For years I (and many others) have argued in favour of openness in classroom work. “Blogging communities will die closed off from the world,” was my mantra at many conferences I’ve spoken at.
I have argued passionately in favour of openness and used items such as WordPress, Wikipedia and Linux as examples of communities that thrive because they are open to the world. My classroom community and my student’s blogs always have been and still are open to the world. (Drop in and leave a student a comment or two. Trust me, it will make their day.)
But over the last few years we’ve tried to turn our heads quickly to the side, away from the fact that some of the largest, busiest, most profitable networks on the web are closed systems. Apple and it’s entire juggernaut of media rentals, downloads and apps are a famously closed network and people need to be prepared to jump through all of the hoops to be included. Google is creating a growing ecosystem of tools that are hooked together through policies and histories. Facebook is a completely closed network of hundreds of millions of users that does all it can to keep you in it’s space.
It’s hard to be a network of about 65 teachers and students and argue that you know more than these three massive corporations; demanding openness from ourselves and others.
So what is it? Do size and openness matter?
I think it has a lot to do with critical mass. Facebook is a closed system that works hard to gather your information and keep it within the walls of the network. Facebook and Google continuously crash up against each other when it comes to issues of privacy and search results. But Facebook is also closing in on a billion users. Their network is so huge that even though it is a closed system, most users simply never see the walls. The same is true of apps in Apple’s store. Hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces of software, every developer needs to agree to a strict policy where, if Apple doesn’t agree with something that you do, they can ban your productions from there store leaving you on the outside. But these are unusual occurrences, most people never having to worry about these things.
To these closed networks, size matters. They thrive on their size. It gives them the ability to be closed off and to control the hoops that people need to jump through without having to emphasize that the fences even exist.
On the other hand, for small networks and learning communities, I still believe that openness is vital. Having students write and create is good. Having students write and create in online spaces where they have multiple media they can use is better. Having students write and create in open online spaces where they can get feedback from others is even better. The ability to connect with others from around the world and gain their ideas and their perspectives can help a network to grow and strengthen. Only a certain percentage of members are going to be heavily engaged in the activity of your community so finding a way to attract new members or to allow “outsiders” to easily take part will move conversations and learning ahead.
We still have a lot to learn about online networks and communities for learning. Are they fundamentally different from online spaces for commercial purposes? Do they have special needs or do the same rules apply? Are smaller communities where people know and trust each other better or are larger spaces where there are multiple perspectives and voices available more beneficial for learning? Compared to any of the massive commercial spaces online, our communities and networks are relatively small and we need to learn how to best leverage their size and openness for the benefit of our students.