Paul Stacey

Recoding Education Innovation as Freedoms

In the recently released video Recoding Innovation: Free Software – Free Culture, Larry Lessig says the development of a free culture movement came from asking the question “How do we hack the free software movement and turn it into a free culture movement?”

This led me to frame my own question, “How do we hack the free software and free culture movements and turn them into a free education movement?”

Recoding Innovation

Free software and free culture are based on ethical principles of freedom.

With free software the aim is to ensure users control their own computing rather than programs controlling users. Non-free software is under the control of someone else making you dependent on them. Free software liberates your cyber-world giving you as much control as you want.

Software is free software if people who receive a copy of the software have the following four freedoms:

  1. The freedom to run the program for any purpose.
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  4. The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits.

Free software expresses and grants these freedoms to others using a set of licenses, the most popular of which are:

Free software starts with a fundamental understanding that the best software builds on software that came before. Developers can only make a new idea useful by combining it with what came before and working together to improve and innovate. Inherently those involved in free software place a high value on community and working collectively to ensure freedom.

It’s interesting to see New Zealand, after five years of debate, pass a new Patents Bill that bans the enforcement of software patents in New Zealand.

But its important to understand that free software is a matter of liberty, not price. As the saying goes, “Think free speech, not free beer.” Indeed the free software that lies at the heart of the Internet, and the individual control it gives us, has created vast economic and social value. New Zealand’s banning of software patents is not anti-business. If anything it acknowledges the criticality of free software principles as a driver of the economy in the digital age.

2246983607_c261de3d9c 827570460_0829760ff4
——–EFF Free Speech Icon / CC BY 2.0———–FREE BEER version 3.2, St Austell / CC BY 2.0

Free culture shares a similar ethic to free software. In the digital world everything we do involves making a copy. Every time you surf the web the pages you visit are “copied” to your screen. In the analog era writers, performers, publishers, and broadcasters were the primary cultural producers. The digital era has placed tools of creation in the hands of all users making everyone creators of cultural work.

Free culture aims to ensure users control their own creative process and actively create culture. Non-free culture is under the control of someone else. Free culture liberates creative processes giving individuals more control. Free culture empowers individual creation, democratizes culture, and ensures we all have the freedom to create and participate in culture.

Like free software, free culture provides users with a set of freedoms. Free culture freedoms are derived from those of free software. Free Cultural Works are works or expressions which can be freely studied, applied, copied and/or modified, by anyone, for any purpose. The Free Cultural Works definition describes the freedoms associated with free cultural works as:

  • the freedom to use the work and enjoy the benefits of using it.
  • the freedom to study the work and to apply knowledge acquired from it
  • the freedom to make and redistribute copies, in whole or in part, of the information or expression
  • the freedom to make changes and improvements, and to distribute derivative works

Free culture expresses and grants these freedoms to others using a set of licenses. Of the six Creative Commons licenses only two are considered free cultural works licenses:


Creative Commons Attribution CC BY by

Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA by-sa

Free culture views sharing and building on the work of others as fundamental freedoms inherent to creative practice. Free culture places a high value on community. At a time when Hollywood, the music industry, and publishers are trying to control culture, free culture is empowering individuals to take control of their creative expression. Free culture invites all people to participate in creation and re-creation of culture. Free culture takes culture out of the control of a few and places it in the hands of many.

But its important to understand that free culture is a matter of liberty, not price. Free culture is not anti-business. Free culture principles like those of free software are drivers of the economy in the digital age. The recently launched Right2Remix initiative in Europe presents the case well. The Right2Remix manifesto says:

We live in an age of remix. Creativity and culture have always drawn from previous works, but with the Internet and digital technologies, the creative re-use of works has been taken to a whole new level. More people are able to edit and share a greater range of works than ever before. More than ever, it has become clear that “everything is a remix!”


Right2Remix goes on to say:

In the classic notion of originality, the new creation tended to disguise the old beyond recognition. The core characteristic of the remix as a cultural practice, however, is that the old remains visible within the new. The remix is a creative copy that is readily identified as such. Since creative copying has become commonplace, the right to remix is a fundamental requirement for freedom of expression and free speech. We formulate the right to remix as a combination of three creative rights:

  • The right to change works during usage and to publish the results. (Transformative usage right(s) with lump-sum compensation, e.g. background music in mobile phone videos)
  • The right to create and to publish remixes of existing works. (Remix right(s) with lump-sum compensation, e.g. fake trailer for a TV series)
  • The right to commercialize remixes, in exchange for appropriate compensation. (Remix commercialization right(s) subject to compulsory licensing, e.g. selling music mash-ups on iTunes)

Notice how Right2Remix acknowledges compensation. I especially like the way it invites those who sign the petition to also provide a link to their favourite remix.

The focus of both free software and free culture is on freedoms that empower individuals. If we are to successfully transfer and apply free software and free culture principles to education it is imperative the focus remain on freedoms and empowering individuals.

Let me hack the language of free software and free culture and apply it to education.

Free education’s aim is to ensure you control your own education and learning. Non-free education is under the control of someone else making you dependent on them. Free education liberates your learning giving you as much control as you want.

Free education has the following four freedoms:

  1. The freedom to access and use education for any purpose.
  2. The freedom to study and change education to make it fit your needs.
  3. The freedom to distribute your own education knowledge base so you can help your neighbor.
  4. The freedom to improve education, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits.

Inherent in free education is a high value on community as there is an interdependence on others working collectively to ensure freedom. Free education starts with a fundamental understanding that the best education builds on education that came before. You can only make education useful by combining it with what came before and working together. Free education views sharing and building on the work of others as fundamental freedoms. Free education empowers individuals to take control of their education and invites all people to participate in creation and re-creation of education. Free education takes education out of the control of a few and places it in the hands of many.

As I consider this hacked description of free education I’m struck by the focus on empowering individuals. In education there are individuals that have knowledge and skills and individuals that seek knowledge and skills. In education we call the former teachers and the latter students but if we follow the freedoms that free software and free culture espouse we’d do away with this artificial distinction. In free education we all are both teachers and students.

Free software and free culture leveled the playing field making it possible for everyone to improve software and participate in the creation of culture. Are innovations in education equally leveling the playing field?

Open educational resources (OER), open access, MOOCs, open policy, and open data are all current education innovations that are at least partly derived from free software and free culture principles. However, these innovations emerged from and are being driven by government, institutions, business, and faculty. Students are surprisingly absent as creators and active participants in these innovations. Instead students are largely seen as tangential beneficiaries and passive recipients. This is limiting the impact and potential of free software and free culture-like innovations in education. If the principles of free software and free culture are to truly transform education the focus needs to shift to empowering students.

This is easier said than done of course. At this point the locus of power and control in education rests with education systems – ministries, schools, colleges, universities, teachers and administrators. Access to education is limited, competitive, and costly. As a result any student who manages to gain access to education tends to simply comply with what the system tells them they must do for fear of losing their access. However, if we want to leverage lessons learned from free software and free culture we’d be well served focusing on empowering students with freedoms.

As with free software and free culture it’s important to see free education as a matter of liberty, not price. This critical distinction has long been a source of confusion.

In the free software movement large software vendors initially viewed the concept of freely distributed software and universal access to application source code as a loss of intellectual property and threat to their business. In addition, despite free software’s emphasis on free being about freedoms there were many who interpreted free software to mean “no cost”. In the late 1990’s there was a concerted effort to apply free software ideas and benefits to the commercial software industry. The social activism and freedom focus of the free software movement did not appeal to most companies and a way to rebrand the free software movement to emphasize the business potential of sharing and collaborating on software code was sought. The new rebranding name that emerged was “open source” and this was quickly adopted. Today large software vendors like IBM, Oracle, Google, and Microsoft are active developers in open source software.

Proponents of Open Source Software sought to dump the moral ethical freedoms focus of free software which they found confrontational and focus instead on the pragmatic business model for software development and marketing. Toward that end an Open Source Definition of open source software was created that shifted from describing freedoms to expressing the conditions that must be met for something to be considered open source software. The Open Source Definition has ten conditions.

I think its fascinating to see that in education the innovations are named Open Educational Resources (OER), Open Access, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), Open Policy, etc. Open, and the conditions that must be met for something to be open, largely dominate the discussion – not freedoms. Further muddling matters is the reality that some of these innovations, like MOOCs, are simply free of cost and don’t meet the conditions of openness as David Wiley so aptly describes. To curb open-washing I expect we’ll eventually see a set of requirements that must be met before something is certified as open similar to those required for food to be deemed organic.

There is a critical difference “open” and “freely available on the Internet”. Freely available on the Internet means you can access and see something online. But your access is completely controlled by whoever is making that available and you have no rights to use it, change it or redistribute it without their permission. Facebook is freely available on the Internet but it certainly isn’t open. You may be accessing it at no cost but the terms of use require you to accept a deluge of advertising and be willing to turn over data on your interests and identity in exchange. MOOCs are freely available on the Internet but they aren’t open either – you have no rights to reuse, remix, revise or redistribute. Freely available on the Internet at no financial cost usually requires you to accede control and freedoms.

I am a strong advocate for the open education innovations but increasingly frame their importance and their future sustainability by examining them from the perspective of freedoms. So lets look at education innovations through the frame of freedoms.

cMOOCs definitely embody both openness and many of the freedoms I think free education is about. As Michael Caulfield notes in his xMOOC Communities Should Learn From cMOOCs post:

“When you finish a cMOOC, your relationships with members of that course don’t end. You don’t keep in touch with all 10,000 people, of course, but people in a cMOOC often cite the valuable relationships they fostered in the cMOOC as one of the big takeaways. These people end up part of their permanent Personal Learning Network, as members of their twitter feed, as tumblr or blogger friends, as emailable resources, etc. On the other hand, much xMOOC social connection seems to die at the end of the course, and not persist in any useful way.”

cMOOCs value community in the same way free software and free culture do.

Free education innovations are primarily taking place outside formal education systems.

Peer2Peer University
Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) is a grassroots open education project that organizes learning outside of institutional walls and gives learners recognition for their achievements. P2PU creates a model for lifelong learning alongside traditional formal higher education. Leveraging the internet and educational materials openly available online, P2PU enables high-quality low-cost education opportunities. P2Pu focuses on learning for the people, by the people on almost anything. Three core values guide everything P2Pu does: openness, community and peer learning.


Webmaker is a Mozilla project with the goal of encouraging millions of people around the world to move beyond using the web to making it. Webmaker is a combination of tools, teaching & learning, and community.


I read through the Open University’s Innovating Pedagogy 2013 report with my education innovation as freedoms frame and found a number of intriguing examples.


Let me quote descriptions from that report of emerging pedagogy that embody and put in to practice some of these freedoms:

Crowd learning

Crowd learning describes the process of learning from the expertise and opinions of others, shared through online social spaces, websites, and activities. Such learning is often informal and spontaneous, and may not be recognised by the participants as a learning activity. In this model virtually anybody can be a teacher or source of knowledge, learning occurs flexibly and sporadically, can be driven by chance or specific goals, and always has direct contextual relevance to the learner. It places responsibility on individual learners to find a path through sources of knowledge and to manage the objectives of their learning. Crowd learning encourages people to be active in setting personal objectives, seeking resources, and recording achievements. It can also develop the skills needed for lifelong learning, such as self-motivation and reflection on performance. The challenge is to provide learners with ways to manage their learning and offer valuable contributions to others.

I found the examples of Stack Exchange and Forvo particularly intriguing.

Stack Exchange is a growing network of individual communities, each dedicated to serving experts in a specific field. Stack Exchange builds libraries of high-quality questions and answers, focused on each community’s area of expertise. User contributions are licensed using a Creative Commons Share Alike license.


Forvo is the largest pronunciation guide in the world. On Forvo you can ask for how a word or name is pronounced and another user will pronounce it for you. You can also help others by recording your pronunciations in your own language.


Maker culture

Maker culture encourages informal, shared social learning focused on the construction of artefacts ranging from robots and 3D-printed models to clothing and more traditional handicrafts. Maker culture emphasises experimentation, innovation, and the testing of theory through practical, self directed tasks. It is characterised by playful learning and encourages both the acceptance of risk taking (learning by making mistakes) and rapid iterative development. Feedback is provided through immediate testing, personal reflection, and peer validation. Learning is supported via informal mentoring and progression through a community of practice. Its popularity has increased due to the recent proliferation of affordable computing hardware and 3D printers, and available opensource software. Critics argue it is simply a rebranding of traditional hobby pursuits. Proponents contend that recent evolutions in networking technologies and hardware have enabled wider dissemination and sharing of ideas for maker learning, underpinned by a powerful pedagogy that emphasises learning through social making.

Maker Faires are happening all over the world.
Maker Faire

Rafi Santo’s post Maker Faire 2012: Nerdy Derby as Inspirational Pedagogy provides a good analysis of how this method of education stacks up against the classroom.

Citizen inquiry

Citizen inquiry refers to mass participation of members of the public in structured investigations. It fuses the creative knowledge building of inquiry learning with the mass collaborative participation exemplified by citizen science, changing the consumer relationship that most people have with research to one of active engagement. The concept is that people who are not research professionals engage in collaborative, inquiry based projects. For each investigation, they gather evidence of similar successful projects, create a plan of action, carry out a controlled intervention if appropriate, collect data using desktop and mobile technologies as research tools, and validate and share findings. Citizen inquiry not only engages people in personally meaningful inquiry, it can also offer the potential to examine complex dynamic problems, such as mapping the effects of climate change, by means of thousands of people collecting and sharing local data.

There are many examples of this. Here is just one:

Galaxy Zoo
Galaxy Zoo is a web-based citizen science project that use the efforts and abilities of volunteers to help reseachers deal with the flood of data that confronts them. Galaxy Zoo provides a data set made up of a million galaxies imaged by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and engages citizens in classifying them. More than 50 million classifications were received by the project during its first year, contributed by more than 150,000 people.

I highly encourage you to read the entire Innovating Pedagogy 2013 report to get the full picture.

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As you filter through the media hype surrounding education innovations and attempt to determine what is important and what isn’t, I hope you’ll join me in recoding education innovations as freedoms.

Education innovations should:

  • empower us to control our own education
  • engage us as both students and teachers
  • create community
  • encourage us to build on existing knowledge – remixing, adapting and improving it
  • distribute community built knowledge bases as public goods shared with and accessible to all