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The Butterfly, Learning, & Community: Book Club Post (August 1)

Is it August already? Yes, and today is a great day to type with the rain coming down outside. That butterfly pic was taken just yesterday… I’m sure summer will come back. Keeping to my schedule it is time for my August post for this Book Club about Stephen Downes’ book ‘Toward Personal Learning’. Several people have said they are reading too, and that is great. Please do join in either with your own post or a comment.

According to the schedule, this post could cover anything from p.81-177, which contains a lot! I have covered a little bit of it here. (6-8 min read. Featured image is a ‘silver washed’ butterfly taken by Jan Ritchie)

Abstraction and Myth:

About scope and understanding:

“We speak in myth be cause reality is ineffable. It cannot be expressed in words. All language is, as in the first instance, based in myth, based in some idealization, some abstraction.” p.81

“We comprehend the future in terms of what we understand today. This is the basis of the origin of these myths. This is really important to understand. When we start talking about what cannot be known we lose our place or we experience only confusion. We are lost in a swirl of chaos. It’s chaos that, in fact, characterizes all reality.We project our thoughts, our ideas, our beliefs, our features onto the chaos. This is how we understand the chaos. We look at the chaos and we see ourselves. In seeing ourselves in the chaos, we comprehend the chaos, but it’s a myth.” p.82

I liked this because I tell stories, speak in metaphor, sound, images. I love the idea of the chaos. I don’t love chaos, but instead the *concept* of an existent chaos that is beyond my brain’s organisational comprehension. The grandeur of the universe and our small bit somewhere not even in a corner, but so small in plain sight that we are almost imperceptible to the whole. Part of me kind of believes that there are elements of time that aren’t linear, even though to us they seem that way. At the very least knowing that our chaos is only a small part of what exists out there is amazing – as in the true definition of the word. My mind is boggled by the enormity of it and, yes, I swim in beginning to comprehend it all.

With that in mind, I need abstraction, and it is about personal perspective. We each create something that relates, reflects, embodies what we hope. I know what I know, but I can create what I can imagine. Enough dreaming-

Downes goes on to talk about a what if myth – what if the precision and perfect communication of machines replaced humans:

“The myth is that, one by one, each human is replaced by a machine, nine billion of them. After all this time, the machines are able to have perfect conversation with each other, no ambiguity, no misunderstanding, an ideal language, complete comprehension. They discover with all the humans gone there’s nothing left to talk about. We can imagine a future filled with machines. We can’t imagine a future without meaning. We have to continually hope for the impossible, not the possible, because if our ambitions were actually achieved, it would be a disaster.” p.92

This passage brings to mind one of my favourite parables: The Last Flower by James Thurber, which is a simple yet powerful story of striving …. for societal and material power, and it does indeed end in disaster. …but there is always hope. In this case it takes the form of the last flower. Stories are important, and so are people. 


In the next section on democracy Downes discusses what people need to have autonomy and learn. His method of learning and teaching, specifically with online courses is ‘to promote diversity and promote autonomy’ (p.91). His learning bill of rights (<– my words, not his) contains:

  1. the capacity to know and then
  2. to reflect on experiences without coercion,
  3. the capacity to act, and
  4. the capacity to have an impact’ (p.95).

These are truly available for many people, but sadly not for all, depending where in the world people live, and under what circumstances. As teachers, it is imperative that we make every effort to enable students to have these liberties, in whatever ways we can. Even in democratic societies, not all are treated equally, and opportunity should be there for all students. Fortunately, where I am and where I teach, students do have all of these. However there is another step needed to really bring them all to fruition, to allow students to own them, especially that last one. In my experience people do not always value what they have to say or their potential actions, and that means they hold back. It is difficult to make an impact if you don’t act. (then you’re just left with ‘imp’, and that’s not so good…)

I jest, but this is serious. People, students and teachers, need to be reinforced in their capabilities, learning, and accomplishments. In all of those rights components listed above – reinforce that they can know, they can indeed reflect, they can act, and yes, even small actions can have an impact.

Recently I have been aware of the impact of small actions, and how good things can perpetuate more good. A smile, acknowledging or encouraging someone in their persuits… It reminds me of the Butterfly Effect, and I particularly like this definition from Wolfram Alpha (which is a great online resource for fact-based questions):

“Due to nonlinearities in weather processes, a butterfly flapping its wings in Tahiti can, in theory, produce a tornado in Kansas. This strong dependence of outcomes on very slightly differing initial conditions is a hallmark of the mathematical behavior known as chaos.”

(Look, it links to chaos!!) 🙂

These small actions link to…

Connection and Community:

Downes speaks about what makes a course (but it relates/transfers/commutes to other things) ‘massive’ and says:

“…it is not based in a particular environment, isn’t characterized by its use of a single platform, but rather by the capacity of the technology supporting the course to enable and engage conversations and activities across multiple platforms.” p.107

This is so simply and elegantly stated. Enable and encourage conversations across multiple platforms. Open. Autonomous. Delicious. Why open?

“Openness is necessary because –as the saying goes –you cannot see with your eyes closed.” p.145

Image CC BY-NC-ND by Guilbert Rodriguez

It must be said, I don’t agree completely with everything. I thought it important to mention a couple of examples, just so you didn’t think I was simply drinking the kool-aid without thinking. There aren’t many, and I think my disagreements are mostly to do with semantics or the specific context of the original post. For example on p.130 Downes discusses how your “reputation in the community is your assessment.” Hmmm… This makes me think yes, and no. It assumes that there is some community/collective aim to be valued for or about. I would not like to measure myself by that of others. It may be different when considering this in light of a specific course and a ‘learning’ community, but I am thinking of this community as a slightly larger and more transferable construct.

Later, there is a definition of a Peer Community, where people gather without topic, as in learners would come to a course to discuss X, and Downes says that this Peer Community needs to be physical (p.171). I have to disagree. Now this may have changed with time and use of the internet, as his post was written four years ago. Online has become more engrained in daily life, and there IS a genuine possibility to gather without a topic, but in a space or a place, without purpose. I have found this in various online fora, where people turn up, and then perhaps the purpose(s) develop, but only in passing as the people and times change.

There are huge positives in the discussion of community:

“The ideas of community and practice are important and the fundamental building blocks to the concept of learning that we have today. Like everything else, there were the, what would we call them, open communities of practice. We’ve heard so few formal accounts. There’s almost no history of them.” p.113

almost no history of them.

I had to write that twice. WE NEED TO TELL STORIES, but this lack of history makes sense, as:

“For a community is not a broadcast medium. It is not a place where the organizer provides material and the members consume it. It is a shared and constructed environment, where the members along with the organizers play roughly equal roles in content creation.” p.170

If we are co-creators, there isn’t the same ‘need’ to write a textbook, yet having a record of the story is important. How do we remember? It goes back to time – the clock may tick evenly now, but when we look back, there is nothing linear about memory.

“Now, instead of just getting content from the professor, they were getting content from anywhere around the world.” p.122 

Yep. -that’s the idea with #Phonar and #MUS654, two open courses I’ve experienced/been involved with in the past …

As Downes says:

“by opening the content and opening the interaction, we’re almost able enough to blend these two major threads of distance learning, the content and the interaction.”

That, to me, is indeed exciting.

Hope you are all enjoying reading as much as I am. Please share a post or comment. 🙂 I’ll post again in a couple of weeks. Until then… #TowardPersonalLearning


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