The Things We Talk Ourselves Out Of

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Felipe Skroski

So long as a man imagines that he cannot do this or that, so long is he determined not to do it: and consequently, so long it is impossible to him that he should do it.
— Spinoza

Lately I’ve been tuned into how often people, especially those who perhaps have more treelines, tell themselves they cannot do something– without having really tried. It is in many ways, the marker of those who buy into the energy of ds106 versus those who wrinkle their nose at it like some foul piece of rotten fruit.

It’s what I saw in my University of Mary Washington students, who took on 16 weeks of many such challenges (of course they have to for the grade). One of my last semester students knew others taking the same course taught by the dude who does it the non ds106 way- it is much “easier”, they read a textbook and only have to make one video, but my student said she preferred the ds106 version even though it was way more work.

A difference is the way people who will not say “no” before they step into the unknown.

It came up recently when I did the True Stories of Openness presentation at Yavapai College — I pulled out the capture of the whiteboard contributions when I did the same session for ETMOOC, and asked participants to share barriers to sharing:

Barriers to Sharing

Almost every item on the board was a self judgement of a low esteem of the value of what they had to share. And labeling it “imposter syndrome” like it is a DSM-IV diagnosis does not address the issue. I’ve seen this for 20 years in education- people value and welcome resources shared by others, but feel intimidated about sharing back.

Part of it is, to me, some confusion about what it is we share. Most think it is just “stuff” – documents, media, publications. Those are excellent sharables, but I’m more interested in the sharing of ideas, of processes, of strategies, of arguments, of rough drafts and alpha code. From Everything is a Remix to Where Good Ideas Come From it’s obvious (at least to me) that the potential for a society, organization, institution, country, culture, world to be a better place and innovate for progress, it happens better when there are more raw ideas materials swirling in the open space.

Innovation abhors a vacuum.

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by kevin dooley

Now lest I be targeted about being holier than thou or thee, I find myself doing it all the time. More than a few times I have found my self looking at a new programming language or API or someone else’s elegant code and thinking “I cannot do that”. On the train ride recently a group of us at the dining table where talking about the friends of one woman’s who are regular climbers of Half Dome, and how they sleep in those bags tied to a rope hanging thousands of feet in the air.

We all said, “I cannot do that”.

Has anyone of us tried?

So if you find yourself saying/thinking “I cannot do that” ask yourself- “have I really ever tried?”

I once said I could never run a half marathon. I ran 5 and 1 full marathon (and I hated it but I did it). I still hate running.

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by dare6

And there is a direct connection to learning, because I feel quite often, in higher education, we are so concerned about students not succeeding (or faculty in technology workshops) that we err on the side of trying to make things “easy” – full of detailed instructions and screencasts…

Yet it’s been one of my loves of teaching ds106 how often we do not provide students explicit instructions on how to create their media. We do not provide many software tutorials, if anything they are technique ones, and it usually other ds106 participants who create them. That was the thinking that Martha Burtis and I had for the end of our two week ds106 Bootcamp (first 2 weeks of the semester) is to give them a challenge to create an animated GIF. And purposefully we do not tell them how.

The point is not to create the GIF (well not the primary objective), but to learn how to figure things out, to learn how to learn the ds106 way. And they get less dependent on me as the teacher to be the font of technical expertise (which I am not, I just know how to look stuff up).

And this is the Stretch, the place where learning happens, when we go beyond the boundaries of what we know how to do. It is why the ds106 Daily Create is so valuable because it encourages people to try these things in a low or no stakes game. Their achievements are not graded (UMW students are graded for trying and writing up their process). That was the magic I found in its predecessor, the Daily Shoot- which gave me each day a photographic challenge, and made my try techniques or subjects I would not have normally done on my own.

It is also what see almost every semester when we start the audio units. I hear comments like “I dread audio” or “I hate audio” from students who have actually not really listened to a well produced radio show or every tried to create an audio mix themselves. It always turns around 3 weeks later, after they have fund the creating audio material is no different from manipulating text, cut and paste and combining.

So what are we providing in an environment of learning, when we make it easy, when the answers are google-able, or the assessment is a stupid multiple choice, or just where the work is not challenging? This feels painfully true for me the way we work with faculty on using technology, where so many of them have absorbed a sense of learned helplessness.

cc licensed ( BY ND ) flickr photo shared by TheWanderingAmerican

“Oh I cannot blog, I dont have time for that.”

“I stick to Powerpoint because I know how to use it.”

“I am not a computer person” (one of my favorites to shoot down- there is no such thing as a COmputer Person, I have never met a Computer Person. We are humans, damnit).

I am not suggesting everything needs to ba hard and challenging, we do need a system of scaffolding, a place to provide foundations. But frankly, if we are not making learning challenging, we are not providing learning. If it becomes a system to mass generate degrees and badges, we are not building a society that can take on our real challenges (financial, environmental, etc).

That was one of the aspects of my graduate program I liked- most of the classes, the seminars, the research, was open ended. We were not just jumping over a bar because it was set there, we had to define what the bar was, and where it was, and how to jump it.

I also was thinking about this during the April 2013 TCC Online Conference during Terry Anderson’s session Getting the Right Mix: Open Content, Quality Teaching and Supportive Community. I really enjoyed Terry’s ideas, frameworks, and big concepts. And he paid ds106 a large sized compliment as an open community of learning.

But he also referred to ds106 as “a bit manic”.


Organized Chaos

I know what that means- chaotic. Not neatly laid out. Short on re-iterated objectives and crisp assignments.

Do you know of another space like it? It’s right outside the doors of your university. If we are not preparing students for the manic mess of the outside world, where they will not do their work in a password protected LMS, where things are not clearly laid out, then we are not doing our duty as educators.

Jim Groom reiterated that as he does so well in the session he did here for the College of Wooster; about how people can look at ds106 as “that wild crazy course” but then back of distancing saying, that approach would never work for what I teach.

It’s not about teaching your class like ds106, it’s about teaching your class in a way the world and the web really works.

And it’s about making a space where people learn to try things before saying they cannot do them.

But do me a favor, pay closer attention to the times people around you or even yourself are uttering that “I cannot do X” phrase. It is totally open to query. You do not know the answer until you have sincerely tried (several times).

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by gaptone

In education we should not be in the saying “no” business.

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as @cogdog@cosocial.ca


  1. Alan,

    Your words resonate with me: “it’s about teaching your class in a way the world and the web really works.
    And it’s about making a space where people learn to try things before saying they cannot do them.”

    I’m sure our friend, Andy Forgrave, would agree that we’ve experienced some of the same attitude/feelings with #105theHive, but we keep promoting and sharing with others on how to use the space. Slowly but surely, teachers and students are dipping their toes in.

    You’re right – it’s much harder for the students AND teachers than conventional assessment practices, but once they get the feeling of success, I’m pleased to see some of the same teachers returning with their kids into this learning community. We’ve got plans to snare more into this community at ECOO this fall. It’s what we continue to talk ourselves into:)

  2. Running does suck, but this post is awesome and eloquently states a lot of what’s been rolling around in my head for a while now. Those barriers are all to familiar. Perfection shouldn’t be the enemy of good. Hell, it shouldn’t be the enemy of action.

    Into the virtual moleskin goes this post.

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