Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Sustainability of Open

| 13 Comments

Reading Time: 5 minutes

It has been that kind of week where you end up reading several different blogposts/articles related to a topic so you can’t help but think about it.

The first was shared privately by Laura Czerniewicz (ahead of our week facilitating Open Scholarship discussions via eMerge Africa) and it’s an article arguing that open access AND piracy are harming scientific research. Mainly because, it argues, open access content is precarious and dependent upon unsustainable funds that can disappear and the content would be lost (presumably big publishers are too big to fail coz we pay them exorbitant subscription fees).
The second is Jim Groom’s blogpost on Overselling of Open (based on a talk he recently gave and also quite different from what I had expected). But this quote from his post, a response to an earlier blogpost by Mike Caulfield calling for institutionalizing Open, and corresponding to the above post’s argument, sort of, Jim says (about some UK-based OERs):

so many of the openly produced [UK] OERs that were publicly funded were no longer available. And these are resources supported by public institutions, and eventually that money ran dry. I think this should be a huge cautionary tale for OER as an ongoing institutional resource.


Mike Caulfield responds really eloquently and convincingly witha pro-institutionalization argument (he links also to a Downes article but that one just links to Downes commenting on Jim’s post so I can’t find the actual Downes post). It is a sound argument with really good metaphors involving public benches and babies drowning in rivers. In summary he is saying that

  1. Important change is not sustainable without institutional support. And in fact, institutions who go against a particular ethos will make it exceedingly difficult for individuals to maintain that ethos in their practice. E.g. Not counting/valuing open access or OER texts for tenure; not giving grants to faculty doing open pedagogy projects. Instead institutions will fund things (and people in jobs) that perpetuate a different ethos
  2. Jim’s argument for crowdsourcing/bottom-up change works for small things but large change requires institutional change. Not so we can rescue occasional hiccups but so we can regularly and sustainably prevent their cause. In my opinion, part of the point of my renting domains post and my digital death piece on Prof Hacker was to point to the obvious precarity of Internet content and how dependent that is on particular sets of privilege at INDIVIDUAL levels. 
  3. Presumably (I can’t access the article) Downes argued that cultural change is what Mike means to call for rather than institutionalization. Mike says those are two different things that work in chicken and egg fashion. Do we  work to change cultures in order to promote institutional adoption of open or do we institutionalze open in order to spread cultural change?

I am wondering if what we are really trying to reach is a way to make openness sustainable? Hence my title and my terminology of interpreting the work of Mike and Jim. 

I commented on Mike’s post that

  • People often distrust institutions for having a different ethos and also for not implementing ethos the way individuals evangelizing for open may want. Universities, even public or nonsomeone ones, are accountable to someone (government or board of trustees) who often care about bottom lines, and like many policy makers don’t get the value of education in non-monetized terms. When institutions have adopted open they focused on open textbooks to save money…which then didn’t go down well coz it resulted (somehow) in less investment in teaching/learning and/or personnel. That’s not a fault of institutionalization per se. It’s a fault of adopting a tiny slice of open without “getting” the ethos of open. 
  • Donna Lanclos and Dave White’s recent keynote at ALTC mentioned how institutions are people. Or something like that. And this corresponds to the point about culture. We are people in institutions who resist the current culture of non-open. It’s our duty to evangelize if we believe it has value beyond our own small choir of believers and beyond our own classes. If it does. Does it always? In any case, if institutional change comes from committees of people, then we all know that backchanneling and working with individual people can help make a committee’s work smoother…help everyone be on the same page. If we want top-down institutional support for ANYTHING we need to work on a select few people who are in positions to influence those decisions and convincingly get them on board. Sometimes on their terms and not ours. We hope for minimal compromise. We may not get it.

Do we forget that open pedagogy and OERs are already funded by institutions? Which adjunct faculty member member unaffiliated person has resources to give away their labor for free to others?  (Alan Levine notwithstanding). Which overworked teacher has time to create materials and share them in ways that are particularly remixable? Some (lots?) of openness is institutionally supported as follows 

  • Time release to develop materials
  • Public grants paying Author Processing Fees for gold Open Access publishing
  • Considering open materials for tenure/promotion 

    Poor institutions and those in developing countries don’t have those privileges. Some ppl in institutions don’t have access to grant funding. Whom does openness privilege, as many have asked before (SimonRebecca) . And this by Sava Singh 

    open is not good for everyone, and tends to bias those in already privileged positions — race, class, gender. The hype around open, while well-intentioned, is also unintentionally putting many people in harm’s way and they in turn end up having to endure so much. The people calling for open are often in positions of privilege, or have reaped the benefits of being open early on — when the platform wasn’t as easily used for abuse, and when we were privileged to create the kinds of networks that included others like us.

    (read the rest of Sava’s article for suggestions to counter this).

    Back to sustainability. What I think all of us would like to see (if we are pro open) is less resistance to our open pedagogy and hopefully more support to help it become sustainable. For diverse constituents. I don’t think I am ready yet to argue that open is a blanket good for everyone in every context. Just as LMSs and (non-open) textbooks are unsuitable for OUR ethos and needs but may be suitable for other people. We may try to convince them of our side of things. But we don’t live their context. We really don’t know that those things won’t work for every pedagogy and discipline and group fo students in every country and university and every political and social situation. Just as we cannot universalize the benefits of openness in such a general manner.

    But I would like to see institutional support by SOME body for openness when it does make sense and promote something good and valuable within a context. Now who gets to decide? Those are the people we hope to get on board.

    It’s all well and good to be ahead of th e curve and to be rebels and resist institutional decrees. But if we want to stop just spending energy on resistance and protest we need to work at both grassroots level and top levels where we can. That, I think, works in politics and in education and everything else. Unless you can think of some other way to make open (or any change, really) sustainable. I am not arguing for institutions as the sole way of making open sustainable. It is A way to make it sustainable. Willing to consider others as long as thry go beyond short-term community-based solutions, wonderful as those are.

    And rest assured that pretty soon something new will come along after “this” becomes the “norm” and we will have more new stuff to resist together inshallah. As Audrey says “yours in struggle” 🙂

    13 Comments

    1. Openness is also a practice as you have talked about elsewhere I believe. That is not content to be captured, curated and kept forever. It has temporal value and it does well what it does at that moment in time. 🙂

      • U read fast! But even open pedagogy needs to be supported to one can continue doing it. E.g. Institutions giving promo/tenure and respect to those who practice open pedagogy. And small funds for small projects related to it

    2. great post Maha. It is a tricky issue and one I, like many other struggle with everyday. My institution does support open-ness but it is quite elastic shall we say in that. For example despite being the first Uni in Scotland to have an approved OER policy, we (and harking back to Dave and Donna’s alt keynote by that I mean “them” the institutional management are not always fully onboard with open, but because of “us” and our everyday practice of just doing what we can openly it is slowly changing. Maybe that is more sustainable I don’t know but this comment is turning into a bit of a ramble.

      • Thanks for responding here, Sheila. I would be interested in everyone’s different stories on how their institutions support open (or not; and limitations/barriers). I suspect it is a problem of all “new”ish ideas at universities.

    3. This is a great summary (and advancing of the argument). Your three-point summary is better than I could have done (or did). Thanks for that.

      Also, I feel really bad, I took the “baby-catchers” piece you refer to out of the post just after I posted. I was reading it, and it just felt too long. Seeing your reaction to it I feel like I made the wrong cut. When I get a chance I’ll add it into the comments of the piece or an addendum so people can tell what you are referring to.

      The Downes piece was just a blurb summarizing my article, but I’ve linked the wrong one. Here’s the right one: http://www.downes.ca/post/65788

      I also think you did much better than I did at pulling other voices into the argument. I was a bit in rant mode and less conversational. I think Sava has been a person in this area, for instance, who has done good work since I can remember.

      And finally, you highlight something I should have highlighted better — many people who say we don’t need institutionalization are actually benefiting from institutionalization they don’t recognize. Somebody at some point made the argument their position should exist or wrote the budget line that funds their products. There is this parallel to privilege where we think we are just doing stuff well personally without realizing the structural stuff that someone had to do to make sure that we could do such things freely. That piece is most evident when you look at institutions that don’t have the resources or mechanisms to make such things work.

      • Yes! Bring the babies back! They were great!
        Am glad you found this helpful, Mike
        And note – I always worry about what happens to people who get my blogposts via email – they miss out on edits I make after I hit publish. What happened with the babies part in your case

    4. The idea of babies reminds me that since things wear out, sustainability must include some mechanism for renewal. In a complicated world this wouldn’t likely result in entirely faithful replications but versions. And those versions need not prove themselves viable from the get-go but represent potential worth nurturing.
      Seems to me sustainability MUST have a mechanism to acknowledge change and and take it on board in order to continue to be. Something in our acceptance of learning embraces uncertainty or at least accepts that we are never completely “done.” (I’m not certain how to explain that:-( )

    5. Great useful post Maha. Just read Jim’s post. Just read your quote of Audrey’s “yours in struggle” Brings me back to the roots and branches of “public” and “ethics”.

      We can’t see “education” in isolation.

      We must ask learning and education for what – for who?

      And also surely not just what we are struggling for but who and what we are struggling against.

    6. Here though we are talking about openness as a commodity and a resource. When you consider it to be a mindset than it is available to all regardless of privilege.

      Jim was cautioning us against relying on institutions because they are not looking at open as a mindset but rather as budgetary savings.

      That makes them bad stewards.

      • No offense, Greg, but my blogpost recognizes that. I state explicitly that institutions didn’t understand the real ethos of open and funded the quantifiable parts only. I also, however, see openness as a mindset as also privileged. Not every institution lets every teacher do whatever they want. Some open pedagogy requires tiny investment and if institutions don’t support it, and the people can’t pay put of pocket it’s a problem. And recognition for promotion and tenure is key. And adjuncts, minorities and grad students take risks with open mindsets

    7. Even in private industry there’s a sense that “product development”, though necessarily for private advantage to the company, people require input and exchange outside the walls to remain active thinkers. For some reason, education seems intent on mimicking a “business model” of ownership of ideas as if they were fixed objects with meanings not to be verified by sharing but by the qualifications of those who say it is so. This is just an authoritarian, fixed-in-place arrangement and best described as an anti-curiosity, make-work-project to keep smart people off the street.

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