Open Learning, Open Networks

Open online learning entered the mainstream with the growth and popularity of MOOCs, but while interest in open online courses has never been greater MOOCs represent only the first step in a broader open learning infrastructure. Adapted from a talk given March 9, 2017, at the State University of New York in Syracuse, this essay describes several key innovations shaping the future of open learning: distributed social networks, cloud infrastructures and virtualization, immersive reality, and personal learning environments. It outlines the challenges this evolving model will pose to learning providers and educational institutions and recommend policies and processes to meet them.

Preliminaries: Openness

Downtown Syracuse. Photo: Stephen Downes

In the centre of the city of Syracuse, New York, there is a scene that represents openness for me, musical instruments that anybody can play. You've got the mallets there people can use. I can just imagine, when it's warmer, people coming to the center of the city just jamming on those things and making all kinds of noise. I would love to see it.

I have three examples of openness from this talk:

First, in an earlier presentation that I saw, everything was up on Google Docs, and anyone could edit it. I decided to copy that; it’s at I have the different slides and all the links, etc., from this talk on this page. It's open for any of you to edit. Please do. Enjoy. Add links, add commentary, whatever you want.

Second, this is the presentation page: This is where you can get your slides and, later on, audio and video. This will be up there as long as I have my website.

Third, I know there's a Twitter chat. I like to give alternatives to people who do not like to sign up to social media, because I know you're out there, and I feel for you. I don't use Facebook anymore and I sometimes feel like an outcast now, so I get it. This is the live chat on my website, you use the #cotesummit hashtag, your Tweet will also show up on this page. From time to time, I will go back to this page and randomly look at a Tweet, because I can.

My Current Work

I'm going to begin by pointing out probably the obvious. We're living in a time of challenges, aren't we? We've got the usual four -- famine, war, pestilence, and, of course, death -- and we've got a lot more going on besides. We've got climate change; here I refer to the NASA climate change, which as of this writing is still there,[1] though I thought about using the Wayback Machine archive reference, just in case it’s deleted by the new U.S. government.

We've got the problem of "fake news" and "fake, fake news," which isn't real news.[2] Double negative does not apply online. We have the problems of poverty, inequality, inequity, injustice,[3] and social media itself.[4] These are challenges that we're all facing today. We face not exactly the same, but similar challenges in Canada. We face them in Europe. We face them in Asia and Australia.

It's a difficult time. That's life these days, and we figure we understand it. We just saw a presentation, a good presentation, which had the theme, "OK, we've finally figured this out. Here's what you do. Here are your 10 steps. Here are your 20 ideas," and everything's changing again. That's what's going to happen and that's a big part of my message for this talk.

I've been reviewing and making recommendations for the Canada School of Public Service.[5] We have 250,000 federal civil service employees in Canada. The School of Public Service manages all of their training and performance support. I've been working with them, getting into the details of their system. They use a big Saba learning management system. They've got a Skillsoft system, and SAP.

In the last few years, they've adopted social and informal learning. They've hooked it all together with a Drupal content management system, with Moodle, with Kaltura. They're beginning to understand the new technology, and I was studying this, evaluating it, and working on a development plan for the next three years, the next six years.

I’ve also been studying the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) initiative’s Competencies and Skills Systems (CASS) program.[6] I'm not directly related to the ADL project, but for the National Research Council, I'm keeping tabs on that. I'm making sure I know what's going on. I've been following the meetings of the IEEE Learning Technologies subcommittee.[7] There is a lot happening behind the scenes there, which we address below.

I am still working on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC).[8] People say MOOCs are dead. In, what was it, 2015, more people took a MOOC than in all previous years combined. In 2016, they took double the number of MOOCs as 2015.[9] MOOCs are not dead. MOOCs are here and, believe it or not, MOOCs are here to stay. But as with everything else, the environment is continually changing.

For example, both Udacity and Coursera are changing business models and finding revenue streams. Open edX, which is gone, though edX itself remains. FutureLearn from Britain is charging money for certificates and credentials. And I’ve been carrying on with my little, free MOOCs, the way I've always been doing it for nine years. I've been working on a thing we just call the MOOC Aggregation Engine. It's going to be hosted at[10] I've been running that site for a little while, but I'm in the middle of making changes to that.

I continue to work on personal learning environments. Even though I'm no longer leading that program, I think personal learning environments are important. We talk about them below. In particular I am working on something called gRSShopper in a Box. Grasshopper[11] is the system that I've built over the years to manage my website. It's the system that I built to create the world's first MOOC and I still use it for many things. It's not commercial software; it’s my online research lab. But I've been setting it up so that now you can get it in a box, and you just install a virtual server, run a single command, and you've got Grasshopper in a Box..

And finally, I continue to work on Connectivism, the idea that ‘to know’ is to be or to instantiate a network of connections in the brain, in society, or wherever you can find a network. To learn is to create, to grow, to weaken, to traverse those connections. There's a lot of importance behind that understanding of learning. With deep learning and artificial intelligence today, people are beginning to see, in a way they didn't see even 10 years ago, the validity of this approach to learning, the validity of this approach to knowledge.

The artificial intelligence software that everybody's talking about is using the same kind of neural net technology that George Siemens and I have been talking about all along. We're not saying we invented AI. That was done back in the 1980s, but the approach that we copied from the 1980s is the approach that artificial intelligence researchers are using to this day.

New Developments


Let me talk for a few minutes about MOOCs (not long, because people have heard the story). The “true history of the MOOC”[12] (I sometimes have to talk about it that way) is that George Siemens and I decided that we would mount an online course to talk about connectivism. We had released the theory in 2005, three years before the first MOOC, George first with his introductory paper "Connectivism" and my work before and since on learning networks, which is what I preferred to call it. Connectivism, as a term, stuck. Learning networks did not, because I'm terrible with titles.

Our experience was nobody knew what we were talking about and couldn't get the concept. What we decided to do is to host a course, which we called "Connectivism and Connective Knowledge."[13] We would make this course a connectivist course. In other words, we would design this course as a learning network, and that's what we did.

‘Connectivism and connective knowledge’ is a niche subject, and by that I mean it was not widely known or popular. We expected no more than 25 people. In fact, 25 people actually signed up for the certificate version of the course. But George and I advocate open learning, and the course was structured as an open network, so we opened it up to everyone and were surprised with 2,200 people. At the time that was a big deal. Now with 2,200 people your course is considered a failure. But at the time, that was a big deal. The reason why it was worked, the reason why we didn't get swamped marking papers, moderating discussions, etc., is that we designed it as a network.

That was the first MOOC. Since then other people have developed what have come to be called the xMOOCs, for example, on Udacity and Coursera.[14] From my perspective, they represent a step back. We heard a little bit in the previous talk about, "Oh, yeah. They had the things where you could vote up the comments and all of that." That's a technique that's been used over the years. Stack Overflow uses it. Reddit use it.

One commenter on Twitter said at the time, quite accurately, voting up doesn't always work. If you look at Reddit and sites like 4chan, etc., you find that simply counting votes doesn't work. Network epistemology is different from mass epistemology. Network construction is different from voting, and network knowledge is different from accumulated knowledge. That's an important thing to understand. They built mass. We built connection. They built a big pile of knowledge, videos, and all of that. We built an interconnected web of ideas, concepts, people, technologies, etc., and that's what made the difference.

Personal Learning

Personal and Personalized Learning. Graphic by Stephen Downes.

That's what leads me, ultimately, to distinguishing between what they call "personalized learning" and what I call "personal learning."[15] I've got the diagram there. The main idea is personalized learning is that pre-packaged learning is altered to suit the individual. It’s ‘personalized’ but you are managing doing the learning for the student. It’s like (in English) ‘chocolatizing’ the flavor for them – it’s made to appear like chocolate, but it’s not real chocolate

Personal learning, by contrast, is where students manage learning themselves. It's like your own personal professional development; nobody is managing for you, you're doing it for yourself. For example, you're choosing to come to this conference, you choose to attend this talk, and you can leave the room if you want. You choose what subjects are important. You choose what materials you're going to read. That's the difference. Connectivism is a theory that supports personal learning as opposed to personalized learning. I think that's a really important distinction, and this is going to underlie many of the changes and many of the challenges that I'm talking about today.

Distributed Social Networks

Images: left, Anne Helmond, 2009[16]; right, Savoir-Faire Linux, 2016.[17]

Let me address distributed social networks. When we discuss learning as social networks people  think of Twitter, Facebook, 4chan, Yelp, LinkedIn, Yammer, and the other services in the diagram on the left, above. But those social networks are centralized social networks. They're centralized social networks because users sign in on to a central site, go to that site, and might have a presence on that site. They have a Facebook account or Twitter account or whatever but the company owns the site, not the user. The companies own the news, they own the newsfeed. They present advertising to you. They tell you whether you're allowed to be on the network or not, etc. When Twitter goes down or fails, the entire Twitter network goes down.

Distributed social networks, by contrast, are networks that you own. That's why I created an alternative chat for this presentation, so you don’t have to use Twitter. You use your own computer and communicate directly with me, as in the image to the right, above. I'm using my site to host the back channel not Twitter. Yeah, sure I tap into Twitter because it's there, I'm using my site. That's what these distributed social networks are about.

Distributed social networks have had a difficult history. I'll be very blunt and very honest about that. They are not in widespread use yet. I admit it's a possibility that they might never come to fruition. I think they will, I think they should, but the idea of the personal server isn't an idea whose time is here yet, but I think it's coming.

Companies have tried.

- Opera Unite, for example, eight years ago,[18] was a web browser with a server in it. They discontinued it three years later because nobody was using it. The Mozilla operating system also had a server.[19] It was a web-based operating system for mobile, but it had a server built into it as well so that users weren't just consuming, they could also share content.

- Diaspora[20] was a crowd funded project, which was released and was widely criticized because it was insecure, it was buggy. Diaspora exists but now we begin to look at the future.

- Solid (which is a terrible name if you're searching for it) short for “social linked data.”[21] Tim Berners-Lee is working on it with a bunch of people at MIT on this and basically, it's a distributed social network where you each have your own presence.

- Keybase[22] is a mechanism whereby if I have Keybase on my machine, I can do file sharing and direct linking with other people, no intermediary required.

- The interplanetary file system (I love the name) is the idea that instead of depending on the server to give us web pages, everybody's server also becomes a host for web pages as well.[23] It's modeled after BitTorrent. If I access the SUNY web page, I bring the SUNY web page to my computer. Now, because I've got it on my computer, I make it available to other people, so the resources don't disappear from the web.

- Today I would add Mastodon, which is a distributed social network system. And Beaker, a peer-to-peer browser.

People say that anything you do on the web is permanent. But this is not true. So much of the stuff that I've done online is gone. Some of it is on the Wayback Machine, but the Wayback Machine itself only started in 1997, so some of the early stuff is gone. For example, the first online ad-supported website with fictional characters was called The Spot. You can't find it, it's gone. Or for example, for many years I ran a site for many years called News Trolls. It’s gone. Hundreds of pages are gone because when you take the site down, it disappears. The distributed social network and the interplanetary filing system would prevent that.

Cloud Infrastructures

Systems like that are coming. The question we need to ask is, what happens when instead of handing in a paper or a document, your student gives you a URL, says, "Here, it's here." It's a different way of looking at communication in general. People are still using email. Why? Because nothing better has come along. Not Twitter, not Facebook, not instant messaging. But when we have our own web presence, then something better will have come along and we'll use that, but it's going to take some change.

Right now, we've got good download speeds. But we have terrible upload speeds. The communications environment that we live in right now is dedicated to making us consumers and not producers, and that's not an accident. That's one of the problems, one of the pestilences we have to face.

The answer to the asymmetry dilemma will be found in cloud infrastructures and virtualization. This is not new technology; people who manage information technology (IT) for corporations and institutions have been using it for many years. Now, virtualization[24] is becoming mainstream and products such as VMWare, Virtual Box, or Parallels are appearing on more and more personal computers.

With these, with one command, you can have a Linux box running on your system, and in that box, a Linux supported website. A whole infrastructure has developed to support this sort of technology. For example, tools like Vagrant manage and configure virtual boxes. Tools like Docker organize boxes into ‘containers’ so they can be scaled as needed to meet increased server load. Applications like Chef and Puppet automate virtual server configuration.

In the last few years, internet service providers have made it easy and affordable to run virtual servers in the cloud. So instead of carrying around your ‘web server in a box’ around on your computer, you can save it in Amazon Web Services (or IBM cloud, or Microsoft cloud) and access it from where you are. And now your personal server no longer faces the asymmetry dilemma.

The cloud infrastructure created the xMOOC. The novelty of Coursera wasn't that it had videos, it wasn't that it had voting up or voting down, or even that it had automated quiz marking. It was that it had server virtualization in the backend (on Docker, specifically[25]) so that the course could expand as it needed to. Here's the new internet architecture:
Environments: VMWare Fusion, VirtualBox
Provisioners: Docker, Vagrant
Configuration: Chef, Puppet
Providers: AWS, MS Server
Services: MS Cognitive, Wolfram Alpha, Segment
Serverless CMS -
A person (you, me, anyone else) can have server virtualization on the backend now. I run a Docker cloud on Amazon Web Services. It's cheap, not super cheap but it's cheap. It's definitely affordable. I'm just renting it because I want to experiment on it, so I can run these major infrastructures for just a couple of dollars a day.

People are now talking about things like ‘the serverless content management system’ (CMS)[26]. The idea is that through the use of cloud data storage and lightweight cloud servers-in-a-box, you can share a database with your friends without hosting your own server at all. You use Dropbox or other cloud technologies to store data and you provide access to it using JavaScript that is written for the client environment for your browser and that's it. You have your own web server without a server. That begins to address some of these bandwidth problems.

It used to be that only Google and Microsoft could have these web-based services. But now anyone can. It changes the game.

Immersive Reality

People talk a lot about immersive reality.[27] What's going on here? To understand immersive reality and open learning we need to back up and look at the early days of the internet and the division between producer and consumer, and how this relationship changed over time.

I can remember a time, believe it or not, before there was a World Wide Web. Not before there was an Internet, but I was around at the time when the Internet had serious competition. It had competition from Prodigy, from CompuServe.[28] From America Online, remember them? These were destination services that you logged on to from your home telephone, and you accessed the discussion board, articles, data services, and all that.

At the same time there are people around that time messing around with things like FreeBSD and other free and open source software. Those people eventually won. Those people eventually created this free and open system that we call the Internet, where we can have home pages, create our own bulletin boards, play in open online games, and develop their own applications and software.

You paid a lot of money to use these services; CompuServe, for example, cost $6 per hour (in 1980 dollars) to access[29], but the internet was essentially free, and that’s what attracted people to it. But in the last 10 years or so there has been a retrenchment and a return to the model of CompuServes, and the AOLs, and Prodigys. We're in that mold now, except our destination services are Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, and we pay for these services (for now) with our information rather than our dollars (though we can look at services like Netflix or LinkedIn Pro to see the model for the future).

There are still people messing around today, people like Tim Berners-Lee, with things like Keybase and Solid, which will, I think, eventually win again.

Immersive reality is a good case in point. When I talk about immersion of reality, what do you think of? You think of Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear, the new display technology, high-tech wearable screens, and 3D virtual reality.. There's a whole bunch of them, now. (I can see it now “Man charged for driving while wearing an Oculus Rift.” He says, "Ah! I thought I could do it.") These are interesting technologies. But these are not the future of immersive reality or immersive learning, because they are not what is core to being immersive.

Immersion isn't the technology, it's the state of mind. You're only immersed if you believe you're immersed (It's like George Costanza from Seinfeld: it's not lying if you believe it[30]). It's not reality if you don't believe it, but if you do believe it, it is reality.

It was mentioned during the introduction, I messed around with MUDs. I did. Multi-User Dungeons. We adapted them for academic use (we called them Multi-User Domains, because nobody would support a Multi-User Dungeon in a college; all the wrong connotations). These were text-based multi-user virtual environments. But they were immersive because people believed in them.

I still play video games a lot. I was one of the people who paid for No Man's Sky, which was an immersive virtual world, but the thing with that kind of game (and maybe you know this feeling, maybe you don't) is that you're in your exosuit, and you're traveling, you're bouncing along a planet that you've never visited, and you encounter some creature, and this chill goes down your spine.

That's a unique feeling. At that moment, that world is real, as real as it needs to be. At that moment, you're engaged. That is the core of immersive reality. Whether or not you're using a video screen, whether or not you're inside a VR helmet or whatever, that's not what makes something immersive.

What makes something immersive is working on something that matters, with real people at the other end, with real consequences to your actions, with hopefully multi-modal interaction (but this not strictly necessary). As long as it matters to you, it's immersive.

People talk about virtual reality. They talk about games and gamifications. I'm thinking more about producers and consumers. When they talk about learning from a game they say “we will provide the game. We will provide the learning. You just go in there and have a good time, and, ‘Hey! Now I know French!’”. I don't think it works like that.

Not even with learning to fly an airplane. Yes, you need the simulation to learn to fly an airplane (I wouldn't want to fly in an airplane with a pilot that had never used a simulation) but at the same time, you need to know something about how an airplane works and why it stays up in the sky. When you're in an airplane, actually piloting the airplane, a simulation is not going to help you. A game is not going to help you. You are going to need support right then and there

Personal Learning Environments

In another talk we heard of the “in-the-moment” phenomenon. The fact is, we all live our lives in the moment. It's the only way we can live them. What that means is that most of the time what we need is not a simulation, is not a game, is not a course or a class, but we need something that supports or helps us in the moment.[31]

Why? Because the stuff that we did in the past to prepare ourselves increasingly no longer prepares us for what's coming. Who could have prepared themselves for today's environment, today's social environment, today's political environment? Who found themselves prepared for that? We need mechanisms and tools to adapt, rather than to prepare.

That takes me to personal learning environments, because the personal learning environment to me is the opposite of a course.

The personal learning environment, to me, is this immersive form of learning based on distributive social networks, based on virtual clouds and things like that, that give us the day-to-day learning support that we need. So that, among other things, we don't have to take eight years of our lives, or whatever, and go off to school and prepare, but rather we're able to live our lives right away.

Now, you might dismiss this as the talk of somebody saying, "Oh, everything's going to be disruptive. That didn't happen in the 1980s, so, it won't happen now."

A lot of things didn't happen in the 1980s that are still happening now. Newspapers, you might remember them. I remember not too long ago people saying, "You know what? People just like the feel of a newspaper." You can take the newspaper anywhere. Today, newspapers are struggling, not only for subscribers, but for actual relevance. Not to mention credibility.

Newspapers were important, now they're not.[32] People still say, "Radio didn't stop newspapers, television didn't stop them, CD-ROMs didn't stop them. The Internet won't stop them.” But it's the end of the era of the newspaper, and we get our news online, now. Especially young people, but all people get their news online. How many of you read a newspaper this morning? Two? Three? Maybe four, five, out of a room of what? 100, 100 and whatever?

Sometimes the thing that never changed in the past changes now. Maybe they will look a bit different, maybe they will be invented by Sebastian Thrun or by MIT, but they will change. There will be a personal learning environment and it will have these elements.

It will have a resource repository network. This is also known as, "that part of the Internet you're interested in" set up in such a way that you don't have to go look for stuff. The stuff comes to you, and organizes itself, and puts itself in your server-less content management system all by itself, ready for you to use.

It will have the personal cloud. This is where you store that stuff, where you store stuff that you create, your blog posts maybe, your finances perhaps. That's where I store my finances, in the cloud. Am I crazy? Yeah, but where else am I going to store it?

It will have the personal learning record. This is a challenge. A personal learning record is a person's learning record, not an institution's learning record. At some point in time, whether it's on LinkedIn, whether it's on Monster, whether it's on something else, people will have their own personal learning records.

When I worked with the School of Public Service, it was a challenge. I checked my personal training record over 15 years with the government of Canada, and the School record said I had taken one course in all of that time, that this was the extent of my learning. I concluded at that time that they have issues with learning records. If any of your students has issues with learning records, you might think, "No, no, no. All of their records are in our records store." Yeah, except for the stuff that they didn't take at your institution. What will you do, then?

Robot Tutors

It will have a personal learning assistant. We get quite a bit of laughter at that. "Oh, yeah, yeah, sure, robot tutors.” Then, there was the case of, I don't have the link here, but the professor who provided his class with a robot teaching assistant (TA)gave a section of his class a robot tutor, and nobody noticed.[33] That's a sad, sad statement about tutors, good statement about robots.

This year, we've had Siri, and Alexa, and Cortana[34], and various other personal assistants. These are really clumsy first attempts at being a personal assistant. They will get better. They're not going to get worse. They will get better. There will be artificial intelligences that help you learn, that help you navigate all that data from the personal repository, help you manage your finances, your taxes.

It will be based on distributed intelligence, using machine learning as a service. For example, there is an automated transcription system that we saw yesterday that's running off of the IBM cloud. The idea here is that, that site, you can upload a video in the supported format, which is OGG or WAV, but not MP3, or, you can record. Upload your audio and it will give you a transcript.

That's what I mean by machine learning as a service, because it's machine learning, these neural networks humming in the background of the big servers at IBM, that are providing this service. This is coming. This will be part of every website. This will be part of YouTube or IBM's video service. This will be part of your online classes, and not just an automated transcription but automated translation, grammar checking.

Any cognitive function you can think of will be available as a service[35], and you'll simply plug in your server-less server, into that service. Now, all of your content that you've created, you can translate into Urdu simply by clicking a button.

Why you'd do this, I don't know. But, you could, that's the point. Or, you could encrypt it, or you could decrypt, or whatever. We have, at NRC, algorithms right now that take tweets on Twitter and evaluate them for sentiment.[36] This one was hostile, this one was pleasant, this one was aggressive, whatever.

Things like that. I don't know how that will be useful, but it will be useful. All of this will be part of your personal learning environment. You'll have a more powerful tool at your disposal, in your browser, that doesn't actually exist anywhere, but is just JavaScript connections to a bunch of services. That'll be a lot more useful than the 39-hour class on introduction to critical theory in post-war Europe, guaranteed.


Let’s look at some of the challenges we face and individuals and institutions. They result from the dichotomies inherent in these new technologies. These are not, I think, false dichotomies, although you could probably plot a mental path through some of them. They’re certainly not "both ands" (I know people like to say "both and" instead of “either or” but sometimes "both, and" doesn't work - when you're in the voting booth, you can't go "both and", or when you're picking IBM or Apple). You're working with one of them or the other.

For learning providers: are you providing content knowledge or, are you providing literacies?

By ‘learning providers’ I mean you, I mean the instructors at your institution, the tutors at your institution, anyone who provides learning directly as a service. And by ‘content knowledge’ I mean teaching, as so many people say, mathematics, or classic literature, or other essentials.

Critical Literacies. Graphic by Stephen Downes.

I fall on the literacies side. That's a framework that I've been working with over the years, and I fall on the literacies side because the content knowledge changes a lot, a lot more than we think. Even math changes. We think of foundational math as addition, subjection, multiplication, but at any moment foundational math could change to substitutivity, set theory, things like that, which actually are more foundational. Science changes. When I grew up, there were nine planets. There are still nine planets, we just don't know which one is the ninth anymore.

It's hard to deal with. Are you preparing people for employment, to get a job? Or, are you preparing them for the post-employment, post-job world that we are definitely entering into? All of our jobs are going to be replaced by machines. Why are you training people for a job? Are you preparing people with courses or with performance support? Are you preparing them ahead of time? Are you solving problems for them now?

What is the source of your knowledge? Is it authority, the president knows all, the newspapers know all, the professors know all, or is it the wisdom of crowds? Not social proof. That's voting, but the wisdom of crowds is described by people like James Surowiecki, where the organization and the structure of society represents the knowledge that it contains.

Are you ready to live with the fact that your class might know more than you? That's a reality I deal with every day when I do one of these talks. I walk up here, and I know the audience knows more than me. It's intimidating, but it's also true. At any given point, anything that I say, any sentence that I say, one of you knows more about that topic than me. Probably more than one.

Are you providing people with credentials? Is that the thing that you sell, credentials? Really? Badges. People want badges. Did you get up this morning, say, "Yeah! I'm going to get a badge today." Or, are you offering learning? Or, are you offering connections?

I sometimes talk about what I call the Yale advantage. People certainly don't go to Yale for badges. I don't know if Yale offers them. They don't even go to Yale for learning, because frankly, it’s not really that great. I've worked with institutions all over the world, and it's not the learning.

Actually one of the neat things is when these universities started opening up their coursework, their course materials with open course and all that. I went and looked because I studied Philosophy at the well-known institutions, the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta (which are actually very good schools) and not only was the course material in Philosophy similar at MIT and Harvard, they used exactly the same books, and they covered exactly the same curriculum. I would have got the same knowledge paying $40,000 at Harvard or Yale, or MIT, as I get paying $1,500 at the University of Calgary.

But there still is this Harvard and Yale advantage. What is that? What is that they are really selling at Yale? It's not credentials, it's not badges, it's not knowledge. It's connections. If you're really, truly, seriously interested in open education, accessibility, etc., then that's the advantage you need to address. How are you addressing it? Are you addressing it? Or are you offering employment training, because that's the best you can do? For jobs that won't exist?

Speaking of challenges to educational institutions, consider this chart. You've all seen the chart:  government support, state support is bottomed out. That's the yellow line there, that's in free fall. Your students are now paying the bills. That's why your students are acting like consumers because they're paying the bills.

University of Washington, 2014[37]

Even today, I heard somebody refer to "the competition." You guys in the public education business, why is there competition? How does that make sense? Unless you're viewing yourself as an organization that sells something for profit.

Is that the model? Is that going to be the model in the future when everybody has their personal learning environment? How are you funded? Tuition grants? Research? Are you part of the patent? The whole patent pile, patent mess? The privatization of knowledge itself?

Are you using enterprise software? Enterprise sign-on? Enterprise learning records? Or are you thinking distributed? What about transcripts and what do you do when blockchain comes along and somebody can get all of their learning records in a blockchain and they don't need you to attest to their education anymore because I do to your market, what does that do to your value proposition?

These are challenges. Things that didn't change in the past are still going to change in the future. It's going to happen, just ask your local newspaper. Moving forward, are you really going to do competencies for job performance or are you going to focus on capabilities and capacities? Are you really going to do badges?

What about when everything a person does is available on the Internet through their personal server and artificial intelligence that already exists today can look at everything that they've done and tell you with more accuracy than a degree or diploma what their qualifications are? That's the credential of the future. The credential of the future is the online presence.

Why am I standing up here right now? It's not because I have a degree from Yale, because I don't, and they wouldn't have me and I wouldn't want it. It's because of the online presence. I got into the game a bit sooner, that's all. I'm not special, just you guys can tell what I can do. I've put 400 and some-odd presentations online, you can see that. I'm going to give a good talk or I'm not, whatever.

Are you offering classes? You're still offering classes. Do you offer performance support? Has it even crossed your mind that that might be 90 percent of the educational market in 10, 20 years? Microlearning, have you been thinking about it? What about spaced learning? Again, as opposed to classes. Are you thinking about being the Netflix of learning?

There already are Netflixes of learning. Or maybe subscription-based learning? Again, fine, but applying to be admitted to an institution, in a world where education can be almost free, the whole idea almost doesn't make sense anymore.

Finally, in this world of challenges, what does it mean to do the right thing? It's now an open question. We have war, pestilence, famine. We have social media, fake news, and all of that. Are you doing the right thing? Challenges to ask yourself, "Who are your clients? Who are you serving? Are you doing your work for the state or for the governor?

"Are you doing your work to support technology companies? Do you view them as your clients?" I face that every day at NRC, "Your client is the technology company that will commercialize your invention." I say, "No, I'm not working for the tech companies. Are you crazy?"

Is your primary loyalty to your department or your institution? I always see a lot of that when I come to these conferences. "I'm from SUNY. My loyalty is to SUNY." Is it really? You get up in the morning, say, "Yeah, I want to go support SUNY." Or, are your clients the students who are in your classes and, even more importantly, the students who are not in your classes?

A Final Note

What is it to do the right thing? This is a time of crisis and conflict, a time of criticism, a time of marching in the streets and all of that.

To my mind, activism is building more than anything else. Ask yourself, "What are you building?" Are you reacting against costs and events, and crises, and growth, and fear, and everything else? Or, are you pursuing what I might put into the category of attractors -- values, goals, desires even, needs? Do you see yourself as working towards something or reacting against something? What is it to do the right thing?

Drivers and Attractors. Graphic by Stephen Downes.

A final note. The final note. In Canada, we have a guy called Stuart McLean who's been on public radio, CBC for many, many years. He recently passed away. He's a storyteller, and he would talk like this, and I would always parody the voice, but he told good stories.

One of the stories he told was about a boy who believed he could predict the future.[38] "Tomorrow, I predict I'm not going to clean my room." Behold, tomorrow came and the room had not been cleaned.

This created a crisis of confidence for the boy, because he kept predicting bad things and they happened. He was worried, "What if I predict a bad thing, and it happens, and it's my fault?" He gets a piece of advice: “The story always ends on a happy note.”

The story always has a happy ending, always. He says, "What if the story doesn't have a happy ending?" Well then, he was told, "The story isn't over yet."

And that's what ‘doing the right thing’ means. It means that you know that you're working toward the end of the story. It means not being afraid to work for change. Perhaps you won’t be successful today, but there’s always another day, or another person, and success will come eventually. 

[1] NASA. 2017. Climate Change Website.

[2] 2017. The Shattered Mirror.

[3] OECD.

[4] NPR. 2016. Did Social Media Ruin the Election?

[5] Canada School of Public Service.

[6] Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL). 2017. Competencies and Skills Systems (CASS).

[7] IEEE. 2017. Learning Technologies Subcommittee.

[8] Stephen Downes. 2017. Connectivism and Learning.

[9] Reference to Class Central

[10] MOOC Aggregation Engine –

[11] Stephen Downes. 20176. gRSShopper.

[12] Stephen Downes. 2010. The MOOC Guide. Google Sites.

[13] CCK08

[14] Tony Bates. 2014. Comparing xMOOCs and cMOOCs: Theory and Practice.

[15] Stephen Downes. 2016/ Personal and Personalized Learning.

[16] Anne Hellmond. 2009. Social media dataflows. Flickr.

[17] Savoir-Fair Linux. 2016. Blockchain, a revolutionary tool for Ring. Distributed Network.

[18] 2009. Mashable. Opera Unite -

[19] 2017. Mozilla OS -

[20] 2017. Diaspora -

[21] Tim Berners-Lee. 2017. Solid - social linked data.

[22] Keybase -

[23] InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) -

[24] Kevin Patel. 2017. Key Trends to Watch in the Field of Virtualization. V&C.

[25] Brennan Saeta. 2016. Rust & Docker in production @ Coursera. Coursera.

[26] Anibal. 2017. Awesome Serverless. GitHub.

[27] Daniel Newman. 2017. CES 2017: How Immersive Virtual Reality Points To The Future Of Product And Experience Design. Forbes.

[28] Ken Gagne and Matt Lake. 2009. CompuServe, Prodigy et al.: What Web 2.0 can learn from Online 1.0. Computerworld.

[29] Peter H. Lewis. 1987. Peripherals; Communication’s Cost. New York Times.

[30] Seinfeld. 1996. The Beard. Via Internet Movie Database quotes.

[31] Conrad Gottfredson and Bob Mosher. 2012. Are You Meeting All Five Moments of Learning Need?. Learning Solutions Magazine.

[32] Robert Levine. 2012. How the internet has all but destroyed the market for films, music and newspapers. The Guardian.

[33] Jason Maderer. 2016. Artificial Intelligence Course Creates AI Teaching Assistant: Students didn’t know their TA was a computer. Georgia Tech News Center.

[34] John Koetsier. 2017. Alexa, Google, Siri, Cortana: 24.5M Voice-first Devices Will Ship This Year. Forbes.

[35] Thomas H. Davenport. 2016. Will AI Companies Make Any Money? Harvard Business Review.

[36] Saif M. Mohammad, Xiaodan Zhu, Svetlana Kiritchenko and Joel Martin. 2015. Sentiment, emotion, purpose, and style in electoral tweets. Information Processing & Management. 51-4, pp 480–499.

[37] University of Washington. 2014. Special Report on State Disinvestment in Public Higher Education.

[38] Stuart Mclean. 2016. Sam’s Predictions. Vinyl CafĂ©. CBC Radio 1.


  1. Hey Stephen,

    I came across your blog very recently and I must say that I'm thoroughly impressed.
    I like to think of myself as an avid learner; one who's desire to learn springs from the innate curiosity to understand & know.

    I loved this post. I am a believer that the traditional educational systems aren't keeping up with the current demands & needs of the world. I believe that technology will and has already started revolutionising education & learning.

    The traditional systems are being challenged and redefined : MOOCs such as Coursera are offering great content to students who can learn at their own pace and also learn from some of the best institutions & faculty without bearing the brunt of sky-rocketing tuitions.

    During the past year, I've been living in Kyiv as part of a volunteering experience. I've had a lot of free time on my hands which pushed me to start learning & exploring the vast ocean of knowledge available on the internet. I decided to take a course on CodeAcademy. I must say the experience has been amazing.

    During this year, I also decided to learn a bit of Russian. I started using the Preply
    I was surprised to see that in today's age when people are trying to move everything online, this company wasn't neglecting the aspect of physical interactions. I will start my lessons soon and I really look forward to it.

    I just wanna end by saying that I've realised that in today's day & age, if anyone wants to learn, there are ample opportunities & resources for one to do so. All we need to do, is start!


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