a quality assurance device. (Merges, 2004, p. 7)

The members of the guild, be they a representative organization or a classroom, are constrained by a charter, social contract, or syllabus that defines the things that are done and known inside that community. It both allows for observers of a community member to know what that member is likely to know and allows new members a better sense of how they can get involved. There are observable dos and don’ts that a person can follow in order to be more successful. People need to know who they are in their community. They need to know how to succeed. They need to understand the roles that are available and what it means to participate. Guilds can work, particularly when they are open and people think of them as part of the whole knowledge building structure.

In the Classroom
“ The community is not the path to understanding or accessing the curriculum; rather, the community is the curriculum” (Cormier, 2008)

The ED366H Educational Technology and the Adult Learner classroom, a course I taught at the University of Prince Edward Island in the summer of 2008 was an attempt at putting the guild model community learning into practice. The goal was to create a sense of reliance and a sense of responsibility in each student toward the learning of their fellow students. The goal was not, however, to create some kind of community that would last past the time allowed for the course but rather to instill some of the literacies and demonstrate some of the advantages of community learning in the hope of fostering the desire to join or support community learning in their respective teaching environments.

The course is a accredited by the university and designed to span 35 hours in a two-week period. The constraints of such a shallow time span had a considerable impact on the decision not to create a standing community. The course began with a day-byday syllabus that suggested broad topics of research for week one and broad topics for student lead demonstrations for week two. It took a people centred and, as far as possible within the required structure, a technologically neutral approach to introducing the idea of technology to the classroom.

One of the interesting features of teaching this kind, of course, is that any specific information, terminology, technology, or even approach is likely to be partially or totally outdated by the time the opportunity for the learner to actually use it in the classroom has happened. The focus of the syllabus was entirely on the students learning to rely on each other to find paths through the tasks that were set out. Competency for the course was simple, the students needed to teach something to the rest of the class in the second week that they had never heard of in the first. During this process, they were required to create a textbook, together, of the things that they learned and reflect on the process throughout.

The difficulty with the course scenario, however, is that the forced community tends to fall apart after the course. Many more formal attempts have been made to create this kind of community, but they face significant challenges. A case study made of the Education Network of Ontario illustrates many of the pitfalls of trying to sustain long-term interest and participation in an online community of practice. It was a 12-year project that began in the days of dial-up and, due to the inevitable challenges implicit in sustaining a long-term community, eventually ended in 2005.

Despite the obvious benefits of online networks, the complexities of forming and supporting online communities will need to be addressed if they are to be sustained. Designers will have to balance the needs of the community and the needs of individual members. The success of future online communities will be heavily dependent on: the level of information overload, the tone of the environment (including all of the community building practices needed for a healthy community), and outreach and marketing. (Riverin &Stacey, 2008, p. 55)
The guild style community, however, need not be an end in and of itself. It can be seen as a gateway to a more distributed, more flexible view of learning communities. It can be a safe place from which to set on our own or simply a trusted node in a widening network of trust from which communities tend to form. What the leaders of these guild style communities need to teach people, then, has little to do with content and more to do with actually using communities to learn. The community is, in effect, the whole of the curriculum. Its members need to experience what it can be like to learn in a community mediated environment and take that away with them so that they can continue to be contributing members to their knowledge rhizomes.

Distributed Community
Seeing communities more broadly and taking multiple community and network membership online/offline might be a sustainable community learning model. In a sense, this is what academia has been, as opposed to a simple guild model. The guilds learned and worked mostly with people from their villages or the rare traveler; academics had the written word on books, and they traded with them. They developed methods by which, at a distance, the community could judge the applicability of a given bit of knowledge to the overall field. The methods of quality control by peer review and citation are the distributed community in paper form; adding the Internet, matters start to move faster at a fantastic rate.

The learner and the knowledge producer now can tap into a broad base of professionals in any field at the click of a button. There are professionals sharing their work at the time that it is happening, presentations being streamed online and data coming out from research long before papers are published. With connections through social networks it is possible to query the writers of professional works in order to get clarity, suggestions or confirmation about certain ideas or theories.

We are also able to find other people who have the same degree of interest in a given subject as we ourselves possess. This concept makes Chris Anderson’s idea of the long tail so attractive. If we connect the whole world through social networks, then the people with very specific, very passionate interests will be able to collaborate. In Braddock’s world they would have accomplished their goals—had they been able to find each other, but now even simple searches will reveal people with whom specialists can form strong connections.

The multiple memberships that make up online community participation can be overwhelming. Online participation can, from a technical perspective, include micro-blogging, bookmarking, blogging, Web cast memberships, and a host of other technical formats that require some degree of competency to participate. The key, however, is the varying layers of connection that they allow with the people who are actually present. Simply “using” the technology offers no particular benefit. Being able to participate in live knowledge building on a daily basis with a group of peers, on the other hand, is a privilege of the so-called digital age.

Having members of a community involved daily in activities of the digital age l means teaching them to network first, to assess ways in which their networking can grow into relationships of trust that allow them to rely on people to care about their learning and about their success and where they learn how to judge people’s opinion. They will, in a sense, have to become sensitive to the ways in which knowledge can be acquired, created and validated along the rhizomatic view.

Edtechtalk As a Model for Community Curriculum—A Piece of the Puzzle

Edtechtalk comprises a community of educators who come together in various ways on a regular basis to share their expertise and experience with each other. It is “a community of educators interested in discussing and learning about the uses of educational technology” (Edtechtalk, 2009).

My community learning experience started with Edtechtalk. My relationship to it and membership in it has changed and morphed over the last four years, but it has consistently occupied a very important place in my learning world. It is both a locus for the guild model of learning in the structured weekly programming and the inner core of producers of shows that works together and is also a distributed model of learning in the way that it becomes a locus for less central members to come together, meet others, and move on to other projects.

The problem, however, is that these are emergent communities. They are communities with no direct goal and have not been created by an entity with the specific goal of “learning.” It is a learning community that was created out of an event are sometimes created out of an existing event, as the Web heads were in 2002 and continue to be a strong supportive community. However, they are difficult to create on purpose to solve a particular problem.

The focus of this kind of community learning needs to be on the people and on the specific context of those people. There may be circumstances where much of this kind of learning would be face to face, where it might go in waves, or where it might be entirely online. This need not have a profound impact on the success of the learning experience. Each venue or platform, be it a Multi User Virtual Environment or a coffee shop offers different advantages and disadvantages. In either case an eventedness is offered to the student who can take them out of their context (Cormier, 2009, p. 545). Certain matters may be resolved easily in one situation, whereas in another situation, the same matter may prove to be a lot more complicated. More specifically, each matter needs to be seen in its individual context.

There are problems, necessarily, with this kind of approach. For example, if a number of practitioners, who are still in need of experience, attempt to band together without access to the “trails” of more experienced practitioners, they could be in for a very difficult and time consuming learning process.

Strengths and Weaknesses

This kind of approach is in no way going to appeal to all people and be ideal to all situations. There are some buttons that are blue that need to be pushed after the yellow one. While there are any number of potentially important community lessons to be learned around this concept (how to sit when doing so, what to do if the yellow button is missing), there are times when the training path is simply a question of acquiring certain simple facts. More broadly, there are objections that affect this kind of learning… as Mr. Szucs noted “We should notice that the strength and the weakness of this approach is at the same time, that the content and the competence are legitimated by the collaboration in the networked system” (Szucs, 2009, p. 4).

The content, in this case information and knowledge on how to accomplish tasks, e.g., grow professionally, choose a new course, whatever the case may be, is legitimated by collaboration and by its applicability to the context of the user. If that user does not return to the community with the results, is not able to assess those results, or is not honest about them, the system begins to get weaker. There is also the significant risk of groupthink. The more a community insulates itself from outside influences (a distinct risk in the guild model), the more it is likely to fall into established patterns and allow knowledge to become defined as “what we happen to be thinking right now.”

Another place where online communities can get into trouble is the over-focus on the digital element. Much ink has been spilled in discussions of digital literacies and how they are critical to the survival of the twenty-first-century professional. Indeed, these literacies are important and are comparable to the effective use of the pen, train, or conference hall in the twentieth century. The digital landscape is yet to be painted, not necessarily in terms of contents but in terms of the medium that is used to “paint” digitally. The medium has a huge effect on what can be done and a more subtle influence on what does get done.

The world that rhizomatic learning commits itself to is a far less secure world than the one presented to Benjamin by Mr. Macguire. He would have us believe that the future is a novel, can be seen, learned about, acquired, and put in the bank against an uncertain future. What we are acknowledging here is that the future is uncertain that we do not know what we will need to know, or who will know it. We are committing ourselves to people, not to specific bits of knowledge or information and hoping that our commitment to those people will keep what we know relevant, and keep us above water.

We can create communities, out there in the online space. By far the easiest way of creating this kind of community is to use find a Web based community that already exists. As the decision of “what” to learn, that is, the problem facing most professionals in the workplace today, it is probably easier to start one’s learning inside a guild community model, where the literacies for community are easier to learn, and while the idea of “knowing you know” is a bit easier to manage.

Cormier, D. (2008). Rhizomatic education: Community as curriculum. Innovate, 4 (5). Retrieved from

Cormier, D. (2009). MUVE Eventedness—An experience like any other. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(3), 543–546. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2009.00956.x

Cross, K. P. (2005). What do we know about students’ learning and how do we know it? Research & Occasional Paper Series, 7(5). Retrieved from

Edtechtalk. (2009). About Edtechtalk. Retrieved from

Ericsson, K. A., Prietula, M. J., & Cokely, E. T. (2007). The making of an expert. Harvard Business Review, (July-August), 5. Retrieved from

Merges, R. P. (2004). From medieval guilds to open source software: Informal norms, appropriability institutions, and innovation. Conference on the Legal History of Intellectual Property. Retrieved from

OJR: The Online Journalism Review. (2006, August 31). Five rules for building a successful online community [Web Log message]. Retrieved from

Riverin, S., & Stacey, E., (2008). Sustaining an online community of practice: A case study. Journal of Distance Education, 22(2). Retrieved from

Szucs, A. (2009). New horizons for higher education through e-learning. e-Learning Papers, 14. Retrieved from

Wenger, E., White, N., & Smith, D. (2009). Digital habitats: Stewarding technology for communities. Portland, OR: CPsquare.

Open Educational Resources: The implications for educational development (SEDA)

This article will be published in the December 2009 issue of Educational Developments, SEDA’s Magazine (see Many thanks to James Wisdom and Co. for their help, patience and excellent suggestions.

I am not, in any sense, an opponent of openness. I think that an open sharing of ideas is healthy for the thinker and, perhaps more importantly, for the idea itself. In a world where what is known as new or current is increasingly difficult to pin down, a collaborative approach to learning, and particularly learning around technology, is critical to the survival of any practitioner (Cormier, 2008). I see open education as a method of confronting the challenges that face us as people working in the business of education. As open education and open educational resources are moving into their second decade we are moving past the time for evangelism and towards – hopefully – something a bit more pragmatic.

The field of education is being confronted with the need to teach new ideas, new tools and new theories on a seemingly daily basis. The challenge is not, as it has been in the past, the finding of ways to teach these things. The challenge, rather, is in choosing what to teach and which information and content to rely upon in order to make that choice. And even when we do make the leap to understanding these new ideas, the work that we produce is increasingly not solely our own. As our thoughts, our ideas and our content – if it ever really made sense to think of ideas as ‘ours’ – move more and more to the web they will inevitably be seen, used and reused by people far beyond the reach of reprimand or law.

There seem to be two alternative paths to follow when confronted with this mixture of the new and our own loss of control. We can give in to the openness or we can lock down on what we have and what we know. If we can’t protect our work, we can embrace the change and decide to march along with our peers. We can open our work and share it with the world. Or, alternatively, we can take our work underground, hide it behind passwords and hope to protect our investment of time and effort. In the first, we can share in the learning of others, but not benefit directly from the content we produce. In the second, we might benefit from our content, but we lose the opportunity to work together.

Truth be told, we have sharing our work for years, just on a different scale. We’ve been giving away our work for free at teaching conferences, workshops and water coolers from long before the internet revolution. The difference now is the reach that our work can have, the syndication with which good resources can spread around, the lack of control over the distribution. We are not sharing it with one person at the water cooler, 25 at a workshop or 200 at a conference. We can be, as in the case of Dr. Michael Wesch of Kansas State University, sharing it with 10 million (mwesch, 2007). There is a sense, in some peoples’ minds, that this reach is proof of the value of the content, and, because of this, the content should be monetized.

This latter alternative, protecting what is ‘ours’, pursuing legal cause with people who steal our ‘copyright’, is the alternative that has been chosen by many. Regulatory agencies are banding together to hunt down thieves as part of a multinational legal effort (as we are seeing in the music industry (Buskirk, 2009)) to preserve intellectual property. The critical difference between ourselves as teachers and some people in the music industry is that we are still, most of us, being paid the same for designing or teaching courses as we were before the revolution. Most of us were not receiving huge royalties on our ideas. There is no industry at risk. And we are still in demand.

Openness, and particularly in the form of Open Educational Resources (OER), seems to be the way many people are dealing with the new realities. But openness, and the way that people speak about OERs in particular, is a much more complicated matter than a simple confrontation with the realities of our era. OER can be, by turns, a branding operation by an educational institution, a path to grant funding, a hardening of that link to the past of objects and known knowledge and, in the extreme, a potential new thread of nationalism. This article will try to step through some of these ideas in order to separate the value of openness for educational development from the ways in which openness is being used to support other agendas. It focuses on the difference between thinking of openness as either project or practice.

What is openness?
Openness is not a panacea. It will not suddenly teach students or spread ‘good’ education, nor is it free of cultural baggage. There is a vast amount of money currently being spent on open education and some kind of return is expected, even if it is not to be the direct return of actual clients purchasing the content. Many of these projects also seem to exhibit a potentially different kind of openness, and suggest that there are different degrees and ways in which a given piece of content or educational experience can be considered as open. With the language of educational openness now reaching the national level with major OER projects in the UK and Canada the field appears to be moving into the mainstream.

The moniker of openness – like its much maligned cousin ‘free’ – comes in many guises. With the word free, as in free software, we might call it free because the user (as in the case of gmail) does not need to spend any money to use the product. The software is free from inherent monetary charge, but it does have hidden costs in the permission given to Google to search your email data and the subliminal viewing of advertising – an activity that most corporations would have to pay money for. Free, in the sense that The Free Software Foundations uses the word, means that it is not owned by anyone and it is not bound by any licensing that restricts what someone would like to do with it. It is also, usually, free of charge. In common usage both are “free”, but in practice they are very different things.

Openness suffers from the same confusion. A thing can be open in the sense that you may use or interact with the product of a process created by a university. This might be called OER as ‘project’. This is the sense in which Open Educational Resources like the ones at OpenLearn and MIT’s Open Course Ware OCW are open. Rebecca Attwood’s article in the Times Higher (September 2009) mentions that the tuition at MIT costs $36000 a year and claims that this is the worth of the OCW project to its users. Elsewhere in the article she reports that MIT found “it would be impossible to transfer the kind of education it provided on campus to an online environment.” This kind of openness bears a striking resemblance to the kind of software that you can get free of charge. You get access to the cold hard facts of the course, not the heart and soul.

Another kind of openness, OER as ‘practice’, opens up the learning process to the scrutiny of the watcher. It is transparent rather than free of charge. The work done by Alec Couros at the University of Regina (Couros, 2009), and the MOOCs that are being taught at the University of Manitoba, are excellent examples of these (Cormier, 2008b). In these cases, the classes are open for people not only to read the content and the syllabus, but these visitors can be part of the learning process. The role of the institution becomes one of accreditation.

It is a story of two contrasting visions of what openness can do for education. On the one side we see large ‘knowledge infrastructure’ projects, dominated by discussions of standards, intellectual property and massive amounts of cash. These are great projects for bringing money into institutions, for raising the bar for professors who maybe have not been putting the amount of work into their courses that they should have, or for raising the profile of an institution. On the other hand we have individual educators working to open their own classrooms, sharing their work with their colleagues and sharing their colleagues with their students. This is a great open method for learning, but using the internet can lead to disruptions of scale and frustrations from students and administrators with more traditional conceptions of learning.

What is an Open Educational Resource? 

By “open educational resources” the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) – Open Educational Resources project means more just “content”. Their definition embraces:

Learning Content (full courses, courseware, content modules, learning objects, collections and journals)
Tools (software to support the development, use, re-use and delivery of learning content including searching and organization of content, content and learning management systems, content development tools, and on-line learning communities)
Implementation Resources (intellectual property licenses to promote open publishing of materials, design principles of best practice, and localization of content) (OECD, 2007)

So our formal definition includes the content of individual items you may have produced, the best practices developed for a classroom and the software that might have been created to store and distribute these items.

The idea of resources of this quality and lineage being available to the general public represent a cultural shift, a massive move from the inherent protection of content and the ‘sale’ of knowledge to one where the content itself has no longer has enough intrinsic value to be for sale. The simplicity of the technological part of the creation process, the avoidance of the associated costs of paper make the creation of the resources a practical option whether one is inside or outside of academia. The value of the university as a place of experience and accreditation must necessarily take priority over content, as it seems that this can now be given away.

There is also a difference, one might say, between providing ‘the’ resource and providing ‘a’ resource. If you are creating a basket weaving video with the primary intent of conforming to a branding plan from your university that forces you to contribute in a certain way with certain things to a central repository, then you are probably part of an OER plan that intends for people to find your particular resource. An educator or a group of educators who make their weaving work public or, indeed, work in public for the reason that it makes their work better to have it interact with their peers or even to have their students interact with their peers, is providing ‘a’ resource.

This lack of ‘monetary’ value has often led to one of the primary criticisms of OERs: “if the things that they were giving away were worth something, they wouldn’t give them away”. There is some sense in this. If the universities had a viable, sustainable market for this content, they might not, indeed, be offering it for free. A university may be offering up its courseware to the world, but they are not (unless committed to it through government/NGO funding) offering up the IP behind things like pharmaceuticals. Nor are they offering accreditation exams for free. The defenders of openness will see this as a redress for the way that the world should be, and say that the universities are releasing something that always should have been free. The actual connection of quality and cost, however, have long since been disproven by open source, free projects such as the Apache server software –

So what does this mean for Educational Development?
We are, I think, constantly running the gauntlet between project and practice. There are times when the project serves us more often than we serve it. As we approach new projects and consider approaches to them, the distinction between project and practice can be helpful to keep scale under control. There are some things that simply live on the scale where they should/need to be projects but others, I would argue most, are simply a matter of changing practice. A cautious educator or creator of resources might be well served keeping things as simple as possible and keeping a clear focus on curricular goals.

Overhead – Creating an OER 
The first thing that strikes me about the OER movement is the massive amount of overhead that seems to be implied in an “OER Project.” The consensus view seems to be that in order to be open, you need to be organized and you need to have the investment of your institution. The list of existing OER projects often hail from well heeled and well established universities, with an organizational staff and ‘professional’ archival systems.

Being open need not be complicated, it doesn’t need to be organized, nor does it even need to be funded. It has to respond to a need that exists. Simple solutions may require a 10% concession from the educator, but a small concession to sustainability can be important. Perhaps they need to give up the idea of the content being interconnected, or only available to some people or, again, having professional quality video.

Creating High Quality Resources – The video 
Then again, what is ‘professional’ quality video in an era where the incredible staying power of the common craft videos ( and the introductions produced by people like Michael Wesch have contributed to the belief that video is something that people can just ‘do’. When this inferred simplicity is combined with the desire for ‘high quality’ resources the consultant (be they technical or educational or both) is called upon to easily and efficiently create a video that compares to the one in a million that has filtered its way through the morass of YouTube.

If you’ve not seen the genius that is the common craft videos, they take very simple shapes and, with a clear delivery on an organized script they explain complex technical concepts in transparent understandable ways. The genius, here, however, is in the script. The ‘quality’ of the video is not very high, as it was being produced to be seen through the blurry windows of YouTube.

These videos were created, distributed and made the career of their creator without the benefit of massive underwriting or a university repository. The Wesch videos are the output of a brainwave of an educator pushed to YouTube. They are not, however, likely to be replicated by every person creating a learning object. One in a million successes of this kind encourages the desire to create ‘the’ resource, a dangerous goal for any project. The creation of ‘a’ video that achieves a particular curricular goal is a far more practical goal, and, preferably, the discovery of an existing creation that fits the need.

Legal Issues 
The copyright implications of an open approach cut in both directions. Many educators have materials that they have ‘acquired’ in their repertoire that are not, strictly, theirs. This leads to an understandable reluctance from many educators to make their work open. The reverse legal issue ‘what about my intellectual property’ is manageable in two ways. In the creation of any object, the creator owns a copyright, but it is a copyright in name only. The cost of pursuing a copyright case is huge and not practical for most. This leaves you with two viable options – the use of creative commons or staying away from the internet.

OER projects as new nationalism 
The OER projects, and the potential of significant uptake of programs like MIT open courseware offers another issue for consideration. How are local professors, debating the relative value of their curriculum against the standardizing power of a major university, going to be able to forward their own ideas?

“Imagine a course in ethics or social justice. You could argue, and some do, that this is the reason more people need to open their curriculum. I ask you… how will the majority of people be able to choose between the curriculum of a small town Nova Scotia university and Berkeley. Easy. They’ll either choose the most famous or the one that they were already in agreement with.” (Cormier, 2009)

Take that idea a step further, and imagine this kind of control as part of a national dialogue. There was a time when a national educational policy was about educating people within a nation. It had its benefit for the country in the way in which it was able to live, work and compete given the degree to which it had educated its people. The internet and OERs are opening a whole new venue for the “national education policy.” The recent policy document (Cook, 2009) talks about the English educational system as something that can be exported, indeed, something that should be exported (BIS press statement, June 2009). It seems the call to OER is the call to arms of the 21st century, with knowledge as the new battlefield. Sadly, the knowledge that people will be fighting over will be of the shockingly 20th century variety.


Not all openness is created equal. There is a presumption in traditional learning design that a given trainer is somehow going to be able to divine the needs of a given group of learners before a course is started. Alongside this belief is the idea that there is some kind of ‘best practice’ or ‘one way’ of doing things that can be created, sliced up and dropped into place alongside others just like it and these will serve as the core of what will be needed for learning. These are the assumptions that underlie the idea of a resource repository. All the trainer needs is access to the knowledge, the trick, the video and they will be that much further down the road to success.

The kind of openness presented in our second response to the inevitability of the sharing of our work, the openness of the process, produces no such easily transferable objects. It is, often, a clumsy and dirty process of people coming to know things, of people sharing information, of collaboration. It is remarkably human.

(Cormier references edited)

Attwood, R (2009). Get it out in the open. Times Higher.

BIS press statement, June 2009. Universities set to go online for millions

Buskirk (2009) Forrester to Music Industry: It’s the Consumer, Stupid

Cooke, R (2009) World leader in e-learning

Cormier, D. 2008. Rhizomatic education : Community as curriculum. Innovate 4 (5).

Cormier, D. (2008b), “The CCK08 MOOC-Connectivism course, 1/4 way”,

Cormier, D. (2009), “OERs shining light, new textbook model, or harbinger of a new imperialism”,

Couros, A. (2009). Open, connected, social – implications for educational design. Campus-Wide Information Systems, 26 (3),

Downes, S:

Grant 14/08: HEFCE/Academy/JISC Open Educational Resources Programme: Call for Projects

mwesch (2007)

Netcraft Survey (2009)

OECD (2007) Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) – Open Educational Resources,

BJET article – MUVE Eventedness – An experience like any other.

This article was one of the many interesting (and diverse) things I did for the openhabitat project. Many thanks to the editors of the British Journal of Educational Technology. This is being reprinted here based on the “you may use all or part of the Article and abstract, without revision or modification, in personal compilations or other publications of your own work;” section of the Wiley Publishing contract.

MUVE eventedness: An experience like any other


The OpenHabitat project is a Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) Users and Innovation Programme funded project exploring the practical application of multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) to the higher education classroom. This paper discusses ongoing research, drawing tentative conclusions from reporting streams coming out of the project. The researchers have identified that once lecturers have acquired literacy in the MUVEs, there is a threshold afterwhich they become able to see MUVEs in education as offering an experience that allows for the exploration of existing content in a new context and which acts as a focal point for reflection. The ‘otherness’ of the environment provides a ‘mirror’ for practice (for both student and teacher). The otherness, however, does not necessarily call for new pedagogies but rather relies on a long tradition of experiential learning.

The use of MUVEs (Multi User Virtual Environments) in education is no longer the realm of the avant-garde or the charmingly quaint, and is encroaching on the edges of the mainstream. A recent scoping study conducted for JISC tells us that the (educational) ‘use of virtual worlds has accelerated exponentially over the last two or three years’ (de Freitas, 2008).With the increasing prominence of these new tools, we need to start asking what the technology offers for the average classroom, and moving beyond the ‘if ’ of virtual worlds to the ‘when’ and ‘for what reason’. The OpenHabitat project is primarily an attempt to see past the complications of the technology to explore what happens when a virtual world comes to a regular classroom, or in the case of OpenHabitat, two classrooms: Ian Truelove’s art and design class at Leeds Metropolitan and Marianne Talbot’s class at Oxford University overseen by the project’s Principal Investigator David White.

The OpenHabitat project
The project was conceived as a series of two iterative pilots where best practices and lessons learned could be gleaned from the results of the first pilot and used to inform the development of the second pilot. Each of the groups has kept an open, running discussion freely available online and aggregated to using video, photo and text blogs. This reflexive method was chosen for the first pilot in order to track, develop and refine best practices. These practices would then lead to a solid foundation for the second pilot, in addition to offering a preliminary opportunity to test out those best practices and further refine them. This method worked for us, but rather than the second pilot simply being a reinforcement for the first, it also allowed us to ‘see through’ the technology to such a degree that we were able to focus from a clearer standpoint on some of the real advantages of using MUVEs.

That clearer picture is something that we suggest may be the subtler and perhaps more important part of our research with MUVEs. ‘Teaching and learning in virtual worlds is’, according to David White, ‘an experience’ (White, 2008a). In his first blog post on the subject, he explains that it is the intensity and ‘eventedness’ that creates the real value of the MUVE experience. Bringing a virtual world into a classroom serves as a catalyst, a ‘shared event’ that takes learning beyond a simple knowledge transaction between student and instructor. It has the potential to bring students together as a class, and push the material far enough into a new context to allow students a new and, perhaps, more compelling way of approaching the content of a given learning event.

Literacies: identification and acquisition
The planning for the first pilot primarily involved consideration of what we could do with the technology. From the perspective of the project members, researchers designed the platforms, focusing on specific kinds of feedback loops and avatar actions that would allow for an ‘authentic experience’. Best practices were sought that would allow for replication of the immersive experience in other instructors’ teaching spaces.

In the process, we accumulated a great deal of data and found some patterns that we thought (and think) might be important. In reflecting on some of the lessons learned from the first pilot as described, however, we saw a slightly different picture forming. Rather than the skills-based, step-by-step planning typical of a ‘traditional’ approach to Higher Education, we began to see the primacy of social literacies emerging as our lessons learned from the process. We find that the intense curricular and pedagogical/technological planning is less responsible for successful learning ‘experiences’, and that the support of teacher/student dialogue and pre-MUVE socio/pedagogical concepts start to portray themselves as the primary and essential literacies needed for the learning habitat.

The reflections from the project leaders during the first pilot revealed key principles that formed the foundation of the new ‘what we already knew about teaching’ perspective, a move away from focusing on MUVE-specific best practices. Ian Truelove blends in lessons from his arts-based background when discussing identity.

Design education consciously and deliberately strives to achieve a balance between the unrestricted and impulsive (Nobody), the collaborative teamworking, subject specific or audience satisfying (Anybody) and the personal achievement of the author/producer (Somebody). We
glued all this together with many,many ‘Aha!’ moments (Eureka) … . but it is clear that individual and collective identity is bound together with the creative process (Truelove, 2008)

This description could be applied to the MUVE environment aswell as design education. There is some question of whether the issue of identity will really be very different than the identity stretching that happens to students when they come to university. In a designed classroom, where you already know who the people in the class are, flights of identity are going to be less disruptive—and no different than those of art students using other mediums or having other experiences.

There is also a sense in which the foregrounding of ‘natural’ collaboration competes most directly with traditional views of Second Life as a call for a new pedagogy. Truelove wonders if ‘Maybe “collaboration” in these MUVE environments is more about discussion than construction. When people collaborate in world they are rarely to be found wrestling over the same polygons/prims’ (White, 2008a). There is a sense in which thinking through ‘construction plans’ and trying to force the MUVE medium can bring to the fore project member Steven Warburton’s concerns that ‘Second Life can be deceptive … It can seduce one into believing that “teaching” practices that work on the outside can be readily transposed inside. It is a sobering experience when the particular constraints of SL kick back and even the best-laid plans begin to unravel’ (Warburton, 2008).

We took advantage of the two-phased approach and allowed the continuum to flow from the technology and towards the educational experience that the students were going to be having. Discussion among the project planning team moved from considering what we could do with the technology to elicit certain learning behaviours from students (the best laid plans) towards more immersive, experience-based plans that contextually allowed for the realities and limitations of the platform. The experience of working within a MUVE environment brings out some of the key concepts already existing inside the field or topics being covered; it exposes things that might have remained hidden in a more traditional context. This is best represented by Ian Truelove’s screenshot of the virtual houses built by students, with the caption ‘They’re first years. They only left home 3 weeks ago. Of course they want to build themselves homes.’ (see

If David White’s intuitions are correct that the MUVE should be seen as an experience, a form of journey or field trip, where students are travelling in both virtual space and in their personal development, it is possible that the project is only now realising the real fruits of the reflections gained from the first pilot. In this model, each of the students will be able to engage with both the pedagogy push from the lecturer and their reflective journey articulated in student–lecturer and student–student relationships, supporting not only peer learning but peer development. The learning designer might be better served by accepting the chaotic nature of the virtual environment and the value of the field trip for what they are. A positive result from a virtual learning experience actually relies on the chaotic, organic nature of the MUVE and the interactions therein, on the literacy level of the instructor, and more importantly appears to be pedagogically agnostic.

While Steven Warburton’s caution against directly translating real-world book teaching styles into a MUVE is well warranted, this should not preclude the inclusion of teaching styles that are based on other, perhaps less traditional, but still valued experience-based learning pedagogies. Many of the same criticisms levelled against teaching in a MUVE might be made of a classroom in the open air of a park, a lesson taught by mobile phone or a practicum in a hog farm. These are all experiences that do lend some confusion and some chaos, but it is this very unsettling of the learner (and the instructor) that makes a change in habitat such a valuable learning experience.


de Freitas, S. (2008). Serious virtual worlds: a scoping study. Retrieved March 9th 2009, from Archived
by WebCite(R) at

Truelove, I. (2008). Eureka. Retrieved March 9th 2009, from
index.php/2008/05/22/initial-impressions-first-open-habitat-pilot. Archived by WebCite(R)

Warburton, S. (2008). How tall is tall in Second Life? Retrieved March 9th 2009, from http:// Archived by Web-
Cite(R) at

White, D. (2008a). That was an interesting experience. Retrieved March 9th 2009, from http://
Archived by WebCite(R) at

White, D. (2008b). Initial Impressions from the First Open Habitat Pilot. Retrieved March 9th 2009,
from Archived by WebCite(R) at

546 British Journal of Educational Technology Vol 40 No 3 2009
© 2009 The Author. Journal compilation © 2009 Becta.

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, the content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.