Thursday, August 27, 2009

why I chose openness: David Wiley, I've completed my homework assignment!

In a recent post on his blog iterating toward openness, David Wiley makes a request of all adherents to the "openness" movement who read his blog:

Without any special authority to do so, may I please give you a homework assignment? Would you please blog about why you choose to be open? What is the fundamental, underlying goal or goals you hope to accomplish by being open? What keeps you motivated? Why do you spend your precious little free time on my blog, reading this post and this question? If each of us put some thought and some public reflective writing into this question, the field would likely be greatly served. The more honest and open you are in your response, the more useful the exercise will be for you and for us.

The assigmnent is the result of a previous post in which Wiley wrote:
While I think everyone in the field of “open education” is dedicated to increasing access to educational opportunity, there is an increasingly radical element within the field – good old-fashioned guillotine and molotov type revolutionaries. At the conference I heard a number of people say that things would be greatly improved if we could just get rid of all the institutions of formal education. I once heard a follow up comment, “and governments, too.” I turned to laugh at his joke, but saw that he was serious. This “burn it all down” attitude really scares me.

As you can imagine if you know even a small chunk of the history of projects like the Free / Libre / Open Source Software movement (it keeps getting more words tacked onto it for a reason), Wiley's post generated some fierce responses. So the request, and Wiley's decision to back away from his initial stance, appears to be an effort to consider the broad range of issues that attract people to the openness movement in general, and open education in particular.

Back in 1984, Seymour Papert said this:
There won't be schools in the future.... I think the computer will blow up the school. That is, the school defined as something where there are classes, teachers running exams, people structured in groups by age, following a curriculum-- all of that. The whole system is based on a set of structural concepts that are incompatible with the presence of the computer... But this will happen only in communities of children who have access to computers on a sufficient scale.

Twenty-five years later, we are forced to conclude that one of the following is probably true:

  • The computer didn't actually blow up anything at all; schools are basically the same as they always were, with the same curricula, approaches, and values; or
  • The computer did blow up the school, but nobody noticed that the school was blown to bits, and kept operating as if education continues to serve the purpose it served 50, 100, or more years ago.

Either way, the results are the same: schools equip kids with a set of mindsets and skillsets that prepare them increasingly less well for the culture into which they will emerge.

Perhaps Papert's mistake was in attributing intention to the computer; if, to further extend the metaphor, the computer really was an explosive device, then it had no ability to decide how, when, and here to detonate.

I was drawn to the open education movement because it attempts to do on purpose what we thought computers would do by default: blow wide open the walls, and therefore the constraints, surrounding education. In arguing against the binary nature of the notion of "openness," Wiley argues that "[i]n the eyes of the defenders of the 'open source' brand, if you’re not open enough you’re not open at all.... It is just as inappropriate for you to try to force your goals on others as it is for others to try to force their goals on you."

Of course he's right, but on the other hand, things aren't always quite so clearcut in the field of education. I shouldn't be able to force my values on educators, researchers, and administrators who disagree with my approach to teaching and learning; but if I leave them be, then they are free to inculcate young people with exactly the wrong set of skills, ideals, and values--the kind that reify outdated, unfair, and wrongheaded assumptions about how the world can, does, and should work.

I am, as I hope I have made clear, an increasingly radical element within the field. I am a revolutionary. And this is precisely what drew me to openness as a movement. In fact, I wish the open education movement would embrace a more inclusive name, perhaps something like Free / Libre / Open Education, or FLOE. In fact, I think I'll start calling it exactly that.

I agree with Wiley that the term "open" is problematic, but for the exact opposite reason that Wiley gives. I think people are too likely to call almost anything open, even if the door is only open a centimeter. If it's open exactly that far, and there's a doorstop behind it preventing it from opening any further, then that door is effectively closed.

Related posts by other writers:
David Wiley: A few notes about openness (and a request)
Jeremy Brown: Bard Quest 2: Wiley’s motivation, Tomaševski’s motivation, and the real reason people get into Open Education
Jared Spurbeck: Why my creative work is "open"
davidp:Optimal, not ideal


David Porter said...

Hello Jenna. Good post.

I guess I wonder whether we assign too much credit to schools and teachers for influencing minds. After all, the average elementary school student spends only a small proportion of her week in a classroom. I'm sure it's even less in the higher education setting.

Surely the home, family and friends are actually much more influential in forming our world view and inculcating skills, ideals and values. How does the open movement play out in this context?

Jenna McWilliams said...

Yes yes, the concern you point to is an important one. I guess for me, thinking about education is overwhelming enough--I can't imagine having to worry about the complete picture of how, where, and what kids learn. But school as an institution is as worthy of tackling by the FLOE (I'm using it! I'm using it!) movement as any other institution. And while no individual teacher has as much influence over how a child things as the child's family can, school in general inculcates learners into a way of being that's worth thinking about, if only because it can be tackled at the policy and practical level and parenting as an institution cannot.

David Porter said...

" in general inculcates learners into a way of being that's worth thinking about, if only because it can be tackled at the policy and practical level and parenting as an institution cannot."

Good one.




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