Ownership and Learning

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* Article: Learning and Ownership. Stephen Downes, 2007

URL = http://www.downes.ca/files/FreeLearning.pdf, pp. 139+

Responding to Tony Karrer (http://elearningtech.blogspot.com/2007/06/ple-pwle-discussion-contiunes-corporate.html )


Excerpted from Stephen Downes, in an intervention on the 'ownership' of Personal Learning Environments, but which has broader import:

Stephen Downes (2007):

"Some things cannot be owned.

Owning humans, for example, is illegal. The ownership of a human is called 'slavery', and even if a substantial sum of money is paid, no ownership can be exerted in this way (the closest you can come is the 'personal services contract', of Wayne Gretzky fame).

Can parts of humans, therefore, be owned? In some cases, they evidently can. If a person steals a kidney from a hospital, it is considered theft', which can exist only if the kidney were owned.

Can one person 'own' another person's learning? That is the crux of the debate here.

It does not follow that, simply because the employer is paying the employee, that the employer has a claim to 'own' the person's learning.

Indeed, if a person's learning is 'personal', an aspect of the self, then there is a strong argument, rooted in the argument against slavery, that an employer cannot own a person's learning, for a person's learning is inseparable from the self.

But against that, it ma be that a person's learning is more like a kidney, part of the self, but separable and transferable.


What is it to 'own learning'? There are several distinct possibilities...

On the one hand, it may be to own the products of learning - the notebooks and tests and other artifacts.

On the other hand, it may be to own the knowledge or IP that was (if you will) 'transferred' (if you are a constructivist you need to depict the learning as the product of 'work for hire').

Moreover, it may be to own the 'process' of learning - that is, to dictate and determine the manner in which learning will take place, whether it be by reading, taking a class, watching a video, and so forth.

It may also be to own the 'content' of learning, that is to say, to be able to determine what will be, and what will not be, learned. My employer, for example, may require that I study Adam Smith and not Karl Marx (lest I become an employer-owned socialist).

And finally, it may be to own the learning environment - the classroom, the books, the learning environment, and the rest (though, manifestly, not the teachers).


Let me ask: if the self is produced via (the content of and the process of) learning, then isn't the ownership of (the content of and the process of) learning the same as ownership of the self?

I am not talking about the ownership of the artifacts - of the output of leaning, or the materials used for learning. I am talking about the learning itself.

By analogy: if 'you are what you eat', then isn't the employer attempting to own what you 'are' by controlling what you eat?

We (mostly) wouldn't tolerate this, would we? If McDonald's required that its staff eat Big Macs for lunch, we would consider this abuse, would we not?

If my employer attempts to force me to learn Adam Smith, and not Karl Marx, isn't that the same as my employer forcing me to eat Big Macs, and not whole wheat bread? Isn't this my employer trying to own who I am?

The mere fact that my employer is paying me does not (automatically) entitle my employer to ownership over my learning.

There are (to my knowledge) no legal constructs granting ownership over 'learning' (in the sense of 'what is learned' and 'how it is learned'). That's why I can keep reading Karl Marx, even though my employer doesn't like it.


The 'personal learning environment' (as a concept) is an explicit assertion that learning (as opposed to the artifacts of learning) is owned by the person, not the employer.

To define learning is to define the self, which is why learning must be personal, and manifestly, must never be owned by the employer.

This is why the attempt to define the personal learning environment as something provided by, and owned by, the employer, is contrary to the concept of the PLE.

It is an attempt to create a legal construct in which a new type of ownership is created, ownership over one's learning.

The very tool - the PLE - that is intended to liberate us, could be used instead to enslave us.

There is to me a very clear line of demarcation here.

On the one hand, there is a perspective that is essentially supportive of personal learning, that supports learning, that supports personal development.

And on the other hand, there is a perspective that is essentially supportive of employer ownership, one that is essentially opposed to personal learning, one that views persons as employees to be shaped and moulded according to corporate objectives.

It's a question of ownership; there isn't a middle ground. A person's learning can be owned by the person, or the employer, but not both, for should there ever occur a dispute - whether or not to study Karl Marx, say - one, or the other, must prevail.


Can we remain silent on the question of ownership? Can we not describe the PLE as a list of features only, the way we could (say) describe a word processor?

No. Because the list of features that characterizes a PLE is inseparable from the question of ownership.

For example: one feature of the PLE is that 'the person can choose which learning materials (or learning feeds) to subscribe to).

If the person cannot choose - if ownership over this function is instead vested in the employer, then it is not a PLE.

An analogy: we cannot describe a set of behaviours as 'driving a car' if the function of 'steering' is controlled by some other person.

(It is worth noting that these considerations apply equally in the world of formal learning. If a person is not allowed (by the college or by the school board) to access certain learning materials, then the tool they are using is not a PLE (it is an LMS))." (http://www.downes.ca/files/FreeLearning.pdf, pp. 139+)