The Positive Feedback Loop of Open Pedagogy


It is really easy to feel overwhelmed these days. The increasing corporatization and dehumanization of higher ed in the U.S. right now feels like watching a train wreck that you have no power to control. As a long-time activist for social justice, human rights and environmental issues, I am used to losing and to sometimes winning, and then maybe losing again. One step forward, three steps back. But some of us keep moving on because, as one environmental activist said when he was asked about despair, “what else would I do?”

I try to channel my inner Holly Near (“I am open and I am willing…” and other stuff about hopelessness dishonoring those who came before us).  I try to remember that you have to live a great deal of your privilege to be able to just check out, burn out and plain old disengage, and to turn my attention instead to thinking about how to leverage my privilege to enact change.  It is all really damn hard.

I haven’t thought about despair work in a long while. Long before trump, and the dismantling of higher ed right before our very eyes, there was still much to be in despair about. This feeling that the world is going to hell in a handbasket is not new. The fact that it is already too late to turn around inevitable climate change (now we just have to manage it in the best ways that we can), while utterly jarring, isn’t particularly new either. I used to read the work of Joanna Macy and others who, for decades, have focused on “befriending despair” and helping us to see that despair is actually our love for this planet. I am trying to find my way back to understanding and feeling that again. Whew.

“Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to nuclear war, none is so great as the deadening of our response.” – Joanna Macy

When I first discovered open education, it felt like a way back from despair and towards powerful change. While things have been hard lately for many reasons, Open Ed still feels like it offers the potential for something powerful.


Recently, John Warner, author of Why They Can’t Write, tweeted about the anxiety that students feel:.

I paraphrased some of this in a quote tweet that I wrote: 


Transforming pedagogy alone isn’t enough, but I think we could be doing much more to intentionally shape learning in potent ways that address both student anxiety and systemic issues.

Trust, Power, Agency and Social Change

Because (quite wonderfully) open pedagogy is so rich and multi-faceted, there is no singular definition for it.  For most of open ped’s practitioners, it includes ideas about access to and the production of knowledge. In practice, it often becomes about supporting students to find and use knowledge, create new knowledge and share knowledge with the peoples of the world.  

But what we inspire our students to produce and share makes a whole hell of a lot of difference.

I got into the open movement because of its incredible potential for social change. Yes, they worry about getting a job, but our students would like to be able to address global, systemic environmental and social problems; my students tell me this every single day. Students are angry that their debt is so high, and there is much they would like to change about institutional structures. How can we give them a better chance of having direct impacts on the issues that are important to them? Does open pedagogy offer some possibilities?

Leveraging open pedagogy means trusting students and finding ways to support their agency, and guiding them in the effective use of vehicles (domain spaces, social media, Wikipedia, etc.) to find and raise their voices. It means giving students options for the audience they want to speak to, and to share information that they choose to openly license. It means empowering students to be the change agents that they would like to be in the world. And it could mean that marginalized students glean the most value from this work. I am calling this the positive feedback loop because the work that students produce in an open pedagogy class could address (in the long term) the very issues that cause them ( and the rest of us) anxiety.

Higher education is at ground-zero in this battle for our democracy right now in the United States. It seems to me that faculty, staff and students, in our lesser funded public institutions, and in our community colleges, will increasingly be the leaders of necessary institutional changes away from privatization and towards the public good, and therefore social change more generally.

“Open is not a panacea.” – Robin DeRosa  

I remember and repeat this quote from Robin in all of my work, and I am excruciatingly aware of its truth. There are no panaceas, there is only raw material that we can grasp and attempt to transform into something meaningful.  My hope is that the potential offered by open pedagogy helps education professionals move past whatever despair we might have, and reawakens our drive and creativity to make a better world. 

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