Openness and this course: a case study

This web site came about because of a discussion about openness.

At the start of the Digital Futures course, the teachers’ plan was to open the course site itself (hosted in Moodle), so we could make all the content pages open. We also wanted to open some of the content-related discussion forums. In Moodle, guests would be able to browse and read the forum content, but not post or reply. As the course got under way, we opened a thread to discuss this with the course participants and get their views.

Our main objective in proposing to open discussion as well as content was to share the work we were doing and ideas we were developing more widely – we think there is real value in the topics of the course and a need for space for critical engagement about education futures. In addition, as much of the work we were doing was building towards Open Educational Resources (OER), we wanted to make more of the developing ideas accessible, too. In part to fit in with the University’s “Near Future Teaching” project, we wanted to let people around the University access something of the course, and also share it more widely within our networks. We thought people might be curious and want to learn more about what some of the possibilities and issues in this ‘futures thinking’ space. There was also a lot of interest in open educational practice (Cronin 2017) at the time the course was running, and making our Moodle site partially open could serve as one example of how this could work.

Students were quick to respond to our post asking for their views about this, and their views ranged from cautious welcome to discomfort to resistance. To be clear, this was a group of engaged, digitally ambitious and creative education professionals who chose an option course which had an OER as its main output – as far from any caricature of a ‘closed’ practitioner as could be imagined. Nevertheless, in the constructively critical vein we encourage and invite on the programme, they questioned our aims, and how they could expect to benefit from having their discussions made public in this way.

Reflecting on their discomfort, they explored their own experiences of using discussion forums on other courses, with some describing ‘forum shyness’ which had in some cases taken a lot of time to overcome. They talked about the value they placed on the forum as a space of interaction and connectedness, and saw this as quite a different space from those where they presented themselves in a more public-facing (for example on Twitter or in other open spaces on the programme or elsewhere):

For the last two courses, I’ve found the forums a useful way for me to talk through ideas – sometimes not fully formed yet, raise questions, say when I don’t understand something. I feel comfortable with this because I’m sharing with fellow students who are in the same boat. (Marion)

Even while expressing some support for the idea, describing positive experiences of open practices elsewhere and the value they placed on openness in education, the group recognised the impact that making these discussion spaces visible would have on their willingness to take risks in expressing ideas and responding to the course themes. For some, this related to the multiple identities they were navigating online – as Masters students, but also (and primarily) as education professionals with reputations in the field. The “public scrutiny” (Mary-Anne) that such openness would entail would, in Edwards’ terms (2015), produce closures, in this case by changing and limiting the way people would interact in the forums – perhaps creating what one participant described as a chilling effect on discussion. Another said:

I have noticed that it takes me much more time to write a post for a public blog. I always want to make sure that what I write is correct and worth reading. I also try to anticipate possible arguments from the audience while writing. (Daniela)

In addition to these insights, they challenged us to defend the pedagogical value of this proposal, and thoughtfully explored the question of trust:

What do we stand to gain from exposure without engagement? Would we in effect become a showcase?  … Is it a case of using this instance of the course to engage a wider audience in the academic issues or, because of the subject matter, is it something that should be showcased for ‘external’ observation and analysis? There could very well be different agendas and motivations – can they work together? … Do we trust our tutors?  (Joe)

The points collectively raised about the purpose and politics of ‘open’, risks surrounding exposure, surveillance and vulnerability were not only well-made, but also core to the discussions we were having through the course. These are precisely the kinds of challenges and questions facing many educators (including our students in their professional roles) as we grapple with the extent to which we want to be and can be open practitioners. The utopian vision of open access to education (Bayne, Knox and Ross 2015) masks these, and other, pedagogical decisions and makes it harder for us to talk about the gains and losses that come with each choice we make about what, and how, to share.

This site is the outcome of the discussions we went on to have about the form our openness should take. It is a different kind of reflection of open practice than the teachers had initially envisaged, and it is distanced from the course in terms of time and how it reflects our learning processes – delivering a more polished end product and obscuring some of the messiness that got us here. But it also offers a glimpse into what we think is an ethically defensible approach to open practice, one that seeks to understand how different participants are affected by our choices as teachers, and helps us all to learn and to create conditions in which the question of whether students trust their teachers can be answered optimistically:

“I’m comfortable with this decision. Thank you for hearing us.” (Marion)

References:

Bayne, S., Knox, J., & Ross, J. (2015). Open education: the need for a critical approach. Learning, Media and Technology, 40(3), 247–250. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2015.1065272

Cronin, C. (2017). Openness and Praxis: Exploring the Use of Open Educational Practices in Higher Education. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(5). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org./index.php/irrodl/article/view/3096

Edwards, R. (2015). Knowledge infrastructures and the inscrutability of openness in education. Learning, Media and Technology, 40(3), 251–264. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2015.1006131

 

please note: all the course participants quoted in this piece were named with permission.