Open culture, open questions


OER16 was, as you might expect, a celebration of open practice in higher education and an exploration of the potential of open culture. But openness was also problematised in useful ways here. Emma Smith described how academics can be wary of offering critical interpretations when they know their work will be publicly available; Jim Groom warned us that open educational resources are being used as political instruments in the US to justify government funding cuts; Sava Singh said platforms that claim to support openness (e.g. Twitter) are actually manifestations of prior privilege and can embed old biases.

The latter point reminded me of Gillespie (2010)’s critique of the way YouTube uses the language of ‘the platform’ to manage the tensions between its facade of civic inclusivity and its reliance on corporate revenue streams:

YouTube is designed as an open-armed, egalitarian facilitation of expression, not an elitist gatekeeper with normative and technical restrictions. This fits neatly with the long-standing rhetoric about the democratizing potential of the internet, and with the more recent enthusiasm for user-generated content, amateur expertise, popular creativity, peer-level social networking and robust online commentary.
(Gillespie 2010, p. 352)

The tensions between ideological and economic concerns seem to be every bit as significant within higher education. Proposals to open up university content or practices often meet with befuddled looks from senior managers and the seemingly inevitable (and, frankly, spirit-crushing) question: ‘how do we monetise this?’. Universities sometimes respond to debates about openness disingenuously, by  playing up to this democratising rhetoric without making openness a meaningful part of institutional culture.

Articulating the value proposition for open practice and open resources can be a challenging task, and much as I agreed with the ‘technical debt’ argument offered by Melissa Highton in her closing keynote, recent history is replete with examples of decision-makers prioritising the achievement of short-term economic goals over the avoidance of long-term liability. (Just off the top of my head, how about climate change, PPI mis-selling and Edinburgh’s PFI schools?) I’m not saying it’s right that powerful people think this way, but it does seem to be the reality in many organisations (including some universities). To me, the key question is how we challenge and influence this culture.

Having a clear, value-driven vision for openness based on ideas of sustainability, civic responsibility and social justice, as advocated by Catherine Cronin and others, represents the very best of what higher education can be (or should be). But when it comes to implementing this vision in a specific context, there are tensions at work between political values, educational aims and pragmatic concerns. These will have to be negotiated with courage and no little skill.


Gillespie, T. (2010) ‘The politics of ‘platforms’’, New Media and Society, 12 (3), pp. 347–364.


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