The Paradox of Openness: the true cost of giving online

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 8 September 2011

At ALT-C 2011 I took part in a symposium on the Paradox of Openness: the true cost of giving online. I blogged about what I might say, as an introduction. In my five minutes and in the discussion that followed the following twelve points arose.

ONE. In his book on the Cuban Revolution in the Twenty-First Century, George Lambie argues that academia is locked into problem-solving theory. This is aimed at supporting, interacting with, and adjusting the dominant order. This leads to the artificial organisation and construction of knowledge, which in turn closes off a revelation of how society works. It depoliticises and avoids. It is not critically open. It disempowers us in our attempts to transform the world.

TWO. Thus, we need an ontological critique, as a process of analysis of how we experience the world and how we accept the elite’s interpretive myths – their hegemony over us. We need a revelation or a revealing or a revolution in our ways of thinking.

THREE. Through this revealing we need a critique of established ideological or intellectual frameworks. We need a critique of their legitimacy within higher education. This forms a set of political acts, which is itself open to critique.

FOUR. This critique, and our work and our labour are historically situated. Our critiques of what is “open” (whatever that is) within higher education are historically situated. They are situated within capitalist work as our living history and our lived experiences.

FIVE. When we develop a critique of “open”, we might consider its history as a re-ordering of business-as-usual in the years since 2006. We might consider a critique of open as a critique of formal, institutional higher education, but which has thus far been limited to a re-ordering of business-as-usual, with no deeper ontological base. Thus, in higher education we might consider “open” in light of Phase 1 of the JISC/HEA OER programme that began in 2009. We might also consider its history in light of the maturation and analysis of MOOCs since 2008. We might also consider that since 2006 we have seen global attempts at reordering business-as-usual, in the form of capitalist work, through problem-solving or enclosure, in the following spaces.

  • In the UK, the final term of the last Labour Government saw the governance and funding of higher education migrated to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the publication in 2009 of Higher Ambitions, which began a process of the neoliberal enclosure of university life.
  • In 2009 the think-tank demos published Resilient Nation and The Edgeless University, both of which were attempts to recalibrate how we think about managing disruption and the ways in which Universities might become open in their practices. At the same time, the new economics foundation published The Great Transition, which was a blueprint for its future work on de-growth and zero growth economics, and the working practices that underpin capitalist work.
  • We now know from Wikileaks’ cables that in 2007-09 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia admitted that it had been historically overstating its oil production capability by 40%, just as Richard Heinberg was writing about peak everything (2007). In 2010 the International Energy Agency’s Annual Report confirmed the reality of peak oil in that same period.
  • In 2008, Lehman Brothers collapsed and governments globally were drawn into fiscal measures to maintain business-as-usual; the aftermath saw an enclosure of future life and work though austerity and indenture.
  • In 2008, the UK Government passed the Climate Change Act, which attempted to problem-solve the issue of de-carbonisation through legislation.
  • In these actions or Acts or publications, we see an array of attempts at problem-solving individual issues, or at enclosing our lives through indebtedness or the privatisation of public assets or a lack of transparency about liquid fuels and so on. This enclosing is more than closure, because enclosure implies privatisation or property rights, or power-over a space in order to seek profit (financial or rental) from it. Alternatively, spaces might be closed but operate through, for example, consensus or for reasons of safety, outside the treadmill logic of competition or profit-maximisation or accumulation or a need to increase the rate of profit. Yet, try as we might to see our discussion of “open” within education framed by issues that reveal a new ontological space, critique of that very space is closed off to us. Our discussion is framed by a specific set of crises that are symptomatic of capitalism, and that are disconnected. As a result, in the possibilities we envisage, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism.
  • In the face of the violence of the dispossession or enclosure of our futures, we need a revelatory politics of what we might call “open”.
    • Yet our politics of open is closed to the problem-solving logic of value-for-money, efficiency and productivity.
    • Yet our politics of open is closed to the proletarianisation of academic life and the appropriation of our labour.
    • Yet our politics of open is closed to the intensification and assurance of our labour.
    • Our politics of open does not allow us to critique our work in the face of the discipline of debt and the kettle.
    • And so our academic life is closed to a discussion of the politics of ”open”, and a concomitant critique of formal higher education – our politics is enclosed within the dominant logic of capitalist work, which subsumes our power-to create the world through its power-over our labour.
    • And meanwhile, as our students are attempting to re-create and re-imagine their world in occupation, and as our students are fighting for an open public higher education, we tell ourselves stories of co-production and enfranchisement enclosed by business-as-usual.
    • And as David Willetts tells us that we “use ICT for the right reasons”, we might critique what this means for our re-production of ourselves and the world. For as Marx suggests, our enculturation and use of technology is much more complex: “Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them.”

SIX. And there is hope. There is hope that beyond the commodification of “open” as a resource or a course, and its subsumption under capital, we might rethink our practices and our labour through:

SEVEN. A critique of our social relationships as consumers, producers and contributors, within and beyond our networks (witness open source and the cloud and institutionalisation);

  • Transformatory engagement that attempts to dissolve higher education into the fabric of society as higher learning (witness activist academics or academic bloggers or open scholarship and data);
  • A reinvention of higher education in public, through an open critique of its historical forms that recognises its enclosure within capitalist work and its symptomatic crises.

EIGHT. Within these revelatory activities, we need the confidence to recognise that we might have to operate as infidels, rather than heretics or visitors or residents. Our roles as infidels will challenge problem-solving norms, and the established hegemonic order that defines our work. It might refuse to accept the intellectual parameters of those elites that shape the world in which higher education operates. This is not about adjusting the horizons of our world. It is about cracking and re-framing and transforming them through our activism.

NINE. Thus, we might reveal a paradox of “open”: namely that its very enclosure within business-as-usual, and our inability to think the unthinkable and step beyond it, is too often what is closes its practices to us. Through our focus on problem-solving, and our disregard for ontological critique, our “open” strategies are constrained or contained or neutered. We might ask then, in the battle of ideas, and before we define and dissect “open”, what are we for when we are for open?


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