Embracing the Tension of Open: Gardner Campbell's "The Wicked Problem of Open Learning"

Embracing the Tension of Open: Gardner Campbell's "The Wicked Problem of Open Learning"

March 2, 2018

Missed the Student/ Faculty Panel or Gardner Campbell's talk? Follow the links to watch.

(Picture by @karencang)

On Friday, February 16th, professor and speaker, Gardner Campbell presented his talk, “The Wicked Problem of Open Learning” at Plymouth State University. As first year seminar students at PSU are working to analyze various “wicked problems,” the Center for Transformation hosted Gardner’s talk in order to connect the work of these students to the Open Education movement.

Gardner Campbell is currently an Associate Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. For nearly three years he served as Vice Provost for Learning Innovation & Student Success and Dean of the University College. Gardner has worked with and studied teaching technologies for over twenty-five years. He has served as a member of numerous advisory boards as well as the governing board of the New Media Consortium” (Center for Transformation).

Gardner began by describing some common qualities of wicked problems: they are unable to be articulated (distressing for someone writing a blog post about it), you can’t understand the problem until you’ve developed a solution, there is no end, solutions aren’t right or wrong, there is no possibility for shared understanding, and solutions cause more wicked problems. Gardner also explored the meta quality of “wicked problems,” ie: the definition of “wicked problem” is a wicked problem, the discussion of wicked problems is a wicked problem, and so on.

I found my head spinning, wondering when the wicked problems would end (clearly, I didn’t listen, because he had already told me that there is no end to a wicked problem). But, Gardner didn’t simplify, because the denial of complexity is a wicked problem in and of itself. He related this back to Open Education (OE). In short, denying the complexity, or expecting simplicity, of Open Education is a wicked problem.

What are some of the complexities of Open Education? Before Gardner’s talk, there was a panel of students and faculty answering questions about their experience with OE in the classroom. Some of the discussion included challenges of OE. Ann McClellan, an English professor at PSU, spoke about the surprising disconnect she discovered between students and their understanding/ willingness to be involved in their own learning process. Ann found that a surprising amount of students didn’t want to make their own rubrics, grades, assignments, and assessments. Another English professor, Abby Goode, discussed how challenging it was to relinquish control of the classroom, and allow students to post their imperfect work or make mistakes. To deny these challenges would be denying the complexity of OE, which is— you guessed it— a wicked problem.

Gardner spoke of other complexities of OE. “Openness” is designed by many minds; there is no shared understanding of Open Education. Further, when we “open” education, we create a type of learning that has no end, because the work that we create and send out to be retained, reused, revised, remixed, and redistributed is always transforming and spreading. According to Gardner, open is a network of correspondences. These connections are risky and messy. They create more wicked problems than they solve. This sounds troublesome, but Gardner encouraged us.

The interactions involved in open may be risky and messy, but they are necessary. Rather than denying or fearing its complexity, Gardner suggested that we welcome it:

“Open social institutions are better understood, not as things but as aspirational norms. They are normative statements about how government, education, and science should be or aspire to, rather than definitions of what they are… as widely and freely as possible, Open Education should reveal, and by revealing stimulate, insight and love.”

Gardner insisted that a definition or shared understanding of Open Education is not possible or important. OE strategies turn student compliance into the discipline to work hard, with passion. The students on the panel prior to Gardner’s talk helped me understand that compliance-turned-passion. They described project-based assignments that required new skills that they had to learn on the fly— learning that they were more than willing to do, because the assignment felt valuable. Students appreciated having an audience separate from their teachers; they even welcomed the pressure to create work that they were proud of. Panelists wanted Open Education to permeate their other courses, and even gave advice to teachers interested in OE.

But, as Ann McClellan pointed out, not all students feel this passion. Rather, some feel frustrated with… well, the openness of open. They crave structure. The want their teacher, the perceived authority figure in the classroom, to just give them some answers. We can’t deny this complexity. OE is not something that all students or faculty adopt and love immediately. In fact, openness is downright uncomfortable at times. Even the audience at Gardner Campell’s talk felt the tension of open with how he ended his presentation. Or rather, how he didn’t end his presentation.

After speaking about the connections made in open learning, Gardner played “Stand by Me.” The audience was silent. We waited for the song to end. When it did, he didn’t stand up. We waited for a conclusion, the beginning of a Q&A, anything. There was nothing. An audience member practically begged for Gardner to talk about his lack of ending, and he did, but it was a freshman student that suggested an amazing interpretation:

“There was no conclusion... There was that moment of awkwardness where you’re looking at everybody around you. You don’t know what’s going on… But in reflecting back on how it could relate to this idea of openness, there is no ending to a wicked problem. There needs to be a continuous discussion, so I really liked that you kind of just sat down and it created this tightening in your chest… because it makes you question how deep our mind is set on taking what we are given.”

Even proponents of open felt the tightening in their chest when Gardner simply sat down. Even we find openness uncomfortable. We are so used to “taking what we are given,” even at academic presentations. But after tension and awkwardness, the audience filled that open space with exploration, discussion, and questions. One audience member concluded that, although it is uncomfortable at times, “if you leave open space, that’s where interpretation and creativity— the revealing— that’s where it happens.”

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