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A chat with Stephen Downes on OER


A prominent member of the open education community, Stephen Downes is a researcher, blogger, and big thinker in open education and access related issues. He frequently debates with other open education advocates via the medium of the Internet, once in a while meeting up in person at conferences to hash out more of the same. I thought I might capture his slice of insight into the future of open educational resources and how he views them evolving in an ideal world.

CC BY-NC by Stephen Downes

CC BY-NC by Stephen Downes

So I caught up with him via Skype; and though different operating systems and timezones may have jumbled some of our conversation, I was still able to catch most of his words, if not the heart of his views. Below is our chat transcribed, in more or less the same fashion as it progressed.

If you could just briefly introduce yourself and explain your position at the National Research Council of Canada?

I’m Stephen Downes. I work for the National Research Council of Canada based near New Brunswick, Canada, and my position here is officially titled Senior Research Officer. So I’m a researcher–that’s kind of like being a professor, except without students, although I do teach a course with George Siemens online, so that’s sort of like having students, too. My work involves research… I do some project development, project management, I do some writing. I do some public speaking and talking in areas like this. I do a daily newsletter; it goes out to several thousand people around the world, and [I do] basic, various other activities that are relevant.

So how does this position facilitate your mission related to OER or Open Education?

Well, for me it’s how does OER facilitate my mission. My mission is to make it so that every person around the world has full access to educational opportunities and equal opportunity to make the most of their lives. Open educational resources are an important part of that because, of course, access to open materials enables all of that. So what I do works hand in hand with open educational resources in the sense that a lot of what I’m up to is building and recommending networks and structures to facilitate the easy creation, easy reuse and redistribution of resources, and ideally, these are free in every sense of the word resources.

So that kind of gets a little bit at what access means. What constitutes the ideal level of access for you? Is it just having free access online to view [the resources]?

That’s sort of a funny question. Because now there’s a lot of other discussion that’s sort of sitting there. Because of course access isn’t just viewing stuff free online. But then, what does it mean? Does it mean having a copy locally on your computer? Does it mean being able to incorporate it particularly into your own work? Yeah, I think it does. It’s similar to Stallman’s four freedoms. Which are, roughly adapted to the OER space, the freedom to access, the freedom to adapt, the freedom to redistribute, the freedom to remix. So you know, it involves not just seeing it, but seeing how it was created. To be able to take it and rework and harvest it. I think all of those are important. I might add that learning itself is not a passive activity. In order to learn, we have to be active. You have to do things; we have to create things. So learning, whether it occurs in the classroom, in a formal situation or informal situation, it involves not only accessing, but remaking, remixing, repurposing, and rewriting learning resources; the creation of learning resources; the redistribution of them.

Assuming that everyone has achieved this initial access to open educational resources, and to education in general, would the open education movement have achieved its end goal? Or do you think there’s something more that has to be done?

No, that’d probably do it. (Laughs) I’m sure the people involved would find something else…

Well, if we assume for a moment that we have a deep and diverse quality-tested and wide open corpus of open educational resources, what additional barriers would remain for more positive and transformative impacts that we are hoping for in education?

Other than the educational system itself? George Siemens and I had this in our course and we talked about three dimensions of open education. The first dimension is access of resources themselves–the reading, tests, whatever. The second dimension is harboring [leveraging] that corpus, and that’s access to learning deliberately… offering more instructional delivery openly. So we’re offering not only the resources, like MIT does, but we’re going a step further to actually offering the instruction itself online.

So [George and I] get these additional enrollments. Last year the course had 2200…this year it’s not nearly as popular as it only has about 700 people. Anybody can access any part of it.  And then there’s a third dimension of openness that we’ve talked about and that we are adding to our corpus. And that’s open assessment, which offers a way outside the system.  Or how in order to get a degree you must go to a college first, and this offers some other way of doing it. This is open access to evaluation to assessment… So we talked about opening that social source community or open assessment and various levels of that.

I read in your recent post on copyright, the one on Half an Hour, and you mentioned that while you were a self learner, going to night school classes in Ottawa, and at the University of Calgary obtaining your first degree, you found that the biggest barrier for a self learner in wanting an affordable education was copyright. And in that sense, Creative Commons licenses have offered an alternative to “all rights reserved” copyright, allowing the creator of the open educational resource to choose how open their resource is.

I recently read a post by David Wiley talking about how openness is not a binary factor; he used the analogy how a door that is open at 2cm is still partially open, but you know… the door is obviously not open enough for a person to walk through that door. So in light of your statement about access to education and everything that comes with it, how open is open enough for OER for you? In terms of the particular license you would choose for OER or anything else?

Well for me the big barrier as always is a financial barrier. So what I mean is–a system of information distribution that existed at the time was based on information sale–the sale of books for example, the sale as default. And so for me, fundamental open access is free access. You know to me it’s a contradiction to say that we have open access but you have to pay for it… So as I mentioned earlier, free access is not simply to look at it. Learning involves more than just looking at things and displaying content; to learn is essentially to work with material. To conceptualize the material, to remix material for open access of a form that enables resubmission of the work… The educational system doesn’t have that open access that’s something like the four freedoms… so I would say it’s the freedom simply to read, [and then] to take the material and repurpose it for your own uses.

In that vein, what CC license do you prefer for OER? Obviously, the Noncommercial-No derivatives license (CC BY-NC-ND) doesn’t fit that ideal because it doesn’t allow adaptation.

I mean, this is a debate David [Wiley] and I have had on many occasions. The license I would use for educational material is Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial Share-Alike (CC BY NC-SA), and you know Noncommercial is a contentious clause… and the reason I use the noncommercial clause is that I don’t want to participate in a plan where educational materials are taken and made commercially available in such a way that the openly and noncommercial available version of the resources is not available. And that’s what happens where you share things with a license that allows commercial use.

But making your work available through an Attribution only license (CC BY), [though] it does allow others to reuse it and maybe even use it in a commercial enterprise, it does not prevent the access of the original work online. So how–

Here’s what happens right: You allow for commercial use so somebody prints that and say, takes it overseas and takes it to this remote community and then lobbies against the provision that enables access to the materials on the grounds that the content is available anyways. See, there’s a situation in these communities where their only access to a resource is commercially, and the commercial quarter’s interest is ensuring that the noncommercial access is not allowed, is not available. They take and produce commercially in proprietary formats, like the Kindle reader… so the materials are not available outside the Kindle, or only commercial materials are. So a person using the Kindle, say, that has acquired it perhaps through their high school, can only access the commercial version of the resource. This is what happens. To the person, access to the noncommercial material is closed so that only the commercial content is accessible.

So you’re talking about areas that don’t have Internet access to the original?

Well that’s one kind of closed, right? But that’s not the entire picture. You can have them closed by geography; you can have them closed by technology; you can have them closed by legal arrangements.

So do you have a specific example of any country or region in the world that this has happened to–where they’re not allowed to access the free [and open] work but only the commercial versions of them?

I mean, not allowed or not able? ‘Cause I gave an example of the Kindle… which is a case where they’re not able to access the open version of the work. Go try to open up Kindle right now; you cannot open your Kindle. And then any place with limited Internet access is a place where only the Kindle version is available.

But what’s stopping people from… or other enterprises from taking the original work and making it available in those regions?

Well, look at what’s happening in Britain with the BBC. The BBC is attempting to take educational materials and make them accessible and agencies like BSkyB are taking them to court because they view it as a quote-on-quote ‘unfair competition’. Let’s take the public Internet companies in the U.S. It’s the same story. People, themselves, are forming pockets in order to create Internet wireless gatekeepers… And companies who aren’t actually involved in wireless of any sort, in communities, are taking them to court… Again, arguing that free content is an unfair competition. So this is the sorta thing that these kind of examples reflect.

Since they’re dealing with it in the courts, your preference is just to operate in a separate sphere outside of the commercial sector? [And you’re way of doing that is] not licensing it with a Noncommercial license.

Basically, yeah..

But you still support initiatives like Flatworld Knowledge, for instance, who–they’re the only ones who have control over the work to commercially make it available because they have licensed their textbooks under a Noncommercial [license]…

Yeah, I find it kind of ironic that after all the conversations I’ve had with David Wiley whether we should use a Noncommercial license, he gets involved with Flatworld Knowledge. I mean, one of the purposes of Noncommercial licenses is to protect the commercial advantage of the person who issued the license. I don’t have a problem with that; I don’t consider the sale of content to be the provision of free learning, the provision of open educational resources, but if they can make money selling something that they’re already offering for free, I don’t mind that. Besides if it’s not a matter of whether it’s open or not, it’s outside my realm, my interest.

Ok, I guess we can move on from noncommercial. I’m interested in your view on open courseware. David Wiley recently distinguished between open courseware 1.0 and open courseware 2.0, and that was in reference to the recent discontinuation of funding for Utah State Open CourseWare.  And he suggested that it wasn’t the lack of funding on the part of the university, but the lack of priority for developing resources which, after the fact, would become OER.

Yeah, what did George Siemens say…

There’s a quote by George that says, “Openness should be built into the process of curriculum design and it should be systematized.” I was wondering if you agreed, or what your view on that was.

Yeah, in the short version I agree. There’s a longer version that’s a lot longer. Now, the point George made, and that is the inspiration for mine as well, is that creating an open educational resource is kind of like creating a customized version of the resource. It’s like creating a low carbon emission car is what you’re doing, but in general you just want the car… It’s like you want whatever comes in the box however it is you want to throw it in the box. And you don’t want to set up a development like a car where the creation of open resources is only some kind of add-on or customization, and that’s the case right now.

The other aspect has to do with sustainability. Like David Wiley who was at Utah. Then he moved to Brigham Young and there wasn’t the local support at Utah to continue the program there… and that creates a great division between open resources that seek funding from foundations and community based resources, such as Wikimedia, Wikiversity, Wikieducator and the like… The model we see coming out of foundations is a model where some content producer creates its content and sends it out into the world with a great act of charity, and the world sits and receives those open resources that rain down upon them. The other model is more sustainable, where it is community based or driven. The community is part and parcel of the process, and OER is the consequence of doing other activities that creates, almost if you will, a chapter of learning materials and open resources, in the process of doing other work. Like if it’s physics, just in the course of doing teaching, you develop resources, and these resources could be open educational resources. Something like that… you can’t depend on foundations for it to work. If we’re going to have sustainable open educational resources, it’s going to have become people and groups sharing for themselves.

So then are you suggesting that, instead of approaching it as an institution-wide type of policy of OER or open courseware we should just focus on the local–the cultural and different local, academic and open access groups, etc., for them to each develop their own resources?

Yeah, and with concern to the initiatives that get funding, I would focus much more on tools and processes that enable development of resources rather than the production of the resources themselves.

I think that’s all the questions I have for now… thank you so much for doing this.

Oh, you’re welcome.

Posted 12 October 2009