Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Openness in Whose Interest? #OERizona #OpenEd19

| 18 Comments

I had the pleasure of participating in #OERizona, a hybrid free event (very well organized, very engaging for me as a virtual participant) ahead of OpenEd19. Thanks to all who worked on it – I know Pressbooks and Hypothesis co-organized with others. Here is just a lightbulb moment I had and others in Zoom chat said blew their minds… so I wanna articulate it better. It is now 20 mins past midnight, so hopefully I am coherent, but if not, you know why!

So I have always felt uncomfortable with frontloading permissions when we talk about Open Education. And I said that when Steel Wagstaff was talking about open as in free vs open as permissions.

So something occurred to me. I don’t like talk of permissions as what open is. I do, as a parent, want to raise a daughter who understands, respects, and seeks permission in her interactions with others. And this was my lightbulb moment. Permissions are paternalistic. To focus on openness as permissions is paternalistic.

[Hanni responded about marginalized communities and importance of permissions, and her comment made my lightbulb moment a *firework* moment]

Next point, building on this, though…

Discourse is so contextual. The same thing can be said by a white person and sound colonizing but it is completely different when an indigenous or postcolonial or person or POC says it. It is so contextual.

And so… I also thought of a couple of things.

First, permissions are sort of a response to copyright. In many ways, copyright is an unjust law that restricts and gatekeeps knowledge to less privileged people (and most money goes to publishers, not just authors). And I am uncomfortable with defining openness in terms of permissions with respect to copyright, we define open over it not being copyright…

And that is such a technical way to describe openness which for many of us is a worldview, a value, not a technical, instrumental thing.

My thoughts are… white colonizers came into other lands, violated them, and without permission basically looted resourced, destroyed people’s psyche, and, you know, basically colonized. To then, now, turn it around, and, after years of controlling knowledge and who had access to it, to NOW decide to be generous and give permission? This reminds me of how World Bank and USAID offer funding generously to help developing countries emerge when much of their economic struggles are caused from those same sources.

It feels… neoliberal and neocolonial. Or at least as something trying to be the opposite of them, while defining itself by them, thus recentering the Western/colonial hegemony. First it was about how this knowledge was protected, and now it’s about how it is shared. But it reproduces both the Western knowledge itself, and its place as the worldview that dominates how knowledge works in the world.

This is only the case when it is dominant cultures being open. Because, in the end, in whose interest is there act of being open? it ends up reproducing Western hegemony over knowledge again. Not because it silences other knowledges intentionally, but because it assumes Western knowledge is useful to others, and it ignores the privilege behind being open that makes it not feasible for less privileged voices to join in THAT openness that is based on permissions. There are other openness-es that are more values based and not permissions based. And they’re less financially tied and more accessible to more diverse people.

And here is the thing:

  1. I don’t mean individuals who give openly or give permissions are bad people or colonial. I am saying that framing the open movement in terms of permissions is a technical emphasis that makes it seem more aligned with neoliberalism than more social justice oriented ways of thinking.
  2. Context matters. Taking permission is important, as is giving permission. The people who invented copyright built their knowledge and wealth on colonized people’s knowledge and wealth. To now turn it into generosity of permission is problematic. On the flip side, people who have been marginalized had knowledge and more extracted from them, often violently, and their permission is so important! Because sometimes their openness is in the interests of the dominant groups and not their own. TK licenses are beautiful in their nuance. Same thing with women for example. Essential to ask permission e.g. to touch a woman’s body, even I would say to suggest anything non-platonic, you need permission.
  3. In my British school, we were not allowed to speak Arabic. It’s not that we could speak our native language with permission. We were not allowed at all except in the Arabic and religion classes. If someone then came and gave us permission to speak Arabic, should we praise them, when they never had the right to prevent us from speaking it? In a similar vein, if Muslims says a person does not have permission to touch the Quran unless they are clean (same as it is for Muslims, because it is a holy/sacred book), this permission should be respected. Does that make sense? Do you see the difference?

And this is why, for me, the violation of copyright in Egypt is transgressive. People won’t be able to learn medicine (because the dominant knowledge of medicine is in English by Western textbooks and scientists, in expensive imported textbooks) so they copy illegally. It’s against the law. But it’s an unjust law.

Then someone gives permission. But the entire discipline and industry have been gatekeeping and withholding for so long. They choose what to share and what to keep. They still control the permission. It seems paternalistic and neocolonial in this sense. Because again it reproduces a cycle of MORE Western knowledge offered to the world (how generous) and in comparison less minority knowledge, because also, minorities have less funding and resources to be open, less time to be open, more to lose and less to gain by being open.

If we want to tackle openness from a social justice perspective, we need to always ask whose interests are served by what we do and say.

Open Educational Practices as a human endeavor is so much more than a technical permission. And I wish we would push this aspect of it to the background of details and instead foreground the other aspects relating to social justice, connection, and co-construction of knowledge in potentially equitable ways, for the interests of diverse people, and on their terms.

And so you do not start understanding openness by comparing it to copyright. That is not why someone like me would be in it, nor will it ever be.

18 Comments

  1. wow, Maha, this is excellent. I have been thinking about this a lot, and you have given me more to think about. THANK YOU.

  2. Thanks Maha! I agree that context matters a lot. I actually came to learn about #oer (specifically @creativecommons) via working w/ copyright as a librarian. I initially found #fairuse hard to confidently implement and looked for alternatives. #openped came after. #copyright

  3. I share the same concern about front loading permission to the open conversation. i have a similar thought on limiting open to cost of textbooks. Even if all the textbooks in the world were free, the type of open where diversity of voices are…

  4. My work env in higher ed/country is deeply embedded in “copyright as law” ways of thinking. I agree that there are moral dimensions which are undervalued, right and wrong, context, history. I’m not always sure how to reconcile these things. Thanks, Maha, for your thoughtful post.

  5. Especially appreciate the importance of framing appeals to openness in terms of the degree to which they advance “social justice, connection, and co-construction of knowledge in potentially equitable ways, for the interests of diverse people, and on their terms.”

  6. Thanks for sharing this and tagging me, Maha. I really appreciate the nuance you bring to conversations about permissions and the way that permission-seeking & permission-granting are often bound up in unacknowledged ways with power.

  7. Reading your post helped me better understand how crucial answering the question ‘to what end’ is when thinking abt technical matters like permissions. Permissions feel instrumental to me (a means or a method) & very much a response to a legal framework with a history & a context

  8. I wish I could have seen the Zoom chat — it sounds very interesting, Maha! And thank you for being a consistently generous and outspoken and values-driven voice. If we can’t learn from divergence or difference or dissent, then we’re doomed (and I hope we’re not doomed!)

  9. fireworks going off all around me now Maha – thank you

  10. I think permissions alone are wholly inadequate & insufficient to address structural & historical injustices. In fact, your references to civil disobedience & decolonialization helped remind me that constructing more just & inclusive societies will necessarily require actions …

  11. Indeed tachesdesens.blogspot.com/2017/04/re-res…

  12. Power requires Powerlessness to exist.

  13. Maja, I love the way you wrangle your thoughts out as you write each post. And your thoughts nudge my thoughts. Thank you, and keep on nudging.

  14. … for which permission has explicitly been forbidden by those w/ power. Hopefully this feels related to your observations (I’m not very good at twitter threads), but I finished reading yr post feeling that a more urgent ? is not “what is open” but “what is open FOR” (its aims)

  15. love they way you related permission, context and control

  16. I too continually tire of seeing introductions of openness and open education (maybe not exactly the same thing) or just sharing that begins with licenses. And here you make a stronger statement with the identification of atmosphere of permission a.k.a. restriction (and thus a veiled threat of punishment).

    When described this way, openness seems to becomes a thing focused on content owners rather than people who might use it, yes, “in whose interest” is where it should start. I hear the voice of Nancy White describing an experience of resource sharing where she describes it as not being centered on open resources, but open attitudes (ironically that was in a collection of stories of sharing done for the 2009 Open Education conference).

    Thanks for making this stand.

    Now I hope the comment algorithm gives me permission to post here!

  17. There’s something in people’s DESIRE to learn that we jumble up with the property aspect of knowledge. The desire to learn I’m thinking is natural and unlimited and may need to be facilitated or shown intelligibly as in teaching, but not boxed and sold as property.

    For the joy of being, (on this planet anyway), it’s an advantage to exist as a thing with a brain over being a rock. To be surrounded by conscious beings, (and knowing it), is a treat and to get piggy about resources seems like energy miss-spent—or spent on the narrowing of knowledge to be held by the few for their own use. As is taking without feeling or acknowledging an appreciation for the originator which I think colonization as the original injustice is about. We can’t escape the beginning of ideas or their populating by combining and this is an effortful process and not really “free” but also not something owned. Yet it is “yours” by the peculiarity of all of us being different and this being the thing YOU sought out and worked for.

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