Putting It out in the Open?

open flickr photo by boskizzi shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

“Open” is something that has had a big impact on me over the past five years. A little longer probably. I started to be introduced to the concept in small ways, without really thinking about it, through working on a graduate student journal that was talking about using Open Journal Systems (OJS), then working on a website, a conference that used Open Conference Systems (OCS), working with one of the people who was involved in developing the software, helping out slightly with another journal that was using OJS. But once I came to the University of Regina as a staff member, I really started to get it. I started to blog, be more active professionally on social media, and started to discover Open Access. I found out that I really strongly believe that sharing the work I do with others is meaningful. I started my MEd and got even more exposure through Alec, including having to make at least some of my learning open.

That does not, however, mean that I necessarily think all learning should be open. I have talked a bit with Katia in the past about open vs closed learning and we do, at some point, come in on different sides. I have actually done work on this before. With the shifting of “privacy” to something you have to actively seek rather than the assumed default, I think there is value in being open, in sharing what we do. But I think there is also value in knowing when to be open and when to be private.

For my own learning, in general, I love being open. I am usually pretty happy to share what I know or think or wonder. There are, however, limitations. One limitation is that I am a staff member of the University of Regina. For the most part, I am not covered under Academic Freedom (unless I am teaching as a sessional). That means I may have to be careful about what I write or say in a public way about the institution I work for and even my field. For the most part, I have chosen to still be fairly public but I think about what I post. I have happily blogged in the courses I have taken that require blogging and have, at various times, used blogs to think through issues in my field. I publish a lot of my coursework under Creative Commons licenses on my website because I have created it for others to use at will.

Closed flickr photo by Andrea K. shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

There are, however, conversations I can only have in private. Conversations that I might have differently in a classroom than I would in a recorded digital space, let alone on a public blog. Some things could put my job at risk, and I work in a good and supportive environment. That isn’t the case for everyone.

When it comes to students, I do agree with things Katia has said about the importance of students learning how to disagree with policies, procedures, political climates, and find ways to voice important things. I truly do think that is important. I also, however, think that sometimes the ways to do that might be quieter, and might come after finding a job, might come through seeing how that happens in a particular place. Not everyone can be a vocal activist for change on a wide scale. And I don’t think we should force that on anyone because that doesn’t always fit. I don’t mean that people should accept injustice or let it be. But some find quieter ways to work for change, when it is possible. Sometimes silence is worthwhile.

I think there needs to be space to figure things out. Sometimes students are busy negotiating their place in a field, between theories and methodologies, practices and politics. Sometimes they express something poorly or don’t make the right choice. Or sometimes they are exploring the options of change in a field that is not ready to accept that change. Or are dealing with a delicate topic. Some students might have a very hard time discussing sexual abuse, for example, especially if they have experienced it. Do I think they should have to talk about it publicly if they are not ready? Nope. I don’t. I think maybe they might want to process it but may need a safer space.

Unsafe flickr photo by cbmd shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Because the reality is that the internet is not yet a safe space (and I’m not sure it ever will be, and I know our classrooms are not actually safe either). And yes, it is useful for students to have lessons in how to deal with it productively. Does that mean they should have to deal with personal attacks, however? No. I do not think it is. I think they need to know the risks, know the dangers, and instructors and teachers need to be fully aware of those risks and dangers too. especially when pushing for students to be open.

The dangers include threats of personal harm, being sent graphic or disturbing contact (text, pictures, etc), doxxing, swatting, trolling (and if you identify as a woman, assume it is likely to happen). For some, it can include putting employment at risk. For some, the dangers are worse. Minorities can be at greater risk because oppression is live and well on the internet. International students may need to be more careful, especially as the political situation in the United States changes. Actually, anyone using social media might want to consider things carefully if they intend to travel to the US.

One term that is often associated with open learning is that of authentic learning. I strongly feel that while open learning is more likely to feel authentic simply because anyone could engage with the content, there is no guarantee of authentic learning just because an assignment is open. Authentic learning has meaning:

Authentic learning is real life learning. It is a style of learning that encourages students to create a tangible, useful product to be shared with their world

Note “tangible” and “useful.” Shared is not the only quality. So writing a paper, pretending I am an expert, and handing it in to my instructor who is significantly more expert than I am is in no way authentic. I am writing for an audience I assume to be more knowledgeable than I am. So why am I bothering? How is that useful, other than providing something to asses?

For learning to be authentic, you need a real audience to target. It also has to actually be relevant. So that question of “when am I ever going to need to know…?” raises its head. Why bother? Why do this work? What meaning does it have?

Well, sometimes it’s hard to have it actually have meaning. Or the meaning could be about proving knowledge, because educators are often under certain restrictions. Or maybe the authenticity is less about the actual task or actual content.

And maybe, the audience is and should be solely the peers. Sometimes, when we are dealing with difficult topics, the authentic learning is exchanging knowledge with or peers. I think of the Zoom sessions in EC&I 834. Our breakout room discussions or sharing with others in the class are authentic because we are discussing things that are relevant and are sharing them with the right audience. Let’s be honest, most of the internet doesn’t care that I am posting about open learning and authentic audience. It’s likely that the only people who will read this are other students in the class I am taking. Would it be any less meaningful to me at this moment if it were available solely to those involved? Not really, not in terms of the practicality. There is assumed meaning in it being open, the idea that it is part of professional growth, it is public to be part of a wider conversation that exists. Kara shared some of the impact this can have when there is interaction with the wider community. But the reality is that my targeted blog post written for my class is really only relevant and meaningful to others in the course. An authentic learning project needs to have an authentic audience. Sending it off into silence is only slightly better than something written solely for the instructor.

Sharing flickr photo by malenga shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Ashley shared a story privately about having students tweet with an author. That is an amazing experience! And the potential for such encounters is part of what keeps many of us engaging openly. But when nothing happens, it can feel defeating to have exposed oneself without any benefit. That doesn’t necessarily make it authentic if the purpose was to engage with people who have the same experience as you. Maybe a classroom exchange is a better idea. Maybe sharing something with parents. Maybe a specific community is the right audience. The point is to be authentic in the assignment which means having an actual audience in mind. It means creating something that students may want to share later as part of their learning. Even better is giving them a way to take it with them (making it tangible). But it doesn’t have to be open for any of that to occur.