The Paradox of Structure in eLearning Environs


This week’s materials in the CICMOOC on the Paradox of Structure sparked that seed of interest for me.  For the last couple of years I have been exploring the contours of self-organizing within open organizational structures (e.g. open source software movement, world social forum).  The 119 Gallery in Lowell, MA is often the focus of this work and I’ve written about it at various place on this blog [post 1, post 2, post 3].  However, the prompt to explore structure in the CICMOOC as one of week 3’s exercises has me returning to the comparison between this MOOC and my current Collaborative Exploration (CE) offered up by the Critical and Creative Thinking Program at UMass Boston.

I’m trying to enlist the help of one or more of the current participants of the CE to collaborate with me in the CICMOOC exercise on the Paradox of Structure.  In the meantime, I thought I would explore the enabling and limiting features of the two current learning spaces I find myself in at this time.  Both learning spaces are looking at creativity and ways to engage and enliven individual creativity.

The CE is a 22 day small group, case-based exploration under the topic of “Everyone Can Think Creatively!”.  Meeting synchronously once a week for an hour using Google+ Hangout and engaging in individual inquiries based on the case in between are the main activities. Each synchronous session has a format and structure, while the individual inquiries are diverse and broad.  The group exchanges are intended to support and stretch individual thinking.

The UMass Boston CE enables me to pick my own path of inquiry, but within a defined structural space that focuses or contains the inquiry. Much like the story shared in the CICMOOC lecture this week by Kathryn Jablokow..  There are colleagues to motivate and be accountable to as well as provide additional thinking and support.  It also helps me to know that this is a contained activity with defined parameters of time and input which helps me move forward.  In terms of limits, the CE has a small number of individuals to engage with.  The connections are deep, but not particularly diverse.  Also even thought the time is specified, it still creates some pressure to maintain the schedule.

The UPenn CICMOOC on Coursera has a more formal 8-week course structure.  It is a MOOC, so thousands of individuals might be engaging at any given time.  The course has build in a great deal of diversity in terms of materials, levels of engagement and assignments.  There are assignments, activities and projects to prompt accountability.  I am also participating with a learner initiated quadblog initiated by Cathleen Nardi with myself, Maureen Maher and Jack Matson.

The CICMOOC is enabling in a very different way. Here the course materials are more prescribed, but they are provided in easy to access and digest formats with the option to dig deeper if I like.  Likewise, weekly activities and exercises are diverse enough and there is enough freedom to choose those that interest me.  I have thus far found at least one exercise that energizes me each week.  The course’s three possible levels of engagement create both freedom and support.  Each level is presented as completely valid and no option is presented as better than the other, just different.

In terms of limits, the CICMOOC has provided the opportunity to engage with a very broad set of learners and potentially ideas.  I have yet to fully engage in deep exchanges.  In part this is a lack of my own commitment to do so, but without accountability (or obligation) built in I am finding it difficult to make the time to engage.  The exception to this is the self-organized quadblogging group.  This commitment to quadblog has been enough to prompt me to write regularly and interact with a few folks.  I see that part of the exercise for this week prompts a step to participate in the discussion board, so I will see what happens next.  This inability to have others really respond, react and prompt further thinking prevents deep understanding and exploration of the content.

I am gong to continue to think on these formats and for the time being it seem to me that any eLearning ecosystem needs to have a diversity of options and levels of engagement with content and learners.  Enabling others and supporting learners to build that ecosystem is what I hope an upcoming open seminar on Personal Learning Networkswill explore.

Image from:

The Making of a Place

Just returned from the Urban Affairs Association conference in Pittsburgh where there were a number of papers delivered about the role of media, art, and culture in the life of the city.  Placemaking and the role of authentic experiences were front and center and the ways in which liveable and sustainable cities provide opportunities for their residents to interact in meaningful ways with each other and the space around them.

Reminded me of this piece in the Boston Globe a week and half ago written by local artist Donna Dodson – as well as the piece in Slate a couple of days ago about walkability  –  Lowell is highlighted in both.

Making me wonder what are the other experiences and interactions that make Lowell a place?  Also, I have had the feeling over the last couple of months that there is a swelling of engagement and activity happening especially with a group of younger leaders being visible — it is as though we are on the verge of a tipping point.

Quick & Dirty Qualitative Analysis

So I’ve been thinking on ways in which nonprofit organizations might be able to take lots of text from reflections, surveys, testimonials, and other such word heavy data and quickly code the data for analysis.  Over the last six months, the 119 Gallery ( has been conducting a survey ( on impacts members of its creative community have experienced from the gallery.

I took all of the text from the 44 responses and pasted that text into Wordle ( which is a free tool to create word clouds.  The only word I deleted from the text was “gallery” since it is used often in reference to the name of the space.  Here is the resulting Wordle:

So initially, I would say that this display of text data is a good first step to assessing raw word count content.  In reading the responses it was clear that the sense of community was clearly present and given that the organization is an arts organization it is therefore not surprising that the 119 emerges as a “community art” space.

People, artists and Walter (one of the founders) emerge as other prominent words.   The what of the space — work, shows, events, music are not surprising.  The ideas of support, appreciation, welcoming are joined by open, creative, opportunity and unique which are in my opinion essential qualities of the organization.  Other interesting words that emerge are things like sense, felt, believe, feel and experience.

What the quick and dirty doesn’t provide is more nuance and context to the words.  Thus a traditional coding process can get at deeper meaning.  But this initial test seems promising.

Creating Ownership, Engagement, Buy-in

In thinking through the mechanics and design principles for self-organizing spaces, it seems a key element to ownership, engagement and / or buy-in is the extend to which an individual’s contribution are found value or useful to the group.  Or perhaps it is that for some, it is this element that is most critical, while others find the ability to express or be heard is paramount and still others find the connections to others having the most meaning.  There are standard theories in volunteer management / motivation that look at affiliation, achievement and power as the key factor propelling engagement in an organization (

Peter shared with me some thinking he had done on the SICW endeavor to come to some collective and growing community of researchers, activities, educators in this realm.  It was gratifying to know that some of the thinking I had shared with him on self-organizing groups was taken up.  That my ideas had some value.  So then the question is how do we creating meaning and value within the context of self-organizing groups?  How do we make accommodations for varieties of motivations?  How do we meet varied needs for connection and engagement?

Part of me things that it is critical then to provide many levels of intensity for engaging and opportunities for coming in and out of a space.  I will need to think on this a bit more.

Thoughts on 119 Organizational Design

So I’m starting to think about the 119 and its organizational design.  Starting to pickup more concretely literature in this area.  It seems to me that looking at the 119 as a case connects to literature from the following areas like:

  • Organizational Studies
  • Business Management and Leadership
  • Collectives and Cooperatives
  • Grassroots Organizing
  • Volunteer Management
  • Motivational Studies
  • Social Network Theory
  • Complexity Studies
  • System Thinking
  • Network Design

This format rests within a long history of community action and engagement coupled with traditions coming out of the business sector formed during the middle part of the last century and then amplified by advances in science and technology which have produced new ways of sharing and communicating.

The 119 sits somewhere between social network theory and organizational management theories.  The organization is concerned with organizational tasks such as creating goals and outcomes, designing roles and responsibility / accountability, and coordinating and communicating key information (management and leadership).  At the same time, there is a need for trust, community, reciprocity, social bonding and bridging (social network). The system also mechanisms to provide feedback for adaptation and response (system).

Thinking too on what self-organizing groups need in terms of platforms, coordinating structures, values, etc.

It also seems to me that the 119 Gallery responds and adapts within a context of problem-based organization.  Laurie Ross’s report on Youth Workers talks about Dilemna-based approaches.  It seems that there is something there.  The idea that problems become and opportunity respond and adapt systems.

For instance, current tensions at the 119 appear to revolve around roles and responsibilities and confusion when these are crossed without prior understanding.

I’m going to start reading on some older literature from the early 1990s to early 2000s about these concepts.  I am thinking that while the business sector has had a lot of these ideas shifting around and there exist NPO models, articulation of these concepts within the NPO literature is under-developed.