Opening up, one more time

900 words


I am looking forward to taking part in the “open learning” cMOOC, mediated in part through It has been 2 years since my first participation in this project, in its 2017 iteration. (And, quite frankly, at that time, I was obligated to drop out about halfway through the semester-long process.)

It is a shorter and more intense iteration this time. I’m bringing different strengths and weaknesses to it this time around. But I’m hopeful that I’ll be a better and more productive participation this time.

One of the outcomes of that first, abortive, participation is that as a teacher and a scholar, I continue to think, almost continually, about “open”; I reflect on the many facets and dimensions that it implies. As part of my ongoing intellectual development, I will be more critical of openness, not in a counterproductive way, but by challenging and questioning some of the parameters, some of the promises and the, for lack of a better word, the closed-ness of openness. I come to the conversation a bit better armed with questions and with theoretical framings, with concrete and specific projects. My part in the conversation and what I will get out of it are likely to be richer, more conflicted and more nuanced than what my superficial and enthusiastic participation generated in January and February 2017.

So… I’m ready to go. Sort of. I’ll do my best to stay open-minded, even as I pose difficult questions, push back, present high levels of expectation relative to the general notion of openness.

So let me start right now with a few questions. What do we mean by “open”? It sounds great, suggesting open-mindedness, the opening of doors, the opening up of opportunities. But is open education all of those things? Is open access a real thing? Is open scholarship truly as free, as transparent, and as productive as the “open” label would seem to suggest? And, finally, and I’m not asking this only to be a hard-nosed contrarian, is open faculty development truly possible, truly sustainable, truly worthwhile? I think that the answer to those questions, if “yes,” must be a qualified affirmative at best.

Open education would seem to imply that the educational processes, the potential for learning, and the associated educational benefits can belong to anyone who is willing to take part and to work hard. Unfortunately, we know that that is not quite true. First, because of the digital divide, many folks cannot truly take part in these conversations, exchanges and other learning processes. Beyond that, not everyone is prepared for “open learning.” There are many whose digital literacy or whose literacy full stop is grossly inadequate. Those of us who are taking part in #openlearning19 are, I am certain, part of the “happy few.” We are a privileged, highly resourced, Western (mostly), and an intellectual élite attuned to a certain way of thinking about things. The ostensibly “open door of opportunity for learning” is not even visible to certain folks whose intelligence, whose native curiosity, and whose personal work ethic might otherwise make them good candidates for a learning experience along these lines.

Granted, this is a faculty development opportunity intended largely for folks associated with VCU and other institutions. But if it’s called “open” doesn’t that mean that it ought to be open to anyone and everyone? (To answer my own question: No, open does not necessarily mean open to everyone in the universe. That would be impossible! What a silly question.) So… coming to a synthesis with myself, I must ask just how “open” “open learning” happens to be? Obviously, no one who enrolls properly will be turned away or rejected. So in one sense, it’s completely open. But is it really? And when we talk about “open” whatever, shouldn’t we be worrying about this issue? Just how open are we? What are we doing to ensure that the underprivileged and the underserved of this world also have the opportunity to take part in such opportunities? Just how widely and welcomingly are we opening the door of learning opportunity?

(I might note that this is a question that I have posed regarding xMOOCs and the hype about access and offering “free” high-quality learning experiences to the globally underserved, which was part of the rhetoric used by Stanford, UPenn, Harvard and MIT in 2012 and afterward.)

Again, my tough questions are not intended to shut down conversation or to discourage anyone, but to pique the conscience of all and to get us to engage in a real conversation about the openness of openness. Is not saying no to anyone who knocks at the door sufficient to call an effort “open” in the broadest and best sense of that word?

I’ll ask a few other questions in coming days, but this first round of interrogation is confined the the question that I consider the most important one to ask of “open.” To wit: is it, in fact, truly, radically, sincerely, world-changingly “open”?