Easter break is a good time for writing. I just finished compiling a data summary and findings synthesised from a 9000 word textual analysis undertaken in the preparation of a journal paper. (Relief!) I’m investigating the extent to which Open Education is aligned to the definition of social justice, and the impact of technological deterministic approaches to the definitional debates.   It’s now at 1700 words ie under 5 pages, and I’m looking for some critical friends to take a look. It’s not always a comfortable read. The lack of alignment to social justice can be quite disconcerting. With the principles of social justice up your sleeve, you can’t conflate it with either “access” nor “democratising education.” But I find the exercise ultimately positive, in that it illuminates the possibilities for getting back on track, if social justice is important to your idea of why you do OER.

The motivation for the research was the immense difficulty I was having finding citations to justify my view and understanding that open education was motivated by social justice. This began mid last year when I began drafting thesis chapters. Panic began to set in. Have I been deluded all this time? A new thought arose: maybe we are talking about it at conferences but not writing about it in our publications? Therefore the question became – where is the social justice in open education (our discourse, our actions, our literature)? And if researcher-practitioners are not talking about social justice, what are they talking about? As I began re-reading key texts in the field with this new lens, it dawned on me that I was also looking at what I’ve now termed “openness determinism” – a form of technological determinism. I felt this was also holding us back in getting to a useful, social justice aligned definition of open education.

As the first draft of the paper developed, making judgements on the social justice alignment of various text became increasingly difficult. Supervisors were consulted. I needed a more theoretically informed definition of social justice. 2 months later, having immersed in the history of social justice literature (not a trivial task, it goes back to Justinian and Aristotle) including a conversation with the UNESCO chair of Social Justice, I adopted a definition. It was so different to my preconceived notions, that I realised I would have to go back and do all the textual analysis of key texts again.

Hence the 9000 word textual analysis data. The pleasure, the pain.

I thought I’d share the definitions I developed and adopted for this research.

Firstly, social justice: “a process and also a goal to achieve a fairer society which involves actions guided by the principles of redistributive justice, recognitive justice or representational justice.”

Redistributive justice involves allocation of material or human resources towards those who by circumstance have less, recognitive justice involves respect and recognition for cultural and gender difference, and representational justice involves equitable representation and political voice. (Suggest reading Keddie 2012 as an approachable entree to the major works of Nancy Fraser and Iris Marion Young.)

The three different accounts of technological determinism (Oliver, 2011) I looked for in the appropriation phase textual analysis are:

  1. Affordance: overemphasising or attributing the power for social change (ie in this case, improvements in education) to the general decontextualized properties or “affordance” of a technology, particularly to promote the uptake of a technology by others. The affordance account obscures socio-cultural context and difference, underplays the social context in which the technology is deployed which impacts the usage and outcome, such that the possibility of transplanting cases across contexts is presented more optimistically where in reality it is much more difficult and in some cases not possible where contexts diverge (Oliver, 2011; Selwyn, 2011).

  2. Normative: the discourse about efficiency and productivity of technology become so dominant that the act of asking ethical questions about use or exploring other accounts leaves the questioner marginalised (Oliver, 2011).

  3. Reification: the formalisation and abstraction of practice so that it can be shared, where the process tends to simplify and calcify dominant understandings to the detriment of alternative possibilities (Wenger, 1998).

Does any of this resonate with you and what you are seeing in your research?

Image: Justice, CC0 via Pixabay

Keddie, A. (2012). Critical Studies in Education Schooling and social justice through the lenses of Nancy Fraser. Critical Studies in Education, 53(3), 263–279.

Oliver, M. (2011). Technological determinism in educational technology research: Some alternative ways of thinking about the relationship between learning and technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27(5), 373–384. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2729.2011.00406.x

Selwyn, N. (2011). Does Technology Make Education Fairer? In Education and technology key issues and debates (pp. 92–115). New York: Continuum International Pub. Group.