‘In-between’thinking on Open Education and Presence

Reflecting on a stimulating conversation with Katherine Jensen, Catherine Cronin, Donna Lanclos and Mark Childs about our shared interest in liminality, I came away with many ideas (of course), a few of which I will develop here.
First, my starting point is the dependence we have upon binaries in higher education. This is something I have discussed on many occasions and will continue to discuss (and here). Binaries (teaching-learning, physical-virtual, open-closed, etc, etc) appear to keep important, difficult conversations manageable. Content-Context and Product-Process may be others and there are plenty more. However, I argue that they hinder decent, deep and necessary discourse in educational development and change. They deny the all-important complexity that is necessary to begin to understand the experience of learning and being a learner. We need to understand points on, and adjacent to, continua. Yes, the ‘adjacent to’ point signals that it is not realistic to plot matters of learning experience in two dimensions either. In our conversation we referenced David White’s Visitors and Residence mapping of experience (something I have referred to before for mapping the experience of the educational developer crossing boundaries) and I think this shows how we can map experience usefully in a more spatial way.

Liminality can be understood in many ways and applied to many situations. In our conversation we noted common interest, but we also noted our different contexts for being interested. Liminality is a powerful concept. We first used it as a synonym for change or transformation, but I suggested it is more about experience of change. It notes that change is never a static, definable point but something that creeps up, is felt, enacted, and reflected on. It is also unique, experienced in the ecology of each learner with meanings that can be hard to equate. So, in the same way that liminality is represented as being ritualistic (Turner, 1969), it is a helpful concept when thinking aboutexperiential zones  that are transforming, open-fronted and open-ended.

The metaphor of borders between one state and another is also too delineated, suggesting that one minute you can be in one state, the next in another. Boundaries, to me are better, and borderlands better still. Transformation takes some travelling! Liminality, like learning, is a highly personal matter, even when experienced socially.

Time is obviously a factor if we are talking about learning experience. I would suggest it can be remarkably quick cognitively – like adjusting one’s focus. Or remarkably protracted – course transition is itself something we have not really understood and is certainly an experienced life ritual. Mostly it is too protracted for us to work with, but I am beginning to sketch out transition project (because if we don’t understand that the learner’s context is largely a transitional period of uncertainty and becoming then what are we doing?!).

In our conversation Donna and Mark emphasised the idea of ‘bleed through’ and Kathrine said ‘semi-permeability’. All of us recognised the importance of this idea that experience (and our context was the learner experience mostly) of ill-defined experience. Perhaps ideas like segue (‘segway’) help (it means smooth transition). Certainly an idea of ‘an individual’s change of state over time, probably in the context of dominant, formal or concrete states’ seems to begin to capture something useful from the conversation.

So, why is any of this at all important?!

If we are to understand learning at all and how we can create or enable the right conditions for learning, then we have to understand that learning has not only dominant formal and dominant non-formal states, but interstitial transitions. My favourite representation of this is the conversation that begins in the classroom, continues as the learner walks out the room with a peer, and may come to rest over a coffee on site or off. If we pay attention to what happened to ignite the learning spark in the formal situation, and then the cognitive, active, even affective transitional state, leading up to some sense of conclusion or resolution over coffee, then we will begin to understand that learning can be fostered beyond ‘content’ and ‘delivery’ and that we as universities have some work to do. For me at the moment a lot of this is to do with understanding and developing learning spaces.

Phew! OK, onto presence…

Katherine Jensen and myself are presenting at #OER16 in a few weeks. We’ll get there, but we are still playing with ideas about the inadequacy of terms – in particular OER. Following an hour long train journey a couple of weeks ago that started in the Sheffield Tap on Sheffield station and ended outside the Head of Steam on Huddersfield station an hour of so later, we began playing with alternative ways of understanding the R for resources in OER and what this might mean for the 4Rs of Open Education. I won’t steal our thunder here (as that thunder is still brewing to be honest!) but I will pick up on the word Presence that I think was important for all of us today.

We might think about reframing OEP indeed, to change Practice for Presence. Why would we want to do that? Surely OEPractice is much more helpful than OER? Yes, it moves us away from content and technology-centred discourse to a discourse that is about people. A very good move. But It doesn’t take us far enough. Until we are talking about the experience of the learner it feels that we are only halfway to getting our thinking in order. So, OEL then? No, because it’s not about the learner (the learner is dynamic), it’s about their experience of learning, doing being, becoming, and belonging (D3Bs, Wilckcock, 1999). And this is where presence seems to work for me, being a concept that reflects the importance of identities that are forming and the changing relationships felt and experienced in the learning space.

So, today OEPresence feels good. I wonder how it will change by morning…


Turner V.W. (1969). The ritual process: structure and anti-structure. Chicago: Aldine.

Wilcock, A. (1999). Reflections on doing, being and becoming. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 46(1), 1—11.


About amiddlet50

Educational developer working in academic innovation in higher education in the UK
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One Response to ‘In-between’thinking on Open Education and Presence

  1. markchilds says:

    Fascinating post. And I think liminality is profoundly wrapped up with presence. One of the difficulties with liminal spaces is that they make greater demands on us in order to feel fully present within them. I was acutely aware of this when wandering around a cathedral with someone who’d been raised Catholic. Ritual spaces are intensely semiotic spaces, everything means something, but as someone raised by an agnostic and an atheist (my parents disagreed about what religion not to bring me up in – not quite true but it’s an old Woody Allen gag so has its own truth) I was pretty clueless about what was going on. For the person I was with though, the space was an entirely different experience. She was present in a way that I wasn’t. I could learn what the objects and images represented (boundary objects in Wenger’s language) but I still think without faith in that specific religion I would never experience the space in the same way. And if education is about experience, then promoting presence becomes a highly sought for facet of what we do. Good luck with finding out how we can develop it 🙂 i

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