Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Free and Not Free

Everton Zanella Alvarenga tossed a hand-grenade into the OER discussion group: "An interesting text by Stallman... On-line education is using a flawed Creative Commons license ... 'the CC-BY-NC and CC-BY-NC-SA licenses, as they are today, should be avoided.'"

When I asked Richard Stallman about the use of open licenses for educational materials, first he complained because I didn't use the word "free", then he said that he wasn't interested in educational content, that his arguments applied specifically to software. Clearly his views have been modified since then, as this post attests
Without extending this into a full-blown debate, as I have already written at length about this elsewhere:
  • licenses that allow commercial use are less free than those that do not, because they allow commercial entities to charge fees for access, to lock them behind digital locks, and to append conditions that prohibit their reuse
  • works licensed with a Non-commercial clause are fully and equally open educational resources, and are in many cases the only OERs actually accessible to people (because the content allowing commercial use tends to have costs associated with it)
  • the supposition that works that cost money can be 'free' is a trick of language, a fallacy that fools contributors into sharing for commercial use content they intended to make available to the world without charge
  • the lobby very loudly making the case for commercial-friendly licenses and recommending that NC content be shunned consists almost entirely of commercial publishers and related interests seeking to make money off (no-longer) 'free' content.
The problem with this is the Flat World publications or the OERu assessment scenario - content deposited with the intent that it be available without cost is converted into a commercial product. It's not free if you can't access it. Content is different from software, it can be locked (or 'enclosed') in ways free software cannot, without violating the license.

In sum, this discussion would be better conducted without further debated about which open license 'is best' and especially with fervent declarations in favour of commercial-friendly licensing. The suggestion that the free sharing of non-commercial content is not 'practical' is not Stallman at his best, and is refuted by the experiences of millions in the field.

Wayne McIntosh objected, "Stephen, your assumption is incorrect with reference to access to learning materials and the OERu assessment model.."

Again, not to pursue the argument regarding the One True License beyond reason in the present forum...
- I very specifically referred to OERu assessment, not content, and assessment will cost students $1000 for a typical 5-course semester
- I have been following and commenting on WikiEducator and OERu since the beginning, and have expressed my concerns in this regard on numerous occasions
- In particular, I expressed my concerns regarding the 'logic model' employed by OERu, as well as the 'founding partners' methodology, both of which entrenched educational institutions as an essential part of the process,
- No mechanism for recognition of learning exists, or was even contemplated, other than institutional recognition, which as noted, carries a significant financial burden

I have no objection to the mechanism whereby OERu converts OERs it receives for free from volunteers into revenues for universities. What I object to is the ongoing campaign by OERu staff to depict non-commercial OERs as 'non-free' and to lobby for their exclusion from the definition of 'free educational resources'. I wish to pursue my support of OERs in such a way that does not impose significant cost on students. To this date, the best and only mechanism for ensuring their use of OERs remains genuinely free is through the use of the NC license.

As an aside: there is always in this context a reference to the 'original' version of open source licensing, and of course Stallman's four freedoms. I would like to point out that open source licenses existed before GPL, and open content licenses existed before Creative Commons. Until the intervention of staff from large U.S. universities (Berkeley-Stanford-MIT-Harvard) these licenses required that distribution be unencumbered with cost. It is only with the intervention of staff from these institutions that 'free' comes to mean 'commercial'.

Again: people may attach licenses allowing commerical use to their work if they wish. I have no objection to this. But such people should cease and desist their ongoing campaign to have works that are non-commercial in intent, and free in distribution, classified as 'not free'. Content that cannot be enclosed within a paywall, and cannot be distributed with commercial encumbrances attached, is just as free - indeed, more free - than so-called 'free' commercial content.


To follow up on some points made by Rory:

Content (under whatever license) is 'enclosed' when it is contained behind a barrier such as proprietary encryption, a digital lock or a paywall. Enclosure does not restrict the content itself, but restricts access to the content; access is granted (typically under some other name) only via some concession, such as payment, or provision of personal information.

To my understanding, all of Flat World's content will now be enclosed behind a paywall. OERu assessments enclose assessment content. This mailing list (OER-community) encloses content behind a subscription requirement (I can't even link to discussions in my newsletter; all non-subscribers see is a barrier).

Enclosure is an important concept because it leads to 'conversion'. The process of conversion is one where what was once a resource that could be freely accessed is (for all practical purposes) accessible only through a barrier of some sort; in other words, the content is free, but has been effectively completely enclosed. This is what happened (for example) to many UseNet newsgroups. It almost happened to Wikipedia, and would have happened, has Google not intervened.

Having said that, let me be clear how perspective plays a significant role in the free / not-free debate:

- from the perspective of someone who already has the content, the content is 'not free' if there are limitations on the use of that content, including the right to sell it

- from the perspective of someone who does not already have the content, the content is 'not free' if there are barriers preventing the person from accessing the content (note that the putative assertion that the content 'could be made free somewhere' does not constitute a removal of the all-too-practical barrier

It is not to me surprising that the people with wealth - namely those in U.S. universities - could view 'free' from the perspective of those who have the content. But I speak from the perspective of one who does not have access to the content. And my argument, in a nutshell, is that the second perspective is just as valid as the first (even though the second perspective cannot afford lobbiests).

Content behind barriers - for example, content that is being sold - is 'not free'. This perspective matters. For 99 percent of the world, it's the only perspective that matters.

And finally

Totally agreed with David Wiley: "It would be great if the world were simple enough that One License to Rule Them All could exist, but it doesn't."

It needs to be recognized that for many people, 'open' and 'free' do not mean 'commercial'. For many people, the idea of 'selling a free resource' is a contradiction in terms. For many people, access to the resource, rather than making money from it, is the primary concern.

I don't wish to continue restating this (though it seems the campaigning from the CC-by people against NC is endless). I would simply urge UNESCO to respect the wishes of those people who are not commercial publishers or multi-million-dollar educational institutions, to recognize the intent of people creating NC-licensed resources to ensure they can be accessed for free, and to recognize resources licensed with a NC clause as OERs with equal standing.

This is consistent with the 2012 Paris declaration, which I remind people, refers to OERs as "teaching, learning and research materials in any medium, digital or otherwise, that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions." (My emphasis) 

Ilkka Tuomi  wrote,

> Logically, CC-BY-NC is a subset of CC-BY. In this sense, it is more restricted.

Not so. No entity in the set “CC-BY-NC” is also in the set “CC-BY”.

It’s a trick of the way CC licenses were originally formulated. The designations in fact mean:
- CC-by-Commercial (CC-by-C)
- CC-by-Noncommercial (CC-by-NC)
So as you can see, the two sets are disjuncts, specially, not-C and C

The creators of CC treated ‘Commercial’ as the default. There’s no reason why they should have had to do this. They could have established the licenses the other way (indeed, the way I would have done it):

CC-by – allows all free uses, ie., no limitations on access and distribution
CC-by-C – allows commercial vendors to restrict distribution contingent upon payment

In fact, each of CC-by-C and CC-by-NC create restrictions. They create different sets of restrictions, which may be more or less limiting, depending on your perspective.

The ‘commercial-by-default’ world in which we live is something recent and something that has been created through the use of language and the setting of assumptions. The creation of a ‘non-commercial’ clause is a way of setting ‘commercial’ as the default. It makes it seem as though ‘commercial’ implies no additional restrictions. But it’s just a trick of language, just a trick of perspective.

That’s why it’s false and misleading to say that ‘CC-by-C’ is ‘more free’, and why people shouldn’t do it.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Suppose the Irvings Had Not Set Up Shop In Moncton

Responding to David W. Campbell, Thanks, Robert. What’s next?

Suppose the Irvings had not set up shop in Moncton...

Would we have a transport company, like Midland? Almost certainly! In fact, we may have had several, with competition making them more productive, and wages reflecting national averages. Perhaps national and international companies would have set up shop here, creating potential for servicing and spinoffs.

Would we have frozen potato products, like Cavendish? Of course we would; any region that grows potatoes would have such an industry. Maybe it would be McCains. Maybe it would be, again, a national or international company.

Similarly, we would have agri-services industries as well. Perhaps more than one. Such an environment might have been much more favorable to the local agriculture industry, which may have resulted in greater conversion of land to agriculture, increased production, and again, better wages.

Would Moncton have a tissue company, like Royale and Majesta (both owned by Irving)? Again, we may have international brands, like Kleenex, Kimberly-Clark, or some other wood product company. These companies locate anywhere there is wood, so there would be a substantial presence in Moncton and New Brunswick. Perhaps the province might even have a value-added wood products industry, like an Ikea, which it seems to be totally lacking now.

Would the city have a disposable diaper manufacturer, like Irving Personal Care? Well - probably not. So we can give them that.

What Irving brings to the city by way of transport companies, food processing and pulp and paper is minimal at best, and would probably exist without them. The companies that would have appeared here in its stead might have been larger, more productive, more competitive, and most importantly of all, might have paid better wages.

And what Irving brings to the city needs to be balanced out against the negative influence of a single large monopoly owning pretty much the entire wood production, agricultural production, transportation, energy and newspaper industry in the province.

Having one huge company has distorted the political process, pushed down wages, and left the cities of the province in a position where they need to grant extraordinary tax exemptions and Irving-friendly policies as they compete against each other for a share of the provincial behemoth.

New Brunswick has no major cities; it is the only province in the country in that position. Even tiny Charlottetown carries more weight on the national scale. Look how long it took to develop a proper highway system linking our cities, decades after every other province in the country. Only this year did we finish our four-lane link to the U.S.

The overt influence of the provinces major gas and oil company have left the transportation and energy industries in a shambles.

With the fiasco surrounding our nuclear plant restoration, people forget that it was an Irving transportation company that dumped the turbines into the bottom of Saint John Harbour. (It was also the oil-dominated Harper government that gutted Atomic Energy Canada, delaying the refit by years).

When we drive the highway to Halifax it's hard not to be struck by the wind turbines on the Nova Scotia side of Tantramar, and an emptiness on the wind-blown NB side. (Yes there are some windmills hidden in the hills; our province gave an Alberta company permission to build them and own them).

Our power generation industry is otherwise in fiasco. We have over the years foolishly depended on coal and (often dirty) oil. We were so much enthralled with it we lost hundreds of millions in the orimulsion bitumen-based fuel fiasco (interestingly, bitumen-based fuel is what is being contemplated for the Keystone pipeline).

The politics behind the deployment of natural gas in the province boggle the mind. Enbridge is the external company that took the risk to (finally!) bring a cheaper and cleaner fuel to the province. It has had a great deal of difficulty marketing to industrial partners, and (frankly) has been jerked around by the provincial government. Enbridge may not be the most pleasant company in the world, but here at least, it has been given a raw deal.

Meanwhile, in a city with a newspaper dominated with car and truck and Jeep advertisements, pubic transportation has been decimated. Irving has led the campaign to break the bus drivers' union. We have had no bus service for months, and the company now envisions a system of privately owned small buses more commonly found in the developing world. The rail system has also been essentially eliminated.

So, on balance, we are supposed to thank Irving for industries we would have had anyways? And ignore the harm a massive all-encompassing monopoly has caused to the province? This in the light of a provincial debt that has accumulated over the years, a debt that is coincidentally the same size as the Irving family fortune?

We need investments over the next 15-20 years, there can be no doubt of it. But rather than depend on the all-giving (but legendarily stingy) hand of the Irvings, we should be asking how we develop an economic development and investment regime that benefits *all* of us.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Advice for the UNESCO OER Mapping Project

Email written as advice to the UNESCO OER mapping initiative.

This is beginning to read and sound very much like the debates around learning object metadata of the 1990s. I know that approaches such as LRMI represent an improvement in that elements are aligned with schema.org data types. But that said, knowledge of the history would be useful, and I do recommend to people making suggestions to look at IMS and IEEE LOM as well as LRMI.

It would also be helpful (through probably not practical) to review the discussion surrounding these specifications. For example, below, we read a request for "technical requirements for using the material." This is better addressed by describing the resource format and specifications (eg., its mime type) rather than specifying application software. This is because software changes rapidly. Consider the requirements in IMS-LOM documents specifying that a resource is 'best viewed in Internet Explorer 3.0'.

If course, this discussion is centered around OER *repositories* and not only the resources themselves. Consequently, mappings will need to describe repository properties. Consulting OAI or DSpace specifications would be helpful here. Minimally, we would want API specifications for resource creation, reading, update and deletion, as well as classification systems and resource metadata specifications.

All of this is difficult to build from the ground up. It is a discussion that has occupied the field for almost two decades. I am thinking at this point that the OER initiative should be drawing from the experiences of OER repositories and repository indices that already exist. The most useful beginning of a needs project ought most probably to be a summary of the properties of existing repository indices, including the range of resources indexed, metadata fields used, and more.

For those specifically interested in resource metadata, rather than repository profiles, may I recommend my article 'Resource Profiles' http://www.downes.ca/post/41750 (I'm sorry to recommend my own work but it will keep this post a lot shorter). It suggests approaches for the following sorts of metadata:
- first party metadata, which is metadata specifically about the resource itself, eg., technical data, rights metadata, bibliographic data
- second party metadtata (sometimes called 'paradata') related to the use of the metadata, such as ratings, accesses, etc
- third party metadata, such as classifications, educational metadata (including things like curriculum, keywords, etc)etc.

Additionally, readers should take account of the desirability of linked data. For example, the use of strings to represent authors and publishers creates the possibility of ambiguity, error and duplication. Contemporary resource repositories, such as Google Scholar or academia.edu, maintain separate registries of authors, which are linked to resources (JSTOR doesn't, but should, as a search for au:"Stephen Downes" already returns results from a bunch of strangers). It would be worth contemplating linking authors and OERs to additional resources, such as publishers and institutions (many of these are already described by schema.org). Another argument in favour of linked data is that any string data will need to have several properties, including character encoding and language. So it's best to use strings sparingly.

All of the considerations above must also be mapped to a consideration of what people will actually do in the way of creating and using resource metadata. I recall a study by Norm Friesen, for example, examining the use of IEEE-LOM to index learning objects. Though the specification enables detailed educational descriptions, most people used only ten percent of the fields. Much of the metadata available will be minimal. Any mapping will need to contemplate listings using the most basic data: title, link (ie., URI) and description. Any system should attempt to automatically generate metadata (my own website automatically generates image metadata) and make good use of tags.

Also (November 30): With respect to the summary and the map initiative itself, I would like to make one key recommendation: that it be a ‘submit-once’ system.

Typically, OER data owners would employ a form or some interface to deposit content into the database that will eventually be used to produce the map. The result of this approach is that OER data owners must submit separately for each mapping initiative. Eventually they tire of this, and the result is incomplete data.

So I would ask that any such map also *export* its data in a machine-readable format (plain XML will do, as would JSON, an RSS or Atom Extension, or pretty much any structured representation) along with licensing that allows it to be harvested and reused (pick whatever license you want). This would allow an OER data owner to submit *once* and have the data available for any number of maps.

I would also recommend:

- a mechanism that allows the OER data owner to update or edit records already submitted, to they can stay current

- an export mechanism, or a stand-alone record-creator, so an OER data owner can create the structured representation and store it on his or her own website

- a mechanism whereby databases of OER data repository information can publish and harvest each other’s data, thus essentially enabling them to sync records, so all databases will contain all OER information, no matter which database the record was originally added to

In redundancy is reliability. In synchronization is strength. In distribution is durability. In structured representation is stability.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Pathway for Advancement

Interesting commentary from Kevin Willey, which I quote at length from LinkedIn:

Performance management is nothing more than buzz words in the government departments, and I speak from experience on this.  I entered the government back in early 2001, with the false impression that being creative and innovative would be rewarded, and that I could help to change things for the better.

Was I ever wrong. The harder I tried to point out a better way, the more I was ignored, and eventually punished for being innovative. I was even told by one of the managers that attempting to, or suggesting alternatives was not part of my job function.

We hear again and again from the political types they want to attract the brightest and the best, yet, everyone in Ottawa knows that a government job is a dead end, and that the only ones who get promoted are those who write tests well. Truly, they raise to their level of incompetence.

I have lived in Ottawa for 54 years, and I have heard this same story over and over, before I joined the public service, and could not believe it as true. That impression was way wrong, all those people were correct.  I also have two brothers who work in different departments, and they have reflected the same story.

In the public service, the managers are more interested about protecting their turf, than accepting new ideas for fear that they may be chastised for not thinking of the idea.  Twice this approach has caused me to have to take short term disability for clinical depression, before the last time it was almost not necessary because I came very, very close to ending my own life out of frustration.  Mental illness is almost at epidemic levels in the public service, I see it every day, and I have former friends who have killed themselves because of this frustration level. This is truly a sad state of affairs. 

Interesting comment from Kevin Willey, and I can attest to his remarks about the stress of working in the public service.

In my experience, the primary qualification for advancement to leadership positions is obedience. This may seem paradoxical, but it actually makes sense in an organization that should be taking direction from elected officials.

However, the side-effect of obedience is that as it permeates through the ranks, the result is, as Willey observes, managers who do not take risks and who do not welcome innovation from below.

That said, I am not sure that the situation is very different in large corporations, where again accountability is to external agencies, in this case shareholders, and where direction typically flows from the top down.

But these observations tell us where we should be directing efforts to support innovation. The spin-off is a prime source, where experienced staff spot an opportunity and make their move. So is proactive recruitment of experienced staff from large organizations to management level positions in smaller organizations, for the same reason.

I'm not sure how much discussion exists around regarding large organizations and the public service as sources for ideas and expertise that can be, if you will, 'mined' by the surrounding community.

Indeed, the most productive way of streamlining corporations and the public service may be to develop programs that encourage exactly this sort of activity: it would provide a pathway for advancement and at the same time create economic drivers in the community.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

International MOOCs Past and Present

OpenLearning.com, a venture born out of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia. Starting this week, you can begin taking two of their courses (Observing and Analysing Performance in Sport & Services Marketing – The Next Level).

University of Western Australia. By next March, the Perth-based university plans to offer two courses (one in sociology, the other in oceanography) using an adapted version of Stanford’s open source platform, Class2Go.

SpanishMooc? It’s billed as “the first open online Spanish course for everyone.”

MobiMOOC Belgium - http://mobimooc.wikispaces.com/a+MobiMOOC+hello!

Open University in the UK is about to run a MOOC, a Massive Open Online Course on Open Translation tools and practices. http://www.ot12.org/  http://labspace.open.ac.uk/course/view.php?name=OT12
Sloodle MOOC - https://www.sloodle.org/blog/?p=252 - Europe (not many details on this one)

Observing and Analysing Performance in Sport small open online course (SOOC) commences on the Open Learning platform. - keith Lyons, Australia

eduMOOC 2011 (International) - http://edumooc2011.blogspot.ca/

Trainer MOOc - Larks Learning - India - http://larkslearning.com/blog/trainer-mooc-april-june-2012-po-ideas-in-training-provoking-our-thinking/

My Open Courses - India - a whole slew of (Khan video-style) open online courses - http://myopencourses.com/

Open Learning Design Studio MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) focusing on the theme of curriculum design with OERs, to be held in early 2013.  - UK - http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/elearning/embeddingbenefits2012/oldsmooc.aspx

Papers by Rita Kop on the Canadian MOOCs - http://ritakop.blogspot.ca/2012/01/research-publications-on-massive-open.html

Curriculum Design MOOC - Open University UK - http://www3.open.ac.uk/media/fullstory.aspx?id=23501 see also http://www.olds.ac.uk/

Future of Higher Education (CFHE 12) - Canada - http://edfuture.net/blog1/

EduMOOC 2011 - International - https://sites.google.com/site/edumooc/

Mechanical MOOC - P2PU - International-ish - http://mechanicalmooc.org/ - A Gentle Introduction to Python

Virtual Schooling MOOC - UK/US - 2012 - http://virtualschoolmooc.wikispaces.com/international

Games MOOC - Shivtr - not sure where they're based - http://gamesmooc.shivtr.com/

UniMOOC Æmprende - Spanish - http://iei.ua.es/mooc-emprendimiento/ - Instituto de Economía Internacional - Universidad de Alicante

OMS2012. Germany. Run by DW Akademie. Citizen journalism and digital media in the Maghreb + beyond: http://specials.dw.de/oms-en/?p=1 See also http://specials.dw.de/oms-en/?page_id=23#organize

Introduction à la Programmation Objet (in French) - Coursera - École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne - https://www.coursera.org/course/java-fr

MOOC ITyPA - Internet: Tout est Pour Apprendre - 2012 - France - http://itypa.mooc.fr/ See also http://www.studyramagrandesecoles.com/home_news.php?Id=7713 

Pedagogy First MOOC - international - 2012 - http://pedagogyfirst.org/wppf12/

"La educación abierta en el siglo XXI"  (México-UNAM, Spanish, Feb. 2012) http://www.cuaed.unam.mx/portal/img/educacion_abierta.pdf  http://www.slideshare.net/larisaev/guia-general

Distance Education in Portugal and Brazil. Taking about models of Distance Education, Tools and ending with the way ahead. 2012 http://www.moocead.net

UNED in Spain has two MOOCs in Spanish on Open Data and e-Commerce. New courses will be added every momth: http://portal.uned.es/portal/page?_pageid=93%2C25731579&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL

EPCoP Mooc Australia 2011, design team led by Coach Carole

iDESWEB, Introducción al desarrollo web (Introduction to web development), http://idesweb.es
2012, more than 4,300 students enrolled. University of Alicante, Spain

iXML, Introducción a XML (Introduction to XML), http://ixml.es
November 2012, more than 200 students enrolled, University of Alicante, Spain

UniMOOC aemprende (Key factors in entrepreneurship), http://unimooc.com
November 2012, more than 6,000 students enrolled, University of Alicante, Spain

First Steps in Learning and Teaching in HIgher Education MOOC (FSLT12) - http://openbrookes.net/firststeps12/ - run by Oxford Brookes University, UK
MOOC EaD O primeiro MOOC em língua portuguesa - November, 2012 - Portugal

Some U.S.-based MOOCs

MOOC MOOC -   based in the U.S.  - http://www.moocmooc.com/

Faculty Commons - Engaging Technology and Online Pedagogy eTOP12 Micro-MOOC - U.S.-based - http://facultyecommons.com/engaging-technology-and-online-pedagogy-etop12-micro-mooc/ 

Health Informatics mooc - 2012 - http://www.healthinformaticsforum.com/MOOC 

CMC11 - Creativity and Multicultural Communication - started Fall 2011 - U.S., SUNY/Empire State College; Facilitated by Betty Hurley-Dasgupta and Carol Yeager http://cdlprojects.com/
VizMath - Visualizing Mathematics started 15 October 2012, facilitated by Betty Hurley-Dasgupta and Carol Yeager, SUNY/Empire State College, http://www.cdlprojects.com/math/

Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas (University of Texas at Austin): Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization, Oct. 28 - Dec. 8, 2012 http://open.journalismcourses.org
limited at 2000 attendees = full

EDG6931 -- Personal Learning Environments for Inquiry in K12 -- College of Education at the University of Florida -- Spring 2011 (Feb-Mar)Wendy Drexler & Christopher Sessums.
A Crash Course in Creativity, taught by Tina Seelig through the Venture Lab at Stanford University

University of Central Florida (UCF),  BlendKit2011 (200 registrants), BlendKit2012 (1230 registrants), BlendKit Course materials,  see http://bit.ly/blendkit  and for a quick intro, please see http://slidesha.re/O8kOwi

The Paradox of Democracy

During my days as a student activist studying philosophy in Alberta one wag described me as "a moderate socialist and a radical democrat."

That description is probably still apt 20 years later. The bulk of my work in online learning and media is dedicated toward the idea that people should be able to manage their own lives and their own futures.

But the phrase 'radical democrat' was and still is the source of some ambiguity. By 'democrat' I do not mean, of course, affiliation with the Democratic party in the United States. Rather, it means 'supporter of democracy', whatever that is.

Modern democracies consist of two parts:
  • a mechanism enabling the majority to plan and carry out a form of self-governance for a region or nation as a whole, and
  • a mechanism defining and ensuring the protection of basic rights and privileges accorded to all members of society.

Most people not surprisingly focus on the first part of democracy. Some even deride the second under the heading of 'judicial activism', as though democracy should only be defined by the former.

But I have never believed that a simple counting of votes is sufficient for the governance of a region or a nation, not the least because of the likelihood of what Mill calls the 'tyranny of the majority',  but also because the majority is simply unable to govern without these basic rights and privileges.

In modern democracies, one way we determine the will of the majority is by means of the vote (it may surprise people to know that this is not the only way to determine the will of the majority; a reading of Rousseau on 'the general will' for example reveals a more organic alternative process; others, by contrast, cite the 'invisible hand' of the marketplace).

The premise behind the exercise of the vote is that it reflects the opinions of an informed citizenry. What constitutes 'informed' has varied over the years. Voting was once limited to landowners, a privilege still enshrined in bodies such as the British House of Lords and the Canadian Senate. It was also at different times limited to free persons, to men, and today, to adults over a certain age. Robert Heinlein has suggested it be limited to those who serve in the military.

The need for this is found in a two-part argument formed by Thomas Jefferson:
  • "Compare again the ferocious depredations of their insurgents, with the order, the moderation and the almost self-extinguishment of ours. And say, finally, whether peace is best preserved by giving energy to the government, or information to the people."
  • "Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. And it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty."
It is a reflection at once of both Hobbes and Locke, the idea that peace in the land is ensured by a government that serves the will of the people, and that it is through this desire for peace that people will participate in, and support the mechanisms of, that government.

But this, in turn, depends on the people actually desiring something worth desiring. Here is Heinlein again:

"What is supposed to happen in a democracy is that each sovereign citizen will always vote in the public interest for the safety and welfare of all. But what does happen is that he votes his own self-interest as he sees it… which for the majority translates as ‘Bread and Circuses.’"
Two dilemmas occur. The first is created when a person's self-interest is contrary to the interest of the interest of society as a whole. The classic instance of this is criminal behaviour, but in a democracy, many forms of self-interest are legal, even encouraged, even though they act against the interest of the whole.

The second is created when a person is mistaken about what lies in his own best interests. History is replete with examples of people acting, en masse, in a manner that harms their own well-being and security. And individual cases of self-harm or self-defeating behaviour exist in all societies. As Mill would argue, no person is best served by bread and circuses, but often, this is what they want.

In my own discussion of autonomy, I describe four major areas in which a person can enjoy more or less self-governance:
  • the capacity to know - this includes being in a position to have relevant experiences, the capacity to reflect on those experiences, and to do so independently of incentives or coercions
  • the capacity to act - this includes flexibility and mobility, the absence of legal constraints, barriers and locks, and the resources and entitlements necessary to make action possible 
  • the range of behaviour - this is described by media of expression, association and transmission of ideas, background noise, tolerance and quality of choices
  • the capacity to have an effect - described by the audience for an idea or its efficacy, as well as the nature and extent of improvements possible
In a simple democracy government by the votes of the majority, we can observe ways in which individuals, as well as the majority, are limited in their capacity to know, decide and act.

In a full and complete democracy, individuals would have the widest degree of autonomy possible, in a manner consistent with the autonomy of other members of society, in order to define and pursue their own best interests, and as necessary the best interests of society.

But it is clear that the protection and enhancement of this autonomy is not enabled by the simple process of voting alone (indeed, if even at all). For we find ourselves in a paradox: we need to vote to ensure the greatest degree of autonomy for ourselves, but we need the greatest autonomy for ourselves in order to show us how to vote.

We can see in any election (including the present American election taking place today) ways in which the autonomy of the voters is subverted, and hence, their ability to act in the best interests of either themselves or society:
  • the information they receive is controlled and manipulated, they are unable to reason effectively on that information, and they are subject to rewards of government spending and coercion through loss of employment
  • individual mobility is limited, both internationally, by means of immigration restrictions, and nationally, by means of limited access to social services and health care; a person's first interest, in most democracies today, is employment and personal welfare
  • the right to associate and demonstrate is increasingly limited by police powers, while one's individual voice is being managed via copyright and trade restrictions, and limited access to the press and popular media
  • the desires expressed by individual votes, and the mass of votes, are being subverted by influences placed on elected officials
In other words, it is not simply that people vote for bread and circuses, it is that, often, bread and circuses is the best they can get, because of the circumstances they find themselves in, and their inability to demand, and get, more.

This is why - and how - I am a radical democrat. My commitment to democracy extends well beyond support for the mechanisms of democratic decision-making, but additionally, to mechanisms and measures supporting the greatest degree of autonomy and self-governance possible.

In this (ironically and perhaps to some rather surprisingly) I am affiliated with the most conservative and libertarian voices in society today.

Where I differ is that I do not define 'intrusion' in our lives narrowly as 'government intrusion', first, and second, I do not define 'autonomy' simply in terms of my own individual autonomy, but in a manner that promotes the autonomy of all persons equally.

For if one of us is not free, none of us is free. 

In this, therefore, my support for democracy hinges on two elements that are very similar to Jefferson's two major points.

  • The need to meet the basic conditions of autonomy for all of us, including a robust definition of rights that includes both the means and capacity to act and make decisions freely, and
  • The need to enable for each person the capacity to become critically literate, that is, to be able to reason cogently and arrive reliably at those measures and conclusions most reflective of his or her self interest.

The former requires a charter of rights and freedoms that goes well beyond the 'bills of rights' that would be granted to people already in possession of the means to act upon them. 'Freedom of the press' is meaningless if one cannot own a press; 'freedom of speech' matters not at all if there is no means to be heard.

In practice, I support something like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And in particular, I aver that no person can be free if he or she lacks sustenance and nourishment, housing, clothing, education, a sense of belonging, and a sense of meaning or purpose. If a person, or people, live in poverty, none of us is free. As Foucault might say, the rich are as bound by the trepiditions of the poor as are the poor. Or as Chandler might say, when people are poor, you always have to watch your back.

We cannot be free if we are in want; we cannot form the conditions for self-government from the condition of poverty.

With regard to the second, I have discussed elsewhere the needs of critical awareness and reflection under the headings of various types of literacy. And I have described, in much more general terms, what people need to learn. In both cases, the objective is to develop a capacity to perceive accurately, to reason with clarity, and to act with foresight.

Ultimately, my understanding of democracy is one in which the emphasis on decisions taken by majority vote decreases and finally wanes to almost nothingness.

The need for a vote, after all, represents and reflects an incapacity on the part of the electorate.

In the first instance, the vote reflects an incapacity to govern at all. The vote is, in the first instance, not an opting between ideas, but rather, a selection of representatives who will do our governing for us. It reflects a time and an era in which the process of governance required more travel and more time than any of us could afford.

This is a time that has arguably already passed. Modern communications technology makes most travel unnecessary. And today's legislators have had to spend so much time learning how to campaign, raise money, and earn our vote, that they are barely more capable of representing our own interests, even in complex matters, than we are ourselves.

And in the second instance, it reflects an incapacity to resolve through more gentle means the tensions and conflicts that flare in modern society. The vote represents a form of conflict, one in which the ballot has replaced the bullet, to be sure, but one in which existing market or legal mechanisms do not enable people to govern themselves directly.

And, in a final paradox, the tensions and conflicts being addressed in the ballot box today revolve around the question of whether there should be democracy at all. They revolve around the persistence of poverty and resistance to the efforts to alleviate it. They revolve around the persistence of ignorance and resistance to the efforts to educate. We are not now debating the question of what kind of society we would like to have, we are debating the question of whether we want to have a society at all.

Democracy, predictably, is unable to resolve the paradox of its own existence. In an existential incompleteness theorem, it is unable to determine whether democracy is, after all, the best form of government. And perhaps most damaging, it is unable to ensure its own existence. Democracy tolerates, at best, and encourages, at worst, the prevalence of poverty and the subversion of reason that give society a reason to exist.

For my own part, the resolution of the paradox lies in the explicit rejection of the proposition that some people are more important, or more valuable, than others. Or, more positively, an explicit endorsement of Kant's maxim that very rational being has intrinsic and not merely instrumental value, that to treat a person as a means to some end is to deny their essential humanity.

Some people arrive at this maxim from religious reasons. "Not even one sparrow dies and falls on the ground without God noticing it." For me, the import of Kant's maxim lies in the nature of society itself. A society that subjects its members to arbitrary and discriminatory treatment cannot sustain. Such a society exists in a state of perpetual war with itself, a draining of wealth and resources that ultimately leaves nothing but death and stagnation.

So today people vote, and exercise what limited social autonomy they have in their grasp. But in their vote, they should see the need for a wider democracy, one in which the vote is no longer necessary, but rather one based on a mechanism of exchanges of mutual support and benefit, a society defined not by cartels and cabals and conflict, but where sustenance and prosperity are ensured through cooperation, through exchanges between equals to their mutual benefit.

In other words, the reason we have a democracy at all is that at some level we believe every human being has the same basic worth. We understand that this sense of a basic equality is necessary for us to have a society at all, and that having a society is our best and only hope of having and sort of existence worth having.

That's why I'm a moderate socialist and a radical democrat. I believe this last is not negotiable. I believe that the basic equality of individuals in our society is all that protects us from the abyss, that the chains that bind us will, unless unshackled, be the weight that drags us down into oblivion.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Predators and Producers: Whither Flat World

In what was probably an unintentional release of the information, Flat World Publishing made the world aware this weekend that it is ceasing distribution of digital textbooks without charge.

Readers of Campus Marketplace were the first members of the public to know, but "The company is making direct calls to many of its bookstore partners." Flat World CEO Jeff Shelstad told the publication that “while free access goes away, our mission to be fair and affordable remains as strong as ever."

A lot of people had banked on Flat World providing free access to textbooks, as it had promised to do.  "The only reason I gave Flatworld a chance was because it seemed like a great opportunity to try a text with no risk to the students," said one commenter on the Chronicle article. "I made the mistake of adopting before they changed their model with no notice to any of its customers."

To understand Flat World's change of philosophy, it is important to understand the company's business model. It is neatly summed up in an Inside Higher Ed article:

"Like traditional publishers, it commissioned and paid authors to produce high-quality textbooks, and to market those textbooks to professors to assign in their courses."

The idea here was that the free digital versions would lead colleges and universities to order print versions of the same works, and it would be via the print versions that the publisher made its money. What happened instead was that the world moved to digital more quickly than anticipated.

Inside Higher Ed again: "the shift in gears by Flat World Knowledge suggests that, for one company at least, providing free and open textbooks is not a viable business plan. While company officials hoped that they’d be able to persuade many of the consumers of the basic, free versions of its textbooks to pay for printed copies or versions enhanced with study aids and other add-ons, 'we don’t convert [from free to paid] as much as we used to,' said Shelstad, the Flat World co-founder."

Flat Earth represented the 'have your cake and eat it' school of publishing. It represented the idea that business models would not need to adjust to the digital reality, that you could take a traditional concept - like academic publishing - and simply add free digital content on top, as marketing and promotion perhaps.

It's the same model being embraced by the companies that are offering MOOCs, and it won't be long, as a commenter on the IHE article states, before they are offering closed open online courses. "Once we figure out the right word for 'much closer to free than we are now,' then we should let the folks at Coursera and EdX know. I think they'll probably need it in a few years, when MOOCs turn into MOCs, though at something less than the current cost of tuition."

There are ways to do free. Indeed, free learning resources will probably carry the day when the smoke clears. But they won't sustain traditional business models. Alex Osterwalder has a nice presentation on SlideShare that makes this point. Consider the alternative business models that can sustain free content:

- content is distributed for free, but once it reaches a certain threshold of popularity, it becomes commercial. This is similar to the NY Times model, which allows causal readers free viewing to a certain point.

- content is distributed for free within the context of an all-you-can-eat subscription model. Netflix does this, offering access to movies and television shows online for about $8 per month (in Canada), less than a third of the cost of one Flat World textbook.

- context is distributed for free, which stimulates demand for platforms and communications channels leveraging the content. This is what WordPress and Moodle have done, leveraging free software into hosting and consulting businesses.

So why couldn't Flat World have adopted one of these alternative business models?Because it focused on a way to sell the content it developed, rather than to leverage that content to motivate consumers to pay for products they actually would buy.

In Osterwalde's examples, consumers are paying not for the content directly but instead for free and online access to that content. It's the same thing they are paying for when they purchase computers or mobile phones and when they purchase internet accounts.

Subscriptions and services represent an intuitive addition to that business model; per-title fees for texts do not. But providing subscriptions and services require access to a lot of content, not a few specially-commissioned titles. And you have to devote yourself to building a platform rather than to simply focus on producing titles.

By structuring themselves as a traditional publisher, Flat World was not able to transition into a digital business model. This puts them on a path that now pits them as direct competition for traditional publishers, not an alternative approach. And while Flat World's Shelstad may claim to be able to compete on the basis of price, the company is now at best niche and at worst roadkill for the economies of scale.

That's one thing. Another thing is the licensing argument.

To begin with, I know Flat World published its work under the Creative Commons non-commercial license. At the same time, however, Flat World proponents such as David Wiley - not to mention other academic publishers in a similar context - have been arguing that authors need to publish their work under the "more open" CC-by license, which does not prohibit commercial use.

The logic of using CC-non-commercial is evident, and Wiley explained it during our debate in British Columbia: "Text book development costs a lot of money and they want to make those textbooks and they want to share, they're willing to share them with the world for free but they don't want to get undercut in the commercial market so they use this non‐commercial clause because as bad as it is, it's the best thing we have available." (p. 52)

Interestingly, this is very similar to my own logic in using CC-non-commercial in these pages. I don't want some commercial publish like Flat World to come along and take my content, enclose it, and start charging for access to it. I don't want the commercial pay-content industry to leverage its superior marketing and distribution capabilities to become the de facto vendor of what I had originally intended to be free and open content. So I use the NC license to protect myself.

Ironically, Wiley's argument against the NC clause was precisely that NC makes it impossible for publishers to do this. As he described it, "I want to print this stuff out, I want to do this service for people, I, if I'm going to spend all my time doing that and I'm not going to be growing my garden or doing whatever else, I'd like to at least be able to eat off of that activity, and your non‐commercial clause is morally reprehensible because it means that I can't make a living trying to help people get access to this material. That's the morality argument around non‐commercial."

This may seem to be a contradiction, but it's not. Here's what publishers such as Flat Earth want: they want access to your content for free, or for as low a cost as they can manage, and they want to be able to sell it for as much as possible. So it's good for them if authors make their content freely available, while at the same time they restrict the possibility of commercial reuse of the same content (ideally by eliminating the CC-share-alike clause).

This is what I've always argued commercial publishers want to do. I have always argued that theirs is a model based on enclosure - that they would take free and open content and make access impossible unless you paid them money. And that's what Flat World did here - it dangled its open content out there to lure people in, and then slammed a paywall on it, midway through the academic year, trapping people who had thus been enticed.

I think there are many ways Flat World and its proponents could have created a viable business based on free content.

First of all, I think it's time that the community recognizes that 'free content' means content you can download, remix, repurpose, share - but not sell. That the 'free as in libre' sense of free is meaningless without 'free as in gratis', because without access to the content you have no freedoms at all.

So I support Flat World's use of CC-NC, just as I support MIT OpenCourseWare's use of the NC license, and the rest of them - and that why, indeed, I am inclined to view suspiciously initiatives that are asking people to donate content under a CC-by license. They are just waiting for their change to pull a Flat World - to convert from a free-access to a paid-access model.

After all, who wouldn't pay $10 a year to use Wikipedia? Right?

Second, I think that Flat World could have found its sustainability niche if it had structured its offer around the idea of providing services for users of online textbooks. Services such as hosting, streaming, maybe even printing. Services such as authoring and editing and proofing. There is much more money to be made helping people create free content than there is in charging people for content.

They could have learned, for example, from Simon Fraser University's Public Knowledge Project. This is an initiative that has been around since 1998, has employed some 40 graduate and undergraduate students over the years, and has just launched its Open Monograph Press. As PKP's John Willinksy says, "We have worked hard to create a virtual publishing-house-in-a-box, which, in the hands of publishers and scholars, will give life to a new generation of learned books."

In general, let me say this: there are two types of commercial enterprise, two types of business, and they are: predation and production.

The predation model thrives on scarcity and shortage. It seeks barriers in production, or creates its own, in order to stimulate greater demand and higher prices. It thrives on hardship and want, and fails in the face of abundance and prosperity.

The production model thrives on abundance and plenty. It removes barriers in production, or enables new production, in order to stimulate widespread availability and lower prices. It thrives on prosperity and generosity, and attacks hardship and want.

Production model companies make things possible, while predation model companies make things impossible. A production model company enables sharing; a predation model company prevents it.

The predation model depends on legal mechanisms to force compliance - it depends, for example, on court-awarded monopolies, copyright and trade restrictions, prohibitions against production, and similar mechanisms. While predation model proprietors champion the principles of the free market, they rely on artificial scarcities to stay in business.

Today's predation-model proprietorships include journal and textbook publishers, who rely on cheap or free academic labour paid for by public grants and/or universities, and required textbook purchases in college and university educations.

But we've seen the model in the past, from the original corporate charters granted by monarchs to grant enterprises monopolies over trade and production of certain goods, from the ownership of land and agricultural production in the 1600 and 1700s, to the energy and transport charters of the 1800s and 1900s, to the communications, media and entertainment giants of the 1900s and 2000s. And with proprietary seed stocks and other biological goods being produced in the 2000s we are seeing an enclosure of biology and life itself under commercial ownership, creating, once again, scarcities where none existed.

The production model focuses on helping people produce rather than forcing them out of the market. At each stage of its history, the production model has had to break the predatory monopoly that preceded it.

The opening of the new world ended the proprietorship of feudal lords and fiefs, as a person need no longer depend on a landowner to create crops, but could now emigrate and own his or her own land. And as millions did, the serfs in one land after another were gradually freed, and predatory land-ownership became productive agriculture. And starvation, once common in those lands, was effectively ended.

Where once only charter corporations could undertake business and commerce, the rise of such professionals as accountants, lawyers and clerical staff enabled families and small businesses to flourish. The financial and business services industry was, in the first instance, part of the production model.

In a similar manner, the rise of the automobile and the creation of the road network ended the transportation cartels created by the railroads. For many years (and even today) the automobile has symbolized freedom - and this is not merely a metaphoric freedom, but one for the most part genuine, as people could now travel where they wished without tolls or fares.

Motorized transport, and motors in general, stimulated an entire productive sector - people could transport themselves, procure their own goods, mow their own lawns, till their own fields, lift things, move things, make things - and an entire productive economy developed around these innovations, one so large it dwarfed what existed before it.

Today we are witnessing the conversion of the intellectual properties from a predation to a production model. We are entering an era in which most of us can sing, act, write, draw and paint, compose, author, program and design. These skills, once the preserve of an elite, these products, once carefully hoarded (Disney still talks of the 'Disney Vault' as though it were a good thing) are becoming common and plentiful.

Flat World is and was based on the predation model, even when it was giving content away for free. It was based on this model because it sought to be the proprietor and locus of content production. That's what made it possible for it to so easily add a paywall. If it were based on the production model, the idea of a paywall would seem absurd.

To me, the NC clause means that my content is the output of the economic process, not the input. It is something produced by the productive economy, not something consumed by the predatory economy. It is something that is meant to be shared, not sold. It is something that is intended to be abundant, not scarce. It's value is calculated according to what it contributes, not by what it takes.