Scoping the relationships between social media and open education in the development of a resilient higher education

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 14 June 2010

With Joss Winn, I have had a paper accepted for the Open Education 2010 conference. This paper begins to open up a space for us to discuss some of the revolutionary possibilities for open education, linked to the production and sharing of socially-useful open educational resources, upon what we might term the academic-social commons. I am pleased to note that the University of Utopia have also had a paper accepted on Opening Education beyond the property relation: from commons to communism. I can feel the unease and shifting in seats at the mention of the ‘c’ word. However, the UoU’s focus is political, based upon a discussion of openness in production and sharing as a site of resistance to individual alienation. The key is to develop a “critical social theory on which to build a really open society”.

Joss and my paper connects into these ideas of the political economy of openness to ask whether open education, or approaches to the production of open educational resources, can enable learners in higher education to overcome disruption. In engaging with this issue I have been reminded of my historical research into the place of commons, commoners and communities in the political world of the early eighteenth century, with a case study of Yorkshire electioneering.

In this, work on common right, enclosure and social change is important because common usage/sharing of resources was a form of social, and potentially political cement within and across communities, based upon local custom and which added to the difficulties and differences of political control. At this time, the commons were crucial for rearing sheep, oxen, horse and pigs, as well as providing thatch, bricks, and sundry extras which bolstered the local economy. Moreover, if the commons were crucial to the psychological and personal well-being of the individual and the community, then its defence was all-important no matter whom the attacker. The commons gave the individual and the community a chance to live of their own and to survive a dearth. They also gave the chance to have an economic independence that underpinned political autonomy.

I view the open education project in a similar light, as giving individuals-in-community a chance to share and to resist dominant and domineering discourses, notably around economic growth and the subservience of higher education’s social values and relationships to the invisible hand of the market. Perhaps its most important role is psychological, as the manufacture and sharing of resources for socially useful ends frames well-being and purposeful living.

Anyway, details of our paper follow…

140-character abstract

HE faces complex disruptions. Can open education and social media enable individuals-in-communities to develop resilience and overcome dislocation?


Higher Education faces complex disruptions, from the growing threat of peak oil (The Oil Drum, 2010) and the impact that will have on our ability to consume/produce (Natural Environment Research Council, 2009), and from our need to own the carbon and energy we emit/use, in order to combat climate change. These problems are being amplified by energy availability and costs (The Guardian, 2009), public sector debt and the effects of a zero growth economy (new economics foundation, 2010).

One focus for response is the use of technology and its impact upon approaches to open education, in developing resilience. The Horizon Report 2010 (New Media Consortium, 2010) highlights the importance of openness but argues that learning and teaching practices need to be seen in light of civic engagement and complexity. Facer and Sandford (2010) ask critical questions of inevitable and universal futures, focused upon always-on technology, and participative, inclusive, democratic change. There is an ethical imperative to discuss the impacts of our use of technology on our wider communities and environment, and to define possible solutions.

Educational technology might be used to address some of these issues through the development of shared, humane values that are amplified by specific qualities of open education, including: relationships and power; anxiety and hope; and social enterprise and community-up provision. These areas are impacted by resilience, which is socially- and environmentally-situated, and denotes the ability of individuals and communities to learn and adapt, to mitigate risks, prepare for solutions to problems, respond to risks that are realised, and to recover from dislocations (Hopkins, 2009). This focuses upon defining problems and framing solutions contextually, around our abilities to develop adaptability to work virally and in ways that are open source and self-reliant. This means working at appropriate scale to take civil action, through diversity, modularity and feedback within communities.

The key for any debate on resilience linked to open education is in defining a curriculum that requires institutions to become less managerial and more open to the formation of devolved social enterprises. This demands the encouragement of what Gramsci (1971) called organic intellectuals, who can emerge from within communities to lead action. Learners and tutors may emerge as such organic intellectuals, working openly with communities in light of disruption. An important element here is what Davis (2007) terms “democratic ‘co-governance’” within civil action, but which might usefully be applied to education, in the form of co-governance of educational outputs. One key issue is how open education is (re)claimed by users and communities within specific contexts and curricula, in-line with personal integration and enquiry, within an uncertain world (Futurelab, 2009).

The following questions emerge, catalysed by open education.
1. What sorts of literacies of resilience do people as social agents need?

2. What sorts of knowledge/understanding do these learners need to be effective agents in society?

3. Are our extant modes of designing and delivering curricula meaningful or relevant?

This paper will address these questions by examining whether open education can enable individuals-in-communities to recover from dislocations.


The Oil Drum 2010.

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