Blog Post

Openness (a general academic meandering of a priori issues related to the concept)


The concept of openness requires a basic shifting of the structure of education from one which is metonymical to metaphorical (the terms are borrowed from Jakobson 1956). In a metonymical structure, the sememes[1] are arranged in a linear style wherein there is a singular mono-causal path. Each portion requires the order laid out be followed. When we apply this structure to learning and education, we find that formal education, as our culture perceives it, usually follows this mode. The connections are to the preceding knowledge (based on the concept of pre-existent knowledge that Aristotle puts forward in the Posterior Analytics) and to form the pre-existent for the next section. Culturally, this has become a norm as Freud, in Civilization and its Discontents, provides a supporting argument—that where the pre-existing knowledge does not exist—i.e., a relationship does not exist between ideas, the brain compensates by creating its own (1961). We place this structure not only on the curriculum of the student in a given university curriculum, but throughout the entire educational process—assuming that it finally manifests itself in knowledge applicable to the workplace and in navigating the world itself.


There are many critiques of this structure; perhaps most problematic is that it is for the most part based on theoretical assumptions. As the saying goes, no one knows the entire curriculum except the student.[2] While each individual who thinks about education has undergone a curriculum, none have experienced every curriculum. More importantly, as many curricula on college campuses are designed by committee, those designing only know the larger issues and topics proposed leaving the student to know and navigate the curriculum.


The other structure which Jakobson places in antithesis is that of metaphor. In metaphor, the sememes are interconnected in multiple directions—in short, they form a network or web of interconnections. The relationship is unidirectional (one can move from one sememe to another, including back to a previous sememe, from any interconnecting sememe).[3] In such a model, knowledge and learning can be interconnected and the individual learner can pursue their own path. However, the opportunity and resources have to exist for the individual to follow such a path. The opportunity need not be formalized with professionally created or reviewed materials, but can be opportunity to seek knowledge from others, both those who have previously been exposed to formalized resources as well as those who have gained learning from their own experiences[4]. In a networked world, there is no closed structure that forces the learner to follow a metonymical structure. Even if we insist that we do not like the model or the open and public resources available (an argument not appropriate here[5]), the fact is, they are available and will be used.


In short, the path defines the particle. The greater the number of possible paths one can take from one point in learning, the greater the opportunities for their learning to be enhanced. As T. S. Eliot (1920) notes: “The new impressions modify the impressions received from the objects already known. An impression needs to be constantly refreshed by new impressions in order that it may persist at all; it needs to take its place in a system of impressions.” Each new piece of learning modifies the previous, and the following must connect to it to keep it vital. In a metonymy, the linear order of the sememes has mono-causal and singular points of contact (while there are two points of contact, each can only flow in one direction). The same is true of a linear curriculum; the learning is based on a previous point with only one opportunity to maintain that learning. In a metaphorical order of sememes, there are multiple possibilities which flow in multiple directions, and the relationships are homologous allowing the learner to create their own structure. It requires a creativity which itself is based on trial and error. A learning environment is a safe place where students can make their mistakes in their struggle to become creative and contributory. C. S. Peirce notes the possibility of infinite semiosis—however, an individual makes choices about where to end the process (like inference, it is a combination of experience and probability). As Henri Poincare notes, “To create consists precisely in not making useless combinations and in making those which are useful and which are only a small minority. Invention is discernment choice” (Poincare 1908). A learner is in themselves a dynamic system, constantly evolving not only in its learning, but the evolution of its universe linguistically through their idiolect. This dynamic nature reframes and reinterprets each piece of data passed on as learning. As Seth Lloyd (2006) notes: “The significance of a bit of information depends on how that information is processed. All physical systems register information, and when they evolve dynamically in time, they transform and process that information.” In this interaction both the information and the learner are in a constant state of transformation.


In terms of how this applies to an Open University, a student can enter at their point of choice and need and navigate through an individual pathway meeting their own need as they decide what the next point is. They also have access to multiple resources to help them determine the path they would like to navigate. Because sememes are interconnected, they can get to the point they would like—it will not always be a straight line nor will every point lead to every other, but a path will exist. What this means is that in an open environment, pre-requisites go away only as a singular path. In other words, a student may need a certain level of understanding to take a course, for easy illustration say Calculus II; however, that does not need to be a situation where a formalized course in Calculus I is the only possibility. There are multiple ways to demonstrate the learning outcomes to show that one is prepared to enter that level of study. The student also needs to be part of the decision about their readiness and have access to the appropriate preparatory and remedial materials which will help them succeed in that course of study. Ultimately, in such a model, it comes down to a matter of student choice an student acceptance of responsibility for those choices.


This is but a brief overview of a theory of openness. The true focus of this essay is on the practical applications for the School for Graduate Studies of SUNY—Empire State College.


[1] According to Eco (1986): “a sememe is a virtual or potential text and ...a text isthe expansion of one or more sememes” (p. 69). In other words, the sememe is the core or “atomic level” (as in indivisible) of meaning.

[2] I must credit my mentor, Marvin Barker, retired provost of Tennessee Tech University. Any time we had a discussion of curriculum within the university, he always found it important to remind people of this simple, but oft forgotten truth.

[3] Colin Wilson’s Faculty of X makes an excellent parallel here.

[4] A.k.a., experiential learning.

[5] As with the footnote previous, hypertext could do wonders here—yet another proof of the failure of linear writing.


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