“Open” Through the Lens of Negative and Positive Liberty

Reading through and pondering the reactions to what was apparently a wonderful ALTC keynote by Bonnie Stewart (UPDATE: here are her slides), I find myself reflecting on the ways my thinking about “open” is influenced by the ideas of negative liberty and positive liberty. This is certainly not the only lens through which I see open, but I do feel like it is a useful one.

As I understand it, negative liberty refers to the absence of external obstacles, barriers, roadblocks, hinderances, or constraints that interfere with my ability to accomplish my desires. My negative liberty is maximized when there is nothing in the law, in society, or elsewhere outside of me that prevents me from exercising my agency in order to accomplish my desires.

Say, for example, that I want all my students to have access to the learning materials for my course, forever. In order to accomplish this goal, I decide to make photocopies of the required textbook and distribute these to students for free. Under normal circumstances, copyright law restricts me from making or distributing these copies. This external constraint decreases my negative liberty and prohibits me from accomplishing my desires.

Positive liberty, as I understand it, refers to a person’s own knowledge, skills, and attitudes – their internal capacity to fulfill their own desires (once those external obstacles that decrease negative liberty have been removed).

Say, for example, that I have adopted OER instead of a commercial textbook for my class. I want all my students to have access to the learning materials for the course, forever. In order to accomplish this goal, I decide to place a copy of the course materials on a public-facing website outside the LMS, where students will have ongoing access to them. However, I have no idea how to do this and so am unable to accomplish my desire. In this instance I had sufficient negative liberty (OER gave me the permissions necessary) but insufficient positive liberty (I was incapable of using the opportunity effectively).

Someone who is more familiar with these terms may jump in and tell me I’m using them wrong. If I am, please do so! For now, I’ll press forward…

We can define both negative and positive liberty as either absence or possession. Negative liberty is the absence of external obstacles like laws or policies. Positive liberty is the absence of internal obstacles like apathy or incompetence. Negative liberty is the possession of permission and opportunity. Positive liberty is the possession of capacity and capability.

I very much think of open as operating in the realm of negative liberty. On reflection, this seems obvious since I think about open explicitly in terms of free permission to engage in the 5R activities. I think of open specifically as removing the barriers associated with copyright.

Note that there are two obstacles associated with copyright. Permissions and cost (“free permission to engage in the 5R activities”). Strictly speaking, permission to engage in the 5R activities is available for every commercial textbook. And for that matter, these permissions are available for every motion picture, novel, and song. If you can afford the license. (Even Lucas will license the rights to Star Wars for the right price.) Thus, open overcomes both the obstacles of the (1) cost of permissions, and the consequent (2) lack of permissions, by providing free permission to engage in the 5R activities.

To my mind, the purpose of education writ large is to increase positive liberty – to increase the capacities of people so that they are better able to exercise their agency in ways that will help them accomplish their desires.

This means that, for me at least, “open” intersects with “education” in places where copyright restrictions and their associated costs create obstacles to people who want to learn and grow (and where they create obstacles for the people who want to help those people learn and grow). At it’s simplest, this obstacle manifests as students going without access to necessary learning materials. At it’s richest, this manifests as faculty and students being shut out of a world in which teaching and learning consists of publicly and collaboratively creating and sharing new knowledge and new knowledge artifacts by copying, revising, and remixing existing knowledge and existing knowledge artifacts.

This latter thicket of activity is what I’m talking about when I say that OER-enabled pedagogy is the set of teaching and learning practices only possible or practical when you have permission to engage in the 5R activities. It should go without saying that there will need to be a great increase in faculty and students’ positive liberty before they are able to fully take advantage of the opportunities provided by open (as I’ve characterized them above).

I love open. I think of it as working to increase people’s opportunities. I also love education. I think of it as working to increase people’s ability to effectively use their opportunities. I really love open education.

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  • Sean Connor

    In this lens, some of my biggest worries for/about OER consist of complementary elements at the boundary between positive and negative liberty — e.g. the CC YouTube video that is not easily gotten is a constraint (negative liberty), but enough technical competence (and ignoring the flagrant violation of terms of use) can get the video (positive liberty). The CC Instagram image has deliberate technical restrictions against saving that can be overcome with a screenshot (limited max resolution) or digging through the page source for the file URL. Ditto for PDFs, etc. Extending the idea of expressing either kind of liberty in terms of absence/possession, there’s a kind of liminal mirror-world with a jagged, interlocking rather than smooth boundary.