OL17: Interrogating Open Learning

Hulls Gulch Trail

Interrogating Open Learning

We were searching for a catchy name for a new program and my colleague nixed my suggestion to incorporate the word “open”.  In an educational context, he explained, the word implies “free”, as in “no monetary cost”, and that would be misleading.  I raised an eyebrow, but accepted his explanation.  We selected another word and moved on with our discussion, but the idea that “open” means “free” has haunted me.  This hasn’t been my perception of openness in education.  Is this the predominant perception?  When did this happen? How did I not know?

I was first introduced to ideas related to openness in education in October of 2009, while visiting my son in college.  It was Owl Family Days at Rice University and the schedule of events offered a few special lectures by members of the Rice faculty.  Dr. Richard Baraniuk was presenting on a topic, and the word “Connexions” was in the lecture title.  I love anything related to connections, so I was intrigued.  Dr. Baraniuk’s bio indicated that he was the Victor E Cameron Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, so I wasn’t confident that his idea of “Connexions” was going to relate to my idea of “connections”.  At least, not in a way that I could grasp.  However, I’d just been to a lecture about Economic Development by Dr. Malcolm Gillis and, even though my understanding of economics was very basic, his presentation had drawn me in and left me full of new ideas.  So I went to Richard Baraniuk’s lecture, hopeful and curious with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Less than one minute into Dr. Baraniuk’s lecture I was scrambling for pen and paper.  Eight years later, I still have my notes, scrawled on the back of a Rice University map.  It turned out that Connexions wasn’t about Electrical and Computer Engineering; Connexions was about the opening up of education.  I learned about Red Hat, Linux, and open source software.  I learned about Creative Commons and the new ideas for licensing and sharing intellectual property that standard copyright law doesn’t make space for.  I learned about a movement toward interconnected learning; tearing down the silos in education. I learned about the efforts to introduce “open-source learning” through Rice’s Connexions project – a marriage of open tools and open content.  And I learned that this was about more than just reducing textbook costs, it was about liberating, contextualizing, and transforming learning.  That lecture changed my life and I’ve spent the past eight years migrating from the world of accounting and finance to the world of learning technologies.

I’ve progressed in my personal transformation, and for the past year I’ve been working as an eLearning Instructional Designer in a university setting.  To be totally open and honest, the work has been, in some ways, a bit disappointing.  The work has been about designing courses that conform to – and in many ways, reinforce – the status quo.  There is little in my work that liberates, contextualizes, or transforms education.

But I’m not giving up. I’m embedded in higher ed – one of the old, stodgy, legacy institutions of learning, and I closely follow the work of many thought leaders in this movement toward openness – changing (and disrupting) the landscape of education. I don’t know exactly what is around the bend on this path, but I do know that I don’t agree with my colleague; I believe that “open” means much more than “free” in a monetary sense.  And I have great faith in its power to revolutionize.  And I know that, in my own quiet way, I will be part of the revolution.

So, what exactly is “open learning”?  What does “open” mean in the context of education? That’s what I’m here to examine – to interrogate.  It’s a slippery concept – subject to different interpretations.  And there are consequences to consider.  With change and disruption come unintended consequences.  It’s important to examine open learning from all the angles, through many different lenses. We must maximize the benefits and minimize the collateral damage.

Over the next fifteen weeks, I’ll be playing with this subject through the cMOOC: Open Learning ’17.  And I’ll be using this space to share my thoughts and discoveries.