The Commons and OER: Metaphors Matter

David Wiley in his blog, Iterating Towards Openness, wrote a post on the Commons metaphor and OER: “…is the commons the right metaphor for our work with OER? There are incredibly important – some might argue fundamental – differences between commons and OER.  I don’t know who these “some” are, but I feel that there is a fundamental connection between the idea of the Commons and OER. It is true that an open textbook is not the same as a resource like fish or land. A metaphor is not a literal, one to one relation. I think that the idea of the Commons regarding OER is one of principles. The shared principles between the traditional idea of the Commons and OER include:

  • Access
  • Sharing
  • Stewardship
  • Collective Non-Localized Governance

When we are using OER, maybe we should be asking ourselves how our use of a resource promotes these principles? We should be willing to look at what we are doing and ask questions: How is my use of this resource promoting its dissemination and use? How does putting a resource behind a paywall or even a password promote access to this resource? An open resource should be freely available: how are we sharing it? Does my practice look like responsible stewardship or merely self-interest?

How we decide also matters. Elinor Ostrom defined the Commons as “a community of users that self-governs the resource through institutions that it creates.” There are foundations, universities, and other non-profit organizations that help with this. But I have seen the mission of such organizations de-railed by discussions of “sustainability” which almost always lead to muddying the waters with corporate money. No, I don’t think corporations are evil in themselves, but it seems difficult for people to think clearly around large piles of cash. All of a sudden, maybe redefining “open” to include maximizing profits doesn’t seem like such a bad idea after all. Let’s change the mission from “free access to information” to “lower cost.” And then we can even go further and say “why should this be about money at all – maybe it is really about convenience and outcomes.” But I digress. My point is that definitions have consequences, and who shapes the definitions is important. 

Maybe the real question is why is the Commons metaphor so common? What are the consequences to the free access of knowledge if we see or define OER as merely commodities, separate from the means, ideas, principles, and organizations that created them?

There is an article in Wikipedia that discusses the idea of the Commons and its relation to knowledge as a social structure: “The connection between knowledge and commons may be made through identifying typical problems associated with natural resource commons, such as congestion, over-harvesting, pollution and inequities, which also apply to knowledge. Then, effective alternatives (community-based, non-private, non-state), in line with those of natural commons (involving social rules, appropriate property rights and management structures), solutions are proposed.” This is exactly what I hope happens with open education resources in general and open textbooks in particular. The best use cases for OER are coming out of the libraries and the universities: that is, the very communities that are developing the materials are the very ones that should be guiding these discussions – not private corporations with a literal and non-metaphorical invested interest.

The article in Wikipedia goes on to say that “…the commons metaphor is applied to social practice around knowledge. It is in this context that the present work proceeds, discussing the creation of depositories of knowledge through the organized, voluntary contributions of scholars (the research community, itself a social common), the problems that such knowledge commons might face (such as free-riding or disappearing assets), and the protection of knowledge commons from enclosure and commodification (in the form of intellectual property legislation, patenting, licensing and overpricing).”

Playing with and stretching definitions to fit a particular end or agenda is a dangerous game. Corporate or political money can make that game really attractive. But in the end, the long term weakening of a word (and then the idea) does nothing but closes access, prevents sharing, abdicates stewardship, and creates social structures around the resources where the only ones with a voice are those with the money. Collective governance over a resource can last hundreds maybe thousands of years – there are examples of this all around the world. But corporations get bought and sold all the time – that is often a sign of success or even the very definition of it. But then what happens to the resource then? Flatworld Knowledge was a great example of this. They openly licensed books and then changed the licenses. It was not other businesses that rescued that work but it was foundations and individuals that scrambled to re-host the materials elsewhere.

I am not against businesses taking a role per se. Flatworld Knowledge made important contributions to the discussion around Open Textbooks. Frischman says that one of his goals in his book, Governing Knowledge Commons (2014), “is to stake out knowledge commons as an independent, affirmative means for producing innovation and creativity and an important domain for research. In our view, commons are neither wholly independent of nor opposed to markets based on exclusive rights (whether formal or informal), nor are they subordinate to them.” Nothing is more subordinate than to let a corporation make the definitions around free access to any resource. 

If one wants to create a business to sell and repackage the works of others then do that. It is called a “private business” and there are plenty of models out there: businesses and publishers are already doing that. There is no judgement here – it is the American Way, but redefining “open” and “commons” to justify the use of those labels in a private corporation is not necessary and appears disingenuous at best.

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3 Responses to The Commons and OER: Metaphors Matter

  1. Dorian says:

    Hi Geoff,
    Great post, although as I am not so familiar with the field of OER, some things escaped me a bit. For instance, I didn’t know about Flatworld Knowledge and their (formerly) open source textbooks. Where can the creative commons versions of these resources be downloaded from now? And do you have any other open source textbooks to recommend?

    What you wrote about commons and “commoning” reminded me of a recent report from the P2P Foundation:
    Maybe you’ve read it too?

    This report notably presents the notion of “Commons-Based Peer Production (CBPP)” ecosystem, in which the co-creation of non-rivalrous use value (be it knowledge, software, or design for instance) can take place through:
    – Open input;
    – Participatory processes;
    – and a commons-oriented output
    — to produce an accumulation of commons.

    What I found most interesting was that such “ecosystems of value creation” are described as composed of:
    1. A productive community (all contributors, paid or not)
    2. A for-benefit association, independent, which governs the infrastructure of cooperation and empower capacity for the CBPP. It enables contributors to solve problems without allocating resources in a directive manners (contrary to traditional NGOs, for instance).
    3. An entreprenerial coalition — which, importantly, should not be *extractive* (like FB, or Uber) but *generative*, i.e. creating added value around the communities and commons that they co-produce, and thereby generating surplus re-investment. These coalitions can then coalesce into meta-economic networks (like the Mutual Aid Network, Enspiral, etc.). In a word, they engage in profit-making for both individuals AND the community, on the basis of scarce resources.

    Examples of generative coalitions are mostly to be found in the software world: Canonical (productive community: Linux), the Mozilla Corporation (Mozilla), Red Had or SUSE (GNU), the Wikia company (Wikipedia), etc. They don’t enclose the commons produced by everyone; they do sell products and services built on the basis of these commons, but then re-inject part of their profits or resources into the ecosystem, to allow it to thrive. At least according to the authors of the report.

    So perhaps the challenge for promoters of OER is to form more and better entrepreneurial coalitions around these collectively-produced open resources, in a way that actually helps the OER ecosystem thrive? As I don’t know the field, I can’t think of any examples of this happening – but maybe you know of for-profit actors playing this kind of role already?

  2. admin says:

    I will have to look at this further because I have not found any for-profit entities that i feel have been a benefit to the open community – most turn into freemium platforms and then get sold – like Flatworld. The books from Flatworld are all over the net now but there are some central locations like Saylor Academy, which is a foundation btw:

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