Open learning – sharing and openness

“Openness” can feel uncomfortable. Whether it’s posting an opinion on social media, or sharing your work with your peers, being open online means making yourself vulnerable to criticism and plagiarism. So why risk it?

Teachers regularly refresh and develop new learning resources, but they generally try to avoid reinventing the wheel. Why spend hours producing a resource from scratch when there is already a good-enough version available already? Openly sharing our resources means that we have a worldwide pool of ready-made activities and ideas to adapt and apply. But in order for this to work, individuals have to be prepared to contribute their resources to the pool. This makes the production of teaching resources more efficient, but it has some quite profound consequences: it forces us to rethink our attitudes to privacy, intellectual property, and professional identity.

Privacy is a basic human right, and sharing our intellectual work online can feel like it undermines that right. What if we attract unwanted attention? What if someone interprets our work in a way that we hadn’t intended? Once something is shared online, it is impossible to eradicate it from the internet: it becomes a matter of public record. This can cause anxiety, which can lead to reduced risk-taking. This situation becomes more acute when we generalize from open resources to open learning more broadly (e.g. posting one’s work for peer review in a MOOC, or writing a public blog post). Being open can incline one to “play it safe”, stifling creativity, both socially and intellectually. In order to protect our data, and to create safe spaces for our work, we have to consider the limits of openness. Students and teachers should explicitly discuss and negotiate the risks and rewards of open learning contexts because navigating such contexts successfully is a key aspect of digital literacies.

When we share our work online, it is hard to control how it will be consumed, de-contexualized, re-contextualized, re-mixed, and reproduced. We can place limits on how our work is used by applying a copyright to it (e.g. under a Creative Commons licence­1). When we do this, we take a position on the nature of knowledge as a commodity or as a common good. Digitalization seems to work against the notion of intellectual property: it is physically impossible to regulate the open-ended creative use of digital media, and any methods designed to do so have serious political consequences if they systematically exclude certain types of stakeholders from knowledge produced by publicly funded universities. Projects such as Open Science2 aim to mitigate the socio-economically exclusive practices associated with commercial academic publishers, for example. Each time we publish a piece of content that is the result of our intellectual work, we are also taking a public stand on these issues.

Teachers are fastidious by nature—we correct other people’s work for a living. And we often feel that our personal touch is what sets apart our professional skills and knowledge from someone else’s. Where is our individual identity if we all share a common pool of resources? And can we tolerate compromising on the formulation or quality of a resource when we could instead choose to devote time to doing it our way? In a reflective blog, it’s easy to introduce the identity of the author into the text, but this might be trickier in other kinds of learning resources. If we are anxious about manufacturing and consuming a vast set of homogenous and depersonalized resources, then perhaps we could choose to inject our personality into those resources. Associating the work more strongly with the worker could help prevent plagiarism or copyright violation, and it could have the added benefit of producing more interesting, quirky, idiosyncratically interdisciplinary and entrepreneurial resources. In other words, after reflecting on implications for privacy, intellectual property, and professional identity, we might be able to find new means of self-expression and self-actualization in the open learning landscape, even if we start from a position of caution.


  1. https://creativecommons.org/
  2. https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/en/h2020-section/open-science-open-access

One thought on “Open learning – sharing and openness

  1. Hi John,
    I agree absolutely with your blog post.
    “When we share our work online, it is hard to control how it will be consumed, de-contexualized, re-contextualized, re-mixed, and reproduced.” => this sentence summarized my most important doubts regarding openess and sharing my work. I still have no solution for myself, maybe I should try to share some work and see how it word.
    Live long and prosper 🙂
    Dirk

    Liked by 1 person

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