The Invisible College

The roving College Of the RosicruciansThe Invisible College (whose emblematic image is shown here in an illustration from Speculum sophicum Rhodo-stauroticum, a 1618 work by Theophilus Schweighardt) was the Rosicrucian College, identified by Frances Yates as the "Invisible College of the Rosy Cross".

It is sometimes described as a precursor group to the Royal Society of London. It consisted of a number of natural philosophers and may have also included some prominent figures who would be later connected with the Royal Society.

This article is not meant so much as a history lesson as it is the thought that an "Invisible College" might be something we could use again today.

This idea of having an "invisible college" can be found in German Rosicrucian pamphlets in the early 17th century and another playwright of Shakespeare's time, Ben Jonson, referenced it in several plays.

It was a group of scholars meeting to discuss and learn, but without actual courses, degrees or a campus of buildings.

In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, it is noted that a group of natural philosophers meeting in London from 1645 was identified as the "invisible college" by Thomas Birch, writing in the 18th century.

It might remind some readers of other more concepts of "expert communities" such as Epistemic communities or Communities of Practice.

book infoThe concept and the term was applied to a global network of scientists by Caroline S. Wagner in her book, The New Invisible College: Science for Development.

In the book, Wagner argues that a shift from big science to global networks is creating new opportunities, especially for developing countries, to tap science's potential. Don't try to create 20th century scientific establishments and centers of learning, but use global networks of leading scientists to focus on research to address local problems.

My own thought is that some combination of online learning, MOOCs, alternative and personal learning networks - and maybe even "degrees" in some new format -                                                                      may create a new Invisible College without buildings or a home campus that grows and travels from place to place as it is needed.

The concept is mentioned in Clay Shirky's book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. It has found its way into fiction like The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown and Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

It was the inspiration for the humorous Unseen University in 13 fantasy novels by Terry Pratchett (such as Unseen Academicals).

For now, the Invisible College (preferable to the Invisible University, which smells stronger of degrees) is fiction and fantasy. Of course, both and are already owned by people who have parked the URLs for the time when...


MOOC: The Seven Year Itch

I am looking forward to speaking at NJEDge.Net's 15th Annual Faculty Showcase on March 28, 2014.

Last year, I spoke about Massive Open Online Courses just ahead of offering one myself. That was "Academia and the MOOC" which was offered with NJEDge.Net through Canvas Network last spring.

This year I will be back as the lunch plenary and I'm calling my talk "MOOC: The Seven Year Itch" since the MOOC is now 7 years old.

If 2012 was the "Year of the MOOC", then what happened in 2013 - and what will become of the MOOC in 2014?

I will give an update on the past year in Massive Open Online Courses and a sense of how they are really impacting education and training.

The morning speaker is Dr. Erin Templeton an Associate professor of English at Converse College and a fellow lover of poetry. But for this audience, it is more that she is a regular contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education blog, ProfHacker.

The Faculty Showcase is all about best practices from member institutions and is targeted to educators from K-12, higher education, institutional research, and healthcare related teaching as an opportunity to show their work to NJ colleagues.

The event features presentations and posters on technology-mediated instruction.

More event information at

Still Questioning MOOCs?

Whether you think they are a game changer or a fad, you have to admit that no other recent development in higher education has captured the imagination of the media and the attention of universities as MOOCs have done.

Are they really a disruptive innovation and, if so, how are they changing higher education? That's what a recent call for papers asks. (Submission deadline: 30 June 2014) Actually, they ask a number of questions:
Why and how do institutions decide to offer MOOCs?  
Who are the learners and what are their patterns of behaviour?   
What are the implications of MOOCs for developing countries?  
What changes are MOOCs stimulating in institutions (e.g. more online learning, shorter programmes/courses, public-private partnerships, etc.)?  
How is evolving technology changing the infrastructure required to offer MOOCs?
MOOCs have spread beyond higher education and are now being offered by a wider range of institutions and organisations – what is their experience?
Are viable business models for MOOCs emerging?

The early big pioneers of big MOOC platforms are still around. In the spring of 2012, Anant Agarwal, a professor of computer science at MIT, taught a course called “Circuits and Electronics.” The course enrolled 155,000 students from 162 countries around the world. Now the head of edX, Agarwal says MOOCs still matter. He thinks that they are a way to share high-level learning widely and supplement (but perhaps not replace) traditional classrooms. He has a vision of blended learning as the ideal learning experience for 21st century students.

Daphne Koller co-founded Coursera with Andrew Ng and got top universities to put some of their most intriguing courses online for free. They do it as a service and as a way to research how people learn.

Coursera measures each student's activity, quizzes, peer-to-peer discussion and grading gives them Big Data on how knowledge is processed.

Next Big Things in Tech

Even if you don't teach tech or work that much with tech in your classes, it's nice to have an idea of what the next big thing in the tech world might be in our schools. But it's difficult to predict. When polled readers recently, they asked: "What do you think will be the "next big thing" in technology that might help you be more successful at work, either with students or in your own PD?"

One thing I see that's not in their poll is that there is a trend to call professional development (PD) "professional learning." Semantics?

Here are the poll results:

Automated individualized student education plans  34.67%
Live two-way peer coaching  21.67%
Accurate voice-recognition word processing  17.96%
Spoken language translation without having to type text  11.76%
Holographic projections that don't require monitors  5.88%
Virtual "unconferencing"  4.95%
Semantic personalized Web searching  3.10%

Asking Questions

SocratesAsking questions in class is an important teaching skill. It encourages students to think and learn. It helps you as a teacher to hear student answers; it's the first real way to assess their learning.

I remember having education courses when I was an undergrad that talked about asking questions and using the Socratic Method. But just asking questions doesn't make it an effective practice.

I found out years later that the "Socratic Method" was not quite just "asking questions" anyway. It is a dialectical method, often involving a discussion in which the defense of one point of view is questioned. It is a negative method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions.

Recently, I was doing some research on questioning techniques (see sources below) for a presentation. I compiled some tactics for more effective questioning that can help you "capture students' attention, arouse their curiosity, reinforce important points, and promote active learning" (Davis, 1993).

  1. Ask one question at a time - multiple questions at once can confuse students

  2. Avoid yes/no questions - try asking "how" and "why" questions

  3. Ask students what they think of other students' answers

  4. Ask questions that YOU don't know the answers to. Too often teachers guide the dialogue towards the answer they want to hear.

  5. Pose questions that lack a single right answer

  6. Focus your questions - broad questions can steer discussion off topic

  7. Wait time - pause in silence after a question to allow for students to think about the answer. Don't be afraid of the "dead air" -this is not talk radio.

  8. Try to find and show consensus on responses.

  9. Ask questions that require students to apply knowledge and demonstrate their understanding. "Do you understand?" questioning has little value

  10. Ask some difficult questions.

  11. Structure your questioning to encourage students to respond to one another.

  12. When you say "I wonder if it is possible that..." it opens up possibilities that may encourage the reluctant answerer. A question that begins like "What is the definition of ..." signals that there is a specific answer required.

  13. Good questioning involves all the students. Even walking around the room can bring students into the conversation. Wait staff at restaurants learn that kneeling at the table and coming closer and to the level of the customer has a positive effect on tipping.

  14. Albert Einstein “Most teachers waste their time by asking questions that are intended to discover what a pupil does not know, whereas the true art of questioning is to discover what the pupil does know or is capable of knowing.”  The question itself can teach something even before there are answers.

  15. If you don't embrace wrong answers, students won't take risks. I would actually be wary if all I got were correct answers. Yes, some questions have correct answers, but some incorrect answers will lead to deeper discussion and learning.

  16. Follow-up questions that ask for specifics, clarification, examples, relationships and more are very important. If you stop when you get to "the answer," I would question your questioning.

When all the questioning is over and you get to testing, test the way you question. Why bother with all this critical thinking in class if you are going to ask them test questions that require them to memorize and regurgitate.


Davis, B. G. Tools for Teaching. Jossey-Bass.
How to use the Socratic method in the classroom
The Socratic method as an approach to learning and its benefits (pdf)
Lemov, D. Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College Jossey-Bass.