opennessLast week I was lucky enough to visit the Yammer offices in London. Yammer describes itself as ‘the leading enterprise social network’. In simplified terms, it works a bit like Facebook for Professionals (although it does have much greater functionality). The offices were light, airy, felt dynamic, the desks were adorned with Macs and the reception area featured fun photos of the staff and some visitors. It was the sort of place which makes you want to engage with whatever it is offering immediately.

I had arranged my appointment to discuss how we could run Yammer across several schools. It has never made sense to me that teachers in our schools all constantly ‘reinvent the wheel’ and are burdened by the workload that entails. It also seems a shame that some brilliant educational initiatives are only shared in a limited way. I know this is the same across many educational organisations, Local Authorities, University departments – even single schools on split sites will find it hard to meet and collaborate.

With so many teachers now familiar with Facebook, using Yammer seemed like an easy step to collaboration. Had a great lesson? Tell others about it on Yammer. Got a great worksheet? Share it on Yammer. Seen an interesting link online? Tell others about it on Yammer….etc.

Last term, I launched Yammer with some of our subject groups, the usual suspects: English, Maths, Science. I also included MFL and Music, as subjects which I knew had tried to work together. I had a list of who the Heads of Department were and asked them if they would like to join, sent them an invitation and waited for the exciting discussion… never happened.

When I arrived at the Yammer offices, I had a list of all the reasons I felt it wasn’t working and after an hour of discussion, I came to realise that there was only one reason it wasn’t working. Openness. I had set up closed networks and invited Heads of Department. As busy people, they may not be the right people to involve themselves in online activity. However, the grass roots teachers may well have a need and a desire to share. It did not take long for Yammer to convince me that my groups should not be ‘closed’ and ‘by invitation’ but open and available for all to see.

I have long wondered if the essentially artificial ‘subject’ groupings that we have at Secondary level in education are actually detrimental our ability to deliver ‘joined up’ teaching. However much we talk about ‘cross-curricular’ work, it is rare to see it happening in school. Pupils move from 40minutes of Maths to 40 minutes of Science to 40minutes of Modern Languages with seemingly little connection between them. In the same way, in the years I have spent training, teachers want ‘Ideas for Maths’, ‘Ideas for Science’ or ‘Ideas for MFL’.

So, back to openness. If I were to set up a group for MFL, a group for English and a group for Maths, the chances are that the teachers of those subjects would be the ones who joined, but anyone could join. School leaders could dip in and see what was happening in the groups. Anyone could create a group. Anyone, from a Headteacher to the school caretaker could participate in any group created. Pupils could create groups; pupils could participate in groups. Imagine if your Year 8 pupils started participating in your English teachers group and your Year 11s started to write for your Science Teachers group? You could have a group about BYOD / Mobile learning and have a really open exchange of views and ideas.

I love the theory. I relish the idea of a place where ideas can move, develop, grow collaboratively, but I also appreciate the huge mindshift which will have to take place for this to happen. We are used to belonging to ‘closed’ groups. Our lives evolve around closed groups: our family, our school, our church, our company. We are defined by the units to which we belong and we probably value the fences because they make us comfortable and unthreatened. Do we want new ideas when our old ones have served us well? Maybe we prefer to work on our own rather than collaborate? Do other people just muddy the waters and confuse things for us?

What does it take to be Open? It is a question that only you and your organisation can answer, but it is a debate that we need to have. Now we have the potential to work in extended, open units, we need to learn how to collaborate, share, grow and develop.

In researching this blog entry, I was fascinated to see that openness is a really hot topic, so much so that TED ran a conference on it last year:

I will leave you with an exuberant video on openness by Jason Silva for TED Global.


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