The Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age is a new document authored and signed by twelve scholars, technologists, and entrepreneurs including Duke professor and author Cathy Davidson, organizational technologist John Seely Brown, and Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun. It’s been making the rounds among those of us interested in such topics, also receiving coverage at The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.

After reading it, here’s what struck me most: in our high-tech, computerized era, one of the most powerful technologies is still just plain old ordinary language and the contexts in which it is deployed.

For example, the authors embrace the rhetoric of openness by having published their manifesto on Github, a web-based hosting service that interoperates with a popular software versioning control system. Publishing non-software materials to Github is nothing new, and it’s true that version control is sometimes useful for documents beyond source code. But by presenting the “official” version of the “Bill of Rights” on a website widely associated with open-source and open-culture values, its authors gain the credibility and appeal of the appearance of openness, with or without its reality.

The same is true for its authors’ call to “join the conversation” about the proposal, their active use of the Twitter hashtag #learnersrights, the Creative Commons license and encouragement to “remix” it (“This document is posted here with the hopes that it will be shared, edited, forked, remixed, translated, and hacked”), and so forth. All of these activities welcome revision and dissent. But more importantly, they allow the authors and signatories to place themselves at the center of the resulting discourse, to become the star around which such discussion orbits. As such, the effort may really amount to a branding exercise, or a way to set the terms of a debate. Or, as Kate Bowles put it, channeling Henry Jenkins, visions always belong to someone. The benefits to be derived from providing a story about shepherding the values of online education are particularly acute for the private companies involved.

This apparent “openness” also effectively makes criticism impossible. When someone arrives with questions or concerns, he or she becomes a naysayer refusing to “offer solutions” given the “invitation to a conversation.” This is even more infuriating for folks like Bowles, who have been having the “conversation” about different modes of learning for years. There’s a false sense of novelty swirling all around MOOC mania, and novelty always benefits the most recent voice. Nobody wants to hear (or run press coverage) about how a hot new trend is really nothing new.

The same is true for the rhetoric of “experimentation,” a term we see a lot these days when online learning comes up. If things like MOOCs really are “experiments” as we so often hear, we might ask what hypothesis do we seek to test with them? Perhaps there are many, even, but I’m not sure we know what they are. If the hypothesis is simply, “Can we adopt the technology developed by startups to deliver course content over the Internet?” then that’s a fairly uninteresting experiment that represents a foregone conclusion. More often, the uses of “experimentation” today do not refer to experimentation in the scientific sense, but rather they serve as rhetorical flourishes that effectively embody novelty, dynamism, and other values of contemporary industry and the corporatized university (remember what happened at the University of Virginia last summer?).

It’s also interesting that the ideas in the document are presented as a “Bill of Rights.” As some have already noted, a bill of rights is a very American concept, one that appears to be civic and public in a historical sense while simultaneously underscoring the fact that digital learning might have more to do with America’s love for free market capitalism than it has to do with the public welfare—still the way education works in many parts of the world, even if not here in the States. As Bowles said, “I can’t join a cheer squad for the idea that the fragile relationship between online educational opportunity and global cultural diversity is best served by a master plan from California.” I might offer the correction, from Silicon Valley.

The document is also an aspirational one. As a manifesto shrouded in the garb of civil rights legislation, it offers a picture of what might or ought to be in the name of what is enacted performatively by means of its publication. That’s a powerful recipe, because it allows the authors to sign on to the values therein without actually partaking of them. The most obvious example is the call for “financial transparency” among digital learning initiatives. This is particularly ironic given the fact that Udacity, whose CEO is a signer of the document, just last week did not disclose the financial terms of its deal with the state of California. Even if there are valid reasons for that lack of transparency (as Petra Dierkes-Thrun suggested to me), by framing that virtue as an aspirational one, the company successfully escapes any accusation of hypocrisy.

Most of these observations have nothing to do with the content of The Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age. As McLuhan would say, in this case I’m not sure the content really matters. The same might be true for MOOCs themselves. The question is not if and how MOOCs facilitate learning, but what do they do to public life more generally.

published January 25, 2013


  1. Gerol Petruzella

    A thousand thanks for consistently bringing focused, informed, and thoughtful critique to the conversation.

    My current thoughts: I recognize the power inherent in (mis)appropriation of the rhetoric of rights, openness, etc. And I’m ready to acknowledge the criticism, made from many quarters, that any single high-minded declaration coming from a small subset of US-based individuals will unavoidably (a) fail to represent all learners and (b) embody and privilege certain political, social, and economic power structures and systems. I’m glad to see these recognitions being voiced in the ongoing public conversation.

    Still and all, I wonder (perhaps naively): is the conversation not better off for the presentation of this document, and its ongoing articulation of the principles it purports to espouse?

    Put another way, let’s imagine Palo Alto didn’t happen: how would the public discourse be better off for its absence?

    If those in power are voicing publicly a commitment to principles of openness, access, and the like, that fact alone counts as an incremental advance in my book. I think we can build on that, even if, at present, it were nothing but branding or self-serving rhetorical hype. And if one thinks (as I do) that there’s at least some authentic commitment to the ideals expressed on the part of those involved, so much the better.

  2. Roger Whitson

    I’m probably guilty of what happened on Kate’s site. Having said that, I feel that there’s something particularly “arm-chair” about sitting back and critiquing w/out making anything in response. For me, the problem is that figures like Thrun are getting the attention of administrators while short blog posts (or academic articles) probably won’t. Maybe that’s the fault of the current environment in which academia operates, but I don’t see that changing any time soon. As you say, the “event” puts the authors of the bill in the center of the discourse – is a critique of this sort the most effective way of displacing them?

    I definitely see open-washing occurring in the creation of this document. The Github site is great, but the fact that the article has already been published makes me wonder whether any change will really matter at all. Who will read subsequent versions of the bill? As is, the mythology of inviting people to a secret retreat where they craft a document that suddenly appears on websites smacks of a culture that is not open. Why not craft a document that is truly crowdsourced? Why not create some kind of folksonomic study of the way students really learn with digital technology? There seems to be all sorts of ways that a document like this could be made open from its inception (not after it’s been carefully crafted), and figures like Davidson and Stommel should know better. Why is this a document at all?

    I’m all for experimenting. I feel that we need more socially-minded academics to engage with online learning – not less. But learning how to craft these experiments so that they are truly scientific (and not guilty of confirmation bias), can be difficult for a discipline not used to dealing w/ those issues.

    All in all: critique is great. But those of us who want to truly change things (if that’s what you want) should do something more than critique. This doesn’t mean that you have to participate in the online or discursive environment prepared by this document, but it does mean that those of us dedicated to financial transparency, digital literacy, etc., should create viable alternatives to what’s being offered here.

  3. Audrey Watters

    “The authors” of this “Bill of Rights” didn’t post it to GitHub. I did. I was at the Palo Alto event. I am not an “author” of the document. I made some edits to something that was written by others *at* the event, but *after* the event. But sure I signed it. I signed it knowing that several of us — those of us who are active in various “open” circles (open source, open learning, etc) — who were confused why we were invited, were uncomfortable about a lot of the process and much the Bill’s contents, were planning to make sure we continued to hack at it. There are more details about the process and my critiques of it on my blog, including the disclosure — you know, financial transparency and such — about who paid for the trip. (Pretty sure my blog post is the only one that offers that disclosure too. *Shrug*)

    Is all this — particularly the GitHub piece — openwashing? I mean, if you say so, right? If, as you argue, “the authors” are getting the benefits of paying lip service to “openness” by posting it to GitHub, then I’m trying to figure out what exactly it’s getting me. As it currently stands, it’s getting me a lot of emails mansplaining how I shouldn’t be using GitHub.

    Power and privilege — it’s evident in the document, no doubt, and in the responses to it in ways that have been addressed here and elsewhere but also in ways that both the folks who are critiquing it and endorsing it haven’t even begun to address or unpack.

  4. Kate Bowles

    This is such a helpful post, Ian, thank you. I just want to respond quickly to Roger, here as well as on Music for Deckchairs, to say that while in general I agree that higher education is a whole rest home of armchair criticism, in this case, I find there’s a different problem with contribution. For me this initiative has got off on such a wrong foot (for all of the reasons that both Ian and Roger describe) that to try to tinker with it is essentially to accept that this is what higher education needs now.

    As I said on MFD, to add the voices of yet more privilege, tenured, networked, English-speaking academicsâ??even if those voices are diligently lamenting the lack of diversity in the groupâ??is to fall in with something. This is a time when we should all be listening, not talking, if others are ever going to get a chance to explain directly and to a large audience their investment in the future of education that works in all contexts, not just in the place it was originally broadcast.

    We’ve reached a point with the rise of messianic open online courses that we need to develop a much more serious critique of the culture of institutional celebrity that this non-novelty, not-radical education is promoting. These are really serious issues for the global south, as Audrey Watters explained very well in her original expression of concern about the process of which she was a part.

    The value of the document for me is in the conversation it’s begun among people about global educational privilege. None of the people involved need reminding about this, I don’t think, but companies and tech vendors currently promoting the ideals of serving the “goods of humanity”, whatever that is, really need to stop and think. Colonialism, and in particular colonial education, has a history. Tech doesn’t make this new.

  5. Kathi Inman Berens

    I’m running the “experiments” Ian and Roger call for, and I distrust the obfuscations that a a worked-through “hypothesis” might convey.

    Do you really mean that online learning “experiments” ought to be tested against hypotheses, Ian? Or was that a way to gauge the ironic distance between what goes on in the networked classroom and the means we have of taking its measure?

    I do have hypotheses about what learners get from working predominantly in our synchronous virtual classroom. These hypotheses have evolved as I’ve “experimented” for four semesters now. This process is unscientific because it’s very hard to keep the variables from moving. When I see a way to innovate, I seize it. Students themselves are quite literally mobile, but that is the least interesting of the dynamic contexts. Affect and intellectual investment move like a pinball around our screens, filtered through software. My students build collaborative projects. The virtual interface is sometimes both virtual and embodied — some learners gather in our classroom even if I, the teacher, am not physically there.

    I do have some “outcomes” to report, but they are squishy: not susceptible to the edutech discourse I’ve come across that measures learning retention, “efficacy” and satisfaction. I’ve yet to see a course evaluation rubric that approximates what we did and learned. My students end up writing long narrative descriptions which, were those narratives to make any kind of institutional impact, would rely on interest and advocacy of the administrators reading them.

    And so we return to Ian’s opening premise in this post that “plain old ordinary language” remains a “powerful technology.” I wish that were true. But it’s hard to code sentiment into PHP, to make it legible to the databases in which our teaching is largely understood.

    Digital trace or no: writing is an ephemeral technology.

  6. Sebastian

    Regarding the content of the text itself, it is interesting how “privacy,” “public knowledge” and “personal data” are framed in terms of intellectual property and individual responsibility: Learners are encouraged to share their activities online, but ought to possess the IP in what they do and share, know what data is being tracked and what IP the provider gets, and they should not be fleeced by later license/ToS changes.

    All nice and well, but that is effectively antithetical to “public knowledge” (or open access) as in “public domain.” It spells the learner-platform relation in purely commercial terms of exchanging property rights, not in civic terms of partaking in a shared commons. It also implies that the learner is being properly cared for if only she can make fully “informed choices” in the online learning market which platform offers the kind of deal (learning for data/IP) she is willing to make, fully neglecting that online platforms are almost always network goods in two-sided markets that tend toward oligopolies (if not monopolies), where “free choice” for every consumer (not just minorities) is an illusion.

  7. Cathy N Davidson

    Great and thoughtful comments–thanks, as always, Ian. One clarification: the draft was published on at least six or seven different sites and places at once, including the Google Doc at which Phillip Schmidt of P2PU has kindly offered up his email. Contact him and he can make you an editor, not just a commentator. Here’s the link:

  8. Ian Bogost

    Ok, gonna try to respond (too briefly, sorry!) to everyone.


    I think you’re right… to a point. And I’m not sure any of us know where that point is. So, often, including here, I come around and exercise the voice I have, which is generally one of skepticism. It’s not at any risk of being the only voice, but it should be one of them.


    I may be misunderstanding, but I don’t think there’s anything ‘armchair’ about responding to ideas. I agree that there’s a lot of armchair critique in the academy in general and the liberal arts in particular, but I don’t think I’ve ever been guilty of it. Speed was at issue here, because this conversation is happening now, insofar as its happening, I felt it was important to get my two cents in now.


    You’re definitely getting thrown under the bus unfairly here. I’m sorry about that. The Chronicle and others are linking to Github as the ‘canonical’ version, for example. It’s also the one that seems the most, well, published. I think the group probably should have realized that it would be impossible for the public not to see this project as a collective one, nor am I sure it’s reasonable to imagine that the general public could (or should?) have the wherewithal to find and distinguish everyone’s contributions from one another. Bills of Rights and manifestos are generally not distributively disseminated. You seem to be getting the brunt of this response, and I certainly never intended to respond to anyone in particular (save Thrun, I think it’s clear why in that case).


    Nothing to add to what you said. Good points all around.


    Not necessarily. I meant that “experiment” is being used in many of the discussions surrounding online learning as a synonym for “dynamism.”


    As my earlier writings on this topic can bear out, I share your concerns about privatization. That’s my greatest concern, in fact.


    Thanks for letting me know, and see also my comments above to Audrey. Short version: I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect us to read six or seven different sites and triangulate opinions.

  9. Roger Whitson

    My concern was directed mainly at the dissonance between the posted bill and the hackable one – and which one would become the canonical bill. Maybe neither. Maybe I’m making too much out of the process. I certainly didn’t mean for the criticism to fall down on Audrey.

  10. Pete Rorabaugh

    I have been curious about the kind of sniping that the release of the Learner’s Bill of Rights (LBoR) has inspired. Yes, it has collected legitimate critique about who speaks and who is spoken for. But the unwillingness of some to engage with the conversation that the LBoR is intending to spark creates rifts in a community that’s already fighting enough battles (or should be) beyond its borders. This blog post reproduces for me that kind of critique.

    In citing McLuhan, you admit here that you’re “not sure the content here even matters.” That’s a shame. From a rhetorical perspective, we should be looking at all the variables, and, even if we want to knock on the ethos, we should also be able to engage with the potential that language like this opens. Especially when it has been released to the community for forking.

    I’m with Audrey in feeling like the the ideas in the BoR are messy but important. I am troubled watching people who attended the event out of principle rather than self-interest get nothing more nuanced than blind whacks from the piñata stick. Currently, some community members who’ve been critical have landed in the document to suggest edits, to lean on the text a bit. Let’s hack more and whack less.

  11. Ian McC

    Outstanding critique as ever. Or rather, sorry, great mashup of critique with the original, given, as you say, how “this apparent ‘openness’ also effectively makes criticism impossible.”

    Which itself is a dynamic that’s nothing new, as Network (and its how many Oscars?) reminds us from the Netflix queue.

  12. Ian Bogost


    You make my point for me. “Conversation” is only possible when it means consent. Otherwise, even incredibly gentle critique becomes mere snipe.

    As for the McLuhan bit, let me clarify: the point was not that the content is pointless to read, but that the form, structure, context, and so forth—the medium that is this “Bill”—is where the action is.

  13. Pete Rorabaugh


    Not sure I follow your meaning exactly re: conversation/consent. Are you arguing that the invitation to “converse” is really just a coded requirement to consent? Or that conversation should actually mean consent? If the first, what about the open, productively contentious dialog that’s happening on the GDoc version of the Bill? To me, it looks like that document is not just privileging consent, but I’d be curious to know if you’re reading it a way that I am not.

    I understand your clarification on McLuhan. And I agree with you that all of those variables of the original post(s) are important to consider and critique.

    Ultimately, I just want to see all of us who are critically AND digitally inclined as a supportive network. Naïve, perhaps? Maybe, but when we consider the realities of traditional academic publishing, professional contingency, and the standard lack or productive discourse about pedagogy, we have enough battles to fight.

    If my first comment communicated the “consent” message to you, it was my error.

  14. Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer)

    Getting caught up in the context, form, and structure (whether it’s sniping or gentle critique) reproduces the exact problem the document aims to correct. Students continue to be pushed out of this conversation. Every bit of energy we put into this debate (and I’m fully aiming this comment at myself too) takes energy away from a potential open discussion with and about students.

    I also agree with Audrey about the document being messy. It was written by a rather motley crew and fast, so it’s not what I would have written on my own. But as hundreds of schools dive head-first into online learning, these are conversations we need to have. This was my “fork” of the document:

  15. Sebastian

    Just to add a final note on the privatization bit: The issue is not so much privatization as such, but the fact that with the lever of a presumed value-neutral technology offering “efficiency gains” and a supposedly completely “new playing field,” startups effectively nullify the hard-earned (and hard-learned from crises and catastrophes) historical social accords crystallized in existing social institutions and regulation.

    To “engage in the debate” – in a blank-slate debate about e.g. the privacy rights of learners “in a digital age” â?? implicitly acknowledges that one may, indeed *must* do away with the (oh by the way, democratically legitimized) legal rights achieved in the historical struggles of the age past because “the digital age” is so all-new. It’s institutional memory loss.

    So the best way of “more hacking, less whacking” I’d see, to reframe the terms of debate, would be to copy-paste current FERPA rules wholesale into the document ( And do so for the respective regulations in all other countries.

  16. Ian Bogost


    That’s essentially what I’m saying. Even dissent is situated in a way to orbit around the creators’ projects. This is true no matter what their “intent” might be, however, the inclusion of private industrial partners (who I think even funded this “junket”) really muddies the waters.

    I’m not sure if your wish is naive, although I am also aware that I fall pretty far toward the skeptical end of the optimism spectrum. But I’m also not sure why my concerns automatically become “unsupportive” in the face of what I perceive to be pretty disingenuous support on the part of others with much to gain. That leads me back to the conclusion above.


    Hmm, to me, observations about the context and form of this document might actually lead us directly to the concerns you make. I think we’re in agreement on the issues you raise.


    Great points as always.

  17. Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer)

    @Ian Agreed. I think you’re absolutely right that talk about the rhetorical form of this document could lead us to an open discussion with and about students.

    In Audrey’s response to the process of writing this document (, much of which I agree with, she counts the number of instances of the word “student” (41) and “learner” (9) in the original draft of the document. (By the way, I’m a bigger fan of the word “student” for reasons I explain in my comment on her post.)

    My concern (and this is, admittedly, a rhetorical one) is that the words “student” and “learner” do not appear a single time in your original post here or in any of your comments on this post (excepting your single mention of the #learnersrights tag). Honestly, I’m not trying to point the finger at you individually. So much of what you’ve written in this post is spot-on. What I see is a much larger problem of exclusion that needs to be addressed at every level, including in the way we respond to efforts like this one.

  18. Ian Bogost

    Yes, a good point Jesse and a reminder all of us could benefit from heeding more.