Boundaries of Openness

“Space without boundaries is not space, it is a chaotic void, and in such a place no learning is likely to occur.” Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach

Reflecting on her recent #selfOER exercise (If You Were an OER, What Kind Would You Want to Be?) Maha said:

As I was reading Parker J. Palmer I found my personal answer to my Maha’s question. I’ve become open and stayed open (although intermittently) mainly because it’s a learning space for me, and because learning is social, it’s a social space for me too.

In his book The Courage to Teach, Palmer notes “six paradoxical tensions” that for him form the basis of good pedagogical design in (what I understand to be) formal educational environments:

1. The space should be bounded and open. (Bounded by a subject but open to interpretations and new directions of inquiry.)
2. The space should be hospitable and “charged.” (A safe space for learners to be present with their authentic identities, yet challenging enough to create tensions and aha moments.)
3. The space should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group. (Receptive and responsive to the learner voice and the group artefacts.)
4. The space should honor the “little” stories of the students and the “big” stories of the disciplines and tradition. (Connects the personal with larger theoretical frameworks, worldviews.)
5. The space should support solitude and surround it with the resources of community. (Learning can be self-directed and personal as well as communal).
6. The space should welcome both silence and speech. (Both silence and speech are equally respected.)

The networked spaces, in particular Twitter and the blog you are reading, have become learning spaces for me, spaces that are organically designed around the principles of paradox. I’m not expected to participate in open networks as part of my job but what I learn from open spaces directly feeds into my work. (As  Simon Ensor says, “I think of my online friends. They, the ones, who have fuelled much of my creativity.”)

What are some boundaries of openness for me? Well, first of all, most of my open activities are professional – my blog is the most personal of all because it’s a reflective medium and I write not as a gift but to think and connect with others (a lot to critique about the gift cultures but that’s another post). Second, even when I’m in a seemingly chaotic space like Twitter, I create boundaries by focusing on a specific subject (For example, education > open education > #OER17) and by following certain hashtags and people. I might learn from the chaos (mostly by lurking on random discussions) but I get the most out of Twitter when I have a systematic approach to open.

As we go forward with our research on selfOER, or the open self, we need to “identify the precise interpretations and contexts of openness being explored,” as Catherine Cronin suggests in her recent (really awesome) paper, because we are dealing with a complex construct that is perceived and practised differently by people.

Recent discussions on Twitter with Sally Burr and Helen Crump and the DMs with Maha have helped me think about some boundaries to our research, although they are still quite fuzzy.  The four dimensions of identity by James Paul Glee is an interesting theoretical framework which has a lot of relevance to what we are doing. The tensions between discursive identities (emergent, defined by relationships) we create in open spaces and our institutional identities might be one area we might focus on. As Maha argued in a recent post, most of open scholarship is “based around volunteering models”, around (most of) us carving time outside of our paid work” and this “is problematic,” it’s “not sustainable.” Our research might be helpful to draw some implications to better bridge our work in open spaces with the work in institutional spaces and get recognition for our hard work! It might also help us create more sustainable models for open connections and learning. (Having said that, I’m also aware that research often time takes you to unexpected places, provides new insights, so who knows what the implications of our research will be at the end?)

Drawing boundaries to our research might mean we’ll miss important stuff along the way, but as Maha noted:

You cannot possibly know every individual or see every blog post, comment, or tweet. This often means that you will miss some things, and in missing them, miss entire consequences built upon them. So there will also always have to be a humility of “knowing we do not know.”

What do you think? If you were to research the open self how would you define the boundaries for research and participation? Please leave a comment here or join the hashtag #selfOER, we would love to hear from you!

17 thoughts on “Boundaries of Openness

  1. Just realized i haven’t commented here tho we have tweeted a lot.
    I’m most struck by Catherine’s use of “continuously negotiated” w respect to openness, and how to capture that in research. By doing what Bonnie Stewart did, observing people over time, by interviewing them over different periods of time, by looking at some of their blogposts from years ago and asking them to reminisce and reflect in context of then and now?

    1. These are great ideas Maha. I’ll also check with Angel Pazurek – a colleague who used phenomenology for her dissertation research. She might give us some good ideas too. As far as I remember, she did interviews and asked research participants to write about their lived experience (reflecting on the past and present) for the study. We can also use our blogs for researcher reflections?

        1. Ok, so Angel used “personal narrative accounts shared through individual interviews, written lived experience descriptions (van Manen, 1990, p. 63-66), and other digital media artifacts created as part of the learning activities while the course was in progress.” She also kept a journal to document her reflections (we are already doing this with our blogs). Her research questions were:

          (1) What is it like to be an adult learner in online learning environments? (2) What is it like to experience engagement in online learning environments? and (3) How do various elements of learning online and dynamics of the learning environment influence adult learners’ feelings of engagement?

          Jolie Kennedy, another colleague in my PhD program, also used the same approach with the addition of think-aloud observations. Her research question was: “How might connectedness take shape in personal learning networks?”

          Perhaps we can distribute a survey (snowballing sampling) on Twitter, via email and on our blogs to understand why people engage in “unpaid” or “voluntary” open scholarship (can we capture the open self with this? I’m just throwing out ideas here) and ask people to join our study? We need to have a method to work with a small groups of participants though. I think Angel had a criteria she used for inclusion in the study.

          Citations: Pazurek-Tork, Angelica L.. (2014). A phenomenological investigation of Online learners’ lived experiences of engagement. Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy,

          Kennedy, Jolie. (2016). Being, Belonging, and Becoming in Immersive Complexity: A Post-Intentional Phenomenological Analysis of Connectedness in Doctoral Students’ Personal Learning Networks. Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy,

          1. Just letting you know i have read this but can’t respond fully just now (end of semester grades due tomorrow, and Ramadan starts too…) but i really think the angle of volunteer vs paid open is interesting even though it’s not the core question we have…it’s an interesting one to ask, i think. Will probably blog eventually. Or we could meet and talk

            1. So coming back to this today. Thinking there are SO MANY angles we could take but i am really intrigued by this paid vs volunteer thing. Even academics who aren’t “open” in other ways will probably do some unpaid labor such as writing or reviewing or mentoring, right? I don’t know if someone has written about that already, academically…

              1. I think this would build on Bonnie and Catherine’s work really nicely. We could at least use their work as a starting point. I sent you a bunch of DMs to get started on this:)

  2. great post Susan – it articuales much of my experiences, practice and reasons for identifying as an open practitioner. Boundaries are tricky – I struggle with balancing my internal and external boundaries. Too much open/visible outwith internal structures can be frowned upon but for my personal (and ergo professional) development and sanity I need those increasingly open and personal connections.

    1. Thanks for the comment Sheila! I hear what you say about personal development – this is definitely something we need to explore in this study. I have some questions to ask about your comment but I’ll probably send you a direct message. 🙂

      1. no problem, happy to help if I can

  3. Hi Suzan
    A really stimulating post. I finally got round to replying to this as a blog post
    Looking forward to developing the conversation.

    1. Thanks Helen, I’m heading right there! 🙂

      PS. After reading Maha’s response I thought I use boundaries in different ways here: (1) as a strategy to make sense of chaos (my Twitter use), and (2) to draw limits to something (research). So the boundaries of openness is ill-defined for me, but our research will have limits (at the end of a long messy process I’m guessing).

  4. Hi Suzan – apologies for my delay in replying (it’s been a busy couple of weeks). However, I’m delighted to see that the conversation has continued here, as well as in Maha’s & Helen’s blogs. I’ll be heading over to those shortly 🙂

    At OER17, and again here in your post, you’ve highlighted how Palmer’s work resonates strongly with our collective work in the area of open educational practices. Thank you for sharing this. Martin Weller also wrote recently about ‘The Paradoxes of Open Scholarship’ — a post I find myself quoting a great deal lately. You and Maha and Helen have identified a valuable area for additional research.

    You asked for ideas re: conducting this research. A few thoughts come to mind. Firstly, I think the notion of meaning-making is key. How do participants define, for themselves, the concept openness? Methods such as phenomenology (as you are considering) and constructivist grounded theory (as I have used) are well-suited to this objective. For example, I did not ask participants in my study about their use of open practices, I simply asked about the digital tools & spaces they used for learning, research and teaching (what/how/why) and then followed their narratives and reflections re: practices, values, pedagogy, openness, privacy, etc.

    Secondly, as you consider boundaries, it may be useful to consider a range of participants… not just gender, race, age, etc., but also experience. I learned as much, for example, from participants who did not use OEP as those who did — whether it was someone adamantly against openness, or someone who’d considered (or experimented) with OEP but then chose to step back. That range was incredibly useful for my study; other types of diversity of experience may be useful for yours.

    Sorry for the length here… you obviously got me thinking 🙂 Many thanks for engaging with and sharing my work and the work of so many others. You are building a wonderful fabric of ideas and reflections as you design & develop your research ideas. This has benefits for the research, of course, but also for us all. Thank you!

    1. Hey Catherine – I remember Suzan and I discussing that part: the value of including/interviewing people who choose not to be open. Let me say I think of people who are not open on two fronts: people who have the technical ability and digital literacy to be open but choose not to, and people who are open in their personality but not digitally (whom I still consider open; I dislike the way some people make it as if the Internet is what enabled openness ; openness existed way before the internet, but Internet esp 2.0 helped it a whole lot). I wonder if these two categories are reductionist and there are other folks who for example have both the personality and digital literacies but have institutional or personal constraints on the extent to which they can be open at this point in their lives (contextual, continuously negotiated as Catherine says)

    2. Thanks a lot Catherine, you have given us some really good suggestions here. I haven’t had a chance to talk with Maha about our methods but one thing I find intriguing is following participant narratives and reflections to understand the open self. That is a very sensitive approach that might help us see the big picture and avoid assumptions.

      I will look into constructive grounded theory, thanks for the resource. 🙂 And now heading to Martin Weller’s post!

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