Critical Open Education Studies

I don’t know what to make of David Wiley’s latest blog post ‘MOOCs and Digital Diploma Mills: Forgetting Our History‘. I am astonished, to put it politely, that one of the leading thinkers in the Open Education movement is still sitting on the fence, despite having written about the proletarianisation of teaching in his early work. Of course David Noble’s critique of distance education (later expanded in a book) is applicable to open education. Noble’s concern about “the systematic conversion of intellectual activity into intellectual capital and, hence, intellectual property” is not remedied with the simple application of a Creative Commons license – if only it were that easy. Many academics are already free to choose how to distribute their scholarly work (this simplifies the traditional transferral of copyright to the journal publisher resulting in more effective impact of the institution’s outputs), but what Noble was concerned with was the systematic interference by institutions in the re-production of teaching and learning, which is what xMOOCs are undertaking. xMOOCs are capturing value in teaching and learning where it was previously shared at the whim and will of the individual teacher. In choosing to license content under a CC license, such institutions are converting an under-commons into a valorised commons.

David Noble died in 2010 and did not revise his views about distant education in light of the open education movement. I suggest that this is because his argument remains apposite for OER-based teaching and learning, too. The content may be ‘free’, but the teacher is drawn further into the valorisation process of the institution.

As can be seen by David Wiley’s significant number of articles relating to open education, the movement has had over a decade to reflect critically on itself, yet there remains a void of reflexive, critical work that attempts to develop the open education movement and protect it from threats such as those which Wiley draws out of Noble’s article. There is no doubt that the work of David Wiley and others to advocate open education and grow the movement is a sincere and important contribution to a notion of the ‘public good’, but the movement still remains largely inward looking and self-referential. It is dominated by learning developers and technologists who are necessarily focused on implementation and have little time, motivation or opportunity for critique.

Where are the scholarly papers that examine open education from the range of disciplines within the social sciences? What has open education demonstrably learned from the tradition of popular and critical pedagogy? How have the critiques of open source been applied to OER? Similarly, the movement has much to learn from critiques of P2P, but where is this critical, scholarly dialogue occurring?

In the UK, the OER movement has been tightly coupled to state (JISC/HEA) funding, which has now ended. I was the recipient of two grants in this programme of funding. The synthesis evaluation of #ukoer clearly presents the instrumental agenda of the programme. Related conferences are mostly one project after another attempting to demonstrate their ‘progress’ with robust critique almost entirely absent. My experience at Open Education 2010 was the same. Academics seeking funding are naturally keen to satisfy the expectations of their funders and the effect that these funding programmes have had on the fundamental direction of open education in the UK has yet to be critically examined. What would open education look like if we hadn’t taken the money? Similarly, in the US, state funding and, to a greater extent, philanthropic funding has steered how the movement has developed. Funding is provided based on the premise of open education’s public good and we feel obliged to demonstrate this. There is a history of state funding influencing the outputs of academia, what effect has it had on us?

Clearly if this work is being undertaken, I have not found it, and so I am hoping that others will join me in reviewing the existing critical literature so that we might identify what has been written and therefore what needs to be done. I have made three contributions in the last two years. The first paper, with Richard Hall, addressed the potential role of open education to sustain higher learning. The second, was a critique of the valorisation of institutional OER. The third, was a paper with Mike Neary, which critiqued the idea of ‘commons’. While I am trying to develop a critique of open education within the framework of a critique of political economy, I know that approaches from other disciplines within the social sciences will prove insightful and fruitful, too. My next paper will be a critical examination of the historical role of academia in the development of hacker culture (and therefore notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘openness’ that have returned to the university via the success of Creative Commons). I think much remains to be done to uncover the historical forces, structures and conditions that gave rise to open education. Without this, how can we understand ourselves?

I have looked for literature reviews of open education and found little that satisfies my requirements for texts that are critiques of open education. For example, Mendeley groups point to the usual plethora of blog posts, news articles, reports and project outcomes. A Google Scholar search is not encouraging either. In the apparent absence of ‘critical open education studies’, I hope that you will recommend papers that offer David and I robust critiques of open education, OER and related practices. I think that the development of this area of scholarship would demonstrate the maturity of the movement and protect it from manipulation, co-option and coercion in the future.

5 thoughts on “Critical Open Education Studies

  1. Brilliant. Your argument hads opened and new perspective to me. As you say, It´s difficult to find something agains the current oer satatus quo. I only find critiques about the colonialist perspective embed in oer. Very far from a economic perspective.
    Do you think that notions like “cognitive capitalism” and other post-autonomist concepts or “free labor” can be helpful?
    In my point of view, the key point is the valorization of labor, but I’m far from a clear an well reasoned argument.

    • Yes, the idea of ‘cognitive capitalism’ and the work of autonomist theorists and activists is certainly helpful in my opinion. I wrote my book chapter on the valorisation of OER drawing on this kind of approach. You should also read Richard Hall’s blog, where he writes at length about political economy and education, including open education.

  2. I wonder if you could count the numerous under developed remarks made on blogs and email forums? I know more than a few developers who had a few minutes to question their work, but never a reason to develop a formal paper for a journal (in fact, a revulsion at such a thought ;)
    nonetheless their questioning exists, in blogs, forums, micro blogs, and other forms of data.

    I posed a question of colonisation and cultural imperialism at OER2009 Vancouver, via my blog. Brian Lamb and others have long questioned the relevance of copyright, and a few of us started a “resist copyright” tag and website, to try and grow considerations on whether oer copyright simply furthered the interests of those who prevent open education… (btw, how is questions of colonisation etc, far from economic?)

    • I don’t think it matters where/how it’s published, as long as we can find it. The difficulty with blogs is that they come and go and they are dispersed more widely than the narrower confines of peer-reviewed journals. It’s hard enough finding critical literature in the journals. You’ve been in this space longer than I have, so you know the history of the discussion better. Leave links here so that I and others can trace that history. The good thing about books and journal articles is that they help collect and preserve the history of the discussion.

      I don’t think the issue of colonialism is separate from economic. It’s all capital accumulation.

Comments are closed.