Kool-Aid & the Worlds Online

Terry Elliott’s post of 9/18, Outsiders in Academe: Iconoclasty 101, got me thinking, so much so that when I left a comment on his post, I realized it was probably more appropriate as a post for my blog. I’ve added a few things for clarity, but what appears below is for the most part what I wrote to him.


Terry wrote

“In his latest book, The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth, Alexander divides all of architecture into two, prosaic camps: System A and System B. System B is all about efficiency and hierarchy. It is about power and control and productivity. All of which is well and good within its proper context. I want the centralized control systems built into the flying and landing and taking off of airplanes. I don’t want it nearly so much in the ‘ergonomic’ fascism of bathroom design or of learning management systems.

“System A is all about integrity and health and the folk not as nodes in a machine, but as a growing, adapting, distributed and living whole. It is the difference between a neighborhood and a housing development.

“System A is open, sustainable, regenerative, and feels good. System B is oppressive, closed, degenerative, and exhausting. Take your pick. And lest you counter that this is a false dichotomy, you need only look in architecture and higher education for System A generated spaces. There are not that many.

Alexander notes that the two systems entail a zero sum game: for one to thrive the other needs to diminish much like predators trying to occupy the same niche in the food chain.

I have a lot of questions about whether any of the web-based tools we are using actually fit the mold of System A. I don’t often feel those spaces as convivial and natural. Behind the artifice of interface lay the reality of code. Is that structure humane? Is it open, sustainable, and regenerative? Does it feel good? Does the whole idea behind code generate System A or System B? I really don’t know.”



I read Terry’s post and immediately thought of an article by Elizabeth Moje (2009), where she asks if the research about new literacies is about literacies that are truly new, or if people are simply practicing the same old literacies using new tools or in new media settings.

One stack of bokeh

One stack of bokeh

In the new world of learning that is struggling to be born through this MOOC and others, at least in higher ed, it would seem that System A may need System B to launch itself, a weird kind of symbiosis, in a way. I undertook a self-hosted WP blog because I wanted see if moving away from someone else’s platform would leave me bounding though the virtual streets shouting, “Free at last!” So far, not so much. However, what I immediately do see is the power I have to control what goes up on the site, how it gets shaped, how long it stays. That’s good. As an example, the Ning sites I used in my classes are long gone and there was stuff there I think students would have liked to access.

Yet, even via a self-hosted platform, the software inevitably shapes what happens through it and with it. Other people have written the code that makes any of it happen. We just learn to wield the tools. Learning it takes an significant investment in time.

But note that I said “my” classes above. All the why questions being considered in #ccourses are important, but I think there is another one, one that gets to a layer beneath all the whys of this week. That one is, “Who gets to decide?” Then comes another: “Why?”

Terry’s decision to unschool with his kids speaks to this. No matter happens with the #ccourses MOOC, or any MOOC, it still lives within cultures and structures and expectations that are informed by the long traditions of academia. Thinking about it that way, who’s an insider? Who’s an outsider?

What I appreciate about #ccourses MOOC is how clearly it’s organized. I appreciate the consistency of the theme of connectedness. I appreciate the clear communication about how a one of participant’s opportunities is it to use the available tools to try to connect with others.

I also know there are lots of newbies who are signed on to #ccourses. Talking about trust is interesting– a System A concept. I wonder if some quasi-B talk would also be helpful: how do you use the tools to reach out to others in order to connect? Do the experienced folks have an obligation to reach out and initiate the noobs, even a little? That’s another insider-outsider thing for me to consider, and a question I try to think about in designing any course.

The word “community” is used a lot in online spaces. We probably need to do a better job of interrogating exactly what that

simo & Marie Kool-Aid man

simo & Marie Kool-Aid man

means. What constitutes a community? I don’t know that talking with others via Twitter or any other mechanism is enough to make me feel like a member of a community. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t surprise me that there’s research out there that indicates the most effective online courses have periodic F2F meetings. I watch the Twitter stream go by and wish I were the kind of person who could jump in and feel like I’m part of the gang. I feel shy, most of the time, and on the outskirts. Sometimes I feel that one of my responsibilities as a participant in online worlds is to drink the Kool-Aid. But I’m not that good at Kool-Aid.

I want to formulate more thoughts about All This: Connectedness (is that just a form of System B?); MOOCs; how the affordances of Web can truly disrupt this thing called education. I want to believe the Web can be this disruptive.  In fact,  I do believe. The question is, how?

Moje, E. B. (2009). Standpoints: A Call for New Research on New and Multi-Literacies. Research in the Teaching of English., 43(4), 348–362.


Kevin Dooley. 2008. One stack of bokeh via Photopin and Creative Commons by 2.0

Ella. 2005. simo & Marie Kool-Aid man via Photopin and  Creative Commons by-nc-sa 2.0

6 responses to “Kool-Aid & the Worlds Online”

  1. Laura Gibbs says:

    It sounds a lot like we are technological twins separated at birth, Karen! I too used a Ning for many years, and Ning was my own first foray into the world of social networking online… I will always have fond memories of that!

    I’m definitely a fence-sitter when it comes to hosting. I hosted my own b2evo blog for a long time, but I got hacked. I mean REALLY hacked. I’m sure it was my own fault somehow; I just didn’t have the technical expertise to really understand how it all worked, and I probably failed to do a security patch. In any case, it was a big mess. My ISP was great about restoring me to a backup from before the hack, but of course I did not know what to do to really make myself feel secure after that, so I decided to throw myself wholeheartedly into using Blogger, which I had been using on-and-off for years and years, from way back in the Pyra Lab days, before Google bought it.

    I’m still happily using Blogger, and don’t have any desire to change. It lets me back-up my data. It gives me full RSS for both posts and comments. And, best of all, it allows javascripts (I love javascripts!). So I have no complaints.

    Based on my own enthusiasm for Blogger, when the mini-Ning era came to an end, I decided to try using Blogger for my classes. The results have been FANTASTIC, and I am kicking myself for not having made the switch years ago. The students are customizing their blogs, make really good use of Blogger’s various features, and — best of all — they are clearly enjoying themselves, feeling very empowered about the whole thing.

    Interestingly, my school has a very limited pilot of Domain of One’s Own going on, where students in a handful of courses are able to install WordPress blogs in their domain. The pilot is clearly going well, and students are blogging… but just at a casual glance, it looks like very few of those students are customizing their blog in any way. There are all kinds of factors involved there, and I don’t want to speculate. But I can say that as an active and enthusiastic user of Blogger, it’s been such a pleasure to share my experience with my students, encouraging them to use Blogger in adventurous ways.

    Anyway, I’m definitely enjoying the points of friction that are emerging in the Connected Courses discourse, like the great posts that people have written about Learning Management Systems for example, and the discussion that is emerging about hosting and hosted. So much to learn! I’m glad to have hooked up with you and to be learning about you and your students. I’m guessing we will have all kinds of ideas to share along the way! That’s the kind of disruption I believe in. Person to person. 🙂

    • admin says:


      Your enthusiasm is infectious! I, too, have used Blogger with great success. But after Ning closed down, I also needed a place for sharing creative work, posting assignments, etc. Usually I’ve used a wiki that everyone can access and edit. I can see how the self-hosting thing can let me incorporate all of that in my site, but I’m assuming that Blogger can’t let me add a wiki or create a discussion section. Do you know?

  2. Karen,
    When you wrote this, it caught my attention:

    The word “community” is used a lot in online spaces. We probably need to do a better job of interrogating exactly what that means. What constitutes a community? I don’t know that talking with others via Twitter or any other mechanism is enough to make me feel like a member of a community. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t surprise me that there’s research out there that indicates the most effective online courses have periodic F2F meetings.

    And I’m really interested hearing more on how you envision community?

    I guess I see Twitter as a network where it’s more about the “I” meaning, each person grows hers/his according to personal needs. It seems to me that communities can fall out of networks (Nancy White talks about that) and in community, it’s more about “we”. What can we learn together, how can each of us bring our gifts and talents to grow a collective wisdom. I think a Ning platform does a nice job of supporting a community with the affordance’s of technology that it offers. The online course I facilitate is housed on a Ning platform.

    My sense is that Connected Courses has been designed to grow community—the inclusive helpful precourse, the facilitator comments and presence (social, cognitive and teaching aligned with Garrison’s work on communities of inquiry), the deep and thoughtful blog posts, the dialogue in comments, the variety of technologies for expression and the opportunity for co creation of a video of #whyIteach.

    Your thoughts on the need for face to face sessions caused me to think more deeply– as it’s been my experience that meaningful relationships that lead to deep learning can develop bereft of face to face meetings. I never cease to be amazed at the collegiality that develops, especially when learners co learn from across the globe– even in a short formal learning time together. I’m very intentional in creating opportunities for that to happen, including many possibilities for co creation that seems to be key to community development.

    Really interested in your thoughts—

    • admin says:


      Thank you for your thoughtful response. Now you’ve got *me* thinking! Let me roll this around and I’ll write more over the next few days.


    • admin says:


      Sorry for the delay in my reply. In between moments in a hectic couple of days, I’ve been mulling this over.

      A couple of thoughts come to mind. First, I wrote as someone who does not teach online exclusively. I use social media platforms in courses that meet once a week for a number of hours. My experiences in teaching in/with online spaces may be different enough from yours that we are talking about different enactments of “community”. Also, my own experience online, from Twitter to other spaces, is that very meaningful relationships can form and develop over time, even extending into so-called “real” life. In many regards, I have not only drunk the Kool-Aid, I serve it up regularly. So, let me think aloud here. I do so fully aware that I might talk myself into a whole new perspective, but here ‘goes.

      I think the use of the word community may create expectations, complex and perhaps subconscious, that may ultimately end in disappointment for some participants.

      Community, to me, implies more than occupying a space with others. It speaks of ongoing intentionality of purpose. Your mention that “communities can fall out of networks”– a lovely phrase– where the “I” morphs into “we” where the “we” can “bring our gifts and talents to grow a collective wisdom” captures that sense of intentionality.

      But one of the things I think that the use of community misses are the inevitable difficulties, personal/individual and collective, that are unique to each gathering of individuals. These, to me, become an important secondary agenda for a group to tackle, an agenda that becomes a way into grappling with the ideas that are (supposedly) the primary focus of our work together. (The post I wrote after this one may give a better context than I can provide here.) The group grapples with a collective secondary agenda that is unique to them. Is the use of the term “community” too easy? I think it might be.

      Grappling with ideas demands a certain kind of vulnerability. It is, to me, is a process where an individual brings to bear past experience, beliefs and values, preconceived notions, etc. In a way, it’s the shadow side of the gifts and talents you mention. I suspect that this may be what our fearless leaders were touching on when they raised the matter of trust? I see that the blog posts and dialogs emerging from them– like this one–can afford similar opportunities for exploration with others, but I wonder if the easy use of the term “community” sidesteps this whole dimension.

      Does “community” imply the formation of personal connections? I think it might. I observe that the talk of community often seems to come from people who interact regularly with each other. Is community what a lurker would be experiencing?

      I’m not familiar with Garrison’s work. I do hear Wenger & Lave’s perspectives on communities of practice in comments about online community. My views are grounded in ‘old’ work, on experiential and transformational learning, and it’s likely that these need to be recast in terms of the Web. More likely, I need to attend to work that’s theorizing “community” from new perspectives.

      And, perhaps I am speaking from my lack of experience in teaching purely online courses, and/or my own doubts/concerns about the MOOC model. Perhaps I am letting some bias color my observations? Probably.

      I wish I could cite the work about online effectiveness and the need for a face-to-face component, no matter how small. Apologies for that. I have imagined that a way to incorporate that might be through something like Adobe Connect, which I’ve used for large webinars, office hours, and an occasional small group. Google Hangouts might be an example of a tool that would facilitate that kind of F2F connection. It could be organized through a wiki, and the small groups could do a small inquiry project based on a pressing question they shared…?

      I hope I’ve made some sense here. What do you think?

      • Karen,
        Despite being pulled away by numerous responsibilities and grand weather for putting gardens to bed for the winter, I’ve been thinking a lot on what you wrote and thanking you (did you sense that) for causing me to consider more deeply– regrets for the untimeliness of my response-

        Smiling as I suddenly came to realize the varied meanings of f2f and how my tunnel vision definition led to confusion. When you talked about Adobe Connect or Google Hangouts as a f2f to component is when it hit me– when I hear f2f, I envision folks physically/geographically with each other. We have weekly synchronous sessions in Blackboard Collaborate in the online course I facilitate and those experiences are instrumental in developing the trust that I’m seeing as so important to learning together. In those very interactive sessions, we often use protocols and the whiteboard for co creation of meaning making.

        As you wrote of a group grappling with a secondary agenda, I was nodding my head– and thinking of the times when I knew that real trust hadn’t yet been developed (thinking of trust here as trust in oneself, trust in others, trust in the process, trust that a space is safe for deep meaningful conversations) and how that influenced personal learning outcomes. When I think on community, I think growing, establishing and maintaining that trust is an essential element.

        When you asked

        but I wonder if the easy use of the term “community” sidesteps this whole dimension.
        — perhaps the easy use does and I’m recognizing that I may have been guilty of doing just that and I regret that. Based on what likely is novice thinking on Wenger and Lave , I’m seeing “community” as a community of practice that is characterized by the depth of members’ reflection and inquiry with each other over time and how they operationalize co-created knowledge in their local context. And feeling those opportunities for deep interactions arise from the trust, empathy, and reciprocity that are the glue for relationships that enable that. If that makes sense?

        And then you ask a great question–

        Is community what a lurker would be experiencing?

        Aah– the legitimate peripheral participation- if he/she moved into participation upon finding a topic of interest, maybe– Wondering how I might respond to that as a lurker– from that perspective, perhaps– as a lurker I’d know I was learning and might think that was enough. Yet, back to one who participates, it seems to me that the element of reciprocity is critical.

        Your thinking on small groups inquiring into a topic of their passion resonates with me. We did that recently in an online experience — despite the extremely short formal time learning time we had together, they engaged in remarkable thinking and I can see their inquiry now (http://goo.gl/n2GTQa) influencing their coaching practice.

        Karen, thanks for transparently sharing your thinking and prodding me to consider more fully. Hoping this rambling makes some sense too.

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