learning, teaching and research (archive)

ideas, notes, jottings

learning, teaching and research (archive) header image 2

Open Education – people, content, process

July 28th, 2010 · 4 Comments · Uncategorized

A flurry of messages on Twitter has prompted me to revisit some of my ideas on open education. It is amazing how 140 characters can capture and condense thought provoking ideas, questions and possibilities and occasionally bring you  up short! This reflection has been prompted by Joss Winn’s thoughts on the problematic nature of ‘content’ as an open educational resource (OER). The problems are connected, I think, to the commodified nature of knowledge packaged as OE content and the way it is presented to us as an authoritatively endorsed product rather than knowledge generated by us, the open learners, in the service or our own objectives and agendas. This also chimes in with Richard Hall’s recent blog post Open education: the need for critique and Graham Attwell’s  post Open Education and Open Educational Resources. Richard states that open education is, or should be,  a critique of our formal, institutionalised systems of education. Graham endorses the idea of the necessity of critique with reference to the political economy of formal education and the sorts of social relations this engenders. However, as Richard says, “This cannot be done in terms of OERs without an engagement with critical pedagogy.”

Originally my interest in open education resources was conventionally mainstream in that I was looking for interesting and stimulating content for modules I teach at Leeds University. My focus was on the sorts of materials made available by the Open University, other higher education institutions and publishers. These are similar to the sorts of educational materials I produce, packages of predigested and bench-marked knowledge, the main difference being that someone else had prepared them! Other freely available resources I looked for to incorporate into my formal teaching where relevant web sites and materials that were not necessarily designed to be educational in a formal sense but could provide information and evidence. For instance, students would be directed to the web site of an environmental NGO or activist movement and ‘taught’ to analyse the site and its content in line with the aims and objectives of the module and its assessment criteria. This sometimes led to interesting discussions with and amongst  students about attitudes and values, hopes and fears, what can we do, what should we do, and so on. Enormously valuable, genuinely educational, but, strictly speaking, ‘off piste’ as far as the objectively specified and assessed learning outcomes are concerned. But it was off piste that we best worked together as a group, when we were all truly engaged  (me as well as the students), and when our work had most relevance for us rather than getting good marks and helping the University climb the league tables.

More recently I have become much more interested in what open education might be outside of a formal educational context, as that is where I will be in just over a year. What is meant by ‘open’? Who would be the open learners? Does it make sense to think about open teachers? Or does the learner-teacher dichotomy just reproduce the social and power relations of the formal education system? My experience of higher education has shown me that teachers are learners and learners are teachers but this fact is heavily disguised by ideologies of knowledge and the structuring of status hierarchies and expectations by the academic and institutional culture. Outside the academy in an open education context there is the opportunity to constitute learning communities, processes and practices that recognise the internal link between teaching and learning as mutually constitutive and shifting modes of engagement in a social process that creates communal forms of  knowledge. The activity we call teaching and the activity we call learning should ideally dissolve into one another but the constraints  imposed on our thinking and behaviour by the structuring of our lives, experiences and common sense repertoires through our formal educational experiences, and the privatisation of commodified knowledge makes this hard to think through and achieve.

It is tempting to think of the distinction and relationship between teacher and learner in formal education as somehow a distortion and inauthentic. This would beg the question about what an undistorted and authentic relationship would be. In fact the teacher-learner relationship is not distortion or inauthentic. It is just one of a vaste range of different possible relationships between human beings. The hierarchy of status and knowledge implied is real because it corresponds to the culture of formal education – its designated roles, processes and procedures.  The culture gives us our ‘common sense’ understanding of what we do and why we do it. As we enact these we reproduce the culture and the roles and practices that the system depends on.

The sort of relationships that are possible in an open education context do not have to be the same as in the formal sector but the concepts and ideology of the formal sector has colonised more general attitudes towards teaching, learning and knowledge. It is in resisting this that open education is potentially a radical critique of formal educational culture. In open education it may be possible to abolish the distinction between teachers and learners and the forms of social relationships the terms imply and often create. This is the heart of the potential radical critique of formal education mounted by open education. It provides the context for the development and demonstration of different forms of learning based upon different sorts of social relationships between people within a learning community. To some extent this is possible within formal higher education but the forms of control and accreditation are still there – from a student’s perspective getting a good degree and a return on investment in terms of employability and from an academics’ perspective the usual mixture of fear and debt, career success and prospects and growing private commitments. This is not to decry the sometimes heroic attempts of some academics to introduce radical notions of open education into their formal teaching. But I think the real advances, conceptually and in practice, are likely to take shape outside formal academia, at least while we try to survive the current neoliberal doomfest and its attendant cuts and restructurings.

All this still begs many questions about what ‘open’ means, who are the open learners, what are their objectives and agenda, and what does an open learning community look like? Does community or communal learning need a community at all? Does it only imply certain sorts of sociality and if so, what are these? Won’t the roles, hierarchy and statuses of ‘teachers’ and ‘learners’ tend to remerge and assert themselves within an open learning community even if we change the language? Also, for me at least, ‘critical pedagogy’ still needs more clarity particularly the practicalities of enacting it in an open educational context.  As usual, there are more questions than answers. But the answers will emerge through practice and experiment. Conceptual clarification can only go so far and is to some extent constrained by current social conditions. Conceptual clarification can be achieved in practice. In any case, if we wait for conceptual clarity we will still be sitting in darkened rooms while the rest of the world is getting on with it. Open education is, after all, a pragmatic political project, not the writing of a the Third Gospel.


4 Comments so far ↓

  • Joss Winn

    “A pragmatic political project” nicely sums up my approach to Open Education, although not everyone would consider it the same way.

    Within the open source community, there are those that see it as a pragmatic political project (i.e. Stallman and the Free Software Foundation) but others couldn’t care less about the political implications of their involvement in open source and working entirely for other pragmatic reasons.

    Similarly, there are a number of different motivations and aspirations among advocates of OpenEd. That’s OK to some extent – healthy even – but surely there will come a point when each of us decides whether our aspirations lie ultimately outside HEIs or inside – in or against – whether OpenEd is for the transformation of a current, undesirable state of affairs, or for the reinforcement and development of it as a mechanism of efficiency through the re-distribution of ‘learning content’ under the name of ‘e-learning’.

    My simple view is that open education is intrinsically a response to a system of education that is increasingly untenable (and for some of us, undesirable) for many reasons. OpenEd is a critique of what’s wrong and a proposal for something better and more relevant to the world we want to live in.

  • Terry

    Thanks Joss. I’m sure there are all sorts of reasons for individuals and institutions to get involved in what they see and define as open education – legitimation of public spend on research and education, demonstrating ‘value for money’, ‘ground bait’ for marketing purposes, offering free content with a view to selling services, accreditation, and so on. I do like Graham’s idea (one of many of course) of it being a way of spreading educational facilities and advantages to those that are normally excluded (I think I heard him say that at F-ALT09). But all this could be seen to be providing existing educational resources in more flexible and affordable way rather than a fundamental critique of formal education. As you say – “more efficient”. Worthy enough but hardly a challenge to the status quo.

    On the other hand offering a fundamental critique, even being anti-capitalist, by itself doesn’t do it. As David Harvey says, the Taliband and communist rule in Nepal both offer anti-capitalist critiques. I notice you used the word ‘progressive’ in one of your tweets. I think it is the ‘progressive’ values that could underpin open education and its critique that are important. The elaboration of the ‘many reasons’ in your last paragraph is crucial, along with what we mean by ‘better’ and ‘more relevant’ (better in what ways, relevant to what and whom?). Thinking about it while I write this, it looks like there is a political battle to be had within open education. What I mean by it seems very close to yourself, Graham and Richard. It doesn’t seem to be the general view so far.

  • Pontydysgu – Bridge to Learning - Educational Research

    […] see  Richard Hall’s recent blog post Open education: the need for critique, Terry Wassall on Open education, people, content,  process . This debate will not go away and although it is progressing at a frustratingly slow speed it is […]

  • Open Education, OERs, and institutions | kavubob's miscellanea

    […] Open Education – people, content, process […]

Leave a Comment