Of binaries and blends

Open and closed, digital and analogue, online and face-to face. Some thoughts on discursive dualism.

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Image of acrylic colour dissolving in water, CC0, from https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1573493
Acrylic colour dissolving in water. CC0. Source
Once upon that long lost decade of the 90s, I studied literature, media, and cultural studies, and went on to teach in these areas as well as more practical communication-related subjects. The theoretical debates, concerns and methods of these subject areas have continued to shape my thinking. Not least because of the profound impact of feminist theory on the study of communication and culture, something that I’ve especially carried with me is a sense that it is important to consider and question the terms we use, the way we define them, what we choose to exclude as well as include.These disciplines share an intensity of focus on the concept that communication is constructed, and attention to the conditions of production and consumption of texts. Feminists have also long highlighted the fact that discourses built on dualisms or ‘binary oppositions’ tend to valorise or privilege one part of each pair, creating a norm/other dynamic, and also that these binary pairs tend to ‘stack’ upon each other, combining in ways which transfer these dynamics across pairings and perpetuate privilege – consider for example how an understanding of human activity as divided along masculine/feminine lines is implicated in discussions of mind/bodywork/homeactive/passive.  
 
And so, fast forwarding to my current preoccupations with open and digital approaches to education, I’ve been curious about the ways in which we seemingly also carve up education’s imaginary territories using dualisms, such as open/closed. Already, following some investigation, this proves rather ‘non-binary’, but to introduce a further twist, often those of us who identify with the open education movement tend to be quite involved with digital methods and services. And it seems this can lead us into temptation to stack another favourite binary pair, digital/analogueonto open/closed. After all, as we know, that digital special sauce can make normal learning into ‘technology-enhanced learning’, and in the open education context apparently, it adds transformative flavour to open educational resources (OER), and surely makes massive open online courses (MOOCs) more delicious. Unfortunately, mobilising and layering these binaries in the service of arguing for something we think is good can embed problematic assumptions or implications. For this reason, I think it’s so important to acknowledge a history of educational openness prior to this current moment in which it is understood mainly as digital.
 
My thinking about this has been shaped by another context, during a rather more recent decade working at Birkbeck (‘London’s Evening University’), in which I occupied a slightly unusual position as a person supporting digital education, in a university which has tended to identify strongly with face-to-face mode as core to its offer. Mode is an interesting concept that we often seem to take for granted in higher education. Modes are terms which characterise the way in which learning and teaching is done, generally across a whole module or programme, at rather an abstract and generic levelface-to-face and distance tend to be positioned as polar opposites. And then, because it turns out that we need a term for everything in between, the inconvenient mundane reality of our practice, we call that blended. 
 
I recently had the opportunity to speak about some of this at the University of London Centre for Distance Education’s RIDE conference (see #RIDE2019 for tweets). My key argument (drawing on the Birkbeck context) was that actually, everything is blended, and reference to a nebulous and generic notion of blended learning hides a multitude of modes.
Birkbeck was established almost 200 years ago with an opening mission like the Open University’s, but the idea of face-to-face teaching (in the evening, of course) seems ‘baked in’ to the institutional DNA, sometimes obscuring the very real and everyday role of digital practices. And so returning to mode, we might say that while open universities now tend to be closely identified with distance mode, but what makes them open is their widening of access to education, their inclusion of those who were otherwise excluded, whether teaching and learning take place synchronously or not, face-to-face in the evening or weekend, overnight via television, by correspondence, or over the web. So too with OER or MOOCs, it is not just the what, but the why.
 
Any move to open education is situated in a particular space and time; what is opened in each case is different according to purpose, context and participants. As Catherine Cronin notes, openness is “inherent in education“, so arguably all education represents a process of opening. For those of us hoping to explain the meaning and purpose of open education, this complicates matters of course. It doesn’t make much sense to talk about it as a binary opposite of closed, if there are degrees of openness, and different ways of opening. It’s tricky to avoid the implication of its repressed other of closed-ness, but perhaps a place to start is to frame open as more verb than adjective, more work-in-progress than reached-destination. 
 
 

Author: leohavemann

Open and digital education specialist and researcher, hair-splitter, water-muddier.

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