Rebalancing English language education: Access, materials writing and copyright

open4business
Building an open source business by Libby Levi licensed CC BY-SA

 

[This post originally appeared on the ELTjam blog.]

I was asked a question by an ELT materials writer at the BALEAP English for Academic Purposes conference earlier this year, along the lines of:

You’ve shown us a lot of openly licensed content that can be developed into English language learning materials, but what am I expected to do when my publisher asks me to write materials and then release some of them for free without pay? Even if I wanted to share and be more open in my practice, how can I afford to do this?

Good question. My answer here in this post is to look at both the ideas and the business models that are working within open education, and to build on discussions with the wider ELT community on ways to bring issues around access, copyright and materials writing/development to light. We are already seeing these issues played out in our informal online communities: the blogosphere, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and in webinars like the one coming up with the IATEFL Materials Writing SIG on copyright and images on November 7th.

Lofty Ideals and Lowly Deals

…you will find all kinds of ambitious proposals and interesting ideas, embedded in lofty ideals. Some of this is quite sensible; little of it is immediately operational. Then have a look at newspaper articles, watch the media, speak to people on the firing lines. Here you will find stories about all kinds of lowly deals, every one of them fully operational. (Mintzberg, 2015)

Publishing is changing dramatically and this is creating a veritable sea-change in education for social initiatives, such as we’ve seen with Free and Fair ELT. ELT materials writers, like many ELT teachers who develop teaching and learning materials, are enthused about sharing because sharing is at the heart of what we do as educators. And, because of the very global nature of ELT, we interface with the world and understand first-hand the imbalance in access to English language education, where English is the lingua franca in education, research and publishing.

This real-world need for English language education has, however, created a parallel reality with the wide-scale infringement of All Rights Reserved published ELT materials. Materials writers are sharing eye-opening stories of copyright infringement here on ELTjam (see here and here) and elsewhere about the  coursebook materials they’ve written, which also live a second life in .pdf format via various piracy pay-for sites. Many would like to see the big ELT publishers take a more responsible role in providing access to digital ELT materials for those informal learners who can’t afford the glossy print versions nor attend expensive language classes at well-resourced language institutes the world over that publishers have pegged as their primary market.

Informal online language learning is only going to continue to increase at a staggering rate as more of the world’s population comes online. However, I don’t believe the responsibility to recognise and engage with this growing informal English language learning community should fall solely on the shoulders of the individual materials writer or the individual language teacher, do you?

There are so many opportunities here for the big ‘charities’ in ELT such as the British Council and the big brand ELT publishers to refocus their social impact, which will, in turn, increase their branding power, through corporate social responsibility. Let’s face it, the British Council couldn’t make the profit it does without English language teachers and examiners (Phillipson, 2012), and ELT publishers are dependent on ELT materials writers in the same way that many publishing houses are dependent on academics. The Open Access movement wouldn’t have been as successful as it is today without a nudge from academics who took this movement into the mainstream with events like the Elsevier Boycott.

Open Business Models

‘There are none so blind’, the biblical saying goes, ‘as those who will not see’ … A mindset which couldn’t conceive of a non-hierarchical way of creating an authoritative reference work couldn’t take Wikipedia seriously. (Naughton, 2011).

John Naughton’s keynote address, The Elusive Technological Future, at the 2011 Association for Learning Technology conference, continues to be highly relevant today. Naughton critiques the recurring and dumbfounded view that we often hear in the media that the free technologies underpinning the likes of Wikipedia, Craigslist, Blackberry Messenger and Napster were all disruptive technologies that came out of nowhere. Naughton instead points to how certain establishments, and the mindsets that inhabit them, were not paying attention to these technologies and their somewhat informal communities (the great unwashed, as it were, to carry forward the biblical theme). They were not seen as a credible threat to established business models through simple lack of attention, and by the time these technologies and communities had become the mainstream, the old establishments had missed out on business opportunities of a lifetime.

Creating operational business models is very much on the agenda at Creative Commons, as evidenced in their recent call and successful crowdsourcing with Kickstarter for co-creating ‘a book that shows the world how sharing can be good for business’.

The open education movement recognises the copyright of creators (teachers, writers, developers) while it leverages innovative technologies and practices with teaching and learning materials so that they can be Redistributed, Reused, Repurposed and Remixed at scale to Redress the imbalance our world faces with access to education. Legally, this movement has become operational with the development of the Creative Commons suite of licences available to creators so that they can share their creations and specify how they want them to be reused.

This approach would appear to be out of balance, though, when we consider the many freelance ELT materials writers who are often caught in the middle and may be required by publishers to give away their copyright and even their work without pay as publishers experiment with new business models, including the freemium model. This is a very different business model, say, from that of the academic employed at a well-funded university where learning resources are created for on-site use, recorded and shared at scale via commercial platforms such as YouTube, iTunesU and with commercial MOOC providers such as Coursera and edX for creating access to learning for the masses, growing the online presence of expert educators, and promoting the brand of institutions.

Social Learning for Social Impact MOOC

I would like to invite anyone interested in this discussion to join the first ever Group-based MOOC, Social Learning for Social Impact with the Faculty of Management at McGill University in Canada and Edx, to collaborate and build upon the ethos of sharing ELT resources and raising awareness around copyright. I’m one of the volunteer facilitators on the MOOC. Since I have a background in ELT resources development and open education (with the open-source FLAX language project), I’d like to encourage you to share your experiences in ELT publishing and how this is impacting ELT materials development, and the way resources are being used and misused through copyright infringement.

The bullet points below are the stages of planning for social impact that we would be working through on the course. For example, the Free and Fair ELT initiative is currently growing social impact through social media and is successfully managing to scale this level of outreach. It would be great to discuss ways forward for taking this and similar initiatives in ELT resources outreach further with resourcing i.e. getting funder backing, and assessing the impact of these initiatives. The thought leader behind this MOOC, Henry Mintzberg, is well known for getting initiatives like Doctors Without Borders etc. off the ground with the following approach, which forms the structure of the MOOC:

  • Working as a high-functioning team (Co-Creating)
  • Learning your way to a prototype (Designing)
  • Growing your social impact (Scaling)
  • Finding resources to help sustain your efforts (Resourcing)
  • Discerning when and how to measure your impact (Assessing)

The MOOC starts Sept 16th to Dec 16th to form group-based discussions on a fortnightly basis, and you have up until October 14th to register. The expectation is that groups will connect via different types of social media platforms e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Skype, LinkedIn etc. but to bring the knowledge back to the MOOC platform to work through the stages of the course and share the different social initiatives across the different groups concerned with different social issues.

You can read more about Henry Mintzberg’s Rebalancing Society vision through this free pamphlet ebook, Rebalancing Society: Radical Renewal Beyond Left, Rights, and Centre 

 

References

Mintzberg, Henry. (2015). Rebalancing Society: Radical Renewal Beyond Left, Right, and Centre. Berrett-Koehler: Oakland, California pdf version.

Naughton, John. (2011). Keynote Address, The Elusive Technological Future. The Association for Learning Technology Annual Conference. Leeds, United Kingdom. Retrieved from YouTube.

Phillipson, Robert. (2012, March 13). Linguistic imperialism alive and kicking. The Guardian.

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