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.