Openness, the double bind, and ecologies of yearning.

I’ve seen my share of conference keynotes, some tedious, some exhilarating, many forgettable. But I have never seen a keynote quite like the one delivered by Gardner Campbell on the morning of the first day of the OpenEd Conference. In fact, calling it a keynote is a disservice. It was more of a meditation. A performance. A confession. Maybe a mixture of all three. And it was glorious. See for yourself. <link>

For me, Gardner’s remarks, titled Ecologies of Yearning and the Future of Open Education,  articulated the sense of vague discomfort I currently feel regarding the mainstream adoption of open learning. Putting new wine in old bottles, if you will. Gardner presented a number of examples of how the open education movement has lost its way, from the overhyped xMOOCs of Coursera, EdX, and Udacity, to exceedingly detailed blog post rubrics that encourage students to be creative, to the appropriation and neutralization of the once-subversive edupunk ethic with the Gates-supported Edupunk Quiz. Things may look like they are moving toward openness, but are they really?

What we are seeing are developments in the higher education landscape that appear to meet every single one of the criteria we have set forth for open education: increased  access, decreased cost, things that will allow more people than ever, on a planetary scale–1 billion individual learners at a time customize their education, fit it into their busy lives, earn a paycheck, find a path to a glorious vocational future. Isn’t that what we meant?

He answers quoting T.S. Eliot, “That is not it at all/That is not what I meant at all.” But what do we mean? What do we want? Gardner provides no answers of course, but suggests that it isn’t about open, but opening. Opening to a sense of yearning that should drive our learning. Opening to life. Opening to risk and the possibility of failure.  And he takes us on a meandering search for this something, incorporating ideas from social psychology, educational philosophy, poetry, and rock-n-roll, finally observing:

“There is some framing, some pressure, some kind of unspoken set of criteria that we are all–we, including myself–laboring under in the way we’ve thought about learning itself that keep pushing things back in this other direction.”<emphasis mine>

This other direction is back to our comfortable structure of grades, standards,  rubrics, etc. open in a way, but also not open, leading to situation he describes as a double bind. He suggests one possible escape, but in the end essentially leaves us there, in that double bind, with the tough job of inventing new ways of thinking or else succumbing to madness.

I hope you’ll take some time to watch the recording. Feel free to share any thoughts a in the comments.

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