Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 51 seconds

Unconference & Backchannels as Sidorkin’s Third Discourse

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 51 seconds

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]

14 thoughts on “Unconference & Backchannels as Sidorkin’s Third Discourse

  1. Who decides who is the ‘right’ group of people? What is the process through which the ‘rightness’ emerges? It could become self fulfilling if the ‘wrong’ people find they don’t get anything from participating. That could be quite a bruising experience.

    1. Yes, Frances. By writing “whatever that means” in my original blogpost, I am implying all of what you just said right here. I just didn’t get into it in detail because I was arriving at work and had to end the blogpost

    1. hey Frances,

      Sorry for my shorter replies earlier. Was in a rush. Here is a longer response. I am not sure which questions you’re hoping the article will answer. I’ll assume you mean the ones you asked in your earlier comment?

      There are a few reasons why I expect the article won’t answer them from Dave’s perspective:
      a. The question where he answers that was in the YouTube hangout (linked from within the article but you can find it here: and he was responding to someone who was asking about how to run a cMOOC, then to Sarah’s written question about “what made #rhizo14 successful, hint hint was it the brilliant participants?” – those were all questions asked in advance of the hangout and storified and Dave answered them all in a row. Sarah and I did not stop him unless it was something we felt was really unclear or did not make sense, etc. We basically let it flow and let him respond to other questions happening on Twitter, etc.
      b. The interview, when we wrote it down, had to be cut down to be readable and clear. That part is in it, but if you want the full full context, you can watch the hangout which has been online for a long time.
      c. The interview in general was meant to not be a critical research-type interview. It’s for a section on JPD where you try to focus on a known figure and help readers understand their perspective. For something like cMOOCs, rhizomatic learning, etc., that are quite difficult for most people to grasp (JPD is, after all, not an ed tech journal or anything like that, so its audience is diverse) – so our objective was to be as clear as possible. We asked a couple of editorial board members to review it for clarity. It’s not an interview I’d count for my PhD research, if you know what I mean. It’s an interview where I meant to “receive” Dave’s perspective and not to critique it.

      Now RE: the questions I *think* you’re asking:
      ***Who decides who is the ‘right’ group of people?
      I can’t speak for Dave, but I can speak for what I meant when I quoted him. In the particular context I was using it, I meant they were the “right” group of people for ME. So I was talking about people in #ccourses, and that regardless of the “syllabus” of that course, the facilitators and what they do or don’t do, I am happy with the side discussions I am having with a lot of the people there. It’s not just one group. There are a few rhizo14ers, a few CLMOOCers, a few who were in both, a few totally new people, etc., but I meant they were “right” for me at this time in my life with the kinds of interests they have and things they want to talk about and do together. My goals for a MOOC are emergent and my approach to cMOOCing is emergent. What I say now will be different from what I say in a couple weeks’ time.

      ***What is the process through which the ‘rightness’ emerges?
      Again, I meant that as an individual decision of what is “right”, but I think “rightness” emerges when I’m not the only one who feels things are “right”, but the others I feel “right” about feel the same way, reciprocate. Then a general feeling of “rightness” emerges between us. In most cases, for me, this is a one-on-one thing, in DMs and PMs and not in the public spaces; sometimes it’s in the public spaces, but often not. Often what gets posted on my blog or twitter is only the tip of a much deeper relationship with people that develops privately.

      So for me the “rightness” is about the interests and means of interacting/connecting? but the MOOC is really just the vehicle that brings us together. So for me, what makes a MOOC successful is if it brings together people and sparks conversations that will introduce me to new people I’m interested in interacting with. Sometimes these are one-off conversations on one person’s blog and I’ll never talk to them again; sometimes it’s sustainable, and it is the sustainability that Dave also mentions in the interview, and I think the sustainability relates to the “third discourse” that is not as serious and does not respond to the “central” or “first discourse” of whatever the course facilitators had in mind for us.

      I’m often concerned about how my interactions might make other people feel excluded. As in they’re not part of that “inner circle” or whatever. I try to avoid using the hashtag for some conversations so as not to flood everyone else’s stream. That can be thought of as “considerate” (not flooding their stream) or even more “inner circle” behavior as it excludes others from the convo. Often it just happens naturally because you need the extra few characters to be able to make your point.

      But I mean, really, there are 100s of people in these MOOCs. There is room for multiple overlapping groups to form who feel good together, whether they’re talking about the first discourse, and using the second discourse to agree or disagree…

      For example in #ccourses, I talked about the overwhelming amount of reading. I know, I know I am not required to read it. I am saying I’d like to read some but because there is so much it’s actually even difficult to choose among them. Others don’t feel overwhelmed and that’s fine. It doesn’t mean the facilitators are doing something “wrong”, I’m just expressing something that (apparently) other people feel as well, and from private conversations, other people feel even more strongly about than I (let’s not get into this one, shall we? I think we don’t see eye to eye on it and may never do. You may need to try to be in my shoes to be able to understand it, and you’ll never be in my shoes, so it’s OK. I’m also not in your shoes so I may not be understanding you on it, either).

      ****It could become self fulfilling if the ‘wrong’ people find they don’t get anything from participating. That could be quite a bruising experience.
      Frances, I’m not really sure who the “wrong” people are. It’s not an either/or. It should be totally acceptable for someone to enjoy a certain kind of interaction and for another person not to. When I don’t like the way something is going on in a MOOC, I leave peacefully, or if I have hope, I voice it. If there are enough people who agree, and who would like to continue to engage in the MOOC, I continue or I work around it. It does not mean that other people who are happy with it or want to do something differently are “wrong” or not even that I don’t want to know them. But is it actually possible for a course of 100 or even 20 people ALL to get along? It’s possible for a small group of people to have different views from a large group, whichever becomes “dominant” in a class.

      But there are situations where I don’t feel I am getting much out of a MOOC and I disengage; or I disengage from the main MOOC hashtag and continue conversing with a small group that have similar interests with me at the time.

      Those are all not fixed. Contextual as I said, for me. Depends on time in my life, how busy I am, what my priorities are, what kind of interaction I’m looking for. There are times when I need intellectual stimulation and other times when I want affective interaction (not lovey-dovey, but a “women’s ways of knowing” type of thing).

      This should have been a blogpost all by itself!

      I’m going to stop editing and post this before my electricity gets cut and I lose all the text

      1. Also Frances, please note correction at bottom. Dave did not directly use the term “right” combo of people – but he talks around that across two diff questions in the interview. It might clarify a bit.

      2. Thanks for your very full response and the link to the hangout – I will watch it. It has made me think and I may even blog about it. I put ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in quotes to signify my questioning of the concepts with respect to a cMOOC. I think you are reading too much into what were actually questions. In your blog post and replies I think that there might be a category confusion between a cMOOC and the third discourse within a cMOOC. I appreciate what you say about unconferencing and socialising (believe it or not I do it myself 😉 But it’s not all of learning I think. It’s a serious challenge for all learning events (face to face classes, online courses, etc.) to sustain the consideration of alternative perspectives, to explore ideas with people who may not agree with you or even like you (or you them).

Leave a Reply

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