Feeling Out of Place

I had an odd sensation at the recent conference Open Education 2009. As you know, I founded the conference and have been deeply involved in its planning and execution each year. This year was really, truly excellent in that I was surrounded by so many smart, thoughtful, genuinely goodhearted friends both old and new. But the more conversations I had, the more out of place I felt. Something is changing in our field.

While I think everyone in the field of “open education” is dedicated to increasing access to educational opportunity, there is an increasingly radical element within the field – good old-fashioned guillotine and molotov type revolutionaries. At the conference I heard a number of people say that things would be greatly improved if we could just get rid of all the institutions of formal education. I once heard a follow up comment, “and governments, too.” I turned to laugh at his joke, but saw that he was serious. This “burn it all down” attitude really scares me.

I am concerned that open education is on the path to becoming as radicalized as the free software movement had in the late 1990s.

After a few years of Richard Stallman telling people that they had to unconditionally support free software and completely reject proprietary software – unless they were vile, unworthy, valueless, evil human beings – people got sick of being insulted. Additionally, the messaging of “free software” was wrong, which was problematic as well. Even today, the FSF website says, “We call this free software, because the user is free.” Huh? Because an agent capable of action (a user) has been granted certain rights you’re going to anthropomorphize 1s and 0s (software)? How does that follow? Everyone knows that software is incapable of experiencing or exercising freedom, so when they hear the term “free software” they are left to conclude that “free software” can only mean software that doesn’t cost anything. But I digress…

Anyway, telling people they are immoral wretches if they disagree with you turns out to be a poor strategy for motivating most people. So in early 1998, a group split off from the free software movement and became the “open source” movement. They were very careful to be pragmatic (rather than dogmatic) in their approach, and they tried hard to craft a message that was easier to understand. But the field was split (philosophically and methodologically) forever. This is unfortunate because energies are divided, efforts are duplicated, and worst of all, time is wasted on perhaps THE most pointless arguments ever known to mankind.

Now, don’t get me wrong – open education is not at this crossroads yet. We don’t really have a Richard in our field yet that people are rallying around and strapping bombs to their chests for. However, we need to get this conversation going before we reach a real crisis.

What is our collective purpose? I believe it is to increase access to educational opportunity.

As I recently tweeted, openness is a means, not the end. Increasing access should be the “end” of our efforts. Making everything open is not our goal. (Stephen has previously outlined a number of possible scenarios in which things are made open but there is no net increase in access.) Making things open is only one means to then end of increasing access. However, we can look around the community and see individuals who seem to have confused the means with the ends, and have made their ultimate goal the opening of all educational content. Problematically, when the means become the end, new means that might better achieve the original end are overlooked and frowned upon.

So, am I misunderstanding something? Or missing the boat? Perhaps I’m just not sufficiently radical to be involved in this field anymore?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • As far as I know, nobody’s strapping bombs to their chests for Richard Stallman. So that comment was out of line. (Not all anarchists call for violent action, either; see “Food, Not Bombs.”)

    Having said that, I definitely see where you’re coming from. Jonathan Carter, an Ubuntu (Open Source software) blogger, has been covering a Free Software Foundation attempt at demonizing the new version of Microsoft Windows. You can read about it here. He and I are both strong proponents of “free as in freedom” computer software, but we really dislike how the FSF goes about things … trying to “promote” Free Software by attacking people who don’t use or make it.

    Having said that, we both consider the freedom to use, share and modify our software to be important. Not all the software I use gives me the freedom to do all these things, but I look for that freedom when choosing new software, and I consider it an important feature. In fact, I consider it essential that any platform that I’m going to tie myself to long-term be free in these ways, and I only sign up for a non-free service if there’s no other option.

    I do this because I don’t want to be left hanging if the people I buy it from go under, or do something to it I don’t like, or get bought out by their competitors. (I heard about something like this happening in the education CMS space earlier … ) I also do it because I consider this freedom essential to building a long-term community around a platform, program or service … one that doesn’t just benefit one entity, like Apple or Microsoft, but that benefits everyone, and produces software (or courseware) that everyone can use and share and adapt.

    I may not see these freedoms as things to fight and deride other people for, but I do see them as worth looking for. And you may just see them as a means to an end, but you may find the end isn’t one that you wanted if you don’t make this freedom a priority. You may find that your work doesn’t benefit as many people as you had hoped … or that it’s all for nothing, as you’re left behind by a more agile and open ecosystem.

    In many ways, one could see using non-free software or subscribing to a non-free service as willingly submitting oneself to somebody else’s rule … and offering the use of non-free software or courseware to somebody else, even under the guise of generosity or charity, as asking them to submit to yours. Are there real-life historical parallels to this?

    Finally, I once heard that the Internet interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it. Could denying someone the freedom to share, reuse and remix something be considered censorship?

  • Doug Stein

    Hi David,

    I think your discomfort is because you are standing between Scylla and Charybdis.

    On one side are those who think that every brain-fart might be a pearl of great price and can only be used by doling out limited rights with tight contractual terms. Such miserly hoarding loses in the long run – because ideas aren’t limited and increasing “idea velocity” is just as important as increasing “money velocity”. Another way of thinking of this is that “spices” lose their fragrance if unised – cook with them so there’s something to enjoy. (Note that many of these people don’t have many original ideas and live by buying rights and reselling them under onerous terms.)

    On the other are those who believe all ideas are immediately the property of “all of us” and that making any money from them is anathema. Note that many of these folks often have good ideas but don’t have the foggiest notion of how to make money from them. They also conveniently are subsidized by someone or something else. Stallman could rant about software being free because he’s supported by grants from hardware companies (who’d love nothing more than all the software dollars to flow back to hardware).

    You’re trying to take an middle approach. Ideas gain value by being circulated and combined and used in novel ways – and those that create and add value should participate in some of the financial benefits. Muzzling a threshing ox is not the right thing to do.

    Putting it in economic terms:
    * Traditional publishing is “rent-seeking” behavior.
    * Everything open (wiki-mush) is an anarcho-syndicalist commune (see the peasants in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAaWvVFERVA).
    * Open Education can be free-market capitalism.

    As you know, the purpose of copyright and patent was to *stimulate and expand* the quantity and quality of inventions, ideas, and content in the public domain by giving limited and (relatively) short-term incentives for folks to create. Unfortunately, every time Mickey Mouse is about to expire his copyright Disney engages in rent-seeking behavior to extend the term of copyright protections.

    Keep doing what you’re doing in FWK and keep acting as a voice of sanity. Anyone can cook and slap recipies together – but we need someone to find a Julia Child and get her on the air and writing/collecting/adapting recipes if we ever want to graduate from Mac-and-cheese!

    Doug

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  • Though they have strong similarities, I see the fields of free / open source software and open education to also have strong differences.

    Put short, the goal of free software is making tools widely available; the goal of open education (and open access in the case of science diffusion) is making knowledge widely available, which stands in a different (higher?) orbit than software does.

    Like open access in science, I don’t see in open education a majority claim to abolish institutions. Of course there is a debate about what is the role in the future of these institutions (schools, universities, editors… newspapers), and some revisiting of the “old” theories by Ivan Illich and so. But it is my guess that most edupunk has a transforming approach rather than a… destructive one.

  • David, I responded similarly to OpenEd09, though the experience was not unanticipated. My perspective is resonated by the middle-path Doug has so clearly explained. And, no, I don’t think we’re related 😉

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  • I think a not-insignificant part of the revolutionary talk is also a byproduct of people who might only dream or muse about such revolutions being around people who would understand what they are on (or off) about.

    I have my fair share of disillusion with current institutions and am pretty pessimistic about their ability to (ever) change. I dream of tearing those institutions down and starting again, but I don’t expect it to happen… just as I dream of how great it would be to go back to my early 20s and do things differently!

    However, get me in a group of people who even understand the problems with institutions I’m talking about– and then beyond the shallowest levels of dislike of universities in general and that kind of thing– and those musings and dreams and wishful thoughts and conjectures find their way out just as surely as their equivalents do talking about youth (or aging), music, art, etc.

    However, when it comes down to it, most of the radical talk I heard was coming from people who are– in practice at least– much more pragmatic and realistic than that… and who believe something can happen inside and around the existing institutions because they are still there.

    That’s in no small part (and here I speak for myself very personally, knowing I’m not alone) due to people like you, who continue to shine a light in what often feels like deeply oppressive darkness. That probably sounds melodramatic, but I mean it sincerely. There were times at Open Ed that I had to keep from actually bursting out into tears at being reminded of how many amazing things are being done by even more amazing people… that it isn’t hopeless, it isn’t all just hopeless chittering in the face of lumbering monoliths nor all just radical daydreams.

  • I may not see these freedoms as things to fight and deride other people for, but I do see them as worth looking for. And you may just see them as a means to an end, but you may find the end isn’t one that you wanted if you don’t make this freedom a priority. You may find that your work doesn’t benefit as many people as you had hoped … or that it’s all for nothing, as you’re left behind by a more agile and open ecosystem.

  • At the risk of turning into a Lott fanboy.

    What Chris said.

    No one who is interested in institutional change and having any success at it is very far distant from their pragmatic toolbelt.

    I’m reminded of the story a friend of mine tells about being at a party full of ambulance drivers. To hear them, you’d imagine them a cold hearted, cruel and inhuman crowd. But the humanity, it turned out, was implicit. You can’t be good at that job and not care about people… and everyone understands that. It’s the same with this crowd, I had many conversation that would sound radical… but the context of reasoned thought it was implicit.

    What I worry about in your post is the desire to have ‘one message.’ while i understand the usefulness of it… i always worry about things being reduced to slogans.

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  • There’s at least 2 Lott fan boys in here then. All of what Chris said.

    Don’t sweat it Dave. When we are in the safety of friends, we can stretch our boundaries a little more, giving ourselves space to think and imagine radical alternatives. In that new space we just might happen on something that could work. This time and space for free and radical imaginings at OpenEd is important, if only temporary. There’ll be plenty of time to be whipped back into line when we go home. We can go back to our oppressive realities and sit through those crappy meetings, smiling and reminiscing about that moment when we heard Dave Wiley shout in a fit of ecstatic release, “someone has to go down for the cause!” 🙂 There’s an anarchist in Wiley – I saw it!

  • Sheesh, did I say that? 😉 David, if only the rest of us could put “pragmatism before zeal” we might actually see more getting done and hear less of those complaints, which strike me as more motivated by individual frustration and impatience with how slowly some of these institutions we work within actually change than any actual desire to tear these institutions down. But I could be wrong, perhaps there were indeed anarchists lurking in our midst. If so, let’s at least hope they are the food throwing kind, not the bomb throwing kind.