“Are you now, or have you ever been a member . . . ?”

I recently attended a conference session in which the three panel members started bickering before they had actually begun their prepared talks. The topic of the talk may give you a hint as to how this is possible: open education.

The hostility began when the lone female speaker introduced herself and, in a very defensive fashion, claimed that she had “street cred” in open education. The other speakers immediately challenged her claim, citing her recent publication in a – gasp! – journal that is not OPEN.

The fact that the woman – someone who has dedicated much of her life to public education and earned a solid reputation – would feel the need to assume this defensive posture tells us something of the tone of debate in this area of education.

Setting aside the fact that the attack was childish and rude, I was flabbergasted by the way the three panelists sought to position themselves and each other. Clearly, being in full support of the open education movement is where you want to sit these days, for fear of being labeled . . . ? What’s the opposite of “open”?

By the end of the talk it was clear that no one in the audience was willing to question the open movement. The overall tone of the event was nicely complemented by the fellow I was sitting beside. He donned a t-shirt with a slogan that sought to implore people to join the “open ed movement”. Throughout the talk he was either nodding his head in fervent agreement with the speaker’s views or twittering furiously to, no doubt, others that share his unequivocal support of all things open.

The use of labels is, of course, a common means of positioning during debates. And choosing the right words is important; some are more effective than others. In the 90s’, US Conservatives managed to redefine “liberal”. Consider also “free trade”; “pro choice”/”pro life”.

Taking open education seriously is not the problem. It should be taken seriously. However, the use of simple labels and the placement of people into categories is often a sign that the quality of the debate is low and crude. Important topics are typically far more complex than can be managed by terms that imply that “either you’re with us, or you’re against us.” You shouldn’t feel compelled to buy t-shirts to proclaim your affiliation.

Open education has taken on an overly simplistic and highly political quality during the past year. If you think I might be overstating the case, I encourage you to check out a set of exchanges between David Wiley (relatively pragmatic views on open content) and those that embody an “ideological purity” (their terms, not mine. Seriously).

I was reminded of this exchange at the conference when I read an entertaining article in the latest issue of the Educause Review – “Never Mind the Edu-Punks; or, The Great Web 2.0 Swindle,” by Brian Lamb and Jim Groom. The article includes a number of interesting points.

  • The goal of expanding the use of open educational resources is facing competition from corporate products and services that provide competing technologies and content.
  • The edu-hacker community is typically anti-corporate
  • Many of these corporate products and services are of excellent value and, often, free of charge (FlickR, Google Groups, etc). “All this incredible functionality is delivered in remarkably stable and user-friendly environments, and it’s available free of charge!” 54
  • The authors recognize that it would be wasteful to spend precious university funds building these applications in-house when the corporate sector can do them better and more cheaply.
  • There are risks to using these high-quality services, particularly privacy, the presence of advertising, and copyright control.
  • The authors themselves are long time users and often advocates for the high quality corporate resources on the web.

You might be wondering – as I am – how these ideas fit together. The authors simultaneously decry the corporate dominance in technology used in education, celebrate its quality and price, question the efficiency of competing with these corporate entities, and/but (ultimately) champion the continued investment by the open community in creating their own solutions.

Sometimes complex issues hold contradictions. I recognize this. However, I think the inconsistencies in this article have less to do with the complexity of the issue than it does the ideological nature of the discourse around open education. There seems to be almost willful indifference to the facts. If corporate services offer higher value (cost-quality), then a knee-jerk reaction against them seems somewhat irresponsible. The authors are both aware of this and seem to promote it. (Having spent a number of years as a faculty member in a university sociology department, I feel that I can speak with some authority about how political posturing can get in the way of the pursuit of the best solutions to problems.)

Like the authors, I too promote the use and creation of open educational resources. But, like most people in education, I try my best to use open resources when it is the best solution for the student, rather than being guided by an overarching political posture. If we keep our eyes on student needs (which includes costs), we can more thoughtfully navigate the emerging opportunities for using both corporate and open educational resources.

Posted in: Business Models

4 thoughts on ““Are you now, or have you ever been a member . . . ?” Leave a comment

  1. Cults seem to be unfortunately all to pervasive among educators, from the “whole language” vs “phonics” idealogues, to the “constructivists” and “behaviourists” and now to the “learning styles” true believers. I have to continually cut words like “need to”, “must” out of papers I review. Pragmatism is a good old American philosophy, we need to “smell the coffee” and test to see if something works in a given situation and use it if it does and if it doesn’t work then change and not hang on to an ideology. Let’s stop trying to fit the world to our preconceptions and ideals and deal with it on its own merits.
    All the best Keith for a well-needed observation.


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