Normative Demands in OER and the CARE Framework

Back in March, three academics published a manifesto of sorts, called the CARE Framework. In case you are unfamiliar, they have a web page here that explains the framework. I followed a number of the early reactions with interest. You can read the news article from Inside Higher Ed; David Wiley posted a response here that revised an earlier piece that had received some critical feedback. More recently, OEC Executive Director Paul Stacey refers to the framework in a piece in EdScoop on OER partnerships with publishers. In the past month, I’ve participated in a couple of webinars with the OpenStax Institutional Partnership and CCCOER where the framework was a central point of discussion. Though the topic surfaced back in March, it has shown a persistent relevance to the OER community. (As an aside, this was the issue that inspired me to fire my old blog back up. I wanted to comment, but I had more to say than fit into a tweetstorm or blog comments.)

The authors have presented the framework as a model for stewardship to achieve sustainability in OER. The topic of sustainability has been a central concern for the OER community. Typically, sustainability discussions surround financial questions, such as how to support an OER program at your college, how to develop and maintain platforms for delivering content, and more pointedly, what to do once the grant funding dries up. In contrast, the CARE Framework’s approach to sustainability emphasizes norms or standards of behavior for community members. It’s a call to stewardship that links values with sustainability.

The norms or values articulated by the CARE Framework are quite helpful. It identifies four categories of action that OER stewards ought to engage in:

  1. Contribute: “OER stewards actively contribute to efforts, whether financially or via in-kind contributions, to advance the awareness, improvement, and distribution of OER.”
  2. Attribute: “OER stewards practice conspicuous attribution, ensuring that all who create or remix OER are properly and clearly credited for their contributions.”
  3. Release: “OER stewards ensure OER can be released and used beyond the course and platform in which it was created or delivered.”
  4. Empower: “OER stewards are inclusive and strive to meet the diverse needs of all learners, including by supporting the participation of new and non-traditional voices in OER creation and adoption.”

Each of these categories include a range of possible activities that would promote the main objective. For instance, to contribute to OER a steward may actually write instructional resources or design platforms, but they might also give money to support the cause. Similarly, OER stewards should promote inclusion and diversity (this is part of empowerment), but a steward may accomplish this in a variety of different ways. Again, the framework states that OER stewards ought to release their work for public use, but also emphasizes that OER publication ought to be released in such a way that it is able to be revised, remixed, and redistributed by others.

As a philosopher and OER advocate/administrator, I am particularly interested in specifically how Petrides, Levin, and Watson envision their framework to be interpreted. When they make normative claims, how do they imagine these claims ought to operate in the community of open education? By setting up a framework that defines what it means to be a good OER steward, they invite judgments about bad stewards as well. So, I want to know how the framework authors imagine we, as a community ought to handle such questions.

To be clear, it’s important for any community to articulate standards of behavior. Frequently, such standards are set through practice and without reflection. So, it’s really helpful to engage in a theoretical dialogue around standards of behavior — this is the heart of political philosophy. Even more, for the OER community, it’s important that these standards pertain to the sustainability and vitality of the resources themselves. Questions surrounding the durability of the commons – a catch-all designation for the body of openly licensed resources – turn on such community standards. As I understand it, this is one of Eleanor Ostrom’s chief insights, namely, that there need not be any “tragedy” of the commons when the community that uses the commons shares values and practices that sustain it (see particularly Jim Luke’s insightful piece). Indeed, this insight suggests that Petrides, Levin, and Watson were right to tether values to sustainability.

However, when I probe the framework for answers to my questions, I find it lacking. Let’s start where the rubber meets the road, in the section titled “Applying the CARE Framework.” The authors start:

The values expressed by the CARE Framework support a hopeful vision for the future of OER and education, positively impacting not only issues of access and affordability, but also the seemingly intractable issues of equity and inclusion.

Here, the authors claim that the framework articulates a “hopeful vision” by promoting the values articulated above. A hopeful vision sounds like an ideal that community members should strive toward. Such an ideal could be promoted as the sort of praiseworthy and excellent practices that exemplify what it means to be an outstanding member of this community. This may or may not require sanctioning bad practices. It may recognize that failure to live up to the ideal is common. The ideal stands as a goal, perhaps even a goal that may be unrealizable by some in the community. What’s important about the goal is that it orients and directs behavior of community members so that they work together rather than at cross-purposes.

But the next sentence suggests this interpretation may not be correct:

Thus the CARE Framework is meant to be applied by all individuals, organizations, and institutions who share a stake in the field’s long-term success and sustainability. This includes individuals who create or adapt OER for their own teaching and learning purposes; nonprofit OER publishers and libraries; commercial OER publishers; as well as educational technology vendors looking to incorporate OER into their products or services.

Here, the authors state that all individuals should “apply” the framework (equally?). Moreover, the way the four categories are articulated (as a conjunction: contribute and attribute and release and empower), the authors suggest that each individual ought to apply every aspect of the framework (again, equally?). They even list different roles that are responsible for applying the framework. But it’s still not clear to me how this is applied to real-world positions in the community.

It’s easy to imagine people who may feel part of the OER community (or aspire to be part of it) but who simply don’t have the resources or ability to participate fully in all four dimensions of the framework. Imagine a librarian who doesn’t see himself as a content-creator and serves a relatively homogeneous population. This person may not be able to “attribute” conspicuously or “empower” non-traditional voices. Or, we might imagine someone building some great homework tools for certain subjects. They might “release” that content, “contribute” and “attribute” where possible, but their reach might be limited by focus and resources (whether this is a commercial, non-profit, or hobbyist endeavor). More importantly, they may not control how their content gets embedded into other platforms and courses as used by instructors. They may even prioritize ease of use, clean design, or instructional benefit at the cost of conspicuous attribution or easy, non-technical remixing. And, if the project is small, it may not be possible to ensure that they are “empowering” others with the OER tools they are creating. More pointedly, what about the adjunct instructor (more than half of all higher ed instructors) who wants to save her students money by using OER but has no time or support to worry about “contributing” and “releasing” content. She may practice good attribution and try to empower her students, but when measuring herself against the criteria of the framework, she may feel like she can’t live up.

I don’t want it to seem like I’m splitting hairs or picking hard cases just to stir the pot. I’m also not insisting that every member of the OER community be assessed by the same standards. Quite the contrary, I want to highlight that without clarifying what it means to apply these values when they are at odds with the circumstances and demands of the real world of education, the authors have set up a framework that is open to misapplication. By framing what it means to be a good steward, the authors invite judgments about bad stewardship. And as long as that judgment is possible, it will be possible for good-faith members of the community to feel excluded or to be in fact excluded on the basis of this framework. This is not hypothetical – bad reviews and moralizing whispers can sink a start-up OER platform, tenure review, or new hire.

What I’d like to see is a recognition that each of the four practices actually identify a class of actions on a spectrum. Contribution, attribution, release, and empowerment can all be accomplished in a variety of ways with varying degrees of impact. This ought to be explicit. By recognizing this, the authors ought to make it clear that satisfying each of the four pillars of the framework is not a simple yes or no but a matter of degree.

Additionally, I would like the authors to be clear about whether and to what extent the framework sanctions bad behavior. Is a member (or aspiring member) of the community a bad steward if they fall below a certain threshold of participation on one or more of the dimensions of the framework? What is that threshold? Can a steward focus their energies on one or two dimensions, while ignoring the others? Or should every OER user make a good-faith effort to advance every dimension of the framework, recognizing that limited resources may demand focusing on one or two? Is it possible to just demonstrate some effort along each dimension as long as one exceeds some threshold along one or two? Again, what threshold? In short, I want the authors to be explicit about how the framework ought to inform our judgments in practice. The framework is clear about what sorts of practices are praiseworthy, but it doesn’t give us any guidance to decide which actions are blameworthy, which are permissible but neither blameworthy nor praiseworthy, and which are impermissible. And yet, just these sorts of judgments are invited by the framework. Without clarification, I fear the framework could do harm as much as it does good.

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From the comments

I recently got a comment on an old post of mine from Thorin (is there a name for this kind of thing?). This post was shortly after starting my blog. I feel like I’ve gone through so many phases in my view of my blog that it was interesting to see an old post. What I had to say related to my thoughts on education.

I had quoted from an small piece, written by a Professor John Dolan and published with his obituary in the proceedings of the APA. I did not know and still don’t know anything about John Dolan or his philosophical leanings, running across the article by chance. Anyway, Thorin provides some really interesting insight into Dolan as a teacher. It seems that sometimes the thought can be enlightened while the disposition may sometimes be otherwise.

He also got me thinking about Douglas Hofstadter, which was cool. I remember that discovering Gödel, Escher, Bach in college felt like the opening sequence of The Never Ending Story: as if I walked into a kind of esoteric fairy tale. The argument is interesting and the book is written extremely well. At the time I was an undergraduate obsessed with Derrida and I remember becoming bored with Hofstadter’s focus on was foundations; and I just didn’t buy the AI suggestions.

link