Thoughts on ‘Open’ Policy

The most popular policy initiative in the world of OER is proving to have considerable appeal to a range of stakeholders.  Here’s a concise expression of it, courtesy of David Wiley, Cable Green, and Louis Soares at Center for American Progress.  (The arguments are developed further in Game Changers: Education and Information Technologies.)

We need to help policy leaders understand the affordability and flexibility of the digital world, and how public investments in educational resources, data, research, and science must be openly licensed and shared for the public to get its full return on investment. Finally, all governments—national, state, county, and local—along with educational institutions must adopt a simple public policy: “Publicly funded resources are openly licensed resources.” This means that if public investment helps create an educational resource, then that content is published under an open license… Because we know how to do this, and it is all but free to do so, we have a moral obligation and ethical responsibility to act.

The language is which this policy is couched is quite striking.  Not only is it merely prudential for us to adopt open policies, the authors contend, but it is a matter or moral and ethical obligation.

I’m not in any way trying to impede the incredible progress that the open educational movement is making.  It’s a fundamentally egalitarian position, and appeals to the principles of democracy and transparency in a way that I find welcome.  But it does seem to me that the central claim deserves further investigation.

The basic maxim seems to be sound.  Given that members of the public have already funded research through taxpayer contributions, it is unjust that they should be required to pay again to access the results of research, especially when these additional monies simply go to line the pockets of a publisher who asserts copyright over a journal publication or college textbook.  There’s no good reason to make taxpayers pay twice in order to preserve the profit margins of the publisher when all of the meaningful work is being done by academics who work largely for free.  Taxpayers, it is quite rightly suggested, should not have to pay to access research that they have effectively already paid for once.

By arguing along these lines, proponents of open policy make the issue one of justice.  (Contrast with the form of prudential arguments. Prudential arguments appeal to the interests of the parties involved, while arguments based on an idea of justice typically make no reference to self-interest.)  There is no necessary reason why justice and self-interest should coincide (though they often do).

The idea of justice implicitly appealed to by Green, Wiley and Soares has a certain symmetry to it:  because I am a taxpayer who has funded the production of educational materials I deserve to have access to them.  In return for ‘us’ (the public) funding these materials we require that they be openly licenced in a way that enables ‘us’ (the public’) to access them.

I consider this to be a neat contribution to the present debate about open policy.  However, the situation is not quite as clear as the proposed maxim suggests.

As I see it, the argument relies on the supposition that on the supply side there is a generally homogeneous group (‘the public’) which is correlate to the public domain within which consumption of educational materials takes place.  In practice, of course, this is rarely the case.  The first thing to note is that taxpayer groups tend to be defined by geographical location.  If we follow the justice-logic of the argument we may conclude that, for example,  American taxpayers have a right to access the research that their tax dollars have paid for.  But it’s not so clear that, for example, British taxpayers have a right to access the research that has been funded by American taxpayers.  So when we hear that all publicly funded materials should be publicly available, I find myself wondering ‘which publics?’  There may be good (prudential) reasons for sharing medical research discoveries among a global research community regardless of who has funded the research.  But it’s not so clear that the funders of that research are obligated to so do, regardless of how much of a good thing it would be if they were to.  (This is not the same as saying that they have no obligations.)  Failing to share everything that has been publicly funded on an open licence is not necessarily the same thing as moral failure.

One way around the objection is to subvert or disregard national boundaries (probably easier in principle than practice).  What is effectively implied by the belief that whenever any publicly funded works are produced they should be so done for the benefit of all publics everywhere is the idea of global citizenship.  This might not be a bad way for open policies to develop, but remains largely unrecognised in the current discourse around open policy.  It seems to me quite possible that one could agree with the ‘symmetry’ principle while maintaining that they are not obligated to share with anyone outside their own national context without provoking any kind of self-contradiction.  Similar issues could conceivably arise at a national level in the context of federal/county.

Now it might well be that the germ of trans-nationalism is there within the open education movement as a whole.  (After all, digital technologies are no great respecter of national and international boundaries.)  But it seems to me that it needs to be made absolutely explicit if open policies are to meet the ‘which publics?’ objection.

Published by Rob Farrow

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1 Comment

  1. This is exactly what we ran into when we first tried to open up publicly funded educational resources in BC back in 2003, which prompted the creation of the “BC Commons” license ( – essentially a license that guaranteed access to other public institutions in BC (so not even “the public” as it is commonly understood, just other parts of the public sector) but preserved the right of the copyright owner to commercialize or do whatever they pleased with the content outside of BC.

    I won’t say that this was a “dismal” failure, but it added a layer of management and complexity (authentication, the requirement of a centralized system) that in my experience was anathema to the network effects which cause fully open (both in license and in access) content to spread and succeed. It was insisted on by institutions for whom the idea of CC and fully open licenses were very new and legitimately frightening, and by funders who we were able to convince to back openness in general by focusing on “our” public.

    But…we did offer copyright owners a choice. At first, the balance was tilted towards the BC Commons, but in the subsequent 9 years that has tilted the other way, so that now far more funded projects choose to use a CC license (and not require any password protection) for their content. The challenge remains though – while those being funded now see the benefits of sharing more widely, the funders themselves still want everything justified in terms of _their_ public (e.g. the ones who elected them and to whom they are responsible.)

    To me, this is a non-trivial problem and one that will have many, many solutions. But we do need to start identifying them as such, as the danger is the lure of utopian/techno-libertarian/neo-liberal (not often you see those strung together, eh?) notion that the network and market will simply self-organize and fill these needs “themselves” and so let’s just do away with any central bodies, any central “public” agencies. Some of this is also likely true, but as with everything, just not to the extent to which its proponents sell it, and not without its own side effects and costs.

    As they say, “interesting times” indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

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