Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Cultivating Our Seeds at Institutions #oeglobal18 #unicollab2018 #rp18

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I was in a Virtually Connecting session recently from #OEglobal where Robin DeRosa was a virtual guest… We had invited her and Rajiv to talk about their Open Pedagogy Notebook project (check it out and contribute!).

Anyway – key thing is that Robin said something about persisting to make institutions listen, and when I asked for more, she talked about the importance of cultivating our seeds, and that in the conference circuit it feels like so much is going on at the edge and things are happening, but actually, to get any of this going at institutions takes time and patience and persistence on our part. And it seems obvious now that she said it, but OF COURSE that’s what happens. It’s been happening to me ever since I started working in education. I’d say something about a new technology or a new concept, and at first I would get quizzical, if not downright derogatory looks, then when I kept persisting, people would start to give me tolerant looks “here she goes again” and then, sometimes, just sometimes, we would reach phases where more and more people became on board with the idea or approach, or the institution would start to be more interested. Just 3-5 years later. This doesn’t happen for everything of course, because I wouldn’t claim that all my ideas are good or scaleable or institutionally feasible.

But I still remember my boss speaking at a conference or something, maybe in 2007 or something, and talking about blogs and saying “Maha told me about their potential back in 2003 but I didn’t realize it until recently”.

I also think a lot of what happens at institutions is about snatching up opportunities – like the open textbook we’re currently working on, our first, came out of an idea for a MOOC that Edraak refused to take on – and I’m so glad because an open textbook is way more useful for this thing we’re doing.

I remembered how my OER17 keynote talked about our intentions as seeds that we needed to cultivate… And I meant, back then, that when we have good intentions, we need to keep working closely with how these seeds get executed or implemented, to keep checking them against our intentions and see if they’re achieving what we promised or hoped.

I’ve been part of two hybrid workshops on #BreakOpen (check out provocations here). And we encouraged people to critique the ways in which open can disempower, marginalize, colonize, discriminate and so on. For the most part, open doesn’t intend to do so. But quite often, open does not honestly and critically assess its own self… And that’s an iterative process we should never stop doing.

I think about Virtually Connecting.. And something Bonnie Stewart did recently. She was keynoting or presenting about the ways in which digital and networks have both the bad (platform capitalism, surveillance, online violence, biased algorithms) and the good (participatory culture, potential democratization). And they’re both there, side by side, and it’s a HUMAN problem. Humans have agency despite platforms. And she talked about (ok i haven’t heard her talk, just saw the slides) the Cynefin framework (gotta love that framework) and how some problems are just complex and will only ever have partial solutions in context… And that will always be what Virtually Connecting is (I think that’s how she used it, as an example of using the digital for good, but it’s a partial good, solving part of a problem for some, but not all, constituents).

The key for me, is this. Whatever our intentions, we (and I mean everyone in the world, really, but more specifically those of us who care about open education and work on it) need to remain sensitive, alert and responsive to critiques of our work, from our community and those external to the community.

We had another vconnecting conversation with Thomas Mboa and Lucy Patterson at re:publica 18 in Berlin… About hacking the ivory tower (their panel there) and how things like hackerspaces were done to make open science accessible to all, so that science could happen and come from under resourced parts of Africa, by empowering groups to hack their own equipment and create their own knowledge. And yet hacking discourse and culture isn’t really accessible to all. It takes time for people outside that culture to “get it”, and persistence and working to make one’s language accessible is as important to hacking culture advocates as it is to academics in the ivory tower doing good work. And it’s as important for those of us in open education working in circles where this is so much against the grain that it will take time and patience and persistence. And in the meantime, our Personal Learning Networks online give us support and ideas and keep us going. And yes, the occasional conference. For me, I need more than occasional conference conversations. That’s why I thank God every day for Virtually Connecting. And lest you think I’m here thanking myself for co-founding it, I’m not. Virtually Connecting would be nothing if it weren’t for first of all Rebecca offering to do it, then Autumm helping us imagine how to expand, and people like Whitney Kilgore, Bonnie Stewart, Michael Berman, Alan Levine, Jesse Stommel – and the et4online conference organizing committee – cheering us on from early on… And then our growing group of volunteers who are onsite and virtual buddies and advisors and advocates for expanding access to marginal voices… And onsite guests who join these conversations as a joy and not as a burden.

And yet we are imperfect in many ways and seek to improve the dimensions of ourselves that we can. So I have failed several times to connect with Thomas Mboa synchronously when he’s in Cameroon. So I find him in Berlin. Partial solutions to tricky problems.

So we talked about the issue of different languages in cross-cultural dialogue that Francesca Helm brought up after my keynote in our vconnecting conversation at #unicollab2018 – and I still don’t know what partial solutions we will come up with, but I suggested we intentionally create these situations more often in order to work out good models.

In this blogpost alone, I’ve referenced educators and conversations with educators from more countries than I can count. Vconnecting sessions in Germany, Netherlands and Poland. Key people from Italy, Cameroon, US and Canada.

And I can be proud to have collaborated with folks from Vancouver to Capetown this year. And I am. But I also notice the limitations of everything I do, digital or analog.

And I think we need to continue noticing and also listening closely to those who critique us, especially our friends who know what we’re doing and what our values are, and to keep checking ourselves against these… To ask ourselves, as Suzan Koseoglu suggests in her #BreakOpen provocation, to question “othering” practices that separate “us” (who’s us!? Those who advocate for open!?) from “them” (who may actually share similar values but differ from us in their reservations, which may really be legitimate if we understood them).

I need to stop now. Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

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