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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 16, 2006

Another response to David Wiley.

David, you write, "Yes, I am an educator, and this article is written from my perspective... I want to participate in the work of expanding educational opportunity, and I can only do it as an educator. That's what I am."

Ah, but David, you are many things; an educator is just one of many points of view you can bring to the matter. And in particular, you can view it from the perspective of a learner (because I'm quite sure neither you nor I have yet stopped learning). We can shift frames of references quite easily, as easily as we can see a duck or a rabbit in the famous duck-rabbit image.

And there's a danger in seeing it specifically from the role of an educator, even if this is what you are. And that is that the role of educator is itself changing. It's like looking at transportation issues from the point of view of the blacksmith. In order to avoid being locked into a certain historical moment, it is necessary to move beyond our roles.

I don't think you need to apologize for taking a particular point of view; I do it all the time. But I do think that you need to acknowledge that your point of view carries with it a certain amount of baggage, and consequently may skew your perspective on an issue.

You continue, "I would augment this statement by saying that many students and learners will benefit because the materials will be adopted and used by teachers and faculty. Educators do have *some* impact - even if limited - on students and learners."

I would of course be the last to deny that educators have any impact, and at any rate, such a denial forms no part of my position. What is important, though, is that it seems more likely that learning occurs when learners use educational materials, than when educators use educational materials. In other words, it should be our primary concern that learners have access to these materials; it is useful, but much less so, to focus our attention on whether educators have access to the same materials (and presumable, if learners have access, so will educators).

Consider books, for example. Publishers routinely make free books available to teachers; teachers adapt these materials and then teach students. But how much better it would be were students to have access to these books! Indeed, we could hardly be said to have promoted accessibility or open learning unless the students get access to the books. That's my point. We have to focus on student access, not merely on educator access.

You continue, "I care. We are on a *very* slippery slope the day we begin judging some people or organizations as being worthy of our help and others as unworthy. If someone else feels qualified to make that call, I suppose they can. I certainly am not qualified - I'll stick to trying to be helpful to everyone I can."

It seems to me that you are conflating two things here: first, whether you want to help a given agency, and second, the nature of the help being provided. These are very different things, and this difference plays a crucial role in our discussions.

Let me draw this out a bit. Based on your statement, it follows that you would help every person on Earth. No problem with that. But would you help the person who is trying to kidnap and torture small children for fun? Would you identify suitable victims, hold the bag, and knock the kid on the head? Of course not! It would be ridiculous, unthinkable!

You may want to help everybody - goodness, so do I - but you don't want to help them to *everything* they might want to do. This difference is crucial.

Now to the question of the 'use' of a resource. Let's agree that we want to help everyone use a resource. I in fact have no problem with that - I want everyone in the world to be able to access resources, to read them, to manipulate them, to learn from them.

In the same way, I want everybody in the city to be able to use the neighborhood park. I want them to enjoy sitting on the grass, playing games, learning from the trees. I'll help them by building access ramps, driving people to the park, keeping the park clean, paying taxes to pay for flower planting, the usual.

But suppose someone came along and said, "I want to use the park by charging money to enter it. I want you to help me." Well, this person is certainly in a sense wanting to use the park, but am I somehow deciding he is unworthy to use it if I say I won't help him? Of course not! My commitment to help this person does not extend to helping him no matter what he does. And if what he does is to actually deny use to others, then I feel no obligation to help him.

This is important. I would help this person use the park, but I would not help him deny use to others. I am not saying that a *person* is unworthy of use, I am saying that certain types of *use* are unworthy of help.

There is of course a range of commercial uses of content, and a range of non-commercial uses, and some that are just fuzzy. But in general, the commercial uses are about charging money for access, and the non-commercial ones aren't. Therefore, these two uses differ in a very important respect:

One type of use - commercial - consists of *denying* access unless certain conditions (payment) are met, while the other use - non-commercial - consists of *enabling* access.

The thing with the people who will not use the material if it has a 'NC' license is that they are generally in some sense in the business of denying access to people. The fuzziness is generated by the fact that there are many ways to deny access to people while making it look like enabling access. Public institutions, for example, that 'promote access', but which are at the same time in the business of keeping students locked out if they don't pay tuition fees. Non-profit associations that 'enable access' by publishing journals and books, but which deny access to the contents unless readers pay the cover price.

My patience with such silly games of semantics is pretty limited. If your status is so uncertain that you are not sure whether NC will apply to you, then you are in the business, somehow, of denying access. And I have no interest in helping you deny access. And so that's why I don't care that the NC license stops you.

To me, you see, the problem isn't with the license. It is with how you are doing business. It is with what you are doing with the content.

Now you might say that I am actually limiting distribution by taking this attitude. Because, after all, I am lowering the number of people who could be distributing material. Because you support both free and commercial access, while I only support free access.

If this were simply a case of adding the two together, I would agree. But I would argue that the commercial use of content actually impairs the free use of that content. In other words, the access allowed by a commercial plus free access is less than the access allowed by free access alone.

There are many reasons for this. The commercial sector, for example, lobbies against funding for the free sector (cf. the lobby against the BBC, for example) as 'unfair competition'. The commercial sector limits use of content by trademarking it or patenting it (for example, the animal images used on O'Reilly books are public domain, but only O'Reilly may use them on tech books, at least according to O'Reilly). The commercial sector makes it unattractive to produce free materials by flooding the marketplace, raising prices only when the free alternatives have been abandoned (the WebCT strategy). The commercial sector creates and lobbies for restrictions and conditions that make the distribution of free assets difficult - mandatory DRM standards, for example, accessibility requirements, or in our field, IMS specifications.

And so on and on I could go. The point is, and I assert it here, enabling commercial use of resources tends to limit the accessibility of those resources.

You ask, "If no one is producing content, what is being shared in this non-commercial community? What materials are being shared and studied by the network of learners if there are no content producers?"

I did not assert that nobody should produce content. I asserted that people should not be thought of as 'producers' and 'consumers'. That is to say, the very same people who produce content, are also those that consume it.

We live in an age where anybody with interest and inclination can produce high quality content. This is especially the case if they are able to use content that has been produced by others, to remix it and repurpose it.

This point is similar to the one I make at the beginning of this post. Yes, you may think of yourself *as* an educator, but this may not be the most useful point of view to take. Yes, you may see yourself *as* a producer, but again, this may not be the most useful point of view to take. Seeing yourself *as* a producer implies some distinction or advantage over people who are consumers, some capacity that you have and they done - but consumers are more and more able to produce content just as well as you can, which makes your perspective of yourself as a producer to be significantly misleading.

You continue, "Or is the point that we should work to exclude professionally produced materials from legally and freely circulating within the network, and only allow the sharing of materials produced by amateurs?"

Of course not. I encourage professionals to produce work.

I encourage them, for example, to write blogs and articles as I do, and share them freely. I encourage them to spend time adding and editing entries in Wikipedia. I encourage them to upload Creative Commons licensed photos to Flickr - and they can even allow commercial use, if they want (again: it's not about me stopping people from doing things, it's about me not helping people stop other people from doing things).

Heck, if professionals want to produce work, restrict access to it, and sell access for money, they can do so. It doesn't matter to me. All my position entails is that (a) they should expect no help from me, and (b) it is not part of providing open access, or even simple access, to help them do this. If they want to sell stuff, they're on their own (and I'll thank them to stop lobbying against free content).

You ask, "Why is that a good thing? Why should we discriminate against educators and others who produce educational content for a living?"

I am not discriminating against people who produce content for a living.

I am discriminating against business models that allocate important educational content only to those who can pay.

I am very supportive of paying professional content creators to create content that everybody can use whether or not they can pay. I support, for example, requiring that research and other materials funded by public taxation be freely available to all, and hence, I support the public funding of authors and other creators in order to make this possible.

It's not the authors I oppose, it's the specific business model.

You continue, "This is would be a blatant case of 'discrimination against a field of endeavor,' a definite no-no according to the Open Source Definition."

I'm pretty sure the open source definition does not allow the taking of open source code, claiming ownership of it, patenting it, and preventing anyone else from using it. But that too is a 'field of endeavour'.

I am not opposing the paying of professionals to create content, indeed, I encourage it. I am opposed to the preventing of poor people from accessing that content merely on the grounds that they are poor.

Finally, you ask, "How does 'allowing' people like me to participate in an ecology of sharing equate to reliance on publishers and industry? If some of the content circulating in the network is produced by educators, why is that a problem? Even with the 2500 or so courses worth of CC-licensed material in the university OpenCourseWares, the *overwhelming* majority of CC-licensed content in the world comes from blogs, Flickr, and other sources like those that Stephen mentions above. How is it that, by sharing my course materials in a freely available OCW, I'm participating in a commercial enterprise?"

At no point do I speak of "allowing" people to do this or that.

If you want to participate in an ecology of sharing, great. The more the merrier. I don't care whether you are from academia or industry or wherever. I don't care whether you were paid, whether you are an amateur, whatever. If you want to contribute, wonderful.

Where I begin to bristle a bit is when your participation requires that everybody else accommodate your specific interests as commercial entities. When, for example, you begin to lobby to have people allow commercial use, so it will be easier for the commercial entities who want to participate.

Because then it's like they're saying, "we want to participate in this ecology of free content, but only if we can get away with charging money for access to some of it, and we'll still call it free, but you have to change your practices to support our commercial needs." And changing the license is only one thing - there is a whole raft of things, like DRM systems, that follow.

My interest in helping this happen is pretty minimal. Yes, it would be nice to allow commercially produced content to flow freely through the same marketplace. But when this content begins to alter the terms of the marketplace, the future is bleak for free content.

If people are impaired by the NC stipulation, that's their problem. They are commercial entities, let them work out a commercial solution to the problem, instead of making it something free content advocates need to solve.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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