Sunday, May 28, 2017

Open and Closed Education

I'm almost done with my next post in a series of posts about complex classrooms, but I want to interrupt the series to talk about open education.

It seems that a raucous discussion erupted a couple of months ago about the definition of open. As near as I can trace the discussion, Dave Wiley started on April 4, 2017, with a post "How Is Open Pedagogy Different?" that defines open pedagogy rather narrowly as the use of open educational resources (OER). He says:
Open pedagogy is the set of teaching and learning practices only possible or practical in the context of the 5R permissions. Or, to operationalize, open pedagogy is the set of teaching and learning practices only possible or practical when you are using OER.
In an earlier 2013 post of his, Wiley defines the 5Rs as those educational resources that are granted free access and use of materials so that students are:
  • Free to access 
  • Free to reuse 
  • Free to revise 
  • Free to remix 
  • Free to redistribute
Jim Groom then tweeted about his discomfort with Wiley's definition, and this kicked off a rather vigorous Twitter storm among Wiley, Mike Caulfield, Jim Groom, and others. In an April 8, 2017, post "I Don't Need Permission to be Open", Jim Groom moved out of Twitter to state more precisely his problem with Wiley's strict definition of open, asking "when did open become boiled down to a strict set of permissions?"

Then, in an April 21, 2017, post "When Opens Collide", Wiley reconsidered his narrow definition and conceded that other definitions of open pedagogy did exist. Basically, he differentiated between open resources as he had defined it and open web as others such as Tantek had defined it. For Wiley, open implies permissions about the access and use of resources. For others such as Groom, open implies the freedom to access and use without any permissions. Wiley then concludes by stating that open is an insufficient principle upon which to base a pedagogy. He says:
“Open” – regardless of whether you come from the open content or open web tradition – does not have anything to say about the nature of learning. Maybe the thing that’s become the clearest to me as I’ve laid awake at night thinking about these issues is that you can’t actually build a pedagogy on a foundation of open (well, not one that isn’t incredibly impoverished). Your foundational commitments in terms of pedagogy should be to an understanding of how learning happens. Once we have made fundamental commitments in terms of a theory of learning, then we can add open to our list of facilitating methods in order get better leverage.
I do not know what Groom, Caulfield, and others think of this final position of Wiley's, but I find it problematic for the complex classroom that I've been trying to describe. Open is, in fact, one of the "foundational commitments … of pedagogy" as I am coming to understand pedagogy. Open is not merely a facilitating method used by schools in order to get better leverage, though it can be that as well. Rather, open is core to any kind of learning, regardless of theory. All learning theories assume openness even if they don't account for it.

My understanding of learning assumes that living systems—including kindergarteners and college freshman, mostly—are open to flows of energy and information in their environment. As I've argued so far in this blog, it's these flows of energy and information, Light and Word, that quicken systems into life and render them capable of using Light and Word to self-organize and, most importantly for this discussion, to perceive their environment and to learn how to engage the environment to maintain and to improve their condition. As far as I know, all living systems share to some degree this ability to learn: to change our internal organization and to respond differently to our environments.

This ability to learn absolutely depends upon a degree of openness to the environment on the part of the learning system. Any system that is not open to Light and Word cannot learn—mostly because it will die. Any pedagogy that does not understand or account for this openness is "incredibly impoverished".

Open, then, is foundational, but so is closed. In fact, both open and closed are necessary for life, identity, autonomy, and learning. Our autonomy is defined in large part by our freedom to choose what and how much energy and information we will engage (open) and what we will not engage (closed). Our knowledge and beliefs depend upon this dynamic tension between open and closed, and either extreme is deadly. Both totally open and totally closed kill a living system. Open leads to chaos and dissolution, closed leads to frozen stasis. Neither works for long; however, life tends to emerge more readily and robustly in those zones far from equilibrium (the totally closed end of the continuum), just bordering on chaos (the totally open end). Like life, learning also appears to be more robust and vibrant in those zones far from equilibrium. Traditional education, however, has tended to favor the closed, equilibrium end.

I have a six-month-old granddaughter (my first and only grandchild so far), and these days I usually find a way to work her into many of my conversations. Just now, she is an incredibly open system. She'll put most anything into her mouth, for instance, and her parents are working very hard to guard her against ingesting harmful things. She's mostly open, they are mostly closed. Moreover, they are teaching her daily what to ingest (open) and what not to ingest (closed). If my experience is any guide, then these are lessons that she will continue for the rest of her life. Learning what to put in her mouth and what not is foundational learning, a dynamic interplay of opening and closing to learn which openings and which closings most maintain and enrich her life. Learning to distinguish a Petrarchan sonnet from a Shakespearean is a refinement upon this dynamic—different in degree but not in kind. All learning begins with choices about opening and closing.

Of course, different pedagogical theories try to account for how we individually and socially ingest information, process it into knowledge, use it to respond to others, and feed it back into our environments. I suspect that like most teachers Wiley spends much time deciding what information flows to open his classes to and how to limit competing information flows (how to stay on task). These decisions are foundational, and he needs a theory that helps him or his classes make such decisions—assuming he invites his classes to participate in such decisions. Any learning theory that ignores how a class will open and close itself—how it will sustain and define itself—is impoverished from the beginning. Open is not an add-on. It's where learning begins.