Going open in a cannibalistic world (#OMDE)

It was one of those conversations that left me uneasy and disturbed. The point of discussion was to what extent opening resources in distance education is viable, achievable and desirable in a highly competitive higher education landscape. To what extent can we open up our materials under a Creative Commons Licence without losing our market advantage or our distinct value? How do we prevent private and for-profit higher education institutions from cannibalizing our open materials and “stealing” our market share? One proposal was to open some courses as a major PR exercise while defending our intellectual property rights and market share more than ever before.

I was left perturbed and sad.  What made my unease even more uncomfortable was the fact that I did not necessarily have the answers… Since the conversation I pondered, fretted, and struggled to make sense of, one the one hand, our dream and commitment to serve social justice by repositioning knowledge as a common good, and on the other hand, the perceived need to defend our turf and futures as knowledge producers/providers.

Let me start at the beginning (or not quite…).

Knowledge production and sharing had never been open. Since time immemorial knowledge was shared only to those on the “inside”, whether it was the tribe, the craft association, or the initiated in a particular religious setting.  “Having knowledge” gave you a unique opportunity (above other individuals or tribes) of survival, or the after-life (if your were lucky). “Having knowledge” furthermore brought you power, respect and social standing in the community. (For a thought-provoking article on the functioning of literacy as social capital, see Carrington and Luke, 1997). With the advent of modern institutions such as universities and craft guilds, access to knowledge and expertise was defended and protected by means of strict admission requirements. Not only did these organisations protect various canons of knowledge, they also had the power to accredit, validate, or discredit new claims of knowledge. [Sounds familiar doesn’t it?]

Craft associations and guilds, whether the mask carvers in Benin or weavers in India, all had the same basis, namely the celebration and acknowledgement of expertise; exercising the monopoly on their craft in a particular geographical area; and regulating and sanctioning access to these specific expertise bases. Davenport and Prusak (2000), in discussing the measures taken to protect expertise, note that: “Guilds protected their special knowledge; governments prohibited the export of economically important skills. France, for instance, made exporting lace-making expertise a capital crime: Anyone caught teaching the skill to foreigners could be put to death.” (Also see Belfanti, 2004.)

The history of “academic” scholastic inquiry and teaching shares many of the characteristics of knowledge production and control in the context of guilds. We often romanticize Greek and Roman communities of inquiry and academia, forgetting that admittance to these circles was based mainly on gender (one had to be male), being classified as indigenous (one had to be Greek) and citizenship (whether on the basis of property ownership or other criteria). (See the discussion of the development of education in Longstreet & Shane 1993:4–7.)

There is no evidence or examples of instances where the production and dissemination of knowledge were not controlled, regulated and legitimized, whether in the early Academy of Plato (385 BCE), the Buddhist Nalada University in Bihar, India (fifth century BCE), the University of Constantinople, established in 425 BCE, or the medieval madrasahs founded in the ninth century CE. Although the specific purpose and scope of these institutions differed and changed through the centuries, the definition of knowledge and the regulation of access to expertise were always controlled and in the service of the metanarratives of the time.

So why would knowledge production in the 21st century be different? How much chance does opening up knowledge sharing and accreditation have when for-profit education is dramatically on the increase? John Aubrey Douglas, in a post yesterday, 15 July, in the University World News, states that “… the 11 largest for-profit higher education companies,… experienced an increase in enrolments of over 30% between 2008 and 2010”. He continues: “From 2000-10, the sector [for-profits] grew by some 235% in enrolment, increasing its market share from 3% to 9.1% of all tertiary enrolled students”.  The number of new for-profit higher education institutions also grew – “In the five-year period beginning in 2005, a total of 483 new colleges and universities gained regional or national accreditation in the US. Of those new institutions, some 77% were for-profits, compared to only 4% public and 19% independent non-profit institutions” (Douglas, 2012). In the United States, while the for-profit sector still only represent “less than 10% of all enrolments, the for-profit sector currently accounts for 26.2% of all the post-secondary institutions” (Douglas, 2012).

So where does this leave opening up knowledge sharing in an increasingly competitive world?

The above illustrates the immense need to open up knowledge sharing to those who will never be able to enrol in these for-profit institutions, or even public higher education institutions. Never before has the need to open education been greater. Higher education (both public and private) will increasingly fail those who were born poor and will stay poor (see Will Hutton in the Observer, 15 July), forever excluded from the hallowed halls of higher education.

While it is relatively easy (and good for PR and brand building) for brick-and-mortar institutions to share knowledge in open forums, where does this leave distance education institutions whose value proposition, since its early days as correspondence education, was to make content available to students excluded from traditional education?  If the value proposition of distance education will no longer lie in “making content available”, what will be their value contribution? Where does opening up content leave distance education providers in developing countries when private higher education institutions already cannibalize copyrighted materials?

One option is to open some courses, and not even all of a course, as a PR exercise. In sustainability discourses many corporations are practising “green washing” – where the public face of the corporation is one of green and sustainable practices, but beyond Boardroom doors, the hard figures of market share dictate. How many distance education providers will opt for an “open washing” – enticing learners with so-called open courses and making some content freely available, but, behind  closed doors, vigorously protect intellectual property rights and market share?

 In closing:

Knowledge production has always served the powerful and dominant interest in society. Knowledge production and accreditation has never before in history been open.  But never before in history has there been so many that have been (permanently) excluded from education. Distance education has a choice – we can “open wash” and be quoted in the PR wars, or we can realise that content production and sharing will no longer be a value proposition in the 21st century, whether we protect it or not. It is time to think differently (and courageously) about the value we add…

[Image retrieved from http://worldbetweenme.blogspot.com/2010/11/world-between-me-news_18.html, 16 July 2012]


Some parts of this blog were included in an article that was rejected but waiting to be revived…


Belfanti, C.M. (2004). Guilds, patents, and the circulation of technical knowledge. Northern Italy during the early modern age. Technology and Culture, 45(3), 569–589.

Carrington, V. & Luke, A. (1997). Literacy and Bourdieu’s sociological theory: a reframing. Language and Education, 11(2), 96–112.

Davenport, T.H. & Prusak, L. (2000). Working knowledge: how organisations manage what they know. Retrieved from http://wang.ist.psu.edu/course/05/IST597/papers/Davenport_know.pdf.

Longstreet, W.S. & Shane, H.G. (1993). Curriculum for a new millennium. Boston, Mass: Allyn and Bacon.

About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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8 Responses to Going open in a cannibalistic world (#OMDE)

  1. Mpine says:

    Hi Paul

    When I started reading this article I thought you were defending universitities as knowledge producers. True as it may be – but the growth of the internet has not only questioned knowledge production as we know it, but it has redefined knowledge as a commodity to be consumed by anyone, anywhere and anyplace. We live in a global community where knowledge is easily accessible and that in itself requires us to think differently about knowledge production. A very nice piece with a scary illustration.

    • Hi Mpine – thanks for the comment. I agree with you totally that the Internet has changed knowledge production, content creation and access to knowledge/information/content. I think what triggered my thoughts was a number of things such as
      * the notion that we could “open wash” in the sense of enticing students with some OER but then if they want to “real” thing, they must pay
      * the reality that open materials can be cannibalized by a range of other institutions who, because they are smaller, can actually add inter-personal contact that mega distance education institutions just cannot compete with. If “content” (see the comments of Andrew on the difference between ‘content’ and ‘knowledge’ creation is no longer the main value of distance education institutions, what will be our value proposition? Mega distance education institutions will never be able to offer the personalized care and contact that smaller education providers can provide. So I think we have an issue here that we will have to consider, especially in addressing the scepticism regarding OER in higher education.

      Or did I miss something? Paul

  2. Very thought provoking post. One way think about creating value is to see knowledge production and content production as different things. The web is effective in increasing the availability and distribution of content, but knowledge creation is more subjective and open to debate. What does it mean to create knowledge?

    The web is also not a good arbiter of quality. This is why there is still a strong value proposition in accreditation.

    • Andrew – thank you for engaging with the post and your comments. You make a very valid and interesting distinction between ‘knowledge production’ and ‘content production’.

      If ‘knowledge production’ refers to original knowledge that is produced, I suspect that there is very little of this in most higher education institutions. I suspect that though there are instances of new knowledge being produced, that most of the ‘knowledge’ produced in higher education is regurgitated content. A contributing factor in this is most probably that teaching has become a standardized practice where faculty cannot change ‘content’ as they wish or as they discover ‘new’ knowledge. Except for the standardization of content, accreditation and professional bodies also require ‘standard’ content – resulting often in fossilized content.

      I further suspect that most ‘knowledge production’ on the Internet is mostly acts of bricolage and curation – re-assembling arguments from other authors into a new argument (this blog included). So maybe the deeper question that we need to answer is the nature of “new knowledge”. On the other hand, I also belief that as individuals engage with content, reflect on it and act on their reflection by sharing it, albeit in an altered form, that it adds to knowledge and can, in a certain sense, be seen as ‘knowledge production’.Or do I miss something?

      Your last point regarding the web as a “good arbiter of quality” is another interesting point. Yes and no. I think we are at the cusp of a need to deconstruct ‘quality’ with number of hits, cites, likes and comments. There is also just too much content on the Net to really judge. Something that is of appalling quality may actually get more hits and citations than something of better quality but which disappears in cyberspace.

      I suspect that accreditation of OER will be a major player in the acceptance of OER in the higher education and training environment. We should however also not forget that accreditation is not neutral and that accrediting bodies serve the dominant social, economic and political discourses of the day. A case in point is Galileo whose work was not accredited by the accrediting body of his era…


      • When I wrote the comment, I was thinking about value propositions that are distinct from content development. So, the idea of individuals engaging with content to produce personal knowledge is what I had in mind. Maybe calling it ‘understanding production’ would be better.

        I am putting this through my own experience as a teacher. I’ve taught mostly small classes (both traditional and online) where I am able to motivate students and improve understanding through one on one and small group interactions. In this context, there is a clear difference between the content and the value the teacher adds to the educational experience.

        In your distance learning model where the content is the educational experience, the distinction may be less meaningful.

      • Andrew – I find the notion of “understanding production” very interesting, and in the light of our conversation, very enlightening. Thank you for sharing it.

        You raise an interesting point regarding the difference between knowledge production on the one hand, and understanding production on the other. This prompts a a further thought (sorry…). The moment a person engages with content, the content continues “exist” untouched by the fact that someone engaged with it. The content however “lives on”, albeit in altered forms, in the mind of the one who engaged with it. If we accept for now that content is altered when we engage with it, the this altered form of content is actually “new” knowledge, and the act of engaging with content, therefore knowledge production. Which reminds me of the debates whether texts only have one meaning…

        Mmm, way too abstract for a Saturday morning… Will still think on this one. Thanks!

  3. I agree that content can and does get altered by the people who engage with it. What worries me is that, at least with factual knowledge, it is way too easy to reenforce away incorrect understanding. The more passive the engagement, the greater the risk. See this critique of the Kahn Academy videos as an example:

    I like the idea of viewing growth of personal knowledge by individuals as a form of new knowledge. Doesn’t that cut right to the heart of what education is all about?

  4. Andrew – great video. Thanks for sharing. Reminds me of a number of things “in the heart of education” –
    1. Start where the students are – Vygotzky’s Zone of Proximal Development, etc
    2. The nature and impact of a “triggering” event” – not just to get students interrested, but to specifically address misconceptions, etc.
    3. A tool is only as good as the assumptions of the person behind/in it 🙂
    4. I quite like to work done on “threshold concepts” and how we should take care to address these and ensure students competency in these before going on – otherwise the one misconception just build on the others…

    So, if I understand you correctly, “new” knowledge refers not only to what students have not known before but also to correcting false beliefs/knowledge. Valid point. Made me think that there is also knowledge and beliefs that will never be corrected despite (often overwhelming) scientific evidence…

    Thanks for the engagement. Really enjoy it.

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