“Heart to heart” – meanderings in the future of open scholarship and open education

Two events in a row – #opened15 on open education and #KEevent15 on open research – have conspired within my mind to produce a series of thoughts that have more to do with the organisational dynamics of pressure groups than “open” anything.

As the campaigns for openness in academia reach fifteen years old they have mostly solidified into two positions. On the one hand, we have people who like being in campaigns and are distrustful of what they see as “solutionism” (the idea that there is a technical fix for every problem), and on the other we have people who like fixing things and are less enamoured of the kind of academic navel-gazing that they perceive as being “the wider movement”.

Every solution that is built is a compromise and a first step. Moving a bit along the way towards fixing a big and messy socio-cultural-economic problem is not as rewarding or exciting as it should be. Some worry that these first steps are taken down the wrong path, others worry that the steps are too tentative. And each step has a resonance, it cannot be un-taken, the echoes continue as the unintended consequences mount.

After 15 years our ears are ringing.

Most of us in the OER world have welcomed the blizzard of reflective posts capped recently with an old-fashioned David Wiley showstopper.  The latter could be read as a better kind of project plan complete with outcomes and outputs, a plan presented – with bravery and without guile – for the community to discuss, and one that starts with a goal based in access to education and ends with a re-affirmation of the 5Rs of his famous definition.

The conference (#opened15, in an unseasonably sunny Vancouver), was effectively two co-located conferences – characterised by Martin Weller as “hardcore research” and “philosophy of open” – attended by two groups of people (“colonisers” and [shudder] “edupunks” as named by Rob Farrow). Or was it?

Certainly some of the reflections during and after the conference (Robin Derosa was the key text for me) called for a reassertion of radical pedagogic and theoretical action against the closed horizons of the “big open education” of systemic open textbook adoption.

But really?

All activity needs critique, but this should not be at the expense of the activity. Even back in the Second Great MOOC Boom of 2012 I don’t think anyone was saying “don’t do MOOCs ever”. Not even me. Rather than “this is not what I meant” the cry was “this could be so much more”.

Michael Feldstein’s keynote point about being comfortable about winners who weren’t us was a bit of a wake-up call. BC Campus are pretty great at making open textbooks, but should (say) Pearson ever start making OER texts they would render the BC Campus efforts irrelevant. And as an open advocacy movement we should celebrate that – why should Clint Lalonde have to spend large parts of his life reflowing texts across multiple formats, when Pearson do that every day, all day?

It’s an uncomfortable thought experiment  – even though if like-for-like replacement was no longer a problem we had to solve it would be possible to focus on precisely the pedagogic and remix culture that many yearned for at OpenEd15.

Rolin Moe expressed this conundrum beautifully:

“When we open the escape hatch from the reusability paradox and let the content out into a world unencumbered by copyright, we leave the safety of discussing open as a copyright problem and enter into a larger and more problematic space where open cannot be a use-value product nor a universal value. By opening the escape hatch and leaving the reusability paradox, we make open less absolute than when the hatch was closed.”

At KEevent15 (A ten-year anniversary conference for the Knowledge Exchange, a partnership between five European research infrastructure organisations) Sascha Friesike used the lens of Rogers’ (1962) theories of “diffusion of innovations” to examine the success (or otherwise) of 15+ years of Open Scholarship advocacy.

On the surface, and when compared with open education, one could easily assume that the range of high-quality open access journals, backed by funder mandates that increasingly extend to open research datasets suggests a movement with several significant victories behind it and more in easy grasp. But I heard similar voices lamenting the lack of process, and suggesting some combination of simpler tools and better marketing as the way forward.

As a “provocation”, it is difficult to know how seriously to take the notion of a diffusion deficiency as a full critique of open scholarship. Indeed Rajiv Jhangiani used and critiqued ideas from the same book, expressed via the “pencil metaphor” at OpenEd15. In both instances the metaphors are useful descriptions of the space, the conclusions either facile or unhelpful.

Rogers’ adoption curve makes a number of assumptions that need to be unpicked. Like the Gartner hype cycle it starts from the position of assumed total success, and has an uncritical (solutionist) view of innovation as an unproblematic good. It also focuses on unidirectional diffusion (from the “innovator” to the “end user”, and on a single innovation taken outside of the roaring tsunami of change that is years like 2015.

But fundamentally Rogers (like Von Neumann and Morgernstern before him) assumes a selfish (and thus mathematically predicable)  adopter, who will seek the maximum individual utility in the innovations they choose to adopt. If marketing people chose to believe that of the customers they talk about, I have no complaints – our issues are that we are not marketers and our “product” (if we must) has environmental rather than individual utility.

Looking at the open research area we see a great deal of emphasis on policy – changing the entire environment (forcing individuals to act in ways that they may individually find difficult, at least initially) rather than growing an activist base. Open Education has historically done the opposite (supporting individual innovators in a Von Hippel-ish way) – it is strange, to see the least, to see both fields meet in a joint concern about models of innovation and look to utility marketing (of all things) as a next step.

Especially as the individual academic has far less agency, and less scope to make decisions either rational or irrational, than at any other time in history. This is the greatest concern that is facing academia right now – sure, textbook costs, fee costs and the reproducibility crisis in research are all top four, but in many ways represent the absence of academic freedom to experiment.

Of the three models discussed the environmental model best fits the new fully managerialised education sector, the democratic or lead-user model has the greatest emancipatory potential. Using marketing theory from the middle of the last century as a model seems like an admission of defeat.

After all, that’s how commercial publisher sell “their” content. And how’s that working out for them?

Amy Collier and Jen Ross presented  at #opened15 on the idea of “not-yetness“, an attempt to describe the liminal, (Deleuzean) smooth space that allows for the potential for movement which is not complete. In our audit culture (Dahler-Larson) the very idea of incompleteness sits in opposition to a need for evidence-shaped data (efficacy?) supporting a progression.

The traditional critique of numerate academic research is that the specificity and validity is limited by an inability to show statistical similarity to the wider population. (But somehow when software vendors do it it works). We have moved beyond a distrust of evaluation that is unactionable to an inability to countenance an activity that is inevaluable – as numerous duplicate presentations about no statistical difference between student attainment with OER and with a non-OER text attest (or anything that involves proving with numbers that the people do indeed use repositories of their own volition – seemingly the great silent project of open academic practice).

In open research the outstanding issue is one of genuine reuse – how can we incentivise academics to reuse information and data to build new research? Funding and publication pressures demand, always, new data – and in contemporary precarious academia you do what you have to do to stay in a job.

Conversely, in open education, too much reuse is the problem – how can you *stop* academics reusing published (and expensive) material when cheaper and more adaptable alternatives exist? The pressure within teaching is only that of time – the rise of adjunct culture permits only the barest minimum of preparation and textbooks are one way of ensuring that whichever poorly-paid post-grad teaching a given course can have a running start.

Both of these problems are soluble only with a serious look at the continued attack on academic agency, security and space to experiment. And that’s the open academic movement I want to be a part of.

27 thoughts on ““Heart to heart” – meanderings in the future of open scholarship and open education”

  1. I’m really happy you have brought the conversation around to the rise of the adjunct, academic autonomy, and (especially) the lack of systematic support for experimentation. While time is certainly the most pressing issue that often prevents experimentation, there are also other factors that inhibit experimentation. Often systematic reviews (like faculty teaching evaluations), student satisfaction surveys prevent people from experimenting for fear of negative appraisals. In my experience, students don’t always react well to their faculty experimenting.

    People need to feel that they have the ability to experiment and, crucially, the support and knowledge that occasionally their experiments might fail, but at the end of the day they will still have support from their institution.

  2. Apparently i need to mention this on twitter and not comment here, but fuck that

    Perhaps the conjugation of the two is a good indicator of the problem over academicising things. We think the OER need to measure reuse was bad, but compared to the Cerebuian puppy litter that is altmetrics we’ve had it easy peasy. The glory of the gartner curve and its pareto law like adoption without question is what is the unit it is measured in? We stick things to it like tales on donkeys at childrens parties and nod along. Badges as where? OER as where? Or where is the gartner curve on the gartner curve?

    Perhaps if we decoupled the insaitable need for evidence of change, we’d not be so reliant on looking for change, and so not need worry about policies or evidence to try and make more change or reassure us our personal change was the right change and get the fuck out of a huge circular argument

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