Hack Education on OER and Inequality

Posted by on Dec 23, 2011 in Digital Divide, OER, Oped, Uncategorized | No Comments

Audry Watters at Hack Education has a write up of some of my thoughts on inequality, and it stimulated a lively conversation, mostly hostile to my views.Audry Thinking Having Jim Groom respond to my work was quite a treat, even if he calls my arguments silly. And someone even refers to my work is evil–I’m just one step away from my first Hitler comparison. Maybe next time.

Here’s the link to Audry’s post and the conversation, and my response is posted below. Lots of very helpful comments as I continue to think about my livestreamed talk at the Berkman Center on January 17th.

Thanks Audry for riffing on my article, and thanks to everyone in the comments for your candid and forthright critiques. This kind of feedback is very helpful in refining my positions, and I’m thrilled that my name is now a tag in the DS106 ecosystem.



First, let me say that I’ll be giving a talk about this, “Will Free Benefit the Rich?” at the Berkman Center on January 17th: http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/e….¬† It’ll be livestreamed and I’ll take questions by Twitter. I hope you can join me!

Let me respond to a few critiques, and see if I can clarify a few of my positions and try to convince that they are neither silly nor evil.

First, when I establish my two scenarios, I’m not proposing any new arguments here. The two scenarios that I propose are established tropes, used consciously or not, in discussions of OER. I’m not at all surprised to here that Jim Groom has made arguments similar to scenario number 2 about widening opportunity gaps; Jim is very thoughtful (but when someone you have tremendous respect for calls your arguments silly, “ouch!”–the internet can hurt). And as Audry points out, the scenario number 1 model is all over the place–sometimes explicitly as in Curtis Bonk’s “The World is Open” and very often implicitly, as in the Forbes articles that Audry describes or in the logic model of nearly any OER provider whose theory of action is “make stuff freely available and society will be better.”

My argument, is that both of these scenarios are plausible, and we can use research and data to evaluate which seems to be actually occurring. The signature contribution of my work is not to create these arguments, but to gather evidence about them. My reading of my research, looking at a random sample of wikis drawn from a population of nearly 200,000, is that the widespread available of wikis causes no identifiable harm to anyone, but disproportionately benefits students in wealthy schools. Wikis are more likely to be created in wealthy schools, more likely to persist longer, and more likely to support the development of high-demand skills like expert thinking, complex communication, and new media literacy. So in regards to wikis, I don’t think we need to speculate about which scenario is true– it’s the widening gaps scenario. We need more data on other technology tools and interventions, but my hunch is that we will find that lots of open education approaches disproportionately benefit the wealthy. I think we should do that research, think very carefully about the consequences of our findings, and if we find that open education stuff is mostly benefiting the already-advantaged, think carefully about designs that might disrupt those patterns. As Audry points out, my post does have some very specific suggestions about that.

So to respond specifically to a few things

–My intent is not to blast OER for failing to fix everything. That would be silly. My intent is to say that many people argue, tacitly or openly, that OER will disproportionately benefit the disadvantaged, and I think if we evaluate that claim empirically, we’ll find it’s not true.

–I think there are some very legitimate arguments that this kind of inequality doesn’t matter. Mitch Weisburgh makes an argument about timing– that if early products cater to the wealthy, later ones will become more mass market. Other folks might make the argument that if everyone benefits from OER–even if the wealthy benefit more–then good is being done–this is basically John’s argument. This is a very Jim Rawls type of argument, that a rising tide lifts all boats; if you agree, you are in good company among well-respected political theorists. I disagree: if doing good disproportionately benefits the already advantaged, then I’m not sure those resources are being used optimally.

–Jim raises the idea that structural inequalities are at the root of these disparities, and until we solve them, we can’t expect education to solve these problems. I agree with the premise, but not the conclusion. We need to #occupy and fight for a more equitable economic system, but education should still do what it can. Programs like TechGoesHome, Glitch Game Testers, the Leadership Public Schools CK-12 partnership and others point the way to how technology innovations can specifically target those who most need help.

–I’m sympathetic to, but ultimately suspicious, of Jason’s “don’t stop” argument. It’s linked to Mitch’s argument that somewhere down the line, the OER community will be more attentive to these issues. I don’t think anyone should stop what they are doing, but I do hope folks will pause and reflect “If I wanted my course, program, resources, archive, etc. to disproportionately benefit those most in need, what would I do differently? How might considerations of equity change my theory of action?”

That pause is really my mission in writing about all this. For instance, I was recently involved in helping to design an upcoming OER conference. The draft of the plan looked at OER from a supply and demand perspective with the tacit essential question being “How can we make more OER?” With considerations of equity, that question has shifted towards “How can we maximize the learning opportunities for diverse students through¬† OER?” If my arguments can help shift people’s thinking in those kinds of directions, then I think considerations of equity are well worth pausing and examining.

— As to the idea that my arguments are evil: totally true! Muahahaha!

I’m going to being sharing some new arguments along these lines in my Berkman talk about how the patterns of OER/edtech disproportionately benefitting the wealthy can be self-fulfilling. If mostly wealthy kids use OER, and if OER/edtech designers get feedback from their user base without disaggregating, then most feedback will come from the wealthy. If paradata collected by OER providers is mostly supplied by the wealth, then design and usage situations will be shaped by that majority. Then, it won’t just be that the wealthy benefit more, but that the “marketplace” of educational resources are actively shaped by the needs of the well-off. I hope many of you can join me, and share your critiques in person or online!


Thanks again for your conversation.



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