Evolution vs Revolution

Fireflies and Star Trails No. 1 by Mike Lewinski, CC BY

I love everything Rajiv is saying in his recent, excellent essay Pragmatism vs. Idealism and the Identity Crisis of OER Advocacy and I’m really looking forward to the discussion we’ll have when he presents this paper early next month. This is a critically important topic and I think he has identified all the right dots, even if I would connect them slightly differently.

Rajiv makes a distinction between pragmatism (which advocates for an evolutionary approach to open in education) and idealism (which advocates for a revolutionary approach to open in education.) He then reminds us of Erikson’s eight-stage theory of psychosocial development, and in that context writes that the simultaneous OER advocacy efforts toward “evolution and revolution are each symptomatic of a psychosocial crisis within the OE movement that pits pragmatism against idealism.”

Much has been said (and tweeted) about which side of this battle is the “right” one to be on. Rajiv’s quote from Robin is representative:

As Robin DeRosa, an open educator who clearly favours revolution over evolution, puts it, “Fundamentally, I don’t want to be part of a movement that is focused on replacing static, over-priced textbooks with static, free textbooks.”

Rajiv goes on to provide an integrated framework for thinking about these two competing visions of OER advocacy, and it is absolutely worth reading. I want to share the way I think about the relationship between these two perspectives here as a complement to his framework.

I believe the “which form of advocacy is best – pragmatism or idealism?” framing of the question backs us into an intellectual corner. Here’s why – in almost two decades of advocating for open in education my experience has been that the overwhelming majority of people begin as evolutionaries and, given time and opportunity, go on to become revolutionaries. They “come for the cost savings and stay for the pedagogy,” if you will.

In this light, rather than a static framing like “what kind of advocate should I be?,” I think a more useful framing would be dynamic, like “as I’m advocating for open with this specific faculty member, should I advocate for an evolutionary approach to open (knowing that it will be a longer road to revolution for this person), or should my advocacy go straight to revolution?” My goal as an advocate is to get faculty to revolution as quickly as possible. For some, that means going straight to revolution. But for many of them – for most of them – the path to revolution will start with evolution and “evolve” from there. For these faculty, an unyielding “let’s have a revolution” conversation will be the last conversation they ever have about open. Because if you equate open with revolution, and they’re unable to go straight to revolution, then they’re done with open. (Yes, I’ve done this in the past; and no, you don’t ever want to experience it.) And that’s the most #epicfail you can have as an advocate – not only are you unpersuasive in that moment, but you poison the well for future conversations, too.

In his essay Rajiv also shares one of my favorite proverbs: “if you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I interpret this slightly differently in the context of OER advocacy than he does. I would read it as follows. If you want to go quickly to revolutionary pedagogies and other uses of open, you need to be ready to go alone. Very, very few faculty are going to be able to come with you. It’s true that the few who do come will do absolutely amazing things – but their stories will remain isolated anecdotes. If you want to go far in terms of sustainably transforming the entire system, you have to be willing to go slow enough to bring everyone along – you have to go together. To me, that means unapologetically meeting faculty where they are and setting them on the (often slow) road to revolution.

I know many people are critical of my work (I’m certainly not implying this criticism is in Rajiv’s essay, I’m responding here to comments I see and hear people make in other settings) because I’m all to happy to help people adopt OER without engaging the 5Rs or changing their pedagogy. For me this willingness has always been about meeting faculty where they are and just getting them moving – no matter how small the first step may be. If we have to go straight to revolution (that is, if anything less than revolution is unacceptable), far less than 1% of faculty will be able to make the journey with us. However, if we give faculty a viable path to revolution – one that starts with a small step and can be followed by steps of any size, large or small – we can help the majority of them transform their teaching through open.

I guess the tl;dr for me is this: instead of asking “what kind of advocate should I be?” it’s probably more productive to ask “what kind of advocacy will best help this person?” You’re almost always better off when you shift the focus away from yourself and onto others.

1 thought on “Evolution vs Revolution”

  1. Thank you for taking the time to write this, David. I was hoping that you would comment on my post, but this is so much more generous! I complete agree on the need to remain flexible and serve the people in front of us (noting that sometimes that might mean focusing on innovative pedagogy, especially with faculty who don’t especially care about student debt or savings).

    One other (hopefully related) thing: My experience tells me that the availability of the print option of open textbooks is far more important to potential faculty adopters than the number of students who actually buy these. Along these lines, I am thinking about the ability to revise and remix being more important than the number of faculty who take advantage of these permissions. They may not have the time or interest, but the option to do so is attractive, especially when introduced with really inspirational examples, like PM4ID.

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