Open Education Rules, OK?

Taking (as I am wont to do) a book recommendation from Mark Johnson’s ever-wonderful “Daily Improvisation” I have been reading David Graeber’s “The Utopia of Rules: On technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy”It’s (as you would expect) a wonderful read with a lot to take away.

For me, the book revolved around the differences between two interlinked concepts – that even share the same word in many languages – the idea of “play” and the idea of a “game”. He develops this theme following on from a riff on the bureaucratic aspects of fantasy fiction – noting that it really is only the “baddies” that appear to have a bureaucracy.

But “play”, to Graeber, is the free expression of creativity, and “games” are the structures and rules that we put in place to constrain and focus this free expression.

“What this suggests is that people, everywhere, are prone to two completely contradictory tendencies: on the one hand, a tendency to be playfully creative just for the sake of it; on the other, a tendency to agree with anyone who tells them that they really shouldn’t act that way. This latter is what makes the game-ification of institutional life possible” (chapter 3)

Yes, there’s *that* word.

Educational game-ification is inherent in the rules by which the game of education is played. There is a direct read-across to institutional game-ification, which has another set of rules that (in some cases) underpin the rules of education. And in such a nested and complex ruleset, it is fair to bewail the lack of creativity – as rules expand to fill the spaces where innovation used to reign.

But on the other hand, what is something like, say, the DS106 Daily Create but a set of rules to constrain innovation? Imposing constraints can also be a way to foster creativity – the OULIPO movement collects and documents constraints that can support creativity (many of which do look a lot like daily creates).

In bureaucracy, a similar constrained creativity is used to circumvent and use institutional systems to achieve personal goals, be they in a positive “lead user” sense of solving necessary problems, or in the negative sense of creating interesting new ones and thus highlighting the absurdity of the rules.

A ruled space is can be seen as (literally!) a striated space in a Deleuzian sense, with all of the benefits and drawbacks that this implies. But to be fully striated, an un-ruled contingent space would also be required – a space without this contrast would be smooth: “a space of affects, more than one of properties”.

Rules are – of course – inherently arbitrary in the sense that they have an arbitrator, which in most of the games we play (in education and in institutions) is not us. The affect can be seen in the irrational – rather than the rational – decisions made by, for example, a vice-chancellor.

So for me, the negative experiences of game-ification come when the creativity of the arbitrator is not up to the task of responding and adapting to the creativity of the game player in ways that foster rather than restrict. Those who have played invented games managed by small children will recognise the feeling of a system that adapts only to preserve existing status rather than to open new creative status – you try persuading a seven-year-old that “octopus” is a valid move in scissor/paper/stone 🙂

It is this feeling the permeates many of the systems that define the way we live, work, play and learn. The feeling that a system will adapt to constrain your creativity rather than foster it, even if the latter is of more benefit to the overall health of the system.

In open education (yes, I got there in the end) we are at something of a crossroads: where we are agreeing on constraints (what *is* open? where is open? how can we find open?). Those arguing for space to play are often seen as “unrealistic”, those arguing for rule structures to direct creativity are seen as “dictatorial”.

The simple truth is that we need both, and we need to recognise that. We need rules and requirements, but we need to be flexible enough to change as the world changes.

6 thoughts on “Open Education Rules, OK?”


  • Ronald Macintyre


  • Chris Lott

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