Friday, 7 December 2012

Public, Free, Open

Free as in liberal
Not free as in no cost

[1] Free

As part of a presentation about Open Educational Resources (OER) in July 2012, I asserted that it made more sense to think of the term 'free', often used in discussions of OER, as in 'liberal', rather than 'free' as in 'no cost' (Ackerman, Lander and Parsons, 2012). [Note 1]

This was an adaptation of an expression used in the open software movement, where it is suggested that one should think of the "free" in "free software" as "free" as in "free speech", not "free" as in "free beer". 

The terms "free", "open" and "public", used in discussions of OER, however, continue to be troubling, as ideas, in terms of their relationships among themselves and in terms of what they imply about the possibilities of/for OER.

Are OER, in being "free", liberal in the sense of being part of a liberal political ideology, focusing on particular, specified freedoms, for specified publics, whose status can only be understood in the context of a neo-liberal political economy, in which their costs and externalities are rationalised, and in which action or agency is framed by a rhetoric of choice and freedom? 

Alternatively, are OER part of a liberal education, an extension of the pedagogic practices by means of which higher education is delivered? Is the "free" in OER the freedom to which they might give rise (for the educand) as the goal of liberal education? Upon what set of politics and economies does liberal education itself rest? Is a liberal education only possible within a (neo-)liberal political economy?

Or are OER the result of technical innovations which can be used by an undifferentiated mass of consumers, which have little to do with education, but may have a vague impact on some kind of loosely defined learning?

More likely, and more complicatedly, we may have to face up the the recognition that OER are part of a liberal political ideology, as well as a neo-liberal political economy, as well as the development of (what remains of) liberal education, while being accessible through a consumer electronics that bears only a tangential relationship to social cohesion, the formation of publics as citizenships, and to education. As part of the conjunctural realities of the early 21st century, how could they not be thus entangled?  As Grant Cornwell (2001) notes, "the "liberalization" of higher education has both an economic and an educational meaning, meanings which are not necessarily in harmony with one another."

[2] Freedom(s)

As discussed in the open software movement,"free" is a question of having certain liberties or freedoms, for example, the four essential freedoms outlined on the GNU Operating System page: the freedom to run the program, for any purpose; the freedom to study how the program works, and change it according to your needs; the freedom to redistribute copies so you can help a colleague or neighbour; and the freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others, to benefit the whole community.

One possible take on this discussion of freedoms and liberties, in the form of human, civil or political rights, is that it constitutes a liberal discourse, in both loose and more strict senses, as a general philosophy and a more specific political ideology; and, indeed, political economy. The emphasis on freedom is articulated explicitly on the Philosophy of the GNU Project page:

"Free software means that the software's users have freedom. (The issue is not about price.)"

One can only agree that the question of price is, in this context, trivial. Yet, in being free in this pricing sense, it does not mean that free software or, by extension, free resources, whether OER or otherwise, are not part of an economy. Rather, the economies of which they are part are multiple and complex, and not simply financial, but fiduciary in several senses (involving money, trust, relationship and circulation and exchange).

[3] Liberalism(s)

The questions that arise concern how appropriate are concepts and practices, around notions of freedom, public-ness, openness, technicality (not simply technology but also technique, skill, methodology and methods) and mass-ness (as in population size, rather than group or community cohesion), which emerged in the context of a print-based, national, public sphere in a liberal international political economy, for discussing the cases of free software and ("free") OER, operating in a multi-media, computer-based, networked, digital commons in the ongoing processes of  neo-liberal globalisation (and their unravellings, post-2007, which raise questions of the fiduciary acutely). [If one can be excluded from a particular 'public' sphere and particular 'public' spaces, can one be excluded from a 'mass', an apparently more inclusive term, yet one without communal character, a serial entity, an inclusivity without an integrity or interiority?]

Responses to those questions affect how best to educate for this world (post-1989/1991, post September 2001, post-2007), acknowledging that one's starting points, or grounds, must be ideas developed in a past framework, system or society. Is such education achievable through a liberal education, supplemented by OER? What might this mean in practice? Surely not distance education or online learning solely, using scraps put together from Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 resources; curating one's learning environment, so to speak (see Rivki Gadot's Scoop It! site, Curate your personal learning environment).

"In the best case scenario, liberal education will be, as it always has been, about education of the whole person, cultivation of multiple ways of knowing, promotion of critical and creative thinking, development of skills for lifelong learning." (Cornwell, 2001)

One would have to ask: But are people whole any more?; are they capable of being made whole? Are they not, in an irreconcilable way, a series of personas which are incapable of wholeness, let alone wholesomeness?

Ronald Barnett focuses on two senses of liberal education that are of interest in seeking to respond to these questions. He first points out that, in one sense, liberal education contains the idea that the attainment of true knowledge brings a freeing from the world. 

As Barnett explains, the assumption is that through knowledge one is no longer subject to the world and its dogmas; one has achieved a distancing from that subjection, and possibly even a degree of control over the world, rather than constant subjection.

Might the best that one could do in this context be the awareness of the processes of becoming-subjective and becoming-objective enacted through one's engagement with the world's complex socialities and materialities?

Marxist and neo-Marxist versions of this view go further, Barnett suggests, in claiming that knowledge frees from illusion and ideology, which either masquerade as knowledge or stand in the place of knowledge, obscuring knowledge. 

From this view of the potential of knowledge has arisen the belief that education, in inculcating knowledge, may have emancipatory properties. 

[Is the subtext here, "freeing from dogma, on the one hand; and freeing from war, poverty and disease, on the other hand, 'science' or 'rationality''s twin benefits?]

Second, liberal education may point to the processes by means of which the learner achieves a state of emancipated nirvana in coming to live by the light of this truth. In this view, the pedagogical process is crucial. The claim here, rather than simply that knowledge frees, is that the acts and processes necessarily required in order to arrive at a secure relationship with knowledge themselves have educational value.

In this second view, the processes of coming to know, the struggle to achieve a state of knowing, [to anticipate, the agonistic processes of learning], themselves bring out desirable human qualities, as distinct from knowing itself, [which may bring false confidence, complacency].

In short, the journey (the processes) is (are) at least important, if not more important, than the destination (the product), without in the least suggesting that the arrival at a destination (product) may itself be an illusion. Learning (coming-to-know, but not knowing) ceases to be driven by telos or end, although there remain goals, ends and destinations. Rather, telos, comes to be defined as this process of coming-to-know, and is realised through a negotiated passage, a passing through (Alexander, 2002). 

Barnett focuses on the question of whether the processes of coming-to-know have worthwhile educational effects in themselves. 

[...leaving aside the question of whether we can ever be in a condition other than coming-to-know, whether knowing-as-telos (ultimate destination, unassailable certainty, truth) is achievable or desirable, or, on the other hand, is, indeed, one of the very illusions of which the Marxists and neo-Marxists speak, an ideology of what knowing or knowledge might be like...

...does the goal not keep changing, as the goal is attained, putting in question the possibility of an ultimate goal, redefining the structure of the goal: the goal redefines itself as it approaches, and, as originally conceived, is never reached? - a goal is a process of orienting, a passage of reflexive to-ing and fro-ing, not a movement-towards-conclusion, but an intensification of awareness (of difference, differing, relating, postponing, anticipating). Why, in that case, would one ever be concerned to achieve a(n impossible) certainty, the certainty of knowing, as being sure in the fixity of a truth, or the truth? Would one not, rather, seek to be more agile, immersed in the moment that is never simply one moment?].

[4] Liberalism(s) and antagonism(s)

In her outline of what she considers the political to mean, [and does the notion of 'the political' do justice to these states of coming-to-know, being agile, being reflexive, being always immersed, being entangled] while noting that there are many liberalisms, Chantal Mouffe (2007) argues that the dominant trend in liberal thought is characterised by a rationalist and individualist approach. [For us, here, rational learning processes, individual learning processes] 

Such an approach, she contends, is unable to grasp adequately the pluralistic nature of the social world and, especially, the conflicts that such pluralism entails. [Even, or especially, within ourselves, among our personas.] For such conflicts, there are no rational solutions [or solutions for the individual]. It is this which gives society its antagonistic character [and ourseleves our antagonistic 'nature']. 

For Mouffe, the typical liberal understanding of pluralism permits a multiplicity of perspectives and values all of which, due to empirical and experiential limitations, we will never be able to adopt, yet which, when assembled, form a harmonious ensemble. This type of liberalism, she suggests, thereby negates the political in its antagonistic dimension. Rather, this type of liberalism holds a rationalist belief in the possibility of a universal consensus based on reason [the reasoning of (self-interested?) individuals?]. 

Liberalism has to negate antagonism because antagonism reveals the very limit of any rational consensus. Mouffe seeks to define the political, contra liberalism, as the ever-present possibility of antagonism.

[5] Antagonism(s) and agonism(s)

Defining the political in this way requires coming to terms with the lack of a final ground upon which to decide issues, highlighting the undecidability that pervades every attempted institutional order [which, nevertheless, are decidely organised]. The other key notion, then, apart from antagonism, for Mouffe, in addressing the question of the political, is hegemony.

Every social order, she contends, is hegemonic in character. Society is the product of a set of practices that seek to establish order within a context of contingency. Thus, for Mouffe (2007), 

"The articulatory practices through which a certain order is established and the meaning of social institutions is fixed are 'hegemonic practices'."

Hegemonic practices are the means by which, or through which, power is articulated in society, [power understood as continegnt and relational, not absolute or inherent].

Equally, for Mouffe, such order, established hegemonically, is susceptible to being challenged by counter-hegemonic practices. Such practices seek to dismantle the existing order so as to install another form of hegemony. 

It is this hegemonic-counter-hegemonic struggle which Mouffe defines as the agonistic core of a vibrant democracy. The precise nature of that hegemonic struggle defines how the power relations, around which any given society is structured, are configured. This power struggle, Mouffe contends, can never be reconciled rationally.

For Mouffe, then, the agonistic approach recognises that society is always politically instituted, a recognition that she claims liberal models ignore or forget [or consciously or deliberately (and in deliberation) exclude?]. Furthermore, the terrain or ground on which hegemonic struggle takes place is always the outcome of previous hegemonic practices and power-struggle configurations. That terrain or ground is never neutral. [As has been noted with respect to educational models, above].

Those who ignore or forget this formation of the ground of present struggle in prior struggle, and who define all current struggle as taking place on a neutral ground, are incapable of understanding the political and are thereby able to reduce politics to a set of technical moves and neutral procedures. 

In Hannah Arendt's (1998) terms, they understand politics as a techne, susceptible to technical and instrumental solutions, rather than a praxis, in which the pro- and ant-agonists are committed to establishing, through their inter-actions, ethico-political arangements which address both the grounds for antagonism and the means for prolonged, but not necessarily consensual, accord/discord. 

In other words, society is adversarial and political through-and-through. The dimensions of the political are ever-changing [and are susceptible to learning, to the processes of coming-to-know]. The political is not a specialised, separate domain, based on rational positioning in a singular consensual space, [organised in relation to a central and centralising parliament].  

[5] Agonism(s) and opening(s)

These considerations lie behind Mouffe's agonistic model of democratic politics. For the agonistic model, public space is plural; and such public spaces are the battlegrounds, as political geography, in which and on which different hegemonic strategies confront one another, without the possibility of final resolution. In addition, any given hegemony arises from a specific articulation of a diversity of public spaces. Thus, hegemonic struggle also consists in the endeavour to create a different form of articulation among public spaces. 

For us, here, in this discourse, at this juncture, such public spaces are learning spaces. The learning involves learning about the hegemonic power relations that exist as well as being aware of the counter-hegemonic practices which exist in relation to that power structuring, and whose power, or weakness, exists precisely in relation to those processes of structuring. 

One implication of this is that change itself involves learning to adapt one's strategy to changing conditions, to break with the processes whereby one continually re-produces one's relative power/powerlesses or, to put it in other terms which effect a displacement, re-produce one's relative knowledge/ignorance (of the 'interiority' - absent immanence - of the hegemonic power).

To conceive of public space(s) as learning space(s) is to open the debates around Habermas and Arendt's conceptions of the public sphere to the musings of Lefebvre and de Certeau. The former pair focus on the discursive and media dimensions of public-ness, criticised by Mouffe as being under the dominance of liberal consensualism, the exchange of arguments constrained by logical rules, with agreement produced either through (logical) proof or (rhetorical) persuasion [how does this stand in relation to Aristotle's three proofs: ethos, pathos, logos?] , The latter pair's focus of concern is upon spatiality and mobility as dimensions of public-ness. 

Can one say, then, that the openness of open educational resources operates here, in learning spaces re-conceived as public spaces, reconfiguring the hegemonic arrangements which hold in place the conventionally recognised places of learning, the arrangements holding together a liberal education, such as the classroom, the lecture hall, the seminar room, the library, the studio, the laboratory, the museum, the gallery, and so on?

Not yet. Yet this may be the aperture through which educational practices might assert a counter-hegemonic practice, a coming-to-know as learning-to-be or learning-to-live which, needless to say, is not lifelong learning in its existing senses.



There is always a cost in the production and/or the finding of OER, as indeed there is in the creation and maintenance of free software, which relates to the time spent searching for them, making them, altering them, or maintaining them in a library or a repository, which counts as an externality and an opportunity cost, even if one discounts one's own time or values one's time at zero. 

The prevailing trends in the 2010s, towards making resources and courses free to the user does not eradicate the cost to the provider. Nor does provider free-riding do away with cost either, even if there is not adaptation. The resources and courses may be free at the point of delivery, so to speak, but are not without cost. Then again, they may only be relatively cost-free for the 'consumer' or deliveree, as what is provided may not be the most efficient way to learn a skill or to learn about a topic, impacting on the user/consumer's opportunity cost.

So, even if there is not a direct cost, such as a retail price or a capital investment, nonetheless, it is costly on one's time, and that time is either being paid for, if it is part of a job or a contract, or is being discounted, if one thinks of it as part of one's 'leisure time'.

[It is a separate question as to whether there is such a thing as leisure time, now that so much of that time is spent engaging with social media accessed through various telephony and internet service providers, and such media are 'monetised' in several ways, so that much of one's leisure time is spent generating data and income for one or more corporate entities somewhere on the planet. In literal and metaphorical senses, one may be said to be working all the time, although not always on one's own behalf or in one's own interest].


Ackerman, J., Lander, R. and Parsons, A. (2012). Open Educational Resources and the Future of Higher Education [Powerpoint slideshow]. London: University of Westminster. Available at Accessed on 23 October 2012.

Alexander, V. N. (2002). Narrative telos: the ordering tendencies of chance. Narrative telos: the ordering tendencies of chance. City University of New York. Retrieved from

Arendt, H. (1998). The Human Condition, 2nd ed.. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Barnett, R. (2009). Knowing and becoming in the higher education curriculum. Studies in Higher Education, 34(4), 429–440. doi:10.1080/03075070902771978

Cornwell, G. H., and Stoddard, E. W. (2001). The Future of liberal education and the hegemony of market values: privilege, practicality, and citizenship. Liberal Education, 87(3). Available at 

Mouffe, C. (2007). Artistic activism and agonistic spaces. Art & Research, 1 (2). Available at

No comments: