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The open education debate, ideology and boundary objects

January 4th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

Continuing this mini series on Open Education. I think the current debate is useful if for no other reason than it is beginning to look outside the sometimes somewhat closed perspective of educational technology, and consider the relationship of education to society as a whole and then the role technology plays, particularly in change processes. And that, of course, opens up yet wider questions as to the role of ideology in education. It has led me to read more widely than for some time (and I think the debate reinforces the continuing value of blogs as a means of exchanging and debating more substantial ideas).

In exploring Open Education I would concur with Dave Cormier in his recent video rant in not wishing to define the terms but rather to understand the context of the different positions being put forward. In particular I am concerned to move beyond Open Educational Resources and explore the different dimensions of Open Education.

The debate was sparked off by a blog post by George Siemens entitled ‘Open isn’t so open anymore‘ and appealing for more time to be “spent in establishing idealistic roots – rather than pursuing more readily achievable pragmatic goals.”

I am much taken by Leigh Blackwall’s reply saying: “Inspiration, ideals, ideology, and radicals (should) come from outside education – most obviously because of the scary power over society that education associates with, and the relative privilege it holds.

So I think the ideological references already exist. So it becomes a relatively simple task of inviting them to speak at our conferences, republishing their work in our journals, hosting discussion panels on their principles, basically packing the education agenda with such references and squeezing out the “economic rationalists” and “pragmatists” that have lowered our gaze to such inhumane levels. Through this coordinated and overwhelming curration of context, we will see policy, practice and culture change within the institutions, but more importantly I think, we will make room at the table for real alternatives.”

I think at an ideological level and a research level Leigh is right. But I am not sure if it is as simple as Leigh says. Indeed in proposing an interdisciplinary dialogue, Leigh is talking about open educational research at it roots – of a conception of educational research opening out and engaging with different ideas and disciplines and a viewpoint of education as part of a wider society as a whole. Sadly, this is far form my experience of the present practice of the educational research community (or for that matter the educational technology community). And there remains a substantial barrier to such a debate – that of meaning making. Our present forms of discourse, particularly through academic conferences do not readily provide tools for meaning making and understanding between different  communities.

Coming from a Vygotskyian  position, I see tools as artefacts mediating social interactions within different activity systems. and whilst we have tended in recent years to view such artefacts as technology, of course the forms which we use for academic discourse can also be seen as artefacts which mediate our work. In that extent I am interested in Pat Parslows comment on a recent blog post on this site where he says: “it can be argued that with social media (Web2.0) style tools, the tool being used is really the information which has been contributed by the community rather than the underlying ‘code’ which quickly reaches the status of infrastructure.” The question then arises as to whether we have “information” or perhaps a discourse which can mediate the discussions between those outside education and those inside.

The idea of Boundary Objects may be useful (Susan Leigh Starr and James R. Griesemer, 1989):

“Boundary objects are objects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use, and become strongly structured in individual-site use. They may be abstract or concrete. They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable means of translation. The creation and management of boundary objects is key in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting social worlds.”

According to Denham (2003) boundary objects serve as point of mediation and negotiation around intent” and can comprise a place for shared work. Denham goes on to say “Boundary objects are not necessarily physical artifacts such as a map between two people: they can be a set of information, conversations, interests, rules, plans, contracts, or even persons.”

Thus to continue the debate around Open Education and to provide a seat on the table to those outside the education community we need to establish boundary objects as points of mediation and negotiation around intent. How can we do this?

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