Uncensored State of the Union: OER Unfiltered #oer2015

Drawing proceedings at the Hewlett Grantees meeting towards its close is a final keynote by Hal Plotkin, currently Senior Open Policy Fellow at Creative Commons USA and formerly Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary of Education for the Obama administration.  I interviewed Hal for OER Research Hub back in 2013, so am quite interested in where his thinking is right now.

Hal started by reflecting on the way that college presidents are appointed, noting that they are typically people who understand the college system and how to operate within it.  They tend to be people quite unlike the college presidents of yesteryear who were distinguished in several fields rather than rising to the top of the college administration systems.  What kind of leadership is provided by leaders who are not known for their achievements? Although OER has had a profound impact on improving access to education, not a single college president has championed or advocated for the movement.

The talk proceeded with acknowledgements of the support Hal has received from various quarters over the years, and the inspiration drawn from the OER community.  We tend to see our projects in (modest) isolation, but should better appreciate the historical significance of the work we do.

Hal identified the origins of OER movement with the Midpenninsula Free University (1966-1971).  Founded on the idea that anyone could teach and anyone could learn, the movement was inspired by the first opportunities for public use of computers.  Implicit in the mission statement and self-identity of the Students for a Democratic Society was the critique of corporatism in formal education and a mission for social justice.  Universities, it was held, must reform on the basis of dialogue and bold vision.  Free inquiry, free from centralised, disciplinary control, is the central axis of a progressive society, and must be supported.  At its peak, the MFU had hundreds of instructors, including illustrious authors and scientists.   So what happened to it?

The Revolutionary Union (a group of students) gave classes in Marxism and urban counter-insurgency, which triggered the interest of the FBI.  This inculcated a culture of paranoia at the MFU; eventually the headquarters of the MFU was bombed and a campaign of more than 30 bombings ensued.  In Palo Alto, a fundraising campaign was initiated to raise the money to build a university by music concerts.  But without permission to fund-raise in this way, the concerts often descended into the violence of regular ‘Friday night riots’.  Eventually a route around this was found through a clause in the municipal code.  Hal suggests that the real core of the 1960s counterculture was not drugs, or music, but the drive towards free education.

A pivotal moment in this chaos was a fractious meeting where attendees were divided about whether to exclude a hostile journalist; a debate that can be understood to be essentially about openness.  The journalist was ejected, and half the steering committee left with them in protest.  From this point on the MFU dissipated, and was taken over by hardline revolutionaries dedicated to the overthrow of the government of the USA.  The FBI actively worked to break up the MFU and its organising committees.

Thus, the battle for open education can be understood to start with the MFU, but when it lost its inclusivity and synergistic energy the movement was destined to fail.  When one group imposes its ideology and belief system on others the introduction of pressures to conform become dominant and many leave to find alternative paths. There is a cautionary tale here for the OER movement.

OER was written into the TAACCCT grant program, but the truth about policy is that it is invariably messier in practice than in theory.  Hal has three pieces of advice about getting policy written and passed:

  • have the strongest bladder
  • stay at the table as long as anyone else
  • be the last person to touch the document

Formerly, the Department of Labor allowed its subcontractors to retain intellectual property rights over materials created on behalf of the government (but retaining the right to use it for their own purposes).  There was some debate over whether the OER mandate in the TAACCCT bill was legal (or constitutional).  The Deputy White House counsel was eventually responsible for pushing through the open IP requirements at a late hour.

When dealing with challenges like these we often rely on scripture, poetry, or speeches for motivation and emotional sustenance.  For Hal, Bobby Kennedy’s speech in South Africa is such an inspiration.  Here is a version of the text (not verbatim the same as the version Hal read out, but pretty close).

There is a discrimination in this world and slavery and slaughter and starvation. Governments repress their people; and millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich; and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere.

These are differing evils, but they are common works of man. They reflect the imperfection of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, our lack of sensibility toward the sufferings of our fellows.

But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a tirne – that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men. And surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.

Our answer is to rely on youth – not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. They cannot be moved by those who cling to a present that is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger that come with even the most peaceful progress. It is a revolutionary world we live in; and this generation at home and around the world, has had thrust upon it a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived.

Some believe there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills. Yet many of the world’s great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and the thirty-two-year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal.

These men moved the world, and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change. And I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the globe.

For the fortunate among us, there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. Like it or not, we live in times of danger and uncertainty. But they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history. All of us will ultimately be judged and as the years pass we will surely judge ourselves, on the effort we have contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which our ideals and goals have shaped that effort.

The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American Society.

Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live.

Hal concluded by thanking those present for the work they do in working for the greater cause and expressing his gratitude in being part of the community.

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One comment

  1. It may be surprising to learn that there was Marxism – and therefore Marxist ideas – in the world before they were discovered in Berkeley in the 1960s. So I think it’s very much a stretch to give them credit for inventing the open educational resource.

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