Convergence Zone: Heutagogy

I was a pop-in-and-out participant in last week’s MOOC MOOC, during which time I wrote this reflection about MOOCs, Prior Learning Assessment, and College-Level Learning. I read several tweets and posts from folks participating along the way that shaped and changed my thinking, and I gleaned a few interesting ideas and a whole lot of thoughtful questions about MOOCs, and even more thoughtful questions about teaching, learning, assessment, higher education, prior learning and assessment, pedagogy, technology, accreditation, adult learning, and the intersections of all of these topics.

Thanks to fabonthemoon on Flickr for making this image available for use!

This busy intersection is where I spend a lot of my time professionally and theoretically – smack dab in the middle of several noisy streets, trying to determine what way I might want to travel next before I get hit by oncoming traffic. It’s really not as terrifying as it might sound; in fact, the metaphor, for me, represents the complexity of higher education in a good way: its systems, its people, its opportunities and challenges. Traffic is moving here, and quickly, but then again, slowly. (It is higher education, after all.) 

One post that caught my attention was written by Dave Cormier titled Rhizomatic Learning and MOOCs – Assessment. Here’s a key point he made that’s been rattling in my nog since I read it:


What we are learning is contextualized by each individual differently, according to their experiences, their understanding and purposes,


The things that are learned are not definite, but flexible and complex


Assessing what someone ‘knows’ is an act of enforcement of a given point of view, not a(n apolotical) [sic] helpful guideline to learning

I want assessment to be a helpful guideline to learning (as reflected, for example, in my concerns with learning analytics). Period. With or without MOOCs, my personal vision of assessment’s main value is as a key part of an individual’s and group’s learning processes and cycles (assessment as an act of learning — for and as learning — versus of someone’s learning by someone else). I also think there is great value in assessment as and for learning for organizations. Otherwise, how would we know how we’re doing and how to improve?

Yet here’s where it gets messy:

When someone (presumably a person we call a “student”) wants to have their learning “certified” in some way and wants the currency of higher education — credits and degrees and whatnot — attached to that learning to “verify” that they have it, then these ideals of learning/assessment get messy and murky. (The same might be said of organizations: verification for higher educational organizations is just called “accountability” and is often conflated with “assessment” and “accreditation.”) For a student, passing a course somehow represents that he or she has learned something from it; adding up these courses to a degree presumes that he or she is qualified in particular ways. Somehow we have to “validate” all of this, for all sorts of reasons.

Prior Learning Assessment has been a way for students — typically adults with several years of life and professional experience under their belts — to have their learning “validated,” to earn credit for their prior college-level learning that they have obtained through non-college learning opportunities. By critically reflecting on their learning experiences, making meaning from these experiences, and connecting and integrating their own knowledge with that of the “academic experts,” students can demonstrate that they’ve met course learning outcomes through different sources other than the course. (GASP!) But perhaps the most meaningful aspect of PLA, in addition to acknowledging that people can learn all sorts of things in all sorts of ways from all sorts of sources, is that the process helps develop reflective thinking, awareness, problem-solving, and mindfulness about learning. In other words:

PLA helps learners be better learners!

So if PLA were to become a way to assess MOOC-based learning (which it could be) — if it were to be “re-branded,” as one person in my PLA LinkedIn group discussion forum suggested, to focus less on assessing prior, experiential learning for adults and to focus more on assessing college-level learning for all, then by all means, it could legitimately serve an assessment-of-MOOC-learning function (and frankly, it likely will).

But I keep coming back to what might be lost by using PLA in this way, for this purpose, and it comes down to my fear of losing the other 2 aspects of PLA: assessment for and as learning. Furthermore, I fear that there would be additional aspects to PLA that might be sacrificed or forgotten about. Here’s my quick and dirty laundry list:

  • The focus on the adult-as-learner specifically
  • Development of the critically reflective process required for turning experience into learning
  • The transformative (life-changing) outcomes of PLA as a learning process
  • The kind of thinking and problem-solving skills that folks develop when engage in PLA
  • The great sense of accomplishment that students feel and confidence that students gain when their learning is awarded college credit.

(See this PLA Bibliography for literature that reflects all of the above theoretically and in practice.)

I really don’t know much about MOOCs, or about rhizomatic learning, but I do know a few things about learning to learn, and I know a lot about PLA. I really would want to retain the kind of PLA that supports this metacognitive development in addition to validating someone’s experiential learning.

Now, this busy intersection is beginning to reveal a convergence zone for me: a focus on learning to learn, on developing capability as a learner — regardless of the topic or content area, the role or methods of assessment, who is teaching, or how or where one gains learning. This zone is called heutagogy, and I am working on creating a curation of resources and a community of practitioners to think together about its usefulness in this 21st century learning and higher educational landscape. I openly invite participation and perspectives: stayed tuned for more about Heutagogy In Action.


Blaschke, L.M. (2012). Heutagogy and lifelong learning: A review of heutagogical practice and self-determined learning. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 13(1), 56-71. Retrieved from:

Bhoyrub, J., Hurley, J., Neilson, G.R., Ramsay, M., & Smith, M. (2010). Heutagogy: An alternative practice based learning approachNurse Education in Practice19(6), 322-326.

Canning, N. &  Callan, S. (2010). Heutagogy: Spirals of reflection to empower learners in higher education. Reflective Practice, 11(1), pp. 71–82.

Canning, N. (2010). Playing with heutagogy: Exploring strategies to empower mature learners in higher education. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 34(1), pp. 59–71.

Chapnick, S. & Meloy, J. (2005).  Renaissance eLearning: creating dramatic and unconventional learning experiences. Essential resources for training and HR professionals. Pfeiffer: San Francisco, CA. (See “From Andragogy to Heutagogy,” pp. 36–39.)

Hase, S, and Kenyon, C. (2000). From andragogy to heutagogy. Ultibase, RMIT

Hase, S, & Kenyon, C. (2007). Heutagogy: a child of complexity theory. Complicity: an International Journal of Complexity and Education, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 111-118. “Heutagogy: A Child of Complexity Theory”

Hase, S, & Kenyon, C. (2001). Moving from Andragogy to Heutagogy in Vocational Education. Retrieved from: 

Planning Your Learning Visit

I recently wrote about the great benefits I am getting from learning visits — as visitor and visitee (is that a word? Well, you know what I mean). A few colleagues who read that piece have since had some questions for me, mostly about logistics. So I thought I would jot down some tips for planning a learning visit.


The first step, of course, is to identify what you want to learn. What would the learning outcomes of a visit be? Surely you will learn stuff you didn’t know you wanted to learn too, but if you can identify a focus for yourself and your institution, proposing a visit and the visit itself will be a lot more focused.

For example, for my recent visit to a university in SoCal, I identified these focus areas and shared them with my colleague there:

  • What you are doing with Liberal Arts assessment, specifically using the VALUE rubrics and your institution’s core revision process?
  • What the librarians are doing with their assessment work?  (You’d mentioned that they were using SAILS – I’m wondering if it would be possible to meet with them to learn more about how they are doing assessment?)
  • A sense of how the Assessment Committee(s) work — their structure, charge, participants, etc.
  • More about your Program Review processes and outcomes
  • Your role in building the culture of evidence / assessment

This list helped her know who to set up meetings with and what materials I might be interested in seeing. (Indeed, it was a rather large list, but in all fairness, I was coming from out of town and only had one day to meet with them. I was trying to be comprehensive.)


In my experience, there are two main types of learning visits:

1) Problem-based: This kind of visit is intended to help you work on a problem you or your institution has. For example, I arranged a phone visit for myself and 3 colleagues from my university to talk with a person at another institution in Chicago about how they manage the assessment of student learning in an outcomes-based liberal arts curriculum; this was a very real problem for us at the time. (Turns out it was for them too!)

2) Topic-based:  This kind of visit is more focused on a specific shared topic, such as “general education learning outcomes” or “facilitating internships.”  A while back, I set up a session with a person using the Mahara ePortfolio system at a different institution because we wanted to explore this system and see it in action. We used a web-based desktop sharing system and the phone, and she kindly took us on a 45-minute tour of how they are using Mahara ePortfolios. Nice!


Figuring out where and with whom to visit per your desired learning outcomes is likely the next step. Here are some ideas for how to do so:

1) Look to your local network. Are there colleagues with similar job responsibilities at institutions near you? Do you know anyone at an institution near you that can connect you? Do any of your current colleagues have connections at these institutions that they could leverage for you?

2) Look to your distant network. Have you connected with folks at conferences that you can reconnect with? Even if you can’t visit physically, with the phone, Skype, or with other technologies you can visit virtually. I have a “coffee date” about once a term with a colleague from another institution across the country who I met at a conference; we both get a cup of coffee and talk on the phone for about an hour, and just learn from each other.

3) Look to your virtual network. If you use LinkedIn or Twitter, search for and follow people who are in similar roles or who have identified projects they are working on that are similar to yours. This is how I connected with the Mahara ePortfolio person; I had learned a lot from her by just following her on Twitter, and then when my colleagues and I were ready, I sent her a message with a few questions. From this initial conversation came the idea to have a short virtual meeting in which she took us on a tour.


First, make contact and make a simple initial proposal. It might look something like this:

Hi there – My colleague XX shared with me your contact information because I am interested in learning about what you are doing with blah blah blah at your university; we are trying to implement this at my university as well, and I wonder if we might be able to set up a time to chat briefly about what is working and what’s not. Maybe we can learn some strategies from each other. Etc etc etc …

As demonstrated here, a proposal for a visit might be more compelling if you identify what you can bring to the table. What will be in the visit for them? What might you be able to contribute to the conversation?

Also, start small. You don’t need to visit for a whole day. Maybe you just begin with a short phone conversation, or maybe (if you’re close) you meet for lunch.

Finally, I think it’s useful to learn with others, as a team. If you can, take a colleague or two from your institution with you, or invite them to the phone / Skype conversation. Propose the person you’re meeting with do the same. The more the merrier!


After the visit, assess your learning. Did you achieve your learning outcomes? If not, what might be next steps? What additional questions were raised for you, or what other resources should you explore? Likewise, was the person / institution you met with interested in learning more and continuing the conversation? If so, then maybe you all set up another learning visit with each other.


In the spirit of academic integrity,1) don’t take and just start using what is not yours and 2) give credit where credit is due. We all adopt and adapt ideas and materials all the time in higher education; if you want to borrow something from someone you’ve visited, ask permission and then attribute it. There may be nothing more irksome than being visited and sharing a rubric, for example, and not knowing the visitor adopted it or re-purposed it.

Happy visiting – learn lots!

Now Here’s An Idea: Hospitality In Higher Education

I’m devouring The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal, by Parker Palmer, Arthur Zajonc, and Megan Scribner right now. It’s a good read. It’s a thought-provoking read. It’s an inspiring read. It gives me hope.

One premise put forth by Palmer is the idea that a key virtue in higher education that is not always present is hospitality. He says it much better than I can summarize, so here goes his argument:

Learning spaces need to be hospitable spaces not merely because kindness is a good idea but because real education requires rigor. In a counterintuitive way, hospitality supports rigor by supporting community, and the proof can be found in everyday classroom experience.

Pedagogical rigor requires more than a professor doing a rigorous solo act, which can feel more like rigor mortis from where the student sits. A classroom becomes rigorous when a student is able to raise his or her hand and say, “I disagree with what you just said, professor.” Or, at even greater personal risk, “I disagree with what my friend in the second row just said.” Or, pulling out all the stops, “Excuse me, I don’t understand anything that’s been said in here for the past two weeks. Could someone please explain?”

Admitting ignorance and encountering diverse viewpoints on facts and interpretations require us to clarify our assertions, explain ourselves at deeper levels and perhaps, mirabile dictu, even change our minds. Professors who encourage student behaviors such as these invite true intellectual rigor, the kind that emerges from a community of inquiry and is far more educational than a nonstop diet of “rigorous” lectures. From where the students sit, these behaviors are also riskier than keeping one’s head down and taking notes. That kind of behavior is not going to happen in a class that lacks hospitality, a class where people feel too threatened to say anything that might get them crosswise with the professor or other students. (pgs. 29-30)

I read this passage and I found myself asking this: What would an entire university dedicated to hospitality, as Palmer describes, look like? How might it be organized? Might it be a “learning paradigm college” as John Tagg calls for? Might we engage in assessment as an act of care, as I keep yammering about? Might we look at academic disciplines differently, at credits and seat time and accreditation and transcripts and requirements and learning outcomes and and and … and all that, differently? I am thinking that the simple (yet complex) virtue of hospitality, well-developed and enacted across an institution, could in fact result in a transformation of the academy, as the subtitle of this text suggests.

And I am also thinking that hospitality is not at all a bad place for true renewal and transformation in higher education to begin. In fact, it might be the only place from which people feel invited and welcome to contribute to real change.

Get Yourself A Blind Spot Prevention Team

I posted yesterday’s blog post and then sadly and belatedly realized that it was all. about. me.  (I realized this after emerging from a fabulous meeting with two smart and dedicated assessment colleagues who are working on many aspects of the assessment projects I had listed, and then later another assessment project meeting that was equally generative and engaging with a small group of faculty from an academic department).

How’s that for a blind spot?!? (Ugh – how embarrassing!)

What I totally failed to represent in that post was the importance of doing this work with other people — and how they are a key source of my learning, and are also likely learning as well, and of course, we learn together (as represented so nicely in THIS article). One person engaging in the work of assessment learns only so much; a group of people engaging in the work of assessment together, thinking and reflecting together, planning together can learn so much more.  Wisdom of Crowds and all that. Duh, right?

But seriously, this speaks to why it’s so important for an entire campus community to be involved in assessment work — assessing student learning is no easy task and sometimes we don’t want to see (or we can’t see) what’s there to see! Cathy Davidson’s recent post “Why You May Be Blind to a Good Idea” in the Harvard Business Review nicely addresses the value of working with others as well:

…since we all see selectively but we don’t all select the same things, we can leverage the different ways we slice and dice the world. The trick, though, is we can only do this by first accepting that we each have limits: Everything we see means we’re missing something else. It’s that simple. And impossible to see.

When doing the hard but important work of academic assessment, it’s good to able to see as much as possible, as clearly as possible. I, for one, need others to help me avoid the blind spots and biases, and I am grateful I have such talented and caring blind spot prevention teams in my world.

Food & Community: Tilling Organic Learning

Today I get to feature another guest post from my folleague (know what that is? it’s a friend and colleague) Lorrie Ranck (Lorrie first guest-blogged with her post Bumps! a few months back).  Lorrie and I are colleagues because we’ve worked together a lot (formally and informally, and once we even started a grant-writing business together, but after our first grant we decided we didn’t want to be grant writers – that’s a long story and maybe another blog post that we can co-write, if we feel like dredging up that saga). We are also colleagues because we talk the same language: teaching, learning, assessment, social action, student engagement, etc.

Lorrie is a friend because we have a lot in common and enjoy similar things. For example, we are both July babies born in the same year, we both have little toddler boys, we both had bad hair in the 80’s, and we both tinker in the garden, though she is a better tinkerer than I, as you will see:

Summer of Food I

Sitting at the desk absent-mindedly gazing out across the backyard my eyes fall to the rather droopy elephant-ear leaves of the two zucchini plants I nestled into the ground in March. Just beyond those are three plump dark green reticular pumpkins with just a hint of orange slowing wrapping around the squash in an autumn embrace. To the left, strawberry plants (sans berries) still thrive with the suckers sneaking beyond their brick boundaries, tomatillos and jalapeno peppers are making a comeback thanks to some hot days here in Northern California, and the bright, crisp stalks of rainbow chard cheerfully wave at me even after several cuttings.

The sugar snaps never quite made it except for a couple handfuls ready-to-burst-pods quickly plucked by little hands and devoured. However, the green bean teepee might provide for another serving or two yet.

In so many respects, the garden is my sanctuary: respite from the daily grind of the job search, playground for my boy, resting place for my canines, and generally a place of contentment, discovery, and reflection. Not bad for a 12×20 ft plot! I’ve learned, perhaps this summer more than ever, how this little space helped me create community, time and again.

Gardens from past years often produced an abundance of produce beyond what my family could eat or store. While I would offer these to local family and friends, more often, I’d truck these into work every few days and hope there would be willing souls with whom to share. You could bet that if lemons, zucchini, oranges or whatever vegetable was wildly growing at home appeared on a conference room table at work, it was a remnant of my presence.  Sometimes I put out a basket with a sign “FREE ORGANIC PRODUCE” in the hallway. Faculty, staff and students would pause, perhaps consider how they might use whatever was available, and just to be sure, ask me if they could really take something with them. That is how I came to know many of colleagues and how some students first entered my office: those few seconds of connection, of sharing, sometimes extended into broader discussions. As much as I enjoyed sharing in the harvest, the conversations that grew into relationships that grew into community from these organic encounters, well, those were and are invaluable. I can’t help but think of how this relates to building communities of learners. I’m not of the view that knowledge is necessarily the produce we pass forward or, if you are a fan of Freire, the Banking Concept of Education. After all, information is there all the time, it is ripe and ready for the taking. Maybe, though, knowledge is a compilation or weaving together of both individual and community actions:  preparing the space/laying the groundwork, carefully and thoughtfully planting, building of and tending to relationships, sharing of the bounty, and reflecting on both process and product. This, over and over again, each time with new “seeds” or techniques, with others in and outside of our community is why learning is not static but quite organic.

I’m interested to hear stories of your experiences related to food, community and learning. How do those tie together for you? What challenges and/or opportunities have you witnessed, facilitated or engaged in?

I Believe In Kevin Bacon

One thing I really like to do is to connect people. I’ve appreciated it when people have connected me with others who share similar philosophies, projects, or perspectives, or from whom I can learn. Examples:

  • I once had a friend connect me with her neighbor, and that connection ultimately led to a great new job.
  • I once had a colleague connect me to his colleague, and he ultimately became a great new friend.
  • I once needed a critical eye on a draft of my dissertation, and my professor connected me to an outside reader whose feedback helped me overcome a giant roadblock.

Thanks to anemoneprojectors on Flickr for making this image available for reuse.

Kevin Bacon knows things.

Today I was able to connect two of my students who don’t know each other because in fact, from where I sit, they have a lot in common. A LOT!  I think they might hit it off quite nicely, and I hope they do.  I think they would each benefit from knowing the other. I do. I really think so.

Producing is nothing more than bringing all the elements together, connecting people.
~Brion James

Then, today, I have produced. Huzzah!

Think about it:  Who can you connect?