Questioning the OER Orthodoxy: Is the Commons the Right Metaphor for our Work with OER?

At OpenEd18 I gave a presentation titled “Questioning the OER Orthodoxy: Is the Commons the Right Metaphor for our Work?” I’ve been meaning to translate some of that thinking into writing, and a prompt in my inbox this morning finally has me moving.

In the presentation I made the point that metaphors are extraordinarily powerful. The metaphors we choose to employ literally determine what we will see, consider, and understand – as well as what we will not. A powerful metaphor draws our attention to salient features that we would likely have missed otherwise, increasing our ability to make progress. However, the wrong metaphor can have exactly the opposite effect, blinding us to salient features and keeping us focused on frivolous similarities that lead nowhere.

After this brief discussion, I asked “what if the commons is the wrong metaphor for our work with OER?”

There are good reasons to ask if the commons is the wrong metaphor. Primary among the reasons we might ask the question is this – much of what is central to the idea of a commons is exactly the opposite in the context OER. During the presentation, I shared the following contrasts between a commons and OER. I’ve numbered them below for easy reference in conversations to follow. I’ll state them briefly here and then provide a more detailed discussion below.

1a. Commons are comprised of common pool resources.
1b. Openly licensed resources are private goods that act as either public goods or club goods.

2a. The primary threat to common pool resources is overuse or overconsumption.
2b. OER cannot be overused or overconsumed.

3a. The other main threat to commons is enclosure, in which resources are privatized and access is taken away.
3b. OER are not subject to enclosure.

4a. “Commoning” describes the social practices used to collaboratively manage common pool resources.
4b. There’s no sense in which a community collaboratively manages OER.

Now for some discussion of these four points. (Much of the economics discussion is reused / revised from the Wikipedia pages linked in the discussion.)

Types of Resources

1a. Commons are comprised of common pool resources. In economics, a common pool resource is a type of good consisting of a natural or human-made resource system (e.g. an irrigation system or fishing grounds), whose size or characteristics makes it costly, but not impossible, to exclude potential beneficiaries from obtaining benefits from its use. Unlike pure public goods, common pool resources face problems of congestion or overuse, because they are subtractable (rivalrous).

1b. Openly licensed resources are private property (they must be, or they could neither be licensed nor have their licenses enforced) that act as either public goods or club goods, depending on how they are licensed. In economics, a public good is a good that is both non-excludable and non-rivalrous in that individuals cannot be effectively excluded from use and where use by one individual does not reduce availability to others. Most OER can be thought of as public goods. Club goods are (essentially) public goods made artificially scarce so as to be accessible only by members of a club. OER licensed with a noncommercial restriction are club goods, because access is restricted to only those who intend to make noncommercial uses (are part of the noncommercial club).

The Primary Threat

2a. The primary threat to common pool resources is overuse or overconsumption, leading the resources to become unavailable for use. A “tragedy of the commons” would arise if one or more individuals ruined a resource through their selfish overuse or overconsupmtion.

2b. Because OER are not subtractable, they are not subject to overconsumption. If there is a use-related threat to OER, it is the risk of underuse or underconsumption. If there were to be a “tragedy of OER,” it would arise when a resource languishes in obscurity.

The Other Main Threat

3a. The other main threat to commons is enclosure, in which previously common pool resources are privatized. In the context the term enclosure was originally chosen to describe, fences were erected around public land that had previously been available for farming by anyone. Public land, once enclosed within a fence, became private land, and would-be farmers lost access. As David Bollier says, “Enclosure is about dispossession.”

3b. OER are not subject to enclosure. The Creative Commons licenses under which most OER are licensed are perpetual and irrevocable. Your permission to engage in the 5R activities with regard to OER – including permission to make and keep a copy – cannot be revoked unless you violate the terms of the license. Which is to say, you cannot be dispossessed of OER. Where there is no dispossession, there is no enclosure.

We saw this play out with Flat World Knowledge. For a time, FWK licensed their textbooks under open licenses. Then one day they switched to an All Rights Reserved license. However, even though they stopped distributing their books under open licenses, they could not deny people access to the many, many copies of their books that were made in accordance with the Creative Commons licenses and posted on the web.

There is a popular theory which says that placing OER behind a paywall is enclosure. While this may be true for some other meaning of the word, it is not true for the way “enclosure” is used in commons scholarship. When there are 100 copies of an OER on the web, and I make the 101st copy and place that inside a learning management system, there is no sense in which anyone has lost access to the 100 copies of the OER that existed before – there is no dispossession. Consequently, there is no enclosure.

Social Practices

4a. “Commoning” describes the social practices used to collaboratively manage common pool resources. Elinor Ostrom, the only woman (so far) to win the Noble Prize in Economics, won the prize by showing how the actual practice of commoning prevented the theoretical tragedy of the commons from occuring. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Ostrom’s research showed “how common resources – forests, fisheries, oil fields or grazing lands – can be managed successfully by the people who use them rather than by governments or private companies.” She demonstrated that commons are not just collections of resources, but that commons are also comprised of people who have rules and norms guiding their behavior with regard to the management of the common pool resources they jointly use and benefit from.

As Bollier summarized, “there is no commons without commoning.”

4b. There’s no sense in which the community collaboratively manages OER. For example, OpenStax textbooks are among the most highly adopted open educational resources in North American higher education. How does the community of people and institutions who use and benefit from OpenStax textbooks contribute to their management? They don’t. (I don’t believe making OpenStax aware of the occasional misspelling in one of their books deserves to be called “collaborative management.”)

Part of the reason the community doesn’t engage in the collaborative management of OER is that OER are not subject to the threats that naturally draw people into collaborative management arrangements (i.e., overuse and enclosure). Since these threats don’t exist, the traditional responses to those threats don’t emerge.

(Wikipedia is an exception – a place where a community engages in the collaborative management of an open educational resource. However, more than anything else, it is precisely this collaborative management of Wikipedia that has largely caused academics to shun it.)

Closing Thoughts (for Now)

I ask the reader again – is the commons the right metaphor for our work with OER? There are incredibly important – some might argue fundamental – differences between commons and OER.

If you believe Bollier’s statement that “there is no commons without commoning” then, absent commoning behaviors, one may be inclined to conclude that we are not part of a commons. Or perhaps we are part of a commons – just a very young one which has yet to develop either the community or the community governance that is necessary for us to be a “real” commons. Maybe the best argument one could make is that we are part of an “emerging commons.”

If we really are part of an emerging commons, perhaps we need to invest our effort in catalyzing and sustaining true commoning behaviors. But this suggestion leads us back to where we began. Commoning behaviors emerge naturally in real commons as responses to real threats. OER doesn’t face these threats, so those behaviors don’t naturally emerge. We might be able to artificially incentivize these behaviors. Should we do that?

Or perhaps the commons is the wrong metaphor, and our chosen metaphor keeps us from seeing the salient features of problems related to OER. Take sustainability for example. Perhaps the reason we struggle so mightily with the idea of sustainability in the context of OER is because we think of OER as common pool resources. What if, for example, we thought of OER as public goods instead? What if our sustainability conversations leveraged the research on problems related to the creation and maintenance of public goods rather than the research on the commons? Would we see things differently? Certainly. Would we have a breakthrough? Who knows.

It’s been said in many ways by many people over the years, but my class just finished reading the Cathedral and the Bazaar, and these words are hanging about me in the air:

Often, the most striking and innovative solutions come from realizing that your concept of the problem was wrong.

I’m not weighing in yet on whether I think the commons is the wrong metaphor (or, if it is the wrong metaphor, what a more appropriate one might be). For now, I just want to get the question out there. What do you think? Could there be a more productive way of thinking about OER?

UPDATE: Yes, the commons is the wrong metaphor. OER are public goods, not common-pool resources.