(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali's blog has now moved to http://blog.mahabali.me


Meaningful Online Relationships

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while. It’s about the possibilities and potential of meaningful online relationships. It’s been sort of building up and is about to explode after two articles (followed by facebook discussions, mostly on rhizo14) I read that irritated the heck out of me:

First, this one by Jason Hogan “The Campus is Dead, Long Live the Campus“. Here is the part of the article that irritated me:

Virtual communities can provide an alternative to the on-campus experience but, as yet, there is little evidence to suggest that virtual engagement with peers and with content matter experts can provide the same benefits as being immersed in the intellectual culture on campus.

After reading it, I tweeted:

To which the author responded:

(Note: in re-reading the article, it is generally quite a balanced one, otherwise, recognizing the benefits of both f2f and online learning)

BUT the author’s response raised by hackles even more, so I responded with a stream of tweets (to which he did not respond). Basically, I was saying that:

  1. Deep relationships can happen online (especially maybe for people who are more verbal/textual and possibly cyborgs – I refer here to this old post of Bonnie Stewart’s which resonated with me very much about how non-hyper-connected people had not idea what kind of lives the hyper-connected of us are living)
  2. You need to have relationships like that to understand them. My mentor is someone I only ever met f2f about 3 times total. We talked on the phone about 6 times total over a 7 year period (same for a very close friend of mine – both of them above 60, btw). I did not go into detail on twitter but will do so now. Saying online relationships can never be as valuable as f2f relationships is like being someone who has had many failed romantic relationships and assuming no one in the world can be happily married. Or it’s like being happily married in a certain way and assuming the only people can be happy is to be married and having the same kind of relationship you are. It is an absolute generalization that makes no sense. It is also understandable that someone who has not experienced a deep online relationship might think it impossible; an illusion. But you need to go through a really rough time in your f2f life with only your online friends as a lifeline to know what deep online relationships can do for you (Danielle Paradis comes to mind – this really touching post). I have several of these relationships with people I have never met f2f, and also with people I’ve only met f2f a handful of times. Don’t ask me how in a 6-week period (or even earlier) many of these happened on rhizo14. The collaborative autoethnography we’re doing might give some ideas. Or not 🙂
  3. People use text-only media to communicate in their most intimate relationships. Love letters, anyone? Text-messaging (or even more intimate uses of text messaging)? And phones, of course. So much important stuff happens with text-only media. And that’s even completely ignoring the possibilities of audiovisual online communication. Yes, you can’t get physical hugs online, but you can get virtual hugs that make you feel so warm inside they are better than physical. I remember many many many  an online communication: email, tweet, facebook message that made me feel great when my f2f day was going down the drain. I’m not talking a bad hair day here. I’m talking disastrous catastrophic days where my only solace was an online friend or two. Sometimes because I could talk it over with them, sometimes just by being themselves and lifting me up unintentionally. Regardless, I have been through hell and back several times in my personal life and my online friends have been my saviors.
  4. On a more logistical note related to learning – no one kind of education can be generalized about as being better or worse than any other kind of education. There are a multitude of ways of teaching/learning online and f2f. The same teacher can do exactly the same thing two semesters in a row (heck, the same semester with two different groups of students) and get completely different results (don’t tell me you’ve never seen that?). There are a zillion factors that can help make any learning experience good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, or anything in between. Sometimes you hit a “sweet spot” with many people and you get something like rhizo14 (Dave Cormier said something about fertile ground, which I took to mean the right conditions for something like that to blossom; I’m still trying to figure it out). But not everyone enjoyed rhizo14 as much or to the same extent; strong as I feel the community is, I know some people were in rhizo14 but are not part of the “core” of it, even though rhizomes have no center, there are still people who are more strongly connected than everyone else (I was recently deeply disappointed that I had missed the tweeting and blogging of someone I had known online in 2003  and with whom I was hoping to re-connect – who was on rhizo14 but not on the facebook group – probably because near the end I stopped following the twitter as closely)

There was a facebook discussion on rhizo14 (based on our collective irritation to a claim that “online edu like love cannot be moved online” – I don’t want to get into specifics so as not to overquote people outside the group). But the gist is that we were trying to figure out what it was that made us feel online relationships can be meaningful and intimate, sometimes even more valuable that f2f ones, or at least valuable in their own right, not as a poor second to f2f. Not all hyper-connected people are like me (I’m hyper in real life, too, talkative and hypersocial) – but there must be a group of factors/characteristics that, when found together in a person, increase the likelihood they will be able to build online relationships.

I think Simon alluded to two things that I misinterpreted but revolve around two ideas: literacy & affinity. The first, literacy, is obvious. If you’re not able to navigate social media, and then not able to do so with sound judgment (that’s the literacy part), you won’t be able to even get any relationships, deep or not. The second is affinity for digital communication. But how does that last one come about? I did my master’s online and enjoyed it tremendously. Obviously, completing it successfully meant I managed to learn online. But many others dropped out. Which means there was probably already something that helped me complete it even before I “learned to learn online”. I had not had any online learning experiences beforehand, though I’d had to work occasionally in multinational teams that met on phone conference occasionally. But that was no comparison.

Well, so I’m still not exactly sure what it is, really, that enables some people to have deep and meaningful and intimate online relationships, more than others. I don’t posit that everyone would be comfortable with this, or would trust a complete online stranger (Ary Aranguiz made up the term “frainger” on her blog earlier).

OK. This is a post of incomplete thoughts. But I wanted to get them onto my blog…

Meanwhile, I leave you with a padlet my students and  I created today in class. I gave them flowers and asked them to reflect on “Education is like flowers”… Enjoy!

Education is like flowers padlet


Inspiring teaching philosophies

I am writing this post to capture/curate aspects of some of my favorite teaching philosophies written out there. Because of my new job responsibilities, I am particularly concerned about finding deep and critical teaching philosophies about online aspects of learning, as opposed to some of the more traditional institutionally driven approaches (that few good teachers, i assume, really incorporate into their pedagogy). What I have below is a sort of mish mash with little commentary for now, as I think of how I want to go forward.

So far, I am thinking of things written by Dave Cormier, Sean Michael Morris, Jesse Stommel, Kris Shaffer, and the folks who designed/taught the U of Edinburgh eLearning and Digital Cultures MOOC/MSc

Here are my favorite quotes/parts:

Sean Michael Morris’ contemplative pedagogy & digital agnosticism:

“…each of us has an obligation to pass on to students not only what we learn, but the contemplative process by which we came to it. I don’t believe as much in subject matter as I do in process. I don’t believe as much in methodology as I do in practice”

Jesse Stommel’s Online Learning Manifesto has lots of great points, including (note these are truncated quotes when i use “…”, APA style):

5. Rigor fails to be rigorous when it’s made compulsory. It can’t be guaranteed in advance by design. Academic rigor shouldn’t be built into a course like an impenetrable fortress for students to inhabit. Rigor has to be fostered through genuine engagement.

8. Don’t wield outcomes like a weapon. Online learning activities should not be overly designed or too-strictly standardized… Improvisation, play, and experimentation are essential to learning.

10. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to online education. Learning is not neatly divisible into discrete chunks (like courses)….

11. Community and dialogue shouldn’t be an accident or by-product of a course. They should be the course. …

12. Content-expertise does not equal good teaching. The internet already has lots of experts in all manner of things. A good pedagogue, rather, relies on a variable mixture of content-expertise and careful thinking about teaching practices….Once a course begins, the growing expertise of the students, and not the teacher, should be the primary focus.

13. Online learning needs less quantitative and more qualitative assessment. Students are not columns in a spreadsheet. …The most important form of assessment, though, is self-assessment by the students of their own learning.

Another manifesto, this one for online teaching, comes from the U of Edinburgh folks who provided the best MOOC experience i have had so far (#edcmooc). Among their manifesto:

Distance is a positive principle, not a deficit. Online can be the privileged mode.

‘Best practice’ is a totalising term blind to context – there are many ways to get it right.

Every course design is philosophy and belief in action.

Assessment is a creative crisis as much as it is a statement of knowledge.

Online spaces can be permeable and flexible, letting networks and flows replace boundaries.

Course processes are held in a tension between randomness and intentionality.

And one that i need to ponder as a former Turnitin.com administrator:

“A routine of plagiarism detection structures-in a relation of distrust.”

Kris Shaffer’s Open letter to his students was inspiring in that it attempts explain the thought behind the teacher’s pedagogical choices. I spend entire semesters trying to explain my teaching philosophy to students. They usually “get it” half way thru the semester, some nearer the end. I suspect explaining it via open letter won’t completely replace that confusion, but it might be more detailed than what i used to do (a couple of minutes talking in our first class). I think it also might help students respond to surprising or unfamiliar aspects of my teaching. So for example, Kris writes ( again, i use “…” for text i removed):

First, education is more than the transfer of information. Education involves the transfer of information, of course. However, there are things more important, and more difficult, than simply memorizing information.


In other words, I want you to learn how to learn. That means that at times you will be teaching yourself. This is an intentional choice. One of my chief goals is for you to take charge of your own education. Though I will help set a frame in which this will take place, many of you will feel uncomfortable, even overwhelmed, at this. That’s normal. It’s what independent learning feels like quite often. (Because it’s what teaching feels like.) However, if at any time you feel lost, please talk to me. I have gone through the same process many times before, both as a student and as a teacher. I may not remove the discomfort immediately, or at all, but I will help you learn to manage it and harness it to a positive outcome.


Education is about far more than grades…Some of the most important things in a class are things that are hard to assess, so they’re not part of the grade…

I have already blogged about Dave Cormier’s ideas… First here then again more lightly here but i expect as I take #rhizo14 and read Dave’s book, there will be more to reflect on. The main thing Is the whole notion of “community as curriculum”

These are not all the teaching philosophies to ever inspire me, but just recent ones. Will blog about others over time and mybe share my own as I develop it


Cormier’s Community as Curriculum, and Rhizomatic Education

I have just finished reading Dave Cormier’s 2008 article Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum and thought I would reflect on it here. (I am actually unsure why I had never come across this before, as I have been doing lots of research on MOOCs, and he is the one who coined the term, after all!)

First, it resonated with me big-time regarding how knowledge about rapidly changing fields can no longer wait for the traditional learning/knowledge-acceptance cycle. My recent experience writing a peer-reviewed article about MOOCs was a great example! Between first draft, peer review, and second draft, a lot had changed in the MOOC landscape. Between article getting accepted and its upcoming publication, my own views about MOOCs have already changed as I have taken more MOOCs and read a lot more about others’ views, especially given the recent conference on the matter.

Second, I had been looking for approaches to online education that did not take traditional instructional design approaches, and this is definitely one of them, as it focuses on the community of learners as knowledge creators rather than an expert as central to deciding which content is valuable for the learners. Not surprisingly this sounds a lot like social constructivism and even more like connectivism (and Cormier does mention the similarities). He suggests, however, that these theories still assume

“…that the learning process should happen organically but that knowledge, or what is to be learned, is still something independently verifiable with a definitive beginning and end goal determined by curriculum.”


“In the rhizomatic view, knowledge can only be negotiated, and the contextual, collaborative learning experience shared by constructivist and connectivist pedagogies is a social as well as a personal knowledge-creation process with mutable goals and constantly negotiated premises”

Because knowledge in some fields is so fluid, he says it is like a moving target, and so community becomes central to curriculum,

“community is not the path to understanding or accessing the curriculum; rather, the community is the curriculum.”

This view has radical elements of empowerment, but I also have a tingling feeling that it might be missing something as many such approaches do: the inequalities within community. Just because all are told to “be peers and work collaboratively” does not mean they are equal. People have different levels of comfort with this kind of fluidity, they have different power to exert and confidence to exert it (e.g. Due to variations in tech skill, linguistic ability, time management, etc.), and the degree to which the are able to disconnect from traditional notions of canonical knowledge. Cormier does not by any means claim that this approach is appropriate for all disciplines and I value that contextualization.

I look forward to exploring these ideas further, reflecting on my own experiences with them (e.g.#edcmooc which I just finished, #FutureEd MOOC coming up) and how they connect with pedagogy even in less bleeding edge fields. I know there has been much more going on in the field since 2008, connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) being one phenomenon, and also HASTAC. Much more left to learn and reflect on, hopefully to bring back to my own teaching and faculty development work.


Why @HybridPed is my Favorite Journal

On the upcoming two-year anniversary of the journal Hybrid Pedagogy, I thought I’d share why this has been my favorite journal for the past few months (and probably for many more years to come).

There are many reasons I love the journal, but foremost among them is its digital agnostic approach (is that a term they made up?) – unlike a lot of other writing about educational technology, that tends to be  overly positive or overly negative (utopian/dystopian, as we discussed in #edcmooc), this journal provides a balanced and critical approach: in their words, they “avoid valorizing educational technology”. The journal is a reflective hybrid of “critical pedagogy” and “digital pedagogy” (though digital pedagogy is not their only focus). I think it is wonderful to find a journal that has an underlying social justice approach, that offers dissenting viewpoints, while also being critical in the most beautiful sense: where the end of the criticism is constructive (don’t take my word for it – check out the journal itself). They do all of this in accessible language – whereas much critical pedagogy work is not written in ways accessible to your average practitioner. It is a journal with an alternative perspective, a radical approach, but through it all, it does all of this in an accessible manner.

It is also not just a journal. The two individuals whom I often connect with it (Jesse & Sean) also lead other creative online pedagogical experiments, some of which I have participated in, such as ReadMake (I made this video reflecting on the creative chaos of it). They also lead monthly discussions on topics of interest to a variety of people, via the Twitter hashtag #digped, and have done lots of other creative experiments that you can read about in the journal.

Insight into their supportive/collaborative peer-review process made me wonder why most peer-reviewed journals take on an antagonistic double-blind peer review process, when it is pedagogically much more constructive to do open and supportive peer review! Jesse recently tweeted “I’ve a staunch no mean reviewers policy @HybridPed. Ironically, it’s the thing I’m ruthless about.” [which reminded me that I was recently tempted to tell someone “by the way, I was one of your peer reviewers for that article you just published – the nice, supportive reviewer, not the mean one!”]

I also love this recent post on promoting open access publications that also reflects on their process, which concludes with “The work of scholarship should ultimately be about generosity” and that we should champion the work of others as well as our own (and, I just realized, I am currently doing just that in this blog post)

Hybrid Pedagogy recently published a list of lists, a great way to navigate the treasure of articles in the journal. However, my favorite article of all-time was not mentioned in that list. That article, Beyond Rigor was the first journal article I read (and shared) after successfully defending my thesis. That might be why I have such a strong emotional affinity for/with it. But there is more to it than that. The article does a great job of articulating an idea I’d been trying to convince my colleagues of for a long time: that outcomes-based approaches to designing curricula are problematic. For some reason, when my colleagues read this article, all of them agreed with it. I am continually amazed by the power of well-articulated discourse and rhetoric. I will expand on this article later in a separate post.

I was recently introduced to the idea of “intellectual love“, and I recognized immediately that I am in deep intellectual love with this journal. It may be that this love stems from a compatibility in world views, but the journal still manages to challenge and stimulate me and push me beyond my comfort zone, which is, I believe, even more important.

A mentor once told me to try to publish in journals I liked to read, and @HybridPed is it right now! I look forward to one day soon being able to make a contribution to scholarship similar to the great quality reflective and provocative work this journal already does.

Join the fan club 😉 and enjoy