Open Practices

This post is a response to a request for my thoughts on the value of open practices and methodologies for putting them into practice. 

1. Do you have any insight into working with educators to help them see the value in open practice, to help share their learning more openly, and how we might scaffold the entire process?  It is in building the compelling case for change that I am having some challenges.  I work to craft messages for specific audiences but I am missing the mark in helping education leaders see the VALUE in open practice. 

My first though on this is that you are not alone in this experience. Proponents of open practice (open anything, actually) have experienced difficulties in translating the idea into practice. People like Stevan Harnad and Peter Suber have talked about the same phenomenon with respect to open publishing, for example. I've had pushback in my own organization when promoting openness. And  I've had numerous people tell me about the same thing when I've presented on this. The objections break down into two major categories:

- first, there is a reluctance to share based on a fear of consequences. Some fear their own work isn't worth sharing. There's a fear of embarrassing oneself and looking foolish in public. Others (quite reasonably) are concerned about violating privacy and confidentiality (aka FOIPP). Others argue that people can speak more freely in private spaces. There is concern about practices (such as sharing of copyright materials) that might have to be discontinued if done openly. And there are concerns about the consequences, such as being fired, if people dislike what they see being shared.

These are legitimate concerns and cannot be dismissed lightly, or at all. People need private spaces. Any discussion of working openly has to include a discussion of when it's possible and appropriate to work privately. At the same time, there's a 'flipping of the switch' that needs to happen. Currently, the default is to do everything privately, and make an exception for sharing. The challenge is to make the default to work openly, and make an exception for keeping things private. This is the trend behind initiatives such as 'open data' and 'open science'.

The key here is that flipping the switch has to be seen as safe. Nobody wants to open up if it's going to blow up on them. There needs to be a space for confidentiality, and there needs to be a sense of security about the implications of being open.

- second, many people simply don't care. This is especially the case among academics, and has been well documented. All else being equal, people will not change their practices. They see no compelling reason to work openly. In addition to exposing them to risk, as noted above, it creates overhead and paperwork. Institutions say they want staff to share openly but in practice are nervous about what staff will share (this is especially strong in government, I can attest) and so they put in policies and procedures (for example, I've see all of these in action: requirement for legal review, requirement for IP screening, requirement for conformity to ADA, requirement for bilingual versions, requirement for institutional wordmark and branding).

Commercial publishers have taken advantage of this and though they also create overhead they have removed much of the work and risk involved in publishing, and they offer reward in terms of promotion criteria and sometimes financial incentives. This only exists for certain categories, however; we don't really see the equivalent for classroom teachers (though things like Discovery Education Network have made some inroads here). And of course they often limit access to those who can pay for it (and create a rights and payment overhead in the process).

To date, at the institutional level, only one strategy has countered this: an openness mandate. We see examples in freedom of information legislation, open data policies, funder requirements for open access publication, and institutional archiving mandates. These requirements create a lot of pushback but create much more openness than we see in the same environment without a mandate. Obviously a mandate is not an ideal strategy. It's hard to argue for the value of something while at the same time being in a position of having to force people to do it.

So, what then?

My best results have come when I ask people to stop thinking of themselves as teachers and start thinking of themselves as learners. By changing the role I am changing how they perceive they might benefit from open practice. That said, it's not one big giant step; it isn't the idea of openness as a default that attracts people, it's the idea of a bit of sharing producing a bit of benefit. So I find that the value is seen in open practices, rather than the concept of openness itself.

For example: when we were developing MuniMall (an online learning, resources and knowledge community for the municipal sector in Alberta) we asked town managers how they got answers to problems that would happen from day to day (where to send a grader for repair, new guidelines for sewer inspection, examples of planning law litigation, etc). The run-away winner was: pick up the phone and call someone they know. There is no questioning the benefit of direct person-to-person sharing. They don't even think of it as 'open practice' (though of course, it is).

It's a small jump from this to seeing the benefit electronic media. A lot of discussion boards operate like this, with a question-answer format (you see this in communities of practice, for example)  but they're cumbersome and people don't use them if the community is too small. We can draw out three examples that do work, providing enough people get involved: direct person-to-person text messaging; text messaging in an open environment such as Twitter; and question-answer sites like Stack Exchange. None of these by itself is sufficient, but the set of them work quite well together, and are often more convenient than making a phone call (especially for people who have a lot of client-facing work and can't stop to answer a call).

In a lot of environments, though, these media are used as broadcast media by the administration. There is a tendency to 'clamp down' on official channels (for example, I've seen cases where administrators terminated a mailing list because it was being used too much). Once people see the benefits of these simple forms of working openly they can be encouraged to take control of them as a means of managing their own learning and development. The technologies that seem to work the best, to my observation, are those which preserve the following values:

- relevance - the communications are directly relevant, when and where needed. They offer means to focus on exactly what you need (that's why we see a progression from text messaging to question-answer sites) in a format that is directly usable (a short web page as compared to a two week class).
- usability - they don't require any extra work to learn how to use. There isn't 'navigation'. The interfaces are intuitive and predictable.
- interactive - they support dialogue, and not just broadcast. Questions can be refined, particular circumstances addressed. They provide a means for the same people asking the questions to also answer the questions.
More here:

Over time, this evolves into open practice. This is a desirable result. But it isn't the goal. The goal is to help people with learning tasks in their day-to-day lives, and to help them reflect on that. As they begin to see what is working for them, they begin to see that it works for others.

2. How does open practice impact knowledge mobilization? Are we able to show that open practice can impact student learning much faster than traditional forms of professional learning for teachers?

This question has a half dozen separate questions built into it. These make it difficult to offer a single response. Here's a quick reprise of some of the questions:

- how are we defining open practice? As suggested above, it's really a suite of tools and methodologies that leads to an overall default of openness.
- is knowledge mobilization a desirable outcome? It has overtones (as does knowledge translation) of the idea of diffusing knowledge from central sources.
- is the objective to learn faster? To learn better? Or to learn better things?
- how would we characterize more traditional forms of professional learning for teachers? None? PD day? Staff room gossip? Board retreats?
- what does it mean to show open learning has had an impact?

My comments will address each of these in turn.

- open practice

As I've suggested above, there are gradations of open practice. It's not something we simply turn on and off. Moreover, it's not clear that 'open practice' as a goal in and of itself is desirable. It is an outcome of various tools and methodologies, but the objective is always to provide learning and performance support. Environments vary, so this discussion has to begin with the question, what would provide learning and performance support? What are we trying to accomplish here?

I've been doing workshops on personal learning with educators in various countries. The hardest thing to do is to shift them from thinking of teaching strategies to thinking of learning strategies. I use a type of format used for software design, working back from objectives to tools to a definition of a minimal viable product (MVP). I find participants focus on access to information they need to do their jobs - calendars, forms, resources. So it leads me to think that, before asking them to work openly, to consider whether they are working in an open environment. It seems to me that they are less likely to share if they're not working in a sharing environment.

This works both ways. A large organization I know embarked on a program "Dialogue on the future of X". They're assembling panels and tiger teams. There's a video and web page and brochure to promote the initiative. But in this entire environment, there is no place for individuals to contribute their comments or take part in the dialogue. I think it would be difficult to promote any sort of open practice after such a process. But maybe this degree of openness isn't desired. There can be many reasons to moderate or control an open discussion; we've seen discussions get really out of control on the internet.

I think understanding the need for openness is the first step, where openness is defined as much as possible in terms of specific types of information and resources, different types of tools and methodologies, and different degrees of openness. Simply being behind a password barrier doesn't necessarily mean something is closed, but if everything is behind a password we need to question what objective the password protection is intended to achieve.

- knowledge mobilization

The origin of 'knowledge mobilization I would say is in the concept of 'knowledge translation', which is essentially the idea researchers and theorists (or consultants and executives, in a dystopian version) create knowledge, which is then 'translated' into practical tools and processes. By using the term 'mobilization' we are agreeing explicitly that knowledge originates not only in the back room, but also in the everyday practices and experiences of practitioners, so that there needs to be a two-way flow of information and communication.

Given such a characterization, the argument to the value of openness is very short: without this communication, which by definition requires a degree of openness, there is no knowledge mobilization, and therefore, no improvement of practices. But even here there is nuance. Some practices require the shared development of expertise (the best way to move a patient, the best use of a Smart Board to collaborate in a class) while in others there is a more regulatory or policy-driven flavour (safety hazard recognition and protocols, gender and diversity issues awareness, terms of employment and contracts).

But moreover, in some cases there simply isn't knowledge, and the deployment of knowledge mobilization might be inappropriate. I think for example of a lot of the 'advice' I received before teaching in First Nations communities. Though there are some culturally-driven tendencies, the generalizations about working on First Nations reserves turned out uniformly to have exceptions. The 'knowledge' of 'teaching in First Nations communities' doesn't exist; at best what we have are shared stories, experiences and histories. So there could and probably should be sharing, sure, but it's something different here.

- objectives

The objective of learning technology and practices (such as 'openness') is very frequently stated to be "faster" learning. It would not take a lot of effort to compile a list of vendors with products and theorists with theories about how to learn a subject faster. It's probably second only to the promises to increase test scores and to help people learn the subject better. These form the basis for an 'outcomes oriented' philosophy of education.

What you may have noticed in the section on 'open practice' above that I did not talk about outcomes; I talked about the need for different types of resources, tools, and degrees of openness. I find a definition of outcomes to be a lot less useful in practice than it might appear to be. The groups of educators I have worked with may have commonalities, but each has a different set of outcomes they require from learning and support resources and technology. The same is true, I would say, of the students in their classroom.

Part of the reason I ask educators to focus on their own training and development needs is that it forces them to recognize this.

Key, I think, to seeing the value of openness is seeing how it contributes to one's own outcomes, rather than to policy or institutionally mandated outcomes. Learning and development is personal in a way that other aspects of employment are not. There's an old naval slogan, "One hand for the ship, one hand for yourself." Learning and development is most often thought of as being the one hand for oneself. It not only prepares a person for their current position, it prepares them for their next position.

- traditional forms of learning

All the data and surveys I see about corporate and professional learning suggest that in-person classes remain the dominant for of learning. The nature and structure of these classes has changed a lot over the last few decades, from lecture and demonstration to a lot more collaborative activities and hands-on work (think of the 3-day f2f session/retreat you just completed).

But as I mentioned above, when a person is on the job (that is, the 95% of the time they are not in a class or at a retreat) the predominant form of learning is simply to 'ask someone'. As people like Jay Cross and Harold Jarche have emphasized, informal learning constitutes the bulk of workplace learning. This is no doubt as true for teachers as it is for board members. It's even true to a large degree for students themselves (through the percentages are different).

I think the process of introducing open practices in a traditional environment is one where the SAMR (Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition) model applies. We don't begin by thinking about how we are replacing traditional practices. Instead, we look at these practices and ask where tools, resources and openness can be applied in such a way as to make the traditional practice more effective or more efficient. Only once we have moved to the new environment will other affordances become visible, and at that point we can think of augmenting and ultimately redefining a practice as 'open'.

In a sense we're turning the question of how openness 'can impact student learning much faster than traditional forms of professional learning' on its head. The new practice (whether it's a type of openness or, more likely, a type of technology that will ultimately lead to more openness) would not be implemented unless it 'can impact student learning much faster than traditional forms of professional learning' (or some similar statement of objectives and values).

- impact

Let me quote you: "The second structure we are trying to interrupt is this the 'flow' of learning from Superintendent to Principal to Teacher.  The concept that we need to 'feed' teachers in this way is outdated in a world where teachers can access learning anytime and anywhere.  I argue that a higher yield strategy is to encourage teachers to become self-directed learners and to teach them where to find what they need, how to build a PLN, and how to be savvy in accessing learning online."

I agree with this. It follows, though, that an assessment of the impact is not going to be found in demonstrations of better learning by means of tests or evaluations against a body of content. Nor will it be found in demonstrations of better learning by means of tests or evaluations of their students against a body of content. We're looking for an outcome where teachers become self-directed learners, and the only measure of that is whether teachers direct their own learning (here defined for the sake of argument as knowing "where to find what they need, how to build a PLN, and how to be savvy in accessing learning online", though again this will vary for each of them).

The fundamental question, I think, is whether that (teachers becoming self-directed learners) is valued by administrators and supervisors, and if not currently, then what would lead them to value it.

The answer to this, I would suggest, is created with a two part structure consisting of a value proposition and a logic model.

The value proposition is a statement of what administrators and supervisors actually do value, and how it is measured. The value needs to be stated as outcomes, as concrete and tangible benefits the program produces. We need to be careful not to overgeneralize about this; the 'knowledge' of 'satisfying the needs of administrators and supervisors' doesn't exist. Each will be different: some will be looking for financial efficiencies, some will be looking for improved test scores, some will be looking for better community relations, and some will have very specific learning outcomes they need to see. What's important is that there needs to be a value proposition, something you know the administrators will support.

The logic model is a description of how the effort that will be undertaken leads to a satisfaction of the value proposition. The logic model is necessary because there isn't (and never will be) a strict measurement of cause and effect. You can't measure 'x' in the program and see it correlate to 'y' in the value proposition. What the logic model does is to show how implementation of the program as a whole will implement the value proposition as a whole. It's a way to connect the idea of enabling employees to meet their objectives with the idea of enabling boards and supervisors to meet their objectives.

In my own work I've tried to hit several value propositions over the years with different logic models: self-directed learning (SDL) reduces recruitment costs by enabling a pool of applicants to quality themselves; SDL reduces retention costs by enabling career advancement and personal development; SDL reduces administrative overhead by enabling peer-to-peer knowledge sharing (thus reducing the need for courses); SDL creates motivation by enabling a teacher to be a member of a professional community, motivation results in greater enthusiasm in the classroom, which results in increased motivation on the part of students, and hence better grades. Etc.

In sum…

Open practice isn't a specific thing: it's a set of practices, tools, and policies the combination of which results in what we might call 'openness by default', but which has a specific objective the ability of people to support their own learning and development more easily and effectively than before.

Boards and supervisors might not directly value people being able to support their own learning and development themselves, but they can be shown how this leads to benefits that they do value, such as lower costs and more effective teaching.

All of this needs to be developed and implemented iteratively; there are no general principles. Different learning objectives are supported by different technologies, leading to more or less great degrees of openness, and these will lead to varying board and supervisor objectives in different ways. 


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