The Benefits and Risks of Academic Openness


Yesterday Frances Bell made a presentation to FSLT12 MOOC on

The role of Openness by Academics in the Transformation of their Teaching and Learning Practices

This was a thought provoking session. Frances didn’t throw content at us, tell us what to think or how to think, but challenged our thinking with the questions

  • How can openness benefit my practice?
  • What risks are presented by open academic?
  • What impact is your participation in #fslt12 having on your personal network?
  • What role can openness play in learners’ practice?

Of course there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. It’s all a matter of perception. Frances states

I prefer to think of openness as a default option that can be turned off, not as a zealot’s precept

But when  I recently wrote a blog post raising the question (in response to a post by George Veletsianos)…..

Is openness becoming a ‘tyranny’ that we are all just drifting into? Or is openness essential to the future of education and scholars?

…. Stephen Downes emphatically responded ‘Yes’ it is essential to the future of education and scholars’, but ‘No’ it is not becoming a tyranny. He feels that we have the autonomy to decide whether to be open or not and writes

First, nobody’s imposing anything here; if you want to go back to your structured formal education, where you pay a substantial fee, there are thousands of institutions who would be happy to help you. Second, the openness (and the rest of it) is the result of a critical examination. As I have argued with respect to the principles of successful networks, if you want your social organizations to be effective at all, you need to embrace things like autonomy, openness, interatcivity and diversity.

This was on the 18th May and I have been thinking about it since because I have a great deal of respect for Stephen, but for me the answers to the questions are less clear cut.  I think in the context of Higher Education the problem is that we are in structured formal education, where, if we want to keep our jobs, we sometimes do have to conform to the institution’s requirements – and that may or may not include a requirement for openness. I should say here that I am not in this situation (I am an independent consultant), but I have been in the past and I know from experience that resistance to an institution’s principles might mean handing in your notice, which is probably not an option for many people – although I have done this twice in the past, and fortunately on both occasions was able to move straight into another job. So I think in certain circumstances, openness could be imposed if you do not have the autonomy to resist it.

But I do agree with Stephen that openness is the result of critical examination – which I think fits with Frances’ statement that openness can be thought of as a default option. As she said in today’s session it will not be for everyone in every situation. We each, individually need to decide how open to be, when and where.

So what might be the benefits? I know that the benefits can be considerable, although I think I benefit more from others’ openness than being open myself. I get access to free information and a wide range of alternative perspectives. More importantly I receive support and encouragement from people I may not even have met. People’s generosity through openness on the web and indeed in this FSLT12 MOOC never fails to amaze me.

But I am equally aware of the risks. Openness necessarily means a certain degree of exposure. For introverts and private people in particular this can be difficult. I think I’m in this category. For novices it may be even more difficult. As Stephen says, we don’t have to be open. We can choose not to be. But first we have to have the freedom to make this choice and second we have to have the skills to weigh up what is gained and what is lost by being open or not open, what we should be open about and what we should keep to ourselves – and then of course we need to decide who to be open with – the whole worldwide web, or just a small working team? As Frances has said in the Moodle discussion forum

I really don’t understand why anyone would want to be open (different from honest in that we can choose not to say certain things) all the time – some remarks are better kept from the public gaze.

Openness is not straightforward. It clearly means different things to different people according to their context and it may be something that we cannot take a stance on in the moment. I suspect it may take considerable experience and time to determine what openness means on a personal level and how that understanding will be reflected in our personal practice.

10 thoughts on “The Benefits and Risks of Academic Openness

  1. francesbell May 31, 2012 / 11:06 pm

    (Reposting what was already lost – grrr!!)
    Great post Jenny. I just wanted to distinguish between the openness of our own personal utterances, statements, articles, etc. and those that relate to others. Scholarship has a tradition of citing the published work of others. This is relational interaction in a public arena. The challenge for 21st Century educators and learners is that they operate in a mixed public/private arena where views may ideas may be exchanged in a quasi-private arena but shared or fed to more public arenas. What I am trying to say is that privacy intervenes in these mixed arenas.

  2. Lisa M Lane June 1, 2012 / 2:58 am

    When I raised the issue in CCK08, that we do have some institutional requirements and conditions that might need to temper not only openness but connectivist methods, I was told I should leave such a system immediately if I wanted to be effective. I didn’t think that was the case then and I don’t know.

    At that point, it was clearly that I would be opposing a closed system, but being forced into openness is not something I’d recommend either, and I like your use of the word tyranny, since this is an idea supported by many voices. Unfortunately, some of these voices clamoring for openness want others to engage in it so they can benefit monetarily (“unsourcing” or “crowdsourcing” through the efforts of others – like websites that use open content but charge users without recompense to those who created the content).

    Similarly, sometimes it may be necessary or desirable to keep things less open (I won’t use the word “private” – I don’t think anything on the web is really private). I’ve been particularly considering this as a way to increase the comfort of students. I was speaking with a student today who made it clear that he felt far more comfortable posting controversial views in the Moodle forum of a closed class than in an open web space or somewhere like Facebook. As so much of the “open” world comes to be dominated by closed systems like Facebook and psuedo-open systems like Google, I think these issues become even more important, for both learning and scholarship.

  3. jennymackness June 1, 2012 / 6:39 am

    Hi Frances – thanks for your comment and or articulating:

    >The challenge for 21st Century educators and learners is that they operate in a mixed public/private arena where views may ideas may be exchanged in a quasi-private arena but shared or fed to more public arenas.

    This is an idea that has been in the back of my head – so it’s great to have it articulated. It seems to relate to the big OER/little OER topic that was also raised in your session. Jenny

  4. jennymackness June 1, 2012 / 6:54 am

    Hi Lisa – I clearly remember you raising this in CCK08 and the response you got. I also remember being shocked at the time! And your comment re Moodle forums is also interesting. These have been very successful in the #fslt12 MOOC and it may be that many participants feel safer there than in a blog. Interestingly in CCK08 I felt safer in my blog than in the forums.
    Thanks for your comment Lisa, Jenny

  5. francesbell June 1, 2012 / 9:28 am

    Thanks for reminding me of that incident Lisa – I had forgotten it. For me, CCK08 was memorable for 2 reasons.
    1. The example of the disruptive (but oddly entertaining) participant who modelled exactly some of the downside of openness and the need of some people to get started on networked learning in gentler less open spaces.
    2. The critique of connectivism (conducted with thoughtfulness and good humour) that was also present in the forums. I tried to capture this is in this animated video, patched together from forum interactions

  6. IleneDawn June 4, 2012 / 6:56 pm

    Great to have a post that stirs up thinking. In reading it and the comments, too, I find myself thinking about two threads in a now 20-some year conversation with a colleague, begun in PhD school when we began being “early adopters” in using emerging technologies for supporting learning, teaching, research.

    One thread we keep coming back to is considering *motivations* for openness – ours, our students’, institutional, political and corporate.

    Another is acknowledging that as “non-shy introverts” (that is, we prefer gathering/thinking about information before talking about it and then will think/gather more in the company of others before we put our words to print, always quite at ease with the interpersonal dimensions of communication and open to disclosure as part of that process) who are also interdisciplinary academics, that we have long depended on an “open” world for doing our work – qualitative and narrative and constructivist (in learning) or grounded (in method).

    The technologies selected and normalized by various institutional motivations (as above) that surround “openness” do continue to impact our professional and personal decision making – the types of decisions we take, the increased awareness of how and whose learning is at risk based on those decisions. The number/complexity of decision points we face with openness now as a broader “norm” in multiply politicized contexts certainly makes for “Openness [that] is not straightforward.”

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