Questions about online ‘openness’

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Source of image

  • 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.

ALTC14 – Two keynotes: the power of stories

Today has been the last day of the ALT Conference for 2014.

As an online participant, I was able to listen to two really great keynotes, given by two women who are always worth listening to.

  1. Keynote Speech from Catherine Cronin – Navigating the Marvellous: Openness in Education
 NB: Audio does not start on this video until 4.26.

Inspired by a Seamus Heaney poem, Catherine will explore “navigating the marvellous”, the challenge of being open in higher education. To be in higher education is to learn in two worlds: the open world of informal learning and the predominantly closed world of the institution. As higher education moves slowly, warily, and unevenly towards openness, students deal daily with the dissonance between these two worlds; developing different skills, practices and identities in different learning spaces. Both students and educators make choices about the extent to which they learn, teach, share and interact in bounded and open spaces. If, as Joi Ito has said, openness is a “survival trait” for the future, how do we facilitate this process of opening? The task is one not just of changing practices but also of changing culture; we can learn much from other movements for justice, equality and social change.

  1. Keynote Speech from Audrey Watters – Ed-Tech, Frankinstein’s Monster, and Teaching Machines (See also http://hackeducation.com/2014/09/03/monsters-altc2014/)

What does it mean to create intelligent machines? What does it mean to create intelligent teaching machines? What does this mean in turn when we talk about using these technologies to create intelligent humans? A romp through literature and the cultural history of ed-tech to talk about teaching machines and monsters.

Both talks were powerful and I wonder if that was because they both took a ‘story-telling’ approach.

Catherine talked about levels of openness, quoting Jim Groom as saying that ‘Openness is an ethos, not a license’. We cannot know who will benefit from the resources we share, but we have to take the risk. I don’t think we should underestimate this risk for our students and have discussed the pedagogy of risk elsewhere on this blog. I don’t think Catherine underestimates the risk.

The title of Catherine’s talk Navigating the Marvellous: Openness in Education was inspired by Seamus Heaney’s poem – Lightenings

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

She used this poem to explain that things that are so normal to us may be marvelous and strange to others – so strange that they cannot breathe – and that the dichotomy of formal and informal learning can make students feel ‘other’ and unable to breathe. She believes that as educators we need to try to understand the spaces that students occupy – physical, bounded online (e.g. VLEs) and open online spaces – and what is possible in these spaces to ensure that students can ‘breathe’ in them all. She then shared many stories with us of the ways in which she and her students are working to come to grips with the process of openness in education.

Audrey also took a storytelling approach. She described herself as a folklorist who is interested in hidden and lost stories – stories from history, literature and science, which she weaves together to illustrate her point – in this case that monsters have been created in the name of Ed-Tech. She drew on the poetry of Walt Whitman and Lord Byron, the history of the Luddites, the science of B.F. Skinner’s teaching machines, the work of Ayn Rand and Mary Shelley’s story Frankenstein, to make a compelling case for the dangers we face from technological monsters which she believes we have created through a lack of care and thought. Near the end of her talk Audrey left us with a quote from Hannah Arendt:

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.

She noted that in an age when many jobs will be replaced by automation, we must love and care for our machines lest they become monsters.

Whilst listening to both speakers, I was struck by the power of a story and was reminded of the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who in this Ted talk  explains, from personal experience, the danger of the single story and says:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

 Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 16.33.13This is not a video, but an image. I have provided a link to the video above

Both Catherine and Audrey seemed to be aware of alternative perspectives; Catherine that her students have ‘other’ perspectives and different stories, and Audrey that stories are multi-faceted and that we can confuse the characters within stories.

As listeners to stories (and keynotes :-)), we have a responsibility to be aware of alternative perspectives and to engage critically with the stories, particularly since they can be so powerful in getting across a point.

Openness, constraint and emergence

Openness does not mean that anything goes. Even openness of mind does not mean this. In our work on emergent learning, we (Roy Williams, Simone Gumtau, Regina Karousou and I) have in the papers we have published (see here  and here) suggested that constraints are needed for emergent learning to occur. I have been thinking about this further over the past week or so in relation to the work of two artists – Jackson Mac Low, the American poet, performance artist, composer and playwright and Edmund de Waal, the British ceramic artist and author.

Jackson Mac Lowsafe_image.phpSource of image: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Henry-Flynt/109544385731314?nr

Jackson Mac Low featured in Week 9 of the Modern & Contemporary American Poetry MOOC (ModPo).

Edmund de Wall 348664217_640Source of image: http://vimeo.com/50611081

Edmund de Waal featured in a BBC One Imagine arts programme (see below). The two seem connected to me in the way in which they use constraint to fuel their creativity. They have both challenged conventional thinking in their own fields.

Mac Low created a memorial to Peter Inisfree Moore  by using the three words of his name to find 960 words, some recognisable and possibly meaningful and some nonsensical. His idea was that the words become less relevant because they are produced deterministically through a set procedure and not egoistically. Mac Low then got together a group of collaborators to perform this piece. (Click here for a recording).

He gave them rigorous instructions on how to collaboratively perform. He wanted his piece to be collectively intelligible. Each performer must be present with complete concentration, singers must use clear diction and move their eyes freely from any word to any other word and so on. There are a lot of ‘musts’ in his instructions. This was a random piece meticulously performed.  It forces us to shift our attention and listen. Its making and performance relied on constraints.

Jackson MacLow, wrote to Al Filreis about this piece as follows:

The community made up of the performers is a model of a society that has certain characteristics  that I would like to see abound in the wider society. The individual performers exercise initiative and choice at all points during the piece but are also constructing an oral situation that is not merely a mixture of results of egoic impulses but an oral construction that has a being of its own.

This for me resonates strongly with the original philosophy behind cMOOCs and the idea, which we have discussed in our papers, that emergent learning depends on frequent interaction and self-organisation of learners.

When I watched the BBC programme about Edmund de Waal, I was equally fascinated by how his emphasis on repetition ultimately led to a similar collaborative ‘performance’. deWaal for his exhibition A Thousand Hours – created a thousand porcelain pots through a quite deliberate and repetitive process. He was then meticulous about how they were exhibited in vitrines, using drawn plans which a team of collaborators were required to follow to place the pots in exact positions.

To watch Edmund de Waal at work, view this video.

Edmund de Waal: a thousand hours from Alan Cristea Gallery on Vimeo.

For both artists, the hard work, the open thinking, the collaborative physical experience, shift of attention, the community of performance and the open listening resulted in outcomes beyond anything that could have been predicted; the outcomes were emergent.

As one of the ModPo teaching assistants (Amaris Cuchanski) said in the week 9 video discussion about Jackson Mac Low

‘The individual constraints liberates the community as a whole. Meaning is created in the space between the subjectivity of the people involved’.

I am still grappling with the relationship between openness, constraint and emergence, but both these artists sparked off these thoughts. Edmund de Waal opened his mind to the possibilities of porcelain pots and Jackson Mac Low opened his mind to the possibilities of words and sounds, but both applied constraints to their work.

What poets can tell us about ‘openness’ and ‘sharing’

The ModPo MOOC (Modern and Contemporary American Poetry) is surprising me in many ways, but mostly because in the poems we have studying in Weeks 1 and 2, there seem to be so many connections with my research into online teaching and learning.

I have already made two posts about how these poems have given me new perspectives on emergent learning  and ‘presence’  in online environments.

This week I have realised that I now also have a new perspective on the meaning of ‘openness’.

MOOCs themselves are all about openness, but I didn’t expect poetry to be too.

MOOCs, in their original conception, were intended to be free and open to anyone with an internet access. No registration or ‘signing up’ was required and it was expected that participants would ‘openly’ share their knowledge, expertise, ideas and thinking in the course. Resources would also be openly shared with the possibility of aggregation, remixing, repurposing and feeding forward.

Stephen Downes (who with George Siemens gave us the world’s first MOOC in 2008) has written about openness as follows (blue font is mine):

Openness — the network should have inputs and outputs, content should flow freely through the system, constrained only by the individual decisions of the entities, and entities themselves should flow freely into and out of connective relationships with others. Openness enables the possibility of perception by the network, and fluidity of connection enables the possibility of learning and adaptation.

The system of education and educational resources should be structured so as to maximize openness. People should be able to freely enter and leave the system, and there ought to be a free flow of ideas and artifacts within the system. This is not to preclude the possibility of privacy, not to preclude the possibility that groups may wish to set themselves apart from the whole; openness works both ways, and one ought to be able to opt out as well as in. But it is rather to say that the structure of the system does not impede openness, and that people are not by some barrier shut out from the system as a whole. (Source: Huffington Post)

Openness is about possibility. And here begins the connections I have seen with the poetry we have been reading in ModPo.

Emily Dickinson ‘dwells in possibility’. She is ‘open’ to new ways of thinking, the sky is the limit, but she does have some conditions as to who can share in these. Only those who are willing to put in the work to understand her poetry can join her. This suggests a link between openness and hard work.

Walt Whitman, in his poem – Song of Myself –  is ‘open’ to all, with no selection. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can join Walt in his poetry. For him ‘openness’ relates to ‘all inclusive’, a bit like how ModPo has opened its doors to poets and non poets alike, and every level of expertise, interest and experience in between. BUT – even Walt cannot avoid selection. Every act of representation is an act of selection. So openness is not a free for all or value free.

Lorine Niedecker in her poem ‘Grandfather advised me’ –  relates to this idea. For Lorine ‘less is more’. By condensing her writing to eliminate anything unnecessary or superfluous, even punctuation, she opens up the poem to a wealth of variable meanings. She has not spelled it out for us.  She does not even have a full stop at the end of her poem – the possibilities are infinite.

I learned to sit at desk and condense (Lorine Niedecker)

I think Stephen Downes has understood the ‘less is more’ connection to openness – when he writes that in his courses, it is not the content that is important, but the process, which is much more important than the content.

Cid Corman in his poem It isn’t for want  also teaches us about openness. He too understands that it not the content of his poetry that is important, but the communication, the connection between meaning maker and receiver. Openness is not only about the ability to be ‘open’ but to communicate this in such a way that it can be received. ‘I exist because you exist’ to quote Al Filreis.

Of all these ideas, I love the idea that ‘less is more’ in relation to openness. It seems so counter-intuitive, and so unlike many of the ideas that have been espoused by various bloggers/writers, who equate ‘openness’ with more, more and yet more ‘sharing’.

#FSLT13 Hybrid Learning

FSLT13  –  ends this week and was wonderfully well rounded off by Cris Crissman who talked in the live session about opportunities for openness in hybrid learning. See Cris’ blog – Virtually Foolproof

Cris has loads of teaching experience and really embraces openness and the opportunites that different technologies provide for doing this.

She also embraces creativity and this shows in her presentation.

She didn’t only present her own ideas and content but also managed to pull together threads from the previous two presentations, my own and Sylvia Currie’s to nicely sum up some of the key messages from the whole course.

I don’t think I need to say any more. Cris explains it all much better than I could – so here is the video.

You can also find links to the actual Blackboard Collaborate session and Cris’ Diigo site here.

Building open communities

Sylvia Currie who manages the SCoPE community at BC Campus spoke to FSLT13   last week on her work as a community facilitator and organizer.

The title of her talk is intriguing, because in some senses communities of practice could be regarded as closed rather than open, in that traditionally they have had clear boundaries. For example, in 2007, Engestrom wrote of the costs of a community of practice as follows:

  • A community of practice is a fairly well-bounded local entity which has clear boundaries and membership criteria.
  • A community of practice has a single center of supreme skill and authority, typically embodied in the master.
  • A community of practice is characterized mainly by centripetal movement from the periphery toward the center, from novice to master, from marginal to fully legitimate participation;opposite centrifugal movement may occur but is not  foundational.

But things have moved on since those early days of communities of practice. Sylvia points out that the term ‘open’ can have different meanings.

Open means many things

Etienne Wenger acknowledges this change in openness in his more recent work on  ‘landscapes of practice’ where he discusses how we are members of different communities of practice and situated in multiple landscapes.

The human world can be viewed as a huge collection of communities of practice – some very prominent and recognized, others hardly visible. Our learning can then be understood as a trajectory through this landscape of practices: entering some communities, being invited or rejected, remaining visitors, crossing boundaries, being stuck, and moving on. In such a landscape, both the core of communities of practice and their boundaries offer opportunities for learning.

He has suggested that learning is often most profitable at the boundaries between different communities, recognizing that community boundaries are permeable.

The SCoPE community is ‘open’ in many senses of the word and Sylvia has recognized that ‘openness’ changes things and requires a different approach in terms of facilitation.

Open does change things

 

Here is the recording of the session:

And here is a link to the complete recording in Blackboard Collaborate, including the chat and an example, in the second half of the session, of how to manage group work in a synchronous online session. Sylvia points out that this is not without risks, so not everything worked out, but if no-one took these risks then where would be the progress?

Sylvia’s talk reflected her wealth of experience (more than 20 years) of community facilitation and her commitment to open sharing of her expertise.

Reference

Engeström, Y. (2007). From communities of practice to mycorrhizae. In J. Hughes, N. Jewson & L. Unwin (Eds.), Communities of practice: Critical perspectives. London: Routledge.

An alternative perspective on the meaning of ‘open’ in Higher Education

With the rise of MOOCs there has been much speculation about the meaning of ‘open’, particularly with respect to the Higher Education business model.  It is clear that ‘open’ can be interpreted in a number of different ways.

In relation to MOOCs the term ‘open’ relates principally to open access, i.e. anyone can attend – there are no entry requirements. This could apply to face-to-face courses, as when University lecturers welcome members of the public to attend their lectures, and to online courses, where anyone with an internet connection and the appropriate technology can attend the course.

‘Open’ is also often associated with ‘free’, as in open resources on the web which can be freely downloaded and according to the creative commons license can be ‘customised’ to suit the user’s purposes.

Perhaps most significantly for Higher Education, ‘open’ can be associated with transparency, which involves a way of ‘being’ or a ‘state of mind’. Martin Weller has raised awareness of the need for scholars to be ‘open’ in his book ‘The Digital Scholar’,  and ‘open research’ and ‘open journals’ are steadily gaining momentum as a way of working.

Open access and free courses in which all learners and teachers freely share their expertise is thought by followers of many MOOCs, particularly the original cMOOCs, as the means to democratize education (See Fred Garnett’s blog post for further thoughts about Building Democratic Learning).

Will this mean the end of Universities as we know them? From the work that I do with different Universities, not just in the UK, but also around the world, I don’t think so, at least not yet. Some institutions are still struggling to get lecturers to work online at all, never mind be ‘open’ online. It may be that we have to wait for this generation of lecturers to retire before we have an entire population of University lecturers who are ‘open’ scholars. Although technologies are developing at a speed inconceivable a few years ago, and the number of MOOCs being offered is daily increasing, things tend to move slowly in Higher Education.  The recent Horizon Report on Higher Education sees openness and MOOCs as key trends, whilst at the same time stating that ‘Most academics are not using new technologies for learning and teaching, nor for organizing their own research’.

So, if the adoption of ‘openness’ is going to be a slow process, what are the alternatives? In recent work that I have done on the development of  ‘closed’ online courses/training packages, which are paid for, it has been interesting to realize that maybe a ‘step’ towards an understanding of the meaning of openness is through collaboration across institutions and countries. Whilst this does not address ‘open’ as in ‘free’ nor ‘open access’, it does begin to address ‘open sharing’ and what it means to ‘be’ open. It’s a long step away from ‘open’ as advocated by the first MOOC in 2008 (CCK08), but it’s a beginning.  This approach also keeps the money coming in, as exemplified by the following two projects I have worked on:

  1. A government funded project to develop training materials to be delivered to schools across the country. This project used the funding to bring together 7 regional groups to collaboratively work on developing the training materials, which to date have been delivered to 9700+ people. At their most basic level these training sessions and materials are free, but schools pay for more advanced training and materials.  This project not only developed high quality training materials, and in monetary terms provided a return on investment, but through adopting a collaborative approach, developed an online network/community which would continue to share expertise.
  2. A project initiated by a publishing company to develop online courses for Higher Education, through a highly collaborative international and cross institutional approach. Purchase of the courses is required up front in return for the opportunity to influence the authoring and development process, the possibility of customizing the courses to suit the individual investing institution and implementation support from the publishing company. This collaborative approach also promotes networking and open sharing between institutions within countries and across the world.

These are just two examples of how apparently ‘closed’ developments within Higher Education are becoming more open.

So perhaps institutions that are struggling to get their heads round how to become more ‘open’ whilst at the same time preserving a viable business model, could think more in terms of increasing national and international collaboration and cooperation.

19-04-13 Postscript

Stephen Downes has responded to this post as follows:

Jenny Mackness proposes, “maybe a ‘step’ towards an understanding of the meaning of openness is through collaboration across institutions and countries. Whilst this does not address ‘open’ as in ‘free’ nor ‘open access’, it does begin to address ‘open sharing’ and what it means to ‘be’ open.” I don’t know. I’ve observed collaborations across institutions for decades, without a corresponding increase in openness. It could be that such collaborations (and the fund-seeking that preceeds them) actually distracts from openness.

I have to say that ‘I don’t know’ either – or whether such collaborations might distract from openness.

My thinking in making this post was around the question of how to reach or convince people who resist ‘openness’ of the value of and need for ‘openness’, and what a possible approach to the business model issues might be.