Cape Town Declaration Spoof Both Funny and Depressing

There’s a hilarious spoof of the Cape Town Declaration on Open Education on the iCommons listserv. Gave me a good laugh, and definitely worth a read.

I say hilarious, because the spoof really is funny. However, the spoof is also deeply disappointing because its subtext is a completely irrational, anti-sustainability mindset that is the single biggest threat to the success of the open education movement.

There are several people in our community (I don’t need to call them out by name) who see any involvement in our efforts by companies as inherently evil and wrong. Involvement by individuals who might attempt to generate income is also wrong.

Though it’s dangerous and often wrong to analogize open education with open source, this is one case in which we may safely do so. Try to imagine the current state of Linux if the GPL contained a noncommercial clause… That is, try to imagine a Linux without Ubuntu. Try to imagine Linux without Transmeta supporting Linus. Try to imagine Linux without RedHat supporting Alan Cox. Try to imagine universities or governments deploying Linux if technical support weren’t commercially available from RedHat. Try to imagine Linux without hardware vendor support from Penguin Computing, VA, IBM, or Dell.

If in your mind you’re already asking “who cares whether or not universities or governments deploy? We’re trying to empower the people, not multinational corporations. And who calls tech support?” then you can stop reading right here. You seem comfortable living in the elitist world where only the uber-geeks need the benefits of open source. And since they already have them, congratulations – mission accomplished!

If you’re having trouble imagining what Linux would look like without the involvement and support of these companies, let me help you out – just think about where open education is today.

I’ll just pause a moment while that last paragraph sinks in.

For me the ethics of software and content distribution has always been about the nonrivalrous nature of the data. Once I’ve created a piece of software or some (digital) educational materials, they exist. I’ve created them for my own purpose, whatever it was, and now here they are. Once they’re posted on YouTube, or Flickr, or SlideShare (oops! more evil companies!), or the campus server, there is practically no cost involved in making and distributing perfect copies. And since there is practically no cost involved in making and distributing these copies, why would I charge money to copy and distribute them? Here is a perfect opportunity for me to help my neighbor at no cost to myself. And if I won’t even help my neighbor when there is no real cost to me, where are my ethics (let alone my Christianity)?

Technical support, unlike software and unlike content, is a rivalrous good. If Jane is providing you support on the phone, she can’t be answering my question on another line. Not only that, but if Jane is providing you support on the phone she can’t be out engaging in some other activity by which she can generate the income necessary to support herself and possibly her family. Jane’s ethics may occasionally cause her to volunteer her time in giving free technical support to friends and family, but obviously such volunteerism is not a long-term sustainable activity for Jane or her family.

Since software and content are nonrivalrous they can be freely given at no incremental cost (i.e., there’s no additional cost to me every time someone downloads my course). Since technical support is rivalrous it can be given only when costs are incurred (opportunity costs in the case of the volunteer and real costs in the case of the employer of a tech support person).

The important question then becomes – well, let’s try a few versions of it:

  • Do you believe education or learning depend exclusively on nonrivalrous goods and services?
  • Do you believe there is no need to provide rivalrous services in supporting learning?

When a learner has the inevitable question that the software and content cannot answer, what are they to do? And if they are to ask someone, if the learner is to “call tech support” as it were, how is the provider of that support supposed to sustain that answering activity over the long term? You might answer that “they should just go online and ask their question in a forum and wait for some good-hearted person to volunteer an answer.” I mention only in passing the information literacy prerequisites to finding the right forum in which to ask, which will preclude many of the people we want to reach from engaging in this asking activity at all.

To greatly oversimplify, the “depend on volunteerism” model of providing support for learners only works as long as (the number of people with expertise in the network) x (the amount of time they’re willing to volunteer answering questions) > (the number of questions asked) x (the complexity of those questions). Obviously there are more factors, but this communicates the basic message – the “depend on volunteerism” model relies on a high ratio of asnwerers to questions. (To be slightly more cynical about it, perhaps we depend on the information literacy barrier keeping those pesky know-nothings from screwing up the model.) When a billion new people plug into the network, will they bring more answers than questions? How willing to volunteer answers will they be? Do we really want to rely on this as our sole mode of support provision? Wouldn’t it be slightly more responsible and ethical to provide a more reliable service since we can?

If you believe that rivalrous services are a critical part of learning and of education, then you have two choices: (1) either welcome those who are willing to create sustainable ways of providing these services into our community, or (2) continue to try to drive the evil companies away, simultaneously guaranteeing that a critical part of the support infrastructure never comes into being. (If you believe that a purely volunteer model can meet the exponentially growing need for education services you either never learned basic computation or just haven’t seen the projections, like India’s need to build and staff 1500 new universities in the next seven years. Oh wait, I’ll just find 15,000 qualified faculty to volunteer their services full-time for the next several decades.)

Now, obviously I’m a big believer in the benefits of online self-organizing social systems. We’ve even built software to enable their formation. What I’m not a fan of is the religious zeal (which comes nigh unto jihad) against all those who will not accept the purity of the “one true model” of learners-only, PLE-based, teachers-be-damned, peer-to-peer, NC-clause laden, what degree? learning. There is an important place for this model of learning. There’s even a place for it in formal education. But there’s no place for this kind of closed-mindedness anywhere.

Anyway… what was I saying? Oh yes, I got a good laugh from the spoof. If you haven’t signed the Cape Town Declaration yet, you really should.

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  • Some might say you’re a geek for finding that funny. It’s a more sophisticated humor than you might find on typical spoof websites. And maybe you’re taking the spoof too seriously while you’re at it. 🙂