The Presentation Escape Hatch: Blogging My #OpenEd16 Talk

Gardner Campbell shared a wonderful anecdote with those who remained in the room following my Open Education presentation on further developing out the content paradox:

In 2012, upon receiving the invitation to keynote he noted the conference theme, beyond content.  “Beyond content (kənˈtent)! That is a great theme! Let’s move past our comfort zones and dig in!”

“No, it’s beyond content (kɑːntent),” someone clarified.

“Oh. Well, that’s good too.”

I have struggled for the past year to clearly define criticisms of the Open movement I presented on at the 2015 Open Ed Conference and published on in Learning, Media & Technology.  Some of this is practical – I think the rousing success of the OER and Open Textbook movement needs to be celebrated, and it is difficult to sound sensical doing both in the same space.  Some of this is philosophical – it’s easy to get caught in the weeds when applying a lens from a dead white French philosopher (I’ve done Lyotard, Baudrillard and Barthes in the last three years).  Some of this is psychological – it is the energy of what Open stands for which brought me to this community, so there is some discomfort playing the part of the naysayer.  These struggles led to a presentation goal of paving the first step of a general awareness of the need for criticism of Open and Open Education.  The result was an ambitious presentation on an emerging theoretical research paper which generated significant interest but failed to fully deliver on its promises. Perhaps this written account can supplement the experience.

I started with Stuart Hall and bell hooks, specifically regarding an early ‘family reunion’ conference in the world of cultural studies (if you don’t know Hall or Hooks, I would suggest Hall’s encoding/decoding and hooks’ Teaching to Transgress as immediate, must-read).  During Hall’s keynote there were protests from the conference-goers regarding the structure of the event:  at a place where the content was about relationships between theory, culture and politics the event organization was structured to support dominant power structures at the expense of those for whom cultural studies is heralded as an equalizer.  This was not the intention of the well-meaning cultural studies conference organizers (indeed, part of the reason for the structure of the conference was to ensure a cultural studies reader could emerge from the various speakers), but best intentions of content had failed to acknowledge the erosion of experience in the structure.

I then explained my opening slide – a quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost Book VI (Jesus on the chariot of fire riding into battle from the heavens) and a picture from William Blake’s illustration of the work, Satan and the minions.


How did Milton and Blake play into a criticism of open education?  They did not*.  I picked the Milton quote after Gardner Campbell sparked a Milton interest during his Wednesday keynote.  The Son of God as warrior is some of the most powerful imagery from Paradise Lost, so it’s a cool quote.  People should read it.

* – well, that’s not entirely true.  This was a set-up.  The words of the quote were meaningless, which was a table setting for my next point, that by having an English poet and artist on my opening slide, where I was listed as a university administrator with a doctorate, I had created the signs and symbols to support a specific sort of conversation at an academic conference.  Rolin Moe, serious academic talking about serious things.


One of Roland Barthes’ most influential philosophical works, Mythologies, is anchored by an essay about the signs and symbols of professional wrestling.  Barthes argues that like my use of Milton and Blake to establish proper academic seriousness, the wrestlers in the ring utilize accepted  symbols and signs to share their message.  Where Barthes makes his contention is that every person in the pro wrestling interchange knows the entertainment is a work, a fake.  The wrestlers use symbols to convey a meaning, the audience recognizes these symbols, and the show goes on.  All parties are aware that the professional wrestling is an act of communication and nothing more.  For Barthes, the recognition of the relativity of symbols and the two-way relationship makes this form of communication superior to the high seriousness of something such as my talk.

I then tried to make an example of signs and symbols with wrestling, but it stalled out.  I’ll skip it here and instead insert the paragraph I omitted when I saw my time was running out, a paragraph that pulled the room together so to speak.  This is a quote from Sian Bayne’s introduction to a special research journal dedicated to a critical look at Open:

Crucially, the field has lacked coherent definitions of ‘open’, and too often tended towards optimism, advocacy, and conviction, rather than a critical understanding of what openness might mean for education. Moreover, it is the vagaries of the term itself that have allowed it to be attached to other ideas so readily: to notions of self-directed learning and cohesive community interaction; and to technology and the presumed capacities of the digital networks that enable educational activity to take place. In these ways, ‘open’ has too often accounted for the assumed ease with which educational hierarchies can be horizontalised, and economic and geographic barriers can be dissolved.

As I noted, this research is a continuation of research from 2015 (and really from 2014 thinking about academic impact) wrapped up in the concept of content.  David Wiley’s reusability paradox was amended to include an ‘escape hatch,’ and in my research of commercially licensed but freely available educational/edutainment products I discovered what I called a content paradox:

When we open the escape hatch from the reusability paradox and let the content out into a world unencumbered by copyright, we leave the safety of discussing open as a copyright problem and enter into a larger and more problematic space where open cannot be a use-value product nor a universal value. By opening the escape hatch and leaving the reusability paradox, we make open less absolute than when the hatch was closed.

Content was not the mechanism for a solution but rather the cause of the problem, for a number reasons:  the weight of content as a term outside of open education (bogged down with field information, metadata and analytics), as well as the commercial focus of content as a sales and marketing scheme.  But there was something else I had missed last year when thinking solely about the long tail of content-as-entrepreneurial-strategy.

In an attempt to build tension in the talk, I did not answer that question here.  Instead, I pivoted to the history of the Open Education Conference.  In 2015 there was some unrest, not to the level of the cultural studies unrest but a sizable portion of the participants frustrated by a discourse shift to free or low-cost textbooks.  Adam Croom has s to chart the rise of Textbooks in the OpenEd discourse; I seconded his work in a more ethnographic context: analyzing the evolution of OpenEd Conference websites.


I was struck by the differences between 2012 and the following conferences.  Within the 2012 page there was evidence of numerous hangouts, happenings, and various loosely structured (but structured nevertheless) opportunities for communication and collaboration outside of presenting research.  Moreover, the conference theme, Beyond Content, showed a desire to grow the field.  Looking at 2013 and beyond (whether through the abstracts Adam has distilled or viewing their websites), it is evident the conversation U-Turned back to content (10% more OER sessions, 25% more textbook sessions, a logo specifically about content licensing).  There are admirable reasons for a capitulation:  the change came shortly after the UNESCO recognition of OER and in the four years since the Open movement has had arguably its largest success in relation to local, national and international policies and initiatives to support free and low-cost materials.  But if we look at the history of educational improvement and attainment, we find U-Turns to content to be the norm rather than the exception.

Insert the “Education Has Not Changed in X Years” trope.  It doesn’t matter whether you say it hasn’t changed since the Prussians, since the Monasteries, or since the Romans…the assumption on these two places is that the old way of education was dedicated to locking down content and locking down structure.  The contents were literally locked in the precursors to today’s universities for protection if the barbarians were at the gates.  And the schools were places of one-way communication from expert to novice, the novice of course being a very specific sort of person with a very specific set of chromosomes and family lineage.

Historically when we have talked about fixing education we have focused on the structural lockdown.  The enlightenment made an argument for education beyond the nobility.  Correspondence and precursors to the Open University utilized the technology of the time but provided access to education for populations entirely new to the opportunity.  The advent of radio, the advent of television, and the advent of telecommunications as through the Internet were all celebrated at first as opportunities not only to provide access, but to provide an improvement on the one-way communication model, to create community and opportunity for the sorts of relationships which previously could only occur in person.  The problem is, access is well-intended and structure is well beyond the facilitation of access.  Changing institutional structure to support Open is a painstakingly difficult process for numerous reasons (perhaps one of which is a difference in administrative stakeholders on the purpose of educational institutions).

At the start of my talk I nodded to the research of Vivien Rolfe who did a systematic review of the literature on the criticism of open education, and found that the heyday of such literature was in the early 1970s.  I noted a connection between this finding and my general findings, yet did not circle back in my talk.  However, it makes sense to see a change in thinking about Open Education in the early 1970s, as educational policies were somewhat reshaped after the US Civil Rights movement and the French Student Rebellion at the same time as a high interest in television-enhanced distance learning.  Further study is needed but Wilbur Schramm’s Big Media, Little Media does a cursory dive into the Open topic while focusing on the technology.

And this is where we get into trouble, when the ethos of our call runs into the pragmatism looking for a solution.  This is not at the feet of Open Education; look at the history of technology-enhanced learning and it is considered generational because of the manner in which technology afforded content distribution.  Faced with the daunting task of structural change (and structural is beyond institution and moving to societal in terms of Marx’s base and superstructure), we capitulate to content, the other part of the historically broken education system.  The problem here is that we assume that by changing one we can see progress with the other, an abstraction of content from structure and then a return to structure.  Historically, this has not worked:  the structural impediments to education have not only continued forth, but as technology has necessitated changes in content delivery we have seen a shifting of the status quo to continue its control over education:  soaring tuition in the era of free online courses, quantitative adherence at a time when two-way communication is more accessible than ever before, and a belief in education as a globalizing and democratizing agent at a time when international discourses are dominated by international companies or nationalist political shifts.

This is what Antonio Gramsci would call hegemony, where the group in societal power insists that intellectual discussion should take place in the kind of language which it uses to see, interpret and dominate the world. Our ability to provide structural change and affect for more students than ever is impeded by the structure we operate within.  In this space, low-cost contents are appreciated but not changing the status quo, and the worry is by focusing so heavily on contents we are perpetuating the existence of the status quo.

This was a chance to circle back to Barthes and another of his famous works, a critique of French playwright Jean Racine.  Racine is considered the foremost author in the French Alexandrine style, one which I must admit I do not fully understand (I do not speak French) but involves 12 syllables per line and has specific restrictions on the usage of vowels.  Racine’s work has been long considered vital for its impeccable form, and his genius showing through because of the form.  Barthes’ critique was that Racine’s form is aesthetically pleasing for those who enjoy French Alexandrine, but the adherence to the form was much more than syllabic:  Racine’s work within these parameters was not growing French culture but solidifying a worldview.  Here Barthes looks at the content of Racine, praised as an early master of psychology but analyzed by Barthes to be using the structure of plays to set subservient male/female relationships as accepted and established.  The form was considered the entry point into proper French culture. (and whether Racine was aware of his social justifications is something to be psychoanalyzed) By adhering so starkly to the signs and conventions of the time Racine was a enforcer of the status quo rather than the virtuoso he is considered in history.

I ended with a blank slide.  We always want answers; it has been noted at the conference on multiple occasions the percentage of positive studies shared in this space, and this was an opportunity to enjoy the silence and realize a pithy solution might be expected symbols and signs for the venue but would be a false representation.  Moving the microphones, whether literally or figuratively, would not be the solution.  And I circled back to bell hooks here, because when asked later about her comments on the cultural studies conference, she noted how her thoughts had been abstracted from a thoughtful criticism into a sound byte about microphones.  She had noted the power of the movement but the needs for change, which was truncated into complaining about microphones.  She was vilified for pointing out structural barriers in a place dedicated to pointing out structural barriers.

There is much to celebrate about the victories of Open as well as the virtues.  But we have our form, just like professional wrestling or Racine or a TED talk.  And if our form gets too tied into textbooks and OER, we will follow in the footsteps of the other change agents which turned into content subservients.  More and more people are brought to Open Education every day, often because of low- or no-cost resources.  To get beyond content and beyond content means we have to provide more push, more negotiation, and more structural work past OER provision and adoption.

The literature primer at the heart of this presentation:

Open Education:  The Need for a Critical Approach (Bayne, Ross & Knox)

Distrusting Educational Technology (Selwyn)

OER:  The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (Bates)

Barthes – Mythologies and The Death of the Author

Photo – T-shirts by shelleylyn CC BY 2.0


About Rolin
Assistant Professor & Director of EdTech & Media at Seattle Pacific University. Consultant w/ RAM TEC. Work with faculty, teach students, explore non-formal learning spaces (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums)


  1. Rolin, thanks for writing this up and for the links you’ve provided to the articles for additional reading. Responding to these points:

    “Faced with the daunting task of structural change (and structural is beyond institution and moving to societal in terms of Marx’s base and superstructure), we capitulate to content, the other part of the historically broken education system. The problem here is that we assume that by changing one we can see progress with the other, an abstraction of content from structure and then a return to structure… In this space, low-cost contents are appreciated but not changing the status quo, and the worry is by focusing so heavily on contents we are perpetuating the existence of the status quo.”

    I wholeheartedly agree that low-cost content is appreciated but does nothing to change the status quo. Rather than low-cost content, I believe we need open content – content that provides us with new permissions to engage in new activities we have previously been precluded from. As I have written elsewhere, I believe that content – in whatever form it takes – is a key piece of the intellectual infrastructure of education. Indeed, unless you twist the definition of content in torturous ways, it is difficult to imagine content-free education. When that open content infrastructure enables permissionless and democratized exploration and experimentation (a la Adam Thierer and Eric von Hippel), I think that by changing the one we will enable progress in the other. It’s a theory of change that looks to increase negative liberty, with an eye toward building a sufficiently sturdy platform that we can get eventually get on with the business of increasing positive liberty. Yes, it perpetuates the status quo while we go about laying that foundation, but to my mind that seems to be the most direct path to creating the larger change we want to make.

    Anyway, very glad to have you in the conversation and pushing on all of our thinking. You move us.

    • Hi David, sorry for the delay in responding — things got a bit out of hand in the US after this and I’m just now coming around!

      My ‘low-cost content’ was not fleshed out as I needed it to be. Cost is a difficult metric to consider when talking about the structures of education, as the ‘cost’ has to be borne somewhere. Is the cost a financial incentive from a for-profit player? Is the cost built into the educational institution? Is the cost as simple as the difference between free digital OER and buying the at-cost print version of an OpenStax book? Further down that abstract hole, are the costs financial or resource-based? I think we are in full agreement on the cost aspect, and that open content is more often than not an ideal form of information for an educational purpose.

      It’s tough to critique both ‘open’ and ‘content.’ Open is the more seemingly straightforward term, but that ease has led to its co-optation. Openwashing is an egregious example and we rightfully call it out, but there are less blatant negotiations of Open which also cause trouble with the full-court press adoption of the term: a harkening to the righteousness of technology, expectations on the power of networks, a false binary where ‘closed’ is a four-letter word, etc. Sian Bayne notes that when we fail to recognize the ambiguity of Open and relegate it to a superlative we create Open as a toothless term, a meliorative by name but without action.

      My personal contribution to the research is a critique of ‘content,’ however. Here the information is not as ambiguous – what we wish to be a signifier for information or text is in fact a term increasingly bound in both technology and commerce. Content is the driving force of a knowledge economy not as an asset to human capital (knowledge is power, truth will set us free) but as the good of sale (the long tail of metadata and analytics as the iceberg underneath the WWW ocean). Fascination with content is similar to fascination with open, but while in the case of Open we can look at ‘openwashing’ as the interloper, our idea of content as an appendage of democratized exploration and experimentation is more the interloper on the societal meeting.

      This might seem in the weeds a bit…why not just change ‘content’ to ‘materials’ or ‘contents’ and get out of the semantics, which is where my call to #OpenEd16 comes in. Our passion feels Right and the aspect of negative liberty via Hobbes and Locke is a admirable call, so language can feel like a nuisance but not an important question. But from a poststructural perspective we are not Right. Our work is pushing upstream, and requiring not just a shift of resources or an adoption of pedagogy…and not just institutional structures for supporting these initiatives nor definitions or hashtags or well-meaning sentiment.

      Open Content as you have set out and has been taken up by thousands is a tremendous goal, and the success is amazing. But my argument is that what feels Right is in fact settling into the easiest place supported by the status quo, and the status quo is antithetical to our notion of Open Content. Work to feed the status quo will feed the status quo by entrenching it, not by lifting it to a different space. This is not to say we should make a full stop and sail in a different direction — your work, the work of the many who are producing texts, the work that resulted in UNESCO and #GoOpen is vital. I am arguing that we need to send some ships in other directions to work outside this structure. We cannot assume our good work will result in structural change, as history more than not proves work is in service rather than difference.

      A few caveats:

      This argument was all made before November 8, which I think will only lift the veil on the oppositional aspects of the structure we currently work to serve. In two years’ time I think the support of Open we see will be under attack, and with all efforts bound to OER I worry what will happen.

      I have no good idea of what this looks like, a different approach to Open. And that’s a problem, because it’s easy to be a critic but somewhat hollow without offering more. So I will put it at this – Your argument for negative liberty is compelling, and my critique is in part a Frankfurt school critique of a distinction between positive and negative liberty. Neither of us are wrong, but I would be surprised if the majority of Open advocates have really sat with the philosophical distinctions. You asked us at OpenEd 15 to define what Open means to us. What about at OpenEd 17 asking how we can relate our perceptions of Open to history, theory, philosophy, governance? It’s always the smartest room in education when you bring people together — identifying where our passions come from can help see how they relate to the other social structures and perhaps show what some of us can do in congruence with OER to support this very important cause.

1 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Sustainable teaching | Pearltrees

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.