A robust discussion has emerged online stimulated by a number of tweets and blog posts from Jim Groom, Mike Caulfield and Stephen Downes. An interesting aspect of this discussion ,that stems from a post Mike wrote, was the need for institutions in order to to implement and maintain change. Stephen Downes wrote a rebuttal against a number of Mike’s points and offered an alternative perspective that in order to get change happening what’s required is Culture. It’s Culture that pushes things forward, that makes change possible and culture is something that happens outside of the institution (often in spite of it).
What I found interesting was that I don’t necessarily disagree with either of them and I’d say that I actually agree with both sides – if that’s possible. Both offer compelling arguments and perhaps there’s more nuance required in the definitions, or perhaps because it’s a complex problem there isn’t a simple for and against argument. Both are valid and both are correct. There just isn’t a simple cause and effect at play – this is a multifaceted problem that requires more depth and perspectives. So to be honest I don’t want to enter into the debate itself.
What I want to throw into the discussion here is the the idea of cost., and who actually pays for change?
What I find interesting here within in this discussion, and perhaps more broadly in ed-tech and technology more generally, is the concept of who pays for change to occur? For some reason we don’t seem to discuss this point very often, but the reality is that it requires actual money for change to occur. To do this stuff it requires resources, time and effort which has to come from somewhere and be paid for by someone. While sometimes there might not be a direct dollar amount attached, we can still attach a dollar values for what is invested, and who picks up that cost is incredibly important. Particularly if you want to assess success and benefit.
So let’s take a cursory glance at the two sides – Culture vs. Institutions and who pays.
When it comes to Culture being utilised as the tool for change I’d suggest that it forces the cost to be taken up by individuals. Really powerful things can achieved when individuals take on the responsibility for change. It’s part of the libertarian ideal of empowered individuals, taking ownership and mastery of their own domain. But, for change to actually occur via Culture, it comes down to the individuals capacity to bear the associated costs. Can those who need the change actually bear the cost of change? White men are more likely than anyone on the planet to have the facilities to bear the cost, so Culture has a certain appeal as the agent for change. It appeals to their sense of meritocracy, which is challenged by an ideal like fairness. Becasue for everyone who doesn’t have the privilege of being a white male, they simply cannot bear the cost. People who are minorities, who are oppressed, who are excluded from society, who are poor, who are women(!) – the personal cost is often too much for an individual to bear. If we look at the endemic racism and sexism happening, extreme poverty levels, growing inequality – it isn’t a result of not wanting change, but an inability to bear it’s cost. The people who need change, desire it, just cannot risk their jobs, insult their bosses, bear the abuse, sacrifice time with their families, or jeopardise their future for the pursuit of change. When there is no safety net and no support on hand, why would you take risks? Cultures reliance on the individual to bear the cost means that those who are disadvantaged have little opportunity to engage with it. Culture is prejudiced towards those with privilege, and it’s capacity to actually effect change is limited if it doesn’t seek to engage with Institutions and the systems and levers behind them. Relying on Culture for change makes it the domain of those with privilege and support.
On the other side of this argument are the Institutions. They have their own set of problems – they are slow and come with their own inbuilt inertia and aversion to change. Quite often Institutions themselves are barriers to changes, but at the same time institutions have the resources to devote to supporting change and providing the infrastructure, often indirectly. This infrastructure allows change to build up its own momentum so that it can smash through the cultural and institutional barriers that exist. If we take feminism and civil rights as examples, we can see that these were supported and facilitated by institutions. Feminism was able to became such a powerful agent of change because universities employed people who contributed to it. They helped develop the culture by creating space for academic debate. It paid peoples wages and provide platforms to publish and engage politically and socially. Higher Education provided an infrastructure that allowed a movement, a Culture, to foster and grow, even if it didn’t directly contribute. For Civil Rights in the US, it was religion. It was churches who provided the necessary infrastructure for change to occur. They provided a safety net for those who took risks and stood up to their oppression. They provided the logistics and coordination required for focussed and successful protest. In these and many cases it was institutions that paid for change to occur. That picked up the tab when the price was too high for individuals to bear. They provided a way forward, leadership when it was necessary. Quite often we create new institutions as part of this change that go beyond Culture. Unions emerge from Culture but become Institutions, democratising the cost of change.
There’s plenty of ambiguity in these terms so maybe there is no real debate possible. But the idea of asking who pays, and maybe more importantly – who should pay – is no less valid. I think depending on Culture to elicit change is asking people to bear too much of the cost personally. Depending on Culture for change limits its potential and capacity to effect real and lasting change. But Instututions don’t necessarily fair any better when they go out on their own to make change. They lack the buy-in, the support and vibrancy of a culture. We need to acknowledge we need both – and that we need them to work together. This shouldn’t be about Culture vs Institutions, it should be about Culture with Institutions. Institutions particularly those whose income is “crowd sourced” (in a loose and encompassing way), have a responsibility to act as agents of change and to bear the associated costs as a service for to their community. Providing the infrastructure for change is every bit as important as the change itself. Every contracted employee reduces the precarity and the cost of that individual to support change themselves. Institutions allow the cost of change to be shared and distributed, and can help reduce the risks posed to an individual. Institutions provide a way to create momentum and are at their most powerful when they engage with Culture.
When I think about Culture and Institutions, and what their roles and responsibilities are – it’s really hard to disentangle them. They are both requirements for change, and they often support each other. Culture helps drive and steer change but Institutions help spread the costs. The best of both worlds would be utilising Institutions to provide ways of facilitating and supporting Culture, of creating infrastructure for change to occur. Allowing their staff to engage more directly with change, to participate in developing and maintaining Culture and rewarding that kind of work. Institutions working with Culture, and vice-versa, provides a more equitable way of paying for change and distributing the cost.