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19 December 2012 / erikduval

Really Open

For a report on ICT and learning, I have been asked to contribute on ‘really open learning’.

In the spirit of the topic, I thought I would share my thoughts here and ask for your feedback and comments…

Open standards

It is often tedious, terribly political, takes way too long and I think much of the standards work is too self-centered and misguided in proposing separate standards for learning, rather than just acknowledging that ‘the web is the platform’. However, I do think that adopting open standards is key, in order to avoid lock-in and to enable learners and teachers to use the tools they want in their own Personal Learning Environment.

My favorite example is … plain old email: I mainly use gmail and apple’s Mail client, but can send emails to my students who can use their mail client of choice (hotmail is back with the young crowd!). Very few of use need to worry about SMTP, IMAP and the like. Yet, without these standards, we’d still be stuck in our own islands of email – very few of you will remember how hard it could be to send an email to someone on AOL…

Now, imagine that we could do the same for learning environments: if one of my students would like to use Blackboard and another one would want to use Moodle and I would want to use neither. (In fact, I think both are very broken…) Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all use the tool that we like and still learn together?

Open content

One of the reasons I got started in open standards was to enable the ‘share and reuse‘ of content. The basic idea made a lot of sense to me in the 90’s and it still does: why would each of us start from scratch to author new content? Why do we not make use of what others have already done before us?

This idea has arguably been widely adopted, through the Open Educational Resources movement, though I again worry a bit that this movement has erected walls between ‘learning content’ and ‘the Internet’ and may have actually made it harder for many to make use of the abundance of content on the web.

I often use youtube videos, ted talks, slides from slideshare, photo’s, etc. from the Wild Web. I link to that content. I think that’s fine. I don’t think I should only use Creative Commons licensed content? And I’m a bit at a loss to understand why so few of my colleagues leverage the abundance of Great Stuff out there…

Open to the world

The much deeper and more important part to openness for me is the one about teaching in public, without barriers between ‘the course’ and ‘the rest of the world’. My course sites are wikis, my students communicate about their work through blogs, etc. Some of the MOOCs I participated in had a very similar attitude.

This approach creates very valuable opportunities for serendipity: ‘strangers’ make comments on student blogs and trigger unexpected conversations. This is a Good Thing and something students should learn anyway. My students are mostly engineering students and I think it is important that they learn to interact with society.

This open approach can also help to overcome the feeling that many of my students have that what they do in class is totally disconnected from The Real World. By solving authentic problems, internal motivation gets unlocked. BTW, we have a demofest next Friday to showcase the results of a course on multimedia programming. You’re welcome if you want to join us – we already have five outside guests who will participate in assessment of their work. (As an aside, the students also get to assess me – that seems kind of Fair Game to me…)

What do you think?

This is still a bit rough, but I hope it summarises my thoughts on ‘really open learning’… I’d love to get comments – preferably here, but email, twitter, facebook or google plus is fine too…

BTW, this section of the report will be part of the “freewheeling section”… Not sure what that says about how the report will position really open learning 😉



Leave a Comment
  1. Markus Deimann / Dec 19 2012 11:09 am

    Hi Eric,

    your summary clearly captures the main points of the current discussion on openness in education. But what about the history? For instance, what have we learned from the lessons in the open classrooms in the 1960ies and 1970ies in the US and UK? Why is the current movement focused almost exclusively on technological aspects to the detriment of theoretical arguments? My own approach shows an example of this kind of thinking:

    Kind regards,

  2. erikduval / Dec 19 2012 11:25 am

    Thanks, Markus. I guess I’m less of a theorist, also because I have the impression that many educational theories are not very good theories, but more akin to a bag of opinions…

    The reference to ‘Bildung’ in your slides is interesting though: would you have any pointers to literature on that topic? Maybe of the kind that is even accessible to a computer scientist like myself 😉 ?

    • Markus Deimann / Dec 19 2012 11:47 am

      Yes, it is a “tough” topic. As a start, there is a Wikipedia entry on Bildungsroman which describes the fundamental mechanisms of Bildung:

      For Open Education it is a sort of “kindred spirit” because OER offers open access to the world and the form of engagement that constitutes Bildung. It can also be understood as meta-learning, like being able to navigate through complex open worlds.

  3. Stephen Downes / Dec 20 2012 12:17 am

    I think your observations are accurate, but as an advocate of all three forms of openness I’ve noticed quite a bit of pushback over the years that undermines the objective.

    – open standards – what I notice is that there is a tendency to overbuilt the standards, co-opt them to come particular purpose, and to then close them under a body like IEEE or ISO. Simple standards like DC or RSS are being dropped in favour of proprietary APIs.

    – open content – the term ‘open’ has been appropriated in the area of content by puhblishers and institutions who want ultimately to charge money for access to this content; witness how institutions are charging registration fees for ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ and even how OERu ties open content to $200/course assessment fees. Open publishing, meanwhile, has seen government support not for institutional repositories, but a ‘gold’ model favouring large payments to publishers.

    – open to the world – there is a sense in the new world of ‘open’ that ‘open to the world’ means broadcasting rather than interaction, hence the focus on initiatives like TED and Khan academy rather that open discussion networks and wikis.

    Finally, it is my observation that there is little government, institution and or private sector support for these three forms of open, despite the rhetoric we have been reading. Most, if not all, of the genuinely open initiatives have been launched by individuals, those operating essentially ‘under the radar’.

    This is probably the major issue facing openness in general, our inability to move larger social forces in support of genuine open learning. There’s always an issue of ‘sustainability’ that seems to arise, as though we should naturally think that public education should pay for itself (in ways that, say, roads, police, fire and the military do not).

  4. Frederik Truyen (@FredTruyen) / Dec 20 2012 12:59 am

    Hello Erik,

    I see openness also as transparancy: a true open course is about being transparant about your goals, about your point of view and its limitations, about how it fits in a larger context. But this has to come both ways, and I guess the latter implies Open Learning: the student cannot any longer remain anonymous, just as the notion of anonimity is also disappearing from our web use. I tend to ask students what they want to achieve by attending my course: what are their skills already, and how does the course fit in?
    Suppose you could yield a software “match” between the students’ knowledge and the next courses he/she should take, like on dating websites. being open, as a student, about your capabilities might me an awkward idea, but it would be the fastest way to improve.
    This kind of openness is also a prerequisite for sharing knowledge tasks and responsibilities. It is often, due to high specialisation, that we ask professionals to “self-certify” themselves, to prove that they have the required competenties. Suppose you are an IT manager supervising a security specialist. Of course you can’t know the details yourself, but if this collaborator works in an “open” way, and is engaged in “open life-long learning”, enabling you to look into his social knowledge network, you will build confidence. Just my 2cents!

  5. Jon Mason / Dec 20 2012 6:19 am

    Eric, I think there are other facets to openness that have been lost a bit in the last decade or so — in particular, when first used by Montessori & Dewey “open learning” conveyed something about self-determined inquiry. In recent years — in my experience, at least — this has been dominated by discourse & innovation all around access, licensing, sharing , systems interoperability, & what should or should not be in the public domain. For a period, my experience has also been that the “open agenda” has been tribalised — “our openness is more open than yours”, as was the case with some of the debates between open standards & open source. And as Stephen points out, “open” is an easy word to appropriate. With momentum building for OER perhaps all this is changing? I recently presented on this topic at ICCE 2012. Slides on slideshare
    Am interested in the outcome of your report.

  6. peter sloep / Dec 20 2012 7:56 pm

    Hi Erik, I agree with you, open standards and open content are key in education. I very much like your expansion of this into openness to the world. Were the former to technical approaches to openness, the latter is an attitude you want to instill. Actually, it is this attitude that will help students make sense of or get a deeper appreciation of the two technical approaches.
    A few years ago, I did a seminar for the Salzburg people on open innovation and then argued that there are always two sides to openness, a practical and a moral, why it is handy and why it is proper. You can find it at Perhaps the argument I make there is useful for the tripartite distinction you make.
    BTW, in a presentation somewhat later I retraced the moral argument to Karl Popper’s Open Society and its Enemies, but I never developed that argument in writing. Your point about openness to the world pays tribute to Popper’s idea of what a society should look like, I would surmise.

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