Sunday, October 28, 2007

Open Ed Week 9: Free Culture, Free Voice

I chose to read Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig.

I think the open education movement can learn a lot about the idea put forth in Free Culture about the importance of free speech and allowing all voices to be heard. These ideas can be applied to the instructional strategies that open educational materials use, the methods in which they are disseminated, and the formative evaluation methods they follow.

It seems to me that most educational materials have one voice. The voice of the creator. Like the MPAA or the RIAA who comprise the few voices that speak for everyone else and take measures to assure their continued authority, some forms of education use a single all-knowing voice tell us what the truth is, and that they are the main authority on a subject. Free Culture talks often about the suppression of technologies that would allow a more diverse set of voices to be heard as well as suppression of the voices themselves. Lessig is clearly very concerned about this issue.

Open education can be seen as a way to spread the knowledge of the few to the many and it is a laudable movement. But in the actual instruction being done does open education allow the few to speak for the many, or does it give ample opportunity for self-expression specifically among its users, the learners and teachers? I think that the former is more common.

Open education needs to take a hard look at what voice is speaking in its resources and whether students who are participating in a class, or teachers using open educational materials can be heard. Perhaps some reasons that the few speak for the many in open education includes the fact that OER generally come from more rich and powerful places, they seldom do any formative evaluation in which they ask for input from the user, and instructional practices that allow for students to have a voice are rarely followed.

First of all, it seems to me that users of open educational resources are most likely not from the same location or culture of those that produce open educational resources. Most OER come from a rich and powerful places of the world because that is who has the money and other resources to create them. So the voice of the rich and powerful is placed into the OER, not because of some evil intent, but simply because that is the mindset of the creator. Localization is very important to help alleviate this concern. The idea that knowledge will forever govern ignorance should continue to be a driving force behind the open education movement, but let's not forget the power of the voice that we use in our materials. As with all education, OER must strike a proper balance between being culturally specific and useful, to being culturally general and ambiguous.

One way to give open educational resource users a voice is to do formative evaluation on those materials by taking input from users. Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative attempts this by taking statistics from its users. From these statistics the system can determine in what areas learners are struggling and offer clarification or remediation. Technologies are not quite to the point where artificial intelligence can be manipulated to easily change a lesson in real time based on a person's input. But we are making progress. Things that can be done now with the technologies that we have include giving the user a choice about what to learn first etc., allowing a user to make decisions on what to learn, taking as much learner input as possible and changing lessons based on it, and encouraging teachers who use OER to do all of these things. In this way we are giving voice to a larger number of participants.

Another way to give voice to participants is to use instructional techniques in the actual delivery of instruction that allow for discussion, reflection and learner-centered activities rather than direct instruction techniques. Technologies do not currently make it very easy to hold a quality synchronous meeting over the Internet but they are getting better. Lessig mentions the power of the blog, where people can post items for peer review and content. Ideas are discussed at length and arguments are made. Technologies certainly allow for a quality discussion to happen over the course of time on blogs. The voice of the student is heard.

Now these techniques may seem radical and indeed instruction that relied only upon the voice of the students would probably not meet any standardized goals. Not all instruction can use the voice of the students. Education must strike a balance between meeting the needs of the institution (test scores, learning objectives etc.) and meeting the needs of the student (expression, desire to learn a certain topic, etc.).

I think another point that the open education movement can learn from Free Culture is that there will always be those who are against giving something of value away for free. Lessig mentions that our society has basically said that if something has value, then someone (beside the public) must have rights to it. He calls this, “if value, then right.” Lessig talks about how intellectual property has become very protected and there are many powerful and rich organizations who are willing to fight to keep it from getting to the public. Congress and the supreme court are usually on their side. So the open education movement needs to be careful to have everything legally in order before it proceeds. But it need not view opposition with with as much pessimism as Lessig seems to. When opposition comes, it is a sign that progress is being made enough to awaken those who would oppose the movement. It seems to me that giving away educational materials has been a challenge. I think that giving away credentialed degrees will be more of one.

Finally it seems that the open education movement should know (and already knows) how unconstitutional our copyright laws are in the United States and use Creative Commons or other effective licensing as a way to ensure the availability of open educational resources. Part of the discussion that follows is from a debate between Lawrence Lessig and Jack Valenti that I also listened to. It was clear to me that Lessig was much more well informed to talk about both sides of the issues at hand while Valenti seemed only to know his side and nothing more.

Lessig, Valenti Debate (mp3)

An interesting part of this debate involves Lessig advocating a copyright system that the founding fathers of our nation intended. Jack Valenti counters that no one can really know what the founders intended because we cannot read their minds now, and times have changed anyway. Lessig did not have a chance to speak to this subject afterward, but he does reiterate what the actual words in the constitution are. In the book Free Culture, Lessig makes it clear what the founding fathers did intend and the best way we can determine what they intended is by their behavior at the start of our nation. They set the copyright term at 14 years. So it is quite clear to me that something similar to a 14 year copyright term is what the founding fathers of the United States intended. No reading of minds was needed.

I believe that the copyright term as it currently exists in the United States is unconstitutional and also stifles the progress of the same science and useful arts that the constitution was intended to protect. Lessig believes that limiting the copyright term allows for more voices to be heard and that this is a first amendment right. His system of copyright that he proposes imposes a limit to copyright in years (50) and then requires the owner to re-register the copyright after that for another term.

I would think that an optimal time would be around 15 years, the average time calculated by another article we read by Pollock. I would require copyrighted items to be registered once they are created, using a very easy and inexpensive method, if works are not registered on this database, then they are not copyrighted. This cataloging system, as Lessig mentions, eliminates the difficulties in searching to find out whether a creative work is copyrighted. After the 15 year period the author would have the opportunity to renew the copyright for another period specified by the author up to 15 years. Then a third period could be specified up to 15 years, making the total allowed time 45 years. This would be the last term of renewal given to the author of the work. After the last period of renewal expires, or if the author chooses not to copyright a work in the first place, or if they choose not to extend the copyright of the work in the second or third period, the work will fall into the public domain as the constitution states.

Pollock talks about differing terms of optimal copyright with different numbers of years associated with it, but asserts that the optimal time for holding a monopoly on a creative work will decrease over time. Lessig also makes the point in Free Culture that copyright laws need simplicity. For that reason I like the idea of picking an average or optimal number and just saying all creative works fall into public domain after this number of years. Then I allow for the extension in case a particular work is still functioning in a way that promotes the progress of the arts (or the artist just wants it to be renewed). Keep in mind that fair use still plays a part in this program, critiques, parodies etc. can still be done on a creative work even with the more limited copyright term.

Just changing the law to require registration of all works that authors want copyrighted would fix much of what is wrong about copyright laws in the United States. A database would make it easier to find who owns a copyright, and not requiring all intellectual “property” to be copyrighted as soon as it is made will allow much more free culture to enter into the public domain when it is created.

One point of departure that I have from Lessig is the idea that derivitave works should always be allowed on even copyrighted works. Lessig mentions that the founding fathers did not originally protect any copyrighted works from being used for derivative works. He seems to laud this availability of works to be remixed and adapted and desires that all works should allow for derivatives. I think that an original creator of a work would be more likely to release a creative work such as a film to the public with the understanding that no one (for a limited time, at least) will be able to market its characters as toys, or create a coloring book with the characters, or release a derivative which is very close to the original work online for free.

The constitution says that Congress has the power to, "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts...” I believe that the actions that congress takes in giving a monopoly to a creative artist should “promote the progress of science and useful arts” and this should be the main question that congress asks in making laws. Does the law promote this progress for the greatest amount of people, or does it stifle progress for most while promoting it for the few? Making works of art available for remix right at the beginning may very well stifle the progress of art.

I also view a brighter future than Lessig with regard to copyright laws and free culture in general. The next term of the copyright act will end in 2019. I think that there will be more lobbying to once again extend the copyright term from big media, but I also think that opposition will be greater. Lessig argued before the supreme court for a limit to congresses power to continue to extend the copyright term and said that by extending the act they are essentially not limiting monopolies on creative works as they should be. I think this argument may be more powerful in 2019 because a continued extension will only prove Lessig's point. There are always opposing opinions though and like in 1998, the court could say that what has been done before can be done again.

Also, creative works that are not copyrighted fully are proliferating thanks to licensing options that turn the copyright laws against itself. It seems to me that more and more people are seeing the value of such licensing options and opposing big media. Hopefully a combination of these two items, a realization of the unconstitutional nature of congresses copyright law extension, and the increased perceived value of creative works licensed differently, will lead to a climate that has more sensible attitudes toward copyright and allows the term of copyright to end.


  1. Thank you for the Lessig vs Valenti debate in mp3 format, I had never heard their voices before. :-)))Apart from the enjoyment of the humour and wit of both their conversations, I am on Lessig's side in the interpretation of the USA founding fathers' intention in their establishing the duration of copyrights. My impression is that Valenti was sometimes in trouble in refuting Lessig's statements. However, wasn't Lessig a bit too aggressive in his choice of words, or was it just an impression of mine?

  2. Great post, Greg, and thanks for the link to the Lessig-Valenti debate.

    Elisa, yes, Lessig is *always* "a bit too aggressive." I actually agree with a lot of his points but find myself bristling at his extremeness. I think he'd have a better reception with a more logical and less emotionally charged demeanor.

  3. "Education must strike a balance between meeting the needs of the institution (test scores, learning objectives etc.) and meeting the needs of the student (expression, desire to learn a certain topic, etc.)."

    I quite agree with you and try to set that balance right for my students. However, I'm not ready yet because in the context of informal learning I can't respect deadlines myself -I finished reading Free Culture an hour ago!


  4. Speaking of Lessig, "I think he'd have a better reception with a more logical and less emotionally charged demeanor."

    I find this comment interesting because he said himself that his one mistake when going before the supreme court was that he was not appealing to the political (or emotional) side of the debate. So either Lessig incorrectly views himself as an unemotional reasonable academic, or we have him incorrectly categorized.


  5. It seems that so much innovation and change is driven based on technology. "The establishment" tends to try to stop new disruptive technologies, like you mentioned. It's interesting that you've got an mp3 file linked to your posting...remember 6 or 7 years ago in the Napster days: Record companies fought so hard against online file sharing of mp3 files, until someone finally decided, oh, let's sell files for a buck a download online since that is how people are obtaining music anyway. There were even lawsuits about mp3 players as technologies that encourage piracy, and now you stop 10 people on the street, 7 people will have an mp3 player on them and you'll have another 10 walk by who don't hear you trying to talk to them since they have their headphones in. Why are they so afraid of technology?

    Then there's our Italian friends that are facing a possible requirement to register as a professional journalist just to post to their blogs. Say what? There's no way to enforce it. People will blog anyway. Embrace technology rather than make stupid laws and file stupid lawsuits!

    ...but still I love technology, always and forever...