complex network” by david mcchesney is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Navigating the Marvellous

Openness in Education

Summary of my keynote at ALT Conference 2014 #altc

Education is inherently an ethical and political act. — Michael Apple (1990)

In his spare and beautiful poem Lightenings viii, Seamus Heaney writes of moving “out of the marvellous”. The poem is based on an ancient Irish legend about monks at Clonmacnoise who were amazed to see a ship in the sky above them. When the anchor line of the ship got caught below, a crewman climbed down to release it. The monks realized that the crewman could not breathe down below, in their world, so they released the anchor and the man returned to the sea above. [video animation of Lightenings viii]

The legend highlights the existence of (at least) two realities, with beings in one world often unaware of, and unable to survive in, another.

Heaney uses a particular definition of the word marvellous in his poem (along with the Irish/UK spelling, with two ‘l’s): marvellous as extra-ordinary, or causing great wonder. To those in one space or one reality, a particular object or practice may be everyday, ordinary, literally the air we breathe. But to those from another space or reality, these things may seem so marvellous, strange, or Other, that they feel they cannot breathe.

Have you ever been in an institution, an organization, or a learning space where you felt you could not breathe?

Many of our students in higher education have.

Unfortunately, it is rare for students to get the opportunity to develop their skills for networking and networked learning within formal education. In our attempts to build learning platforms to tame the wild and open web, we may be teaching an unintended lesson: that there is a divide between Informal Learning and Formal Learning. Students must navigate the dissonance between informal, everyday, and open learning on the web and in social networks — and formal, institutional, and closed systems within education institutions. The messages which students hear are clear. Don’t rely on Google. Whatever you do, don’t use Wikipedia. Discuss class topics here in this discussion forum.

The Visitors and Residents (V&R) project (White et al. 2014) is currently conducting longitudinal research with students and staff in both the US and UK, exploring what motivates different types of student engagement with the digital environment for learning. The project has highlighted the tension between academia and learning as experienced by many students:

This furtive thinking and behaviour around open-web resources such as Wikipedia masks the level of use of non-traditional resources and also masks the methods learners use to increase their understanding of subjects... The point at which learning takes place is often not being discussed because either explicitly or implicitly learners are being told by their educational intuitions or perceive that the educational institutions view that their information-seeking practices are not legitimate. In many cases this has led our participants to cite ‘acceptable’ sources which they haven’t properly engaged with. Resources that are cited but not read become an academic façade for the learning that often has taken place by using Wikipedia, YouTube and blog posts.

Many students experience a dissonance between informal and formal learning. Without opportunities to discuss their informal learning practices, support for developing these, or help in building bridges from them, students navigate this dissonance alone.

Perhaps our task as educators is not just to support learning, but also to support network building and open, networked learning. We can invite students to bring their multifaceted identities, skills, and networks to the learning spaces we create, and co-create, in higher education. In so doing, we can help our students to find breathing space and to navigate the marvellous.

Learning spaces

One way of thinking about learning spaces in higher education is simply to consider the different spaces where students and educators interact: physical spaces, bounded online spaces, and open online spaces. Physical spaces might be classrooms, seminar rooms, labs, maker spaces, etc. Bounded online spaces are members-only spaces, e.g. courses set up in Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) or Learning Management Systems (LMSs), Google+ communities, closed wikis, or any other members-only space. Open online spaces are any open, permeable, online spaces in which people can communicate and interact, e.g. open wikis, blogs, Twitter, etc. What happens in these different spaces? What is possible in these different spaces? When and why might we and our students choose bounded or open spaces for specific learning activities?

Networked educators meeting networked students” by Catherine Cronin is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

With intentional learning design and a commitment to mutuality and dialogic learning, physical spaces can be safe spaces for dialogue and community-building. However, while physical co-presence can be an advantage, there are barriers as well. In higher education, this is symbolized by the tyranny of the architecture in many of our physical learning spaces.

Young 101” by Infidelic is licensed under CC BY-ND-SA 2.0
ne da se mi” by Tadej is licensed under CC BY-ND-SA 2.0

Whose voice is privileged? Whose knowledge is privileged? It is possible to build community in learning spaces like these, but it is exceptionally difficult if we limit ourselves only to learning spaces such as these.

In bounded online spaces, architectures are constructed from bits not atoms; there is more flexibility. There are fewer temporal constraints — we can communicate asynchronously, for example — but engagement remains semester-bound in most cases. Bounded online spaces are focused on learning within a learning community. There are often good reasons for this, but is it always necessary? In addition, in a typically-configured VLE or LMS, the teacher or lecturer is literally privileged. Those defined as “teacher” in such spaces have privileges which students in the class do not have, e.g. adding and organising content, starting group conversations, etc.

Finally, although we can connect and interact within both physical spaces and bounded online spaces, we cannot easily share what we are doing with a wider audience, nor can we invite our networks into our learning community. The message remains: what we do here is separate from all else we do. Formal learning is divorced from rather than integrated with informal learning practices and networks.

In open online spaces, the organising principle is the network rather than the group. The focus is on cooperative learning rather than (or in addition to) individual work and/or group collaboration. Joi Ito (2011) has described open, connected, networked learning as the future of education:

I don’t think education is about centralized instruction anymore; rather, it is the process establishing oneself as a node in a broad network of distributed creativity.

Notably, it is not just individuals who can become nodes in learning networks. If we are already working within a community of learners, for example in a particular course, we can participate in networks as a group (e.g. using a course hashtag), thus enabling individual, collaborative, and cooperative learning.


Interaction in open online spaces allows us to cross many boundaries: temporal and spatial as well as boundaries of geography, culture, institution, education sector, community, and power level. But all of this depends on our values as networked educators and networked learners. To the extent that there is any leveling of power between students and educators, this is dependent upon a commitment to mutuality and dialogic pedagogy by educators, and trust between and among educators and students. Open practices offer possibilities for students and educators to engage with one another as co-learners. This is not simple, but it is the core value which drives initiatives such as #iCollab.

#iCollab is a global community of practice of students and educators across 7 institutions in 6 countries which explores not only social media and mobile web tools, but pedagogic strategies and learning scenarios that support participatory curriculum development. The individual learning communities at each institution network with one another across a range of social media using hashtags (e.g. iCollab network visualised using TAGSExplorer).

The iCollab network envisons a new model of education, as described by one of the participants, Helen Keegan (2012):

We’re now looking at the ‘tag-team model’ of education: the projects never end, as there is always a cohort to carry on, and lead into the next group, and when they overlap that’s great – that’s where the genuine collaboration happens. Traditionally, we deliver modules/courses, neatly chunked into 12 weeks, with units of assessment, leading to grades etc. and that’s the way things are (generally) done. I’m not saying scrap all of that, but I do think that modules are best served as springboards to other things. Increasingly, students are connecting across levels and cohorts through Twitter and now we have ex-students getting together with current students, undergrads coming to postgrad classes (and vice versa) as they’ve connected online and have a genuine interest in getting involved in other groups/further curricula outside of their taught modules.

Perhaps the most powerful transition we can make in our thinking as educators is to think of any learning space that we create as a learning space, rather than the learning space. Students learn across a range of spaces and networks, and we cannot expect that the spaces that we create — in the classroom or online — will be the only, or even the primary, learning spaces for students. Instead, educators can ask students about their existing learning practices, invite them to participate in co-creating some of the learning spaces that we use together, and consider the possibilities of open spaces and open practices.

Openness as breathing space

From my perspective as an open learner and open educator, openness means many things: using open resources, creating and sharing my work and my thinking openly, and supporting students in doing the same. At the most basic level, open can simply mean “available for free”. This is the definition used by many institutional MOOCs, for example. Most of these resources are not openly licensed, however, so they cannot be remixed, repurposed, reused, or reshared. The next level of openness is open licensing, i.e. use of Creative Commons licenses. A further level of openness is the development of open practices — open learning and teaching, open sharing and networking. Ultimately, I would describe openness as embracing a spirit of openness. I have learned a great deal from open educators like Howard Rheingold, Jenny Mackness, Bonnie Stewart, Dave Cormier, Alan Levine, Jim Groom, Helen Crump, my iCollab partners, and many more, who describe openness, variously, as a state of mind, a way of being, an ethos, or a political act. But why do those who identify as open educators make these choices? Jenny Mackness (2013) sums this up beautifully:

The rewards of open practice come in reciprocity, alternative perspectives and opportunities for dialogue.

Ultimately, open practices offer ways of crossing boundaries. Boundaries between teacher and student, formal and informal learning, education sectors, communities, and more — but only if we operate from values of mutuality and trust.

For there are many ways that students cannot breathe in higher education.

There are unequal gender and race relations at colleges and universities. This is evident in who is/is not employed, at what level, and under what terms. We cannot deny that wider struggles against multiple forms of discrimination and oppression — gender, race, class, sexual orientation, religion, and more — operate within our institutions and within our classrooms, online and off. So many aspects of our formal education systems — from standardized curricula to grading systems to the architecture of many of our classrooms, lecture halls, and online courses — reinforce the power of the educator over the student. This is compounded for students who are already marginalised or Othered.

Open practices can provide ways for educators and students to meet as co-learners. This does not have to happen instead of learning activities in classrooms or VLEs, it can often be in addition to these activities. We must be careful, however, not romanticize the online or the open — power relations operate here as they do elsewhere, often in different forms. However, we take a significant step toward our students by opening our classrooms and our practice to the world, inviting the participation of others, learning alongside our students, modeling digital literacies and the integration of informal and formal learning, and overall by demonstrating compassion for and trust in our students.

Education is Changing” by Bryan Mathers is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0


Apple, Michael (1990). Foreword. In S.G. O’Malley, R.C. Rosen & L. Vogt (Eds.) Politics of Education: Essays from Radical Teacher. State University of New York Press.

Facer, Keri & Selwyn, Neil (2010). Social networking: Key messages from the research. In R. Sharpe, H. Beetham & S. de Freitas (Eds.). Rethinking Learning For A Digital Age. Routledge.

Heaney, Seamus (1991) Lightenings viii, Seeing Things. Faber and Faber.

Ito, Joi (2011). (2011, December 5). In an open-source society, innovating by the seat of our pants. The New York Times.

Keegan, Helen (2012). A new academic year: global, connected, creative – and not (quite) a MOOC. Blog Heloukee: EdTech and Digital Culture.

Mackness, Jenny (2013). Open academic practice — How open are you? Blog Jenny Connected.

White, David, Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Donna Lanclos, Erin M. Hood, & Carrie Vass (2014). Evaluating digital services: A Visitors and Residents Approach. Jisc InfoNet Infokit.