Reflections of a DigiPed Lab Rat: How I become BFFs with Sean Michael Morris AND Dave Cormier (and their ideas of course)

Last October, I received a curious email from the Director of VIU’s Teaching and Learning Centre.  “Would you be interested in attending the Digital Pedagogy Lab in Toronto this coming March?” I was so intrigued and curious about the term Digital Pedagogy it led me to eagerly say yes! Accepting the invitation came with a commitment to engage for the next five months with other curious keeners around this curious new world of digital pedagogies.  We didn’t know exactly what we were getting into, but nonetheless dove right in. 

Five months later I arrived in Toronto along with seven other enthusiastic colleagues to attend the Lab. To say I was excited about this opportunity is a major understatement. You see, my colleagues and I had been prepping this event for months – five to be exact.  Each week we’d read a few chapters of Urgency of Teachers.  We’d discuss, and then we’d read some more. We became so familiar with this book that we chatted about the authors, Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris, as if they were in our daily lives.  We argued about their views and wrote short posts to share with each other. As you can probably tell, we were not taking this opportunity lightly. And I loved every minute of it!

So, what did I expect the Lab to be? To be honest, I had thought this entire endeavour would be an opportunity for me to become a techno whiz-kid over the span of three days. But, no – that idea was vetoed very early on when we heard ‘no laptops required’ and ‘it’s all about the dialogue’.  So now what did I expect?

I’m going to say whatever it was, has since been subsumed by what I experienced.

Day one:

I started my day with the Introduction to Open Pedagogy Breakout Group. But as a great boost to my confidence, and a testament to my 5-month intensive learning journey, I soon realized that I was actually beyond the introductory stage.

At lunchtime I knew an action plan was needed to discreetly switch groups. As luck would have it the lunch line up that day was long, very, very long, which allowed me more time to think/plan/hide. But then my soon-to-be-best friend, Sean Michael Morris, whom I’d never met before but knew so much about, was standing in front of me. He turned around and asked quite simply “How was your morning?” We started to chat about his wonderful dinosaur stories that he’d shared throughout the Urgency of Teachers. I praised his mum for having such great insight into the link between imagination and learning. One thing led to another; me recommending that he read Dr. Kieran Egan’s Learning In Depth, and then Sean recommending that I join Dave Cormier’s Open Pedagogy group for the rest of the Lab! It was that simple.  There was only one problem; Dave’s session was full. Sean asked me to hold his place in the line-up while he ran off to see if Dave would be willing to take me in. I prayed to the DigPed gods while he was gone. It worked! I was in!

If you are interested in OER and Open Pedagogy you will have to get to know the work of  Dave Cormier. Not only is he the founder of MOOCs and has endless experience designing and facilitating open online courses, he is a master pedagogue. He very quickly determined that I was the only person in his session representing Trades Education; in fact, I was the only person at the Lab representing Trades Education. In the most artful way he began to weave examples from Carpentry and Automotive into the classroom dialogue regarding pedagogy. To me, this is what inclusive education looks like, feels like, and sounds like. I won’t digress here to tell you stories from similar settings where I’ve felt excluded because “Trades is not education; it’s training, right?” Not my words, but I’m thinking if you’ve been in education for a while, you’ll be familiar with this mindset (thanks Plato).

Two of my (fab) colleagues, Jacqueline Kirkham and Louis Matter, were already in this group and have written excellent blogs that I recommend you read. Both Jacqueline and Louis have captured the structure of Dave’s class and the great activities that he facilitated, and so I won’t repeat those stories. I have instead decided to tell you about my own running internal narrative and a few of the conversations I had throughout the next two and half wonderful days I spent at the Lab.

I left Dave’s session absolutely pumped! Firstly, I was so empowered by my ability to act quickly earlier that day to ensure I switched sessions. But bigger than that, I’d found Dave Cormier. And I was now leaving his session with more questions than answers. This is what I call learning.

At the end of day one I wrote up my questions, which I will share with you here:

  1. What is Open Pedagogy?
  2. How does Open Pedagogy differ from the experimental Free Schools (Self Discovery Learning model) that we saw in the UK in the 1970’s?
  3. Are Open Pedagogy and Open Educational Resources (OER) interdependent?
  4. How does Open Pedagogy fit into Competency Based Trades program?

In the rest of this Blog I will share with you the answers I came away with. In doing so, please know that I am not claiming to be any kind of an expert here, I am simply sharing with you my own understanding as it is today having spent time with Dave Cormier and 14 other wonderful individuals who made 3 days feel like 3 minutes, and yet the impact of these days will last a lifetime.

Question 1: What is Open Pedagogy?

For now, my description of Open Pedagogy is captured in the world cloud below. These are the terms that resonated with me most, and currently act as a guide for my pedagogical lens.

Created using

Question 2: How does Open Pedagogy differ from the experimental Free Schools (Self Discovery Learning model) that we saw in the UK in the 1970’s?

With all the dialogue taking place around Openness, I became suddenly fearful of what might occur if all boundaries are removed from our current pedagogical structures. And for more than a fleeting second, I am reminded of a scene I saw back in the 70’s showing a Free School that was close to my home in the UK. The scene that I am referring to shows unruly students hanging out of second floor windows, smoking in classrooms, and literally running wild. In the absence of this resource, please take my word for it; the school philosophy grounded in the ideals of Jean-Jacques Rousseau had created absolute chaos!

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that anyone in my group, or anyone at the DigPedLab for that matter, perceived Open Pedagogy in the same vein as the experimental Free Schools of the 1970’s. But even though I knew this, I still needed to hear Dave Cormier’s views on how these ideals differ.

This is Dave’s response: “First let establish what is open and what is closed”.

Open versus Closed Pedagogy: “Closed – we decide what you should learn, and then you come and learn it in ways that were pre-determined on your behalf. We then rank your success or failure with pre-existing narrowly focused measures determined by others, again in absence of you.

Whereas Open Pedagogy offers students choice in many aspect of their learning such as curriculum content and learning outcomes, time management, media use, grading structures, and the option to work independently or in groups. The student voice is critical in shaping the learning goals and outcomes for such courses. But… (Note: for me, this is the most pertinent part of this conversation) It is not wise for any curriculum to be fully open.”

And so, here it is in Dave Cormier’s words “Open is not 100% Open, and nor should it be”.

What Dave had to say was music to my ears. This was the point where I was able to situate Open Pedagogy within a Vygotskian Social Constructivist framework. Let me elaborate on that point. In Vygotskian theory the learner’s existing level of knowledge provides the starting point for the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD); “the distance between the actual development by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86). So in conclusion to my question:

  • Closed pedagogy: the ZPD of the individual learner is not considered. Course work is standardized.
  • Open pedagogy: the ZPD of each learner drives the decisions made between student and instructor during the negotiating and planning of assignments and assessments; thereby allowing the instructor (more capable peer) to guide decisions appropriate to the learner’s ZPD.
  • Free Schools: absence of more capable peer to guide decisions and planning of assignments, assessments, and learning outcomes.

Question 3: Are Open Pedagogy and Open Educational Resources (OER) interdependent?

Quite simply, the answer is NO! It is possible to facilitate learning through Open Pedagogical practices without the use of OER, in fact many educators have done so for many years with great results. These educators speak about the use of collaborative practices where non-disposable assignments (thanks, Dave Wiley) are co- created in an agreement between student and instructor, along with self-evaluation rubrics, and personal goal setting, all of which are independent of OER.

Okay, got it.  So then, is it possible to utilize OER within a Closed Pedagogy practice? Sure it is! You can easily access Open Educational Resources to support the delivery of a very traditional course that has every aspect of teaching and learning pre-determined, including the classroom setting and the behaviours that are expected within those four walls. So why use OER? Well, it saves students money due to no text book costs, which is always a good thing. And maybe the instructor prefers to use electronic resources licensed under Creative Commons that can be Retained, Reused, Revised, Remixed, and Redistributed.

So why do OER and Open Pedagogy appear to be inter – reliant? Well, that’s because they both represent the same philosophy and when they are used together they form a symbiotic relationship where one supports the other. The bottom line is, Open Pedagogy and Open Education Resources combined fulfill the philosophy of Open Pedagogy – and hold the potential to empower many individuals that have previously been excluded by the existing traditional educational structures.

4: How does Open Pedagogy fit with Competency Based Trades programs?

Well, I don’t have all the answers to this one yet. In fact, I still have many ideas jostling around because Trades Education is historically situated within a closed pedagogical paradigm (CBET). But to keep you going until I get this figured out, and till I write next, I encourage you to take a look at how one fab, inspirational Trades Instructor, Chad Flinn, has embedded Open Pedagogy and Open Educational Resources into his Electrical Foundations class here in BC. Take a look here at the Electrical Academy.

Got question? Please ask away!

Got answers? I’m listening.

Find me on Twitter at @sallyvinden

One thought on “Reflections of a DigiPed Lab Rat: How I become BFFs with Sean Michael Morris AND Dave Cormier (and their ideas of course)

  • May 31, 2019 at 10:16 pm

    Great article. One comment/observation; I would propose that vocational education is not as closed as one may think. The nature of apprenticeship training, although perceived as a one-on-one practice, ultimately rests within the apprentice’s ability to revise, reuse, retain, remix, and redistribute knowledge gleaned from ‘masters’ of the trade.


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