Saturday, February 4, 2017

Layers of openness

I have been talking and writing about openness in education for the past ten years or so and still believe that openness in terms of access to educational resources, the right to reuse and recycle existing material and the open publication of research and academic discussion, is vital to a democratic and tolerant society. However my belief in openness has been shaken by the rise of "alternative truth", intolerance and demagogy that so dominate the public space today. I cannot unreservedly support openness as I would have done a year ago. Belief in the benefits of openness, crowd-sourcing or the wisdom of the crowd are based on an assumption that the crowd is benevolent, supportive and behaves in a civilized manner. Sadly we see so often that the wisdom of the crowd can easily turn into the rage of the mob.

How much openness in education can we advocate? Can we recommend students and colleagues to publish their reflections and findings in an open arena where there is a risk of being attacked, humiliated and threatened? Advocating openness is easy for those of us who have never been the subject of bullying, hatred and ridicule but we need to be more aware of the risks and make sure that we don't risk pushing vulnerable students into danger. An article in Campus Technology, Top Fears Shutting the Door on Open Education, looks at ways of helping teachers understand the benefits of using open educational resources and practices but also warns educators about an uncritical approach to openness. Words of caution come from Rolin Moe, formerly Seattle Pacific University:

Moe wants to see more administrators think critically about open pedagogy, using open pedagogy where it's most appropriate, rather than using it for its own sake. Scientific work, for example, might be more appropriate when taught openly. But something like creative writing, which is tied to the identity of a student, should perhaps be taught in a more protective environment.

Maybe we shouldn't aim for openness as default. The level of openness can depend on context and in some cases there are compelling arguments for using more closed environments. Of course there are many places where open discussion does take place without toxic comments but that fear will naturally make many people think twice about participating. I admit that I am much more cautious about joining certain discussions now and try to think at least twice about what I publish and where. If learning is hindered by openness and we learn better in restricted spaces then maybe that's where we need to focus our attention. Moe continues:

"My fear is that we're so beholden to this idea of open as a good, that we hold that above what the true purpose of learning is supposed to be in some cases," said Moe. "I want to encourage people to learn in grand and wide networks, but there are times when that's not going to be the best way to do it."

I wonder if we have to redefine openness into a layered approach; levels of openness depending on context. Simply insisting that everything must be open is sadly not realistic in today's society and when we do step out into the open we need to be prepared both for the opportunities and the threats. Preparing for openness means first working in more sheltered environments where mistakes can be made and analysed. Students who are worried about going open should be respected and an alternative safer arena chosen for sharing their work. More time must be spent on discussing what can and cannot be published openly, how to handle discussion threads, how to deal with trolls and how to use the safeguards, filters and settings available on most publishing tools. The open ocean is probably not the best place to learn to swim.

I still believe in openness but I see many benefits in closed or restricted environments. They allow us to create a learning community based on mutual trust and respect, where mistakes can be made and learnt from. Full openness demands maturity, confidence and skill to negotiate.

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