The Deeper Ethics of Education and Open: Generosity, Care, and Relationships

Humans are fundamentally social. There are a number of ways we might attempt to prove this claim. We might argue that the highest compliment someone can be paid is to be called a “true friend.” We might argue that the noblest of all emotions is love. We might argue that the single most important technological achievements in history are the creations of communications technologies such as speech, writing, printing, and the internet. Conversely, we might argue that society’s most severe nonlethal punishment is “solitary confinement.”

The power of each of these examples derives from relationships between people. You are a friend to someone else. You love someone else. You communicate with someone else. You are punished by being prevented from interacting with anyone else.

PBS summarizes simply, “All of us need other people in order to be well and thrive. We feel better just being around other people. And we need close relationships in order to be happy.”

Our learning is also social. Michael Feldstein recently described findings of a Gallup poll on education and wellbeing:

Gallup backs up and asks the question, “What kind of education is more likely to promote wellbeing?” They surveyed a number of college graduates in various age groups and with various measured levels of wellbeing, asking them to reflect back on their college experiences. What they didn’t find is in some ways as important as what they did find. They found no correlation between whether you went to a public or private, selective or non-selective school and whether you achieved high levels of overall wellbeing. It doesn’t matter, on average, whether you go to Harvard University or Podunk College. It doesn’t matter whether your school scored well in the U.S. News and World Report rankings… What factors did matter? What moved the needle? Odds of thriving in all five areas of Gallup’s wellbeing index were:

1.7 times higher if “My professors at [College] cared about me as a person”
1.7 times higher if “I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams”
1.5 times higher if “I had at least one professor at [College] who made me excited about learning”

Again, the institution type didn’t matter (except for students who went to for-profit private colleges, only 4% of which were found to be thriving on all five measures of wellbeing). It really comes down to feeling connected to your school work and your teachers.

So feeling like your professors actually care matters? Apparently it matters a lot. Who knew?

A number of learning theorists and pedagogues have written about the social nature of learning. Perhaps most famous among these is Vygotsky and his notion of the more capable peer who supports a learner as she grows within her continually expanding zone of proximal development. Without devolving into a full-on literature review, together with Vygotsky we should mention Leontev, Luria, and particularly Werstch. John Dewey and John Seely Brown are of particular note, along with Lave and Wenger. By even starting to make the list I leave out more people than I can possibly include. Suffice it to say, much has been written on the social nature of learning.

My eventual critiques of learning objects were inspired largely by these and other thinkers talking about the social nature of learning. For example, my 2003 critique of attempts at automating education via learning objects still applies to today’s attempts to automate education via MOOCs and other means.

Many individuals and institutions pursue learning objects research with the goal of enabling anytime, anywhere learning through computer-automated assembly of learning objects personalized for individual learners (e.g., Martinez, 2003; Hodgins, 2000; IEEE/LTSC, 2001; ADL, 2003). The potential cost savings of automating instructional design are obvious. But while the model of one learner interacting with one computer matches very well with the 1970s view of computer-based instruction, an isolationist approach is at odds with what learning theorists are increasingly emphasizing – the importance of collaboration (e.g., Nelson, 1999), cooperative learning (Johnson & Johnson, 1997; Slavin, 1990), communities of learners (Brown, 1994), social negotiation (Driscoll, 1994), and apprenticeship (Rogoff, 1990) in learning. While a collection of quality content is a necessary condition for facilitating learning, it is not sufficient. If good content were enough to support learning, and human interaction were unnecessary, libraries would never have evolved into universities. (emphasis in original)

Beyond the seemingly endless proliferation of words by learning theorists and pedagogues lies empirical evidence. In his groundbreaking book Visible Learning, John Hattie provides a meta-analysis of over 800 meta-analyses, comparing the impacts on learning of 138 teacher, curriculum, school, and other influences as reported across thousands of empirical studies that met a quality threshold.

In what has to be my favorite Appendix ever Hattie lists these influences, rank ordered by the size of their impact on learning (with impact expressed in standardized effect sizes). He finds that one of the largest effects on learning, 11th of 138 overall, and the 3rd highest influence of teachers on learning, is the teacher-student relationship. He comments,

“Developing relationships requires skills by the teacher – such as the skills of listening, empathy, caring, and having positive regard for others…. Teachers should learn to facilitate students’ development by demonstrating that they care for the learning of each student as a person and empathizing with students.” (p. 118-119)

We could say more, but the point of a meta-meta-analysis is that Hattie’s 0.72 effect size summarizes the empirical evidence for us. Human relationships matter in education. When teachers know and care about their students, it makes a big difference.

With the pile of philosophical, conceptual, and empirical evidence showing the social nature of learning and the importance of human relationships (particularly the relationship between teacher and student) in learning and wellbeing, why are we working so hard to automate away any opportunity for these relationships to exist?

Teachers and faculty certainly aren’t demanding a future where teaching becomes a kind of solitary confinement attenuated only by a wispy virtual tether to their students. Students who learn less and are less happy when these relationships aren’t there, aren’t asking for it. Not even employers want this future, as they demonstrate by talking continuously about how important interpersonal and other social skills are in those they want to hire.

The only people who benefit from eliminating human relationships from learning are those who both (1) would benefit from “scaling” formal educational opportunities and (2) see teachers as a bottleneck in the scaling process. It’s a terrible shame, because there absolutely must be ways to “scale” education that preserve the opportunity for genuine human relationships of care to develop between teachers and students. If ed tech advocates, software developers, researchers, and others were putting as much time and effort into finding processes and building tools that support the creation and nurturing of these relationships as they’ve spent trying to eliminate those relationships, I think we could solve the problem.

But wait, I can hear you’re saying, isn’t this blog supposed to be about open? What does all this touchy feely relationship stuff have to do with open? Glad you asked. I was just getting to that.

As I’ve said many times, education is sharing. If you haven’t heard the refrain recently, you can listen to it again here:

While education is sharing, it’s good to be clear about what education is not. Education is not authoring. Education is not publishing. That is to say, education is more than recording a video and posting it to YouTube, even though such a video might be useful in supporting someone’s learning. (Learning is what a person does for themselves. Education is what someone else does to help you learn.)

If faculty aren’t sharing what they know with students, they aren’t educating. If they’re not sharing feedback with students – both critical and encouraging – they aren’t educating. And if they aren’t sharing something of themselves with students, they aren’t educating. And it’s this last bit, the notion of faculty sharing something of themselves with students, that gets us into the realm of the kind of relationships that make an immediate impact on student learning and make a long-term impact on students’ lives.

And herein lies, what is for me, a newly emerging connection to open. As I said above, the core ethic of open is sharing. But it’s becoming clearer and clearer to me that all the work we do in “open” education is work directed toward figuring out how to share more completely and more effectively – figuring out how to be more generous, as I say in the video above. The open licenses that underpin so much of what we do in open education are nothing more than utilitarian legal machinery that makes it easy for us to share in a world of copyright run amok. While some people almost fetishize them, open licenses are nothing more than an instrumental means to the actual end of making sharing easier.

I’m still developing my own thinking around this, but I want to think out loud for a few paragraphs. The tiny constellation of potentially copyrightable works is not the whole universe of open – not by a long shot. The ethic of open applies to other areas of life as well. We can share encouragement, share acceptance, share care and concern and empathy. Just because we don’t need to rely on licenses in order to share joys and sorrows doesn’t mean that this kind of sharing is outside the bounds of being open. In fact, perhaps the degree to which we invite anyone and everyone into the circle of our care and concern is the degree to which we are true to the deeper ethic of open.

Sharing a digital resource – something which you can do automatically, at no cost to you, without paying any attention to it happening, and without suffering any loss of access to the resource you shared – is the simplest and easiest form of open. There may be an opportunity cost, but there’s very little or no real cost. Openly licensing and sharing digital content is a form of being open that we definitely need to encourage and support, but surely placing an open license on a piece of digital content, like a photograph, is not the pinnacle of being open. It’s the point of departure, not the destination.

Perhaps the deeper ethic of open has to do with more comprehensive sharing – a sharing that includes, in addition to digital resources, resources which are infinitely more dear and precious. Things like our attention, time, care, talents, and devotion. If that is true, then when understood in the context of open education, the deeper ethic of open also points directly toward human relationships.

…and that is the connection I want to make.

  • Authoring and publishing are helpful, but insufficient on their own to rise up to the level of what deserves to be called education. We’re not being true to the deeper ethic of education until we are sharing something of ourselves with students and building those genuine relationships that are transformative for learners.
  • Applying open licenses to copyrightable works is terrific, but insufficient on its own to rise up to the level of what deserves to be called “being open.” To be true to the deeper ethic of open we must be generous and open-hearted, feeling a sense of love, care, and responsibility for all humanity.

Both education and openness, in their deepest and truest senses, seem to converge on relationships of generosity and care between human beings. I think that’s important. It has implications for the future of open education, which to be true to both “open” and “education” needs significantly more intellectual and financial investment in understanding how to enable and support the development of these relationships of generosity and care.

Now that’s worth getting out of bed in the morning for.

6 thoughts on “The Deeper Ethics of Education and Open: Generosity, Care, and Relationships”

  1. Thanks for the timely post. I have noticed in my own teaching that anything I do establish that openness, both in terms of being open, warm and caring with others and to help them do so with each other and me, pays big learning dividends.

  2. Thank you for this beautiful post, making those connections. I wonder what it is about openness that many academics resist: is it an enculturation to be closed or a personality or a legitimate fear?
    I have a post coming out on hybridped soon about my perspective on embodying openness as digital praxis – but i don’t know if every person i know is willing or able to do this. I am trying to figure out if we the “open” are truly able to influence everyone else or preaching to ourselves to be more and more open, thus more and more distant? Even with the openness as generosity – it is not always well received by colleagues (students are thankfully another matter)

  3. Great inspiration and just in time to help shape my thinking about a mentoring programme.

  4. Of course, education is an important element in the formation of the person. Therefore, the selection and direction of the institution of education is very important.

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