Landing : Athabascau University

Softening the machine

Later today I'll be giving a talk at the AU Learning Services conference, so here are my slides.

Softening the machine (note - only available to logged in users) BIG DOWNLOAD ALERT! May slow down the server if many people do this at once. UPDATE: Scribd version of the slides for viewing in a Web browser, no big download needed, at

For those who want the condensed version, here is a stream of consciousness brain dump on the message I am trying to get acroos:

Like all educational systems, Athabasca University is a machine, composed of many technologies. Some of these are directly about teaching, some with processes around it, some with helping people to work together and more. Because Athabasca developed as a distance institution in the industrial age of distance learning, based primarily on the postal service and telephones, both its institutional and teaching processes became brittle: essentially, Michael Moore's theory of transactional distance that treats distance as a continuum between structure and dialogue puts us in a tricky situation: limits on dialogue inevitably mean an increase in structure. Technologies developed from the Web 1.0 era that enable richer and more inclusive communication are changing that but they are based on a model of closed groups, focused and task-centric. And that tends to be the nature of dialogue, both in teaching and in the daily workings of the university. The real social connection stuff is still largely left to happen in more or less occasional face to face meetings. Web 2.0 technologies open that out and level the playing field, enabling serendipity, creative engagement, filling those spaces between the islands - that's what the Landing is about, in both teaching and in 'learning organization' terms. However, the Landing is a soft technology: it offers enormous potential to increase the 'adjacent possible' but that comes at a price in terms of difficulty of use. The harder technologies from which most of Athabasca's processes are built have the big benefit of making it easier, but at a cost of constraint. So, we are evolving the Landing so that it can make hard things softer, but also hard things softer. And it's worth putting in the effort because the payoff can be large.


  • This is fascinating and new to me.

    Charity Maraire-Shonhiwa October 23, 2010 - 4:48pm

  • It's new to all of us Charity! But some of the principles are becoming pretty clear and the way forward is looking clearer. The real challenge, or at least one of the big ones, is finding ways to orchestrate the soft stuff and make it hard when we need it, to avoid being lost in network space without losing its power as an enabler of expansive and creative learning.

    Jon Dron October 23, 2010 - 6:28pm

  • Hello Jon - There really is a fascinating aspect to this topic but I think you have captured what I see as a rather large struggle in the use of the social Web 2.0 world in more formal learning. You state, "The real challenge, or at least one of the big ones, is finding ways to orchestrate the soft stuff and make it hard when we need it, to avoid being lost in network space without losing its power as an enabler of expansive and creative learning." There is a real struggle between having learners use the comfortable LMS "hard" world as you call it versus the richer "soft" social world. At this stage in its evolution I see that the soft world gets in the way of learners' process of learning, they really do get "lost in network space". I would love for them to slow down enough to see through their fog of process while learning within the Landing but we have so much going on in our courses that the environment must be transparent to allow the learning and this just does not happen.

    I really like what you are talking about and I know that you and Terry have pushed hard to make the Landing work in this way but I am looking for some form of a bridge device until there is a greater understanding of its use in the more formal learning process. I have thought about how an LMS could become more flexible to incorporate some of the Web 2.0 functionality but then I back away with this thinking as I believe that LMS's are not really suited for a hybrid world. Is it just a matter of time in terms of audiences becoming more accustomed to living in social space or does our more formal learning require a hard structure?

    Stuart Berry October 24, 2010 - 3:33pm

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