January 2008


Q. How did the Cape Town Open Education Declaration arise?

On September 14-15, 2007, the Open Society Institute (OSI) and the Shuttleworth Foundation convened a meeting in Cape Town to gather leading proponents of open education. The goal was to seek ways for these initiatives to deepen and accelerate their efforts through collaboration. The participants of the meeting concluded that releasing a declaration of shared vision and common strategies offered a concrete first step towards this kind of collaboration. They also hoped to extend the conversation and collaboration to others through this declaration.

Q. Is this an African initiative?

No. It is a worldwide initiative. It is named after Cape Town only because the Shuttleworth Foundation is headquartered there and that is where the meeting that spawned the declaration was held.

There is a long tradition of naming declarations, initiatives and public statements after the cities in which they were formulated or announced. For example, the access to knowledge movement, which heavily influenced the thinking behind the Cape Town Declaration, has made important public statements named after Aarhus, Banff, Bethesda, Berlin, Budapest, Dakar, Lisbon, Mexico City, Montreal, Rio, Riyadh, Sante Fe, São Paulo, Valparaiso, Washington D.C., and Zwolle. We are consciously following this tradition.

Q. Is Cape Town the ‘definitive’ declaration on open education and learning?

No. Open education is a living and evolving idea. There have been and will be declarations that cover other aspects of open eduction. These include the UNESCO Open Courseware Forum and the Rio Digital Education Declaration. A diversity of strategies and approaches will be essential to the growth of the open education movement. We encourage others to articulate complementary strategies through additional declarations, or even by creating remixes of the Cape Town Declaration.

Q. Does this declaration include the “libre” definition?

“Libre” resources and the libre definition arise from the need to distinguish among those resources that are merely “cost-free”, versus those resources that “respect the users’ essential freedoms: the freedom to use the work for any purpose, to study its mechanisms to be able to modify and adapt it to their own needs, to make and distribute copies in whole or in part, and to enhance or extend the work and share the results freely.” We believe that the Cape Town Declaration encompasses these ideals, but also recognize that there is always room for alternative interpretations of the text. We chose to use more accessible language (the word “libre” does not mean anything to most English speakers, which is the original language of the text), despite some of the ambiguities that might result. We encourage continued dialog among all members of the open/libre education communities and hope that this declaration will ultimately benefit everyone involved, regardless of variation in some of the details.

Q. Can I translate the Cape Town Open Education Declaration?

Yes, we encourage you to do so. This wiki includes a place to work on translations. Indicate on the feedback form that you would like to translate the declaration, and an account will be created for you. Then start translating. The Declaration has already been translated into over 15 languages by an amazing group of volunteers from the community. 

Q. Can I ‘remix’ the Declaration?

We do not think it is possible to draft a Declaration that will meet everyone’s needs. The version of the Declaration written by the 30 people who attended the Cape Town meeting has been revised and edited repeatedly by many people, and we have “soft launched” it now to encourage your feedback and criticism. While we are anticipating that some additional edits are probably going to be necessary (based on community feedback), we are not planning to open it up again for substantial revision, since this is essentially the version people are signing onto on this site. However, we do encourage people to use the original Cape Town Declaration as a basis for new documents they will use in their own work. We have released the Declaration under a Creative Commons BY SA license to facilitate this. Our current thinking is that people should feel free to use this Declaration as a starting point for drafting companion Declarations that may appeal to different audiences, different components of open education, or any number of other things. Upon full launch, we are considering providing a ‘remix sandbox’ wiki where people can play with the original text and express ideas on what future declarations might include.

Open Education

Q. I’ve heard the term “open education” before. Is this different somehow?

The term “open education” has been used in several contexts historically. For example, this definition on Highbeam Encyclopedia is related to the Montessori Method of open classrooms where the students direct their own learning. There are other uses of the term “open education” as well. What all of these terms share is a greater focus on the learner as an arbiter of his or her educational needs and desires. In addition, the openness that is promoted necessarily leads to a need for more responsive and adaptive teaching tools in order to accommodate the diversity of learning styles and motivations, both in and out of formal educational contexts. With the advent of the internet, the term “open” has also come to mean “freely accessible”, as illustrated by this Open Education site and many others.

The open education movement described here embraces all of these previous definitions to some level, and thus we believe that everyone who is interested in open education, regardless of the specific area of focus, will find many reasons to join in the movement as defined in the Declaration. It is axiomatic for an “open” movement such as this to be as inclusive of a diversity of teaching and learning approaches as possible. It is also essential for a movement of this nature to continue to evolve and redefine itself over time.

Q.  Why is this declaration so heavily focused on open educational resources?

The many organizations and individuals involved in the drafting of this declaration felt that it was important to focus on concrete strategies in at least one area of open education. They chose to focus on open educational resources. They also explicitly recognized that there are other areas that need to be addressed in order to fulfil the broader vision of the movement, especially open technology, assessment, and sharing of teaching practices. Some of the Cape Town authors have already begun to work on declarations and initiatives in these others areas.

Q. What qualifies as an open educational resource?

The Cape Town Declaration defines open educational resources as “openly licensed course materials, lesson plans, textbooks, games, software and other materials that support teaching and learning.” It goes on to state that these resources should be “… licensed to facilitate use, revision, translation, improvement and sharing by anyone.” The text in the Declaration was inspired by the definition of open educational resources established by UNESCO in 2002.


Q. Who benefits from open education?

All of us are touched by education and learning, and likewise open education is something that benefits everyone.

Of course, teachers and learners are the people who can benefit most immediately. Open education offers teachers an opportunity to further excel in efforts to guide the learning of their students. It can offer learners more control and flexibility in the learning itself.

Publishers and institutions that create educational content are also likely to benefit early on, especially in relation to open educational resources. Open resources provide a springboard for rapidly evolving and adding value to existing material. They also lend themselves to creation of collaborative business models such as those that we have seen arise in the world of open source software.

And, of course, administrators and policy makers also stand to benefit from open education. Most simply, broad adoption of open educational resources promises to multiply return on public investments in education many times over. Over the longer run, other aspects of open education promise to increase accessibility to learning opportunities and provide faster, more transparent channels for educational innovation.

Q. Do you need access to the Internet to benefit from open education?

No. Open education offers tremendous potential even without the Internet. Open educational resources can be created and used anywhere there is a computer, sparking the process of creativity and collaboration. These resources can also be distributed in print or on compact disk as a way to offer some of the cost saving and access benefits to the communities who most need them. Open technology can also offer the benefits of open education to teachers and learners who do not yet have access to the Internet, as evidenced by the local mesh networking approach of the One Laptop Per Child project.

However, open education and the Internet clearly go well together. The Internet provides a platform for collaborative learning and knowledge creation across long distances, which is central to the long term promise of open education. It also offers a channel for the creation and distribution of knowledge from a diversity of places and cultures around the world, and not just from major publishing centres like New York, London, and Paris.

The authors of the Cape Town Declaration advocate for universal access to the Internet for all, with the understanding that this will take time. They strongly urge supporters of open education to also lend their support to efforts like the UbuntuNet Alliance which are working on practical solutions to address Internet access in education. We also encourage teachers, students, and administrators to link up with local community wireless activists, telecentres, and others who can help local schools get online.

Q. What about commercial educational publishers? Will they also benefit from open education?

Yes, we believe that open education and open educational resources are very much compatible with the business of commercial publishing. The Declaration clearly states that the open education movement should “…engage entrepreneurs and publishers who are developing innovative business models that are both open and financially sustainable.” We have already seen the dramatic success of open business models in both the software and hosted web application industries. Wireless Generation‘s FreeReading site shows that similar models are starting to emerge in the field of educational publishing. Of course, greater experimentation and collaboration in the development of models like this is still needed.

Q. Are there any known risks to the open education model?

It is impossible to know. Of course the open education movement will require new business models in those cases where fees are currently required for access to the core materials, and there is likely to be some upheaval in formal educational systems as teachers and students engage in the new pedagogies that are enabled by openness. There might also be concerns that some of the deeper goals of the open education movement could backfire. For example, instead of enhancing locally relevant educational practices and rewarding those with regional expertise, it is possible that a flood of foreign-produced open educational resources will actually undermine the capacity for regional expertise to form or thrive. Similar types of unforeseen consequences have occurred in other philanthropic endeavors. However, most members of the open education movement, and certainly those engaged in the drafting of the Cape Town Open Education Declaration, believe this movement is different in several key ways. First, this is not actually a philanthropic endeavor in the classic sense of “donating” something to those with less. Instead, the open education movement promotes conditions for self-empowerment, and one of the central premises of the movement focuses on the freedom to be educated in the manner of one’s choosing. Second, the permissions granted in defining an open educational resource explicitly enable the localization and adaptation of materials to be more locally appropriate. Every person should have the right to be educated in his/her native language, and in a manner that is most suitable to the personal and cultural contexts in which they reside. Third, we have good reason to believe that the contributions to the global open educational enterprise from those in resource-limited settings are at least as valuable as contributions from anyone else. While we have much to do to enable truly equitably participation among all of the citizens of the globe, there is widespread agreement that the ultimate goal is some type of open educational network, not a unidirectional pipeline.

Q. What do you mean by “ideally, all taxpayer funded resources should be open educational resources”?

We believe that educational resources commissioned and paid for directly by the public sector should be released as open educational resources. This ensures that the taxpayers who financed these resources can benefit from them fully. Of course, this principle cannot extend to resources paid for indirectly with public funds, such as materials written by professors at public universities. The Declaration does strongly encourage these professors and institutions to make all of their resources open. However, in the end, this is their choice.

Licensing and intellectual property

Q. What licenses can be applied to open educational resources?

While there are many licensing options, the authors of the Cape Town Open Education Declaration agreed that “resources should be licensed to facilitate use, revision, translation, improvement and sharing by anyone”. In addition, many of the participants advocated for inclusion of language that indicates that the license should ideally impose no legal constraints other than a requirement by the creator for appropriate attribution or the sharing of derivative works. This degree of openness represents the ‘gold standard’ in open educational resource licensing. However, it is also recognized that some authors and publishers may wish to disallow commercial uses (non-commercial). Resources licensed with this additional restriction are still open educational resources, but do come with risks and costs.

Q. If I am required to give ‘appropriate attribution’, what does this mean?

The type of attribution that is appropriate depends on the creator of the work. In the open educational resource community, simply specifying the source of the version of the work used is usually sufficient, although creators and co-creators of works are able to specify what attribution they deem to be appropriate, whether they wish to be named as authors of a work, credited in a way required by a particular discipline or setting, or that a work be anonymous.

Q. If I am allowed to ‘share derivative works’, what does this mean?

The phrase ‘share derivative works’ means that all reproductions or derivative works of a copyright work should be re-released under the same or a similar license. Licenses such as the GNU General Public License and the Creative Commons Share Alike license include this requirement.

Q. What is the best license to use?

The answer to this question, as is so often the case, is: it depends. It depends on which traits and uses of your open educational resources you hold in highest regard. It also depends on the particular context in which the open educational resource was created.

In general, we suggest that you use one of the Creative Commons (CC) licenses, for several reasons:

  • The licenses have human-readable deeds, which is (generally) easier for people to understand.
  • The licenses have a computer-readable component which enables search and filtering by license status, an increasingly important consideration in an era of exploding online content.
  • The licenses have been ported to many countries around the world, with more being added every year, which guarantees their worldwide application and enforcement.
  • The licenses are already the most frequently used licenses for open educational resources, which will make it easier for users to learn about their rights, as well as use the materials in interesting ways.

Within the family of CC licenses, we recommend that you use the CC-BY license, or the CC-BY-SA license if you prefer. This recommendation is based on a desire to encourage the creation of educational materials that are as interoperable as possible. This in turn enables the greatest possibility for creative re-use, re-mixing, and other forms of adaptation. Open educational resources licensed using CC-BY have no restrictions on use beyond attribution for the original creator. Open educational resources licensed using CC-BY-SA also require attribution, but have the additional restriction of requiring that the derived material be licensed in the same manner as the original(s), thus ensuring their continued availability as open educational resources.

Wikipedia currently uses the GNU FDL license, which was incompatible with other licenses and therefore motivated people to use it in their own wikis. However, the Free Software Foundation has recently agreed to evolve the GNU FDL so that people can choose to convert their materials to CC-BY-SA, thus rendering the GNU FDL and the CC-BY-SA interoperable. Therefore, for open educational resources created in a collaborative, distributed fashion, we still recommend that you use a CC license, for all of the reasons listed above. Note that the CC-BY-SA license also requires that derivative works be re-licensed under the same conditions, which is a restriction that you may or may not desire (see: “Why should I use the share-alike (SA) or copyleft term?”).

A good resource for browsing the varieties of licenses that have been applied to open educational resources is this list of licenses conformant to the Open Knowledge Definition.

Q. I don’t want people to make money on my open educational resources. I am going to use the noncommercial (NC) term. Is this a good idea?

Imposing restrictions on commercial activity requires careful thought. There are a few cases in which the use of the NC term is justifiable. For example, if there are a lot of third-party materials from for-profit entities in your educational resources, it may well be that the only way to release these materials in a more open format is to apply the NC term. However, in most cases, the NC term is likely to have undesired repercussions for your work. If you are thinking of restricting commercial activity, ask yourself the following questions: What is the goal of doing so? Is it that the creators wish to make money from their contributions? Is this likely? Is it assumed that all for-profit activity is somehow inimical to education? What are the costs of restricting commercial use of open educational resources and do you wish to incur them? For example, is it your goal to forbid a for-profit publisher in a developing country from printing copies of your materials and distributing them there?

The calculation is one that each site and funder must make for itself, but there are definite advantages to being less restrictive. Thus we recommend that, where possible, you should avoid using the non-commercial restriction.

Q. Why should I use the share-alike (SA) or copyleft term?

The decision of whether or not to use the share-alike (SA) term, also known as copyleft (such as with the GNU FDL), is a personal one, based on the priorities of the author. If an author’s primary purpose in creating open educational resources is for it to be used as widely, freely, and creatively as possible, then using CC-BY is the better choice. CC-BY allows for a variety of motivations, including the possibility of commercial success, to drive users to adapt and re-purpose their materials. In most cases, it seems likely that the derived materials will remain openly available, but even if they do not, there is nothing preventing someone from using the original source materials for their own needs, regardless of what others have done. If an author’s primary purpose in creating open educational resources is for that material to never leave the educational commons, such as it is, then you may want to apply the SA term. In this case, the possibilities for viable commercial derivatives, though not disallowed, are diminished, and so users motivated to adapt materials for that purpose are unlikely to participate. In addition, open educational resources licensed with an SA term are only interoperable with other SA materials, which seriously limits their capacity for re-mixing.

It seems likely that the commons of open educational resources will eventually coalesce into two different domains of materials: those licensed CC-BY (or some other non-copyleft license) and those licensed CC-BY-SA (or some other copyleft license). The materials in the first domain can be re-mixed with the materials in the second domain (thus converting all re-mixed products into copyleft materials), but not vice versa. Rather than force everyone to make their choices in the same way, we simply suggest that creators consider the differences and choose the license that appeals to them the most. We certainly hope that the overall pool of open educational resources will eventually be large enough that the costs of having two silos of content will be negligible.

Q. I’m worried that people will damage the educational integrity of my work, so I want to apply the no-derivatives (ND) term. Should I do this?

Some educators feel uncomfortable about allowing changes to educational content they have created where it has an internal consistency and coherence that might be lost when edited by others.

There are two key points we would ask you to consider prior to applying the ND term. First, are you willing to prevent all of the wonderful ways in which your work might be improved upon just for the sake of preventing a few derivatives that you would consider inferior? It is worth remembering that it is the granting of freedoms to share, reprint, translate, combine, or adapt that makes open educational resources educationally different from those that can merely be read online for free. Thus, although materials released under the ND term are welcome additions to the pool of educational materials that can be obtained online, most of the open education community would not include such materials in the pool of open educational materials. Simply put, if you want to contribute open educational resources, you should avoid the ND term wherever possible.

Second, you must remember that digital resources are not consumable goods, in the sense that they can be shared infinitely without any loss of value for the original. As such, if inferior derivatives are created, those creations have done nothing to diminish the quality of your original work, which will remain available for others to use or improve upon as they wish. If you do not want derivatives to be attributed to you, you can specify that condition when you license the original work. And you always have the option to request that your name be removed from any derivative works which disagree with you, if you want to try and track such things.

Q. What about using materials in the public domain?

Resources that are in the public domain are essentially license-free. It is a mistake to refer to materials as being licensed in the public domain. As such, there is absolutely no restriction on use of public domain materials. In addition to being able to freely use such materials, you are free to adapt public domain materials and then license the derivative works in any way you choose, including standard all-rights-reserved copyright. You have to apply an open license if you want your contribution to add to the pool of open educational resources.

Q. I don’t think that the public domain exists in my country. How can I find resources that have no copyright restrictions in this case?

In reality, the public domain exists worldwide, but is often not named as such. In many countries, the public domain consists of materials that are not strictly defined and protected by the copyright laws. In these cases, identifying materials that are in the public domain is more a process of eliminating the possibility that there are any intellectual property rights on those materials than identifying the conditions that would place the materials in the public domain. As a practical matter, it is currently very difficult to find materials that are in the public domain, mostly because all such materials were created prior to the digital age and are therefore not online.

If you are interested in placing your own open educational resources into the public domain, or the functional equivalent, there are no completely satisfactory options at the moment. You can waive all rights as they pertain to copyright using a CC-BY license and then specifying that you do not want to be attributed. In the United States, you can also dedicate your work to the public domain, using the CC public domain dedication. There have also been suggestions for other types of licenses that accomplish similar ends but are worded differently, such as this proposed open education license. However, none of these options waives the other rights associated with creative works, such as model rights, moral rights, and the like. And in some jurisdictions, these other rights are not easily waived. Creative Commons is currently exploring a possible solution to this problem, called CC Zero, which would provide a mechanism for a rights-holder to waive all restrictions, including rights beyond copyright, but within the copyright framework. If you are interested in this project, we recommend that you keep tabs on the Creative Commons site for updates.

Q. I want to create a specialized license for education / nationals of my country / people under 18 / only the people in my university or discipline/ etc. Do you agree?

No. If your goal is to be part of the global commons of open educational resources, such specialized licenses undermine this goal. They create a subset of content that can be used only by a particular user with particular characteristics and which – when mixed or combined with other open educational resources – ends up restricting the freedoms offered on that content as well, since the most restrictive license would apply (in the best-case scenario). There are additional practical problems. For example, educational licenses deal poorly with education outside of formal settings, or with the type of lifelong and informal learning that the Internet allows. We understand that some communities or creators will not be allowed to offer the full range of freedoms that define open educational resources, but the goal of open educational resources is to create a global commons which is open without regard to the nationality, status, age, or occupation of the user.

Q. What about my legacy content? I acquired that content under greater restrictions than the ones you describe here.

The basic principles are to: identify, segregate, migrate. Legacy content under more restrictive terms should be clearly identified, and should not be combined with open educational resources that permit a greater range of uses. This is an important principle of site design when considering search-engine access. In the long term, we hope that repositories of educational resources will be populated with only open educational resources.


Q. What are the preferred technical formats for open educational resources?

There are too many perfectly reasonable technical formats for us to make any specific recommendations. However, we are hoping that the community will create an information site where members can discuss and rate the appropriateness of different formats for the different contexts in which they might be applied. In addition, there are some planned meetings among community members which will address this issue more carefully.

Regardless, the raison d’être of open educational resources (OER) is to allow easy access. Resources should be presented in a way that makes every effort not to exclude, or impose extra difficulties on, the user with a disability, the teacher or student who lacks a particular software or hardware system, or the person whose community has limited technological resources or poor or intermittent connectivity.

In order to fulfill their unique promise for customization, distributed innovation, and collaboration across time and cultures, open educational resources also need to work well and easily together.  They should be simple for users to find, navigate, use, customize, and combine with other OER.  Thus, it is a fundamental principle of OER to seek technically interoperable and – where practicable – open formats. In particular, formats should be chosen such that they:

  • permit practically the freedoms provided legally by the open licensing of the open educational resources. Free and open content is of little use if the format in which it is presented denies the ability to reproduce, customize, and translate.
  • do not require the purchase of any particular closed or proprietary system.
  • allow the maximum possible access based on OER site design and technical choices.

Materials should be in formats that permit ready conversion for the benefit of people with disabilities. At a minimum, materials should comply with laws and norms ensuring access by those with disabilities, follow the World Wide Web Consortium Accessibility Guidelines, and be mindful of the range of technological resources available to communities around the world.

Q. Should I only use open-source software?

We certainly encourage you to use open-source software whenever possible, as it embodies the same principles of flexibility, collaboration, and participatory knowledge creation that we see in open educational resources. Also, the cost of proprietary software can be a major barrier to access in many parts of the world.

However, the same considerations that are given to technical formats generally apply here: the creator needs to consider what software platforms will allow practically those rights that have been granted legally. The best choice may not always be open-source software. For example, if there are school districts that support a proprietary word-processing program but nothing else, then for those students, open educational resources that are compatible with their dominant software platform are clearly more accessible and usable. Similarly, much of the benefit of open educational resources in the developing world is likely to be with offline materials, which may be more easily printed or transported using proprietary software formats.

A large number of the Cape Town authors believe that we should work towards a world where open source software can meet all of our open education needs. Unfortunately, we do not yet live in this world. Until then, we leave it up to the authors and project managers to decide what works best for their particular needs, and do not recommend excluding anyone based on their choice of software or platform unless this choice results in constraints on the right to use, revise, translate, improve, and share open educational resources.


Q. What am I committing to when I sign?

For an individual, signing indicates a commitment to pursue the Declaration’s three strategies as a part of one’s own teaching, learning, or work life. For an institution, signing means a commitment to open education through undertaking initiatives or making policies aligned with the strategies in the Declaration.

Q. What consequences do you foresee from this Declaration?

With other declarations such as the Budapest Open Access Initiative, we saw large numbers of signatures providing the credibility needed to spark widespread excitement, institutional culture change, and the adoption of new policies in the area of access to knowledge. We hope that the same effect can be achieved by the Cape Town Declaration in the field of education.