The Cryptotheory of Open Education

In a recent paper published in ETR&D, Yanchar and Gabittas (2011) discussed the space between eclecticism and traditional orthodoxy in educational design. They argued that while eclecticism seems to offer practical advantages by allowing researchers and designers to freely pick and choose among manifest features of various theories (choosing only that which seems practical), it “ignores or discourages critical reflection regarding implicit assumptions and values” of those theories.  The authors argued that all educational designers use “conceptual design sense” which “entails an [educational] designer’s assumptions and values – often unarticulated and unexamined – about the diverse aspects of the enterprise of instructional design.” Their point was that everyone engaged in designing instruction or content is operating under certain guiding principles and ideas about concepts like knowledge, mind, agency, learning, technology, and assessment. Those (it appears rare) individuals who operate within a traditional orthodoxy generally subscribe wholesale to the assumptions and values of this orthodoxy. But the much more common eclectic usually operates within “a kind of hidden framework” informed by various traditional theories, assumptions and values. And these theories, assumptions and values “to some significant degree guide important aspects of the [educational] design process.” Yanchar and Gabittas call this hidden framework a “cryptotheory.” As evidence of the existence of cryptotheories, Yanchar et al. (2010) found that “designers reported using theoretical principles eclectically in their work, but were often vague on which ones they uses (or their names), how they used them, and what guided their choices and applications.”

To manage these issues of design sense in eclecticism, Yanchar and Gabittas (2011) proposed an alternative approach to educational design, called critical flexibility. “Critical flexibility,” they argued “calls for a critical stance towards one’s own design sense and an awareness of alternative views that may facilitate the gradual development of one’s practice.” In a word, they offered a means of becoming aware of one’s own cryptotheory.

So what does all of this have to do with open education? It seems to me (though I haven’t done a specific study on this…yet) that the people involved in designing MOOCs, open courseware, open digital courses, and other open educational resources would be inclined to an eclectic approach – an approach to educational design that draws on many theories and uses those that seem most practical. Open education is all about practicality. However, Yanchar and Gabittas have got me thinking. How much better could these OER be if their designers were more critically aware of the cryptotheories guiding their work? In the same way, how much better would research on the effect of open educational initiatives be if the researchers and the funders were more self aware of the cryptotheories under which they operate? I’ve run into this personally where it was learned after the fact (meaning: after the check had been cut) that the funder and the researcher were operating under very different assumptions about educational outcomes and even about what constitutes learning.

What’s your cryptotheory?