All I wanted was a Pepsi, just one Pepsi!

Jim Groom has a sort-of-reply to my post on bringing student-produced OER into the heart of the institution, and Stephen Downes has a reply as well. Neither seems to buy the idea that open practice should be institutionalized. I find this very odd, frankly, and wonder if we are working under different definitions. This is my attempt to explain what institutionalization is about and why it is important.

One warning — for those who haven’t followed the conversation so far, this is likely to feel a bit inside baseball. Continue at your peril, as 90% of this is a direct reply to Jim and Stephen.

First, on Stephen’s critique. Stephen says people think they want institutions, but they really need culture. Culture makes the change.

I think this is a category error, frankly. 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.

Second, on Jim’s critique, I am also a bit confused. I met Jim during a period of time where we were both arguing that the Learning Management System, as hooked into the current educational system, was perpetuating a bad culture of learning. In other words, the LMS was used — intentionally or not — to institutionalize a certain pedagogy. We both saw this as powerful and bad. And we looked for ways to route around that problem.

So I know Jim knows the power that institutionalizing practice has. And I also know that being a post-modernist, Jim knows that there is no such thing as a value-free institution — you’re always institutionalizing something.

I’ve thought about this a bit and I think I know what’s going on, where the terminological misunderstanding stems from. So endure with me as I recount the parable of the bench.

The Parable of the Bench

If you go to a certain park, you might notice that the culture of that park doesn’t involve people sleeping on benches. But of course, that’s only half right.

The culture here is reinforced an disseminated through the built environment. These benches are part of the trend of 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.

This is how culture preserves itself, and the truth is it is usually invisible to the people unaffected by it. That inability of people to spot structural elements like this is one of the reasons that recent discourse has focused on issues of privilege. Your privilege, as a person who is not homeless here, is not having to notice that middle bar is there, or that it matters. It’s the privilege of being able to say something like “Hey, homelessness in this city must be low — no one sleeps on the benches.”

It’s worth noting that there is a huge and ugly history of using institutions in this country to perpetuate evil things. The Poll Tax, for example, was an invention of post-Civil War America to institutionalize discrimination against black voters. Robert Moses quite literally built racism into the structure of Long Island freeways, in order to keep people of color off of New York beaches. Law schools refused to install bathrooms for women.

There’s no shortage of examples. In an example that is near to Jim’s heart, broken windows policing in New York was institutionalized in a set of metrics chosen to grade force effectiveness, and in the technological articulation of that policy, CompStat.


But it works the other way too. The motor voter law made voter registration easier for many, and recent changes in some states have expanded the impact by integrating backend systems and registering people by default. Some of those bridges have come down. We added women’s bathrooms to law schools, and institutionalized access under Title IX (which Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who once had to run two buildings over to go to the lavatory, now adjudicates).

We learned from the failures of early urban housing, and adopted schemes with Defensible Space. Community policing in places like Dallas has moved away from the broken windows approach, incentivizing behaviors that build community trust in the police.

As far as bathrooms, we’re now pushing institutions to consider the needs of trans students as well, and by institutionalizing trans access to the bathroom of their choice, we will no longer force people to rely on the individual intuitions of strangers about who should and shouldn’t be in the bathroom.

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?)

You can’t make real and lasting change without reforming institutions. If you really want to make change in policing you have to dismantle CompStat. To fight discrimination, you have to change the bathroom signs. You have to write laws with things like Title IX in them. You have to ban the Poll Tax. You’re free to “make change outside the system” and in many cases that’s the immediate need. But that change is built on sand if it is not built into the institutional mechanisms that steer culture.

Back to the Parable

That got a little lengthy, but the second point is that the force of institutions don’t just stop at the weighty issues of race and gender and class named above (although race and gender and class is always involved).

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.

And so the immediate reaction to the problem of Blackboard was to use guerrilla action. So presented with a bench like this:

We improvised:

And we were really clever at improvising I think. It’s a skill that is quite useful, and one that should always be part of our practice.

But what I mean when I say I get sick of grafting openness onto classes each semester, what I’m saying is having the policy and technical environment aligned against the open culture you want is undesirable.  I would think this would go without saying, but I find people romanticizing the fact they are poised against the institution.

Being against the institution may be necessary, but it is not where you ultimately want to be. 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. And you do it by looking for all the means by which the institution reinforces an undesirable status quo.

In the case of open pedagogy, the largest structural barrier to open pedagogy is the proprietary textbook. The proprietary textbook is to content what the LMS was to activity. Proprietary textbooks reinforce the banking model of education, and raise up the student as consumer. They present knowledge as fixed, and they separate faculty from the material they teach. They don’t respect local needs, and the homework tools with them use kill-and-drill techniques we thought we buried in the 1970s.

And yet the assumption of the textbook is baked into every nook and cranny of our institutions.

  • We are pestered by the bookstore to decide on a textbook before registration (which means a lot of faculty pick a textbook just in case).
  • We force our students to spend millions of dollars on textbooks but are unable pay for instructional design help and release time for faculty who want to write materials.
  • Course fees — a popular way of supporting open materials initiatives — take an act of Congress to get approved, but any faculty member can assign a $300 textbook with no oversight whatsoever.
  • Faculty who contribute to open textbooks get very little in terms of tenure consideration.
  • We have committees in some departments that are literally named “textbook selection committees” which sort of telegraphs a result, right?
  • We have accessibility policies that are written in ways that don’t help those needing accommodation but do actively scare faculty away from open resources.

The second piece — the structural accommodation we make for textbook costs — is probably the biggest issue, and it’s why I’m so infatuated with the course materials fee model as a sustainability solution. 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. In one of our largest classes here we have over 1400 students in a class who use a textbook + homework tool that costs $280 — even used. That ends up being over $300,000 a year that our students are spending on someone else’s curriculum, for one two -course sequence.

Meanwhile, if we want to replace that textbook with something we produce in-house by collecting a fee — well, there are review boards, an annual cycle, strict restrictions on the use of the money, forms and reports and budget lines that need to be set up, signed, approved, and reviewed.

When I mention this to some people, they say — but the students buy the books. It’s not money that comes to us. That’s why it’s that way. That’s the power of institutionality: it’s so invisible you can’t even see it.

If you want, imagine another world. One where if you wanted to make the students get a textbook over $40 you had to go in front of an annual committee and make your case, but where a small course materials fee could be assigned by filling out a web form. I’m not saying this is a good world; this is just a thought experiment.

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. I’m not saying this is a good world; again, this is just a thought experiment.

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.

When I praise the Open Textbooks folks for understanding institutionality, this is what I’m praising. They get this at a deep level, and have been willing to engage on the fronts of policy and practice at once (I think they have underfunded technology, but that’s a different post).

My sense is there are not quite as many people in open pedagogy who work these issues of policy, law, funding, architecture, institutional support. We’ve complained about FERPA in the U.S. for how long, and what have we done? In our own institutions we’ve perhaps done better, but we still struggle, I think, at the periphery of institutions, and I think there are things we could learn from the multi-prong approach of the Open Textbook crowd.

Resistance is good. But is you want to make change you eventually have to remove the bars from the bench.

The Problem with Pirate Libertarianism

I probably should stop here, and leave this a nice compact article. But I can’t help but reply to the story about GeoCities that Jim cites.

All of which reminds me of who, when all was said and done, saved more than a decade of web history in the form of Geocities from deletion at the hands of Yahoo! in 2010? Was it other corporations? Higher ed? The government? Nope, it was dozens of rogue archivists, technologists, artists, and librarians from around the world that cared, and for me that is a reminder that we can’t leave something as important as teaching and learning on the web to institutions—no less the archiving and preservation of those resources. That has to be managed by faculty and students themselves as part of a broader sense of awareness of owning and managing their digital education.

This meant to show how institutions fail and people succeed. And it’s a good story.

But this is a model for what? The archiving of GeoCities was a simple problem to solve. We invented web crawlers over two decades ago. The entire site was well under a single terabyte. A bunch of people crawled it and saved files. It’s not exactly a moonshot.

When people I respect cite stories like this, it unnerves me. Because it reminds me of paleo-libertarians who say “Back in the day, when there was a fire the whole town would come together and help. Now we pay firemen to sit around all day and no one depends on their neighbor.”

The idea is if you say something odd like “Um, I’d still like a fire department.” you’re undermining “people power”, or something like that.

It’s weird to me. This is an anarcho-libertarian ideology at heart, but in the technological realm it’s not identified as such. (This vision, by the way, was served up by the same Randians who developed the California Ideology — you can see early varieties of the GeoCities story in the documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.)

The idea is that people working individually in their own interest (or through charity) can better solve problems than more organized societal efforts. And sometimes that’s true.

But you know the old story about the baby-rescuers, right? It’s a common one in the non-profit sector:

One summer in the village, the people gathered for a picnic. As they shared food and conversation, someone noticed a baby in the river, struggling and crying. The baby was going to drown!

Someone rushed to save the baby. Then, they noticed another screaming baby in the river, and they pulled that baby out. Soon, more babies were seen drowning in the river, and the townspeople were pulling them out as fast as they could. It took great effort, and they began to organize their activities in order to save the babies as they came down the river. As everyone else was busy in the rescue efforts to save the babies, two of the townspeople started to run away along the shore of the river.

“Where are you going?” shouted one of the rescuers. “We need you here to help us save these babies!”

“We are going upstream to stop whoever is throwing them in!”

The GeoCities archive effort was great act of baby-catching, and we should applaud the work. But the questions we need to ask are not just how to create more baby-catchers or a culture of baby-catching. As importantly, we need to ask ourselves why all these babies keep coming down the river.

In the case of GeoCities, there’s a wealth of reasons we ended up catching babies. 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.

Meanwhile, we still need the baby-catchers. We really do. Someone has to catch all those babies. But someone needs to go upstream too, and it makes no sense to vilify them for that.

I’d also point out that if anything has been used to dismantle the jobs and institutions people like Jim and I want to protect, it’s this GeoCities Archive Team idea — the idea that if we somehow remove institutions from the mix, society will fill in the gaps in a useful and equitable way. The hivemind will find what needs doing and do it, without any central coordination or resources or oversight.

And, to my way of thinking, it’s Silicon Valley nonsense. Institutions and government contracts created the protocols and laws that made the archiving possible, just as they created the legal and commercial environment that allows a company like Yahoo to remove a half-terabyte of history from the earth. Legal and technical changes could easily make that sort of activity impossible, just as much as they could render it unnecessary.

Again, there’s room for this sort of activity, but it’s most effective when it works in concert with institutions, not as a replacement for them.

Not Turnover, But What Turns Over and How

Final response — both Jim and Stephen have noted that “turnover is a problem of institutions” which I read as a response to my claim that we are building a lot of this on the sand of here today, gone tomorrow teaching and technology centers.

Institutions have turnover. That’s true, but largely irrelevant. Turnover is a fact of life. But what kind of turnover, for what reasons, and with what impact is something we get to decide.

As a simple example, Jonathan Rees, who knows a thing or two about labor, made an interesting comment the other day. He said if instructional designers were really going to be central to a student’s education then maybe they should have tenure.

Again, this is a why-are-there-bars-on-the-bench moment. Teaching Learning and Technology centers generally have employees that are relatively unprotected compared to the rest of the institution. They are professionals, not unionized civil service. They are not administration. They work with faculty on courses, and have to sometimes advance unpopular things, but they have no tenure.

Now you can say, well, Teaching, Learning, and Technology centers come and go, and that’s life, it proves you can’t trust anything except informal GeoCities-like collaboration. Or you can notice, as Rees has, that there’s a structural problem here that is behind our national Groundhog Day in edtech, and suggest ways to address it. And part of institutionalizing open is making sure the positions that support open are just as protected as, for example, the library faculty. Otherwise the library is institutionalized in a way that open education is not, and we will continue to go through these boom and bust cycles.

I think, frankly, you need a mix of approaches. You need to work the grass roots, form those informal connections that get work done, and work across institutional boundaries. People in Open Pedagogy do that naturally; you don’t have to tell them to do that.

But you have to also do the slow boring of hard boards that is policy work. And when we see that — when we see people doing the mucky-muck board meeting sorts of things in Open Education, we might just learn a thing or two from their approach rather than look on them with suspicion.

So, I’ll ask again: How can we re-architect our institutions to bring open practice into the center of them, rather see it as a bolt-on? And why is that such a disturbing question to ask?

NOTE: For a while, I removed the “baby-catchers” story in this due to length. But so many people were responding to that piece of it (via the piece published by subscription) I put it back. Sorry for the confusion.


10 thoughts on “Institutionalized

  1. Great argument and analogies, Mike. The baby catchers one and the bench are really powerful at pressing your point home.
    I think there are two broad reasons people resist institutionalization:distrust of institutions in terms of their values and their effectiveness (and this makes me sad as I believe public institutions have a responsibility – so, for example, open access journals should reside on sustainably-funded public spaces) and second, the chicken/egg thing. In a recent talk Donna Lanclos and David White said something like “institutions are people”. Not in the sense of exchangeable but in the obvious sense that institutions are made o people and if you want those committees to make those changes you have to you HAVE TO sustainably advocate for change yourself if you’re the one who is way ahead of everyone else. In a recent meeting I struggled to explain a simple thing: that we can’t talk about pushing for blended/online courses without first developing faculty digital literacies and making student digital literacies a core learning goal (which it naturally is INVISIBLE under our current goals of communication and global citizenship goals). You don’t just institutionalize a mode of leaning ajd expect faculty to sign up to do it and do it well if you haven’t built capacity and culture to appreciate that thing in some form – and as a literacy rather than a tech skill because tech skills do NOT a good online course/teacher make.

    I just wanna highlight that two points ur making I fully agree with. Re building on sand – I wrote about it on Prof Hacker and also in my renting domains post. I think it’s not fully ethical to give students domains during University if they make not be able to sustainably pay for them later (i am talking my own context where many young ppl don’t have credit cards or can’t pay for all things) – but also it is a problem w the infrastructure of the internet and we just ACCEPT IT. That needs institutional change.

    Also re tenure – I co-authored a piece a year or more ago w Lee Skallerup Bessette which has a part about power dynamics between faculty developers and faculty (tenure a big part of it even though both people would have PhDs). It’s called a Towards a Critical Approach to Faculty Development if you haven’t seen it. Would be interested to hear what you think of it.

    There’s an invisible message in this comment. I wonder if you could see it as clearly as I could? As clearly as homeless people see the unsleepability of the benches 🙂

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  3. Mike: You had me at “our national Groundhog Day in edtech”—way to bury the lead! I feel like everything Audrey “Cassandra” Watters does is try to wake us up to something other than that damn Sonny and Cher song. Institutionalized edtech truly does “got you” babe…

    Deep institutionalization involves trying to change not only the bars on the benches and going upstream, but also the discursive (or cultural, if you hate that word) formation that makes them possible, desirable, and invisible. There are much deeper things helping to organize homelessness (/me shoves inconvenient mortgage tax benefit check aside) and baby-catching at idyllic picnics while babies in other places die unseen than college and university budgets, though these budgets do have their role in good and evil.

    When we meet upstream, I’m buying you a beer for this post!

  4. RE: Geocities – It occurs to me that although the initial archiving of Geocities was rather anarchic, most people now access that content via the Internet Archive, which is very much an institution. I’m hard pressed to think of many things that were maintained long term without institutional support. Note that I said maintained, not preserved. Freak acts of history and climate can preserve things like the dead sea scrolls or the tablets of Gilgamesh, but those preserved things disappear for thousands of years and are preserved because nobody knows about them. Contrast the monastic culture of Europe, which, for all its faults, kept the broader society connected with a great deal of ancient knowledge through an institutional culture of copying and dissemination.

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