Against a bill of rights and principles for learning in the digital age

It is interesting that the drive to MOOC-ify both the forms of (higher) education and the idea of pedagogy, has quickly forked to the idea of a Bill of Rights for Learners. Downes has already noted that “if you ask me it’s pretty top-down and manipulative”. I know that in this brave new world, we are all defined as learners, but I find it intriguing that there is the idea of a Bill of Rights for learners that is not written by learners, in the traditional sense. It is written by people that I would define as educators with more/different social and cultural capital than, say, the 18-year old historians that I have had the privilege to work with. Thus, the preamble notes that this is produced by those who are “passionate about serving today’s students”; this is education-as-service industry, which leaves it ripe for co-option by those with an agenda of student-as-customer or consumer, rather than as co-producer. I also find it intriguing that there is an open invitation to help redraft/improve this Bill of Rights on the P2P site. I’m wondering how that will engage with those institutional learners across the globe, rather than engage specific groups in technologically-rich countries/educational settings.

Anyway, the draft made me think about the following issues.

  1. For whom does this declaration speak? Whom does it give power? Whom does it give a voice? Who is silenced and why?
  2. There is a specific presumption about what globalisation means. How a group of educators from the Global North are drafting/writing a Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age, witha cursory mention of globalisation and no focus on politics or disenfranchisement in the global South or even inside countries in the North. The idea that access is ubiquitous is developed alongside a depoliticised notion that equality of opportunity is enough, when inside the iniquities of an education system designed around capitalist work, this is never enough. A starting point might be the work of Glen Rikowski on the relationships between education, training and capitalism.
  3. How techno-determinism drives a view of constant, specific innovation, of emancipation achieved through access to capitalist work (embedded in the draft), and the underpinning idea of education for individual entrepreneurialism. The draft is almost solely focused on the flowering of the individual and how that has historically been denied institutionally through outmoded educational practices (whatever they are). In this way it resonates with the neoliberal ideal of the production of the entrepreneurial subject, separated or atomised out but given equality of opportunity to access the technological tools and debt-driven opportunities that signal the possibility of entering that productive process. Technology is merely an enabler or reinforcer of those possibilities, and yet here it is reified so that the ideals claimed for leaning are subsumed under its “potentially awe-inspiring opportunity”.
  4. How the focus on the learner, rather than communities of scholarly practice, is almost a disciplinary tool. For who can deny that empowering the learner is the aim of education? Who would dare say that #learnersrights should not drive this agenda? Yet this risks becoming a form of tyranny that dispossesses the voices of those who commit their lifetime to educating. Whither dissent when this is claimed as a unifying bill of rights for learners? Moreover, it risks separating out learners and teachers, for instance as opposed to the Social Science Centre’s focus on teachers and students as scholars as a community of shared educational practice and inquiry. The teacher appears forgotten in this Bill of Rights other than having responsibilities, of which the learner appears to have none, for s/he has only #learnersrights.
  5. Downes makes the point that History is forgotten in the Bill of Rights, that he authored a ‘Cyberspace Charter of Rights‘ in 1999. Before that we have: communiqués from occupied California that featured student/teacher manifestos for education and society; a whole history of redefining education as a social and socialised good back to 1968 and of redefining the relationships between education, educational forms and society; a raft of work on critical pedagogy as transformational, democratic praxis which emerges from the work of bell hooks, Henry Giroux and others; and the outpouring of what “learners” demand from education in the face of the discipline of austerity. Any Bill of Rights needs to understand its historical moment. At issue is whether this one does in any way that isn’t deterministic and presentist.
  6. The Bill cannot escape the structuring logic of capitalism. Work, value, money, the place and role of employers, and affordability are written throughout its DNA, and yet these come loaded with issues of power and politics that are at best hidden from view in the document. In this way its claims for emancipation are tied to problem-solving the worst excesses of capitalism, through affordable access, or transparency of data-mining and privacy, licensing laws and commodifying personal data etc. It is also interesting that financial transparency appears ahead of pedagogical transparency, and that money/work is a critical factor throughout. Where is the politics? Where is the power? Is financial transparency and the meaningful payment of educators really a defining moment of emancipatory education? Really?
  7. There is no mention of the implications and impact of crises of austerity, climate change, and liquid fuel availability here. All that is offered is “there is no alternative”. How does this Bill of Rights helps learners, teachers, or society manage disruption and become resilient in the face of crisis? How does it enable us to solve problems communally, beyond being the individual becoming fit-for-work?

The Bill of Rights reminded me that in being “inside”, we are able to be/define “against” and move “beyond”; to define meaningful alteratives. I take that as the important outcome of this Bill.

Thus, the Bill of Rights reminded me ofthe University of Utopia’s anti-curricula and the Third University’s precepts for alternative teacher training.


Kate Bowles over on Music for Deckchairs has written the most eloquent critique of the original draft, based upon her view that the idea and forms of higher education are worth fighting for, and that democratic accountability isn’t just the province of the open web.

For me, there are two gaps. The first is a failure to understand or include what it takes for public education institutions to operate within the legislative constraints that are the ultimate protection for student rights, including student diversity. These can’t just be upturned because we want to, and to be honest, I don’t want to. There’s a whole lot wrong with higher education, but at some point we have to say that the work of making it possible is serious, complicated and driven by people who really mind about equity.

The second is a failure to recognise that it’s going to take a whole lot more than a motherhood statement to deal with the emerging problem of missionary zeal in North American higher education circles. I am really so tired of hearing that MOOCs will parachute in global superstar professors to save the world’s unserved populations.

In a separate comment, she made the point that “More and more it looks like offloading cheap copies in markets where we think proper educational credentials won’t really matter anyway.” Back in January 2010 I tried to make a case that educational institutions, publishers, tech-firms etc. operating inside global capitalism were using HE internationalisation agendas to open-up global markets for cheap commodities/for commodity dumping, both in order to overcome under-consumption in domestic markets and to maintain an increase in the rate of profit. With domestic demand falling for traditional, institutional HE places, especially for UK Russell Sector universities, the move to offshore/outsource and open-up new markets becomes paramount. With DBIS amongst others recalibrating the form of the traditional university as a business this is the logic of the structuring dynamics of capitalism applied to education and it flows through capital’s circuits into the spaces in which MOOCs/tech innovations operate. This is exactly why any Bill of Rights has to start with a deep critique of political economy and education’s place inside that structure.

So my final word for the moment has to be about the way in which this current debate has opened-up a debate about internationalisation, power, technology for entrepreneurialism etc.. What I would hope we can address is the extent to which declarations or bills of rights are a form of cultural hegemony or enculturation that reveal the ways in which civil society is restructured in the name of the individual rather than in the name of society. It is interesting that the original Draft contained no mention of “politics”, one of “society” and four of “community”/”communities”. The key is to address that restructuring process and the ways in which power-to make the world is co-opted by others power-over the spaces in which we operate. As Kate Bowles notes:

Reading the coverage that this has been given, here’s what I keep coming back to: the inestimable Henry Jenkins (just to show that I don’t have a problem with Americans), in his Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and The Politics of Education:

Visions always belong to someone, and to the degree that they translate into curricula and pedagogical practices, they not only denote a struggle over forms of political authority and orders of representation, but also weigh heavily in regulating the moral identities, collective voices and the futures of others.

8 Responses to Against a bill of rights and principles for learning in the digital age

  1. I’m glad someone more eloquent voiced my main concern – if there is to be a bill of rights, a manifesto for learners, it ought to be primarily authored by learners and led by them.

    If learners are not motivated to do so, well, then they may not want a bill of rights. Educators, institutions doing it *for* them?


  2. Pingback: Visions always belong to someone | Music for Deckchairs

  3. The issue for me is that students have been shut out of these kinds of conversations repeatedly, or at least not actively called to the table. Pedagogy is the domain of students. And, even though I’m an educator, my pedagogy demands that I remain being always committed to also being a student. The sentence that I am most attached to in this document (which I wrote) is this one: “This document can’t be complete (can never be complete) without continuous and dynamic contributions and revising by students.” The next sentence, that I didn’t write, says that this document is just a beginning. We all (students, teachers, administrators) need to put a fire under the butt of educators and administrators and institutions that are not bringing their students fully to the table.

    “I’m wondering how that will engage with those institutional learners across the globe, rather than engage specific groups in technologically-rich countries/educational settings.” This is a very good point. Is there a way to get more people (and more students) engaged in this conversation. The piece is about digital learning, so demanding access to a computer misses the point (at least of this document). I think?

  4. Thanks Richard. As cogdog says your eloquence has saved the rest of us much trouble. I commented but couldn’t bring myself to edit as I felt that committee editing was unlikely to improve a document that was flawed in concept. Nothing demonstrates that more than that a document with feisty women signatories can turn out so paternalistic. It put me in mind of experiences on a project where we tried to use UNESCO’s Principles of Tolerance to feed into collaborative development of discussion guidelines for international staff and student collaboration. I was puzzled by some objections from project partners until I looked reaction of US Religious right to Principles of Tolerance.

  5. This is very complicated. There are rights all over the place that don’t harmonise with US cultural traditions or political and economic agendas, and get trampled. Australia, for example, is still recovering from a free trade agreement that extended our copyright provisions.

    The answer isn’t reflexive parochialism. We just need to think seriously about the rights that sustain educational experience. These aren’t dedicated learner rights, they’re the normal kind. If people around the world have the safety and health and opportunity to learn, then they can express what kind of learning would be valued by them in their contexts.

    What we have at the moment is a gigantic case of supply directing demand, in a way that is being driven by the agendas of the world’s most powerful educational institutions (who are certainly not in the business of devaluing their own product), and this is politically very serious indeed.

    More and more it looks like offloading cheap copies in markets where we think proper educational credentials won’t really matter anyway.

    • ‘Offloading cheap copies’ can be an implicit consequence, but there is also an explicit one: the recruiting function, which is being positioned as the business engine for Udacity and Coursera. It’s not just push, in other words, it’s pull: finding the undiscovered academic prodigies around the globe, and drawing them into our orbit.

  6. Pingback: On #LearnersRights: Utilitarian Models, Implementation, and Egalitarian Access

  7. Pingback: On Globalisation and the University | Richard Hall's Space

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