Opening Doors with Open Pedagogy: Access, Imagination, and Student Engagement

Opening Doors with Open Pedagogy: Access, Imagination, and Student Engagement

On August 10, I was invited to present a keynote address to the Affordable Learning Pennsylvania (ALPA) summit. The text of the keynote is below.

An interesting thing happened on the way to writing this keynote. I began reading—or more accurately, listening to—a book called Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. The book was recommended to me by a dear friend in England who is on again, off again ill with what I can only believe is a contagion of our times—the desperate politics, the withering environment, the regressive wars, the pandemic that stood us all still for awhile, the ongoing unkindness of people toward one another. And yet, despite her persistent bouts of fever and weakness and restless, unproductive sleep, I can easily and with entire confidence say that she is the most hopeful person I have met in all of academe.

Her recommendation of the book came by way of a short video sent on WhatsApp, where we tend to communicate. The backdrop of her six-minute chat into the camera was Kenilworth Castle, near Coventry where she lives, and a place that she and I both pilgrim to when we need reminding of wonder, imagination, and stamina. She said of the book that it was giving her a new way of looking at things, a sense of how imagination can be strategic, an intellectual activity that is at once playful and a source of joy. And also a way toward the work of justice she and I try to do.

There really needs to be a lot more joy in academe. A lot more hope, too. And we need more justice everywhere.

Anyway, as I started reading—er, listening to—the book, I was mesmerized by how it began.

If I may:

Here you are, in the cycle between the past and the future, choosing to spend your miraculous time in the exploration of how humans, especially those seeking to grow liberation and justice, can learn from the world around us how to best collaborate, how to shape change.
As I am gathering and writing this book, there is a trail of ants moving along the ceiling of my room, and the sounds of a small jungle town coming in and out of the screened open windows, birds cawing, laughter, children’s delight emerging from that, then tears. A car backfires and I flinch, a lizard peeks at me from the door. (1)

adrienne maree brown continues her narration about the where and when she’s experiencing as she writes, and while she does she makes no declarations about why she’s starting her book this way. The reader may assume that she’s painting a picture of the origin of the book, that space and time from which it emerges and thereby illustrating a practice of appreciative emergence. We might also read this and consider that the author is a poet and an artist, and so the details of life around her matter, provide context for her thoughts and the recommendations she’s bound to make.

But there at the start of the book, if we make no assumptions about where she is going, then all we know is where she begins.

And so, in a similar vein, I want to begin where I am.

This is different for me, of course. As I write this, I’m aware that I’ll be reading it out. To you. And it will be accompanied by slides with a theme of images that may prove distracting, or alluring, or comforting. At the moment of writing this, I’m thinking that the theme will be bears. But we’ll see. It might not be bears. (It’s kinda bears.) Either way, I’m writing now what I’ll be reading later, and my circumstance will be quite a bit different by the time you hear what I have to say.

I can tell you that I am sitting at the desk where I will be reading from. It’s in my small apartment in Denver, that I share with my boyfriend. Today has been seasonably warm, and we’ve kept the air conditioning on, which means I’m also bundled up in a sweatshirt. There are no bird sounds, no sounds of children, but I anticipate later the swimming pool outside my window will be peopled by a Saturday evening crowd, whose splashing and boisterous laughter will filter up through my windows.

A friend of mine called earlier. He will get the monkeypox vaccine today. Another friend has been ignoring my texts. Another peppers me with comments about bunnies, who are her personal army against despair.

I moved into this apartment last November quite suddenly, and so it’s only sort of the kind of choice I’d make for an apartment. Very clean lines. White and granite everywhere. Manufactured wood floors. My furniture tends to be a bit more comfortable than the austerity invited by the design of this place. Some of my furniture you’ll be able to see behind me when I deliver these words to you.

Why do any of these details matter? Why does it matter the time and place of my writing these words?

adrienne maree brown—whose full name I keep saying because it’s a name worth saying in full each time—wrote on Facebook in October 2017:

we are living in impossible times. if it were fiction it would be critiqued as hyperbolic. if it were nightmares we would never sleep. we are living in times created by our own species…[But] our visions are ropes through the devastation. look further ahead, like our ancestors did, look further. extend, hold on, pull, evolve.

2017 she wrote that. Before the pandemic. Before Brexit. Before the January 6 insurrection. Before the war in Ukraine. Before so many things that have altered the way we see the world today. Before these impossible times.

And yet her words remain exactly the right words for today’s mad, mad, mad, mad world. “look further ahead.” “hold on.” “our visions are ropes through the devastation.”

This is why it’s important to start from where we are, wherever that is, however we are feeling, whatever kind of weather or birdsong our day started with or didn’t start with. Because the beginnings of things are important if we are to understand our world enough to be able to look further ahead. To recognize that our visions are ropes through the devastation, and not useless, romantic imaginings.


Here’s the thing. I don’t usually talk about open pedagogy. And by that I mean I pretty much never talk about open pedagogy. I tend to talk about digital pedagogy of various kinds, and certainly open pedagogy falls under that category—OER being primarily digital in manufacture—but I also don’t really talk about digital pedagogy either.

What I really talk about is people. My epistemology is bound to education and justice. Everything else rolls out from there.

So, when I sat down to write this, the first thing that happened was a bit of posturing. Then some panic. Then a whole lot of confusion.

See, my writing method is an infernal one. I know every time I start to write something like this keynote that I will inevitably come to a place where I feel great about it and then I’ll keep writing and I’ll feel a kind of delighted righteousness overcome me. “I am saying all the right things,” I’ll tell myself. “This will wow them!” And then the inevitable evening comes with the shadows of doubt showing like flickering behind candlelight, and then a night of sleep so that by morning I have not only lost confidence in what I’ve written, but I have full confidence that I have written the wrong thing.

And then I start over.

This that I’m reading to you is my startover. And what I find with each startover is that I become more honest. More honest about my beliefs, more honest about what I don’t know, and more honest about what I think really matters.

And in this case, draft after draft after draft—sometimes bordering on panic—I come back to this: that open pedagogy should be a means through which teachers create space for students to dream something new about education.

Wallace Stevens writes in “The Plain Sense of Things”:

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination…

He calls this end of the imagination an “inevitable knowledge.” In my years of teaching, in my time as an instructional designer, and in these past several months as an executive in edtech, I’ve found that, no matter our roles, no matter our projects, no matter our relationship to the very great hope of education as a practice of freedom, we anticipate this moment of inevitable knowledge. We plan—knowingly or unknowingly—the demise of productive creativity under the weight of what must happen.

That “what must happen” may be something like grades, or standardized assessment—those things which our methodologies feel trapped by; but the “what must happen” can also be authority—that the teacher knows all, or that students must come to master what the teacher knows. In my current circumstance, “what must happen” is about the bottom line, about profitability, about market fit.

These are not themselves bad things. But they represent a “return / To a plain sense of things … an end of the imagination.” And, like Stevens’ poem, we don’t approach this inevitable knowledge with hopelessness, not even necessarily with resignation. But we approach it like the minnow approaches a hungry walleye: we are small before those things that must happen.

The problem I’ve always had with open education is its lack of imagination. OER provides access for students to textbooks and written or otherwise graphic knowledge that is the same knowledge schools have always provided. The wisdom that OER produces is not new, only the format is; the textbook persists. What is created keeps education exactly where it is.

Me and my colleague, Jesse Stommel, once wrote that:

The pedagogical value in openness is that it can create dialogue, and can deconstruct the teacher-student binary, by increasing access and bringing together at once disparate learning spaces. Openness can function as a form of resistance both within and outside the walls of institutions. But open education is no panacea. Hierarchies must be dismantled — and that dismantling made into part of the process of education — if its potentials are to be realized. (“If Freire Made a MOOC: Open Education as Resistance”)

In other words, simply offering open access, creating OER, or teaching within the context of an open web are not enough. Open must mean something different.

Rather than assume with the same resignation of a minnow before a walleye the inevitable failure of the imagination, I prefer to listen to adrienne maree brown and my friend in England. I would rather look at the ruins of a castle and see the roses springing up all around. To see beginnings everywhere.

When I talk about pedagogy of any sort, I talk from the beginning. I ask people to look at where things start, not where things have come to. I do this in the spirit of the Zen “beginner’s mind”—that principle that says starting from an innocent zero, a blank slate, is not only the best way to see what really is, but also to dream up what may be.

But I also do this in the spirit of what Maxine Greene says when she writes: “to learn and to teach, one must have an awareness of leaving something behind while reaching toward something new” (Releasing the Imagination, 20). When we begin with a blank slate, we need first to wipe it clean, and so we start without our assumptions, and with a gleeful, placid, or even begrudging openness to new ideas and emergent possibilities.

We start with the beginnings of things to remind ourselves that something still can happen. Every new morning, every new revision, each project, each conference—there is no possibility without the places we start.

The beginnings of things are important. Today can be a beginning.

Paulo Freire reminds us that:

There is no tomorrow without a project, without a dream, without utopia, without hope, without creative work, and work toward the development of possibilities, which can make the concretization of that tomorrow viable. ("Some Reflections on Utopia," 25)

I’ve always loved that Freire was willing to talk about utopia, and that he was willing to talk about hope, and about anger, too. That he equated human emotion with a real and important aspect of the intersection between learning and teaching; he didn’t talk about the brain, or cognitive science. He spoke about education as if it were something other than an institutional or empirical endeavor. A human endeavor, and therefore somewhat unpredictable, always as flawed as it is perfect.

Freire is saying that it’s our work that carries us into tomorrow. Your work, my work, students’ work.

I want to know what your projects are. And I hope at the end of this talk you’ll tell me—what moves you into tomorrow each day. Because where we start is on a day when the sun is shining and birds are singing and children are playing, but it is also a new day in a land burdened by fear and hate and violence and confusion. What project carries you from day to day in the world you inhabit?

The project that has carried me from tomorrow to tomorrow has been pedagogy. Critical pedagogy, but also open pedagogy which rises from critical pedagogy. And also students have been my work. And imagination.

I think here we need to explore what the project of open pedagogy is. And how it relates to student engagement, how it is different from the project of providing access, and why imagination is absolutely entirely 100% without a doubt vital to the production of tomorrow.

So let’s consider this idea of open. In doing so, I want to position it as an alternative to inclusion. As in “diversity, equity, inclusion,” the aphoristic “DEI” that slips off the tongue now of every administrator and CEO and philanthropist and well-meaning educator.

I’ve long had a problem with the notion of inclusion. I wrote last year that:

Liberating pedagogies for those whose teaching or design is supported by their privilege are pedagogies which give marginalised people access to a relationship to privilege. In other words, we who stand at or nearer the centre can give others access to that centre. This, though, doesn’t change the fact that we who stand at the centre are in control.

Put simply, in order to be inclusive, someone needs to do the including, and usually that’s someone who either fits exactly or ideologically the description of an old white guy (says the old white guy). But more importantly, the expectation of inclusion is that those included will adapt to the space made by those doing the including.

See, even when we welcome marginalised people to our institutions, our classrooms, our conversations, we usually ask them to shuffle off enough of their identity as marginalised in order to adapt to the expectations we will inevitably have for them: which is not just to blend in, to practice respectability, but to preserve enough of their marginal identity to remain marked as ‘other’.

In an Hispanic-serving school, for example, the institution not only needs students to identify as Hispanic, it needs Hispanic to be a category of otherness (never mind that many Hispanic-assigned students don’t use that term to identify themselves). Without that marker of difference, inclusion cannot be achieved.  

For these and other reasons, I’ve always thought we need another word for “inclusion,” something that identifies a space where a multiplicity of identity can thrive, where difference blossoms and informs and collaborates.

And I guess, in this moment writing this, what I’m proposing is that “open” can and should replace “inclusion,” and that our institutions should strive for diversity, equity, and open. Not “openness,” because that’s too descriptive. I think just “open,” because that makes us scratch our heads. As if Gertrude Stein wrote down “open is open is open,” and each repetition of the word was an iteration of its meaning, rewriting, revising, even obliterating the meaning immediately previous.

As I said, my epistemology is bound to education and justice; and so there can be no discussion of open pedagogy without a focus on what it means for justice. And if we want to talk about student engagement, we have to start from where students really are, and how they believe we can help.

If I may, I want to jump in quickly with some words from some students.

At a recent Course Hero event, I moderated a panel of undergraduate students. I gave them very little direction, the purpose of the panel being to give these students a platform to offer unfiltered advice and feedback to teachers. Among the advice, Muna Sultana of Franklin and Marshall College noted that it’s important to:

Recognize when a student is being vulnerable enough to come to you with a problem. Sometimes they don’t want a solution; oftentimes they just want you to be aware that there is something going on in their life.

Muna also observed that for most college students—residential or not—college is home, and they need to feel safe there.

Recommendations also included making assignments and assessments flexible, encouraging collaboration and co-teaching amongst students, and recognizing when invisible disability makes learning more challenging.

In a recent piece from Harvard Business Publishing, students spoke about barriers to engagement. Almost all of these reported problems with the reliance on lecture as an instructional method, on the need for teachers to adapt to new technologies, and the very different circumstances of students’ lives.

Yonas Kemal of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offered:

COVID-19 has identified fundamental flaws in what is in some ways an archaic higher education model. This period was difficult for professors, however, those who are not able to adapt by trying new teaching methods, learning new digital tools, or working directly with students in a hybrid environment will find much less enrollment in their courses and engagement in their classrooms.

Students have had to adapt to the shifting landscape of technology even as universities have struggled to gain a perch on that landscape. But it’s not simply technology that’s changed students’ lives.

In fact, we know a lot more about students’ lives now than we used to. The soft-focus picture of university life hasn’t been a reality for a long time for most students. In fact, it’s only a minority of students who get to spend four years living on a campus, dedicating their lives to their studies. According to Sara Goldrick-Rab and Jesse Stommel,

Today’s college students are the most overburdened and unsupported in American history. More than one in four have a child, almost three in four are unemployed, and more than half receive Pell Grants but are left far short of the funds required to pay for college.” (“Teaching the Students We Have Not the Students We Wish We Had”)

Additionally, of 195,000 college students who responded to the 2020 #RealCollege Survey from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, nearly 3 in 5 experienced basic needs (food or housing) insecurity. Among those, 70% of Black students, 75% of indigenous students, and 65% of LBGTQ students experienced basic needs insecurity.

Recognizing these very real facts about students’ lives is necessary if we want to consider any pedagogical approach. While OER might alleviate some of the burden of debt associated with college, an open pedagogy concerned with free textbooks doesn’t even scratch the surface of these issues. And it doesn’t and can’t possibly solve for student engagement if students are too tired or hungry to read the free textbook we offer them.

If we are concerned about student engagement, I think there are two immediate solutions: Ask students why they aren’t engaged, and listen to the answers.

And a third solution: change the way we teach in response to those answers.

When we think about where to start, then, maybe it’s not with where we are at, but rather where students are at. Maybe where I am when I’m sitting here writing this keynote is not nearly as important as where you are when you are listening to it. Or where you were before you arrived here this morning. If we listen to those who are meant to listen to us, we might find better ways to speak to them.

The solutions to these problems lie inside students themselves. And that’s why they need open spaces in which to learn, to grow, to imagine.

Simple. Right?

Except it’s not. Listening to students seems right, seems easy, seems logical. But then we remember the walleye and the minnow, the “inevitable knowledge” of Wallace Stevens, and we find ourselves under the weight of what must happen. Students don’t understand the pressure of teaching, they don’t understand the deep fossilized bureaucracy of grades, they don’t know what they don’t know, what they need to know, what we need them to know.

Academia can be pretty agoraphobic, nervous about wide open spaces. We’re more comfortable in corrals. So the advice to listen to students, to open up that space for their discovery, is at once simple and maybe impossible.

And if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s impossible advice, impractical hope.

So, I turn to Paulo Freire to help me remember something. He writes in “Some Reflections on Utopia”, “I am hopeful not out of stubbornness, but due to an existential imperative. Therein is rooted the impetus, as well, with which I fight against all fatalism” (26).

And I find myself back at the beginning, with my friend in England who has hope despite the contagion of the world, who visits the ruins of castles and witnesses roses, who reads a poem to me about the end of imagination and finds instead the inspiration for it.

See, there is no walleye. We are not minnows. And it’s the imagination that tells us so.

Maxine Greene, a critical pedagogist and scholar of the arts, writes in Releasing the Imagination that: “Imagination will always come into play when becoming literate suggests an opening of spaces, an end to submergence, a consciousness of the right to ask why” (25). And as I move into the last bit of this talk, and on to the subject of imagination, I think that’s the definition I want to go forward with: the imagination is a consciousness of the right to ask why.

Because when we ask why, we immediately put aside that “inevitable knowledge,” and we begin the work of inquiry. We get up to something. And it’s like our earliest learning days when our insistence felt as if it could change the world.

Why does the sun set and rise every day?
Why do birds sing?
Why aren’t there any more dinosaurs?
Why do people get sick?

Why do we grade student work?
Why lecture?
Why must all knowledge rely on evidence?
Why are students in my classroom hungry?

The question “why” in this case, though, isn’t meant for us to arrive at a single, solid answer. Not at all. The role of the imagination, Greene says, isn’t to resolve anything, but to open up a space where things may be otherwise. We don’t ask why to find out what is already known, but we ask why to point out that what is known may not be all that’s possible.

Which is the most critical activity we can undertake. “Treating the world as predefined and given, as simply there,” Greene writes, “is quite separate and different from applying an initiating, constructing mind or consciousness to the world” (23). It’s also a lot more boring, less engaging, and reinforces a way of thinking about the world that’s more about fences and gates than wide open spaces.

The challenge then is to ask why about ourselves and our own practices. And to ask why not to find the correct, the right, the traditional answer, but to ask why as a mechanism for imagining things as they might be otherwise. We might start by rearranging our classroom. We might start by exploring ungrading. We might start by using the word “open” in a way even we didn’t expect we would. We might start by setting down our lecture notes and talking to students about how the content of the curriculum feels, how it responds or does not respond at all to the lives they lead that are far far far more important than whether or not they raise their hand in class that day.

Greene also writes that, “As teachers, we cannot predict the common world that may be in the making; nor can we finally justify one kind of community more than another” (43). The problems with our open pedagogies to date have been that they reflect too completely presumptions about the common world, and we use them to justify one kind of community more than another.

adrienne maree brown tells us that we live in impossible times. Our students live in impossible times. Our schools operate in impossible times. Our days begin and end within these impossible times. When that’s the case, it can feel like a safe, logical method to stick to what is known, to concretize a reality that is a simple calculation from day to day.

But we will not bring students to the classroom, we will not engage them there, until we create an educational experience that denies no possibility, that responds to impossible times with impossible answers, impossible confidence, and impossible open.