open content

Feeling Out of Place

I had an odd sensation at the recent conference Open Education 2009. As you know, I founded the conference and have been deeply involved in its planning and execution each year. This year was really, truly excellent in that I was surrounded by so many smart, thoughtful, genuinely goodhearted friends both old and new. But the more conversations I had, the more out of place I felt. Something is changing in our field.

While I think everyone in the field of “open education” is dedicated to increasing access to educational opportunity, there is an increasingly radical element within the field – good old-fashioned guillotine and molotov type revolutionaries. At the conference I heard a number of people say that things would be greatly improved if we could just get rid of all the institutions of formal education. I once heard a follow up comment, “and governments, too.” I turned to laugh at his joke, but saw that he was serious. This “burn it all down” attitude really scares me.

I am concerned that open education is on the path to becoming as radicalized as the free software movement had in the late 1990s.

After a few years of Richard Stallman telling people that they had to unconditionally support free software and completely reject proprietary software – unless they were vile, unworthy, valueless, evil human beings – people got sick of being insulted. Additionally, the messaging of “free software” was wrong, which was problematic as well. Even today, the FSF website says, “We call this free software, because the user is free.” Huh? Because an agent capable of action (a user) has been granted certain rights you’re going to anthropomorphize 1s and 0s (software)? How does that follow? Everyone knows that software is incapable of experiencing or exercising freedom, so when they hear the term “free software” they are left to conclude that “free software” can only mean software that doesn’t cost anything. But I digress…

Anyway, telling people they are immoral wretches if they disagree with you turns out to be a poor strategy for motivating most people. So in early 1998, a group split off from the free software movement and became the “open source” movement. They were very careful to be pragmatic (rather than dogmatic) in their approach, and they tried hard to craft a message that was easier to understand. But the field was split (philosophically and methodologically) forever. This is unfortunate because energies are divided, efforts are duplicated, and worst of all, time is wasted on perhaps THE most pointless arguments ever known to mankind.

Now, don’t get me wrong – open education is not at this crossroads yet. We don’t really have a Richard in our field yet that people are rallying around and strapping bombs to their chests for. However, we need to get this conversation going before we reach a real crisis.

What is our collective purpose? I believe it is to increase access to educational opportunity.

As I recently tweeted, openness is a means, not the end. Increasing access should be the “end” of our efforts. Making everything open is not our goal. (Stephen has previously outlined a number of possible scenarios in which things are made open but there is no net increase in access.) Making things open is only one means to then end of increasing access. However, we can look around the community and see individuals who seem to have confused the means with the ends, and have made their ultimate goal the opening of all educational content. Problematically, when the means become the end, new means that might better achieve the original end are overlooked and frowned upon.

So, am I misunderstanding something? Or missing the boat? Perhaps I’m just not sufficiently radical to be involved in this field anymore?

open content

Opting Out of Berne

I’ve newly met a number of people at the annual family reunion that is Open Education 2009 (#opened09). And while you’re never supposed to single people out (esp. because doing so means you’re passing over many others), I must admit that meeting Dave Cormier has been one of the highlights of this year’s conference for me.

After the film screening tonight we got to talking… Warning: poor summary of Dave’s thinking coming up here:

Dave finds himself in a quandry – in order to share things with others he first has to claim ownership in order to assert his legal right to share (via an open license). Most of the things we “make” are really amalgams of so much that’s come before, can we even rightly claim ownership? The current system forces us to if we want to share. The fact that so many of us use an open license so readily just shows how subservient we are to the copyright overlords, and perpetuates and strengthens the very system we believe is so horribly broken.

Leigh made some related comments, but didn’t join us for our evening saunter across Van City.

Dave’s quandry got me to thinking… When your country is a signatory to Berne, everything you create is automatically copyrighted to the full extent of the law whether you desire that “protection” or not. That’s the law. Creative Commons acknowledges and accepts the law, and promotes a way of thinking that says, “Ok, you’ve copyrighted my work without my asking, and now I’m going to have to go to the trouble of formally licensing it so I can share it with others.” One person might see CC as a brilliant hack of the copyright / licensing system against itself; I can also appreciate the perspective that says our use of CC simply perpetuates the brokenness without making progress toward an improvement in the system.

But this whole problem is due to Berne. If the government didn’t automatically copyright my works for me – whether I wanted them to or not – I wouldn’t need a CC license. I could just share with people.

Now, in the US CC offers a public domain dedication (which is NOT a license). The dedication is a mechanism for undoing what Berne has done and placing your work back in an uncopyrighted state so that you can share it without the need for licensing agreements, etc. So it occurred to me tonight walking through Vancouver with Dave… if a person can undo Berne on a case by case basis using the CC domain dedication or a similar legal mechanism… couldn’t you do it with respect to all works you create from a certain point in time forward, indefinitely?

In other words, can’t an individual opt out of Berne?

What would a legal instrument that accomplished this opting out look like? Perhaps rejecting the (c) paradigm one work at a time (by CC licensing individual works) isn’t sending a strong enough message to the people who make policy. Perhaps if people rejected the entire paradigm by completely and permanently opting out of Berne someone would notice that we’re highly dissatisfied.

(Note: What would the unintended consequences be of opting out of Berne? Could the instrument that accomplished the opting out be written in such a way that, if a person occasionally decided they wanted copyright protection, they could still choose to receive it (e.g., by registering their work with the Copyright Office)?)

open content

Early Bird Registration for Open Ed 2009 is Ending!

Early Bird Registration ends July 20th!

This summer an impressive cross-section of innovative and passionate educators from around the world will be coming to Vancouver for the Sixth Annual Open Education Conference, *August 12-14th, at UBC’s downtown Robson Square campus*. If you have an interest in opening up your practice in terms of resources, pedagogy, or public outreach, this event represents an opportunity to learn with some of the most accomplished figures in the field in an informal and friendly environment.

Keynote speakers are Catherine Ngugi of OER Africa, Ken Freedman of WFMU and the Free Music Archive, and Dr. Fred Mulder of the Open Universiteit Nederland and his country’s National Initiative on Lifelong Learning.

The full three day program has been posted online at Speakers include:

• Ahrash Bissell, Jane Park, & Alex Kozak, Lila Bailey: Creative Commons – ccLearn
• Lindsey Weeramuni, Brandon Muramatsu: MIT OpenCourseWare
• Joel Thierstein: Connexions
• Alan Levine: The New Media Consortium
• Bryan Alexander: NITLE
• Gardner Campbell: Baylor University
• Jim Groom: University of Mary Washington
• J. Philipp Schmidt: University of the Western Cape, Peer 2 Peer University
• Mara Hancock: Opencast, University of California, Berkeley
• Diego Leal: Ministry of Education – Republic of Colombia
• D’Arcy Norman: University of Calgary
• Jon Mott: Brigham Young University
• Sheila MacNeill: (JCIS CETIS)
• Leigh Blackall: Otago Polytechnic New Zealand
• Christopher J. Mackie: Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
• Jutta Treviranus: Adaptive Technology Resource Centre, University of Toronto
• Dave Cormier: Edactive Technologies

In addition, there will be a pre-conference full-day dialogue August 11th on the future of open education between Stephen Downes and David Wiley. And an intimate roundtable “Conversation on Policy: Access, Quality, and Credentialing” chaired by George Siemens and Rory McGreal.

To register for the Open Education Conference, please visit the conference website at