Decolonizing PreK-12 OER: Lessons Learned at the Creative Commons Summit

Blog Post
João Pombeiro
June 7, 2019

Last month, technologists, educators, musicians, entrepreneurs, writers, and inventors from around the world gathered in Lisbon, Portugal for the Creative Commons Global Summit. The organization’s mission—to help people legally share knowledge and creativity to build a more equitable, accessible, and innovative world—was forefront during the summit. It drove conversations ranging broadly from EU copyright reform, to sustainable policy making, to the ways in which the Open movement itself can disrupt or perpetuate existing systems of oppression.

Based around a strong belief in open source knowledge, Creative Commons provides licenses for just about any type of content, from completely open to fairly restricted. Though straightforward in theory, CC licenses can be tricky to understand and use correctly—particularly for educators. (And as we’ve been reminded recently, misusing them holds serious consequences.) Folks gathered at the summit to talk through the biggest challenges, successes, and lessons learned in their own work, and to share their vision for the future of the Open movement.

One of the most salient and compelling visions came from Adele Vrana and Siko Bouterse, co-directors and co-founders of Whose Knowledge?, a global campaign to center the knowledge of marginalized communities on the internet. Delivered expertly through performance-based storytelling, their keynote explored two parallel stories about collective knowledge, familial adversity, and obscured histories. Their takeaway was simple: knowledge is power. The more we know about ourselves and our histories, the better able we are to disrupt, rather than perpetuate, systems of oppression.

“Dismantling structures of oppression in the world has to start with looking deeply at ourselves and our own histories,” says Bouterse, “because if we don't know how we personally got here, we're likely to keep reproducing the same old structures of oppression that have been handed down to us through generations, even if our intention is to do the opposite.”

This message was both extremely powerful in the moment and provided a lens through which we engaged with the rest of the conference. In thinking about ourselves and our roles in a larger global context, we’re led to the following questions, which Vrana and Bouterse posed to the audience:

  1. How have you benefited from colonization, racism, or the status quo?
  2. What from your past should you choose to carry forward and what should you let die?
  3. Whose knowledge is still missing, and what can you do to support and honor the people who can best fill those gaps and silence?
  4. What kind of ancestor do you want to be?

Each of these questions encouraged the audience to think about who’s present, who’s not present, and why—in conversations, in movements, and in history. Indeed this effort to decolonize thinking and lift up unheard voices resonated with presenters throughout the conference; We heard it in a couple of sessions, including WikiFundi and Fortepan, which investigated whose knowledge is missing when it comes to instructional materials specifically.

WikiFundi is an organization founded in response to a dominating, single-story narrative that often claims to encompass the history, people, and communities of Africans writ large. In partnership with Wiki in Africa, WikiAfrica Schools provides an open-source platform called WikiFundi that creates an offline editable space where students can curate, develop, and share their local history. Teachers can integrate this project into their curriculum and students can tell their stories through their perspectives in an effort to provide a more balanced and complete narrative of African countries.

Fortepan focuses on another kind of community facing the plight of the single-story narrative: small, rural areas in the U.S. Based on an original project developed in Budapest, Hungary, Fortepan Iowa aims to archive and tell the stories of rural communities through primary sources and photographs. The project encourages an intergenerational approach where students engage with older residents of the community to capture stories that can be integrated into the local school district’s curriculum in creative ways.

So what do two seemingly unrelated conference sessions and a keynote have to do with PreK-12 OER, and more specifically, inclusive curriculum? A lot. When communities whose voices have been missing in the curriculum are allowed to share knowledge, we all benefit. The open licensing of materials with diverse groups of authors and creators allows for downloading, editing for a more localized context, and sharing it back out into the greater community for others to then be able to use.

When we’re talking about OER in a preK-12, US context, this can look a few different ways. Open licensing can provide the means for local educators to access relevant materials without having to buy expensive textbooks in which only a few pages match what they need. Openly licensed materials also give educators the option of tailoring them to the needs of their students, by remixing or providing videos or written passages with a localized context. The availability of OER materials could also enable educators to access content in areas outside their expertise that is authored by someone not only with the expertise, but also with an entirely different lens, background, and world view. The implications this has on student learning are tremendous.

Our session at the Summit, on leveraging OER for queer-inclusive teacher professional learning, was no exception to this theme. While talking with educators and creators from six different countries, we heard many express the same frustrations: schools don’t serve queer teachers or students, the materials don’t reflect these identities, and teachers are not prepared to teach this content. Hearing these challenges expressed as universals, at least among our group, was powerful. It underscores the need to ask the same question we heard in the opening keynote—whose knowledge is not being shared? Why aren’t there queer-inclusive instructional materials or professional learning resources? Who has the knowledge to create this content and what is preventing them from doing so?

These questions speak to both the power and precarity of the Open movement. As a growing, worldwide movement, it has the ability to either sustain or disrupt the ongoing systems of oppression that many called out at the conference. But, if people around the world do not have equitable access to the technology and knowledge to be able to use and author content, then open licensing will simply be a vehicle with which to spread privileged, white, North American voices. Unless we interrogate the reasons that open licenses are not used proportionately across communities, states, and countries, marginalized voices will be missing.

This idea drives the work we do with OER and queer inclusivity and seeing the message mirrored across the conference spoke to the profound need for constant self-analyzing and interrogating. Though it sounds difficult, this work really can start with a single question—Whose knowledge are we talking about?

CC Global Summit art by João Pombeiro is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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