Let's Not Eat Our Own

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 Age is 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.


First, really love your detailed exploration of the wording of the original document and the various responses. Just wanted to share a few more bits of context.

Sean Michael Morris's Reflection on the Process: http://www.seanmichaelmorris.com/a-digital-learning-bill-of-rights/

Cathy N. Davidson's Reflection on the Process:

My own fork, inspired by the event, about 60% of which is text produced for the document that wasn't used:

Honestly, I'm fine that this text wasn't used since it's pretty firmly stamped with my authorial voice and perspective.

The "we" is accurate in the first line as far as I'm concerned. The event was initially planned by me, Sean Michael Morris, Cathy Davidson, Petra Dierkes-Thrun, and Sebastian Thrun. Nobody chose that group of 5. We were each involved in separate conversations with each other that got assembled via an e-mail chain. None of the five of us had more or less of a role during the initial planning, so to say that the event was "convened" by Udacity wouldn't be right. We each nominated folks (Audrey was, for example, my nomination). We didn't vote or anything like that, just had a conversation about our nominations. The point was to gather a motley crew of academics, on-the-ground teachers, writers, CEOs, rabble-rousers, takers of MOOCs, makers of MOOCs, and MOOC dropouts. At first it was to be a conversation about MOOCs, and it quickly evolved into a broader conversation about online learning.

My hotel was paid for, a few meals, and I was reimbursed for airfare ($176). As far as I knew, a grant was covering these costs, but I'm not certain how the money was procured. We met in a study room at Stanford. Nothing was done in secret. Everyone was free to tweet, blog, and talk about the event (which some of us did). The only thing we decided not to share was text from the document until the initial draft was released officially. The goal of this, from my perspective, was to create "eventedness" -- to create as large a discussion as possible (with as much potential hacking). We released the document almost in the midst of our work on it. We got it to a point where it felt ready to be hacked, then set it loose. It was always intended, again from my perspective, as a prompt and not an authoritative version.


Thank you for the additional info. About the only thing I felt certain of while writing this post was that I had missed some details along the way. Thank you for adding additional context that helps to create a clearer picture.

The comments here are reasonable enough, but they ascribe intentionality to my "omissions" where there were none.

The reason I didn't link to Audrey's commentary is because I didn't know it existed until later. Indeed, the structure of distributed publishing that the "Bill of Rights" underwent strikes me as weird at best and inhospitable at worst.

Weird because, well, it's unusual and thus unexpected. Most of us found out about the document through either links from news outlets or links from Twitter or both. There are conventions, even online, and assuming that a process that ends around them, even for interesting reasons, is naive.

Inhospitable because it places unreasonable demands on a reader or responder to both find and process diverse materials in many places. I suppose one could call me lazy or irresponsible for failing to do so (you don't quite get there, but the implication is clear), but I could also call the conveners/authors/signers/whatevertheyares selfish and grandiose for expecting all of us to trudge around the internet collecting enough chits to make our responses "valid."

I've talked with Audrey privately about how stupid and regrettable the rude emails are. Certainly I have no desire to endorse, support, or encourage such behavior. I don't want to speak for her, but, I think Audrey got thrown under the bus on this whole gig, and I am sorry I contributed to some of that.

Like Ian, I was struck by the way that an initiative that had so much to do with the potentially cosmopolitan space that scaling online pedagogy might create, seemed so underprepared for strangers arriving with different views. So I would also characterise it as paradoxically inhospitable. I think this is emerging from the crisis of pedagogical hospitality that MOOCs themselves have triggered. You can stage eventedness, and invite all comers with varying degrees of openness to augment what you began, but if this really is to be a radically hospitable gesture, you need to be open to people who say "no, this is not useful in our context, not at this time." Otherwise what you have is a qualified hospitality, the hospitality that Derrida writes of as being shaped by the laws and conventions of hospitality -- the rules for managing awkward, ambivalent strangers. So I've found it interesting that this event has been accompanied by a kind of rolling commentary on snark -- on counterthoughts about all this ruled as some kind of bad form, or bad faith. It's as if we're not yet ready for the really uncomfortable parts of this conversation.

So this event that shadowed or at least didn't quite challenge the political economy of MOOCs has us all thinking about the insider/outsider nature of the much more radical hospitality we need to brace for. That's good.

For the record, my post engaged directly with Audrey's. And her response on GitHub that it would be entirely legitimate to take down the whole proposition seems to me characteristic of her standout openness to what comes.

Your post was actually the one I read before starting mine, and the one I thought about most before writing - I had been thinking about a smaller set of what you laid out (although not as eloquently), and reading your thoughts, and the how they were structured on your post, helped me gain some clarity on what I was thinking.

I agree that the notion of a master plan that will save the world arising from Silicon Valley is almost laughably improbable - and I am incredibly uncomfortable with the almost neo-colonial rhetoric of what passes as educational philanthropy (which is what I hear when I read quotes like the one you included from Andrew Ng). That's an additional concern I have about the Bill of Rights - it actually creates the appearance that it could be a solution to a problem, when they haven't defined the problem. And that's one of the things your post gets at: the Bill of Rights addresses a vision, and visions belong to someone.

I also am stuck with a feeling of, "Where the hell have you been?" It would have been nice to have some of these folks chiming in five or six or eight years ago, and doing the groundwork to protect online privacy on the web, and the conventions of the open web. If those had been maintained, we'd be having a very different conversation now.

An additional irony here: the folks that are getting the most heat in the fallout are the ones that are most engaged with various communities. That's wrong. I have a suspicion that a good number of the people writing hateful emails to Audrey would be tripping over themselves to line up for a five minute conversation with Sebastian Thrun, or for coverage of their startup in EdSurge.

"if this really is to be a radically hospitable gesture, you need to be open to people who say 'no, this is not useful in our context, not at this time.'"

This is so right, Kate. Point taken. Honestly, I'm willing to accept that this particular attempt at creating a conversation might fail (at least might fail at creating the conversation we expected). The word "radical" in "radically hospitable" means, to me, taking risks and especially risking failure. What I wonder is whether we know yet if people, outside a few opinionated and prolific bloggers, are rejecting this conversation. My read, so far, is that they're not.

Some thoughts here-

RE: "The reason I didn't link to Audrey's commentary is because I didn't know it existed until later."

Yes, I was wondering about that. Both of Audrey's posts on the event were put up on the same day, pretty close to one another. Given the level of detail in your post, and given that you linked to and cited Kate's post that discusses Audrey's work, I made the assumption that you were familiar that Audrey had already begun deconstructing the process.

It's pretty clear from the fallout that followed (chronologically, and possibly causally) your blog post that a subset of your readers are brogrammers; waving the three flags of openwashing, misusing github, and creating the appearance that there is a woman involved in committing those two offenses - well, at that point, it's off to the races, and the reaction Audrey has received from male developers is inexcusable. Are you planning on writing about this aspect on your blog?

RE: "Indeed, the structure of distributed publishing that the "Bill of Rights" underwent strikes me as weird at best and inhospitable at worst."

Agreed. Strategically, it creates the appearance of a groundswell (Look! This is EVERYWHERE! It must be a movement!). But the absence of any central location to track this distributed conversation is offputting, to say the least.

RE: "I suppose one could call me lazy or irresponsible for failing to do so (you don't quite get there, but the implication is clear)"

No. I'll generally say exactly what I mean. If I thought that you had been lazy or irresponsible, I would have said exactly that. Or, more likely, I wouldn't have written about this at all. Time is probably my most precious resource, and I wouldn't have wasted it on something that lacked merit.

It's pretty clear from the fallout that followed (chronologically, and possibly causally) your blog post that a subset of your readers are brogrammers; waving the three flags of openwashing, misusing github, and creating the appearance that there is a woman involved in committing those two offenses.

You simplify matters considerably, presumably to make yourself appear righteous and me wicked. I'll have none of it.

No. I'll generally say exactly what I mean.

This is preposterous. Your entire post and this reply are the very definition of passive aggression.

We're going to need to disagree then.

I definitely wasn't attempting to make this a binary thing, and as I make clear, there are elements of your initial post that are spot on. There are also elements that are off. I highlighted both.

Disagreement and passive aggression are two separate things. I tried to state things clearly and evenly. Sorry if it landed otherwise with you.

I always find it fascinating that any time the tech community faces critique of any kind for their work, a portion of them rise up in defense of the work, regardless of the validity of the critique. All you need to do to summon the trolls from the depths of wherever they hang out is to claim that some particular piece of popular technology (or thinking around technology) is not the best.

Of course, this problem exists in every other domain as well, but one would think that the technology community would at least have a slightly smaller incidence of irrational response than other groups, given the supposedly exceedingly rational nature of their work.

This is not to say that defending oneself in the face of critique is not valuable, but why do people have to do it in such a hateful way?

The responses that Audrey has gotten don't really make sense as a rational response to a real situation.

They are a manifestation of prejudice and bias in the tech space. It doesn't rise to the bar of a defense or critique.

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