The Cape Town declaration – some thoughts and suggestions

A group of experts, charities, commercial organisations and interested parties got together in Cape Town to look at the issue of openness in education. The output is this declaration. Before coming on to criticism of it, here are some of the key points:

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.

We could argue that, but they’re right to bring attention to the growing OER movement.

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.

Hooray! Good to see pedagogy get a mention, ie it’s not all content. Indeed you could argue that all of the OER effort has been a bit disappointing thus far in its impact on higher education. Maybe that’s because the pedagogy angle isn’t there.

It then goes a bit content-centric again:

These resources include openly licensed course materials, lesson plans, textbooks, games, software and other materials that support teaching and learning.

But you feel some on the committee argued strongly for the next point:

However, open education is not limited to just open educational resources. It also draws upon open technologies that facilitate collaborative, flexible learning and the open sharing of teaching practices that empower educators to benefit from the best ideas of their colleagues. It may also grow to include new approaches to assessment, accreditation and collaborative learning.

This is at least as, if not more, important than the content. Having technologies that shape the way we communicate and collaborate will have an influence back into education. And as for assessment and accreditation – these are absolutely key to changes in educational practice.

They then propose three strategies:

  1. Educators and learners – get involved, so a bottom up drive.
  2. Open educational resources – individuals and institutions to release their content. I’m all for this, but again it’s a bit content-centric for my liking – ‘release the content and they will come’ hasn’t been shown to be a particularly effective strategy.
  3. Open educational policy – governments, school boards etc should make open education a high priority, so the top down balance to 1)

I wouldn’t argue with any of these necessarily, although I would have worded the declaration differently. In a thoughtful piece Stephen Downes is very critical. His main point is that it is a closed document, rather foisted on the rest of us from a group of experts. This is hardly in keeping with the spirit of the venture. He puts it thus:

I find myself at odds with the declaration written by a group of mostly American academics and advocates invited by a foundation to a private meeting in South Africa to author a "fixed and final" declaration on open educational resources…

I do not believe that a panel of hand-picked representatives representating overwhelmingly a certain commercial perspective is qualified or able to speak on behalf of the rest of us. The very people they name – "learners, educators, trainers, authors, schools, colleges, universities, publishers, unions, professional societies, policymakers, governments, foundations and others" – are mostly nowhere present in these deliberations.

As he says, why not put it in a wiki?

He also goes on to argue that it is rooted in the education system, and there is little about empowering self-learning, or peer learning. I’d agree with him here. I’m not sure that was their intention, they mention collaborative learning, so maybe they’d argue it is implicit in their statement. But I would have foregrounded it more, something along the lines of

New technologies, open content and an opening up of opportunities to participate means that radically new models of learning are now possible. These can be based around rich content discovery, social networks, informal learning, commons based peer production, loosely coupled systems, democratic communities and a long tail of interests. Addressing these challenges will require new models of pedagogy, accreditation, guidance, support, licensing and content production.

So will I sign up for it? Yes, there are more people aligned against open education than behind it, so the last thing we need to do is factionalise within our own camp. But, next time, let’s eat our own dog food eh? 


  1. Philipp says:

    Hi Martin:
    The draft was circulated to the Open Courseware Consortium, of which the Open University UK is a member. I am sorry that it was then not shared more widely within your organisation, since your comments would have been very useful; and are useful now!
    There is still some room for improvements mainly in the FAQs which are the real (soya)mince of the declaration. We have also considered multiple versions of the document, and hosting it on a wiki. There is an issue with asking people to sign-off on a declaration that might be changing over time, and having different people sign different versions could dilute the message a bit. I am not sure we found the perfect solution, but we tried do the right thing, and I am glad that while you are pointing out some of these issues, you still feel the final result deserves your support.
    Thanks! P

  2. Martin says:

    Thanks Philipp – I appreciate very much that it is a difficult task, and I understand that it’s necessary to have a group at the start to focus attention. I also think it’s admirable so we shouldn’t get drawn in to disagreements. Having said that ‘openness is a state of mind’ so we have to find ways of resolving some of these difficulties.
    I was very pleased to see pedagogy get a mention though – this will be crucial and is what has been missing in much of the work thus far.

  3. simonfj says:

    Hi Martin,
    I like parts of your 3 strategies, although “‘release the content and they will come’ hasn’t been shown to be a particularly effective strategy”? Maybe not so far as individual institutions like OU are concerned (our content), but 7 billion hits on WikiProjects last month seems like reasonable evidence of people making content “theirs”.
    Hopefully Open_Education_Declaration will become one page where some remote groups can do some improving; this guy is a terrible editor.
    Declarations come and go but they’re just words; a bit like all the suggestions I find made by some various bright minds on their own blogs. No I’m not having a go. It’s got to be better than “developing a vast pool of educational resources”. Arrghh!!!
    Dammit, if they would only listen to MY suggestions for ”the right pool, the world would be a better place. Do you think we have we got to the point yet where we can start reconfiguring the Internet to suit the comms of global groups rwther than the info of National institutions?
    Merry Christmas to all. Please`pass on my regards to Patrick and Alex. They’ve been my archetypes in the OU = Patrick for the content, Alex for the containers.

  4. simonfj says:

    Just a note, if you’re wondering where the article went to.

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