Open ends?

In the run-up to her keynote for the OER15 Conference —  which I hope to see in person — Sheila MacNeill asks for examples and ideas concerning the “mainstreaming” of OER and open educational practice in higher education. I’m really looking forward to seeing how Sheila ends up addressing the question, following on important questions and valuable reality checks she’s already presented.

As I mulled over a few ways of responding to her query [I started this post weeks ago], I happened to read Tony Hirst’s statement of Academic Philosophy. I was particularly struck by Tony’s definition of open practice: “driven by the idea of learning in public, with the aim of communicating academic knowledge into, and as part of, wider communities of practice, modeling learning behaviour through demonstrating my own learning processes, and originating new ideas in a challengeable and open way as part of my own learning journey.”

Tony’s statement frames the benefit of open practice as something that is publicly engaged, that broadens the impact of academic works, and that brings long-held ideals of scholarship up to date to utilize the contemporary environment. I suspect most attendees of OER15 understand these benefits, and have first-hand experiences of them. So maybe I am bashing a straw man when I contrast Tony’s statement with so much of our rhetoric, where just getting something to “open” seems to be the end goal in itself. That if we can just get a Creative Commons license (without that nasty NC clause, natch…) on more materials, surface more research and learning on the open web, then we will have at that point found success. I support those goals myself, and happily work to promote and implement them. They are very good things to do and they result in real benefits.

That said, imagine you are someone who has not had an amazing experience of openness. You are a practitioner with head down, dealing with the professional and personal pressures most of us are fighting through. What benefits are offered by “going open”? I think for most people the first words that pop into mind with a proposed move to open are “hassle”, “uncertainty” and “more work”.

I came to open education as something of a refugee, fleeing the wreckage of misguided Learning Objects projects in which the goals of sharing and collaboration were torpedoed by notions of control, ownership and exclusion. I struggled with Learning Object Repositories and Learning Management Systems, while at the same time was truly having enlightening rewarding fun amongst a loose nascent network of educational bloggers. The pragmatic advantages of “just sharing” were so obvious. It still baffles me how the serious people in the field could not see them. Then there was the human side… I could feel the joy and energy of organic emergent practices in my bones.

I started to gravitate to the open education movement because there were people there who also felt this way. There were plenty of serious people in the movement as well, and it seemed to me that while OER made progress on the intellectual property problems we repeated the fundamental errors of Learning Objects in many other respects. Maybe that’s why I’ve thought of open as a necessary condition or means, but nothing like the desired end.

It does not help here in 2015 that “open” has been used in so many ways that it may not even function as a viable term anymore. In the opening chapter of The Battle for Open, Martin Weller outlines one of the most problematic points of demarcation:

…for many of the proponents of openness its key attribute is about ­freedom – ­for individuals to access content, to reuse it in ways they see fit, to develop new methods of working and to take advantage of the opportunities the digital, networked world offers. The more commercial interpretation of openness may see it as an initial tactic to gain users on a proprietary platform, or as a means of accessing government funding.

For a while, I thought one way to sharpen the value proposition of open to prospective allies would be to emphasize “freedom”, to make “freedom” something more than an “attribute of openness”. But I have to admit, when I’ve floated that idea to people in conversation nobody seems too enthused. “Freedom” is a term that carries its own baggage (I find it impossible to avoid using quote marks for “freedom” in 2015), and the word has already proven vulnerable to abuses and absurdities.

I know this post is muddled. You’d think that after more than a decade of living inside this space I’d have a little more focus. I really enjoyed Martin’s book for that reason, as he lays out these contradictions with clarity, and even makes them read fresh to my tired eyes. Towards the end of The Battle of Open, he outlines some credible outcomes likely to emerge from open practices, most of which should resonate with educators and their institutions. One is the ability for higher education to demonstrate its worth to society, as in “a digital, networked age, erecting boundaries around the institution is harmful because it speaks of isolation.” Another is the development of literacies and practical skills that will be necessary for our graduates. “Open practice allows students to engage in the type of tasks and develop the type of skills they may need in any type of employment, without reducing a university education to merely vocational training.” Authentic and experiential learning needs to embed openness when it comes to the development of these abilities. I would add that genuine engagement with networked practice is also essential if we hope as citizens to develop an informed worldview on issues such as privacy and surveillance, intellectual property, and the economic effects of digital disruptions — not to mention coming to grips with the nature of digital communication itself. And finally, while Martin is justifiably cautious about making extravagant claims of reduced costs, the benefits here are real and demonstrable.

OER is killing education shared CC by empeiria

I note that some kind of re-alignment of focus seems to already be underway. In 2015, we hear less about Open Educational Resources as a goal, and more about supporting open educational practice. I see that while the URL and hashtag of the conference remains “OER15” the opening sentence on the conference website describes the event as this year’s “Open Education Conference (OER15)”. And what once was the OpenCourseWare Consortium’s annual conference is now called the “Open Education Global Conference”. And the consortium itself has rebranded itself as the Open Education Consortium. (I hasten to add there is also that other Open Education Conference, which is back in Van Rock City this year.)

So I end my response to Sheila’s query with a question of my own. Would the cause of open be better served if we go further in this direction, and stop talking about “open” as a goal and instead focus on using it as a tactic to support allies who care about authentic, engaged, accessible, sustainable, and relevant public education?

12 thoughts on “Open ends?

  1. Hi Brian

    Thanks for this post – lots of very similar thoughts going round my head. I was struck by the division in the comments on my post between practice and content. I’ll hopefully make some sort of coherent and contractitory sense of this at the conference. I firmly believe it is practice we need to concentrate on – particluarly in mainstream education where open has to compete with so many other priorities. Thei aim for open by default so great we need to realise that not everything, everyone can be open all the time. I kno I’m not though I do try to be open as much as I can.

  2. What a lovely thought-provoking post. I think the battle for open is partly about how to legitimise activities in education systems obsessed with goals, measures and metrics. I agree that open succeeds when it is part of what we do, but that doesn’t give you the vocabulary to speak with managers which is where I struggle.

    I disagree with Martin – open is also stopping vast amounts of financial waste entrenched within our education systems – which reminds me I need to write my OER15 workshop on ‘the cost of not going open’! I think we should also be more responsible for the financial plight of students who are skipping lectures to hold down part-time jobs to pay for the courses they are then having to skip. Bonkers.

    Lovely. OER15 is going to seriously rock.

  3. Moving from open (long since meaningless) to freedom (more defiled than a spitoon) to public (just about agreed on) is a little goose chase (if thats too english a cliche it means a futile action).

    Reminds me of my first talk to the campaign for the public about land art vs public art. Public art is a term for huge funded projects built in spaces without walls around them (angel of the north). Land art was a 1960s movement to build huge sculptures outdoors – the main one ‘spiral jetty’ is near Salt Lake City. What is the difference between land art and public art? Land art was still commissioned by rich people rather than a public body. Is access to them different? Barely.

    So can open practice is public practice ? I would say i own every university in the uk (bar Pearson and Buckingham) as they are public assets. Can i access them? No. Their libraries? No. Their research? Some of it.

    Compare the public of education to the public of the NHS. Restrictions there a lot lot lot lot lot less.

    So is open a tactic to get more public hecause open is a bit dead? Or is public a false defence of something which isn’t?

    The crux to me is ownership. Something free of owners is public because it has no control. Freedom to access, as with a lot of open access is borderline infantilism in that you dont get why you cant have it (while simultaneously owning things) and taking others work because it won’t hurt them, without checking if it will – tad sociopathic perhaps.

    So is open a tactic? I’d say it is a step towards a commons of no onwership. But now it just means ‘being seen’ and i think OEP can’t work at scale as once everyone is OEPing won’t it be a bit much?

  4. @ Sheila – thank you again for opening up this fundamental question to the community. I do not envy you trying to make all the contradictions cohere, but I am certain what you share will be fascinating and valuable.

    @ Viv – I wholeheartedly agree that a key battle is preserving a sense of value for things that don’t easily get captured by simple quantitative measures. (Not to mention making it clear that decision-makers understand just how those measures are defined, constructed and presented.) I hope I didn’t distort Martin’s cautions on cost too much. I agree with what he wrote in his book that our field has a history of overstating the cost savings associated with online learning, and that it risks pushing practice for the wrong reasons. That said, I look forward to hearing what you have to say about the costs of *not* being open. Certainly lots of material there.

    @ Pat – I worried this post might just be blather, or a goose chase. That’s partly why it took me so long to finish. You push the notion of public in some ways I have thought about, but also in some ways I need to think about (ie “a false defence of something which isn’t”, the latent sociopathy of some reuse, ).

    As for ” I think OEP can’t work at scale as once everyone is OEPing won’t it be a bit much?” That’s a problem I would love us to be confronted with!

  5. Thanks for a great post and discussion. I do believe there are real economic benefits to end-users of OER, but also that for OER to lead to real educational growth and improvement we need to explore beyond substituting OER for traditional learning resources. We’ve shown that OER content is as good as traditional content, but how can that be leveraged for higher learning?

  6. Thanks for this thoughtful post Brian! I’ve been thinking along similar lines but inspired more by concerns about open government data initiatives, although I think the issue applies broadly across open movements. My take on this is that “open” is a moral position but morality of “open” is not understood the same way by everyone. Similar to the way that Jonathan Haidt unpacks morality in The Righteous Mind, I think we need to do the same thing with openness. My ideas on this in The Morality of Openness. And it was writing that, that connected me with the issue of trust and how it relates to openness. I think at least some of the problems we are trying to solve with our “open” wrench are actually problems of trust and might require a different kind of wrench. More about that in The Future of Open and How To Stop It. I am still a passionate supporter of “open” but completely agree that it is the means (or the tactic as you say) not the goal and further that we might some other tools like trust-building tactics to get where we want to go.

  7. A “practice” and a “goal” are, to my way of thinking, very different things. I’ve long been singing the hymn of letting the stuff—the content, resources, objects, whatever—alone because it emerges naturally and more interestingly through the force of the invisible hand of open teaching and learning anyway.

    So, by all means, drop the “goal” because approaching it that way is as misbegotten as repositories, which are so partly because focusing on the stuff independently—in creation or ultimately in distribution—of practice is similarly misbegotten. Withered fruit of dying tree.

    And the practices, meaning of course the people, are significantly harder to co-opt, pervert and create anemic copies of the way the products (and licenses and formats and all the things that are connected to those products while disconnectable from the practices) are.

    It’s heartening and frustrating to see these questions and ideas emerging again. Heartening because it’s a good thing that resonates with my thinking; frustrating because lack of anyone outside the circle I hung about caring was a good part of what drove me away from education and technology in general. It is SO HARD to tamp down the resentful and unproductive impulse to stamp my feet and say “but that’s what I/we was/were saying one or three or five or ten years ago
    and flee again.

  8. Hi Brian,

    Thanks for this engaging post and the links to Tony Hirst’s academic philosophy and Martin Weller’s book – which I’m already digging into. In response to your question, I have this:

    Open practice, I think, is a good direction. Maybe because (as a practice) it is a living experience – shaped by individuals who do the practicing – in that way perhaps it invites people in, whose goals already align in some way. I think your proposed association to authentic, engaged and relevant – makes sense to learners and faculty colleagues who may not relate to (or care so much about) open as a value – because they have spent so much time striving to get into places that are (by their very admission/advancement practices) closed. When I think about some of the work I’ve done with learners here in the development of open resources, I feel like what shifts their thinking about open (as a value) is in the practice of creating something real, discussing, iterating and “putting it out there” for the community to engage with and they get feedback – real feedback from people who are learning from what they develop. What they remember about open isn’t necessarily the resource they developed, it’s the process they engaged in – the open practice.

    Hope to see you soon.

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