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Stephen Downes

Higher Education and Rich People

The fallout from the Jeffrey Epstein scandal continues to roil. Ethan Zuckerman has left the Media Lab. Joi Ito has resigned in disgrace, Nicholas Negroponte offered a bone-headed defense, Lawrence Lessig has written a bone-headed defense, an official …

My Sunday Seven

If you take a look at this George Couros post, you’ll learn that the “Sunday Seven” is by the Burgess Consulting community, of which “IMPress Books” is a part of as a subsidiary company. I have nothing to do with either – but you can get my Sunday Seve…

Your Art, My Art

The New York Times today came out with a list of “the 25 works of art made after 1970 that define the contemporary age, by anyone, anywhere.” What struck me as most significant was how little any of the works meant to me.Most of them I had never heard …

Whence the Virtue of Open

The word ‘whence’ means “from what place, source, or cause”, and that is the question I would like to address with respect to the virtue of ‘open’.The question is raised in the context of Heather Morrison’s recent comments on The Dialectic of Open. Unf…

Wittgenstein and Connectivism

NB This is only a very preliminary sketch of what should really be a longer treatment.I was asked:1) Today I found a great idea in your work that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. You said at page 555 (Connectivism and connective knowledge):”Lan…

The Failure of Reason

During yesterday’s Future Trends Forum conversation featuring Kathleen Fitzpatrick – the author of Generous Thinking and proponent of reasoned debate between opposing parties – I asked a question that went roughly along the following lines:What if reas…

On Connectivism and Scale

Image: Sui Fai John Mak –   Martin Weller makes some excellent points in his recent post on connectivism and scale, and they merit a short response.Weller is writing in res…

On the Creative Commons Certificate Course

A week ago, by way of a post in the Creative Commons Open Education Platform discussion list, I became aware of the Creative Commons Certificate course, “an in-depth course about CC licenses, open practices and the ethos of the Commons.” I did’t know that it had been offered previously, but no matter. What really caught my attention was the $500 USD price tag. That’s a lot of money for an open online course generally, let alone a very short introductory course taught by a non-accredited institution.

I posted a response on the discussion list but it was a couple of days days before it appeared, so instead of waiting to see if it ever appeared I also wrote a post in OLDaily, saying the following:

It’s an online course for rich people. “The 10-week online course offers online instruction, a discussion forum and support for cohorts of approximately 25 learners per instructor.” I don’t see why Creative Commons could not have learned from the many lessons learned about offering open online learning, and I’m not sure I can trust Creative Commons as the host of an ‘open education platform’.

This sort of response seems pretty obvious to me, and honestly, I don’t see why I have to be the one to point these things out.

Cable Green – who had posted the original announcement – responded to my post via Twitter (there were some other responses as well, which I’ll address below). It’s a multi-part Twitter thread, and I’ll just address each part in turn (Cable’s tweets in italics).

Hi Stephen. I can’t figure out how to provide public comments on your blog post, so I shall reply here. Your readers may also be interested in our recent CC Certificate Blog post.

With tongue firmly in cheek, I could point out that he could have responded on his blog – the very blog he pointed me to in order to suggest a link that was not a response to my concerns.

Taking the CC Certificate is, of course, optional. If someone is already an expert in CC licensing, copyright, public domain, fair dealing / use rights, open licensing policies, etc., they may not need the course.

I don’t know what ‘optional’ even means in this context. The course is not a part of a larger program or anything like that. It is certainly not a requirement for the use of a CC license  or for use of the web generally.

The most relevant sense in which it could be ‘optional’ would the case where the course is not needed in order to obtain the CC certificate. But in this sense, they appear to be a package. If you want the certificate, you have to take the course. This becomes clear with the next tweet…

For people who do want a facilitated learning experience on these topics, want to increase their expertise, and/or want to be able to say they are “CC Certified” – this might be a good fit: 

To be clear – if you want the certificate, then you need the course. It’s true that you might be an expert even without the course – I certainly consider myself one – but you will not be a certified expert without the course. That will cost you $500.

Why does this even matter? Isn’t an expert an expert? Well – sure. But all else being equal, if you want to (say) offer training, act as a consultant, or get hired for employment, having the certificate gives you an advantage. After all, people can’t assess your expertise directly. So in a very real sense, the only people who are qualified are people who have paid for the certificate.

These certificate courses are in a very real sense rendering moot any actual expertise a person may have, and substituting its own definition, and validation, of expertise. This is an inconvenience to a person like me. It poses a significant barrier to people in the Global South, where there is a greater reliance on such certificates, and where the cost is prohibitive. 

We find that people who think they are experts often are not as accurate on these complex topics as they think they are – and they are thankful for the opportunity to hone their skills, with a trained facilitator, in a global community of learners. I am one of these people.

I checked to see if Cable was one of the people who took the course and graduated with a certificate, and he was not. It’s hard to imagine him paying the money (especially if it is out of his own pocket) to become qualified with his own certificate.

That said, there is no question that an opportunity to hone one’s skills, especially in conjunction with experts, is something to celebrate. But it is very important to distinguish here between the learning and the certificate. The learning might be useful and worthwhile – but would people be paying $500 for it were it not for the (exclusive!) certificate?

This is an important point. There are many ways to learn about Creative Commons and open licensing, almost all of which are less expensive (most a lot less expensive) than this course. But there is only one way to get the certificate, at it is offered in a manner that does not even try to be affordable.

From where I sit, it is as though the proprietors of this course don’t even grasp the concept of open education, which makes me very concerned that they are defining something called the ‘open education platform’.

All of the CC Certificate content is updated (as of April 19, 2019), available for free, in multiple, downloadable, editable files on the CC Certificate web site.

Quite so. I didn’t spot it at first – it was behind a link labeled Certificate Resources, which was not obvious to me. And the full materials were not available when I posted my original comments, though they were up to date as of the 19th of April.

Significantly, the first thing you read when you go to the site is, “Accessing this CC BY content is not a substitute for enrolling in the official course, and does not qualify you for CC Certification.” This again speaks to my concern here that Creative Commons made no particular effort to offer an open course; it offered (some) materials under a Creative Commons license, but clearly (to judge by the comments from participants) there was much more that took place behind closed doors. All this is why I say Creative Commons did not even try to offer an open course.

I would also like to observe that the contents available online – read them here – do not constitute a course. They might constitute a one-day workshop. They are certainly not authoritative – I believe, for example, that you have to have a law degree to teach law, so the section on ‘copyright law’ is not a section on law. Important information – such as a discussion of WIPO – is limited to footnotes and current only up to 2017.

This is really important.Offering a certificate – even a course – implies a certain degree of credibility, credibility that can be earned one of two ways: through peer review, such as enabled by the course accreditation process, or through openness, in which all the content and instruction in the course are available for public scrutiny. Creative commons has not demonstrated either type of evidence for credibility. And yet its certificates can be used to suggest that some people – those who did not pay them $500 – are not qualified to work in the field. Because that is the only purpose of a certificate – to separate between qualified and unqualified practitioners.

Scholarships. CC submitted a proposal to fund 62 new scholarships for our colleagues in the global south. CC already budgeted for 15 scholarships in 2019. Goal: provide $400 scholarships, reducing the cost to $100 for global south participants.
We plan to announce the scholarship program at the upcoming CC Summit, launch the scholarship program in June, and admit scholarship recipients into our September, 2019 courses.

These tweets puzzled me for a few moments. The idea of a scholarship seems very much like an afterthought, as though the question of access hadn’t occurred to them.

But more importantly, why would Creative Commons need to submit a proposal to discount its own educational offerings? Then I realized – they weren’t. The proposal was to an external agency – not named in the tweet, but probably a foundation like Hewlett (though I stress that this is speculation). 
Am I the only one who sees this? The application to whatever charity is to redirect money that could be going to education providers in the Global South, sending it instead to pay the artificially inflated cost of a made-up credential.

As I said in other posts on the discussion list,

I understand that there is a cost if instructors are teaching 30-person classes. But what we know about online learning tells us that there are much more efficient ways of making the same learning available at a much lower cost. I doubt that even a scholarship program can improve the outcomes of such an inefficient approach….
One of the major objectives of our original MOOCs was to enable MOOC participants to create interaction and facilitation for each other. This is because there is no system in the world where a 1:30 instructor:student ratio will scale to provide open and equitable access.

In my view, this model worked very well. It wasn’t a case of “the blind leading the blind” because in any large course there will be some people who are not ‘blind’. The conversations that were needed – explaining concepts, digging deeper, providing motivation, etc. – could be (and were!) provided by participants themselves. Even in the case of the xMOOC, where no real interaction was provided at all, students created their own communities and provided this for themselves.

If Creative Commons were serious about open access,. they would explore some of these options. The fact that they instead turned to the least efficient and most expensive approach is very concerning.

That’s why it is so disappointing to read that they are applying for funding for scholarships. Not only does it redirect otherwise useful money, it does so in a manner that seems indifferent to the cost of the activity.

We are also working with State and Provincial systems of education that have open edu programs. They are purchasing CC Certificate “seats” for their members in bulk – taking the financial pressure off teachers, professors and librarians.

This is a model that worked well for commercial software vendors. I don’t know what sort of discounts would be available – if the commercial model is followed, this information would be proprietary.

That’s it for Cable’s tweets. There were some other remarks. Chauncey Huffman @chaunce88 wrote:

I understand the point you’re trying to make, but I feel like you’re mischaracterizing the CC organization. The certification is 100% optional, and people can still be “experts” without the certification. The price is subjectively reasonable for the amount of work put into it.

As before, I don’t know what is meant by ‘optional’ in this context. I do know that the certificate is intended to confer competitive advantage to those who have one, and that the cost of the certificate confers that advantage to those who are able to pay the fee (which is, again, a substantial barrier in the Global South).

More to the point, the price of something in a market economy is not related to the cost of production, but rather, the purchaser’s willingness and ability to pay. This is based on he value of the offering. It is arguable – and I would argue – that the value is not in the learning, but in the Certificate, and the people who can pay the cost because they expect to recoup that investment in future earnings (and competitive advantage over people who do not have the certificate).

Or to put the same point another way – I have put in at least as much effort into this post as was put into one of the units in the course, but nobody will be paying me any money for it, even if the learning is equally valuable.

Creative Commons is trading on the brand value of its name (promoted by the use of its licenses by people around the world) in order to confer some of its credibility to paying customers by means of the Certificates. If they weren’t doing this, the certificates wouldn’t be necessary – people would be happy to sign up and pay the fee for the learning itself.

Roger Gillis @rcgillis writes

Paid the $500 USD for the certificate- well worth it, in my opinion. I’m privileged to have the fund to be able to do so. 

Quote so. Privileged.

Open does not equal free – there’s a tremendous amount of work and community behind the CC certificate. Please strive to recognize the invisible labour behind making a lot of open work possible.

Lots of work is done by lots of people for free. Indeed, pretty much every piece of work licensed under Creative Commons is available to people for free. The whole purpose of the Creative Commons license is to make content available for free.

No, you say? Go to the Creative Commons website. Read the tagline: “When we share, everyone wins.” Read the subhead: “Help us build a vibrant, collaborative global commons.” Does this sound like an organization that really means “buy an online course for $500?” It’s quite a bait and switch if it does.

Certainly, the phrase ‘open education’ (as used in, say, the ‘Open Education Platform’) conveys a sense of ‘free’, or at the very least, affordable. I’ve covered this in a previous post. Pretty much nobody working on open access, open educational resources, or open education, is doing so in order to promote $500 tuition fees for questionable certificates.

Let me be clear. I recognize the work being undertaken to promote open work. I also recognize that people have the right to be paid for their work. But the difference between open work and the traditional commercial alternative is that open comes without a price tag. Otherwise, it may as well be some schlock produced and marketed by Pearson or McGraw-Hill.

And when you talk about the tremendous amount of work and effort required to produce something -remember, it cost me $12 to see Titanic, it costs me $10 a month for Netflix, and about $7 to listen to all of music on Google. Compared to that, a $500 cost for some fairly minimal content on open licensing seems, well, excessive.

That’s all I have for now. Maybe Creative Commons could reconsider either (a) trying to offer this course as open education, or (b) dropping the Open Education Platform, for reason of lack of credibility.

Science and Society

I was asked:I’m a second-year student at Sciences Po Paris on the Nancy French-German campus. As part of a research project on the link between science and society, I’m working with a small group of other students on the concept of MOOCs. Therefore,…


You sometimes hear me stumble over the word ‘value’, the way I did in a recent interview. Let me explain why.The word ‘value’ is widely used in our field and elsewhere. It is intended to represent a measurement of the ‘benefit’ something might produce …

Call for Proposals #StephensNext60

So I don’t have an original bone in my body, as proven by this blatant rip-off of Ken Bauer’s post of the same title and theme.Three Decade MarkI will turn 60 in April and so far things have turned out pretty well. I’m still here, which is an accomplis…

Does God Exist?

Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Saint-Jean-de-Luz, photo by the author.Prompted by a sketch on CBC radio, I was curious this morning to see how Google would answer the question, “Does God exist?” To my mild surprise, the first page of results consisted o…

Making Baseball Fun Again

Photo: Caitlin Tomotsugu throws a pitch. Photo credit: Darryl Gershman, MLBBaseball is of course a great sport. But there’s no end to the things people want to do to make it ‘better’.For example, some changes will be tried out in the Independent Atlant…

What is the Value of OLDaily?

OK, before you panic, I’m not thinking of quitting OLDaily. It’s not that kind of post.

But still.

When I changed email providers a few months ago I lost a lot of readers and my totals never did recover. (*) Nor am I being invited to speak at conferences any more. I feel pretty good about what I’ve done over the years and so I’m not having a crisis of confidence or anything like that. But it does raise some questions in the back of my mind.

Partially, it’s a generational thing. There are some fantastic new voices that have emerged over the last decade or so that need to be heard. Add to that the fact that more and more marginalized voices are being heard, which again is terrific. These voices are occupying center stage now, as they should.

But it’s not just that. I wrote on Mastodon a few days ago, “I’m not sure anyone has any status in online learning any more. I’m wondering, maybe it’s not even a discipline any more. There’s learning analytics and open pedagogy and experience design, etc., but I’m not sure there’s a cohesive community looking at what we used to call ed tech or e-learning.”

And I think there’s something to that. As I was preparing posts for OLDaily yesterday today I was thinking about the wide range of topics and issues covered:

Now none of these is a topic that is not a part of educational technology. When we go back (say) to the territory I mapped out in The Future of Online Learning (1998) and the original About OLDaily page (2001), all of these fit naturally into place. And another dozen, and another dozen.

But in 2019 there’s no community that encompasses all of these things. Indeed, each one of these topics has not only blossomed its own community, but each one of these communities is at least as complex as the entire field of education technology was some twenty years ago. It’s not simply that change is exponential or that change is moving more and more rapidly, it’s that change is combinatorial – with each generation, the piece that was previously simple gets more and more complex.

In 1999 you could specialize in HTML, CSS and Javascript. In 2019, that’s almost impossible. This simple set of three specifications has become a proliferation of standards and technologies, everything from CSS preprocessors (like LESS and SASS) to website package managers like Bower and Webpack to backend frameworks like Node.js to packages like Angular, Vue and React. No name only a few of the many pathways you can follow.

Each part of educational technology has become similarly complex. The humble LMS began as a content management system, then integrated into student information systems (SIS) and management information systems (MIS). Then the content was organized into simple sequencing and content packaging, before evolving into learning design. Meanwhile, to work with multiple technologies we needed learning tools interoperability (LTI), and this needed to work with learning analytics and learner record stores (LRS) using the experience API (xAPI), formerly called Tin Can.

Here’s another example, that just popped up today. Solid, you may recall, is the project by Tim Berners-Lee and company to create a distributed social web. This page makes it clear just how difficult and complex that task is. It’s a ‘roadmap’ to becoming a Solid developer – that is, it identifies and links to the different things you need to know. The ‘basics’ include identity, DOM manipulation, APIs and more, not to mention graph data and RDF. You’ll also need package managers like Yarn or (Node.js) NPM. Then you can move on to React, a Javascript framework for dynamic web interfaces. After that, you can begin to learn Solid itself.

That’s just the technology side. On the part of social, cultural and theoretical knowledge, we’ve had similar combinatorial explosions. We used to be able to speak of K12, post-secondary and corporate learning as distinct and well-defined categories, but with Ed Reform in the U.S. K-12 became mired in a host of issues, while post secondary education was dealing with everything from blended learning to e-learning consortia to stackable credentials.

I could go on – and, of course, the whole point of this post is that I could go on and on and on. The first was challenging enough in the 1990s, but today there is no field any more. People have specialized into their own discipline, their own subfield, each with its own community, its own professional network, and its own way of seeing the world.

Thus it has ever been – this is what Kuhn identified as ‘normal science’ and we’ve seen the practice repeat generation after generation after generation. The ‘fifth generation’ identified in one of the papers above, or the ‘fourth industrial age’ identified in another paper that isn’t on the list yet are not counting Kuhnian revolutions (though I’m sure the proponents all see themselves as that), they are counting stages of progression within normal science.

And I’ve never been good at normal science. I don’t burrow down into a specific discipline and look for problems within a standard framework. Look at AI today, and that’s what defines the field – it’s so normalized that there are standard problems, standard data sets, and competitions for the best algorithms (judged by standardized criteria) against these. From a certain perspective, these are no different from the learning technology competitions pioneered by people like Brandon Hall a decade or more ago.

I’m not sure we’ve had our Kuhnian moment in education yet. As Jenny Mackness pointed out in her post earlier today, we’re still “tinkering with the system” in education. As she says, quoting McGilchrist,“we focus on practical issues and expect practical solutions, but I think nothing less than a change of the way we conceive what a human being is, what the planet earth is, and how we relate to that planet, is going to help us.” I can’t count how often I’ve been asked to write or talk about the “practical implications” of my work, as though you could take connectivism (say) and simply apply it to yet another midwesten college psychology class and get improved test scores.

And I think now that a couple of things are true. One thing is that people have a certain amount of tolerance for talk about epistemic revolutions, and at that point they declare that they’ve had enough. We’re living in an age of Trump and Brexit and blockchain and global climate change and the ascendancy of China and the very real possibility to total economic collapse, and the patience of people tinkering with the foundations of society has run out.

And the other thing is, you only get to declare one epistemic revolution in your lifetime. Even if you see your view of things co-opted, or misinterpreted, or even if it’s wrong and you need a few revisions (like Wittgenstein did, like Kuhn did), you don’t get any do-overs. An epistemic revolution is a generational change thing, it’s not a road-to-Damascus thing. People don’t ‘convert’ to the new way of seeing the world (prophets (and there are many) notwithstanding).

I’ve used up both. People don’t want to hear how the system should be saved any more; they’re too concerned about preserving what they have. And I don’t have a second message – I’m not going to become (say) a learning analytics guru, because I’m just too interested in all the other bits of our now-very-complex discipline, and I’m not going to let them go.

Which gets us back the the question of why I can count my appearances on one hand. The work I’m doing isn’t serving anyone at the moment. It’s like those early days, when I was learning to be a philosopher. I was too young to change then, and I’m too old to change now.

So what is the value of OLDaily? I don’t know. In one sense, it’s the same value it always had – it’s a place for me to chronicle all those developments in my field, so I have a record of them, and am more likely to remember them. And I think it’s a way – as it always has been – for people who do look at the larger picture to stay literate. Not literate in the sense of “I could build an educational system from scratch” but literate in the sense of “I’ve heard that term before, and I know it refers to this part of the field.”

Am I OK with that? It doesn’t matter. It’s out of my hands. I’m just happy to be doing it, offering whatever service I can with a smile and a song in my heart, and I’m going to continue to work as hard at it as I ever have.

Email: 228 subscribers for OLWeekly and 454 for OLDaily.
Feedly: I have “2K followers” for the RSS 2.0 feed, and another 207 for the RSS 0.91 feed.
Website: January, 2019: 16K visitors, 46K visits, 425K page views. OLDaily.xml had 44K page views, 2019. OLDaily.htm had 1664 views. The home page got 21K page views.
Twitter: @Downes – 9349, @OLDaily: 5781
YouTube: 753 subscribers
LinkedIn: 2287 followers

New Issues for OERs

This is based on my contribution to the new Creative Commons ‘Education Platform’ discussion of issues related to open educational resources (OERs). This is the next step following the development of a set of principles for the Platform.(I’m not sure o…

Learning Electron – Part 2

Continuing from Part 1The story so farIn Part 1 I covered the basics of Electron up to and including building executable applications from the Node.js application.In particular I looked at the fundamental role played by the package.json file in definin…

Learning Electron – Part 1

Over the holidays this year I indulged myself in some guilt-free play: learning Electron. I ran across it reading my Medium feed, via this article demonstrating how to build a sound-machine app using Electron. I didn’t build the sound-machine, but I bu…