Skip to content

The vulnerability of learning

In a meeting with a group of doctoral students last week, one individual shared her challenging, even emotionally draining, experience in taking her first doctoral course. Much of her experience was not focused on the learning or content. Instead, she shared her self-doubts, her frustrations of integrating doctoral studies into her personal and professional life, the fatigue of learning, and feeling overwhelmed. Personal reflections such as these are important but are usually not considered when discussing learning and being a successful learner.

In education, seemingly in tandem with the advancement of technology and online learning, growing emphasis is placed on making the learning process more efficient. Through a barrage of instructional techniques and technologies, researchers and administrators strive to reduce the time that it takes a learner master a topic or complete a degree. While this is a laudable goal, it is an impoverished and malnourished view of education.

Learning involves many dimensions, but triggered by my conversation with my doctoral students, two are relevant here: epistemological and ontological. Epistemology is concerned with knowledge. In the educational process, that means the focus is on helping students to learn the knowledge (concepts, ideas, relationships) that a teacher or designer has designated as being important. Most thinking on improving education centres on the epistemological aspect of learning. While epistemology addresses “knowing”, ontology is concerned with “being” or “becoming”. For many students, this is the most substantial barrier to learning. Our education system and teaching practices largely overlook ontological principles. Instead, the focus is on knowledge development at the expense of “learner becoming”.

Learning is vulnerability. When we learn, we make ourselves vulnerable. When we engage in learning, we communicate that we want to grow, to become better, to improve ourselves. When I first started blogging, I had a sense of fear with every post (“did that sound stupid?”), loss of sleep soul-searching when a critical comment was posted, and envy when peers posted something brilliant (“wow, why didn’t I think of that?”). When a student posts an opinion in a discussion forum or when someone offers a controversial opinion – these are vulnerability-inducing expressions. On a smaller scale, posting a tweet, sharing an image, or speaking into the void can be intimidating for a new user. (I’m less clear about how being vulnerable becomes craving attention for some people as they get immersed in media!). While the learning process can’t be short-circuited, and the ambiguity and messiness can’t be eliminated, it is helpful for educators to recognize the social, identity, and emotional factors that influence learners. Often, these factors matter more than content/knowledge elements in contributing to learner success.


  1. “When I first started blogging, I had a sense of fear with every post (“did that sound stupid?”), loss of sleep soul-searching when a critical comment was posted, and envy when peers posted something brilliant (“wow, why didn’t I think of that?”).”

    Wait…that went away for you??? ;0)

    Tuesday, January 14, 2014 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  2. Great insights George. The doctoral journey to “becoming” a legitimate researcher/academic is certainly the most challenging aspect. Many people on that journey have already made a mark on their profession and yet they are relegated to being a novice until they have completed the journey. It’s nice to be out the other side :-)

    Tuesday, January 14, 2014 at 7:07 pm | Permalink
  3. Martin wrote:

    For all my proclamations about being open I am very sensitive about forcing it on students for this very reason. I think us ed tech ppl forget the vulnerability involved in learning. This is especially true I think of distance ed students (such as OU ones) who are often nervous and not sure uni is for them. So while I think it’s important to nudge students towards a kind of open web literacy, closed systems such as VLEs, do perform a valuable function in protecting this vulnerability.
    PS – hope life in Texas is good

    Wednesday, January 15, 2014 at 8:17 am | Permalink
  4. Interesting ideas, George. I agree that learning /can/ be vulnerability – but believe that with technology it doesn’t /have/ to be.

    How vulnerable do we really make ourselves by quietly checking Wikipedia on our phones – or even by participating in a MOOC? With whom do we communicate our desire to grow when we spend alone time reading a book?

    Wednesday, January 15, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink
  5. Barbara Link wrote:

    As an online doctoral student, I enjoyed your post very much! The vulnerability is increased, I think, when the nonverbal communication is not evident. I posted a question and a classmate answered in what I interpreted to be a smug way. I doubt she intended it to be that way, but I felt unintelligent for asking after her response nonetheless.

    Saturday, January 18, 2014 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  6. In a lot of ways, some of this mirrors heutagogy (learning how to learn), especially if you believe that processing your feelings about learning is part of the learning process. Mix this with some sociocultural learning theory to help “educators to recognize the social, identity, and emotional factors that influence learners” and I think we have some new snobbish buzzwords to throw around at conferences :)

    Monday, January 20, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  7. I’ve elaborated further on my comment here, if you’re interested.

    Thank you for helping me to think through my philosophy of learning. I really appreciate this conversation, and hope you do too.

    Tuesday, January 28, 2014 at 4:54 pm | Permalink
  8. Having been taken to task often myself for my use and sometimes misuse of language, I took some time to look at the definition of vulnerable.

    Most definitions suggest the idea of “becoming open to harm or criticism” or worse. In other words making learning to some degree public. While I certainly advocate that is is valuable and in many cases a more effective way to learn, I tend to side with Darren that to say “learning IS vulnerability” might be hyperbolic. But don’t worry, I do that all time too. Or perhaps you might tell me I’m full of crap, which in that case makes me question my own vulnerability.

    Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Permalink
  9. Barbara Link wrote:

    Given the vulnerability that is inevitable when students share their learning experiences in an online environment, do you think participation in Blogs, etc., should be mandatory for students who are otherwise not in an online learning environment?

    Thursday, February 6, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink