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Audrey Watters

Open Pedagogy and Social Justice

4 min read

I was asked to give a "provocation" to the Open Pedagogy and Social Justice track at this year's Digital Pedagogy Lab in Vancouver, BC. Here's (roughly) what I said:

When Rajiv and Robin sent me an email, asking me to pop into the class and say a few words to you, I immediately said “yes,” in part because I think the theme of this track is so important. “Open Pedagogy and Social Justice.” I think it’s important – crucial even – that the theme is explicit about its politics, that it centers “social justice” as part of its project. In fact, to me, that’s the important part: “social justice.” Not the “open” bit.

Too often, I think, open education has come to rely on that adjective “open” to stand in for an assumption about politics, an assumption about good intentions and social change. Open education has acted as though “open” – as a label, as a license – is sufficient, as though the social change fostered by “open” will 1) happen and 2) be progressive.

If we look at history – hell, if we look around us today – we can find plenty of examples (in education and elsewhere) where “open” is not aligned with social justice. MIT researcher Justin Reich, for example, has found that open educational resources – MOOCs, Khan Academy, and so on – can actually expand education inequalities by disproportionately benefitting the affluent. “Open” is not enough – you have to be explicit, as this strand does, and orient your work towards social justice. “Open” does not necessarily address structural inequality at all.

Indeed, “open” without this orientation towards justice might make things worse.

I’m guessing that many of the conversations you’ve had and will have in this track involve definitions – the often competing definitions – of “open.” Does “open” mean openly licensed content or code? And, again, which license is really “open”? (People love to argue about this one.) Does “open” mean “made public”? Does “open” mean shared? Does “open” mean “accessible”? Accessible how? To whom? Does “open” mean editable? Negotiable? Does “open” mean “free”? Does “open” mean “open-ended”? Does “open” mean transparent? Does it mean “open for business”? Who gets to decide? That is, whose stories about “open” get told?

If you’re familiar with my work, you know I spend a lot of time looking at the financial and political networks of education technology. And so this question of open education being so deeply intertwined with business – with venture capital and venture philanthropy – is something I’m quite concerned about. And I think that’s probably one of the greatest challenges that open education faces: can it extricate itself from the forces of education reform that are strikingly neoliberal, imperialist, and exploitative? As public education is under threat – from budget cuts, Betsy DeVos, and tech billionaires alike – will open education resist the dismantling of institutions, or will the movement (I guess it’s a movement) ally itself with libertarians who seek to place all risk and responsibility onto the individual, place all teaching and learning under the rule of “markets”?

And will education – public education, open education – address its own history of white supremacy, exclusion, exploitation?

If I had one big concern personally (which is always politically) – and I realize my time is almost up here – it would be that I see “open” being weaponized by those who are, in my estimation, the very antithesis of social justice. This is the Julian Assange model of “open,” if you will. Weaponized transparency.

What does “open” mean in a world of Wikileaks? I think, in part, it means we need social justice. Indeed, we need to put social justice at the center of our work. And it means, dare I say, we distance ourselves from those for whom “open” is weaponized (or readily weaponizable) against marginalized people.