Wandering Through the “Open Pedagogy” Maze

Some random thoughts emerging in my mind as a result of yesterday’s wonderful conversation on “open pedagogy.” Don’t work too hard to figure out how they’re supposed to connect up.

What we do with tools and resources is more important than the tools and resources themselves. However, without tools and resources there is precious little we can do.

Many (e.g., Vygotsky, Leont’ev, Wertsch) have argued persuasively that learning is mediated. Some have argued (again, I think persuasively) that the primary tool that mediates learning is language. Whether learning is being supported through conversation, lecture, argument, video, adaptive courseware, plain old textbook, or Google Hangout, words are absolutely critical to supporting learning.

There are two times we can experience words. We can be present when they are uttered (e.g., conversation, lecture, argument, Google Hangout), or we can experience them afterward as a recorded artifact (e.g., video, courseware, textbook). There is one level of privilege associated with being in the room or on the Hangout as the conversation happens. There is another level of privilege associated with having access to the recordings (written, video, audio, or otherwise) of the conversation. There is another level of privilege associated with a complete lack of access to the conversation, whether synchronous or asynchronous.

It is broadly understood that the ideas conveyed by words (like the second law of thermodynamics, or the role that tools and resources play in mediating learning) cannot be controlled or copyrighted, but a specific expression of an idea (your way of explaining it) can. Actually, “can” is too weak an expression. We should say a specific expression of an idea – your way of explaining it – is copyrighted and controlled. The overwhelming majority of the world is subject to the Berne Convention (see this map), the TRIPS Agreement (see this map), and other instruments that automatically protect creative expression if it is captured in any form, whether you want that protection or not.

Here levels of privilege become important again. Those who are privileged to be in the room for the conversation are not constrained in the same way as those less privileged persons whose only access to the conversation is via recorded (and copyrighted) artifact.

The defense that “ideas aren’t copyrightable” is a complete copout. If those uncopyrightable ideas can only ever be made available to the less privileged majority of the public as recorded specific (and hence copyrighted) expressions, then what’s the difference?

To say that words play a mediating role in learning is to suggest that we must be able to pick them up and use them. They mediate nothing left lying inert on the table, and only come to life as our actions give them life. In many ways, the great arguments over alternative forms of pedagogy have been fought largely over what to do with the tools and resources that mediate learning.

But it’s hard to use verbs when you don’t have access to nouns.

Inasmuch as copyright prohibits certain kinds of activity (without the usually lengthy and costly acquisition of additional permissions), copyright limits the ways in which tools and resources are allowed to mediate learning. That is to say, not only does copyright limit learning by making access to ideas artificially scarce (e.g., creating situations in which textbooks on common subjects can cost $400), but copyright also limits learning by diminishing the universe of ways in which tools and resources can serve as mediational means.

All of the activities that we associate with knowledge creation and other forms of scholarship are remix activities. They involve standing on the shoulders of giants, whether remixing existing knowledge in novel ways or combining previous understanding with genuinely new insight. Everything is a remix on one level or another. Without permission to engage directly with the artifacts that mediate our learning, we are left with a “look but don’t touch” model of education.

Not only is everything a remix, but knowledge creation and scholarship are often remixed most effectively in collaboration with others. While fair use and other exemptions may allow us to sidestep copyright protections in narrowly confined settings like an individual classroom, these exemptions can never enable internet-scale collaborations of the magnitude we need to solve problems of poverty, hunger, energy, climate, and unrest.

We need to enliven all our pedagogies with the 5R permissions – we need the ability to take and copy and shape and rework and localize and mashup, and we need to be able to do so with large numbers of others, and we need to be able to do so in the public sphere – so that others can quickly, inexpensively, easily, and effectively build on the work we have done. And to do those things at any level of scale that even has a hope of impacting all those we care about, we’ll have to do it legally. We’ll need permissions. Sad – perhaps even morally unjustifiable – but true. This is why I believe the nouns of OER are such critically important partners to the verbs of “open pedagogy.”