Theory as a keel: Developing a critical framework for open education

Virginians involved in education were extremely fortunate to have the 13th Annual Open Education Conference held in Richmond, at the Great Richmond Convention Center November 2nd through 4th, 2016. The conference, billed as the “premiere venue for sharing research, development, advocacy, design, and other work relating the open education,” offers librarians a unique opportunity to interface with researchers, technologists, publishers, and educators in a collaborative environment. While some of these connections happened during sessions on topics like inclusive design, open education policy, and licensing, many occurred between sessions. On the final day, I had the chance to eat lunch with several William & Mary faculty and student researchers interested in open education, along with Kathleen DeLaurenti, the librarian at William & Mary leading our OER initiatives. The lunch conversation afforded me great perspective on the challenges educators face when trying to access and utilize appropriate open education resources as alternatives in their classes, especially for advanced topic courses. I am excited to join deLaurenti and our Scholarly Communications Committee’s efforts to expand open education resources here at William & Mary, where we will be running a pilot of the Open Textbook Network Program beginning early next year.

Open education is not just about textbooks and materials, however. Among the presenters at the Open Ed Conference this year was a William & Mary Ph.D. student in the School of Education, Jamison Miller, who joins a growing contingent of open education scholars calling for a theoretical grounding to support the practicum, resource-focused open education movement, a component he feels will be critical to its long term success and sustainability.

Jamison Miller

I sat down with Jamison in his office at the School of Education to discuss his research, and how librarianship can best engage with open education efforts. Below is part one of our conversation, to be continued next month.

Lily: Would you mind giving a little background on how you came to focus your research on open education?

Jamison: I was an art kid in high school, but I have also always been very practical-minded as well. I could not commit to going to art school like many of my friends. It seemed too expensive; I didn’t know what I would do afterwards. My middle ground was photography. I ended up working at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City for ten years as a photographer. It was an awesome job with great people, but I felt locked away in a black room in the museum. I wanted to become more deeply engaged with helping people. I have always had social justice leanings, so I went back to school and took a class about gentrification in Chicago. That was my “Ah-ha” moment, where I realized I actually can go to school and enjoy it. After I completed my Bachelor’s I worked at the Chicago Housing Authority in Public Housing for a bit, and then decided to get a Masters. I went to Vancouver to SFU (Simon Fraser University) and delved into cultural geography research of museums, which ended up being the topic of my master’s thesis. That was how I first got exposed to critical theory.

But as I was finishing my Masters I noticed smart people in my field getting their doctorates but unable to get jobs. It is a super tight market to become a faculty member in cultural geography, and I knew people who were much more driven in that direction with having a tough time. Then my wife got a job at Colonial Williamsburg, so we moved to Williamsburg, VA and I began teaching at John Tyler Community College. I went to a community college myself, and I love the people and the populations community colleges serve, so I knew that was work I drawn to, but even to get a job at a community college you generally need a doctorate. I investigated doctoral programs and found William & Mary’s School of Education. My Ph.D. is in Education Policy, Planning, and Leadership — Higher Education Administration, which I would have never have foreseen. When I told my parents this is what I was doing they laughed, because I was someone who always questioned education and never really liked school!

Lily: I would say you are the exact type of person education needs!

Jamison: Thank you! My exposure to open education ultimately came about because of this program, through my role in Education Technology as a graduate assistantship at the Technology Integration Center, and the relationship building the position entailed. I met the former director of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the Virginia Community College system, Richard Sebastian [now with Achieving the Dream] when he and I worked on a small project in digital literacy across curriculum. He pointed out to me that open education resources were getting ready to pop. He was working with Tidewater Community College, the first to have an entirely OER degree, a model that has since expanded across the Virginia Community College System.

Richard introduced me Jim Groom who was then at [the University of] Mary Washington, and in combination Richard and Jim introduced me to open and open practices. They were the most influential on me because they both have a critical take on education. That is not to say a critical approach is all open is about, but I think there is opportunity for open to help push a democratic and egalitarian agenda in education, which is where my work focuses.

Jim was active with Open VA, which would bring academic technologists, librarians, faculty, and administrators together annually to talk about what open could be in higher education in Virginia. They were talking about OER, open infrastructure, open pedagogy, and open policy–how can this principle apply to multiple genres? But as is typical to the trends in open education initiatives generally–and for good reason–the emphasis turned to open education resources and the impact on students they make. But it was through my engagement with Open VA that I met Kathleen DeLaurenti (William and Mary Libraries Interim Scholarly Communications/Music Librarian). We went to the first meeting together in Fall 2014 and started talking about open education potential at William & Mary. I hosted the first open education event here at the College in Spring 2015 to try to get the conversation going, and by then it was becoming very clear that a critical framework for open education was going to be my research focus.

Lily: You have said your goal is to develop an OER framework that balances theoretical and ethical formulations with an eye towards practical implementations. Can you describe the current imbalance, and how you see the theoretical and ethical informing the practical in a way that strikes a balance?

Jamison: I am actively working through these ideas right now. With respect to a tension between the practical and the theoretical: I think open is very new and is beginning to mature in awesome ways. Part of that maturing is scholars–especially people in the UK, though it’s happening elsewhere as well–are beginning to critique it. We are seeing formal publications include articles asking us to question what’s been done, mostly stemming from concerns of open washing–which is borrowing the green washing turn from environmental movement. Open washing is when private companies use the moniker of open to extract profit and perpetuate existing business models I think are causing some issues in education generally. For profit companies are, first and foremost, companies aimed at making profits, with students as a means to those profits. This phenomenon of open washing has raised a flag. I, and others, have noted that open is also open to co-optation by private companies; we are seeing this happen. I think part of why this happening, is partly because resources have been the emphasis. The argument for OER is almost always based on cost. When we do that, you are focused on finances, on money, and companies can figure out how to monetize this and use it. We see companies doing that. Publishers will release an OER textbook, but attach assessments and other features at a fee. The problem with letting cost savings drive the open movement, is it simply becomes a tool brought into higher education (or K-12 education) for administrators to make their organizations more efficient in their privatizing trends, instead of better.

What I want to do through my research, is show how, if we start with a theoretical base, if we root the movement in principles like equality, democracy–we want to make education more equitable, a more democratic institution, and we want it to be that way sustainably–then if we have that solid grounding, we will be much less prone to being co-opted or diluted in these other ways. We will have a foundation. That is what I was talking about the Open Ed Conference in Richmond, how theory can act as a keel for this movement, like on the bottom of a boat. When other forces come in and try to push us off course, we have a little bit more traction. We can say, “No, that’s not a good application of open, because you’re not making this better, more democratic or equal.” It can also help to harness those other forces to push us in the right direction.

Lily: Explain how critical praxis and digital pedagogy inform your work, and you feel should inform open education initiatives. Among the ideas you pull from Paulo Freire is the belief that “the purpose of education is to foster an awareness in the socially dispossessed of their imposed positionality.”[i] This sentiment seems to hit at the ethical imperative as well, yes?

Jamison: Yes! When I came to education from my disciplinary home of geography, the first thing I did was look up critical education or critical pedagogy, as I had learned this magical word critical, when put it in front of any field or topic, would lead me to people with whom I find affinity. One of the foundational thinkers in that realm is Paulo Freire. That is where I really began studying education, and linking open and critical together. Friere’s emancipatory project of critical education–I see open as an awesome vehicle for that. Many talk about how open has in its roots–and still does–this social justice ethic, but no one has spent time to think that connection all the way through. People are starting these conversations, there is more theoretical work happening in open because people realize how important it is, but up until recently, most have been focused on how do we accomplish it, how do we do it?

Lily: How can librarians stay relevant and vocal in these conversations? In my own limited experience, and in discussions with peers, comments on Twitter, etc. it seems that often these decisions regarding policy and technology happen without adequate librarian involvement.

Jamison: I have to say, after attending two Open Ed Conferences, and the OE Global Education Conference in Krakow, and the events I have hosted, without exception, at some point, a speaker or panelist expressed gratitude for the work and dedication of the many librarians involved and present. I think people who are deeply engaged in open education are keenly aware of what stellar advocates librarians are, and how crucial their involvement is to the movement. When I am thinking about critical education and pedagogy, I see librarians as part of this framework, and so much of what librarians do is about access and social justice. When we invited Cable Green [Director of Global Learning at Creative Commons] to come give a talk at William & Mary, it was hosted IN the library. We had discussed maybe doing it at the School of Ed, but we really wanted the library, as it as a hub for the university, a central place physically and in practice. But we all work in an echo chamber, and you’re right, some don’t realize how central librarians are to open education.

Lily: I am also thinking of your discussion of the “neoliberal ideology and its manifestation in mainstream educational technologies are uncritically internalized in the pedagogical practices within learning management systems (LMSs), MOOCs, and the textbook publishing industry.”[ii] Can you hypothesize on how you think librarians have contributed to this tools-focused culture, or have been left out of it–and/or how they can help to eradicate it?

Jamison: When I came to education I was guilty of the same stereotypes, libraries as reliable, but not at disruptive or innovative. We think of libraries as quiet, safe spaces of preservation. Museums are struggling with this identity crisis too, trying to not just be repositories, but active members of the community. I am proud to say we [the School of Education] have been thinking strategically about how to support online course development at William and Mary, and our needs, and one of the pillars of the framework is librarians.

Jamison's working framework for online course development at William & Mary's School of Education.
Jamison’s working framework for online course development at William & Mary’s School of Education.

The open movement definitely has the education technology direction and perspective, which gets a lot of attention because of how capital influences education. The ed tech push out of California is all about “innovation,” and now we have this wonderful case of MOOCs. They were supposed to change education, but we know how do to education. It doesn’t work on a massive scale just in a broadcast fashion; it is about relationship building. I think getting library leadership on board is key. Here at William and Mary, Carrie Cooper, Dean of Libraries, is really supportive of open. When Cable Green was here, she contributed her own concerns about textbook costs for her kids’ classes. Beyond cost savings measures, she recognizes the myriad values of open: how resources can be updated more quickly, and we can get better information that can be edited more readily, synthesized across topics, etc. I think it is imperative to get upper level library administrators to recognize the potential of open education, and that they should expand their role as stakeholders. The earliest, most nascent open activities at William & Mary have happened in the library, and only with and because of the support and direction provided here.

[i] From Miller’s forthcoming article, “From EDUPUNK to Open Policy: Critical Technology Praxis within Higher Education.”

[ii] Ibid

About Lily Troia

Lily is the Digital Services Librarian at the College of William and Mary working at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in open access and research data management. This position follows completion of a Masters in Library and Information Science (MSLIS '16) at Simmons College School of Library and Information Science in Boston where she focused on cultural heritage, archives, and digital stewardship with a research emphasis on copyright and intellectual property.

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