Developing oral skills for a changing world: the potential of Open Space facilitation

English language, Interdisciplinarity, Student experience


Arran Stibbe
Humanities Department, University of Gloucestershire


This case study describes an attempt to adapt the facilitation technique known in the business world as ‘Open Space’ to higher education, in particular to a second year English Language module ‘Language and Gender’. The case study starts by arguing for the necessity of oral communication skills in the changing conditions of the 21st century, and the potential of Open Space facilitation to help students gain those skills. After describing some of the ways that the technique needs to be adapted for the higher education context, the case study describes a first attempt to use the technique in the ‘Language and Gender’ course at the University of Gloucestershire and analyses student feedback. My tentative conclusion is that the technique has great potential for use in higher education, but only for certain topics, and only if the Open Space event is carefully designed.

Background / context

Open Space (or ‘Open Space Technology’) is an interaction facilitation method devised by Harrison Owen in 1985 which has become a popular way of managing major meetings in business (Owen 1997a, 1997b). There are many such ‘technologies’ used in the business world including Work Out, Preferred Future, Search Conferencing, Future Search, Simu-real and World Cafe (Bunker and Alban 1996; Holman & Devane 1999; Brown and Isaacs 2005). All of them, however, boil down to one simple thing: they provide a way to get people talking. Open Space is nothing more than a gathering of people of diverse perspectives talking on self-selected topics in self-selecting groups, participants being free to move from group to group as they wish. Some have compared Open Space to a free market system, but since talking and walking are such fundamental aspects of being human, it could perhaps more accurately be compared to a traditional village, where people naturally mill around and form groups to discuss issues of common concern.

Although originating in the business world, Open Space has recently started to be used within academia to organise staff development courses and conferences, such as the Schumacher College ‘Roots of Learning’ course and the Higher Education Academy conference in education for sustainability. One ambitious use of Open Space in HE was the Learning to Change Our World educational conference in Göteborg where ‘Each and every one of the 350 participants was to be given the same status, to be treated with the same respect and to be expected to contribute to the same extent’ (Göteborg 2004). The results of that conference helped inform the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. This case study explores whether Open Space can be adapted for use not only by academics in conferences and training courses, but for their students in ordinary undergraduate classes.

It may seem strange at first to search the often dubious genre of business enhancement literature for strategies to enhance oral interaction in education. Arguably, though, oral interaction has in the past been one of academia’s weakest points—not simply in the traditional one-way ‘lecture’ (made even less interactive by PowerPoint), but also in the overwhelming emphasis of written over oral communication in assessment and research output, and the form taken by conferences, where oral and written forms of communication are confused in the oral delivery of a written ‘paper’. It was, in fact, Owen’s realisation that the coffee breaks at academic conferences allowed for deeper engagement with issues than did the rather monotonous readings of papers which encouraged him to develop Open Space in the first place (Owen 1997b:21). The business world, where rapid response to change through effective oral communication is essential for day-to-day survival, may therefore be an appropriate place for us to look for ideas to develop communication skills.

Open Space usually involves a large number of participants coming together for an extended period of intense interaction and reflection on difficult issues – ‘wicked’ problems that are difficult even to formulate, never mind solve. Rittel and Webber (1973:162) claim that such problems are best addressed when ‘an image of the problem and of the solution emerges gradually among the participants, as a product of incessant judgment, subjected to critical argument.’ Clearly such problems require not only writing in isolation or listening passively to one-way speeches, but also highly interactive forms of effective oral communication.

Oral communication is arguably particularly important in the 21st century. As Rittel and Webber (1973:162) point out, ‘The problems that scientists and engineers have usually focused upon are mostly “tame” or “benign” ones’, that is, problems with a definite solution such as connecting two sides of a valley via a road bridge or creating superconducting materials. Solving such problems has allowed industrial progress to forge ahead. However, the problems that industrial progress has led to (climate change, resource depletion, ecosystem degradation, over-consumption, alienation from nature etc) are wicked problems. Solving such problems requires a different approach to the one which created them in the first place, and increasingly, highly interactive oral communication is seen as playing an important role in providing joined-up responses in a timescale appropriate to the rapid pace of change in the 21st century’ (Brown and Isaacs 2005).

Activities / Practice

Putting Open Space into practice in a university setting involves overcoming a number of barriers. Firstly, whilst Open Space requires long sessions sometimes lasting days, HE curricula are usually designed around one or two hour sessions. Secondly, though Open Space requires a diversity of experience, opinions, knowledge and viewpoints, students may not yet have enough experience or in-depth knowledge of the subject area to participate effectively. Thirdly, Open Space requires a central theme, or a ‘wicked problem’, that all participants are interested in and passionately committed to addressing, but students may not yet have developed sufficient engagement with the major issues of the day. This section describes my attempt to overcome some of these barriers and introduce Open Space into a second year module at the University of Gloucestershire.

Students in the English Language program at Gloucestershire engage with a great range of issues in their exploration of how language shapes personal and social life. They explore the social constructions of racism, consumerism, disability, health, animals, sustainability, progress, trees, gender and of many other topics. They are, quite simply, learning about English Language in the context of those who speak it and the world that they inhabit. Of all the issues covered, the one that students find most engaging is that of gender and identity, in particular the ways that cultural forces, media, and advertising manipulate gender ideals to serve particular ends. This is something that everyone can relate to and that everyone has personal experience of, so it was chosen as the theme for the pilot Open Space meeting. It fulfils the requirements of Open Space in that it is a topic characterised by complex issues, a diversity of participants, and high levels of conflict (Owen 1997b:39). The personal is directly connected to wider issues related to society and the ecosystems that societies are embedded in, so starting at the personal level was felt to be  a good way to overcome the potential barrier of lack of commitment and thus lead into broader social and ecological issues.

The barrier of lack of knowledge was addressed by very specific pre-event preparation. Students were instructed to conduct research and write:

a 2000 word essay which explores relationships between language, gender and a selection of one or more of the following aspects: biological sex, bodies, sexuality, media, identity, and ecology (Assessment Brief)

A key requirement for the essay was extensive and appropriate use of the academic literature. The breadth and open-ended nature of the assignment was intended to ensure that different students became specialists in different aspects of gender issues, thereby bringing a diversity of knowledge to the event. In fact, students were instructed to physically bring readings they had discovered to the event to share ideas with other students. Students were therefore attending the event with their own personal experiences already in dialogue with the literature they had read and about to be placed into dialogue with other students’ experience and reading.

The event itself was a two hour Open Space mini-session, where fifteen students took part. The ethos of Open Space was explained first–‘Open Space begins, and in some ways ends, with the invitation to follow that which has heart and meaning for you.’ (Owen 1997b:27)–and the four principles and one law outlined:

The four principles

  • Whoever comes is the right people
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
  • Whenever it starts is the right time
  • When it’s over, it’s over

The law of two feet
If at any time during our time together you discover that you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet and move on. (from Owen 1997b)

In a circle, students were asked for important topics that they felt needed discussing and these were pinned on a bulletin board. Students then signed up for the different topics. Groups where no-one signed up were dropped and the remaining three groups met in different parts of the building. Discussion began, and the facilitator unobtrusively observed the dynamics. Later a focus group was conducted to discover students’ reaction to the novel classroom dynamics. Students also filled in a questionnaire on their experience. The conclusion below describes what went on in the groups and analyses the feedback from the questionnaire.


Informal observation of the dynamics of the groups revealed a high level of student engagement, including students who had been silent in previous whole-class discussions. The groups were ‘dynamic’ in the sense that several students did take the chance to move from group to group and in one case students closed a group where discussion had come to a natural end. Interestingly, at the start of the session the three groups were mixed gender, but as the session progressed people moved and one group closed, with the result that at the end there were only two groups left, one all male and one all female.

Eight students completed an anonymous questionnaire to give their opinions about four aspects of the event: group interaction, preparation, learning, and skills. Here is a representative selection of comments:

a) Group interaction: All students felt that the groups had managed to stay on topic, something that they found surprising: We stayed surprisingly on topic; Found that we stayed on topic surprisingly well throughout; It’s all too easy to talk about ‘the weekend’ especially in a Monday class, but everyone seemed to stay focused on the topic. The groups stayed on topic, even if we did go off on a tangent it was still loosely related to the original topic. Six students commented on the positive and empowering atmosphere of the class: it was a good atmosphere that worked due to a feeling that we weren’t being watched; The atmosphere was empowering and encouraging; everyone listened and the ‘free’ atmosphere made it quite empowering; everyone contributed and the atmosphere was relaxed enough to enable people to contribute without the fear of being wrong. Several students commented on the fact that the group listened well: Half out of respect and half because it was really interesting we managed to all listen and feed off each other; The members of my group listened very well; everyone listened.

b) Preparation: The comments from all the students showed that preparatory reading had been brought into the discussions and had played an important role: I used plenty of material…and this was well received; Other students made good use of readings of passages from books; [reading] was helpful to use…to kick-start my topic [and] support ideas and opinions; My sources, I found, were easier to understand through talking to others; background reading worked well; background reading aided the conversation throughout; people exchanged all sorts of information they had found whilst doing their essay and related it to the topics we were discussing.

c) Learning: There was some variation in students’ assessment about how much they felt they had learnt from the session. Three students said that they did not learn much, but still seemed to have gained something: I can’t say I learnt a lot of new things but it was interesting and useful to hear facts and opinions of others; I don’t think I learnt a great deal about the topic but what was useful was to see and understand the attitude of others; it didn’t help learning so much as…reinforcement of previously learnt ideas. The most common response was that being exposed to a diversity of opinions was interesting and enjoyable: It was interesting to hear topics from multiple perspectives; As people in groups were from different background/ages there were many interesting ideas to discuss; I enjoyed finding out what other people thought; allowed me to see some different ideas. Some students indicated clearly that it had enhanced their learning I thought about topics in a deeper way; gave me clarity for the topic; gave me some ideas and clarified some things. One student felt that the session could have possibly done with a lecturer’s expertise to push discussion in a certain academic direction. However, in the focus group, another student felt that it was precisely the lack of staff intervention which had facilitated interaction.

d) Skills. Students identified the following skills as having the potential for being developed by this kind of activity: confidence in talking in groups, background reading skills, the ability to back up views with knowledge and express them to people of different opinions, social skills, listening, co-operation, presentation, reading skills, communication skills, teamwork, interpersonal skills and debating.

Perhaps the most significant element of the day was the fact that the freedom to move led to the groups splitting into one all-female and one all-male group. The female group discussed the continuation of sexual inequality despite the seeming success of the feminist movement while the male group discussed the fractured and uncertain nature of masculinity. This was, perhaps, something that needed to happen, because certain male students indicated in general course feedback that they were unhappy with the focus on feminism and women in the course and wanted masculinity to play a greater role. One male student wrote in a learning log that he felt uncomfortable in expressing opinions in front of female classmates. At the same time, certain female students wrote that the focus on feminism and gender inequality was the best part of the course.

The movement of people among groups not only allowed students to come into contact with a range of different views (something that their feedback shows they clearly found valuable), but also allowed spaces to spontaneously form where people of similar viewpoints came together. According to the feedback, this was valuable in overcoming under-confidence: It wasn’t intimidating as we had picked groups/subjects so we were with people with similar views; it was slightly awkward to begin with but as I got positive acknowledgement from what I was saying I felt empowered; found it very useful as I am not someone that usually feels brave enough to speak up in class. As well as providing a positive atmosphere for under-confident students to gain skills in expressing themselves, Open Space also prevents egotistical students from dominating the group and asserting the rightness of their beliefs too strongly. As Owen (1997:33) points out, if there are over-dominant members of the group then the law of two feet will be exercised and they will be left talking to themselves. Probably the greatest benefit, then, is the potential for all students to gain skills in co-operative and respectful oral interaction, something that, as Bunker and Albael (1996) point out, is becoming increasingly important in addressing the overarching issues of the 21st century.

Another important benefit relates to background reading. As students had been required to prepare background reading and bring notes or annotated readings with them to the sessions, the session demonstrated to students the usefulness of reading, beyond being an exercise in finding references to put into essays to gain marks. This helped them develop the skills to turn what they read into persuasive oral arguments, and certainly the feedback shows high engagement with, and a positive attitude towards, background reading.

The biggest potential problem brought up by this case study is some students’ actual or perceived lack of learning. Expressions used to describe learning were clarified issues, reinforced ideas, gained clarity, heard different views, gave me new ideas and so on. Missing was the deeper level of generating fundamentally new insights into issues or transforming understanding, i.e., seeing the world in challenging and/or exciting new ways.Indeed, Owen (1997b:13) observes that at first, Open Space conversations tend to deal with ‘the known, the experienced, what the ‘literature’ said’. He claims, however, that with further sessions it is possible to move away from ‘head talk’ towards ‘engaging the heart’ (ibid:14), which is necessary for more fundamental shifts to arise. This is something that will need to be put to the test to see if more extended and repeated Open Space sessions lead to greater insight or merely to students running out of things to say.

 Using the technique for other courses

It is important to reiterate that Open Space is only useful for topics that exhibit a high degree of divergence of views, and that are related to important issues that students are interested in (such as crucial moments in the formation of identity, or issues which have an impact on the life, death, or wellbeing of many). There would be little point in having an Open Space session on morphological change in the sixteenth century, or on the uses of the subjunctive. On the other hand, there are many topics within English Language such as political correctness, the standard English debate, linguistic imperialism, racist language, ecologically destructive discourses, vernacular education, language and class, or language planning which are promising candidates for discussion in an Open Space format.

With the division of courses into weekly sessions, it is hard to imagine implementing Open Space in any other way than giving over one, or perhaps two, sessions of a module to Open Space discussions. Higher education is, however, in a process of change, and it may be possible in the future to trial whole modules taught entirely in Open Space format. Such modules could consist of an initial stage of guided literature review for preparation, then a one, two or even three-day Open Space event. The event could be followed by the production of a reflective essay or presentation on the process and the insights gained. This opens up the exciting possibility of theme-based Open Space events which engage students from a diversity of disciplines, sharing multiple perspectives on the same issue.

To illustrate this, consider the theme of ‘Consumerism’. English Language students could prepare for the ‘module’ by reading literature on the role of language in promoting consumerism. When it comes to the centrally organised Open Space event, they could discuss the issue with students from psychology, economics, sociology, environmental science and other disciplines with a range of complementary perspectives and insights. This should lead to a more rounded picture than a discipline-based approach. In fact, there would be no need to limit the discussion to students – people from the local community who have intimate knowledge about the theme and how it applies to the local situation could also participate. The end result could be the kind of transdisciplinary educational experience promoted by Education for Sustainability researchers (see Dawe et al. 2005 for a literature review of Education for Sustainability). Further research is, of course, necessary into Open Space both at the small scale described in this case study and at a broader, interdisciplinary level. Open Space does have the potential, though, to complement traditional curricula and help students gain skills vital in the changing world of the 21st century.

Bibliographical References

  • Brown, Juanita and David Isaacs (2005) World Cafe: Shaping our future through conversations that matter.  San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler
  • Bunker, Barbara and Billie Alban (1996) Large Group Interventions: Engaging the Whole System for Rapid Change San Francisco: Jossey Bass
  • Dawe, Gerald and Rolf Jucker and Stephen Martin (2005) HEA Subject Network Consultation report: Sustainable Development in Higher Education: Current Practice and Future Developments – available at:
  • Göteborg (2004) Learning to change our world: the Göteborg consultation on Education for Sustainable Development. The Academy of Democracy. Unpublished learning methodology report
  • Holman, Peggy and Tom Devane (1999) The Change Handbook. Group Methods for Shaping the Future. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler
  • Owen, Harrison (1997a) Open Space Technology: a users guide. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler
  • Owen, Harrison (1997b) Expanding our now: the story of open space technology. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler
  • Rittel, Horst and Melvin Webber (1973) Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences 4:155-169