Institutions and Openness

Setting Up the Discussion
Let's be precise about what was claimed by Michael Caulfield in his paper Putting Student-Produced OER at the Heart of the Institution:
People make things possible. Institutions make them last.
His italics. His point is specifically that unless something is institutionalized, it does not last. He makes his position explicitly clear:
I had worked my heart out for this thing, evangelized widely, written up the prototypes and the stubs, explained it to the college. But I hadn’t institutionalized it. And so it was bound to die the minute I left.
He is also pretty clear about what that means:
While we like to scoff at all the mucky-muck bureaucracy around training, budgets, policy and messaging, it’s precisely that stuff that prevents your dream initiative of today morphing into rotting infrastructure of tomorrow.

It’s because I respect the work that all of us do in the open — faculty, students, staff — and want to see that work plugged as deeply into the university as the textbook industry used to be. 
I take pains to reproduce exactly what he says because of his response to my criticism (and also Jim Groom's criticism).

My criticism is this:
You can't depend on institutions. And in a sense, you don't need them. Institutions aren't what make tests and exams happen year after year. Institutions aren't what guarantee there will be course outlines and reading lists. What makes this last - the only thing that makes this last - is culture.
Caufield says we have misunderstood what he meant by "institutionalize". What he means is:
To instutionalize is to set up policy and technical architecture that favors activities you want to promote.
I said, "Pretty sure I've not misunderstood. Where do you set up policy? Where does staff turnover happen? In institutions. To be open, it has to be supported by more than just an institution. They're fickle. As I said, it must be part of culture."

The point here is that to institutionalize is to set up policy and technical architecture inside an institution. There's no other place these things can really happen. And my response is, contra Caulfield, doing this does not ensure persistence. Indeed, quite the opposite: if your innovation depends on an institution to survive, it won't.


Caulfield responded to this exchange today with a longish paper called Institutionalized that deserves to be considered in full.

He first responds to my contention that culture, not institutions, preserve the good things we want to preserve:
Institutions are one of the mechanisms we use as a society to perpetuate, change, or disseminate culture. There are other means, but seeing culture as an alternative to institutions is a bit like seeing travelers as an alternative to cars. I understand the relationship of culture and institutions can get a bit chicken and egg.  But they aren’t alternatives to one another.
First, and technically, this is not a category error. Institutions and culture have the same ontological status: they are human constructs, they cause changes of state in each other, and they can both be found empirically to be necessary (or not) and sufficient (or not) to preserve openness. We can disagree about the role each plays, but not about the existence or causal efficacy of one or the other.

Second, and much more substantially, he offers an example of 'institutionalizing' a practice through  Hostile Architecture "that purposely limits certain uses; here the addition of a middle bar to the bench. People don’t lie down on the bench because the bench prevents it." The best authority I know on this is Dan Lockton, who I've followed for years on the subject of architectures of control.

Caulfield's point, and I take it as given, is that institutions perpetuate and control things. Sometimes they exercise negative control, as when they keep the homeless off park benches, keep black people from voting, or keep poor and coloured people off city beaches. Sometimes they exert a productive influence, such as voter turnout through registration, clean cities through the fixing of broken windows, and the like.

Where we disagree is when we say that the institution is necessary in order to produce and preserve these things. Caulfield offers an example and it's worth quoting in full:
You can say, well — you just need a culture of acceptance, or people just need to be less racist, or whatever. But that’s incorrect. When you put a sign on the bathroom that says “Men” you institutionalize one thing. When you take it off, you institutionalize another. And when you put up a sign that says “All-Gender Bathroom” you institutionalize a third thing. (And no, not having any sign on it is not “de-institutionalizing access”. You’re all smarter than that, right?)
Well - let's think about that. The vast majority of bathrooms do not have signs on the doors. I have two bathrooms in my own home and neither has a sign on the door. What happens? Do people pee on the floor? No - they find the bathroom and use that. In my office, if we removed the signs from the doors people would still use the bathrooms. Having a sign on the door is not necessary to promote the use of bathrooms in order to pee.

By contrast, we also have a room in our office dedicated to eating and drinking; it's called a lunch room. There is a sign on the door that indicates this. Now, observe, first, the sign is not sufficient to induce people to eat there; many people eat in their offices, or at local restaurants. Second, imagine we created two separate lunch rooms, one for men and one for women. Would people obey these signs? Probably not - the institutionalization of segregated lunch rooms would (in this culture) be laughed at.

Institutionalization by means of signs is neither necessary nor sufficient to preserve social behaviours. Culture does. Culture says we pee separately, and not in our offices, but eat together, or sometimes in our offices.

Sure you can build things, like low-level bridges, to attempt to enforce policy through objects. Sometimes these objects last longer than the institutions that created them.

Learning Technology

Part of Caulfield's argument revolves around the choices institutions make.
They impact everything. And again, the point of all those ranting blog posts I wrote when I was a younger person was that the LMS institutionalizes a pedagogy that we don’t really want.  And I think the point of those early rants was if you want real change you’re going to have to dismantle — or at least change — the LMS. The LMS chooses what counts. And that effects what gets done. It’s the CompStat of education.
Speaking of category errors, we see one here. An LMS doesn't choose what counts. It is a piece of software, and software does not choose - that is a function reserved for sentience. People choose what counts. Sometimes they choose it directly, and sometimes they choose it (sometimes inadvertently) through their choice of software.

And sometimes - as in the case of institutions - other people make the choice for you, and then enforce it (or, at least, promote it) through policy or technology. That's what Caulfield is reacting to. Witness:
If you want real change, styrofoam padding isn’t going to cut it. Eventually you have to remove the damn bars from the bench. That’s what institutional change is. You make it so people don’t have to be your level of superhero to get it done. 
Yes. If you want institutions to change, you have to create institutional change. QED. But do we need - or want - institutions to change in order to support open access, open source, or open educational resources? Or could we get the desired result if (to take the extreme position) the institutions simply went away?

Why would I ask this? Because, from where I sit, institutions are typically the bodies preventing things like open access (and often in the same ways, and sometimes for the same reasons, they prevent the homeless from sleeping on benches or black people from going to the beach). And to take the point even further, what I've observed over the last two decades or so is a substantial struggle between culture - which wants these these things to be free - and institutions - which are trying to prevent that.

Caulfield lists half a dozen or more ways the institution reinforces the textbook and the banking model of education, and yes, this is one of the harmful effects of some of the choices institutions have made for us. I agree with him that these pose a "structural barrier to open pedagogy." But again we may ask whether we need an institution to support open pedagogy, or whether we would get the result we want were we simply to get the institution to cease and desist.

What's happening here, I think, is that Caulfield is imagining that the institution must be implicated in pedagogical choice, one way or another. So if we want something that is a non-banking model of pedagogy, the only way to get that is to change the institution:
We have made it simple to send hundreds of millions of dollars to textbook companies and difficult to use student dollars to build curriculum in-house for students. 
Doesn't it seem from this that he is saying these are the only real options we have?

Look at how he expresses the way culture is changed:
Or imagine another world where there was just a “college store” instead of a bookstore, and where professors had to coordinate directly with publishers to get their books shipped.... What would happen? Suddenly “culture” would change, wouldn’t it? People would walk around and say, wow, you have such a culture of OER on this campus, the same way people walked around the park benches and noticed there was no culture of visible homelessness.
Culture would change, he says. On. this. campus. Because there's no imagining in Caulfield's scenario that the change could happen outside the institution, or without the institution.

Pirate Libertarianism

The alternative to institutionalism is not libertarianism, Caulfield's argument to the contrary notwithstranding. Institutions can easily be used support libertarian (and neo-liberal) structures (indeed, that's what many of them are used for). And libertarianism is often used as an excuse (by institutions) to ignore culture.

Let's take the case of web archiving. It's a fact that institutions failed us with Geocities and with much more besides (we would also have lost all of UseNet, and we have lost countless websites). There are two ways to address this:
  1. Set up institutions to archive the web.
  2. Let anyone who wants to archive the web. 
Caulfield wants to do the first. Indeed, he suggests that doing the second amounts to nothing more than putting out fires or catching babies on an ad hoc basis. The problem of archiving should have been address structurally, institutionally:
A big part of it is the fact that a notion of archiving is not built into the model of the Web. If you want to fix that you’re going to have to get people on some committee meetings, a lot of them. You’re going to have to influence the W3C. You’re also going to have to engage with use of Terms of Service, and the regulation of orphaned content. You’re likely going to do that not as a private citizen, but through your institutions: colleges, policy boards, government.
Suppose we had done this. Would we even have the web? What made the web possible at all is that all this overhead wasn't built into it. All of this overhead costs money and resources. This sort of overhead was what made services like Compuserv and Prodigy so expensive.

This - indeed - is the sort of overhead that weighs down our educational system today. Committee meetings. Governing boards. Terms of service. Regulations. It is not clear - and the case has not been made - that this is necessary in a digital society to support learning.

But even more to the point: it is harmful.

If we look at the second option - "let anyone who wants to archive the web" - we can see that, in fact, this is what has largely happened. We have the people who saved Geocities, the people who saved UseNet, Brewster Kahle who created Internet Archive, Google images and Google cache, we have Napster that created MP3s of everything, even Sci-Hub to ensure that academic papers and publications do not (like so many books before them) simply disappear from sight.

The institutional response has been to do whatever it takes to stop this. The institutional response have been to create terms of service, to create regulations and laws, and to put people in jail for what they call piracy. Yes, even though the content would otherwise disappear. Indeed, the net effect of the institutional response has essentially been to enshrine it into law that only institutions can ensure open access. Not because we can't depend the public in general. But because we can.

It's ironic. On the CBC last night I listened to the announcer implore the public to look for a recording of the first ever episode of 'The World at Six', which was broadcast only 50 years ago. Less than my lifetime, and the recordings were lost. But maybe - just maybe - some individuals saved the recordings. It would have been illegal, of course. But maybe they did it anyways.

I don't trust institutions because they have proven time again that they can't be trusted. And I've found just as often than not when I go upstream that it's the institution lighting fires and throwing babies into the river.

Making it Work

I'm not saying people shouldn't work together. I'm not saying we should never build things. What I am saying is that we cannot count on institutions - organized economic and political units - to ensure the lasting value of these things is preserved.

And I am saying, therefore, that policies that make things like open access or non-banking education dependent on the good-will of institutions are misplaced and misconstrued. Because sooner or later someone is going to object (or forget, or simply retire), and the good work goes down the drain.

People do not value education not because we have educational institutions. Rather, we have educational institutions because people value education. And educational institutions are only one of many ways people support their own education, because what people value is the education, not the institution. The people inside educational institutions often miss that point.

We need policies that support education (or, more broadly construed, knowledge and learning). Because these are the things that are valued. And because people value education (and knowledge and learning), I believe they will value open access - indeed, that they have shown this to be the case - even though educational institutions do not.

Institutional change, in this context, is about saving the institution. But if the institutions don't change, culture will find another way. It always has.


  1. "But maybe - just maybe - some individuals saved the recordings. It would have been illegal, of course. But maybe they did it anyways."


  2. (Apologies for the drive-by comment.) Having read you, Caulfield, and Groom, I think you all are to a certain extent talking past each other. If by "institution" you mean formal institutions and by "culture" you mean informal norms and values, then of course institutions are instantiated in pursuit of particular aims tied to particular values -- "frozen culture", if you will. So you are correct that institutional change requires and is preceded by cultural change.

    But cultural change must ultimately result in institutional change/creation to be truly effective. I'm thinking here of my own experience in free software/open source, where promoting cultural norms of software sharing was necessary but not sufficient to create thriving FOSS development communities for large-scale software projects (Linux, Apache, Mozilla, etc.). In the end that required institutions that could provide ongoing financial and/or other support to the people motivated to create such software. A lot of these were new institutions specifically tied to FOSS (FSF, ASF, Mozilla Foundation, etc.), since for a long time the function of existing institutions was simply to provide economic stability for FOSS developers to do FOSS work on the side.

    The problem I see you all having is that it is difficult to create new institutions in the education space because the existing institutions are privileged with respect to stuff like credentialing, government funding, subsidization of student loans, etc.--unlike FOSS, where very few institutional barriers stood in the way of creating new software development projects outside existing institutions. FOSS practices and values were able to take hold inside existing institutions after (and only after) they had achieved widespread enough adoption outside those institutions for there to be a critical mass of support among people within those institutions who were steeped in those practices and values. (Plus at that point there were active FOSS institutions that could provide a framework for inter-institutional cooperation and address issues like licensing in cross-institutional ways.)

    But unfortunately for you all there is no "outside" (or at least not much of one) and also I think no way to proceed without "institutions" in one form or another. "We need policies that support education ..." But a policy is not a value or a norm, a policy is an institutional directive. So ultimately you are stuck either trying to promote change within existing educational institutions or within the other existing institutions (both governmental and private) from which existing educational institutions derive their exclusive privileges.

  3. You say we are talking at cross-purposes but when you say "But cultural change must ultimately result in institutional change/creation to be truly effective" you are essentially restating his argument. Similarily when you say "unfortunately for you all there is no "outside" (or at least not much of one) and also I think no way to proceed without 'institutions' in one form or another."

    1. Yeah, in retrospect I think you are right -- I am more in sympathy with Michael Caulfield on this point than with you and Jim Groom, because I see less scope for activity outside existing institutions than in the FOSS world I'm familiar with. That may of course be due to my lack of imagination and knowledge -- I follow this area as an interested bystander not as an active participant.


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