Open education: the need for critique

*Originally posted on Learning Exchanges on 27 July 2010.

**This post is a set of personal reflections on open education, and the fetishised nature of Open Educational Resources [OERs], and arises from the JISC/HEA-hosted Open Educational Resources International Symposium. It is framed by posts about the Democratic University and the Political Economy of Openness.

Open education is a critique of our formal, institutionalised systems of education. Or it should be. It should help us to critique what we do as educators in a formal system and why. It reflects back to us how our work enables the people who experience our formal systems, to exist, to innovate, to succeed, to be(come). An engagement with the possibilities for open education enables us to examine our “power-to” change our social relations, rather than to exist in a state where some-one or some-thing has “power-over” our work and our selves.

The possibilities of open education include our ability to create spaces for reflecting upon our participation in the activity and labour of (self-) discovery and (self-) invention, and change. However, participation is an often co-opted word, which is de-based to a form of therapeutic engagement between individuals whose power-to govern and create in a situation/activity is markedly different. These differences impact how our work is constructed, and how it is perceived and valued. Our power-to govern a learning situation and the work that is actually done in it, and to re-invent the social relationships that frame it, are based on our agency in the world. There is a balance here between our individual and communal approaches to the process of participation.

Therefore, democratic practices in education are critical in enhancing our broader socio-educational life, and underpin radical re-conceptualisations of educational practice, for example mass intellectuality, a pedagogy of excess and student-as-producer. Marx’s Eighth Thesis on Feuerbach notes that “All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.“ One of the cracks in the formal education system that open models of education demonstrate to us is the hope for partnership and co-governance of learning between different actors in shared practices.

A second, co-opted and often de-based word is “revolution”, especially when coupled to “learning”, and tied to the creation of open educational resources. Marx’s oft-quoted Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach states “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Is this what is meant by “learning revolution”? Where we use that term do we mean radically change our social relations, or the ownership and aggregation of the means of production? Or are we reducing the power of the meaning of “revolution”, so that it becomes a change in the method of “participation” or a change in the technological mode of production? Marx notes in his First Thesis on Feuerbach that we need to “grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of ‘practical-critical’, activity”. Revolution implies a process of struggle and transformation in our social relations, towards an entirely different mode of both production and distribution of goods and services, and towards a different form of collective social (or in this case educational) order. To use the term learning revolution demands a critique of the political economics of education, and the social relations that exist therein. This cannot be done in terms of OERs without an engagement with critical pedagogy.

As a result, it is interesting to re-evaluate the ways in which we think about allegedly radical educational projects/arguments, in particular:

In each of these discussions, there are a number of risks.

  1. That the role/importance of individual rather than social empowerment is laid bare, and that within a libertarian educational structure, the focus becomes techno-determinist. The risk here is that, accepting the position of others in meaningful, socially-constructed tasks, technology is the driver for individual emancipation [although we rarely ask “emancipation for or from what?”]. Moreover, we believe that without constant innovation in technology and technological practices we cannot emancipate/empower ever more diverse groups of learners.
  2. That we deliver practices that we claim are radical, but which simply replicate or re-produce a dominant political economy, in-line with the ideology of accepted business models. So that which we claim as innovatory becomes subservient to a dominant mode of production and merely enables institutions to have power-over our products and labour, rather than it being a shared project [witness the desire for HE to become more business-like].
  3. That we fetishise the outcomes/products of our labour as a form of currency. This is especially true in the case of open educations resources, which risk being disconnected from a critique of open education or critical pedagogy, and PLEs which risk being disconnected from a critique of their relationship to our wider social relations.
  4. That we fetishise the learner as an autonomous agent, able to engage in an environment, using specific tools and interacting with specific OERs, so that she becomes an economic actor, rather than seeing her engagement as socially emergent and negotiated.

David Harvey notes that changing the world is more complex than a technological fix, and requires us to recognise and engage in the critique of an assemblage of other activities or practices. Harvey argues that there are seven activity areas that underpin meaningful social change:

  1. technological and organizational forms of production, exchange and consumption;
  2. relations to nature and the environment;
  3. social relations between people;
  4. mental conceptions of the world, embracing knowledges and cultural understandings and beliefs;
  5. labour processes and production of specific goods, geographies, services or affects;
  6. institutional, legal and governmental arrangements; and
  7. the conduct of daily life that underpins social reproduction.

These areas impact the broader projects with which we engage. As a result a number of questions arise, especially around open education and OERs.

  1. How do we prioritise engagement with the broader, open context of learning and education, with trusted peers? How do we raise our own literacy around openness, in order to legitimise sharing as social practice and as social process, and not as a response to a target of OER-production-as-SMART-objective?
  2. Is the production of OERs a means of furthering control over our means of production and our labour? Is there a risk that the alleged transparency of production of OERs is used to further control and power-over, for example, teachers and teaching by impacting contracts of employment?
  3. Though education, how do we enable the types of participatory engagement and re-production of groups like the Autonomous Geographies Collective or Trapese, where the production of OERs is a secondary outcome to the re-fashioning of social relationships that it enables? By so doing, we might just enable groups to engage with the activity-areas that Harvey highlights as a process of production, rather than fetishising the production of things.
  4. How do we resist the increasing discourse of cost-effectiveness, monetisation, economic value, efficiency that afflicts our discussion of open education? How do we move the argument around sustainability and open education away from a focus on economic value? Too often our discussion of open education is reduced to a discussion of OERs and this, in turn, is reduced to a discourse of cost and consumption. As a result, our role in education is commodified and objectified.
  5. Do we ask who is margnalised in the production of OERs or in open education? Are non-Western cultures engaging in open education and the production of OERs through the languages of colonialism or by focusing on native socio-cultural forms? At what point do OERs and open education become part of a post-colonial discourse focused upon new markets?
  6. How do we utilise OERs to open-up trans-disciplinary approaches to global crises, like peak oil and climate change? How do we enable the emerging array of open subject resources to be utilised across boundaries (be they personal, subject, programme, course, institutional or national), in order to challenge sites of power in the University and beyond? These resources enable ways of challenging hegemonic, mental conceptions of the world and framing new social relations. This requires curriculum leadership. These crises require socio-educational leadership.

The production and re-use of artefacts is of secondary importance to the social relationships that are re-defined by us, and the focus on people and values that are in-turn assembled through open education. In overcoming alienation, and in overcoming crisis, open education enables us to critique institutionalised forms of education, and to promote more resilient ways of doing. The challenge is to promote such a critique.


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