Think About Capabilities, Not Permissions

To move OER forward, I wonder if we might not be better served by shifting our focus away from the permissions or licenses that makes something an open educational resource and shifting it toward capabilities that open resources ought to possess. What I mean is that we might be better off focusing on the capacity OER have for future sharing, updating, and integrating into teaching and learning operations, rather than what OER really are.

Understanding the 5 R permissions remains a necessary framework to describe what typically distinguishes an OER from a traditionally copyrighted instructional resource. But I don’t think that further refining, expanding, or updating those permissions will be sufficient to move OER forward. Instead, I propose we focus on how we might design OER and OER-supporting technologies in order for those resources to have the greatest impact. To facilitate thinking about OER from this perspective, I suggest that we think in terms of capabilities. That is, I suggest we think in terms of what we want the OER to do and how we can create the conditions that encourage OERs to do those sorts of things. In order to do that, I’ll start by identifying two ways I think we go wrong when we focus on permissions and licenses.

First, I often see people try to be more restrictive in their interpretation of what counts as an OER, for instance, by insisting on compliance with all of the 5 R permissions or adding qualifications to the list. One example would be the idea that we ought to rule out “No Derivatives” works from OER. While it is true that “Revision” and “Remixing” are two of the 5 Rs, it seems misguided to insist that every OER ought to be revisable and remixable. There may be very good reasons for different types of creative works (poetry, literature, photography, film, painting, etc.) to bear a “No Derivatives” license. These reasons are grounded in what are called the moral rights of authors. Moral rights are those rights of authors to control the ways their work will be represented in the future. They include the right of attribution and the right of integrity. Any creative writer can appreciate the desire to have their creations properly attributed to them and not reproduced ways that changes their meaning or undermine the intention and context of the original expression. Historically, copyright disputes have included a substantial number of – sometimes perfectly reasonable, sometimes unreasonable – requests by authors for their work not to be appropriated in ways that run contrary to their artistic intention. Such concerns are worth considering. And if some content that is openly available for teaching and learning has restrictions on how it can be modified in the future, it doesn’t seem like it ought to be considered “not really OER.”

Another way people argue for more a more restrictive understanding of OER is by adding “permissions” to the 5 Rs. Some OER proponents insist on only Non-Commercial future uses of their copyrighted content (this isn’t really a permission, but an impermission). It is true that having a large repository of non-commercial, publicly available resources increases the knowledge commons and public domain. But if we insist that all OER remain non-commercial throughout their life-cycle, then we may miss out on the potential capacity of for-profit and non-profit commercial enterprises to support and augment open resources in ways that make them more user-friendly or even more effective for teachers and learners. It seems to me it would be short-sighted to prohibit such support completely.

A similar sort of move was recently defended in a thoughtful article by Chris Aldrich, “A Sixth ‘R’ of Open Educational Resources.” To be clear, the basic proposition defended in this article is awesome and I wholeheartedly support it. Aldrich argues that we ought to develop some version control software for OER. In effect, the software would provide a mechanism for easily sharing updated versions and archiving older versions of a particular resource. These versions could be publicly accessible and thus provide a rich catalogue of possible content for specific instructors’ needs. Finally, he proposes that users should be able to request an update (the sixth “R”) to an OER through this software. The request for revision could kick back to authors and the community in such a way that it prompts them to undertake a revision. This is a wonderful idea and articulates exactly the sort of design that would enable OER to have the capacity for regular revision and update, a capacity that is essential to the long-term sustainability of OER. But this is not a permission; it’s a feature. And it would probably be excessively restrictive to insist that any resource that lacked this software feature fails to be a genuine OER.

There is an understandable tendency to want to build all of our important concepts and ideas back into definitions. This seems conceptually grounded, solid, and firm. But it can be misguided. By crafting a more and more delimited definition of OER, we may actually choke off and restrict the lifeblood that will ultimately enable OER to thrive. Additionally, we risk retreating into more and more exclusive sects of open education practitioners based on disagreements over definition, a move that may inhibit the sort of growth we all want and need in order for the movement to survive.

A second sort of error comes from shifting responsibility for the flourishing capabilities of OER from the designer to the user. Instead of proposing that OER designers, authors, or creators ought to build in properties that expand the power of OER – features like interoperability with learning tools (like the LMS), common protocols for platforms, user-friendly interfaces for revising and remixing content, and version control software – instead of seeing these capabilities as the responsibility of designers, some advocates have shifted responsibility to the users. Here, I’m primarily thinking about the CARE Framework. Like the positions discussed above, this framework articulates a number of very important values for the OER community and for the ultimate sustainability of OER. But it does so by seemingly (I say seemingly, because I think the framework is vague on this point and I have not yet received clarification from an earlier request) requiring every OER user to be an active participant in sustaining OER by contributing, empowering, attributing, and releasing content. This vision takes some important actions that are necessary for the sustainability of OER and (I think) demands that every user ought to be responsible for putting them into practice.

I think this view (if that’s the view) is misguided, first, because it is pragmatically unnecessary and, second, because it raises barriers to OER adoption. The view is pragmatically unnecessary because not every user needs to be engaged in contributing, attributing, empowering, or releasing content in order for OER to be regularly updated, sustained, and widely shared. The four practices of good stewardship are certainly excellent practices that I hope OER designers, authors, and advocates will put into practice (I know I’m trying). But it’s not practically necessary for the average teacher – or student – to be fully engaged in stewardship in the same way. To illustrate, consider the success of open source software. The mainstream success of open source software is actually predicated on the fact that the vast majority of users are unaware of how one contributes, attributes, or releases versions of the software. Many millions of people and organizations use Firefox browsers and Linux-based enterprise IT systems because they like the products. The vast majority of them are not participating in stewardship practices around these products. They are just users. I would like to hear an argument for why we should expect OER to be any different. In fact, I think it would be a great achievement if millions of teachers and students used OER without having much awareness of the underlying copyright or the mechanisms for attribution, contribution, and release of those resources. Of course, it would remain possible for anyone to participate in these stewardship activities; sustainability would remain a community effort. But there is no pragmatic reason why we should insist that every user has a responsibility to be a good steward as long as there is a sufficiently active core community of authors, designers, and engineers that are.

Not only is the notion that OER-sustainability is the responsibility of the end-user pragmatically unnecessary, it also places barriers to adoption that will inhibit rather than encourage future use. By insisting that every user become a good steward of the OER they use, we risk placing demands on users that they will perceive as a cost of adoption. One of the continuing barriers to OER adoption right now is the perceived difficulty in locating and adapting resources for use in the classroom. Faculty members – sometimes rightly – feel that adopting an OER will increase their workload without compensation; adopting OER looks to them like a cost. While they may be motivated out of altruistic concerns for their students, we shouldn’t rely on such motivations to sustain the growth of adoptions. Instead, we should do what the most successful OER producers (like OpenStax, Pressbooks, Lumen Learning, Top Hat, Pan Open, and others) have already done – that is, make OER look and feel as polished as traditionally copyrighted, publisher-provided resources. When OER look and feel comparable to publisher-based resources, faculty adopt in large numbers. If we insist that faculty or student adopters bear additional responsibilities to ensure the sustainability of the resources they use, I am confident that we will lose adopters. Such a proposal increases the cost of adoption, which will depress demand.

I don’t want to sound overly critical of the efforts of others to move OER forward, so I will end on a positive note. The good news is that we can have our cake and eat it, too. If we just shift the conversation away from the objects (OER), their definition, and the normative demands on users to a conversation about how we can design capabilities right into the OER we are building and using, then we can work together to make better OER that will be used more and will be easier to support, adapt, update, modify, and distribute. (Also, everything I’ve mentioned here is something that people are currently doing. I’m just trying to provide some language to talk about it in a different way.)

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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.