Rethinking the Open Society #oer17

Here are my slides from yesterday’s presentation at OER17.  All feedback welcome.


This presentation explores open education ideologies in light of educational technologies; recent political discourse; and the political philosophy of Karl Popper.  Since the latter half of the 20th century, “openness” has developed within stable frameworks of liberal/social democracy, and is now often tacitly assumed in many areas of society (such as open government, a free press, freedom of speech, etc.).  Over the last year we have witnessed considerable and sustained political upset around the globe, causing many to proclaim a crisis of liberal democracy. In the Anglo world, we observe a surge of support for ‘closed’ political positions, including ‘Brexit’ and the USA presidential election (Knapton, 2016).  There are indications that openness might form the basis of an alternative politics; the Píratar political party evolved from a single-issue focus on copyright reform to become the biggest party in Iceland, standing on a platform of civil rights and participatory democracy.  Slaughter (2016) proposes that the web is the new geopolitical theatre, and that the USA “should adopt a grand strategy of building and maintaining an open international order based on three pillars: open societies, open governments, and an open international system.”

Moe (2017) describes the difficulties inherent in developing and teaching critical thinking, especially within standardised education.  In the connected age, access to information and control over media narratives are paramount to governance.  In the age of ‘post-truth’ we need more than ever educational systems that promote information literacy and critical thinking. There is reason to think that there is a need to reconsider the ideological basis and commitments of open education and its practices, many of which remain wedded to traditional academic structures.  This may seem counterintuitive: as Weller (2014) suggests, the ‘battle for open’ is in many senses won, with a growing body of open access publication; open textbook uptake; open source tools for building learning environments; massive open online courses; and open sharing of research data. However, Rolfe (2016) has demonstrated through content analysis a fundamental shift in the discourse around open education.  Articles from the 1970s tended to understand openness in terms of widening participation, and with this came a concomitant promotion of humane values, fostering autonomy, facilitating the development of others, and a wider social mission. This approach has in turn been disrupted by the rise of flexible learning in higher education and the wide availability of educational materials.  By the time the OER movement had grown to a global force much of the debate had moved on to licensing, technical and implementation issues (Weller, 2016).

A reconsideration of the role of ideology in OER will be framed by elements of Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies (1947).  Popper’s approach was hugely influential for Western liberal democracy, and remains arguably the most sustained attempt to develop a vision of society from the idea of openness.  Popper’s critical approach to education – which emphasizes the role of learner as so-creator of knowledge– serves as a model for making explicit the connection between critical rationality and openness, and provides tools for systematically reflecting on educational practice (Chitpin, 2016).


Chitpin, S. (2016). Popper’s Approach to Education. London and New York: Routledge.

Knapton, S. (2016). Donald Trump is a ‘vulgar, demented, pig demon’ says Hillary Clinton’s ex adviser. The Telegraph, 30 May 2016.

Moe, R. (2017). All I Know Is What’s on the Internet. Real Life Mag.http://reallifemag.com/all-i-know-is-whats-on-the-internet/

Popper, K. (1947a). The Open Society and its Enemies. Vol. I: The Age of Plato. London: Routledge. Available from https://archive.org/stream/opensocietyandit033120mbp.

Popper, K. (1947b). The Open Society and its Enemies. Vol II: The high tide of prophecy: Hegel, Marx and the Aftermath. London: Routledge. Available from https://archive.org/details/opensocietyandit033064mbp.

Rolfe, V. (2016). Open.  But not for criticism?  Open Education 2016.http://www.slideshare.net/viv_rolfe/opened16-conference-presentation

Slaughter, A.-M. (2016). How to Succeed in the Networked World: A Grand Strategy for the Digital Age. Foreign Affairs. (Nov/Dec.) https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2016-10-04/how-succeed-networked-world

Weller, M. (2014). The Battle for Open. Ubiquity Press.

Weller, M. (2016). Different Aspects of the Emerging OER Discipline. Revista Educacao e Cultura Contemporanea, 13(31) http://oro.open.ac.uk/4

AHRC & ‘The Big Society’

I just received a response to my email to David Willetts MP about the use of ‘The Big Society’ as a ringfenced funding area by the AHRC. Here’s the text.

Dear Dr Farrow

Thank you for your email of 22 June, addressed to the Rt Hon David Willetts about your support for the campaign to remove the “Big Society” from the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s (AHRC) delivery plan. As you may be aware the Minister is unable to answer as many emails as he would like and on this occasion I have been asked to reply.
Under the Haldane Principle, prioritisation of an individual Research Council’s spending within its allocation is not a decision for Ministers. The Government supports this principle as vital for the protection of academic independence and excellence. A statement of the Principle was published alongside the science and research funding allocations on 20 December 2010, the web link is attached for your convenience.

I hope this helps to explain the Government’s position in this matter.

Yours sincerely
Anne Robertson

Leaving aside the fact that trawling through Hansard is never a quick way to find the answer to a question, this isn’t very reassuring.  Simply restating the principles of Haldane does nothing to prevent this from being a violation of them. ‘The Big Society’ is a conservative party political slogan (and not even a very good one) and doesn’t belong in the delivery plan of a putatively independent research council.

Perhaps we shouldn’t expect anything more from the AHRC… not that I’m bitter at never getting a bean from them. But they have a responsibility to stand up for the values which they purportedly enshrine rather than going whichever way the wind blows in order to keep the money flowing.  Arguably, the coalition government contravened the principles of Haldane when they made certain disciplines so fearful of their own demise that they indulged in a kind of mediated suicide.

Thom Brooks continues to make the case against the AHRC in The Guardian and his blog.

via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haldane_principle

Please consider signing the petition at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/thebigsociety/.