Blog Post

Spy v. Spy: A Response to Chronicle of Higher Education’s Response to the Response

Does anyone else remember the old Mad Magazine comic, Spy v. Spy?  It's a very old comic but often comes back in tv or magazine commercials because it was a classic.  I know from its Wikipedia entr ( ) that Spy v. Spy ran from 1961 to 1987, and had no words.  Antonio Prohias drew one raven-faced spy entirely in white, the other entirely in black, and in each comic one would make diabolic traps for the other who was busily creating traps for the other trapper.   It wasn’t clear anyone else in the world existed in their own psychic hemispheres.  It was all about  anticipating what the other would do in order to do something preemptive that, inevitably, prompted a response, then a counter response . . . and then it all began again.


The Spy v. Spy comic was great good fun for this particular reader . . .    and somehow seemed to me a profound allegory about life:  If you do things anticipating a negative reaction, you will get one.    And if you live your life always based on the anticipation of negative reactions, you will be defined forever by negativity and restraint.


I am often called an optimist or a Pollyanna.  Maybe that is true.  What I know is that it does not work for me to revile others in order to enhance myself.   And I’ve been someone who has never been comfortable on the straight-and-narrow path so I’m often faced with negative criticism.  I learn from some of it, ignore the rest, and just realize that, well, if you try to avoid it, you probably won’t.  That’s the Spy v. Spy influence:  I’d much rather chart a path, see where it leads, rather than chart a path I do not want because I’m afraid that it conceals the White Spy with a frying pan waiting to hit me.   If you know the Spy v. Spy comic you know the result:  the White Spy has already anticipated that you will think that’s where he is going and so he is actually hiding out at your alternate route—and will smack you with the frying pan over there. 


So it amuses me that Chronicle of Higher Education first published the draft Bill of Rights and Principles for Online Learning, with a somewhat snarky lead that highlighted celebrity rather than discussion, exactly the opposite of our intention and method, then snarked about celebrity.  It barely mentioned that a dozen of us from highly different backgrounds came together and that we were trying to start a serious conversation on a topic that is rarely written about from the point of view of the learner.    Our purpose was to instigate a discussion that had not happened yet in the media, a deep discussion about the various practical, legal, financial, pedagogical, and philosophical aspects  of online education centered around learners.  To that end, we were posting editable, commentable versions of the draft document in at least six or seven separate venues to allow as much open pushback, disagreement, editing, challenging, changing, hacking, forking, and revision as possible.  [ Here's the url for the collaborative evolving document with public comments:  ]


We ourselves had lots of different disagreements among us.   That was the point of assembing this particular group.   We come from very different perspectives and backgrounds but we all knew that, in our blogs, we could each stake out one or another position that may not have made it into the draft document we simul-published in many forums.  We hoped participants would also voice disagreements and differences.   The CHE piece made our document sound far more authoritative, unitary, top-down than we intended or said that it was in the document itself.   It presented the matter as if it were about policy, rather than a provocation for a larger public to be involved in huge decisions that were being made in education, often without consultation of the primary stakeholders, i.e. students, learners, even teachers.   So the CHE gave the process and the document a bit of a negative framing and spin---and then they published another follow-up article about the “negative response” to the document.  Spy v. Spy. 


Interestingly, the comments on their blog are not very Spy v. Spy at all.  The comments on the draft Google Doc are exactly the patient, pointed, important conversation that we were hoping for.  Real dialogue actually is happening on the hackable Google doc.  Is it possible that the "comments" section in mass media journalism invite a different kind of participation than is required fo actually pushing up your sleeves and working on a document together?  It's the difference between critiique for its own sake and critical contribution.


As educators, we have probably fallen into the trap of our culture by insisting on "critical thinking" when we should be promoting "critical contribution": don't just snark but see how your critique can lead to something better.  Not Spy v. Spy but, perhaps, a vision of a just world where spies aren't all that irrelevant.  The conversation over on the Google Doc, for example,  is going in many directions at once because the time demands that. The status quo of education is hardly what we want; neither is the hype and the profit-greed approach to MOOCs.   Complexity is harder than Spy v. Spy but the result, rather than a false and simplistic Spy v. Spy binary, is a better path to acting with both innovation and circumspection with a goal of making an impact, with consequences, in the real world.


That's the trap CHE fell into on this one, where they fell right into the Spy v. Spy mode that we were explicitly working against.  As if to prove that their snarky tone and their article about the "negative comments" was the big story, CHE then even had to show an image of all the edits to our Google Doc--as if the changes were evidence of the "negative response." That's comical in the Spy v. Spy mod.  No, collaborative editing is not negative, that is the point of writing on an accessible document. Crowdsourced edits and real conversation from a larger public are our purpose.  


Being able to have different sides contribute productively together is what a real discussion should be.  A spirit of engaged disagreement in public on an open platform is how all serious issues where there are many points of view should be presented.  Not Spy v. Spy, as if everything is a simple binary whose main purpose is to thwart the other.  Unlike the ridiculous polarities of Congress and of the "pro/con" binaries of the media, something as complex as the future of education, online learning, massive learning, and privitazed learning all need lots of voices who dissent and assent in different ways.   Not Spy v. Spy.  We need to be carefully working through these ideas, we need a dialogic process, not entrapments upon entrapments designed to squash debate and exchange.


Phillip Schmidt, of Peer to Peer University, is one of the people who met in December to hash these things out.   It's hard to imagine a model of online learning more radically different than Udacity's than P2PU's self-organizing, open source peer-to-peer global learning model.  Phillip even put his name to the Google Doc and his email address so anyone could write to him directly and not just be able to "Comment" (as anyone can now, without permission) but actually go in and become an editor of the document itself.  Since then three or four others have offered their emails so you can write to them, too, for editing permission.  

That’s the opposite of snark.  The opposite of Spy v. Spy.  Contra CHE:  We don't see revision and correction and protest and hacking and forking as negative but, rather, the desired effect.  It's  what we hoped for:  a real, engaged conversation with the issues in a deep and detailed and effective way. 

Here are some of the reasons I agreed to go out to the Palo Alto meeting in December and spend many hours through the winter holidays working on a collaborative document, mostly with people I'd never met before in person but who I follow online and whom I have come to respect enormously.    I contributed because I believe that at a time when so many universities are rushing headlong into online education, we desperately need deep, serious conversation about:

  • how to protect those millions of students signing up for MOOCs which have a for-profit basis, those students who are signing on to “free” online courses (90% of whom drop);  what happens, pray tell, to their personal data even after they drop out? are the courses really free or is there a hidden cost learners who sign up do not know?  There are many answers but often the agreements one signs for the courses (I've taken some and signed some of the agreements) are legalistic and complicated.  At the very least, people have to know what they are getting in to. We need a conversation about that.
  • how new online technologies can be fostered as a public good rather than as a cheap alternative to public support for public education or, worse, as a cheap replacement for the classroom rather than a considered, significant addition to other learning possibilities and in situations where it adds, not detracts from the quality of the learning.  This also means public support for the added costs of the infrastructure and teaching and tutoring required by excellent modes of online interactive teaching and learning. 
  • how faculty members  are being compensated, in the for-profit MOOCs, to teach MOOCs, how TA's are being compensated in these online courses, and how this method of hiring may or may not be hurting the profession of teaching. 
  • what innovative, stellar pedagogical methods learners of all kinds can expect--is Talking Heads and Sage on the Stage the best we can do?  are there better, more innovative ways to teach that make better use of the current research on interactive learning and peer support? 
  • what professors and teachers in brick-and-mortar traditional classrooms can learn about how to teach more effectively from the research on interactive online and peer learning (i.e. online statistics courses are now proving to be more effective at teaching the operational aspects of statistics---not teaching to the test but teaching by problem solving than face-to-face teaching by the same professor); we have inherited certain forms of teaching, such as the seminar and the lecture and the lab:  are there better ways and how can the research from these massive courses help us improve face-to-face teaching?
  • how we can we integrate different forms of learning for students and peer learners, including real-world applications of online learning experiences that gain from and feed into online learning, especially globally;
  • how can we decenter the Eurocentric learning in MOOCs in ways comparable to the astonishing international learning experiences that have existed for a few decades now in online reserach sites, everything from Wikipedia to the Law in Slavery and Freedom Project, or Mappa Mundi, or Perseus, and on and on.  The world is contributing knowledge to such archives and encyclopedias and projects that revises Western-centered history; too many MOOCs originate from elite US universities and recenter knowledge.  How can we make MOOCs truly global in contribution, not just in delivery outward from universities in the US or UK or Global North?
  • and, mainly--this was the central motivation for all of us--what do students and learners of all kinds want from online learning?here we most wanted input from others:  what students (in official institutional settings) and all learners (wherever they are, whoever they are) want from the courses they are signing up for and dropping out of in droves.

If those of us who care intensely about learning in all its forms are not involved in the conversation, then people who do not care intensely about learning but about profit will not only dominate the discussion but will be making all the deals without input from educators (to wit:  the University of Virginia debacle of last summer).  Columnists such as Tom Friedman are calling this a "revolution" and talking about it in the most utopic terms: Is it?   If educators are not involved in the conversation in a serious way, something is very, very wrong.  

So that is why I joined this provocative conversation and spent a month debating issues with new colleagues, and agreed to the attention-getting "Bill of Rights and Principles" title:  getting the sustained attention and input of educators concerned about these issues, and not just journalists and investors, is what is necessary right now. 

Many people have been alarmed that this gathering was hosted by Sebastian Thrun, the CEO of Udacity.   I have no qualms about this but was disappointed that we were not joined by more of the CEOs of the big MOOCs.   Two or maybe three other MOOC founders were invited and they responded with good will but were not available for the date and did not participate.  Too bad!  What made this so exciting to me was exactly the clash of perspectives of the twelve people there and the engaged, often oppositional positions that we talked through together.  I want the folks running MOOCs to be there for such conversations—I want lots more of them.  I don’t want MOOC evangelism by those with a product to sell but a real, collaborative exploration of the implications and meaning—rights and principles—of online learning in 2013, with the stakeholders around the table with the consumers and theorists and practitioners and the learners.   If the CEO's of the new elite-university based MOOCs listen to feedback, they will do a better job and that is a good thing.  Online learning is a feature of our educational landscape in 2013.  Why not work together to make it a better feature, not a worse one?

And let’s make sure that our universities rushing headlong into partnerships with the MOOCs are asking these deep questions about rights and principles for the students they are encouraging to enroll and starting to offer credit to.   Saving tuition costs in an environment of cutbacks to education is hugely important.  Is this the right way?   I don’t think anyone has a clue.  This hackable, draft, open document is intended to start that serious conversation.  Did we know we'd get negative responses?  Of course.  We had them among themselves.  We invited them from others:  serious, engaged discussion is the point.

Spy v. Spy.   That’s the allegory.  If you let yourself be defined by other forces, you get smacked with the frying pan.  And what is fascinating is that, when you refuse the game, and allow people to actually participate—not counter-attack—the response is not only reasonable but smart and helpful.  Witness the smart, engaged comments and edits on the "hackable" document!   Instead of spies along the way, you have allies.  And that, in the shifting terrain of education in 2013, can only be a good thing.



Here again is the link to the hackable Google Doc, with email addresses available on the page; you can write to them and be given editing privileges on the Google Doc:  

By request of some folks on Twitter, I've also copied the document in its current evolved and edited state into an open, public, hackable Google Doc.  No permission of any kind is required to edit this one:    Please hack away!


*********  Here’s what’s happening now on the Google Doc:  Come on Over!   Join the conversation.

A Bill ofRights and Principles for Online, Networked Learning#in the Digital Age

Editor colors: Philipp (@schmidtphi), Piet (@bagabot), Doug Belshaw (@dajbelshaw)… others?
Other folks with editing rights: Audrey Watters (@audreywatters), Steve Holden, Cathy Davidson
If you want to edit, send email to to any of the other editors - any editor can add others)


Work on this Bill of Rights & Principles began in Palo Alto, California, on December 14, 2012. We convened a group of people passionate about learning, about serving today's students, and about using every tool we could imagine to respond better to the needs of students in a global, interactive, digitally connected world.(moved to footnote)
The Internet has made it possible for anyone on the planet many people in wealthier countries to be a student, a teacher, and a creative collaborator at virtually no cost. Novel Newtechnologies that can catalyze learning are bubbling up in less time than it takes to read this sentence. Some have emerged from universities, some from publicly-funded research, some from the private sector, some from individuals and digital communities. In the past year, Massive Online Open Courseware, or MOOCs, have become the darling of the moment--lauded by the media, embraced by millions--so new, so promising in possibility, and yet so ripe for exploitation.
We believe that online learning represents a powerful and potentially awe-inspiring opportunity to make new forms of learning available to all studentspeople worldwide, whether young or old, learning for credit, self-improvement, employment, or just pleasure. We believe that online courses can create "meaningful" as well as “massive" learning opportunities.
We are aware of how much we don't know: that we have yet to explore the full pedagogical potential of learning online, of how it can change the ways we teach, the ways we learn, and the ways we connect.
And we worry that this moment is fragile, that history frequently and painfully repeats itself. Think of television in the 1950s or even correspondence courses in the 1920s. As we begin to experiment with how novel newtechnologies might change learning and teaching, powerful forces in favour of the status quothreaten to neuter or constrain the use oftechnology, propping up outdated educational practices rather than unfolding allowing fortransformative ones.
All too often, during such wrenching transitions, the voice of the learner gets muffled.
For that reason, we feel compelled to articulate the opportunities for students in this brave electronic world, to assert their needs and--we dare say--rights.
We also recognize some broader hopes and aspirations for the best online learning. We include those principles as an integral addendum to the Bill of Rights below. Our broad goal is to inspire an open, learner-centered dialogue around the rights, responsibilities, and possibilities for education in the globally-connected world of the present and beyond. . . .


We hope you'll join the conversation.



1 comment

1)  The Spy vs. Spy image is wonderful; will never again be able to read an article in Chronicle of Higher Education without giggling.

2)  Deeply appeciative for that link to the draft Bill of Rights and Principles for Online Learning; as a trainer-teacher-learner equally and deeply immersed in onsite and online learning--earned a Master's degree online and am currently taking my first massive open online course (#etmooc) and enjoying it immensely--I'm fascinated by what all of you have already accomplished with the draft. So much to admire there: the clear choice of "learner" over "student"; the sense of inclusiveness and support for the concept of lifelong learning; and, in the "flexibility" section, the commitment to supporting "new forms of interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary inquiry that are independent of old gatekeepers...."

Hope that as this progresses, we'll see even more conversations between those involved in formal academic settings, libraries, and workplace learning and performance (staff training) endeavors (particularly from those of us involved in the American Society for Training & Development--ASTD) since we're all participants shaping the lifelong learning landscape and stand to make significant changes through stronger collaborations.