Control: 'How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb'

Part 3 of 5 Reflections on Open Education

Posted by David N. Wright on November 27, 2015

Note: This post picks up on Part 1 and Part II of thoughts stemming from my participation in the Open Education 2015 Conference.

Command, Control, Failure

This post addresses two things: control and failure. I think both terms are too absent from discussion about open educational resources (OER) right now. To pick up first on control, there’s a big gap between what support services in higher education are willing to deploy and what instructors are willing to use. Both parties are at fault for wanting control over their domains and not working closely enough together to bring about implementation on a larger scale. What we tend to have right now is pockets where open resources are deployed and pockets of traditional delivery and support methods. So, in the tradition of Carrie from Sex in the City, I can’t help but wonder: is control and our need for it hindering the widespread adoption of open educational resources?

Assumptions and The Dialogue of Fallback

First up, let’s dispense some assumptions: anyone, yes anyone, who teaches at a post-secondary level is a control freak–I should know, I’m one of them (bad rhetoric there, but whatever). As instructors, we are used to having our own way, answering to our peers rather than any “boss” in the strict sense, setting our course content and its delivery structures as we see fit to a large extent, and, most importantly, judging the hell out of other people–what we call grading. It shouldn’t come as any surprise then that when it comes to implementing new pedagogical methodologies, be they open or not, we will do only what we want to do, not what we are told to do.

The second assumption is that most instructors in higher education do not like failing. We’re terrible students, keen out of the gate, responsible learners, self-guided learners, always late, procrastinators, control freaks, judgemental assholes, all mixed into one. We don’t like people to see us fail at something because it challenges our ability to be authoritative, which of course you need to be if you are going to judge people. This plays into the adoption of open educational resources because being open means being visible; and as a result, your failures are in danger of being exposed. Things might not come off with practiced authority, we might not be able to rely on educational superiority when we’re unprepared. We will not assume a level of risk that might result in a front of the class face-plant.

While these two assumptions will flex back and forth for different individuals and in different contexts, I’ve always found them to be pretty consistently applicable in some form across the disciplines and across the post-secondary sector irrespective of seniority or prestige.

Placing these assumptions in the general bucket conversation about open education then makes me wonder how much of what we’re doing here by making things open is really about controlling the dialogue. We talk a lot about implementation, we talk a lot about future prospects; we just talk a lot. As I have noted in previous posts, our communities are often closed, insular, and full of people who believe in the cause. We shouldn’t forget that control is a fallback position. Ultimately, we can always “revert changes” so to speak and go back to something familiar because we control the dialogue. And, we can speak openly about failure for the same reason–we’re not really accountable for “discussion” or “experimentation” or “innovation”–which is why we throw those terms around so liberally.

The “Football”

Coming back to my introductory paragraph, it’s no secret that most of the friction in discussions around open educational resources revolves around instructor adoption versus what support services are offering. Those in charge of educational resources are trying to implement–or give opportunity, tools to implement–open resources and / or its accompanying technologies. We hear a lot of reasons instructors won’t adopt or don’t adopt a new teaching tool. We hear an equal amount about how the support is not there to adopt or implement a new teaching tool or methodology. Well, I’m calling bullshit on that conversation.

I think students need to be implicated and directly involved in every discussion we have about open educational resources. Too often, the implied authority of post-secondary institutions shuts down the commentary offered by the only community to which it is accountable: students. Skewing and summarizing a billion different theories, I’ll ask this: is open education about content or form? If it’s about content, which I don’t think it is, then conversations should happen at the level of curriculum and disciplinary requirements. If it’s about form, which I do think it is, then we need to be more open about how we see that form as enriching the student experience of the content. And, because open education isn’t about content, we need to be more open and include populations who may not possess content expertise in the classroom. For this to happen, instructors need to learn to love the bomb.

We need to learn that failing is okay and that doing it in front of students and in front of educational support services who are imbedded in our classroom is an important teachable moment. In fact, we need to involve them directly in conversations about open education–always. We can no longer assume that we know what’s best–particularly because few of us have ever actually participated in a course that mattered–one that was required for a degree or credential that would support our future prospects–and deployed experimental open educational resources.

Default: Do What’s Easy

What’s so important about failing is that it leads to repair. When we need to repair something because it is broken or because we want to make it better or we want it to do something it doesn’t quite do well enough, we often relinquish our control in favour of other authorities, or better, in favour of tinkering–we figure things out in a tactile, exploratory way. There’s a bit of a movement our there toward repair as a conceptual methodology–“Designing for Repair” by Daniela K. Rosner and Stephen J. Jackson’s Rethinking Repair have both jumpstarted thinking about how we work might work with repair as a concept. Suffice to say, what open educational resources might allow–particularly in their current semi-nascent state is an opportunity to show students how to fix things, not just do things. In so doing, we show students how we apply knowledge, particularly higher order knowledge gained from post-secondary contexts, in order to fix a problem. In so doing, we become participants rather than authorities in the traditional sense. What we model is the authority that comes from a confidence in one’s abilities, one’s willingness to tinker, one’s willingness to accept that the failure is a legitimate outcome–some things cannot be “fixed,” only repaired.

Too much of what we are doing in open education is always already fixed. We’re very busy trying to fix things, each other, institutions, the student experience, anything we see as broken. We often don’t involve the “others” we are trying to fix, those who live outside our contexts in these conversations–we don’t even invite each other into classrooms, IT offices, senior management decisions. Moving away from these “fixing” conversations into ones where we look to repair, tinker, mend, offers a far more enriching space for development, deployment, and assessment (and that last one is important). At the same time, we need to stop being “fixed” ourselves–in every sector, silo, or closed space–divesting ourselves of the need to control outcomes. Let’s bring everyone in and see what’s not quite right and try to repair that part–not fix it, just repair it. There’s a subtle and wonderful difference there–to “fix” suggests a return to an earlier state, a static spot, a determined outcome; to “repair” suggests an ongoing action, a restoration, an ongoing application; just enough to get things going. To repair means to embrace the temporary and transcendent nature of the repair itself–it will break again, it is only repaired. To fix means to render something back to its original ordered state. Repair is duct tape and paperclips; fixing is welding and off-gases. Repairing has no expected outcome but to make usable; fixing has an expected outcome that suggests finality, a determinant ending to the process. From here on in, embrace failure, relinquish control in front of those one is accountable to, and then relish the ongoing, self-reflective, repair.

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