The CARE Framework

After reader feedback made it clear that this post was unclear, I am updating it. Please see The original text is below for archival purposes.

NOTE: I began this post with the intention of writing about the framework. Some of it has managed to be, in fact, focused on the framework. However, it also includes several other thoughts that were prompted by my study of the framework, but that aren’t direct responses to the framework per se. Apologies in advance for a post that meanders even more than usual.

The CARE Framework was released earlier this week by Lisa Petrides, Doug Levin, and Eddie Watson. It’s an important contribution to important conversations and is worth taking time to read carefully and respond to thoughtfully. As I hope will become evident as you scroll down, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and responding because I think the framework has a lot of potential. We all owe Lisa, Doug, and Eddie for a great piece of work.

I will state right up front that it is entirely possible that in my reading of the framework I have misinterpreted the authors’ intentions or meanings. If I have done so, I apologize in advance and sincerely hope they will correct me.

As the title of the document makes explicit, the framework aims to contribute to the conversation about the sustainability of OER: “Toward a Sustainable OER Ecosystem: The Case for OER Stewardship”. It’s a valuable contribution to that conversation. Issues of sustainability are absolutely critical to the future of OER and education more broadly, and we spend far too little time talking about them.

If you’re new to the conversation on OER sustainability, I would recommend reading Models for Sustainable Open Educational Resources by Stephen Downes and then my On the Sustainability of Open Educational Resource Initiatives in Higher Education, both of which were written for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). They provide an introduction to a wide range of potential sustainability models for OER and some accompanying discussion.

The framework advocates for a specific model of OER sustainability, one in which “individuals working across institutions and organizations all around the world” take on the role of “OER stewards.” I wholeheartedly agree that our work in OER will not be sustainable over the long-term unless people and organizations step forward and take on the hard, frequently painful, and seldom recognized work associated with stewardship. But I also recognize that not everyone has the luxury – the privilege – of the extra time and resources necessary to do that. I’m not sure that the document recognizes this. It states that the framework is “meant to be applied by all individuals, organizations, and institutions who share a stake in the field’s long-term success and sustainability”. (Again, I hope the authors will correct me if I am interpreting this incorrectly.)

I struggle to see how this will be possible. Does the average faculty member at a state university or community college have the time and energy to worry about “the health and well-being of the broader OER movement?” Does the average K-12 teacher? If the thousands of faculty and teachers I’ve met over the last 20 years of doing this work are representative of the broader population, the answer is no for the overwhelming majority of them. Only a small minority of faculty and teachers are fortunate enough to have the kind of discretionary time and energy envisioned in the framework’s vision of stewardship.

If I’m reading the document correctly, and the specific sustainability model it proposes really is premised on “all individuals, organizations, and institutions who share a stake in the field’s long-term success and sustainability” actively engaging in OER stewardship, it may not be a viable model for long-term sustainability of the OER movement. We know that in parallel contexts, like open source software or Wikipedia, long-term sustainability can be possible with only a tiny fraction of all the beneficiaries of the open work contributing directly. So while I agree with the framework’s focus on stewardship, I would disagree with the the notion that everyone needs to participate fully in the process of stewardship. This conversation – what percentage of those with a stake in the OER movement need to be “good OER stewards” before the movement will be sustainable – will be a fun one to have over milkshakes at a conference, and I hope to get the chance to have that conversation with the authors soon.

The framework does more than propose a specific model for the long-term sustainability of the OER movement. We read near the beginning and again toward the end of the document:

The purpose of the CARE Framework is to articulate a set of shared values…. In advancing this framework, our goal is be [sic] explicit about the values that we think are core to the OER movement.

In other words, in addition to contributing to the (somewhat dormant) conversation about the long-term sustainability of OER, the document also contributes to the (much more active) conversation about who deserves to be allowed to participate in the OER movement.

There seems to be a desire by some to enclose the OER movement (though I want to be clear I am not attributing this motivation to the authors of the framework). I believe this impulse is well-intentioned. After all, Nobel Prize-winning scholar of the commons Elinor Ostrom‘s first principle of managing a commons can be summarized as “define clear group boundaries.” One very reasonable way of defining boundaries is to identify a set of core values (this conversation has been happening on OER listservs for several months now). Then anyone who shares those values belongs in the community. Anyone who does not share those values does not.

But OER are critically different from the commons Ostrom studied in her Nobel Prize-winning work. Those commons, like commons of land, timber, and water, are comprised of rivalrous resources. OER, on the other hand, are non-rivalrous resources. It is impossible to overstate how significant this difference is. It literally reverses the most fundamental assumption upon which commons research has traditionally been based.

The tragedy of the commons, to which Ostrom’s work (including the admonition to define clear group boundaries) offers such a powerful response, doesn’t make sense in non-rivalrous contexts. The problem whereby “individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling [the commons] through their collective action” doesn’t apply in the context of OER. While people grazing too many cattle on common land will eventually render the land unusable by everyone, there is no sense in which too many people making copies of an OpenStax pdf can somehow render the original copy unreadable by everyone.

In the context of rivalrous resources, we must circle the wagons to protect the commons from destruction through over use. It makes sense to define clear group boundaries – to determine who is allowed to access and benefit from resources and who is not – in order to prevent this outcome. But in the context of OER, our dearest desire is for as many people as possible to use the resources. The protect-by-excluding model doesn’t make sense here because the problem that exclusion is supposed to solve doesn’t exist. You can’t spoil or deplete OER through over use. On the contrary, most people and organizations who create OER drive themselves crazy trying to get more people to use their resources.

If there is a use problem with OER, it is always under-use; never over-use. And exclusion only serves to further drive under-use.

The 5R permissions that characterize OER create opportunities for everyone to benefit from OER. But there are those in the community who don’t want those benefits to extend to everyone. They believe there are those who should not be allowed to benefit from OER – namely, companies. In it’s most extreme version, those who hold this belief don’t feel that companies should be allowed to benefit from OER under any circumstances (and they tend to find it exceedingly frustrating that authors of OER use licenses without the NC condition). In a more nuanced version, they don’t believe companies should be able to benefit from OER without giving something back.

This way of thinking has always seemed prejudiced to me. The open source software community doesn’t discriminate against companies in this way, and I believe it is significantly stronger, more diverse, and more vibrant than the OER community because it does not.

The framework actually does away with this historical prejudice, but not in the manner you might suppose. By declaring that it is “meant to be applied by all individuals, organizations, and institutions who share a stake in the field’s long-term success and sustainability,” the framework avoids this prejudice against companies by extending its concern with free-riders (those who benefit without contributing) to everyone.

The framework provides an objective set of guidelines people and organizations, including companies, can follow in order to be judged “good” OER stewards. Except that it doesn’t. And this is through no fault of the document or its authors.

If tomorrow Pearson were to launch an OER website containing 100 textbooks from their catalog, all CC BY licensed, all available for download in multiple formats, all of which meet your favorite set of accessibility standards, would you consider Pearson a good OER steward? Probably not.

The truth is that no matter how they change their behavior, no matter how closely they follow this or any other framework – no matter what they do – some in our community will never find it acceptable for the big textbook publishers (or any other company) to participate in – let alone benefit from – the OER movement. They will certainly never recognize them as a good steward of OER. Inasmuch as this is true, the framework isn’t really helpful for companies who want to participate in and benefit from the OER movement. The prejudice against companies – sometimes as a result of their own past bad behavior, sometimes as a thoughtless stereotype based solely on tax status that ignores actual behavior – is sometimes stronger than any positive behavior could ever overcome. That’s a depressing statement.

Note, again, that this isn’t a failing of the framework as much as it is a failing of the OER community. In most communities of practice there’s a notion of legitimate peripheral participation. Not so in the OER community; at least, it doesn’t feel like companies are granted this option. Their wobbly, toddler-like first steps into the community are generally not seen as monumental efforts to be celebrated, rather they’re frequently demeaned as insufficient and deserving of public scorn. Unfortunately, the strange dynamics of our community make it more likely that the framework will be used to publicly shame companies rather than be used as an onramp and set of guide rails to help move them from legitimate peripheral participation into full membership in the community.

The two main problems we associate with free-riding are over-use and under-production, but as I argued above the problem with OER is not over-use but under-use. So we find ourselves with an insufficient amount of OER (OER are being under-produced) and with insufficient adoption of OER (OER are being under-used). It doesn’t make sense to believe that excluding willing participants – those who would both use and produce OER – will help solve the problems of under-use and under-production. On the contrary, rather than working to exclude we should enlist as many people as possible in this effort.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a conversation about common values. But I believe it does mean that we should do everything within our power to make our work on common values welcoming and inviting, rather than allowing it to be weaponized. The CARE Framework could be a powerful tool for bringing a greater diversity of organizations – including companies – into the OER community. There are some things the framework authors could do that might make this more likely, but how individuals choose to use the framework will ultimately be up to those individuals.

Our community can be pretty hard on its own members (I know I’m not the only one who has felt this), let alone would-be new members.

In its effort to be evenhanded and apply the logic of free-riding to everyone without prejudice, I fear the framework may backfire with faculty. Speaking as someone who has been engaged in OER advocacy with faculty and providing direct support for OER adoption to faculty for many years – as several of you have – it’s difficult enough to help faculty find the time and energy necessary to simply adopt OER. Do we want to suggest that if they were good OER stewards faculty and teachers would spend more time worrying about “the health and well-being of the broader OER movement itself”? While this would likely be a very productive conversation with people who already self-identify as OER champions, I fear its effects on “normal faculty”.

Imagine that you’re a community college faculty member. You teach 5 courses per semester and pour your heart and soul into helping your students succeed in your classes – even giving out your cell phone number and asking students to call you on weekends if they need help. (I’ve met many of these incredible people over the years.)

You’ve heard about OER and how it can save your students money, so you arrange for colleagues to cover your classes one Friday so you can attend a regional OER conference. During a presentation on OER, you learn that adopting OER in place of your commercial textbook will be a little harder than you hoped, but not as hard as you feared it might be. That’s a relief. You know you don’t have the time to adopt OER, but because you care about your students’ success so deeply you decide you’ll find the (unpaid) time nights and weekends to get it done.

But later in the presentation you learn that it’s not ok to just be a taker – you need to give back in meaningful ways if you want to be a good member of the OER community. Giving back can include things like creating and sharing new OER, improving existing OER, making OER available for download in convenient formats for students (what’s a format??), and some other things involving accessibility and “non-traditional voices” that you honestly don’t follow fully.

On the drive home you ask yourself – what about this stewardship thing? You can’t contribute anything right now. Can you use OER knowing that you’re mooching off the work of others and failing to contribute? Do you need that kind of guilt in your life? Maybe the guilt is worth it if OER will help your students. Or maybe you’re just not cut out for this OER thing after all. You didn’t really have time for it anyway.

I’m going to make a few explicit guesses about the authors’ intentions now. Again, I hope they will correct me if I’m reading them wrong.

Though they say explicitly that framework’s target audience is all education stakeholders, including “individuals who create or adapt OER for their own teaching and learning purposes; nonprofit OER publishers and libraries; commercial OER publishers; as well as educational technology vendors looking to incorporate OER into their products or services”, I don’t believe the authors of the framework want us to use it to label people or organizations as good or bad actors based on the degree to which we perceive them to be successfully fulfilling their OER stewardships. I certainly don’t believe they mean for it to become a source of guilt for teachers and faculty who are already incredibly overstretched.

A critically important issue which goes unaddressed in the framework is – who should be applying it to whom? Is the framework meant to be a tool for self-evaluation and critical reflection? Is it to be a tool for judging others? Both?

I expect the framework will do far more to advance the OER movement if it is explicitly positioned as a tool for self-evaluation and improvement than it will as a framework people and organizations can use to justify labeling other people or organizations as “bad actors” in order to try to exclude them from the community. Again, I know the authors of the framework can’t really prevent others from engaging in this kind of behavior. What can they do?

Here are some changes the authors might consider making in the next version of the framework.

  • The document feels to me like it is much more about norms and values than it is sustainability. Maybe change the title? I think a conversation about whether or not these are indeed our core shared values would be more immediately valuable that a conversation about the viability of the framework as a model for the long-term sustainability of the movement. If our community doesn’t align around some core set of values, fairly soon there may be no one left to sustain anything.
  • Be clear that no one person or organization has the time or resources to engage in the dozens of kinds of activities described within the framework. There are thousands of ways, large and small, that people and organizations might contribute, release, and empower. Each of these is valuable. Be clear that any efforts to enact the values expressed in the framework aren’t just acceptable – they’re wonderful.
  • In the attribution section of the framework, explicitly mention the community norms and values that are already documented in Creative Commons’ Best Practices for Attribution. Be clear that attributions should always contain a Title, an Author, a link back to the original Source, and the License under which the original work was released. If the authors have some reason to disagree with the community’s existing best practices for attribution, say so plainly.
  • Be explicit about whether the framework is meant for self-evaluation and critical reflection, or if it is designed to be a tool for judging others’ behavior, or both.
  • If the framework is intended to be used as a rubric by which to judge other people and organizations, encourage readers to identify and celebrate fledgling efforts to act according to the values it expresses. Use those celebrations as opportunities to invite people and organizations do enact more of those values, as their time and resources allow, inviting them further into the core of the community.
  • If the framework is intended to be used as a rubric by which to judge other people and organizations, discourage using the framework as a justification for labeling and shaming people or organizations. That’s not how we bring more people and organizations into the community, it’s how we drive them away. If I see a person or an organization that I think has the motivation and resources to do “better”, what should I do? Provide some concrete suggestions.
  • If the framework is intended for self-reflection, it should prepare readers for the fact that no matter how much they do or how hard they try, some people in the community will be vocally critical of the fact that they didn’t do more. Consider apologizing in advance on behalf of the broader community.

I’m grateful to Lisa, Doug, and Eddie for their great work here. I think they have absolutely succeeded in creating a document that will provoke “a more nuanced and meaningful discussion about the individual and organizational practice of OER and openness in education and for learning.” I hope others will also take the time to engage it thoughtfully. I’m looking forward to more good things to come here.

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