The Birth of OER Policy

In our vigor to advocate for open educational resources and policies that support their development, it would be wise to keep in mind some fundamental things about policy and the policymaking process itself.

1. OER policies should solve more problems than they create. Indeed, policy is “a set of answers to questions, a series of solutions to problems” (Cooper et al., 2004, p. 63)

2. The problems solved by OER and its related policies should be clearly defined and explained. “If a policy issue is not well-defined, it will not be perceived as important, making it difficult to attract enough attention to reach the policy agenda” (Fowler, 2004, p. 167).

3. Policies related to OER should come with solutions attached. “Even if policymakers want to address a problem [such as the rising costs of education], absent a proposed solution or plan of action, the problem cannot be addressed…[Some even] argue that public officials will not take a problem seriously unless there is a proposed course of action attached to it” (Cooper et al., p. 65).

4. The policymaking process is NEVER objective or ideologically neutral. “Before a policy choice can be made, a problem in society must have been accepted as part of the agenda of the policymaking system–that is, as a portion of the range of problems deemed amenable to public action and worthy of the attention of policymakers” (Peters, 1986, p. 39). What’s more, “cultural values, interest group advocacy, scientific information, and professional advice all help to shape the content of problem definition” and the policymaking process itself (Rochefort & Cobb, 1994, p. 4).

5. New OER policies should be clearly tied to older, related policies. “The more a new issue can be made to look like an old issue, the more likely it is to be placed on an agenda” (Peters, 1986, p. 47).

6. Advocates of OER policy should understand and use the power of the media (new and old) to shape policy. “Media influence on the process and content of policies varies according to type of issue, stage of process, time frame, and political and media systems. Under certain circumstances, the media can be a crucial player. It depends on what is covered, how often, and how it is framed” (Paletz, 1998, p. 234).

7. The language of policy can be as important as the policy itself. “Social” rhetoric and symbolism should be used in advocating for OER policies. “To heighten participation, issues may be connected to sweeping social themes, such as justice, democracy, and liberty” (Rochefort & Cobb, 1994, p. 5). And, “the more closely a particular problem can be linked to certain important national [or international] symbols, the greater its probability of being placed on the agenda” (Peters, 1986, p. 48).

8. OER policy reform should be influenced, if not led, by people with expertise in education. “What is significant about much of the interest group activity [in educational policymaking], and what distinguishes it from previous activism, is the prominence of non-educators leading the reform efforts” (Cooper et al. 2004, p. 76).

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.


The Cryptotheory of Open Education

In a recent paper published in ETR&D, Yanchar and Gabittas (2011) discussed the space between eclecticism and traditional orthodoxy in educational design. They argued that while eclecticism seems to offer practical advantages by allowing researchers and designers to freely pick and choose among manifest features of various theories (choosing only that which seems practical), it “ignores or discourages critical reflection regarding implicit assumptions and values” of those theories.  The authors argued that all educational designers use “conceptual design sense” which “entails an [educational] designer’s assumptions and values – often unarticulated and unexamined – about the diverse aspects of the enterprise of instructional design.” Their point was that everyone engaged in designing instruction or content is operating under certain guiding principles and ideas about concepts like knowledge, mind, agency, learning, technology, and assessment. Those (it appears rare) individuals who operate within a traditional orthodoxy generally subscribe wholesale to the assumptions and values of this orthodoxy. But the much more common eclectic usually operates within “a kind of hidden framework” informed by various traditional theories, assumptions and values. And these theories, assumptions and values “to some significant degree guide important aspects of the [educational] design process.” Yanchar and Gabittas call this hidden framework a “cryptotheory.” As evidence of the existence of cryptotheories, Yanchar et al. (2010) found that “designers reported using theoretical principles eclectically in their work, but were often vague on which ones they uses (or their names), how they used them, and what guided their choices and applications.”

To manage these issues of design sense in eclecticism, Yanchar and Gabittas (2011) proposed an alternative approach to educational design, called critical flexibility. “Critical flexibility,” they argued “calls for a critical stance towards one’s own design sense and an awareness of alternative views that may facilitate the gradual development of one’s practice.” In a word, they offered a means of becoming aware of one’s own cryptotheory.

So what does all of this have to do with open education? It seems to me (though I haven’t done a specific study on this…yet) that the people involved in designing MOOCs, open courseware, open digital courses, and other open educational resources would be inclined to an eclectic approach – an approach to educational design that draws on many theories and uses those that seem most practical. Open education is all about practicality. However, Yanchar and Gabittas have got me thinking. How much better could these OER be if their designers were more critically aware of the cryptotheories guiding their work? In the same way, how much better would research on the effect of open educational initiatives be if the researchers and the funders were more self aware of the cryptotheories under which they operate? I’ve run into this personally where it was learned after the fact (meaning: after the check had been cut) that the funder and the researcher were operating under very different assumptions about educational outcomes and even about what constitutes learning.

What’s your cryptotheory?

Why Open Education: The Technical Argument

Education is about sharing. Teachers share knowledge, skills, feedback, criticism and encouragement with students. Students share questions, understanding, and answers with teachers. Thus, sharing is at the very center of education; it is the soul of the educational endeavor. In other words, “If there is no sharing, there is no education.

Sharing itself is a fascinating concept. Most of the things teachers share with students are somewhat magical in that they can “be given without being given away.” When a teacher imparts her knowledge to a student, the teacher does not lose possession of her knowledge. In fact, some would argue that knowledge can even be deepened through the very act of sharing it with others. Yet, some things teachers share with students, like textbooks, must be physically given away. If I have a textbook and then I give it to you, I lose possession of the book and you assume it.

In recent educational history, textbooks have become the central modicum of the knowledge sharing process. As valuable as these resources can be to students (and to teachers), the rising costs in textbooks have begun to seriously impact the overall cost of education at all levels. Researchers and others are just now exploring the true impact of these costs, especially in terms of how they affect student persistence and completion rates in college and how they affect K-12 school budgets.

With the advent of the digital age, a breakthrough in the knowledge sharing process has occurred. For the first time in human history, knowledge and the physical expressions of knowledge (textbooks and other educational resources) can both be “given without being given away.” For example, the Internet allows for all of the content in a newspaper to be distributed to millions of subscribers without a single physical transfer of paper. In the physical world, the cost of copy and delivery per object is quite high. For example, the cost to copy one 250-page book by hand is roughly $1,000. The cost to copy the same book by print-on-demand services is about $4.50. But the cost to copy the book digitally is only $0.00084! And this isn’t all. The cost to distribute the same 250-page book by mail is about $5.20. The cost to distribute it online: $0.00072.

There is more to the educational sharing process than just copying and distributing knowledge, however. Once in possession of physical expressions of knowledge, the real craft of teaching is in sense-making and meaning-making. Teachers do this by reconnecting new knowledge with prior knowledge and/or relating it to past experience. In a word, teachers are master editors of content. Because of the high cost of editing physical expressions of knowledge like textbooks, teachers accomplish their sense-making through verbal communication or digital summaries. But in this brave new world of digital content, editing physical expressions of knowledge has also become essentially free.

With the removal of the economic constraints on copying, distributing, and editing content, we are able to share (and educate) like never before. Except we can’t, because copyright laws prohibit and otherwise restrict the copying, distributing, and editing of content. In essence, what the Internet enables, copyright forbids.

To solve this problem and truly open up education in the digital world, some very innovative movers and shakers envisioned a way to use existing copyright law to enforce sharing. Inspired by the open source movement in software development, in 1999 David Wiley and others started thinking of educators as publishers and created the first open publication license – a copyright license designed to legally certify that a particular piece of digital (or even analog) content could be reused, redistributed, remixed, or revised. David et al. were not, however, legal experts, and the validity of their license was questionable. Thankfully, a few years after the initial inception of open educational licenses, Larry Lessig (a certified legal genius) and Creative Commons developed a legally valid way to “minimize legal, technical, and social barriers to [the] sharing and reuse of educational materials.” Creative Commons licenses allow individuals and institutions to develop educational materials that can be legally copied, distributed, and edited.

The open in “open education” and “open educational resources” is the free permission to reuse, redistribute, remix, and revise educational materials (now commonly called “the 4 Rs”). Openness is the means whereby we can overcome the restrictions of copyright law and use digital content to its full educative potential. What the Internet enables, OER now allows. And what the Internet enables and OER allows is sharing and educating at an unprecedented scale.

This post presents an introduction and a technical argument for open education. It can also be found on a permanent page here. Future posts will address the political, financial, serendipity, quality, innovation, and moral arguments of openness in education.

Note: Many of the ideas, as well as the framework, for this post came from a single presentation and myriad personal conversations with David Wiley.