Am I still an edu-blogger?

Identity Crisis Much? shared CC by bxho

I work at a university. I feel truly fortunate to have such a rewarding and stimulating job. I get blissfully lost thinking about the interconnections between knowledge, ignorance, media, culture, power and freedom at all sorts of inappropriate times. I believe that how we can meaningfully investigate, learn and share across our global community may well be the uber-challenge that looms over this degenerative clusterfuck we call contemporary life.

So how come I never blog about education anymore?

I’m not going to fully answer that question here… I don’t know where to begin. But rather than stew in a sense of frustration, consumed with self-loathing about my willful ignorance, I’ll toss a few random thoughts out. If I feel better when I’m done, maybe I’ll follow up with more.

Disclaimer: what follows is going to sound critical, maybe even dismissive of people I respect, admire and have affection for… My fear of non-constructively harshing on people that I like has been a big reason I have been silent on these issues.

I have to confess I have next to nothing to say on the issues that are apparently central to the identity of open education today. I followed the Downes vs. Wiley debate on whether OER’s should favour commercial use, and the participants were informed, articulate and engaging. But the whole context of the debate both frustrated me (“favour”? …really? couldn’t they find a better verb than that?) and struck me as pointless — evidently we still can’t define non-commercial in less 119 pages, so why should anyone outside our specialized community have any interest in what we think? In any event, most people clearly aren’t interested. Meanwhile, here in Canada copyright battles are raging, extortionist demand letters are issued to educators and being paid off in secret, and fear, uncertainty, and doubt loom over day-to-day practice. Similar threats exist world-wide. Is our energy being directed where it is needed?

Or take the issue of MOOC’s. I’ve read and re-read this week’s arguments between Siemens and Wiley and I just end up feeling like an idiot. Those guys know their stuff, and there must be hidden dimensions of subtlety and depth that I cannot perceive, because the core assertions strike me as either self-evident or pointless.

Do open online courses have a role in educational reform? – Well, I sure as hell hope so. Surely the benefits of sharing discourse and inviting participation from wider communities are obvious. And if people can come and go as they please, the means are inexpensive, and expectations are kept reasonable and manageable, what is the downside?

Can MOOCs be effective in supporting learning for everyone? – Are people really saying that? If they are, that’s messed up, because saying anything is effective for everyone is usually going to end up causing a lot of pain.

In any event, until we start seeing MOOCs being successfully carried off by people who are not educational technologists, I don’t see how I can make the people I see at UBC and in the local community care about them.

Finally, there’s this:

Because so many of the learning-related problems globally concern access to high quality basic education (e.g., at the tertiary level, remedial math), MOOCs are not a solution to the problem of large and growing demand for higher education for people who are less well prepared.

Some of the most fun 'teaching' I've done

Well, yeah. I’ve spent a couple afternoons helping out with workshops at a local neighbourhood house. They were supposed to be ‘weblog how-to’ workshops, and we did cover that stuff. But as the workshops proceeded I could see how important it was to help the participants with far more foundational skills, such as not being afraid of those bizarre ‘security’ pop-up window threats that spew forth constantly on outdated Windows boxes with shitty ‘virus protection’ installs. It was very basic stuff, but I could see the gains almost instantly, the enthusiasm was palpable, and the experience was deeply satisfying. I would like to think about how those of us in the professional positions can make more of that sort of learning happen — maybe it’s just as simple as more of us doing more volunteer work in our neighbourhoods.

I’m just now reminded via Twitter that I’ve said that #ds106 was “one of the most fulfilling & deeply meaningful experiences I’ve ever had online”. That is undoubtedly true. Yet I would never dream of throwing those bright and eager women from the neighbourhood house workshops into the clutches of Dr. Oblivion without a whole lot of preparation. Then again, if I am fortunate enough to do more of those workshops in the future, I am sure many of the great digital storytelling activities that students have created would be big fun to do. Again, what is the downside of opening up #ds106? Because I know that opening things up has enhanced the experience for the enrolled students as well.

I believe that questions concerning how institutions of learning (and yeah, like Mike, I think institutions have a place) engage the wider world (what Scott calls ‘creating permeability‘) are central to what open education should be about. The practice of MOOCs do lots of interesting things in this respect, so I hope they keep rolling and developing. But forgive me if my eyes glaze over when you talk about them.

There are many good reasons why George Siemens and David Wiley have more authority and credibility on the subject of open education than I do. I confess to feeling a bit like a feces-throwing monkey right now. What could be constructive about raising these points? But I have selfish needs today. I want to get out of this cycle of confusion and disengagement, and all I can think to do is try to blog my way out of it. At the end of the day, I need to be the change I want to see. I respect that other people are doing what they feel is important, and if it leaves me feeling empty I gotta figure out something different. Or fail trying…

I may publish a clear and coherent argument on what really matters in the near future. This may be the last post I ever write. The most likely future is where it always seems to be… in that muddled space in the grey areas and in the margins.

UPDATE: I’ve been corrected by @StellaMeme concerning the ‘deeply meaningful’ experience I had with #ds106… as I was referring to the Radio component in my original statement. I was aware of that tweak when I wrote it in my post, but since the topic of MOOCs was under consideration as I was writing, I just thought it made contextual sense. I had presumed I had the right to misquote myself, and I consider the Radio Station as a part/partner of the broader ds106 irreality anyway. But Giulia Forsythe disagrees, hence this addendum.

52 thoughts on “Am I still an edu-blogger?

    1. David, I expect a few kicks, just hope they aren’t wearing cowboy boots. It was good to revisit that post — I had missed the latter stages of the comment discussion.

  1. Hi Brian – I’m going to ramble a bit here with poorly connected thoughts.

    First, I should emphasize that feces-throwing monkeys should be a requirement in any educational technology discussion.

    Secondly, your questions are important, and I imagine, more relevant to most people in this field than the conversation David and I were having.

    Which leads me to an ongoing tension in education technology (and more broadly, in society). Arguably the most consequential philosophical contribution of American thinkers is that of pragmatism. We want results. We want to see how things that we do now have relevance. Intellectual peacockery often comes across more like infinitely grinding a small axe and taking far more time than the value produced in the end product. This appeal to practicality is strong in gov’t (“what works” methodology”), business, and increasingly education. Sometimes, however, it’s very hard to determine the value of practicality in relation to nebulous concepts like “theory” or “art”. I personally believe theory is very important in intellectually mapping out a landscape. But I can’t prove that it’s better than “do it and refocus once feedback comes in” approaches.

    I have been called to task – most often by Alan Levine, more snidely by Scott Leslie – about practical efforts and the impact of sometimes unfruitful conversations. Alan is not a fan of dichotomies. Scott is not a fan of anything that smacks of buzzwords. In my opinion, though, dichotomies help map the elements within a particular space or topic of discussion. Terms/words/phrases – while at risk of becoming buzzwords – can serve as touch points to advance particular ideas. Disagreements, debate, and push back are critical to ensuring that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. I’m always a bit flummoxed when people respond to criticism with aggressiveness. Debate and respectful conflict are healthy.

    Different people play different roles in any discipline. This is obvious enough. As an example, over a decade ago I had a family member go through a very challenging time. As I met with siblings, we’d chat periodically to somewhat coordinate our activities. Very quickly, it became clear that there was no strategy in addressing the problem we were facing. We each had to play the role that best suited our attributes. The diversity of approaches was the solution. Trying very hard to transfer this to this discussion, conversations around educational technology can be mind numbingly boring, even when the answer seem brilliantly obvious.

    I’m disappointed to hear that some of the conversations make you feel like an idiot. That statement seems to indicate that complex conversations have more insight (value?) that straight forward discussions or applications. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Complex theoretical conversations are different from obvious practical applications. Both have value in different contexts. Both, if done by open minded people with passionate curiosity, can advance our field.

    1. George, I very much appreciate you stopping by with such a thoughtful and gracious response.

      To address just a couple of your points… Much to the dismay of many friends, as a great admirer of William James and his circle I have no problem with ‘pragmatism’, though I am disturbed that the term is so often is associated with a vulgar form of bean-counting or anti-intellectualism. I think it does some disservice to that tradition.

      I should add that I don’t have a problem with theory in itself (though I always feel like I move slower in those thickets than I would like), and definitely have no problem with the values of art being applied when it comes to teaching and learning. We need us a lot more of that

      I hope I can bring something more useful to these conversations than frustrations in the near future. Cheers.

  2. If the question is – are you “JUST an edublogger?”- I’d say no. But I’m not even sure what an ‘edublogger’ is, so I could be wrong.

    From my interactions with you- you are so much more than someone who would spend all their time only writing about higher education reform.

    You are a father, a husband, a member of your community, a volunteer, social critic, a music lover, a musician – basically- you are a thoughtful and articulate human with many interests.

    I think the main thing the networked open learning “community” seems to miss is the informal personal connection that is essential to learning, that can -and, more often- does- happen outside any formal education setting.

    To me, that was why DS106 RADIO was deeply meaningful, and that’s what I thought that was what you were saying too. The free form expression from the discussions, music and stories that came from the audio sharing was not a course or curriculum- it was experimentation and real sharing.

    I hope you continue to write about the things you find interesting because you write well and the world could benefit from your perspective, whether it’s about the community learning project or parenting or your garden. Some holistic folks might argue that all those things encompass education and then perhaps, you would be an “edublogger”, but I’m no expert…

    1. Giulia, as ever I appreciate your perspective, which does help a lot in terms of processing what I laid out above… It’s true, one of the most powerful lessons coming out of the #ds106 was how much of ourselves we can bring into our “work”, and how much that enriches the experience.

      And I will clarify the RADIO experience in my post via an update right now. Many thanks.

  3. It’s been a long time since I read something edu-bloggy that I actually enjoyed reading and provoked some thought. Thanks Brian!

  4. Brian – why be an edublogger when you can be a blogger?

    I dunno how much use any of this really is. All I know is we are creating ‘stuff’ and putting it out there in case somebody finds it useful or interesting.

    Take my UK funding models stuff… I don’t honestly think what I write matters one bit to the people that are actually making these decisions, but if my arguments/research/analysis aren’t out there then I can say that for certain.

    Anyway, it’s your fault that I blog. If writing about education doesn’t work for you right now there’s more than enough other stuff in the world that I’m interested in your take on.

    1. Mr. Kernohan, I remember you saying in your Nessie Acceptance speech that I somehow contributed to getting you blogging… As a dedicated Follower of the Apocalypse, that bit of encouragement has been rewarded with heaps of great reading. Thanks for sending some good vibes back.

  5. I think I understand your perspective. I’ve been mostly lurking in this edubloggedy space for the last 3 years. My work has been largely unbloggable. Every course I support is unique. Every instructor and student relationship is different. I don’t think I ever do the same thing twice.
    I still talk to people about MOOC’s, but to me, a MOOC is similar to a coffee filter. There are a lot of variables that determine whether the input creates something of value. And then, the value is largely determined by the individual, anyway.
    OER only makes sense to me as a starting place to talk to people about why they still use text books. In most cases, finding more content isn’t even the solution to displacing textbooks. I seem to spend more time helping instructors get rid of content.
    I’m glad to hear of your experiences with workshops in your community. I’m going to be helping with sessions at in the fall, and I’m expecting a similar experience. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Jen, Take the Next Step looks very cool, I can’t wait to see what comes out of your work there!

      I can certainly relate to much of my work being unbloggable… that’s been a longtime frustration.

  6. Brian, your blog is one of the first I loaded into my RSS reader and I’m still not sure how I found you (probably via Alan Levine, I think) but I enjoy reading your perspective because it looks nothing like my viewpoint in the so-called education world. Maybe you’re less about education and more about learning, and honestly, that’s probably where I’d rather be. I think by reading your wide array of topics I’ve learned that if I narrow down edublogging and consciously try to be”on topic” then the whole point of connecting at an individual level is lost. I mean, what do I have to add to K-12 edtech that Will Richardson hasn’t already covered? What frank exploration of networked learning could I reveal that isn’t already territory covered by Leigh Blackall and Alex Hayes? I can only open up my piece of the puzzle (excuse the mixed metaphor) and hope that someone somewhere finds value in it. There are enough self proclaimed experts out in cyberspace already – and thankfully, you aren’t one of them. I enjoy your sense of joy, your ability to dig into issues I know nothing about and how you make me feel like I can feel what it might have been like to hang out with your group of connected buddies at real conferences like Northern Voice, things that the average teacher here in Adelaide would know nothing about. Just keep blogging, when you fee, on whatever topic that you feel. FWIW, Graham.

    1. Cheers, Graham. You nail one of the things that makes it harder to be an edublogger than when I began — with all the great voices working in this space, it is harder to make a distinct contribution. Yours is among those voice – I enjoyed reading your take on the riots in my town from your perspective in Adelaide.

  7. Brian,

    We all fell like idiots. Most of the time, even. You may feel it after reading something I write, but perhaps not as strongly as I feel it after writing it. I, too, wish we had known exactly what the question of the UNESCO debate would be before it began. We were trying to reword that question almost until the moment the debate opened publicly. Important lesson learned – don’t commit to a public debate until you at least know the topic of the debate. And I don’t why I’m being so crotchedy about the MOOC thing. Just seems like its applicability is being exaggerated way beyond reality. That kind of thing tends to make edu-folks look more like thoughtless groupie lemmings than skilled people capable of making a contribution. People in our field already lack almost any respect outside our field; we don’t need to make it any harder on ourselves. Of course, does that call for the pages and pages we wrote about it last week? Perhaps not. Sigh. What on earth am I spending my time doing?

    Personally, I don’t think you should worry about whether you’re an edu-blogger or not. I think you should worry about not getting distracted from applying your (very abundant) God-given talents to problems you feel compelled to work on. At the end of the day, hopefully one or more of those problems will be in the edu-sphere, because then we’ll be able to keep working on stuff together. Even if none of them are, you’ll have the deep inner peace (we all so desperately want) of knowing you’re being true to yourself and true to your calling. And, of course, we can always hang out socially.

    You ask what could be constructive about being a feces-throwing monkey. Well, often we academics get in the rut of countering pointless arguments with even more pointless arguments, descending in an “ever increasingly nuanced” (aka disconnected from reality) downward spiral. Unfortunately we often don’t even realize we’re doing it until something splats us upside the head. So please, no matter what you do, keep throwing. =)

    1. David, your work has inspired me since I first discovered it, and you continue to be a fantastic mentor and friend. I intend to keep working toward open education, not the least in the hopes of working more together — those opportunities have been among my richest experiences.

      Knowing all the work you do with your church and in your community that goes way beyond the ivory tower, I certainly have never thought of you as the disconnected academic lost in pointless argument.

      The challenge I need to take on is to get past frustration, and as you suggest working toward the most compelling problems is probably the best way to do it.

  8. When I first started following the lot of you who once may have identified as edubloggers, I was struck by the extent to which the reflections on education were inflected with an engagement with the culture at large, an appreciation of critical theory (albeit subtly), and a broader sense of education as something that happens within a much much broader context — as inseparable from the ways in which those of us involved in education experience our worlds. What I love about your blogging is that it is about education but also so much more. It makes sense to me that your thinking about yourself as a thinker and a blogger would evolve in this way as you engage what you value about your own work and complicate the ideas and assumptions that once structured how you saw yourself online. With all the talk about identity within the #ds106 community, this makes a lot of sense.

    1. Mikhail, I have to agree that one of the most powerful side-effects of the #ds106 experience is a reconsideration of identity… It’s a vortex I don’t want to escape — no wonder I’m so messed up.

  9. I was going to blog on this, but you kinda captured my thoughts. I dont disagree with any of the commentators – MOOCs , poor name, why not do them, sure we know novice learners need lots of support, it’s not an either/or, there’s lot’s educators learn from other people’s courses (eg ds106 was great for me, not sure my students would take to it the same way). I suppose it’s natural that occasionally in ed tech we disappear down cul de sacs of navel gazing as we try and work through things. Thats not a problem as long as we don’t stay down them. And all the protagonists in this have definitely earned their scouts edu-pragmatism badges so that’s ok with me.
    And just blog more, about anything.
    And can we all start spelling faeces correctly now please 😉

    1. As Canadians, our spelling vacillates between British and American English… and usually I lean to the British out of some stubborn, bordering on inexplicable sense of fragile national identity (colonial tradition over economic domination, or something). I blew it by missing out on faeces — it just looks so much cooler!

  10. No maps for these territories.

    This is the title of a William Gibson’s documentary on the cyber-era we’re just entering. There are no maps for the terrains we are stepping on, and notwithstanding we do walk forward. Sometimes there is time to look back, and most of the times we feel impelled to jump ahead, no matter how the ground will welcome us back.

    It’s 1802, we are triangulating Northern India, and there stands Peak XV, probably the highest mountain on Earth. Do we keep on taking measures, calculating triangles and mapping around, or do we go and climb the peak? What should Mallory do?

    It’s 1939. Nazis are challenging the European status quo with their armies. Actually, they are invading Poland, and Slovakia. Then they expand all over the continent, killing in the battle, executing in the camps. Urgency calls us to arms. But the Enigma machine speaks in tongues messages of dread. How can we stand by our pens, papers and rulers? What should Turing do?

    We are all swingers.

    One day we want to stop the world so that we can reflect on the past experiences, squeeze their juice out, distil their essence, find out why a MOOC smells like a MOOC. And not like feces faeces.

    The following day we want to speed up this very same world, surf from wiki to wiki towards a horizon of copyleft, tell the reptiles that there are higher grounds. With trees and branches. And sitting monkeys throwing feces faeces.

    The good thing about a network is that swinging has no pendulum effect: instead of going back to where you came from, you switch on new circuits. Find new people. New ideas. You resonate. And you create energy.

    The good thing about a network is that no matter what old circuits you closed, the energy will circumvent the closed gates and flow elsewhere. Because the grid is a conductor.

    I don’t mind whether David (Wiley) and Stephen (Downes) get too obsessed with whether “share-alike” should be compulsory or forbidden in any license. Or whether Scott (Leslie) or Brian (Lamb) get too obsessed with plugin-overloading the latest incarnation of MediaWiki. I am now more interested in discussing with Carlos (Santos) or Oskar (Casqueiro) whether and when and how should schools and universities provide institutional PLEs.

    And I don’t mind not because I do not care, just the contrary: I do not mind because I know they’ll be good at their debate. And the outcomes of it I will benefit from. Whenever I need them. And when I step into the debate, I know I’ll have a room spared for me, to bring my approach and insights in.

    We are all swingers in unmapped territories. Swinging between theory and practice, between reflection and getting things done. But the good thing is that it is my feeling that we’re all heading forward.

    It makes me anxious too, to find out where am I standing and what should my next move be.
    But this makes the whole thing fun, indeed.



    1. Wow, Ismael… I knew you were scary-smart, but now I have confirmation you have the soul of a visionary poet as well. What a comment.

      I’m ready for some of that fun.

  11. I wish I had something to add here… or anywhere when it comes to education and technology. I feel *exactly* the same way you do but have found no satisfactory answer to the central dilemma. You are right. George is right. Scott is right. Alan is right. But somehow, when it comes to taking part in a productive discussion, all those rights *do* make a wrong, or at least what seems to be the wrong space for me.

    I have energy and desire to blog about many things other than ed and ed tech. Which isn’t a bad thing except that I wish I still had that desire to participate in that arena still. I miss it, but more like a vaguely painful but ultimately useful event in my life than a missing tooth or a lost friend.

    What’s funny is how small the education and edtech community really is. There are so many more people not to care about what I write outside of that little pond.

    1. Chris, you have been doing wonderful stuff on PassionTask – they may be “notes to self”, but I’ve come to think of them as nice handwritten thoughtbombs that occasionally pop off in my aggregator.

      Myself, I am not quite ready to take my leave of blogging about education just yet, but I need to start thinking a little harder about how to approach it. My main motivation for this post was not to trash ed tech discourse (though I can understand that those are the elements that jump out), but not to let my discomfort silence me — this note to self might be appropriate. Oh wait, maybe it isn’t…

      Why is this stuff so hard? [sniff]

      1. I’m not really trashing on the discourse, which to some degree is valuable or no one would pursue it for very long, as I am recognizing that some of the forms of discourse (or to be honest, most of them) don’t work for me anymore. It’s an evolution of sorts, the same kind of thing that happened for me w/r/t literary criticism and theory, which I used to love to talk about and work in, but now feel it is so far removed from the field of literary *art* that it is hardly relevant to me.

        More than that, it’s not that I necessarily feel (wholly) chastened or (completely) out of the loop, but that I don’t have anything new or particularly interesting to say on the theoretical side of things and I’ve become very frustrated with the disconnect from practice and the insularity of much of the community when it comes to honestly considering criticism…

        But, as others have noted, you are a thinking animal of a different stripe and certainly not someone I want to see go away. I want more… more Brian Lamb, the creative, noise-making, barbaric-yawp sounding Brian.

  12. I’d also like to know more about where you will go with this especially as there are not nearly enough (edu)bloggers using terms like ‘degenerative clusterfuck’ in their opening salvos.

    From reading your post a few times it seems to me like you are pushing for a pragmatic progressivism; you respect the theory, embrace the concepts but want a different, more inclusive discourse. I think I understand your position although I have a different reaction.

    Like you, I don’t really feel I have a lot to add to the sort of debates that you linked to (Downes vs Wiley, Wiley vs Siemens) and like you I often myself confused, grappling with some of the ideas and having to do a lot of back reading. However, this process has helped to kick me out of my complacency as an educator and pushed me too a different level of virtual participation. Perhaps this is because I operate in different educational and geographical circles, therefore I get to throw stuff at monkeys on my own level a bit more, emboldened rather than stifled by my experiences in the moocs and more technical blogs I follow.

    I think you also perhaps underestimate the reach and effect of moocs. I am finding more and more people are familiar and interested in the concept often in contexts a long way from where they started. Anyway, really enjoyed your frank and honest post and will be reading your blog with interest to see what transpires.


    1. Thanks for stopping by and offering such a generous-spirited and thoughtful comment, Colin. I’m ashamed to say I did not know your work before, but pleased to say I am following it now.

      1. Thanks for that Brian, have to say I am really enjoying the ds106 course set up by Jim Groom that originally brought me to your post. Has got me more actively exploring alternate modes and methods to communicate and engage with others in the various projects I am involved in.

  13. Who cares what you call yourself? Just keep doing the stuff you are doing.

    Look at this rich strand of comments; this is a direct reflection of who are to a lot of folks. You create a place (online, on porch) where people feel comfortable gathering, you ate the FRIGGING OPRAH IF EDUBLOGGING (kidding). But you do connect folks in a genuine way.

    And George, I’ve not rained on your dichotomy parade in years!

  14. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

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