Slip Sliding Away: The Open in MOOC | iterating toward openness

This is a compelling critique of Rory McGreal and George Siemens’s Openness in Education MOOC that makes a point I’ve seldom heard as clearly expressed: is a course really open (by which the author seems to mean free in both beer and speech senses of the word) if you have to sign up for it to receive any content? Very interesting point.

I think the problem with this point of view is the assumption that a course is content, ignoring the people and the process that are what really make it happen, at least for this kind of course. If I’m right then it matters who you are and that others know who you are: freedom to interact comes with responsibility to be who you say you are and be recognisable to others. Signing up is not intended as a means of taking something from you (as it might be on a commercial site) but simply as a means of making communication possible.

If it were a face-to-face course then you could turn up, interact, and leave, without ever having to say who you are were: your presence would be sufficient to assure people that you were a person, accountable for your deeds and words. Unfortunately, persistent identity in cyberspace is defined by usernames and profiles. They are a crude, coarse and ugly caricature of a human’s identity, but it’s currently as good as it gets in asynchronous systems. For real-time webmeetings and the like, it is seldom such a problem: in this kind of learning context it is often sufficient to enter a name, any name, and be present with others much as you might in meatspace. If you want to be identified, great. If not, great. The moderator can always boot you out if you start doing unpleasant things, just as they might ask or require you to leave in a physical-world meeting. More easily, in fact. But it’s different in an asynchronous setting where discontinuous continuity is needed. If you are going to engage in a sustained dialogue over a period of time then there has to be a means to sustain a cyber-identity otherwise it just doesn’t work, and that has to involve trust on both sides of the persistent connection.

I’ve been sporadically puzzling about this problem for a few years and coming up with ideas like context switching and faceted profiles in an attempt to regain a little of the richness of identity as experienced in real-world encounters but have yet to reach an ideal solution.

I have an idea though.  

The problem of giving your contact information away is only a worry when, as a result, the person or organization (let’s call it a ‘body’) is taking something from you as a result – your privacy and control, in particular. At that point, when you are giving something of value to be used by some body, ‘open’ is no longer free as in beer. 

In my personal communications in networks with people or organizations I don’t fully trust, I usually use an email address that identifies the sender – at Amazon, say, I am This gives me the power to easily identify misuse of the identity (or facet) I choose to reveal, to present different facets of myself to different people, and to very easily filter out any body that I do not like. It also reduces the risk of some kinds of hacking attacks though, as a victim of domain theft, I can attest to the problems that occur when your domain gets lost. It would be cool if these faceted identities were linked to network profiles that could be adapted to different bodies. Better still, in my dealings with them (especially bodies like Facebook that use literally hundreds and sometimes thousands of tracking cookies and related technologies to spy on me) it would be useful to present their personalised facet to them while not letting them see anything else that I do under a different facet. It’s possible now, but the process is awfully manual and typically involves lots of different browsers open at once. Wouldn’t it be cool to, say, allocate an identity to only one tab in your browser window and disallow access to the rest of your online browsing? The interface would take a bit of work and you would probably have to be quite mindful about the process but, with a bit of care and effort, you would be able to engage on fair and equal terms with any body, revealing only what you want to reveal to whoever you want to reveal it to. 


Address of the bookmark:

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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