Teaching a #MOOC

The ‘E-Learning and Digital Cultures’ Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) officially launched yesterday.  Having participated in a number of MOOCs as a student, this venture from the University of Edinburgh will provide my first experience of teaching such a course, alongside my esteemed colleagues.  We will be blogging our experiences as team here: http://edcmoocteam.wordpress.com/

After a number of weeks finalising content and preparing the Coursera site, the EDCMOOC finally opened to the 40,000+ enrolees, on Sunday 27th.  Of particular interest to me has been the variety of reactions to the course content.  As with many MOOC courses and communities I’ve observed, there appears to be a dominant mood of optimism and genuine enthusiasm for the opportunity to engage in a university course without the burden of fees.  However, I’m also concerned about what this optimism is based on, where it derives from, given the relatively untested ground of this educational format, and the slick marketing campaigns of the major MOOC players.  What value does enthusiasm have?  What does it bring to the activity of learning?

I’ve also found myself equally drawn to critical comments, of which there have been notably very few, in relation to the EDCMOOC launch.  This has got me thinking about the over-promoted ‘accessibility’ supposedly ushered in by the MOOC.  Just what is being made accessible?  Is there a conflation of ‘accessibility’ with ‘providing access’?  The predominant focus amongst the institutionally affiliated MOOC organisations appears to be on ‘providing access’ to university ‘content’.  Nowhere have I read a discussion about whether this increased access – to a global audience of people with multifarious languages, prior experiences and cultural understandings – requires a consideration of the ‘accessibility’ of the content.  Does the MOOC require further reflection on the accessibility of the academy, not in terms of opening its door to wider participation, but in terms of reconsidering the way it teaches when faced with such diversity and scale?

That is a troubling question, however I’d position myself on the side of the inaccessible – an idea I hope to develop further.  Education is not a ‘one click purchase’.  It’s not meant to be easy, nor is it intended to be an exercise in affirming what you already think.  This point does not relate to our EDCMOOC, in which I have been humbled by the sheer dedication and effort displayed by participants in the first two days.  However, in providing free access to videos of university lectures, the general promotion of the MOOC appears to have seeded the strange idea that learning is easier, more enjoyable and less challenging than it was before.  Would such a scenario be desirable?











Perhaps the most valuable learning experience happens when your thought arrives where it initially couldn’t bear to go.  Education is a continual process of change, and real difference is only achieved through unthinking the thought that has already brought you here.  Long live inaccessibility. Work harder.

The Limitations of ‘Access’: opening up education technologies #OER #MOOC #edtech

An edited version of this post has been published here:

Knox, J. (2013). The Limitations of Access Alone: moving towards open processes in education. Open Praxis. 5(1). pp. 21-29.


‘Openness’ has emerged as one of the foremost themes in education, within which an open education movement has enthusiastically embraced digital technologies as the ultimate means of participation and inclusion. OER and MOOCs have emerged at the forefront of this development, claiming unprecedented educational reform.  However, within these influential initiatives ‘open’ is predominantly used to imply notions of ‘access’ to educational content.  This perspective is influenced by underlying instrumental and essentialist assumptions about technology, and the processes of production involved in networks, systems and software are seldom discussed.  Considering openness as ‘access’ tends to fetishize knowledge as a consumable object, often reinforcing the established authorities and institutions which the open agenda seeks to circumvent.  To conclude, the prevailing understanding of openness in education could be beneficially shifted towards a notion of ‘process’, encouraging further critical explorations of technology and actively engaging participants in dialogue.

Key words: OER; MOOC; technology; open; access; process


In recent years, ‘openness’ has emerged as one of the foremost themes in education, influencing institutional planning and shaping major international policy.  A burgeoning open education movement is becoming established around an agenda of institutional transformation, calling for unrestricted access to educational material and the diminishing of geographic and economic barriers to participation.  At the forefront of this movement have been Open Educational Resources (OER) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs); educational projects which claim significant advances in utilising Internet technology to challenge the dominant models of institutionally controlled knowledge.  Emerging from MIT’s OpenCourseWare project in 2001, OER have received considerable endorsement from educational institutions worldwide (Caswell et al. 2008; Wiley and Hilton III 2009; Hylen 2002), and a various government-supported or non-profit initiatives have surfaced in recent years (POERUP 2012).  OER have also garnered recognition from larger international organisations, such as UNESCO and the European Commission; the former developing policy guidelines for the implementation and standardisation of OER in higher education (UNESCO 2011), and the latter seeking a public consultation on ‘opening up education’ (European Commission 2011).  The MOOC is a much more recent phenomenon, beginning as a fringe experiment in networked learning (see Siemens and Downes 2008), before being reconstituted and adopted by prominent universities.  These institutionalised MOOCs, offered by Silicon Valley start-ups ‘Coursera’ and ‘Udacity’ as well as the Harvard and MIT collaboration ‘edX’, have received overwhelming media attention, which has often extrapolated a radical destabilisation of the higher education sector (see Adams 2012 and Marginson 2012).

These high-profile initiatives are representative of an entrenched commitment and enthusiasm towards technology within the open education movement.  The Internet has become the fundamental means through which this movement seeks to widen participation and increase accessibility. Internet technology is often considered to have ‘enabled and inspired’ open education itself (Brown and Adler, 2008, p18).  However, despite the centrality of networks, systems and software, the technologies associated with open education appear to be rarely subjected to in-depth or critical consideration.  This paper will outline the dominant representation of ‘openness’ in education, and propose ways in which a more considered approach to the role of technology might be approached, indicating a possible direction for this movement to mature as a more rigorous area of scholarship.

Openness as ‘access’

Prominent initiatives within the open education movement have tended to define of ‘openness’ in terms ‘access’ to educational material.  This primary concern with access reflects an affinity with distance education, developed to address the geographical barriers to institutional contact (Downes 2011).  Much of the OER literature focuses on issues of access (see Johnstone 2005, Atkins et al. 2007, Caswel et al. 2008, Downes 2011), and this has centred research around strategies for implementation or the development of supporting infrastructure.  OER are founded on the idea of an information repository, as exemplified by MIT’s OpenCourseWare but also apparent in the proliferation of resource archives now extensive on the web (see OpenLearn 2012, Connexions 2012 and WikiEducator 2012).  This tends to orient the OER brand of open education around a privileging of reliable sources of information as the prime factor in the learning process.  Within this arrangement the role of teaching is pushed into the background, and the chief concern becomes bringing learners into contact with trusted supplies of knowledge.  Potential problems with OER are often framed simply as ‘getting access to a high-speed Internet connection’, immediately followed by ‘once that problem is solved, the various types of resources can be quite useful’ (Johnstone 2005).  Thus access to educational material has been the principal focus of the OER movement; however this motivation often deflects considerations away from the particulars of the technologies employed to store and exhibit this content.  This will outlined in what follows.

The institutionalised MOOCs advance a similar view on the idea of ‘open’, frequently describing their educational initiatives in terms of large-sale access.  Coursera propose ‘to give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few’, utilising technology which ‘enables the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students’ (2012a).  The promotional content on the edX website similarly emphasises a desire to provide access to unprecedented numbers of students, with the president Anant Agarwal declaring ‘our goal is to educate a billion people around the world’ (EdX 2012).  Udacity underscore this trend stating ‘using the economics of the Internet, we’ve connected some of the greatest teachers to hundreds of thousands of students all over the world’ (Udacity 2012).  These MOOCs operationalize the view that ‘open’ constitutes an amplification in the number of participants coming into in contact with their educational offerings.  While these initiatives emphasise interactive features rather than straightforwardly static content, the overwhelming message is of the quantity rather than the quality of access.

Transparency and embodiment

The dominant interpretation of openness as ‘access’ may be bolstered by underlying assumptions about technology prevalent in educational research: those of instrumentalism and essentialism (Friesen and Hamilton 2010).  These philosophical perspectives conceive of technology either as entirely neutral; merely enabling the aims of educational endeavours but not influencing them (instrumentalism), or to possess intrinsic qualities (essentialism).  The open education literature often depicts technology in a role of facilitating or empowering the learning process, however this stance tends to render the technology transparent in the resulting activity.  In a typically optimistic gesture, Caswell et al. state ‘new distance education technologies … act as enablers to achieving the universal right to education’ (2008).  They go on to define technology according to its ability to unproblematically reproduce and distribute educational content, yet the degree to which these systems might influence or affect that content does not feature (Caswell et al. 2008).

This perception of technology neutrality is reinforced through the common educational designations ‘resource’ and ‘tool’.  To frame technology as a ‘resource’ activates notions of external sources or assets, extraneous entities that we draw upon and use.  The archival tendencies within the OER movement emphasise this relationship, in which technology is positioned as a prosthetic to the learning process; an instrument considered only in its capacity for enhancement.  Describing technology as a ‘tool’ underscores this role, and masks the ways in which the networks, systems and codes of open education might transform and affect the learning process.  This tendency for instrumentalism limits technology research to studying either the improvement or diminishing of learning (Friesen and Hamilton 2010), and it is often the former that manifests in open education literature.  There may be much richer ways of understanding the learning processes taking place in open education, and this could involve an acknowledgement the constituent role of networks and software in educational activity.  Research within the open movement might therefore look to work with Actor-Network Theory in education (Fenwick and Edwards 2010) or studies of the sociomaterial (Edwards et al. 2011).

Technology is also frequently inferred to possess the qualities attributed to its users.

‘Jay connects to the Internet via his laptop and mobile phone (he is mobile) in order to search Google for information (digital resources are open for him to freely access) relevant to tomorrow’s test. Temporarily stymied, he chats with friends on the phone and by Instant Messaging (IM) to see if they can assist in his search (he is connected to other people)’ ( Wiley and Hilton III 2009 emphasis original).

In this hypothetical scenario, technology appears to function seamlessly here with the various activities of the learner, possessing qualities that match precisely the innate desires of the human being putting it to use.  Wiley and Hilton III go on to describe technology as embodying the organisational changes required if higher education institutions are to reflect wider society (2009).  They suggest ‘connectedness, personalization, participation, and openness’ as four key areas for educational transformation (Wiley and Hilton III 2009, p8), yet each is suggested to transpire almost exclusively through technological means, and from systems which appear to unproblematically personify these qualities.

The technologies of open education are too often implied to have an ‘independent and abstract pedagogical value’ (Friesen and Hamilton 2010, p8).  This is often predicated on idealised interpretations of the Internet, sometimes assumed to be necessarily open through its capacity to increase access (see Brown and Adler 2008).  Developments such as OER are thus promoted as ‘technology-empowered … to create and share educational content on a global level’ (Caswell et al. 2008).  This discourse of facilitation or empowerment forms a powerful rhetoric of educational change and progress, yet it is too often embodied in the technologies of open education, rather than acknowledged as ideal or potential practice.

Hidden production

Perceiving the technologies involved in open education simply as transparent resources or embodied tools, shifts attention away from the often complex ways in which this technology is designed and produced.  Considerable work is needed within the open education movement to unveil the processes involved in the production of technology, and acknowledge the broad pedagogical, philosophical and political presuppositions already encoded in the systems used.  In a critical discussion of the semantic web, Edwards and Carmichael foreground standardisation and coding as rarely acknowledged factors in the use of educational software, constituting a hidden curriculum (2012).  This work indicates possible areas of inquiry with open education technologies, highlighting the ways in which particular notions of learning space, social relationships and forms of communication might be predetermined at the development and planning stage of production.  One such example may be the aformentioned UNESCO declaration which, while claiming to ‘encourage the development and adaptation of OER in a variety of languages and cultural contexts’, also seeks to ‘promote the development of specific policies for the production and use of OER’ and ‘encourage the development and use of OER in open standard digital formats’ (2012, p2).  This move towards normalisation of the ways in which OER are developed necessarily involves fixing the production of educational material in particular ways.  Attention needs to be paid to these standardising routines, and the practices involved also need to remain transparent and acknowledged where these OER are distributed and used.  To consider OER as pedagogically or politically neutral may conceal the contextual activities involved in their production, and neglect to acknowledge the ways in which subsequent learning activities might be affected.  Thus, OER might be considered to influence ‘the potential discourses, trajectories for inquiry, and student subjectivities that might emerge from such a learning environment’ (Edwards and Carmichael 2012, p12).

For Edwards and Carmichael, such practices of coding and standardisation constrain what is possible with technology (2012).  Significantly, these factors shape what can be done with technology at a structural level.  Therefore, although a particular digital technology might be deployed in accordance with acknowledged and accepted pedagogical models, the coding embedded within the system sustains certain levels of rigidity.  Coursera’s webpage on ‘Pedagogy’ claims that:

‘A key factor in the design of the Coursera system is the extensive use of interactive exercises, which we believe are critical for student engagement and learning. Even within our videos, there are multiple opportunities for interactions: the video frequently stops, and students are asked to answer a simple question to test whether they are tracking the material’ (2012b).

Aligning the Coursera system seamlessly with the educational rationale of interactivity deflects a consideration of the ways in which such technology might itself promote particular degrees of inflexibility.  For example, the moment at which a pause comes about in these video lectures will be predetermined, solidifying particular pedagogical assumptions about the correct time to activate formative assessment.  Furthermore, the production of video itself necessitates distinct framings and arrangements of pedagogical activity, simultaneously hard-coding the communicative patterns of traditional didactic lectures into the very systems which claim innovation and interactivity.  This is not to suggest that the production of technology should be granted more attention than the often valuable ways in which it is employed for educational purposes, but merely to call for its inclusion as a constituent factor.

Participatory technologies

Participation in the production of educational material is certainly within the open education agenda, and this has been most prominent in the OER movement’s concern with modifying and repurposing its resources.  The notion of ‘remixability’ is often posited as a way to ensure flexibility and relevance to differing cultural contexts and pedagogical practices (Brown and Adler 2008, Downes 2007, Hilton III et al. 2010, Johnstone 2005, Wiley and Hilton III 2009).  However, true to form, technology is too often neutralised in the activities of repurposing.  ‘Editing, adapting, or otherwise changing educational materials to be more appropriate for a specific use is technically straightforward thanks to the variety of technologies currently available’ (Wiley and Hilton III 2009, p9).  Here the principles of remixing are proposed to transcend the technologies which make it possible.  However, this orientation masks the ways in which the very activities of editing and adapting might be considered to evolve from technology infrastructure and design, as much as they do from human inclinations.  Repurposing and adapting of digital content does not begin and end with the desires of the remixer, but evolves from interactions with what is made possible through the predetermined code present in the software.

Open source software, the movement from which the open education agenda has largely derived (Caswell et al. 2008), offers one way for these hidden coding practices to be further exposed.  The edX platform, as well as the new ‘CourseBuiler’ venture from Google (2012), are promoted as open source, signalling a possible move within MOOC evolution towards more open and participatory practices.  However, as Edwards and Carmichael caution, open source culture, rather than promoting detailed examinations or analyses of code, often encourages the practice of assembling software from pre-written component parts (2012).  Projects created from open source material are therefore often spliced together from elements of code which may have been produced in isolation and about which the end-user may have little knowledge.  Making software open in this way promotes the idea that no contact is necessary with the creator, and thus the complex contextual activities involved in its production remain hidden from the end user.  Therefore, rather than promote the idea that openness simplifies technology, continued research in open education may benefit from perspectives which acknowledge the growing intricacies and amalgamations which influence its production.  Beneath increasingly mild and effortless user-interfaces, or expanding compatibility across platforms and devices, lies deepening complexity.  For the open education movement to render such efforts transparent, constitutes a kind of ‘benevolent concealment’ (Edwards and Carmichael 2012, p6).

Fetishization of knowledge

The lack of in-depth critical studies into open education technologies has contributed to an over-emphasis on content at the expense of context.  This orientation has significant implications for the ways that learning processes and educational activities can be perceived.  Intensified by a dominant understanding of openness as access, open education initiatives frequently appear to fetishize knowledge as a consumable object.

‘all the basic knowledge, all the refined physics, all the deep mathematics, everything of beauty in music, in the visual arts, all of literature, all of the video arts of the twentieth century can be given to everybody everywhere’ (Caswell et al. 2008, p9-10).

Knowledge is portrayed here as a desirable object, immune to the influences of digitisation, interpretation or cultural understanding.  The vast majority of OER initiatives are based in the UK and the US, far outweighing the scarce offerings from African, Asian or South American countries (POERUP 2012), perhaps indicative of who is ‘giving’ such knowledge to the world.  OER are often popularised in the mainstream media as a solution to third world poverty (see Daniel and Killion 2012).  However, couching OER in a discourse of economic benefit and emancipation merely serves to situate education in a role subservient to a functioning capitalist economy, and supposes the purpose of learning to be the increase of human capital (Atkins et al. 2007).  Daniel and Killion extend their notion of openness to include the interests of employers in determining the content of OER, in a move to boost employability (2012).  However, in foregrounding open access as the ultimate exercise of educational freedom, these influential voices appear to mask the simultaneous surrender of content to the concerns of business.  While openness is promoted as unrestricted access to information, the forces which determine what that information should be remain closed.  This excessive attention to access reduces the desires of non-western peoples to an interest in retrieving content, and deflects the discussion away from participatory educational processes which engage society in dialogue about what constitutes legitimate knowledge.

Recent studies which have focussed on the perceptions of OER amongst users have adhered to this trend, seeking ultimately to raise standards and promote reliable repositories (Clements and Pawlowski 2012).  Clements and Pawlowski also highlight how trust in particular organisations is a major factor amongst users (2012), suggesting a value placed on centralised production, an inclination which may, paradoxically, bolster the prestigious institutions that the open education agenda often seek to resist.  While much of the OER movement has sought to incorporate elements of participation through the ability to repurpose and adapt its resources, the recent upsurge of institutionalised MOOCs may be reversing this trend.  In this context, ‘open’ is promoted to mean free access to the educational content of a prestigious university, illustrated succinctly by the tagline on Coursera’s website: ‘Take the World’s Best Courses, Online, For Free’ (2012c).  Rather than promoting the editing or remixing of educational content, the institutionalised MOOCs reinstate rigid and often idolised content.  The hundreds of thousands of students enrolled on these courses are expected to consume identical curricula, predominantly through video lectures or multiple choice quizzes.  While the technology employed in these MOOCs provide elements of interactivity not always present in resource repositories, openness is framed almost exclusively in terms of access to predetermined content.  The subject matter of these MOOC courses is necessarily non-negotiable; their reputation rests on the lofty prestige of the elite institutions who supply it.

Conclusions: open as ‘process’

Where openness is conceived merely as ‘access’, the role of technology is maintained either as a transparent solution to the economic and geographical barriers to education, or a tool which embodies the ideals of the open access agenda.  Moreover, the discourse of ‘access’ tends to fetishize knowledge as a consumable object, often reinforcing established authorities and institutions.  While OER and MOOCs offer valuable and meaningful contributions to current practices in education, there is a propensity to claim educational revolution through an uncritical promotion of technology.  The open education movement in general needs to better theorise its use of technology, acknowledging that certain ways of knowing are both supported and restricted by the processes of technology production.  However, the current rhetoric of openness often functions to hide very the processes involved in hiding, and a more rigorous approach might be to acknowledge that for everything that is made open, something is often simultaneously hidden, or closed. When educational content is made open to a particular user, the methods, practices, and ontologies assumed in its production are systematically rendered inaccessible.

The meaning of ‘open’ in education could therefore usefully shift from the dominant perception of ‘access’ towards a notion of ‘process’.  Conceiving of openness as a process may encourage further critical explorations of the technology that is becoming increasingly ubiquitous in education, as well as permit a more profound dialogue that actively engages society in institutional practices and the collaborative legitimisation of knowledge.  This might involve further methods of participation and co-ownership in the production of technology, but also the capacity to negotiate, dispute and reconstitute what might be considered the object of study, and indeed the purpose of entering into educational activity.  There are already calls for a movement away from repositories of information in the development of OER (Conole 2012), and the need to advance a meaningful dialogue around notions of open practice is now crucial.  While the institutionalised MOOCs have employed technology successfully to recruit unprecedented numbers into potentially significant educational experiences, a shift towards open processes might develop their work into the arena of shared practice, rather than a practice of consumption.


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Books as Actors – follow my office books as they independently contribute to the web #MOOC_space

After some weeks of experimentation, I have a working prototype for an idea I’ve been exploring related to the notion of giving books some kind of agency in the development of a learning space.  As it stands, the system allows a book being read in my PhD office to automatically add content to the web, content that is aggregated into the lifestream on this site.  Currently, this content is in the form of a photostream and series of tweets.

When a book is placed on my book stand, a number of events occur:

  1. An image of the cover is automatically added to a Flickr photostream.
  2. A short random(ish) section of text is sent as a tweet.
  3. The content of the text is searched for specific terms, and if found, the first image in a creative commons Google images search for the same term is added to the Flickr photostream

Additionally, the Flickr photostream is also populated with an image of either the sunrise, or sunset in Edinburgh at the appropriate time.  Therefore, what results is an image based narrative, depicting the books being read, images associated with terms in those books, as well as images signifying day and night in the geographical location in which the books are being read.  Alongside this visual account, sections of text assemble in Twitter with the use of the #MOOC_space tag.


Why this might be interesting

This system is intended to experiment with how an object such as a book might co-create the learning space in online education.  It is part of a wider interest in posthumanism, the sociomaterial, and assemblage theory, concepts which de-centre the human and foreground materiality in networks of co-constitution.  Part of my interest in experimenting with systems, such as the one described here, derives from questioning whether education can be thought of as something outside of human awareness or social construction.  Essentially, can ‘objects’ such as books, be considered to have presence or agency beyond mere interactions with humans, and if so, how can that help us to think about notions such as ‘learning’?


How the system works

Currently, the system uses a Touchatag RFID sensor and tags.  I was originally using the Touchatag email application, but after the recent announcement that the service is to cease, I have been using the Processing Library for Touchatag.  While this required some extra time to write my own program in Processing, it has actually allowed me to create a more complex system.  This program reads specific RFID tags attached to four different books in my office , and sends an email that includes the #MOOC_space hashtag and a 140 character (or slightly less) section of text from each book.  The system also makes use of the IFTTT (if this then that) service, which facilitates the sending of tweets and the adding of images to a Flickr photostream.

At the moment, the ‘random’ sections of text have been predetermined by me, and manually entered into the Processing program.  I have specified 10 randomly chosen sentences for each book, and the program generates a random number in order to choose which one to tweet.  This is one area I hope to develop into a more authentic form of randomisation.  Ideally, I would like to develop a system which searches all of the text within the book, and chooses a random 140 character section.  Once the emails have been sent, a number of IFTTT ‘recipes’ are active.  One will search for the book title in the email header, and add an image of the book to the photostream.  Others are active searching for particular terms in the body of the email, and these will add predetermined images to the photostream.  This part appears to be necessarily predetermined, due to the problems associated with doing automatic Google searches, however this is also an area for further development.

Urban – wind – drift

On June 19th I participated in an art and anthropology workshop, which was part of a social science conference at Edinburgh University. The task was to choose an object of research, and think about how it can be documented. With typical obstreperousness towards the social sciences, I joined a group who seemed to be interested in researching something that is, firstly not really an object (it is invisible), and secondly isn’t even human. The wind. Various methods were undertaken by the group, including video capture, writing and collecting found objects. I chose to GPS track my own movement in the wind:

This (non)activity took place by allowing by body to be taken by the wind. As I found out, it is often much easier to decide on wind direction when you are facing it, and thus the urban journey became one of constant slow revolutions, swirling amongst pedestrians and paths, bikes and benches, seeking the sensation of wind in the face. The wind finds its own urban conduits, diverted by stone, ruffled by trees, re-joined and magnified in parklands. The wind takes passengers with it. Be a wind commuter. Move through urban space with the air. Where does urban wind come from? All movement in the city is implicated. That day, it came from our breath: as we spoke of wind, we generated it. We took it into our bodies, through alveoli to mingle with our blood. The wind is not air, not the materiality of nitrogen or oxygen, but that which moves it. The wind is movement. Sound is therefore also wind. The audiosphere of the urban, the traffic, the shout, the dog bark, are nothing more than oscillations. In the end, I found myself dwelling with abandoned litter, blown into airless cul-de-sacs, the wind’s dead zones. Still as a lost sheet of yesterday’s news, I waited.

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Five critiques of the Open Educational Resources movement

This is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article whose final and definitive form, the Version of Record, has been published in the Teaching in Higher Education 2013 [copyright Taylor & Francis], available online at: http://www.tandfonline.com/[ DOI:10.1080/13562517.2013.774354].

Knox, J. (2013) Five Critiques of the Open Educational Resources Movement. Teaching in Higher Education, DOI:10.1080/13562517.2013.774354

This post will review existing literature on Open Educational Resources, introducing five critiques:  1.) An under-theorisation of ‘openness’, in which the concepts of positive and negative liberty will be used to suggest a neglect of coherent theorisation concerning the practice of self-directed learning.  2.)  The simultaneous privileging and rejection of institutional authority, where OER literature will be shown to endorse the reputations of established institutions while claiming liberation from them.  3.)  The diminishing of the role of pedagogy, in which OER will be aligned with an untheorised learner-centred model of education.  4.) Humanistic assumptions of unproblematic self-direction and autonomy, and 5.) an alignment with the needs of capital, in which a Foucauldian interpretation of subjectivity will offer alternative perspectives on the notions of power and emancipation in OER discourse.  It is suggested that these critiques may provide a framework for OER to develop a theoretically rigorous area of scholarship.


The advent of networked digital technology in education is often posited as a profound intervention in the drive for open access (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011; Taylor 2011), offering the means for individuals to obtain information independent of institutional authority or centralised control.  Open education has been ‘enabled and inspired’ by the Internet (Brown and Adler, 2008, p18), and it is the Open Educational Resources movement (OER) which has had the biggest impact in this area (Brown and Adler 2008).  The OER movement proposes extensive free access to information in the form of web-based digital resources for learning, teaching, and research, and is associated with an wide range of projects including MIT’s ‘OpenCourseWare’, the ‘OER University’ (Atkins, Brown, and Hammond, 2007; Caswell et al. 2008; Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011) and Stanford University’s recent partnership with the open course ‘An Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ (KnowLabs.com 2012).  OER resources are typically placed in the public domain for free use or repurposing by others, and can range from full courses to individual modules (Downes 2007; Hylen 2002).  Following from significant institutional uptake of OER projects worldwide (Caswell et al. 2008; Hilton III et al. 2010; Hylen 2002), in 2011 UNESCO announced policy guidelines for the implementation of OER in higher education, attempting formally to standardise the ways in which these resources are created and shared within the sector (UNESCO 2011).

The primary objective of OER is to address ‘the provision of access to learning opportunities to those who would not otherwise be able to obtain them’ (Downes 2011).  In this sense, OER is grounded in the well-established path of liberal education; as a project that seeks to improve the human condition (Marshall 1996).  OER literature often associates itself with the declaration of human rights, claiming the ability to enhance the quality of human life, bring people out of poverty, and in doing so taking on the role of ‘social transformer’ (Caswell et al. 2008, p1).  For this purpose, the OER community pledges ‘to develop together a universal educational resource available for the whole of humanity’ (D’Antoni 2008, p7).  Such language might be considered to position OER within the modernist traditions of progress and emancipation from ignorance, stances that have entrenched associations with the project of education (Usher & Edwards 1994).  This alliance is at times overt: ‘The traditions of rational and reflective practice of the academy will contribute to building sustainable futures for the university and the institution’s rightful place in society as we move forward in the OER world’ (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011, p3).  OER often appears to position itself as the ultimate expression of these core humanistic and modernist ideals of education.  With reference to the declaration of human rights, Caswell et al. claim ‘for the first time, we can now begin to convert a 60- year-old declaration into a reality’ (2008, p10).  As such, OER literature tends to endorse, and naturalise, the notion of an ideal human condition as the object of education.  However, as we will see, it may be problematic to assume the ability of OER learners to self-direct towards these predetermined goals.

Much of the OER debate centres on defining the meaning of ‘open’, however this tends to be predominantly about removal of the restrictions involved in accessing learning resources, from copyright regulations to financial constraints (Downes 2007; Hylen 2002; Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011; Taylor 2011).  What much of the OER literature fails to adequately address is the consequence of open access in terms of education itself.  While ‘open’ is used to imply a lack of restrictions on the learning resource, it also implies a lack of regulations on education.  Use of learning resources in the absence of institutional structures, with their in-built teaching frameworks and pedagogical and subject expertise, implies that individuals are able unproblematically to self-direct in their educational activities.  In focussing on learning as an activity independent of centralised structure and administration, it will be suggested here that endeavours which privilege openness tend to make assumptions about the capacity for individuals to act purely in an autonomous fashion as ‘self-directed’ learners.  This paper will therefore problematise the ways in which OER implies particular notions of freedom and independence in the advancement of its educational agenda.

An under-theorisation of the notions of ‘openness’ and ‘freedom’.

In 1958 the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin proposed two concepts of freedom: positive liberty and negative liberty (Berlin 1969).  These ideas about the nature of individual freedom are renowned in the fields of political philosophy and economics, yet they also have significant implications for the movement away from institutional control in education.  Positive liberty concerns itself with specifying the practice of freedom.  At the heart of this concept is the idea that individuals are rational beings; it is through the innate abilities of reason that people are able to decide the form and quality of freedom, and the way in which liberty is to be exercised (Berlin 1969).  For Berlin, this idea of positive liberty operates within the individual, banishing lower order desires, as much as it functions in society, where populations can be coerced into the notions of freedom rationalised by those in authority.  In contrast, Berlin also defines negative liberty.  Rather than involving itself with the practice of being free, this idea of liberty emphasises the removal of barriers to freedom.  Where positive liberty might be considered freedom to, negative liberty becomes freedom from (Marshall 1996).  At the core of this individualistic sense of freedom is the idea that people must be allowed to exercise their will without the intervention or oppression of other human beings (Berlin 1969).  Thus negative liberalism concerns itself entirely with the removal of obstructions to personal liberty, and offers no vision for how freedom might actually operate in practice.  Therefore, the central difference between these two concepts of freedom is the extent to which liberty must be specified, or can be assumed.  Positive liberty views the predefinition of freedom as a requirement for a coherent society, while negative liberty assumes it as an innate quality which will come to exist when obstacles are eliminated.

These two concepts of liberty can be traced in the principles of individual freedom and independence that underpin both conventional education and open access learning.  The traditional model of the educational institution might be considered to reflect the rationales of positive liberty by predetermining the methods of access to knowledge, and the subsequent delivery of learning.  Just as in Berlin’s formulation of positive liberty (1969), the control and discipline exacted by the educational institution can be viewed as the imposition of a centralised rationality.  This view is informed by a Foucauldian sense of power as existing in the performance of systems; having ‘embodiment in rational forms of government, administration, management and supervision’ (Usher and Edwards 2005, p402).  The institution predefines the structure and organisation of education, as well as the status and extent of knowledge, according to what it considers to be the most reasonable approach to improving the lives of the unenlightened (Marshall 1996).  In this traditional teacher-centred model, learners are coerced into the systems of the institution on the grounds that they are as yet unaware of the rational superiority of the educational method, a view which resonates with aspects of positive liberty, where the populace are considered blind to the rationality inherent in themselves (Berlin 1969).  Where education has been considered a public service which emancipates the illiterate and innumerate from the predicaments of ignorance (Ball 1990; Marshall 1990, 1996), the educational institution might be considered to play a definitive role in the agenda of positive liberalism.

It is perhaps this kind of scenario that liberal educators have perceived in the traditional university, and this kind of model which provokes the desire to move away from institutional control.  Educational endeavours that promote open access have clear similarities with the concept of negative liberty, focussing their concerns on emancipation from hierarchies of control and the bypassing of systems which condition admittance to knowledge.  The OER movement in particular appears to emphasise the model of freedom from, positing ‘the removal of “unfreedoms”’ (Atkins, Brown, and Hammond, 2007, p1) as a principal aim, alongside ‘innovative approaches to remove barriers to the creation; use, re-use and sharing of high-quality content’ (Atkins, Brown, and Hammond, 2007, p5).  In declaring that ‘individuals are free to learn from OER’ (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011, p4), the implication appears to be that learning is something that is possible with, perhaps even enhanced by, the absence of organisation and structure.  Central to the OER cause is the idea that the educational institution functions as a barrier to the egalitarian acquisition of knowledge.  This is often formulated in the claim that demand for higher education surpasses current provision (Brown and Adler 2008; Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011; Taylor 2011).  The focus becomes the circumvention of the perceived limitations of the institution by offering learning resources without the requirement to enrol in the systems of formal higher education.  Thus OER tends not to concern itself with questions about the practice of learning, and is inclined to devote attention exclusively to what it perceives as the task of making knowledge available outside of the traditional forms of institutional control.

The rejection and privileging of institutional structure

Despite the central claims of institutional circumvention, there is a significant proportion of OER literature that appears to endorse the idea of the university.  It has been suggested that one of the fundamental problems of OER is that learning cannot be assessed or accredited, rendering self-directed learning unnoticed and unacknowledged (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011).  Thus the implementation of institutional accreditation is considered to raise the perception of OER quality to meet that of traditional provision (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011).  Taylor asserts that quality assurance from institutional endorsement and accreditation is fundamental to the entire OER project (2011).  This places OER in a subservient position to that of the academy, being measured to the standard set by the establishment.  Further institutional influence is suggested in Clements and Pawlowski (2012), who highlight confidence and trust in specific OER producers as a major factor in their use.  Institutional affiliation is often made explicit in OER, most notably in MIT’s OpenCourseWare website (MIT 2012), but also in organisations that claim independence from the academy.  Significantly, the website of ‘Udacity’, an independent company which claims no institutional affiliation, promotes free online content by explicitly publicising the fact that its professors are also associated with Stanford University and the University of Virginia (Udacity 2012).  Despite the general claims to openness and independence, these instances suggest that major stakeholders in OER have a tendency to revert, paradoxically, to the authority of organisations, systems and structures in the production of reliable academic ‘content’.

The literature which attempts to describe how learning might actually take place with the use of OER, although limited, also appears to endorse forms of organisation.  Brown and Adler propose a constructivist-informed ‘learning 2.0′, in which OER are described as building blocks towards the establishment of participative learning communities (2008, p28), a view supported by Wiley (2006) and Downes (2007).  This conception of OER emphasises the formation of communities comprised of students and academics, rather than mere access to informational content (Brown and Adler 2008).  This perspective appears to work against calls for ‘improving access and transfer of knowledge’ (Hylen 2002), or the declaration that ‘all the basic knowledge, all the refined physics, all the deep mathematics, everything of beauty in music, in the visual arts, all of literature, all of the video arts of the twentieth century can be given to everybody everywhere’ (Caswell et al. 2008, p9-10).  In contrast it foregrounds social learning, legitimate peripheral participation and learning through communities of practice as specific modes and strategies for learning (Brown and Adler 2008).  Learners are thus suggested to become enthused by niche groups, ‘learning to be’ through processes of enculturation and apprenticeship (Brown and Adler 2008).  However, such models might be considered to present new systems of dominance, presenting a situation which differs significantly from the simplistic notions of free and open access advanced by much of the OER literature.  Brown and Adler admit that such community learning is ‘conducted in a structured setting’ (Brown and Adler 2008, p30).  Furthermore, the examples of OER provided by Brown and Adler are predominantly institutionally mediated projects, or the sharing of resources amongst existing university faculty (2008).  Such illustrations tend to adhere to notions of centralised control and management, and neglect to tackle the full and radical implications of unrestricted and independent access to OER.  Thus an underlying paradox exists in the promotion of OER; at times being described as augmenting current modes of delivery, used in conjunction with existing institutional programmes, yet simultaneously advanced as a solution to the lack of capacity within traditional universities (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011), and as a radical challenge to their dominance.

No place for pedagogy

The promotion of OER as the sole method of access to knowledge advances a notion of learning that has profound implications for continued educational provision.  In advocating the unrestricted and unstructured use of learning resources, OER foregrounds and prioritises ‘learning’ as the central concern of educational endeavours, considering its users to be ‘participants’ in rather than ‘consumers’ of education (Wiley 2006).  In this sense OER is aligned with perhaps the most fundamental conceptual shift in recent education.  The ‘learnification’ of education has involved ‘the translation of everything there is to say about education in terms of learning and learners’ (Biesta 2009, p3).  Such a shift might be considered to follow from the influence of humanistic psychology and a constructivist orthodoxy in education, where ‘learner-centred’ methods are privileged.  The open education movement has been a major proponent of this view, perceiving the notion of ‘education’ as thoroughly enmeshed in the organisational, regulated characteristics of the university, while the processes of ‘learning’ are often considered to be interiorised and independent of structure and formality, which are seen as incidental, and often restrictive to the fundamental activities involved in acquiring knowledge.

One of the most noticeable effects of the privileging of learning in the OER movement is the lack of consideration with regards to pedagogy and the place of the teacher.  Wiley describes higher education’s existing ‘core areas’ as ‘content, research, expertise, and credentialing’ (Wiley 2006, p4), which appears to disregard the part that teaching plays in the institution.  Further OER proposals suggest ‘formal education institutions have an important role to play by augmenting opportunities for open learning, assessment and credentialisation within the larger learning system now possible with the Internet and OER’ ( Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011, p3), leaving no room for institutional involvement with pedagogy.  This stance is reiterated frequently: ‘the role of the public provider is overwhelmingly one of support and recognition for an individual’s own educational attainment’ (Downes 2011).

The inclusion of pedagogy in the OER model seems to be thin on the ground.  In the recent outline of plans for the OER university, Taylor suggested ‘open pedagogy’ as a central and critical area for development, however this was simply subheaded with ‘effective learning environments’ (2011), suggesting a diminution of teaching to the mere manipulation and design of the educational-technological setting.  ‘Open pedagogy’ is further defined as ‘teaching focused on the pedagogy of discovery’ (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011, p14), yet this seems to suggest further learner self-direction rather than articulating a coherent strategy for critical pedagogic design.  This apparent dismissal of teaching methods and teacherly expertise might be considered to sit uneasily with the implicit endorsement of the educational institution described in the previous section, where the prestige of the university, it might be argued, is a consequence of its pedagogical proficiency.

OER literature focusses predominantly on factors concerning the provision of access and the reduction of regulation concerning its resources.  References to methods or activities of teaching and learning are scarce, beyond the assertion that OER requires the nurturing of self-direction and autonomy (Taylor 2011).  Furthermore, the notion of self-motivated individuals is rather simplistically assumed in the call for ‘passion-based learning’ (Brown and Adler 2008, p30).  Reference is made to the ways in which OER might be repurposed and reused, however this tends to foreground strategies for dissemination rather than learning (Hilton III et al. 2010).  Downes calls for a ‘self-managed education’, but concentrates on proposing infrastructures and strategies for how this might be put in place, rather than specifying how it might actually operate in practice (2011).  This absence is justified in terms distinctly reminiscent of Berlin’s negative liberty: ‘The temptation to manage, and especially to manage for outcomes, in the provision of any good or service, is overwhelming. It should and must be avoided’ (Downes 2011).  OER literature thus appears to neglect to address how teaching in higher education might translate into the model of independent, self-directed access to learning resources.  In the absence of a coherent theoretical stance, the responsibilities of the professional teacher appear to be reduced to environmental facilitation.

Humanistic assumptions of autonomy and self-direction

One of the central arguments in Berlin’s original paper was for plurality in the concept of liberty, highlighting two uses of the term which differ significantly in their outlook, and imply very different ideas about how society might operate (1969).  However, to privilege negative liberty in its most idealistic sense is to assume that states can exist in the absence of restriction, dominance and discipline, and ultimately to adopt a narrow view of the concept of power.  As tantalising as the promise of openness might seem in the context of education – a world emancipated from the constraints of archaic institutions, in which individuals are free to do and learn as they please – negative liberty contains stark implications about the enactment of freedom.  Where no regulations are prescribed about how learning should operate in practice, such ‘freedom’ cannot in principle be predicted or assumed to function according to predefined ideas.  Indeed, Berlin suggests that philosophers have dismissed an unlimited and extreme form of negative liberty, supposing that ‘it would entail a state in which all men could boundlessly interfere with all other men; and this kind of “natural” freedom would lead to social chaos’ (Berlin 1969, p157).

However, this view of undefined openness appears to contradict some of the aims expressed in the OER literature.  The prognostications of rational progress, emancipation from ignorance, and increased provision for the intellectually needy, appear to sit uneasily with the idea of a decentralised system that avoids predefined aims.  In the absence of directives we might assume that proponents of OER assume an innate human ability to self-direct.  Education itself has been implicated in such humanistic suppositions, being founded on the ideals of the rational exercise of autonomy and individual agency.  However, to presume such autonomy in human beings may present a contradiction to the very principles upon which the concept of negative liberty is constituted.  The ability to self-direct can itself be perceived in terms of predefined standards, structures and rules, predetermining the ways in which negative freedom might function.  From such a perspective, the ideas behind autonomy derive from the very same rationality that is associated with the management and direction of positive liberty (Berlin 1969).  Given that movements such as OER are not advocates of chaotic, unpredictable learning, but in fact appear to desire similar outcomes to those achieved by organised education, we might contend that reasoned thinking must play some part the structuring of the OER project.  Therefore, it is not the concept of negative liberty itself that is problematic, but rather the premise that its realisation will achieve predefined goals; that an expected order will somehow emerge from unrestrained action.

It is therefore the conception of the human being that is of profound importance in debates about the extent of control and independence in education.  As Berlin astutely points out, ‘the conception of freedom directly derives from the view that is taken of what constitutes a self, a person, a man. Enough manipulation with the definition of man, and freedom can be made to mean whatever the manipulator wishes’ (Berlin 1969, p163).  It is here that we can perceive the limitations of Berlin’s two concepts of liberty, and begin to tackle the potential problems in pursuing open education as the mere removal of perceived barriers to access.  The dichotomous view of freedom envisioned in the positive and negative concepts of liberty rely on the assumption of a given, self-directing human subject, imbued with innate abilities to engage in rational and autonomous behaviour.  Such a humanistic perspective assumes that learners are ‘naturalistic objects, pre-existing in the social world’ (Usher and Edwards 2005, p404).  However, such a stable, predetermined subjectivity can only relate to notions of power in terms of overt dominance; exercising authority or acceding to it in the case of positive liberty, or, as in the case of negative liberty, attempting to escape it.  Such a perspective denies more subtle notions of power, in which human subjectivity can be constructed and shaped by forms of control, rather than simply responding as a predefined entity.  Thus, OER will be considered here to follow the course of governance in modern society, where forms of power ‘intertwine expertise and personal empowerment, thereby displacing the need for active containment and overt oppression’ (Usher and Edwards 2005, p401).  It is precisely in this fashion, through overt institutional endorsement and pledges to endow individuals with the ability to control their own learning, that the OER movement masks more profound instances of power.

Rather than individual autonomy being an innate human quality, Marshall highlights how the ideal of independence and self-direction in education is a social construction (1996; Olssen 2005).  This critique of autonomy derives from the contention that the self is able to objectively comprehend and abide by laws, as opposed to merely following them (Marshall 1996; Olssen 2005).  This follows from Foucault’s assertion that the notion of the subject cannot entail a separation of the transcendental from the empirical (Marshall 1996).  To act autonomously requires the subject to be able to discern all that might influence or affect them, necessitating that the individual be viewed as an entity separate to, and abstracted from those encroachments.  Referring to Kant, Marshall suggests that such a notion of autonomy was conceived out of the need to vindicate moral action, rather than providing a coherent sense of subjective agency (1996).  Foucault’s notion of subjectivity challenges the idea that the self and the law can be considered separate entities, proposing that the self only comes into being through the enactment of laws (Marshall 1996).  Thus, the human subject emerges from structure and organisation, rather than being foundational.  Such perspectives call into question the apparent assumptions of predetermined self-directing individuals detectable in the OER literature, which does not tend to take a critical view on the notion of the subject.

Related to this notion of subjectivity, a broad spectrum of Foucault’s work has concerned the construction of the self through power-knowledge (Olssen 2005), a concept that stipulates the close relationship between power and knowledge such that one is always embroiled in the other (Foucault 1979).  Such considerations of power oppose the notions of an unrestricted, authority-free domain implied by negative liberty.  In this Foucauldian sense, the emergence of knowledge necessitates systems and configurations of power, and such a perspective encourages the notion that OER brings about its own regimes of control.

The OER movement, therefore, cannot assume the innate ability of individuals to self-direct in learning, but must contend with the notion that its planning, implementation, presentation, and discourse, are involved the construction of the subjects who participate with them.  If an environment is structured in such a way as to presuppose a certain type of subject, that subject will emerge (Marshall 1996 citing Walkerdine 1986).  The concept of governmentality concerns the interplay between technologies of domination and technologies of the self (Foucault 1988), and provides a theoretical basis from which to consider firstly the ways that OER literature constructs a particular kind of learner through discourse, and secondly, the induced behaviours through which an individual might perform a particular kind of subjectivity through participation in the OER learning model.

Alignment with the needs of capital

OER literature often specifies a particular kind of learning subject, both in terms of those individuals predisposed to its methods of learning, as well as in terms of what those individuals will become.  Particular benefit is claimed for ‘those learners who lack the means or access to follow traditional learning paths’ (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011, p1).  Following from such ambitions, the notion of empowerment features prominently, promising the constitution of a learning subject that is capable of emancipating him or herself from the obstacles of ‘poverty, limited economic opportunity, inadequate education and access to knowledge, deficient health care, and oppression’ (Atkins, Brown and Hammond 2007, p1).  However, and often paradoxically, much of the language in OER literature is distinctly in terms of the marketisation and commodification of higher education and its subjects (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011), where OER becomes an element of the arsenal brought to bear by the institution in contending with global competition, and the learner participates according to the dictates of consumer demand (Brown and Adler 2008).  Successful places of learning are described as ‘robust local ecosystems of resources supporting innovation and productiveness’ (Brown and Adler 2008, p16), utilising terminology which naturalises the conditions of economic prosperity and the exchange of capital.  The effectiveness of OER is frequently articulated in terms of the ability to ‘reduce the costs associated with reproducing and maintaining online courses’ (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011, p8), however this emphasis on replication appears to suggest the need for uniformity, where a homogeneous population of learners benefit from identical resources.  OER proposes to produce a ‘well-educated workforce with the requisite competitive skills’ (Brown and Adler 2008, p16), while Downes cites the ‘link between educational attainment and economic activity’ (2011), appearing to align the learning subject seamlessly with a functioning capitalist economy.

The freedoms induced through the use of OER have also been claimed to ‘increase human capital’ (Atkins, Brown and Hammond 2007, p2), barely disguising adherence to the idea that autonomy ‘retains its connections with policies and institutions of the state’ (Marshall 1996, p85).  As we have seen, one of the central justifications for OER is the claim that demand exceeds current and future institutional provision (Brown and Adler 2008; Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011; Taylor, 2011), holding out the promise of great swathes of self-motivated educational consumers, ready to shell out their innate ability to learn.

Not only can OER discourse be considered to predefine a particular kind of learner, but the modes of access employed can also be perceived to directly influence how individuals formulate knowledge about themselves.  OER permits a very specific form of self-directed educational conduct through which individuals are obliged to attain for themselves particular states of scholarship, enlightenment and economic well-being.  This human capital, from a Foucauldian perspective, is deeply embroiled in defining the individual as an autonomous being, responsible for their own development (Lemke 2001).  As we have seen in the OER proposals for self-direction and the subsequent restructuring of the institution as an administrator and accreditor, the responsibility for learning is shifted entirely to the individual.  This concept of autonomy places decision-making solely in the hands of the individual, where ‘the consequences of the action are borne by the subject alone, who is also solely responsible for them’ (Lemke 2001, p201).  However, institutional control does not diminish, rather the OER movement can be conceived as ‘a reorganization or restructuring of government techniques, shifting the regulatory competence of the state onto “responsible” and “rational” individuals’ (Lemke 2001, p202).  It is the citizens of the world who must liberate themselves from poverty and ignorance through the activities of self-directed and autonomous learning.  Thus the OER model permits particular behaviours and activities that influence and compound the sense of autonomy and empowerment in the production of the self as human capital.

Furthermore, such a personally responsible subject is implicated in the practice of persistent self-examination.  Foucault’s technologies of the self offer a way to consider this introspection as a scrutinisation and verification of one’s own thoughts (1988).  Such self-examination can be considered a systematic thought process; acting to identify knowledge, as well as authenticate it, and in combination propose a permanent self-critique in which the individual measures their ‘self’ against established regimes of knowledge (Foucault 1988).  Significantly, the OER subject is projected to be an individual in need of continual learning, upheld on the basis that relevant knowledge becomes ever increasingly redundant in contemporary society (Brown and Adler 2008).  Thus the OER learner is encouraged to subject themselves to a prolonged scholarship, persistently engaging in examinations of the self in order to determine the superfluity of their knowledge and become a flexible and educated contributor to the efficient flow of capital.  This reflects notions of the contemporary self as constructed through the role of the consumer; a subject in permanent deficit (Rose 1989).  Thus OER education can be viewed as ‘an essential element in the path to self-fulfilment’ (Rose 1989, p119), legitimising itself through the need for persistent self-actualisation, in which the subject must continually reconstruct themselves in line with an ever-changing, and hence unattainable, external world.


The promise of open access to information may be of significant value in education.  Therefore, this post is not intended to dismiss the OER movement per se, but rather to seek its refinement through a more rigorous theoretical examination of the claims of increased provision and unproblematic self-direction.  The five critiques introduced here are suggested to provide a coherent framework for future work in this area.

1. Following from an apparent affinity with the concept of negative liberty, much of the OER literature focuses on the removal of perceived barriers to access, and thus neglects adequately to consider how self-directed learning might actually take place in the absence of the educational organisation.

2. OER literature often promotes a paradoxical claim of institutional circumvention alongside an explicit endorsement of the accreditation systems and prestige of established university structures.

3. However, this endorsement of the institution is problematically combined with a neglect to address the role of pedagogy within the university and an exaggerated and untheorised promotion of learner-centred education.

4. Whilst often appearing to endorse a system of self-directed learning that avoids predefined aims, OER literature frequently predicts outcomes of rational progress, economic prosperity, and emancipation from ignorance.  Thus the OER movement tends to make presumptions about the ability of human beings to self-direct in the processes of learning, often appearing to assume the innate qualities of autonomy and instrumental rationality.

5. The use of OER can be perceived, not as a more rational improvement to education, or a more humane and naturalised form of learning, but as a further refinement in the exercise of power.  While the use of OER might circumvent the more overt practices of discipline exacted by the traditional institution – regulating, organising and categorising the bodies of its learners – it is problematic to assume that such a form of open education is emancipated from regimes of control and subjectification.  OER literature neglects to consider its own discursive alignment with the marketisation and commodification of education, and the ways in which this technology constructs the learning subject as human capital.  In claiming a model of open, free and de-institutionalised education, the OER movement conceals the ways in which the apparently self-directing learner is a product of its own discursive practices and permitted behaviours.


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The Round Table – #change11 Twitter visualisations

Continued work with Twitter data from the September to December period of the change11 MOOC course has got me thinking about what kind of interpretations might be made from particular forms of visualisation.  With the proviso that the simplest is sometimes the best, I have become increasingly attracted to the ‘circle’ as a shape which has associations with egalitarianism and democracy.  Therefore the circle shape itself may be useful as a comment on the equal distribution of ‘connections’ in the connectivist-informed MOOC course.  One might expect an even dispersal of communications at the round table of the #change11 course, however the following visualisation may be indicative of a smaller number of dominant, or at least prominent, figures.

Twitter Visualisations – #change11 MOOC

Some initial visualisations emerging during September – December 2011 in the online course changeMOOC.  These were developed using NodeXL.  Vertices are participants, edges are connections between: mentions are coloured blue, while ReTweets are in maroon.  Click each image for a higher resolution (500×500).

1. Harel-Koren Fast Multiscale algorithm, tight bundled edges:

2. Fruchterman-Reingold algorithm, with high curvature on edges:

Susan Greenfield – a strange mixture of ‘mind change’ and humanistic naturalisation

While I enjoyed some of the first section of Susan Greenfield’s recent talk on ‘The Internet and ‘mind-change’, drawing some relations between the theories of plasticity in neuroscience and notions of learning and development, the later phase appeared to contain an inordinate number of questionable assertions about technology use.

Greenfield’s thesis is essentially that human beings ‘personalise their brain’ through the development of neural cell branches, increasing the likelyhood of connections with other cells, and these resulting networks are a consequence of individual human experiences in the world. However, Greenfield’s presentation becomes undoubtedly pedestrian when she begins to naturalise the human condition, a position that seems entirely contradictory to the fundamental notions of plasticity articulated earlier.

In introducing this section she begins with the question ‘will this be changed by an unprecedented 21st century environment’ (referring to her earlier claims of brain sensitivity and mutability), and this phrase seems to encapsulate the fundamental incomprehensions of humanistic thinking. This occlusion appears all the more stark for the sheer inability to grasp the full implications of notions of plasticity outlined previously. Greenfield’s whirlwind tour of the brain’s neural development was fairly coherent in demonstrating the way the mind is constructed by the external environment, from which one might conclude that the brain adapts to whatever might present itself as stimuli in the external world. Yet this introductory question appears to ignore this proposition, and suddenly Greenfield appears to be talking about what the brain develops for, rather than how it develops. Has not the dawn of every century offered an unprecedented forthcoming environment? We have certainly never been able to predict the future as far as I am aware. The real question Green field asks is ‘will the sense of being human that we have constructed and fabricated in the brain be changed…?’ And of course I agree with Greenfield that it undoubtedly will…but that is what it has always done, and her description of brain development appears to support this.

Greenfield’s subsequent analysis of the statistics of media use amongst young people reveals the substance of her views concerning the ‘natural’ state of the human being. For Greenfield, hours spent in front of a screen mean that young people are ‘not climbing a tree, not giving someone a hug, not walking along a beach, not feeling the sun on your face’. It seems to me slightly baffling that someone could not view such a specific (one might say Western, white middle class) view of childhood as a very nuanced, and narrow view of what being human might be. Greenfield appears to assume that the Swallows and Amazons childhood is the right, proper, civilised and true essence of development, and to deny this is to attempt to deform and distort humanity.

The section on reduced (self-reported…that is a whole other blog post!) empathy is also fascinating, where the use of social media is suggested to contribute to a decline in the ability to identify with the feelings of others. Greenfield appears to fail to see that a human being with empathy is a constructed norm, formulated, and justified by discourse and expertise in the disciplines of psychology. To experience empathy is not a natural, innate state of the brain, but a concept that is solidified into our behaviour through experience in the social (and non-social) world, perhaps with the very same connecting and networking of brain cells described in the first section of Greenfield’s talk. The section on the prescription of Methylphenidate also seems to reflect this view. While Greenfield appears to admit that the children in her example will adapt to the fast pace of digital media ‘as is their evolutionary prerogative’, she views this as a paranormal state because it conflicts with the ‘natural’ environment of the classroom. Is the classroom not a technology and a mediator in itself? One might contend that the educational institution has done far more to modify, discipline and shape human behaviour than digital media has done, admittedly in its infancy.

The example of googling the term ‘honour’ appears to indicate Greenfield’s epistemological tendencies. In this section, she contends that an ‘abstract concept’ such as honour cannot be understood from simply entering the term into a search engine and surveying the results. Greenfield appears to assume that in a non-digitally-networked world, a concept such as honour has a rigid, stable and singular meaning. This seems particularly questionable given that honour is surely a concept that has developed and altered over time, and that has quite distinct meanings across cultures and language systems. This point leads on to the rather tired assertion that digital media does not present itself sequentially, and thus is opposed to the way that the mind learns in a rigid and linear manner, exclusively through language. Once again, despite promoting notions of neural plasticity, Greenfield seems to be making the confusing claim that the mind operated in a linear, sequential fashion before the development of spoken language and particularly written word. By the very doctrines of cognitive maturation introduced in this talk, we must surely have to contend with the notion that the brain learned to process in a linear way as a result of language, rather than being the naturalised and optimum form of development advanced by Greenfield.

Confessing to MIT x

A recent article about the proposed MITx published some of the issues raised by academic staff about the new open education project. Interestingly, these concerns included some questions about how potential students can be authenticated:

Well, you want MIT to give you a certificate, how do we know who the learner is? How do we certify that?… How do you know that a person is who they say they are online?

This adds an interesting dimension to the open education debate. Where learners are often expected to have the innate ability to self direct, open education organisations appear to already assume certain qualities in those who participate. In a sense, the self-directed learner is a construction, emerging from the organisation of open education, as well as the conduct of individuals who enact the role of autonomy. However, the developers of MITx seem to add a further dimension to this construction of the learner, one which may warrant further consideration.  Anant Agarwal, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MITx, offers the following intriguing answers to the concerns highlighted above:

Firstly, ‘students will have to pledge an honor code that says that they’ll do the work honestly’. Fascinating, and there was me thinking that open education had no place for the confession. Here the learner seems to have to commit to adopting a role of authenticity, pre-defining a kind of identity as a morally-bound subject. Secondly, identity checks are proposed with the use of ‘testing sites around the world‘. This data gathering practice seems to be about forming a representation of the individual, a database record of attributes; perhaps current employment, address, nationality. Such information would then be considered to authenticate the individual, constitute the true ‘nature’ of the learner, solidify and digitise their identity.

The longer term plans appear to extend this ethos, proposing to ‘electronically check to see if the student is who they say they are‘, involving ‘face recognition‘ and ‘various forms of activity recognition‘. Facial recognition seems to bring forward the idea of digitising, and hence recording, attributes of the physical body. This also seems to suggest that the open learner must submit their face to the institution (phrases such as ‘face it’, ‘face up to it’ come to mind). The open learner cannot be anonymous, cannot disown or withhold their face from institutional view. Activity recognition seems interesting too, although not elaborated in this piece. Records about how, when and where learners participate would also seem to be about defining individuals, building up a profile of the ‘authentic’ learner. To break your learning routine, it seems, would be to fall foul of the system. To challenge the truthful identity constituted by the MITx database, perhaps by changing the times of day you participate, logging in from another country, or perhaps even communicating in a different language, seem then to be dangerous practices.

(Posthuman) Subjectivity in (Educational) Research

Re-reading the excellent paper ‘Objectivity in Educational Research’ by Elliot Eisner has got me thinking about how the tendencies in educational research relate to antihumanism and posthumanism.

In particular, a reference to the correspondence theory of truth has interested me, in terms of how it relates to ideas about observation. Eisner highlights how the concept of objective observation, favoured of course by positivist research methods, actually implies two relationships requiring correspondence. As illustrated in my sketch below, there are there elements involved. 1: an external reality that can be observed by human beings. 2: the perception of what is observed, as understood by the human observer. 3: how that perception is represented to others (for example educational research).

Therefore transparent correspondence would have to take place between reality and perception, as well as between perception and representation (Eisner 1992). This is an important point for Eisner’s paper because an increase in relationships of correspondence means an increase in potential translation problems. In order for representation to accurately depict reality, the translation between reality and perception, as well as between perception and representation would have to be flawless. However, it is this claim of perfection, according Eisner, that ontological objectivity relies on.

Writing in 1992, Eisner claims that educational research is dominated by belief in the supremacy of objective studies. Although now twenty years on, the desire to strive for the best possible objectivity is still a major force in established educational research, making Eisner’s paper no less relevant. What has been decidedly engaging for me is how these research paradigms relate to humanism. It seems that in the desire for objectivism, removing all traces of subjectivity and bias, educational research has strived for a kind of antihuman position. Eisner astutely points out that even in the writing-up of research, the traditional etiquette has been to depersonalise language, using phrases such as ‘the author’, in order to completely remove any hint of subjectivity (1992). In objective research the aim is to get outside of ourselves, to surpass the potential pitfalls and limitations of our human condition in order to discover generalisible facts. This seems particularly significant because the practice of education itself is often associated with humanism and the anthropocentric ideals of the European Enlightenment. How can research about education be antihuman, while education itself is often imbued with humanist ideals? Is such a relationship problematic?

Despite what might be considered a distinctly humanist notion of a ‘mind’ doing the perceiving, the fact that perception is suggested to correspond exactly to external reality in this model of observation, appears to emphasise a kind of antihumanism. This idea of perception is one that is cleansed of the individual context of the observer. Such an attempt to bypass any ‘socially constructed’ or experiential ambience, might be viewed as the a desire to surpass the specificities of the human condition.

In Eisner’s call for legitimacy in subjective educational research, there is an undoubted connection with aspects of posthumanism. Where subjectivity is considered not only valuable, but inevitable due to our inescapable ‘humanness’, we can read the posthuman counter to the escapism of antihumanist thought. Subjectivity in research is important in this discussion because research itself is ultimately about coming to know. In a sense, antihumanism had this idea of coming to know at its core, seeking the knowledge that resided beyond the perceptual capacities of human beings. With such a perspective, however, it might even be seen to have similarities with positivistic rationality, and the modernist drive for continued progress – getting at truth. Aspects of posthumanism, however, similarly strive to thinking beyond the anthropocentric, yet at the same time acknowledge the human perspective that will always structure and define our outlook. Therefore, we might consider research which accepts the subjective position to be conducive to the posthuman perspective. Eisner’s paraphrasing of Kant struck me as particularly posthumanist in this sense: ‘percepts without frameworks are empty, and frameworks without percepts are blind’ (1992, p12).

Eisner, E. (1992). Objectivity in Educational Research. Curriculum Inquiry 22 (1): pp. 9-15.