For a political economy of open education

Tomorrow I’m speaking on a panel at The Centre for Disruptive Media at Coventry University. The panel is on “Open Education: Condition Critical”.

The purpose is to explore “opportunities to critically and creatively experiment with different ideas of what the university and education can be.”

Event details are at:

My slides are at

I will make the following points in my 10 minutes on a political economy of open education.

ONE. It is worth checking out the following pieces on open in education.

TWO. I want to make three points. First, that a political economic analysis of open education reveals a revolutionising of the means of production and the disciplining of academic labour. Second, that open education is a crack through which we might analyse the interests that drive value production and accumulation, and their relation to power. Third, that we need to ask what is to be done, not in order to recuperate open education but to abolish it? How might we re-imagine the basis of education for an alternative form of sociability that is based on mass intellectuality and open co-operativism?

NOTE: here ds106 serves as a reminder of the relationships that might point towards an alternative.

THREE. Audrey Watters has written about the co-option of open/openness as a form of “Openwashing: n., having an appearance of open-source and open-licensing for marketing purposes, while continuing proprietary practices.” She argues that “I think the answer is more transparency about our politics. I think, in fact, the answer is politics.” This is a call to critique the interests that drive educational/technological innovation, and their interrelationships. Elsewhere Sarah Amsler has echoed this in a focus on critical pedagogy and the fearless university, when she talks about ‘a little more of a politicised relation to truth in affairs of education, knowledge and academic practice’.

FOUR. This form of political analysis stands in relation to value, and an engagement with value production and accumulation is central to any understanding of the condition of open education. For Marx in Capital Volume 2: ‘Value emerges as a form of sociability (as capital) from the unity of three circuits. It is formed of moments of the circulation of money, of production, and of commodities. The self-expansion of value is “the determining purpose, as the compelling motive.”’ How does open education emerge from the interrelationships and flows of money/debt/equity, the production of teaching and learning services, and of data/content? How does the unity of these three circuits reinforce hegemonic power? We might speak of openness as hope or emancipation or humanity, but as Anselm Jappe notes: ‘Accumulated value, and the power that flows from it, means that other forms of human or humane value in the production of commodities are marginalised.’

FIVE. A critique of open education from the standpoint of value is important because the idea of open [whatever] has been co-opted by those with power as and export/industrial strategy related to financialisation and marketisation. This is witnessed in statements by UK Government Ministers that “conventional universities no longer hold all the cards on how the higher education market develops”, and also by UK Opposition Ministers that “our goal is bold and simple: to build a bigger knowledge economy.” These policy statements are then amplified by entrepreneurial activity that is enacted through new combinations of technologies and practices to inject novelty into the circuits of capitalism. As Will Davies highlights, this focus on enterprise or entrepreneurship in policy and practice pivots around the creation of a new productive environment that accommodates power: first in expanding the time-scale for returns (debt and the future); and second in expanding the arena for competition (into the public sphere and into pedagogic practices). Thus, we witness Vice Chancellors like Martin Bean at the UK Open University stating that: “There is some fantastic work being done, but we need to keep our foot on the accelerator of innovation to think bigger, not just about reaching new audiences, but about revolutionising the traditional learning and teaching experiences.” Entrepreneurial activity underpins the production and circulation of value through commodity-dumping in new markets and by making established, public spaces productive.

SIX. This local policy/practice infrastructure is “enriched” by a transnational framework that seeks to create open markets in services and open access to procurement [see, Council of EU:]. This framework then looks to reduce [through arbitrage] the labour content of services and products [see, Gartner:]. Whilst other educational service providers look to create or co-opt “an ever-wider range of bigger and more complex standalone products and services to participating in more open, interoperable educational ‘ecosystems’, centered around learners [and learning outcomes]” [see, Pearson’s Five Trillion Dollar Question:]. A Bain and Company note on a world awash with money highlighted the market/finance opportunities of a liberalised educational trading space. Opportunities focused upon: developing exportable services to increase revenues and profits [e.g. MOOCs and OERs]; upgrading low-tech products into premium consumer goods and services [e.g. curriculum components like assessment, and learning analytics]; making services bound by physical geography more portable and global [mobile commodity-dumping]; enabling leading universities in the advanced economies to accelerate the training of home-grown specialists in emerging economies; and importing “highly-skilled professionals from companies in developed markets, businesses in the emerging markets will not need to wait a generation for their own education systems to produce a skilled workforce”.

SEVEN. This open educational framework is then used by transnational joint-ventures, in order to leverage surplus value in ways that traditional universities could not do alone. In part this is achieved through the commodification of vast arrays of data, and the creation of new services, which in turn reflect the need to make academic labour productive of value. For example, Coursera partners include: venture capital: Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, New Enterprise Associates, GSV Capital, International Finance Corporation, Learn Capital Venture Partners; educational publishers like Laureate Education; and transnational bodies like the World Bank. These transnational joint-ventures or associations of capitals demonstrate the interrelationship between profitability and investment. Here open education is a technical response of global capital to lower levels of profitability, the need to increase global consumption of educational services, and the demand to make previously marginal sectors of the economy explicitly productive. Thus, the impact of educational innovation is: first, as a means of leveraging the ratio of the total surplus-value produced in society to the total capital invested; second, a redistribution of surplus value from businesses that produce commodities or services like universities to those that market them or that lend money to make academic labour productive; and third, as a means of revolutionising the means of production and disciplining labour.

EIGHT. It is impossible to understand the role of open education without developing a critique of its relationships to a transnational capitalist class.

NINE. What is to be done? Is it possible to re-imagine the basis of education for an alternative form of sociability that is based on mass intellectuality and open co-operativism? The idea of re-producing the general intellect as mass intellectuality, or an alternative form of sociability that is beyond the market because it subsumes the market inside, and that is beyond financialisation because it liberates time, is critical. For Marx, the general intellect was: “the accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital [machinery].” A central concern is how to enact, produce and circulate contemporary space/time, so that the future is not foreclosed, and so that liberation-is-praxis. Liberation demands personal and public struggle, and leads us to question, pace Harry Cleaver, whether the idea of open education might be used to recompose the possibility of educational and societal struggle in more autonomous educational organisations and spaces that exist within and between both the university and the community. Here there is a focus on the forms of academic [i.e. staff and student] labour in order to politically recompose the division between the university [as a factory of ideas] and the community. Is it possible to use the idea of open, public education to abolish the university that is, and to re-produce the university of utopia as an alternative form of sociability?

TEN. There are important examples of struggles for alternatives.

In labour rights: 3cosas; the Australian Actual Casuals; Leeds Postgrads 4 Fair Pay.

In campaigning for the public university, and in the College of Debtors in Defiance, and in remaking the University.

In educational and co-operative spaces like the Social Science Centre, and Open Data Manchester, and in the FLOK Society project, and in the idea of the Commons and communing and commonism.

These examples remind us that it is possible to challenge a false idea of material abundance (rooted in normalised ideas of growth, accumulation and debt), alongside a false idea of immaterial scarcity (reinforced in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Transatlantic Trade and Investments Partnership), and the pseudo-abundance that destroys the biosphere, and the contrived scarcity that keeps innovation artificially scarce. As Bauwens and Iacomella argue ‘we need a global alliance between the new “open” movements, the ecological movements, and the traditional social justice and emancipatory movements, in order to create a “grand alliance of the commons.”’

ELEVEN. We might ask whether educational practices that are rooted in open co-operativism provide a better alternative political economy and set of possibilities for struggle. Open co-operatives:

  • emerge from democratic governance and regulation of transnational worker co-operatives;
  • connect to the circuits of p2p production and distribution;
  • embody and critique/develop the open, democratic, autonomous, social focus of co-operatives;
  • define an alternative framework for the common ownership of products, assets and commodities;
  • enable a reclamation of public environments for the globalised, socialised dissemination of knowledge (e.g. copyfarleft);
  • connect a global educational commons that is rooted in critical pedagogy;
  • offer possibilities for the conversion, dissolution or creation of established/emergent/new educational institutions, which are themselves both transitional and pedagogic.

A focus on open co-operativism as a pedagogic process, rather than fetishizing open education as an allegedly emancipatory outcome, might enable a little more of a politicised relation to truth in affairs of education, knowledge and academic practice.

One Response to For a political economy of open education

  1. Pingback: for a political economy of massive open online courses | Richard Hall's Space

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