Towards a manifesto for sharing

One of the conclusions I’ve come to over the course of the ChemistryFM project is that sharing doesn’t need institutionalising. I don’t think we need to develop policy and processes for sharing the work we do. I’ve been drafting the final report for the ChemistryFM project this week and have written that “the overall approach taken throughout the project was to not treat it as a project.” Basically, despite being Project Manager, I’ve just let the teachers and students get on with the work we said we’d do and prompted them simply to remind them of obligations we have to finishing the project on time.

The idea of formalising the process of sharing teaching and learning materials is something I’ve found myself increasingly resisting throughout the project. Academics don’t need more constraints on their working practices, they need less. They need more freedom to share and a hand in doing so when they’re hesitant about how best to share their work; they need support when they’re unclear about how to license their resources.

I’ve been reminded of a paper by David Noble where he argues that universities are responsible for “the systematic conversion of intellectual activity into intellectual capital and, hence, intellectual property.” He goes on to bemoan

the commoditization of the educational function of the university, transforming courses into courseware, the activity of instruction itself into commercially viable proprietary products that can be owned and bought and sold in the market. In the first phase the universities became the site of production and sale of patents and exclusive licenses. In the second, they are becoming the site of production of — as well as the chief market for — copyrighted videos, courseware, CD–ROMs, and Web sites.

Of course, the OER movement is in part a reaction to this very commoditisation of education and an effort to counter the transformation of courses into commercial courseware.

I worry though that by institutionalising OERs, we’re producing constraints that go against sharing. Scaling up the production of OERs to an institutional level where sharing is considered in terms of an IP Policy, business case, marketing and ‘best practice’ will kill the potential that already exists to share. We have the Internet, we have the licenses, we have an abundance of resources to share. We don’t even need to measure success in terms of resources shared. Rather, we should be measuring the success of the OER movement by our willingness to resist the systematic conversion of intellectual activity into intellectual capital. To justify OERs in terms of a business case is just another way of creating capital out of immaterial labour.

In terms of our contribution to the academic commons we’ve already argued that the teacher-student relationship needs to be defined by an alternative organising principle where the student is a co-producer in the construction of mass intellectuality.

this requires academics and students to do more than simply redesign their curricula, but go further and redesign the organizing principle, (i.e. private property and wage labour), through which academic knowledge is currently being produced… creating a teaching, learning and research environment which promotes the values of openness and creativity, engenders equity among academics and students and thereby offers an opportunity to reconstruct the student as producer and academic as collaborator. In an environment where knowledge is free, the roles of the educator and the institution necessarily change. The educator is no longer a delivery vehicle and the institution becomes a landscape for the production and construction of a mass intellect in commons.

When there’s equity between teacher and student, then sharing will come naturally, it will be unstoppable and grow exponentially. When teaching and learning materials are evaluated, packaged, branded, standardised and archived, they’re turned into learning objects consumed by objectified ‘learners’. That is, if they ever get as far as becoming learning objects as each step in their production is another barrier to sharing.

Scott Leslie has got it right when he says, “if you want to share, you will”. If we help create a desire, (a compulsion is what I feel), to share in both teacher and student academics, then any existing barriers will be irrelevant. We do that, not by institutionalising sharing, but by showing the humanity in sharing; the joy of giving and receiving; the immaterial wealth of knowledge that already exists and the pleasure of creating social relations that resist the organising principle of private property and wage labour.

I’m currently reading Do It Yourself. A handbook for changing our world. It’s basically a book about taking direct action. There’s a section in there on ‘popular education‘, which I think the current debate around the institutionalisation of OERs, as clearly seen from the comments and pingbacks on Scott’s post, could learn from. It’s written by the Trapese Collective, and walks through the key aspects of popular education:

  1. A commitment to transformation and solidarity
  2. Learning our own histories and not his-story
  3. Starting from daily reality
  4. Learning together as equals
  5. Getting out of the classroom
  6. Inspiring social change

There’s no emphasis on technology or networks or even the conscious act of sharing. The emphasis is on grounding education in the reality of our social relations, the struggle of daily life, the hierarchical relations between institutions and people, and between academics and students. The desire for autonomy is also a desire to re-instate the commons, to break the enclosures that currently inhibit sharing. The conscious act of sharing is both a move to resist oppression and a drive towards autonomy. After all, we share our work in education so that one-day we might become free through education, don’t we?

The title of this post is ‘towards a manifesto for sharing’. If we were to write such a manifesto, what would it contain? Feel free to start writing it in the comment box below. Thanks.

13 Replies to “Towards a manifesto for sharing”

  1. Fantastic post…

    I guess what I struggle with is how to reconcile the arguments you present here, and the apparent need to ensure that activity that supports sharing is recognised and rewarded by institutions. I personally struggle how to make that case within a university it terms that will resonate across faculty and administration.

    Hope you keep following this line of thinking, a manifesto along these lines would be welcome.

    1. At our university, Mike Neary, the Dean of Teaching and Learning and an inspiration for some of the ideas in this post, is advocating the idea of ‘Student as Producer’, which I quote from our book chapter. This is alongside the idea of ‘research engaged teaching and learning’, which supports and furthers the ‘student as producer’.

      If we can change the social relations between students and staff then we change the institution and that which it values and rewards. However, I don’t think we should expect too much from our institutions, all the while neo-liberal, market-driven policy is in control of education.

      OERs are just one expression of resistance that is manifested elsewhere in society in different ways with little recognition beyond the lives that it touches. It’s why the OER community and our own networks are an important source of energy, creativity and recognition.

      Thanks for raising this question. It’s something that needs further thought and elaboration but I’m sure there are useful examples of ‘resistance and recognition’ elsewhere we can draw on.

    2. I’ve been reading From Exchange to Contributions: Generalizing Peer Production into the Physical World, which discusses ‘reputation’ in terms of how people are judged by their contribution to the Commons. This doesn’t directly answer your question about but it might be worth pursuing in terms of your question about ‘recognition and reward’. I see Benkler also has a section on ‘motivation’ and commons-based peer-production (p. 92) that might be useful.

  2. This is a brilliant post, and the way you place education squarely within the reality of everyday social relations is a powerful way to frame how some of this technology engenders some new possibilities with thinking social relations around networks of distributed bodies, and breaking free from the constant sense of alienation associated with the increasingly virtual social relations we are enmeshed within.

    What’s more, you approach here brings both an astute and acute critique of the increased attempts to institutionalize open courseware and the like with huge budgets that are anything but sustainable for smaller schools and independent learners. David Wiley’s recent post about the cost of OCW and where the money goes examines this from an economic perspective, but what you are doing here is framing the issue from a social/political vantage point that takes into consideration the changing nature of the university and the ever increasing sense of the “machine” of open (much like the machine of organic food in the US) versus the thought and practice that goes into it at an individual level, or even more so, a human level. And that gets at the heart of why I’m so averse to OCW and the like, because by institutionalizing it so in the name of economies of scale and the like, it is dehumanized, and it no longer reflects what exactly drive us to that point in the first place.

    Thanks for thinking that through for me, your integration of politics, materialism, and a strong push for social justice into what we are trying to do with education is a key discourse to often overlooked.

  3. I nod enthusiastically with your logic against formalizing sharing, but have to wonder, do we really need a manifesto? Is that really going to do anything beyond getting agreement with those who already buy into the mindset? Shouldn’t we “just do it”?

    Perhaps it’s my naiveté, but the act of being on the receiving end of something shared ought to light an impulse to do the same, share it forward, etc. It seems a natural instinct in young children, yet somehow our systems quickly quash that impulse.

    I was reminded of a conference paper way back in 2000 from Greg Webb, Why Teachers Don’t Share Resources, and What We Can Do About It and sadly, in that time we’ve seen the rise of Web 2.0, social media, more ways to share online than we can shake a stick it, yet, we still ask the question.

    Heck, maybe we do need a manifesto.

    1. In my mind, OERs embody a critique of the production and consumption of education and a disruption to property relations.

      The idea of a manifesto is to highlight and help clarify the politics of OERs in terms of social relations. Maybe I’ve missed the conversation (quite likely), but if we’re advocates of changing property relations, then we’re engaged in an attempt to change social relations.

      A manifesto, and the act of writing a manifesto, clarifies this. Glad you’re on board 😉

  4. Thinking more about this post, this recent news (via Leigh Blackall) of 500 million dollars to OER over the next 10 years in the US will make the idea of not institutionalizing OER that much more difficult, if not impossible. A windfall of money, and here come the vultures and the OER in a box, and everything else that has little or nothing to do with those social relations.

    1. Yes. This might be seen as the natural response of the capitalist state to further sub-ordinate the labour of academics and an appeasement to all the citizens who are denied access to education (what is referred to as ‘pressing education issues’). With this, OERs become part of the ‘infrastructure’, branded as ‘state of the art’ and part of a ‘learning system’. They see it as a cost-savings exercise that can be extended into the K-16 system.

      Open licenses provide a legitimate and now quite mature method of resisting and subverting capitalist property rights. As a growing number of academics in the OER and Open Access movements fight to share their work, the US Dept. of Education extends its remit to the domain of OERs, which was otherwise on the run from institutional control. The subjective work of the academic has been objectified, subordinated and commodified by state funding that puts a price on sharing. It’s the enclosure of social activity through the rule of money.

      With this funding, there will be institutional policies that add a constraint here and a constraint there. It will be used as a form of control through competitive bidding and an emphasis on quality and rigour.

      Capitalism is in a state of permanent crisis; OERs are a grassroots response to this permanent state, which shouts:

      “Enough!, enough of your stupid power games, enough of your stupid exploitation, enough of your idiotic playing at soldiers and bosses; we who do not exploit and do not want to exploit, we who do not have power and do not want to have power, we who still want to live lives that we consider human, we who are without face and without voice” *

      * quoting John Holloway (2005).

  5. Great post Joss. I agree with you from an individual perspective – I’ve been banging on about little OERs trumping big OERs. One of the dangers of an institutional approach is that it becomes a project and therefore someone else’s thing so you don’t have to worry about it.
    But given that sharing is so easy now, why aren’t more academics doing it? Is it just a matter of time? As Alan says we’ve been having these discussions for a long time now.
    Is it more about giving academics space, and importantly, legitimacy to do this kind of stuff. A kind of ‘it’s okay to play around with YouTube’ mandate?
    In defence of big, institutional OER they could be seen as a the colonisers in this harsh landscape. Many academics are reluctant to share. Reuse is often a starting point in sharing, and they have reservations about all this YouTube stuff, but they know stuff from the OU and MIT is respectable, so it represents a first step for those who are less inclined. I’ve seen this with a couple of projects I’ve worked on in developing countries – status is important and they are suspicious of the academic quality of web 2 stuff, but the institutional projects had a quality seal they were happy with. So maybe the institutional stuff will fade but is a necessary first step? I’m not convinced by this argument, but offer it up.
    What would be interesting would be to see what kind of content we got if we put the money Jim mentions not into big OER but into facilitating little OER production?
    Anyway, thanks for a thoughtful post.

    1. Thanks, Martin. I think the problem is quite deep-rooted, as the Open Access movement has found out in their battle with journal publishers.

      Sharing goes against our economic model which is based on creating value out of private property. Academics have had to deal with journal publishers’ policies for years and therefore it’s no surprise that they question even the possibility of sharing.

      We’re constantly being reminded of the dangers of online sharing. I think, ideally, that universities need to work on creating a culture of sharing through what we do best, which is education.

      Academics and students need to be educated about why sharing can help resist what many of them hate about the neo-liberal influence over their jobs and result in them doing less work, not more.

      I’m not convinced by the idea that institutionally driven OERs are a worthwhile first-step. It seems to me, to entail unwarranted bureaucracy, the development of more ‘Learning Systems’ to manage ‘institutional output’, a top-down institution-wide policy on which CC licenses are allowed, etc. etc. Sharing doesn’t need encroaching upon and ultimately controlling in this way.

      I think the question about ‘rewards’ which Brian mentioned above is important, although again, whether those rewards should be institutionally recognised is questionable, I think.

      I get reward from sharing. I’m sure you do, too. I don’t need the reward of additional income and I know it saves me my labour-time overall. I get things done because I share and so far I’m feeling pretty rewarded through the people I meet, the conversations I have, the interesting work that comes about as a result and the freedom it affords me, too.

      I think your use of the term ‘colonisers’ with respect to developing countries is interesting and worth thinking about more in terms of the history of imperialism and the commodification of education. The ‘quality seal’ you refer to could be understood as a reference to the perceived ‘value’ arising from commodity fetishism.

  6. Ah, I realise colonisers may have had an unintended interpretation here – I meant it in terms of plant succession – in an unfavourable environment primary colonisers move in (moss, lichens), which by their very presence alter the environment, thus making it more amenable to other plants such as grasses, etc One can view initial technologies as doing this also.

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