(etmooc) On openness and panopticism

“Panopticon,” cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by chad_k

A year or two ago a student came into my office and told me about some podcasts he had been listening to, which consisted of some lectures by a well-known philosopher as part of one of his university courses. The student then asked me why I didn’t put my lectures out on podcasts, or make them public in some other way.

I don’t remember what I said. But I do remember what I felt: apprehension. And some fear. I couldn’t imagine, at the time, doing such a thing.

Now I can, and largely through my experience in ETMOOC I’ve become very interested in the idea of “openness” in education and want to start doing some of this myself. Of course, “open” means different things in different contexts (here’s a nice post explaining some of them, and here’s an even larger list of various “opens”) , but I’m considering things such as posting and licensing many of my course materials for re-use, as well as possibly opening up a course to outside participants the way Bryan Jackson did with his high school Philosophy course.

The value of open education

There are plenty of good things about opening up your teaching and learning materials, space, interactions, etc. Bryan Jackson explains something good that happened as a result of having an open Philosophy course, in this video. Barbara Ganley had an interesting experience from a writing assignment in her class posted publicly on a blog (see “A Writing Assignment Gets Personal,” on this site).

David Wiley, in a presentation on open education called “Openness, Disaggregation, and the Future of Education” (the keynote for the 2009 Penn State Symposium for Teaching and Learning) gave several examples of things he had done recently in his courses to make them more open. Among them:

  • He required that all students’ written work must be made public on the course blog. One result of this was that Stephen Downesa prominent Canadian researcher, blogger, cMOOC facilitator, and editor the popular newsletter OLDaily (online learning daily)–had read some of the work and highlighted a few posts, sending them out to thousands of his followers in the OLDaily newsletter. Wiley noted that the following week, much of the students’ writing got longer, better, and more thoughtful. Such improvement came much better this way than just encouraging students to write more carefully and address issues more deeply through the instructor’s comments.
  • He wrote up a script for a fake sitcom (situation comedy) tv show, to show differing viewpoints on opening up “learning objects” (what are now called open educational resources, I think). He put this up on a course wiki, and some of the graduate students in the course started writing in new characters in order to give even more perspectives. They hadn’t asked or said they were going to do it, but just did. This was, he stated in the talk, a great way to get students involved in creating learning materials for the course itself.

My experiences in ETMOOC are good evidence as well: I now have a much wider network of people to talk to about teaching and learning, and educational technology, because this course is open to anyone who wants to join and participate. I have more comments on my blog, many more twitter interactions, more people to help answer questions (I just ask the Twittersphere and answers come quickly), more links to helpful resources for my own thinking and teaching and learning, and more.

These are just a few examples of good things that can come from opening up education. I’m certain there are many more. 

In addition, ETMOOC-ers said some good things about the value of openness in a recent Twitter chat:

I can see many benefits to opening up my teaching and learning more than I’m already doing, and I expect there are more that I can’t even currently imagine.

So was I reticent before, when my student asked about podcasting my classes, only because I didn’t see these benefits then? I don’t think so.

Fear and Openness

There are many ways of making one’s courses more “open,” including just posting one’s course materials for others to see (e.g., written materials, digital presentations, video or audio of lectures); giving the materials a Creative Commons license that allows others to reuse, repurpose, and build on them; live streaming your class meetings publicly; all the way to opening out the course to any participants who want to join (see Alec Couros Social Media & Open Education course as an example, as well as Bryan Jackson’s high school philosophy course noted above). The concerns I bring up below apply to all of these, but mostly to the last two.

The apprehension I felt at the idea of podcasting my lectures wasn’t just the usual fear of being in front of a camera or having one’s voice go out into the wider world; I was a college radio DJ in university and grad school, and am don’t mind speaking into the void with the knowledge that many people (or none) might be listening. Video is still a little tough for me, but I’m quickly getting over that.

It wasn’t just a lack of confidence, a sense that no one would want to listen to my lectures when they have access to those of people who are much more expert than me on the topics they’re discussing (though there was some of that too).

There was something about potentially being watched, being observed, at any time, by anyone; but mostly, by those who could have significant influence over my future. It’s not that I worry my teaching isn’t very good, or that I think bad things would happen if those who can affect my employment see most or all of what I do in class. I actually have (and have had) fantastic colleagues, and every time I’ve had a peer visit a class it has ended up being a very positive experience, complete with helpful advice–much of which I still vividly remember and use.

I think it was partly that in having my courses be “open” it’s as if I could be undergoing a peer review of teaching at any time, all the time. 

Which means, of course, (being a Foucault scholar) that I thought of Foucault.



Panopticon, Jeremy Bentham [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault wrote a great deal about the “disciplinary society” being a “panoptic” one, referring to Jeremy Bentham’s idea for a panoptic design for a prison. Section 3.3 (“History of the Prison”) of the
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Foucault is a nice, concise explanation of Foucault’s discussion of panopticism and discipline. And here is a post that connects panopticism to social media, and starts to get to the concern I’m working towards here.

It’s not just a concern about possibly being observed at any given moment. Nor is it only that there could be a potential danger to this vis-à-vis power relations in one’s place of employment. It’s also that this situation of potentially being observed at any given moment can pressure one to change one’s own behaviour in order to bring it more in line with dominant norms. We police ourselves, rather than having to be policed. There doesn’t even have to be anyone watching for this to happen.

Now, this isn’t always necessarily bad. I agree with Alec Couros’s tweet, above, that knowing others might see my work would spur me to make it as good as possible. Plus, of course, if others saw it and commented, this could help me improve it even more.

But the potential downside is that one might be less likely to try radically new things, to experiment, to risk doing things that don’t fit with dominant views of how education is “done.” Clearly this isn’t true for everyone; there are people doing innovative things openly (e.g., many of the conspirators in ETMOOC)–though even then one usually has a community with its own norms that one is part of.

The issue would be prominent especially for those who don’t have tenured or otherwise semi-permanent positions–it’s often (though not always) in their best pragmatic interest to police themselves not to take too many risks if their work is open, though some risk-taking might be seen as positive.

So one reason some people might not be willing to be more open in their teaching and learning might be because of vulnerability. They could be vulnerable in the sense of not having a stable position, or in the sense of having a particular department or school climate that makes it such that opening their teaching could be dangerous to their position (because their colleagues may not agree with what they’re doing, e.g.).

I am fortunate in that neither of these situations applies to me, but that’s a bit of a luxury, and there are many people who don’t have it.

One more thing

I wonder if making my courses more open, in the sense of recording the sessions, would change how I conduct some of my class meetings. A fair number of them are unscripted, experimental forays into topics through (sometimes haphazard) discussion that may or may not come to a clear end point (usually not). I think of these as part of a work-in-progress, a long-term work in which I and the students are moving towards better understanding of certain issues, questions, arguments, texts. Or at least, different understanding that brings up fruitful, new ways of thinking about and approaching these things, showing further dimensions that were hidden before. This work-in-progress may last for a few weeks or months, a few years, or a lifetime. The courses, for me, are just a very small part of this process. In some ways I like that the class meetings are evanescent, short-lived; they aren’t final products in any sense and aren’t meant to be. I wouldn’t want anyone to watch one or two such meetings and get the sense that what I or anyone else says there represents anything more than a provisional test of a thought or argument. It will always change later.

Somehow, recording one’s course sessions seems to me to be making them more permanent, which goes against the way I think of the meetings. I want them to be memories only, things that change when you revisit them, just as the ideas do.

Of course, these issues exist with writing and publishing too–writing is never permanent, and one’s arguments can change radically over the course of a few years. But writing already seems more stable than a class discussion that takes place orally.


I don’t have one. I just wanted to explore why I might have been reticent to be open, and why others might be. These thoughts on panopticism and sharing things publicly are anything but new, but they may be factors for some.

As with anything, there are benefits and drawbacks to being open in teaching and learning. I think the benefits, in my own personal situation, outweigh the risks of being open (as well as the concern about “permanency” noted above). But that may not be true for everyone, and it may for reasons other than a desire to keep one’s work to oneself, or out of a lack of confidence.



  1. Nice intro to our #etmooc discussion on the open movement. Started exploring some of the links you provided, and am looking forward to making time for the others.

    One big take-away here for me is the reminder that failure and accepting the possibility of failure is part of our learning process, so the sooner we set aside our fear of failure, the sooner we create the possibility of greater learning successes.

    1. Hi Paul: Yes, the fear of failure can be a big impediment to opening up one’s work. I had that in the past, but somehow got over it (not sure how). But it’s not just that, since even if one isn’t afraid of failure oneself in a general sense, one might still suffer real, pragmatic consequences of that failure due to what others think–specifically, those who have significant influence over one’s employment. Even if someone isn’t worried about having something go badly in public because taking risks is an important part of innovating (and having lots of people see and participate in what you’re doing can bring helpful suggestions for the next time), they might still be worried just because whatever innovative thing they’re doing might not be valued by those in power.

      Like I said, I’m fortunate in that I don’t have such worries in my own position, though at times I do think that having more of “me” be public could change what people might otherwise have thought about what I’ve published, which may be good or bad. It’s at least possible that someone who thought I had interesting things to say about Foucault (e.g.) based on my publications could read my blog posts, or my twitter feed, or something else where I write about different things and more provisionally and change their mind about me generally. This could then lead them to view my publications in a worse (or better?) light. I’m not actually worried about this, I’m just using it as an example of the sort of deeper implications and possible consequences of showing more of one’s work publicly.

      Again, I think the benefits of not just showing what one does publicly, but contributing to the public sphere by making one’s work re-usable, re-mixable, and even allowing anyone who wants to to participate in one’s courses, outweigh the possible downsides. I just wanted to explore a downside that hadn’t been talked about in ETMOOC yet (at least not that I’d heard).

  2. Thanks, Christina for this thoughtful (as usual) post. I especially appreciate the lessons re: Foucault – one of the gifts of #etmooc is my introduction to philosophy and philosophers as part of the whole discussion on open, digital networked learning. An obvious gap in my own education. Glad to have some expert guides.

    I really do think you bring up a very important point. And one that I think shows up in real ways — I do hear people (graduate students who I teach) speak in class about the fear of consequences resulting from public sharing. These are very open people; they share a great deal within our trusted community. But many still do hold back in sharing publicly in ways that may demonstrate their ability to experiment, or innovate, or just think out loud. And the fear behind it is less about personal exposure, I think, than impact on their future employability.

    What is fascinating to me, as well, is how the possibility of multiple identities plays into this. I firmly believe and advocate for having/sharing an authentic self online. But I am also beginning to think about the potential of multiple “authentic” identities. A possibility more possible online that in real life. Does that change the equation at all? Is it ok — healthy, positive, beneficial — to have different identities online that allow you to innovate with less fear of repercussion?

    Anyway. Thanks for posting this – it needs to be said and explored and I think it’s an important topic. Helps to have someone like you putting it out there so elegantly and thoughtfully.

    1. Thanks, Jeff: I’m so glad you found this post thought-provoking. That’s the idea.

      I have been thinking about multiple identities a bit myself, in part related to my presence on Twitter. I’ve been wondering how much my (currently one and only) Twitter profile should be focused only on professional tweets about education and philosophy, and how much I can and should also tweet occasionally about other things in my life. I agree that having an authentic self online is important, so I’ve started to include more in my Twitter feed than just professional things. I want to appear as I really am: a person who is more than just her profession. Of course, a balance is needed; I agree with George Couros in point number 6 in this post: include some non-professional things, but don’t make them the majority of your Tweets (at least if your Twitter account is a professional one! If it’s a personal one, then different rules apply of course.)

      I’ve also toyed a bit with the idea of creating a separate Twitter account focused more on personal Tweets and Tweet chats with friends–things most of my current followers may not be that interested in. But I don’t see that affecting the concern about possible professional repercussions; it’s just a separate Twitter account that’s still public, and employers, colleagues, students, etc. could still find it. Fortunately, again, my situation is one where I don’t have to worry about this, but others may not be so lucky.

      One could, alternatively, create a second online identity with a pseudonym. I’m loathe to take that option, though I’m still not sure why. It would at least make it hard to make new connections–who wants to interact with someone who is impossible to know? That online identity would be stuck with the connections made already: those who know who is really behind it.

      So on first thought, I’m not sure that creating multiple identities solves the problem that some might face with being open online. Though perhaps they would accept a pseudonymous account more readily than I would.

      But maybe there’s another way to think about multiple online identities that I’m missing?

  3. Hey,

    just about to finish my project.

    And, as part of it, I started playing around with, and encouraging others to play around with live tweeting our classes.

    It strikes me as another aspect of opening up a classroom – both in terms of publishing content publically/semi-publically, and in terms of opening classrooms up to external influences, and engagemnt/scrutiny.

    My own experience has been, some fortunate accidents – people I didn’t expect retweeted and followed my class tweets, and, as classmates followed suit, the shared commentary on an unfolding class, and it being storified by me later, gave me access to ideas, thoughts and comments I would have missed. That’s another aspect to the openess – live tweeting your class with others opens up in class perspectives, experiences, and ideas that might not otherwise be shared.

    That’s a small two cents added to your overall idea…

    1. Thanks, Keith–good point. Openness can be valuable in this way as well: getting access to alternative ideas and perspectives. Twitter is fantastic for this. I get connected to people I would never have otherwise known, and might actually never meet in person, and they can provide extremely useful viewpoints as well as perhaps longer-term interlocutors. That goes not only for me as an instructor, but I could see it happening for students as well if classes are live-tweeted. That could be a good way for them to begin to build their own personal learning networks.

      While I’m on sabbatical there is some live tweeting going on of a course I usually teach in while not on sabbatical: Arts One. The tweets can be found on the Arts One Digital site and under the hashtag #artsone. I’m excited to be a part of that when I get back to Vancouver!

  4. Christina, this was a most fortunate post for me, as I was writing on my blog about the issue of the efficacy of a larger community on learning. One of the things that I pick up here is the value of trust in an open space. The closed communities to which we all belong and that are managed by authorities have taught us to fear openness. cMOOCs, on the other hand, minimize the role of the instructor, the overlord, and allow students to stretch themselves—often into failure, but still learning.

    Thanks for making this wonderful conversation happen and for making me wish I’d read more philosophy.

    1. Hi Keith: Yes, opening up one’s work to a wider community requires a great deal of trust. And it depends on what one’s particular situation is whether it’s safe, in a practical sense, to activate that trust. I also agree that being in so many closed communities have taught many of us to fear openness, as well as the horror stories one hears about personal safety, identity theft, etc., that show what can happen if one is TOO open. I have gone too far into the “non-open” side of things in the past myself, but am changing that lately. Still, it’s important to think about possible ramifications and decide the right balance for oneself of openness vs. keeping some things closed.

      Of course, it’s never too late to read philosophy! I realize, of course, that we all have to divide our time how we can. I often wish I had focused more on literature as well as philosophy…

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