Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Give & Take as Participation and Empowerment #BeOpen

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As part of my preparation for the #BeOpen (OEPS) keynote I gave this morning, I re-read an old favorite article by feminist poststructuralist Jennifer Gore. 

For background, the reason I went to that particular article is that I was asked to talk about “The Promise of Open: what can open do for you?” and it reminded me of the title of her article “what we can do for you? What can “we” do for “you”” and how just framing the title of the keynote (which was given to me) made me uncomfortable. Of course I could talk about what open has done for ME. But I didn’t feel comfortable stating what open could do for others, assuming it, particularly when I don’t know their context. It’s not like the goals of open won’t have relevance to many contexts, it’s that they need to be contextualized for each context in order to make them worthwhile and so that the intended promise can be converted into a reality that meets the needs /desires of some person or group.

Gore’s article is excellent in framing how discussions of critical and feminist pedagogy are often too abstract and decontextualized and not at all about how the promised ideals work in practice. She also critiques the discourses as somewhat patronizing, framing teachers and students in ways that seem to emphasize a teacher’s privilege in ways that both inflate a teacher’s privilege beyond its reality AND does not really fit well with the discourses of liberating students and egalitarian power structures in the classroom. Even worse, framing critical pedagogy and power as something teachers have and will give (almost force upon) students completely ignores student agency and their role seems passive in the process.

Which leads me to a key thing I mentioned in my digped keynote about participation but which I think I expressed a bit better in my #BeOpen keynote (especially after some discussions).

I was building on an idea from a previous OEPS keynote by Laura Czerniewicz on how open is often open for access not participation. Nagla Rizk also makes that point and I quoted her in OER17 and today. 

I said something about participation as having a seat on a table. But asking who gets to invite whom to the table. Who decides what gets placed on the table, what the rules are, etc? In the vconnecting hangout discussion after my keynote, you could see this metaphor develop as Sheila, Sarah, Helen and Chuck discussed it and flew with it. Even I had more ideas about it because of how they reacted to it.

And then later in the day I was part of a panel and something clicked for me.

I was asked to give an example of a truly participatory design process for OER. I don’t do OER man. So I talked about vconnecting and what it is about it that I think makes it participatory. 

And it’s this. VConnecting is a thing, that if we boiled it down to its most visible part, the actual hangout (hiding mountains of process which has its own beauty) you find these stakeholders 

  1. The virtual person who cannot be at an event, marginal in some way, supposedly the “recipient”of someone’s goodwill (but wait, because i will challenge this in a moment). This can be an organizer (putting in more effort) or a participant (less effort) 
  2. The onsite person who is “giving” of their time so that virtual folks can be there. This can be an organizer (putting in more time) or guest (putting in less time)

Ok. But here’s the thing. If vconnecting continued to feel to me as if the onsite person were being charitable to me … I would have stopped doing it long ago. It’s not like that and from the beginning Rebecca explained to me how the onsite person benefits too. Over time…onsite folks have told me it helps them socialize and meet new people onsite (including high profile people like Martin Weller! He likes meeting ppl through VC). Some people like Christian Friedrich and Amy Collier have often also said they feel it enriches the convo onsite and makes them more aware of who isn’t present and the interaction enriches the onsite experience. Sheila MacNeill just blogged about her onsite experience at #altc – she was the lead onsite buddy and that is often the richer (but also more time consuming) onsite experience. 

I was thinking about how the virtual folks (starting w me) were participants in the design of this movement called vconnecting and how it evolved as more virtual folks became organizers and had a say in how the virtual side is organized. How we invite folks who participate a lot to become part of our team, and some just do it without needing invites. That way, a “recipient” becomes a participant with decision-making power. But apparently onsite folks (can) benefit, too, so it’s a reciprocal relationship. Onsite guests have even told me they find it enriching but also beneficial for their reflection, or even that it’s good PR for their institution. Notice I say “can”. Some might, some might not. Sometimes it works better than others.

The point is, though, that I think true participation means give and take. That I come to a table knowing I have something to give as well as take. That I am not a beggar on someone else’s dinner table, but a co-chef in the kitchen or something 🙂 but maybe someone is doing starters and another is the main course 😉 or we both provide ingredients for dessert and together we make a better dessert 🙂 or something. 

Back to discourses of empowerment… I think a critical pedagogy classroom should also be like that. Where a teacher is learning from the student. Where the students have a say in how they wish their agency to be nurtured. In practice, this requires a whole heck of a lot of vulnerability and openness from a teacher, which someone brought up in the post-keynote discussion as well (i think Matt from Liverpool).

I think for anyone to feel liberated, they need to have a strong sense of their active role in their own and probably others’ liberation. And while this is an abstract part of this blogpost (as is Gore’s article, critiquing abstractness with an article she admits is itself so abstract) I’ve used the example of vconnecting and I’ll come back to it now quickly. 

With vconnecting, the virtual buddy (ies) is liberated from the constraints of their lives that prevent conference travel and thus limit their professional development and voice in the field (of mainly edtech where we operate). However, the virtual buddy also can hold some power of invitation (whom to invite from onsite to talk to – onsite buddies do so too); the power of inviting others to join virtually, and of actually running the hangouts themselves. The virtual Participant does much less BUT s/he brings their thoughts and conversation into an event that otherwise would have been poorer without their voice (I’m romanticizing a bit here, because some people don’t speak up much, but most people who do it several times eventually do. Some don’t speak up but contribute to text chat so viewers don’t see it). More interesting about vconnecting is that many in our community switch roles often, so they do both onsite and Virtual. This was a novelty when it first happened but our community is so large now it happens a lot. I can’t think of many people in our team now who were only ever on one side of it. And that is SUPER cool to practice different perspectives on giving and taking. 

So that. I don’t think this is a case that applies across the board. I have to assume I am not the only person who views it as such. I see the direct relationship to teaching where teacher learns from students (I would posit this almost ALWAYS happen, K-16+ but can be more intentionally done and more explicit and encouraged). 

What I’m suggesting is that open might be one of those supposedly potentially empowering things that doesn’t meet that potential without reciprocal giving. Does reciprocity require SAME giving? I’m not asking for that. But asking for parties to enter into open with positive power positions rather than upper and lower positions.

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