An open container is not an open experience

I confess that I’m not feeling it yet, this heightened buzz about republishing/remixing content. To some extent, this looks like the second coming of learning objects, which is fine so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. To be honest, I was a bit underwhelmed by David Wiley’s course site. (I say this with fear and trembling, as I’ve learned to take very, very seriously what Brian and Jim and Chris and others in this community get excited about.) It’s a spiffy site, to be sure, and the syndication is a huge plus, but the biggest challenges I face as a teacher are not about content or even content management. My biggest challenges are about inspiring learners, raising their consciousness about what they’re doing as learners and (especially) as a community of learners, enticing them to expose their own learning processes to each other and to me so that magic recursion takes place in which the mind of the class, exposed to the class, becomes part of the class and takes them to the next level. My challenge is to get to real school in which the administrative parts are all means to an end and are never, ever be confused with the course’s larger goals. I suppose that means I’m not likely to have a link that says “download this course” on any of my online materials, even though they’re open to the world. Though I do see how these materials can be helpfully repurposed, I don’t think we’re looking at the deeper opportunities online learning communities and the expression thereof can bring us.

What I’m seeing so far looks sometimes like open lesson plans, sometimes like open link farms, sometimes like open syllabi, sometimes like an outline for a textbook. Where’s the commenting, the student feeds back into the main feed, etc.? Where’s the recursion? Maybe I’m missing something here. I’ll look again. But so far, what I see isn’t blogging (not narrative or provisional enough, not enough of what Bakhtin terms “addressivity”) and it isn’t the mind of the classroom made visible and part of the meta-stream. And without the context of the advanced learner–the teacher–as he or she moves through the shared experience of the course, it’s just not all that interesting to me. When I click on “Using This Course,” what I see is “here’s how to get the materials” and “dive into the Syllabus.” When I dive into the blogging assignment, I see the blogging assignment and the resources, and these are great, but where are the links to the student blogs created as part of the assignment? Where do the students go to see their work entering the datastream of the course? Every course uses prepared resources and generates a datastream during the experience of the course of study, and I’m interested in ways in which the experiences of the prepared resources and the generated resources become symbiotic and mutually augmented.

In his comment on Chris’s first, more skeptical post, Brian Lamb argues there is something genuinely new here:

if there were examples of blog-based courses that were structured so clearly, in a format that will be immediately grasped by even the most mainstream audiences, I wish more people would have linked to them…

My own skepticism goes like this: the clarity of structure means that it isn’t really “blog-based,” and the format that can be immediately grasped can be immediately grasped because it looks like a more creative and pretty and easily-republishable version of what we’re already doing in an CMS like Blackweb. In some ways, it’s like RSS feeds for Powerpoint slides, except in this case they’re pages or posts in WordPress. That’s not nothing, and I’m sure happy for things like Slideshare, but they’re incremental gains at best, and don’t do much to rethink the activity of publishing the process and materials of learning as experiences and not as containers.

Trying to keep an open mind here….

8 thoughts on “An open container is not an open experience

  1. Interesting post, Gardner…and I am still feeling my way through this as well. I am down at ITC’s eLearning 2008 conference this weekend, and just came back from John Krutsch’s presentation on “Mashing Up the Face of Academia.” It was a slick presentation showing a lot of student generated content…and a lot of creativity. I am still grappling with weaving all of this energy and creativity into meeting the learning objectives stated in a course (or more particularly – MY course!). Mashing a song and video together or adding mapping widgets to a discussion does not necessarily equate with critical thinking skills and analysis…so I am thinking (re-thinking) my role as teacher in this environment.

  2. I proudly retain my skepticism in some important ways, but I think it’s partially a matter of framing. I decided, thanks to some sleep and the comments on my initial post, that I shouldn’t be down on excitement being generated about a process that could open the door for educators to take early, often hesitant steps. I don’t think it’s new, but I think it’s a step that might help carry the conversation forward to where I suspect we both want it to go.

    In fact, what I’m seeing as a kind of confusion can be partially attributed to that troublesome word “blog”– it can mean so many different things and many of those meanings get intermingled in even short discussions. It feels like the term should be retired– we don’t call books or newspapers or any other product of publishing mechanisms by the name of that publishing mechanism, but “blog” hangs on. Maybe the Northern Voice panel will figure out some kind of answer 🙂

    It causes problems because I am wholly in agreement that what is being discussed re: the porting of open content into blogs has pretty much nothing to do with the vital educational activity that I think of as blogging. The result isn’t really a blog, though it could be the seed of some blogging activities.

    And I realized just now, reading your words, another aspect that triggered my skeptic spidey sense– I’m less and less able to get excited about incremental moves even as part of me sees their potential utility.

  3. What a great weigh-in with your perspective, Gardner, so important because you definitely grok the technology but more so are so immersed in using it in your teaching.

    One hand hand, i can appreciate my colleagues excitement over the ability to grab portable learning content, mix/mash/mush it into something else. My own skepticism is a bit parallel to yours, in that to me, this is just recasting “stuff” (syllabi, static content) into different piles of stuff, so we just end up with more stuff. If I am reading you correctly, we are missing the whole learner contribution, the instructor contextualization, all of the meta activity that intersects with the “stuff”.

    Actually its stuff a geek can love for the technology’s sake.

    If it weren’t for my infinite respect for the parties involved, I’d be dissing it rather broadly (I have a long career success path of copying whatever D’Arcy does). But I am staying open to see where it is going as it is way too early to do much but look on both sides of the fence.

    And Chris has a good point in getting out of the box of what we think of in terms of blog. Good stuff. I am sure we will mash it all out at Northern Voice 😉

  4. The news of the death of experiential learning using innovative online tools has been greatly exaggerated. And it wasn’t me this time!

    Now it is my turn to be a bit confused by the reactions above. We did these same experiments for your classes Gardner on a number of occasions with a different setup. And I think you know I am a big fan of the way the conversations are aggregated into the blog as a step towards sharing the thought process taking place over time. I think the OER resources present a different kind of model, and I took Tony Hirst’s cue to see how they could be re-purposed. And to be honest, I am still imprssed with his XML, and the potential for re-using these resources, even though I agree with you to some degree that they won’t replace other experiences. Tony Hirst expresses the same concerns about the model for Open Education in response to Chris’s post here.

    Do I think illustrating how easy and effective re-publishing and re-purposing these resources is a waste of time and webspace? Not anymore than republishing and re-purposing student blogs into an aggregator to capture the experience of a class discussion. And while the two are very different approaches in many respects, I don’t know why using a WPMu to republish a Open University course excludes students from doing the very thing they have done in your classes Gardner. Should anyone be panned for testing all this out, and imagining the possibilities publicly? I don’t think so, for who knows there may very well be gold in them there hills.

  5. I offered up some hearty huzzahs to ‘incremental moves’ that I believe help make the case for a cheaper, more flexible and open technology strategy. If in my zeal I gave the impression that a revolution of consciousness had thereby occurred… I regret the error.

    I can only be grateful that D’Arcy’s fearsome presence has heretofore shielded me from the ‘broad diss’ that I no doubt have coming for my ‘love for the technology’s sake.’

    I wish to clarify: The Psyche-Semantic Transmutation is in fact scheduled for this coming weekend.

  6. I have a project in its early stages which reflects some of Gardner’s interests, ie: “…enticing them to expose their own learning processes to each other and to me so that magic recursion takes place in which the mind of the class, exposed to the class, becomes part of the class and takes them to the next level…”.

    I feel presenting a complete class record is important to this. Conversations which occurred 2 terms ago may be relevant to today’s discussion. Solutions to problems, completed projects, and other deliverables are great motivators and idea generators, but are often lost when the term ends. The “walled” CMS’s don’t work here.

    As this project gets further along, I’ll post some details.

  7. Hello, Gardner,

    As a few people have already pointed out, these are incremental moves — Open Content has been around for a while, as have blog-based classes. I think most of us are in agreement that, in general terms, these are Good Things, and that these shifts are improvements over expensive textbooks and cumbersome, expensive, proprietary LMS’s.

    The incremental shifts, however, become more meaningful when considered together.

    Pulling content from a closed repository isn’t all that big a deal — we’ve had rss for a while. But, putting high quality content into a container where it can be readily remixed and reused is an incremental step in the right direction.

    Using this newly liberated content as the basis for constructing a course isn’t that big a deal either. You can use a blog as the skeleton for a traditional course, or you can use the blog as a tool for fostering discussion within a network of learners. And in this case, the second approach is what generates the excitement.

    If you port open content into a blog-based class where students can participate using the tools of their choosing, you are allowing students to participate in a way that doesn’t shut them off from their own intellectual work. This is an enormous shift from the traditional LMS.

    So, when you combine these pieces together, you get:
    1. Open Content in a highly portable, reusable format. This open content, unlike most open content currently out there, is easy to reuse.
    2. If you collect your newly created curriculum into a planning repository, you then begin to create a new body of Open Content, thus increasing the amount of good quality open content.
    3. When you import your curriculum into a social learning (I agree w/Chris — the term “blog” gets confusing) space, you create class record of student interaction around open content.
    4. Students interact in the learning space by using their chosen tools; they always have control over their work. Subsequently, they can make that into a PLE/portfolio if they want to, completely outside of the course context.
    5. All of this has been accomplished using tools that are easy to set up, inexpensive to use, and easy to administer.

    All of these are incremental changes. However, when you put these changes together, they allow for a degree of flexibility and control not present in most systems. As to whether it’s evolutionary or revolutionary, I don’t know, nor do I really care. It’s an improvement that has the potential to get high quality content to a broader range of people at a lower cost.



  8. It’s a problem, certainly, to make student generated content visible and viable on a course website. In my own classes (College Writing), I’ve found four ways to make the content, as Gardner calls it, recursive, and as Bahktin says, addressive:

    A collaborative bibliography that annotates research sources that other students might use for class papers.
    A writing articles page where students write and design webpages on various writing topics.
    Student blogs relating to material covered in class.
    Webpage commenting: students can add ideas, ask for clarification, and evaluate the assignment prompts for my class. They can add to informational pages, too, which all automatically appear below the existing content.

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