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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 14, 2006

Contributions to the UNESCO Forum on OERs.

Diem Ho wrote:
Please find enclosed the IBM Academic Inititaive, in which any faculty members can download software, course materials, tutorials, webscasts,etc and to give them to their students to study toward certifications or to learn about ICT and Service Sciences. All are free.
Not to get us dragged down a side-issue, but on the IBM site I read this:

"Membership in the IBM Academic Initiative is free and open to individual faculty members of qualified institutions who have been authorized by their institution to participate. Membership is renewable on a 6-month basis."

I do not consider this to be an example of an open educational resource. In order to use this resource, you must already be educated and have a job, and moreover, be approved by IBM. Why doesn't IBM just make access to this resource available to everyone? What would it cost them?

Gary Lopez wrote:
As a grantee of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation we are encouraged to design our project to financially self-sustaining. After all, a worthwhile project that ends with foundation support does not serve the ongoing goals of improving education. We strongly support Hewlett's position....
I've always wondered about this.

Like the current project under discussion, when a project is given a mandate to become 'self-sustaining', this invariably adds a commercial dimension to the project, so that it doesn't end after the foundation funding runs out. This commercial dimension, however, changes the nature of the project - not dramatically, necessarily, but in such a way that the 'free' component of the project does not compete with the 'commercial' component. What I've wondered is, why isn't the funding granted in the form of an endowment, so that the project need not worry about developing a commercial component, and so that its staff can remain totally focused on providing and supporting open educational resources? Clearly, the endowment model works: it is no coincidence that universities manage legacy funding and scholarship support in this way.

To relate this to the current mapping discussion:

In my presentation to OECD in Malmo last spring, Models for Sustainable Open Educational Resources, I outlined not only different types of 'free' and different types of resources, I also looked at different funding models. I felt this was important because the funding model impacts the content and technical models available. In particular, I drew a distinction between a 'provider' model and a 'community' model for the production of resources. While, for various reasons, I argue in favour of a community model, I would suggest that funding models with commercial components push agencies toward a provider model. This involves providers in marketing and competition for a 'market share', an issue that became the subject of some debate in Malmo.

Aspects of this issue have already cropped up in this discussion. For example, some people questioned the use of a 'non-commercial' clause in licensing. My own preference is to allow, and indeed even to encourage, the 'non-commercial' clause. The reason for this is more practical than philosophical. When commercial entities become involved and begin the sale of materials, they tend to try to limit the distribution of free versions of the same resource. I discuss a number of these tactics in my paper Reusable Media, Social Software and Openness in Education (see the section on 'barriers'). In particular, they seek to limit the capacity of communities to easily use, repurpose, remix, reuse and distribute these resources, to focus, in other words, on a 'provider' model.

Members of this discussion are, of course, free to favour producer-centered or community-centered models as they wish, as they are free to favour licensing models allowing and disallowing commercial use. My interest in these remarks is to caution against a vocabulary or mapping where the commercial producer-centered model is the default, because then the free (both libre and gratis) model becomes the exception, and this, it seems to me, is the difference between charity and empowerment.

-- Stephen

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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