Let's Not Eat Our Own

7 min read

Last week, a group of people released a document with the ambitious title of "A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age."

The work was posted in several places (and I'm probably leaving a few out):

The document was also posted on GitHub to simplify the process of making changes (and we will talk more about this later).

Money money money

Out of all the signatories, only Audrey Watters (to the best of my knowledge) posted any type of reflection about the process, and concerns with the document. Her post on what was left out and missed in the document is required reading for anyone looking to understand the larger issues around the idea of a Learner's Bill of Rights. Additionally, to the best of my knowledge, only Audrey disclosed that her travel expenses were paid by Udacity. Some of the other people who wrote about the event mentioned that the event was "convened" by Sebastian Thrun, but that doesn't get specific about who paid for them to get there. Given that some of the other signatories are local to Palo Alto, many probably didn't incur any expense, but there were enough people coming from places that require both air travel and lodging that it would be interesting to know who paid for what.

Returning to the "Bill of Rights," the document contains a curious sentence in the opening paragraph:

"We convened a group of people passionate about learning, about serving today's students, and about using every tool we could imagine to respond better to the needs of students in a global, interactive, digitally connected world."

The leading "We", copied in every announcement, implies that the group convened itself. While I understand the value of using the first person plural to create the impression of community, a more accurate sentence would probably be, "Udacity convened a group of people..."

It was also interesting to read how the Chronicle of Higher Education covered the piece. They open their article with this gem:

A dozen educators met last month in Palo Alto, Calif., to discuss the future of higher education.

This opening is equal parts grandiose and inaccurate - while I understand that the Chronicle needs to make this sound exciting in order to generate pageviews, the hue and cry about the demise of higher ed can lead a skeptical individual like myself to think that people might be - just maybe - stoking fears of a crisis to make things sound more dire, and therefore more interesting. But, more precisely, the folks that wrote the Bill of Rights are not a group of educators. Some are, but a sizeable portion are CEOs and management types who are definitely not educators. Either the Chronicle doesn't understand the difference, or didn't care to be fully accurate.

Ian Bogost posted an interesting critique of the "Bill of Rights" but his piece is interesting both for what he leaves in and for what he leaves out. Here is how he structures his opening:

The Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Ageis a new document authored and signed by twelve scholars, technologists, and entrepreneurs including Duke professor and author Cathy Davidson, organizational technologist John Seely Brown, and Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun. It's been making the rounds among those of us interested in such topics, also receiving coverage at The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.

Note the three links: to the GitHub repo created by Audrey, and to two articles.

Later in the piece, Ian quotes from and links to a piece by Kate Bowles. However, nowhere in the piece does he link to or even mention the existence of Audrey Watter's critique of the document. This is a curious omission, and it makes the document incomplete, especially considering that Audrey's breakdown expresses real and valid concerns about the "Bill of Rights." The omission of any reference to Audrey's critique becomes more glaring when Ian discusses the release of the document on GitHub:

For example, the authors embrace the rhetoric of openness by having published their manifesto on Github, a web-based hosting service that interoperates with a popular software versioning control system. Publishing non-software materials to Github is nothing new, and it's true that version control is sometimes useful for documents beyond source code. But by presenting the "official" version of the "Bill of Rights" on a website widely associated with open-source and open-culture values, its authors gain the credibility and appeal of the appearance of openness, with or without its reality.

Looking at this paragraph in more detail, there are some issues. First, there were multiple versions of this document published, on multiple locations. Arbitrarily namimg one version "official" is problematic. Second, the implicit criticism of this paragraph is that using GitHub for document versioning is a misuse of the site; this is a small deal, but when paired with the charge of openwashing (one of the unpardonable sins within many open source communities) the person who put the document on GitHub is clearly being hung out to dry. Including a link to Audrey's critique of the "Bill of Rights" would have provided a valuable context; without that context, the conversation is incomplete, and arguably inaccurate.

And in thinking about the document, how it was disseminated, and the reaction, here is where I get stuck. There is a lot in Ian's analysis that I agree with, but when we are making critiques, we need to be aware of context within which we are talking. According to Audrey, she began getting hateful emails from male programmers after Ian's post. And this reality drives home the point: when we are making critiques, we have an obligation to be as complete as possible, and to pay careful attention to the contexts surrounding our critique. It's worth remembering that white men, and especially straight white men, get to play on the lowest difficulty setting.

Ian's full piece is on his blog. Despite the observations laid out here, it's a worthwhile read, and I strongly recommend going through it in its entirety.

Full disclosure here: Audrey is a friend of mine, and we had the opportunity to talk this weekend at EduCon. In those conversations, she shared the contents of some of the emails she received from people who felt the need to attack her personally via a private communication. And it's not okay. And to be clear, I'm not a huge fan of the "Bill of Rights." I'm still sorting out my reactions, but when Ian Bogost says "the effort may really amount to a branding exercise, or a way to set the terms of a debate" that feels about right. But regardless of how we feel about the document, the process, the resulting conversation, and who benefits, we have an obligation not to eat our own. I'm leery of the document; by nature I'm suspicious of any group that self-identifies as the "most interesting people" - but, giving voice to concerns requires a complete, open dialogue. Omitting details and losing sight of context doesn't further the conversation.

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