A Common Purpose: Wikimedia, Open Education and Knowledge Equity for all

At the end of February I was honoured to be invited to present the closing keynote at the Wikimedia in Education Summit at the Disruptive Media Learning Lab at Coventry University.  This is the transcript of my talk. 


Although I’m originally an archaeologist by background, I’ve worked in the domain of learning technology for over twenty years and for the last ten years I’ve focused primarily on supporting the uptake of open education technology, resources, policy and practice, and it’s through open education that I came to join the Wikimedia community.  I think the first Wikimedia event I ever took part in was OER De a cross-sector open education conference, hosted by Wikimedia Deutschland in Berlin in 2014. I remember being really impressed by the wide range of innovative projects and initiatives from across all sectors of education and it really opened my eyes to the potential of Wikimedia to support the development of digital literacy skills, while enhancing the student experience and enriching our shared knowledge commons. And I think we’ve seen plenty of inspiring examples today of that potential being realised in education institutions around the UK.

So what I want to do this afternoon is to explore the relationship between the open education and Wikimedia domains and the common purpose they share; to widen access to open knowledge, remove barriers to inclusive and equitable education, and work towards knowledge equity for all. I also want to turn our attention to some of the structural barriers and systemic inequalities that prevent equitable participation in and access to this open knowledge landscape. We’ll begin by taking a brief look at some of the recent global policy initiatives in this area, before coming back closer to home to explore how the University of Edinburgh’s support for both open education and Wikimedia in the curriculum forms part of the institution’s strategic commitment to creating and sharing open knowledge.

Open Education

To begin with though, I want to take a step back to look at what we mean when we talk about open education, and if you’re heard me speak before, I apologise if I’m going over old ground here.

The principles of open education were outlined in the 2008 Cape Town Declaration, one of the first initiatives to lay the foundations of what it referred to as the “emerging open education movement”. The Declaration advocates that everyone should have the freedom to use, customize, and redistribute educational resources without constraint, in order to nourish the kind of participatory culture of learning, sharing and cooperation that rapidly changing knowledge societies need. It sounds a lot like the goals of the Wikimedia community doesn’t it? Which is hardly surprising given that one of the authors of the Cape Town Declaration was Jimmy Wales. In a press release to mark the launch of the Declaration, Wales was quoted as saying

“Open education allows every person on earth to access and contribute to the vast pool of knowledge on the web. Everyone has something to teach and everyone has something to learn.”

The Cape Town Declaration is still an influential document and it was updated on its 10th anniversary as Capetown +10, and I can highly recommend having a look at this if you want a broad overview of the principles of open education. Unsurprisingly, engaging with Wikipedia is woven through Capetown +10, as a means to empower the next generation of learners, to encourage the adoption of open pedagogies, and to open up publicly funded resources.

As conceived by the CapeTown Declaration, open education is a broad umbrella term, there’s is no one hard and fast definition, and indeed as Catherine Cronin reminds us in her paper “Openness and Praxis” open education is complex, personal, contextual and continually negotiated.

One conceptualisation of open education that I like is from the European Union’s JRC Science for Policy Report. Opening Up Education. A Support Framework for higher education institutions, which describes the aim of open education as being

“to widen access and participation to everyone by removing barriers and making learning accessible, abundant, and customisable for all. It offers multiple ways of teaching and learning, building and sharing knowledge. It also provides a variety of access routes to formal and non-formal education, and connects the two.”

Another interpretation of open education that I often return to is from the not-for-profit organization OER Commons which states that

“The worldwide OER movement is rooted in the human right to access high-quality education. The Open Education Movement is not just about cost savings and easy access to openly licensed content; it’s about participation and co-creation.”

One of the things I like about both these interpretations is the focus co-creation and removing barriers to knowledge, which to my mind are the most important aspects of open education and which, of course, are also cornerstones of the Wikimedia movement.

Open Educational Resources (OER)

Owing to its contextual nature, open education encompasses many different things including open pedagogy, open textbooks, open assessment practices, open online courses, and open data, however open educational resources, or OER, are central to any understanding of this domain. And of course Wikipedia is frequently described as the world’s biggest open educational resource.

UNESCO define open educational resources as:

“learning, teaching and research materials in any format and medium that reside in the public domain or are under copyright that have been released under an open license, that permit no-cost access, re-use, re-purpose, adaptation and redistribution by others.”

UNESCO OER Recommendation

Now there is actually some controversy regarding this wording of this definition, but I’m not going to go into that right now. The reason this definition is significant is that in November last year UNESCO made a formal commitment to actively support the global adoption of OER, when it approved its Recommendation on Open Educational Resources. This Recommendation builds on a series of earlier policy instruments including the 2012 Paris OER Declaration, and the 2017 Ljubljana OER Action Plan. To distinguish between these policy instruments, Declarations outline principles that UNESCO states wish to afford the broadest possible support to, while Recommendations have significantly greater authority and are intended to influence the development of national laws and practices. So the fact that we now have a new UNESCO Recommendation on OER is an important step forward.

Central to the new Recommendation, is the acknowledgement of the role that OER can play in achieving United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4. The Recommendation recognises that

“in building inclusive Knowledge Societies, Open Educational Resources (OER) can support quality education that is equitable, inclusive, open and participatory as well as enhancing academic freedom and professional autonomy of teachers by widening the scope of materials available for teaching and learning.”

And it outlines five areas of action

  1. Building capacity of stakeholders to create, access, re-use, adapt and redistribute OER
  2. Developing supportive policy
  3. Encouraging effective, inclusive and equitable access to quality OER
  4. Nurturing the creation of sustainability models for OER
  5. Promoting and reinforcing international cooperation

Equality and diversity is centred throughout the Recommendation with the acknowledgement that

“In all instances, gender equality should be ensured, and particular attention paid to equity and inclusion for learners who are especially disadvantaged due to multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.”

This echoes UNESCO Assistant Director for Education Qian Tang’s summing up at the end of the 2nd World OER Congress in Ljubljana in 2017 when he said that

“to meet education challenges, we can’t use the traditional way. In remote and developing areas, particularly for girls and women, OER are a crucial, crucial means to reach SDGs. OER are the key.”

How member states choose to action the UNESCO OER Recommendation, and what impact it will have globally, remains to be seen. However a coalition of organizations committed to promoting open education worldwide, including the Commonwealth of Learning, Creative Commons, SPARC and Open Education Global has been established to provide resources and services to support the implementation of the Recommendations.

Wikimedia Movement Strategy

Running in parallel with the development of the UNESCO Recommendation, the Wikimedia Foundation has been undertaking its own Movement Strategy exercise to shape the strategic direction of the movement, and outline the processes required to enable Wikimedia to achieve its goal of becoming the essential infrastructure of the ecosystem of free knowledge by 2030. Over the past three years volunteers, staff, partners and other stakeholders from across the global Wikimedia community have been involved in an ambitious process to identify what the future of the movement should look like, and how we should get there. And although the process and mechanism for scoping the Movement Strategy could hardly be more different from the development and ratification of the formal UNESCO Recommendation, both are underpinned by common principles and seek to achieve broadly similar goals.  The movement strategy is still under development but it outlines 13 Recommendations to build a shared future and bring the Wikimedia movement’s vision to life.

I’m not going to go into all these Recommendations, you can find out more about them and how to contribute to the Movements Strategy process here, but it’s clear that they echo many of principals of the UNESCO OER Recommendation. Indeed Recommendation 10 Prioritize Topics for Impact, specifically acknowledges the need to address global challenges, such as those outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals, and there are many other areas of commonality with the global open education movement among the other Recommendations.

Enshrined in the Wikimedia Movement Strategy, are the key concepts of Knowledge as a Service and Knowledge Equity.

Knowledge as a service, is the idea that, Wikimedia will become a platform that serves open knowledge to the world across interfaces and communities.

And knowledge equity, is the commitment to focus on knowledge and communities that have been left out by structures of power and privilege, and to break down the social, political, and technical barriers preventing people from accessing and contributing to free knowledge.
Knowledge Equity and Structural Inequality – giving up space.

Structural Inequality in the Open Knowledge Landscape

And to my mind it is this commitment to knowledge equity that is key to both the open education and Wikimedia movements, because as we are all aware, the open knowledge landscape is not without its hierarchies, norms, gatekeepers and power structures.

Indeed the 2019 Progress update for Sustainable Development Goal 4 notes that while rapid technological changes present both opportunities and challenges, refocused efforts are needed to improve learning outcomes particularly for women, girls and marginalized people in vulnerable settings.

Wikimedia’s problems with gender imbalance, structural inequalities and systemic bias are well known and much discussed. On English language Wikipedia just over 18% of biographical articles are about women, and the number of female editors is somewhere between 15 and 20%. Some language Wikipedias, such as the Welsh Wicipedia, fare better, others are much worse. Despite Wikipedia’s gender imbalance being an acknowledged problem, that projects such as Wiki Women In Red have sought to address, too often those who attempt to challenge these structural inequalities and rectify the systemic bias, are the subject of targeted hostility and harassment. The Movement Strategy acknowledges these issues and highlights the importance of addressing them.

Recommendation 2; on Creating Cultural Change for Inclusive Communities notes that Wikimedia communities do not reflect the diversity of our global society, and that the alarming gender gap can be attributed to a number of causes, including lack of a safe environment, as evidenced by numerous cases of harassment. And Recommendation 5 on Ensuring Equity in Decision-Making notes that Wikimedia’s historical structures and processes reinforce the concentration of power around established participants and entities. Adding that inclusive growth and diversification requires a cultural change founded on more equitable processes and representative structures.

In a recent article titled “The Dangers of Being Open” Amira Dhalla, who leads Mozilla’s Women and Web Literacy programs, wrote:

“What happens when only certain people are able to contribute to open projects and what happens when only certain people are able to access open resources? This means that the movement is not actually open to everyone and only obtainable by those who can practice and access it.

Open is great. Open can be the future. If, and only when, we prioritize structuring it as a movement where anyone can participate and protecting those who do.”

This lack of equity in the open knowledge landscape is significant, because if knowledge and education are to be truly open, then they must be open to all regardless of race, gender, or ability, because openness is not just about definitions, recommendations and strategies, openness is about creativity, access, equity, and social inclusion and enabling learners to become fully engaged radical digital citizens.

Radical Digital Citizenship, as defined by Akwugo Emejulu and Callum McGregor, moves beyond the concept of digital literacy as simply acquiring skills to navigate the digital world, to a re-politicised digital citizenship in which social relations with technology are made visible, and emancipatory technological practices for social justice are developed to advance the common good.

And I think, to some extent, that is what the Wikimedia Movement strategy process and the UNESCO OER Recommendation are trying to achieve.

University of Edinburgh

At the University of Edinburgh we believe that both open education and open knowledge are strongly in keeping with our institutional vision and values; to discover knowledge and make the world a better place, and to ensure our teaching and research is accessible, inclusive, and relevant to society. In line with the UNESCO OER Recommendation, we also believe that OER and open knowledge can contribute to achieving the aims of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which the University is committed to through the SDG Accord. To this end the University supports both a Wikimedian in Residence and a central OER Service.

We’ve already heard about our successful Wikimedian in Residence programme so I want to turn our attention to our OER Service which was launched in 2015, round about the same time as our Residency, and both have worked closely together over the last five years.
OER Vision

The University’s vision for OER has three strands, building on our excellent education and research collections, traditions of the Scottish Enlightenment, the university’s civic mission and the history of the Edinburgh Settlement. The three strands of our OER vision are:

For the common good – encompassing every day teaching and learning materials.
Edinburgh at its best – high quality resources produced by a range of projects and initiatives.
Edinburgh’s Treasures – content from our world class cultural heritage collections.
OER Policy

This vision is backed up by an OER Policy, approved by our Learning and Teaching Committee, which encourages staff and students to use, create and publish OERs to enhance the quality of the student experience. The fact that this policy was approved by our Learning and Teaching Committee is significant as it places open education and OER squarely in the domain of teaching and learning. Both the University’s vision for OER and its support for our Wikimedian in Residence are the brainchild of Melissa Highton, Assistant Principal Online Learning and Director of Learning and Teaching Web Services, who many of you will know and who presented the keynote at the Wikimedia in Education Summit in Middlesex University two years ago. EUSA, the student union were also instrumental in encouraging the University to adopt an OER policy, and we continue to see student engagement and co-creation as being fundamental aspects of open education and open knowledge.

OER Service

Of course policy is nothing without support, and this is where the OER Service comes in. The service provides staff and students with advice and guidance on creating and using OER, and engaging with open education. We provide a one stop shop that provides access to OER produced by staff and students across the university, and we place openness at the centre of strategic technology initiatives by embedding digital skills training and support in institution wide programmes including lecture recording, academic blogging, MOOCs, and distance learning at scale.

Like our Wikimedian in Residence, the OER Service focuses on digital skills development and we run a wide range of digital skills workshops for staff and students on copyright literacy, open licencing, OER and playful engagement.

Copyright Debt

We see the development of copyright literacy skills as particularly important as it helps to mitigate a phenomenon that my colleague Melissa has referred to as copyright debt.  If you don’t get the licensing of educational content right first time round, it will cost you to fix it further down the line, and the cost and reputational risk to the university could be significant if copyright is breached. And this is one of the key value propositions for investing in strategic support for OER at the institutional level; we need to ensure that we have the right to use, adapt, and reuse the educational resources we have invested in. It’s very common to think of OER as primarily being of benefit to those outwith the institution, however open licenses help to ensure that we can continue to use and reuse the resources that we ourselves have created. Unless teaching and learning resources carry a clear and unambiguous licence statement, it is difficult to know whether and in what context they can be reused.

Online Learning: MOOCs and MicroMasters

Ensuring continued access to course materials is particularly important for our many online learners, whether they are among the 4,000 matriculated students enrolled on our online masters courses, or the 2.7 million learners who have signed up for the wide variety of MOOCs that we offer. Continued access to MOOC content can be particularly problematic as educational content often gets locked into commercial MOOC platforms, regardless of whether or not it is openly licensed, and some platforms are now time limiting access to content. Clearly this is not helpful for learners and, given how costly high-quality online resources are to produce, it also represents a poor return on investment for the University. In order to address this issue, the OER Service works closely with our MOOC production teams to ensure that all content can be released under open licence though our Open Media Bank channel on our media asset management platform Media Hopper Create. We now have over 500 MOOC videos which are available to re-use, covering topics as diverse as music theory, mental health, clinical psychology, astrobiology and the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle.

We’re also extending our commitment to providing open access to high quality online learning opportunities and widening access to our scholarship, by launching a new programme of MicroMasters in partnership with EdX. These micro credentials are flexible, open to all, and provide a stepping stone from open to formal accreditation. And if you cast your minds back to the EU report on Opening Up Education, you’ll remember that providing access routes between non-formal and formal education is one of the specific benefits of open education that it highlights.

Openness has informed our approach to these innovative new programmes at every step of that way: edX was chosen as a not for profit organisation built on an open source platform; the technology and policies that drive our new pedagogical approaches at scale, are open and shared; and in line with our OER policy, we’re building openness into the creation of all teaching materials. Our first MicroMasters in Predictive Analytics for Business Applications was launched in September, and course materials will be released under open licence shortly.


As I mentioned earlier, at Edinburgh we believe that student engagement is fundamental to our institutional mission and our vision for OER and open knowledge. And arguably the best way to engage students is through co-creation, which to my mind, is one of the most powerful affordances of open education.

Put simply, co-creation can be described as student led collaborative initiatives, often developed with teachers or other bodies, that lead to the development of shared outputs. A key feature of co-creation is that it should be based on equal partnerships, and relationships that foster respect, reciprocity, and shared responsibility.

And we’ve already seen plenty of examples of the benefits of co-creation in action through the inspiring Wikimedia in the Curriculum initiatives supported by Ewan, but we also have a number of open education and OER creation assignments running throughout the University.

One particularly inspiring example is the School of Geosciences Outreach and Engagement course which gives students the opportunity to develop their own science communication projects with schools, museums, outdoor centres and community groups, creating a wide range of reusable educational resources for science engagement and community outreach.  Each summer the OER Service employs Open Content Creation student interns, who take the materials created by the GeoScience students, make sure everything in those resources can be released under open license and then share them on TES Resources, so they could be found and reused by other teachers and learners.

OER creation assignments also form an integral part of the Digital Futures for Learning course which is part of our MSc in Digital Education. Commenting on this assignment course leader Jen Ross said

“Experiencing first-hand what it means to engage in open educational practice gives students an appetite to learn and think more. The creation of OERs provides a platform for students to share their learning, so their assignments can have ongoing, tangible value for the students themselves and for those who encounter their work.”

And these sentiments echo the experiences of many of the students who have participated in our Wikipedia in the Curriculum assignments.

Knowledge Equity

Finally I want to return to the theme of knowledge equity; many of our open education and Wikimedia activities have a strong focus on redressing gender imbalance, centering marginalised voices, diversifying and decolonising the curriculum, and uncovering hidden histories. Some inspiring examples include our regular Wiki Women in Red editathons; Women in STEM editathons for Ada Lovelace Day and International Women’s Day; LGBT+ resources for medical education; open educational resources on LGBT+ Issues for Secondary Schools; UncoverED, a student led collaborative decolonial project uncovering the global history of the university; Diverse Collections, showcasing stories of equality and diversity within our archives; and the award winning Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Wikidata project.

Projects such as these provide our staff and students with opportunities to engage with the creation of open knowledge and to improve knowledge equity. And what is particularly gratifying is that we often find that this inspires our staff and students to further knowledge activism. ♦ So for example this is Tomas Sanders, an undergraduate History student and one of our former Open Content Curation student interns, and who went on to run a successful Wikipedia editathon for Black History Month with the student History Society.

Talking about his experience of running the Black History Month Editathon, in an interview with Ewan, Tomas said

“The history that people access on Wikipedia is often very different from the history that you would access in a University department; there’s very little social history, very little women’s history, gender history, history of people of colour or queer history, and the only way that’s going to be overcome is if people from those disciplines start actively engaging in Wikipedia and trying to correct those imbalances. I feel the social potential of Wikipedia to inform people’s perspectives on the world really lies in correcting imbalances in the representation of that world. People should try to make Wikipedia accurately represent the diversity of the world around us, the diversity of history, and the diversity of historical scholarship.”

All these projects are examples of knowledge equity in action; the dismantling of obstacles that prevent people from accessing and participating in education and knowledge creation. Ultimately, this is what knowledge equity is about; counteracting structural inequalities and systemic barriers to ensure just representation of knowledge and equitable participation in the creation of a shared public commons. And it’s through the common purpose of knowledge equity that we can harness the transformational potential of open knowledge and open education to make real steps towards achieve the aims of Sustainable Development Goal 4; ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all, while supporting social inclusion and enabling learners to become fully engaged radical digital citizens.


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