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.”

13 thoughts on “Wandering Through the “Open Pedagogy” Maze”

  1. So I agree with much of what u say, and I get it. And yes, so much injustice in copyright as a law when it comes to limiting knowledge to a privileged view. But as I know you know, people in developing countries often don’t wait for permission. Copyright laws exist but aren’t enforced. I said in my OER keynote that open textbooks don’t solve a cost problem for Egypt because outside my privileged American institution, most students in public universities make cheap illegal copies. Or buy local contextualized notes by local profs who benefit economically (because their salaries suck).
    And still as I said yday – content only becomes less important when it exists in abundance in a way accessible to learners (eg language, tech requirements).
    The thing though, is that content need not be the center of our curricula. There are multiple ways of approaching curricula and in my OER17 keynote I show why centering content is problematic. http://Www.mahabali.me/oer17

    1. Just adding on to this. I feel to empower people, involve them in the process of creating their OER, and learning the power of remixing it, etc, rather than focus on the artifact itself.
      And if u go the Dave Cormier route…content is people… Esp in social sciences. No “canon” necessary… It may seem silly to say so, but when you’re me, you see some Western thought/theory and you feel “this has nothing to do with my context” or some where you feel “but I already knew that” and occasionally “wow that is a useful way to look at my context”. Any focus on content as artifact and central to education is an expression of power and potentially colonizing. Processes also reproduce privilege in many ways (eggs hangouts not accessible in China or to deaf people). What do you think?

      1. I think that the assumption that you could teach a semester long course in physics or biology or sociology without any content is an even greater expression of power and privilege. To intimate that you could teach these courses *without content* assumes consistent access to experts who can lecture, discuss, and answer questions – since there is *no content*. That kind of reliable access to experts seems much more likely to be a sign of privilege and power than access to a book or a video?

        I have always been highly uncomfortable with the idea that people are content, or “people are OER,” or similar variations on this theme. It objectifies people in a way that causes me deep concern.

      2. Hi David,

        Maha and I wrote about self as OER before here http://www.chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/self-as-oer-selfoer/62679. The idea is that people are, and can be, valuable resources for others, intentionally or unintentionally. I don’t understand how valuing people’s contributions can objectify them or why it causes you such deep concern. It would be really great if you could talk about this more here or in response to our post.

        You talk about privilege a lot in your post but I hope you do realize that by focusing tightly on the 5Rs in this discussion, you are privileging a framework, a way of doing things over others.

        Suzan Koseoglu

      3. Valuing a person’s contributions is wonderful. Seeing a person instrumentally as nothing more than as a source of contributions (i.e., seeing them as a resource and not as a human being) is what I have a problem with.

        And yes, I’m aware that I privilege the 5Rs above other frameworks (I don’t believe I’ve claimed otherwise?). I hope other people will be equally active in making the case for frameworks they prefer.

    2. Maha, I’m not suggesting that we center our teaching on content. This is one of the primary problems in US higher ed right now – faculty teaching to their textbooks. What I’m saying is that content is critically important in much of education (I’m not arguing there aren’t cases where it isn’t) and we shouldn’t view models where students create, transform, and use content as regressive simply because they involve content. Content isn’t toxic.

    3. This war against textbook cost is not the sole province of other countries. My own students struggle to cover even the modest costs I impose on them for our classes.

  2. After one reading, I agree with everything you say in this post, David, except for the suggestion that it’s sad that we need permissions. The permissions aren’t sad. I see the 5 R’s as merely articulations of the sharing that I’d like to include with things that I’ve created. The traditional copyright has never done me any good. To the contrary, it has gotten in the way of sharing more widely the book chapter that Lori Peterson and I co-wrote. And, that’s too bad, because what we wrote is useful for lots of people in education.

    1. Dan, you have a remarkably consistent ability to read my words against my intentions. I’m sad about overreaching copyright that bogs down education and requires us to jump through hoops like applying open licenses to materials before we can engage in the 5R activities. Draconian out of control copyright should make all of us sad.

      1. I’m glad we both appreciate the beauty of OER and that neither of us have little use for Draconian out of control copyright.

  3. Language and learning is much more than words. What you can’t pick up are relationships, moments, emotion, motivation.

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