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.)