Open Education and the Commons

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* Article: Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2012) 'Open education: Common(s), commonism and the new common wealth'. Ephemera, Vol. 12, No. 4.



Open Education, and specifically the Open Education Resources movement, seeks to provide universal access to knowledge, undermining the historical enclosure and increasing privatisation of the public education system. An important aspect of this movement is a reinvigoration of the concept of the commons. The paper examines this aspiration by submitting the implicit theoretical assumptions of Open Education and the underlying notion of the commons to the test of critical political economy. The paper acknowledges the radical possibility of the idea of 'the commons, but argues that its radical potentiality can be undermined by a preoccupation with the freedom of things rather than with the freedom of labour. The paper presents an interpretation of the commons based on the concept of living knowledge and autonomous institutionality (Roggero, 2011), and offers the Social Science Centre in the UK, as an example of an institution of the common. The paper concludes by arguing the most radical revision of the concept of the common involves a fundamental reappraisal of what constitutes social or common wealth."



"There are two distinct forms of Open Education: Open Education itself, and Open Educational Resources; these two terms are often used interchangeably, yet retain subtle differences.

Open Education refers to recent efforts by individuals and organisations across the world to use the Internet to share knowledge, ideas, teaching practices, infrastructure, tools and resources, inside and outside formal educational settings. Although the term Open Education has been used since the 1960s, the current dominant use of the term refers to co-ordinated efforts during the past decade to exploit the growing availability of personal computers and increasingly ubiquitous high-speed networks.

Examples of Open Education initiatives are varied and still emerging but include newly established organisations such as the P2P University; new learning theories, such as Connectivism; and new styles of participatory learning design, such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). All aspects of Open Education place an emphasis on the availability of and advantages afforded by the Internet for the production and exchange of knowledge. For example, the P2P University refers to itself as a ‘grassroots open education project that organises learning outside of institutional walls… leveraging the internet and educational materials available online’ (

P2PU emphasizes its accessibility, low cost and democratic style of bringing together those who wish to teach and those who wish to learn. Connectivism is ‘a learning theory for the digital age’ (Seimens, 2004), a cybernetic theory of personal networks, interdependent nodes and dynamic feedback. Its authors emphasise the inter-related connections made possible by digital networks and the cycle of information that flows from the individual to the network and into organizations. The ‘amplification of learning, knowledge and understanding through the extension of a personal network is the epitome of connectivism’ (Siemens, 2004). MOOCs apply Connectivist learning theory in the design of courses with hundreds or thousands of autonomous participants encouraged to participate through their Personal Learning Environments (PLEs), constructed out of blogs, wikis and other loosely coupled services and aggregated resources from the Internet. From each of these examples, Open Education can be understood as a positive response to the seemingly technologically determined nature of our lives, constructing new opportunities for access to learning, advancing greater democracy in learning design, asserting self-determination and supporting lifelong learning in the face of rapid changes in labour-force requirements.

Open Educational Resources (OER) refers to the worldwide community effort to create an educational commons based on the provision of actual ‘educational materials and resources offered freely and openly for anyone to use and under some licenses to re-mix, improve and redistribute’ (Wikipedia). Typically, those resources are made available under a Creative Commons license and include both learning resources and tools by which those resources are created, managed and disseminated.

In their simplest form, OERs are any teaching or learning resource on the Internet that is licensed for re-use. The largest institutional collection of OERs is published by MIT’s OpenCourseWare project, which has systematically licensed teaching and learning resources for over 2000 of MIT’s courses since 2001 (Winn, 2012). Similarly, recurrent programmes of funding in the UK have led to the creation and release of OERs across the higher education sector and are available from JORUM, the national repository for open teaching and learning materials.

In just ten years, a relatively small number of educators have created a discernible movement that has attracted millions of pounds from philanthropic and state funding. This movement, growing out of hundreds of universities, colleges, schools and other organisations, has produced tens of thousands of educational resources, often entire course materials that can be used by anyone with access to the Internet. Today, there are international consortia, conferences, NGOs and government reports that promote the opening up of education, to which Open Education and OERs are central.

Open Education is a pragmatic response by educators and researchers to the growth of the Internet, using a widespread technology to undertake what its advocates see as both a public good and to exploit an opportunity to effect educational reform. The question remains open as to whether Open Education and OER constitute a revolution in teaching and learning, as their proponents claim:

- We are on the cusp of a global revolution in teaching and learning. Educators worldwide are developing a vast pool of educational resources on the Internet, open and free for all to use. These educators are creating a world where each and every person on earth can access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge. They are also planting the seeds of a new pedagogy where educators and learners create, shape and evolve knowledge together, deepening their skills and understanding as they go. (Cape Town Open Education Declaration, 2007)" (


"Open Education and OER are progressive attempts to provide educational materials that are openly accessible and re-usable. While these forms of provision stretch the limits of the laws of intellectual property, they do not undermine the laws of private property, but further liberalise the conditions through which knowledge can be exchanged. While these new educational resources provide for closer engagement between student and academic they do not undermine the ways in which capitalist work is organised by concentrating on the freedom of things over the freedom of people.

Despite the dynamism generated by the digitalisation of social life and the apparently endless possibilities provided by this ‘technological utopia’, the logic of the so called virtual revolution does not escape the conditions where ‘the dull compulsion of economic life completes the subjection of the labourer to the capitalist’ (Marx, 1990).

Any attempt to escape these conditions demands recasting the meaning and purpose of work so that it is based on an emancipatory notion of what constitutes wealth in a newly substantiated post-capitalist world. This new form of common wealth is materialised through an understanding that capitalism has made an exponential improvement in the productive power and knowledge of humanity, but that these powers and knowledge have been used to oppress its own productive populations (Postone, 1993). Any revolutionary project must be based on the need re-appropriate this knowledge and power for the populations that have produced it; not simply to make available new knowledge in less restricted 'open' forms as OERs, nor to reify new forms of property relations through commonism; but, rather, to produce a new common sense: raising critique to the level of society so that society can recognise its real nature and recompose itself in a more sustainable and resilient form.

The question for a really open education is not the extent to which educational resources can be made freely available, within the current constraints of capitalist property law; but, rather, what should constitute the nature of wealth in a post capitalist society. That is the really open question."

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