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7 May 2009 / erikduval

Responsive Open Learning Environments

Like before (on standards or mobile learning, for instance), I turn to you for advice and feedback – which I nowadays get more of via twitter than in the comments here…

On Monday, I have the opportunity to talk to my ROLE friends about my vision for ‘Responsive Open Learning Environments’…

I’m not so sure that I have a lot to say about ‘Responsive‘: reminds me of Doug Engelbart’s intro to the mother of all demos (2:19 min into the video)… I guess that, nowadays, ‘responsive’ makes me think of an approach to computing that is personalized – yes, the Snowflake Effect, yet again 😉

About ‘Open‘, I have thought a bit more over the past years… I must admit that, the more I think about that topic, the less simple it seems to me…

I have argued before that openness facilitates innovation.

  • An historical example is the way the web, based on open standards like URL, HTTP and HTML, quickly overtook all existing web information system – most notably gopher, when the University of Minnesota wanted to start charging licensing fees.
  • A more contemporary example is the way that twitter with its open API has been the scene of very substantial innovative development, making Facebook seem a bit dull – Facebook seems to be opening up in an effort to catch up!

Yet, a company like Apple is also often cited as a source of innovation (tablet, anyone?)… One can say many things about Apple, but ‘open’ is not one of them…

One thing that is key about openness, it seems to me, is that it is one way to attract developers: see the exciting stuff happening with mash-ups (including our own). But there may be other factors at work too: otherwise, should Android not attract many more developers than the iphone?

I am a big fan of the ‘small pieces loosely joined‘ approach to software development. Yet, that is all too often an excuse for a fragmented, frustrating user experience!

About ‘open learning environments‘ then: it is a bit ironic for me personally that I chaired a group that introduced the TOLEDO learning platform in my university: it’s been quite successful, in that all courses now have an online presence, all students are automatically registered to all courses relevant to them, etc. Yet, my own courses have a very small footprint in TOLEDO: a link to a wiki or a facebook group! The problem? Toledo is not open enough (for me) and exciting tools arrive years too late (for me): we will introduce wikis and blogs next (yes, next!) academic year in TOLEDO! Yet, for most professors, my ‘build your own’ approach is not relevant, because they cannot build their own or do not want to – much like I don’t build my own car…

On a more principled note, I personally feel that we should not create ‘walled gardens‘ for learning. (That is exactly what our university system feels like. In fact, some of our campus is a walled garden – see the picture above!) I believe that we should realize that learning is part of the life of our students, and that they already live on the web. We should be part of their life, not something separate. Yet, sometimes it seems like they resent it when we interfere with their ‘real life’…

You see, this is not as simple as I once thought it is… Maybe you can add your own thoughts and help me further my thinking?



Leave a Comment
  1. Helen Hintjens / May 11 2009 5:56 pm

    Just in response to this request to not see learning as a walled garden. Well it depends more what you do inside the walled garden. If indeed it is full of (as above) a minutely manicured lawn, nice and tidy, but no practical use and on which nobody can walk without damage, then indeed there is no virtue in a walled garden.

    But the other use of the walled garden is to grow a range of useful edible and medicinal plants that can then be distributed and used outside the garden – and the wall makes a warm and sunny micro-climate possible for the propagation of plants that need protection.

    Does this perhaps make it less an either or question – gardens are not enclosed by walls, but by systems of privilege and exclusion. Refer to the famous case of the White House lawn (and San Fransisco Hall Victory Garden) for some examples of how gardens can become shared social and productive enterprises.

    Good luck with your analogies (I also love to use them).

  2. erikduval / May 13 2009 12:18 am

    Thanks, Helen, for the feedback and follow-up!

    The talk is now online at

    My main concern with the walled garden approach is that, although it may provide a ‘safe environment’ for students to learn from failure, it sends the message that ‘learning’ and ‘real life’ are different spheres, and I think that is not the message we should give to our students…


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