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Open, with care… and vulnerability.

My enquiry into what exactly the notion of open and openness entails seems to almost have taken me back to the starting point, the starting point not only of this particular chapter of enquiry but also to the starting point of my own initiation into open online learning and learning in the open. That’s because caring and vulnerability has been the theme taken up this week in Networked Scholars. Although I’ve already highlighted vulnerability as being, for me, a key aspect of being an open learner,

a way to engage in learning that acknowledges the vulnerability and risk that’s inherent and asks the learner to recognize and embrace this,

it was interesting to consider vulnerability yet more closely and an absolute privilege and a delight to have Bonnie Stewart share her thoughts on the topic.

In a powerful and searingly honest ‘live chat‘, Bonnie outlined the deeply personal circumstances in which her blog and was initiated, identifying the move as displaying vulnerability with agency. To me, that phrase, vulnerability with agency, seems to capture what’s at the heart of networks and learning in the open and as such, it begs the question how do educators bring learners to such a position, and by encouraging them to participate in this way what might they be asking them to assert and what might they be asking them to risk? Not easy.

It was interesting therefore to come across an article from ALT’s July newsletter entitled ‘Social media in education: ethical concerns‘ in which HE educators discussed these issues. A primary concern was that of online harassment. Of course I’ve heard of internet trolls and cyber-bullying, and I know that women are not fairly represented or treated in certain fields, but I hadn’t really stopped to consider any of this in great detail, not until now that is. Not until I was confronted as part of this week’s discussion with Kathy Sierra’s recent revelations about the harrowing experiences she’s had to endure online. Horrendous. When you’ve had nothing but positive experiences using a social networking tool such as Twitter, it’s an uncomfortable truth to realize that, for all it’s good, it’s also a hate amplifier.

The purpose of this week’s topic in #scholar14 was to consider that social media and online networks are not neutral and that, for better or worse, social media reflects society. So far, I’ve explored how online social networks function as places where scholars can agencially make themselves vulnerable but where they might also be exposed to the darker side of humanity. Thankfully, online social networks also function as places where scholars may express and experience care: support or mutuality, if you will.

open with care 1
Open with care.

As the saying goes ‘sharing is caring‘, and a culture of sharing it seems is increasingly becoming the norm online. It’s argued that open practices reflect a form of caring, and that such a culture of sharing or giving without expectation of anything in return potentially leads to the development of ‘gift economies‘ or a series of relationships that depend on meaningful collaborations and pay-it-forward interactions. I can certainly vouch for this: people sharing status updates and links, taking the time to comment on blog posts, cooperating in open online courses, collaborating in research projects and, in the case of POTCert, paying it forward. As a case in point, I think POTCert (Programme for Online Teaching) deserves a special mention, not only because it’s where I was initiated into open online learning but because it functions as a type of gift economy and exemplifies the altruistic culture of sharing outlined above. POTCert is a free, open, online class aimed at those who wish to teach online. It was was founded at MiraCosta College, San Diego and is run by run by a volunteer faculty group with its alumni ‘paying it forward’ each semester in the form of mentoring and/or moderating etc. Respect due.

Resources: in order to add more context to Bonnie Stewart’s live chat, here are the links to further resources.

Networks of Care and Vulnerability [blog]

Networked Identity: Networks of Care and Vulnerability [slideshare]

Networked Scholars Expert Chat with Bonnie Stewart [Youtube]

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Published inOpenness


  1. jennymackness jennymackness

    Hi Helen – thanks for another interesting and thought-provoking post. Unfortunately, my immediate thoughts about caring in online environments were not as positive as yours.

    This year for the first time since I have been working online (nearly 10 years), I have found the internet not a very nice space to be in. For the first time this year, in my 10 year experience, I have been personally attacked online ( not in the networked scholars course, I hasten to add, in which George has been so thoughtful, open and considerate).

    I enjoy being involved in critical discourse. I do not expect to be agreed with. I do not even particularly want to be agreed with. I like to have my thoughts challenged, but naively (as it seems now), I did expect to be treated with a degree of courtesy, in a space where I would have expected this.

    So I am much more aware of vulnerability and caring online now than I was a year ago, since I have personally experienced a lack of caring which has had a knock on effect as to how vulnerable I feel. This of course, is nothing like on the scale that someone like Kathy Sierra has experienced, but nevertheless has had a negative effect on how I think about online interaction. As I have more than once said on my blog, quoting Ronald Barnett, the will to learn is a fragile thing.

    So when you say ‘sharing is caring’, I think – well yes it can be, hopefully it is, but it can equally be self promotion and seeking of celebrity status that has nothing to do with caring as sharing. Once you start looking it’s quite easy to spot this online.

    So my recent experience has made me a bit more cynical about what the motives of people might be when they ‘share’ online. Having said that, there are still some great example of what you would hope for and I agree that the POTCert course is one.

  2. Thanks for this Helen. Have to do some thinking about causes irrational anger among people, though my current thoughts lead to identifying a feeling of control lost. The surfacing of an unconscious right to be taken as unquestionable. Working in the trades with women I see it in men who feel a slow boiling panic over “their” jobs being doable by women (as the ultimate witness to male failure). In myself I see it in the abandonment I very strongly feel over being apparently dismissed by my medical care givers as needing too much of their time–time in a busy world being the currency of expertise, as in “take my authority as earned, or my undisputed due as a professional.”

    People want to matter and it might be the wide open internet stage shows us the extent of the work it takes to matter at too high a level? This frightens us and we react.

  3. Like to add this quote below on the risk-taking dimension of learning and being open. Ignorance is unwilling and fearful of exposing itself to questions of the self, to doubt or uncertainty–it’s a form of cowardliness that can only promote itself by bullying.

    “Experience, when approached from a stance of openness, places our mental and intellectual processes at stake, and demonstrates a willingness to surrender our attachments to our current knowledge. Through this way of being, individuals are intent not on knowing more but on knowing differently. Simply stated, the inquirer is prepared to surrender, through a stance of openness, what he or she currently knows, and it is in this surrender that the inquirer has the potential to be transformed.”

    Interpretive Hermeneutic Phenomenology: Clarifying Understanding by Ann E. McManus Holroyd – accessed 11/6/14

  4. Bon Bon

    just wanted to say thanks for this thoughtful take on – and extension of – the topic of care & vulnerability, Helen. i think the past year has been a bit of an uncomfortable awakening for many of us who’ve been online and resident in networks for a long time…a sort of critical mass of nastiness and touchiness and reactivity (at best) seems to have burbled to a scale where it’s far more visible and present than it used to be. and the vulnerability that results ripples out and silences people – i actively stopped tweeting with the #Gamergate hashtag when trolls leapt on my few paltry tweets and RTs on the subject with a level of vitriol and intentional debasement that i found really uncomfortable. i used to think of that as for Reddit, not Twitter. but it’s public, and i think we’re reaping the consequences of that.

    thinking about Scott’s causes…i think there’s a lot of truth there. there are a lot of people in society today who feel entitled to an identity that was probably always a myth or simulacrum of sorts but definitely hasn’t survived the shifts in social contract and the realities of context collapse. and yet, yeh, people want to matter. Scott, by “the work it takes to matter at too high a level” do you mean scale, or something else? b/c scale is where my brain went but i don’t want to take off on a massive tangent if that’s not in line with what you were trying to tease out.

    either way, thanks, Helen, for all of this.

  5. Hi Bon, by higher level I did mean scale or notoriety but thinking about it brings in the notion of rising to a higher level of understanding. I often get stuck in my own cleverness while simultaneously realizing I could (if I had to) that a different view. The view a “smarter” person than me may have, yet also one that requires more effort to resolve and make my own. How vulnerable am I willing to be to take myself to this new place of uncertainty? Am I now in an defensible position? Or worse, have I made such a pissey little jump that I land safely, unchanged, having invested little, risked nothing and frightened myself for nothing?

    More clearly, Jaap Bosman speaks of trying not to be the cleverest person in the room. Not to hold back necessarily but to to be mindful of nourishing and supporting as a participant in the social of yourself and others.

    Mattering is a dilemma. Wishing to be named to be noticed as mattering seems different than deliberately backgrounding ourselves for the pleasure of helping and rewards of caring. Both matter and both have their contexts.

    Is any of this enough to start a massive tangent?

  6. Thank you everyone for your comments and for continuing the discussion on such an important topic. In response to Jenny, I think I might’ve been guilty of glibly using the phrase ‘sharing is caring’ and not thinking more deeply around it… using it like a ready made strap line or jingle. Certainly, sharing online doesn’t always have the altruistic motives that some would have you believe, or indeed that you would have yourself believe. Yes, it’s unfortunate (limp word) that common courtesy isn’t always extended when different viewpoints are offered. Over recent months, it certainly seems like the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ has been reached by many resident online.

    Yes, learning is a fragile thing and our willingness to surrender in order to do so, to know differently, is what makes us vulnerable… which is amplified, or heightened, when online and in the open.Thanks, Scott, for the quote.

    This last few weeks has been valuable learning. Much appreciated.

  7. Maybe we need to be tougher than we thought to carry education and learning outside the protective walls of the classroom? A kind of social discomfort arises from people stepping around limitations and arrangements carefully negotiated in the past to keep people where they belong. This change in the social weather as Bon mentioned has got to upset some people but can we give up the naive “please explain this to me” approach that allows us so many insights?

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