Open course-wars, redux… the real nastiness is elsewhere

Fightingcc licensed photo shared by Anke L

I did my best to unplug over the holidays, so there has been lots to catch up on… It’s hard not to be struck by the sheer volume and passion of responses stirred up by George Siemens’ post Open isn’t so open anymore. It’s a long, multi-pronged argument, so a single excerpt won’t do it justice, but…

Do we need greater formalization and promotion of openness within education? Or will openness as an ideology have little or no traction outside of a small group of marginal fanatics?

The uncertainty on how to organize ourselves is precisely what has caused openness to veer to the pragmatic. Why spend days, even months, debating seemingly insignificant details of openness? Why not just produce something and share it in any manner you wish? Why not just let openness evolve as it is?

Robert Hutchins has stated that “the death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment”. A similar concern exists for openness in education.

Something about this tension between ideology and pragmatism clearly resonates with people, as illustrated by the many comments on George’s post itself, and the many responses out in the blogosphere, a few of which I sample below. Again, I worry my selections do an injustice to the authors, but frankly the notion of stringing the many labyrinthine arguments into a coherent synthesis feels a little daunting:

David Wiley: “I’m not sure why George makes the leap from my more nuanced view of openness to my somehow not believing that openness is an ideological concept. Of course openness is a concept – and of course people are ideological about it’s meaning. But, like democracy, little concrete debate can be had about the concept (and no implementation of the concept can occur) until it has been operationalized. How can you debate a concept without a concrete proposal as to it’s meaning?”

Jim Groom: “The larger question in my mind is that what’s under girding this discussion is an even more insidious logic than a denatured sense of open, and that’s a sense of entitled leadership. Fact is, the push to make sense of open as a term and discuss it’s meaning, future shape, and ultimate value seems to be the most definitive step in forming an institutional structure of power around it. Who gets to discuss what open is? Where do they do it? Companies don’t really care too much about that discussion, they just care about appealing to users through a term, and if they make up the table, along with administrators at universities and the like, then why do we need to go to the table at all? Isn’t the push away from these legacies of power and privilege a part of what open is working against on it’s most powerful and truly transformative levels? Why does their need to be a continental congress on open? Why do we have to conflate it with system and then elect officials to define it for us? Part of the power and the hope of this space for me is a new scale of working though these ideas that’s both hyper-individual and communally local at the same time.”

Graham Atwell has initiated a series of posts inspired by the ongoing dialogue: “if Open Education is to mean anything, it has to address the question of social divisions including class, gender and race. I am unconvinced this can be done from inside the existing educational institutions, although of course is will need the support of those working in those organisations. Instead I think we need to use the power of the internet to provide opportunities for education and learning outside the present system and to embed those learning activities in wider communities than the present institutions address.”

And Martin Weller: “I can live with a plurality of definitions. In fact, I rather like it, and I think academic obsession with finding a precise definition often gets in the way of being productive – witness how every paper, conference presentation, or website about learning objects had a definition of what a learning object was, instead of getting on with just sharing stuff.”

If this line of argument interests you, I’d also recommend checking out Frances Bell, Judy Breck, Jeremy Browne, Mike Caulfield, and this characteristically irreverent take from the CogDog. And although Tannis Morgan’s Looking backward to look forward has a wider scope, and is not explicitly responding to this hubbub, I highly recommend giving it a read in this context: “I’m increasingly aware that I have a responsibility to step outside of the ed-tech echo chamber that I participate in, and spend more time looking for a different type of conversation. This requires looking backward and beyond. By looking backward, I continue to find relevance in some of Mackey’s geolinguistic observations of the 80s and 90s; commonalities between the self-directed learning movements of the 70s and later and the desire for substantial change in teaching and learning in higher education.”

Now, all of the people I just linked to are thinkers I hold in great esteem, and in many cases I’m blessed to think of them as friends as well. So I am not inclined to dismiss a subject that clearly inspires such intensity of thought and expression. That said, I cannot help but feel like this is a debate that is a little… well, academic. For one thing, I personally don’t have any problem holding considerations of ideology and pragmatism within the same movement. I think it says something that I find myself agreeing with almost everything that all of these ostensible opponents are writing. For one thing (as Chris Lott notes) they are hardly mutually exclusive. And every social and political movement I can think of harbours a tension between the true believers and those who want to get things done someway, somehow… And every movement that has ever amounted to anything has had both types of people among its ranks.

And reading all this stuff, I find myself thinking about most often about Great expectations for e-learning in 2010 from Tony Bates:

In many countries, 2010 will be a difficult year financially. Governments are going to have to take control of their large deficits, and their options are limited: cut expenditure, increase taxes, borrow more money. But you won’t be able to borrow more money to pay off the old because it will be too expensive, and who is going into an election with a promise of more taxes? With a majority of the electorate becoming seniors (well, almost), you can’t cut health budgets. So we’ll have to cut the universities (after the civil service and the wages of elected officials, of course). See, that decision wasn’t so difficult after all, was it?

The USA and Britain in particular face some very difficult financial decisions over the next few years (and I believe 2011 will be worse than 2010 for public sector cuts, so it won’t be a question of trying to ride out things until the situation improves – it could be a long and increasingly bumpy ride).

…but every challenge is also an opportunity, and the increasingly dire state of public financing does offer a real opportunity to re-think current teaching and learning environments in ways that will not only help control costs but also produce the learning needed in the 21st century.

So, especially if you are not working in a privileged first-tier research university, brush off your revolutionary plans for e-learning (no, NOT clickers) and have them ready for your sorely pressed administration in 2010. It would also help if you could show how this could save some money as well, but that might be another challenge.

Looking past the reality that many of us who engage in these arguments from positions of relative comfort may not have jobs in a year or so…

I am not alone in thinking that the practical benefits of well-planned open practice across the academy could realize significant cost savings and increased benefits to the public that ultimately is footing the bill. So seeing such bright minds putting so much energy into issues of revolutionary ideological purity has me wishing similar activity was dedicated toward developing revolutionary plans, articulating strategies that will not only seem worth trying but also have reasonable prospects of success. (To be fair, I think George proposes work that might prove useful in this regards in his post Measurement of Openness in Education Systems.) If we don’t have our collective act together in this regard, the most likely outcome of budget cuts just might be retrenchment and even reactionary practice in the name of austerity.

Beyond the grim economic realities that almost everyone on this planet will struggle against in the coming years, I see a number of other trends that strike me as far more threatening to the shared values of self-described open educators (and diverse as the movement is, I do think there are shared values, however broad) than what open really means. Over the next week or so, I intend to write about a few of these threats… Like the profoundly undemocratic process that is working to establish a shockingly awful global copyright scheme… I’ve also been brooding about the diminishment of the qualities that made Web 2.0 so genuinely interesting and innovative (I’m thinking of what Jonathan Zittrain describes as the generative web), endangered by the return of corporate-driven platform-based computing (hello mobile web) and a disturbingly passive and self-absorbed online culture. Then there is the rise of digital sweatshops and content farms, which will both threaten and demand a response from a global intellectual culture. I don’t know what I will say about the absence of a meaningful critical thinking apparatus in mass public discourse, but I may risk a rant or two along those lines…

So in both my response to the debate on the rigorous definition of openness, and on what the ‘real’ threats are… what am I missing?

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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9 Responses to Open course-wars, redux… the real nastiness is elsewhere

  1. The discussion wreaks of “planning to be Open” rather than just fucking being open already. Enough blibber blabber. Why is so much energy spent bickering over subtleties in definition of terms, rather than just putting head down and kicking ass? Smells like the Learning Object debates of aught-three. Is it really learning? Is it really an object? Is it really a learning object? Who fucking cares. Is it effective in teaching and learning? That’s the only question that matters. Same with the Openness Brouhaha of twenty-ten (or was it aught nine?). Even the cost-effectiveness arguments are irrelevant, if the teaching-and-learning side of things isn’t effective in the first place.

  2. Jim Groom says:

    I don;t know, I’m deeply ambivalent on many levels. One of which is foremost in my mind is the job part, we at UMW are headed for massive cuts again next year, and we can only be optimistic that DTLT will survive, So I hear you on that account, at the same time, I really don’t see the whole online activism, organization, and coming together as something we are remotely close to. There may be a lot of navel gazing and shiny technology posts, but it seems like the discussions have themselves become less and less apparent in these spaces. There’s a waning of affect, a sense that we are on the conveyor belt already. And this series of posts that engaged a wide variety of people in a way that is reminiscent of another moment seemed to peter out rather quick.

    Is there a cost effective, tried and true open education method we can go to administration with? Is there a real sense that we all have accomplished enough to begin such a process? I think part of the problem is that we are in a nascent space that calls for solutions that we have to continue to experiment around with to find. I think the ACTA and Mobile lock-in devices that erase the power of the web by limited distribution methods open up a really important part of the future of the web as pay-to-play model on so many levels, and the fact that ACTA, what little we know about it, is really aimed at shuring up these anarchic distribution models that deliver the very resources and relationships that I think we have understood as the power behind the promise.

    The outlook is not rosey, and the reactionary responses to file sharing, bitTorrent, and coyright more generally suggests a larger challe nge to opened, I agree—at the same time, who are we looking to to change things? What exactly is it we wuld change? I think the problem runs deep as it has in every decade/generation when faced with a systemic monolith that ultimately eats a path to mediocrity—therein is the importance of the discourse, whether academic or not. Just think about the book Empire by Hardt and Negri, in which they discuss these extranational transcendent bodies making international laws, treaties, etc. outside the idea of democracy, transparency, etc. in the name of global security—that is ACTA, as theorized by hardt and Negri, and we are living it, and I’m not really sure what we can do to stop it.

    I kid about this a lot, but I think the appeal to democracy and the wisdom of crowds, etc. is a colossal waste of time. I’m also not so sure activism and organization will bring us anyw here, I actually think it is seeing this stuff, writing about it, and then making art that brings it into some kind of relationship with the culture. What we need is a counter narrative that we all help write and create through, a movement not dedicated on organizations and arguing our cost saving relevance to institutions, but the very impractical task of creating art around an idea. Stretching the metaphors and thinking about how important this point in time may be to the future. A legacy of creation, and a means of building something rather than bemoaning how broke what we have is.

    I don’t know, I don’t feel especially optimistic this evening, so take this all wtha grain of salt. But I think open may soon be just another term for nothing left to lose.

  3. *cough*reeks*ahem*stupidfingers*

    are we just jaded from being too close to this for what seems like so long (although is really only a few years – a blink of the eye in any other time).

    I’m going to try hard to let go of Trying To Make A Difference, and just work on doing stuff that helps where I can. The Openness discussion definitely falls into the Trying To Make A Difference category.

    And the reCAPTCHA provided for this comment was “the ipecac” – interesting, a medicine derived from rhizome roots, intended to induce vomiting…

  4. Gary Lewis says:

    Brian, D’Arcy, Jim – Pretty dark stuff.

    I watched a video this afternoon that you may enjoy if you’ve not yet seen it. It’s called The Money Fix. It’s been in my to-do queue for a long time, mostly because it’s so blasted long (79min). Skip the first 28 minutes if you get bored or already know where money comes from (I failed that one). Education comes in around 45min, solutions around 49min.

    To use some of Jim’s words, I thought the video offered a compelling explanation for the “systemic monolith that ultimately eats a path to mediocrity.” Yet the video also invites us to “the very impractical task of creating art around an idea.” It seems consistent too with D’Arcy’s need to stop “Trying To Make A Difference, and just work on doing stuff that helps where I can.”

    If you do watch the video, I offer up a small assignment. How could learning be organized in a mutual credit-clearing system complementary to what already exists? What would open education mean then?

    You each seem to have immense talent. Thanks for a very enjoyable afternoon.

  5. Hi Brian,

    Thanks for situating the discussion in a broader societal context. I agree that universities face difficult years ahead. Part of what makes this openness discussion so challenging is that higher education is involved in a bit of an identity crisis. The last several decades have produced institutions with a utilitarian focus (prepare students for work), commercialization (how many lecture halls have corporate plates on them at UBC?), globalization, and increased integrated with government research initiatives (some European countries – due to the Bologna agreement – will see greater government involvement as systemic integration drives policy decisions).

    But this is exactly the problem.

    Pragmatic world views are so pervasive that we are almost unable to conceive a system where they are not the driving factor. The growth of American power and influence globally over the last several centuries is related to the pragmatic spirit of the country. The US has done more to promote pragmatism than any other country (see the growth of the American philosophical movement of pragmatism by James, Dewey, Peirce, and others). And that’s great. Pragmatism has obviously served the US very well. But pragmatism does not reflect on itself, does not question itself. It acts and permits the results to determine the suitability of that action. Unfortunately, and this is key for me, pragmatism, by its very nature, is unable to see that it is in itself an ideology. But because it favours action over ideology, it is able to conceive of itself as an ideology. And so it arrogantly subsumes other world views and forces them through its filter of practical outcomes.

    My argument is not that we abolish pragmatism, but that we relate it more appropriately to the theoretical. Theory and principles ought to drive the practical results. Yes, the practical does influence theory, but at least theory is capable of knowing itself as an entity, which in turn permits it to self evaluate and change.

    Sorry for anthropomorphizing pragmatics and theory…

  6. Sorry, this line: “But because it favours action over ideology, it is able to conceive of itself as an ideology.” should read “But because it favours action over ideology, it is NOT able to conceive of itself as an ideology.”

  7. Martin says:

    Hi Brian
    I think you’re right – it is an academic argument, so much so that I’m not even sure if I’m agreeing or disagreeing with people, or myself (always a sign). I’ve just posted on favouring pragmatism over idealism (sorry hadn’t read this before I did) because I think we academics often adopt positions of ideology out of laziness or cowardice – you won’t get asked to lead the ‘open access project’ if you’re the awkward idealist but then you won’t be wrong either and can moan about it if it does fail. I think we need to be a bit more courageous (and I put myself at the top of the list of those who need more courage) and get on with doing real stuff in this area, whether it’s big or little OER.
    As for having jobs in a year, that will certainly focus minds, and like I said in my jokey interview with the future, the financial crisis may make individuals and institutions focus on stuff that really provides return on investment. That isn’t necessarily a good thing, just the harsh reality that may hit us. I’m not sure what to do about that – it will be an individual response I guess – if you need to be focus on more practical things and do less of this intangible blogging, sharing etc in order to keep your job and feed your family, then I know what I’d do. On the other hand, perhaps as David argues, openness is the way universities will demonstrate their relevance so is a protection against this.

  8. Brian says:

    Wow, quite a bounty of great comments for such a fuzzy post after such a long layoff… I can’t begin to do you all justice in the short time I have here, but…

    @D’Arcy – your obvious impatience with this debate is understandable… That said, I don’t think we can cut off all considerations of cost. I don’t like to see economic considerations driving everything any more than you do, but fact is we remain accountable to the public… and there is going to be a lot less money to go around for all public services in the coming years.

    @Jim – As you know, I share a lot of your frustrations and mixed feelings. I recognise we are in a nascent phase of our development in many respects — that’s part of what makes this field fun for me, and in a lot of ways I hate to try to hammer things down prematurely. I don’t know what we can do to stop something like ACTA, or influence web development in more meaningfully open directions, but like you I have grave doubts we can do anything constructive with our ongoing approaches.

    @Gary – We like it heavy here on the Abject… Thanks for the reference to the video, I will check it out.

    @George – I appreciate you stopping by, as I can see how much activity your post has provoked. I tried to make it clear that I see a place for theory and idealism in any activity of intellectual endeavour — my own lack of facility in formulating and making fine distinctions within theoretical discourse notwithstanding. I do want to offer a distinction between the kind of ‘pragmatism’ that promotes crass utilitarian and commercial attitudes in higher education, and the school of philosophy practiced by James, Pierce and Dewey (and perhaps by neo-pragmatists such as Rorty). I don’t get the sense that those who are pushing what you describe as “the problem” are doing it based on a reading of any school of American philosophy — I see this tendency as almost devoid of such a grounding, that it instead is essentially an extension of free market fundamentalism. I’m not sure what the best label for this approach is (I personally gravitate to ‘corporatism’ the way the someone like John Ralston Saul describes it). Part of my reaction is based on my own personal affection and admiration for William James, whose breadth of inquiry, adventurous and generous spirit, and commitment to discourse between the academy and the wider public make him something of an open educational precursor and hero.

    @Martin – Like you, I’ve played the roles of both the ‘awkward idealist’ and the manager, and there is no question that trying to get something good into the realm of accomplishment is immensely more difficult. On another note, your ‘interview’ with your future self was one of the triggers for my morbid speculations on how our present parlous financial state will affect what we are trying to do.

    I don’t feel like I have adequately addressed any of your points. But it turns out I have to turn my immediate attention to an urgent administrative task for reasons I only begin to understand — which strikes me as somehow appropriate…

  9. Writing as one who lost his job, and saw an entire OpenCourseWare just…cease, I would strongly agree with the notion that while academic discussions are always necessary, now is certainly not the time to ignore the practical side.

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