Open Digital Practices, An Overview of
KeywordsDigital Technology Open Learning Closed Space Reflective Practice Open Education
Introduction: Open Digital Practices Defined
Open digital practices are developed, enacted, and iterated on by individuals to support engagement or their learning activity through digital technologies, defined as being devices, software, platforms, and other digital resources capable of producing and conveying digital material. Digital space is the space generated as a result of these digital technologies and material in which open digital practices are enacted. Digital spaces can be closed or open in a variety of ways (access, code, language, community practices), but it is important to note at the onset that open digital practices can move between, often problematically, open and closed spaces. Digital material refers to the generative or referenced work of the open digital practices; digital material ranges considerably text, images, audio recordings, video, and the attendant compositions that may emerge as a result of the open digital practices.
Open digital practices are largely an artificial categorization, one designed to encompass the larger space of digitally enhanced methods and activities across a range of categories; it does pose questions about the nature of digital engagement as being reproductive or responsive of the digital space itself, of the practices themselves as being adaptations or appropriations, and of the nature of open overall. These questions become increasingly important as the digital influence over the academy, and society more generally, continues to grow. Open digital practices sit within, are responding to, and are shaped by the context of an increasingly digital society. Each of these questions and points will be addressed in this entry.
Open digital practices involve the use of open or freely available online tools (e.g., search engines) and resources (e.g., Wikipedia) for learning across a range of communities, fields, and learning activities. Open digital practices are designed to enact an open inquiry about the lived world of the individual using any number of digital tools, materials, and digital spaces available to them. They are digital manifestations of practices as defined by Bourdieu and Nice (1977) in that they “tend to reproduce the regularities immanent in the objective conditions of the production of their generative principle, while adjusting to the demands inscribed as objective potentialities in the situation.”
Open digital practices, as such, are reproducing the digital space in which they are being enacted and responding to the opportunity provided by the digital space itself. This is important to note as it suggests that it is problematic to see these open digital practices as inherently stable or replicable. While they are in some way reproducing the digital space in which they are being employed, they are also iterating on that digital space in search for opportunity. With each application both the digital space and the opportunity presented therein shift, requiring a constant iteration on the open digital practices themselves. For example, the non-fixed structure and visual form of microblogging platforms, for instance, surrounding the character limit and opportunity to include emoticons, images, links, and GIF embeds, mean in turn that opportunities for constructing and communicating knowledge also evolve. Microblogging evolves to meet the changing patterns of individuals, while in turn bringing about further changes. A further aspect requiring constant iteration is chronology. For example, a tweet in 2008 and one in 2016 will potentially be rendered and received differently, and the digital space, in this case the Twitter interface, in which it is rendered will vary dramatically. A further example might relate to how the nature of information sharing itself among academics or in particular communities evolves over time and influences the reception of the work under observation.
For the purpose of illustration, let us use the example of how open digital practices enable us to share details of some recently published work or a piece of ongoing research being undertaken alongside colleagues. Assuming we are able to articulate what it is that makes our worth distinctive and interesting, it is with considerable ease that we can enter words into a publishing platform or online web. The preprogrammed templates and functionality of these online platforms present our work that it is polished and professional as the research whose merits are being conveyed. A few clicks and a small number of characters later, the website has been shared through a microblogging platform to an expectant audience. However, we do need to stretch the memory too far to recall a time when the responsibility of “getting the work out there” fell to the member of the team who had shown an interest in HTML, a talent that was often being nurtured through his or her own personal website. Most of us will be familiar of occasionally encountering these sites and, after reducing the brightness of our screen, noting how starkly they contrast with the clear sophistication and built-in eye-for-design of contemporary web spaces. On these occasions, we have to work hard to avoid concluding that the research described in a wall of bold Times New Roman on a yellow background is not similarly outdated. The point here is not to diminish the efforts of some of the earlier pioneers of open digital practices, but simply to say that as we draw on emergent digital spaces to convey knowledge, the way our content is received will be influenced by the rapidly changing representation environment in which it is encountered.
These open digital practices are methods for enacting learning across fields of digital activity. Yet, open digital practices extend beyond socialized digital learning theories (discussed in Jonassen and Land 2012) to account for solitary practices of meaning-making: the selfie, the informal path of leisurely discovery through hyperlinks, the curation of digital content, and the methods employed in generating multimedia remixes all involve open digital practices in varying degrees of sophistication. Some of these solitary practices lead to socialized interaction and the myriad practices involved in managing digital social engagement: the understanding and proper use of the digital community vernacular, constructing and iterating on one’s avatar, and collaborative online research and composition are all socialized open digital practices again in varying degrees of sophistication. Yet, it is important to note that open digital practices are methods for digital engagement across the spectrum of socialized and solitary activity.
Open digital practices involve both digital engagement and the development of digital literacy, positioned here as the ability to locate, evaluate, employ, iterate, and reflect on digital tools and materials and their impact on understanding. Open digital practices are cyclically linked to digital literacy and digital engagement; they require digital engagement to be enacted, and feedback received from this engagement in turn feeds into the learner’s digital literacy. As such, open digital practices should be viewed in concert with digital literacy and digital engagement. As open digital practices are iterative – they are both reactive in terms of feedback received from digital engagement and proactive in terms of developing practices to engage the space – they involve some degree of reflective practice.
Open Digital Practices: Context, Education, and Material
The concept of open digital practices emerges from, is influenced by, and subsumes several parallel concepts. It is through these parallel concepts that we see open digital practices visibly on display. Concepts such as open education and open learning, which both assume broad opportunities for learning and access to material, are engaged through open digital practices. Open learning is defined here more broadly than open education as a learner-centered activity where relative, but not unproblematic, autonomy exists to pursue learning through closed or open, formal or informal, digital activities. Open learning does not assume an instructional agent in the learning process. Open education is defined through the role of the instructor in the learning process, assuming that instructors guide or model learning through adherence to a structured or formal curriculum. Open digital practices are used to engage both open learning, emphasizing student autonomy, and open education, emphasizing the role of the teacher. Both provide opportunities for identifying and iterating on open digital practices.
Open education and open learning, in particular, have evolved from their initial conflation with distance learning (Rumble 1989) and, more recently, with a complex, conflated association with massive online open courses – MOOCs (Yuan and Powell 2013). MOOCs are generally defined by their large number of participants, often in the thousands, that require students to develop or iterate on their open digital practices to navigate and interact within the digital course space.
Open education and open learning account for informal and formal digital learning practices, for networked learning, for the open learning spaces in which this open learning takes place (Land and Oliver 2012), and for open practices for assessment and reflective practice (Camilleri and Tannhäuser 2013). As such, open digital practices, as positioned here, are partly the methods for enacting digital engagements in open education and open learning. Yet, open digital practices can exist outside formal educational structures like courses, curriculum, and instruction; they are not exclusive to education or learning. Rather, they are methods for the individual to engage digital space across the formal and informal and across the socialized and solitary spaces. Some of these engagements can and often does occur within educational or learning structure: with open education, open courses, and open learning being the most visible.
Open digital practices are presented here more broadly than many of its parallel concepts. For example, open digital practices share many structural elements of open educational practices, which involve the production, use, and reuse of open educational resources (OER) to stimulate open education and lifelong learning. Open educational practices suggest “the combination of open resources use and open learning architectures” (Ehlers 2011); open digital practices, when positioned in this way, become methods for engaging those open resources and open learning architectures. Tangential concepts that support this position include open courseware (OCW), open textbooks, digitized public domain material (made available through national libraries, museums, or cultural institutions, for example) with open access, and the aforementioned OER.
Open digital practices nominally diverge from open educational practices insofar as they assume neither an instructional agent in this process nor unfettered access to open educational resources. This is an important distinction. As stated before, open digital practices can be adaptations applied in closed spaces, often with closed material. They can be enacted as solitary digital engagements. As such, open digital practices span the informal and formal fields of activity, the solitary and socialized fields of activity, and movements between these. They can be enacted within an educational context or outside it.
Open Digital Practices: Constraints
This definition of open digital practice places the emphasis of open on the digital practice rather than the digital space or digital material being used in their enactment, a deliberate attempt to avoid spatial or material determinism. By doing so, open digital practices become rhizomatic methods for engaging digital space. They avoid or ignore, insofar as is possible, the structural, legal, or educational constraints of the attendant space and material. Structural constraints include the limits of the code presented in the digital space itself or the functionality around or access to the material in the digital space. Legal constraints exist primarily at the material level but extend to open digital practices: copyrighted works, orphan works, and public domain content being governed by fair use or fair dealings legislation. Educational constraints include inquiry related to the subject under investigation or the adherence of these inquiries to the curricular or disciplinary content. Many open digital practices lead to digital engagements that fall outside the boundaries of disciplinary practice, for example.
Yet, open digital practices can pass through these constraints, often problematically, toward digital engagements. For example, a digital engagement might involve using copyrighted material with a series of open digital practices: downloading the copyright material, editing the material, remixing, and disseminating the new representation via blogs or social media. Depending on the context in which it is enacted, such use of open digital practices and copyrighted material can be illegal, as copyright is balanced by fair use or fair dealing; structurally impermissible in that the downloading of the original copyrighted content is blocked; or both, as removing the software that prevents the copying of copyrighted material – DRM – or “jailbreaking” a mobile device to remove the software that restricts activity. These activities are all manifestations of open digital practices themselves. They allow the individual to make an open inquiry or seize an opportunity presented by their digital engagement. Looking beyond issues of copyright, the practice of harvesting and then hybridizing content from the open web challenges conventional notions of authorship. As Kathleen Fitzpatrick argues in her 2011 discussion of the digital future of authorship, the remix culture that we propose is a feature of open digital practices and challenges us to revisit some of the established ideas we hold around originality and plagiarism within scholarly practice. Without proposing that the ability to draw a range of content into a single text is confined to texts created within digital environments, it is the ease with which this can be achieved, alongside the vast world of resources on which we can draw, that call for us to reflect on what we mean when we talk about authorship and originality within educational settings.
While not advocating illegal activity, it is important to note that attendant practices, digital spaces, and even communities have emerged from these legal and structural constraints. For example, returning to Bourdieu and Nice (1977), hacker communities employ open digital practices to both recreate the digital space and seize opportunity within closed digital spaces. These hacking practices inevitably change as digital spaces shift in response to their hacking and opportunities evolve as a result. The open digital practices involved in those wishing to mitigate or pass through legal or structural constraints further include those privacy or anonymity practices (such as Tor) or those wishing to access material that is not actively being “crawled” by search engines (such as that found on the dark web). These examples serve to illustrate that open digital practices are often responses to the structure of the digital space itself, whether open or closed; they are open inquiries structured at least partly by openness and closure. Yet, openness itself is problematic as the next section identifies.
Open Is Problematic: Openness and Closure
While open digital practices can be positioned with relative clarity as digital methods for enacting open inquiry, the term open itself is challenging in that it suggests unrestricted space, mobility through that open space, as well as “unproblematic self-direction and autonomy” (Knox 2013). The position of open digital practices advanced here contests that suggestion. “Openness is neither neutral nor natural: it creates and depends on closures” (Bayne et al. 2016). Open digital practices allow the learner to create closures to engage open digital space: a copy and paste from Wikipedia, a remix of digital content posted to social media, a curated image board, a blog post, and the selection criteria for an audio playlist are all ultimately closures structured by open digital practices. Open digital practices challenge the pervading binaries of open learning insofar as many of these digital practices are enacted in what might be perceived as closed spaces. Closed digital spaces are positioned here as being either proprietary or spaces where the individual has little or no control over the structure of the space and the data they have generated as a result of their digital practices. For example, an open digital practice for participating in a discussion board in a gated, closed learning management system (LMS) is open practice in a closed space. The practice itself, composed of the methods for engaging in discussion online, is ported from, or influenced by, the open digital practices of the learner emerging from the more open, or less explicitly closed, spaces of digital activity.
However, open and closed exist in tandem; they are not binaries in the sense that the existence of one does not exclude the existence of the other. As mentioned, open digital practices can exist within closed digital spaces, just as closed spaces can exist within, or are indeed structured by, larger open spaces.
Open Digital Practices: Adaptation and Appropriation
The definition positioned here, that of digital methods for enacting inquiry across informal, formal, solitary, and socialized fields of activity, suggests that open equates to fluid. Open digital practices are fluid, iterative responses to and engagements with the lived world of digitally enhanced space. They evolve, not unproblematically, through iterative and reflective practice. This definition does not presuppose that all open digital practices are inherently fluid in their structuring; some are indeed sedentary insofar as they move unaltered from one digital space to another. For example, the use of less formalized vernacular from an informal affinity group (a Facebook page dedicated to amateur history and genealogy, for example) ported to a more formal digital space (an online and assessed course in history from an accredited university) will likely produce less than favorable results. Yet, the feedback received from their application in this new digital space triggers their iteration and, as such, their openness.
As such, a further distinction to be made is that open digital practices are often structurally fluid (an adaptation) or spatially fluid as in the use of an open digital practice from one community in another (an appropriation). Their openness depends on their movement and iteration across digital engagements. Building on the example described in the previous paragraph, an adaptation of an open digital practice might involve the adjustment of vernacular language used in one digital community to the context of another: the removal of emoticons and the use of (or nonuse) of abbreviations, for example. It suggests a familiarity with the digital space itself, a familiarity with the practices employed by its members, and a familiarity with the constraints provided by its structure. An appropriation might involve the porting of a vernacular language employed by one digital community in another without adjustment. For example, using emoticons in a formal disciplinary digital engagement suggests familiarity with aspects of digital practices without a fully realized digital literacy in respect to their digital space. While likely producing less than favorable results, it will generate feedback that may in turn stimulate iteration on these open digital practices. This feedback might involve criticism from members within the digital space or merely be ignored by the larger community, but both provide some measure of feedback that can be used to stimulate further iteration.
This distinction between adaptation and appropriation is important as it demonstrates the openness in open digital practices itself. Adaptations are attempts to both recreate the digital space in which the engagement is taking place while maximizing opportunity presented by their use. As such, they are sophisticated and iterative manifestations of digital literacy, an understanding of how digital engagements are to be constructed and what will be produced as a result of those digital engagements. Appropriations are less sophisticated in how they align with the recreation of digital spaces and their accompanying opportunity. Yet, both are open, insofar as the open digital practices are employed at will and with agency by the individual.
Open Digital Practices: Technology and Attendant Practices
Further, open digital practices do not restrict activity to a particular digital technology. While the digital engagements generated by mobile phones, laptops, and other digital technologies vary considerably in terms of the open digital practices used therein, the practices themselves remain open and digital. This immersiveness contributes to the interactional context that structures the digital engagement.
For example, an open digital practice used to navigate an urban space through an application on a mobile device will not ascribe to the same level of digital immersiveness as that of an open digital practice used to engage in a discussion forum from a desktop computer, yet both are fluid, iterative responses to digital engagement. Recording audio comments to a collaborative document via a mobile application is an open digital practice, yet one with a different contextual structure than providing feedback to that same document via a desktop computer with text. However, they bear the same characteristics of open inquiry of the lived world presented above. As such, they are incorporated into the definition of open digital practices presented here.
In summation, open digital practices are digital methods for enacting open inquiries in and about digital spaces through the use of digital technologies. While largely an artificial categorization, one designed to encompass the larger space of digitally enhanced methods and activities across a range of categories, open digital practices problematize the nature of digital engagement as being reproductive or responsive of the digital space itself, of the practices themselves as being adaptations or appropriations, of the digital material generated as a result as being plagiarized or authored, and of the nature of what open means in the digital overall. Open digital practices sit within, are responding to, and are shaped by the context of an increasingly digital society yet remain idiosyncratic as they are responses to the lived worlds of the individuals employing them.
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