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Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Opening doors

There is no open unless there's closed, so I will start my reflection on openness with some thoughts about the locks that exist and can impede access to learning opportunities. 

If you have children you will have no doubt at times ensured that some "learning opportunities" presented by power tools, scissors, staircases were locked away, only accessible when and how you judged suitable. Such judgements are part of parental responsibility (although many would say that we have become over protective at times and limit experiences that were more freely available in times gone by). I see a parallel here with educators wishing to control access to resources to ensure their learners are not overwhelmed or faced with content that may confuse. This is a difficult balance to get right, especially in an age where access to content (irrespective of its quality) has never been more open. Each of us is a filter and maybe we should take a more active part in curating resources and encouraging the development of learner's critical and evaluative skills to empower their selection of resources. Timeliness is of course important, but the learner may be best equipped to decide on a suitable time to access a resource. Failing to acknowledge this creates dependant learners who assume that only experts can lead their learning. Surely we need to support learner autonomy and a more open discourse around learning in order to prepare for an uncertain future. 

Another reason for closing doors is that which signals ownership. "My room", "my office" closed spaces delineating roles, relationships and the observation of personal space. Again, this is not always a bad thing (my son is responsible for the state of his room, I am glad I can close the door on that!) but we have to acknowledge the reasons behind these social conventions and the possible impact of perhaps unintended consequences. Just today, following up on a paper that was part of a US conference and appears from the abstract to be relevant to my research I was frustrated to find that none of my "keys" fit the lock to access it. The link demanded payment for access and my various memberships did not enable me to read the work. Personally I prefer to publish through open channels as I value being part of a wide community of practitioners, learning from each other. 
Creative commons licencing allows me to claim my authorship, acknowledging my part in the process of contributing to a wider knowledge gathering society whilst making my preferences for usage clear. I hear more academics agreeing that openness is a principle they value.

Finally let's think about open source development and commercial providers. It has become rather "in" to recommend open source technologies over commercial vendors. I use both and have had good and bad experiences which lead me to the conclusion that "open source" does not always equate to better, more ethical, more sustainable solutions for learning technology. I use tools drawn from both sectors based on their suitability for purpose. My overriding concern is to avoid "lock in" which leaves users hostages to fortune and to establish that technology providers have an ethical way of working that ensures that my learners get a good user experience. I check out LTI compliance in order to keep the doors open. In some cases the best tool for the job requires significant financial investment in research and development that can only be achieved if the provider has access to sufficient resource. Rules of openness related to the management of digital resources are still evolving though. As part of Mozilla's webmaker course last year I created some remixes using their Popcorn maker, it was disappointing to see that French video content had been blocked when, as a language teacher, I was easily covered by "reasonable use" allowances.

So to sum up, open vs closed are not in fact simple opposites, it is much more complex than that. Far from being an open and shut case, we must continue to strive towards operationalising openness in ways that are:

  • appropriate
  • understandable
  • facilitating
  • fair