Open session – the implications, meanings and risks of openness in the digital academy


Ray began by stating that open can mean anything now and hence there is a danger that the concept will be diluted. He outlined the topics that he wanted to cover in the talk, including: the implications of open practices, the mean of openness and finally the risks and unintended consequences of openness. These themes are covered in the following sections:

·        Openness, speed and the digital the theory of fast ands slow time (Virilio, Eiksen)

·        The case for openness (Green)

·        Costs

·        Problematising openness 4 lenses on the issues of academic (non)engagement

·      Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge Meyer and Land

·      Disruptive innovation Christensen

·      Activity theory

·      Street level bureaucracy Lipsky

·        Risks of openness

·        A priority agenda for action


Ray argued that speed was a fundamental characteristic of the 21st Century. Referenced Eriksen’s book on this topic, the tyranny of the moment, he argued that speed sits within a broader set of characteristics associated with the world we live in, namely: uncertainty, speed, complexity, multiculturalism, mobility, conflict, inter-generational tension, ethical citizenship, information saturation, proliferation of knowledge, globalization, internationalization, and private/public sector tension.

He went on to suggest that the traditional academic institution is closed; truth resides in the printed text. And furthermore, that the printed volume was a disruptive technology in its day. He quoted Steven Hyman (Provost of Harvard) who reiterated the important of digital access to scholarship at Harvard.


The picture above illustrates the wealth of things that happen in a mere 60 seconds on the web; some staggering statistics across a range of digital media. The original can be found here. Indeed, Ray stated that the fastest thing on earth is the speed with which information is conveyed across the earth.

He quoted Virilio, a post-modern French philosopher, as saying that what has shaped human history is access to speed and went on to give some examples across the ages. I have heard Ray reference Virilio’s work before and can highly recommend his book, the information bomb (Virilio 1998), which is a dystopian view of the potential impact of technological failure. He then made a comparison between the characteristics associated with a traditional encyclopedia such as Britannia and the web-based Wikipedia:

Process                                     Artefact

Fragmentation                          Cohesion

Exploration                               Exposition

Visual/aural                              Textual

Volatility                                    Stability

Fast time                                    Slow time

Consensus                                  Authority

Openness                                    Containment

Where the right hand side characterizes print culture, which is more contained and text based, and which operates in slow time, based on authority. The left hand side characterizes Wikipedia, where process is always emergent and there is a shift because of speed of possibilities, the multimodality and the fast time nature of interactions with the media. Therefore the authority of Britannia versus Wikipedia is different. With respect to this he argued that the concept of a web page is in itself an oxymoron; as a webpage will typically include links to other web pages, forming an infinite and intricate web of information, which is constantly evolving and expanding.

He argued that in the past the body of the book (corpus) equaled the body of knowledge, making it stable and graspable. In contrast, the digital landscape is characterized by volatility and instability; digital text is infinitely editable and instantly distributable. Furthermore, the methods for imposing fixity and authorial control (such as creation of pdfs, page scanning, restricted access, etc.) work against, rather than with, the mode of digitality.

He then went on to quote some of Alexander’s work (2006), who argued that  sections of the web break away from the page metaphor, rather it is about the notion of the web as a book predicted on microcontent. Blogs are about posts not pages, Wikis are streams of conversation revision amendment and truncation. Therefore things are faster and smaller on the net.

Digging into these issues further, he quoted Virilio (2000) and Eriksen (2011), citing the following facets: speed supercomplexity, the death of geography, issues of democratic space, the advent of universal real time tyranny of the moment, the tension between slow and fast time, presentified history, the single gaze of the Cyclops and what Virilio coins ‘the universal accident’.

Virilio also argues that speed decontexualises; the Atlantic has disappeared, there are no geographical boundaries in today’s globalised and distributed network. Virilio laments the loss of citizens meeting in physical spaces and believes there is resulting in convergence in the gaze of the Cyclops.

One of Virilio’s most powerful statements, expanded in his book the information bomb, is that technologies have in built failure. In the 21st C when a technological accident happens (when not if note), it will happen to everyone, everywhere at the same time; this is his notion of the universal accident, a truly scary concept!

Turning to Eriksen’s work, he drew out the following aspects: that speed is an addictive drug that it leads to simplification and finally that it creates an assembly line (Taylorist) effect. Eriksen also argues that it is contagious and that the gains and loses equal each others out, so that increased speed doesn’t necessarily lead to greater efficiency, speed demands space (filing in all the available gaps). There are textualities and temporalities associated with this and the competing notions of fast and slow time. Ray feels that the concept of the back channel is eroding notion of closed spaces. [Ironic given that so many of us were tweeting as he was speaking!] Is the digital culture invading slow time? Does this mean the space of reflection, contemplation etc also gets invaded, eroded? He reflected that in the early days of the use of digital technologies, it was argued that asynchronous tools, like discussion forums offered space for reflection, whereas now the plethora of tools for communication, the speed of instantaneous transmission of information via tools such as Twitter are resulting in information overload. Ray argued that digital learning practices are caught up in the middle of these tensions. Pedagogical claims made for effective use of technologies seem to be located within and require the integrative and deliberate logic of what Eriksen characterizes as slow time. Similar pleas have been made with respect to food. Many argue that the rise of fast foods are detrimental to society in a number of respects and have signed up to the notion of the slow food movement, which is characterized by a return to the use of fresh ingredients, good cooking and groups talking around a shared meal.

This made me reflect can this metaphor be stretched in terms of the concepts of fast and slow learning? What would the equivalent of fresh ingredients be? Application of good pedagogical principles (such as dialogue, reflection, internalization and application) applied through effective design approaches (the equivalent of good cooking, implemented in a social context (equivalent to the shared meal). Ray argued that there is a public/private continuum and a displacement of slow time.

He then turned to Ron Barnett’s work (2005) on textual instability, suggesting this gives an example of the instability in academia’s ideas of itself. Barnett goes on to argue that the media implicated in the academy’s inability to claim universality in its pursuit of truth – supercomplexity related to texts a world of uncertainty all notions, such as truth come under scrutiny, revised and contested, concepts broken open and subject to multiple interpretation. Ray questioned how can we prepare our students to cope with this supercomplexity?

He talked about Mark Poster’s notions of authority and the notion of the academic gate keeper. Poster explored digitization and the effect on all aspects of social. He argued that this has resulted in the breaking down of boundaries in academic roles and identities. Ray wondered what would be the implications of a world in which all texts were digital and in which there were no originals. More broadly, what is the role of the university and the discipline in this context, where here is now no authority?

Gunther Kress has also done interesting work in this area; Ray referenced his work on the concept of open text, resulting in the loss of closure and fixity of printed page. As an example of the risk of digital, he referenced the DEFRA wiki which David Miliband created, which was a major embarrassment and was almost immediately taken down. Ray joked that this was the equivalent of the vicar at the disco; i.e. not appropriate at all.

He then showed a youtube video clop, ‘The five-minute university’ of the comedian Father Guido Sarducci. And argued that although this was an extreme parody, we are beginning to see examples of a shortening of traditional educational experiences. For example, Coventry University now offers an 180month degree ‘lite’ (which incidentally uses lots of OER). Buckingham University offers a two-year degree. And there are a number of example of what are referred to as ‘ten minute twittorials’; i.e. small packets of information and responses, bite-sized learning. However, what is important, Ray, argued is not content, but conversation and interaction with others. It is clear that we are seeing new forms of university emerging, Ray cited for example the Khan academy. Other examples include the Peer-to-Peer University and the OER University. What are the implications of these new business models for traditional institutions?

Case for openness - Green

He argued that there is a new ethics of knowledge to do with sharing the unique characteristics of digital items. In the digital world it costs nothing to store, copy and distribute. Open licences and mobile phones means there is a willingness to share. Digital scholarship can lead to a non-rivalrous culture, but we need a new ethics of knowledge sharing.

There is an unprecedented capacity for the infinite – reuse, revision, remixing and redistribution. And in addition, there are marginal costs. Scholarship has always been (or should be) about openness and should not be locked behind closed doors.

He referenced John Daniels’ comments on the future demands for learning, who shows some impressive statistics about the growth of learning and who argues that we can’t meet the demand for learning of the future through physical universities alone, we must go online. Interestingly though, China is opening a new university every week.

Ray cited Ernesto Priego who is a Mexican student who argued that in the past education for most was via Illegal copes of books. The digital age is the logical next step by providing free access to works.

David Kernohan, from JISC, who is involved in the JISC’s OER programme states that it is not about being open for the sake of, it’s because the world needs it and indeed arguably it links to the roots of academia and who we are.

We have the infrastructure in place to achieve this. But the focus now needs to be on appropriate staff development and support and encouragement at policy level. We still have what Green refers to as the 5 %/95 % argument, i.e. only 5% of the population has access to high quality education.

Who pays?

It is not a question of money, indeed most countries spends ca. 5-6% of GDP on higher education. But it is about sustainability in times of economic stringency.

Problematising openness

Ray referenced the notion of ‘troublesome knowledge’ (Perkins 1999). This challenges the ways in which academics have traditional done things. It is about ritualized knowledge, inert knowledge and the conceptually difficult.

A related term is the notion of the ‘threshold concept’ – i.e. integrative transformative, irreversible bounded, re-constitutive, discursive and troublesome.

Priego (2011) talks about the concerns of academics in terms of using digital content and technology, including views that the online medium is considered by many academics as being too informal. To get academics to engage they need to be made aware of the benefits and there is a need to change reward and recognition processes, as always there is the tension between a focus on teaching vs. research.

Openness as disruptive innovation Clayton Christensen

Clayton argues that the digital media has created new markets and value networks. Activity theory shows us that if you want people to change their practices you have to change practices; to often social practices become ossified.

Risk of openness

But Ray also argued that there are inherent risks associated with being open. Issues around quality, marginalization of teachers’ knowledge and expertise, appropriation and repurposing of openness by incumbrant corporate interests (for example iTunes Android), the danger of the commodification of learning and neglect of students.

He referenced Jim Groom (Mary Washington University MOOC) who has argued that students need to take control of their own learning, they need to control, manage and master their learning.

There is now a divergence of roles, with the demise of smaller learned societies and the risk of ranking tables with increasing academic self branding. Also the scarcity of abundance is occurring, with students devaluing commonly available items digital and the marginalisation of languages that are less prevalent globally.

Priority agenda

He concluded by arguing that we need a priority agenda to take things forward. We need to provide tools and training to promote an ethics of knowledge sharing. We need to lobby senior management to establish a culture strategy at all levels research on consequences of openness.


Virilio, P. (1998). The information bomb. London, Verso.

4 Responses to “Open session – the implications, meanings and risks of openness in the digital academy”

  1. Jeffrey Keefer Says:

    Thanks for sharing your summary of Ray’s work. As a whole, this seems a little overwhelming and (while I am sure Ray did not mean it in this way) a bit dire. Any thoughts on what this means (providing you accept it) for next steps and the “so what” for those of us in the education business?

    In other words, I am not sure what to make of all this.


  2. Gráinne Says:

    There was a lot to think about in the presentation! Of course it might just be my bad write up! Dunno if he has written aspects of this up - will try and dig….

  3. Sheila MacNeill Says:

    Hi Grainne

    thanks for the write up - looks like Ray covered a lot of ground here, and hopefully stimulated a lot of thinking and questions.

    Re Ray’s publications on this, and your last comment I know he has published extensively on threshold concepts and their implications on education. A quick google scholar search will give a good starting point.


  4. Gráinne Says:

    Thanks Sheila it was a packed and thought provoking session as ever from Ray, good to see him too.

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