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Open education and the Cape Town Declaration

December 3rd, 2007 by Graham Attwell

Like Stephen, I am usually the first to support any iniative around Open Content. And I am a great fan of the OECD Open Educational resources project. But like Stephen, I also have serious reservations about the Cape Town open Education Declaration.

Stephen says” 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 long simmering debate over the future of education came close to the surface in discussions at Educa Online Berlin. On the one hand there was Andrew Keen, ranting against the freedom to create open and shared knowledge, allowing “monkeys with typewriters” to have the audacity to put forward their own ideas and even more so for others to recognise these ideas. Keen blames this on a Silicon valley culture dominated by anti authoritarian ex-hippies. In truth Keen wants knowledge to be privatised, a commodity to be judged for quality by the market. Such a move would represent an extension of capitalism. and that extension of capitalism into the learning sphere was only too clear in the commericalism of the conference exhibition. This was not an exhibition about learning but an exhibition displaying commodities for sale.

The alternative vision – which I tried to outline in my speech – is that of extending the movement towards openness, the movement which allows users to produce as well as consume, the movement towards learners being able to control their own learning environment – extending that movement so that learners themselves can shape the total learning environment. And that means recognising the different contexts in which learning takes place, recognising different forms of learning and above all recognising and valuing these different forms and contexts of learning. That of course represents a challenge to those institutions that have assumed they have a monopoly on learning – the universities and research institutes. that is not to say that universities and schools have no place in the future – neither am I trying to deny that formal learning can be important and appropriate.

But this is just the reason why it is so important that The Capetown declaration gets it right. There is a debate going on on the Unesco list serve over the declaration. But this mainly seems to be centred on whether we should use the term ‘libre’ or ‘open’. To me that is not the most important issue. Far more important is a vision of learning in the future. And to extend access to lifelong learning for all we need new visions, visions that go beyond commercialisation and beyond the present schooling system.

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