OER advocacy in Brazil: 3 chapters in a continuing story

The Brazilian Ministry of Education (MEC) published an ordinance on the 16th of may, that determines that any educational resources commissioned and paid for by the Ministry, which are to be used for basic education (K-12) should be open educational resources, giving permissions for anyone to “access, use, adapt and distribute at no cost”. It further emphasises the importance of open formats and standards whenever technically viable. This has been a big week for us. We felt the need to reflect, so we edited and amended the post to say a bit about how we got here.

OER advances in Brazil: activism and work on the ground

We received many congratulatory notes (thank you to all) and have paused to reflect on what has been quite a ride for us. For those who do not follow OER politics in Brazil (most people, really), what seems like a sudden turn of events, is, in fact, a long history of activism and work on the ground. We felt it would be useful to talk about what we think is a unique brand of policy-making activism. We have shared these thoughts in many meetings with other open education activists and found resonance with the work of others. We do not claim our story is novel, but at least in our advocacy work, it presents an interesting story on strategy and outcomes. We present it in three chapters, which we hope might be useful to others.

Chapter 1 – Law and fieldwork

A little over 10 years ago, strong policy work was started through the OER Brazil group, funded in part by the Open Society Foundations. The focus of policy change was on establishing contacts and promoting an understanding of OER among the highest levels of legislative and executive branches, in federal, state and municipal governments around the country. The group focused its energies on secretaries of education, congresswomen/men and local representatives.  Success was partially measured in the size and visibility of events, and through the exchange of experiences with high-level speakers from abroad. The goal was to make  some noise about a topic very few people knew or cared about (probably because they knew so little about it). Success was measured by the introduction of “projetos de lei” (law proposals) in different spheres, ranging from the federal government (where it is still moving its way through the system) to concrete implementation of ordinances, such as the city of São Paulo, which approved an ordinance for an open license for all educational resources paid with funds from the municipal office.

Though the case of São Paulo could be considered a success story (and it was), we also witnessed a significant lack of follow-through. Despite a prominent Creative Commons license on the website of the municipal education office, very little changed in terms of practice, contracts and general awareness. Sure, we knew a simple top-down adoption of an open license wouldn’t change practice, but we must confess that we expected that the effects of change would ripple through the system and promote some, small, increasing transformation. A change in government, and a lack of a permanent structure (such as a working group) to promote and demand follow through, left new management with an ordinance, but little knowledge of its importance of what to do next.

Other bills followed, such as those at the state level in São Paulo (vetoed by the governor), Paraná and others. Meanwhile, our studies pointed to a slow but increasing interest on OER in a academia and a similar growing pace in projects around OER in Brazil and Latin America.

Chapter 2 – Managing general discouragement

Initial funding, by its own metrics, proved to be fairly successful. But our need for awareness raising didn’t seem to be a priority when we spoke to funding agencies and organizations worldwide. At every gathering and event on OER around the world, our groups discussions with people from poorer nations showed us we were not alone –  awareness and funding for basic advocacy was still considered a major issue. But we noticed that richer nations had mostly moved on, leaving awareness to the volunteer boots on the ground. We saw funding redirected towards “high impact” projects, such as resource and software development, personalization platforms, analytics, and the like.

What to do next presented a dilemma. Luckily, we have a couple of nouns that help describe how Brazilians work around tough scenarios to make things happen. When the game in not in our favor, we use a “jeitinho”. The best way to describe it thus: when there seems to be no option between a “no” and and “yes”, Brazilians have a way to find a “maybe” – A and B don’t work? Don’t struggle – find a C. When we find a maybe, we usually engage in the practice of “gambiarra” or the creation of some unorthodox strategy; one that is (because of the limitations that are imposed), unaware of how it will deal with the long term consequences of its possible inadequacy. In other words, better to try something new with imperfect information rather than wait for ideal conditions.

Portuguese is a minority language (bigger than most minority languages on the internet), and the discussion on the importance of promoting capacity for local production of resources, to our knowledge, is still mute in the OER movement (this in spite of continuous calls for attention to this matter, most recently in Ljubljana). 

The OER movement should not just be about making quantities of resources, or ‘ideal’ resources available in multiple languages. It is also about inclusion and equitable participation, right? As multicultural educators have made clear over decades, to create an education resources is to ‘speak’ from a particular vantage point – it is to make your voice heard, to attempt to persuade and to populate the field with a unique point of view. We believe time and effort should be spent on creating the conditions for diverse groups to speak – to be able to create, remix, share and promote their voices in a more open education. How do we do this – in a country with a handful of activists like Brazil, with no funding and support?

We reevaluated partnerships and paths to move forward – in this, we created the Open Education Initiative and began uniting the efforts of two groups through one unique identity, promoting OER and open education in Brazil. We noticed that our work discussing OER at the federal level was fragmented, and decided to join forces to leverage the willingness and interest on OER and openness, by what we have come to term ‘mid level managers’ or ‘public servants’.

In countries such as ours, high-level government positions are usually appointed and political in nature. At lower levels, one will find those who are career public servants, who actually make the machinery work. We began a number of volunteer awareness raising efforts, while working in tandem to find specific areas of influence, at a much lower level: focusing on departments or specific projects. We decided to focus our efforts in an audience that we knew would be willing to listen. Because of previous workshops and presentations, we knew those involved with the Open University of Brazil (UAB) which aggregates 127 public higher education institutions in Brazil, would be quite keen to move forward.

Chapter 3 –  Focus on bottom-up support

Our first breakthrough happened when the federal body which organizes UAB (DED/CAPES) passed an ordinance requiring open licenses for all resources created by those receiving funding through UAB.  We knew working systemically was important, but how do you plan “systemically” when you have no support or future prospects? We had proposed a series of activities: awareness raising through small workshops; a wide-ranging questionnaire that would allow use to understand the perspective of those involved with UAB; a new online/open course on OER/OE for those involved with UAB and resources explaining how to implement the new ordinance in the actual resources (like: where do you put a CC license on a video?).

These things ended up happening, all of them, out of order, as time and support became available (if at all). One underfunded project financed other projects, and all the rest was volunteer work. We ended up creating a bunch of others things with the generous help of many colleagues, such as an open data portal for UAB, document translations, and a series of new educational resources for the open course.

We used this win to promote further aggregate other activities under the banner of our new Initiative. Participation on the Open Government Partnership led to talks at the basic education level. Here we similarly found willing and interested public servants. No laws, no decrees – intense, bottom-up discussions, chats, at the most basic level. Once we had critical mass, we joined all these folks into a working group in the Ministry where they could identify interests and possible paths to move forward. We reasoned that if we could take a small dent in one project or one section of the Ministry, eventually we’d have the whole edifice come down (in a good sense) as different folks saw the value in all these smaller policies and activities.

Through partners, and the dedication of public servants, we did; putting dents in the massive federal textbook purchase program, to a demand that a national educational robotics purchase make its educational resources available with a Creative Commons license.

And at last, the edifice came down, when the Basic Education Secretary passed the ordinance we began our story with. OER will not be a fringe topic anymore in Brazil. It has made the “projeto de lei” (bill) which had been largely ignored over the past years, come alive again, as people notice the potential impact (and common sense appeal) of OER.

Our working group continues to meet, and aggregate further interested parties. We continue to do this work voluntarily, with the sporadic (underfunded) support for specific activities which we stretch to the limit and use to promote another three or four necessary products. We continue trekking this field for as long as we can, because the energy on the ground is contagious. We find enormous interest and support from the most unlikely places and people.

This was a systematic bet. It was deliberate, but the plan was incomplete and immeasurable in its unpredictable steps and plagued by chance. By traditional measures of success, unreasonable. Still, we have found that bottom-up persistence and short-term planning and strategy works better than top-down hammering. We finish with a call to conscience and pragmatism: we fear that the funding and support that gone in to many large, high-level ‘open’ projects may obfuscate what will ultimately define their success — the bottom-up proselytizing and groundwork that changes people and their practices.

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