Open education, freedom zero, mythological metaphors and our currently evolving status

Image by Colleen O’Dell from Pixabay

I think that perhaps, one very distant future day, these times will be the stage from which new and yet-to-become-myths are generated. Power battles on a mass scale between larger than life characters, corporations, institutions, foundations and geographic areas…The fabric of society globally, micro and macro-communities, nature. All are engaged headlong in a metaphorical battle, on a scale perhaps only equitable to those wrought between the gods and characters of ancient myths who wielded entire world-changing powers…Somewhere, not too far from the epicentre of the yet-to-become-mythological battlefront, sits education.

Within the UK, education has been hosting its own ‘battles’ for many years. Mostly fairly well hidden from those not directly involved, though in some sectors the rapid policy changes have had profound impacts across different stakeholder groups, including society as a whole. It could be argued though that over time, the question of openness has made it harder to hide the debates and harder still to ignore them. It has crept into the fabric not only of our education system but into society as a whole, providing on demand educational experiences on a mass scale.

The current coronavirus situation has pulled education yet closer to my metaphorical epicentre, out from behind its academic cloisters and into stark public view. Whilst all organisations, teachers, students and parents have pulled together a remarkable feat with little preparation, it has, for me at least called other aspects into view. Despite the massive investments made by educational organisations into digital software of varying types, they are for a large part woefully unprepared for actual digital delivery. This also despite it having been a mandatory part in FE initial teacher training (and probably other areas of education as well) since 2007. It is an area that has been under scrutiny for improvement since it first appeared in our all our classrooms. I can’t help but wonder if it’s because the real attention has been taken up by the power balances between creation stakeholders and user, as discussed by Cormier below. Economic, professional and social capital is at stake and the unavoidable fact is that open education already permeates almost every aspect of our lives and every power holder would like to find a way to capitalise on that opportunity. At this time in particular the role of digital education in general has significant, immediate practical and economic implications across the sector and the entire global community.

Without doubt, the role of open source resources, teaching and access within both formal and informal education is currently emerging ever more rapidly and probably securing its future stakes. I’m guessing, its fastest rate ever. It was interesting to learn about some of its history through the module reading and help to situate it within the current context. The reading and the actors within provided the drama that set the stage for my yet-to-become-mythological-battlefonts.

It was reading first Dave Cormier’s 2013 Educational Blog – Building a better rhizome (http://davecormier.com/edblog/2013/04/12/what-do-you-mean-open/) and then Gourlay’s “Open education as a heterotopia of desire” that got me seeing our current ‘stage’ as a yet-to-become-mythological-battlefront. By the time I got to Morozov’s 2013 ‘Tim O’Reilly’s Crazy Talk’ (https://thebaffler.com/salvos/the-meme-hustler) and read that O’ Reilly, key character in the Open battlefront, actually leverages his Harvard degree in classics by using analogies from the Greek myths I wasn’t really surprised but it did make me actually laugh out loud.

In Cormier’s article ‘The Brief Retelling of Open Source’ he summarises its history through a vivid cast of characters and events that drew me in. Somehow previously ignorant of such significant characters as Stallman, original founder of the Free Software Foundation, and O’Reilly, metaphorically super-sized and slippery tongued god of Silicon Valley, Cormier managed to take me straight from ignorance to imagining the evolution of their ideologies (or not) as mythological battles in his relatively short post! Within this enactment O’Reilly could be seen as Stallman’s chief opponent, a huge influencer within the industry. A smooth talker and described as one of the valley’s ‘priests’. Morosov somewhat wearily describes him and his influence “Entire fields of thought—from computing to management theory to public administration—have already surrendered to his buzzwordophilia, but O’Reilly keeps pressing on.”

It seems that the irresolvable divide hinges on the question of who comes in place of prime importance: the user or the creator? Or, put slightly differently, who holds the power. Stallman’s Free Software Foundation was there first. His philosophy, based on his experiences in the early days of programming, is that operating systems and software for computers should be free (as in freedom of speech and information) and that if “‘users’ freedoms weren’t paramount the software (and the people who designed it) would control them” At this point Cormiers gives a textual nod in the direction of platforms such as Facebook and Google. Take note folks.

However, according to Cormier, back in the early days when Microsoft triumphed over Netscape, the business community needed a way to capitalise and a new narrative was developed. The term open source was coined and quickly championed by O’Reilly. Cormier sees this as pivotal in the direction that would become open source. He cites Morotov’s quote from O’Reilly in 2001

I want to return to the idea of freedom zero as my choice as a creator to give, or not to give, the fruits of my work to you, as a “user” of that work, and for you, as a user, to accept or reject the terms I place on that gift. If that is power, so be it.”

And so the divide was set: power to the user or to the content creator?

Open source was the clear ‘winner’ of this particular battle so far and although the Free Software Foundation still exists, it’s open source that we all (mostly) are familiar with and of course the user can also become the creator. Cormier likens the change to a values switch being triggered with a move from the socio-cultural ideology of freedom, to a… “something else”. A something where the ideology has been removed.

Cormier goes on to explore the different educational labels, terms and phrases used with “Open”. Particularly interesting for me was the discussion on the three principle influences of openness on education:

“- open educational resources: their ability to replace or partially replace existing resources

–  open access: allows for shared research

– open teaching: has its roots in the practice of opening up previously capitalised university courses for free.”

The discussion is based on points taken from David Wiley and Cable Green in Educause .

It was also interesting to read about Open University’s early principles through its conception and early founding years between 1963 – 1975. What struck me most about these is that they are now all effectively guiding principles throughout all curriculums, whether considered open or not. Perhaps the democratisation of education has made greater inroads than is immediately obvious.

  1. “Open = accessible, ‘supported open learning’, interactive, dialogue. Accessibility was key.
  2. Open = equal opportunity, unrestricted by barriers or impediments to education and educational resources.
  3. Open = transparency, sharing educational aims and objectives with students, disclosing marking schemes and offering exam and tutorial advice.”
  4. Open = open entry, most important, no requirement for entrance qualifications. All that was needed were ambition and the will/motivation to learn.

Cormier is himself one of the players on this stage. He coined the term MOOC, which have been instrumental in the HE/ openness relationship.  To me, although MOOCs undoubtedly provide valuable resources and learning, they feel a bit like a desperate attempt by HE to maintain ownership over openness. Lower than expected uptake and completion figures seem to reflect at least that there is something missing for the users.

Cormier concludes with the question

“How do we want to open our society? That, in the end, is the open learning/education that I want to talk about. You?”

Yes Cormier, I too would like to discuss that question. As I finished his piece perhaps the idea of battlegrounds had already been planted, the internal struggles between geeks that mostly remain out of public view until one emerges victorious over another and becomes part of our new-world patois or latest techno upgrade. But in comparison to what I was about to read next these are merely polite side-skirmishes that would surely feature very low on the scale of mythological battles, demi and minor gods.

Enter stage right: one of the mega-gods, the ancient argument for tradition. The side of the university, Gourlay’s side of it at least, lashes out viciously at open education in his 2015 “Open education as a heterotopia of desire”. Gourley’s attack on openness in general makes O’Reilly’s silver-tongued ousting of Stallman look positively docile. Using a fairly thin argument himself, that doesn’t for example acknowledge that the founding principles of openness are now fully integrated into mainstream education and even equality guidances, he wades straight in with a blazing attack on Open Educational Resources (OERs). He hones in on their claim to ‘democratise HE’ and without reference says it has been critiqued as over-simplistic and weakly theorised. Throughout the piece he comes back to the word ‘fantasy’ and catchy phrases such as ‘enacted utopias’. He leverages triggers such as stereotyping protagonists of openness as linking HE institutions to conspiracy theories surrounding power and knowledge. He describes the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement as “Ed-punk” and maintains that “this is exactly what corporations and institutions do not want edu- punks and proponents of OERs to do”.

I found his tone to be aggressive and lacking substance. I found myself arguing with him throughout, notes scribbled in every margin! It seems to me an attempt to shout down his opponents by making them feel ill-informed and subscribing to academically unsound behaviours. In fact, to me it came across as a self-serving sounding whine. A feeble attempt to defend the un-defendable, the long out-dated systems on which our entire educational structure rests and subsequently that of our society. Arguments aimed at maintaining the key to social and economic capital as provided by university study rather than how that study addresses the needs of the workforce. He used the examples such as because students learning online can learn in their bedrooms, on public transport or wherever they choose, this gives them agency. His argument seems oblivious to considering that this agency only relates to one small aspect of learning and could at times lead to intense frustration on the part of the student.

Furthermore, I took absolute offence to his suggestion that adequate learning is somehow not possible without the addition of HE in the form that we know it. I also found it remarkable that Gourlay’s argument somehow grandly omits to acknowledge that universities have had centuries on which to found their governances. This in contrast to the way openness has evolved in response to new technologies and the constantly emerging infrastructures and skills to support them, how the world actually works, the skills required to be an active member of our social and economic communities. Alongside these exponentially rapid changes has been technology and the evolution of open resources as well as who creates and who curates them. Gourlay allows no give for the fact that in its current state, everything open source is effectively experimental and evolving. Perhaps if the universities had been able to evolve and respond at a similar rate people such as Gourlay wouldn’t need to feel so defensive at this point.

I was just completing the reading for this section of module when the coronavirus hit the world. As we went into lockdown my metaphorical battlefield is in meltdown. New ideas, practices, platforms, technologies, ways of living and working and, without doubt also news ways of educating will emerge, charged by an absolute need for changes in the ways we practice everything. Initially at least I’m guessing that what emerges strongest will be through a self-evolving process little informed by market or traditional pressures. New power struggles will emerge. I wonder what will finally dictate the answers – will emerging technologies themselves, or the growth of mobile over internet inform the future ways that education is structured and accessed? Or will technologies still attempt to provide means whereby the power is still held by tradition?

Where ownership will ultimately lie at the end of all this and whether it will uphold an ideology is currently impossible to predict. For now, all my imaginary yet-to-become-mythical-gods are busy preparing to reposition themselves for what will certainly one day become part of a history lesson, and another later day morph into the realms of legend and mythology…