Porous, Permeable, Praxis, Pedagogy, more P’s less HE


After a busy couple of days at the Porous University event in Inverness on the 8th and 9th of May I went back to “the croft”, Keith, Frank and I had spent a lot of time thinking about how to structure an event that was not structured, unconference seemed too fashionable for us, but something like that was what we aimed for. In the end our gathering started slow with people reaching out beyond their own context, sense making, find their place, and I think in part getting a feel for how safe it was to say what often is left unsaid. Left unsaid not because people think it is unimportant, left unsaid because it is vitally important, because these are thoughts, opinions and reactions to our contexts that might leave us exposed.

People did open up, and there is an excellent selection of blogs and resources, some on this blog here, and many on the Ragged University see here for some talks (more coming) and here for some reflections from Alex. I see no need to add my own summary of the day to those excellent accounts. One thing I did want to pick up was a comment by Alan Levine who joined virtually, he suggested Porous was incorrect as a description or an intention, we should really be talking about permeability. Where porous describes the qualities of the thing (the amount of space), where permeable describes the ease by which things can pass through – see here from Alan. Though it is interesting as something with a biological sciences background where it is used in the sense of whether a plant or animals has pores, i.e. a membrane is porous, it has pores, from the same Greek, Latin Old French root, and perhaps also from literary theory, the idea of boundary crossing.

However, his comment stayed with me, not just because I wondering about the right P, but because it highlighted the U, was the day really about Uni. Actually it was, and I think one of the issues was we often ended up talking about and for those outside the academy, with the best intentions we made visible the barriers and the problems, but from within HE. While as people within HE we have no choice but to speak for, we are also people in the world, with opinions, with views, with families, who engage socially and politically, who form groups, volunteer and campaign.


Figure 1: The Elephant Not in the Room, Macintyre 2010, CC BY SA 4.0

We are in the world, so perhaps what we need to do is take out the University and add some extra P’s. This is by no means a definitive list but I would like to suggest permeable (to accept Alan Levine comment), but I think the important ones are pedagogy and praxis. Praxis because one of the things that ran through the two days was how our education practice transforms and is itself transformed though our actions, and in turn how those practices are used (or not) to create change.  Pedagogy, because of the sense, if we are looking at shifting locus of knowledge creation and production, of opening up, then we need to understand and develop appropriate pedagogies to support those changes.

I think dropping Uni, or University might also help with another thing that made me worry post event, I have already alluded to the tendency to “talk from within”, at least at first, in part this related to talking about what we know, but its dominance at the event was because most participants were from HE, as you can tell from the way I use “we”, I assume are most of those reading this post. If we are serious about reaching out and reaching in then we need a broader community, the “we” needs to be more inclusive. Otherwise the assumption is that “reaching in” is in the gift of those within the academy. When lots of the examples of reaching is those outside barging in, rowdy, unplanned, rudely asking those within to listen. I am not saying Uni is acting as some sort of barrier, “this is not a network for me”, but instead a change to better describe not what we are at present but where we want to be.

So with this in mind and getting where you are meant to be can I say

“Oh kind friends and companions come join me in rhyme,

 And lift up your voices in chorus wi mine;

 Let’s drink and be merry all grief to refrain,

 For we may or might never all meet here again


Here’s a health to the company and one to my love,

 We’ll drink and be merry all out of one glass;

 Drink and be merry all grief to refrain,

 For we may or might never all meet here again.”

Or Better Watch this


Affect, Messiness and Values in Learning Design: Reflecting on the Alzheimer Society Ireland Showcase

Start at the end

At the end of an excellent day organised by The Alzheimer Society of Ireland, Flexible Education Norway and Ic Dien a further education college in Belgium, we went upstairs to a computer lab, something I had imaged no longer existed. We gathered round PC’s to review the module created by the team to support family carers of people with Dementia – see the project website for further information.

A small group of us started to talk our way through the site, asking questions like, will this be screen reader compliant, does the flow work here, how do I get back, is it clear what to do on this page, should the title here be changed to make the purpose clearer. What gave us the sense we had a legitimate right to comment, to second guess the designer. Well, for one he had asked us to second guess him, to sense check the module. So how do we know, what do we base our judgement on as we talk through our questions, we use words like “I think”, “I feel”, we talk about familiar forms which we think “work” we draw out positive and negatives experiences. Experience counts both ways, it can be used “in my experience” to call on patterns “you know” work, and also lack of experience, and “I am not familiar with this but …” Bringing the less sure user into the narrative.

This seems to touch on something that came up through the day, about how one decides on what to do. In our work creating online material with the aim of enabling individual transformation for values based organisations, how is it we know? Does working with values based organisations make any difference, does it make a difference that the learning is informal? Isn’t it just learning, or at best online learning we need to consider? When people talked about their judgement, how they knew, what informed decisions, it was not the online that carried the most weight but experience of learning and working directly with clients, people grounded their comments in real and imagined learners. Talked about how they felt, whether they felt something was right and fitted with what they knew of the learners and organisational values, and when things didn’t feel right and asking themselves why. Of course it is just as important to ask questions of the comfortable decisions as the ones that are troublesome, but what it emphasised for me is the personal craft of creating a course.

Never knowingly neat and tidy

The sense of learning in these contexts as a messy problem with complex, incomplete and clumsy solutions emerged at the start of the day.  It was great to hear the explicit recognition of the difference between a project plan, a neat timetable of discrete activities, and the reality. The need to inhabit all the phases at the same time, patterns  of activities blur into each other, for example, in design you look back to your experience and forward to the live course,  and as you do you are conditioned by production. Or, in writing you move to and from the image of the learner you started writing for, the one you are bringing into being through writing and looking forward to what it will enable them to do and how you will know if it has worked. These cycles are not captured in linear project plans with set start and end dates. Uncertainty is useful, it makes you question things, the need to keep changing, asking yourself what is the right thing to do, recognising the temporality of solutions. So it was useful to see this at the start of the day with Gibbs Reflective cycle as a project management methodology, it was quite a clear and bold statement in a world of online learning design which often talks about Agile or other such methods.

Figure 1: Kari Olstad Flexible Education Norway talks about Gibbs Reflective Cycle as a Project Management Approach, Ronald Macintyre CC BY SA 4.0


It was bold, and even bolder because it asked us to consider how well project management methods borrowed from tech company’s suited values based organisations, or indeed any organisations development of learning materials. Certainly some do, if I replaced clumsy temporal solutions with “rolling beta”, it probably is similar enough, and within “sprints” in software development are we pretending people are not reflecting on their practice. However, I think what was different and the risk with some of the linear models where “reflection on action” is not explicit is the tendency to look down, to focus on the plan, on the detail, and not “look up”, to place what you are doing in its broader context, the values of the organisation, the needs of the learner, and crucially what learning enables them to do.

Just to close thanks to Fergus Timmons Alzheimer Society of Ireland for inviting me and sense checking this account of the day.

Here is a link to my own presentation

Best Wishes