Open as in Hearts

A white heart made of wood hangs from a string. The heart is printed with the word "open."
Photo by cyrus gomez on Unsplash

In a few talks and conversations lately, I’ve been using a wee maxim to describe my own thinking — and more importantly, my own priorities — when it comes to open education: “open as in hearts, not open as in source.”

That’s not to say I don’t think open source projects matter or that I don’t think open source folks do good work in the world: it’s not that at all. It’s just that I increasingly see a rigid ethos of open — open at all costs — as working against other goals I care about, particularly when it comes to questions of equity and social justice. What can and should be “open” in a strictly governed CC-0 sense of the term doesn’t always intersect with the way I think about access or safety or care. But I also don’t think something has to be big-O Open to be open. Full credit to the Open at the Margins project for opening my eyes to this complexity.

So open matters to me and informs my work as an educational technologist — a lot. But not more than equity and access. Reading Jim Groom’s post last week took me to Martin Weller’s post where he writes,

I have no evidence for this, but my experience suggests a lot of new ed tech people are driven by values, such as social justice, rather than an interest in the tech itself.

It me. Except, not quite. I do like technology, very much, and always have. I went to computer camp for many summers as a kid in the early 90s — a time when that was even more patently uncool than it would be now. I learned how to build extensive MU* worlds and learned basic Java and HTML and CSS and Flash. I’ve always enjoyed the what of technology: what can we build, where can we go. The “we” there is important, because as much as I delight in the what of technology, I’ve never been able to sustain much attention or focus on the how. So for me, the “we” is finding myself within a team very smart folks whose brains apply themselves effectively to the how while I busy myself with plans for the what.

But as the what becomes ever more ubiquitous, it’s increasingly true that my interest and attention is not on the what or the how anymore, but the why: why this technology, why this company, why this application. The zeal I once felt for the what, and some of the awe I maintain for the how, has been subsumed by the persistent question of why — and a nagging suspicion that edtech as it has been allowed to run amok through our institutions is doing more harm than good.

Of course edtech as it was been allowed to run amok through our institutions is very far, indeed, from the idea of open that I sat down to write about today.

So it goes, I suppose.

Speaking of edtech, Alan Levine had a post a couple weeks back that resonated with me as he draws a line (not to put words in his mouth) between the edtech that is sold and the edtech that is built.

I think we have let slide away, be it in a cloud of social media like button clicking, what I always saw as key of a conceptual understanding of how the web works. I see it in what once have been created on a web site is pushed out as a Google Doc or rather than using WordPress I see resources cranked out as Pressbooks. Very few want to know the innards of view source, much less how HTML, CSS, and (boogie man) Javascript can do things not even imaginable in CodePen, where it is all there to inspect. And they will all leave the room if you mutter “Github.”

Author’s note: absolutely nothing on the web spooks me more than Github.

All that pursuit years ago of “digital/web literacy” seems in vain, and about as much interaction I seem to witness is liking/retweeting.

There is a price paid for the Convenience of not having to know how the web works, to make things “easier” to do. Yes, tasks might be easier, bur now you are limited in what you can do to what the tech builder gives you.

I accept complicity and a certain amount of guilt for these truths. If I am perfectly honest, I don’t want to do hard things or at least thing I imagine to be hard. And there is a line to walk between making good digital tools accessible and engaging for people who may not have much interest in The Digital (or time to adopt new skills, precarious and overworked labour in higher ed being the watchword of the moment) and maintaining an open commons — and valuing such a thing. The encircling of the commons feels more and more like yet another indication of the neoliberal ethos at play in higher ed and everywhere, and it exploits the same folks that every other neoliberal “innovation” (brb, barfing forever) exploits.

So when I say “open as in hearts, not open as in source,” there’s a lot I could be accused of handwaving away. Much of it, conveniently, stuff I am not good at. I can own that.

But I think there’s big value to think about the breadth and depth of possibility in the word “open,” outside of its genesis, and to think about what open education means to people who don’t have a foot in that world at all.

An example. When needs are placed in competition for funding, as they often are in this austerity++ moment, I frequently hear a reported tension between the movements for open education within universities and the movements for reconciliation and decolonization. The tension is that some Indigenous ways of knowing are not open for uninformed reuse by settler scholars, and the very particular drawing of lines around traditional knowledges is a necessary act of boundary setting for people who the academy has exploited for many generations. If “open” can only mean a CC-0, open at all costs, remix or else ethos, then yes. It is very simply and specifically and by definition and design incompatible with the urgent needs of reconciliation. But if “open” can mean something broader — an ethos of access, of equity, and of recognizing necessary limits of openness to facilitate justice — then open can absolutely be in conversation with reconciliation. And should be, to remain relevant to all learners.

I am not the first person to think these thoughts (though I think “open as in hearts” is pithy af; if there’s one thing I am here to offer the movement, it’s a turn of phrase). I noted the Open at the Margins collection earlier, but three essays in particular from it that shaped my thinking here:

I have been away from blogging for some time — to reflect the CogDog’s point earlier, I tend to prefer the ease and ephemerality of a Twitter thread these days — but I’m remembering the messiness possible on the blog page that is not quite like any other writing. So this is my offering on a Friday: some messy thoughts about whats, hows, whys, extended always open heartedly.

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