The awkwardly titled Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in a Digital Age that was released this week has generated a ton of coverage, which is interesting given its niche provenance. An apostolic group of North American educational stakeholders, including some very high profile names, got together and co-authored a fairly wordy document about the values and entitlements that we might protect in the name of online learners.

What I’ve found useful is that most of the people involved in it have been very open about how it happened. Here’s Sean Michael Morris, for example, quoting the email from Sebastian Thrun that got the group together:

Just had a crazy idea. What if we got the 8-10 most interesting people
together for – say – 3 days, to dive into online pedagogy. The goal
would be to brainstorm about this, and exchange experiences. Perhaps
develop a master plan? No NDAs, no proprietary information – just for
the goods of humanity.

I think for me this crystallises the discomfort I feel when I read the document (and I’ve read it over and over). International online pedagogy is neither radical, disruptive, nor new. Neither is learner-centred pedagogy.  We do this all day long, where I’m from.  Sometimes we fail, and when we do, students let us know. So we don’t need a master plan for all this because we didn’t just invent it.  When we work online from an institutional base, we’re already accountable to a whole library of strategic plans, standards, instruments for measuring standards.

Over the past 8 years I have been closely involved in writing both elearning strategic plans, and strategic plans for teaching and learning in general, and I can report with grim conviction that all of these are focused on ensuring the quality of the learner experience. They’re typically a bit less exciting than this document because they’re also institutionally obliged to be structured in terms of goals, targets, actions and measures. The main difference is that while institutional strategic planning tends to kick off with motherhood statements, most get written out again, because planning is inseparable from accountable reporting.

There’s a great deal to be critiqued about the fetish for accountability in higher education, and Rustichello’s post on this is the best thing I’ve ever read on the ruse of it all. But without some nod in the direction of accountability, all you have is vision, and no plan at all — let alone a master plan.

And in higher education, vision without a plan is exactly what you think it is: brand personality.

So it would be easy to walk past this moment, muttering.  It’s really too obvious to point out the cultural provenance of the plan, and Audrey Watters (who was in the room) has done a great job mapping out what and who was missing. Richard Hall has provided a powerful critique of the failure to acknowledge the power in play here. Everyone’s noticed the lack of a student voice. Advocates for adjuncts have questioned the lack of presence from feet-on-the-ground educators; and Jonathan Rees has pointed out the huge risk of advocating for disruption while losing sight of academic labour issues.

For me, there are two gaps. The first is a failure to understand or include what it takes for public education institutions to operate within the legislative constraints that are the ultimate protection for student rights, including student diversity. These can’t just be upturned because we want to, and to be honest, I don’t want to. There’s a whole lot wrong with higher education, but at some point we have to say that the work of making it possible is serious, complicated and driven by people who really mind about equity. (OK, I reserve judgment on marketing, but having sat in the room for hours and hours and hours with higher education policy makers, and listened to the way that they champion learners’ rights, I think we have to be very careful arguing that their diligence is entirely wrong-headed.)

The second is a failure to recognise that it’s going to take a whole lot more than a motherhood statement to deal with the emerging problem of missionary zeal in North American higher education circles. I am really so tired of hearing that MOOCs will parachute in global superstar professors to save the world’s unserved populations.

Here for example is Coursera’s Andrew Ng explaining to the Times Higher Ed how it will still be possible for the unserved to get access to paid certification that in the very same interview he is selling on the basis of its second rate status (because Coursera also have to protect the degree-awarding reputation of their elite partners):

“So if you’re a poor kid in Africa, and don’t have a credit card, we want you in the signature track anyway.

“This is about education, it is not about making money, and so if you can’t afford it we still want you to benefit from it. This is not the sort of decision that a normal company would make. But we are here to educate everyone.”

This is just so awful it makes my head spin.

So a master plan to save us from this, that didn’t include voices from Africa, China, India, Brazil from the outset, let alone from the indigenous cultures or speakers of the world’s fragile languages who are presently being crushed by the clear-felling juggernaut of digital English, can’t be what it claims on the tin.

It’s a small symposium of really interesting North American-based educators with relevant experience, values I mostly share, and good ideas. I’d have been entirely happy to read their account of how we might develop some modest, achievable pledges that online educators could make, just as many academics are quietly signing up to make their scholarly work open access on principle. But I wish they’d left it at that, because the idea that they’re planning for the rest of us isn’t just hubris, it’s exactly what’s currently causing cultural harm around the world.

Reading the coverage that this has been given, here’s what I keep coming back to: the inestimable Henry Giroux (just to show that I don’t have a problem with Americans), in his Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and The Politics of Education:

Visions always belong to someone, and to the degree that they translate into curricula and pedagogical practices, they not only denote a struggle over forms of political authority and orders of representation, but also weigh heavily in regulating the moral identities, collective voices and the futures of others.

And that’s why 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.

Update: an earlier version of this post attributed entirely the wrong Henry. Apologies to both, and warm thanks to Tim McCormick for pointing this out so nicely.

16 Responses

  • M-H

    Why do all these people who are presumably experts in pedagogy (judging by their titles) not seem to know that pedagogy isn’t about the teacher, or the teaching; it’s about the relationship between the learner, the teacher *and the knowledge that’s created*. And the lack of insight they display into the own motivations is breathtaking. It’s basically Clayton’s colonialism. They know best. For everyone.

    • I think the manifesto itself is fairly clear on the learner-learner aspect of this, but it doesn’t help at all in dealing with the companies who are pushing education-as-content. And between the two extremes, the role of actual educator (not to mention actual institutions) is the most unclear part of the document. Half the team everyone wants us out of the way, half the time we’re central to the celebrity-credentialising of the whole thing. And as you say, Clayton’s colonialism. Or perhaps just the regular kind.

      • PS Kate, I gave your name and link to Carol Yeager (CMC11, Empire College, SUNY) who is working on an article on benefits and drawbacks of international participation in moocs ~ Helen’s too.

  • I’d suggest participating in the hack-a-thon and adding your ideas to the mix. Cathy Davidson blogged about it today on HASTAC.

  • HI Roger

    I gave this a lot of thought, because there are some really important ideas in there, and people I like and respect are involved in this and committed to its prosecution, and also it seems to me ambivalent about what’s being said about it. I’ve read as much from the participants saying “That wasn’t the intent” or “We argued long and hard about this” as any cheerleading from them.

    But every time I went into either version of the document, I felt really stuck because I’m still so unresolved as to whether a charter, manifesto, bill of rights or anything from such a narrow quarter should be the driver for the change that higher education might need, or could achieve. And the thing is, although I’m not American, I might as well be — adding my voice is adding another really similar expression, because of the privilege that surrounds me as a tenured academic working in English.

    Jesse Stommel argues that this is the time to cede authority and I think: yes, yes it is.
    So my writing bits of this and “speaking for” the people I think have been left out, is to endorse the strategy of their being left out, which I don’t.

    The good I think the document has done, in relation to getting involved, is to connect a whole lot of us in a different counter-conversation about educational advantage, and for me it’s flushed out the one tiny personal pledge that I could sign: I wouldn’t teach online for an organisation that had no policy to ensure effective global student representation in its curriculum planning; and I wouldn’t teach online for an organisation that didn’t have balance in its portfolio, to ensure that the world’s higher education regions and institutions, include small ones in out of the way places, have equal billing with the big end of our town.

    • I respect your decision to stay out of the hacking. What I think we need to do is help gather students to contribute to this conversation (or ones like it). We need to stop having conversations at tables where students aren’t present, and we need to use every stage we’re given to advocate for the students that don’t feel they have a voice. Ceding authority is for me an active endeavor. In other words, we can’t just step out of the conversation, we have to make damn certain that we are clearing way for students as we do. This means championing students, because their voices have been shut out for so long. It’s unfortunate, but I think teachers and administrators do need to say loudly that the voices of students matter, and we all need to work at our own institutions (or via much larger platforms) to actively bring students into the conversation about the future of education. If students don’t want to be in that conversation, it’s because we’ve made it a hostile environment for them, in part by bickering too much amongst ourselves.

  • Hi Jesse

    Actually, I’m not sure we all do this. I will certainly invite the learners I work with to have a look and comment if they want to.

    But following Roger’s prompt, I went to read Cathy’s blog post, and here it is: “But we’re still missing students. My fantasy was that everyone around the country offering MOOCs and that every university and school that was signing up for MOOCs would see this “Bill of Rights and Principles” and share it with their constituents for feedback. … The rhetoric by those designing, offering and signing onto MOOCs has often been lofty—educating the world and so forth! So now is time for a massive evaluation of what we are doing together online.”

    See? It’s a tiny, deeply familiar slip. You mean us, you don’t mean us. And this really undermines the confidence with which we identify with the “we” who might be doing something together.

    So when this is from a leader in the conversation, I’m beyond bickering. I have my head on the desk.

    • We need to invite students into this conversation on our blogs and on Twitter too. That’s what I haven’t seen many teachers doing. And on the bit from Cathy Davidson. She has repeatedly critiqued the fact that the US is launching into the work of “educating the world” with such gusto, which is what I see her doing in that quote. I don’t think this is a slip. She is saying that folks “around the country” that are offering MOOCs need to realize that the work of online education should be global in content, contribution, and audience. I was with her in this document and in rooms as it was being written, and she consistently and repeatedly fought for that point.

    • My question is can we find a way to do productive work here. I certainly didn’t imagine that document (as it stood) was the necessary critical work. We had 12 people in a room in December. Not enough. We had lots more people in a virtual room yesterday, less people in the room today, and it seems like there is some rallying to be done. And still a moment when people are listening.

  • Yes, that’s Cathy’s case too, and I appreciate her argument that when she meant “around the country” that wasn’t what she meant. So I’m not arguing against any of the intent or anyone’s track record; and I think it realistic to say that the problem we’re both focused on is that the majority of MOOC production is US focused. This is the loop we keep getting stuck in.

    But on reflection I’ve really come to feel that care in these tiny details is exactly how the rest of the world comes to feel authentically included on equal footing instead of listening, again, at the door of the conversation you’re all having about how to do the international thing. At the moment, we’re rhetorically pitched as the constituents, and we need to say this.

  • Honestly, I don’t know how to “do the international thing.” I’m definitely willing to admit that. I need to (and have) worked together with teachers and especially students to begin to figure that out. And I’ve barely cracked the surface. I’ve taught MOOCs that have had an international audience, but I’m still figuring out how to reach that audience. Even working as hard as I have (which has basically been 16 hour days for the last 6 months), I would still say that my attempts at “doing the international thing,” as you say, have not been profoundly successful. What we need are more folks working actively to figure this stuff out. What that looks like for me is collaborating. And taking people at their word. And generosity. Not saying you’re not doing those things, by the way. I think your critiques have been fair, but there’s an Act II in all this, and it’s about action and (better be) actually about students.

    • It does look like collaboration, including with students. It’s happening. The best account of this I’ve ever read was Mark Taylor & Esa Saarinen’s account in 1994 of putting students in Finland and the US together online. They wrote a book about the negotiations, what it changed for each of them, and woven through this the thread of their reflection on what would need to change about the assumption of authority residing in the university to adjust to the networked world.

      It’s nearly twenty years since then. A whole lot of new authority has emerged, and there are more platforms to challenge it.

      For me, the consistency between then and now is that grounded collaboration doesn’t start with a broadcast model, but with a co-produced narrative. This is exactly the same belief that animates my respect for the learners I work with. The lesson of hospitable pedagogy is that we are all, always, both hosts and guests, strangers in each other’s company.

  • Beautifully-said. For me pedagogy has to start with learning as its center, not students or teachers. It has to be a conversation that we have from whatever role we take in the collaboration (and hopefully that role is always shifting). Guess this goes back to what I was saying about the current head-first dive into online education. There is a sudden need to have a lot more collaborators in the room. I’ve been doing this work since 1999, and I’ve worked with so many great folks (students especially), but suddenly the playground looks a lot different.

  • Not just students and global learning/teaching community but well informed critics of online learning should contribute to the document. I’m personally making sure that as many as possible know where to find it. Otherwise, instigators and promoters of the document are, as GBS explained to Ellen Terry, little different than Ben Nelson, Minerva Project CEO,,

    If the international community and critics are not as welcome as students (but why weren’t they invited to the table from the git-go, not as an afterthought?), then I’m with Kate.

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