philosophy

#opened16 live blog: College Affordability and Social Justice

Preston Davis (aka @LazyPhilosopher) invites us to think about the early days of Western civilisation where philosophers like Plato and Aristotle formed educational institutions on the basis of their own privilege.  This kind of system persisted into Roman times, where males with the ability to pay could attend organised schools where they would learn to become educated citizens of the empire.

Education was further formalised in the Middle Ages, but mostly organised according to the strategic aims of the church.  Formalised educational systems in the USA widened curriculum and admitted women, but still remain ‘exclusive’ in many ways.

Rawlsian theories of social justice are reflective of conversations that are starting to take place in OER around stepping back from personal bias when making decisions.  If we disregard the considerations of race, gender, class and so on, we can support a more democratic and equally distributed educational system.

The remark is made that aspects of the USA educational system are exclusive rather than inclusive.  Much of the OER movement was organised around saving money on textbook costs, but this overlooks wider patterns of disenfranchisement.  The Sanders run for USA president foregrounded the idea of access to higher education as a matter of social justice.  Should education be ‘free’?

From the discussion:

  • Class divides are reinforced by higher education.  Some scholarships are set aside for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but does this really change structural patterns of disenfranchisement?
  • If public education was made free, would this lead to a loss of resources through inefficiencies?
  • Can we really act as if we are ‘difference-blind’?
  • Is the difference between the student who goes on to higher education and the one who doesn’t a matter of money?  Disenfranchisement has other elements, e.g. confidence, role models, self-interpretation,  Much of these are the kind of ‘differences’ stripped out of the Rawlsian model.
  • How can social justice be understood from the perspective of what is essentially privilege?
  • Low cost vs. free?

Open education and critical pedagogy

I have a new publication entitled ‘Open Education and Critical Pedagogy’ upcoming with Learning, Media and Technology.  Here’s the abstract.

This paper argues for a revaluation of the potential of open education to support more critical forms of pedagogy. Section 1 examines contemporary discourses around open education, offering a commentary on the perception of openness as both a disruptive force in education, and a potential solution to contemporary challenges. Section 2 examines the implications of the lack of consensus around what it means to be open, focusing on the example of commercial and proprietary claims to openness commonly known as ‘openwashing’. Section 3 uses Raymond’s influential essay on open source software ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’ as a framework for thinking through these issues, and about alternative power structures in open education. In Section 4, an explicit link is drawn between more equal and democratic power structures and the possibility for developing pedagogies which are critical and reflexive, providing examples which show how certain interpretations of openness can raise opportunities to support critical approaches to pedagogy.

Keywords: open education; OER; MOOC; critique; evidence; critical
theory; critical pedagogy; discourse analysis; openwashing

The paper is available online but it unfortunately behind a paywall. I have an author’s link that allows free downloads for the first 50 requests, so if you’d like a copy then redirect your browser to http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/YtPXqFkVSmteYfbgURJc/full.

[If you try the link and all the free copies are gone, let me know and I’ll send you a pre-print version.]

Ethics, Openness and the Future of Education #opened14

By popular demand, here are my slides from today’s presentation at Open Education 2014.  All feedback welcome and if this subject is of interest to you then consider checking out the OERRH Ethics Manual and the section on ethics (week 2) of our Open Research course.

Socratic Method, Mazur and ‘Peer Learning’

I realise I haven’t been keeping up with blogging here (the perennial blogging complaint), mainly because I’ve been contributing blogs to the OER Research Hub project.  But I think there should be a bit more activity here as well as a bit of cross-posting (oh for the ability to re-blog between .com and .org installs on WordPress…).

What’s prompted this is a presentation I’ve just attended by Kari Arfstorm of the Flipped Learning Network.  I hadn’t previously been aware of an explicit connection between the ‘flipped’ learning methodology and a particular kind of pedagogical approach.  For those who are unaware, here’s the skinny on ‘flipped’ learning from the FLN site:

Flipped learning is intended to make more efficient use of classroom time by making sure that passive learning (e.g. reading, watching lecture) takes place away from the classroom and the time spent in the classroom makes the most of discussion, debate and inquiry.  Kari made an explicit connection between this approach and Socratic method – one I hadn’t made myself until now.

I confess to still being a little unclear on exactly how Socratic we should take flipped learning to be; or the ways in which flipping encourages a certain kind of pedagogy.  Kari suggested in the session that some subjects (e.g. mathematics) we might abide by a more authoritative teaching model in order to reflect the ‘hard’ nature of the subject while in the humanities we might employ a more authentically Socratic method.  I’m behind the curve on the whole thinking behind flipping, but a few thoughts come to mind:

  • Part of my confusion seems to arise from the fact that I understand Socratic method as anti-didactic.  Of course, it’s still a form of instruction (hence the irony) but ultimately a kind of facilitated self-instruction.
  • Socrates does in fact use this method to ‘teach’ mathematics.  In Plato’s Meno he takes a young slave boy and demonstrates his innate knowledge of Euclidean geometry by asking him questions rather than ‘teaching’ him.
  • Do you observe, Meno, that I am not teaching the boy anything, but only asking him questions; and now he fancies that he knows how long a line is necessary in order to produce a figure of eight square feet; does he not?

  • ‘Flipping’ seems (at least at first glance) to be an irony-free approach to pedagogy, which makes its Socratic status unclear to me.
  • In some dialogues, Socrates is often regarded as a mouth-piece for Platonic ideas. We don’t mean this kind of instruction when we talk about Socratic pedagogy but obviously there’s a lot of debate about when & where this is happening and why.

In any case, it seems that simply ‘flipping’ the classroom need not in itself result in more critical forms of reasoning and/or learning, though it’s easy to see how having a bit more time devoted to discussion or ‘higher-order’ pedagogical exercises might facilitate this.

When I asked Kari about this aspect of ‘flipping’ she said that the connection was not simply to Socratic methods but to some of the pedagogical approaches inspired by critical approaches.  Foremost among these seems to be physicist Eric Mazur‘s concept of peer instruction which dates from the early 1990s.

Peer Instruction encourages more interactive engagement by replacing lectures with small group discussions of concepts, supplemented by larger discussions punctuated by mini-lectures between questions. Students contemplate answers individually then discuss the explanations for their answers with their peers and come to agreement on the underlying physics (or models).

Here’s an outline of the process based on C. Turpen and N. Finkelstein (2010).

  • Instructor poses question based on students’ responses to their pre-class reading
  • Students reflect on the question
  • Students commit to an individual answer
  • Instructor reviews student responses
  • Students discuss their thinking and answers with their peers
  • Students then commit again to an individual answer
  • The instructor again reviews responses and decides whether more explanation is needed before moving on to the next concept.


  • Here’s a lecture by Eric Mazur which explains his approach to peer-based learning.


    I feel like I’ve learned something today as I have a better understanding of some of the pedagogical principles underlying the idea of ‘flipping’ the classroom.  But I also feel that it may be better to think of these approaches as encouraging a kind of intellectual or critical autonomy (undoubtedly a Socratic aspiration) rather than thinking of them as Socratic per se.

    Interestingly, the idea of Socratic reasoning also came through in a separate presentation today. Thanh Le (of the Vital Signs project) explained how ther schoolchildren use negative method of hypothesis elimination in order to improve their knowledge of native and invasive flora and fauna.

    Data visualization as simulacra

    I just saw this quote over at Radical Cartography and thought it was really interesting to think about in relation to data visualization, which is essentially also making spatial representations of information.

    Information is already abstraction from experience because in regarding it as knowledge rather than immediate sensation.  So, creating representations of information is moving away from the referent and towards the ‘hyperreal’.  This is compounded when we visualize data in order to inform decision making as the ‘map that precedes the territory’.

    At the same time, there is something organic and biopolitical about the growth, flourishing and decline of different representations of the world which inevitably reflect and express surrounding power structures.

    If we were able to take as the finest allegory of simulation the Borges tale where the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up exactly covering the territory (but where the decline of the Empire sees this map become frayed and finally ruined, a few shreds still discernible in the deserts — the metaphysical beauty of this ruined abstraction, bearing witness to an Imperial pride and rotting like a carcass, returning to the substance of the soil, rather as an aging double ends up being confused with the real thing) — then this fable has come full circle for us, and now has nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra. Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or substance. It is the generation of models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory — PRECESSION OF SIMULACRA — it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire but our own: The desert of the real itself.

    Jean Baudrillard (1981) “The Precession of Simulacra” in Simulacra and Simulation.

    There’s some quite interesting stuff over there, in fact.

    Reading: Open Education

    I’ve been meaning to spend a bit of time trying to better understand the open education movement of the 1970s and how it relates to contemporary developments in academia.  A useful summary of some key texts is over at infed.org but I’ve copied the bibliographic details here just in case it goes down or I can’t find it again.  I’m particularly interested in getting my hands on the Nyberg (for obvious reasons).

    Easthope, G. (1975) Community, Hierarchy and Open Education, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    Nyberg, D. (ed.) (1975) The Philosophy of Open Education, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    Puckrose, H. (1975) Open School, Open Society, London: Evans.

    Sharp, J. (1973) Open School. The experience of 1964-70 at Wyndham School, Egremont, Cumberland, London: Dent.

    Language Games

    I’ve just filed my copy for a review of Martin Weller‘s book, The Digital Scholar: How Technology is Changing Academic Practice (which, incidentally you can buy online but if I was you I would just grab the free version online because there’s less chance of that getting wet and ultimately crispy like my copy did).  Hopefully it will be forthcoming in JiME fairly soon.

    It’s a bit of a strange experience to review someone’s work when you work for them – normally this happens behind a veneer of relative anonymity – but I hope I’ve managed to find the golden mean between obsequiousness and being critical just for the sake of it…

    Anyway, the point of this post is to capture something that I was thinking about a long time ago and in the course of writing the review I was reminded of it.  It goes back to the following passage near the start of Martin’s book:

    A simple definition of digital scholarship should probably be resisted, and below it is suggested that it is best interpreted as a shorthand term. As Wittgenstein argued with the definition of ‘game’ such tight definitions can end up excluding elements that should definitely be included or including ones that seem incongruous. A digital scholar need not be a recognised academic, and equally does not include anyone who posts something online. For now, a definition of someone who employs digital, networked and open approaches to demonstrate specialism in a field is probably sufficient to progress.

    Weller, M. (2011:4)

    A couple of years ago I was a researcher on the Digital Scholarship project and read Martin’s book in manuscript form.  I recall thinking at the time that the whole idea of digital scholarship was a bit sketchy.  After all, who isn’t ‘digital’ these days?  The whole thing seemed to me to need much more precise definition (which Martin always resisted for reasons I’ve never been entirely clear on but seem to have to do with something traumatic in his past around learning objects).  For what it’s worth, I think I understand his perspective a bit better now.

    Anyway, re-reading this section got me thinking again and I had another look at the Wittgenstein.  The discussion of ‘games’ comes from the later part of Wittgenstein’s work; Wittgenstein is unusual among philosophers in that he produced two distinct and original philosophies during his life, both of which are primarily concerned with our relation to language.

    The so-called ‘early’ Wittgenstein – he of the forbidding Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus -argued that most philosophical confusion results from failing to respect the sense-making limits of language.  Only certain kinds of propositional utterances – descriptions of states of affairs (facts) or relations of ideas (definitions) – make any sense and the rest is just confusion.  I’m oversimplifying.  But the general idea is expressed in the seven ‘basic’ propositions of the Tractatus.

    1. The world is everything that is the case.
    2. What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts.
    3. The logical picture of the facts is the thought.
    4. The thought is the significant proposition.
    5. Propositions are truth-functions of elementary propositions. (An elementary proposition is a truth function of itself.)
    6. The general form of truth-function is [p, ξ, N(ξ)]. This is the general form of proposition.
    7. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

    There are of course problems with this, but the idea that philosophy is an activity which is fundamentally therapeutic (or even quietist) is one that has stuck around.  But in his later (posthumously published) work, Wittgenstein attempts to make sense of linguistic meaning moved away from logic in the direction of ordinary language.  I won’t go into the reasons for his development in this direction here, but trying to find absolute definitions is replaced by looking at how language is used in practical social contexts (like working on a building site, acting in a play, cracking a joke or playing a game) since “the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life” (Wittgenstein, 1953:§23).  Wittgenstein termed the relationship between utterances and contexts ‘language games‘ to reflect the idea that the ‘rules’ language follows are less like axioms of logic and are mostly to do with making sense in a particular situation.

    If we want to resist giving final definitions of (especially new) concepts we shouldn’t talk so much about ‘games’ but instead in terms of family resemblance between uses of language.  Games are just the example Wittgenstein uses to illustrate the point about family resemblances since there are lots of things we call ‘games’ but there are often lots of difference between them (competitiveness, equipment, purpose, etc.).  The thing that binds them all together is our use of the same word to describe them:  “what is common to all these activities and what makes them into language or parts of language” (Wittgenstein, 1953:§65).

    The implications of this are more significant for philosophy than they might as first appear.

    But to my mind the idea is not that we should give up on the idea of tight or final definitions.  Rather, we just need to be aware of the fact that ‘defining’ is also a language game and one that is often of great use (such as in taxonomy).

    When it comes to a neologism like ‘digital scholarship’ we aren’t necessarily looking at a referent which already exists in common usage. Wittgenstein’s point about language use must be taken in conjunction with the idea of the impossibility of private language.  Language doesn’t enable forms of life, but forms of life enable language.  It isn’t through the definition of ‘game’ that Wittgenstein shows this, but through the idea of a ‘family resemblance‘ between different practical uses of the same word.

    It’s understandable that we should strive not to get bogged down in trying to define things but we should also recognise that in itself this can be an incredibly valuable activity, particularly when sketching out new developments in existing fields, or indeed when identifying new domains of study.

    And that’s the point I struggled to make even this concisely two years ago.  But that’s philosophy for ya.  Or maybe just me.

    Weller, M. (2011).  The Digital Scholar: How Technology is Changing Academic Practice. Bloomsbury Academic.

    Wittgenstein, L. (1922). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. C.K. Ogden (trans.), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

    Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. G.E.M. Anscombe and R. Rhees (eds.), G.E.M. Anscombe (trans.), Oxford: Blackwell.