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.

Conjuring value out of OpenCourseWare

I came across a post by David Wiley the other day, concerning MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative and it got me thinking about MIT and OER in general…

I would like to suggest that OER can be viewed as another example of the mechanisation of human work, which seeks to exploit a greater amount of collective abstract labour-power while reducing the input and therefore reliance on any one individual’s concrete contribution of labour. It’s important to understand what is meant by abstract labour and how it relates to the creation of value, which we’ll see is at the core of MIT’s OCW plans for sustainability. Wendling provides a useful summary of how technology is employed to create value out of labour.

Any given commodity’s value can be seen either from the perspective of use or from the perspective of exchange: for enjoyment consumption or for productive consumption. Likewise, any given worker can be seen as capable of concrete labor or abstract labor-power. Labor is a qualitative relation, labor-power its quantitative counterpart. In capitalism, human labor becomes progressively interchangeable with mechanized forces, and it becomes increasingly conceptualized in these terms. Thus, labor is increasingly seen as mere labor-power, the units of force to which the motions of human work can be analytically reduced. In capitalism, machines have labor-power but do no labor in the sense of value-creating activity.1

The use of technology in attempts to expand labour’s value creating power is central to the history of capitalism. From capitalism’s agrarian origins in 16th century England, technology has been used to ‘improve’ the value of private property. In discussing value, we should be careful not to confuse it simply with material wealth, which is a form of value expressed by the quantity of products produced.

Marx explicitly distinguishes value from material wealth and relates these two distinct forms of wealth to the duality of labor in capitalism. Material wealth is measured by the quantity of products produced and is a function of a number of factors such as knowledge, social organization, and natural conditions, in addition to labor. Value is constituted by human labor-time expenditure alone, according to Marx, and is the dominant form of wealth in capitalism. Whereas material wealth, when it is the dominant form of wealth, is mediated by overt social relations, value is a self-mediating form of wealth.2

MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative provides a good example of how Open Education, currently dominated by the OER commodity form, is contributing to the predictable course of the capitalist expansion of value. Through the use of technology, MIT has expanded its presence in the educational market by attracting private philanthropic funds to create a competitive advantage, which has yet to be surpassed by any other single institution. In this case, technology has been used to create value out of the labour of MIT academics who produce lecture notes and lectures which are then captured and published on MIT’s corporate website. In this process, value has been created for MIT through the application of science and technology, which did not exist prior to the inception of OCW in 2001. The process has attracted $1,836000 of private philanthropic funding, donations and commercial referrals. In 2009, this was 51% of the operating costs of the OCW initiative, the other 49% being contributed by MIT.3

In terms of generating material wealth for MIT, it is pretty much breaking even by attracting funds from private donors, but the value that MIT is generating out of its fixed capital of technology and workers should be understood as distinct from its financial accounts. Through the production of OERs on such a massive scale, MIT has released into circulation a significant amount of capital which enhances the value of its ‘brand’ (later I refer to this as ‘persona’) as educator and innovator. Furthermore, through the small but measurable intensification of staff labour time by the OCW initiative, additional value has been exorted from MIT’s staff, who remain essential to the value creating process but increasingly insignificant as individual contributors. As a recent update from MIT on the OCW initiative shows,4 following this initial expansion of “the value of OCW and MIT’s leadership position in open education” and with the private philanthropic funding that has supported it due to run out, new streams of funding based on donations and technical innovation are being considered to “enhance the value of the materials we provide.” As the report acknowledges, innovation in this area of education has made the market for OER competitive and for MIT to retain its lion’s share of web traffic, it needs to refresh its offering on a regular basis and seek to expand its educational market footprint. Methods of achieving this that are being discussed are, naturally, technological: the use of social media, mobile platforms and a ‘click to enroll’ system of distance learning. Never mind that the OERs are Creative Commons licensed, ‘free’ and, notably, require attribution in order to re-use them, the production of this value creating intellectual property needs to be understood within the “perpetual labour process that we know better as communication.”5 Understood in this way, the commodification of MIT’s courses occurs long before the application of  a novel license and distribution via the Internet. OCW is simply “a stage in the metamorphosis of the labour process”.6.

MIT’s statement concerning the need to find new ways to create value out of their OCW initiative is a nice example of how value is temporally determined and quickly falls off as the production of OERs becomes generalised through the efforts of other universities. Postone describes this process succinctly:

In his discussion of the magnitude of value in terms of socially-necessary labor-time, Marx points to a peculiarity of value as a social form of wealth whose measure is temporal: increasing productivity increases the amount of use-values produced per unit time. But it results only in short term increases in the magnitude of value created per unit time. Once that productive increase becomes general, the magnitude of value falls to its base level. The result is a sort of treadmill dynamic. On the one hand, increased levels of productivity result in great increases in use-value production. Yet increased productivity does not result in long-term proportional increases in value, the social form of wealth in capitalism.7

Seen as part of MIT’s entire portfolio, the contribution of OCW follows a well defined path of capitalist expansion, value creation and destruction and also points to the potential crisis of OER as an institutional commodity form, being the dimunition of academic labour, which is capitalism’s primary source of value, and the declining value of the generalised OER commodity form, which can only be counteracted through constant technological innovation which requires the input of labour. As Wendling describes, this is part and parcel of capitalism, to which OER is not immune.

Scientific and technological advances reduce the necessary contribution of living labor to a vanishing point in the production of basic commodities. Thus, they limit the main source of the capitalist’s profit: the exploitation of the worker. This shapes the capitalist use of science and technology, which is a use that is politicized to accommodate this paradox. In this usage, the introduction of new machinery has two effects. First, the machine displaces some workers whose functions it supplants. Second, the machine heralds a step up in the exploitation of the remaining workers. The intensity and length of their working days are increased. In addition, as machinery is introduced, capital must both produce and sell on an increasingly massive scale. Losses from living labor are recompensed by the multiplication of the small quantities of remaining labor from which value can be extorted. In all of these ways, capitalism and technological advancement, far from going hand in hand, are actually inimical to one another, and drive the system into crisis. In this respect, a straightforward identification of constantly increasing technicization with capitalism misses the crucial dissonance between the two forces.8

The example of MIT given above is not intended to criticise any single member of the OCW team at MIT, who are no doubt working on the understanding that the initiative is a ‘public good’ – and in terms of creating social wealth, it is a public good. My suggestion here is to show how seemingly ‘good’ initiatives such as OCW, also compound the social relations of capitalism, based on the exploitation of labour and the reification of the commodity form.

Furthermore, being the largest single provider of ‘Open Education’, MIT’s example can be carried over into a discussion of the Open Education movement’s failure to provide an adequate critique of the institution as a form of company and regulator of wage-work.

As Neocleous has shown,9 in modern capitalism the objectification of the worker as the commodity of labour serves to transform the company into a personified subject, with greater rights under, and fewer responsibilities to, the law than people themselves. As the university increasingly adopts corporate forms, objectives and practices, so the role of the academic as abstract labour is to improve the persona of the university. Like many other US universities, MIT award tenure to academics who are “one of the very tiny handful of top investigators in your field, in the world” thus rewarding but also retaining through the incentive of tenure, staff who bring international prestige to MIT.10  Through an accumulation of “top investigators”, effort and attention is increasingly diverted from individual achievement and reputation to the achievements of the institution, measured by its overall reputation, which is rewarded by increased government funding, commercial partnerships and philanthropic donations. This, in turn, attracts a greater number of better staff and students, who join the university in order to enjoy the benefits of this reward. Yet once absorbed into the labour process, these individuals serve the social character of the institution, which is constantly being monitored and evaluated through a system of league tables.

“…the process of personification of capital that I have been describing is the flip side of a process in which human persons come to be treated as commodities – the worker, as human subject, sells labour as an object. As relations of production are reified so things are personified – human subjects become objects and objects become subjects – an irrational, “bewitched, distorted and upside-down world” in which “Monsieur le Capital” takes the form of a social character – a dramatis personae on the economic stage, no less.”11

To what extent the Open Education movement can counteract this personification of educational institutions and the subtle objectification of their staff and students, is still open to question, although the overwhelming trend so far is for OER to be seen as sustainable only to the extent that it can attract private and state funding, which, needless to say, serves the reputational character (a significant source of value, according to Neocleous) of the respective universities, as institutions for the ‘public good’. Yet, as Postone has argued, the creation of this temporally determined form of value is achieved through the domination of people by time, structuring our lives and mediating our social relations. The increased use of technology is, and always has been, capitalism’s principle technique of ‘improving’ the input ratio of labour-power measured abstractly by time, to the output of value, which is itself temporal and therefore in constant need of expansion. And so the imperative of conjuring value out of labour goes on…

  1. Amy Wendling (2009) Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation. p. 104 []
  2. Postone (2009), Rethinking Marx’s Critical Theory in History and Heteronomy: Critical Essays, The University of Tokyo Centre for Philosophy, p. 40 []
  3. See David Wiley’s blog post on MIT’s financial statement []
  4. OpenCourseWare: Working Through Financial Changes []
  5. Söderberg, Johan (2007) Hacking Capitalism. The Free and Open Source Software Movement, p. 72 []
  6. Soderberg, 2007, p. 71 []
  7. Postone, 2009, p. 40 []
  8. Wendling 2009, p.108 []
  9. Neocleous, Mark (2003) Staging Power: Marx, Hobbes and the Personification of Capital []
  10. Unraveling tenure at MIT []
  11. Neocleous, 2003, p. 159 []