OER, Higher Ed, and the Commons

After spending the past year studying both the economics of a commons, as well as the history and evolution of higher education, it’s long past time to say something about what I’ve figured out.  This is the first post along those lines and I hope it’s not the last. What follows here is a light introduction to a model I’ve developed about how higher education operates as a commons. I’ll also be talking and introducing the model this week on Thursday morning at the OpenEd 18 Conference in Niagara, NY.  I hope you can you be there, but if not, you can follow along here with the home game.

In the past year or two, or maybe since this whole OER discussion began, several questions have frequently popped up in open education circles. I think the model I’ve developed might help us gain some insights on these questions. I know it is helping me. The model isn’t perfect. Right now it’s even primitive. I know I’ll make statements and warrants below that need to further exposition in future blog posts and papers. But I think the model’s got legs in helping generate insights.

Among the questions I keep hearing in open education circles include:

  • Are OER sustainable?
  • Are for-profit publishers and their “inclusive access” programs helpful and supportive? Or are they just open-washed attempts at enclosure?
  • What’s the relationship between open pedagogy and OER?
  • Is there a connection between open pedagogy, OER, and critical pedagogy?

I hope the model can begin to help sort out these questions.

First off, though, we need to establish some basics about what a commons is and what it isn’t. Many people have grown up and been educated with the Garett Hardin myth of the “Tragedy of the Commons”.

There are lots of flaws with Hardin’s characterization of  a commons. I won’t go into detail about them here, I’ll just let my slide from the presentation summarize of few of them.  Basically, what Hardin describes as a “commons” isn’t one. As Lin and Vince Ostrom spent their careers documenting, the commons does work. In fact, it often works so well that we are blinded to it’s existence.  Before I leave a discussion of Hardin and the “tragedy” of the commons, I want to make a few points. There is a lesson to be learned from Hardin’s “tragedy”. Namely, if we allow conditions and norms to develop within the OER/open education efforts such that we mimic Hardin’s description, then it will lead to tragedy and failure. It will not be sustainable.  Specifically, if we allow unrestricted free access and usage to anyone without regard to reciprocity or care for the commons, then OER is not sustainable. If we allow purely self-interested behavior by participants that emphasizes monetization and a purely transactional, consumer orientation regarding OER, tragedy will ensue. And, most important, if we continue to foster isolated users and isolated teaching while pushing for a commodification of “knowledge” into books and course materials, then our commons will fail.  I don’t believe it must be that way.

Lin Ostrom wrote and researched extensively about what a commons is and how to govern a sustainable commons. Her greatest books, Understanding Institutional Diversity and Governing the Commons are admittedly a tough slog for the reader not well versed in game theory or institutional analysis.  However, there are some clear conclusions that highly relevant to our open education discussions.

First, a commons is NOT about the resources. The commons is about the institutional structures and norms that people use to govern themselves in a productive situation that poses a social dilemma. Yes, there are often resources involved (duh, it’s “productive”).  But the resources in question are what’s properly called a common pool resource (CPR) not “a commons”.  Indeed, it’s not even any particular characteristics of the resources in the CPR that creates the commons. Resources just are. They’re resources. Things. Stuff people use to make to other things. It’s the institutional, social, economic, and technological structures and norms that people create that constititute the commons. They create a commons because they want to produce using an CPR.  Although it’s true that resources which are rivalous (sometimes called “subtractive”) in nature often tend to be associated with a commons, it is not a necessary condition.

So what makes a commons and what is a commons?  In simple terms, a commons is social-economic institution that conforms to neither the market-private property paradigm or the state-leviathan paradigm. The commons is rather stuck between the rock of private property, profit-seeking organizations in the market and the hard place of state organized and run public bureaucracy. In our modern world, particularly in the more developed, richer nations, we have lived under the domination of these two paradigms of socio-economic structures, market and state, for so long it’s often hard to imagine a commons. Yet over 2 billion of the 7 billion on the planet depend on the commons for their subsistence. And nearly all of us are dependent on the commons in one way or another for some significant aspects of our lives.

In short, Commons is A Verb.  A commons is what people do and the institutional structures and norms they establish to accomplish their goals.  Their goals do not necessarily have to be shared goals or priorities. What is is necessary is that the realities of production or achieving their goals causes some group of people to be inter-dependent upon each other for the outcomes.  Yes, a limited, shared CPR that consists of rivalous, non-excludable goods  such as fish in a particular fishing area will create the conditions. But the conditions/properties of the goods themselves do not dictate the existence of a commons. The commons is the response of a group of people to a shared social dilemma. In broad terms, a commons arises when people have individual choices to cooperate or not cooperate but the personal outcomes to them depend on both their own choices and the choices of others.

How is this relevant to OER and open education? OER is not what’s primary.  Yes, OER consists of “educational resources” and we often think of OER as a common pool resource. It is in a way, but it’s not the primary resource and it shouldn’t be the focus of our attention on the commons.  OER are “resources” and we use them to help produce more learning. They’re inputs into the learning process. But they’re not the only resource pool and they’re not the critical resource pool.  If we consider that the pool of OER itself is replenished by the activities of scholars – faculty and students – we realize that OER is more of an output pool of artifacts of previous learning. Educational resources – books, etc – can be thought of as community produced capital goods. Educational resources might appear to us to be a scarce resource, but that’s only a side effect of the technology and organizations used to print and publish educational resources them. With recent revolutions in web technology and information publishing, we might to get past that scarcity. However, we still face some critical CPR’s and a need for a commons.

Higher Education is a Learning Commons.

If we start with the idea that a commons is a verb. That is, it’s what people do, then we can better see the real commons in higher education. What we do is learning. We learn. Faculty and students alike learn. We’ve been enculturated as faculty in the last century to see teaching and research (or scholarly work) as somehow separate. They’re not. They’re both learning. In “research” we focus on ourselves as the learners. In teaching, we focus on the students as learners.

I suggest that the commons in higher education is a learning commons. Ostrom points out that a successful commons has clear boundaries as to who is in and who is out of the commons. I should probably be precise and say higher education consists of a “scholarly learning commons”, but for convenience I’ll stick with learning commons. I emphasize learning commons instead of “education commons” or “knowledge commons” since those alternate terms emphasize things which easily get confused for resources. They’re nouns. The commons is about the doing, the verb. We learn. We facilitate learning in others. And we learn from them.

An aside: I do find it inconvenient that college presidents throughout the country have jumped on a bandwagon to rename tutoring centers as “learning commons”. That’s not what I’m referring to. That’s just a buzzwordy renaming of an existing department. 

There are alternative institutional arrangements for the activity we call higher education. Indeed some of those alternatives such as for-profit, corporate-like structures are attempts to rebuild higher education as a private property, market-oriented firm. Even some non-profits, such as Western Governors, are doing that in my opinion. But, if we think of higher education as a possible learning commons we can begin to see the connection between the learning commons and critical pedagogies. Paulo Friere, of course, in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed,emphasizes the roles of teacher-student and student-teacher and how both teachers and students learn from each other. This is consistent with concept of a learning commons. One feature of any commons that helps distinguish it from private property-market institutions is how members of a commons are simultaneously both producers and consumers. There may be exchange between them, but it’s secondary. Everybody acts as both creator/producer and user/consumer to some degree. Most importantly, the value created in the commons is not universally commodified and monetized. Market exchange is not central.

I think the real reason faculty and students join and engage in the learning commons is because they want to learn. It’s easier, faster, and more rewarding to learn socially. It’s certainly possible to learn more, faster with some instruction than it is by oneself.  This is the core motivation. Certainly it’s the real reason faculty engage the learning commons for a lifetime. They love learning. It’s certainly not the money. The money has never been very good relatively speaking.

But, it does take money or some source of support to live. For that, civilized societies have throughout history (or at least the last 2-3 millenia) found it useful to support some of these specialized learners. There are broad positive externalities to society to having at least some very learned people focused on learning, so the society provides some pools of resources to support the learning commons. In return, the commoners, the scholars, return knowledge and external benefits to society. It’s actually very rational.

The learning commons model with CPR's identified as libaries, places, and learner time.But what kinds of resources does society provide? Are they common pooled resources?  I think there have historically been three major common pooled resources. First is that the learners  themselves must be supported so that they can spend their time learning, studying, and teaching each other. Ultimately, this is the most critical common pooled resource we have: learner time and by learner, I mean both faculty and students.

The other two significant common pool resources are place and libraries/books. Of these, place has been historically one of the most critical since the learning commons is social. It has historically required a dedicated place where learners come together. Roy Lowe and Yoshihito Yasuhara explain very well in The Origins of Higher Learning how these two are closely linked. Dating back to the earliest civilizations, where states created libraries are where the great centers of higher learning emerged. They eventually became our colleges and universities. Libraries gave birth to higher learning.

Books, in fact, are the capital goods of higher learning. The process of learning itself – what the faculty and students are doing in the learning commons – often is best done by writing or creating artifacts. This creates a virtuous cycle. The act of learning is facilitated by writing. We write to learn. But by creating these artifacts, we are not only facilitating our own learning, we are creating the very capital goods – books, articles, notes, lesson plans, etc – that empower greater learning in the future. Libraries (and museums), of course, have been the main repositories of these artifacts of learning. The primary limiting factor on the creation of new education resources is the time of faculty and students to create them and the willingness of faculty and students to share them.

So where do printers and publishers fit in this model? This topic, what I think of as the “capital structure of learning”, is worthy of an extensive deep-dive, which I hope to write soon. Here, I’ll just highlight a few aspects.  The invention of printing by the Chinese 1500 to 1800 years ago helped spread libraries and higher learning by making more copies available faster than was possible from hand-copying. The social accumulation and dissemination of capital (books) made it possible to locate higher learning in more places, making learning more accessible.

When Gutenberg invented moveable type and mechanized the printing press in the 16th century, the accumulation process took off. It really accelerated the collection and dissemination of the written artifacts of learning. Books spread and with them libraries spread. More colleges and universities became possible. The invention of printing made higher learning more accessible to a wider range of people in more locations. In effect, the printing press boosted and accelerated the capital accumulation process in higher learning. More books. More copies.

However, printing presses are themselves capital investments of a different kind. While printing presses could easily disseminate hundreds or thousands of copies of a book or pamphlet, they couldn’t easily print and disseminate all written material. The press, or access to the press, had to be rationed somehow.  Thus began the process of “peer review” or vetting of materials to see if they were “worthy” of printing and dissemination. For several hundred years the primary effect of printing on our learning commons was to enable learning in more places and by more people. Colleges and universities began to grow and really thrive.  Yes, there was an added cost and therefore an added drain on the gross resources devoted by society to higher education but it was easily offset by the expanded positive externalities to society of expanded access to higher education. So far. So good.

Eventually the industrial revolution hits and printing/publishing of educational materials becomes a capitalist for-profit enterprise itself.  What started as a service provided to higher education by printers becomes a for-profit, investor-funded capitalist industry. Growth of the publishing enterprise and its profitability rather than the dissemination of learning becomes the overriding objective. There are some  reliable and time-honored strategies for growing highly profitable industries in capitalism. Not all of them involve net gains for society.  The publishing industry has pursued all of them:

  • creeping enclosure of the commons and conversion to private property
  • divide some sphere of activity into producers and consumers with a resultant commodification and monetization as market transactions
  • erect barriers to entry, limit access, or create an artificial scarcity, ensuring higher prices and therefore profits
  • seek either government subsidies or the creation of a government/social provided stream of resources which can be tapped for investors to extract their profits

I will leave it to another post to detail how the publishing industry has done this, but suffice to say here the fight over OER is a battle over these strategems.  Copyright law has converted books and the information in them into private property. The educational publishers extract value from the same source of resources as all higher learning but the existence of profits (economic profit rates of return) means they remove more than they return – an unsustainable drain on the commons. The emphasis and shift to textbooks as opposed to treatises, simple books, or monographs has been as much an attempt to enclose and displace the faculty as it is a “quality enhancement” or time saver. The expansion of publishers into course platforms, online homework packages, and course-in-a-box represents more of the same expansion of the publisher’s realm. And with that expansion of the publishers role and realm is a shrinking role for the faculty. Faculty and students become consumers, not producing-using learners. They adopt and buy instead of creating and learning. The commons fails and is enclosed.

Toward a Comedy of the Learning Commons

Lin Ostrom and others have talked about how to create a comedy of the commons, meaning the opposite of a tragedy. Fortunately, there are people doing that. I am encouraged, for example, by the Care Framework put forth in the spring of 2018. I wrote about that in a post earlier this year on OER, Care, Stewardship, and the Commons. There are many other noteworthy efforts. This post is already too long, so I’ll only list what I think are some of the key ways we need to change our focus so we can build a comedy of the learning commons.

We need a concerted effort to determine and enunciate what our community values and norms are. Ostrom also points out that a comedy of the commons actively monitors and enforces its norms. That needs to be part of the discussion. The Care Framework is a good first step.  So are the many discussions happening at open education conferences and online about what does it mean to be open. But we need to expand these conversations. We need to involve questions of governance of our college, university, and learned society organizations.  We need to involve as many of our colleagues as possible, not just the “open evangelists”.

Perhaps the CC-BY license isn’t the best for the learning commons. It’s not the only “open” license. There’s GPL. There’s Peer-Production License. There’s also CC-BY-SA and NC. Perhaps we need to write a new one that conforms to our needs and norms.   Yes, CC-BY and CC0 are the “most free” licenses in the free culture sense. And yes, using those licenses constitutes commoning in the Creative “Commons” (remember it’s the actions, not resources that are the commons). But a successful commons is a layered, nested, polycentric thing.  The most successful commons is a small one with personal communication and familiarity among the members. We need to do what is best for our learning commons. But we can only discover what that is by talking.

We need to emphasize fairness. The perception of fairness is critical. I encounter large numbers of faculty who are have created large amounts of educational resources themselves. I suspect everyone who has ever taught has a some files or papers they’ve created but not shared. It may be worksheets. It may test questions. Whatever. But they are isolated. They’re not shared. Why? They’re not shared partly because sharing is actually pretty hard or time consuming these days – and remember, our time is our most scarce resource!  But increasingly I’m hearing and seeing people not sharing because they perceive unfairness. Others will “take” their work and not reciprocate. A perception of unfairness or lack of reciprocity by others will kill any commons. The current craze for “inclusive access” programs by publishers whereby faculty create OER but the access is monetized and sold to students rightly strikes many as unfair.

We need to recognize that higher learning itself is the commons and that our time as faculty, teachers, students, and librarian/archivists is the critical common pool resource. The books aren’t the CPR. We are.

We need to recognize that the creation of learning materials is the critical step. It is integral to learning. Instead of increasing the division of labor wherein a few publishers dictate who the few “creators” are and the rest of us become mere consumers or adopters, we need to focus on creation.

A focus on creation means more and better tools. Some of this happening. Pressbooks is an example. But we need more. A lot more. We need and easier ways to share the pieces or components of educational resources so we can make or mix our own. We need a commons of our own in every college department for sharing assignments, images, questions, and chunks so we can roll-our-own quickly and easily. It’s our time, after all, that’s the scarce and subtractable resource. the critical CPR.

We need to go beyond permissions. Yes, permissions are necessary in a world of state-granted copyright monopolies and property rights. But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that assigning a CC license to a work alone is being a good commoner. The permission to revise or remix is meaningless if source code or source marked up texts or the original creation platform is not available. If it’s impossible or impractical to exercise the permissions, then they are useless virtue-signaling.

Finally, we need to pay attention to resource flows. I’m not opposed to private enterprises. Payment for services is a legitimate use of our scarce resources in higher education if we get good value. But investor-funded for-profit organizations are a risk. Their first objective must always be returns to the investors, not the health of the commons. Further, as the public in general comes to see higher education as just another capitalist industry feeding large publishers, they lose sight of the value to society of supporting higher education with public funds.

We need to add another R to David Wiley’s 5 R’s:  Reciprocity.

My OpenEd18 presentation Powerpoint file on OpenEd18 oct 2018 Commons Tragedy Comedy is available for download here.