Something I have been struggling with lately is the continuum of open to closed in lots of contexts. So much of the conversation in the tech blogosphere is all about Apple and the App Store/iPad/iPod/iPhone lock in. It is a conversation that if taken on its own I am completely disinterested in. I bought in years ago and that is that. The App eco-system and the perceived heavy hand of Apple in the approval process does not interest me in the least. It is, however, in this conversation that I am trying to pay more attention to where I am in my own career and thinking.
I read a great post that John Gruber pointed to yesterday by Neven Mrgan titled, "The Walled Garden." Again this post dealt with the App Store, but I think it has some serious implications for thought about the field of education technology and the way we are working within our institutions to radically open up education. It sort of caught me off guard how aligned some of my thinking is around this topic ... and in many ways I find myself standing on the other side of a divide I thought I'd crossed.
Aren’t the benefits of a closed, carefully managed garden clearly visible? The experience is controlled, so it tells a story - one which may not emerge from a democratic, anything-goes process (or do you think this sort of slow and deliberate story would emerge in a busy American city in the year 2010?) Charging for admission means that the place can be maintained, improved, and marketed. There are downsides to this, of course — maybe the management makes boneheaded decisions now and then. Maybe you think that vine maple would look better a little to the left — maybe you’re even right.
Even in my teaching I struggle with open versus closed and I am growing tired of the "versus" in that conversation. Some things are better closed and managed by the few -- not all parts of my open class are democratic and I wouldn't apologize for that, but for some reason I feel like I need to say I am sorry in other contexts for not being totally open. I know there are times my students feel they know better than I ... and many times I know they are right.
In my work, I am being pushed at my institution to take a broader view of the landscape and that is forcing me to see perspectives that I am afraid are not widely held ideals of many of my peers (many of whom I count as mentors and friends) from across higher education. I spent the better part of the last 10 years pressing on the idea that "open wins, period" and lately I am finding that there are times when closed is as much a winner.
via Shirley Buxton
I try to manage my own organization as openly as possible, but things are shifting under my feet. I recently did something I never thought I would do -- I created a private blog space that only my staff can get to. Just the thought of that makes me cringe, but that is exactly what I did. I was finding that I was unable to share things that were in process openly as it was constantly being picked up and shared as gospel. As much as I enjoy seeing our work get recognized by the likes of our own Daily Collegian, Onward State, and the Chronicle of Higher Education the overhead of managing the fallout from it has worn on me. It isn't a coincidence that I have stopped writing as much about my work openly ... my work has changed and so has emerged a greater need to keep it guarded. So a private blog was born so I could once again be open with my own staff -- it sounds crazy ... I needed a closed space so I could be open. There is that gradient thing again.
I am chairing a committee charged with investigating the pedagogical affordances of various course management systems and that as well has me questioning some of my beliefs about it all. I have been a very loud opponent of the CMS in the past and I still don't use our University-wide CMS in my own teaching, but through the work I am doing with a very smart group from across our Institution I am seeing it all in a new light. Why am I so damn embarrassed to admit that I do believe the CMS is an important part of what we do? I think these tools should be in place and more and more I see them as the access point to all of the innovative stuff we do outside the CMS -- why not turn the place that nearly everyone uses into a portal into the Blogs at Penn State, our iTunes U dashboards, and perhaps even google services in the future? If my goal is to drive adoption of these types of (open) platforms I have needed to get beyond the "CMS is evil" stance and embrace it. Again, I need to pass through a closed space to arrive at opportunities for openness.
All of this is is interesting to me and I wonder what it means to where my work fits into the larger landscape of higher education. I have built much of the success of my organizations on being open, honest, and transparent. I want to continue to live in that space, but more and more I see value in some layers of control. I know we will continue to innovate and I know we'll continue to share, but as the ideas of openness continue to spread I am seeing how closed is truly a part of the conversation. At the end of the day I do recognize the need for doors into wide open spaces -- even in that realization I see the ridiculous contradictions. If the doors are locked, how does everyone get in? Maybe the open space on the other side isn't locked? Not all fences enclose a whole area ... what if the door is just the easy way for many of us to walk in and share out? I don't know.