Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Open Education and Market Forces

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Oct 13, 2010

Posted to the UNESCO OER Discussion list, in response to the following exchange between Steve Foerster and Franco:

Foerster: Education is an important service,
Franco: Education is a service? It is a huge mistake to consider education as a market commodity: Education is a human right. 

Foerster: These aren't incompatible positions.  One describes the level of  importance it has.  The other explains how it can be provided most  effectively.

I think the point being made is that education is not something that is simply bought and sold, as a commodity, but rather something a society does to advance its own objectives. That it is, therefore, something too important to be left to the whims of the marketplace. And that the content of an education cannot be determined merely by economic pressures, but by the wider set of values of a society as a whole.

A private company traded on the stock exchange is required by law to maximize profits for shareholders. This often works to the detriment of society as a whole - McDonald's, for example, maximizes profits by selling people fat and salt, while Coca Cola maximizes profits by selling people flavoured sugar water. We allow this not because it's more efficient, but because as a society we respect the choices people make. But my the same token, we do not allow people to bottle and sell poison as food. If allowed, free enterprise would undoubtedly offer such a product (generally to be given as gifts, I would imagine). But the social harm that would be caused outweighs the profits to be made.

Most societies have decided that the management of education is too important to be left to private enterprise, that there would be too many poison pills to swallow, and that society would be irreparably damaged as a result. That even if private enterprise were to be able to manage education more efficiently, the product offered would be harmful to society. The United States is almost unique in its belief that these services can be managed by private enterprise. The current crisis in the U.S. education system is good evidence of that, as private educators attempt to finish off the public education system it has been attacking for some decades now.

I get frustrated when I see the same sort of argument posted here or in similar forums (there was a recent troll in WikiEducator to the same effect recently). Education isn't about making money; the provision of an education isn't about charity or philanthropy. The large cash donations provided (with strings) by people like Gates or Zuckerberg do more harm than good. The fostering of an educational resources regime where publishers and academics produce, and everyone else consumes, at once promotes their business objectives and undermines our social objectives and disempowers learners as a whole.

We need and must recognize that open educational resources are at once both the product and the property of those people who are intended to learn from them. That our role, as a wider society, ought not to be to shower free resources upon people, in the hope of somehow lifting them up and maybe enlightening them, and certainty of creating lifelong customers, but rather in the fostering of a social, legal and cultural climate where people are empowered and encouraged to create and share artifacts of their own learning. To do any less is to cheat them not only out of their own education but also of their own social values and cultural heritage. The goods Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg would deliver will not do as a substitute for a free and freely-formed curriculum, no matter what the price.

Follow-up. The comments are Foerster's.

On 10/11/2010 11:36 PM, Steve Foerster wrote:
Hi Stephen,

The ideological difference we seem to have here is that I don't believe
that decisions are made by "society" or that "society" has values.
Instead I see there being networks of individuals, who make individual
decisions based on their different goals and values. Similarly, events,
policies, and so forth are neither good nor bad for "society", most are
presumably good for some individuals and bad for others.
I am well known in my own circles for advocating a network view of society. So this is not the difference that we are having. I also agree that society is made up of a network of individuals, who make decisions individually. And when I speak of a 'decision made by society' what I am describing is an emergent phenomenon, a pattern that though attributed to society as a whole, and recognizable only when viewing society as a whole, nonetheless represents a set of individual decisions, as we would see when, for example, a flock of sparrows suddenly changes direction in mid-flight.

This description of society as a network does not counter the assertions I made in my previous email; indeed, it supports them. When I describe the decisions made in a society, I am describing the wider set of decisions - social, cultural, political, economic. The market-based approach you described in your previous email, however, takes into account only economic decisions. This, because of the extreme inequality of economic power in some societies, distorts the depiction of what we would call the decisions made 'by society', greatly weighing it in favour of the rich. Thus, the patterns found in the network as a whole are determined by only a few, who distort the network to support their own individual self-interest (this is how they became rich in the first place).

When making decisions about education, if we attend only to economic decision-making, and not the other sorts of social, cultural and political decision-making, we are establishing a framework for policy that is at the outset distorted in favour of a subset of society, and in all probability harmful to society as a whole. It diminishes to insignificance the wider social, cultural and political wishes of society, as expressed by the individual decisions of members of society participating (as well as they can) in this network.

The argument from the perspective of individual freedom is not an argument in favour of market determination of educational policy; it is an argument against it.

It's interesting that you note that the Americans are unique in
believing that education can be provided privately. This is much more
the case at the higher education level than at the primary and secondary
levels, and sure enough our universities habitually top international
rankings, while our primary and secondary schools fare poorly against
other developed countries' systems.

One of the characteristics of a system managed by economic priorities, rather than social, cultural and political priorities, is that it amasses wealth and influence in a few. We see this most clearly economically, where the United States also has the most billionaires in the world. And that is why we also see a number of elite post-secondary institutions located in the United States. I have no doubt that if we looked for them, we would also find the most elite primary and secondary schools in the United States, though they prefer to operate under the radar.

But what is very good for some operates at the detriment to the larger whole. As noted, the primary and secondary system is in trouble in the United States. The higher education system is also not healthy. Though there is no shortage of MBAs and lawyers in the U.S., there is a chronic shortage of science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates. And even when it is operating as it should, the American system offers a post secondary education to much fewer of its citizens than Canada. And when looked at from the perspective of graduates per per-capita GDP, a measure that takes national wealth into account, the U.S. fares poorly against a number countries. Here is the 'educational index'(1) of various countries

US                7.5
Canada        11.0
Ireland        9.2
Japan            10.4
Finland         9.5
Australia     7.5
France           6.8
Italy              3.4

So it cannot be argued that the American system of offering post-secondary education is the most successful at serving the needs of its citizens. It is already the case that the United States is trailing those countries that it trails (not coincidentally) in PISA rankings. (2)

Now, with all that said, I'm not saying that all education *has* to be
about the profit motive.
And let me be very clear in saying that education should not be subject to the profit motive, that even in cases where private suppliers are involved, these suppliers should be subject to a set of constraints determined by a wider range of decision-making, and more purely market factors.
There's obviously a role for non-profit action
in a marketplace.
I do not deny this. I expect commercial companies to continue to manufacture chalk brushes, computers, bricks and windows, and a wide variety of other materials purchased and used by the educational system.
In particular, I was drawn to OERs in part because of
my dislike for commercial textbook and journal publishers. In an era
when online collaboration is readily accessible, I see them as an
unnecessary middleman that offers little.
In this we agree.

But we need to be clear. There are different models of supporting OERs in education. For example:

a. the private sector creates OERs, which are purchased by public institutions and distributed for free to students (this is in fact how library books and primary school textbooks are sources in Canada today)
b. the private sector creates OERs, which are purchased by charities and distributed for free to students (this is the philanthropic model; notice how the 'puchase' decision-making has shifted from public to private institutions)
c. the public sector (ie., governments, colleges and universities) produces OERs directly, and distributes them for free to students (this is the non-commercial institutional model of OER production in the favour of many today)
d. the public sector (ie., governments, colleges and universities) produces OERs directly, and they are distributed to both commercial and non-commercial education providers (this is the model that requires CC-By licensing, specifically to allow commerical companies to resell OERs at a profit)

The model I advocate is none of these. The model I advocate is:

e. (i) the production of OERs is crowd-sourced; public institutions provide policies, (iI) resources and tools to support this production; resources are vetted and selected through a society-wide network-filter process (which is the natural point at which qualified and expert review takes place) and (iii) distributed through the educational process itself.

We don't agree that open educational resources should be the property of
those who learn from them, since I don't accept that ideas should be
property at all.
Probably more accurately, you support a licensing scheme consistent with model (c), above. But note that in option (e) resources may remain the property of those who produced them, and may be distributed through a variety of licenses, including CC-NC. Because there is no need for commercial providers to be implicated in the production and distribution of educational resources at all, there is no need for licensing that supports commercial distribution.

But I do appreciate your vision of this movement being
geared toward creating a collaborative culture in which all can
participate rather than just a top down curriculum delivery system. It
almost sounds like a free market. :-)

It is exactly a free market, but with the following vital caveats:

1. It is composed not simply of economic decision-making, but of social, cultural and political decision-making. That is the point of the society-wide vetting process (stage (ii) in my model). Decisions about the selection of learning resources are not made on the basis of economic considerations, or even partisan political considerations, but as the result of the wider variety of factors deemed important by society as a whole.

2. The network structure itself is tended and maintained. Free market capitalism may form a network-like decision-making process, but as suggested above, the network is distorted and ultimately damaged by participants with excess wealth, and therefore, excess control. Just as excesses in capital markets ought to be managed through taxation and regulation, so also constraints ought to be placed into educational content networks, precisely in order to ensure that the networks are stable, and promote the maximum participation from all sectors of society.

-- Stephen

(1) Educational index = GDP per capita divided by percent of population with PSE, x 10,000
US   GDPpC: 49K    %Edu: 37    %Edu/GDPpC: 7.5 e-4    (ie., 0.0007)
Canada   38K  42  11 e-4    (ie., 0.0011)
Figures from

(2) PISA rankings

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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