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Toward Personal Learning: Summer Book Club Post 6

I’m still at it! Reading Stephen Downes’ book Toward Personal Learning. This series of posts began as a ‘summer book club‘ and at this rate I might just finish before next summer! This segment covers pp. 428-487 because there was a lot in this section that I had comments on. Below you will find the nuggets that went ‘ping!’ in my mind and a few thoughts on each of them. Quotes from the book are in a different colour so you can easily distinguish my thoughts.

The first bit that really stood out to me was a line in the section summarising Howard Rheingold’s talk in Berlin in 2014. Howard spoke about how learning has changed over the years:

“It’s also more collaborative – this used to be called cheating. It’s also cooperative – I talk about co-learning, being responsible for each other’s learning.”

I like that collaboration used to be called ‘cheating’ – and he’s right! I remember being told do you own work! Of course you do need to understand the basics of whatever concept for yourself, but the application, the generation of going beyond- that feeds on ideas and we need each other for stimulus, perspective, and simply for the multiplied brainpower and experience that coming together brings. It’s obvious really. Two candles together makes a bigger fire.

Howard puts it well:

“It’s about the group being more than the sum of its parts.” p435

Then there is one sentence that merits just copying and pasting here:

“Learning content required a more flexible model, which was provided first by David Wiley, with the Open Content License, and then by Lawrence Lessig, with Creative Commons. Both of these licenses allowed for the free reuse and redistribution of the resource, but with conditions.” p.422

That sentence is billboard material, because if you don’t know about Open Content Licensing or the Creative Commons, it is important to look them up. (and I’ve made it easy, all you have to do is click) The licensing of content is our personal advocacy of control (and by that I mean retaining freedom- ensuring this is a control against restriction).

The difference between an LMS and a PLE:

In the book, Stephen makes the distinction between different learning environments.

  • LMS: The student’s social world and academic world remained apart.
  • PLE: The PLE was developed in response to the need to facilitate interoperability between the different systems.

Then he goes on to talk about the ‘Learning and Performance Support System’ saying:

  • PSS is much more like a personal web browser than it is a resource or a service. Like a browser, each person has his or her own instance of LPSS. p.449

Downes makes the point (p.453) that when the user has to GIVE information to access the content it ceases to be open. (pretty basic stuff really) If I need some form of key ,whether a physical code or a token, or money, then THOU SHALL NOT PASS and it’s not open.  Does that mean those MOOCs should be renamed MOCs? 😉


Three major types of skills are identified: exploring, building and connecting (p455).

Across the next thirty pages, there are very thought-provoking sections about skills, learning, teaching, and interactions. This description of encountering and gaining competencies with a new mode of learning:

“We are becoming literate, becoming MOOC. Each bit of experience, each frustrated facing of a new chaos, changes you, shapes you. Participating in a MOOC is like walking through a forest, trying to see where animals have walked in the past, trying to determine whether that flash of orange is a tiger. There are no easy successes, and often no sense of flow. But you feel the flush of success every time you recognize.” p457

Downes is really skirting around self-efficacy. This is something mentioned throughout the chapters and he gets some of what it is. As a concept, self-efficacy is about far more than mastery in the physical sense… it is a deep-seeded belief in capabilities, and yes, accomplishments and engaging with tasks (mastery) is a big part of forming and reinforcing these beliefs of competence with confidence.

Downes goes on to discuss and dissect someone’s viewpoint about a specific setting for online teaching, and this sentence jumped out at me:

“The key difference between in-class and online learning is the shift in the locus of control.” p461

My initial reaction is WHY SHOULD IT BE THAT WAY!?!?!???? Shouldn’t there be an equal level of student-control in face-to-face teaching? My students are often frustrated that I expect them to ‘own’ what they do, to question everything, to hold me accountable to what I’ve written in the handbook, to push boundaries, and most importantly TO LEARN.

That sounds a bit like it could have come out of Baz Lurhmann’s graduation speech ‘Everyone should wear sunscreen’, (I had to embed it. It is worth your time to watch.)

but you know, I mean it.

There’s a lot of talk (in general, in the ether, in meetings) about embedding things in the curriculum… I’m borrowing from a friend of mine Professor Rebecca Huxley-Binns. She makes the point between embedding and integrating. She uses an image: You can embed a nail into a piece of wood by hammering it, whereas you can integrate apple and raspberry juice into a single drink (I made up the drink part). There is a difference and I do like my words. Getting as close to the meaning as we can through specificity can serve all, I hope.



Drawing on the above point, Downes discusses how ‘courses’ could end as we know them; content will be online, and students will instead need guidance in developing skills to carry out specific projects… (p.462-3)

Well…. yes and no. I have experienced that there are issues in different culture’s preparatory (pre-tertiary) schooling that mean students are not ready to self-direct their learning. Why? For example when the creativity is taken away because of close adherence to a curriculum. In the UK there is a great weight put on both GCSE and A-Level grades, and these are far more subject-specific than SAT or ACT tests. The UK system of testing starts students in a test-oriented manner from about age 14 through to finishing secondary school at 18.

At university, students need to relearn how to take control and the ownership of ‘self’ and of learning is needed to realise the picture Downes envisions. When training students to develop the skills, the resources act as the context. A ‘set’ curriculum is not necessary, but scaffolded guidance through core concepts, resources, and projects is still needed by many of today’s higher education students, and these can (should) be aligned with undergraduate skills and research benchmarks.

There is a lovely phrase on p.464:

equal access to educational opportunities

That should be a bumper sticker slogan. Online teaching that uses OER ‘stuff’ does enable more of equal access. OER is not a substitute for something else, but part of the core- a skeletal component. Earlier Downes makes the point that methods and materials change- and he uses the image that the once thriving business of making ring binders is no longer what we look to for the bricks and mortar of teaching (ah, but the memories of my ‘trapper-keeper’). I use my phone to record things, audio and video, apps for analysis and measurement, various programmes for editing or converting files. When I say I use my ‘phone’ I really mean I use my computer, I use openly available and free programmes, and I create and share resources to facilitate and enhance learning. (Image CC BY-SA by Jennifer Boyer)

I ask my students to bring devices to ALL classes. I never understood the ‘banned devices’ idea. It’s really like banning paper. My computer is my paper, and the phone is like index card sized paper. You can’t ban that.

Downes makes the point and addresses it – about skills and literacies – in the following few pages. He quotes Brennan a lot about self-efficacy. I’m going to take this moment to drop some cool cat pictures in the mix. There’s a great online educator Laura Gibbs who made a series of self-efficacy cat posters for me a couple of years ago… and here they are: …just leaving that there. (do have a look!)

  • The first two paragraphs of p471 are a must read. These set out the context for a connected learning environment and how students navigate and interact within it. 

-as another aside. I just stopped reading on to look up Keith Brennan. This past chapter/article was not the first or second time Downes had mentioned him in connection with self-efficacy, and it made me think – who was this? And why had I not heard of him? –see I’ve spend most of my research energies (including my PhD and writing a book) working on self-efficacy, and I had not heard of this person. (Brennan seems to be inspired by self-efficacy instead of a major researcher into it, which was slightly reassuring that I hadn’t actually missed him all these years!) Off to email Brennan a hello before continuing.

It made me think, though, about our circles of attention and bubbles within discipline areas. Even within learned groups of people, we are influenced by those we meet, find, and interact with. It is always good to be reminded to continuously widen the circle so we don’t create a show-globe. There’s a wide world out there and it is possible to connect. –takes effort and time, but it’s worth it.

One last section before I draw this post to a close- on OER as a business model.

Two things. First David Wiley on defining OER:

“There’s a two-part – there has to be free and unfettered access to the resource; and I have to have free and perpetual ability to engage in the 5R activities. As a matter of contract, any school we work with, the license says the work we produce has to be OER.” p.481

This is good and it makes me prick my ears because in a few weeks David Wiley will give a keynote at #OER18 and I’m curious if he is still singing the same song. I hope so.

and this:

“One strategy we’ve had is not to go after individual courses, but to go after entire degree programs. When you can flip the entire degree program, now as a student I can actually budget for it. We’ve now pulled a third of the cost out of a degree program.” p.484

What’s that about? ‘we can budget for it?’ In my little mind I don’t understand. I think that’s because my personal experience has been to create open education things & resources on top of the job, extras – the OERs have been donated and subsidised purely by my own time and efforts. So where does the money come from? (does someone out there have money??) Earlier there is mention that it is wrong to assume that these are supported by philanthropy (p480) – but then who? How? I don’t want students to pay…

*  *  *  *  *

I know there’s more to write, and I certainly have more to read. I didn’t want this post to get too long, so I’m drawing a line here. __________________ (<– haha! I couldn’t resist, not with April Fools and the time for silliness coming up tomorrow 😉 ) Really. I recommend you read Stephen Downes’ writings. He makes me think, and I appreciate that very much.


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