Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Half an Hour, Apr 24, 2019


A week ago, by way of a post in the Creative Commons Open Education Platform discussion list, I became aware of the Creative Commons Certificate course, "an in-depth course about CC licenses, open practices and the ethos of the Commons." I did't know that it had been offered previously, but no matter. What really caught my attention was the $500 USD price tag. That's a lot of money for an open online course generally, let alone a very short introductory course taught by a non-accredited institution.

I posted a response on the discussion list but it was a couple of days days before it appeared, so instead of waiting to see if it ever appeared I also wrote a post in OLDaily, saying the following:

It's an online course for rich people. "The 10-week online course offers online instruction, a discussion forum and support for cohorts of approximately 25 learners per instructor." I don't see why Creative Commons could not have learned from the many lessons learned about offering open online learning, and I'm not sure I can trust Creative Commons as the host of an 'open education platform'.

This sort of response seems pretty obvious to me, and honestly, I don't see why I have to be the one to point these things out.

Cable Green - who had posted the original announcement - responded to my post via Twitter (there were some other responses as well, which I'll address below). It's a multi-part Twitter thread, and I'll just address each part in turn (Cable's tweets in italics).

Hi Stephen. I can’t figure out how to provide public comments on your blog post, so I shall reply here. Your readers may also be interested in our recent CC Certificate Blog post.

With tongue firmly in cheek, I could point out that he could have responded on his blog - the very blog he pointed me to in order to suggest a link that was not a response to my concerns.

Taking the CC Certificate is, of course, optional. If someone is already an expert in CC licensing, copyright, public domain, fair dealing / use rights, open licensing policies, etc., they may not need the course.

I don't know what 'optional' even means in this context. The course is not a part of a larger program or anything like that. It is certainly not a requirement for the use of a CC license  or for use of the web generally.

The most relevant sense in which it could be 'optional' would the case where the course is not needed in order to obtain the CC certificate. But in this sense, they appear to be a package. If you want the certificate, you have to take the course. This becomes clear with the next tweet...

For people who do want a facilitated learning experience on these topics, want to increase their expertise, and/or want to be able to say they are "CC Certified" - this might be a good fit: 

To be clear - if you want the certificate, then you need the course. It's true that you might be an expert even without the course - I certainly consider myself one - but you will not be a certified expert without the course. That will cost you $500.

Why does this even matter? Isn't an expert an expert? Well - sure. But all else being equal, if you want to (say) offer training, act as a consultant, or get hired for employment, having the certificate gives you an advantage. After all, people can't assess your expertise directly. So in a very real sense, the only people who are qualified are people who have paid for the certificate.

These certificate courses are in a very real sense rendering moot any actual expertise a person may have, and substituting its own definition, and validation, of expertise. This is an inconvenience to a person like me. It poses a significant barrier to people in the Global South, where there is a greater reliance on such certificates, and where the cost is prohibitive. 

We find that people who think they are experts often are not as accurate on these complex topics as they think they are - and they are thankful for the opportunity to hone their skills, with a trained facilitator, in a global community of learners. I am one of these people.

I checked to see if Cable was one of the people who took the course and graduated with a certificate, and he was not. It's hard to imagine him paying the money (especially if it is out of his own pocket) to become qualified with his own certificate.

That said, there is no question that an opportunity to hone one's skills, especially in conjunction with experts, is something to celebrate. But it is very important to distinguish here between the learning and the certificate. The learning might be useful and worthwhile - but would people be paying $500 for it were it not for the (exclusive!) certificate?

This is an important point. There are many ways to learn about Creative Commons and open licensing, almost all of which are less expensive (most a lot less expensive) than this course. But there is only one way to get the certificate, at it is offered in a manner that does not even try to be affordable.

From where I sit, it is as though the proprietors of this course don't even grasp the concept of open education, which makes me very concerned that they are defining something called the 'open education platform'.

All of the CC Certificate content is updated (as of April 19, 2019), available for free, in multiple, downloadable, editable files on the CC Certificate web site.

Quite so. I didn't spot it at first - it was behind a link labeled Certificate Resources, which was not obvious to me. And the full materials were not available when I posted my original comments, though they were up to date as of the 19th of April.

Significantly, the first thing you read when you go to the site is, "Accessing this CC BY content is not a substitute for enrolling in the official course, and does not qualify you for CC Certification." This again speaks to my concern here that Creative Commons made no particular effort to offer an open course; it offered (some) materials under a Creative Commons license, but clearly (to judge by the comments from participants) there was much more that took place behind closed doors. All this is why I say Creative Commons did not even try to offer an open course.

I would also like to observe that the contents available online - read them here - do not constitute a course. They might constitute a one-day workshop. They are certainly not authoritative - I believe, for example, that you have to have a law degree to teach law, so the section on 'copyright law' is not a section on law. Important information - such as a discussion of WIPO - is limited to footnotes and current only up to 2017.

This is really important.Offering a certificate - even a course - implies a certain degree of credibility, credibility that can be earned one of two ways: through peer review, such as enabled by the course accreditation process, or through openness, in which all the content and instruction in the course are available for public scrutiny. Creative commons has not demonstrated either type of evidence for credibility. And yet its certificates can be used to suggest that some people - those who did not pay them $500 - are not qualified to work in the field. Because that is the only purpose of a certificate - to separate between qualified and unqualified practitioners.

Scholarships. CC submitted a proposal to fund 62 new scholarships for our colleagues in the global south. CC already budgeted for 15 scholarships in 2019. Goal: provide $400 scholarships, reducing the cost to $100 for global south participants.

We plan to announce the scholarship program at the upcoming CC Summit, launch the scholarship program in June, and admit scholarship recipients into our September, 2019 courses.

These tweets puzzled me for a few moments. The idea of a scholarship seems very much like an afterthought, as though the question of access hadn't occurred to them.

But more importantly, why would Creative Commons need to submit a proposal to discount its own educational offerings? Then I realized - they weren't. The proposal was to an external agency - not named in the tweet, but probably a foundation like Hewlett (though I stress that this is speculation). 
Am I the only one who sees this? The application to whatever charity is to redirect money that could be going to education providers in the Global South, sending it instead to pay the artificially inflated cost of a made-up credential.

As I said in other posts on the discussion list,

I understand that there is a cost if instructors are teaching 30-person classes. But what we know about online learning tells us that there are much more efficient ways of making the same learning available at a much lower cost. I doubt that even a scholarship program can improve the outcomes of such an inefficient approach....

One of the major objectives of our original MOOCs was to enable MOOC participants to create interaction and facilitation for each other. This is because there is no system in the world where a 1:30 instructor:student ratio will scale to provide open and equitable access.

In my view, this model worked very well. It wasn't a case of "the blind leading the blind" because in any large course there will be some people who are not 'blind'. The conversations that were needed - explaining concepts, digging deeper, providing motivation, etc. - could be (and were!) provided by participants themselves. Even in the case of the xMOOC, where no real interaction was provided at all, students created their own communities and provided this for themselves.

If Creative Commons were serious about open access. they would explore some of these options. The fact that they instead turned to the least efficient and most expensive approach is very concerning.

That's why it is so disappointing to read that they are applying for funding for scholarships. Not only does it redirect otherwise useful money, it does so in a manner that seems indifferent to the cost of the activity.

We are also working with State and Provincial systems of education that have open edu programs. They are purchasing CC Certificate "seats" for their members in bulk - taking the financial pressure off teachers, professors and librarians.

This is a model that worked well for commercial software vendors. I don't know what sort of discounts would be available - if the commercial model is followed, this information would be proprietary.

That's it for Cable's tweets. There were some other remarks. Chauncey Huffman @chaunce88 wrote:

I understand the point you’re trying to make, but I feel like you’re mischaracterizing the CC organization. The certification is 100% optional, and people can still be “experts” without the certification. The price is subjectively reasonable for the amount of work put into it.

As before, I don't know what is meant by 'optional' in this context. I do know that the certificate is intended to confer competitive advantage to those who have one, and that the cost of the certificate confers that advantage to those who are able to pay the fee (which is, again, a substantial barrier in the Global South).

More to the point, the price of something in a market economy is not related to the cost of production, but rather, the purchaser's willingness and ability to pay. This is based on he value of the offering. It is arguable - and I would argue - that the value is not in the learning, but in the Certificate, and the people who can pay the cost because they expect to recoup that investment in future earnings (and competitive advantage over people who do not have the certificate).

Or to put the same point another way - I have put in at least as much effort into this post as was put into one of the units in the course, but nobody will be paying me any money for it, even if the learning is equally valuable.

Creative Commons is trading on the brand value of its name (promoted by the use of its licenses by people around the world) in order to confer some of its credibility to paying customers by means of the Certificates. If they weren't doing this, the certificates wouldn't be necessary - people would be happy to sign up and pay the fee for the learning itself.

Roger Gillis @rcgillis writes

Paid the $500 USD for the certificate- well worth it, in my opinion. I'm privileged to have the fund to be able to do so. 

Quote so. Privileged.

Open does not equal free - there's a tremendous amount of work and community behind the CC certificate. Please strive to recognize the invisible labour behind making a lot of open work possible.

Lots of work is done by lots of people for free. Indeed, pretty much every piece of work licensed under Creative Commons is available to people for free. The whole purpose of the Creative Commons license is to make content available for free.

No, you say? Go to the Creative Commons website. Read the tagline: "When we share, everyone wins." Read the subhead: "Help us build a vibrant, collaborative global commons." Does this sound like an organization that really means "buy an online course for $500?" It's quite a bait and switch if it does.

Certainly, the phrase 'open education' (as used in, say, the 'Open Education Platform') conveys a sense of 'free', or at the very least, affordable. I've covered this in a previous post. Pretty much nobody working on open access, open educational resources, or open education, is doing so in order to promote $500 tuition fees for questionable certificates.

Let me be clear. I recognize the work being undertaken to promote open work. I also recognize that people have the right to be paid for their work. But the difference between open work and the traditional commercial alternative is that open comes without a price tag. Otherwise, it may as well be some schlock produced and marketed by Pearson or McGraw-Hill.

And when you talk about the tremendous amount of work and effort required to produce something -remember, it cost me $12 to see Titanic, it costs me $10 a month for Netflix, and about $7 to listen to all of music on Google. Compared to that, a $500 cost for some fairly minimal content on open licensing seems, well, excessive.

That's all I have for now. Maybe Creative Commons could reconsider either (a) trying to offer this course as open education, or (b) dropping the Open Education Platform, for reason of lack of credibility.


- , Apr 24, 2019
, - , Jul 05, 2019
, - , Apr 24, 2019
, - Certificate Registration | Creative Commons, Apr 24, 2019
, - Cable Green on Twitter: "1/8: Hi Stephen. I can’t figure out how to provide public comments on your blog post, so I shall reply here. Your readers may also be interested in our recent CC Certificate Blog post:… https://t.c, Apr 24, 2019
, - , Apr 24, 2019
, - , Apr 24, 2019
, - , Apr 24, 2019
, - , Apr 24, 2019
, - Chauncey Huffman on Twitter: "I understand the point you’re trying to make, but I feel like you’re mischaracterizing the CC organization. The certification is 100% optional, and people can still be “experts” without the certification. The pri, Apr 24, 2019
, - Roger Gillis on Twitter: "1/2 Paid the $500 USD for the certificate- well worth it, in my opinion. I'm privileged to have the fund to be able to do so. @cgreen has pointed out how CC is taking steps to make the certificate more available.… http, Apr 24, 2019
, - , Apr 24, 2019
, - The Real Goal of Open Educational Resources, Apr 24, 2019
, - On The Creative Commons Certificate Course, Apr 25, 2019

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

Creative Commons License.

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Last Updated: Oct 21, 2020 9:00 p.m.