Learners Navigating Open Spaces

In this post, Michelle Harrison, senior instructional designer at Thompson Rivers University, relates the findings of her research conducted as a 2019/20 BCcampus Open Education Advocacy and Research Fellow.

As a learning designer and educator, I have been working and learning in online spaces, both in closed spaces such as the LMS and in more open, networked spaces supported by participatory technologies. I’ve noticed that — as in face-to-face learning environments — the way we communicate, share, and actively collaborate online is shaped by our technologically supported spaces. As many educators and scholars, such as Chris Gilliard, have noted, technologies are not neutral, and hierarchies, roles, and biases that can introduce barriers to participatory practices and inclusion can be built into the design.

Open pedagogy challenges the traditional roles of learners and teachers, often by using networked and digital technologies to promote more collaborative and participatory engagement of learners. As highlighted by DeRosa and Robinson (2017), open pedagogy can use “OER as a jumping-off point for remaking our courses so that they become not just repositories for content, but platforms for learning, collaboration, and engagement with the world outside the classroom” (p. 118). But what does “engaging with openness” look like in practice? How do we design spaces that might help meet this potential?

One way is to design learning engagements framed by open platforms and tools, thereby helping learners develop critical technological literacies while adopting open pedagogical and learning strategies. How are learners engaging critically with these spaces, and how do they consider their own relationship with openness? I am curious about how the structures of these spaces influence the open teaching practices we are using, both in how they may make our spaces permeable and in how they might make them more impenetrable. It has been suggested that we need to examine the idealized version of “technologically mediated openness” (Oliver, 2015) that is often associated with online networked learning space, to consider what kinds of exclusions and closedness can also be inadvertently introduced.

For me, this points to a need to consider these open spaces in a learner context by examining learner perceptions of the use of open spaces and how I could more effectively incorporate them into my own teaching and design practice. If we want our learners to be able to explore what we might see as the benefits of open practices — such as co-creation and the sharing of knowledge — then I want to know more about learners’ perceptions and to observe their direct learning experiences.

This study focuses on students’ perceptions of openness in education, exploring their identities as open educational practitioners and how they negotiate their open educational spaces. In particular, it investigates their uses of open educational tools and how they consider private and public spaces, and how the inherent openness of the platforms may both enable or inhibit their learning practices. The initial phase was primarily situated in multiple courses in an online graduate program that embraces open educational practices (including the use of open platforms and open educational resources) and is designed to encourage learners to examine critical digital pedagogical practices. This program specifically uses Commons In A Box, a WordPress-based platform that includes various tools for creating social connections and allows for different levels of privacy. I am also expanding the scope to include a project in which students are co-creating open resources dedicated to undergraduate research learning journeys. In this project, they are using open tools (such as H5P) and collaborative processes to create content, engage in peer review, and become leaders and mentors in developing research skills.

The data was collected using a combination of online surveys, interviews, and systematic analysis of online communications. A detailed examination of the course spaces (available with learner consent) and linked social media spaces is continuing in the fall of 2020 and winter of 2021. I am excited to continue to analyze the data and have discovered some early themes.

Benefits of Open Practice

  • Increased understanding of use and benefits of Creative Commons licences and how they can be used in their own context, as well as an increased awareness of the benefits of using and sharing OER (among both their own students and professional networks).
  • Flexibility of adapting and re-using resources and content was illustrated in the course design and use of an open platform.
  • Connectedness as a principle was evident and reinforced. It opens up ideas about building networks using open platforms that can be transferred to participants’ own contexts. Particularly during COVID restrictions, there were demonstrable benefits to using open platforms for creating connections across different groups, including distant colleagues, and reaching out beyond classrooms. This was different from the possibilities offered when working inside the LMS, where one participant highlighted that it feels as if there is a “blanket around the course.” In an open platform, there is more “reaching across the aisle.”
  • Increased ownership of work. Participants highlighted the importance of their work always being available to revisit and re-use.
  • Peer review and collaborative opportunities were valuable. One example is that learners developed shared teaching resources across disciplines that they could then use in their own context and share with their personal and professional networks.
  • Value and emphasis are placed on the skills and attributes of a good digital citizen. One participant noted that this helped her shift toward embracing and using technology, not just using it for entertainment.

Tensions Explored

  • Working in the open can be both “terrifying and exciting.” Moving from the relative comfort and privacy of a more traditional closed space to a more open one can be scary, but participants recognized the opportunities it provides. There is a tension in navigating this balance, and the following questions and ideas emerged:
    • Is my work good enough? When should I share? How do I determine my comfort with quality? 
    • Digital identity and privacy need to be critically examined. What boundaries are needed, and which ones may be worth crossing considering the perceived risks (of being surveilled, opening yourself up for criticism)? You have to move outside your comfort zone to interact with those with shared values, but where is the line? 
  • Navigating the open course space was at times challenging in the following ways:
    • There were many different spaces and places to interact and find content. Navigation was not always easy, and where best to share and collaborate was not always evident.
    • Privacy and levels of disclosure needed to be carefully considered.
    • Time had to be dedicated to figuring out the technologies. 
    • The open platform design required more self-direction and the need to forge connections. This is a challenge and takes time.

These early themes highlight that learners are experiencing openness in ways that challenge their own approaches and ideas; embracing elements of open platforms for collaboration, peer review, and networking; and seeing the possibilities for making connections beyond their formal learning spaces. At the same time, they encountered challenges, such as navigation, a steeper learning curve, and critical questions around privacy, surveillance, and digital identity. As the project progresses, I look forward to building on the results through further examination of the learning spaces and connecting with students in different learning contexts.

Notable Quote

“Michelle’s research is vital for helping open education practitioners to better understand the role of open practices in learning and teaching. Michelle’s research is a first of its kind, as she examines the student perspective as well as critical pedagogy and how it relates to students’ digital literacy and digital footprint and expands into the areas of openness and privacy.”

—Amanda Coolidge, director, open education, BCcampus


DeRosa, R., & Robinson, S. (2017). From OER to open pedagogy: Harnessing the power of open. In R. S. Jhangiani & R. Biswas-Diener (Eds.),  Open: The philosophy and practices that are revolutionizing education and science (pp. 115–224). Ubiquity Press. https://doi.org/10.5334/bbc.i

Oliver, M. (2015). From openness to permeability: Reframing open education in terms of positive liberty in the enactment of academic practices. Learning, Media and Technology, 40(3), 365–384. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2015.1029940

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