Conscious online learning design?

I am cross-posting something that I have written for the Towards Openness project. You can find the original post here on the Towards Openness page.

This post started as a message exchange with Kate Green. Kate and I decided to go beyond text messaging and write a blog post instead. Find her post here.

After #OER17 Kate and I started to talk about the next steps for our project Towards Openness. This is something that we do in our free time and I think we both see the value in that. We get to make of this whatever we find helpful for ourselves and for the community around ‘open’ and learning. But this lack of a pre-defined direction or goal can make some choices a bit harder. A very pragmatic example: find a tagline for the website. This is not too important to many. And I see their point when they say that a tagline, a font, or a color scheme is just polish. But especially a tagline will always be noted and perceived, consciously or unconsciously. It is included in link previews, it appears in all sorts of ways. We didn’t have a tagline until about a week ago. And I thought “let’s fill that gap”. I sensed that this might be an opportunity to think more closely about what we mean to do with Towards Openness, beyond a vision. A tagline should not be more than 6-7 words maximum and, by then, we had not tried to project our understanding of Towards Openness on half a sentence.

So I thought a bit about this and suggested “conversations for conscious online learning”. I sent it to Kate and quickly added “design” after I sent it, so that it read “conversations for conscious online learning design”. Kate asked what I meant by conscious, reminding me of the importance to try and dissect what we mean by the things we say. And here we go. We texted back and forth and concluded that this is worth a blog post. So here’s my shot at dissecting what I meant with that tagline:


It might be my hybris, but I think this one is easy. Conversations are exchanges of thoughts, of ideas. According to Merriam-Webster a conversation is more than just small talk, it has a bit more depth than the elevator- / line-in-the-cafeteria chat with colleagues about last weekend, sports or the weather. A conversation can be quiet and private between two people, it can include more conversationalists and it can be both public, potentially with lots of spectators who themselves might comment and add to the conversation, and private in a quiet room or on private messaging apps, email, on the phone or any other technology.


This will be trickier, I think. I am not planning to go into what Freud meant with the conscious or the unconscious, I am pretty certain that I should leave western philosophy to those who really understand what they are talking about. So, for this one, I will again stick with the Merriam-Webster definition. It seems to be widely adopted as the first two parts also make up most of the first sentence in the Wikipedia article on consciousness: “Consciousness is the state or quality of awareness, or, of being aware of an external object or something within oneself.” To my mind, Merriam-Webster makes an important addition in section 1c of their entry on consciousness: “concern for some social or political cause” as in “The organization aims to raise the political consciousness of teenagers.”

So, to recap, in order to be conscious of something one needs to acknowledge its existence. Pretty straightforward. My guess is that most people, who have stuck with me so far, will also acknowledge the existence of online learning. Now to the political part. The theme of #OER17, where many of these conversations around Towards Openness began or were continued, was The Politics of Open. For my understanding, consciousness in a political sense means that one needs to be aware of options, of possibilities, of the outcomes of their choices and the impact these outcomes will possibly have on different actors, stakeholders, societal groups, individuals. This also means awareness of biases, awareness of limitations, of the importance that only in very rare cases one single individual has a perfect solution. “Political questions are far too serious to be left to the politicians” is a famous quote by Hannah Arendt from her “Men in Dark Times”. I am not going to copy-cat the hell out of this, but consciousness in this sense also means that we deliberately include people into the conversations that we have about online learning who are heard not often and not loud enough. Not just [white male heterosexual] educators.


I don’t see ‘online’ as a technical term here. Nishant Shah convinced me that I am a cyborg a long time ago. And if you are reading this, you are (or were) online for at least a short amount of time, enough to load this text and the templates, videos and images in this post. Online can be or feel lonely, online can be connected with others. Online can be collaborative. It will always imply use of some sort of technology, both by teachers and educators and by learners. And there is plenty of space to negotiate here about the use of which technology for what. The exact scope of this can be narrowed down in the conversations we have, but for this tagline of Towards Openness, I see online as a very broad term.


Oh, what have I gotten myself into. Here I go defining learning – no, I won’t. Sorry. Learning is personal, learning can be the application of theory, concepts or ideas to new contexts. Learning can be just internal reflection of something that one tries to grasp. Learning can be many things and any definition will fall short. Insert your understanding of learning here if you want to. But I am sure the list of ideas we have about learning will be endless and I am making the conscious decision not to define learning. Sorry. Only one more thing. I have my doubts that learning is something that can be quantified or measured in its complexity. And just for fun and to take this point home I am embedding a video of Dave Cormier from Rhizo15 here.



I am again going to reference Merriam-Webster here. Design can be seen as creating something according to a plan, to conceive something and try to make it happen by deliberately choosing means, tools, a space. I am a bit on the fence when people refer to themselves as Learning Designers. I do that myself sometimes, in part because that is what my institution has defined me to be. Honestly, this is the part of the tagline that I struggle with the most. If we think of learning as personal, who am I to design it for others? Feels like overreaching to me. I do, however, have a say in the design of learning spaces or learning environments. I can think of certain technologies, methods, and provocations to trigger thinking, action and learning. Design can be very linear. People who put lots of work into the design of an object or a space might hate the idea of someone else chiming in and changing bits and pieces of that space so that it accommodates them better. Design can also prepare for just that, the bottom-up modification of a space. Design can be flexible in its response to different needs. What kind of design we mean when we talk about online learning should be a conscious decision.

I do not believe that this tagline of Towards Openness is final, rather the opposite. Catherine Cronin describes ‘open’ in four adjectives:

  • Complex
  • Personal
  • Contextual
  • Continuously negotiated

Listen to this episode of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast if you want to find out more about this. Catherine explains it by far better than I could. I highly recommend it. I think all four adjectives can be applied to Towards Openness as well. Its tagline is just one of the many things that is complex, personal, contextual and, hopefully, continuously negotiated.


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