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(Free, libre and) open education needs humanities

I was just checking the program of the Open Education Conference, OpenEd 2009, with the tagline “Crossing the Chasm”.

I have two questions about the conference:

1) Why is the title “open education” and not “free and open education” or “libre education”?

Isn’t the “open education” in this particular case making references specifically to the idea of “free software” or “libre software”, when it is applied to educational content and new forms of learning? If yes, why not then using the word free or libre to make it clear? The use of the open (alone) gets even more confusing when we remember that “Open University” and “Open Distance Education” are established concepts in the field of education and do not have anything to do with the idea of “free / libre software”.

2) Why there aren’t any talks/presentations about language learning?

If the conference is about to cross chasms why don’t it talk about language learning? Learning languages is a critical for the “open education” movement – I’ll write about this a bit more later, when getting into the humanities.

A few days ago David Weinberger wrote a post, Transparency is the new objectivity. I agree that calling something “the new” is naïve but still the comparison of these two things really makes sense. The idea is also extremely relevant and important for open and free learning content.

In the case of open and free learning content the transparency means that the user of the content will know who and in what conditions and context the content was produced. If the content comes from a North American University or from a global publishing house one should “read” it differently than in a case of it coming from a Chinese University or from some individual living – let’s say – in Luumäki. The point is not who do you believe. The point is that you are aware of the possible different interests and intentions, even biases and misunderstandings among the content producers. You must be aware and able to read the cultural meaning in the content and follow the links to sources increasing the transparency.

So what we need to be able to “read the cultural meanings”?

We should study humanities: languages, history, religion, arts, and literature of different cultures. Only by understanding the secondary material increasing transparency (who, where, when) we can get a clue of whys. If we do not get the material because of a language barrier or do not understand the cultural-historical context where it was produced, it is pretty much useless.

So, to make the open education a global movement, the people producing “open content” should study languages, and people aiming to use the content should study languages.

With the languages comes the rest: history, religion, arts, and literature – all needed to do the interpretations.

Now I am out in to practice my Spanish.

6 replies on “(Free, libre and) open education needs humanities”

I like what you're asking for regarding a more culturally specific understanding. The word "global" makes me uncomfortable – mainly because it is so rabidly used by English speakers in reference to economic, environmental, and even social and legal topics. I prefer a word and concept that preserves that understanding of cultural diversity and difference.. something like international – or if nationalism is problematic – inter cultural. Its not hard to avoid using the work global I've found, and when I do, I find the conversation avoids the worrying generalization we are seeing close in around us. We really must do more to increase opportunities for learning and practicing languages as you say.. everywhere you look online there is ESL 10 maybe even 100 times any other language!As for free.. I'm beginning to tire of the effort to align with software. We surely know that education is about much more than access to content, and that the difficulties that the software development sector has had with understandings of freedom are even more difficult for the education sector. In my experience so far, the obsession with freedom has at times become a liability to educational practices, not least of all because it is so difficult to operate effectively in.


I use the phrase 'free learning'.I mean the word 'free' in both senses: gratis and libre.I also mean it in the sense of 'open' as in 'open learning'.


Leigh wrote: <i>“We surely know that education is about much more than access to content, and that the difficulties that the software development sector has had with understandings of freedom are even more difficult for the education sector.”</i>Free software is also much more than “access to the source code”. It doesn’t really matter how widely the “software development sector” understands the idea of “free software”, as long as there is a critical mass that do. Today there is. Without it we wouldn’t have linux, google, mini-laptops, … list goes on. With the education sector I am afraid that if we don’t talk about the free/libre according to the free software tradition we will never reach the critical mass.Stephen wrote: <i>I use the phrase 'free learning'. I mean the word 'free' in both senses: gratis and libre. I also mean it in the sense of 'open' as in 'open learning'.</i>Now we will end-up to define what is learning and what is education. I agree that there is, and should be more “libre and gratis learning” (that is actually the main motivation behind the free software developers). I also believe that there can be “free” (in the meaning of libre) education that is not gratis. Not being gratis I mean that someone is consciously investing in it and is expecting some return for the investment. I also see that the free/libre/gratis learning is from large part an issue of democracy, equality and “knowledge infrastructure” (public libraries, internet, study circles, networks etc.), than a question of “education”. High level “offering” of opportunities of free/libre/gratis learning will result as “educated” people who will also use the non-gratis libre education where one may “pay” for getting advice/feedback/assessment/criticism (the payment can of course be just barter of services). The high level of free/libre/gratis learning will also result as high level of humanities.I see that making this kind of difference between the libre and gratis is pretty well according to the ideas of free software, too. See:


Thank you Chris. I think I'll start to use the term "libre knowledge" (again, its been 8 years), too. However, knowledge is not learning, neither education. To be consistent, we probably should define the terms "libre learning" and "libre education", too.


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