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Sceptics and heretics welcome? #breakopen #OER18 #OEGlobal18

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about open education engaging with critical perspectives. Hallelujah I say because we really do need to understand more deeply how digital and networked technologies are materially reconfiguring society and if openness is a force for good or is somehow unwittingly entangled in dishing up just another rendition of structural inequality. Or something like that.

In hasty preparation for #OER18 and participation in the #breakopen session entitled ‘Breaking open: conversations about ethics, epistemology, equity and power‘, which aims to “explore timely, perhaps uncomfortable questions”, I’ve just read back over the recent publication by Mariana Funes and Jenny Mackness, ‘When inclusion excludes: a counter narrative of open education’. It’s a fascinating article that deserves proper engagement from the open education community. In the first instance, it outlines how holding to the aspirational narrative of open education might work in a way that enables individuals to hold two contradictory opinions at the same time. That is, to acknowledge the aspirational narrative of open education whilst at the same time acknowledging that the operational norms of the internet, which configures what actually happens on the ground, might not in fact be working to break down the exclusionary practices that open education seeks to advance.

Then, drawing on the work of Haidt (2016), a further point that Funes and Mackness make is the idea that social justice, as the primary telos of open education rather than truth, might actually be inappropriate because a social justice orientation in effect advances exclusion and homogeneity.
“Well-intended individuals and groups make ‘a temple’ of this social justice/open telos, circling around it generating a polarising effect. Participants become moral magnets, grouping in the safety of echo chambers and losing the potential for diversity in their milieu.” The concern is that an all-encompassing and uncritical belief in social justice discourages diversity and inhibits individuals within the movement from engaging with sceptics, that is beliefs or opinions, sometimes objectionable ones, held by others in other areas or disciplines and thus outside the temple. For example, Marxist scholars might regard open educational practices as a form of labour or commodification of social life, whilst economic anthropologists would have something to say about sharing as an economic mode of transfer, and also, some individuals might even be of the opinion that the purpose of education is not social justice at all … or, now that I come to think of it, this position could also inhibit engagement with heretics within the movement. After all, I myself have some sympathy with these views. Any way, the long and the short of the argument is that true critique requires proper engagement with others who embody opposing worldviews. It’s not enough to tip them a nod every now and again because, as cognitive psychology research shows, individuals are prone to ‘motivated reasoning’, which means they prefer to look for confirmation of their own worldview rather than actively pursuing its disconfirmation as a validating tactic, if you see what I mean. On this point, Funes and Mackness argue that ‘institutional disconfirmation’ needs to be an aim of open education.

They conclude by saying “our belief, as scholars, is that more crital voices that embody opposing views from the outside and within a discipline are needed if we are to realise the early aspirations of digital networks for a more open, democratic, education”. Yes ladies, I wholeheartedly agree, and I hope I have done justice to the argument you present and the sentiment with which it was intended, but, like I said, I’m doing a bit of hasty preparation/ reflection. Any way, I’m looking forward to the discussion and to seeing how things develop. It’s intended that the conversation is continued next week at OE Global as well.

Published inOpen


  1. I am genuinely pleased that you felt moved to find a way to include our paper in the conversation for OER18. Our intention in writing it was to highlight just how hard it is to see the impact of our actions even when our intentions impeccable.

    Academic writing is such that sometimes the simplest od observations need years of work and complex language. The poet Wendell Berry puts the idea succinctly and puts me to mind of the tragedy of the human condition: “We’re all complicit in the things we may be trying to oppose. I’m complicit in the things that I’m trying to oppose.” Imagined communities, as we define them in the text, find it easy to ‘look out’ and see complicity and much harder to ‘look in’ and accept that ‘I am complicit, and cannot know the impact of some of my actions without external feedback’.

    And even when we learn to accept external feedback, how do we tackle it?

    Most of the time by rationalising our espoused theories and denying our theories in action. I see language analysis as a way into that we are blind to, but only if we can make a commitment to put our big egos out to one side for a while and listen…A lifetime’s practice most of us are too busy for. Hence, aspirational narratives thrive to build that ego and our defences.

    You picked out a key idea in the paper: that we can simultaneously, and consciously, hold mutually opposing beliefs. Strategic ambiguity in language makes this possible. We think this is worth exploring and it applies particularly to mediated dialogue.

    You also picked out that from frames external to the ideology, such a marxist analysis, the work of ‘open’ can be seen as slave labour within a digital imperialist model – the few benefitting from the many.

    “Willing digital slave labour” further complicates the possibility to see through to hidden interactional dynamics. Fuchs puts it nicely, exploitation is exploitation even if entered into willingly, and his analysis is powerful. Jenny and I are turning our attention to this type of analysis next, as we believe that ‘breaking open’ any ideology needs a particular kind of macro analysis. Many critical internet studies authors excel at this and are, mostly, loudly absent from the conversation of open online education. We turned to some of these authors for this paper and are keen to explore further.

    Good luck at OER18 and I hope our work can support you in some way.

  2. Hi Helen,

    I would also like to thank you for engaging with our paper and will add a few comments to Mariana’s.

    Your first paragraph describes some of the concerns we also have, which were the impetus for writing the paper. Since you have written this post, perhaps at least some of the content of our paper, whether or not you agree with it, resonated with your own thinking.

    The paper was exploratory for us, in the sense that when we began discussing our ideas and researching what others had written (particularly others outside the open education movement), we did not know where we would end up. We found the work of not only Haidt, but also Mejias, Chun, Selwyn and others (as referenced) all to be useful in helping us to clarify our position. And there were topics which we discussed and included in early drafts of the paper, such as digital labour, which we ultimately had to leave out – we simply had too much in the first draft!

    For me the idea of ‘both-and’ rather than either/or (which we discussed in the paper) is an important one and provides a perspective on the discussion about polarization held in the recent engagemooc. But ‘both-and’ requires a particular approach to communication and use of language. We tried to illustrate how confusing this can be in our Table.

    …..”I particularly like Habermas’ advocacy for communicative action and an ideal speech situation. Morrison (2008, referenced in our paper), on p.27 of his article wrote about this as follows:

    A complexity-informed pedagogy requires communication. That locates it firmly within Habermas’s advocacy of communicative action and the ideal speech situation including, inter alia (Habermas, 1979):

    ¥ Freedom to enter a discourse, check questionable claims, evaluate explanations and justifications;
    ¥ Freedom to modify a given conceptual framework and alter norms;
    ¥ Mutual understanding between participants;
    ¥ Equal opportunity for dialogue that abides by the validity claims of truth, legitimacy, sincerity and comprehensibility, and recognises the legitimacy of each subject to participate in the dialogue as an autonomous and equal partner;
    ¥ Equal opportunity for discussion, and the achieved—negotiated—consensus resulting from discussion deriving from the force of the better argument alone, and not from the positional power of the participants;
    ¥ Exclusion of all motives except for the cooperative search for truth. “……

    These points, i.e. how to best communicate online, seem to me to be worthy of further discussion too.

    Thank you Helen,


  3. crumphelen crumphelen

    Thank you, Mariana and Jenny for commenting here and expanding some of your thinking. For me your journal article was important in that it called for open education/educators to engage with critical voices outside of its field. The breakopen initiative is an attempt to do just that, and I think the two sessions that I attended certainly seemed to sow seeds of concerns that had hitherto been unconsidered by a number of participants. However, although there was genuine desire to continue the conversation and fully investigate other takes, I fear that the conversation might only be continued amongst members of the open community as the community fails to engage with others who, as you say, genuinley embody a different perspective.
    Apologies for my tardy response but my open conference bonanza was followed by a spot of annual leave.
    Wishing you all the best with your continuing research.

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