OpenEd21: Day 2 Plenary keynotes with Kathleen Fitzpatrick & Leslie Chan

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OpenEd21 is happening this week and instead of tweeting I am blogging from selected sessions I am attending. These notes may be rough as the intent is to try to follow the flow of the talk and publish as soon as possible.

Session Description

Back-to-back keynote talks so this blog post will be long as I will cover both in a single post.


Keynote 1: Leslie Chan is Associate Professor in the Department of Global Development Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the director of the Knowledge Equity Lab.

Keynote 2: Kathleen Fitzpatrick is Director of Digital Humanities and Professor of English at Michigan State University. Fitzpatrick is author of Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University.

Session Notes

Leslie Chan

Title: When open education collides with closed infrastructure slides

Leslie starts by talking about the brutalist style of the U of T satellite campus at Scarborough, originally designed as a television satellite campus to take overflow from the main UofT campus. TV was built into the infrastructure. The campus was designed at the time when television was a promising new education technology. Indeed the term “satellite campus” is a reference to the mid 60’s fascination with space and futurism.

The development of Scarborough campus in the 60’s – and the dollar investment especially of the government to invest in television infrastructure was an example of how there was a willingness in government policy to invest in experimental programs. Chan also balances this optimism with the fact that there was an expectation that television would offset instructor workload. More time to develop, but less time to deliver thanks to television.

Gov’t invested 2 million dollars (in 1965 dollars) into building TV studios and wiring the entire campus for closed-circuit television.

Chan also notes that the large closed-circuit television conduits made it possible to later wire the campus for network and internet access.

However, despite the massive investment, the campus never met its enrollment target, and only 20% of the videos created during the time have survived. The television experiment was deemed a failure.

Chan f’fwds to early 2000 to the development of the Centre for Instructional Technology Department at the UofT where experimentation with technology was the norm. They dubbed the centre “The Kitchen” where people popped in to create and experiment with the web and other technologies.

Time jump to current time and Chan showing growth of physical UofT Scarborough campus and segues into the need for infrastructure

Chan talks about Canadian scientist and technology critic Ursula Franklin who advocated for critical analysis of technology. Franklin urges to think about a technologies underlying structures and modes of production as these influence the ways we think and act. Technologies are social practices and never neutral.

Technologies come with an enormous “social mortgage” that we live in a culture of compliance and accept there is only one way of doing things, enforced by the technology.

Quote from Franklin “if there ever was a holistic process, a process that cannot be divided into rigid predetermined steps, it is education”

Chan makes the excellent connection between the desire of educators to not have the chairs in a classroom bolted to the floor to the rigid structure of the LMS and educators losing control of the learning environment.

Slide from Chan while talking about bolted chairs to represent the “bolted chairs” of rigid learning platforms

Chan provides an excellent example of Franklin’s “social mortgage” in his example of trying to get integrated with the institutional LMS Canvas. Now technically, this can be done. It is not a huge technical challenge to integrate the two platforms. But the underlying approval process at the institution requires a 2-year timeframe and rigorous approval process to get the technology actually integrated. The underlying process is the barrier and thus becomes a de facto enforcement of the staus quo imposed by not the technology, but the underlying technological social process.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick

Title: Infrastructure for the Common Good

Kathleen starts with economics and the contemporary idea of “common good” using an economic report that sates that Michigan public higher ed pump $19.3 billion dollars into the state economy, which makes a good economic argument for publicly funded higher education.

However, reports like this make Fitzpatrick nervous as they tend to speak directly to – and represent – a particular economic mindset that believes the function of higher education is tied to economic generation. While the numbers look good, they turn a blind eye to the non-economic benefits of higher ed. The report represents a view that the only good that institutions have is an economic one.

This tight focus on economic arguments and value of higher education which ignores the non-economic benefits (which often cost money to provide) is neoliberalism (link to Guardian article on neoliberalism shared by Cable Green in chat). Neoliberalism has weakened our higher education institutions by reducing their value to economic generators, which in turn creates economic incentives that move institutions away from a path from being a common good to being a club good.

Since the 1960’s, Fitzpatrick argues that access to knowledge has become a club good as opposed to a public good. We need to rethink and recentre access to knowledge as a public good instead of a club good.

Fitzpatrick argues that rampant privatization is shifting the burden of the cost from public to private and that has changed the orientation of the students to where they believe they are consumers of their education. Education has become a commodity and students have “product” expectations.

Our institutions need to create well-rounded individuals, not just people who are economic engines.

We seem to have lost our understanding that our individual actions have collective repercussions, both positive and negative. The global challenges we face today require collective action. Our solutions will be collective, not individual.

Fitzpatrick moves on to talk about her work on the Humanities Commons, an open-source, non-profit designed to resist privatization and turning away from the external technologies to make investments in our own platforms whose governance we can contribute to. We need to turn our attention to developing our own technology systems that we control and can openly and collectively contribute to.

How do we make these technologies sustainable without spinning these off into private companies? This is a challenge we need to face. We need to focus on social sustainability. Collective action requires solidarity to put the needs of the whole ahead of individuals. This is a necessary precondition to developing sustainable non-profit open-source community-owned platforms.

Fitzpatrick references Elinor Ostrom’s work on free-riders and reiterates the importance of collective models of governance being key to the development of sustainable open technologies and infrastructures, guided by educators. It is up to us – as a community – to find our own models for collective development and sustainability that focus on relationship building and it must be done collectively to build a large-scale sustainable infrastructure.

My Takeaway

I really wish that the titles of both of the keynotes were made available ahead of time as I almost decided to sit this one out and missed perhaps what I think highlights one of the biggest challenges facing open education right now and that is the lack of open infrastructure. Both keynotes focused on, not only technologies but the important economic, social and pedagogical considerations surrounding education technology, open education and the heart of the work we do as public good institutions.

Chan’s talk was first, and I appreciated his description of the development of the UofT satellite television campus in the 1960’s and how it represented the provincial government’s willingness to invest in (what at the time was) an experimental model of learning – closed-circuit television. I also appreciated Chan’s mention of the work of Ursula Franklin and her critical technology think which underscores the point that technology is far from neutral and there are often “social mortgages” that are paid in the choices of technologies we use. His pedagogical comparison to teachers requesting to their learning space designers that chairs not be bolted to floors in classrooms and ending up with bolted chairs in classrooms with the same pedagogical constriction an LMS enforces in virtual learning spaces was a nice touch.

While Fitzpatrick’s talk at sometimes skewed towards being US-centric, her themes were global – the importance of collective action (the collective vs individualism), the ways in which neoliberal economics can be leveraged and used against the institution to undermine the public good agenda of higher education institutions, and – most importantly – she tied these larger economic and social perspectives to the importance of developing and sustaining our own open infrastructure – which (as many of you may know) is a topic near and dear to me.

In some ways, these keynotes feel like return to the roots of the open education community as a big piece of the origin story of open education begins with the open-source software communities and the influence those communities had on early open education practitioners.

Side-note: My perception that openEd is international was confirmed in Regina Gong’s opening plenary notes when she mentioned that there are people from 50 countries attending OpenEd this year.

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