Frances Bell

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Knowledge Transfer: old wine in new bottles or how many contentious statements can I make in one blog post?

Punning wine

Punning Wine By Mike Knell

(includes edited content from a comment I made to Stephen Downes blog post)

I have been watching a ‘debate’ unfold over the weekend with increasing mystification.  I even posted a couple of comments but I didn’t really feel that there was much idea exchange taking place. If you want to check it out, George Siemens has some useful links here .

For me the first old wine in new bottles (itself a fairly stale metaphor but I love the picture)  is the idea of a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) – I thought that open fora and ‘free’ courses had been around for a  long time for example WebHeads in Action since 1997, open learning environments have been under discussion since mid 1990s at least (though open learning variously defined) e.g. and I am sure (though I can’t find links at present) there have been free courses online (e.g. in HTML) since mid 1990s too.  Don’t get me wrong the recent crop of MOOCs has generated a lot of interest and experimentation but this will be more informed if they acknowledge their heritage.

The second old wine in new bottles is the terminology and paradigm debate.  Quite a lot of the talk was about the meaning of learning, knowledge and even the term ‘knowledge transfer’.  This one really made me smile, as the term ‘Knowledge Transfer’ has a fairly well-defined meaning in UK HE, as it refers to a funded graduate recruitment scheme where businesses, graduates and academic work in partnership to transfer knowledge between them – very contextual and processy, unlike knowledge transfer as item of ‘knowledge’ passing from sender to receiver . The knowledge transfer being discussed this weekend sounded more like ‘transmission mode learning’  about which acres of text have been written, and clearly linked back to earlier work on communication, explained and critiqued rather well here in the transmission mode of communication.

This critique also neatly demonstrates how a model originating from a viewpoint different from one’s own can still be useful (up to a point) in one’s own meaning-making.  I am very interested in how those to whom ‘learning’ means something different can still have a productive and meaningful dialogue. I think participants would have to start by trying to explain what the word means to them and then listen to what others have to say. It would also help participants (especially given the context of openness) to enter the dialogue with the possibility of changing their minds even if only in a small way.  Maybe what is important about theories of learning and knowledge is what they mean to learners and teachers, as we personally theorise the world around us. Since that can often be in a social context we need to get the knack of sharing theories in dialogue. I have observed over a long period (and on CCK08 in particular) that teachers use theories in a very pragmatic way (connectivism being a good example), sometimes thinking about transmission modes of learning, other times using constructivism and in our digitally-saturated environment, turning to connectivism to help them practice and reflect.  I spent a short time as a Maths teacher in school and saw the twin disadvantages of knowing your times tables without understanding how they were constructed and vice versa, whereas what practice of numeracy requires both that you know your times tables and understand what they mean.  This may be achieved by combining rote learning and discovery learning.

The last point I wanted to make was about the general tetchy tone of some of the contributions (notable exception being @dkernohan 😉 ) Stephen Downes using the term nonsense and David Wiley identifying a comment as the ‘snob’ response. Just what is this ?  are the writers claiming ‘truth’? ownership of ideas or concepts like MOOCs?  This seemed to me to a very ‘masculine’ debate (OK that’s my interpretation) both in terms of style and inclusivity.  I would playfully prescribe that the main contenders in this weekend’s debate assign themselves an OOC on Belenky’s Womens Ways of Knowing, since Belenky’s work challenged and grew out of Perry’s Model of Intellectual Development which emerged from a very restricted sample of white  middleclass male MBA students and was then generalised to others.

So here is my contention:

that if we want to grow and explore concepts like informal learning online, MOOCs and OERs for the benefit of all, we need to involve all – men, women, young, old, from different philosophical and religious perspectives, from countries all over the world, and acknowledge the contributions of earlier scholars.

Now that isn’t going to be easy, inclusivity never is, but I don’t think this recent ‘debate’ has contributed much – however good some of the individual contributions were, the whole left a sour taste, in my mouth at least.


francesbell • July 4, 2011

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  1. dkernohan July 4, 2011 - 1:06 pm Reply

    Thanks for the hat tip. I do try to be pleasant.

    I should confess that I find the “big beasts” of EduTech blogging hilarious! I’ve not been at this social media debate game long, but my understanding is that you write to add to the discussion, not to end it. Thanks for doing the former here, I think @ambrouk did it well last night too, and I hope to contribute something more considered myself later.

    • Winston Jingo July 5, 2011 - 8:43 pm Reply

      I signed up for that MOOC, and the description of it on the post sign up page just put me right off. It read like it knew it was already brilliant and awesome and I was lucky to have even signed up. Like an alumni magazine with NHS thick tinted spectacles on the go.

      I think too many of the elearning “big beasts” (whose up for some game hunting) are way way way way too concerned with their own reputation and blowing smoke up their own arse to actually achieve anything of meaning.

      Better code than blog. Better make elearning than blog. But then I might get found out as nothing more than a boringly over-verbose jabbercrap monkey.

      But it all adds to the discussion, yeah, but the discussion don’t count for squat.

  2. Mark Johnson July 4, 2011 - 1:16 pm Reply

    Hi Frances,

    I agree with with your complaint about the tribal nature of the ‘debate’. I think this is really about ‘teaching’: there is a difference between teaching one’s understanding and making statements to ‘mark territory’ (which is what I’ve seen going on between Downes and Wiley). The first is a much more vulnerable thing to do because it means revealing one’s confusion and doubt as well. And we’re not good at doing that – even when we teach our students, we’re not good at that!

    I’m interested in how new forms of media can encourage greater personal ‘revealing’ – ‘text’ is a bit of a problem. We’re all academics – and we’re good at hiding behind text. Let’s see some interesting videos which go into more depth about what Downes and Wiley really DO think..



  3. francesbell July 4, 2011 - 3:04 pm Reply

    Looking forward to your post @dkernohan and I did enjoy @ambrouk ‘s post Quite liking the image conjured up by “big beasts” of EdTech. I could aspire to being big and beastly.

    One of the tactics I enjoy observing is the different ways in which participants make and locate their comments. Some blog their reply and use linkback , some post in comments directly and some reply only on Twitter. I was slightly freaked to see Keith Hamon’s comment from Dave Cormier’s blog appear here at David Wiley’s blog. Dave Wiley tells me that is the Back Type plug in for WordPress. One of the pitfalls for those learning how to conduct open conversation and dialogue with emerging tools is understanding the context-switching that goes on. Sophisticated contributors are very good at exploiting contexts.

    @Mark interesting what you say about text and revealing – it’s sometimes what people don’t say (or respond to) and to whom they don’t say it that is revealing. My point was more about listening and recognising what others say. For me, the recent ‘debate’ has had some contributions that admit the possibility of re-thinking , mainly here but quite a lot of grandstanding that I find really off-putting.

    I am thinking now about another post offering my own critique of MOOCs but probably won’t have time as we have our wonderful #ECE11 conference starting tomorrow.

  4. Stephen Downes July 5, 2011 - 11:44 am Reply

    I’m sorry you find it grandstanding. I don’t feel that way at all. Anyhow…

    > this will be more informed if they acknowledge their heritage.

    If you listen to my talks you’ll find that when I talk about the development of the MOOC I am always careful to say that large open courses have existed long before, and to give examples that have particularly influenced me.

    I don’t repeat this every time I talk about MOOCs in a blog post because people already complain that the posts are too long. But a fair reading of me would acknowledge that I do make this point, rather than suggesting that I don’t make it.

    The thing I think is different about the MOOCs George and I have developed is that they are distributed. Previously, large open online courses were established around a single resource, such as a mailing list, a website or a wiki. What we’ve added to the mix is the explicit recommendation to create resources outside that environment, and the aggregation and distribution of them.

    > the term ‘Knowledge Transfer’ has a fairly well-defined meaning in UK HE

    Yes, and similar vocabulary has been used elsewhere, in similar contexts. I have discussed the meaning of the terms ‘knowledge mobilization’ and ‘knowledge translation’. As I point out in that post, this type of employment uses knowledge transfer (in the sense I have been using it) to project power and authority. I haven’t examined the UK-HE usage closely (nobody can examine everything) but a quick glance suggests a similar intent.

    > the general tetchy tone of some of the contributions

    I think the debates are important. You may not think so, and you may feel you have a better (kinder, gentler, more feminist) way of presenting the issues. That’s fine; I just do what I can. I don’t think I’m particularly a “big beast” and it’s worth keeping in mind that Ed Tech is a very small pond. Believe me, what may to your ears sound like very large roars of male dominance are in the larger picture just small squeaks of protest, the anguish of being stepped upon rather than the rage of arrogance.

  5. francesbell July 5, 2011 - 12:50 pm Reply

    I agree that discussing these issues is important – where we may differ is in how they are discussed. I have a limited interest in ‘presenting the issues’ – I am as interested in dialogue. Interestingly that part of my post (para 4) is one that you have not addressed. I am unlikely to be described by those close to me as kind and gentle, rather as a ‘thick-bearded woman’ that emerged as a meme in the Emerge community 😉

    BTW, I do think that the ‘distributed’ contribution you have made to MOOCS is original and valuable.

    I am interested in what you say about Knowledge Transfer and power/authority (it is a significant element of a Masters module I teach). Universities can be guilty of a ‘colonial’ approach to knowledge transfer but there are partnerships where there is a genuinely mutual flow of knowledge. The nature and quality of knowledge transfer and “engagement’ depend to a large extent on the personal qualities and attitudes of those involved as well as the structural arrangements.

    I find myself interested in whether or not you have learned anything in this exchange (I know I have).

  6. Stephen Downes July 5, 2011 - 2:17 pm Reply

    > Interestingly that part of my post (para 4) is one that you have not addressed.

    I addressed it in the last paragraph of my comment.

    > there is a genuinely mutual flow of knowledge

    I know you think knowledge ‘flows’. I don’t.

    Maybe a whole different vocabulary is needed here. It’s like you (and most other people) have a ‘wave theory’ of knowledge. You see the motion of the wave, from one location to the next to the next.

    But I have a ‘particle theory’ of knowledge. I see each particle stirred by other particles around it, moving up and down, but not ‘flowing’ in any particular way. Like this:

  7. francesbell July 5, 2011 - 10:53 pm Reply

    In my vocabulary, flow of knowledge does not equate to ‘transmission’ of knowledge and I would like to refer to the wave/particle duality but feel I would soon be out of my depth 😉

    What I have been trying to say is that an inclusive dialogue is unlikely to be predicated by a common vocabulary (if that’s what you meant by whole different vocabulary), that being rather exclusive. I think it requires us to make an attempt at acknowledging our different terminologies/vocabularies, agreeing on subjects of interest/ importance and engaging in dialogue so that something new might emerge , if only in each of us.

    To give a more concrete example, OERs and technology-enabled learning can have the most significant impact in countries where formal education is sparse, connectivity may be sporadic and expensive, so how are those keen for learning in those countries able to contribute to the shaping of OERs and TEL?

    It’s so difficult but let’s keep this present in our minds.

  8. Susan Bainbridge July 6, 2011 - 9:25 am Reply

    Firstly I would like to congratulate you Frances, for making your contentious statements, and for succeeding in initiating some dynamic dialogue.
    I curate a repository for information on Connectivism, and honestly this is the first discourse I have seen that provoked me enough to respond. Many of the discussions online are expository posts, which I whizz through, nodding at the redundancy and yawning. Your post has managed to cut below the skin just enough to initiate some REAL dialogue. Well done!
    I would like to address two issues:
    1. Old wine in new bottles: Everything is just that Frances. There is no ‘new’ idea only those that refine, reshape, and combine variations of previous ideas and concepts. There is an exceptional 4-part documentary on this topic: Everything is a Remix

    2. The meaning of learning with regard to connectivism and online activity. Regardless of the vocabulary, something new is happening for millions of people online. When I study it, I keep thinking of the ideas of Granovetter and his ideas about ‘weak ties’ (1983). He felt we learn more from ‘weak ties’ (people who are acquaintances) rather than our ‘strong ties’ (family, colleagues, and friends). Combine his ideas with Siemens concept of ¬¬‘learning outside’ (2004) and voilà you have the beginnings of connectivism. Whether it is a theory or simply a descriptor of what is happening online, time will tell; but I am learning so much, from so many, these days I would not have believed it possible 20 years ago.

    Granovetter, M. (1983). “The strength of weak ties: A network theory revisited”. Sociological Theory 1:
    201–233. doi:10.2307/202051.

    Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. Retrieved from

  9. Frances Bell July 13, 2011 - 8:51 pm Reply

    Hi Susan,
    you replied just as I was seguing into our fab ECE 2011 conference so time did not permit this engagement.
    1. I love old wine in new bottles – the crucial thing is – do the people who think the wine is new appreciate the oldness of the wine and the newness of the bottles?
    2. I absolutely agree with you on the excitement of connecting and learning in this online and otherwise digitally connected world.

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