Theory as a keel: Developing a critical framework for open education, Part 2

“If open is the answer, then what is the question?” was posed by educator and researcher Catherine Cronin (National University of Ireland, Galway) in her keynote address for the Open Education Conference 2016 in Edinburgh, UK last April. This question challenges our community to explore the why behind the how driving open education initiatives, and reveals the need for a body of critical research examining the same.

Jamison Miller, Ph.D. student in the School of Education at William & Mary, hopes to develop a framework that balances critical analysis with practical implementations, and provide the open education movement with the foundation to help move it forward in a socially responsible manner. He credits his affiliation with the Global OER Graduate Network (GO-GN) with providing an invaluable support network for doctoral students studying open education. The group helped bring Jamison to Krakow last spring for the OEGlobal Conference, and will be supporting a trip to Cape Town for this year’s conference in March.

In Part 2 of our conversation (see Part 1 here), we discuss the need for a theoretical and ethical grounding in open education, the connection to policy, partnerships with community colleges, and tensions between a cost-savings focused approach and one that embraces “notions of care and sharing . . . to ground open practice beyond mere rules or directions.”

Lily: How can we form better partnerships with community colleges? Do you envision open education as crucial to a more inclusive educational environment?

Jamison: Through my coursework at William & Mary and our work with K-12 educators, I have become aware that policy makers are increasingly concerned about the school-to-college pipeline. How do we build a bridge so students are not just finishing high school, but continuing on? Community colleges are central to this. I have been working with the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) because Virginia is participating in the federal #GoOpen campaign. #GoOpen is very OER focused, definitely only minimally engaging with other aspects. People at the VDOE are aware of some of the other benefits of open, but consider them somewhat ancillary, and cost saving is certainly the driver. I am lucky to be involved, and was asked because I have a robust understanding of what open is. They have much better ideas of their own context. As part of that work, we recognize the community college connection. It was clear we needed someone from the community college perspective, even though this is a K-12 focused initiative. The team asked me to find someone from community colleges, and I recommended someone who will be attending our future meetings to lend an important lens to the effort. It would be great to have librarians involved in this as well–I will pursue that, because everyone involved at the state level is currently a technology person. We could use some library perspective.

K-12 is getting into open, and it is happening in community colleges in lots of places, like Virginia. It has not taken off at four-year colleges yet because there is not the same cost-argument. The reason that the cost argument drives open is because the retrenchment of public funding has people worried about it, and that’s ok. If that’s what gets us into the room to start talking, but let’s not lose sight of other opportunities that can follow.

In Virginia, community colleges are where open education really started and gained momentum, and now it is expanding into K-12. With GoOpenVA, we are going to pilot three OER textbooks next summer with contributing teachers from across the state, with the aim that they will be applicable in many different contexts right out of the gate. MOOCs were the front of open in higher ed at four-year schools, and that’s collapsed, so it’s tough to say where four-years are headed. Folks will need to start arguing for the benefits. I definitely think it could and should come out of libraries, and it already is philosophically, with the push for open access to scholarship. I really believe open access is what’s going to drive the conversation in four-year institutions.

Lily: Enlisting policy makers seems key, especially when thinking about the school-to-college pipeline.

Jamison: Yes! That’s why the other part of my doctoral research is something that hasn’t been done in open education yet: a policy analysis. I am going to do a critical discourse analysis of open education policies coming out, and try to unpack how people are talking about open in particular ways, and how that conversation frames these initiatives as they move forward. Obviously we need to engage with policy makers so they are aware of these things.

Jamison presenting at OE Global 2016 in Krakow
Jamison presenting at OE Global 2016 in Krakow

The dissertation will be theory, policy, and an analysis of practice. People keep calling for this–you heard it at OpenCon, the Open Ed Conference, . We need more research. They finally realize, “This open thing is here to stay. We need more research.” It is great to be involved at this point in time. I feel incredibly lucky. I just happened to be embarking on a research program at this moment in time, when open education is blossoming.

Lily: Going back to your research, can you explain the intersection of the “real utopias” you described in your presentation at the OER Conference in Richmond to the EDUPUNK ideology you apply in your new article, and leading into your dissertation?

Jamison: Two scholars are currently framing this conversation: Jim Groom, formerly of the University of Mary Washington, who now runs his own company. He’s one of the original minds behind EDUPUNK. His web company [Reclaim Hosting] provides web, server, and domain space for students. He is believes students should get domain space, paid for by the school, so they can start to create their digital identity, and not be stuck in an LMS [learning management system] or other private, closed-off, walled-garden spaces. His argument calls out the overselling of open. He talks about the trend of open movements to get overly focused on OER, and subsequently get diluted vision-wise, and drained of the energy behind it. He believes cost-saving initiatives are overwhelming and overshadowing these other principles that are part of the EDUPUNK movement, such as trying to be critical, and pushing back against dominant corporate technologies in our lives.

Then you have David Wiley, now at Lumen Learning, another leader in open education. He comes at open education from a very heartfelt place, i.e. how do we make knowledge free and accessible to everyone? Lumen has driven development of open education at community colleges here in Virginia. He put out a response to Jim–those two talk, they don’t hate each other [laughs]–but David called it the underselling of open. He argues the cost-saving approach has issues, and he recognizes how problematic this is, and that he himself has been guilty of it. David wants to change what’s driving the open education argument. Instead of leading with the cost argument: textbooks are expensive, which is bad for education, let’s make free textbooks, etc. He wants us to talk about the possibilities the Internet opens up in terms of sharing information. But there is the hindrance of copyright, which is unnecessarily holding up development, and mucking up the amazing possibilities the Internet offers. David proposes open as the answer, addressing what is possible, and what is permitted. That is his new argument framework.

There is a productive tension between the cost argument and these two figure heads in the field–Jim comes across as this cranky naysayer bemoaning that open is ruined, but David asks how we move forward, which is why I have a great affinity for what he does. I have centered my research on trying to balance the two. I am so thankful for the sociologists here at William & Mary who showed me the “real utopias” framework. It is all about utopia: dreaming of a place that’s awesome, though it doesn’t exist. It’s off in the future. The ‘real’ part is the steps we need to take in the meantime to get us there. That’s why I still do research on the cost of textbooks. I know there are problems with that argument, but I also know if I keep moving that forward and put these numbers in people’s hands, I will help move this all along. If we have a strong keel, I can keep the ship moving towards the real principles that are at stake.

Author: 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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