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OERs, communities and openness: A Paradox?

June 17th, 2011 by Graham Attwell

I am intrigued by this abstract is for a Symposium that will be presented at ALT-C 2011 by Frances Bell, Cristina da Costa, Josie Fraser, Richard Hall and Helen Keegan and is published on Frances Bell’s blog. I am reproducing it in full below.

This symposium will examine the paradoxes of giving and receiving online in education in a changing economic climate.  Each of the panelists will briefly address topic areas within the symposium theme, followed by an opportunity for present and at distance audiences to contribute, concluding with a 25 minute plenary discussion.

Symposium delegates will be provoked to reconsider the costs of participation online by paid and unpaid participants in ‘open’ discussion and sharing of resources.

Open Educational Resources exist within communities that create, use and sustain them (Downes 2007). When ‘communities’ in Higher Education break down due to redundancy and casualisation of labour what happens to OERs? Are they sustained? Can they reach out to other contexts?

All areas of education, including the school sector, currently face significant financial challenges and uncertainties. Institutions are increasingly reviewing the provision of devices and services, and looking at learner owned devices and commercially owned ‘free’ cloud-based services. What is the real price of an education system supported and transformed by embedded learning technologies?

Ownership in the age of openness calls for clarity about mutual expectations between learners, communities and ourselves. Ideas and content are shared easily through open platforms, and yet attributions can be masked in the flow of dissemination: does credit always go where it is due?

Openness in the production, sharing and reuse of education/resources is meaningless in the face of neoliberalism. Where coercive competition forms a treadmill for the production of value, openness/OERs are commodified. Control of the educational means of production determines power to frame how open are the relations for the production or consumption of educational goods or services, in order to realise value. The totality of this need, elicited by the state for capital, rather than the rights of feepayers, parents, communities or academics, shapes how human values like openness are revealed and enabled within HE.

Scarce research monies focus attention on impact factors, arguably stagnating practice. For publications, Open Access can increase wider societal impact but at the expense of career progression.We explore the tensions, paradoxes and professional costs on societal benefits, individual agency and academic progression.

Obviously this is a bit of a mash up proposal but it does raise a lot of questions. I think there is a tension between the idea of communities and institutions. Communities of practice, and for that matter the communities in which Open education Resources are being produced and shared, cross institutional boundaries. Furthermore the use of OERs may be within an institutional setting but may also be outside.

This again is reflected in recognition and reward structures. Whilst reward structures within institutions are based on either monetary compensation or in terms of progression, rewards within the community may reflect a wider understanding of recognition, especially respect or standing within that community. Does credit always go to who it should? Probably not, but this is taking a very individualistic view of research. Surely credit should be shared in the community rather than in the closed door offices of academic researchers.

Are OERs being commodified? Presumably the term “coercive competition” refers to the growing practice to require academics and researchers to publish their work as OERs. I don’t really understand what the authors mean in saying “The totality of this need, elicited by the state for capital, rather than the rights of feepayers, parents, communities or academics, shapes how human values like openness are revealed and enabled within HE.” Of course the idea of openness is being hijacked by institutions. But at the same time the movement towards openness is contradictory and I am not sure this is reflected in the abstract. Especially missing is a discussion of the nature of OERs in allowing reuse and modification and the impact this has on (commodified) relations of production and intellectual property. And at the same time, the spread of OERs is allowing new open forms of learning and knowledge production outside the confines of the institution. thus whilst the movement towards OERs may be becoming commodified the use of OERs is challenging traditional understandings of those very commodities.

I don’t think this reveals a paradox but a dialectical contradiction. Present schooling models of education are being found to be wanting. The discussion about open education is important in that it could provide an alternative to privatisation. The discussion over OERs forms an important part of this debate and to this extent the debate over this symposium is extremely interesting.

One Response to “OERs, communities and openness: A Paradox?”

  1. Frances Bell says:

    Thanks for your blog comments on Grahame. This contribution is exactly the sort of extended dialogue we hope to encourage before during and after our symposium. I will just comment on the communities/ institutions aspect. The single quotes around ‘communities’ were intended to signify the tensions you mention between communities and institutions. I think back to earlier work on Learning Objects and repositories and I remember how I use to gnash my teeth at naive assumptions that institutions could ‘make’ staff contribute (with them policing quality) and engage in ‘community’.
    However it is difficult to generalise about OERs and communities of practice and I certainly was not suggesting that OERs were universally intra-institutional. I just think that the concepts need a bit of unpicking and contextualisation. Two examples – MIT courseware and Emerge community.
    Communities of practice may engage with MIT Open Courseware but I know of no evidence that MIT see this as community of practice venture. Correct me if I am wrong but this looks like MIT broadcasting to the world for a variety of reasons. It’s like pro-bono broadcasting by employed academics that benefits viewers and the institution. That is one context for OER – there are many others.
    Secondly, the Emerge community that was such fun to be part of did not survive the funding cessation as an entity, although many of us still engage in networking and community, in part based on our Emerge experiences.
    The point I am trying to make is that community, institution and OERs are concepts that will benefit from unpicking, and the issues of wages and power are part of that analysis.

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