Locked Doors to Openness

Something I have been struggling with lately is the continuum of open to closed in lots of contexts. So much of the conversation in the tech blogosphere is all about Apple and the App Store/iPad/iPod/iPhone lock in. It is a conversation that if taken on its own I am completely disinterested in. I bought in years ago and that is that. The App eco-system and the perceived heavy hand of Apple in the approval process does not interest me in the least. It is, however, in this conversation that I am trying to pay more attention to where I am in my own career and thinking.

I read a great post that John Gruber pointed to yesterday by Neven Mrgan titled, “The Walled Garden.” Again this post dealt with the App Store, but I think it has some serious implications for thought about the field of education technology and the way we are working within our institutions to radically open up education. It sort of caught me off guard how aligned some of my thinking is around this topic … and in many ways I find myself standing on the other side of a divide I thought I’d crossed.

Aren’t the benefits of a closed, carefully managed garden clearly visible? The experience is controlled, so it tells a story – one which may not emerge from a democratic, anything-goes process (or do you think this sort of slow and deliberate story would emerge in a busy American city in the year 2010?) Charging for admission means that the place can be maintained, improved, and marketed. There are downsides to this, of course — maybe the management makes boneheaded decisions now and then. Maybe you think that vine maple would look better a little to the left — maybe you’re even right.

via mrgan.tumblr.com

Even in my teaching I struggle with open versus closed and I am growing tired of the “versus” in that conversation. Some things are better closed and managed by the few — not all parts of my open class are democratic and I wouldn’t apologize for that, but for some reason I feel like I need to say I am sorry in other contexts for not being totally open. I know there are times my students feel they know better than I … and many times I know they are right.

In my work, I am being pushed at my institution to take a broader view of the landscape and that is forcing me to see perspectives that I am afraid are not widely held ideals of many of my peers (many of whom I count as mentors and friends) from across higher education. I spent the better part of the last 10 years pressing on the idea that “open wins, period” and lately I am finding that there are times when closed is as much a winner.

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via Shirley Buxton

I try to manage my own organization as openly as possible, but things are shifting under my feet. I recently did something I never thought I would do — I created a private blog space that only my staff can get to. Just the thought of that makes me cringe, but that is exactly what I did. I was finding that I was unable to share things that were in process openly as it was constantly being picked up and shared as gospel. As much as I enjoy seeing our work get recognized by the likes of our own Daily Collegian, Onward State, and the Chronicle of Higher Education the overhead of managing the fallout from it has worn on me. It isn’t a coincidence that I have stopped writing as much about my work openly … my work has changed and so has emerged a greater need to keep it guarded. So a private blog was born so I could once again be open with my own staff — it sounds crazy … I needed a closed space so I could be open. There is that gradient thing again.

I am chairing a committee charged with investigating the pedagogical affordances of various course management systems and that as well has me questioning some of my beliefs about it all. I have been a very loud opponent of the CMS in the past and I still don’t use our University-wide CMS in my own teaching, but through the work I am doing with a very smart group from across our Institution I am seeing it all in a new light. Why am I so damn embarrassed to admit that I do believe the CMS is an important part of what we do? I think these tools should be in place and more and more I see them as the access point to all of the innovative stuff we do outside the CMS — why not turn the place that nearly everyone uses into a portal into the Blogs at Penn State, our iTunes U dashboards, and perhaps even google services in the future? If my goal is to drive adoption of these types of (open) platforms I have needed to get beyond the “CMS is evil” stance and embrace it. Again, I need to pass through a closed space to arrive at opportunities for openness.

All of this is is interesting to me and I wonder what it means to where my work fits into the larger landscape of higher education. I have built much of the success of my organizations on being open, honest, and transparent. I want to continue to live in that space, but more and more I see value in some layers of control. I know we will continue to innovate and I know we’ll continue to share, but as the ideas of openness continue to spread I am seeing how closed is truly a part of the conversation. At the end of the day I do recognize the need for doors into wide open spaces — even in that realization I see the ridiculous contradictions. If the doors are locked, how does everyone get in? Maybe the open space on the other side isn’t locked? Not all fences enclose a whole area … what if the door is just the easy way for many of us to walk in and share out? I don’t know.

10 Comments

  1. I don’t see anything wrong with living in a gated community; no one should be made to feel guilty for wanting to live where it’s safe, well managed, and secure. The only problem is the fear of just coming clean and saying, “I live in a gated community” then being done with it.
    But I guess you just did that.

  2. In the midst of a rather tense and difficult experience with openness on my course blog last fall, a wise colleague told me: “Sometimes closed is an iteration of openness.”
    When you said that, Cole, something shifted in my attitude about openness, which had previously been in line with what you articulate above as “Open wins, period.”
    I still advocate a very wide degree of openness for a variety of pedagogical reasons: to encourage my students to voice their arguments in public, to expose my philosophy courses to a wider audience, to engage people beyond my immediate classroom, to cultivate the capacity to respond to people with different perspectives, etc. However, given the limits of openness, including the possibility that destructive voices can threaten community and treat my students in unfair ways, I have come to recognize that having a closed, safer, place of dialogue is also vitally important.
    I have always used the CMS to communicate assessment comments and grades to my students. This is clearly an important issue of privacy that allows me in my public communications with them (through blog comments and posts, tweets, etc.) to engage the content of their ideas directly. However, like you, I realize that sometimes a private space of communication can be crucial. When we were deciding how to handle the belligerent commenter on our blog, it was imperative that I could easily open a safe, closed digital space of communication among only those students enrolled in the class. This allowed us to talk among ourselves and decide how best to respond to what was happening on our public blog.
    In that case and in many others, closed can be an iteration of openness.

  3. So…..keep an open mind about when things should be closed.
    I do like the idea. I also think it is really important, in this bizarre existential way, to “be open about when you are closed” so your openness is something that is trusted. I think trust is an important part of all this, which I think Dave just more or less said.

  4. I have to disagree with “Sometimes closed is an iteration of openness.” It isn’t. What’s the motivation behind the label “Open”? If it’s only rhetorical, the true intent is deceit and manipulation. If you need to have important parts closed, say so. You’ve chosen to do so with professional intent, need not make apologies, need not justify it, and certainly do not need to lie about your openness.
    Open or closed, no one really cares; we are adults. What people care about is the deceit.

  5. I do think closed is a part of open. You can’t have one without the other sort of thing. I think the tension is in the desire to take advantage of the affordances of teaching and learning in the open — and when you press that as a philosophical belief it is difficult to return to closed spaces. I’ve watched much of the larger edtech community press on the idea that if it isn’t open (open tools, open source, open access, open blah) it is worthless. What I am working towards is figuring out what the middle ground is called … I am also coming to terms with the fact that I have to see the other side of something I’ve worked against for so long and it is difficult. I don’t think it is about being truthful or not, it seems it is just like everything else — growing to figure out when open works and when being closed can provide a greater sense of openness. Maybe.

  6. I think what you are getting at is not only this continuum of openness but also ‘selective’ openness. I think the concept of openness a few years ago was not just the act of openness but more likely an invitation to the growing digital world to participate in it. I think that what you see (and feel) happening is the rapid acceptance of that invitation that can make certain elements feel somewhat choked from sheer volume, especially from those in leadership who have only recently learned how to participate in the openness space. After all, when it comes to a work byproduct, in the end there is typically really just one person responsible for getting it out there. This also means there is only so much discussion, contribution, feedback, etc. that is manageable toward that end. As the openness party has expanded, the voices and freedom of contribution that come along with have created the inevitable problem of managing it. It’s as if you’re feeling a tipping point.
    As I’ve come through the openness thing these past 18 months, I also find myself trying to figure out when it should be ‘full throttle’ and when I think it needs to be governed. I’m sure that the continuum of openness will soon have labeled categories, something like ‘wide-community openness’ vs. ‘focused-community openness’ with maybe a few more in between. In any event, I think you’re at a point of needing to recognize how much openness any given event or situation requires or should be given, providing it and most importantly managing it.

  7. I think you are hitting something important here in that as people catch up our ability to filter the noise goes down. The more voices at the party the harder it is to focus … especially if everyone isn’t prepared to find ways to manage all the noise. I hate the idea of managing the idea of openness, but I also recognize there will probably be a period of time when that will have to be the norm. What I love about this conversation is working through the nuances of the idea of openness … maybe we are all still working to understand what each of us means?

  8. In practice, most of us are living daily in a world of “[y]ou can’t have one without the other sort of thing.” Think email, Web-based banking, a blog post edit box, network admin tools – tons of closed stuff. At the same time even the most Amish of us are searching with Google, buying stuff on Amazon, being written up somewhere – out there on someone else’s server, maybe the open web.
    I think part of the charge we feel when celebrating openness in education (not just ed tech) isn’t a description of an ideal state, but the delight of opening up closed stuff, or sharing things in the open Web. That’s a different beast than, say, asking people to open all tenure decision files.
    Plus there’s the Apple aspect here… but that’ll take more time than I have right now to address.

  9. I was thinking about this issue this weekend as I was doing some political reading. I think very relevant parallels can be made between the issue of openness and our very own representative democracy in the US. By design by our founders, at the core of our political system is an effort to manage everyone’s ‘voice’ into a coherent position that is then contributed to the legislative conversation, which of course has it’s own conversation dynamic at that level. I see two ways of thinking about this: 1) What would Jefferson and the founders have done differently given today’s communication technology? and 2) is there anything we can learn from the basic model of our representative democracy in relation to applying and managing openness?

  10. Those are really interesting questions, Matt. I would love to be teaching a political science course with someone to explore those in detail. Can you imagine mashing up history with today’s context? I could see that as being amazingly compelling as student. I wonder if our own democracy is now crippled by the unwillingness to be truly transparent? I see the corruption in our system running the decision making in this country and none of our “real” media outlets doing a damn thing about it. It is a shame when the Daily Show is one of the best sources of information and the only real watchdog to all the crap that cable news spews.
    I do at times really wonder what Ben Franklin would think of the world we now live in and the world we have created. I think he was the one who said something to the effect that “we’ve given you a republic, if you can keep it.” I am really not sure we’ve held onto that. I hate to say it but I don’t think that is the fault of technology, I think it is the fault of an apathetic population and a system polluted by corporate interest. No matter how you slice it, they are killer questions to explore.

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