Responding to Criticisms of Cape Town

It wasn’t a question of whether or not Stephen would criticize Cape Town, just a question of when he would. 🙂 A response to several of his criticisms is in order. His final criticism is the crucial one, so I’ll start there first and then return to the beginning and work through the others:

It was explained to me that the process of a small, select group was chosen because of the difficulties inherent in convincing a large group to agree. But it is not clear that agreement is needed, not clear that the creation of this sort of document is what the movement needs most. And as at least one attendee at the meeting can attest, the wild uncooperative community at large can produce agreement on a document – it can produce agreement on a whole Encyclopedia of them.

The community as a whole may produce agreement – but it would be the sort of agreement, if at all, that is unmanageable, uncontrolled, one that suits the wider population very well but which is rather less appropriate to serve the rather more narrow interests of the foundations and the institutions represented by the signatories.

And again:

The first, and most fundamental, recommendation I made with respect to this document was to open it up. Don’t have a single document that your chosen few sign, I suggested, leaving everyone else to either follow quietly along with the ‘received wisdom’ or be cast off the boat. Put the document into a wiki page – maybe even a Wikipedia page – and let the community as a whole have its way with it for a while. Take it around to conferences and meetings on the five continents, where people who aren’t lucky enough to have a friend in the Foundation can also have a say.

The document will be officially ‘launched’ in January, having only been circulated on the UNESCO Open Educational Resources mailing list (and perhaps elsewhere (update: on David Wiley’s blog)) thus far. So there is still time. It could still be a people’s document, and not one showered down to us like some gift from on high.

The nature of a declaration is that it must declare, assert, affirm, claim, confirm, contend, insist, profess, pronounce, state, and testify. It cannot be a wishy-washy, unordered listing of all the different opinions of everyone in the world, which would necessarily result in a document filled with internal contradictions. Agreement in declaration is mandatory – unless your goal is to scare off would-be participants by declaring, asserting, affirming, claiming, confirming, contending, insisting, professing, pronouncing, stating, and testifying to the world that the field is simply a giant mess of which no sense can be made.

I have a deep and abiding respect for the completely open, fully collaborative, uncontrollable process that goes into producing a body of work like Wikipedia. Wikipedia is unarguably one of the wonders of the modern world. However, just because that process works to produce an informative encyclopedia does not necessarily mean it will also work to produce a persuasive, coherent statement of principle. And that is exactly what a declaration is meant to be. If the Cape Town Declaration were so completely innocuous that no one disagreed with it, it would have clearly failed to declare anything. As Yano Akiko said, ‘iken ga areba, teki mo aru,’ or, ‘if you have an opinion, you have an adversary.’

Thank heaven the Founding Fathers didn’t invite literally everyone in the world to participate in crafting the Declaration of Independence – I doubt it would have had any inspirational qualities left after the British finished editing it. And, despite his claims otherwise, Stephen doesn’t really want everyone included in the process – he’s obviously irked that anyone with friendly feelings toward commercial publishing managed to participate at all.

Stephen continues:

There is no sense of the possibility, much less the desirability, of this development being fostered by, for the benefit of, people other than educators. I would like to think and hope that we all are creating this world. I would like to think that the tradition of “sharing good ideas” is something that all people, not just educators, have in common.

I’m not sure which declaration he’s reading. On my the very first recommendation reads, “First, we encourage educators and learners to actively participate in the emerging open education movement. Participating includes: creating, using, adapting and improving open educational resources; embracing educational practices built around collaboration, discovery and the creation of knowledge; and inviting peers and colleagues to get involved.” Perhaps learners and peers here are really code words for educators.. even though educators were mentioned separately. If inviting learners to create, use, adapt and improve open educational resources through collaboration does not give at least a sense of possibility of someone other than an educator being involved, I have to simply throw up my hands and give up.

Stephen continues:

More significantly, dividing the world in this way almost immediately creates practical problems. The document tells us that the open education movement “is built on the belief that everyone should have the freedom to use, customize, improve and redistribute educational resources without constraint.”

This significantly limits the domain of knowledge under discussion, as it contemplates only “educational resources”. Oh! What a far cry from the rather more laudable objective of Wikipedia: “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.”

Yes! And hooray that it does! This is not the Cape Town Declaration on Wikipedia. It is the Cape Town Declaration on open education.

Stephen continues:

Second, and related, the document fosters a particular culture of learning, one where content is provided and licensed by content producers, and then consumed in a particular way by learners.

See my comment above about the very first recommendation in the declaration inviting learners to create, use, adapt and improve resources. I just don’t see where Stephen gets his “consumer view” of learners from this document.

Stephen continues:

The document refers to the “global collection of open educational resources has created fertile ground for this effort,” describing not the many individual creations made by people with no connection whatsoever to the education industry, the billions of web pages, Flickr images, YouTube videos, and the like, but rather the resources produced explicitly for educational purposes.

Instead, the document refers specifically to “openly licensed course materials, lesson plans, textbooks, games, software and other materials that support teaching and learning.” While a defender of the document might say that personal learning is not excluded, it is clear that the focus is elsewhere. It is clear in this document that pedagogy, not empowerment, is the focus.

As Stephen rightly points out, there are already ‘billions of web pages, Flickr images, YouTube videos, and the like.’ We obviously don’t need a declaration to encourage people to use the Internet and participate in the pervasive culture of user-contributed content. They’re already doing this at fantastic scale. What isn’t happening at scale is the sharing of educational materials. Hence the need for this declaration.

Stephen continues:

Third, the document advocates a form of ‘open’ that explicitly encourages the closing and blocking of access to education through the commercialization of these resources. The meaning of the catchphrase about “differences among licensing schemes for open resources creat(ing) confusion and incompatibility” is made explicit in the FAQ: “we believe that open education and open educational resources are very much compatible with the business of commercial publishing.”

This is not so, and in fact the majority of resources licensed under an ‘open’ license are licensed nor non-commercial use. The view expressed by this particular group of especially selected representatives is in fact a minority position. When people talk about ‘open’ educational resources, they do not normally mean something they have to pay some publishing company in order to access.

I’ve blogged half a dozen times that I simply cannot grok what Stephen’s problem is with open content / commercial partnerships. You can purchase commercial support for open source software from RedHat or Moodle. IBM pours millions of dollars into open source through its many programs. CheapBytes commercializes convenience for those of us without the bandwidth to download multi-gigabyte Linux distribution. Even Ubuntu has a storefront selling their distribution on CD or DVD. Should all these companies be abhorred and shunned? I should say not. And if commercial companies can work successfully with open source software projects, why not with open content projects? There is no reason at all. There is nothing incompatible or inappropriate about an ecosystem including both commercial and open projects, and there are many, many examples of these working together symbiotically (i.e., to the benefit of the open source project as well!). No hypothetical argument Stephen makes can overcome the data.

Stephen continues:

When the authors say that “creating and using open resources should be considered integral to education and should be supported and rewarded accordingly,” what do they mean? The idea of “reward”, which is not integral to any concept of free and open learning, is introduced with puzzling nuance.

Stephen forgivably misses this point because he doesn’t work at a university. If you’ve ever worked toward tenure, you understand exactly why it is important for participation in open education projects to be included in the university’s reward structure. For those first several years it can feel difficult to find time to do anything that central administration won’t count when they consider your tenure case. If we could change that – if young faculty could get tenure and promotion credit for sharing the resources they create for their classes, there would be a *lot* more OER in the world.

Stephen continues:

When the authors say, “we call on educators, authors, publishers and institutions to release their resources openly,” what they mean is that everybody should make their materials freely available for commercial exploitation. By release, we should be clear, the authors mean “publish,” emphasizing the producer-consumer model of learning.

By “release,” the authors mean “when you’re on the faculty or you teach at a school you create lots of materials anyway – why not go ahead and share those?” As for the implication that the consumer-producer model is evil or inappropriate, guess what? For an OER to exist, someone has to produce it. There might be multiple people involved, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they produce it, and others will use or “consume” it.

For all the concern Stephen and I share for sustainability, I know he has to realize that there are millions of people around the world who are already paid to create educational resources (all the teachers and faculty throughout the world). If we can simply incentivize them to share, we will have made significant progress which will be sustainable over the long term.

Stephen continues:

The point is, knowledge and learning are not things that belong to someone. Knowledge and learning and the birthright of every human being, a cultural heritage shared by all, and like the commons, access to that birthright isn’t granted like some act of charity or sold like some act of commerce. You don’t ‘give’ what doesn’t belong to you, you don’t ‘sell’ what doesn’t belong to you. We do not need to engage in some special act of creation to produce this heritage; it is already there. We need only remove the barriers to access, the presumption that knowledge and learning are owned and possessed, that they are some sort of property.

This paragraph summarizes my relationship with Stephen. I agree completely with what he’s trying to say but disagree completely with how he says it. I strongly disagree that “knowledge and learning are not things that belong to someone.” The problem is the word “belong.” If knowledge can’t belong to someone, it’s only other alternative is to be disembodied. I think what he means is that knowledge should belong to everyone, not that knowledge can’t belong to someone. But if it can’t belong to one, it certainly can’t belong to many – the many are just lots of ones.

Stephen continues:

A document intended to support free and open learning should not take the perspective of the educator, it should not take the perspective of the service provider, and it should not take the perspective of the provider. It should take the perspective of the learner – which is to say, all of us – and it should say, unambiguously:

“We seek a society where knowledge and learning are public goods, freely created and shared, not hoarded or withheld in order to extract wealth or influence.”

The Cape Town Declaration does not contain these words, because there was nobody there to speak them, and nobody there willing to hear them.

Stephen doesn’t actually want knowledge and learning to be public goods. If knowledge and learning were public goods (in the public domain) there would be no way to use copyright or licenses to “protect” open content from commercial use. He clearly supports placing noncommercial restrictions on content, and this is only possible if knowledge and learning are not public goods.

Stephen’s supposition that there was no one in Cape Town to say these words is just wrong. I was there and heard what was said. There were many people there who said words like these. And there were also two days of extremely well-facilitated argument by all sides in which the group battled through concepts and language for the declaration.

Stephen continues:

For all its pretension that learning should be “embracing educational practices built around collaboration, discovery and the creation of knowledge; and inviting peers and colleagues to get involved” the process that produced this document does not one that. In this way, it betrays the spirit of open learning as actually engaged by practitioners today.

If there is anything that could be thought of as a truism in contemporary education, it is the idea that we are all learners and that we are all teachers. The idea of lifelong learning makes explicit the former idea, and the principles of learner-centered, constructive and inquiry-based learning make explicit the latter. Knowledge – particularly social and public knowledge – is not something that is produced by a hothouse meeting of experts, but rather, is produced through a process of dialogue and conversation.

Anyone who doesn’t think that 30-some opinionated people trying to write a single document isn’t collaborative has never tried to write a document with 30 other strong-willed people. And what is the difference between a hothouse meeting of experts and a process of dialog and conversation? Is it the temperature of the room? Is it involving a sufficient number of non-experts? Is it involving more than 30 people? We quickly descend into a Sorites Paradox – would it be dialog and conversation with 50 people? 100? 1,000? 10,000? 100,000? Would it be dialogue and conversation if it occurred in a wiki, even if only 30 people actually participated? Are conversation and dialog now determined by the technology by which messages are exchanged? Have we somehow redefined conversation and dialogue to mean the unrestricted opportunity for every person on the planet to participate, so that my wife and I can no longer have a conversation? So that my students and I can no longer engage in a dialogue?

The Cape Town Declaration is not a perfect document, and the process by which it came about wasn’t perfect either. But the document is great and the process was better than any I’ve ever participated in. The Cape Town Declaration is a great document written to inspire, and clear, powerful statements of principle always raise the ire of those who disagree with those principles.

I hope that those who disagree with the principles expressed in Cape Town create their own declarations using the method that seems mopst appropriate to them.

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