Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Sustainability of Open

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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” 🙂

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