Stephen Downes: The Future of Education

Conference by Stephen Downes at the First International Conference Free Knowledge, Free Technology – Education for a free information society in Barcelona (Spain), 17 July 2008, on the production and sharing of free educational and training materials about Free Software.

Stephen Downes, Institute for Information Technology‘s Internet Logic Research Group
The Future of Education

The Public in Public Education

Stephen Downes
Stephen Downes
(Photo: César Córcoles)

Public education, education for everyone, is an important concept not for the “education” part, but for the “public” part, as its impact goes far beyond the acquisition of knowledge, but the shaping of the whole society.

Stephen Downes presents gRSShopper. Besides the most evident uses of the tool as a resource harvester, the main purpose being connecting the different resources amongst them, to link one to each other different pieces of content scattered around the Internet. This is a personal learning environment, more than a social software intended to build community; an personal environment but headed to openly being a part of the network of people and content.


Freedom as a state of being: putting the stress on the personal capability and will to do something, more than e.g. on the formal or legal permission to.

Freedom is an attitude, a perspective of self-determination, of self-government, to be what you want to be. Education means realizing the degree of freedom you’re in and finding out the way to get more of that freedom. But being educated does not suffice, as practical constrains (fear, etc.) also apply.

Freedom is also about being able to reach one’s own potential.

Freedom as access: access to knowledge and learning, where these are public goods, created in a nonprofit way that expects no revenue from their creation and distribution.

The Future of Education

The concept of the “class” is an administrative one, not related with pedagogy, not related with a course. But the question is that, for several (socialization) reasons, the idea of the “class” sticks. But could the network substitute the group? Communication is central to our being, so our connections do shape ourselves and our actions.

So there’s pressures towards using our natural connections to engage in collective learning, more than to move into an artificially built classroom that, even if it might have been an efficient tool in the past, it only seems now to be perpetuating relationships of power between teachers and learners.


Competences are a dynamic concept, based on growth. And they require a constantly changing path that can be filled with different (ad hoc) educational recourses.

Nevertheless, there is learning hardly identifiable with competences.

So, competences should be one more way to identify learning opportunities, and the selection of learning resources just an add-on to a whole system of learning activities (traditional and new ones).

The selection of learning options should depend on our background and framework (former learning, actual legislation, etc.) and should be driven also by context, by actual needs.

Delivery systems

We have, hence, to build topic delivery systems, systems that deliver learning resources.

Delivery systems today are, basically, content delivery systems. The Personal Learning Environment (PLE) is here to replace learning management/delivery systems. The PLE is more a concept than an application:

  • Is based on the idea of personal access to resources from multiple sources
  • Is based on a personal web presence
  • Focuses on creation and communication rather than on content completion

Education should be no more as managing a system, but delivering in a network; no more something self-contained, closed, but something interacting with a larger environment. Thus, educational institutions have to reshape themselves to become entities that interact with the larger environment.

Connectivism and Freedom

Our ideas of concepts are created through “wholes” of information sets — the basis of Connectivism. So educational institutions have to make resources available to both contribute and be able to build these “wholes”. The resources have to be able to learn from the environment and the student, and communicate with their framework and environment. Among other things, this will make personalization more efficient.

Education should be a flat network, where both students and teachers are nodes communication one to each other. And the communications among these nodes should be free: if these communications are mediated (or just made possible) by digital resources, these resources need to be free to enable communication… and hence education.

Al Gore, The assault on reason: we’ve gone from a society that used to think by itself to a society that is being though for itself (e.g. media think for the society). We have to go back to the society that used to think for itself. And content needs to be free to be able to reach this state of freedom of communication and thought.

The market — and their firms — are putting barriers to these freedoms. And, indeed, non-commercial licenses (cc-sa, copyleft) allow bad practices against the free flow of content, as they do not prevent perverse uses of open resources.

The role of public education institutions should be, in the end, to promote this free flow of resources. To guarantee access to the public good that is digital content and media as the language of interaction today.

Audio of the conference (MP3 file, 9.5 MB)


Free Knowledge, Free Technology. Education for a free information society (2008)

Richard Stallman: Free Software and Beyond

Conference by Richard M. Stallman at the First International Conference Free Knowledge, Free Technology – Education for a free information society in Barcelona (Spain), 15 July 2008, on the production and sharing of free educational and training materials about Free Software.

Richard M. Stallman, president of the Free Software Foundation
Free Software and Beyond

Free Software is about giving freedom to the user and respecting the work done by the community of programmers.

The analogy with cooking recipes is clearly the best way to help people understand the four freedoms of Free Software.

Electronic book readers are evil

The key to promote Free Software is not software in itself, the possibility to be able to “cook”, but: as long as software is needed to do more and more things because of the pervasiveness of the Digital Economy, then we’re talking not about the freedom to run some software, but the freedom to perform a lot of activities.

For instance, e-Books, DRM, etc. attempt against the possibility to lend books, or give them to your sons and grandsons, because electronic book readers are not made on free software, hence they subjugate the user to the retailers’ will. Buying such devices is like stating you don’t want to share your books so you should advice your friends that, if they buy these devices, you won’t be friends anymore, because they don’t want to share books in a community of readers.

So, the problem is not software in itself, but changing (to worse) the model of society we’re living in to another one more closed, selfish, commoditized, etc.

Free content for a free life

Practical, useful, functional works should be free

  • Software should be free
  • Recipes should be free
  • Reference works, like encyclopedias, should be free
  • Educational works
  • Font types

You have to control the tools you use to live, to shape your life. If you don’t, you’re not free.

There’s some content that can perfectly not be free. Opinion works are one of those, as it is important not to be misrepresented. But, sharing should be made possible for each and every kind of work. And this includes music sharing.

Copyright should only cover commercial use, modification of originals.

When a work embodies practical knowledge you’re going to use for your life, it should be free and it should be free to be modified. It’s not the case of art. Art should be shareable, but not modifiable.

Teaching free software vs. teaching gratis software

We should teach values, not some specific software: (a) because it’s values schools are expected to be teaching, (b) to avoid dependency from specific companies.

Thus, schools should only bring free software to classes. And free textbooks.

[now RMS transforms himself into Saint IGNUcius and things become really weird: he disguises himself, he auctions a book from the stage for 120€…]


Q: What’s exactly the definition of “practical”? RMS: Well, it’s not easy to define, and we should be working on it, but it’s the concept that matters.

RMS: You shouldn’t use anyone else’s (web)server to compute with your data, because you’re losing control of your data and what is done with it.

Q: about free hardware. RMS: let’s not mix physical things with their designs. So, objects cannot be free because they cannot be copied, literally copied. It’s their designs that can be copied, but this is again a matter of intellectual property rights, not ownership of physical things.

RMS: it’s good that medicines are produced under a controlled environment (i.e. patents and proprietary labs) because people can die if there are errors in them. My comment: wasn’t free software supposed to be better than proprietary one because given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow? (see answer below).

RMS: What we know about proprietary software is that it is a good way to concentrate wealth. So, it’s not that jobs will be lost, but some rich people will end being it: the question is whether we want to swap some billionaires for more jobs.

Stephen Downes: should we make it compulsory to share our software at classrooms? does this apply or extrapolate to educational resources? RMS: sharing should be a fundamental value to be taught at schools, so yes, sharing software should be compulsory, and same applies to content.

Stephen Downes: the problem is that the boundaries of what a classroom is are blurring, so where’s the redline? should, then, sharing software (and content) be made compulsory to everyone and everywhere in society and the world? If not, if we’re to keep some freedom not to share, where’s the line that separates classroom from the rest? Can we sell free works? Can schools sell free works when there’s an unbalance of power between the school and the student? RMS: no, the schools have no excuse to sell copies, because the works are free.

RMS: (back on the issue about some processes being controlled at closed labs) have nothing to do, it’s orthogonal, with the free software issue. Security is not about being free or not — Stallman stresses here the difference between Free Software and Open Source Software, between the ethics and philosophy of the former and the technicalities of the latter. Security and Linus’s Law are related to Open Source Software, not about it being free or not.


Free Knowledge, Free Technology. Education for a free information society (2008)