critical thinking about digital learning

Open education

Open educational practices: on not being (much) published


carnac8Hiding in plain sight

Update: Responses to this post have inspired me to put in a proposal to OER17: The trade and the gift: open education and economies of academic labour. I hope for the chance to continue the conversation in that space ๐Ÿ™‚
Reading for that submission has taken me once again to the work being done by Bon Stewart on vulnerability and disclosure in academic work, by Richard Hall on academic labour and resistance, by the DigitalPedagogy lab – especially this collection on digital scholarship and an essay by Paul Walsh on ‘porous’ scholarship (previously unknown to me) – and by Kate Bowles on the slippery deck. They are all on my regular blog roll but I’m putting them up front here.

Original: This post lifts off from a piece I wrote in 2012 on Open Educational Practices.

For me, the most complicated and difficult bit of that sentence is: ‘I wrote

The citation for this paper puts my name at the front, but that hides a longer story. I wrote the words, but I wrote them in the space of a collaborative project, in which ideas were regularly shared and discussed. None of those words would have made the light of day without the other three. We were a team, and words produced in those situations are never just your own.

It’s more complicated than that too. The four of us were working in an ‘evaluation and synthesis’ role for a program of publicly funded projects in OER (Jisc/HEA 2009-2012). Everything we were thinking and writing about OER we were learning from the projects who were doing the technical, educational and cultural work on the ground. (To make things more complicated still, I had an evaluation role for a couple of the projects, so I know how much intellectual, sense-making work went on there as well.) The projects were learning, in their turn, from academics who took the risk of sharing their materials. People like David Kernohan at Jisc, and the team at CETIS, nurtured the vision and created the spaces in which we worked and shared. If the full story of this knowledge production were told, the citation would have to be a whole lot longer.

In fact you can look into the work of those 65 projects from the citation I’ve given at the top of this post. Those words about open educational practices that ‘I wrote’ carry with them (something of) the conditions of their production. I’m still in a privileged position near the top of that heap of know-how, but the context of open production has made that privilege more visible and less absolute, so I feel better about claiming the part of it that was mine.

Knowledge production in the borderzone

It was part of our project to explore how mainstream forces of knowledge production and circulation in HE come up against alternatives such as open sharing. Here for example is a section I wrote on roles, rewards and divisions of labour in OER production, and another section (not sure who led on this??) about cultural challenges of OER (meaning in this case educational cultures). The agenda has been taken up and more fully explored by Catherine Cronin, Laura Czerniewicz, Isobel, Allison and Lou (my three co-authors on the open practices paper), Frances Bell, Liz Masterman, Josie Fraser, Sheila McNeil, Lorna Campbell (here reviewing OER 16, where the themes of power, openness and inequality were fully on the table). Open pedagogies trouble the relationships of power in learning/teaching. Open content troubles the relationships of power in knowledge production. Knowledge is being crossed over from one context – theย  institution – to another – a more questionable, mutable space. This blog post by Keith Smyth explores the idea of the open university as a ‘third space’, while noting that it is not immune from the power relations and economic forces of either the academy, or the open network.

‘Open’ might offer a challenge to how knowledge is valued inside the academy, and a commentary on how power is enacted in relationships of learning and teaching, production and consumption. Or it might not. The academy has been fairly robust in assimilating the new ways in which intellectuals gain intellectual credit and currency beyond their walls. Open content/courses can reproduce oppressive, uncreative relations between the taught and the teaching. The internet economy shares many of the contradictions inherent in academic labour: on the one hand it is a ‘creative commons’ of shared knowledge production (wikipedia, wiki-just-about-anything, cMOOCs, social networks, open commenting and review, all the open educational content we rightly celebrate…). On the other hand it is a space of total consumption, in which every blink of our brains can be turned to data, and that data circulated freely, monetised, or turned to reputational tokens that can – if we’re lucky – also be monetised. (Allan Parsons has written a good blog post about the struggles going on inside the term ‘open‘, and ‘public’, and ‘free’).

So: I’m trying to notice how in publishing about educational technology practice, there is another boundary crossing – from the sphere of practice, where work is valued and funded in certain (ever more precarious) ways, to the economy of educational research and publication. In both cases there are power imbalances and there are structural ways in which some work is valued more than others. The paper on open educational practices, being on a kind of borderline, has the advantage of being freely and openly available. It’s been widely referenced in the published literature, but much more widely circulated through twitter and blogs. The best thing that can happen to an idea is that it becomes mainstream. It gets so caught up in other people’s adoptions and adaptations, their interpretations and versions, that it becomes part of collective knowledge or ‘common sense’. But the price – in this case – is that it’s outside of the structures that allocate academic meaning and value. It has authorship and impact, but it lacks authority.

On not being (much) published

So if you are one of the people who looked for me on last week, I’m sorry you found so little. I’m sorry, for example, you didn’t find the article I might have published about open educational practices, which you could have cited instead of dealing with this messy history. If you are one of the international academics who has contacted me in recent days to say, in effect, who are you and where is your work? I’m sorry there isn’t a better answer. A lot of it is simply my fault. For example, when I finally decided to start using for myself – instead of just getting email notices when a collaborator is kind enough to link something to my profile – I discovered that I already have two profiles and there is no way of merging them. So I gave up and went back to writing about the importance of digital identity. Honestly, I’m a liability.

I’ve had the kind of mainstream academic job that would require/support me to publish regularly, but for more than ten years now I’ve been a single mother and it has suited me to work as a brain-for-hire. Like workers in other parts of the gig economy, I trade freedom for security. I can choose the gigs I take, which are the ones where I feel I can make a difference. I can keep the faith with values that have become important to me, such as putting learners at the centre of the conversation. Such as not ‘evaluating’ or ‘synthesising’ or ‘researching’ other people’s practices without asking them what they think their practice means, or what it needs by way of support. Such as all my outputs being openly and publicly available (though the IPR constraints of modern contracts are putting that in jeopardy – of which more in a moment). These values make make it difficult to prioritise publication over other kinds of re-circulation: running workshops or creating resources or building a network of likeminded people.

I get huge rewards from working in this way. I’ve been paid, for more than ten years, to write about other people’s practices in education and with technology, to speak about them and be listened to as though I know what I’m talking about. I don’t have a rider on any of my social media profiles saying ‘my opinions are my own‘. I’m free from the sheer administrative drudgery that is getting into print (did I mention that I’m impatient, ambivalent, a perfectionist, a deadline surfer, an inveterate last-minute tinkerer…?ย  Co-authors, the comment space is yours.) I’m not under the cosh of the Research Assessment Exercise, h-index, google scholar analytics or profiling. When I have ideas/words/materials I don’t have to hoard them up for my institution to monetise or my HoD to weigh up for the next round of the REA. Within the limits of my contracts, I can take them out to play.

But all of those constraints that I’m not under are also avenues for getting authorised, being taken seriously, gaining scholarly identity, buying the time to think and to write.

I was talking with Maha Bali last week, and feeling the weight of my privilege as a white, Western European, (local comprehensive but then) Oxbridge-educated child of educated parents. The conversation had come about because she had asked why she knew my work but had never heard of me. And that made me realise that there are many kinds of marginality, and being on the wrong side of just one of them can make a difference (the relative marginality of the unaffiliated is explored here by Frances Bell). That is not to claim any seriously marginal position for myself. But as I said – and Maha was kind enough to retweet – our own sense of privilege should not disable us from speaking about marginality, when the truly marginal may not be able to speak.

Sometimes the game of making other people’s practice into intellectual property is played against me. (See how the passive voice removes real people from credit or blame: that has been used against me too.) Sometimes, words I have written are published and circulated in ways that exclude me, both from the credit and from the ongoing conversation. Sometimes ideas that emerged in collaborative spaces get published by someone who was there and become that someone’s property. And all the work of opening and holding and facilitating and curating the shared space goes unnamed, because that work is just – what? Just making sure people play nicely? Just what the paid help is paid to do?

Openness and the economy of the gift

Openness is an essential value in education. But (as we are learning in relation to many values we hold) enacting the value is a privilege, and it depends on systems of privilege. Those who are free to be open may have power over those who are not in ways we can’t envisage (ref the arguments about open content as an exercise in cultural hegemony). They may have more secure jobs, or be speaking from culturally more secure positions. They may not be afraid for their lives. Or they may just have the means of making sure their intellectual labour is properly valued.

Openness may depend on the hidden labour of people who are not being getting any ‘reputational benefits’, who are not trading in that currency at all. I’m thinking here of all the people I’ve known and worked with – very many of them women – who are utterly committed to the work of open development but who rarely get the glory. I’m thinking of all the people in our community who support projects, chair conference committees, who keep networks going, who do the hard work inside organisations – but who are more likely to be thanked from the platform than to be giving the keynote. And of the educational technologists standing behind the star lecturers who are teaching the world via youtube or iTunesU.

We have been guilty, I think, in arguing the benefits of open, of emphasising the reputation economy without noticing how closely it matches the realworld distribution of benefits.

Against the whole economy of reputation, I want to bring in an idea from feminist and indigenous philosophy: the economy of the gift. The economy of the gift differs from the economy of exchange or trade. It is used to build mutual relationships rather than to build individual capital. It is common in indigenous cultures where the welfare of the individual is less important than the thriving of the group. It has been used in feminist economics to explore the work that women (typically and culturally, not essentially) do, and the ways women feel (are expected to feel) rewarded by doing it. If you want a starting point for this, try For-giving: a feminist criticism of exchange, or this wikipedia entry on Genevieve Vaughan, its author. And to see how the idea has been applied to knowledge and OER, see The Gift Economy (Chapter 3 in Haunting the Knowledge Economy) by Jane Fenway et al, or Feminism, Labour and Digital Media: the Digital Housewife by Kylie Barrett (link here to an open, pre-publication version of the introduction).

Gift economies are not the antithesis of exchange economies – they can open up inside them, with enough care. Much work in education has been on a gift basis since the beginning. It’s the surplus of care and personal support that so many teachers give to their students, for example. You find it in many educational roles that have traditionally been assigned to women (and I’m not an essentialist, but let’s just notice how these cultural values align): learning support; facilitation; co-authoring; ‘holding the space’ for ideas to be expressed. In educational technology, much of the work that has been done to open up resources and opportunities has been done generously and at personal cost – if only the opportunity cost of time that might have been spent on surer ways of securing a career. Generosity and risk aren’t negated by the fact that the established system of value is always trying to pull those gestures back inside itself.

Digital networks offer us new ways of gifting and then of seeing that generosity making a difference in the world. Also: the more people behave generously and with trust, the more rational it is to do so. Open networks of sharing make that virtuous circle turn faster, and pull more people in.

An open project

So this is what I’m going to do. I’m going back over the last ten years to find and openly publish, via this web site, all the work I think is still of value. There will be reports, and there will be resources for practice, all of which I will update if I think they are worth it. I will be do my best to respect all the other people involved in their production through private conversation and public acknowledgement, and to respect the public funding that often went into their creation. There will be risks, but I hope the way I go about doing this will minimise them. There is generosity – I have no income stream for doing this work, and will have to fit it in around the paid stuff. But perhaps a route to personal benefit will emerge (ideas always welcome!). Already I am feeling the benefits of being invited into new conversations: I am about to post an update on responses to my blog post about our responsibilities in anti-democratic times.

What I hope to do with this web site is to answer to my responsibilities. Both to my privilege – I was paid to produce this work, and it could be more useful if it were more secure and better curated. Also to my marginality – I want to claim my part in producing ideas that have shaped the conversation. This is me, as generous as I know how to be, as selfish and craving of recognition as I undoubtedly am too. My security comes in having a large and generous network of people who will understand what I’m doing and will encourage and support me, and thank you all in advance.

This blog post is now going underground, to emerge (I hope) as a submission to OER17, where (if accepted), I will be presenting as an independent, unaffiliated academic. I hope to see some of you there.


  1. This is a fantastic idea – please let me know how I can help. (I know my way around the “archives” of a few organisations.

  2. Your blog wouldn’t take my comment ๐Ÿ™ trying a different browser

    Helen this is so beautiful and reading it made me think of a lot of people dear to me in situations you describe. Whether because of their positions in organizations, or simply because of their personalities.
    I admire and respect and shivered (!) at the honesty when u said:

    “I want to claim my part in producing ideas that have shaped the conversation. This is me, as generous as I know how to be, as selfish and craving of recognition as I undoubtedly am too”

    So much transactionality is couched within the appearance of generous gifting. I hope that your generous gifting will bring you recognition and all you deserve (and I can already see it happening, too, in multiple spaces).

    I am also acutely aware of the part people like me play in this – the ones who show off and make sure they get seen and heard. In my case it comes from having experienced lack of recognition for explicitly valued work. Or as you say also lack of recognition for “traditionally female” work of creating environments to support other people’s work. Affective labor. But it also comes from my personality. And this makes me think of Kate Bowles and what she (and Martin Weller) were writing a bit over a year ago on this. I am off on a tangent now so I will stop. Xoxo

    So much respect for what you’ve laid out in this post. I have a presentation next week and I am planning to cite several parts of this in it! As I talk about the challenges/risks/privilege of open

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to write here. I know Kate’s work but thanks to you went and read her most recent blog post, ‘Listening’, which really resonated with me. You are no kind of a show-off: you have the confidence that comes with having something important to say. Please use whatever you can. xx

  3. Great work ! as ever !

  4. francesbell

    What a beautiful post Helen – honoured to be included in it. I am pushed for time but wanted to say 2 things quickly
    1. Whilst reading what you say about the gift economy, I remembered about a concept I explored in some unpublished writing #papersintheattic – the lovely idea of generalised reciprocity
    2. I have some more tips about making stuff open beyond what I said in post about workaround practices of the unaffiliated – and I’m not sure I’d share them openly ๐Ÿ™‚
    Love the web site BTW

    • francesbell

      P.S. clumsily worded in my haste – should have said that concept I explored was from Barry Wellman – enhanced by others.

  5. I have been reflecting on the very same period of my career, my time at Jisc supporting open access, OER and open licencing. I remember much of that UKOER period well and I have been feeling a need to revisit my own role in it too. Partly that’s prompted by my planned application for HEA Fellowship: what impact have I had on teaching before I even came to Warwick?
    But it’s also because I feel a dislocation between the people who make good stuff happen and the people who get their name on the papers. I’m not sure what I want. Academic life is hard work, how could I expect to be credited without putting in the “academic” sweat?
    But I work damn hard at all the sensemaking, narrative, articulation, consensus-building stuff. So why shouldn’t I want some acknowledgement too?
    Consider me a fellow traveller in the quest for recognition.

    As for you, I think your work is amazing. I’ve seen you run workshops and develop reportd, I’ve seen you synthesise and challenge and unbundle and recontextualise. You’re a thought leader, no doubt about it.

    • Amber, you are exactly the kind of intellectual I had in mind when I was writing this. All the work you do to make sense of the practice and raise it to that next level, beyond reflection to critical thinking and challenging and sharing. That is the work I am always drawing on if I have anything to say. I’ve just finished another round of interviews with amazing practitioner/thinkers, and I’m left with all these words, and I know there is no way I could treat it as research ‘material’ even if I had the time to publish it. It doesn’t belong to me. One of the people I interviewed for this project said (which was lovely) that the team had only found the time to talk because they trusted and respected me. So I feel that trust keeps the knowledge in circulation. Not that researchers can’t be trusted, or that research can’t be fully participative. But the relationship is different and the labour is differently valued.
      I think there is probably pain and envy on both sides of the ‘dislocation’ actually. Perhaps only a deep and proper respect for the scholarship of practice (the genius of doing!) can heal it? Thank you so much for writing here.

  6. excellent and I’m sure resonates with a wider circle of experience in higher education than just those working in the area of open practices. The myth of ‘collegiality’ in a context in which all power structures and careers are based around competition and individualism, for example. As for, you’re not alone in that!

    • Thank you Ian, I’ll try to get to play nicely. I just hate how these networks become exercises in self-branding, whether you want them to be or not. (Some of the sharing features in reference management services seem to me better tuned to building a community of shared knowledge – where what you share are not *your* papers but the papers you use and how you have worked with them.) I don’t think collegiality is a myth, I just think it’s constantly compromised. Ron Barnet’s work has perhaps been the best defence of collegiality in increasingly corporatised institutions. How can open practices be the enactment of that ideal?

  7. Helen, this is a wonderful piece of thinking and writing.

    You raise fundamental questions about the concept of ‘intellectual property’ and the urge to ‘monetise’ ideas. I have long been aware that ideas that I have, which may appear to be original (to me and to others), have deep roots in many conversations and interactions with others’ thinking. There is no clear boundary.

    But also the research I do always depends on innumerable contributions from others. Who owns all the data, ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ about students and their learning – the researcher who gathers it, the institution the students are enrolled in, or the students themselves?

    And ideas and innovations thrive in a culture of openness. If Tim Berner’s Lee hadn’t managed to persuade CERN to make the code that underlies the World Wide Web royalty-free it would probably remained a niche product. Typically both Murdoch and Gates each made bids in the early 90s to replace the open Web with their proprietary products (anyone remember Delphi now?) but the open nature of the Web won out.

    And it is not just in computing of course: the Human Genome Project is another example of open data sharing of immense significance.

    The inverse i.e. privatisation of research, deprives it of the form of creative dialogue and exchange of learning that it needs to thrive.

    And yet it is clearly crucial that there is a way for ‘knowledge workers” to make a living. And there is always the fear that something that you give away freely will be seized by someone else and turned to their gain. Gift cultures thrive through reciprocation.

    Thank you, for raising these crucial questions so eloquently,


    • John, you deal with crucial issues in research practice and the communication of ideas. I’m aware that my thoughts about educational (technology) practice also touched on those, but you have explained them so lucidly. For me, open scholarship tries to return intellectual work to the economy of the gift – where our responsibility is to the community of ideas, and the community needs ideas to stay in currency and circulation, and we take those freely from circulation and return the back enhanced by our labour. But as you say, the community also needs its knowledge workers to be valued (that’s for me a better way of saying ‘information wants to be valued’ and ‘information wants to be free’, as Stewart Brand allegedly put it to Steve Wozniak). At the moment, the sharing economy is parasitic on the economy of exchange: universities are funding experiments in open because they see the market and branding potential; individuals are devoting their time and energy selflessly to open projects but still need to feed their families by working in the ‘closed’ economy. Open gestures or gifts constantly being caught back up into the economy of exchange, almost whether we like it or not. How to realise the ideal of the university as a community – which has only ever been true inside highly elite spaces – in a space where everyone who wants to can be a scholar? That is the challenge.

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