What about those love locks? An invitation to explore the messiness of open education

These are my speaking notes from the 2020 Viva Open & Affordable Course Content Forum keynote. Slides are viewable here.

Those of you who attended last year’s conference may know that the keynote speaker was my dear friend Dr. Rajiv Jhanghiani. I love following Rajiv as a speaker because I know that he will have presented one of the most thoughtful, critical, incisive, and caring presentations possible. He challenges all of us to foreground care for the well-being–present and long-term–of our students. It’s always important to do so, but it feels especially important now as every day seems to bring an onslaught of bad news. It was because of Rajiv, who has always encouraged a critical lens on open education, that I want to bring some messiness to openness here today.

The author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire, argued that education is political work. It’s political because, according to Freire, we must have a vision for the outcomes of education for our students. Those visions, whether we believe education is a business, or we believe education is a right, whether we see students as experts or as receivers of our expertise, what we believe about knowledge and whose knowledge is valid, whether we downplay or whether we recognize how inequities across systems impact some of our students—those visions are all political. The visions capture what we think about the world, what we think about our students, and what role we play in education.

I want to bring that messy political lens to our conversations about openness and open education. Not political in the sense of right or left, progressive or conservative, but instead political in the sense of Freire’s notion of what we see as the impact of open education in the world and in the lives of our students. Within our notions of openness, we embody our values, our ideologies, our politics–what we believe the state of the world and of education and of students should be. This talk, in many ways is aimed at helping us find tools to interrogate those values, ideologies, politics–and the impact of all of those things on our students.

Front cover of book titled Open at the Margins

Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that this presentation is an evolution of a presentation I gave a few years back that was recently published in the Open at the Margins book–openly published and available at the URL cited here. This collection of essays, pulled together by Maha Bali, Catherine Cronin, Laura Czerniewicz, Robin De Rosa, and Rajiv Jhangiani (all amazing people to go follow on twitter right now, by the way) represents some of the most exciting and critical writing on open education I have seen to date. Every chapter in this is worth a read–many chapters are cited in this talk and they helped to shape the evolution of this presentation.

When we talk about openness, we might talk about a range of practices, activities, and resources. Everything from open education, open textbooks, open educational resources or OERS, open practices, open pedagogies, open scholarship, open access to research. We could also talk about open source, open data. If open modifies each of these things, then what does openness generally connote? What do we mean when we place “open” in front of those words? We might mean free. We might mean Creative Commons licensed. We might mean usable, reusable, modifiable, shareable. We might mean open as in public. We might mean open as in online. We might mean open as resisting definitional certainty–open-ended. Putting open in front of these words doesn’t mean that we all agree with what we’re trying to do with openness. Putting open in front of these words does not mean that what we are doing is automatically good, or right, that it will lead to the outcomes we want to see.

The word “open” has become a way to describe a whole range of digital practices, some of which could be seen as antithetical to our visions of openness. This is not a new struggle. Proponents of openness have struggled with the need to make openness inclusive while also taking a stance against forms of openness that may work against their values. That’s why we have to be careful of “open washing” — when for-profits make gestures toward openness that have only their bottom line in mind.

Audrey Watters, in her 2014 keynote at OpenCon (later published in the Open at the Margins book), said: “We act — at our peril — as if ‘open’ is politically neutral, let alone politically good or progressive. Indeed, we sometimes use the word to stand in place of a politics of participatory democracy. We presume that, because something is ‘open’ that it necessarily contains all the conditions for equality or freedom or justice. We use ‘open’ as though it is free of ideology, ignoring how much ‘openness,’ particularly as it’s used by technologists, is closely intertwined with ‘meritocracy’ — this notion, a false one, that ‘open’ wipes away inequalities, institutions, biases, history, that ‘open’ ‘levels the playing field.’

She continues,

“If we believe in equality, if we believe in participatory democracy and participatory culture, if we believe in people and progressive social change, if we believe in sustainability in all its environmental and economic and psychological manifestations, then we need to do better than slap that adjective ‘open’ onto our projects and act as though that’s sufficient or — and this is hard, I know — even sound.”

Today’s talk is not intended to dissuade you from openness, but I ask to consider the messiness of openness and its consequences, both intended and unintended.

Why does this matter, you might ask. I mean, isn’t openness, even just some openness, generally better than the alternative? If our intent with openness is good, then…isn’t that good? Let’s talk about it from the perspective of this conference’s theme of caring for students. Caring for students means being attentive not just to our intent of our designs, but our impact of our designs. This is one of the key principles of design justice.

Design justice involves approaches to design that recognize that our designs–whether we’re designing buildings, gadgets, experiences, or even yes, open education–have benefits and burdens for people and design justice seeks to more evenly distribute designs benefits and burdens. It centers the voices and perspectives of people who have typically been marginalized by design. It seeks to correct and heal, through design, oppressive and marginalizing systems. And as you see from the third principle here, it prioritizes the impacts of designs on communities, rather than the intent of the designers. It prioritizes impact over intent.

When I think about intent vs. impact, I inevitably come back to a story I often tell about locks on bridges. Here is The Pont des Arts in Paris. My son was five years old when we visited and I was so charmed by this bridge, near Notre Dame, where lovers append locks to the railings of the bridge. I was charmed because I’m fascinated by the stories of things and, well, locks on bridges tell a lot of stories. Some locks were decorated, extravagant; some were simple and humble. Some had dates, some had names, some had wishes or poems written on them. Some were plain, nameless, quiet locks whispering about the lovers who attached them.

As much as I love the stories that can be told about the locks–their intent–their impact is a different story. You see, as thousands of people participated in this ritual, the Pont des Arts began to wear out under the weight of the locks. Over time, parts of the bridge collapsed into the river Seine.  The organization No Love Locks pleaded: “Our bridges can no longer withstand your gestures of love. Set them free by declaring your love with #lovewithoutlocks.” When the Parisian authorities finally removed the locks, they removed somewhere between 45 tons – 65 tons of locks from the bridge.

The lovers do not intend to tear down the bridge. Their intent could even be called “good.” They, as author Olivia Laing wrote, want to celebrate, share, and maybe even protect their love. “Love is such a vulnerable state: who doesn’t engage in magical thinking to ward off the terrifying spectres of separation and loss?”

As we think about not just the intent but the impact of openness, we must consider how our acts of openness, even when done with the intent of love, liberation, protection from loss could have unexpected impacts. This is especially true, I think, if we have not centered our openness on the needs of students who are most marginalized by designs in education and in our society.

This should not lead us to inaction. This should not lead us to keeping things closed. But it should remind us that embracing openness without considering the risks, the messiness, and the impacts on students could be harmful, perhaps even antithetical to what we hoped for and intended.

We shouldn’t shy from the mess of openness. Digital and open practices are quite chock-full of messiness and risks and that can actually be a space of great opportunity. As Jen Ross and I wrote, “digital practices contribute to the fruitful mess that characterises education, casting new light on issues of power, responsibility, sustainability, reach and contact. …a key element of emerging technology is its not-yetness: there is so much we do not know when we engage with these technologies. We must therefore choose to dwell as teachers in [a] state of radical and enduring uncertainty …We need practices that acknowledge and work with complexity to help us stay open to what may be genuinely surprising about what happens when online learning and teaching meets emerging technologies.”

Today, I want to share with you some challenging questions for open education that I think are helpful to consider as we stay in that state of radical and enduring uncertainty– exploring the messiness or openness and staying attuned to the impacts of openness for our students. I’ll interweave examples of projects or initiatives that capture aspects of those questions.

Our first set of challenging questions for open education are: For whom, and by whom? What space is there for diversity/distinctiveness? For justice?

Many of us would argue that open education values equity. We want to make education more equitable for students, whether through lowering the costs associated with education, or making educational experiences more broadly available. Of course, we should ask whether or not our open practices actually work in the service of equity and justice. The Design Justice framework I mentioned earlier asks us to recognize that designs carry benefits and burdens, and to work to more evenly distribute the benefits and burdens of our designs by centering the experiences and voices of people who are typically ignored or marginalized by designs. These questions get at that–for whom is this designed, for whom is it not designed? Have diverse experiences and perspectives shaped this design? Drawing from Inclusive Design approaches, we might also ask, does this approach to openness celebrate diversity and allow it to thrive?

One big challenge facing open education is that it may not attend sufficiently to issues of power. Some folks question whether our open practices “reproduce historically asymmetric power relations” (Olakulehin & Singh, 2013, p. 33) in the same ways our so-called closed ones do. Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel, co-founders of the Digital Pedagogy Lab, argue that “openness can function as a form of resistance both within and outside the walls of institutions. But open education is no panacea. Hierarchies must be dismantled—and that dismantling made into part of the process of education—if its potentials are to be realized”. This is what these questions, “for whom and by whom?” try to get at.

Let’s home in on open educational resources as an example. A common critique of open education is that it often focuses too much on content and delivery of content and in particular open educational resources like open textbooks and other forms of content. If we believe that education is more than a delivery of content, then a heavy focus on content in open education and how accessible and affordable it is gives too much weight to instrumental goals of content creation and dissemination. In the dominant discourse about openness, open content and Open Educational Resources in particular embed values of access, standardization, and deinstitutionalization because they emphasize broad use and replication.  (Knox, 2013, p. 29). I get it–it’s challenging to focus on the diversity of learners and to create OERs that are responsive to that diversity, rather than standardized. This is where I think principles of inclusive design and design justice can really help us because both approaches emphasize centering the voices of learners and, in particular, learners for whom resources are not typically designed.

The concern about power issues in open education extends beyond students’ use of open educational resources to  faculty labor and agency in the creation and/or reuse of open educational resources–the by whom part of these questions. Sheila MacNeill said: “There is a cost to open-ness…Some institutions have a lot of money to spend in adding formal, open spaces, in tending their flock and developing open as part of their mainstream priorities. They tend to have the capacity to subsume and develop open research initiatives. Some may be selling the proverbial family silver to keep up. Others, mine included, don’t have that luxury and are looking at a strategic level to invest, maintain and grow different parts of their garden and the staff who maintain it.”

Or as Tressie McMillan Cottom said in her OpenCon keynote: “Who can make OER? Anyone…with institutional support, time, cumulative advantage of tenure and digital skills without the immediate need for pay, job security, mobility, and prestige.”

The privilege of creating OERs is often not afforded to people who represent or work with marginalized students which can lead to an under-representation of resources that address the needs of those students. Think back to MOOCS–massive open online courses–think about who the top MOOC providers were. They weren’t community colleges, who have a broad access mandate and who serve incredibly diverse populations. They weren’t, by and large, institutions outside of the US, or outside of the global north. They were mostly elite institutions, with resources to create and push out branded content. We have similar issues with Open Educational Resources: they are by and large produced and distributed by individuals and institutions who don’t represent or perhaps consider in their designs a diversity of learners, and diverse forms of knowing and knowledge.

I’ve seen some excellent work and writing over the last few years on the lack of participatory parity in open education between the global north and south. The global south, for example, faces greater challenges around lack of access to material resources such as power and technological infrastructure. Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams adds that participatory parity is challenged by “domination of Western oriented epistemic perspectives and hegemonic English-language OER.” In their essay OER and OEP in the Global South, Patricia Arinto et al. (2017) wrote: “creation and sharing of OER can be a way of asserting an epistemic stance, or one’s own unique (individual or collective) perspective of knowledge. This is vital for people in marginalised communities whose histories and knowledge have been sidelined or suppressed by colonial or hegemonic powers. The internet as a communication platform, and OER as an educational resource that can be freely shared, provide an opportunity for educators in the Global South to contribute their own ideas, give voice to their own perspectives and participate in a global conversation.”

Some institutions and non-profits who have committed to open initiatives recognize this issue. Rajiv, in his administrative role at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, has committed to adequately supporting colleagues who wish to engage in open educational practices by providing sufficient time, adequate funding, required training, and earned recognition. He writes: “While this position may be construed as pragmatic or instrumental, for me it strikes at the heart of addressing equity. For if the movement relies on voluntary academic labour or severely under-compensated academic labour to create, peer-review, and contextualize OER, we are in effect perpetrating an implicit form of redlining*, one that reserves the capacity to create or adapt OER for those who already enjoy positions of privilege.” Some funding organizations, like Achieving the Dream, have put their granting efforts behind this as well, looking to fund more non-White male centered content and more diverse groups of OER creators.

We need more of this. We need openness that is more diverse, more attentive to issues of power. We need openness that de-centers whiteness, maleness, westnerness, able-bodiedness. We need openness that recognizes who gets to contribute and who doesn’t. Whose voices are heard in the design and whose aren’t. Whose forms of knowledge and understanding are validated and whose are not. For whom the openness is designed and for whom it is not. As Amiel and Soares (2016) write: we need to be vigilant: to avoid constantly replicating inequalities in terms of those who produce, develop skills and revenue, and actively participate in the commons, and those who are passive observers mostly assimilating the offerings that are made available.

I have seen great work on accessibility and de-centering able-bodiedness than on other forms of inclusion in open education. A good example is BC Campus’s accessibility toolkit for open education. Tara Robertson and colleagues began working with students with visual impairments to test the first open textbooks produced in BC. This led to their writing the BC OPen Textbook Accessibility Toolkit, which is a wonderful guide for accessibility in open education. This is a great resource and it came from the work of centering the perspectives of students who we often do not center in our designs. Tara writes more about this effort in the chapter, “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Open Research and Education.

I think we have a lot of work to do here, still, especially in creating open practices and resources centered on non-white non-western communities. Both inclusive design approaches and design justice approaches encourage us to seek input from diverse people and communities as we design our open initiatives. I encourage you to learn more about inclusive design and design justice as you plan your open initiatives.

Our next challenging questions to explore the messiness of openness are: who benefits and who is at risk?

These questions highlight the vulnerabilities of openness, particularly for students and faculty in marginalized groups. As someone who participates in educational communities on twitter, and to a lesser extent on other digital platforms that enact a “publics” persona but are private for-profit entities, I have seen and even experienced at times the risks of openness on those platforms, in particular for people of color, indigenous folks, women, folks who identify as LGBTQ, and other members of marginalized communities and identities. These are risks faced by students, yes, and by faculty and staff who teach and publish openly.

Many of our educational practices that involve technology, whether we’d consider the practices or technology to be open or closed (or somewhere in between), expose our students to risks and vulnerabilities, like extraction and misuse of their data, invasions of privacy, surveillance, algorithmic bias, and more. Some of these practices we very deliberately choose to use to solve what we see as a problem with our students. Jeffrey Moro calls this “cop shit”, and defines cop shit as “any pedagogical technique or technology that presumes an adversarial relationship between students and teachers” such as plagiarism detection software, ed tech that tracks what students do, and militant attendance policies, like requiring students to attend synchronous online class sessions in their courses. But even some educational practices that we use with the very best of intentions can expose our students to potentially harmful exploitations. And again, given that technologies are not neutral, that they are designed with particular kinds of people and uses in mind, and not others, our students from marginalized communities are likely to disproportionately face higher risks.

For example, we may see learning analytics as really important to understanding students’ learning and to making sure that OERs and open practices are working. But, what kinds of trade-offs do we make for the sake of collecting student data? Who benefits, and who is at risk? We may see open publishing as a way to encourage authentic reflection for learning–I love that, I really do. But, what risks do students face, in particular students who might be most impacted by the extractive data practices of platforms and harassment from users of those platforms?

As much as we might believe in the importance of openness as a way to help our students, those goals might also often be at tension with values of privacy and protection of our students. In a chapter titled “Open as in Dangerous”, Chris Bourg writes: “At a personal level, open as in dangerous is about loss of privacy, and loss of agency.  And for marginalized people especially — a very real danger of being open on today’s internet is the danger of being targeted for abuse, and harassment, for rape and/or death threats, and the danger of being doxxed.”

As we think about how to engage with these questions and tensions, I am reminded of the work of incredible scholars. Safiya Noble who wrote Algorithms of Oppression. When I think about her work in light of open practices and the question of who is at risk, I think about her research on how Google’s search engine advances search results that reinforce anti-black stereotypes. Ruha Benjamin who wrote Race After Technology: The New Jim Code points to how technologies, many of which we might use as part of open education, encode and further exacerbate racism. For example, she points to how law enforcement surveils and collects a lot of online data about people who live in predominantly black neighborhoods, including your students, as part of targeted policing efforts. Chris Gilliard, who brought us the term “digital redlining” (digital discriminatory practices) notes that surveillance capitalism is the dominant logic of the web and he asks: “To what degree might “open” mean the ability to be free from surveillance, extraction, and monetization of data?” sava saheli singh, who created the excellent film series Screening Surveillance, asks: “What are some of the things we can do to be more sensitive to those for whom “open” can mean harm?”. She offers ideas, like interrogating platforms, push back on technologies that are exploitative, and be reflexive as we engage with openness.

Sometimes it’s easy to spot the really egregious practices that put our students in danger. We’re all pretty clear on Facebook these days, right? Sometimes, it’s a little harder to spot. Tara Robertson, in the chapter I mentioned earlier, wrote about an organization called Reveal Digital had digitized and creative-commons licensed a lesbian porn magazine. Tara notes that the models in that limited print magazine had not consented to having their bodies digitized and remixable in that way, by anyone on the internet. Tara’s story highlights how dangerous situations can emerge from even the best-intentioned open practices, especially when folks impacted by those efforts don’t have agency in the situation.

Questions of who benefits and who is a risk are so important. Being attentive to who benefits and who is at risk means listening to the perspective of students, faculty, staff, and communities that we don’t normally listen to. It also means being willing to recognize where the things we are doing are causing harm and being willing to stop or adjust course. And it means, as Chris Bourg writes, “baking in respect for privacy, agency, and informed choice…And especially by actively, intentionally, and collaboratively centering the voices and the work of those who have been and are marginalized.”

In my EDUCAUSE article calling for universities and colleges to explore the idea of digital sanctuary for student data, I noted that many institutions have created policies and procedures that address ethical use of student data. Here is the Open University’s framework, which I think is pretty good. What I like most about it is that it is transparent–it includes FAQs and information that lets students know how their data is being used and what rights, though not many, the students have to manage their own privacy rights. I have to imagine that, in the process of creating this framework, they had to have many conversations about their values, what was important data to have analyzed, what wasn’t, what agency the students could have.

I encourage those conversations at your institutions, though I also encourage you to push back on assumptions that more data about students is better than less data. Henry Giroux, in the Language of Liberal Education wrote, “Metrics in the service of an audit culture has become the new face of a culture of positivism, a kind of empirical-based panopticon that turns ideas into numbers and the creative impulse into ashes. Large scale assessments and quantitative data are the driving mechanisms in which everything is absorbed into the culture of business. The distinction between information and knowledge has become irrelevant in this model and anything that cannot be captured by numbers is treated with disdain. In this new audit panopticon, the only knowledge that matters is that which can be measured.” Jess Mitchell, who cited this Giroux statement in the excellent chapter titled “The Tyranny of Clear Thinking,” calls for us to remember the complexity and messiness of our world as we question our need for “clear” data on students.

In my group at Middlebury, protecting and caring student data is a constant topic of conversation and work. Over the last year, we remixed an open initiative called CryptoParties and created our own DLINQ Cryptoparties with our students. Cryptoparties are hands-on events designed to give participants a chance to learn about privacy and data exploitations they face and work to reclaim some of their agency related to their privacy and data. I say that we remixed the Cryptoparties because we took a page out of the Detroit Social Justice Coalition’s approach and designed our Cryptoparties with students, hearing their perspectives, asking them to co-design the events with us. Like the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, who designed their Discovering Technology events, called DiscoTechs, driven by the expertise of their community members (i.e., the people most impacted by the exploitations of those technologies) we asked students to be experts and help develop those events. And not only did they–and they were wonderful events–but the students began spinning off Cryptoparty pop-ups and other events on their own.

Our final challenging questions to explore the messiness of openness are: what is in the borderlands? What space is there for open-endedness?

Open advocates have been known to say that the opposite of open is broken. This brings up, of course, the definitional issues we’ve been discussing with openness–what do we even mean when we say open? It presents a false binary between open and closed; open and broken. If open, framed against closed, is unequivocally good,  we risk foreclosing conversations about the deeper, and more political, goals of openness.

Edwards challenges that, “all forms of openness entail forms of closed-ness” (p. 253). Choices around open practices always involve “selecting” and “occluding other possibilities” (p. 255) and, therefore, educators cannot claim openness as an educational value in its own right, and closedness as its antithesis. Edwards continues: “The question is not whether to make education more open, but what forms of openness and closed-ness are justifiable. To bring to the fore the paradoxical inter-relationship of open–closed-ness is to investigate the micro-practices of education and their powerful effects, the specific forms they take and the possibilities for alternative practices.”

I always think about Gloria Anzaldua’s seminal work deconstructing the physical, psychological, and cultural borders and borderlands between the US and Mexico, Borderlands/La Frontera, said that “Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them…a borderland is a vague and undetermined placed created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition.” As Anzaldua’s writings suggest, openness and closedness are in constant tension and in flux, and we should explore and embrace the complexities that accompany modes of openness.

Rather than embracing openness as an unquestionable or unassailable virtue, we should see openness and closedness, and more importantly permeability among and between them, as an opportunity for us to critically question our educational and teaching practices. Critical lenses like complexity theory and not-yetness, can help us to approach openness with attention to what we call “boundary crossing” between openness and closedness. In her article “what’s critical about critical phenomenology?” Gayle Salamon (2018) calls this “crossing over” between and among concepts, each lending insights to the other. She also says that this crossing over represents epistemic humility that I would argue is not found in statements like “the opposite of open is broken.”

Salamon later writes, “The new work currently emerging in phenomenology offers every reason to hope that it, too, might be on the cusp of its own decolonization and reflexive self-consideration, and that it might yet be capacious enough to simultaneously encompass the revelation of its limitations as well as the expansion of its reach.” Inserting the word open in this statement instead, “The new work currently emerging in openness offers every reason to hope that it, too, might be on the cusp of its own decolonization and reflexive self-consideration, and that it might yet be capacious enough to simultaneously encompass the revelation of its limitations as well as the expansion of its reach.”

To that end, I love what Jesse Stommel and Danielle Paradis call Queering Open. “To queer Open is to imagine it as an emergent space always in process.” Queering open confounds binary definitions and approaches. They wrote: ““From this vantage, Open Education is not confined by courses, platforms, syllabi, hierarchies, but exactly resists those containers, imagining a space for marginalized representation — a space that troubles distinctions between student / teacher and formal / informal learning — a space that recognizes our unique embodied contexts and offers opportunities for liberation from them.”

I think of Wikipedia as a great example of boundary crossing / crossing over in openness. Wikipedia is often held up as the ultimate success story for openness. People talk about the closed encyclopedia and the open Wikipedia and how each has fared in the age of the internet. And, yes, Wikipedia is very impressive–I am a huge fan. Wikipedia can be a great way to give students voice and agency in the digital spaces they sometimes inhabit. In that vein, you could consider (and I think we mostly would consider) editing Wikipedia to be part of open practices. But, if we stop there we might miss to dig deeper into this open practice.

Wikipedia is driven by a need for consensus. An authoritative and accurate voice. In the many processes that Wikipedia editors undertake to provide authoritative articles, consensus drives out inclusivity, multiple voices, personality, nuance, creativity. And, in driving those things out, it becomes a lot less “open” than we might have originally thought. As Mike Caulfield writes: “Ten of thousands of hours are spent editing Wikipedia’s top articles, but for the most part they aren’t spent coming up with new ways to explain things, or updating articles with new research. They are spent are the never-ending pulping out of voice, perspective, bias, and differing opinion about what belongs in the article.” It’s helpful to remember here, too, that about 90% of Wikipedia editors are white, male, western, from the global north, college-educated.

Now, it’s not that Wikipedia is a “closed” space either. It has been an impressive model of leveraging communities to put forward and handle a lot of information. The issue is that simply branding Wikipedia as “open” can foreclose conversations about its areas/practices of openness and its areas/practices of closedness; calling it open or calling it closed foreclose our thinking about the ways in which it is both and how we might use it in new ways to address our political goals of openness.

Last year at Middlebury, we joined a Wikipedia-focused initiative called Newspapers on Wikipedia. The goal of the project was–and still is–to increase content on Wikipedia about local newspapers as a way to help people verify information they read on the web. Lateral reading is a recommended strategy for combating misinformation; lateral reading is reading what others have said about a source. Wikipedia, as it turns out, is a great place to read what others have said about a source–but that means that we need more good Wikipedia content about news sources, especially local news sources, that tend to be underrepresented.

Like the feminist Wikipedia projects and edit-a-thons we’d hosted before and since, which aimed to increase diverse authorship and content on Wikipedia, we sought to bring in diverse students, staff, and faculty to participate in the NOW project. For example, we worked with a professor in a program for English Language Learners (all international students) to add NOW participation as an assignment in her course. We worked with courses in our Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies program to encourage writing from students who identify as non-binary, from indigenous communities, and more. Our goal was to participate in the project by bringing as many diverse voices to the Wikipedia community as we could.

As I began leading workshops in classes for students who would be participating in the project, the tensions around Wikipedia became clear. As I explained “how to write for Wikipedia so that your articles don’t get deleted,” students would question whose authority really mattered. We dug into it. We schemed ways to subvert the Wikipedia squashing of diverse perspectives –mostly unsuccessfully. We discussed and explored ways to expose on Wikipedia non-white ways of knowing. Again, often unsuccessfully. And throughout all of this, we had really instructive conversations about openness, and open platforms, and how the web works, and more. If you’re interested in learning more about NOW and joining it, I am so pleased to announce that one of the areas they’re focusing on this year is Wikipedia content about Black-owned newspapers. I think this is a wonderful direction for the project and we’re excited to be joining it again this year.

I never know how to end talks like this–ones where the central line is a series of questions. I thought a lot about what I think about when I am trying to plan an open initiative in my classes or at Middlebury. Here are some thoughts:

  • embrace agency
  • center the voices/input of diverse students
  • consider the borderlands, open-endedness
  • seek justice: Audrey Watters wrote: “What are we going to do when we recognize that ‘open’ is not enough. I hope, that we recognize that what we need is social justice. We need politics, not simply a license. We need politics, not simply technology solutions. We need an ethics of care, of justice, not simply assume that “open” does the work of those for us.”
  • Love & care for students

In her essay, “Untimeliness and Punctuality: Critical Theory in Dark Times” Wendy Brown writes that critical theory is “a hope rather than a luxury in dark times.” She adds that “the first gesture of critique is not dismissal or a turning away but a moving closer with attention, care, curiosity.” Today’s questions are part of our critique of open education, not in a way that should lead to cynicism, but instead to affirming possibilities.

It is with this attention, care, and curiosity–affirming and bringing to light new transformative possibilities for our students– that I ask us to move toward openness.

Featured image by T. Q. on Unsplash

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