What’s Open? Are OER Necessary?

Like most great conflagrations, it began as a small exchange that touched on a vital point.  At OER17 a couple of weeks ago a suggestion appeared via Twitter that DS106 (the pioneering online course, not the NETGEAR router) wasn’t/isn’t really “open” since it wasn’t based on true OER (Open Educational Resources.  Exception was taken. The ensuing discussion has only grown. Now nearly three weeks after the conference, the discussion (debate? argument? positioning battle?) has grown to the point that Maha Bali has organized a Hangout to discuss it further.  She’s also begun to curate the growing number of posts on the topic.  Thank you Maha.

Back at the conference – before it blew up into such a large discussion – I had promised to blog on the topic.  Alas events at my home campus have delayed that post but here it is. I hesitate somewhat given the great minds that have already weighed in, but in the interest of openness itself I think I might have a slightly different perspective to add.

OER: Permission to Use Property

The definition of OER, Open Education Resources, seems relatively clear and agreed. David Wiley has defined Open Content and OER as those copyrightable works licenses so as to permit perpetual 5R activities of retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute. In practice this means Creative Commons (CC) licenses and CC-BY in particular.

I have some issues with this definition such as the exclusion of open source software, the silence regarding public domain and fair use, and Wiley’s deprecation of CC SA, NC, and ND licenses, but that’s fodder for another post. For this discussion, this CC-license-with-the-5R’s definition will suffice to clarify OER.  Thus we have it: The essence of openness for resources is permission to use copyrighted property. 

note: Though it’s peripheral to this discussion and worthy of its own post, I would like to remind folks that while we call copyrighted material intellectual property and the law treats it as property, it is artificial property. It’s not like land or that coffee mug in your hand. It’s an artificial government-granted bundle of monopoly powers that we call property.

The driver of this growing discussion then really turns on the question of what qualifies as “open pedagogy”?  Wiley is pretty clear about his view. Open Pedagogy is the practice of using OER.  Thus the definition of “openness”, according to Wiley, has OER and its property use permissions as prerequisite. If there’s not explicitly CC licensed OER involved, it’s not open.

Many of the posts discussing “what’s open pedagogy?” take a turn towards defining it differently. Some use open in practice/praxis terms.  Others use it in terms of the “open web”.  I think we can consider the use of open web approach as one emphasizing open access, whether that access is to read or to publish. Either approach, the praxis/practice approach or the accessibility/open web approach seem to still emphasize the written materials as the center of the issue.  In other words, the focus shifts to what’s done with the materials? Is the Internet and its affordances utilized?  Jim Groom in I Don’t Need Permission to be Open stakes out the position closer to my heart:

I think the locking down of open is dangerous. I think it draws lines where they need not be, and it reconsolidates power for those who define it. More than that, the power around open has been pretty focused on a few people for too long, and I count myself amongst them. More and more on this trip in conversations with others, I think we as a field need to do a better job of bringing the next generation of ed-tech folks to the fore, stepping back, and letting them frame what’s next. Even this post shows my harkening back to work I did 6 years ago, I don’t want to have a corner on open or ed-tech, I want something that gets me excited and passionate. OER17 certainly did that, and I crave more. What I see as hardline definitions of what is and is not OER or open need not police the discussion. I would hate for an edict about what is and is not open pedagogy to get in the way of people “coloring outside the lines” of the 5Rs, to appropriate Brian Lamb’s gorgeous turn of phrase from one of this 3 tweets in response to the avalanche.

David Kernohan in his comment on Jim’s post, though, really nails my position:

I don’t need 5Rs permission for the inside of my head. And if I want to share what’s inside my head with others, that’s my business. The fact that some of the ideas in my head have been put there by corporate idea salesmen, and that I need to refer to those ideas to express mine, is immaterial.

Make art. Dammit.

I would just add to David’s comment the admonition to “Make Art. Or Science. Or Philosophy. Or Whatevs. Dammit”

Property, Process, Pedagogy, and Power

The core of my objection to the “OER as prerequisite to being open” position is that OER are resources. They’re things. Commodities. Property. Or, at least they’re treated as property in a capitalist US-Western economic system that increasingly dominates the global economy and culture.

Pedagogy isn’t property. It’s not a commodity. It’s a process. It’s a method of creating a desired outcome. For me the analogy is to business process analysis: pedagogy is the production process. It may be mass-production oriented or it may be artisinal. It’s the way things get accomplished – or at least it’s the way we intend to accomplish things.  For those without a business analysis background who may recoil at anything smacking of “business” in education, let me use a different analogy.  As educators, we intend to help students to have some kind of particular experience: learn something, change perspectives, grow, mature, create, collaborate, etc. Of course in the modern lingo we call those “learning outcomes” (don’t get me started on that!). My point here is that pedagogy is the intended process by which we enable students to reach those outcomes and  have that experience.

As a process, pedagogy, makes use of resources. Any production process uses resources, but the resources are not the essence of the process. In the case of pedagogy, what we normally think of as “educational resources”, books and written materials, whether they be closed ER or OER, aren’t even the most important resources.  The most important resources are human – the labor, communication, dialogue, and care of humans. Other critical resources include technology and its affordances embodied in what we economists would call capital. The methods and rules we use to combine all these resources, the property, the humans, and the technologies, is the process, the pedagogy.

If licenses and legal permissions to use property make resources open, then what makes pedagogy open?  It can’t be licenses or permissions. Pedagogy isn’t property.  It also can’t be that open pedagogy simply means using open resources. The resources may be openly licensed, but that says nothing about the openness of the process, the openness of the humans, or the openness of the media & technology.

A process, like a pedagogy, can be conducted in isolation removed from any other activities or parts of life. Or, the process can be conducted in the open, connected to rest of human activity.  Humans are the center of pedagogy or educational praxis. It’s students and teachers and their interactions that are the essence of pedagogy. That means that pedagogy is not just about some instructional design strategy, it’s about power relations. Who gets to do what? Who gets to tell whom what to do? Who sets the bounds and the rules? What are the limits of activity?  Who tells whom what to write about? Who defines the limits of the audience the student can reach? Who defines meaning?  To me, any pedagogy is primarily about power relations and therefore freedom.

Now I think we can get to the essence of openness in pedagogy. Since pedagogy is about process and power relations, then openness in pedagogy is about freedom and connection. It’s about the degrees and ways in which a pedagogy is free and mutual. Openness in pedagogy then starts to overlap with critical pedagogy. It is no wonder then that a discussion of “what’s open pedagogy” should emerge from an OER17 conference with the theme of the “Politics of Open”.

Recognizing Openness in Pedagogy

I don’t think a simple, checklist definition of open pedagogy is possible. It’s a pointless and ultimately dangerous endeavor to attempt to judge pedagogy as open or not according to some abstract checklist.  To do so risks reifying both pedagogy and education as something that exists independent of the students and teachers engaged in it. We already all too often talk about education as something to be acquired rather than an experience or activity that’s lived.

Freedom, power relations, and learning are very multi-dimensional.  So while a strict, abstract, checklist definition of open pedagogy isn’t useful, we can describe dimensions of openness.  I would love to see our discussions of what’s open pedagogy evolve these lines.  So let me try a few examples of dimensions of openness in pedagogy. I am grateful to my colleagues Jeff Janowick, Regina Gong, Meg Elias, and Leslie Johnson for recent discussions that helped my understandings of these dimensions. For each of these examples, the dimension is described as running from more closed to more open.

  • Isolation vs. Connectedness:  Does the pedagogy and learning activities exist predominantly in a closed, isolated space such as the traditional classroom or do they engage and form connections with the larger, outside world?  Using this dimension, courses where students create materials on the open web, accessible by the public, makes the pedagogy more open.
  • Disposable  vs. Permanent, Public, or Authentic assignments
  • Temporary Interactions vs. Building of Lasting Community
  • Defined, limited activities vs. opportunity for expressing more creativity
  • Controlled, limited use of learning materials, including which sources are approved vs. Accessing and using the range of publicly available resources on the Web.
  • Teacher as “the” authority vs. Students being able to bring other sources of authority. 

This is just a beginning. I would be very interested in hearing what others might think and of other dimensions in which pedagogy may be more closed vs more open.

If openness in resources is defined by permissions to use property, I argue that openness in pedagogy must be measured in terms of freedom, authority, and power of the learning process.  To place the resources, the OER, as the prerequisite of openness of pedagogy is to commoditize and reify education itself, ultimately denying the possibility of critical pedagogy. Open pedagogy, and therefore open education and open learning, are more about freedom of action and authority than they are about property permissions.