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The Godfather: Gardner Campbell

Gardner Campbell looms large in educational technology. People who have met him in person know what I mean. He is brilliant. Compassionate. Passionate. And a rare visionary. He gives more than he takes in interactions with people. And he is years ahead of where technology deployment current exists in classrooms and universities.

He is also a quiet innovator. Typically, his ideas are adopted by other brash, attention seeking, or self-serving individuals. Go behind the bravado and you’ll clearly see the Godfather: Gardner Campbell.

Gardner was an originator of what eventually became the DIY/edupunk movement. Unfortunately, his influence is rarely acknowledged.

He is also the vision behind personal domains for learners. I recall a presentation that Gardner did about 6 or 7 years ago where he talked about the idea of a cpanel for each student. Again, his vision has been appropriated by others with greater self-promotion instincts. Behind the scenes, however, you’ll see him as the intellectual originator.

Several years ago, when Gardner took on a new role at VCU, he was rightly applauded in a press release:

Gardner’s exceptional background in innovative teaching and learning strategies will ensure that the critical work of University College in preparing VCU students to succeed in their academic endeavors will continue and advance…Gardner has also been an acknowledged leader in the theory and practice of online teaching and education innovation in the digital age

And small wonder that VCU holds him in such high regard. Have a look at this talk:

Recently I heard some unsettling news about position changes at VCU relating to Gardner’s work. In true higher education fashion, very little information is forthcoming. If anyone has updates to share, anonymous comments are accepted on this post.

There are not many true innovators in our field. There are many who adopt ideas of others and popularize them. But there are only a few genuinely original people doing important and critically consequential work: Ben Werdmuller, Audrey Watters, Stephen Downes, and Mike Caulfield. Gardner is part of this small group of true innovators. It is upsetting that the people who do the most important work – rather than those with the loudest and greatest self-promotional voice – are often not acknowledged. Does a system like VCU lack awareness of the depth and scope of change in the higher education sector? Is their appetite for change and innovation mainly a surface level media narrative?

Leadership in universities has a responsibility to research and explore innovation. If we don’t do it, we lose the narrative to consulting and VC firms. If we don’t treat the university as an object of research, an increasingly unknown phenomena that requires structured exploration, we essentially give up our ability to contribute to and control our fate. Instead of the best and brightest shaping our identity, the best marketers and most colourful personalities will shape it. We need to ensure that the true originators are recognized and promoted so that when narrow and short-sighted leaders make decisions, we can at least point them to those who are capable of lighting a path.

Thanks for your work and for being who you are Gardner.


  1. So here, I’ll leave a comment. This will sound start off sounding really stupid and either self-obsessed or frighteningly laced with embarrassing amounts of self doubt. But thank you for the mention. I don’t know if people know how lonely trying to do things people don’t quite get yet can feel. Maybe Ben and Audrey could talk about this a bit too. Downes could write a book about it (you could co-author). Propagating a vision that many people get is such a necessary talent, and those promoters, well, we’re incredibly indebted to them. But there’s a nice feedback cycle to that that saves you from the nagging self-doubt, the inability to express what you feel is such a beautiful vision in your head that you can never quite transfer and in your darker moments worry may just be a mirage. To put it in words that Gardner might use, it’s a Kubla Khan sort of thing, something which simultaneously opens up a new world to you while shutting off your ability to fully and clearly communicate it, or even sometimes hold on to it.

    I say this not about myself, I borrowed most of my smarts from others, but I’ve struggled enough to communicate a larger more integrated vision in my head through the low-pass filter of language that I can only imagine what Gardner, who has such a more massive and resonant vision — must feel like at times. Once people have the prototype, the example, they can riff on it, they can take pieces of that vision and propagate them. Again, those people are amazing. But propagation has a positive feedback cycle of days or weeks or months. That vision — that massive, integrated, life-changing vision a person like Gardner has of what life could be, of how all the pieces fit? It’s the sort of thing where you sometimes wonder “Will I live to see this?” That’s your feedback cycle, and when your cycle is that long it’s a harder and I think lonelier slog than people realize. When someone like Gardner keeps going with it anyway, despite the lack of quick rewards, the one thing you’d hope is that the higher education community would at least support that work.

    Again, I don’t deserve to be in the same sentence as Gardner, but I know what it feels like to try to push a firehose of thought through a straw, and to keep doing it when you’re the only one who can see the vision in full. I hope I’ve said enough that I love the promoters in our industry (and their dens). But Gardner gave us the vision before there were words for the vision. I hope people remember the value of that.

    Wednesday, May 18, 2016 at 6:18 pm | Permalink
  2. Phillip Long wrote:

    Thanks George for identifying a missing part of what makes a rich, caring community, recognizing peers who contribute challenging ideas and enrich the social capital of the communities of which they are a part. Couldn’t agree with you more.

    Leadership with passion and vision is always in short supply. Gardner contributes both just by who he is. We’re all the better for it and just saying it in public George happens too infrequently. Thanks for doing it, and thank you Gardner. I’m looking forward to the insights and ideas that continue to gestate in and spring forth as new thought vectors. At times it is hard to fathom the myopia of institutional decision-making.

    Wednesday, May 18, 2016 at 10:40 pm | Permalink
  3. Tom wrote:

    This ends up making me sad in different way than was probably intended.

    One of the things I like about both Gardner and Jim Groom (I’m assuming he’s the unnamed brash individual – if I’m wrong there please forgive and correct me) is that they acknowledge people frequently. They don’t portray themselves as individuals who magically appeared with thoughts fully formed or pretend they got where they are without the help and participation of others. They both talk regularly about their influence on one another. They both mention lots of other people as well. Both seem to get a large amount of recognition/press/keynotes/etc from my vantage point (but maybe you’re looking at recognition in a different way) and they use some of that time to talk about others.

    I’m not arguing you shouldn’t compliment Gardner further. Everyone could use more kind words as this stuff can be a slog and making someone’s day better is a good thing. Recognizing people doing things you like is a good thing. I just don’t think it has to be at the cost of someone else.

    Thursday, May 19, 2016 at 7:32 am | Permalink
  4. gsiemens wrote:

    Tom – I honestly didn’t have a particular individual in mind. I remember a Gates report around DIY learning that gained a fair bit of attention. I have seen recent presentations on personal webspace. There is not a single person that I targeted and I regret that my intent of giving recognition to Gardner has been interpreted as an attack on anyone. I received news that there were big changes at VCU. I let it simmer for a week or so. Yesterday, when reflecting on how important it is for leaders in education to recognize informed voices as they initiate change, I became upset at what was happening at VCU. And that was my intent – it was about Gardner. Period.

    Thursday, May 19, 2016 at 8:32 am | Permalink
  5. I have never met Gardner, but have followed his work and I know the influence he has had on the edtech people who I do know. First and foremost, I hope that all is well with him.

    I had a similar reaction to Tom when I read this. I may not have met Gardner, but his name is often invoked by those who have “appropriated” (strong word) his ideas.

    I agree with you that the group of people you mention are doing innovative and groundbreaking work, but it feels dismissive by framing the work that those who adopt and (sometimes) extend their work as less “important and critically consequential”. Our system need both – the innovators, and those who can then take those innovations and extend them/innovate in their own way. Both roles are important and critically consequential otherwise innovative ideas die with the innovator.

    Thursday, May 19, 2016 at 8:38 am | Permalink
  6. gsiemens wrote:

    I agree Clint – we do need both voices. As noted in my response to Tom, I was reacting to news of Gardner’s VP position being eliminated (as I understand it, he retains his prof position). I think that is short sighted on the part of VCU. Gardner’s work is like any research: it takes time to be understood and digested. An ebook that touts DIY is readily accessible and easy to share. But when leaderships is charting for the future, my suggestion is that we focus on bringing in researchers and visionaries…in addition to practitioners and those who make stuff happen. Alan Levine likes to critique me for binaries – and it’s an important thing to note here. This isn’t either/or. More aggressive marketers receive their recognition. People like Gardner are often in the shadows. My post was not to cast shade on others, but shine some light on Gardner.

    Thursday, May 19, 2016 at 8:43 am | Permalink
  7. Tom wrote:

    My mistake. I’m glad it could be clarified. That’s the nice thing about comments.

    Thursday, May 19, 2016 at 8:44 am | Permalink
  8. Thanks George. I had posted my comment in the time between your response to Tom.

    Thursday, May 19, 2016 at 8:46 am | Permalink
  9. gsiemens wrote:

    Thanks Michael for your considered comments. Great point about the loneliness involved in innovating. I’ve seen your work, for example, start with blog posts, move into a few collaborations, eventually a small group, then a product, then back to theory and iterations. And this has been a 5+ year journey that I’ve seen you walk. Obviously, you need to be incredibly passionate to stick with it. And that veracity and nuanced understanding is what I was trying to credit to Gardner. And why you very much belong in the same sentence and Gardner. Own it Michael – your work is visionary.

    Thursday, May 19, 2016 at 8:47 am | Permalink
  10. I fully appreciate the comments posted by Michael since I have traveled that road for many years. Even more, I appreciate that George has taken the time to heap praise and shine the spotlight on the work Gardner has done.

    Thursday, May 19, 2016 at 3:20 pm | Permalink
  11. Matt Crosslin wrote:

    I had also wondered if a few statements were about Jim Groom. Glad they got clarified in the comments.

    Gardner is often discussed in instructional design circles. I have always been a bit shocked to see that he’s not discussed as much outside of that group. Many of the courses I took for my ID Master’s 10-12 years ago were built with an approach that was later labeled EduPunk/DIY/personal cyber infrastructure. I still have a fully online portfolio that we built out of that. These are not really theories or futuristic innovations, but things that have been working in practical application for a while now. Of course, I am preaching to the choir here – I just hope the wider field of education realizes that some day. Soon.

    But then again, this post and your discussion with Mike is a bit depressing for those of us with anything we might consider an “idea.” If the Gardners and Caufields of the world can’t get attention for their ideas… where does that leave the rest of us that aren’t even anywhere near their level (of developing and explaining those ideas)? Selling mai tais on some tropical beach?

    Thursday, May 19, 2016 at 6:22 pm | Permalink
  12. Hi George,

    All of this looks fishy, indeed. I hope all the best for Gardner and the good folks at VCU, as their work gives us hope in the future of academia.

    Also, “Instead of the best and brightest shaping our identity, the best marketers and most colourful personalities will shape it” is probably one of my deepest fear. I see so many vendors with predatory attitudes, looking for the powerful an equality clueless exec to push their services and create vendor lockdown. Didn’t we learn from Blackboard already?

    Thursday, May 19, 2016 at 7:18 pm | Permalink
  13. Brian Lamb wrote:

    I blogged about my affection and admiration for Gardner more than a decade ago, and he has been a touchstone for me ever since.

    So it is deeply upsetting to read this post. This is the first I have read about Gardner’s problems anywhere.

    I am pretty sure Gardner himself has not discussed any of this on his various online channels. If the news you report about his position is true, I would expect there are reasons for his discretion. Knowing how painful these sorts of situations can be, I would hope you checked in with Gardner and got his OK to share what you have heard. Reading something like “if anyone has updates” is unsettling.

    Jim Groom’s post in response to this post was ill-tempered and over-the-top. But like Tom, Matt, and Mike (less directly, in his post) I could not help but see your take that Gardner’s vision has been “appropriated by others with greater self-promotion instincts” as a fairly clear reference to Jim. I have been trying all day to come up with other people who work with “cpanel for students”, “the DIY/edupunk movement”, who would be described as “brash” and wielding “bravado”. The Gates Foundation, or “recent presentations on webspaces” by unnamed individuals are not the first things that come to mind.

    You are a very good writer. You are rarely sloppy or use words thoughtlessly. You are very knowledgable about the people in our field and are a very astute judge of character. Knowing the history that Gardner and Jim share, I find it easy to understand why Jim would see this post as an attack.

    When you say that there is “not a single person” that you are targeting, I believe you. But maybe a handful of people? I recall back in 2009 Jim and I wrote an article (, with a section called “A Space of One’s Own” describing UMW student Serena Epstein creating her own domain-owned personal webspace. (We talked about your CCK08 MOOC in that piece as well. Fun times.) I just checked, and we did not cite Gardner in that section (I think he had moved on to Baylor when we were writing it). We did cite his epic “A Personal Cyberinfrastructure” in another piece we co-wrote the following year.

    So when a co-worker asked me today if I might be one of the “self-serving individuals” you were calling out who failed to credit Gardner’s influence, all I could think to reply was, “I don’t know. Maybe.” I hope Gardner doesn’t think that.

    I would like to think Gardner’s immense impact on this field has always been understood by the people who matter. In my circles, his name is usually spoken with reverence. If what you write is true, I suppose he must be going through some very hard times right now, and I hope he knows there are a lot of people out there who have a great deal of respect and concern for him. I am one of them.

    Thursday, May 19, 2016 at 7:19 pm | Permalink
  14. I”m probably not cool enough to be a

    “brash, attention seeking, or self-serving individuals.

    am I?

    Friday, May 20, 2016 at 4:29 am | Permalink
  15. gsiemens wrote:

    Thanks Phil! There are numerous people that need recognition. Gardner is one and as I heard what was happening at VCU, I felt it was important to at least say something.

    Friday, May 20, 2016 at 8:30 am | Permalink
  16. gsiemens wrote:

    Good points Matt. It is odd that someone who is as foundation in the thinking of many people in education/technology/leadership is relatively unknown outside of a small circle.

    Regarding ideas of DIY/edupunk/PCI, you’re right. They have been around for a while in various shapes. So have buzzwordy ideas that I’ve been involved with: connectivism, moocs, learning analytics, etc. It’s all a big ass bricolage. But even then, I do try to draw attention to the people that have shaped my own thinking. I don’t always get it right. But I hope it is not as clueless as silicon valley BS narratives of “we built it all”

    Friday, May 20, 2016 at 8:34 am | Permalink
  17. gsiemens wrote:

    Hi Brian – a meaty post. Thanks. One of the things I like most about so many of the long term bloggers in our network (you, D’Arcy, Wiley, Downes, Watters, Stewart, Levine) is considered and honest engagement. There is a civility and respect that you bring while being honest and direct.

    I first met Gardner through you actually. We were at ELI somewhere in Texas and I remember you being eager to meet with Gardner and you mentioned how much you respected him. I thought “huh, I should check him out” and I attended his presentation. I was floored. Have been a fan since and anyone that has engaged with him or heard him talk similarly becomes a fan. He is passionate and real and honest.

    I’m going to address some of your comments as honestly as I can. But, as I posted on Caulfield’s blog, I’m at risk of making shit up as I shape my memory of my thinking at the time to align with the image that I’d like to communicate of myself here. I don’t want to do that and there are enough brilliant people involved in the conversation that I’d be called on my BS.

    First, here’s what I know about VCU and Gardner: He was released from his position as vice provost recently. I don’t know why. He has retained his role as a tenured prof. This transition has caused a mess of turmoil as people in his former office are having their work devalued, are being told to not help with open ed conference, are experiencing employment changes (losing their jobs? A rumour that I’ve heard, but hasn’t been confirmed), and so on. Basically, Gardner’s department is being disassembled and his work to date is being undone. It’s having a devastating impact on former staff. I imagine on Gardner as well. He is too passionate a person to not feel this at a deep and emotional level.

    Regarding my post. It’s disingenuous for me to say that Jim wasn’t a thought during my writing. But he absolutely was not the focus. I’ve ranted against Thrun and many others for their idea appropriation frequently (a longer post on this in the comments to Mike’s post: It was the general concept of taking the ideas of others and not paying respect to those that shaped them. Regarding a handful of people – again, I didn’t have an image of anyone in mind as a guiding theme to the post. I was focusing on Gardner. And it’s very unfortunate that my attempt to highlight him has derailed and resulted in a secondary impact of hurting others. So, and I largely trust my memory of my emotions and thoughts at the time, I had an image of various people at different parts of writing: the DIY ebook, Thrun, Silicon Valley’ism, etc. Was Groom a thought at all? Yes, but in a passing way. Jim builds stuff. I’ve re-read my post. I can see how it could – with some stretching – be seen as a shot at Groom. But even then, there are numerous candidates that fit the entire post – not just a sentence – far better than Groom. And, considering some of the rather harsh comments that Groom made before and after regarding my work and my personality/morality, why wouldn’t I own it and say it was all about him? Quite simply: it wasn’t. It was about Gardner.

    I’m not sure how to proceed on this Brian. I had a similar feeling commenting on Mike’s blog. The best I can say is that I am usually direct with my criticism. I’d own it if my post was about Groom. I’ve supported him in the past. I’d take it further and say, ever so humbly, that I have been charitable and a booster of his work. I’ve only promoted Downes’ and Watters’ work more in my presentations. It’s troubling though that I feel my attitude changing toward Groom. This hasn’t been a pretty encounter. And I certainly don’t feel that I am completely at fault. I’ve been as honest as I am capable of my thinking during writing the post. I wish that I could dismiss this and just say “misunderstanding, move one”, but I am troubled by character revealed during this process.

    Oh, and for the record, you were not one of the self-serving individuals. We have so many terrific people contributing to and advancing appropriate use of technology in our field. Thanks again for your raw and real comments.

    Friday, May 20, 2016 at 9:01 am | Permalink
  18. gsiemens wrote:

    Dave. I’m sorry, and I do have to confess: My entire post was about you. It takes quite a bit of effort and planning to falsely praise someone just so I can insult you. But I thought it was worth it.

    Friday, May 20, 2016 at 9:21 am | Permalink
  19. I’m not sure I want to be lumped in with those people who behave with civility and respect. I have a reputation to maintain, you know.

    Friday, May 20, 2016 at 9:54 am | Permalink
  20. gsiemens wrote:

    I’m sorry Stephen. What I have written, I have written.

    Friday, May 20, 2016 at 10:02 am | Permalink
  21. Brian Lamb wrote:

    As far as I’m concerned, I don’t need anything to proceed. I appreciate having my say, and the meaty reply.

    Friday, May 20, 2016 at 1:14 pm | Permalink
  22. The main point here that I hope doesn’t get overlooked is the need to acknowledge and understand where the ideas started. I’m not crazy about the notion of ‘true innovators’ in this post, but I agree with George that we risk doing innovation poorly as a sector if we don’t acknowledge and track the sources of ideas.

    As someone who is trying to create a space that fosters innovation on one small campus, I’ve turned to Alex Pentland and MIT research on social physics as a guide (by the by, I’m grateful to George for that reference and for his endless generosity of time and advice). That research supports innovation as a combination of individual ideas and social learning. The quality of our ideas depends as much upon our understanding of the sources as it does on our fostering of diversity in execution.

    Per Pentland’s team – we’re in a state of idea overflow thanks to digital communications. Not managing this glut of ideas means the same ideas get repeated in different contexts – this creates echo chambers, and these lead to poorer decisions. For this reason their data suggests we do better at innovation when we pay closer attention to the sources and “track the provenance of ideas.”

    This should never been seen as a knock on those who adopt and run with good ideas, as Mike so eloquently wrote in his blog. It takes both to move ideas forward. But VCU’s decision, as George indicates here, is a reminder that it may be essential for us to be intentional about acknowledgements as a matter of historical record if we want to be smart about sufficient and efficient innovation in higher ed.

    Saturday, May 21, 2016 at 6:37 am | Permalink
  23. Alan Levine wrote:

    Now that the kissing and hugging is over, and that George has properly razzed Stephen AND Dave, I do have to question Matt’s assertion “Gardner is often discussed in instructional design circles. I have always been a bit shocked to see that he’s not discussed as much outside of that group.”

    I don’t know how one defines circles, or quantifies where/how discussion is made, but if you follow where he works and speaks, he is way broader than ID circles (Libraries, University Administrators, DML, check out his mentions in EDUCAUSE/Campus Technology, not to mention Milton scholars).

    I do wonder about colleagues worrying more and more on “being at the table” or visible as the other TED shining level voices. It reeks a bit of celebrity desire. Yes, there are many people who’s ideas out to get more ears. But beyond the media seekers who live just for that, voices are heard through the slower, accretionary process of doing a lot of good work, sharing in public, rippling local change, then farther out, heck that almost sounds like some guys plant metaphor.

    Yes, many people know Gardner through his writing. It’s more than just the name of his blog. Many know him through his visceral presentations (he is one of very few I would say it’s okay to read from slides, because when he reads quotes, it’s with poetic timbre). It’s why I refer to him as the Poet Laureate of Education.

    But the one place where he is at his peak, and where I have had the good fortune to witness several times, is the energy, excitement, passion he brings to his classroom and seminars. It’s beyond magic. It’s… poetic. The classroom stage is more powerful then the red TED one– it’s not a performance. The thing he speaks about at the top of the taxonomy of engagement pyramid, you feel it in the room.

    Saturday, May 21, 2016 at 11:22 am | Permalink
  24. Ha! I caught you DOG! I saw that rhizome!

    Saturday, May 21, 2016 at 2:04 pm | Permalink
  25. When I worked as an instructional designer and read a lot of the literature in that field, I usually saw a lot of references to Gardner Campbell. He is usually in the textbooks that we use to teach in the courses, mentioned in conference presentations, etc. When I interact with librarians and admins and other people in different education circles, less people seem to be aware of who he is. Notice I wasn’t saying he is not discussed or known, just that he seems less known/acknowledged outside of the ID circles I was used to running in.

    Sunday, May 22, 2016 at 6:57 pm | Permalink