Open Education and Democracy

If you were to walk up to some random person waiting for the bus and say, “Hey, did you know that learning is ‘the act of gaining knowledge?'”, you probably wouldn’t end up in a heated theoretical street fight (though I’d like to witness one of those some day). Indeed, Collins’ definition of learning seems fairly straightforward and innocuous. What we need to recognize, though, is that underlying this definition of learning is the metaphor of acquisition.

Within the metaphor of acquisition the goal of learning is individual enrichment; learning is the acquisition of something; the student is the recipient or consumer; the teacher is the provider or mediator; knowledge is a property, possession, or commodity; and knowing is equivalent to having or possessing knowledge (see the left side of Table 1 created by Anna Sfard).

You probably aren’t surprised by the acquisition metaphor for learning. Odds are, you agree with all or part of it. In fact, the vast majority of people view learning through this metaphor, and have done so for millennia. But despite (or perhaps because of) its near universal acceptance and elegant conceptual framework, the acquisition metaphor for learning has had at least one important effect on society: the commodification of knowledge. Anna Sfard described the consequences of knowledge commodification in a vivid and accessible way:

“If knowledge is conceived of as a commodity, it is only natural that attitudes toward learning reflect the way the given society thinks about material wealth. When figuratively equated, knowledge and material possessions are likely to play similar roles in establishing people’s identities and in defining their social positions. In the class-ridden capitalist society, for example, knowledge understood as property is likely to turn into an additional attribute of position and power. Like material goods, knowledge has the permanent quality that makes the privileged position of its owner equally permanent. As result, learning according to the acquisition metaphor may draw people apart rather than bring them together…A not-altogether-infrequent occurrence of self-centered, asocial attitude toward knowing, creating, and learning is certainly a case in point. If people are valued and segregated according to what they have, the metaphor of intellectual property is more likely to feed rivalry than collaboration.”

Another way to view learning is through the metaphor of participation. Within this metaphor the goal of learning is community building; learning is defined as becoming a participant; students are peripheral participants or apprentices; teachers are expert participants and perservers of practice; knowledge is an aspect of practice, discourse, or activity; and knowing is defined as belonging, participating, or communicating (the right side of Sfard’s Table 1).

Almost prophetically, Sfard argued that “the participation metaphor has a potential to lead to a new, more democratic practice of learning and teaching…Only time will tell whether the promise of a more democratic process of learning, brought by [the participation metaphor], is going to materialize.”

It’s important to note that Sfard published her prediction in 1998, just as the concepts for open education were being formulated. In the ensuing 14 years, the open education movement has exploded. Knowledge is becoming uncommoditized at an unprecedented rate and people the world over are realizing that “education for all” is a near-term reality, not just a fool’s dream (or worse). The Internet and the legal “freedoms” of Open Educational Resources have made participatory collaborative content development possible and increasingly popular.

Is open education a materialization of Sfard’s prediction? If so, it seems time that we started exploring to what extent the open education movement is contributing to a “more democratic practice of learning and teaching” around the world.


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