Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Unconference & Backchannels as Sidorkin’s Third Discourse


I’ve been reading Alexander Sidorkin’s book Beyond Discourse off and on for a while. I decided to pick it up again today and to do something a little crazy, just open in up in the middle and see where I get, and I am soooo glad I did. I don’t know if it’s me reading into it what is on my mind anyway, or if it’s coincidence, but reading through his chapter Three Drinks Theory (not an attractive title, imho) where he talks about the three types of discourse… I found myself feeling the “third” discourse describes two phenomena/types of interaction that I love: backchannel conversations with people via social media; and unconferences (something I have not experienced fully but am increasingly wanting to try out).

What are Sidorkin’s Three Discourses?
He first describes it as the way dinner/party conversation goes. It does not necessarily go in this sequence but often does: first, there is a common topic, with polite turn-taking; second, there are side discussions (usually considered disruptive, rebellious) but involving the entire group; and third, people break out into smaller groups, going of-topic into whatever interests them. Sidorkin suggests the latter is the best part of a good party. And the first discourse, if it continues, makes for the most boring parties.

He then gives the example of academic conferences. Starting with presentations (everyone quiet and focused on that) and he says “there is nothing more torturous than listening without talking back” (p. 75). And then the polite questions and answer session… But then the best part of a conference (for me, too, I am really nodding here) is the part where people break out informally into their groups and find other interesting people to network with, to talk to about self-chosen (not imposed by organizers) topics. I could also see how this would apply nicely to classes (and he later gives examples from a class context but I have not read that part closely yet; I am doing my own third discourse approach to reading non-linearly)

And I had an ephiphany, though it should not have been an epiphany at all 🙂 It should be obvious, it makes sense, but then Sidorkin says that “one’s own nonsense may be someone else”s sense” (p. 94). I was just tweeting about how I am enjoying more my social interaction via #ccourses and almost totally ignoring the hangouts and only occasionally glancing at the readings. Thats partly related to time, but also because i feel the “return”, the “value added” from social interaction is much more worth my time and effort during #ccoursed (i could do the readings later).

I am seeing why the idea of an unconference appeals to me. When I attend a conference, a couple of talks might stand out for me, but it’s the interaction with other participants (whether intellectual or even social) is of most value. And that’s why I enjoyed #et4online so much – I had loads of backchannel discussions with ppl who may or may not have been attending f2f, may or may not have been watching the same presentations.

During #ccourses, I have already discovered a wealth of new people, connected more deeply with people I have known for a while, and am learning and enjoying it so much more than if I had prioritized whatever the course designers had assigned. They’ve done a great job, and I will go back to most of these readings later (currently enjoying the novel Little Brother suggested by Jonathan Worth very much) – but by focusing on my small groups of people (often not even using the hashtag to be honest; sometimes in DM or in private hangouts; other times in public on blogs) I am making my own path as I intersect with others’ paths.

And so if I had to say what it was about #ccourses that is special, it is what Dave Cormier said when we interviewed him (officially written version will be out soon on JPD) – what makes a cMOOC special is if it attracts the “right” (whatever that means in that context) combo of people, and manages to keep them. I think #ccourses is doing that, so far 🙂

[IMPORTANT NOTE Dated Sept 25 : Deleted “right”. I am not quoting Dave directly here; he didn’t use the word “right” in this context – you’ll have to read the full interview when it comes out to read the whole thing in context, as it spans Dave’s response to two different, non-adjacent questions; I wrote this blogpost while commuting on my iPad and did not look up the text of the interview]


  1. Pingback: Continuing Reflections on Discourse and connected learningReflecting Allowed | Reflecting Allowed

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers:

%d bloggers like this: