Skip to content

Strive Less, Share More: Book Club Post 3

This is the third in a series of posts reflecting on Stephen Downes book Toward Personal Learning. I suggested it might be a summer book club, and a few people have joined in – some have even posted! There is an excellent reflective piece here by Charlag. This post contains musings on p.179-271.

As I read, I keep notes, because with the start of term drawing ever nearer, I want to keep on top of this. I am already a bit behind, although I got stuck with good reason. (hint: it’s the line of text that became the title. It really struck me, and for a week I didn’t read on, but reflected on it)

…now where are those notes I keep? Let’s find them and see what really caught my eye in these eighty odd pages. (Remember I got stuck, so I’m a bit behind and didn’t do the full hundred yet)

Downes goes on to pick holes in Brennan’s article. I thought Brennan’s piece intended to give an introduction and a bit of advice, but not to declare a definitive model. I have to disagree with these departures listed by Downes. Downes claims that there is not necessarily motivation needed for learning, citing that if you burn your hand you ‘learn’ not to put your hand back in the fire, but isn’t that the motivation of consequences? And had those consequences been presented before, similar to the way criteria for grading (to achieve pass/failure) might be in other settings, might the person have considered the gravitas of the consequences and then perhaps been motivated to ‘learn’ to avoid that behaviour? When first encountering an induction cooker, someone might not be aware that the plate is hot, without a visible flame. It is a matter of slicing words. I agree that Brennan is discussing active learning, consciously approached. I also agree that self-efficacy and motivation are not enough – there need to be the skills too. (see Collins’ 1982 study, discussed in this review of self-efficacy research by Frank Pajares, avaliable HERE). I don’t disagree with Downes here, and also I don’t think Brennan would disagree either – I don’t think he intended to comprehensively cover all bases. It is a complex subject.

This line stood out slightly awkwardly for me:

“I have often argued, you only need to motivate people when you’re trying to get them to do something they don’t want to do.” p.188

Well, this is ideal, but I want to do yoga and run every day, but I still need motivation and encouragement to be consistent. For example, I was ill two days ago and laid low so physical activity was not really an option. This morning, with the grey skies there was a real temptation to not get out there and jog, but to stay warm in bed… not because I didn’t want to, but because there is a complicated cocktail of competing factors involved in life. Sometimes, wanting to do something is not enough. What about the task I want to do, but it takes me 10000 hours to get to the professional stage, and that is I want to achieve? To get from here to there takes more than wanting it. I welcome the helpful encouragement a mentor, teacher, or friend, can give. I realise I am not everyone, and perhaps that is a weaker outlook than some, but I’m ok with that. I 100% agree that coercion is not the way to go. Threats are not motivators. Motivation, value, impetus should come from within and that is when meaningful activity – whether learning, cooking, or enjoying a bike ride or run – takes place.

Downes makes a very good point on p.191 when discussing the relation of the four main influences on self-efficacy to connectivism practices. He suggests that facilitators could:

“…make their presence felt in the course as much as they wish, the only limitation being that this presence is as a participant and not an authority figure’ because ‘if people come to depend in general on educators, and only educators, for reassurance and encouragement, then they will be sorely unprepared for life.”

That is SO true and is very, very good advice.

Downes encourages (re vicarious and mastery experiences) that the teacher (paraphrased) ‘can and should model, but it is important to remember to do this on all levels’ – and not be the sage on the stage… and then also points out that in a connected class, as opposed to a MOOC, people do have a wider awareness and see all levels – not just beginners or experts. He says, ‘You don’t set yourself up to compare yourself only with expert performances, or only peer performances.’ p.192


Then I came to a paragraph that merits repeating, without comment from me. It evoked quiet, serious reflection, and I could write a thousand words on it (but don’t worry, I won’t do it now). For now, please just read it and think:

“The idea that we are treating university students and adults as ‘novices’ is, to my mind, appalling. If a grown adult still requires a teacher to provide encouragement and support, positive role models, to select resources and scaffold learning experiences, then that speaks to the substantial failure of the traditional system of education. To my mind, it is as astonishing a failure as it would be if adults expected their teachers to read the lessons aloud to them.” p.193

Downes has a great discussion of the ‘self-inflicted’ or perhaps learned, worry and flailing that some people have when approaching something new – basically he asks – why? Why do we require all this clarity, definition of expectations, (of success criteria), and he politely mocks Brennan’s line of saying there are several platforms: “Four different platforms? At least they’re all in a computer.” Point received.

Downes rounds this chapter/section/post off with a very important sentence:

“These aren’t assumptions. They are literacies. … And – in my view at least – a connectivist approach is uniquely able to develop them in people as literacies. The key is to stop thinking of these as content to be mastered, and to start thinking them as skills to be practiced.” p.195-6

That is a golden egg right there. It deserves to be in glitter writing. (for now, bold magenta will do)


There is a lovely explanation of what happens when things become not-open:

Suppose that everyday words that people wanted to use like, say, ‘cat’ – to pick a word at random – were owned by, say, Coca-Cola. Now we have allowed a certain limited ownership of words in our society, but by and large we can’t own words. We can’t own the use of words to create expression. And even more particularly, imagine if we had to pay royalties to use certain letters. So you could only use the letter ‘o’ if you paid money to Ford. You could only use the letter ‘i’ if you paid money to Apple. The effectiveness of language would be significantly impaired. p.209


Understanding open educational resources as though they were words in a language used to facilitate communications between participants in a network should revise our understanding of what it means to be open, and what it means to support open educational resources. It is clear, from this perspective at least, that openness is not a question of production, but rather, a question of access. p.211

My brain died a little bit clicking the external links to the Hebbian mechanisms, Boltzmann engines, and the learning rules p.222. –just saying. Equations with Greek letters and both subscript and superscript numbers (and letters!) melt my brain.

Saying that it was worth it to get through this section, as p226 has great stuff (near bottom)

“It is not enough simply to have open educational resources. If nobody can find them, if nobody can access them, they serve no useful function at all. If a person creates an OER and has no way to distribute it to students who are interested, the OER is not very useful.” p.237

So true. I think of this with my own MUS654. How useful is it? MUS654 started as a music cMOOC, and also as a supplement to a face-to-face campus class, and as it developed each year, it has grown into a sort-of bank of resources, texts, and activities, but I wonder who accesses it? Have I made it open enough? Could it be useful to more people? How do I share it? Thinking on that, I’ve started by re-labelling the pages and am rethinking how I use the pages this year… starting in a few weeks!

I love this section on MOOC pedagogy (p.238-9). Here Downes makes the point that in traditional education, often graduates still have a gulf to cross before they are ready for the professional workforce (my words), and he describes how one solution to this gap is to create more structure. The problem with this is that it does not facilitate the person to learn on their own… and that is particularly what is encouraged with a cMOOC (connected, not centralised, not dictated). This really resonated with me and this is something that I enjoy doing with small groups of students where I teach. I am fortunate to have some small groups so I can teach in that way, and still be there to guide and model for them. Not all students welcome this approach, and some are downright angry not to have a list of what to do exactly when. Somehow I don’t think that encourages them to become what they can be, and as I am sure that is beyond what either they or I know, I would like to give them the chance, trust them, and find out.

Then there was a line that was so beautiful. It is the title of this post and also closed his chapter. I want to hold onto it as I go into the new academic year.

“Strive less. Share more. If you express this principle in your own life, it will be replicated many times in the lives of your students.”

Above Image CC BY NC by Melanie Featured Image flowers for everyone CC BY-NC-ND

On to the next section of the book. I hope you are enjoying reading. Up next is a the section up to p.375… I better get my skates on!



No comments yet

Leave a Reply

You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS