Criticizing the Cape Town Declaration

Re: The Cape Town Open Education Declaration

Normally I would expect to enthusiastically add my name to a document supporting free access to open learning resources. This is certainly a cause I have worked toward all my life, one that is expressed in the statement of principle on my home page, one that characterizes the papers I write, the software I code, the speeches I give.

But I find myself at odds with the declaration written by a group of mostly American academics and advocates invited by a foundation to a private meeting in South Africa to author a "fixed and final" declaration on open educational resources. Although not invited to the Cape Town meeting, I was able to discuss the document with the organizers a few weeks ago. Yet I find that none of the concerns I raised have been addressed.

The result, I believe, is a flawed document - flawed, not simply because it it does not adhere to what many would consider to be fundamental to free and open learning, but flawed because it betrays the process and the spirit of the movement.

I do not believe that a panel of hand-picked representatives representating overwhelmingly a certain commercial perspective is qualified or able to speak on behalf of the rest of us. The very people they name - "learners, educators, trainers, authors, schools, colleges, universities, publishers, unions, professional societies, policymakers, governments, foundations and others" - are mostly nowhere present in these deliberations. And the remainder of society - who are not stakeholders, Properly So-Called - are nowhere to be found.

The first, and most fundamental, recommendation I made with respect to this document was to open it up. Don't have a single document that your chosen few sign, I suggested, leaving everyone else to either follow quietly along with the 'received wisdom' or be cast off the boat. Put the document into a wiki page - maybe even a Wikipedia page - and let the community as a whole have its way with it for a while. Take it around to conferences and meetings on the five continents, where people who aren't lucky enough to have a friend in the Foundation can also have a say.

The document will be officially 'launched' in January, having only been circulated on the UNESCO Open Educational Resources mailing list (and perhaps elsewhere (update: on David Wiley's blog)) thus far. So there is still time. It could still be a people's document, and not one showered down to us like some gift from on high.

So why am I so critical of this document? What sort of changes do I think a wider community would make? There are many, but allow me to highlight some of the most fundamental.

First, the document promotes a view of learning rooted almost completely in the educational system. We do not get any sense from the document that students can or should learn on their own, or that this movement is even for students at all. The focus in on educators sharing with each other.

"Educators worldwide are developing a vast pool of educational resources on the Internet, open and free for all to use. These educators are creating a world where each and every person on earth can access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge."

There is no sense of the possibility, much less the desirability, of this development being fostered by, for the benefit of, people other than educators. I would like to think and hope that we all are creating this world. I would like to think that the tradition of "sharing good ideas" is something that all people, not just educators, have in common.

More significantly, dividing the world in this way almost immediately creates practical problems. The document tells us that the open education movement "is built on the belief that everyone should have the freedom to use, customize, improve and redistribute educational resources without constraint."

This significantly limits the domain of knowledge under discussion, as it contemplates only "educational resources". Oh! What a far cry from the rather more laudable objective of Wikipedia: "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge."

Second, and related, the document fosters a particular culture of learning, one where content is provided and licensed by content producers, and then consumed in a particular way by learners.

The document refers to the "global collection of open educational resources has created fertile ground for this effort," describing not the many individual creations made by people with no connection whatsoever to the education industry, the billions of web pages, Flickr images, YouTube videos, and the like, but rather the resources produced explicitly for educational purposes.

Instead, the document refers specifically to "openly licensed course materials, lesson plans, textbooks, games, software and other materials that support teaching and learning." While a defender of the document might say that personal learning is not excluded, it is clear that the focus is elsewhere. It is clear in this document that pedagogy, not empowerment, is the focus.

Third, the document advocates a form of 'open' that explicitly encourages the closing and blocking of access to education through the commercialization of these resources. The meaning of the catchphrase about "differences among licensing schemes for open resources creat(ing) confusion and incompatibility" is made explicit in the FAQ: "we believe that open education and open educational resources are very much compatible with the business of commercial publishing."

This is not so, and in fact the majority of resources licensed under an 'open' license are licensed nor non-commercial use. The view expressed by this particular group of especially selected representatives is in fact a minority position. When people talk about 'open' educational resources, they do not normally mean something they have to pay some publishing company in order to access.

The sort of model envision by the authors of this document should be understood very precisely when considering the actions they advocate in the document.

When the authors say that "creating and using open resources should be considered integral to education and should be supported and rewarded accordingly," what do they mean? The idea of "reward", which is not integral to any concept of free and open learning, is introduced with puzzling nuance.

When the authors say, "we call on educators, authors, publishers and institutions to release their resources openly," what they mean is that everybody should make their materials freely available for commercial exploitation. By release, we should be clear, the authors mean "publish," emphasizing the producer-consumer model of learning.

A similar line of criticism applies to the third recommendation. We see governments encouraged to produce educational resources and to release them under a license that allows them to be commercially exploited. There is no provision in the licensing recommended to ensure that they be made freely accessible to all learners; we trust to luck (and charity) to ensure that this happens.

The signatories of the document want to share their commercial model of learning with the world. "We have the opportunity to engage entrepreneurs and publishers who are developing innovative open business models," they write, with no apparent understanding that it is this activity that is precisely what is hindering free and open access to learning today.

The nature of knowledge and learning - as with anything else - is such that it acquires value to vendors not from abundance but from scarcity. And indeed, in a condition of actual abundance, which is very much the position we find ourselves in today, the only commercial value that may be derived from knowledge and learning is through the creation of artificial scarcities. The first action of any company seeking to be 'entrepreneurial' will be to seek to block access to free and open learning, to work, in other words, exactly contrary to the interests of learners.

The point is, knowledge and learning and not things that belong to someone. Knowledge and learning and the birthright of every human being, a cultural heritage shared by all, and like the commons, access to that birthright isn't granted like some act of charity or sold like some act of commerce. You don't 'give' what doesn't belong to you, you don't 'sell' what doesn't belong to you. We do not need to engage in some special act of creation to produce this heritage; it is already there. We need only remove the barriers to access, the presumption that knowledge and learning are owned and possessed, that they are some sort of property.

A document intended to support free and open learning should not take the perspective of the educator, it should not take the perspective of the service provider, and it should not take the perspective of the provider. It should take the perspective of the learner - which is to say, all of us - and it should say, unambiguously:

We seek a society where knowledge and learning are public goods, freely created and shared, not hoarded or withheld in order to extract wealth or influence.

The Cape Town Declaration does not contain these words, because there was nobody there to speak them, and nobody there willing to hear them.

For all its pretension that learning should be "embracing educational practices built around collaboration, discovery and the creation of knowledge; and inviting peers and colleagues to get involved" the process that produced this document does not one that. In this way, it betrays the spirit of open learning as actually engaged by practitioners today.

If there is anything that could be thought of as a truism in contemporary education, it is the idea that we are all learners and that we are all teachers. The idea of lifelong learning makes explicit the former idea, and the principles of learner-centered, constructive and inquiry-based learning make explicit the latter. Knowledge - particularly social and public knowledge - is not something that is produced by a hothouse meeting of experts, but rather, is produced through a process of dialogue and conversation.

It was explained to me that the process of a small, select group was chosen because of the difficulties inherent in convincing a large group to agree. But it is not clear that agreement is needed, not clear that the creation of this sort of document is what the movement needs most. And as at least one attendee at the meeting can attest, the wild uncooperative community at large can produce agreement on a document - it can produce agreement on a whole Encyclopedia of them.

The community as a whole may produce agreement - but it would be the sort of agreement, if at all, that is unmanageable, uncontrolled, one that suits the wider population very well but which is rather less appropriate to serve the rather more narrow interests of the foundations and the institutions represented by the signatories.


  1. A very thoughtful piece Stephen. I pretty much agree with most of what you say, there is an element of not eating their own dog food in having a closed declaration. Having said that, I don't want to end up with factions in the open education camp, so will support it with some reservations. Some more thoughts here:

  2. What happened to the Stephen Downes advocating Free Software, Copyleft and Free is in Freedom content??

    "Third, the document advocates a form of 'open' that explicitly encourages the closing and blocking of access to education through the commercialization of these resources."

    No, it doesn't. I jst read it twice. Is promoting the GPL in anyway explicitly encouraging the closing and blocking of access of Linux?? Of course not.

    "we believe that open education and open educational resources are very much compatible with the business of commercial publishing."

    Exactly the same can be found on the website of the Free Software Foundation.

    "This is not so, and in fact the majority of resources licensed under an 'open' license are licensed nor non-commercial use."

    Well, then it's not "open" is the sense of "open source", FLoss, Wikipedia.
    So you have this group of people promoting openness in the sense of FLOSS, and Stephen is ciritising them for encouraging closing and blocking of access?
    Stephen, did you fall on your head or something? I hope you get better soon.

    "When people talk about 'open' educational resources, they do not normally mean something they have to pay some publishing company in order to access."

    Like buying Red Hat Linux in a store?

  3. great response! I saw this declaration amonth or so back and forwarded on to a colleague in RSA, as I'll forward your response - yes - the main point of whether 'Educators' are the anointed ones to dream up and execute curricula is a great one and very appropriate right now. I've never been to school for teaching, and certainly don't have a Masters (hah!) but I've developed a number of curricula and taught hundreds of young people with great effectiveness. Should I then be excluded from the discourse? Hwo about my friend in RSA in the same boat? Thanks Stephen!

  4. Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for getting the dialogue rolling on this declaration. As one of the people who was in fact a participant in the initial drafting process, I wanted to address a few of your points.

    First though, a quick pointer to David Wiley's responses ( I won't be able to do such a detailed analysis, but no need for me to: read David's response instead.

    Re: your comment about the “group of mostly American academics and advocates” who supposedly drafted the Declaration. I was one of the seven people of clear American representation (which includes folks like Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia... hardly a likely person to be advocating a uniquely American perspective here). There are 27 initial signatories on the document. Some quick math indicates that the Americans were vastly outnumbered, even if you lump in the few people from organizations like the Open Society Institute which might have more significant presence in the USA. Regardless, it is an odd tack for someone to believe that people from other parts of the world could not participate as fully or effectively because there happen to be some Americans in the room. I certainly don't give myself that much credit. And finally, the document was distributed quite widely for feedback and criticism beyond the original meeting attendees. It is a significant error to attack this document on some presumption that it was not borne of sufficient “diversity”.

    Re: your comment about the “panel of hand-picked representatives representating overwhelmingly a certain commercial perspective...” Huh? If there was any particular criticism of the document from a specific sector of the current education field, it was the near-total lack of any representation at this meeting from the explicitly commercial sector. Indeed, I would say that the arguments for or against the inclusion of commercial possibilities within the umbrella of “open education” were essentially exactly reversed from how you seem to perceive them. Those of us advocating for the greatest degree of openness, and therefore the greatest potential for access, learner-driven knowledge-creation, and new mechanisms for formal and informal education, argued that we cannot sequester materials behind non-commercial restrictions and hold true to the ideals of openness. This Declaration is not intended to be a stick in the eye for anyone, but rather is intended to give a few key strategies that will hopefully inspire people to think and act more globally when it comes to the learning desires and educational needs for anyone, anywhere. Much of your commentary about “closing and blocking” due to commercial use makes me think that you (very surprisingly) might be forgetting that you cannot reduce the size of the Commons, no matter what license is chosen, as long as the original resource was licensed openly in some form. The original creation cannot disappear because someone else decides to adapt it, commercialize a version, or whatever. This is particularly true for digital resources, which is where the bulk of the open education movement currently operates.

    Finally, as David Wiley already mentioned in his reply, it makes no sense to draft a Declaration that encourages people to learn for themselves using whatever they find on the Internet. That's like drafting a Declaration that encourages people to breathe. There is an enormous need for improvements to formal education, and access to high-quality materials designed explicitly for education are proving absolutely crucial to meeting the demand for informal education as well. The Declaration clearly promotes the idea that we envision a future where the lines between formal and informal education, and between teachers and learners, will blur, based on common, deep engagement with the educational materials in a manner that heretofore was not really possible, but that openness enables.

    In any case, your comments, and those of a few others, revealed some errors that were made in this “soft launch”, which of course is the whole point of putting it out there for people to tangle with. One, the Declaration has a sub-heading, “Unlocking the promise of open educational resources,” which should have been there and would have made it clear that THIS particular Declaration is focused on open educational resources. Hopefully that helps to clear up some of the complaints in that regard. Two, this document is very much still open for additional edits based on the commentary received from folks like yourself. It will not be put on a wiki and subject to total transformation.... again David Wiley addresses that issue well. But if there are specific parts of the Declaration where there appears to be strong community consensus for an edit, then it will probably happen. Some of the language that was used in the initial launch of the Declaration has been amended already to reflect the fact that community input is being sought and will count. The ability to post comments publicly on the Declaration site will also go live next week.


    Ahrash Bissell

  5. Hi all,

    These links might be of interest:

    or the discussion venue:

    and a draft "libre declaration" -

    Comments welcome.


  6. PS Last part of the last URL in my posting above is the rest of the word "knowledge".


  7. I've postponed reading the deluge of comments on this declaration for a bit, but I must say that I'm not quite sure what all the fuzz is about. It seems to me that most people are primarily annoyed that they weren't there.

    Despite the whole lovely idea of democracy en committees and all that, My experience is that if you want to move things forward you just have to do it with a small group of people and make a start. If you wait for the world to reach consensus then nothing is ever going to happen.

    So if you ask me, I think we should be glad that a few people took this forward, and support this constructively. I'm sure it could be improved upon, bu then again so can pretty much everything else. (Besides, I don't think it's that poor an attempt at all).

  8. > My experience is that if you want to move things forward you just have to do it with a small group of people and make a start.

    This comment would bear more weight were it true that nothing had been done to move forward.

    But many groups and people have ben working on this sort of thing, many of whom were ignored by the drafters of the Declaration.

    Again - the problem here is that this small group is attempting to preempt the perspectives of the many other people and initiatives in this field, substituting their narrow view for the wider range of views in the community.

  9. Stephen, I 100% agree with you. Yet again it's just another case of academics intellectually masturbating. IMO, let's just focus on making "a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge." The reality is we can. How do we do it? Easy -- -- While a select few play their silly word games, mark my words, a solution for global education will come out of Asia... I appreciate your post, time and energy in voicing what so many of use feel.

    Michael J. Trout
    CEO, EDUIT, Inc


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