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This research will look specifically at the performance aspect of the expert and learner roles in the open learning space using an autoethnographic lens. One trait that makes the open learning space unique is that it allows individuals to shift into different roles if they so choose. In my case, I originally entered the open learning space as a learner, but I later shifted to the role of an expert. Though I didn’t gain an official title, community members responded to my performance. I will use my own observations from my experiences of performing in both roles, expert and learner, to examine how individuals in the space recognized that I was performing leadership. Drath’s (2001) three knowledge principles will serve as a framework to help me analyze how others recognized that leadership was being performed. I will also be examining my use of performance, narrative, and scripts to shift in and out of these roles. The purpose of this research is to apply the lens of performance discourse to my performance in the open learning space in order to examine how others recognized that I was performing leadership. 


For many centuries, higher education has been looked at as the gatekeeper of knowledge and prosperity. It is a prosperity that is not easily afforded by all. Although many institutions have been shifting their offerings to the online environment in order to ease scheduling barriers, cost, time, and variety still remain a problem. The open learning space is indirectly competing in these regards. It offers a world’s variety of content and connections that can be accessed at any time, for free or for a low cost. Many individuals are exploring the options available in the open learning space for professional development or just curing their curiosity. 

I am an individual who has been benefitting from the open learning space for many years now. I am amazed by the many facets of it and the opportunities that have presented themselves because of it. The benefits inside of the space not only include tangent learning experiences, but also opportunities to lead. I’ve explored both the roles of expert and learner in open learning spaces. These experiences have contributed to my professional development and have helped to shape my identity and notoriety inside of the community. After many years of participating in open courses, I decided to craft and lead my own course. This required a shift in my performance, from a sometimes passive participant to a very active leader. I designed an open course called Open Badges 101 that was inspired by my experience as a learner in the open badges community. Early on in their inception, I took an interest in open badges, digital representations of credit for successful completion of open learning participation. I crafted and led the course through P2PU (Peer-to-Peer University) about the basics of open badges. Little did I know, hundreds of people would sign up from all over the world. In my eyes, Open Badges 101 was an extremely successful open learning experience. Soon, people inside the small community of P2PU, the Mozilla-led open badges community, and the greater teaching and learning community started to contact me for advice, commentary, and recommendations about open badges. At this point, my narrative became that of an ‘open badge expert’ in the minds of others. Yes, I constructed the course but there was something else at work here. I did not apply for this new position nor was I given a promotion, yet others inside of the space recognized my role shift. 


Denzin and Lincoln (1998) state that “personal experience reflects the flow of thoughts and meanings people have in their immediate situations” (p. 645). The open learning space has had an impact on my life in many regards which is why using an autoethnographic methodology appeals to me in many ways. Although they knew it would not be widely accepted, Ellis & Bochner (2006) were inspired to develop autoethnography in order to “move ethnography away from the gaze of the distanced and detached observer and toward the embrace of intimate involvement, engagement, and embodied participation” (p. 433-434). This methodology will allow me to examine how others recognized my role shift by using my recollections and lasting impressions, or what Spry (2001) calls “residue traces of culture” (p. 711). It is a different point of view to be the subject researching the subject than it is to be an observer researching a subject. 

Drath’s 3 Principles

Wilfred Drath’s (2001) three principles provide a framework from which to analyze my experiences in order to determine how individuals inside of the open learning space recognized that I was performing leadership. In his book, The Deep Blue Sea, Drath describes this concept as the “knowledge principle that enables people to recognize that leadership is happening” (p. 7). Drath says that these principles are a “set of ideas, taken for granted as true, even obvious, that organize and describe the reality behind a definition” (p. 8). Drath points out that the knowledge principle is different from leadership definitions or styles. It is, what he describes as “a set of ideas, a set of rules if you will, about the nature of reality and life that are taken for granted to be true” (p. 7) and it provides meaning for definitions or styles so that people may recognize leadership taking place. Drath points out that there are, in fact, three principles for recognizing leadership, ‘personal dominance’, ‘interpersonal influence’, and ‘relational dialogue’ (p. 12).


I changed my performance to indicate to the community that I was ready to lead. I became more vocal on the open badges and P2PU community calls by asking questions and providing feedback. I promoted the course that I had developed on the calls and on social media. I also started to network with experts about the possible impact of open badges on teaching and learning. 

The performance aspect of leadership can be seen in multiple roles in the open learning space, however. Where I altered my performance to assume the role as an expert, I could have been just as vocal and active in other ways as a participant. There are no requirements or definitions in this space. Even the term ‘role’ has a different meaning in the open learning space. As participants step in and out of the roles of experts as learners, they sometimes redefine what that role is through their performance. For example, if an individual assumes the role of an expert or teacher, they can choose to lead a topic by presenting short lecture videos as the topic expert. They can then choose to shift back into being a participant in a different course, while still exercising their expertise by engaging their classmates. 

Narratives and Scripts

When I chose to take on the role of expert, my new performance also crafted a new definition of me in the minds of others in the community. The story that I began to tell about myself began to shift. I was no longer just a “Buffalonian interested in education” (how I had previously defined myself). On the community calls, I began to narrow my self-definition by indicating that I created Open Badges 101 and that I had expertise in leading this experience. To me, this was much more reflective of who I felt I was and what my interests were at the time. I began to change my public profiles to point to these accomplishments and I began to focus my efforts in this area when I saw that they were being noticed and commended by others in the community. In order words, my narrative changed.

Barresi (2006) believes that individuals are “continually revising [their] inner story of self, and that this evolving story is, at any specific moment, a window into the individual’s ongoing efforts to achieve a coherence and stability in [their] personal identity” (p. 204). Individuals begin to define their own experiences through narrative, simultaneously helping to mold the greater open learning discourse. Narratives are the only way in which learners can describe their “lived time” (Bruner 1998, p. 12). Ochberg (1994) also believes that narratives shape the identities inside of this open learning space; narratives become part of a character’s “individual public record” (p. 134) that influences the way others view them. McAdams (2001) describes narrative as “settings, scenes, characters, plots, and themes” (p. 117) that make up one’s story. One’s personal narrative, for example, may define the spaces they inhabit, the individuals they are connected to, and where they focus their energy. In my case, my new narrative was about identifying myself as a contributing member of the Mozilla and P2PU communities, being someone who knew a bit about open badges and open courses, and as a creator of Open Badges 101

My narrative was not the only thing I changed when I chose to create and lead Open Badges 101. There were many actions that I had to take to craft a successful learning experience that would be beneficial to others. First, I had to select a platform and then learn the capabilities of that platform. Second, there were pedagogical considerations, such as determining the goals and objectives of the learning experience. Third, I had to commit to designing and maintaining the learning experience. Finally, there was the management aspect of the course. I had to promote it, engage with learners, provide feedback to learners and allow them to gain credit by creating and offering an open badge for a successful effort. 

The series of actions that I took to craft this learning experience are otherwise known as ‘scripts’. Waters and Waters (2006) define the term ‘script’ as “commonalities across a class of events” (p. 187). They use the example of a ‘‘restaurant script’’ (look at menu, order food, eat, pay, leave)” (p. 187) to describe this concept in basic terms. There are underlying scripts in the open learning space, for example. Most of these learning experiences have registration, orientation, instruction, and assessment components. Such is the case with Open Badges 101. There are also scripts for both expert and learner roles that provide each group with set actions. For example, the expert would lead the class through certain actions and the learners would respond to the leadership with another set of actions. 

What is the Open Learning Space?

I was introduced to Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig’s Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course (Rodriguez, 2012, p. 1) during an NPR morning show. It wasn’t the content that I was excited about, but the experience. This course was to be the first open course ever offered by Stanford University. There were no requirements, no enrollment fees, and no expectations. What would learning be like with that many students? What would the other students be like? How would the instructors manage that many students? I wondered. I ended up being one of one hundred and sixty thousand registrants. Unfortunately, I was one of the many thousands who didn’t pass. I just wasn’t interested in programming for artificial intelligence enough to give it my total dedication. Passing wasn’t the reason I had signed up in the first place, however. I was able to interact with thousands of people from around the world which gave me access to different perspectives. I was able to customize my learning experience to fit my abilities and interests. Even though I wasn’t very good at it, I still learned a lot about how artificial intelligence works and the many ways in which it is integrated into our society. 

The open learning space offers academic-focused learning experiences, such as the kind one would normally find on a college campus. The Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course, in particular, was a MOOC (massive open online course)– one of the many varieties of learning experiences found in the open learning space. Open learning courses bridge the divide for individuals who may be unable to attend or are not interested in a formal learning experience. The open learning space is very much voluntary. No one is required to be present, to participate in a certain role, or to stay any longer than they are willing to. 

One of these open learning efforts was created by Gabriela Pereira (2013), a former MFA student. She developed her ‘DIY MFA’ (Pereira, 2013) site to help individuals who can’t afford, can’t attend, or don’t fit into a traditional MFA program. DIY MFA is built on three foundations that could be found in a traditional MFA classroom, writing with focus, reading with a purpose, and building a community. Another example of this voluntary effort stems from a formal learning space. MIT (2013) was one of the first universities to put their courseware online for free in 2002. MIT went on to co-found the OpenCourseWare Consortium, which now has a community of over 250 universities that have compiled over 13,000 courses in 20 languages for free access, online (MIT OpenCourseWare, 2013). 

Expert and Learner Roles in the Open Learning Space

My first experience in the open learning space was when I was going for my Bachelor’s. I was a photography major in Fine Art. Even though I was being taught many programs in class, I needed more practice. I also wanted to expand beyond what I was being taught and to learn more about other concentrations. I had access to the painting, drawing, and printmaking facilities, but I didn’t have classes that explained the foundations. Around this time, individuals started to create how-to and tutorial-type content on the Web. One site that I began frequenting was Lynda.com (Weinman, 2013), a site still in existence today. It offers how-to tutorials about software in a curriculum fashion. It became an invaluable part of my life at that point and beyond. My interests were in fine art and I wanted to know as much as I could about the subject, but a few years later I found myself teaching the programs I had learned about during my first experiences with open learning. In a way, I can attribute that teaching position to what I had learned by frequenting open learning spaces. The software I began working with as a result was not software I was exposed to in my formal learning classes; I discovered them on my own. Working with my own students, I realized that they had interests outside of the content areas we were covering. I was charged with teaching them the basics about the software, but they wanted more advanced topics. I pointed them to Lynda.com and many other open learning spaces that I had encountered. I encouraged them to expand their knowledge of what was being covered in the classroom. We discussed our learnings from the open resources in class, which contributed to rich interactions and collaboration. 

I now use many of the new MOOC entity sites, such as P2PU, Coursera, EdX, and Canvas Network. While going for my Ph.D., I have used MOOCs to learn more about the topics being covered in my classes, such as philosophy and justice. For example, the justice course I took was taught by Michael Sandel (2013), author and Harvard University professor. Although he didn’t have personal contact with every individual who participated, he was our guide for our learning experience as we encountered his videos, quotes, and posts along the way. Emails were sent weekly to check our progress and he even held several live webinars where students could ‘tweet’ questions. He is an expert that I would have never had direct access to if it weren’t for this open course. This course was offered through EdX. Every week I encountered videos, links to reading materials, quizzes, and discussions. I didn’t fully participate in the forums during this course, but I used them as a way to check my knowledge and formulate my ideas. I watched on as other participants drove conversations, engaged in the content, and challenged each other’s views. I applied what I had learned in the open course to my discussions in one of my Ph.D. courses. 

I became much more involved in the philosophy MOOC I participated in. Every morning I religiously watched the videos, participated in the forums, and took the quizzes. This MOOC was offered on the Coursera (Coursera, 2013) platform, a platform that I found allowed me to better connect with my classmates. It had forums that were better designed for multiple conversations. As part of my morning routine, I replied to classmates and tried to push conversations forward by asking questions and connecting ideas to my focus area of informal learning. I took to Twitter to network with classmates and post about my learnings. Soon, I was carrying on and driving conversations about philosophy. 

When it came time to develop Open Badges 101, I had a lot of experience from being a student to draw from. I questioned the ways in which I could develop a self-paced course where learners were able to apply their learning to their own life, had direct access to me and other learners, and had a chance to lead discussions. I designed the course in such a way that learners had autonomy in their projects. I made myself accessible on a variety of platforms so that they could engage me in their preferred location. I also highlighted and encouraged learners to take the lead. Some of the projects I saw people develop as a result of a course I created I would have never thought possible. Many of the learners even signed on to be ‘mentors’ after they had completed the course, meaning I now share the course maintenance and management responsibilities with a team. For me, having a great student experience in the open learning space gave me the tools I needed to be a leader in it. 

Volunteers and ‘eduprenuers’ continue to create open courses in open learning spaces, such as P2PU (P2PU, 2013) and Coursera (Coursera, 2013), where experts can deliver free courses to those seeking learning opportunities. Roles are not structured in the open learning space. Individuals may choose to take on a leadership role in discussions or on projects at any time. This is one of the key characteristics that make the open learning space different– it encourages individuals to assume roles that they are interested in assuming for their own personal growth. The performative discourse, therefore, is specific to each individual and each circumstance. McAdams (2001) discusses how individuals “act on their desires and their beliefs to accomplish goals” (p. 104). Participants in these spaces attain what Alvesson and Spicer (2010) refer to as “personal fulfillment” (p. 77) by engaging in these growth opportunities. Alvesson and Spicer (2010) state that individuals are “just like a plant [that] dies when it stops growing” (p. 77). An open learning experience is rich with learning and leadership opportunities that allow them to thrive. It is not just about individuals in the open learning spaces because the entire space benefits when one of its members experiences professional and personal growth (p. 77). In the open learning space, individuals may have a different set of goals at different times and they may volunteer to teach or learn in order to achieve those goals. Individuals can choose to perform in a prescribed way, or in a way that is completely custom to their interests. These performative discourses are only prescribed in the initial development of the learning experience with experts developing the learning experience and learners signing up to learn from them. 

If an individual chooses to lead an experience, the way in which they relate to others in the community must shift. In my case, my role as an expert was also that of a caretaker performative discourse. I translated what I knew for different levels and I designed the objectives so that people knew how to apply the content to their own discipline. In the learner performative discourse, there is an active learner component in which one engages in the forums, expands the discussions, and participates in the activities. Of course, one can choose the discourse of being a passive expert or learner, if they so choose. The beauty of the open learning space is that individuals can become experts, learners, or designers at any time. 

Role Shift

One of the benefits of the open learning space and key differences to that of formal education is that individuals, such as myself, have the ability to choose their role at any given time. There are few requirements beyond being respectful, but there is much to be gained from the voluntary participatory culture. Everyone has an equal opportunity of assuming a leadership position, if they so choose. Everyone also has an equal opportunity of being a learner. 

How Do We Know That Leadership is Taking Place?

Before I decided to become a leader in the open learning space I had exposure to different types of leaders already active in the space. Michael Sandel (2013), for example, was already a successful author and professor. Instead of siding on ‘exclusivity’, Sandel (2013) acted on his interests to adapt his course for an open learning format in which anyone in the world with an Internet connection could essentially receive a Harvard education. I also had exposure to other learners in the MOOCs I enrolled in who had taken on leadership roles in discussions. I witnessed how certain individuals who wanted to be seen as leaders in the learner community took an active role in the discussions. They then changed their profiles in order to change their narrative to include that they were a learner in a particular MOOC. They also brought over their learnings and thoughts to social media platforms where they drove conversations using hashtags that were assigned to each MOOC. 

Changes in my performance, script, and narrative indicated to others that I was interested in performing an act of leadership, but how did others in the community really know that I was performing leadership? Wilfred Drath’s (2001) three knowledge principles provide a framework from which to analyze my actions in the open learning community.

Drath’s 3 knowledge principles

There are certain traits followers make meaning of and conclude that are acts of leadership. Drath (2001) suggests that followers “recognize certain thoughts, words, and actions as being leadership” because “we share an organizing knowledge principle” (p. 4). Drath suggests that there are in fact three ways of recognizing leadership: personal dominance, interpersonal influence, relational dialogue (p. 12). Individuals need only understand leadership through one leadership principle, not all three. Each principle faces three tasks: setting direction (direction), creating and maintaining commitment (commitment), and facing adaptive challenge (adaptive challenge)(p. 19). These three knowledge principles face each task in a different way.

Personal Dominance

Drath describes the first knowledge principle as a “personal quality or characteristic” (p. 13). This can be related to the script a leader follows. Their actions express “an inner quality toward followers” (p. 13). Drath is really suggesting that someone possesses certain qualities that make them a leader and that they know how to express those qualities, but also that followers are “convinced of the truth of their leadership” (p. 13). When a leader presents a vision, Drath believes that followers commit to the vision “because of their belief in the leader’s being a leader” (p. 23). Drath defends that dominance is natural (p. 32). Drath takes us back to tens of thousands of years ago when someone had to lead a band of people into uncharted territory; someone had to go first. Someone had to “master the fears and doubts of followers” (p. 34). Drath also says that “leadership is brought into being when a leader expresses this inner

quality toward followers” (p. 35), but it also stops happening when a leader stops expressing this inner quality. This expression can be defined as actions or as ‘script’. Finally, Drath points out that a leader must accomplish a series of tasks, “setting direction, creating and maintaining commitment, and facing adaptive challenges”. If the leader is effective in this regard, followers will move in sync with the leader according to the vision. 

Drath says that the first principle will meet the first task (direction) by establishing a leader’s vision and the second task (commitment) because followers believe that the leader’s purpose is to lead them (p. 23). However, he cautions that the third (adaptive challenge) is unlikely to be met because the vision stems from the leader and because it is “not recognizable and interpretable in terms the leader understands” (p. 24). 

When I developed Open Badges 101, I openly and excitedly volunteered to create the course. 

Followers who conceptualize leadership through this first principle looked to me for leadership. I was able to articulate what I thought the community needed and because it was successful, I received praise. I am not sure that I would have received the same notoriety that I had if the course was a failure– if I didn’t follow through on the goals I had set for myself (direction) (p. 39). Once I had, existing leaders in the open learning community began to acknowledge, include, and promote me. They believed in me and my ability to create a successful learning experience and to lead others (commitment) (p. 40). I would say that one shortfall was not establishing a successor to take over the course when I was ready to step away. Yes, many ‘graduates’ volunteered to be mentors, but none has stepped forward to really take it over. This is a possible example of my inability to see an adaptive challenge because it was not part of my original vision. At this point, the course community is facing those challenges because I am (adaptive challenge) (p. 42).

Interpersonal Influence

This second principle happens at a time when a group debates over an issue until a leader emerges “as the most influential person and thus claims the role of leader” (p. 13). Drath is very specific about this being a different way of understanding leadership. A leader’s emergence is organic, almost, and they achieve influence (p. 14). Drath refers to this as a “social process” (p. 68) where leadership is negotiated and constructed. Conditions may cause a leader to emerge in this regard, but the leader can become a follower again under this principle. Then, the leadership can be passed to someone else with more influence in a new situation or it can simply be “moved into the background” (p. 69). The leader that emerges “recognizes the differing values and perspectives” (p. 81) that they must incorporate into their leadership. They become, what Drath calls, a “repository of these differences” (p. 81). 

In this principle, ideas are generated and directions are shared. If a leader makes a decision, that direction “took into account some degree of empathy with differing values and perspectives” (p. 85) (direction). From this perspective, followers commit to a leader’s vision when they see their own needs represented (commitment) (p. 87). Finally, because a community has its eye on perturbations, the leader is more likely to hear about them (adaptive challenge) (p. 89). 

My idea to create Open Badges 101, stemmed from discussions that I had been part of in the open badges community. Many community members expressed the need for such a course and I had both the skills and interest to make it happen (direction). Many members of the community quickly supported me, perhaps because they saw their own needs represented in my interest (commitment). If followers saw leadership through this lens, they would also have a role in being vocal about problems and issues they noticed arising. Concern for course maintenance was vocalized on a P2PU community call, however. This is probably because they had experienced maintenance issues with courses before (adaptive challenge). 

Relational Dialogue

The last principle emerges when the first two are no longer options and when existing views of leadership simply cannot happen in a particular situation (p. 129). In a situation of relational dialogue, groups mutual agreement of different perspectives presents the possibility for leadership to take place (p. 131). Secondly, there is mutual respect for the differences that have been presented (p. 131). Lastly, it would be hard for any one leader to step forward and not favor a side (p. 134). 

Relational dialogue shares some of the understandings of the first two principles. Leadership can be accomplished in all the ways set out by the first two principles. When shared leadership is being practiced, individuals, despite their differences, become committed to the organization. 

Is this leadership?

In the case of my experience, Others most likely understood my acts under the first two principles, but not the third. Even though I was in an informal setting with no prescribed roles, my actions indicated that I was an expert who could lead people in a learning experience. This is not unlike a prospective instructor applying for a position and then being given a chance to teach students in the classroom. 


This paper examined the performance aspect of roles in the open learning space. One intriguing byproduct of this examination is how the performance roles of the open learning space compare to the formal learning space. If compared, the performance aspects in each space are actually not that different at all. Although more research is needed to thoroughly compare the two spaces, it is intriguing to contemplate the similarities between the two spaces. If formal higher education currently serves as a gatekeeper of knowledge and upward mobility, can an argument be made in the future to validate the quality of open learning and, therefore, a rival to formal higher education? Perhaps the reason why higher education is trying to become a leader in the open learning space is that its leaders have already determined this answer. 

There are preconceived notions about what leadership looks like in the formal learning space. The role of the expert, for example, is usually that of an individual who has be given authority to lead a learning experience. The role of the learner is usually thought of as one who passively absorbs content. Although leadership is socially constructed, these notions about the roles in the formal learning space also add to the notion that formal education should be the gatekeeper of knowledge. A new era is upon us, however, in which knowledge is being decentralized due to the advancements in technology. This era is called the “Knowledge Era” (Uhl-Bien, Marion, & McKelvey, 2007, p. 298), a time in which knowledge is currency. For those who have been previously unable to afford the luxury of higher education, they can now access a world’s worth of knowledge with any device that connects to the Internet. 

It is to the benefit of these individuals that this decentralization is occurring. Circumstances, such as location, financial concerns, or disabilities, have driven such individuals to find alternative means to education. In our own time, the recent rise in unemployment and the lack of positions due to downsizing is even influencing educated individuals to seek alternative forms of education in order to switch careers or give themselves an extra edge over the competition. For example, although I am currently pursuing a Ph.D., I find myself lacking in certain background knowledge that is necessary to be successful. Secondly, my curiosity oftentimes ranges outside of my concentration. Open learning has aided me in both ways. 

As for higher education, there is still a need for its services. It must evolve beyond its gatekeeper role to better serve society in the Knowledge Era. Once this framework is revealed it can better inform institutional planners and it can help us to change corporate cultures that uphold the traditional higher education structure. 

In conclusion, open learning spaces and their components can be analyzed through the lenses of performance, narratives, and scripts. These lenses provide a means to analyzing the space through the experiences of its participants and ways in which their actions and dialogue help to shape the present and future of it. As this space continues to grow and change, its performative discourse will also continue to evolve, helping us to study open learning spaces in the future.


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