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.

New article published: Open education: Common(s), commonism and the new common wealth

Mike Neary and I had an article published recently that offers a critique of ‘the commons’ with particular reference to open education and open educational resources. It was published by Ephemera and can be downloaded directly from this link [PDF].

The article began as a paper for the 7th annual Open Education conference, held in Barcelona in 2010. The conference is international in scope and size and seen as the “annual reunion of the open education family.” Our paper was unusual in that it was one of very few attempts at the conference to offer a critique of the central tenet of open education: the commons. The response to our paper was mixed, but there seemed to be an appetite among some delegates for further critique from the perspective of critical political economy.

The paper begins with an outline of the open education and open educational resources movement, situating it within the ‘free culture’ movement, which has grown out of the free software movement of the 1990s. This connection with the world of software and other intangible goods, throws up questions around how the apparent freedom of the digital commons can be traversed to the physical world of public education and its institutions. We remain unconvinced that “revolutionary” transformations in how digital property is exchanged can effect revolutionary change in the way we work as educators and students and that the ‘creative commons’ of the free culture movement is open to much of the same critique that its liberal foundations can be subjected to.

The majority of the article offers such a critique, beginning with an examination of how the ‘commons’ has been recently articulated by Marxist scholars. Here too, we remain unsatisfied with the consumerist focus on the redistribution of resources (i.e. exchange), without resolving the issue of production (i.e. labour). In response, we argue that the sites and structures of production, our institutions, should be the focus of critique and transformation so that knowledge as a form of social wealth is not simply shared, but re-appropriated to form a new common sense that is capable of questioning what should constitute the nature of wealth in a post-capitalist society.

Misunderstanding capitalism and OER

David Wiley has just posted about Openness, Socialism and Capitalism. Comments are turned off on his blog, so I thought I’d reply here.

David’s post makes a good point: tax payer’s money that funds research, teaching and learning, should correspond to the tax payer being one of the recipients of the outcomes of research, teaching and learning; in other words, Open Access and Open Educational Resources. He refers to this as BOGO (‘Buy One, Get One’). To most readers, I think this will appear to be common-sense.

The problem I have with David’s post is this common-sense view that ‘capitalism’ and ‘markets’ are synonymous and that if the ‘flaws’ in the market were fixed, capitalism would serve tax payers well. David makes a common error in confusing capitalism with commerce. Capitalism is a historically specific method of organising social relations among people while commerce, which sometimes takes place in markets, existed prior to the development of capitalism in the 16th century.  I found Ellen Meiksins Wood’s book on the Origins of Capitalism very useful in understanding this point. The Monthly Review published a relevant chapter from the book which is a quick read. My point here is that in simple commerce or trade in non-capitalist societies, you might have expected to get a fair return on your money, but under capitalism, you should always expect to receive something worth less than you paid for it. I paid £400 for a TV, but I know that the cost of producing and selling that TV did not cost £400. Profit is extracted at every step in the production and exchange process, making my TV cost more to me than the actual cost of that TV. Under capitalism, we accept this for the private sector, but I think that David’s point is that publicly funded goods and services, such as educational outputs should be treated differently. I agree that seems fair.

David writes about a ‘fundamental social contract that allows markets to function’, giving the example of buying a pizza. A discussion around this ‘social contract’ can tell us more about capitalism than simply referring to ‘markets’. The ‘social contract’ refers to our shared understanding of the role of private property in society and an acknowledgement of the laws in place which protect private property. When the enforcement of social order breaks down in society or when someone exists in absolute poverty, this ‘social contract’ is often ignored and we call it looting or theft. In short, the ‘social contract’, although not an explicit written contract at the time of transaction, is underwritten in law and enforced through the role of the police and to a lesser extent other social institutions, such as education. Mark Neocleous has written a nice book about this called The Fabrication of Social Order, where he discusses the historical role of the police in enforcing ‘order’ (the functioning of private property and waged labour) in capitalist society.

The main point where I think David is mistaken is the expectation that under capitalism, epitomised by the functioning of markets, tax payers should expect to receive goods and services equal to the amount that is paid in taxes: you pay for a pizza and you get the whole damn pizza; you pay for education and you get full access to education. This makes sense but in my view is a naive view of the functioning of capitalism.

One of the defining features of capitalism is the extraction of ‘surplus value‘ from the work or labour that we are forced to undertake. The basic idea is that I work 8hrs/day but the value of the output of that work is worth more to my employer than the wage I am paid for 8hrs work. This is the basis for exploitation in capitalist society, which most of us participate in. We’re all aware that capitalism relies heavily on technology to improve the creation of surplus value out of labour (Meiksins Wood writes about the word ‘improve’ – very interesting and relevant to this discussion). Marx wrote about the shift from the formal subordination of labour to capital (the creation of a labour market in early stage capitalism) to the real subordination of labour to capital: the discipline of technology on labour and the transformation of the role of labour in the production process, which in turn effects a chain of social relations throughout society, from worker to shareholder. The important point here is to recognise that capitalism is not isolated to private trade or the markets but impacts all aspects of a capitalist society. It is a social totality subservient to the production of value.

Marx referred to two forms of surplus value. Absolute surplus value is basically the value created by extending the working day or cutting rest time, forcing people to work harder and other methods of discipline such as increased supervision. A situation of high unemployment can also lead to the creation of absolute surplus value because people are forced to work for less as wages are squeezed and workers have less bargaining power. However, there are obvious limits to the production of absolute surplus value: e.g. there are only 24hrs in the day, people get sick and even die if you work them too hard, workers organise into unions and can resist downwards pressure on wages. Relative surplus value is basically value created through efficiencies and innovation. Rather than extend the working day, efficiencies are introduced into the production process which ensure that labour does more work in the same time. These efficiencies can come about through better organisation of the production process and innovation through the use of technology, for example.

Having a basic understanding of surplus value, essential to capitalist accumulation, we can now situate the role of the tax payer and public services, such as education, in the production of surplus value. Marx made the distinction between productive and unproductive labour. This is a fairly simple distinction with widespread implications: Labour employed to produce surplus value directly is productive (i.e. labour directly involved in the production of commodities). All other labour is unproductive. This includes most government employees, managers in both private and public sectors, people involved in sales, finance, etc. In this view, most of my work for a publicly funded university is considered unproductive. However, unproductive labour, although not a direct source of surplus value, is still exploited by being paid less than the value of their wage. As Fine and Saad-Filho write in their excellent introduction to Marx’s Capital,

From the point of view of capital, unproductive sectors, for example retailing or banking, capture part of the surplus value produced in the economy (and, therefore, obtain the wherewithal to pay wages, other expenses and their own profits) through transfers from the value-producing sectors, via the pricing mechanism.

Although unproductive in the sense that this work is not directly involved in the production of commodities, it is still essential work in the economic reproduction of capitalist society, e.g. educating and training workers, keeping us in relatively good health so we remain productive, loaning us money to buy a house (because we are property-less) and selling us essential and non-essential commodities.

So, in this view, the publicly-funded education sector captures part of the surplus value produced in the economy (i.e. through taxes), and uses this value to maintain institutions for research, teaching and learning. What is of interest to me (and probably David), is that since Marx’s time, the appearance (though not the fundamental attributes) of a ‘commodity‘ has changed and the term now encapsulated a much broader range of ‘things’ than it did 150 years ago. I’ll leave a decent discussion about what a commodity really is for another day, but I want to note that Marx began Capital with that discussion and it forms the basic reference for much of his work on value and labour. Research papers and books sold by commercial academic publishers are commodities and I have argued elsewhere that OERs are being treated as commodities that may or may not create value for universities. So far, I am not aware of the production of OERs (involving the application of technology to labour) actually creating surplus value for an institution (MIT appear to be breaking even with the help of philanthropic grants). When we refer to ‘sustainability’ or the ‘business case’ for OERs, I think we’re talking about the potential to create value.

What’s particularly interesting to me is that the production of OERs through institutional means seems to be very much in line with capitalist production elsewhere and I agree with David that what Martin calls ‘big OERs‘, are ‘completely compatible with capitalism’. However, I don’t agree that OERs, because they are open, are ‘completely compatible with capitalism’. I don’t think openness has anything to do with it. The institutional production of OER is compatible with capitalism because it is clearly being situated within the overall production of surplus value for the institution. When we talk about the sustainability of OERs or business cases for the production of OERs, we’re talking about how to measure the value of this endeavour and usually this is through attracting external grants and raising the profile of the institution in some way.

So, where I disagree with David is the ‘common-sense’ expectation that tax payers should expect an equal return on the taxes we pay. From the point of view of capital, those taxes are potential surplus value that has been captured and transferred away from the direct capital accumulation process (M-C-M’ : Money is invested to produce Commodities that are sold in order to create Money and so on). From the point of view of capital, taxes are captured surplus value that are reinvested into the perpetuation of capitalist society, into educating workers, keeping us healthy and so on. Once these basic responsibilities are performed through the welfare state, capital will inevitably seek a return on this surplus value captured in taxation and seek to encourage the production of more surplus value wherever possible. e.g. selling publicly funded research outputs.

So, if David and I think it’s unfair that we don’t get a fair return on our taxes, it is no surprise really. It’s just a continuation of the exploitation that most of us are forced into under capitalism, where private property and waged labour are the organising principles of subsistence. In my view, a fair return on our taxes (or BOGO, as David calls it) through openness doesn’t ‘fix a disfunction in the market’; it is completely incompatible with a society where there is an imperative (partly through competition in the markets) to accumulate capital undertaken through the exploitation of working people, be they academics, housewives, students or car mechanics.

The relationships between technology and open education in the development of a resilient higher education

Richard Hall and I are presenting at the OpenEd10 conference next week. Here’s a few slides that Richard has just put together. The paper can be downloaded here.

UPDATE: Here’s the video recording of our session. We ditched the slides.

Questions for Open Education

I’m starting to write a book chapter on Open Education and have been thinking about its meaning as a movement, like other social movements. Earlier today, I was reading The Rocky Road to a Real Transition. The Transition Town’s Movement and What it Means for Social Change. This is a constructive critique of the Transition Towns movement. I recommend reading the ‘Rocky Road’ booklet as it asks a number of questions that are applicable to any movement that advocates positive social change. From reading the booklet, I’ve pulled out some questions we might similarly ask of the Open Education movement. What do you think? I’ll try to offer some answers in this book chapter I’m writing…

  • What is Open Education attempting to transform? Towards what, from where?
  • What can we learn from other historical and existing models of organising (social) change?
  • What is the historical and political context of Open Education?
  • To what extent is Open Education for radical social change and not simply about change within the existing boundaries of education?
  • Is Open Education apolitical? Can it be? How effective can depoliticised movements be?
  • To what extent is the Open Education movement really facing up to the issues of social inequality?
  • How does Open Education resist neo-liberal government policies and how is it being co-opted by government/private funding bodies as a way to maintain economic and political business-as-usual?
  • Do we recognise that we are complicit in the problems we are critical of? Is it a self-reflexive movement?
  • How does the liberalisation of educational resources (OER) serve the liberalisation of the knowledge economy?
  • To what extent does Open Education present a real challenge to the existing forms of education? Or rather, to what extent can Open Education be ignored?
  • How do the objectives of Open Education tie into the objectives of other movements for social change? Are we working together?
  • Creating alternatives to the status quo is one method of introducing change but to what extent does Open Education resist and challenge mainstream education?
  • Are our institutions resilient and sustainable? How can Open Education contribute to sustainability? How might Open Education be vulnerable to the unsustainability of institutions?

Conference paper for OpenEd 2010 on technology, resilience and open education

I have written a paper with Richard Hall for the Open Education conference in November. You can download it here: Technology, open education and a resilient higher education. Of course we welcome all comments and criticism. Here’s the conclusion from the paper:

Open forms of HE are crucial in our overcoming of socio-economic disruption, and in framing spaces for personal and communal resilience. A key role for open curriculum development is the critique of hegemonic discourses and the contexts in which they emerge so that they can be challenged, and so that co-governance as well as co-production can be enabled and tested. A key role for technology, in a world of increasing uncertainty, where disruption threatens our approaches, is to enable individuals to engage in authentic partnerships, in mentoring and enquiry, and in the processes of community and social governance and action.

There is still a risk that the provision of frameworks for free associations between individuals will leave some people marginalised, and the creation of appropriate contexts that spark or forge opportunities for participation is pedagogically critical. Equally, the tensions evoked within institutions around, for instance: the ownership of technology; the openness of networks and practices; the structures of management data; engagement with communities at scale; and the validation/accreditation of curricula; need to be addressed. Despite these tensions, the capacity of technology to improve the opportunities for people to work together to shape and solve problems, and to further their critical understanding of themselves and of the world they live in, is significant.

Technology underpins the development of an open curriculum for resilience in three key areas.

I. The enhancement of student-agency, in producing both relationships within and across open communities, and open, socially-situated tasks is important. The student’s power-over the tools she uses and her power-to negotiate agreed socio-cultural norms is fundamental here, although issues to do with social anxiety, difference, self-conception and allegiance within closed groups, and the marginalisation of certain users, form potential risks. However, a modular approach to the use of technology for agreed tasks in meaningful networks is one aspect of defining resilience.

II. Re-framing HE experiences as open, in order to allow learners to test their self-concept is critical. Educational technologies offer an array of supportive networking contexts where learners can model practice and self-expression. Formative development is ongoing and demands a range of open engagements on a range of tasks with a range of roles in a range of networks. This diverse learning approach is a second aspect of defining resilience.

III. Feedback for learning from multiple perspectives underpins authentic personal development. Technologies facilitate near real-time feedback and enable the student to recognise the impact of her actions, which is a third aspect in the definition of resilience.

In this tripartite approach, the production and re-use of artefacts is of secondary importance to the social relationships that are re-defined by educators and students, and the focus on people and values that is in-turn assembled through open education (Lamb, 2010). In overcoming alienation and disruption, a resilient open education enables us to critique institutionalised forms of education. The challenge is to develop such a critique.

Open Education and Sustainability

I’ve just given a 15 minute presentation as part of a session on ‘sustainable practice in OER‘. My slides are below. I’ve presented as one of a number of speakers on this subject before, discussing the more obvious ideas around sustainability that have arisen from leading the ChemistryFM project. I didn’t really go over them again today, preferring to think about sustainability in the wider social context and beyond the specific outcomes of our project.

A few ideas that we, in the Centre for Educational Research and Development (CERD), are working on and leading at the University of Lincoln, are included in the slides below, but I’d like to highlight them here so you don’t miss (or dismiss) them based on the outline in my presentation.

The main message about sustainability that I tried to push across in the presentation is that for OER and Open Education in general to be sustainable, we need sustainable societies and a sustainable planet. These are, arguably, not sustainable in their current form, so how can Open Education both contribute to sustainability in general and therefore become sustainable in itself as a paradigm of education?

Following Prof. Mike Neary’s lead in my department, I suggested that the ideas of ‘student as producer’, ‘pedagogy of excess’ and ‘teaching in public’ are attempts to not only change education at the university so that it is sustainable (among having other positive attributes), but can also be usefully adopted by advocates of open education and help develop a wider framework of sustainability for the ‘revolutionary’ changes in education which proponents of Open Education keep referring to.

Under those three headings, I have highlighted a couple of other ideas worth engaging with by ‘open educators’. They are ‘mass intellectuality’ and ‘commonism’, both of which have been developed in the area of political critical theory. The best thing to do if you’re interested in these terms, is to follow the links in the presentation, some of which I also include below.

There’s no certainty that any of this will achieve our goals of sustainability, but personally I am satisfied that it is a practical and intellectually rigorous direction to pursue with all the critical energy I can manage.

On ‘Student as Producer’ see the book chapter that Mike and I wrote and read about how this is starting to be developed as a core principle and practice at the University of Lincoln.

On ‘Pedagogy of Excess’, Mike and Andy Hagyard, who also works here in CERD, have a book chapter due out in September. If you want to read a draft, I’m sure they will oblige, so please do ask.

On ‘Teaching in Public’, I have a few notes from a presentation, and we have just got the go ahead from the publisher, Continuum, to write a book on this subject, which all members of CERD are contributing to. I will be writing about Teaching in Public in the context of open education, thinking about Burawoy’s statement that “students are a teacher’s first public”.

On ‘mass intellectuality’, we write about it in the Student as Producer chapter (see above), but are drawing on a history of this terms’ development in political critical theory. Most sources seem to lead back to Negri and Hardt, which draws on the work of autonomism, which has developed Marx’s ideas around the ‘general intellect’. I would strongly recommend Dyer-Witheford’s book, Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High Technology Capitalism, for a good discussion on both the ‘general intellect’ and ‘mass intellectuality’, especially how it might relate to open education. We drew on this book for our book chapter.

On ‘commonism’, again, see this article by Nick Dyer-witheford, where he attempts to elaborate the idea. I think that those who are advocates of ‘the commons’ and P2P might like the ideas that are developing around ‘commonism’.

Finally, here are today’s slides:

Mozilla & Creative Commons Open Education Course /1

Yesterday, I started a six week course on Open Education, organised by the Mozilla FoundationCreative Commons and The Peer 2 Peer University. Like all 26 participants, I’ll be blogging about the course with the tags ‘MozOpenEd’ or ‘MozOpenEdCourse’ and it looks like we’ll be aggregating as much online activity as possible into a blog I’m setting up here.

The course outline looks really interesting and yesterday’s first online session got off to a good start. Working with people both synchronously and asynchronously online is always interesting and the enthusiasm and democracy within the group is going to be quite infectious.  Some good Case Studies have been provided for discussion and we’ve each been asked to work on a blueprint project over the next six weeks. I’ll be working on student identity, data portability, portfolios and the transition to and from university, using this WordPress/BuddyPress platform I run at the University of Lincoln. My starting point is that university life should not necessarily encumber students with a further digital identity, should build on their existing digital identity and portfolio and that all digital products of student life should be portable as they are increasingly becoming elsewhere.

My thinking is not at all clear right now, but I’ve got a strong gut feeling that this topic is going to both interest me and be practically implementable. I’m working on a project with a colleague who teaches animation and it may be that I can combine these projects to the benefit of all. I signed up for the course so that I would be forced to clarify my thinking and hopefully benefit the work I’m already doing.

Anyway, more on all of this next week.