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The Shuttleworth Foundation on CC BY as default and commercial enterprises in education

Open Education
Photo by Mark Surman CC BY-NC-SA

For those of you who don’t know Karien Bezuidenhout, she is the Chief Operating Officer at the Shuttleworth Foundation, one of the few foundations that fund open education projects and who have an open licensing policy for their grantees. A couple months ago, I had the chance to meet Karien despite a six hour time difference—she was in Capetown, South Africa—I was in Brooklyn, New York. Via Skype, I asked her about Shuttleworth’s evolving default license (CC BY-SA to CC BY), her personal stake in OER, and how she envisions us (CC Learn and Shuttleworth) working together. She also gave me some insights into three innovative open education projects they have a hand in: Siyavula, M4Lit, and Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU).

The conversation below is more or less transcribed and edited for clarity. It makes for great holiday or airplane reading, and if you’re pressed for time, you can skip to the topics or projects that interest you. This is CC Learn’s last Inside OER feature of 2009—so enjoy, and happy whatever-it-is-that-you-are-doing-in-your-part-of-the-world!

How did you arrive at your current position and its relation to open education and open educational resources?

I did an undergraduate degree in accounting and taxation, but I very quickly realized I don’t ever want to be in a purely finance job. I wanted to be in social development, but when I went to university I didn’t actually think of this as a viable option. After I finished my degree, I started looking around and I was fortunate enough to find a job in social development, helping to establish an organization and its programs. Next the work of the Shuttleworth Foundation looked interesting so I joined them as a Project Manager in their free and open source software unit. It wasn’t software development; it was basically advocacy programs around free and open source software, engaging government, education, the private sector and the public on the use and underlying philosophies of free and open source software. From there, I moved into the education unit at the Foundation, it was actually a very natural progression. We believe in the principles of free and open source software, and the Foundation became interested in saying, well, it’s not just about software, but also about an intersect between the ideas behind free and open source software and education. We became interested in this idea of open education or open educational resources, and it went from there. My position grew with the organization’s interest in this area. So I started as a Project Manager specifically around this area, grew to a Program Manager, and from there I became the Chief Operating Officer.

Were you interested in open source and openness in general before you joined Shuttleworth?

Not really; I didn’t really know about it before I joined. Once I joined I thought, wow, everyone should actually know about this—why don’t people know? That was in 2004. Now I actually find more and more people have at least heard about something in this general area, whereas at that stage it really was just in the realm of geeks. I joined based on the fact that I could project manage, but I don’t know anything about this stuff. I told them I’d like to learn and it’s actually been a very interesting journey.

What were you doing before that?

I was in program work as the Project Coordinator at the Trade Law Center for Southern Africa.

How has that work influenced what you do at Shuttleworth?

It’s very interesting because we were working on trade law and trade regulations and one of the things that was being investigated at the time that I was there was the TRIPS provision on Intellectual Property rights. A lot of the work we did was in preparation of and in conclusion from the Doha Declaration on protecting African interests in the trade negotiations and implementation around it. So I had the formal exposure to, “we should protect and we should lock down!” Coming here (to the Foundation) it was really interesting because you see the other side of it. What it did help me do was think about the other side of the issue, what the arguments are that people use when they’re talking about lock-down and increasing rights for owners and decreasing rights for users… So when I started working in this area, it was easier to understand the contrast and to be able to present the case to people in a way that counters their arguments.

So then, as an overarching mission statement, what would you say the Shuttleworth Foundation stance on OER is if you could sum it up in a few words?

The underlying philosophy of the Foundation is around methods of openness, you know the values that underly the free and open source software movement. Transparency, building communities, collaborating, sharing, building on what others have done, making available what we’ve done. These, for us, are the values of what we’re trying to do in open education as well. And then of course the Cape Town Declaration which Ahrash (Bissell, from CC Learn) was a part of developing. So there are three things from the Cape Town Declaration that is important for us: People should participate. (Open education is about more than open licenses.) People should make their works available under open licenses. And people should make policies to allow for and encourage these things to happen.

What would you say is the role of Creative Commons in facilitating that process or that mission?

It’s an interesting question because the Creative Commons license for me is actually the key part, and enabler. I mean we wouldn’t be able to do it without the Creative Commons licenses, simply because trying to explain and make clear to people what it is they can and can’t do in each instance would be almost impossible. You’d have different lenient licensing statements on each and every site which would result in things that are almost as difficult to navigate as the uncertainties in the prevailing copyright system. So basically licenses set the rules of the game for everyone who wants to play. And they’re absolutely essential in that.

The question about what Creative Commons as an organization’s role is, is a completely different one. And that’s one to which the answer isn’t entirely clear to me. I think, especially in the early days, there was a lot of pressure on Creative Commons, and I think the same for CC Learn when it started, to be the community leaders. And it didn’t appear to me that that was what the organization wanted to do. It mostly tried to focus on the licenses. Now, looking back at it, I think that was appropriate, making sure that the licenses are clear and understandable and usable and are used—I think that was the most important part that they had to play. Of course connecting people is equally important. It seems the role is evolving, including more networking and connecting the people in this space, in the way that you now do the interviews and showcasing of projects, saying these are the people who use these licenses, you guys should know about each other.

Going back to what you said about the licenses and how they’re a key part of open educational resources, I found that really interesting because there is sort of this trend going towards people arguing how Creative Commons is part of the infrastructure of open education. So I was wondering if you had any analogies or real world analogies that you would use for the licensing aspect of open educational resources.

Hmm, I started thinking of them as the rules of the game, but a colleague suggested they are actually more like the rules of the road. Because the roads are part of the commons (like knowledge) and everyone uses them, nobody thinks this is my road, I’m here now, and nobody else can be here. It’s about there being something for everyone to use that’s valuable, that everyone contributes to in terms of development and upkeep, and that people need rules to be able to use safely and happily and get where it is they need to be going in their educational journey.

I guess getting more specific, talking about the actual OER initiatives that are funded by Shuttleworth, including the M4Lit project, Siyavula, and the P2PU, could you tell us a little bit about all of them?

Sure. Siyavula is an initiative to provide access to open educational resources that specifically match the South African school curriculum for grades 1-12. The making available of the resources is a key element of it, but it’s not the only one. It’s more like a grain of sand when you’re trying to make a pearl, because what we’re actually interested in are the processes around that—how teachers collaborate, how teachers form communities of practice around the materials, how they adapt the materials for their own uses and share that back with the greater community. And we believe teachers have a lot to offer in that regard, but that it’s under utilized by the teachers themselves. They just don’t have the time or they’re not mobilized around it. By making the resources available, we give them a head start, but then we’re interested in how those communities form and how to help teachers with professional development and curriculum delivery in the classroom.

M4Lit is a practical exploration of the use of mobile phones specifically in education. In South Africa there’s still, and I think it’s the same for around the world, there’s still a great deal of  suspicion from schools and teachers around mobile phones, most considering it a distraction. But it’s a pervasive technology in the hands of teens and learners anywhere, so we’re interested in finding ways of actually using them for education. It’s a way that kids communicate; they do more writing on mobile phones than they would have ever done in essays and/or letters in school, so is there a way that we could harness that in South Africa? So we made available this serial story specifically for mobile phones to see—do kids read more, do they interact, do they write back, do they comment, those kinds of questions. It’s a small project in the sense that we started with one story and a small focus group, wanting to engage with learners directly, and we’ve had some pretty good responses so far—pretty good comments from kids and the focus groups have been really positive about it. That’s actually been really great.

So have you gotten a lot of participation from the students?

We didn’t publish it that widely, we wanted to make it a small pilot, because there are so many mobile phones around and so many potential uses, it’s easy to get lost in trying to meet too many needs and requirements, when actually there are specific solutions we’re exploring for specific groupings, and so we tried to keep it small. Initially we had a couple of hundred teens participate, which is pretty good, but eventually we reached a couple of thousand teens, exceeding readership numbers for accepted “best seller” figures for teen literature.

What would be the next step for the project after this initial phase?

Once we have all the findings back, I think there will be two ways of taking this forward. One is to go into schools and try to create direct links to the curriculum and involve teachers. We could show that we have interest from learners in terms of engaging in this way with long form writing and mobile phones, so instead of just chatting and responding via text message, [it would be] reading things that are a bit more substantial. It would be interesting to see how teachers respond, how they could use it for language teaching as it happens in the classroom. Or as a matter of fact, beyond the classroom. The other path is, of course, that we’ll make the platform and the story available under open licenses, if anyone else wants to try it in their local area, then they’re open to do so. We’d love to see more applications of the approach, and some variations on it.

And then of course you know about Peer 2 Peer University… Given that there is so much open courseware out there now, how do we support self-learners who want to use some of those materials.

Which direction do you see P2PU going in? Because I’ve heard it described more as a study group for peers to get together and the role of the course organizers is less of a teacher or an instructor but more as an organizer or facilitator. And then other people might view it more as these volunteer instructors [that’s] more akin to distance learning but with open educational resources. And I was wondering what your stance or view on that was.

I have my personal preference but I think it should be open to both options. I think it should be the kind of platform where you can have, as we have now, courses run in different ways. My personal vision, if I were to put it in that way, for the Peer 2 Peer University, would be more peer study group—less distance education.  But I think the really important part is that there should still be a course coordinator, who puts together the curriculum and reading list, because I think for self-learners, what’s sometimes difficult is that you can find fifty different articles on a specific topic. How do you know you’ve got the balanced view? How do you know you’ve got all the information you need? I think the course outline done by a tutor or coordinator is important and I think that peer learning is the way to go.

On the specific course that I was on, we had peer assessment and it was really challenging! You read other people’s work and it’s difficult to assess while you’re still learning yourself. But it was also very valuable, because we made sure that we read all the other answers to the weekly questions, and we thought well, do we agree, don’t we, is it similar to ours and if it isn’t, why isn’t it. The subject matter (copyright for educators) also meant that the answers would be jurisdiction specific. I’m in South Africa, so I focused on the South African situation, but then I also had the opportunity to learn what’s happening in Australia, the U.S. or India and that was great.

So all these initiatives that the Shuttleworth Foundation is supporting, they’re all licensed pretty openly, either under CC BY or BY-SA, and I was wondering why the foundation decided to support these initiatives that allow for commercial adaptation of its content when a lot people are pushing the Noncommercial term in other open educational projects.

Well, I think, to begin with, we were open to the commercial angle because in the greater Shuttleworth group we’re the only nonprofit entity. We’ve got venture capitalists that’s part of the group, so commercial pursuit was normal to us, I think that kind of predisposed us to be open to that. I just don’t think that you can separate out education and commercial use so easily. If you look at a private school, for instance, is that commercial use or isn’t it? If you take schools in South Africa, they can’t survive with only the government subsidies so they charge school fees. In some instances they charge for the printed educational resources; is that commercial use or isn’t it? I don’t think that commercial use is clearly enough defined, and I also don’t think that you can entirely separate it out of education and say, education is always not-for-profit or noncommercial and therefore, it’s only those people out there who are trying to make money off it.

Secondly, I think commercial enterprises are key participants and an important part of social development. Otherwise you will always have nonprofit entities or donor entities pushing money into certain sectors, and at some point you don’t want to only transform the nonprofit sector, you also want to transform societies, and you want people to be social entrepreneurs and you want society to take up the ideas. The only way I believe you can sustainably do that in the long run is by involving commercial entities and allowing them to be part of the process. It’s not to say that every single thing should have a commercial leg or anything like that; I just think that we should also allow them to be part of it. If you brought a big enough community around open educational resources and you say, we’re going to make available these resources for free; we’re going to put them on our websites, we’re going to publicize that they’re there for use—that will actually prevent those who are trying to profit unjustly off other people’s work by making it widely known that there’s a free version available. People who do use it for commercial purposes are going to have to add value to be able to sell it as a commercial product. And therefore I think that’s okay to allow that in.

So then even within those projects I mentioned, you have distinctions between the kinds of licenses that they use, and I was wondering what was driving those distinctions, and how it affects those projects. For instance, M4Lit is BY-SA and P2PU is CC BY.

Part of it is an evolution in our own thinking, and part of it is specifically project driven. The evolution in our thinking happened as the open educational resources community matured. Initially we picked CC BY-SA, because there were very few open educational resources out there, and we believed it was the only way that you could grow the community and provide some comfort and security to early adopters. We were essentially saying, don’t worry, everybody else has to do the same. Everyone else who uses your material is going to have to contribute back into the pool.

But as the content pools have grown and as the community has grown, opportunities for partnerships came up and we started running into interoperability challenges more and more. Because of this, [interoperability] started becoming more important to us. The ShareAlike provision was a safe condition for people who were worried about adopting open licenses and saying, won’t someone else use my work and benefit without giving back. But actually there are bigger questions than that. It’s about saying, do you want to participate? Do you want to contribute and collaborate? And do you really believe in the principles behind this? Then you should contribute and collaborate; you should participate. And it should be as free and open for people to use as possible. We don’t want unintended restrictions. We don’t want to end up with people who can’t translate our work, or who can’t include our work in their collections, thereby limiting their reach. If OER Commons wants to use it, or Curriki, or CK12, or anybody else, they should be able to, and they shouldn’t be stuck with a licensing restriction that prevents them from reusing and remixing the work in ways that we want to support.

Siyavula for instance [is a project where it] became most apparent and important to shift. Even though we were philosophically thinking in that way already, we hadn’t yet made the shift in the license we applied throughout all of our projects. Then we started working with Connexions on Siyavula and we realized that Connexions used CC BY and we used CC BY-SA, and essentially those weren’t compatible and we could lose a partner because of the more restrictive license we used. That was the final point at which we decided that CC BY was the license for us.

We still allow projects and initiatives to debate the licensing issue for themselves and motivate for an alternative license for their specific situation if they’d like, but CC BY is now the default position.

So judging by a lot of your answers, CC Learn and Shuttleworth—we seem to be on the same page about a lot of these things. And I know you mentioned before how you envisioned Creative Commons or CC Learn’s role in sort of developing the community a bit and serving as community leaders. Do you picture us working together in the future? And what do you see CC Learn’s role becoming in the future?

Yeah, so we would love to work together in the future. I think one of the things we’ve been doing over the past couple of years is staying in touch and sharing information which has been really valuable. This links to the role CC can play, putting people in touch and saying, this is what other people are doing, take note, how does it impact on what you might want to do. It has changed some of my own thinking over the years and that’s been really, really valuable.

Also the Shuttleworth Foundation has a fellowship program, which I’m sure you know a little about given that you know quite a few of our current fellows. The fellowship program is really about freeing up the time of individuals who have a vision for their part in bringing about positive change in the world, to do just that—go and change the world in the way that they see it. There is also the possibility of matching project funding – if the fellow wants to implement a project idea within the scope of their fellowship, the Foundation will match every unit they invest themselves by at least ten-fold to help them get their projects off the ground. I think that it would be great if CC Learn could share ideas with us on individuals that they think are valuable to support in this way.

And then obviously I think networking and connecting the community around the licenses are really important, especially in [the] education sector, and CC Learn can (and does) help to drive discussion and establish a base around issues like, what does commercial and noncommercial really mean? What is the best license for my situation? CC Learn just recently released a paper on Why CC BY. Those kinds of activities are very important because the community really looks to Creative Commons and CC Learn to see what the right thing is to do. CC Learn are the ones who should drive making the rules of the road and supporting others in using them.

Do you have anything else to add, any last words?

I think that [open licensing] is really important for foundations and funders to do. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Berkman report on open licenses and private foundations. It mentions the Foundation, among others, and our approach to open licensing. It is important for funders and foundations to actively use open licenses. Because if anyone can say, I don’t have to earn my keep by commoditizing this content, I really do believe that our funding should go as far as possible and that the investments that I make should reach as many people as possible, it’s funders and foundation—using open licenses is the way to do it. It’s a policy within the Foundation to release everything under an open license. We’ve had a couple of potential partners who’ve said, no we don’t want to do that, and then we walked away and said that, well maybe they’re not a good match for us anyway. We have also found people are more and more open to this idea, and if anyone can afford to do this it’s funders and foundations. I really do think that they should prioritize that.

We have a recommendation sheet just on this, on encouraging funders. It’s called, Increase Funding Impact. It’s on And we have a bunch of documents on there—Why CC BY? Stuff like that. So I would encourage you to check it out.

I will, definitely, thank you very much. That is one of the challenges, starting from scratch on every discussion. Advocacy documents are so valuable. It helps convey the message that the ideas we present aren’t coming from a lone ranger, but are well established and backed by sound arguments from a growing global community.

Posted 22 December 2009