ds106 acephalous: a headless online community that is #4life


Thanks Todd Conaway!

I love Alan Levine’s idea about running a headless version of ds106 this Fall 2013.  I would relish the possibility of taking the course alongside a community of folks this time around rather than trying to teach it as well. And while I have contended that ds106 is centered around the actual students at various campuses who take it for credit, this was true for me because everytime I “took” ds106 I was also teaching it. I suspect a headless course of ds106 will have a very different sense of community, rhythm, pressure, and coherence, I also suspect the idea of breaking outside of some of those strictures tied to the course structure to see what a headless course is like in this regard might be a lot of fun.

Let’s face it, ds106 has never been massive in terms of participants, and there is a reason for that. You can’t have a sense of community within a massive, automated machine. You need to have a sense of affection for those you are creating alongside, and that’s a fact that is overlooked (or suppressed) when we jump from the idea of massive participants to massive data collection to number-drive generalizations about experience. Along those lines learning is processed and denatured into an abstraction that can be more readily salable. It’s all bullshit, the important thing is the learning within a community of people that provide you with a series of contexts for the experience (no matter how disparate), nothing else matters one lick to those who are not trying to commodify the whole enterprise.

I had a hard time with ds106zone this Summer, it was a five week class and it was all I could do to stick with it for a variety of personal reasons. What’s interesting, however, is that everything I have been searching for in a physical community here in Fredericksburg has come together around the virtual community that is ds106. The need for help and a sense of support, even if I couldn’t  articulate how and why, came in the form of Scottlo’s three weeks of brilliant Lodown podcasts (where in effect he was the heart and soul of the course), Rocky Lou’s amazing follow-up to that work (and much, much more), Ben Rimes ongoing engagement on all things ds106, Christina Hendrick’s brilliance while down under (and she hasn’t really stopped!), Andrew Forgrave’s creative run that won’t stop, Paul Bond’s  partnership that is morphing into a teaching relationship, Brian Bennett’s brilliance, Bill Smith’s ongoing enthusiasm, and that’s just the tip of the iceburg. Talky Tina (and even Todd Conaway), although I am she, might just be a doll, but she’s a doll that saved me from the semester, she stepped up when I fell down those proverbial stairs. She completed me and continues to support me in a variety of ways, some of which are demonstrated in a conversation we had on Twitter earlier today that I ‘ve copied into the “appendix” section of this post below. I have yet to blog about the radio shows from the ds106zone, and I’ll do that by and by, but one of the things that really struck me about the ds106zone this Summer was how amazing the radio program “Not just for life, but for existence” (created by Christina Hendricks, Andrew Forgrave, Brian Bennett, Ben Rimes, Paul Bond, and Scottlo) truly was. It was a brilliant show that actually started to peel away the sham that I was actually running the course experience. The show started to suggest in some really uncanny and trippy ways that this group of open, online participants were actually the brains behind ds106.

As it turns out it they were absolutely right, this crew—along with a few others—ran the ds106zone far more brilliantly than I ever could. I think the illusion that I have ever truly “led” this class has started to finally fade, something that couldn’t have happened soon enough for me. I don’t want to lead ds106; I want to be a part of it, and the two can become confused sometimes, particularly for me. It becomes no easier when Kickstarters, grants, and the like get involved—but they too might have their place, within reason, to foster some technical development, architectural possibilities, etc..  But I think the true magic of ds106 is that it can be likened to an Acephalous society, a headless online community modeled on the web that has no established leaders or hierarchies. And that’s why Alan’s idea of a headless ds106 is so appealing to me, it starts to help educators shape learning experiences that try and get outside of the limitations of the rhetoric of hierarchies and leadership that is part and parcel of a course. I am not saying this is entirely possible, but what I have seen and experienced through ds106 gives me tremendous amount of hope that it might be. In fact, I know now, with certainty, that a single course can evolve to a community of affection wherein people are supporting and helping one another because they want to. It stands against all the data in the world, it is beautiful.



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7 Responses to ds106 acephalous: a headless online community that is #4life

  1. This is a fantastic post, Jim–I hadn’t really thought of it this way, but sure…the summer course really was a group effort, when I go back and reflect on it. Your presence was crucial, of course, but so was that of many other people, including those you mention above. And we weren’t even trying to run the course; we were just doing our art and commenting on that of others and encouraging each other and laughing together on Twitter, and trying to get the LoDown podcasts to 35. For that, of course, we need to also give a big shout out to Alan Levine (who was great in other ways as well during the ds106zone, including his shenanigans with Talky Tina).

    But doing just what we were doing to be participants in the course, turns out to be a big part of running the course as well. Not all of it, of course–someone or some group still needs to organize everything, to get links to tutorials put together, to put out blog posts with themes for the week (video, gifs, etc.). But that could be done collaboratively, as Alan suggests. We just need to organize those who are interested to start to do that collaboratively, maybe through a google doc or something.

    I’m totally into this. I really, really don’t have time to do it, but I’m totally into it. What I produce will be significantly less than during the ds106zone because I’ll be teaching full time and trying to finish writing a paper for a conference in November, along with a couple of other projects. But I’ll be as present as I can!

  2. Reverend says:


    For the record, I was Tina, not Alan. Also, I agree with you completely about the changing roles of a core community, instructor, etc. And despite how long I have been teaching ds106 like this, it still feels weird to see so many people do so much, and my own role change so dramatically. I know it’s an important shift for networked courses like this, but at the same time it is still a struggle at times to get comfortable with.

    I am definitely interested in the ds106 acephalous, I even found an image for it

    What do you think? 🙂

  3. Rockylou says:

    Nice posts Jim and Christina. I too am very interested in participating in and helping to facilitate a “headless” DS106 course this Fall. I have the time and passion for it. I’ll be talking more with Alan this week about it. I think this is a fantastic opportunity to participate in a collaborative leadership and learning environment and can’t wait to be a part of it. This way of working and learning together is along the same lines as a collaborative study group framework I’ve been developing over the last 7 years at 3M. I organize and facilitate anywhere from 40 to 100 volunteers from across the company through an unfolding collaborative “process” of discovery, with volunteer leaders and participants over a 15 week period to come up with ideas for new businesses. It is amazing what people can do when they are given the opportunity to shine with a purpose in mind. If a Fall 2013 DS106 becomes a reality, I will be inviting my 3M colleagues to participate. I can see how learning to develop a digital presence and the basic skills that we learn here would be a valuable tool in the business world.

  4. I can understand about it being difficult to get used to changing roles. No matter how much I think I need to back off my instructor role a bit in my courses, I have a very hard time doing it.

    The image is great…love it! The acephalous ds106 brigade! We can just pretend that some of those guys are actually gals, like me. 🙂

  5. Pingback: In Which #ds106 Goes Headless - CogDogBlog

  6. Ben says:

    I lost myself in my family and kids this July, as I usually do each summer, but I’m glad I came back to this post today, and listened to the radio program again; I’ve probably listened to it in bits and pieces dozens of times during my editing marathon of the piece while stranded at the airport. The final version barely made it passed my ears before being swept up in the GLS conference in mid-June, but this artifact has to be one of the most memorable and haunting experiences of #ds106 yet.

    Jim’s right, #ds106 is more than a course; it’s a fire-breathing hydra, capable of turning the willing participant into a crucible of creativity, emotion, and animated GIFs. While I understand perfectly the need for the conventional world to establish a “leader” and identify the “head of #ds106”, the community and success that has sprung up around it is indeed a beast that no one single individual can lay claim to. Our roles within and contributions to the collective will ebb and flow, many only participating for a single course, but like the hydra, many more heads, and realities, are yet to come.

  7. Reverend says:

    Exactly, I love the hydra metaphor because it is the best way to talk about what the web is, a decentralized, multi-brained monster of epic proportions 😉

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