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The Commons: It’s the Community (Part 2 of 6)

Thomas Jefferson, on the ability for ideas to infinitely diffuse


“But the commons isn’t a thing, it’s a process that involves everyone in the community working to share and distribute it fairly.  People continually and diligently build and sustain a commons by negotiating how best to distribute the commons, creating the rules they need to manage the commons together, and building the infrastructure needed to keep the commons thriving for generations to come.”

We just can’t escape you, Marshall McLuhan.

The commons, David Bollier tells us, isn’t a thing; the commons is the process that enables the thing.  It’s not the pasture in the middle of town, or the knowledge we have amassed, it’s the agreements, habits, and behaviors that enable the shared ownership of the pasture or knowledge.  

More concretely: Wikipedia isn’t about the topic pages we read when we look something up, it’s about the policies and guidelines that editors generally follow (nicely reduced to an essential five pillars).  It’s about the talk pages.  Wikipedia is really about the community it has fostered and the modes of engagement it has created—all of which result, ultimately, in the topic pages we read.  

But these pages, while they are the ultimate goal, are almost a byproduct.  What matters most, in some ways, is not the words on the screen, but how we have changed human behavior.  We work together: we make changes individually, we enter discussion about areas of conflict and disagreement, we reorganize information based on new understanding.  We interact with each other in new ways.  This capability for mass collaboration is the commons.  Wikipedia, David Bollier’s definition suggests, isn’t about knowledge so much as it is about the way people collaborate to create knowledge.

The content isn’t the message; the medium is the message.


This says to me that we can amass knowledge all we want, but what matters in the long run is how we change behavior patterns.  Will we develop habits and norms around shared resources, cooperation, and collaboration, or will we further close and divide knowledge, appropriating it for private ends? 


In 2006, in “The Surprising History of Copyright in a Post-Copyright World,” Karl Fogel laid out a likely future for the relationship between the closed commercial world and the open commons:

“There won't be a dramatic battle between the publishing industry and the copying public, with a climax, a denouement, and a clear winner striding out of the dust. Instead, what we will see — are already seeing — is the emergence of two parallel streams of creative work: the proprietary stream, and the free stream. Every day, more people join the free stream, of their own volition, for all sorts of reasons… The proprietary stream cannot survive forever, in the face of such competition. The abolition of copyright law is optional; the real force here is creators freely choosing to release their works for unrestricted copying, because it's in their interests to do so. At some point, it will be obvious that all the interesting stuff is going on in the free stream, and people will simply cease dipping into the proprietary one.”

This is a hopeful vision, and one that seems inevitable in the context of Thomas Jefferson’s even more idealistic vision of the nature of intellectual property:  

“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.”

The outcome of the commons, Jefferson tells us, “seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made [it], like fire, expansible over all space.” And realizing Jefferson’s vision of total expansion of knowledge, Fogel suggests, is only a game of attrition.  The force of “free” will inevitably dethrone the proprietary world’s current power.


Complicating our efforts at achieving openness—the commons—are questions of ownership.  And this goes beyond whether or not an OER is copyrighted, but specifically who owns the copyright.

The copyright principle that keeps coming up in discussions I’m having is the “work for hire” or “made for hire” principle.  If materials are created for a workplace, then in some contexts it is the workplace that technically owns the material.  Teachers, some argue, don’t necessarily own the lessons we create; instead, schools do.  Henry Trotter speaks about this when he says, “While educators are typically free to incorporate OER into their materials as users, they aren't often able to share their own teaching materials openly as OER because they have no legal standing to do so.”  

(So many questions follow: in the US, who owns the material?  How often is ownership enforced?  Has there been much litigation on this?  How has it resolved?)

In the face of the complicating question of copyright ownership, what can institutions and individuals do to promote openness?  Trotter says simply: “The best possible approach may be to simply encourage… institutions to take it upon themselves to share their educators’ materials as OER. MIT, of course, pioneered an approach similar to this with its OpenCourseWare.”  Helpfully, the OECD’s Giving Knowledge for Free offers a clear set of six rationales for institutions to do just what Trotter invites.  These arguments are:

  1. Sharing knowledge is a good thing to do.
  2. Educational institutions should leverage taxpayers’ money by allowing free sharing and reuse of resources.
  3. By sharing and reusing, the costs for content development can be cut, thereby making better use of available resources.
  4. It is good for public relations and it can function as a showcase to attract new students.
  5. There is a need to look for new cost recovery models [and] offering content for free [works] as an advertisement for the institution…
  6. Open sharing will speed up the development of new learning resources, stimulate internal improvement, innovation and reuse.

Similarly, the OECD report find four arguments for individual educators to share openly, too:

  1. Altruistic or community support reasons.
  2. Personal non-monetary gain.
  3. Commercial reasons [by commercializing other content]
  4. It is not worth the effort to keep the resource closed.

The extent to which institutions and individuals are swayed by these arguments determines the extent to which we can realize the vision of openness.


What does this look like to me, someone in secondary schools today?  It’s pitting TeachersPayTeachers against OER Commons—with a host of alternatives in between.  

From this vantage point, unfortunately, five years after a kindergarten teacher made a million dollars selling her lessons, it looks like the proprietary landscape is in the lead.  Wikipedia has been a model for educators for a decade and a half.  OER Commons has been around for a decade, and the OECD’s rationales for sharing have lived just as long, but the greatest traction to date appears to be in the for profit sector.  It's understandable: profit is a powerful incentive to individuals as well as institutions.

And so, while publishing has decentralized, giving power to individuals so teachers can market themselves, much knowledge and what appears to be the majority of the market remains closed.  It may be, in fact, that the web’s decentralization of publishing has provided financial incentives for teachers (through TeachersPayTeachers and its copycats) such that the proprietary model is even further entrenched—almost regardless of the copyright complications. In this light, Fogel’s claim that “the real force here is creators freely choosing to release their works for unrestricted copying, because it’s in their interests to do so” hasn’t yet been realized. We are far from the ideal of the commons.  

But I believe this will change in time.

Surely, if Jefferson’s vision of non-rivalrous knowledge is true, and if the Internet makes diffusion of information essentially free, then the education resource industry will eventually break down and restructure, just as many others have.  But how? And when?


“At some point,” Fogel declares, “it will be obvious that all the interesting stuff is going on in the free stream.”  It’s telling, perhaps, that he doesn’t say that “the interesting stuff is in the free stream”; he says, “the interesting stuff is going on in the free stream.”  It’s activity, not content.  This tiny turn of phrase is a reminder of Bollier’s point about the commons: it’s about what we do with each other.  It’s not about the stuff. 

If Bollier is right, then wooing educators to openness will come from designing collaborative experiences, not amassing content.  It will come from communities.  The proprietary landscape will break down when we get that right.

I’m participating this fall in a six week online edX course called “Introduction to Open Education.” It’s an effort to formalize and deepen my knowledge base on issues related to Open Education, which are central to my work developing Athena, a platform for teachers to find, share, and develop practices. The course involves a weekly written reflection, each of which I’ll be posting here. A disclaimer: I’m new to academic study of the field, and I’m representing perspectives and texts based on my relatively limited exposure. Please forgive any mischaracterizations—or better yet, in the spirit of the course, offer open and constructive feedback. Thank you!


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