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Openness in Education and Digital Scholarship: An interview with Bonnie Stewart

By Aras Bozkurt, Suzan Koseoglu / February 2018

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Who is Bonnie Stewart? Can you introduce yourself and your research interests?

I'm an educator who's been teaching and working in higher ed for almost two decades now. My current role is Program Lead for Experiential Education at the University of Prince Edward Island in Atlantic Canada. My job involves building a coherent campus-wide picture and process for integrating experiential opportunities into learning, and developing non-curricular programming to support students' capacity and competencies. My background includes work in distance ed, adult ed, and participatory digital communications, in addition to my Ph.D research in digital and open scholarship. In my doctoral study, I used ethnographic methods to explore academic Twitter during 2013-2014, just as Twitter became widely weaponized and tactical.

My work since has built on this, focusing on the collapsed publics of our contemporary information ecosystem. I'm interested in participatory models of engagement, media literacies, and the implications of our "fake news" era for higher education. To enact and explore this, I've adapted the legendary Antigonish Movement adult education model into an open, three-layer media literacies initiative called Antigonish 2.0. As a global network, #Antigonish2 enables people around the world to learn from and support each other in capacity-building efforts in their own local communities.

There is no precise definition of openness in an educational context. How would you define it and why?

LOL. I am by nature uncomfortable with definitions: I tend to prefer contextual conversations with permeable "working" definitions and shades of gray. I think openness has many shades of gray. More material, tangible instances like OER [open educational resources] and open textbooks focus on licensing and freely-circulating ideas, bypassing the proprietary publishing industry, while more ephemeral concepts like open practice and open pedagogy emphasize transparency and sharing in educational practice and learning. I think of myself as working more on that latter end of "open," though I increasingly make an effort to publish and review in open and available scholarly spaces, as well. For me, openness is an approach that assumes that knowledge is a public good and that accessibility in the broadest sense—across platforms, hierarchies, and economics, among other things—is therefore also a good to be supported, encouraged, and contributed to. That doesn't mean openness is an approach that doesn't consider or value privacy, particularly the data privacy of learners and educators; if openness has an opposite, I'd frame it not in privacy but in proprietary knowledge and systems.

There are ongoing discussions about the importance of the openness in education. Is openness in education really important?

The idea of the commons and the collective public is for me at the core of both openness and education, as a societal endeavor. I see education as the systematization of individual learning, and openness as an important influence in keeping that systematization directed towards at the idea of public, societal good rather than individual, measured—and often arbitrary—achievements.

Openness is also an important force in challenging the increasing costs of education, both to students and systems. OER and open textbook initiatives can decrease the costs incurred by institutions and public systems, as well as by individual learners. In an era when public funding is on the decline, this matters and is a key equity issue.

Open education has been deeply important to my own development as an educator. Particularly in a world changing as quickly as ours, I believe an important part of education is learning to work creatively, collaboratively, and critically with others… yet many of us who teach have not been acculturated to practices that foster those abilities. Teaching is often a more closed-door profession than we like to let on, and taking the risk of acknowledging our lack of expertise or need to learn can feel extraordinarily risky. But when educators share practices, resources, and ideas in the open, on public (if often admittedly fraught and proprietary) platforms, I am able to learn from their experiences and ideas in a contextualized way, and consider how to apply and adopt new practices in my own work as an educator.

Ultimately, the status quo of closed as default educational practice does not help make a case for the value of education and knowledge. We live in a time of information abundance, and particularly in higher ed, we need to ensure that the knowledge we work to create is visible and legible within that abundance. We lock away too much of our research and knowledge in expensive, inaccessible, and increasingly unnecessary journals because we're attached to our own prestige economies: to the individual professional rewards tied to those outdated forms of dissemination. We miss the opportunity to get that research—knowledge that takes years and, often, public funds to develop—to the public via policy and media and open channels.

Considering the paradigm shifts in the digital knowledge age, what would you say for the current state of the art, and future of openness in education?

I used to call myself a social media fortune-teller, but it was always tongue-in-cheek.

I'm disinclined to make predictions… but I do think openness—in practices and in its more material manifestations—is still on an upward curve and making headway in education and higher education particularly. Its capacity to both reduce costs to students and to make visible a coherent networked pool of practices educators can draw from will continue to have value, particularly where the digital-first knowledge paradigm is institutionalized.

How do online networks affect scholarship? What are your insights regarding the future of scholarship?

I see scholarship as a process of expanding and sharing knowledge, and therefore, as always networked. The history of academic publishing in the European model is one of creating networks like the Royal Society to disseminate knowledge and protect it from intervention by political and religious authorities. Academic conferences are—and remain—valuable for their networking components: for the sense of who's who and what they do that emerges through the intimate contact of being in the same spaces.

But. Online networks add to scholarship by creating the capacity to build visibility and relationships and that same sense of who's who without the expense, time commitment, or environmental cost of travel. Online networks allow early-career scholars and graduate students to build visibility for their work, enabling them to distribute and share their ideas and artifacts of research in the open. My Ph.D research focused on this process—I used ethnographic methods to explore scholars' use of academic Twitter, and it was the scholars in junior status positions who particularly reported direct professional benefits from open engagement. While all the active users in my study felt that Twitter had expanded their professional network and their engagement in their field, the opportunities to collaborate, speak at conferences, or do media that tended to emerge from longstanding open contribution were especially meaningful for junior scholars, who otherwise had less access to these perks. Cultivating open, public audiences for their work and ideas allowed junior scholars to "contribute to the conversation" in their field and in higher ed generally, even when they did not have status positions in the academic hierarchy.

That does not mean that open online networks flatten or democratize scholarship, or that engagement does not come with increasing risks for individual scholars. I completed my study in 2013-2014, just before Twitter became a broadly-polarized environment. The study does not fully represent the differential and intersectional risks of engagement for scholars in a world of tactical Twitter, or in a world where engagement has been weaponized via watchlists of so-called "liberal" academics. Yet in spite of these coordinated efforts to both target and shape scholarly engagement, I suspect that the future of scholarship is—as ever—connection, inquiry, and sharing, and that it will inevitably become increasingly digital and open as our forms of connection, inquiry, and sharing become increasingly digital and open.

Can you talk about Antigonish 2.0. What is it and why are you doing it?

#Antigonish2 is an effort to try to bring people together in a time when the logics of media and partisan politics are working to drive us apart.

It started as a grass-roots response to a blog post in late 2016. The term "fake news" was gaining currency and the role of media / social media in contemporary democratic processes and outcomes was becoming visible. I'm an adult educator and a media literacies educator, and I looked at the bloated, sensationalist, polarized news cycle that I live in the midst of, and thought: "The media literacies stuff I teach could be useful for making sense of this. But I don't know enough." And then I thought, "But the adult ed models I teach—and the open online networks I work in—could maybe help me put it all together?"

So. #Antigonish2 is about participatory engagement and community capacity-building through the lens of the contemporary information ecosystem. It's based in the pioneering adult education tradition of the Antigonish Movement, which is rooted in my small maritime part of the world.

The original Antigonish Movement focused on people exerting collective action within and on the structures shaping their society, #Antigonish2 focuses on the structures shaping ours. It's a three-layer global/regional/local model for working together to address the current information ecosystem…at this point, it's primarily a framework by which people who want to engage in local democratic organization work or build media literacy to combat polarization can connect with a larger movement and network of peers for learning, information, and support. Our first big initiative is a MOOC called "Engagement in a Time of Polarization", on edX. It's being sponsored by Davidson Now, and in keeping with their model of two-week pop-up MOOCs on timely topics, my co-facilitator Dr. Natalie Delia Deckard and I see ourselves as convening a conversation more than spouting expertise. We're being joined by some leading voices in disinformation and data literacies, our course provocateurs Zeynep Tufekci, Chris Gilliard, Mike Caulfield, and Kris Shaffer.

In a recent article on Antigonish 2.0, you say: "Attention—not voice or connection—is the currency of media." Can you expand on that a little bit? How does the attention economy impact our engagement with others in professional networks?

Like I said in that article, our digital social sphere is "increasingly calibrated for constant hits of scandal and outrage." This is in part because open practices—both of individuals and institutions, including media—rely on visible signaling. On open, networked platforms such as Twitter, users can lurk and consume without making themselves known to others—at least except through data traces—but they cannot actually communicate with others without taking up space as an identifiable presence. Communication is the core function of media—very particular forms of communication, but communication nonetheless. Yet the more crowded our information ecosystem becomes, the harder it is to communicate a message and have it received or circulated or engaged with. So in order to complete, individuals and institutions alike deploy sensationalist tactics to attempt to draw eyeballs. And the more bloated with highly-profitable scandal and outrage the whole sphere becomes.

In the midst of this, in spaces like academic Twitter, regular scholars are going about the business of scholarship and connection and sharing…but the environment demands that they cultivate an individual voice to stand out in the crowd, and that they cultivate an audience for that voice. That's a core difference between traditional models of scholarship and the open practice model: In the open model, individuals take on the signaling work traditionally done by recognizable journal names and recognizable association affiliations and recognizable institutional titles in recognizable institutions. We have to build our own personal, individual signals of credibility and worthiness—this is no longer done for us by the reputational trappings of our institutional affiliations…though it is still supported by our personal affiliations and their name brands. Nonetheless, we in the open have to hustle. We work in the attention economy, just as we work in the academy.

Further Reading

Stewart, B. Open to influence: What counts as academic influence in scholarly networked Twitter participation. Learning, Media and Technology 40, 3 (2015), 287-309.

About the Authors

Aras Bozkurt is an academician at Anadolu University, Open Education Faculty. He is also an editorial board member of eLearn Magazine. Bozkurt holds M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in distance education. His primary research interests are topics related to online interaction, online learning spaces, online learning communities, online community formation, online learning, digital books, interactive e-books, gamification, game-based learning, research trends in distance education, and social networks. He is also interested in critical theories such as connectivism, rhizomatic learning, heutagogy and emerging research paradigms such as social network analysis, sentiment analysis, and data mining.

Suzan Koseoglu is an Academic Developer (Research and Development in Technology Enhanced Learning) at Goldsmiths, University of London. Koseoglu holds an M.Ed. and Ph.D. in learning technologies. Her area of expertise is online learning with an emphasis on open and networked scholarship and socio-cultural aspects of learning in further and higher education contexts. Her recent research focuses on openness in education, exploring power and pedagogy in hashtag communities and open educational practices.

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The edX “Engagement in a Time of Polarization” MOOC will be held February 12-26, 2018. Join us! It’s free, it will be open and participatory, you can register here.