Questions about online ‘openness’

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  • What motivates academics and teachers to get involved in areas of practice that are NOT supported by their institutions?
  • Why invest even longer hours in supporting educational practice? My dentist doesn’t give me free root canal treatment outside of work?
  • Why personally finance conference attendance and travel, and what are the implications of this for the education sector?
  • What is in it for those willing to ‘go open’?

These are interesting and pertinent questions from Viv Rolfe in the wake of her attendance at the Association for Learning Technology Conference this year. They prompted me to look back in this blog to see what I have written about openness in education and going open. I am surprised at just how many posts relate to this topic; this has been one of my main areas of interest since 2008 and before.

I can remember clearly the point at which I realised I was ‘in the open’. It was during CCK08 – the MOOC which coined the term MOOC and was convened by Stephen Downes and George Siemens. I started this blog for that MOOC and about a month later made a post in which I questioned the need to be online to be connected. At the time, because I was new to blogging, I thought I was fairly anonymous and invisible and it gave me a tremendous jolt when I saw that Stephen Downes had included this post in his blog aggregation. Since then I have often considered (for example in this blog post) how open I am or want to be, because the feeling of over exposure and discomfort has never completely gone away.

So as Viv asks – Why do I do it? For me Viv’s first question is easy to answer.

  • What motivates academics and teachers to get involved in areas of practice that are NOT supported by their institutions?

I work independently of an institution, and have done for 10 years, so any support that I do have comes from my network. The big question for me is ‘who do I want to be in my network?’ I am not interested in collecting numbers for the sake of it. When I get a friend request on Facebook, or a connection request on LinkedIn, or a follower on Twitter, I don’t automatically connect. If I don’t know the person or ‘of ‘ the person, I look them up (Google them etc.). If I think we have topics of interest in common, then I will connect. I am not looking for social connections, but for professional connections. Sometimes these overlap, but I don’t assume that they will or even want them to. I have found the increasing blurring between public and private, personal and professional, troubling and constantly find myself wavering about what the difference is. I use ‘open’ social media as an information source. If and when I share information online, it is in the hope that it will be useful to others – but I am never sure of whether it will be and whether it is a conceit to be sharing in this way. I am thinking this as I write this post.

Then Viv asks:

  • Why invest even longer hours in supporting educational practice? My dentist doesn’t give me free root canal treatment outside of work?

Again for me this is fairly straight-forward to answer. In my career I can’t remember ever sticking to the statutory hours. I have always done more hours and sometimes many, many more hours than in my contract. There have been various reasons for this, but I think the main reasons have been to do with wanting to learn more and to do a better job – not for any recognition, although it is great when this happens, but simply because that’s what I find fulfilling. Currently most of my work is voluntary, unpaid research, which I hope in some small way supports educational practice. I am committed to publishing in ‘open’ journals, although this isn’t necessarily what all my research collaborators want or need for their career advancement, so it doesn’t always work that way. Collaboration usually does involve some degree of compromise 🙂 and I value openness between friends and collaborators, far more than openness in the online network.

Viv’s next question was:

  • Why personally finance conference attendance and travel, and what are the implications of this for the education sector?

I have been doing this for the past 10 years. I try to physically attend one conference a year but I have to weigh up costs against gains. Sometimes it is interesting to meet people face-to-face, but I am looking much more for something that stimulates my thinking and sets me off in new directions. There is something about being physically present that can be much more powerful than attending virtually. For many people a conference is about networking and meeting people. For me, when I am paying for myself, that is a luxury. I need more than that. I need to be able to come away and feel that my thinking has changed in some way – and I need to know that I have invested my time and money wisely and that the costs will pay dividends in terms of my future work. What are the implications for the education sector? I think that in the years to come there will be many, many older people, like me, who are already drawing their pensions, who will want to attend conferences and contribute to presentations. Hopefully conference organisers will see these contributions as welcome, but also realise that current costs are often prohibitive. And it is usually the case that people who are paying for themselves can have higher expectations and be more demanding of processes 🙂 This could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on whose perspective you are taking!

Viv’s last question is the key one.

  • What is in it for those willing to ‘go open’?

I would describe my practice as one of ‘guarded openness’. I haven’t thrown myself out there and revealed all, as I see some people doing. I find it disturbing when people seem to ‘wash their dirty linen’ in the open. Some things are not meant to be discussed in the open, but should be reserved for private communication between the parties concerned. I also find that group think, constant self-affirmation and self-validation, either individually or as a group, that fails to stand back and look critically at this online behaviour, makes me feel equally uncomfortable. In the past year I have seen so much of these behaviours online. When I joined CCK08, I was really excited by the altruistic sharing of knowledge and learning behind the idea of ‘openness’, but recently it has seemed to me to be more about narcissism than altruism – about getting noticed and building up ‘numbers’ of followers, tweets etc.

So why am I still here? To be honest, I am no longer sure, but I am hanging on to Stephen Downes’ and George Siemens’ original and hopefully ongoing aspirations for open education. And I am not expecting any response to this post because what I have learned in the last year is that the internet favours consensus and punishes dissent. I should have paid more attention when Dave Snowden told us this in the Change 11 MOOC – another MOOC organised by Stephen Downes and George Siemens.

21 thoughts on “Questions about online ‘openness’

  1. @mdvfunes September 18, 2015 / 7:54 pm

    And yet I find you still hopeful about the potential of open education if we find a ‘space’ to engage in a way that is less about narcissism and more about altruism? I hope so, I want those of us who value dialogue as co-creation to come together somehow to counterbalance some of the self congratulatory narrative that pervades open education at the moment…I don’t want to say adios like George…at least not yet 😉

  2. Scott Johnson September 18, 2015 / 9:58 pm

    We could ask ourselves why we volunteer for anything when others do it for cash. It fulfills a need? It’s how we were brought up? The world floats on our participation and sinks in our silence? Some people seem deaf but are still worth talking to?
    It took over 3 months for me to get the message that my heart valve was shredded. The technician saw it as I was being tested but it had be confirmed, and then a strategy established around a response and then sent to the doctor to give to the receptionist who called and left a garbled message on my answering machine which then took me a further 3 months to find out what it was about and drive myself hours away to another test to be surprised to be admitted to surgery with a few months to live and I sometimes think I should say something when I see something and not wait.
    We are in the midst of change and who knows what exactly is the right time, thing or situation that will be the clincher? And I think we want to be part of this regardless of the payoff.

  3. jennymackness September 19, 2015 / 7:45 am

    Hi Mariana – thanks for your comment. I had seen George’s post, although I wasn’t thinking of it when I wrote this post. It has attracted a lot of comments, so seems to have touched a nerve. Alec Couros’ comment stands out for me

    >>I feel somewhat like Clarence in that I’ve stuck to some of the most humanizing types of tech and practice over the past few years as I’ve largely ignored some of the trends that you make reference to. I attribute much of this to my close connection to the Faculty of Ed where I work and our strong mandate for social justice, indigenous ways of knowing, and similar humanistic threads. This has allowed me to continually question and challenge the corporatizing and and dehumanizing trends impossible to avoid in the “field” of edtech. Edtech has lost its former ethos, one that made me fall in love with the area in the first place. Perhaps, we will someday be able to reclaim what was lost, but it certainly begins with posts such as this.<<

    He more or less describes my own experience, although my perception is that over the years he has been more closely associated with the EdTech world than I have. I don't think I have ever been 'in love with the area', but I do agree that it seems t have lost its former ethos.

  4. jennymackness September 19, 2015 / 7:59 am

    Hi Scott – I have read your comment a few times. I’m not sure that I have fully understood the point you are making, but I think you are questioning whether we should think in terms of ‘payoff’ when volunteering our time – presumably in response to my comments about paying for conferences?

    I don’t see that I can avoid thinking about this when paying large amounts to go to a conference. When I went to the 2010 Networked Learning Conference in Aalborg it cost me near on £1000 and of course that isn’t just my money. In our family we don’t keep our money separate. So my decisions about this have knock on effects.

    When volunteering my time for research and such, I am not thinking about money – but I still think about what the payoff might be. I weigh up whether it is better to be sitting at my laptop for hours on end, or better to be out in my garden, walking on the fells, going cycling, seeing my friends and so on. But then I’m not a ‘to hell with the consequences’ sort of person 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to comment here.


  5. Scott Johnson September 19, 2015 / 7:44 pm

    Jenny, sorry to be so vague. At my last job (literally, I was fired before retiring) someone asked why helping others was something I “wasted time on” when my own career seemed to be going into the garbage. Just couldn’t resist helping, especially those out of favour with the boss or policy or any other form of bullying.

    Before this is never occurred to me that messing with the natural order of power was a more genuine explanation for “helping” than some sort of more acceptable virtue. So maybe what I meant is the payoff may not be tangible and in the public view but an inner reward.

  6. jennymackness September 19, 2015 / 8:02 pm

    Thanks Scott for the further explanation. I completely agree that the payoff may not be tangible or visible. That is often the case for me and I often make that choice – but it is my choice. Hope you are still ‘helping others’ 🙂 Jenny

  7. Carmen Tschofen September 21, 2015 / 5:28 pm

    Hi Jenny,
    So both this post and George Siemen’s recent one brought this 2012 statement to mind:
    “As understanding of connectivism increases and as connectivism’s principles are put to the test in our daily learning, we hope to see a recognition of network capabilities and possibilities intertwined with the recognition of human concerns and potential in a networked and connectivist world.” (The link, if needed:-)
    While apparently prescient :-), this statement was a bit off-base in its assumption that conversations would continue to evolve around the complexity of connectivism and networks (as I understood them). But edtech and other directions since then are not (as I understand them) really looking at these concepts. I suspect working with and in complexity requires a mindset and a subtlety that doesn’t mesh well with a society that wants (and individuals who have been socialized to expect and seek) definitive answers, identifiable rallying points, and conventional (loud) “leadership” voices. Maybe the trials of openness are a symptom of this (a) bigger issue?

  8. jennymackness September 22, 2015 / 7:53 am

    Hi Carmen – great to hear from you. It’s interesting how we keep coming back to that irrodl paper. This isn’t the first time that current events have reminded us of it. I haven’t seen much written or discussed about connectivism recently unless I missed it. It usually gets a passing reference in relation to social interaction but, as you say, the potential for discussion around complexity issues and how these might relate to openness and associated human concerns seems limited. Would love to hear more of your thoughts about how the ‘trials of openness are a symptom of this (a) bigger issue’ 🙂 Thanks for getting in touch. Hope all is well with you. Jenny

  9. Alannah Fitzgerald September 23, 2015 / 1:26 pm

    Great post! Working in the open has ignited my passion for work – I left my day job once and for all in 2012 to go ‘full-time’ open – and what I do in collaboration with others. I’m writing a paper on open educational practices from a sociological position and this quote from Mintzberg on learning outside of one’s formal organisation is quite helpful for surfacing the issues you outline here about working in the open beyond the radar of one’s ‘home’ institution:

    “Everybody loves to learn and everybody loves social learning especially, which is when you learn in groups. The trouble… is that people learn together but then they go back to work alone. And, it becomes very difficult even to capture the learning let alone to drive some change in the organisation. You kind of sit there in a class very often as a lone wolf, and then you end up back at your organisation with your people but you’re the only one who has changed. So, we send changed people back to unchanged organisations and it doesn’t work too well.”

  10. jennymackness September 23, 2015 / 3:50 pm

    Thank you Alannah. Nice to meet you 🙂 Mintzberg’s quote is an interesting one. If I have understood him correctly, he is talking about sending people out of the institution onto a course (or into the open) and then being surprised when they return to the institution changed. My experience is that working in the open does change your perspective on things, a perspective that doesn’t always fit with institutional cultures, which may or may not be more closed. I suppose my concern is whether we can assume that ‘open’ learning and education is necessarily better than the alternative. I think, like everything, there are pluses and minuses 🙂

  11. Carmen Tschofen September 24, 2015 / 12:10 am

    Hi Jenny, Admittedly, my drive-by, out-of-the-blue comment about openness left a lot to unpack. 🙂 Briefly: I think that open scholarship, open courses, open whatever, are sometimes interpreted as a public pathway to show/demonstrate the development/evolution of a consensus. Without a recognition of complexity as an acceptable state (and worthy of examination in and of itself), autonomy, diversity, and openness are all jeopardized in the drive for answers, agreement, unity, etc. That said, complexity is cognitively taxing, especially when unfamiliar and maybe scary, and everyone may have different tolerance levels for this and its companion state, ambiguity. This tension, I think, gets expressed in all sorts of ways…openly or not.

    And… walking through/near quicksand? Must say the potential for analogy is as fabulous as the pictures are:-)

  12. Keith Lyons September 24, 2015 / 12:23 am

    Delightful post (as always, Jenny). Thank you for sharing openly. Best wishes, Keith

  13. jennymackness September 24, 2015 / 7:48 pm

    Thanks Carmen for expanding on your thoughts so helpfully. I certainly agree that open courses can ironically lead to a path to consensus. You have given me lots more to think about too.

    And thank you Keith. It feels like old times having you and Carmen here again in the same comment stream. I’ll have to stop myself getting nostalgic for the good old days of CCK08 🙂

  14. vivienrolfe September 28, 2015 / 6:41 pm

    Dear Jenny – this is a wonderful post and thank you for writing about your insights as a seasoned open operator! I guess it is still new to me and I keep asking myself some basic questions. I like Mariana’s idea that we are part of a more understated community, and your comments suggest that it could be quite extensive! You are both right that we don’t have the robust conversations about the less popular ideas, or the ‘vices’ as M wrote on her blog ( I must go delve into your blog now as I can see lots of goodies such as “the benefits and risks of academic openness”.

  15. jennymackness September 29, 2015 / 10:14 am

    Thanks Viv. Looking forward to reading more of your posts too.

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