Risks of Openness

“Recognition of the complexities and risks of openness, as well as its potential benefits, should inform open education practice and policy. A critical and reflexive approach is essential.”


~ Open Education, Open Questions, Catherine Cronin.

It is important to acknowledge that any understanding of openness is highly personal and contextualised, and to appreciate that there is no standard definition of openness to which we must comply. Catherine Cronin has described openness as a continually negotiated space, a constantly negotiated practice. We all experience openness from different perspectives, depending on different intersecting factors of power, privilege, inclusion and exclusion.

For example, while some people may benefit significantly from engaging with peers through social media, others may feel uncomfortable or unsafe sharing their practice publicly through blogs and social media. Women, people of colour, LGBT+ individuals and marginalised groups may be discriminated against, harassed or targeted through social media channels.

In his 5Rs for Open Pedagogy Rajiv Jhangiani identifies Risk as being one of his values for Open Pedagogy.

“Risk is ever present with open pedagogy, from the platforms that we utilize that mine and monetize our intellectual labour and the digital footprints that we require our students to leave in the course of their education to the open sharing of unpolished ideas and practices that leave us exposed and open to criticism and judgment. Open pedagogy involves vulnerabilities and risks that are not distributed evenly and that should not be ignored or glossed over. These risks are substantially higher for women, students and scholars of colour, precarious faculty, and many other groups and voices that are marginalized by the academy.”


5Rs for Open Pedagogy, Rajiv Jhangiani, Ph.D.

Cynthia Mari Orozco has also pointed out the importance of students having a critical understanding of what open practice means.

Systemic Barriers and Structural Inequality

Many systemic barriers and structural inequalities exist in open spaces and communities and we need to be aware of the fact that open does not necessarily mean accessible to all. Open spaces and communities are not without their hierarchies, their norms, their gatekeepers and their power structures. Far too often our open spaces replicate the power structures and inequalities that permeate our society.

Wikipedia‘s problem with gender balance provides a notable example of exclusion and systemic bias in an open space. Wikimedia is an open community that anyone can contribute to in theory, however in reality there are many factors that prevent certain groups from entering this space.  In the case of women editors, former Wikimedia Foundation executive director Sue Gardner identified a range of systemic factors that discourage women from contributing to the encyclopedia, including lack of time, lack of self-confidence, aversion to conflict, and the misogynistic atmosphere of the community. In addition, the very principles which underpin the encyclopedia discriminate against marginalised groups. Wikipedia is based on citation, yet in fields where women and people of colour have been historically excluded, or their contribution has been neglected or elided, it is much harder to find reputable citations that are critical for the creation of good quality articles. Any article that is deemed to be inadequately cited runs the risk of rapid deletion, thus replicating real world power imbalances, privileges and inequalities.

In an article titled “The Dangers of Being Open” Amira Dhalla, who leads Mozilla’s Women and Web Literacy programs, wrote:

“What happens when only certain people are able to contribute to open projects and what happens when only certain people are able to access open resources? This means that the movement is not actually open to everyone and only obtainable by those who can practice and access it.

Open is great. Open can be the future. If, and only when, we prioritize structuring it as a movement where anyone can participate and protecting those who do.”


~ The Dangers of Being Open, Amira Dhalla.

When practicing in the open, we need to be aware of our own privilege and be sensitive to those who may experience openness differently, and we need to use that privilege to address the systemic barriers and structural inequalities that may prevent others from engaging with open education and to enable everyone to participate equitably, and on their own terms.

Further Reading

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[Featured Image: –open–, Jeremy Brooks, CC BY-NC, flickr]