Open social learning: let me out, let them in

Image from the Portal videogame
Image from the Portal videogame.

When we usually speak about open social learning what first comes to mind is to bring learning where the students actually are. In simple terms, if they are on given social networking site, let’s try and make that specific social networking site an educational space. Let’s try to tear down the walls of the classroom, of the school, and let the students out of the education system so they can learn where they are, when they are there.

But even more important than letting students out — which is important — it is letting third parties in: opening holes and gates in the education system so that the outside — the “real” world? — can get in.

This is not new, but the magnitude, depth, and width which open social learning now enables letting others get in the education system is radically different.

So, what things can we open up so that

  1. We let learners out.
  2. We let others in.

What are the gates than can be opened and how?

The school

One of the main reasons for schools to be is that they optimize efficiency and efficacy in a world with barriers of time and space. As information cannot be everywhere anytime, we collect it under a roof and put learners in. And we do that at a given time.

There is no more a reason for schools to be shut down from evening to dawn. Or during weekends.

Virtual learning systems, online campuses, learning management systems, whatever you call them enable that students themselves can get in the school at a any time. This is, in my opinion, the very first step towards open social learning: do not go and settle in new spaces before yours cannot be inhabited at any time.

Opening the school means:

  • Eliminating the barriers of time.
  • Eliminating the barriers of space.

The classroom

What is a classroom? A place where to gather. To gather around a topic. Who? Well, those interested in the topic. All of them? No, as the classroom space is a limited one and we risk crowding out the ones that “should” be there (vs. the ones that “should not”).

Virtual spaces have no room constraints. Let us expand the classroom with a hashtag on Twitter. It will still be a gathering of people around a topic, but now many others can join in. Let us make of that hashtag our classroom. But let us benefit from the (a) replies of others (b) RTs of others (so we can know/meet new people) and, even more, (c) the content that others will bring, in the form of links or associated hashtags.

I’m not very fond of xMOOCs, but this does not mean they are useless or worthless: xMOOCs are a good opportunity to extend one’s classroom much beyond it’s physical borders.

Opening the classroom we can:

  • Enable the creation of communities.
  • Foster proactivity.
  • Let external information get in.
  • Let external authors get in.
  • Blur the barriers between formal education and informal learning.

The textbook

We all have a textbook. Textbooks are expensive. That is why we stick to one. The whole term.

Imagine textbooks were not expensive. That you could get many for nothing. Or even could mix and merge different parts of diverse textbooks. That is open educational resources.

But why only sticking to formal educational resources? Why not accessing the zillions of good contents — formal and informal — that exist outside of our shelves? Even more: why not creating or contributing to create new content, and in doing it, learn the whole bunch of concepts and skills that need being apprehended?

With open non-textbooks we can:

  • Foster actualization of content (did Pluto waited until end of term to cease being a planet? did the Higgs boson also waited to provide solid evidence of existence?)
  • Incentive edition and creation skills.
  • Foster collaborative work: instead of learning the pros and cons of a given law provided by the teacher, why not analyse that law and write, in groups, the comments on a wiki?
  • Or just foster teamwork. If you think this is a repetition of the former point, think it over.

The syllabus

Things remain unchanged since the moment we draw our syllabus. The syllabus has freezing powers: things unfreeze only when the semester is over and before the next semester begins. Do they? No.

A syllabus can be built on the run. Yes, it is not always possible. Yes, it is not always convenient. But it can be done. And it sometimes should. And how far should we go in programming vs. allocating some degrees of freedom? It depends.

A (part of the) syllabus can simply be opened by adding new stuff that complements the formal syllabus. For instance, by means of a social bookmarking site. Fed by the teacher… or fed by any student: agree on a tag and that is all. Indeed, the syllabus can be fed by each and everyone, as we saw in the case of Twitter and the hashtag. Whether you consider that or not part of the syllabus is now only a pedagogical or political question, no more a technical or economic one.

The especially good thing about an open syllabus is that it enables non-sequentiality: reality has that thing that things happen when they one, not when they would be more convenient for teaching purposes.

An open syllabus

  • Promotes active roles in managing information.
  • Eases nearness or a sense of proximity.
  • Enables immediacy.
  • Works better with mobile and ubiquitous learning.

The library

The library is the place where books are. Or where information lies. Someone puts it there for us to use it. Who? Not us. But we are learning a lot of stuff about the topic and we found some great resources! Well, you don’t tamper with the library’s order.

Now you can.

You, as a teacher, can create your own collection of resources. A collection which occupies no physical space, which has a quick process of updating. Which can grow course by course, day by day. As you read. It’s called a bibliographic manager.

But things need not be always that formal.

Imagine you request case studies for your classes. Why keep then in your drawer? Why not let the students publish them (in full text, as slides) on repositories like Scribd or Slideshare? That will work as their e-portfolio and, if a given tag is added, as an ad-hoc library, or as a collection.

Open libraries are good for:

  • Easily creating informal collections of non-formally published material.
  • Contribute to one’s synthesis skills.
  • Increase exposure and thus work towards better argumentation skills.

And with tools already in the market. Most of them for free.

The schedule

The possibilities of an open schedule can be inferred from open schools and open syllabuses together.

Thus, asynchronous forums and debates are a good starter.

But we are still thinking linearly here. Same things as always, but just looser.

Flipped classrooms are a transforming idea, not just a mere evolution or enhancement of the usual schedule. If we add to the idea of the flipped classroom the open textbook or the open library, things get even more interesting.

But there’s more: why not creating scheduled/formal stuff out of un-scheduled moments? Imagine a conversation on Twitter. Which becomes (in positive terms) heated. With interesting exchanges of opinion, with contributions based on evidence and with backing links and documents. Does it matter that it happened on a Sunday night? Can we put it together (e.g. on Storify) and make of it (a) good learning content or (b) good evidence for assessment?

Open schedules

  • Definitely tell the difference between content and skills/competences.
  • Do bridge formal education with informal learning.

The teacher

It is only obvious, at this point, that also in the institution of teaching we can open gates that especially let third parties in the education system. At highest orders of magnitude.

Remember when we shared our students works/cases on social networking sites and repositories. What happens when these contents have much more visits than students are in the classroom. Did they become teachers themselves? And the other way round: what happens when we use others’ materials and those others are students or professionals?

Communities of learning, communities of practices — or, with a minor formal learning turn: cMOOCs — are a terrific way to constantly change the roles of the people concerned with a given learning goal and a given (but not immutable) learning path.

Even more interesting: networks are reconfigurable. Indeed: networks are the way more or less unchangeable communities have to reach out for others while maintaining their identity.

An open approach to teaching

  • Makes it possible to introduce new authors in one’s learning scenario.
  • Increases exposure, of both sides — learner and teacher — and usually increases thoroughness.
  • Implies open protocols and open processes, thus easing heutagogy.

The assessment

Can assessment be open? Yes it can. We do it all the time in plenty of social networking sites related with travelling or related with co-workers or related with our own politicians. We are used to that. The new thing is that it now scales up, it can be done on-demand (no need to be surveyed sometime).

Open assessment can be ex-ante, like what it is done in P2P assessment in some cMOOCs, where everyone can contribute with their own assessment tools: questionnaires and tests, activities, etc.

And open assessment can also be ex-post, like what we do when we say we ‘like’ something on a given social networking site or we acknowledge this or that person did that or knows how to do it.

Yes, smallest pieces of assessment can mean little by themselves, but do not let the granularity of the making of fool you about the whole picture. Remember even the biggest forest is made up of individual trees.

On the other hand, open assessment

  • Fosters the ability to design and manage tools to monitor the environment.
  • Incentives critical learning.

The certification

Quite often tied to assessment, certification is granting what you assessed, is providing legitimacy to it. It can be badges, it can be other ways. Above all, open certification

  • Provides decentralized ways to certificate that are more difficult to manipulate.
  • Help in focussing on competences or skills rather than in content or information.

The CV

Yes. So we’re done with our learning process, right? We learnt, we were assessed and certified. How do we let other people know what we did? We usually tell them. Should they believe us? Meh. Does the certification that is on the paper really explain what we did… and how? Meh. More important indeed: did we learn how to replicate what we learnt? Did we learn to learn?

e-Portfolios and Personal Learning Environments are our open CV or our open resume. If well designed, if well managed, if open enough, they will

  • Be always live and up-to-date.
  • Show our sources, our processes and our outputs and outcomes.
  • Be a tool, not a product, we can reuse and re-apply for whatever other knowledge intensive task, whatever other learning process.
  • Clearly and unavoidably put us in the middle of the whole learning ecosystem we built.

So, this is open social learning: letting the learner out and letting third parties in of the learning process. It is not about sharing some minor stuff on some specific social networking sites. It is about opening gates on the walls of the education institutions: the school, the classroom, the textbook, the syllabus, the library, the schedule, the teacher, the assessment, the certification, even the CV.

It is not about tools. It is about concepts, it is about processes, it is about protocols.

And, more interestingly enough: open social learning is not against traditional institutions, but about complementing them, about enhancing them, about institutions dumping unnecessary ballast to be able to focus in the aspects of the learning process where they are more efficient and effective.

Open social learning is judo, not boxing.


If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2015) “Open social learning: let me out, let them in” In ICTlogy, #137, February 2015. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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