Open Thinkering


Tag: Durham University

Answering questions from #durbbu

Over the past few days I’ve posted artefacts from my keynote presentation at Durham University’s elearning conference. First I shared my presentation, then I shared some of what participants created using index cards during the session. In this post, I want to answer the questions I was asked via the final side of the index cards. I answered other questions in the session, but I guess you had to be there (the audio was too poor to include that part in the recording I made).

So here’s the questions I was asked, followed by some imperfect responses. 🙂

How do you deal with the ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome?

Well, first off, it’s worth saying that if I had a one-size-fits-all answer to that I’d be a very rich man. 😉

But seriously, I think it’s part of a wider question about how people feel collegiality within and across institutions. In my (limited) experience in universities I’ve found that this is tied to people’s identity. For example, when people start identifying themselves as an ‘Open Educator’ then it makes them look for opportunities to collaborate.

I mentioned in answer to one of the questions in the session itself that you can stop things getting ‘stale’ within an organisation by mixing things up regularly. This can be done through things like job titles and hierarchy, but even simply by moving furniture around, starting off interesting projects and even having a cake club.

So I guess my answer is that the ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome (which I’ve seen many times) is tied to a wider issue around identity. There’s no quick fix, but improving the meta-level situation should lead to a decrease in the syndrome!

If Mozilla designed a VLE [Virtual Learning Environment] what would it look like?

What would your inclusive online learning environment look like?

These two questions were asked by the same person so I’ll answer them together.

I don’t think Mozilla would design a VLE because we believe that the web is the platform. A VLE or LMS (Learning Management System) is, almost always, something that is a walled garden, sectioned off, and separate from the open web. I’d point to Audrey Watters’ excellent talk at Newcastle University last year for a history of how universities’ online life has been enclosed by profit-making companies. I did find it odd, for example, during the Blackboard ‘roadmap’ presentation at the conference that they seemed to put ‘speed to market’ ahead of having a feature set that matched their current offering.

But anyway.

There are, of course, things that need not to be on the open web. Commercially sensitive information, personal details, things not ready to share with the outside world. But I don’t think we need some separate, monolithic platform for that. I’m a big fan of the ‘small pieces, loosely joined’. It’s how the web works. This approach means that people need more knowledge and web literacy skills, to be sure, but it means investing in your staff rather than large corporations driven by creating shareholder value.

So I guess it’s less ‘what would an inclusive online learning environment look like?’ and more what would it feel like? And my answer is: it would feel inclusive. And it would feel like that because it was co-designed with the people using it, who would have agency over the small pieces that are loosely joined. The VLE/LMS is a top-down command-and-control technology-as-power approach to edtech.

How does the idea of Radical Participation in HE [Higher Education] deal with students who prefer to stay passive? Would learners that prefer not to engage nor participate then not learn?

I think two things are being conflated here. I tried my best to separate them out during the presentations and the questions immediately afterwards, but let me try again. Radical participation is not synonymous with confrontation or conflict. Nor is extroversion a pre-requisite for those involved. In fact, in many ways radical participation is the polar opposite of this. It’s meeting people where they are, and allowing them, if they choose to participate fully in the life of the institution.

My issue, which I raised in the panel session and then touched on again during my presentation, is that too often in universities the student union is seen as representing ‘all’ students. I don’t think that’s the case any more than politicians of the party that is currently in government represent everyone within the country. There are other ways to get involved. And I don’t think that this has to be a huge deal. It’s about making small tweaks to everything, and more about mindset that policy.

One more thing (a bit of a can of worms, but I’ll open it…) is that people learn to be passive through formal education. Bring me a child from primary school and I’ll show you an active learner. What is it, then, that kills that desire for agency in learning? Could it be our method of assessment from secondary school onwards? Surely not!

Would instructor-less ‘group’ learning/studying work at all levels – e.g. FE [Further Education]?

When is change just for change’s sake?

Again, these two questions were asked by the same person. I’ll deal with the second of these first. Change for change’s sake is when an agenda is imposed on an organisation or institution and doesn’t come from a perceived need for change within the sector. Having said that, it’s not always evident to some people (who need to change) why that change is necessary. So I guess it depends on the specific context. I will say that those who say ‘is this change for change’s sake?’ are usually the ones who have a vested interest in the status quo. The natural order of things is change and flux. It’s us that make it otherwise.

I’m not sure whether the questioner thinks that I was advocating instructor-less ‘group’ learning/studying, but it appears so. Having taught in secondary schools, I’d say that instructor-less ‘group’ learning/studying certainly works for 11-18 year olds, as I’ve tried it! Not all the time, not for everything, but it’s certainly possible. It’s to do with mindsets and getting learners (and teachers) out of the mentality of spoon-feeding for exams. I’d like to see a lot less learned helplessness at all levels.

Are there any examples / case studies of truly RADICAL PARTICIPATION in HE [Higher Education] that go beyond traditional small group of individual MOOC style stuff?

I’m not sure I completely understand this question, but as I mentioned in my presentation, what works in one place doesn’t necessarily work elsewhere. What’s ‘radical’ in one organisation is run-of-the-mill and perhaps even a bit timid in others. One way to check whether you’re on the right trajectory is by looking at the guiding principles of the organisation. Does it have a mission/manifesto? What does that say?

Often, we tinker around the edges and are afraid of wholesale change. The lesson of Charles Handy’s Sigmoid Curve, however, is that we need to constantly re-invent ourselves and our institutions to stay current. To paraphrase what Heraclitus said a couple of thousand years ago, the river looks pretty much the same over time but you’re always stepping into different water.

Which books should we be reading?

Well now. I shared Antifragile: things that gain from disorder during the presentation as I’ve learned a lot from it. There’s lots of fantastic books from which you can learn ideas. Read lots – as Ryan Holiday does.

However, you also need to apply the ideas contained in what you read, after filtering them through your knowledge and experience. I think this is key. Some of that is just blogging or otherwise writing and sharing stuff that you think is worthwhile. I try and have a URL for everything so that I can build it up. If you’re not comfortable sharing that widely then you could just use Simplenote or a personal wiki.

They’re not new, but timeless books I come back to are:

I don’t know, perhaps they’re not useful to you. But I find those books useful that spur my thinking about the reasons why we do stuff. Getting to the foundations is important. For everything else – more practical, ‘one big idea’ stuff – I just read the Wikipedia article. Too often those kinds of books have five pages of explanation then 195 pages of filler. 😉

Update: Ben Leighton got in touch to remind me that, during the Q&A in the session I recommended Thanks for the feedback : the science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. It’s a good book, but you can probably get away with reading just the first few chapters…

Image CC BY Matthias Ripp

Radical participation: a smörgåsbord

Today and tomorrow I’m at Durham University’s eLearning conference. I’m talking on Radical Participation – inspired, in part, by Mark Surman’s presentation at the Mozilla coincidental workweek last month.

My slides should appear below. If not, click here!

I was very impressed by Abbi Flint’s keynote going into the detail of her co-authored Higher Education Academy report entitled Engagement Through Partnership: students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education. In fact, I had to alter what I was going to say as she covered my critique! Marvellous.

After Abbi’s keynote I was involved in a panel session. I didn’t stick too closely to my notes, instead giving more of a preview to what I’m talking about in my keynote tomorrow. As ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to some hard questions!

Doctor Doug.

Dr. Doug with Prof. Steve Higgins

Dr. Doug Belshaw with Prof. Steve Higgins

Today I graduated from my Ed.D. in the wonderful surroundings of Durham Cathedral (a UNESCO World Heritage site).

Both my family and my supervisor Professor Steve Higgins were there to witness it and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank them all for their advice, guidance and support during the past few years. I’d also like to thank those who have cheered me on both here and elsewhere online. 🙂

My doctoral thesis has been online since I began writing it. You can access it at

This event has come at a great time between finishing up my role with JISC infoNet and starting with the Mozilla Foundation. Exciting times!