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Open Pedagogy: Connection, Community, and Transparency

A Q&A with Tom Woodward

Is open pedagogy what happens when instructors — or even learners on their own — use the strategies, technologies, and tools that are currently considered "open"? Is it the act of making your own instructional strategies available and transparent such that teachers, learners, and others could understand them and potentially contribute something new to them in a networked, connected world? CT asked Virginia Commonwealth University's Associate Director for Online Learning Innovation Tom Woodward to offer his perspectives and some context for a discussion of "open pedagogy".

Mary Grush: How would you define "open pedagogy"?

Tom Woodward: It's difficult for me to crisply define it as I see significant overlap and blurring between most large concepts like this. Open pedagogy, as defined by David Wiley, focuses primarily on the relationship between the open licensing of content and the additional options students and instructors then have to remix that content as part of the work of the course. He stresses the move away from "disposable assignments." That is undoubtedly important and powerful.

Still, a broader consideration may be useful. Looking at open pedagogy as a general philosophy of openness (and connection) in all elements of the pedagogical process, while messy, provides some interesting possibilities. Open is a purposeful path towards connection and community. Open pedagogy could be considered as a blend of strategies, technologies, and networked communities that make the process and products of education more transparent, understandable, and available to all the people involved.

Grush: Could you offer some examples from your own current experiences with open pedagogy?

Woodward: At VCU, we attempted to create a truly open pedagogical experience with the #thoughtvectors cMOOC. It can serve to illustrate some key elements of open pedagogy: open planning, open products, and open post hoc (reflections after the fact).

Open planning. Prior to the start of a course built on open pedagogy there is a focus on collaboration regarding what the course might be — the content, the lessons, the tools of construction, and the teaching strategies are all part of a larger conversation. You can see what other instructors have done — their resources, their lessons, or their reflections on what happened during their course. You can use what they or their students have made. You can engage those students and instructors directly. This is a complete reversal from what is normally a very isolated and opaque process.

#thoughtvectors infused these concepts in a variety of ways. At the very foundation, the course was based on conversations that have been occurring in the open for years — a mix of philosophy, pedagogy, reflection, and assessment. The planning regularly involved six to eight VCU faculty members meeting face-to-face to think through what we wanted to do. These members then blogged about the process both to help solidify their own thoughts and to open those ideas to the input and influence of their larger social networks.

Open products. There are a couple of pieces that happen in the process of the course (and beyond, if things work well) that engage with the concept of open in a few ways.

The course itself happens in the open. Students are publishing for an audience greater than their instructor. That matters. Their work, being open, has the potential to be used for something larger than the course itself and to be part of a larger global conversation. This changes the experience of doing the work, but just as importantly it changes the kind of work you ask students to do. In #thoughtvectors the instructors also worked along with the students, often completing the same assignments in a way that created unity and provided a kind of transparency.

Another element of openness that is inherently valuable but often overlooked is creating assignments that are open enough to engage students. There is value in allowing for students to shape and construct the products that show evidence of their learning. In #thoughtvectors, assignment options were flexible and focused on student choice within certain parameters. These assignments weren't oriented around word counts, or formats, or following precise directions; instead they focused on higher-level outcomes. On the far end of that student empowerment spectrum is another example: #DS106, a cMOOC at the University of Mary Washington, where students can create and submit their own assignment ideas that are then completed by other students in the course. That kind of openness enables some really exciting things to happen, which are guided by the instructor rather than constrained by the limits of her imagination.

#thoughtvectors also focused on explaining to the students the pedagogical choices being made — why we're doing what we do. This also hints at another element of open construction, which is the ongoing shaping and refining of the course in progress. Courses need to evolve and change with the participants. The students should understand what is happening and why. The more students can understand and participate in the construction of the course, the better. This isn't something done to the students but something done with them.

Open post hoc. After the course, reflecting and documenting how the course went is valuable both to the instructor and to those who might be considering similar courses or pedagogical strategies. People are happy enough to present and document success but it's still not common practice to reflect on elements that don't work well. This kind of openness and vulnerability is much harder to cultivate. Documenting the construction and process of #thoughtvectors openly also allows us to reflect back on those moments with additional clarity and then weave the reflection digitally back to those documents, creating a much more comprehensive and connected reflection on the course.

Grush: Is "connected learning" necessary for open pedagogy?

Woodward: Connected learning and open pedagogy have similar philosophical goals. I think following either far enough down the path would lead to the other. Our focus at VCU is connected learning but in pursuit of that goal, open pedagogy occurs.

Grush: Will open pedagogy promote or foster a kind of broadening of instruction — maybe cross-institutional collaborations or even globalization?

Woodward: Increased adoption of the philosophy of open pedagogy could certainly lead to more cross-institution collaboration. It certainly makes the 'bottom up' connections more likely. Things like the water106 site begin to emerge — which uses a thematic lens (water) to gather content, courses, and community without disciplinary or institutional boundaries. I emphasize the importance of openness in the development of these products, the how and why, because that kind of contextualization is incredibly important. Often learning objects, of any kind, absent the process and the thinking leading to them, have far less value and are far harder to use or remix well. Open pedagogy helps fill that void. The process is important. I need to understand why you did what you did rather than just being presented with an end product.

Language and access will still provide a barrier to a truly global conversation, but content that is digital and free will likely continue to spread. Additionally, content under a public domain or Creative Commons license can be more readily translated, so there are ways open pedagogy may lead to a more global conversation. It's certainly going to be far more global than past practice.

Grush: Is open pedagogy becoming more prevalent today? What's contributing to that?

Woodward: I think open pedagogy has become more prevalent today because of a mixture of affordances, pressures, and changing philosophies. You certainly see it in all kinds of non-academic settings. Most people I know have learned something concrete from a YouTube video. It's how I fixed my refrigerator and how I got my car working when I was stuck in Georgia. But there are larger movements afoot where the documentation of the process of exploration is a learning experience in and of itself. I've learned an amazing amount about photography from professionals, educators, and passionate amateurs. They aren't just providing the product. They aren't necessarily even explicitly trying to teach. They are reflecting publicly and making their thinking transparent as they engage in their work.

Grush: Beyond that, are there any tools that may be particularly compelling?

Woodward: We have a glut of tools, each with different affordances depending on the person and specific goals. But engaging with people that energize, challenge, and improve what you do is far more important. I'd look for people and communities first. The tools can, will, and should come and go but the relationships and learning will last.

If forced to choose one tool, I've seen great success over the years with WordPress as a publishing platform. It's been a consistent winner across many disciplines and goals with users from a variety of backgrounds and skill levels at a variety of institutions. Plus it has a great open source community that continues to solve problems, add functionality, and help one another in a myriad of ways.

Grush: How are discussions of open pedagogy today different from the discussions of open education we've heard so much of for many years?

Woodward: The technology barriers are definitely lower but I think that a broader consideration of what 'open pedagogy' might mean is the change. This shift is driven by what many see as the failure of open educational repositories to change things at scale. This is about more than a presentation on protein bonds with a Creative Commons license. It's focused on how all participants might engage with their roles in education towards the betterment of the process and the world as a whole.

Grush: Considering the potential longer-term impacts of open pedagogy, might one expect — again, longer term — a kind of upheaval in the roles we've seen in education… even, for example, "teacher," and "student…"? Is there some chance new roles will predominate?

Woodward: I'd hope for that kind of transformation, but institutional change often takes more time than I'd like or expect. It was interesting to have Mariana Funes take on a role in the #thoughtvectors course. She is a research psychologist in the UK we knew through previous participation in #DS106 and she became, to quote Gardner Campbell, a "network Provocateur, or a wonder-guide — in essence someone who would keep interacting with the network but without an obvious role." That kind of knitter of community is both new and inherently valuable in open pedagogy like this.

Grush: Is there a specific path people can follow to open pedagogy?

Woodward: I don't know of one. I don't know of any easy paths to worthwhile destinations. There's no easy answer. Putting time and energy into building relationships and making sure you're out there practicing the very thing you want to do is the best way to achieve results. Communicate in the open. Join a cMOOC. Start a blog. Talk to people on Twitter. Engage and people will engage with you. Energy in will create energy out. #thoughtvectors is built from and within this communal conversation, this communal energy, this communal knowledge.



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