Defining Open Pedagogy?!?

Open pedagogy is hard to define. Over the course of three days in the Open Pedagogy stream of the Digital Pedagogy Lab Toronto, we were unable to come up with a concise definition. In fact, I would speculate that of the 14 people who attended, there were probably 18 different definitions (I know I had at least two over the three days)!  I think that part of the reason for the difficulty in defining Open is because individuals will choose to focus on aspects that relate to them and their teaching practice, so each person will have a unique definition (or definitions!). One thing that was agreed upon, however, is that Open Pedagogy is a much bigger topic than simply Open Educational Resources (OER) or Open Textbooks. While OER and Open Textbooks are an aspect of Open Pedagogy, the idea’s of Open are far more diverse and varied than you might think.

With an understanding that Open Pedagogy is a far larger topic than can be describe here, I will provide the framework that I developed while attending the Digital Pedagogy Lab Toronto following three days of conversation, experimentation and laughs, with my fellow attendees, and our facilitator Dave Cormier.

My Framework

For me, Open Pedagogy encompasses 4 key principles: Choice with Intent, Intrinsic Motivation, Authenticity, and The Community is the Curriculum. These principles evolved from the conversations, experiences, activities and reflections garnered in the Digital Pedagogy Lab Toronto, and through experiments in my own classroom. I will outline my thoughts behind these four principles and hopefully convey my definition of Open Pedagogy.

Choice with Intent

Providing our students with the ability to make choices in our courses is seen as a way to involve our students in the learning process. Whether it involves choice with what assignments are required, how the grading is distributed or whether to attend class, choice is seen as a way to empower students to be more involved in their learning. In Open, what differentiates choice from choice with intent, is that the choices provided and the rationale for them are clearly articulated, and the students themselves play a role in developing the options.

Clearly, involving the students in the development of assessments needs to be done in an organized and thoughtful manner, but including them in the process gives them a degree of ownership in the course. This ownership instantly builds a community within the classroom, where everyone involved has a hand in the decision making. Items like grading contracts, co-developed rubrics, peer-reflection and peer-assessment are all ways that can provide students choice with intent, where they start to have more ownership of the curriculum.

As more and more ownership is given to the students, it has the effect of removing ownership of the course out of the hands of the instructor. The classroom becomes more of a community of peers within the classroom. The thought of relinquishing authority in a classroom is not likely something that many instructors are interested in or willing to do. It might be seen as a weakening of the educational system, or an erosion in their “power”. As an instructor, I have a mandate to provide students with the best opportunity to acquire the content within a particular course. If the best way to accomplish that is by empowering students at the cost of my own authority, so be it! As I will explain in the following principles of Open, that loss of authority (by the instructor) is far out-weighed by the benefits received by the students.

Image Credits: Wikimedia and

Intrinsic Motivation

If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life! I don’t know who first said this, but it is something that my father instilled in me throughout my life, and a principle that I am happy to see reflected in the marketing of VIU. I truly, ‘Love where I Learn’. Clearly, at the heart of this anecdote is the idea that if you see the inherent value in what you are doing, you are willing to see it to its conclusion, no matter what. This is where intrinsic motivation intersects Open Pedagogy. It’s easy to see the connection between valuing a task and successfully completing it.

Instructors practicing Open Pedagogy need to assist students in finding that motivation. Hopefully, if a student is enrolled in a program, they will have some reason for being there. Providing students with opportunities to explore and express the “why”, is a critical step in developing and promoting intrinsic motivation. A simple method I have used involves guiding students through a series of simple reflections. I provide students in my Human Anatomy course small, simple questions to answer throughout the semester. I include these for many reasons, including promoting metacognition, pausing the hustle of the semester (even if only for a few moments), to allow students to write more, and to try and find the intrinsic motivation for why they are taking the course.

In the first week of class, students are asked to reflect on, and answer the following:

  • Please tell me why you are studying anatomy and why you chose the Sport, Health & Physical Education (SHAPE) program. Was there an event/person/class in the past that led you here? What do you hope to get out of this course?
  • Also, as we start the semester, what about anatomy do you fear the most and why? Can you think of anything that can help lessen these fears? If you have no fears, why not?

The requirements for the students are to submit the answers in a typed document of no more than 1 page (most are about ½ a page). These non-threatening reflections force the students to think about why they are enrolled in the program, and specifically the course. Other reflections have them examining their performance on assessments, the type, and success of the study and learning strategies that they use, and what they are most proud of in the course. I have found that these reflections, particularly the first one (included above), are an excellent way for students to really think about why they decided to enroll in a challenging and content heavy course like human anatomy, and it is a really great way for me to get to know my students and start the process of building a community within the classroom.

One issue that can impact identifying intrinsic motivation in our students occurs in required or foundational courses (that are part of a degree). Students can often see these courses as “stepping stones” for future studies, where the motivation will/should emerge. These could include prerequisite courses for professional or graduate programs, or technical/foundational courses within a program. Students can often resent these courses as “a waste of time” or “unnecessary” as they are more concerned with getting into their desired program. To combat this apathy for certain courses, it is incumbent on the instructor to emphasize these courses as critical for the success in the profession. To have students find the inherent value in the material from these courses, and providing the context for how that curricula is required for the profession (for example), is critical for developing the intrinsic motivation to succeed.

Image Credit: Wikimedia


Being an authentic instructor, for me, is at the foundation of my teaching practice. My definition of authenticity encompasses being myself in the classroom (no façade), sharing aspects of my life with my students (with few exceptions), being vulnerable about what is going well and what is not, and being open to the reality of the modern student experience. The degree of openness I have in my classroom is clearly not for everyone, and I do not expect or advise anyone to do the same.

Early in my teaching career I was more reserved in the classroom. I was effective and my teaching evaluations reflected that, but in recent years, after actively deciding to be more open with my students, I am far better at building a classroom community. I believe that the openness I share with my students provides a level of trust and promotes a safe learning environment where it is okay to ask questions, and make mistakes. If I want my students to be open in the classroom, I need to model that.

The openness I exhibit in the classroom is fairly radical, and definitely not for everyone. All I can advise is to be who you are in the classroom, whatever that looks like for you. Don’t be a phony, people can spot phonies.

Image Credit: Louis Mattar

The Community is the Curriculum

In the last session of the Digital Pedagogy Lab Toronto, we spent some time reflecting on the concepts of Open Pedagogy, and I started to think of the principles explored above. It was literally in the last few minutes of our session when someone said that “the community is the curriculum”, and my mind figuratively exploded. This simple statement became the central principle of what I believe about Open Pedagogy, and as can be seen, community is weaved throughout the other principles.

Paradoxically, education and instruction can be isolating. We are surrounded by people but are alone in our teaching/learning practice. While I might be in a class with many students, I am often alone in the front of the class. My students are all studying the same material, but they often study alone. I work in a faculty of colleagues, but have little interaction with them about what happens in their classes (unless there are broader issues). We are all working in silos and there is rarely cross-talk about what we do in our classrooms.

Being alone in front of the class stems from the old adage of “the sage on the stage”. As content experts, we are tasked with disseminating the knowledge we have. This often takes the form of lecturing, and I am a firm believer that there is a time and place for lecturing. That said, from an Open perspective (in my interpretation) as a content expert, I may possess the knowledge, but I don’t own the knowledge. I see my role in the classroom as providing students with as many opportunities to acquire and demonstrate mastery of the knowledge.

Viewing the community as the curriculum extends beyond how I manage classroom interactions with students. In many of my classes, I bring in guests who can share their experiences with specific course content. This provides students with practical examples of how the course content becomes relevant outside the classroom (often in a career specific ways), which hopefully has the added benefit of helping students find their intrinsic motivation.

Further, I also have students create content. Whether it is learning resources to assist future first year anatomy students, textbook content for a collaborative and iterative Open anatomy textbook, podcasts or lab experiences, providing the students with the freedom to choose the type and nature of their involvement in creation, reinforces choice with intent, provides them an opportunity to authentically demonstrate their expertise, and helps them develop the intrinsic motivation needed to succeed.

Being part of the curriculum resonates for me with my colleagues too. I have regularly engaged my colleagues with the variety of teaching strategies that I have been exploring, highlighting the things have worked (i.e. team-based learning), but also the things that didn’t work (i.e. clicker-based lab tests). Beyond the classroom based pedagogy, I have also opened my classroom to my colleagues in both my own department and across campus. Using a model of Peer-Observation for Self Reflection (, I try to regularly examine my own teaching practices, gaining an objective view of the aspects that I am trying to work on. The experience of sharing my classroom with another instructor is scary, but since I have tasked my observer to examine specific aspects of my teaching practice, I benefit from their experience and knowledge.

Image Credit: Vancouver Island University flickr

The Closing

Have I defined Open Pedagogy? Probably not, but I hope that from reading this you have gained a brief introduction of my Open Pedagogy practices. Is this the best way to approach Open? Absolutely not, but it highlights the key elements that have evolved for me over the past few years. These are my guiding principles, and if they resonate with you, please explore them.

Open Pedagogy can seem like a massive undertaking. Truth be told, it can be! But aspects of Open can easily be woven into any current teaching practice. Giving students opportunities to make choice with intent by including them in some of the assessment parameters and providing students opportunities to explore their intrinsic motivation through simple reflections can be a powerful first steps. Being authentic when with your students can help forge deep and powerful relationships that can impact their learning, while at the same time laying the foundations for a broader community within the classroom.

Open practices don’t have to be extravagant, but when done in a mindful and caring manner, they can have a profound impact on you and your students. Thanks for reading.

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