Troubling open education: from ‘Fauxpen’ to open

Troubling openThe third keynote at the recently held ICDE2015 conference was Laura Czerniewicz, one of the most critical and informed scholars in higher education on the African continent, and a critical voice in international higher education, knowledge production and dissemination. The title of her presentation was “Troubling open education” (see this write-up by University World News). Against the backdrop of the hype, the claims and counter-claims regarding ‘open education’ there is an urgent need that we should critically engage with the different nuances between faux or false openness and openness as an emerging (and defiant) reclamation of the commons…

[In this reflection I tried to make sense of some of the central issues and arguments raised by Laura in her keynote. This blog is neither an attempt to provide a transcript of her keynote, nor a detailed summary. This is my attempt to make sense, to come to terms with and get entangled in the messiness of the notion of ‘open education.’]

In her keynote Laura referred to some of the general “troubles” in the broader landscape of higher education and specifically the role of open education in solving (or exacerbating) these troubles. While many of the discourses in current higher and open education use  “open” as if we all agree on its scope and meanings, Laura proposed that the notion of openness in education is confused and (should be) contested. In the general parlance ‘open’ often means ‘free’, ‘open licensing’, ‘legal openness’ and/or ‘digital’. Somewhere between these meanings,  openness as a ‘celebration of the common’ became and continues to be lost. Laura therefore mooted the need to trouble (as verb) the notion of open education and “reclaim the core of open education.”

The current debates, claims and counter-claims regarding open education can be understood in the context of some of references to the different ‘ages’ as found in the general discourses in higher education such as the ages of austerity, unbundling, inequality and abundance. Though these ‘ages’ or discourses are often mutually constitutive or exclusionary, they exist simultaneously (often in one institution…) and shape the meanings and understandings of ‘open.’ It is therefore not strange to find references to the ‘age of austerity’ functioning in some weird way as supporting the “age of abundance’ and ‘sharing’ – I point I will return to later.

Referring to the fact that “two thirds of OECD countries decreased the proportion of expenditure devoted to education between 2005 and 2011” and that “more than half of developing countries reduced spending on education between 2008 and 2012”, it is clear that things have changed. In response to the new funding regimes and cost savings, we encounter the “wonderful euphemism called ‘cost sharing’ which means we share the costs with the students.” As government subsidies and funding regimes changed the cost of education and tuition increased exponentially, the cost of books increased, the costs of houses decreased, and the consumer price index plateaued.

Laura shared two examples (of research done in 2009) of the cost of books between South Africa and the USA where, for example “A long walk to freedom” would cost $12.10 in the USA while costing $24.30 in South Africa. The Oxford English Dictionary costs $21.50 in the USA and in South Africa $47,00. The projected cost in the USA at South African proportions of income for the two books are $259.77 and $504.50 respectively!

Non-traditional students now comprise the majority of students in higher education questioning many of our assumptions about the ‘traditional’ or “average” student. Inequality is pervasive and the World Economic Forum describes the increasing levels of inequality as one of the top trends in 2014. In this somewhat notorious league table, South Africa is at the top – where the top richest people in South Africa have the equivalent of the wealth of 50% of the population.

But surely technology can make a difference? Referring to the promise of technology, Laura stated that although mobile phones are ubiquitous, the immense cost of data in the South African context seriously hampers the optimal use of mobile technologies in education. In developed countries, 96% of the population can afford data, while in developing countries only 21% of the population can afford buying data. We should therefore understand technology as “a cause, a consequence and a mediator of higher education change.”

We also need to understand the conversation about the meaning of ‘open’ in the broader context of knowledge production and dissemination that is increasingly privatized. We cannot ignore the commodification, the corporatisation or McDonaldisation and franchising of knowledge production and dissemination where North-Atlantic knowledge is “Cocolonising” the rest of the globe. The flattening or universalisation of knowledge functions as code for the naturalisation of American knowledge as the only ‘real’ knowledge, or for that matter, ‘truth.’

Against this backdrop, ‘open education’ seems like a great solution due to the assumed/presumed values of open education and assumptions about sharable knowledge and enabling technology. Education and specifically open education is presented as “an unprecedented public good” (Budapest Open Access Initiative) and the Cape Town Open Education declaration, focusing on OER, celebrates the open, collaborative and free possibilities of technology. Open education therefore seems to be a coherent response to troubles faces higher education.

So, can open education actually deliver on the hype and the promise? The answer is not as straightforward as we would like it to be. Laura referred to the South African saying – “ja-nee” – meaning a concurrent yes/no … Open education is a site of confusion, conflation and serious contestation and not helped by the flood of opens.

Our uses of ‘open’ are context, discipline and most probably rhetoric specific… The fact that we use the same word is not necessarily advantageous. Even in the educational arena the notion of ‘open” means different things for different people – open educational resources, open education practices, open courses, open content. We therefore need to unpick the different nuances of ‘openness’ and think in terms of degrees of openness, continuums of social openness. We should therefore never forget that openness always happens in particular historical and local contexts.

Defining and understanding ‘open’ is not simple at all. Laura referred to Chris Jones who said “openness is not reducible to a simple definition because it is a complex assemblage of social, political, and technological elements developed over time. It is variable and nuanced.” Openness in education is furthermore always relational and always exists in relation to closure. It is always relative and on a continuum. It is permeable. And, wait for it, openness is not necessarily positive. Openness has a shadow side and it is not necessarily intrinsically afforded by technology.

In the context of claims that ‘open’ means ‘free’ Laura pointed to the claims that ‘open education’ would mean the “the end of content scarcity.” ‘Open’ also means, for many, digital and low cost. It is true that the costs of reproduction of digital content are low and that there is not degradation in digital goods. There is also the reality of the explosion of user-generated content. Referring to the assumption that “digital = open = free”, Laura suggested that going “digital affords ‘open’ but it also affords closed” and “analogue has affordances that can be more open than digital.”

We need to remember that when we move to digital we move from the tangible to the intangible, we move from ownership to license, we move into an arena of digital rights management… We need to remember that it is not the technology that decides, but it is people who make the rules, write the algorithms, establish and enforce the licensing agreements. When Kindle removed copies of “1984” from Kindle readers’ devices they reminded their customers that they don’t own the copies of books they bought…

We need to look at new ecologies of access where there are continuums between legal and illegal and between analogue and digital. Open content is only one option in this new ecology. Examples of other options are “piracy cultures” (building media relationships outside those institutionalized sets of rules) and the “affective economy” (referring to the feelings of goodwill when files are shared, embellished, remixed and re-shared). Referring to the work by Castells and Cardosa (2012) – Laura pointed to the fact that significant parts of the world’s population “is building mediation through alternative channels of obtaining content” (emphasis added). Piracy cultures have become an essential characteristic of the networked society. Piracy has become the norm. This is linked to the central role of the “informal” as the “quiet encroachment” which sees the blurring of boundaries and the breaking of rules “as the norm.” Most digital books are pirated, more than 75% of prescribed text books are available as pirated e-books and a huge percentage of E-book readers download their books illegally.

This is not a developing country issue, but all happens across contexts, all over the world.

In research done at University of Cape Town (the ROER4D project), researchers found that many teachers assume that because a resource is digital it also means it is an OER. Students often also do not know the difference between legal and illegal resources, and feel that they had a right to educational and scholarly resources. Students feel that they have a moral right to educational resources and that withholding access to educational resources through licensing or copyright arrangements is unethical. For many students sharing and pirating sources “is the right thing to do.”

Laura therefore referred to the notion of “Fauxpen”, as combination between faux or false on the one hand, and on the other hand, ‘real’ openness. Central to understanding the dilemma is the elephant in the room, namely ‘copyright.’

Most of the discourses about copyright are framed in terms of serious criminality but Laura proposes that copyright itself needs rethinking. In a digital and digitized world, copying and sharing are integral characteristics of how computers work and therefore beyond our current copyright frameworks. The history of copyright illustrates that copyright was always regarded as a necessary evil where the rich did not need to earn money but authors and artists needed to make money through their works. The public domain was always the goal of copyright, and copyright was protected for the shortest period of time.

In stark contrast to these early beginnings, knowledge is currently in the vice grip of commerce and is being increasingly commoditised, enclosed and commercialised. We cannot and should not underestimate the implications. The foundations of an informed and democratic society may be at risk. Laura therefore claimed that “The intellectual property frameworks which shape higher education engagement with knowledge are anachronistic and outdated, out of sync with the urgent needs of a digitally-mediated and extremely unequal world.”

In this context Laura referred to the Trans Pacific Partnership – a current multinational trade negotiation agreement that would see the current 50 year copyright term being increased to 70 years. The agreement will also target whistleblowers and journalists, increase the liability for Internet intermediaries, and adopt heavier criminal sanctions. A counter-narrative is “Bound by law” – asking questions how creativity can flourish in an increasingly controlled and policed environment, how we can balance private and public spaces, and how we can achieve sustainable development for creativity and public access for everyone to use in the intellectual property space.

Laura made an impassioned plea that we should realise the profound importance of these changes for us as educators and we need to be building alliances with public interest lawyers. We need to find them and work with them. We need to (re)look at our intellectual property contracts for academics at universities. The notion of ‘sharing’, in stark contrast to many of the current regimes and practices, is such a positive word. Laura referred to David Wiley who said that “without sharing there is no education.” Notions such as ‘sharing’ and ‘generosity’ are currently being appropriated by commercial entities and celebrated the “Überisation of education

Open cannot ignore those who cannot afford to participate in these ‘open’ spaces. We cannot ignore those who are currently excluded and who will, in the context of the commercialisation of “open”, continue to be excluded. Laura warned against the fact that “Sharewashing” has become the new Greenwashing, perpetuating a world of make-belief and pretense, covered by a veneer of openness.

What does “reclaiming the commons” mean for educators? What can ‘openness’ mean for educators and higher education management? Laura suggested, in closing that the role of the university is to –

  • Assert academics and authors as the agents and owners of knowledge
  • Protect the autonomous university at the heart of commons-based structures for knowledge
  • Develop and support collaborative initiatives in knowledge dissemination

We should never forget that open education is a means to an end. As such open education can and should an important strategy towards an equitable, democratic and peaceful world.


About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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