Criticizing the Cape Town Declaration

Originally posted on Half an Hour, November 29, 2007.

Re: The Cape Town Open Education Declaration

Normally I would expect to enthusiastically add my name to a document supporting free access to open learning resources. This is certainly a cause I have worked toward all my life, one that is expressed in the statement of principle on my home page, one that characterizes the papers I write, the software I code, the speeches I give.

But I find myself at odds with the declaration written by a group of mostly American academics and advocates invited by a foundation to a private meeting in South Africa to author a "fixed and final" declaration on open educational resources. Although not invited to the Cape Town meeting, I was able to discuss the document with the organizers a few weeks ago. Yet I find that none of the concerns I raised have been addressed.

The result, I believe, is a flawed document - flawed, not simply because it it does not adhere to what many would consider to be fundamental to free and open learning, but flawed because it betrays the process and the spirit of the movement.

I do not believe that a panel of hand-picked representatives representating overwhelmingly a certain commercial perspective is qualified or able to speak on behalf of the rest of us. The very people they name - "learners, educators, trainers, authors, schools, colleges, universities, publishers, unions, professional societies, policymakers, governments, foundations and others" - are mostly nowhere present in these deliberations. And the remainder of society - who are not stakeholders, Properly So-Called - are nowhere to be found.

The first, and most fundamental, recommendation I made with respect to this document was to open it up. Don't have a single document that your chosen few sign, I suggested, leaving everyone else to either follow quietly along with the 'received wisdom' or be cast off the boat. Put the document into a wiki page - maybe even a Wikipedia page - and let the community as a whole have its way with it for a while. Take it around to conferences and meetings on the five continents, where people who aren't lucky enough to have a friend in the Foundation can also have a say.

The document will be officially 'launched' in January, having only been circulated on the UNESCO Open Educational Resources mailing list (and perhaps elsewhere (update: on David Wiley's blog)) thus far. So there is still time. It could still be a people's document, and not one showered down to us like some gift from on high.

So why am I so critical of this document? What sort of changes do I think a wider community would make? There are many, but allow me to highlight some of the most fundamental.

First, the document promotes a view of learning rooted almost completely in the educational system. We do not get any sense from the document that students can or should learn on their own, or that this movement is even for students at all. The focus in on educators sharing with each other.

"Educators worldwide are developing a vast pool of educational resources on the Internet, open and free for all to use. These educators are creating a world where each and every person on earth can access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge."

There is no sense of the possibility, much less the desirability, of this development being fostered by, for the benefit of, people other than educators. I would like to think and hope that we all are creating this world. I would like to think that the tradition of "sharing good ideas" is something that all people, not just educators, have in common.

More significantly, dividing the world in this way almost immediately creates practical problems. The document tells us that the open education movement "is built on the belief that everyone should have the freedom to use, customize, improve and redistribute educational resources without constraint."

This significantly limits the domain of knowledge under discussion, as it contemplates only "educational resources". Oh! What a far cry from the rather more laudable objective of Wikipedia: "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge."

Second, and related, the document fosters a particular culture of learning, one where content is provided and licensed by content producers, and then consumed in a particular way by learners.

The document refers to the "global collection of open educational resources has created fertile ground for this effort," describing not the many individual creations made by people with no connection whatsoever to the education industry, the billions of web pages, Flickr images, YouTube videos, and the like, but rather the resources produced explicitly for educational purposes.

Instead, the document refers specifically to "openly licensed course materials, lesson plans, textbooks, games, software and other materials that support teaching and learning." While a defender of the document might say that personal learning is not excluded, it is clear that the focus is elsewhere. It is clear in this document that pedagogy, not empowerment, is the focus.

Third, the document advocates a form of 'open' that explicitly encourages the closing and blocking of access to education through the commercialization of these resources. The meaning of the catchphrase about "differences among licensing schemes for open resources creat(ing) confusion and incompatibility" is made explicit in the FAQ: "we believe that open education and open educational resources are very much compatible with the business of commercial publishing."

This is not so, and in fact the majority of resources licensed under an 'open' license are licensed nor non-commercial use. The view expressed by this particular group of especially selected representatives is in fact a minority position. When people talk about 'open' educational resources, they do not normally mean something they have to pay some publishing company in order to access.

The sort of model envision by the authors of this document should be understood very precisely when considering the actions they advocate in the document.

When the authors say that "creating and using open resources should be considered integral to education and should be supported and rewarded accordingly," what do they mean? The idea of "reward", which is not integral to any concept of free and open learning, is introduced with puzzling nuance.

When the authors say, "we call on educators, authors, publishers and institutions to release their resources openly," what they mean is that everybody should make their materials freely available for commercial exploitation. By release, we should be clear, the authors mean "publish," emphasizing the producer-consumer model of learning.

A similar line of criticism applies to the third recommendation. We see governments encouraged to produce educational resources and to release them under a license that allows them to be commercially exploited. There is no provision in the licensing recommended to ensure that they be made freely accessible to all learners; we trust to luck (and charity) to ensure that this happens.

The signatories of the document want to share their commercial model of learning with the world. "We have the opportunity to engage entrepreneurs and publishers who are developing innovative open business models," they write, with no apparent understanding that it is this activity that is precisely what is hindering free and open access to learning today.

The nature of knowledge and learning - as with anything else - is such that it acquires value to vendors not from abundance but from scarcity. And indeed, in a condition of actual abundance, which is very much the position we find ourselves in today, the only commercial value that may be derived from knowledge and learning is through the creation of artificial scarcities. The first action of any company seeking to be 'entrepreneurial' will be to seek to block access to free and open learning, to work, in other words, exactly contrary to the interests of learners.

The point is, knowledge and learning and not things that belong to someone. Knowledge and learning and the birthright of every human being, a cultural heritage shared by all, and like the commons, access to that birthright isn't granted like some act of charity or sold like some act of commerce. You don't 'give' what doesn't belong to you, you don't 'sell' what doesn't belong to you. We do not need to engage in some special act of creation to produce this heritage; it is already there. We need only remove the barriers to access, the presumption that knowledge and learning are owned and possessed, that they are some sort of property.

A document intended to support free and open learning should not take the perspective of the educator, it should not take the perspective of the service provider, and it should not take the perspective of the provider. It should take the perspective of the learner - which is to say, all of us - and it should say, unambiguously:

We seek a society where knowledge and learning are public goods, freely created and shared, not hoarded or withheld in order to extract wealth or influence.

The Cape Town Declaration does not contain these words, because there was nobody there to speak them, and nobody there willing to hear them.

For all its pretension that learning should be "embracing educational practices built around collaboration, discovery and the creation of knowledge; and inviting peers and colleagues to get involved" the process that produced this document does not one that. In this way, it betrays the spirit of open learning as actually engaged by practitioners today.

If there is anything that could be thought of as a truism in contemporary education, it is the idea that we are all learners and that we are all teachers. The idea of lifelong learning makes explicit the former idea, and the principles of learner-centered, constructive and inquiry-based learning make explicit the latter. Knowledge - particularly social and public knowledge - is not something that is produced by a hothouse meeting of experts, but rather, is produced through a process of dialogue and conversation.

It was explained to me that the process of a small, select group was chosen because of the difficulties inherent in convincing a large group to agree. But it is not clear that agreement is needed, not clear that the creation of this sort of document is what the movement needs most. And as at least one attendee at the meeting can attest, the wild uncooperative community at large can produce agreement on a document - it can produce agreement on a whole Encyclopedia of them.

The community as a whole may produce agreement - but it would be the sort of agreement, if at all, that is unmanageable, uncontrolled, one that suits the wider population very well but which is rather less appropriate to serve the rather more narrow interests of the foundations and the institutions represented by the signatories.

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