I had the privilege of attending the Digital Pedagogy Lab in Toronto last month along with seven VIU faculty members and a couple of our colleagues from North Island College (check out their great posts about the experience here). Of the five options offered at the lab, I attended the Open Pedagogy stream, facilitated by Dave Cormier. This was my first exposure to an open classroom. We spent 12.5 hours over three days discussing open pedagogy as a philosophy and as a practice. If you’re interested in details about what the session looked like, Dave has published a great blog post sharing his experience (continuing to model open practice even beyond the session).

My introduction to the world of open was a bit like diving off the three meter platform: a moment to feel utter terror and then straight into the depths. I hit the water hard and spent the first day feeling like I didn’t quite know which way was up. I had done my research before arriving at the lab, but there was something elusive about open pedagogy. If you had asked me then to talk with you about open pedagogy or Open Educational Resources (OERs) I would have pointed you immediately to one of my Curriculum Teaching and Learning Specialist colleagues; keenly aware of how new I am to the Learning Technology Application Developer role and of the impressive resume of the LTAD who came before me (Michael Paskevicius), I felt completely unqualified to even have an opinion on what was/wasn’t Open and if/how we should go about it.

Left to my own devices, I might have floundered for all three days of DPL on the question of “what is open?” or “what am I doing here?”. Fortunately, in the open classroom the learner isn’t alone and Dave, my instructor/guide, helped me find my way to the surface. We started not with a clean explanation of open pedagogy (the lack of clean definitions would quickly become a theme) but with a discussion about process.

Through our discussions I came to realize open pedagogy isn’t really about OERs or open source software; there is an entire movement of open pedagogy that goes beyond free textbooks or open licencing. After all, the classroom experience for students in a course that closely follows a textbook is not fundamentally changed by adopting an open rather than publisher textbook. Open pedagogy is an approach to teaching and learning that is centred around increasing access not just to the university, or the classroom, or the resources being used, but to the very process of learning. Open pedagogy is about giving students agency in the process of learning,  exposing the ‘hidden curriculum,’ and creating space for learners to make meaningful choices.

By the end of the first day I was completely exhausted, but I wasn’t drowning. In my reflective word-vomit of a 750words.com entry after day one I wrote: “The morning was interesting, a bit uncertain, a bit scary, but ultimately extremely meaningful. Maybe that’s the entire point of Open?” I was starting to understand the vastness of open as a philosophy and a practice, but also how I could find my place within it.

Student Resistance and Technological Limits

Day two was dubbed the “Day of Sadness.” After a day of focusing on the varied definitions of open pedagogy and on projects we individually or collectively wanted to achieve, it was time to look at the barriers to open pedagogy. For me, two main challenges stuck out from the bunch: student resistance and the limits of technology.

Student Resistance

Student resistance to radical pedagogies was a theme that came up a lot in the reading I did before DPL and in our discussions. As a ‘type-A’ student who thrived in ‘traditional’ classrooms, I can empathize with learners inculcated into a consumption model of  education and their resistance to radical ideas like co-creating a syllabus, getting rid of grading, or replacing grades with Pass/Fail.

Open pedagogy aims to increase student agency in the classroom (something the new BC k-12 curriculum also states as a goal), but this requires a level of ongoing learner buy-in that has to be nurtured. Learners ultimately benefit when they take control of their education experience, but for learners who have been taught to passively absorb information as consumers there can be a steep learning curve. Learning and exerting agency in an open model needs to be treated like any other complex new skill: scaffolding is key.

Technological Limits

Technology is great. I love it. But technology for learning is also full of barriers and risks. Structurally, all tools have limits; free is rarely actually free (If the product is free for you, you are the product); and not everyone has consistent access to a device, internet, or even power.   

Technology can help open learning spaces, but technology can also feel like shackles holding us back from running a class or activity in a specific way. When it comes to giving learners meaningful choices, encouraging increased learner input into the shape and structure of a course or assessment, technology can add a layer of complication. Technology tools are built for specific purposes, and while they can often be used for purposes beyond the intended scope, such work arounds often require a deep knowledge of the system and a lot of time to test and design and generally ensure what you want to do is possible. Often with technology, the answer to “Can I do this?” is “almost”.  The imperfect translation of face to face to technology can be a source of frustration, or a source of inspiration (or both).

We also always need to pause and ask ourselves “who is the audience for this?” Is there an inherent pedagogical value in putting a reflection online over writing those same thoughts down on a physical piece of paper? That depends on the audience.

If the goal of an assignment is for it to be public to the world, what safeguards are in place to allow students to mitigate the risk to themselves? Open practices always involve a measure of risk, but there is a difference between the risk a student takes voicing their thoughts in a classroom of their peers or on twitter. Ideally, an open learning online or blended environment should be a space where learners can exert their agency and make choices to share or not share according to their own needs.   

In Conclusion

I emerged on the other side of the DPL with a new perspective on open pedagogy Open Education Resources (OER). I’m not afraid anymore. I get excited to read about and discuss OER as well as open pedagogy and the tensions between these. I hope people will ask me about it. I’m not an expert by any means,  but I am an interested peer and I think those can be hard to come by sometimes with the busy workloads most of us carry.

That being said, I’m not an open pedagogy evangelist. Open is risky. An open classroom requires all members of the course to be vulnerable to a certain extent. In an online or blended environment, the risk is even higher than in a face to face environment. We need to acknowledge the possible risks of requiring students to expose their work, reflections, thoughts, and selves online. At the end of the day, the degree of openness that makes sense for an instructor and their learners will vary from course to course, instructor to instructor, and even cohort to cohort. All open all the time isn’t the answer, but open pedagogy can encourage us to  all keep asking: what can I do to increase learner agency?