Politics of Open: five ideas for the OER17 conference

On 5–6 April in London, the OER17 conference took place under the theme of “The Politics of Open”. I was co-chairing this year’s event with Josie Fraser. These are the extended notes for my short introductory talk. In it, I highlighted what are in my opinion key issues that form the politics of the open education movement.

Open is political

There is a face to the openness of educational resources that is neutral and non-controversial.Free licensing is often seen as an enabling force for sharing and engagement in education, or maybe just a good practice that relates to the availability of resources. There is proof that openness impacts positively educational outcomes.

But at other times the basic proposition, that educational resources should be freely and openly shared, turns out to be political, and even radical.

In Poland, open activists sometimes call themselves openers (otwieracze). It is a cute nickname that for some reason did not catch on. Instead, a different term, made popular by publishers, became popular in the public debate: openist (otwartysta).

Can you guess what openist rhymes with? For publishers and other rightsholders, it rhymes with communist. In 2011–2013, during a heated debate about openness of public educational resources, Polish publishers used this term to show us in negative terms. Te idea of openness, they argued, brings back the worst approaches to managing resources, known from dark, communist times. It was a smear campaign devised by commercial entities that felt threatened by open licensing, and not without a reason — availability of openly licensed, publicly financed textbooks could significantly decrease the size of the educational publishing market, worth at that time 1 billion złoty (approximately 250 million Euros).

back then, the reaction of publishers was shocking to us, openers. We were activists who previously focused on grassroots CC licensing. We saw it as an evolution, rather than a revolution, of the copyright system. In our minds, CC licensing was a positive tool, a means to open new, constructive conversations about digital change. We learned quickly that the ask for resources to be open becomes very political when it affects whole systems and big budgets.

“Policy” is seen in the open movement as something quite bureaucratic and boring, a tedious negotiation of general rules, with potentially little impact on reality. That’s not true — policy making can quickly become political.

Creative Commons as a copyright reform movement

Creative Commons was launched in order to put bottom-up reformist pressure on the copyright system, after a failure to improve copyright law first through legislative, and then judicial measures. This is something that we, as a movement, forgot about at some point. Or at least re-defined it as a secondary, or maybe even tertiary goal. Instead, for many people Creative Commons is about facilitating sharing, collaboration and engagement with resources. It is a change related to creativity, collaboration and innovation, seen as non-political processes. With growing importance of ideas such as “open data” or “open education”, practical positive effects in a given domain (data, education) became more important than achieving the more distant goal of a change in copyright.

I should note that in 2013 Creative Commons made an important move to re-acknowledge the importance of copyright reform as a core stake for the movement — by releasing a policy statement in support of copyright reform. In it, we read that “the CC vision will not be realized through licensing alone”.

In the introduction to “Wolna kultura”, the Polish edition of his “Free culture”, Larry Lessig compared the free culture movement to the Polish Solidarity movement. While these are clearly two very different civic efforts, they are connected by an underlying care about freedoms (of different sorts). I often go back to that introduction, in which Lessig writes that “We need hundreds of thousand of small victories, before we face even the possibility of victory”. Every use of a CC license to release content is one of these “thousands of small victories”, hopefully leading to that major victory, of copyright change.

Each “Some rights reserved” icon added to an image, each click on an open resource, should be seen not just as an act enabling a commons, but as a political sign, a vote in favour of a change of copyright law. One that will hopefully build an even broader and more vibrant commons. Open licensing and copyright advocacy are two sides of the same reformist coin.

I believe that the Creative Commoners tend to forget that and see open licensing of content mainly as a move that improves education, science or culture. This sentiment, leads some open education activists to believe that copyright reform action is not something the movement should engage in. And in a way they are right, political action can clash with attaining pedagogical goals.

Open resources, policies or practices?

The term “Open Education” hides a multitude of approaches which, while not in conflict, greatly differ in terms of their theories of change. We often don’t address these differences explicitly, allowing the term “open education” to mean many things at once. Or we continually return to the “resources or practices debate”, or the “policies or grassroots activity” discussion, as if following a repeating cycle of deliberation.

It seems quite clear that the open education movement will no longer be satisfied solely with OERs, even if they are spectacularly mainstreamed. At the same time, most of the policy victories concern just that (or maybe it’s just an issue of badly calibrated metrics?). It should be noted that important goals related to costs savings and equity can be attained just through provision of open resources.

Nevertheless, the time seems ripe to fundamentally redefine open education and once and for all decide that it cannot just equal open educational resources. Personally, I have been advocating a model — based on the Polish digital school program from 2012–2015 — where open resources are closely tied with digital literacy and provision of necessary infrastructure. Without such a clear statement, our movement will be missing an opportunity of a real “open” transformation of education. The 10th anniversary of the Cape Town Declaration creates a perfect opportunity to make this clear — especially that the original Declaration proposed a very broad view of open education.

And we should consider thinking not just about “open” but about “the commons” as well.”Educational commons” is not a term that can be heard often, surprisingly. Maybe we’re still not used to the idea, well understood by scientists, that the process of learning, just like the scientific process, is one of creating and participating in a commons — instead of passively accessing resources. Here is the most basic definition of the educational commons:

educational commons = (open resources = free + with permissions) + activities of engaged users

Against open silos

The family of open movements has blossomed since the turn of the century. As a result, the pool of shared resources has grown exponentially as well. We can chart on a timeline the birth and development, in turn, of free and open software, open access and open science, open data, open education and open heritage. This led, out of necessity, to specialization between these domains. In each of them, success depends on a proper balance between the goal of attaining openness, and other goals: educational, scientific or cultural. In many cases, these other goals are more important to practitioners, and openness is treated instrumentally. Part of the success of open advocacy depends on the ability to stop being an open zealot, and achieve a balance of goals.

Yet it is time to return to the unifying idea of openness, before these varied fields turn into compartments, silos. Open advocates need to travel — metaphorically speaking — between these domains, and tie them together. We need, alongside Evangelists passionate about a specific cause, Bridge-Builders willing to connect our movement together. After all, openness is by virtue interdisciplinary and transcends boundaries. We know that, in very practical terms, an artwork can be also research material, educational resource or a dataset. But we seem to rarely express a vision that underlines this aspect of open resources.

In Poland, we have been articulating this vision at the level of public policy, by proposing a general rule of openness for all public and publicly funded resources. This is relatively easy to do, as the public nature of these resources is a unifying factor. But we need to look beyond just public resources, and focus more on different ways in which all forms of open can be connected together. We need to start with a good term — could we call this vision one of “connected open”?

Open education and Open Societies

We clearly live in troubled times and face a growing sense of crisis. At OER17, several speakers proposed sessions that relate open education directly to political events, like Brexit or Trump’s victory. It is crucial that we decide whether open education can help, or whether it is apolitical, and thus ineffective in dealing with these challenges? “Open” fundamentally sounds like a right response to these crises, and echoes the concept of “open societies”. But in reality open education is the right solution only in very general terms — as it supports a vision of education that is based on equity and freedom. But the open education model, and even more so work on open educational resources, will on its own not make our societies more free.

Similarly, openness offers little defense against challenges to public debate and information sphere framed usually as post-truth and fake news (with all accompanying hype). As long as we care only about openness, instead of really treating resources as a commons.

We also need to ask whether the open model helps solve technology-related challenges, mainly those that concern surveillance and growing risks of pervasive data collection and analysis. Can a model focused on ensuring the freedom to copy files be effective with regard to closed apps and content streams, with regard to which we deal with services, and not resources? Can challenges related to powerful online intermediaries with monopolistic power be solved by encouraging them to support free licensing of user generated content? The answer, sadly, is not necessarily. It sometimes feels to me as if our theory of change is getting old. It becomes visible that we devised it a generation, or maybe even several generations ago — thinking in terms of technological change. And it shows that our dependence on free licensing and trust in open resources as a force for social change goes back to times when we did not yet have gigantic platform intermediaries, closed content streams and app ecosystems, current data collection and surveillance capacities, and an emergent world of sensors and connected things.

The open education movement might therefore face the need to pivot. Keep its core values, principles and goals. Keep the same vibrant community. And still dilligently work on bringing to fruition the Open Educational Resources model. But at the same time we need to extend our scope of activities. And understand other ways, in which we can rally under the “free and open” flag to attain better education, and thus better societies.



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Alek Tarkowski

Head, Centrum Cyfrowe / Public Lead, Creative Commons Poland / Communia Association. Dealing with all things open, with a policy focus.