Downes on lectures

The point of a lecture isn’t to teach. It’s to reify, rehearse, assemble and celebrate.

via Stephen’s Web.

Stephen ended his post linking to Tony’s blog post with what appears to be a throwaway line. It’s not. This is where the tension is centred when it comes to teaching. Lectures aren’t teaching, but have been used as a proxy for teaching because how else are you going to make sure 300 students get the appropriate number of contact hours? Butts-in-seats isn’t a requirement anymore. We can do more interesting things. And we can then use lectures for what they are good at. To reify, rehearse, assemble and celebrate.

The Norman Prize, 2013

Tony Bates, on acknowledging being the recipient of the 2013 Downes Prize, suggests that someone needs to bestow a similar honour on Stephen. I concur. So, the inaugural Norman Prize is hereby awarded to Stephen Downes.

I’ve been lucky enough to know Stephen for over a decade – first meeting him as part of the Edusource national learning object repository project back in 2001(?!). Even back then, Stephen had ideas that were years ahead of where everyone else was. We all looked at him like he was crazy, but he persisted. And eventually we realized he was right.

One of my most important, and scary, professional experiences was co-keynoting the BCEdOnline conference back in 2006, along with Stephen and Brian Lamb. It was important (to me) because it was a professional risk – an unkeynote presentation, flipped presentation, Phil Donahue style. The audience was the presentation. We took a huge risk – having no presentation, and having an anonymous chat back channel projected onto the main screen. We had no idea if it would work, and we paced in front of maybe 300? 500? (Felt like 10,000) people. At first, it didn’t work. At all. Scariest moment of my professional career. And then it did. And we had an interesting discussion with the entire conference rather than just blabbing at them. Years ahead.

That’s kind of the history of knowing Stephen. First, you think he’s crazy. Then, he persists, clarifies, elaborates, and keeps true to his vision. And, eventually, the rest of us realize that he was right all along, and that he was (and is) years ahead of us. And also right there playing with us.

What makes Stephen’s work so remarkable and important isn’t that he’s been the source of many foundational ideas, but that he has the energy and persistence to keep pushing the boundaries and to work to bring the rest of us with him.

So, thank you Stephen. Keep on OLDailying!

on disabling adblock in my browsers

Clint mentioned that he’d disabled adblock, and gave his reasoning. Stephen somewhat disagrees. Here’s my take:

I have been running adblockers as browser extensions, CSS overrides, and .htaccess filters for years now. It’s not bulletproof, but it sure takes care of most of the ads. The web is a much less tacky place with these tools in place.

But, in my role as a lowly edtech geek 1, I’ve been bitten by this before. Case in point: we’d gotten reports from instructors who were seeing ads in our Desire2Learn environment. WTF? I’ve never seen any ads. That’s not possible. They must be mistaken, or have a popup from somewhere else. Then, I checked on my phone, without Flash and without any adblockers, and saw this:


Not only were there ads in our D2L environment, they were incredibly stale. I checked with our D2L contacts, and the ads were not inserted by D2L. They were put there by Adobe, through their “hey! you need flash!” download “helper”. Working with D2L, they tried to get Adobe to avoid inserting ads on their clients’ D2L learning environments. Not sure if they succeeded, yet, though.2

So, my use of adblockers and flashblockers and privacy enforcement utilities was actually changing my experience (for the better) in such a way as to make it inconsistent with what the people I work with and for were seeing. Now, I could just advocate that everyone must install flashblockers and adblockers etc… but that’s just not realistic. We still have people who insist on using Internet Explorer 6 or 7. They’re not going to install a modern browser, and they’re definitely not going to install any of these other utilities that help make the web suck less.

If I’m going to be deploying, managing, configuring, supporting, integrating and using online tools to support teaching and learning, I need to see what the instructors and students will be seeing, warts and all. if for no other reason than to work with service providers to get ads and their ilk out of our educational environments.

Now, for almost everyone else – please install adblockers. And flashblockers. And privacy enforcement tools. According to the latest neuroscientific research, the web is on average 86% less painful to use with these tools in place [citation needed].

  1. integrator? consultant? advocate? evangelist? what do they call people like me now? []
  2. and before you get all smug that your open source LMS would never (NEVER) have such an issue – if anyone ever (EVER) embeds Flash in any of their course content, this same ad will be helpfully inserted by Adobe. []

on unprecedented institutional response to moocs

Stephen Downes observed that the response from elite institutions to MOOCs has been essentially instantaneous – and unprecedented in both immediacy and scale of the response.

That entire post is great, as is the rest of his coverage of the EDUCAUSE MOOC conference1.

The money shot, on response to MOOCs:

MOOCs were not designed to serve the missions of the elite colleges and universities. They were designed to undermine them, and make those missions obsolete.

Yes there has been a great rebranding and co-option of the concept of the MOOC over the last couple of years. The near-instant response from the elites, almost unprecedented in my experience, is a recognition of the deeply subversive intent and design of the original MOOCs (which they would like very much to erase from history).

So, how does the institutional response to MOOCs compare to other educational technology and/or pedagogical advancements? How many of the following innovations/initiatives have drawn a similarly-scaled response from institutions, warranting millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours devoted to their pursuit?

  • Learning Objects (and Learning Object Repositories)
  • Web 2.0
  • Open Education Resources
  • Individual publishing platforms (blogging etc…)
  • Collaborative publishing platforms (wikis etc…)
  • Badges and open credentials
  • Cable TV in the Classroom
  • etc…

Those things, and many others, never really bubbled above the level of “let’s present something at a conference and wonder why nobody understands how awesome this stuff is!” (admittedly, some of it turned out to be less-than-awesome, but there hasn’t been the level of critique and introspection by institutions pushing MOOCs). Yes, some of those ideas took off on some scale, but none had anywhere near the level of frenzied institutional mouth-foaming enthusiasm – support was largely on the level of small projects or individual instructors, rather than Presidential Committees and Senatorial Task Forces.

Why are MOOCs different?

It’s not the technology – despite elite institutions building custom platforms to enable their vision of MOOCishness, the tools have been here for years.

It’s not the availability or ease of access to content. Open Education Resources, open textbooks, Creative Commons, wikibooks, etc… have been available for years. They’ve been useful and interesting, but haven’t gained anywhere near a sizeable fraction of the attention that MOOCs have attracted.

I think Stephen nailed it – MOOCs have gone big because institutions see the subversive power of them, and need to control the genie before it’s fully let out of the bottle. Maybe, through creative and selective cultivation, the genie can be defused, or the bottle recast, to eliminate the threat to the status quo, or at least to allow the elite institutions to maintain their position at the top of the food chain.

While many innovations have had at least the potential to disrupt the practices of education, MOOCs are the first (or at least the biggest) innovation to challenge the business of education. Follow the money.

Update: shortly after I hit “Publish”, I checked my RSS feeds and see this post by that jerkface23 @dkernohan, who lays it out with much more intelligence and depth than I have at my disposal.4

  1. I really wish Stephen was using a more robust blogging platform, so I could link to a category or tag for the posts. they’re linked at the bottom of this post, though []
  2. he’s not really a jerkface. which is why I hate him so much. []
  3. no. I don’t hate him. dude’s got talent. and he’s nice. jerkface. []
  4. I may just shutter this blog and set up a redirect to point to Followers of the Apocalypse, to save everyone some time… maybe some form of round robin redirector, to randomly send people to the awesomeness at Kernohan’s blog, or Downes’ Half an Hour blog, or Abject, or Bavatuesdays, Hack Education, or any of a long list of people who are kicking ass lately… []

Openness and Corporate Paywalls

[George posted a quick note]( about how an interview he gave for an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education was published. Behind a paywall. The Chronicle took an interview, freely given by everyone (except, I assume, for the paid interviewer and editor?), on the topic of openness in education, and decided to lock it behind a mechanism constructed to block access to it.

I’m not going to link to The Chronicle article (or, more accurately, anything on The Chronicle, ever), so here’s a screenshot of the short snippet of the article that they publish “openly” – I love how they cut it off in mid-sentence… Taking the **what**? I must know! Here’s my credit card number! Please! Take it!


irrational objection to the wild, wide open?

[Stephen responds]( to my previous [post on classblogs](

> My first reaction (as I’m sure it is for many) is that we shouldn’t compel them to do anything. But when you ask the question in the context of formal education, you begin to see how ridiculous it is. Is there anything in education that isn’t compelled? Participation is enforced to the age of 18, college and university courses typically have requirements for graduation. So why should public performance be any different? And – it isn’t! We require singers and actors to perform in public in order to graduate. Lawyers stand in moot court. Interns perform in actual hospitals, apprentices in real garages. Graduate students are frequently reminded that they should have some journal publications to their name. So why the objection to publishing on the web? It’s an irrational objection, when compared with the practices we see everywhere else in education.

My point was not that students should not be expected to perform (of *course* they should), to practice what they’re learning, but rather that public posting of content may not be the most effective or appropriate way to do that. Also, I’m not arguing against Open Content or Open Courseware. They are important, and may serve as a mechanism to help transform education.

A student studying law would perform by preparing and arguing cases. An engineering student might design and build a bridge. A geologist might survey a plot and identify strata and formations. They may all perform, enhance, and extend their learning via discourse with their fellow students.

What I was trying to point out is that these forms of performance aren’t public, and are not permanently archived by third parties. They are also not primarily exercises in content production. How does using public publishing of content fit in? How does moving discussion between and amongst participants in a class into a public venue, with public and permanent archives and no sense of privacy or control serve the educational needs of the class? It may provide opportunities for others to follow along and contribute to the discussion, but we need to think about how the public nature of a wide open discussion platform changes the nature of that discussion, and how it’s used educationally.

And, finally, I was not trying to suggest that students shouldn’t be compelled to do things. Teachers do that every time they assign a grade to an activity. But, when the activities are *public*, and *archived*, etc… (as they are in an open online discussion or blog site) we need to think about what right we have as educators to compel students to perform in such a venue.

Running a “massively open online course” is not a mainstream, normal activity. The participants are automatically self selected and biased – only those students who are predisposed to that kind of course would sign up, and they know the expectations beforehand. How would the experience change if it was a large enrolment introductory chemistry class, where students are told that their laboratory assignments will be submitted and graded publicly on the internet? Or a K12 education class, where student teachers are told their post-class reflections must be public?

I don’t believe my “objection” is irrational. I believe that glossing over the issues of control and power, and of publicity and permanence, is naïve and dangerous, and counter to what we are trying to do as teachers.

Notes: E-learning 2.0

Downes, S. (2005). E-learning 2.0. eLearn Magazine. pp. 1-6

In a nutshell, what was happening was that the Web was shifting from being a medium, in which information was transmitted and consumed, into being a platform, in which content was created, shared, remixed, repurposed, and passed along. And what people were doing with the Web was not merely reading books, listening to the radio or watching TV, but having a conversation, with a vocabulary consisting not just of words but of images, video, multimedia and whatever they could get their hands on. And this became, and looked like, and behaved like, a network.

What happens when online learning software ceases to be a type of content-consumption tool, where learning is “delivered,” and becomes more like a content-authoring tool, where learning is created? The model of e-learning as being a type of content, produced by publishers, organized and structured into courses, and consumed by students, is turned on its head. Insofar as there is content, it is used rather than read— and is, in any case, more likely to be produced by students than courseware authors. And insofar as there is structure, it is more likely to resemble a language or a conversation rather than a book or a manual.

The e-learning application, therefore, begins to look very much like a blogging tool. It represents one node in a web of content, connected to other nodes and content creation services used by other students. It becomes, not an institutional or corporate application, but a personal learning center, where content is reused and remixed according to the student’s own needs and interests. It becomes, indeed, not a single application, but a collection of interoperating applications—an environment rather than a system.

More formally, instead of using enterprise learning-management systems, educational institutions expect to use an interlocking set of open-source applications.