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.”


When Opens Collide

In my recent post How is Open Pedagogy Different?, I defined open pedagogy as ”the set of teaching and learning practices only possible or practical in the context of the 5R permissions” – a definition I have been using in my writing and public speaking since I first blogged about open pedagogy back in 2013 (except there were only 4Rs back then). Although none of my other posts or talks on this topic over the past four years managed to, How is Open Pedagogy Different? elicited quite a response. Many of these responses were deeply interesting and informative. For example, I learned that when I first started writing about open pedagogy in 2013, I made the cardinal mistake of not checking to see if the term might have a long history of use by others in a context completely outside the one I was writing about. It does. Oops. However, this is not actually what led to the strong reaction to my post.

As I continue to ponder the Twitter conversations with Mike, Robin, Maha, and others, as well as what’s been written on blogs like those by Clint (which came before mine) and Jim (which came after), it appears that what is happening is that the “open” in open education is colliding with the “open” in open web.

As I’ve written about at some length before, whether you’re talking about open content, open educational resources, open access (to research), open data, open knowledge, open source, or open standards, in all of these contexts “open” means:

  1. Free access to the content, resource, journal article, data, knowledge artifact, software, or standard, and
  2. A formal grant of rights and permissions giving back to the user many of the rights and permissions copyright normally reserves exclusively for the creator or other rights holder.

The consensus in these contexts that open = free + permissions is extraordinarily strong. However, it turns out that this consensus is separate from the “open” in “open web.” One of the most influential descriptions of the open web was written by Tantek back in 2010. You should really read the whole article to get the nuance of his argument. He closes by saying:

And that’s my rough working definiton [sic] of what is the open web. In summary:

  • open content and application publishing
  • open ability to code and implement the standards that such content depends on
  • open access to content, web-applications , web standards implementations (browsers), and the internet.

In other words, an “open web” is a web on which:

  • You don’t need anyone’s permission to publish any content or create any web app you want to (like my blog or
  • You don’t need anyone’s permission to write code that conforms to or implements relevant standards (like web servers or browsers)
  • You have access to all the content, web apps, and tools because all content / traffic is treated equally (net neutrality)

Tantek’s vision of an open web is closely related to Adam Thierer’s notion of “permissionless innovation.” Permissionless innovation is the ability to create and invent without seeking and obtaining prior approval, allowing “the creativity of the human mind to run wild in its inherent curiosity and inventiveness.”

Imagine, for example, that you want to start your own radio station. The FCC has a few forms for you to fill out before you begin. Or perhaps you want to start your own television channel. The FCC isn’t even accepting applications for new television stations currently. Compare this ripe-with-regulations communications environment, where you can’t do anything until you receive approval, with the internet. Imagine if you had to fill out forms, apply, and then wait to be approved before you could start your own YouTube channel or podcast!

On reflection it seems that the subtle difference between these two forms of open is that the open in OER, etc. is a matter of free access plus copyright permissions, while the open in open web is a matter of free access plus no requirement to seek approval before creating or inventing.

The assumptions underlying these two forms of open are subject to change and have, in fact, flip-flopped very recently. The internet, for example, has not always been a bastion of openness.The 1982 MIT handbook for the use of ARPAnet — the precursor of the Internet, instructed students:

It is considered illegal to use the ARPAnet for anything which is not in direct support of government business… Sending electronic mail over the ARPAnet for commercial profit or political purposes is both anti-social and illegal. By sending such messages, you can offend people, and it is possible to get MIT in serious trouble with the government agencies which manage the ARPAnet.

The idea that the internet (or web) is somehow inherently open (free + no approval required) is simply not true. And the idea that it should be open and that we should fight to protect that openness is a very recent – and worthy – notion (cf. current #EUcopyright proposals).

Similarly, until very recently there was little need for Creative Commons licenses and formal legal mechanisms for sharing creative works. In the United States, before 1989 no creative work was protected by copyright unless the creator opted in to protection by reigstering. Open (free + permissions) was the default. It was only in 1989, when the US joined the Berne Convention, that protection of all creative works became automatic and closed became the new default, requiring people to opt-in to sharing. After Berne we needed things like the CC licenses to share creative works with each other in ways that allowed for remixes, mashups, localizations, and other reuses.

Differences in our understanding of open pedagogy, then, seem to be artifacts of our approach vector. Jim (“I don’t need permission to be open”) and Clint (“what makes open pedagogy open is that students are working in the open with their work on display to the world”) seem to be coming to open pedagogy from the open web direction. People like Rajiv (“my take is that open pedagogy refers to innovative teaching and learning practices that are only made possible through the application of open licenses”) and I seem to coming to open pedagogy from an OER direction. Others like Robin (“my OpenPed definition changes every time I give a presentation about it”) are still undecided.

All this thinking and writing has led me to appreciate the open web point of view more than my previous post implied. No doubt we have yet to see definitions of open pedagogy that approach from other open traditions, like the “open” in open government where open primarily means transparent. (Incidentally, life is no better for the confusingly related term ” open educational practices.” Half of the definitions listed on Wikipedia explicitly reference OER, while the other half come from very different places.)

I do remain concerned about a few things, though. Here’s one.

“Open” – regardless of whether you come from the open content or open web tradition – does not have anything to say about the nature of learning. Maybe the thing that’s become the clearest to me as I’ve laid awake at night thinking about these issues is that you can’t actually build a pedagogy on a foundation of open (well, not one that isn’t incredibly impoverished). Your foundational commitments in terms of pedagogy should be to an understanding of how learning happens. Once we have made fundamental commitments in terms of a theory of learning, then we can add open to our list of facilitating methods in order get better leverage.

I wonder if it isn’t nonsensical to talk about “open pedagogy” at all (fully recognizing that this would make me the most nonsensical party of all). Perhaps we should only use open as a modifier for other pedagogies, like “open constructionist pedagogy” or “open connectivist pedagogy” or “open constructivist pedagogy.” It’s clear in each of those cases how open gives you better leverage in terms of supporting learning. For example, what I call “renewable assignments” (fortunately this phrase had no back history!) is an instance of open constructionist pedagogy.

Without clarity about our foundational commitments, it can be easy to wander. A foundational commitment to how learning happens provides a collection of first principles from which pedagogical practices can be logically derived. Without this principled commitment, we’re left to gather instructional principles opportunistically, like seashells. For example, Hegerty’s model of open pedagogy includes attributes like “innovation and creativity,” “reflective practice,” and “peer review.” It’s unclear to me how you arrive at this collection of practices unless the decision rule is “collect practices that could synergize powerfully with open.” This seems like a less appropriate way to build up a pedagogy because, in its desire to be grounded in open, it has become disconnected from a coherent theory of learning.

In summary, there’s lots to think about here. It seems clear that we shouldn’t label the “open” advocated by open web proponents as openwashing. It’s a legitimate – but meaningfully different – way of talking open. This acknowledgment makes it even more important for those of us who care about and advocate for open to be extraordinarily and explicitly clear what we mean by “open” in our writing and speaking. And it does feel like there’s little chance of coming to consensus around a common definition of “open pedagogy” – which it turns out is a phrase that was already being used in other ways for decades.


Another Response to Stephen

A quick search via Google shows that Stephen Downes is mentioned over 500 times on the pages of Iterating Toward Openness. What would I do without him to disagree and argue with? I would certainly be intellectually impoverished. As I’ve said before, everyone needs a Stephen in their life. Anyway, here’s another page to add to the pile…

In commenting on the recent announcement about the partnership between Follett and Lumen, Stephen asks:

What if students don’t want to pay money for these ‘open’ educational resources? Are they denied access? Isn’t this exactly one of those closed marketplaces people said would never happen?

Let me provide some additional context and then address Stephen’s concerns (and air quotes).

The Follett partnership is focused on two of Lumen’s offerings – Waymaker and OHM (Online Homework Manager). Both of these products wrap significant additional functionality around OER. Waymaker is Lumen’s platform for personalized learning. It wraps pre-assessments, in situ formative assessments, and summative assessments around OER. Waymaker provides each student a data-driven study plan that helps them understand where they are in their mastery of course concepts and how to best allocate their study time. Faculty also have access to a range of tools that make it easy to identify and reach out to students who are struggling while there is still time to do something. Similarly, OHM is a system for creating, managing, remixing, and delivering automatically generated and automatically graded homework problems in math and other quantitative disciplines. Like Waymaker, OHM wraps these and other features around OER.

Let’s answer Stephen’s questions now.

What if students don’t want to pay money for these ‘open’ educational resources? Are they denied access?

NO. Courses offered in Waymaker and OHM have public-facing “master” versions where all the OER are freely and publicly available, openly licensed, with detailed attributions. These are the versions that faculty review before making an adoption decision. (And yes, in the section-specific versions of these courses where students are enrolled things are exactly the same – all the content is licensed with exactly the same open licenses, with all the same detailed attributions). No one is ever denied access to the OER in Lumen courses for any reason. In fact, teachers can “adopt” a Lumen course and use it to teach their class by just linking their students to the publicly available content and never talking to – or paying – Lumen.

If you don’t pay, what you won’t have access to are personalization features, assessments, teacher analytic and communications tools, LMS integration, gradebook write back, and things like that. You’ll never be denied access to OER because of an inability to pay, unwillingness to pay, or for any other reason.

(I should add that, not only are the OER open, but the entire OHM codebase is also open, as is a good portion of the Waymaker codebase.)

Isn’t this exactly one of those closed marketplaces people said would never happen?

NO. Providing value-added services, whether it’s around open content or open source software, does not enclose the open content or OSS. And it particularly does not result in enclosure when you go out of your way to ensure free and unfettered public access to all the content via your website.

Not only does the enclosure you’ve feared for so long not happen in Lumen’s context, just the opposite does. Our work results in the creation of significant new resources that are contributed to the commons under the most open license. See, for example, the content of our College Success course, the majority of which was newly commissioned by Lumen and is licensed CC BY. Lumen has committed repeatedly and publicly that all new content we create will be licensed CC BY, and we have kept that promise from our founding almost 5 years ago.