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 –

What is the Internet’s Constitution?


Peter Levine asked “how to teach the constitution of cyberspace?”  Is it possible for students to “critically assess the basic rules and structure of the Internet, much as they should understand and be able to criticize the US Constitution”? I agree with Levine that the massive, complex, and dynamic system that is the Internet is hard to suss out.  Where would one begin to critically assess?  Where are the founding principles codified?

Thinking on this it occurred to me that if we went back to the early 1960s we may indeed be able to articulate the founding blueprint of the Internet, its DNA, its Constitution.  Skimming through a couple of historical documents — most notably Janet Abbate’s Inventing the Internet and Roy Rozenzweig’s Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers: Writing the History of the Internet, I am wondering what we might learn about the values and design of the Internet from two key protocols – TCP/IP and HTTP.   The former are the essential protocols that allow everything on the Internet to work and the latter the gateway that ushered millions online.

Admittedly technical language such as these can be off putting.  The purpose and intents for the design not always clear to the lay audience.  And while the U.S. Constitution was written and ratified to provide the scaffold for an emerging nation, these protocols were designed for an emerging communication system which has grown to embody a massive, virtual and electronically fueled “cyberspace”.

So what are the principles, values, and essential design features of these protocols and what might they tell us about democracy online?

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.

Setting the Stage for Designing Young Lives

I’m currently engaged in a new Collaborative Exploration offered up the the Critical and Creative Thinking Community out of UMass Boston entitled “Young People Designing Their Own Lives.”  The case challenges explorers to think about how we might go about helping young people tackle their life design challenges by presenting the concept for a script or book that would guide young folks as they chart their course.

Interestingly, this coincided with a conference session at the National Humanities Conference this past weekend.   Folks from the PA Humanities Council talked about their Teen Reading Lounge program. The program has teens read books, discuss them, and then do hands on activities related to the books. The presenter linked the program and the exploration of literature to these key life questions teens are confronting:

  • Who am I?
  • What is my place in the world?
  • What do I believe?

Definitely, important prompts to start a life journey.  As I’ve been contemplating this case, I have also been thinking about creative books and activities from my youth.  One of the things I loved most when I was young were Colorfoms.  I loved having scenes where I could place characters and props.  I could rearrange and reconfigure infinitely.  I was free to orient, overlap, and edit.  At the same time, I had a container or structure that bounded my exploration.

About a year ago, a few of my favorite pre-teens were interested in creating their own “tv show.”  I gave them some simple guidelines:

  1. they each needed to have a character and know what their character was about and how that character related to the other characters
  2. they needed to have at least 3 settings
  3. they needed a challenge, task, or mission that they were trying to accomplish
  4. they could each bring or include one friend in the process

The girls scripted out a basic story line.  They knew what each scene was and what they were trying to do.  I told them to come to the tv studio ready to act.  They should bring any costumes or props that they needed.  I then let them design and arrange the various studio sets and furniture how they wanted.  I showed them how the green screne worked so they could see the possibilities for creative backgrounds.  From these basic elements they created and orchestrated a pretty silly, but cohesive story that was generated out of their own creative mind.  It was sort of like Colorform media.

So, as I’m exploring and thinking on this month’s collaborative exploration, I’m contemplating how to go about crafting a basic environment with enough raw materials that might jumpstart the life design mindset of teens.  What would this look like?  What format — book, script, media production, game?  What elements need to be in the mix and what will allow them to productively craft this?  What supports or guidance are needed?  It is exciting to think about.


The “N” in PLN (#xplrpln)

So in considering the contours and definition of a “personal learning network” (PLN), I turned to the trusty online dictionary.  So the words personal and learning seemed to garner definitions that resonated:

Personal — relating to, directed to, or intended for a particular person
Learning — the act or process of acquiring knowledge or skill

Then I came to network and that is when things started to get really fuzzy and exciting at all?the same time.  So one possible definition revolves around the connective mechanisms:  any combination of filaments, lines, veins, passages or the like in a netlike form
So here we have conduits, tissues and live wires formed into a specific pattern that is interlocking, decentralized, yet strong.   Then there is this definition related to radio and television:

a group of transmitting stations linked by wire or microwave relay so that the same program can be broadcast or telecast by all

This idea of entities transmitting information and relaying it seems useful.  The part about broadcasting “the same program” not so much.  And then there is this:

a system of interrelated buildings, offices, stations, etc., especially over a large area or throughout a county, territory, region, etc.

This definition brings in the sense of geographic space and travel across that space.  That seems cool. Then there is the idea of a network related to electricity:

an arrangement of conducting elements, as resistors, capacitors, or inductors connected by conducting wire.

In some ways this harkens to the first definition, but the inclusion of concepts like “resistors,” “capacitors,” “inductors” and by extension “transmitters,” “amplifiers,” “switches” and such start to flesh out the dynamic processes that are inherent in electrical grids — overloads, blackouts, excess capacity are also part of this analogy.

So, I’m sure if I search further there would be other networks with finer nuances depending on the sector or field — social networks, computer networks, underground networks.

So how do I make sense of network as a definition?  These are the things that work for me:

decentralized, interlocking, formed by many materials to aid movement and conduction, spread out across space (and I’d say time as well) with dynamic components that work for and against its smooth operation.

So a personal learning network?  So if we add this network definition to the personal and learning I would get:

spanning space and time, a personal learning network is a decentralized, interlocking, multi-material form with dynamic components that work for and against an individual’s process of acquiring knowledge and skills.

Any way, that’s what I have for the time being.  I realize, that the “what” moving across this network is till not particularly clear with “components” being a particularly fuzzy concept. I’ll need to think on that. (#xplrpln)

Still Considering Resistance & Its Connection to Stories

Source: Rule of Thumb – http://

The CICMOOC has moved on to metrics and measuring this week, but I am still considering and thinking on resistance.  My good friends Dan and Karen were kind enough to contribute to an exercise from the MOOC that asked for resistance points to a goal I set up.  The goal I proposed to them was to turn my yet not finished dissertation into a book.  They were incredibly helpful resisters and gave me lots of good reason why I could not do this.  In fact, they pointed out more than one reason I had not considered myself.  (For more detail on the exercise – a fellow MOOCer has posted a slideshare of her experience with the exercise).

The exercise was helpful.  It forced me to dispute their resistance.  I needed to consider their points as valid and come up with solutions and or alternatives that they had not thought about.  This was a pretty  productive.  By trying to dispute my friends’ claims, I became more committed to my own goals.

This thinking coincides with the start of a new Collaborative Exploration entitled Stories to Scaffold Creative Learning offered up by the Critical and Creative Thinking Program at UMass Boston.  The first Google+ Hangout sessions was last night and as I am thinking on themes and threads brought up by the participants, I have come back to the resistance exercise.  Through the lens of the CE I am seeing how the exercise forced me to craft an alternative narrative of possibility and by doing so, helped me see a path for movement forward that was clearer than if I hadn’t considered the obstacles or barriers.

This idea of obstacles, barriers and challenges also came up today in talking about a project at Tisch College (located at Tufts University).  The project is an interactive, multiplayer game called Civic Seed (still in development) which is designed to prepare college students who will be going out into communities to do internships.  I am part of the evaluation team on the project.  The content designer was worried that the game designers had not sequenced the content and thus would create confusion for the players.  In communicating with her and the dean of the college, it seemed to me that often the path to solutions or problems are not neatly sequenced.  We get information at different times.  We encounter road blocks.  We get side tracked.  But at some point, if we are dedicated and have time to reflect and engage with others, we often make sense of all of the bits.

So where does that leave me?  Well thinking about how things like resistance and problems (like a government shutdown) can actually be opportunities for new types of stories.  Tension points for new possibilities and new visions. This has me thinking about terms like disruptions, destruction, counter culture, and so much more.

Stories of Resistance: A Pathway to Change?

resistanceI am about ready to start another Collaborative Exploration (CE) cycle as this week’s Creativity, Innovation and Change MOOCs (CICMOOC) considers “resistance.”   The October CE will focus on stories and story-telling as mechanisms to scaffold creative learning. The interesting thing about the CICMOOC’s call to “listen to the resistance” is this compliments the practice of extending and developing thinking in the CE.  This is a process by which others respond to your thinking and ideas with suggestions you may not have considered.

Stories and story-telling are one possible way in which thinking may be challenged. I know I have looked to stories — in the form of books, movies, the experiences of others — to help me resolve tensions and conflict.  But I wonder if stories of resistance, tension, and conflict can in themselves be productive forces?  Just as we need our supportive community to empathize and listen, we also need challenge, pushing and resisted to grow.  I know this to be true from my own research in youth development settings.

As I ask a couple of friends to resist me in one of my goals, by rafting their negative narratives, I am interested to see if my attempt to dispute and craft an alternative narrative will allow me to create a more solid belief in my own ability to succeed.  I guess I will see 🙂


Working with Others: Branching Out, Going Deep


So the material for this week’s Creativity, Innovation and Change MOOC is focusing on the idea of creative collaborations,  In particular, the emphasis is on making the best use of a group’s wide range of talents, skills, capacities and motivations to move creative work forward and leaving the unproductive tensions to the side.

Bringing diverse perspectives and ideas to the table are also a core value in the Critical and Creativity Thinking program as well.  As I was wrapping up participation in the September Collaborative Exploration: Everyone Can Think Creatively!  I benefited a great deal from insights from two collaborators who gave me new ways to think about and extend my work at constructing an exercise that explored the social aspects of creation. Both of these individuals come to these CE with thinking that is different, yet both brought very good insights to my own thinking that I would not have come up with on my own.  I love these experiences with CEs and other CCT offerings because there is an emphasis on promoting and sustaining spaces where lots of diverse ideas and thoughts can surface.  I always learn something beyond what I thought I would.

This is also one of the aspects I love about the best of engagement in MOOCs — when I take advantage of it.  The idea that I could come in contact with lots of diverse ideas and individuals is exhilarating.  Yet, I seem to gravitate in these open learning environments to others who think about and are interested in the things I am — such as technology enabled learning, building learning communities, and navigating new learning landscapes.  Here the contributions are not so much about an entirely new perspective, but rather going deeper and extending my thinking in an area shared by others.

So I wonder how we go about constructing our own personal learning networks to ensure that we have enough challenging people and opportunities that make us think differently, while at the same time cultivating connections with those who want to dig deep into an area we are all passionate about.  Maybe this will be something to explore further in the upcoming open seminar on personal learning networks.


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: