Towards the democratic university: openness and community collections

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 28 May 2010

At the end of a thoughtful piece on the resistance to the closure of the Philosophy Department at Middlesex University, John Protevi, notes that we need to enact “the beginning of the democratic university”. This made me reconsider my blogpost from early April about openness within universities and the nature of the latest technology-enhanced learning project that captures the zeitgeist, open education resources [OERs].

In particular, I am interested in the use of OERs as a means for the legitimation of the production/social value of all actors in the education process, through the ownership of the processes of creation and sharing. This connects into Holloway’s view of the value of “doing” in re-shaping and refining and re-casting the world, and in resisting our alienation from it. He rightfully notes the importance of engaging with issues of power on our place in the world. This matters for OERs in terms of the two forms of power that Holloway writes about: firstly, the power to create, or to do; and, secondly our power over, be that over the productive process or of domination and subjugation, which stifles the power of people to create and act and be. So when we are talking about co-creation or co-production, or the value-for-money of approaches to OERs, we need to see this framed by issues of power, self-concept and legitimation.

These issues were thrown into sharp relief at a recent ANTF symposium, during a session on ‘The Future of Higher Education’. This space enabled senior managers to focus on the recent election and subsequent headline statements about education in the face of proposed cuts. The session highlighted a view that “what we do makes a contribution to the economic strength of other sectors”. It also created a space for the view that HE must “do things differently and stop doing some things”, and that innovation, or doing more with less, was central to HE’s role in 2010. When I hear that “the challenge is demonstrating impact”, I feel that this is a cipher for economic growth/economic value, and not social value, equality or inclusion. As part of this business-focused discourse, the language used was one of homogenisation that could be seen as objectification [“their learning experience”]. This market fundamentalism then shrouds our development of a discourse around sharing and OERs in HE.

This matters more because higher education faces critical times ahead and needs a critical response. The development, deployment and sharing of OERs offers hopeful purpose for an active participation in a practical life, both in stimulating innovation that supports social inclusion and justice, and in resistance to dominant economic models of education that link self-worth to externally-imposed metrics. A key here is academic activism in opening up spaces and places where students can engage in co-governance as much as co-production. Co-governance is vital because it is through engagement with both the theory and practice of negotiating and defining spaces and practices through and in which materials can be produced that individuals can become themselves and respect divergent perspectives. In the homogenisation of HE, in a discourse that only stresses the economy, the markets, value-for-money and STEM, we risk losing our humanity.

Perhaps one central question to which we need to return is “what is this for?” I ask this question not only in terms of HE in 2010, but also the OER project. For me a key outcome is self-determination and personal transformation, so that individually we are able to judge what is good enough for one-self [rather than good or excellent], given our own partial, situated experience. In fact, this partial, fragmented view of the world may be shaken up by an approach to OERs as sharing, which is highlighted by the anti-curriculum tract of the University of Utopia. Anti-curriculum stresses the joy of communal working and sharing beyond borders, and it highlights how engagement in productive sharing brings the curriculum to life, but perhaps also that it brings life to the curriculum. Our view of ourselves, others and the world is enhanced then, through the act of sharing, and this might usefully be the focus of an answer to the question of “what are OERs for?” However, it might also form a strand that enables us to engage with Protevi’s “democratic university”.

This democratic imperative focuses issues of inclusion and community engagement, which are in turn amplified by the possibilities of social media. These possibilities are becoming realised through connections between OERs and the power of community collections like the East London Lives 2012 project and RunCoCo, or community-approaches to research, like the Galaxy Zoo. In each of these cases, the focus is on democratic engagement in the production of digital stories or research, which accepts divergence in ideology, but that is ultimately about sharing artifacts, ideas and identities. These projects are primarily not-for-profit, and focus upon communities or networks or affiliations understanding difference and representing themselves. In framing the spaces that co-workers on a project occupy, a range of voices can be respected, and a range of roles are taken up, from novice, through to agitator, organiser, educator, advocate and more experienced other.

The beauty of these projects, accepting difficulties in licensing, copyright, establishing authorship, overcoming entrenched political positions, and finding ways to engage those with limited power to speak, is their mutuality and their focus on respect, devolved authority and responsibility for governance, creation and sharing. In this way the mix of social media and face-to-face workshops held by Culturenet Cymru and the Community University Partnership Programme offers the hope for community-engaged work that offers equality, and participation-as-partnership. Through these projects we have ways of seeing things differently, and of overcoming fragmentation or disintermediation, whether in the production and sharing of resources, or learning objects or in commenting and critiquing those resources. Promoting the sharing of interactions around an object enriches dialogue about issues, disciplines and ourselves.

Again the key question is what is this for? What is the role of HE in mediating and advocating and sharing? What is its role as a social enterprise working with not-for-profits? How do these types of projects, framed by OERs open up a space for us to challenge the dominant economic discourse around our activity and our very being? In answering these questions, a critical issue is how to enable people to own the process of creation and sharing, and thereby to become archival activists. Perhaps a key role for academics in this democratic process is as Gramscian traditional intellectuals, committed to the cause of personal-emancipation, who are able to advocate for and lead the development of organic intellectuals within communities, associations, student cohorts or networks. The hope is that such organic intellectuals are able to develop ideas that lead to the democratic and collaborative transformation of those communities.

In this context we need to seize each opportunity to widen the space in which we resist the dominating paradigms for HE. As a result, two things strike me as important in thinking about OERs and community collections, framed by co-production and Co-governance. The first is to cherish and support examples like the Really Open University and its focus upon praxis, in re-asserting the idea of the University as a site for critical action, resistance and opposition, lead by students. The second is to work with institutionalised structures, for example in defined OER programmes or open access legislation, to use them as levers for enhancing agreed social values. As a result we may be able to enact “the beginning of the democratic university”.

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