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Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Power of OERs: A Lesson from Thomas Paine


OERs—Open Educational Resources—are a hot topic these days among educational technologists.   They first came to international attention when a small group of educators, meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, called on educators to join a “worldwide effort to make education both more accessible and more effective.”  The Cape Town Declaration has since been signed by more than 2,500 institutions around the world.  As a step toward a more open educational environment, the declaration calls on institutions
to release their resources openly. These open educational resources should be freely shared through open licenses which facilitate use, revision, translation, improvement and sharing by anyone. Resources should be published in formats that facilitate both use and editing, and that accommodate a diversity of technical platforms. Whenever possible, they should also be available in formats that are accessible to people with disabilities and people who do not yet have access to the Internet.

          This week, I came across a much earlier example of an OER.  In his book The Written Word (Random House, 2017), Martin Puchner examines the impact of the written word across history, from the cuneiform-based Tales of Gilgamesh to the social impact of the Harry Potter books.  After reading about the history of writing over four thousand years, I was taken aback when Puchner got to the American colonies in 1776.  In those days, broadsides (single folio-sized pages printed on one side) and pamphlets—three folio-sized pages folded twice to produce a 48-page booklet—were an inexpensive way to distribute information. 
            By 1776, some 400 pamphlets on various subjects had been published in the colonies.  That year, about six months before the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin helped Thomas Paine to produce another one.  It was called Common Sense.  Franklin printed a first run of 100.  However, Paine did something revolutionary.  As Puchner describes it, “he not only forwent all royalties but also renounced his copyright, giving any printer the right to publish the pamphlet”
(p. 219).  As a result, they sold 153,000 copies of Common Sense in the first year alone, becoming, as David McCullough would observe in his history 1776 (Simon and Schuster, 2005), “more widely read than anything yet published in America” (p. 250). 
            In July, the Declaration of Independence would be distributed as a broadside on a single folio page.  Puchner notes, “As the cheapest vehicles for spreading new ideas, broadsides and pamphlets had contributed to the climate of democratic unrest among the colonists” (ibid.)
            In December 1776, as the Revolution became a difficult military campaign, Paine wrote The Crisis, the first in a series of pamphlets known as The American Crisis.  George Washington ordered it to be read to the troops at Valley Forge.  It begins, “These are the times that try men’s souls.  The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”  As Jill Lepore reports in The New Yorker, John Adams later wrote of Paine, "Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain."