Being Represented

The global is local. I may not be able to change things at the federal level, but change at the local level is possible and doable.


The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president and the near domination of the GOP at almost every level of government has me thinking a lot about what it means to be in a representative democracy. As I see the President-Elect assemble his cabinet, I do not see any person or persons who represent my vision or me for a future. While I can’t speak for the majority of voters who voted for someone else other than Mr. Trump, I doubt they see themselves or their interests represented there.

At this moment, North Carolina’s elected representatives in the state house are stripping the powers of the incoming Governor, a Democrat, who after an extremely competitive race ousted the GOP incumbent responsible for supporting regressive bills that resulted in concrete hardship, both economic and social, for the state. These very same legislators are also the ones who worked to curtail the voting rights of African Americans and young people. They did not succeed.

This anti-democratic move, so like the recent election of Mr. Trump, is a fight to see who will be represented in our government. This has me thinking a lot about my very own local elected bodies. And how like the election of Mr. Trump, I do not feel represented by those who sit on either the City Council, nor the School Committee. I do not see myself, my values, nor my Lowell represented there. There have been a few glimmers in the last twenty years, but they are fleeting.

I’ve lived and worked in Lowell for almost two decades. From the moment I first came to Lowell, I have loved its diversity. The mix of history, culture and perspectives from across the globe are like no other in the Commonwealth. I have thought this is the closest I will get to a mini-NYC in New England. Lowell is big enough to contain many lives and many stories, but small enough to belong and be known, even if one is constantly referred to as a “blow-in” or “outsider” by some. Lowell is fortunate to have committed civic actors who care, love and strive to make the city a better place. Lowell’s nonprofit sector is amazing and I don’t think we fully understand how rare it is the collaboration and partnership that happens here. But most of all, Lowell’s people sustain me. They are the reason I continue to remain invested.

Despite my love of Lowell, every local election cycle I am disappointed. I don’t doubt the fact that those who run and are elected to local bodies love and care for Lowell as much or more than I do. I don’t doubt that they are driven and aspire for what they see as best for the city. Yet, every new Council and School Committee draws its winners from a very small and limited group of the City’s populace. While they are committed public servants, their perspectives are narrow. I do not see all of Lowell represented there. The vibrant ethnic and immigrant communities, the young, the artists, the newcomers or blow-ins, the neighborhoods and so many more perspectives are missing. They are not represented. And because a diversity of backgrounds and experiences are not on our elected bodies, our local public institutions and policies suffer. Lowell suffers. We may be amazing in so many ways, but we could be even better if more of us were represented.

So while I feel despondent about the federal government representing me and I see limitations in so many places, I feel confident that Lowell’s politics could and can be better. We are about to enter into a new local election cycle and there is an opportunity to expand who represents us. There are multiple pathways to make this happen and I urge us all push to make our politics more representative. It might not be easy, or without conflict, but I believe it will benefit us in the long term. I am thinking through what I will do to make this vision a reality, and if you are in a place like Lowell, or even Lowell, what will you do?

The Open Dinner — A Modest Step towards an Engaged Community

Community Dinner

I have a wonderful friend, Y Sok.  She is a bold Cambodian woman who is by far one of the most amazing hosts.  In another time and place, she would be the mistress of a sparkling Salon.  Y has recently moved to Manchester, England to join her newly wed husband Jonathan.  Prior to her departure from Lowell, Massachusetts (whose blueprint came from Manchester), Y ran weekly Tuesday night dinners.  They were open invitation to her broad network.  You could bring along any guest and there was always room and food.  It was a standing thing and the best part of the whole evening would be the eclectic mix of people and the conversation.  The food was always fantastic, but the conversation and connection even more so.

Now Y is hosting weekly Friday night dinners in her small abode in Manchester to anyone who signs up to her club.  It is a free club organized through MeetUp.  She cooks the mains and the guests bring the sides.  That is the contract.  Here’s her report out on the dinner last night:

It went great. Best one so far. I have close to a hundred members now, and all dinners booked months in advance. Meeting really interesting people, from all walks of life. My next one is Polish food. Last night we had a newly separated rich guy, a mechanic, a Venezuelan ex pat widow, a retired teacher, a curtain maker, and a pub owner. I usually do the main dish, and they bring everything else. They love the idea that they have to research the country, and recipes. Jonathan helps serve Drinks, and cleans up.

What would happen if we each did something as simple as invite a bunch of strangers to dinner?  Not even once a week, not even once a month, but just ONCE.  Who would show up?  What sort of new connections, ideas and relationships would be formed?  It is a bit scary to open one’s home to the unknown.  It takes some courage.  I’m not sure if I have such courage.  But what if I did? What if you did?

Note:  image courtesy of –

When a Course becomes a Community

image courtesy of PeachPit Press

Dave Cormier, the mind behind Rhizomatic Learning 2014 (#rhizo14), just posted thoughts on his blog about creating a wonderful learning experience that went from a 6-week course to a self-propelled learning community.  The challenge as Cormier articulates it is how to bring in new learners into this community. His original plan – create a new course, but what about the energy of the existing learning community?  Connect the new course to the first course or simply bring the new learners into the existing community?

If the new paradigm is to move towards learning as a continual process in which individual learners build and find communities where they can explore and connect their interests and knowledge, it seems is just screaming to emerge.  Cormier, himself, is inclined to move this way and has put the question to the existing community.

So what happens when we break even further from the traditional configurations of a course?  Participants in Rhizo14 took the call to be agents of learning seriously. They continued to meet and discuss beyond the stated time frame and framework of the “course”.  So what does it take for a course to become a community?

I’ve thought about open and self-organizing spaces, both real and virtual, for some time. The Rhizomatic Learning community / course / space — has created a container and bounded the space.  Folks are there to explore a specific knowledge domain and they bring a wealth of energy and enthusiasm. Intersections are welcome, but the focus and boundaries need to hold to some degree or else the space becomes an unfocussed mess.

The space has an ‘open invitation” to act, engage, and be an agent.  The host, Cormier, is critical in ensuring that happens and was particularly excellent at looking for the wall flowers and overlooked voices, using his status as organizer to highlight these individuals. The spaces I’ve explored all have these “hosts.”  Sometimes they may not initially be visible, but they invite, connect, and focus the activity and when need be redirect or quell disrupters.  They also provide the platform and maintain the space. It is sometimes thankless, invisible and frustrating work — but good hosts who are open enough can make amazing new ideas and creations emerge.

It seems that with new comers into any community space they need the sort of supports that Cormier has laid out in exceptionally helpful Success in a MOOC animation — orient, network, cluster, focus.  I’ve been part of many MOOCs where folks are coming and going at all phases of the MOOC.  There are often new people coming in well after the “course” has started.  So Rhizomatic Learning isn’t really experiencing a new phenomena, but rather Cormier is consciously articulating it as such and working to be thoughtful about it.  In the real-world spaces I’ve been part of — new comers seem to need a few things:

  1. an initial designated place to go or structure to plug into to help ground them in the community and get comfortable with its norms
  2. a recognition or welcome as a means to acknowledge that they have entered and exist
  3. introductions or the ability to connect and “know” others
  4. a place to ask questions, express concerns, vent and openness and transparency in the community to these processes
  5. multiple ways to engage and the opportunity to exit and return

I for one would love to see how this course becomes a community. I am also thinking that looking to the best practices in open source software communities or other communities of practice may hold answers and insights as well.

Success in a MOOC: An Extension of Dave Cormier’s Recommendations

Dave Cormier has done excellent thinking on network-enabled learning and knowledge building and he has created really useful tools and sign posts to help others engaged in such learning endeavors. One of these is a brief video that helps new participants in a MOOC get the lay of the land for this new learning format. When I found “Success in a MOOC”  during my first cMOOC experience, I felt like I’d found that secret guide to the new foreign land I’d just travelled to.

Dave nicely details 5-key steps to MOOC participation that provide some sense of how the journey can be embarked upon.  One must orient, declare, network, cluster, and focus. I encourage you to watch the video to get the full details on these steps. I now have a number of network-enabled learning experiences under my belt and these steps certainly have replicated themselves to some degree in each environment..

During a recent Collaborative Exploration on Running deep learning communities hosted by the Critical & Creative Thinking Program at UMass Boston, a discussion emerged about how to support learners in MOOCs and other self-motivated learning spaces find their sense of purpose and agency. A version of this conversation was also part of Dave Cormier’s Rhizomatic Learning MOOC. Add to this that a few months earlier, an online seminar on Personal Learning Networks run by the MSLOC program at Northwestern engaged participants in an exercise that asked them to define personal learning goals for the seminar.

These discussions had me considering a couple of additional step that might expand upon Dave’s fine core. Specifically, a pre-step (prepare) and a post-step (reflect).  PREPARE helps participants start to think about their reasons and goals for participating in any new learning endeavor. The PREPARE step might include questions like these:

  • What type of learning experience are you looking for?
  • What are your learning goals?
  • How confident are you that you will meet these goals?
  • What barriers or challenges do you think you will encounter?
  • What could you put in place to minimize the barriers or challenges?
  • What additional supports or resources do you think you will need?

Just as one needs some time to think and get ready for a learning journey, one should take some time at the end to REFLECT and understand what the journey was about. This not only helps solidify the learning experience, but creates a foundation for future leanring.  The REFLECT step questions might include:

  • Did you meet your learning goals?
  • Did your goals change? If so, how?
  • What supports did you find or use during this process?
  • What challenges did you find during this process?
  • Do you have new learning goals as a result of this experience? If so, what are they?
  • How will act on meeting these new goals?

My colleagues in the Critical & Creative Thinking Program will be testing out the full 7-step process with the upcoming Learning Creative Learning MOOC offered for by the Media Lab at MIT. We will see how it goes.

Engaging in MOOCs: Exploring motivating factors and goals of diverse learners

NOTE:  this piece was update on 4/28 at 6:11pm EDT.

A good chunk of my adult life has been involved in community-based and group level endeavors that sought change, both large and small.  These efforts have included a band of college students searching for a more fulfilling learning experience, a cooperative house dedicated to egalitarian decision making, neighborhood groups fighting to maintain cultural and physical assets, women banding together to move themselves out of poverty through job skill training, and organizations working to protect free speech, increase community capacity, build creative connections or support newcomers or youth in gaining power.  To some degree or another, these efforts have involved individuals who were motivated by some level of self-interest with a belief that action with others was an effective and necessary strategy.  However, often these self-interests melded and expanded a larger set of collective concerns.

Throughout these experiences, I have always been intrigued by why individuals engage in anything?  What prompts a person to volunteer, vote, act, create or even learn?  How do we create environments that welcome engagement?  Can these environments be crafted to meet the needs of heterogeneous publics? What is needed to ensure that those environments are nimble enough to adapt to the changing needs, skills, interests and capacities of its various members?

Over the last year, I’ve been engaged in a half dozen MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses).  The topics have including the technical (e.g. Social Network Analysis, Learning Analytics) to the cultural (e.g. e-Learning and Digital Cultures, Learning Creative Learning).  They have been offered in a variety of platforms (e.g. Coursera, Canvas, P2PU).  They have employed instructivist and connectivist pedagogical theories.   As a result of these experiences, I have connected with others who are interested in technology, learning, and engagement processes.  We have tried to make sense of our own learning experience in MOOCs and think through what these environments mean for new individual and collective inquiry.  I have also tried to understand how this learning environment relates to my own interests in engaging environments.  Through these learning experiences, conversations, and reflections, I have come to think of MOOCs, especially those informed by connectivist ideals (cMOOCs), as something different than a course.  Rather, like many other spaces where I have found engaged individuals (i.e. neighborhood parks, city streets, a community art gallery, social media), I have come to understand MOOCs as a public learning commons.  Spaces individual learning and inquiry connects with that of others towards a larger set of social learning .

M.K.Stewart in a post on the U.C. Davis blog The Wheel, talks about the experiences of engaging in the e-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC as a participatory community of learners.  Linking that experience to a MacArthur Foundation report by scholar Henry Jenkins, Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture, Stewart writes:

Because MOOCs are voluntary and are taught online, the features that traditionally dictate the make-up of a classroom are irrelevant—quite literally, anyone with internet access and a few available hours a week can participate. In eLearning and Digital Cultures, the one thing we had in common was an interest in the topic, and the only reason we were compelled to complete the MOOC was sustained interest in the community.

It is this idea of “sustained interest in the community,” that has been the focus of my most recent inquiry. This inquiry has explored how and why individuals engage or participate in MOOCs generally, and cMOOCs specifically.

A recent working paper out of Stanford University using data from three computer science course designed for those with a high school, undergraduate and graduate level education.  The courses were primarily of the instructivist, or xMOOC, variety with course video lectures and graded assessments.   Through a cluster analysis of standard learning analytic data drawn from these courses, the authors described four “prototypical trajectories of engagement:”

  • Completers – most video lectured watched, assessments completed and course credit received
  • Auditors – video lectured watched, sparse engagement with assessments, and not course credit received
  • Disengagers – videos watched and assessments completed at beginning of class and then decreased or stopped engagement
  • Samplers – watched a few video lectures, usually at the beginning of the course and occasionally after the course was under way

source: M.K. Stewart, e-Literate

On the blog e-Literate, Phil Hill shared an emerging typology of student engagement gleaned from course analytics of Coursera-style offerings and engaged conversation with colleagues.  The typologies share much in common with the Stanford working paper above.  Hill articulates five levels:

  • Active Participants – These are the students who fully intend to participate in the MOOC and take part in discussion forums, the majority of assignments and all quizzes & assessments
  • Passive Participants – These are students who view a course as content to consume. They may watch videos, take quizzes, read discuss forums, but generally do not engage with the assignments.
  • Drop-Ins – These are students who perform some activity (watch videos, browse or participate in discussion forum) for a select topic within the course, but do not attempt to complete the entire course. Some of these students are focused participants who use MOOCs informally to find content that help them meet course goals elsewhere.
  • Observers – These students login and may read content or browse discussions, but do not take any form of assessment beyond pop-up quizzes embedded in videos.
  • No-Shows – These students appear to be the largest group of those registering for an Coursera-style MOOC, where people register but never login to the course while it is active

source: M.K. Stewart, e-Literate

Hill’s typology has more nuance than the Stanford paper, although I probably would still keep the category of a “disengager.” However, I’d probably rename it to something more like “drop-outs.”

Still, these typologies are primarily descriptive of the individuals involved in these MOOCs.  They don’t capture that next level of understanding, which is related to the motivations or goals driving the engagement.  They also don’t fully measure engagement that goes beyond consuming course content and completing assignments.  How do you capture conversations on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and blogs?  What about intereactions of subgroups within the larger MOOC community?  How might we measure shares, retweets, and likes?  How are people connecting outside of the formal forum or discussion board of a class?  How are individual students helping each other? What do these MOOC-based  social networks look like?

Understanding the motivations and breadth of engagement activities would help better inform the design and teaching strategies used to keep “sustained interest in the community.”  They also seem to lack a conception of engagement as an activity or entity in itself.

Hill does talk about learner goals a bit in a post that preceded the one above which is worth noting.   Ethan Zuckerman, in a recent keynote address to the Digital Media and Learning Conference, explores more fully the concept of engagement.  Zuckerman posits two vectors  (thick / thin and symbolic / impactful) that define engagement practices and work to form four quadrants of engagement:

  • Thin and symbolic – acting is online only in things like online petitions or liking a cause
  • Thin and Impactful – a simple action which itself might be thin, but whose impact is meaningful, such as voting
  • Thick but Symbolic – lots of activity and work in a manner that may result in primarily symbolic change or attention such as the actions of the Occupy movement.
  • Thick and Impactful – full participation, but often works best in small groups such as neighborhood change.

I took these ideas of “thick and thin” and applied them my experience and thinking about MOOCs and engagement.  At the same time, I was thinking about how individuals in MOOCs seemed to prefer working independently or with others (interdependently).  This may align with a third vector that Zuckerman adds related to scale (individual, small group, and social activities).  These ideas also resonate in Peter Taylor’s thinking about learning in microworlds, messyworlds and the real world.

So MOOCs present themselves as learning environments where individuals have varying capacity and interest in engaging (thick /thin).  They also have varying modes or preferences for engaging (independent / interdependent).  These interactions may serve varying levels of meaning for the individual and the community of learners (symbolic / impactful).  And while the MOOC is a large-scale endeavor, its ability to accommodate learning at a variety of scales is possible.

Thus, I’ve come to a mental model or metaphor of MOOCs being like the green quadrangle in the center of the quintessential college campus.  It is open to all in the learning community.  On a nice spring day, a formal philosophy class has pulled its chairs outside for a class session.  A study group for a Calculus class is swapping notes for an upcoming exam and another group of students are working on a presentation for a class on global markets.  Multiple individuals are reading, studying, and taking notes for a range of learning goals while occasionally stopping to share casual social interactions with passing classmates or peers nearby.  Another group of students are playing Frisbee as several groups are promoting a range of activities from end of semester events to political causes.  An acoustic guitarist has a small audience listening to her songs as professors and students pass through on their way to other spaces – classrooms, dorm rooms, offices, labs, coffee shops, community service activities, athletic practices.  Some of them may return later to the quad to engage in any range of activities form the educational to the social.

My interest now is how to design MOOCs and other open online learning environments in a way that can accommodate and respond to the varied demands that learners may have of them.  And how can such design facilitate the smooth transition back and forth between activities, as learners are able to understand what they need and aspire to.  And can such environments support and recognize these varied needs.

Here I am starting to explore the role that instructional designers, teachers, leaders, mentors and peers play in engaging and motiving leaders.  How do they encourage sharing? How do they create models of peer support?  How do they orient learners to the processes of engaging in such a learning environment?  How do they help learners connect to and “know” each other?  How do they encourage feedback and response from peers as a motivating factor?

Thus, rather than pure sets of technologies and structures, how do we ensure that MOOCs are able to create and re-create a set of social and cultural practices that unleash the learning potential and agency of us all?

The Stories We Tell Ourselves – #edcmooc

So this week we are exploring metaphors.  Metaphors of technology and its use have an immense power to shape our eventual understanding and sense of possibility.  We can tell stories of fear or wonder and perhaps the reality is somewhere in between.

I had been contemplating how our mental models of what is a class and what it is to learn are based on our previous experiences.  These experiences in turn shape our expectations for MOOCs.  We have a certain idea of what it means to take a class.  What the structure is.  What is expected of us.  But what happens when those expectations are disrupted?  Like Clay Shirky describes in his essay on Napster, Udacity and the Academy, we may be so preoccupied with how we think learning is supposed to happen or is suppose to be, the we don’t see the new possibilities presented to us within a context of change.

Does learning have to happen in the way we currently construct it?  What would learning look like if each person mapped out their own personal learning plan or goals? Do we, as potential learners, even know how to create these or what they are?  What would our own Personal Learning Networks look like if we had no barriers?  Should our current educational systems be more about learning the skills and confidence to learn rather than focus on content?  What are the possibilities presented by a global knowledge network fueled by the Internet, that operates more like an ecosystem than a discrete classroom?  The theory of connectivism keeps poppiong up.

Shirky tells us that that “new technologies allow us to tell new stories.”  The e-Learning and Digital Cultures (#edcmooc) course along with my experiences with the teaching methods in the Critical and Creative Thinking Program at UMass Boston show that we can rethink and recreate the processes by which we engage learning — both with and without technology enhancements.  We can find ways to increase individual motivation and passion for learning while building the confidence and agency for the learner. It’s just that we have for too long been conditioned to expect that learning happens in prescribed ways.  How do we create the places for students to develop “curiosity and a questioning disposition, what we’ve called in the past a gaming disposition?”

This seems related to Bateson’s Levels of Learning described by Gardner Campbell in is keynote at the Open Ed 2012.   We think of learning often within the context of a formal or institutional setting.  We take a class. A class has a set format, defined goals and roles, activities set forth with a set duration.  The learning is contained within the class with some structured amount of outside work which is structured and tied back to the class.  Admittedly there is a certain amount of variety within this format.  Yet, we are often motivated by external demands such as grades, tests, and degrees that we forget or ignore our own curiosity and passion for learning.

But what happens when the ways learning is suppose to happen gets disrupted?  What if learning can happen any where?  What if everyone is a potential teacher?  What if the content has substance but no specific format or set boundaries? What if the learner is in charge?  As Shirky says “[t]he possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled.”  But do these possibilities present a vaste array of possibiliteis or do they threaten to homogenize knowledge as Depedeva posits on her blog?

So the one area I keep coming back to and is the basis of some writing I’m doing on digital badging, where do credentials and accreditation fit into all of this?  Clearly many who engage in a MOOC are doing so for their own professional and personal development.  But if we are proposing MOOCs as alternatives to our current systems of education, how do we help students demonstrate their mastery and competence?   Do we decouple the learning from the certification?  Ifs so, what are the new systems of credentialing needed for this new environment?


My imagined artistic self

Felicia M. Sullivan

Felicia M. Sullivan (°1966, Malone, United States) is an artist who works in a variety of media. By rejecting an objective truth and global cultural narratives, Sullivan tries to approach a wide scale of subjects in a multi-layered way, likes to involve the viewer in a way that is sometimes physical and believes in the idea of function following form in a work.

Her work urge us to renegotiate art as being part of a reactive or – at times – autistic medium, commenting on oppressing themes in our contemporary society. With a conceptual approach, she creates with daily, recognizable elements, an unprecedented situation in which the viewer is confronted with the conditioning of his own perception and has to reconsider his biased position.

Her works demonstrate how life extends beyond its own subjective limits and often tells a story about the effects of global cultural interaction over the latter half of the twentieth century. It challenges the binaries we continually reconstruct between Self and Other, between our own ‘cannibal’ and ‘civilized’ selves. By demonstrating the omnipresent lingering of a ‘corporate world’, she investigates the dynamics of landscape, including the manipulation of its effects and the limits of spectacle based on our assumptions of what landscape means to us. Rather than presenting a factual reality, an illusion is fabricated to conjure the realms of our imagination.

Her works establish a link between the landscape’s reality and that imagined by its conceiver. These works focus on concrete questions that determine our existence. By exploring the concept of landscape in a nostalgic way, her works references post-colonial theory as well as the avant-garde or the post-modern and the left-wing democratic movement as a form of resistance against the logic of the capitalist market system.

Her works directly respond to the surrounding environment and uses everyday experiences from the artist as a starting point. Often these are framed instances that would go unnoticed in their original context. Felicia M. Sullivan currently lives and works in Lowell, MA.

Created in less than a minute using –

Empowering Community Settings

I am doing some additional literature review for my dissertation and came across this table on an article about empowering community settings.  I wonder how many people can say they work at or are connected to a group or organization meets these criteria.  How can we move more of our organizations to practice and include these characteristics?  What would it take for our local governments to embrace these types of organizational practices?

[NOTE:  click on image to enlarge]

SOURCE: Maton, Kenneth J. (2008) ” Empowering Community Settings: Agents of Individual Development, Community Betterment, and Positive Social Change” Am J Community Psychol (2008) 41. p. 8.

The Bargainmaker is Always It

The 119 Gallery annual retreat was held on Sunday, May 6th.  During a discussion about the collection of facility usage or event fees, one of the participants, I think Andrea Pensado, asked how does this type of decision get made and enforced.  In essence she was working for a traditional understanding of organizational priorities where the board defines some set of objectives and these are then executive by staff or on-the-ground workers.  Yet within the context of the 119 this is not how decisions are enacted.  Basically, decisions are more participatory or decentralized in nature where the individual involved in the transaction or exchange decides.  Not that the person decides in a vacuum or in a context of no cultural or organizational values and goals, but basically individuals are agents in the process rather than avatars for the decisions of others.   Within this context as well, those who decide also have responsibility to follow through with the decisions they enact.  Board chair Jim Jeffers dubbed this style of decision-making — “The Bargainmaker is Always It” model.  He was borrowing it from decision-making within his household context, but it was highly apt within the context of the 119.

Thin Places

Walter, on of the founders of the 119 Gallery just shared this NYT article on thin places.  As quoted:

thin places are much deeper than that. They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.

In many ways the 119 Gallery at times, not always, is one of these thin places.  A place where new configuration and new interactions and transformations come into being.