The Price of Freedom: Open Education and the Tragedy of the Commons

Open Education 2016

Author: Andy Lane, The Open University, United Kingdom

Looking back from our position now in 2036, it should have been more obvious to us 20 years ago. Open education was beginning to make its mark, being referred to in several UN-sponsored declarations and underpinning the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Improving access to education for everyone and reducing the cost of that access were worthy aims, but as with so many things, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, “It’s the economics, stupid.” Access to open educational resources is nearly universal and does provide a basic opportunity for all. For many, it also provides an opportunity where there was little or no such opportunity before. But this limited benefit for the many has been outweighed by the greater benefit to the few, the economically and educationally privileged. So how did this happen?

Open licensing, as we all know, has provided the world with a wealth of ‘free at the point of use’ educational materials, video lectures, and courses. All of us are one or two clicks away from accessing this vast educational resources commons. Realistically, however, this access is constrained and conditioned by the power relations in this gift economy. The majority of these resources are the product of a few prominent organizations – either prestigious universities or multinational educational publishers. Yes, anyone can add resources to the commons, and yes, anyone can adapt, modify, and republish what is already there, but in reality this reaches far fewer people than the big boys do. It reminds me of the music industry 20 years ago. Illegal sharing of music had been mainly overcome by (largely) free at the point of use streaming, but this streaming catalogue was dominated by the big artists and the big music companies. Yes, folks sampled other people’s work, and yes, they could produce their own work and release it on the Web as they saw fit, but very, very few ‘made it’ without the support of the big boys. Just being free and available proves to be useless if your work is largely invisible to everyone who might want to use it. Niche networks and fan clubs are fine, but they don’t make the big differences that we wanted to see in education, where opening things up would have helped with those big social goals such as the SDGs.

In part, we were distracted by developments such as MOOCs, the writings of Clayton Christensen on disruptive innovations, and failing to think through behaviors in commons, as first set out by Garrett Hardin.

MOOCs muddied the waters in the minds of the public as to what free and open meant, in terms of the educational resources and experiences involved. Although free at the point of use, MOOCs actually fitted a consumerist model of behavior, rather than the prosumer and co-production of knowledge model that many advocates sought. They were consumerist in that the ‘price’ to be paid for the free experience was time (can I spare the time or should I do something else with that time?), and that people needed an existing strong economic capital to be able to take the social and cultural capital they might gain from studying a MOOC and convert it into more economic capital. Those with little economic, social, or cultural capital were simply unable to gain anything from MOOCs without some other, extrinsic support. As a result, most MOOCs now serve a workforce training or continuing professional development market, rather than a wider educational market.

The notion of disruptive innovation is seductive, but it mainly seems to apply to the private economy, the commercial economy of selling goods and services in a (lightly) regulated marketplace.

So, yes, various technologies greatly changed how we, as consumers, accessed music, and also effected changes in which companies were dominant in this marketplace. However, most of the time, what most people could access and when they could access it were still determined by the behaviors of a few companies. For most of us this was okay, as we could get cheap or free access to the music we wanted to listen to. However, those who wanted access to products not easily available were ill-served by those same corporate behaviors.

The other consequence of these technological changes was a shift in market value from recorded music to musical performances. The top acts (and companies supporting them) can charge high prices and earn huge revenues for their gigs, sidelining other acts into lower price brackets. The same thing has now happened in education. The ‘recorded’ item, the open educational resource, has a low headline price, which has been great for creating an educational commons, but the price of an educational experience has diverged between the very high cost, place-based ‘experiences’ in the presence of ‘top’ educators and the lower cost blended or online-only ‘experiences’ for everyone who cannot afford those place-based experiences. This came about because of the very widening of access that the SDGs embodied. The OER may have been non-rivalrous, but the top educators and the place-based experiences were very much rivalrous goods. And while much of education is seen as a public good and paid for out of taxes, the more folk there are to be educated, the less tax money can be spent on each person. Economies of scale, and political choices on the balance between public and private financing of education (and its ensuing goods), meant that more and more education has been done through a less costly open, distance learning and e-learning mode, in which most folk take longer to complete their studies or do not go as far with their studies. Less and less education is conducted through the more traditional, more expensive fast-track place-based mode, which is now only available to those who can use or gain access to private funds (scholarships) to pay for it. The economic capital which students can accumulate through the social and cultural capital of studying at the world’s elite educational institutions is perpetuated. In other words, inequalities have grown even though the least fortunate have benefitted from the new educational commons, as the constraining factor is being able to employ sufficient educators to develop and deliver curricula to a truly massive market.

An educational commons for the common good does not line up with the realities of balancing public and private goods, which is what politicians and governments have to do. The politicians and governments fully signed up to a commons of educational resources, but left it to institutions and commercial companies to populate and run that commons. The latter then relied on the fact that they could curate and preserve their resources, and control the popular platforms and websites on which they sat, while those resources from individuals or small projects decayed, got buried, or were taken down. (It is ironic that a single digital item capable of infinite replication is more vulnerable to technological/physical loss than a small print run of a book). This is how the elite institutions and educational publishers were able to use their ‘market position’ to dominate what most people get to see of that commons. At the same time, while politicians and governments could see that ODeL models provided a robust and sufficiently high quality educational experience, with marginally greater returns on investment for the aggregate public finances in terms of employment and productivity than more expensive traditional modes, they had to accept that some individuals could gain much greater personal returns on investment if they could afford the traditional model.

The price of freedom of access to a global commons of educational resources has been a tradeoff between a good basic education for all and narrower access to excellent education (in terms of economic, social, and cultural capital) to an ever smaller proportion of people. The tragedy of the educational commons has been the way that the most privileged have been able to gain much more than others from the freedoms of the commons, as it is not possible to make personal and social learning non-rivalrous.

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This work by Andy Lane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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