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WikiEducator's Wayne Mackintosh: Open Education and Policy


At the beginning of this year we announced a revised approach to our education plans, focusing our activities to support of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. In order to do so we have worked hard to increase the amount of information available on our own site – in addition to a new Education landing page and our OER portal explaining Creative Commons’ role as legal and technical infrastructure supporting OER, we have been conducting a series of interviews to help clarify some of the challenges and opportunities of OER in today’s education landscape.

One major venue for the advancement of OER is through policy change at the local, state, federal, and international levels. As such, we recently caught up with Wayne Mackintosh. Wayne is the Director of the International Centre for Open Education based at Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand, member of the Board of Directors of the OER Foundation, and founder of the WikiEducator project. In our interview with Wayne, we discussed Creative Commons and openness as a “competitive advantage” to closed systems, how OER “levels the playing field” through open licensing and file formats, and New Zealand’s unique context and approach to teacher empowerment and experimentation using OER.

Can you explain your role and how these organizations are tied to the mission of open education in New Zealand and internationally?

I’m an educator – by choice. I have spent the majority of my career in the academy, but started life as an accountant. Realising that I would not be able to spend forty years of my life pushing numbers around, I made a career change and decided to follow my vocation and become a teacher. The act of teaching is fundamentally about sharing knowledge. OER embodies the purpose of teaching and is today’s most compelling manifestation of the core values of education in a digital world, that is, to share knowledge freely.

Wayne Mackintosh by Mackiwg / CC BY

WikiEducator is by far the most rewarding project of my professional career. I founded the WikiEducator prototype in February 2006 as a social software experiment for educators to collaborate on the development of open source teaching materials. WikiEducator’s formative years were nurtured by the Commonwealth of Learning (COL), an intergovernmental organisation created by Commonwealth Heads of Government to encourage the development and sharing of open learning/distance education knowledge, resources and technologies. Today, WikiEducator is a flagship project of the OER Foundation. As a philanthropic organisation, the OER Foundation is responsible for raising and administering the funds for the purpose of supporting the adoption and implementation of OER for the benefit of education institutions and the learner communities they serve. The OER Foundation also maintains the technical and operational infrastructure of the WikiEducator community in accordance with the policies approved by the open WikiEducator Community Council. In short the OER Foundation is nurturing the development of sustainable ecosystems for the OER movement.

In our search for fertile ground to host the headquarters of the OER Foundation, we decided on a global leader in Open Education, Otago Polytechnic in Dunedin, New Zealand. Otago Polytechnic is the first New Zealand tertiary education institution to sign the Cape Town Open Education Declaration, the first tertiary education institution in the world to approve and implement an intellectual property policy that by default uses the Creative Commons Attribution license. Otago has an institutional commitment to education for sustainability embodied in their strategic plan. Otago Polytechnic is serious about collaboration and sustainable OER futures, as demonstrated by the Council’s decision to establish the OER Foundation as an independent entity rather than hosting yet another institution-based project.

It is not easy for smaller institutions to reap the benefits of reducing the costs of provisioning and participating in global OER networks due to the inertia of getting open content projects started. The OER Foundation provides a viable and effective solution for education institutions to stake their claim in OER, to test the open education waters and derive immediate benefits while contributing to the global sustainability of education.

How do you see the role of Creative Commons within the OER movement? How can CC help?

Creative Commons is the air that the OER movement breathes. It is the legal enabler that eases the complexities of intellectual property in education, helping us move from a restrictive culture to a free culture. Creative Commons fuels the efficiency and effectiveness of the OER movement by avoiding redundancy and unnecessary duplication of legal tools that facilitate collaboration in education.

As the OER landscape evolves, I believe the nodes in the free culture network should focus their energies on core competencies and prioritise areas of collaboration where collective effort enables each initiative to better achieve their own objectives. For example, education is not the core business of Creative Commons, however educating users on making informed choices with regard to Creative Commons licenses is potentially a productive area of mutual collaboration among mainstream OER projects and Creative Commons. Similarly, the OER Foundation is not necessarily well positioned to provide solid legal advice on intellectual property issues in education. Creative Commons could, for instance, leverage its networks to establish a global network of pro bono legal counseling services, or develop an array of draft intellectual property policies published as OER that can be reused and remixed by education institutions around the world. In this way, all projects benefit from the core expertise and tacit knowledge of our respective organisations.

In responding to these needs, the OER Foundation has launched the CollabOERate project. CollabOERate is the OER equivalent of research and development (R & D) for new “product” design in open content and open education. CollabOERate is an “OER remix” of industry’s “co-opetition” model where individual OER projects agree to collaborate on areas that allow them to “compete” better for their own sustainability and attainment of their own strategic objectives.

The uncharted territory, and arguably the biggest point of difference for OER lies in the remix. The open education movement is yet to master the remix, but I concede that this is a challenge riddled with complexity. At the OER Foundation we subscribe to free cultural works licensing. These licensing schemes provide legal compatibility for the essential freedoms and also provides a commitment to ensuring access to source files using open file formats. In this way, no educator is restricted from participating in the OER remix because they have to purchase software licenses or sacrifice their freedoms in software choices.

Creative Commons licenses do not cater to the challenges associated with open file formats or digital rights management. Perhaps the free culture movement can learn from our industry counterparts. Today, a growing number of chocolate manufactures apply the “Fair Trade” logo on their products, communicating to the consumer that they pay cocoa producers a fair living wage. Similarly, most processed food items we purchase at the grocery store supply the details of the ingredients used in the manufacturing of the product. Clearly there are degrees of openness in digital OERs, and I believe the OER movement should work toward consumer awareness and branding of our OER artefacts, particularly insofar as free cultural works licensing and open file formats is concerned. In a similar vein I think we should be doing more in educating users on the implications of their license choices, most pertinently in relation to Creative Commons licensing. We can collaborate with mainstream projects in the free culture community to help in this work.

The precondition for building sustainable OER ecosystems lies in our distinctive “competitive advantage” when compared to closed systems. Our advantage is openness. Effecting real social change is facilitated through open philanthropy where we focus on achieving our respective aims through the principles of openness, transparency and networked collaboration. At the OER Foundation we believe in radical transparency and all our planning documents, projects and funding proposals are developed openly in WikiEducator, using Creative Commons licences. This has worked very well for us and we encourage all non-profits working in the open education space to do the same. This will reduce duplication of effort and scale our growth and success in the free culture movement by an order of magnitude in ways that simply cannot be replicated through traditional closed approaches.

WikiEducator intends to develop free digital resources in support of all national curricula by 2015. What do you mean by free digital resources, are what are the benefits and challenges to adoption at the national level?

Education is culturally bounded and teaching is a very personal activity. I have yet to find a set of teaching materials I can use without adaptations to suit my personality and the unique requirements of the learners. In this regard, it is not feasible or desirable to develop a “universal” OER curriculum.

WikiEducator believes learning materials should be free (read “libre”) for all students of the world. Our approach is to invest in educators to share knowledge freely. We do this by building capability and by providing free training in how to develop OER. By storing OER in open file formats using free content licences, it becomes easier for educators to tweak materials for their own purposes, local needs and cultural differences. By free digital resources, we mean educational materials which meet the requirements of the free cultural works definition that I mentioned before. That is, the freedom to reuse, revise, remix and redistribute education materials without restriction. This includes the freedom to use free software, and the freedom to earn a living. Consequently, we do not consider OER using the Non Commercial (NC) or No Derivatives (ND) restrictions to be free in all material aspects.

Sadly, in education circles the non-commercial restriction is widely used. However, we choose not to succumb to the ethical dilemma of potentially contravening the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights–most notably the rights to “work”, “free choice of employment”, “free education” and an adequate “standard of living”. We believe that the restriction of commercial activity around OER is a material restriction of the freedom to earn a living, especially when the ShareAlike provision, if used in conjunction with free file formats, is sufficiently adequate to protect the future freedoms of digital materials against commercial exploitation.

The benefits of OER for national education systems is a no-brainer. Most national education systems are predominantly funded through taxpayer dollars. Why should taxpayers have to pay “twice” for education materials? The vast majority of educational materials and research outputs are developed by educators working in the formal education sector, indirectly funded through salaries sourced from taxpayer dollars. The potential for OER to generate significant savings in time and cost for national education systems is huge. Savings generated through OER can be redirected to what really counts in education – learning. In education we find a scenario where the access to knowledge is controlled by the distributors of published knowledge and not the creators thereof. In a digital world OER levels the playing field. The marginal cost of duplicating digital knowledge is near zero, and it no longer makes sense to artificially regulate the price of knowledge by restricting access at the points of distribution. Increasingly, governments will redirect the incentives embedded in their respective funding models to invest in earmarked OER projects–it’s a classic win-win scenario for all involved. OER is a sustainable and renewable resource.

The strategy of WikiEducator’s OERNZ initiative is to seed schools with OER and ultimately have New Zealand teachers drive the development and maintenance of the materials. Are New Zealand teachers using OER produced by the project? What are their reactions to the resources, and what do you see are the main hurdles toward the long term sustainability of such an endeavor?

It’s still early days for the OERNZ initiative and we are learning every day. We have opted for a low-cost and incremental approach. Rather than investing large sums of money in OER development per se, we have opted for a capability development model. The OERNZ project started with planning the co-design of a national OER initiative in collaboration with the sector, and will ultimately shift to a project owned, driven and sustained by New Zealand teachers. We refer to OERNZ as a project “by Kiwi teachers for Kiwi teachers”. We have identified three streams for the project:

I think it’s a smart approach because on the one hand, New Zealand benefits from a large international OER community without the need to replicate core infrastructure. On the other hand, all contributions funded by the Ministry of Education are freely available and released back for the benefit of the international WikiEducator community. As all our project resources are openly licensed, we hope that this contribution will assist other countries in launching their own national initiatives without the need to invent “rounder” wheels. OER remix is equally important for administration and project management resources required for coordinating national, provincial or state OER projects.

We’re starting from a clean slate, and sadly the availability of free content for use and mapping to the New Zealand curriculum is in the minority when compared to closed content resources. As intimated earlier, the vast majority of available “OERs” are encumbered by non-commercial restrictions, do not legally permit derivative works or are not available in downloadable and editable file formats. Currently the copyright of materials created by teachers defaults to “all rights reserved” which is owned by the Board of Trustees of the individual schools. We have launched a national project collaborating on the development of a draft intellectual property agreement that Boards of Trustees are free to adopt. This draft agreement says that the copyright of teaching materials will be assigned to teachers if licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution or Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike licence.

Our biggest barrier is capacity–teachers have little time to commit to OER development and implementation. We are thinking creatively about how to seed a change in the culture and work approaches whereby investing time today will save time tomorrow. The need for advocacy and messaging around OER is important, and we have started the OERNZ News project, which distributes newsletters to schools using Creative Commons licenses.

Teachers understand the benefits of collaboration–this is how teachers work. Teachers, by nature, are also humble. They are reluctant to share materials which may not meet the quality expectations of their peers. We need to communicate and support educators in understanding that it’s okay to publish draft materials openly, as in the case of the free software model of releasing early and often. We encourage our learners to make mistakes–so it should be okay for a teacher to make a “mistake” during the early drafting phases of an exemplary OER.

Moreover, teachers are not necessarily familiar with the opportunities that digital OER offers or the impediments to legal reuse and adaptation of digital resources. Consider for example that two-thirds of new account holders in WikiEducator have never created an account on a wiki before, and therefore have not had the opportunity to experience the power of social software and digital collaboration on a global scale. I think we are on the verge of a unleashing exponential growth in peer collaboration models of OER creation and reuse in the formal education sector.

You’ve emphasized that especially in the developing world, there’s simply not enough money to build schools or train enough teachers to remotely address the need for our burgeoning learning society using conventional education systems. What is the promise of informal education with OER? How do non-traditional teaching and learning systems enabled by technology and fueled by OER intersect with OER initiatives within traditional classrooms?

In Sub-Saharan Africa, 76% of the children of the school-going age for the last 3-years of the K-12 system will NOT have the privilege of attending school. The conventional education system that has evolved in the industrial world is unaffordable to the majority of our planet. Consider for example, that in many African countries, the cost of sending a child to secondary school is typically more than 20% of the per capita income. I live in a developed nation and have three children. I would not be able to afford to send my three children to school assuming that 60% of my income were required for school fees. Clearly such systems in the developing world are unsustainable. Tan Sri Dato’ Emeritus Professor Gajaraj Dhanarajan, founding Vice Chancellor of Wawasan Open Univeristy in Malaysia, reminds us that: “Access to learning and acquisition of knowledge should be freely available to all humanity. Any and every effort to realise this vision must be welcomed and enthusiastically supported by all.” If we are serious about learning for development, OER is the only way forward.

I’m not advocating for the abolishment of formal education systems to be replaced by informal education using OER. Rather, I’m advocating for creative rethinking of how we can evolve a tapestry of education tools and service that build on the strengths of both formal and informal approaches now possible with openly licensed learning materials.

Developed nations have nothing to lose by sharing education materials–however, the world has so much to gain by their sharing. Also, individual institutions have nothing to lose by publishing their educational materials as OER–why would these institutions not want to help their neighbours around the world? Moreover, with open content licenses, granting permissions to adapt and modify learning materials is the best hedge against the risks of neo-colonialism.

Countries are working to disaggregate educational services and publish national curricula under open content licenses. Also, national accreditation and examination services could incorporate and utilize open content licenses in some fashion. It is plausible that collaboratively within regions we could develop OER materials for independent study that draw on the experience of open schools and distance education pedagogies that could be freely reused and adapted for use by local communities. We can make a difference in widening access to learning. While the skeptics and educational purists may argue that such systems may not meet the “quality” requirements of teaching provision compared with traditional face-to-face provision, these approaches have got to be better than no education at all. Our industrialised nations can help if they release materials as OER.

As educators, we have the power and autonomy to generate the OERs required for these communities of learning. To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi: “We can be the change we want to see in the OER world!” This is what we are doing and I hope that your readers can help us.

From your perspective, what do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions around OER? Based on your experience, what do policymakers and other decision-makers want to know about OER, and can you provide some guidance in how to communicate OER that would be useful to others working to promote the adoption of OER?

In the tertiary sector I’ve observed a perplexing educational paradox. Many education institutions perceive that the sharing of education materials will potentially erode their student base, or even worse, their “competitive advantage.” I hold a terminal degree and have studied through a number of education providers. Consider for example, that to date, I have yet to base my decision to enroll at any given institution based on the closed texts which are prescribed by the institution. I don’t see how sharing educational materials will impact negatively on the quality or competitive advantage of any tertiary education institution. As academics, we all stand on the shoulders of giants. Any researcher worth their salt knows that a thorough literature review of existing knowledge is the natural starting point in resolving a research question. In our research, we have no issue with sharing and building on the ideas of others, yet in our teaching there is a perception that we must lock our teaching materials behind restrictive copyright regimes that minimize sharing. The differentiators for student enrollment should be based on the quality of teaching and interaction with a community of scholars actively engaged in the pursuit of knowledge.

I’m reminded of the ice harvesting industry, which in the late 1800s was one of the largest contributors to gross domestic product in the United States. With the advent of compressor-driven refrigeration, it drastically reduced the number of people working in the brutal ice harvesting business. Technology can have a fundamental impact on how we do things, and sometimes for the social good of society. Brenda Gourley, former Vice Chancellor of the British Open University reminds us that “to have reached the stage where we are technically able to share knowledge and enhance education right across the world is a wonderful thing.” This is not a myth, it is technically doable. OER is not a binary question of whether or not it is going to happen, it’s simply a question of how long it will take to have free digital resources in support of all national curricula in the world. We have the leverage on our side in that we do not need every educator on the planet to buy into the OER concept. We only need a small minority of contributors to achieve the goal where learning materials will be free for all students of the world.

While advocacy and communication are important facets of our OER maturation, I think that doing is going to achieve far more than the “paralysis of analysis”. Policymakers are informed by the opinion of the majority and to achieve success at a policy level, the OER movement needs a critical mass in order to sway policy decisions. As individuals we have the power and autonomy to share knowledge and we have the freedom to do this thus generating the critical mass we need for policy interventions and policy change. I believe the OER movement should take responsibility for its own futures and not necessarily rely on policy intervention. We should focus our energies on those individuals and organisations committed to achieving the OER vision and the rest will follow naturally. In the OER world, fortunately the skeptics will have the freedom to join us at any time on the journey.

I think President Obama has the right approach when he announced the open source courses for the American Graduation Initiative: “We don’t know where this kind of experiment will lead, but that’s exactly why we ought to try it.” In all endeavours, there is tremendous value in adopting a learn-by-doing approach, and OER should be no different. Let’s just do it.

Wrapping up, what does a successful teaching and learning environment implementing the power of OER “look like”? Do you have any lingering thoughts—worries, hopes, predictions?

I don’t think that successful teaching and learning environments are necessarily going to be “different” in the OER world. Good teaching is good teaching, irrespective of whether we are using open or closed resources. However, OER opens up interesting opportunities. OER wants to be free and it doesn’t care where it is hosted. It can easily be replicated for any repository or mainstream OER project that wants to use it – no need to lock it behind a password. I think OER presents significant opportunities to improve efficiencies and reduce costs for education providers. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure it out–if 10 organisations collaborate on the development of an OER course, it will be cheaper than one organisation attempting to do this alone. Moreover, individual institutions will have the freedom to tweak and rebrand OER for their own purposes. This will contribute to the sustainability of education around the world. My only concern about OER is when we look back at the history of this inevitable future, will we wonder why it took so long?

Posted 23 June 2010