I have just finished David Price’s Open (2013). In it, he extols the inevitability and desirability of an increasingly open world. A world opened up largely by information communication technologies. A world in which a global commons mediated by the wide world web is emerging. The positive spin of globalisation if you like. Written back in 2013, reading it in 2016 feels like that bit in An Inspector Calls when one of the characters references the unsinkable Titanic in early 1912 (Priestley, 2001).**
I can imagine at another time, in another place, it would be easy to get swept along with Price’s enthusiasm for emerging patterns of internet usage and moves towards radical transparency and a sharing economy. But in the midst of Brexit, Trump, the Alt-Right, and post-truth being named word of the year, many of the ideas Price espouses seem horrifically naive.
The idea of no longer listening to experts or paying people for their labour, because the culture of open strips away old hierarchies is painfully real, as experts are publicly derided by politicians and the perilous new gig economy takes over our employment market. Now none of this is what Price anticipated open would look like and there are zillions of examples of where the learning commons, people coming together for free to learn and find solutions together, is happening. But that same spirit seems to be facilitating an awful lot of racism and neo-fascism.
On the back of reading Open, I have also been reading about globalisation and education. The processes identified by David Price are part of globalisation, both a cause and effect. We’ve been talking about a shrinking globe for decades now and a warming globe for a while. It sometimes feels like exposure to the world doesn’t make people feel freer or less bound to one particular space, but the opposite: as if the walls are closing in.
One of the problems with David Price’s Open is the deployment of the open-enclosed binary. The language of openness can mask an act of enclosure, creating a contradiction. The sheer volume of information available now is creating new binaries, a binary distinction libraries are taking advantage of to claw back some of their meaning, but that often work against the principle of open (Edwards and Usher, 2008).
Librarians aren’t the only people in need of establishing meaning for their work in this new open world. If everyone has facts at their fingertips, who needs an education in the traditional sense? Or so goes the argument. But education hasn’t been about simply learning facts for decades. Open does point to new ways of learning, such as through informal networks and communities of practice, with the student working towards what need to know in a collaborative and problem based way.
Boy genius and information rights activist, Aaron Swartz, makes a passionate case for this mode of learning over traditional forms of education (Swartz, 2016). But these modes, when disconnected from formal education for children, depend upon the skills and literacies developed both in school and home. For many young people Open ways of learning will simply not be accessible if the formal education system doesn’t create a bedrock of skills and understandings.
These informal modes of education do not make education redundant. They certainly don’t make teachers redundant if we embrace these new, more meaningful ways of working. There is a danger in this form of education for a reification of the individual over the community, as sharing space and time becomes less the norm and students pursue their own interests and projects. Yet Open also lends itself to collaborative practices, with teachers in a coordinating role, in a dialogic approach.
Richard Edwards and Robin Usher see the new role of teachers in a globalised world as helping their students understand how information is constructed, where to find it and evaluate it (Edwards and Usher, 2008). This isn’t a new idea to teaching librarians for whom information literacy has become central, pointing to the new power configurations Open produces.
What I feel David Price’s book misses, is the power and control element of both information and dispersed learning. Returning to the idea of space being enclosed under the cover of a discourse of openness. We see now the development of a filter bubble of news where we have access to every news story published online across the planet through search engines such as Google, yet we are only shown what already chimes with our world view through corporate personalisation aimed at generating maximum advertising revenue. In the sphere of education, Edwards and Usher point to the way in which power is reinscribed in dispersed learning. Drawing on Foucault, they point to the idea that you cannot separate power and knowledge. Self discipline becomes self surveillance (Edwards and Usher, 2008). As with most forces involved in globalisation and the creation of postmodern identities, the binaries collapse into one another, contradict one another and reinforce one another.
Perhaps the problem with Open is that you have to be in a position to embrace it, critique it and use it to move forward towards collective goals that free people and information, rather than enslave them. There is undoubtedly a new opportunity to collaborate, share and develop, but the way forward will not be as uncomplicated, inevitable or necessarily empowering as David Price envisages.
Note: I have borrowed “I open at the close” from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
** An Inspector Calls is set in early April 1912. The RMS Titanic famously hit an iceberg and sank on 15th April 1912.
Edward, R. and Usher, R. (2008). Globalisation and Pedagogy: space, place and identity. London: Routledge.
Price, D. (2013). Open: how we’ll work, live and learn in the future. Great Britain: Crux Publishing Ltd.
Priestley, J. (2001). An Inspector Calls and Other Plays. London: Penguin.
Rowling, J. K. (2007). Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. London: Bloomsbury.
Swartz, A. (2016). The boy who could change the world: the writings of Aaron Swartz. London: Verso.