My Scholarly Contributions

I was asked, "I am interested in your perspective on what you feel may be the greatest scholarly contribution you have made in the area of online learning, particularly your recent contributions on OER?  I also noted from your website that the focus of your research interests has shifted during your career and I am curious to know what prompted the change in research interest?  Was it an evolution of the use of technology as technology matured?  The interest of government and other funding sources?  A personal interest that was sparked by insights or events?  I would also like to know if there is any advice that you could give me as I attempt to make a meaningful contribution as an academic and perhaps even have some influence on the quality and availability of education around the world?"

I don't really sort my contributions into linear order, and hence would hesitate to identify a 'greatest' contribution. Among the major work I have done:
- defining a community-based sustainability model for OERs
- designing content syndication mechanisms for learning resources
- learning networks (ie., both using networks to learn, and learners as networks that learn), aka connectivism
- massive open online learning, which is a combination of the three things above
- the groups vs networks distinction, characterized by autonomy, openness, etc
- the induction model of learning (ie, learning is not content transfer)
(I may have left some out; I really don't keep score)
- critical literacies and speaking in lolcats 

Key events changing or modifying my interests:
- I began life interested in the sciences, social sciences and media
- I took up computer science in 1979 at the advice of my father, who worked in communications technology
- I started studying philosophy in 1981 because all the English courses I needed fo my physics major were full
- I began my focus on access to education writing with the student newspaper because I was denied access for so long
- I was offered a job as a tutor at Athabasca University in 1987, which began my interest in distance education
- Jeff McLaughlin and Istevan Berkeley introduced me to online games, MUDs, in 1992 or so
- I discovered Connectionism in the early 1990s, saw Francesco Varela at UA Hospital, attended the Connectionism conference at SFU

Government and funding agencies have never been interested in my work. My PhD committee at the U of A absolutely refused to consider my dissertation proposal on connective models of learning, inference and discovery (see here). My employers have generally opposed my development of an academic and research career (even now I am under a full travel ban, which I am defying by speaking at conferences on vacation time and at my own expense).

Advice? Only this: find what you consider to be right and true, and pursue that. Not that this is not the path to material well-being or a successful career, though sometimes good things happen anyways. Do what you need to do to stay employed, but as the old sea-faring slogan goes for riggers working on the mast, use one hand for the ship, but keep one hand for yourself. But in all that, focus your work on serving others, not enriching yourself, because your work will have no value to you otherwise. Write from the heart; don't be a slave to academic form, but don't ignore it. Back up your reasoning with evidence, and reason soundly from what you know and what you have experienced, not what you have been told. Understand that argument rarely convinces anyone of anything, that an understanding of principles of reasoning is to protect yourself from error, not to correct other people in theirs, that time spent explaining what you are doing and why will often pay off, but not everyone will support you, and often nobody will, but if you are true to these principles, that won't matter. And, at the end of life, the only thing that will matter to you will be what you gave to the world, not what you took from it. Share.


  1. I'm thinking of putting up some of these lines on my office door( with reference to the author, of course). Thanks, Stephen

  2. Stephen, thank you for this post. I have quoted you often (most recently in my dissertation) and truly appreciate your trailblazing work. Today, however, I especially appreciate the advice you shared in this post...brilliant words that I will be 'sharing' and revisiting often.

  3. That final paragraph is excellent, and for me this part was like a light being switched on in a dark space:

    "Understand that argument rarely convinces anyone of anything, that an understanding of principles of reasoning is to protect yourself from error, not to correct other people in theirs...


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