What do you mean… open?

So I’m writing this book… (with some friends)

And then i go to write the part of the chapter I’m working on about ‘openness’ in education and I ask myself “self, what does open in open education.* mean anyway?”

And then i fell down the rabbit hole. A rabbit hole full of paths from the Open University’s saving by Margaret Thatcher in 1970, to the table around which ‘open source’ was coined in 1998, and any number of debates on neo-liberalism. Fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

This post is a mixture of my own research and lots of v. interesting input I’ve gotten from colleagues on Twitter. I’ll make my best effort to mention those people who contributed… feel free to let me know if I’ve forgotten you.

The story that I’m trying to tell here is about the values that underpin the word ‘open’. I know many of the people involved in open education/learning/educational resources as deeply principled people who are engaged in the idea of openness for reasons that are important to them. In examining these values i have found two strands: one openness that speaks of valuing the creator/teacher/artifact, and another sense of openness that speaks of the user/learner. Most of us, I would imagine, borrow from both sides. But this story is particularly about how the ideas of around ‘open source’ influence a pull towards valuing the creator over the user, and how that pull might affect the field of learning going forward

The brief retelling of how we got ‘open source’
The first article sent to me when I started this little personal quest was the meme hustler – Tim O’Reilly’s crazy talk by Evgeny Morozov. Any of you familiar with Morozov will know that he makes his business in attacking dominant narratives and confronting the status-quo. In this particular post (which is very long, and, I think, worth the skim if you can look passed his anger) he takes on Tim O’Reilly for shaping the techno-discussion of era (and maybe more in the future) through his unique blend of brand development, crafty conferences and publishing supports. Now… I’ve always had suspicions about O’Reilly (see 2006 post) so I’m a little biased… but I’ll leave you to your own interpretations of Morozov’s broader argument, of specific import to this story is the thread of research i never made it to in ’06, and that is the original table around which the term ‘open source’ was coined and put into circulation.

So there’s (still) this thing called the Free Software Foundation. It’s founder/luminary in residence is a man named Richard Stallman. Google him… it’s worth it. Anyway… Stallman was a giant figure in programming in the 80’s and 90’s working on, among other things, a free as in freedom version of the operating system for computers. His views were very much about things being built with the rights of the users being foremost in his mind. He warned that if the users freedom weren’t paramount the software (and the people who designed it) would control things. hem. Facebook. hem hem. Google. hem.

From my understanding, Stallman doesn’t actually have a problem with people making money for a living. His interests in free are famously represented as being about ‘free as in speech’ not ‘free as in beer’. It’s the freedom of choice. He very much wanted everyone to contribute their software in like manner… he valued freedom in a way that was not connected to whether he made money or not, whether the not-free software might be better or more powerful. He judged the ‘value’ of the software to be used by freedom first and other considerations second. The GPL (his free license) and his influence on free software dominated that end of the industry.

After a long battle with Microsoft, Netscape lost the browser wars (yes, we used to say that) and at one point in 1998 a bunch of folks get called together by Eric Raymond (of Cathedral and the Bazaar fame) to talk about what should be done in the light of Netscape releasing (making free) the code to its browser. My interpretation (and there are lots of others out there) is that they were trying to find an angle on it that they could leverage for themselves. Broadly speaking people had decided that Richard Stallman’s ‘free software’ approach was too confusing for business. They needed a new narrative that they could use to profit from the free software model.

“The meeting’s agenda boiled down to one item: how to take advantage of Netscape’s decision so that other companies might follow suit?” Raymond doesn’t recall the conversation that took place, but he does remember the first complaint addressed. Despite the best efforts of Stallman and other hackers to remind people that the word “free” in free software stood for freedom and not price, the message still wasn’t getting through. Most business executives, upon hearing the term for the first time, interpreted the word as synonymous with “zero cost,” tuning out any follow up messages in short order. Until hackers found a way to get past this cognitive dissonance, the free software movement faced an uphill climb, even after Netscape.

[Christine] Peterson [who coined ‘open source’], whose organization had taken an active interest in advancing the free software cause, offered an alternative: open source.

Looking back, Peterson says she came up with the open source term while discussing Netscape’s decision with a friend in the public relations industry. She doesn’t remember where she came upon the term or if she borrowed it from another field… http://oreilly.com/openbook/freedom/ch11.html

A shift in values
Take this quote that Morozov cites from O’reilly in 2001

I want to return to the idea of freedom zero as my choice as a creator to give, or not to give, the fruits of my work to you, as a “user” of that work, and for you, as a user, to accept or reject the terms I place on that gift. If that is power, so be it.

In Stallman’s words

The two terms[free software and open source] describe almost the same category of software, but they stand for views based on fundamentally different values.

In reading this (and this certainly meshes with my feelings in the ’06 post above, in Morozov’s polemic and with stuff like this) I see a value switch from a socio-cultural ideology (freedom) to a something else. A move from valuing the freedom of the user to valuing the freedom of the creator of the software. You might also say, and many people have, that it is a replacement of ideology with ‘practicality’. The removing of ideology from the equation. I don’t happen to believe this. I don’t think that you can ever be ‘without ideology’. We use some standard to judge what we should do, whether a project is worthwhile or which of two things should go first. For some it’s money. For some it’s whether it will help other people…

If you’re interested in more side by side detail about the difference, here are the two philosophies written side by side:

The value shift is a subtle one for most of us… it certainly has been opaque for me before i started doing this research. It is further confused by the fact that the ‘user’ in the Stallman case was still likely a programmer, where the user in O’reilly’s case was more ‘customer’. All that being said, I still think there’s a critical difference. The value set attached to the free software movement is fundamentally about user freedom first, product/producer second. In the open source discussion, the product/producer comes first, and the user may, as O’reilly suggests, take it or leave it. The purpose behind the creation and initial spreading of a word may not have forever impacts on its meaning, but Raymonds words are telling “In conventional marketing terms our job was to rebrand the product and build its reputation into one that the corporate world would hasten to buy.” Both Morozov and Stallman credit Open Source as being focused on making a better stronger product. Stallman particularly worries that this is not what you want as your first value.

What the hell does this have to do with education?
Frankly, I’m not sure that Stallman would still be right about his approach in a day and age where 99.9% of computer users are blind users of software. Pure consumers who will never understand code. It may have been better had things gone differently and we had stuck to understanding code and the machines that are so deeply embedded in our lives… but i’m pretty sure that opportunity is gone. Hopefully not so with education.

At many conferences and in many discussions I’ve heard people suggest that the ideas of ‘open source’ have had a deep impact on the open in open education. And my concern starts when that particular model of ‘openness’ is applied to education. In that same twitter conversation David Wiley, coiner of the term open content, suggests that the open of open content is by analogy to open source but different…

How is it different? Does it value the user or the creator? As I’ve said… I care less about this in software (as i think the battle is over) but I care a tremendous amount about it in education.

Lets take a look at Wiley’s recent work with Cable Green, Director of Global Learning at Creative Commons. In their 2012 article on openness in education they claim the following

We discuss the three principal influences of openness on education: open educational resources, open access, and open teaching. From David Wiley and Cable Green in Educause

  • The OER influence of openness makes a strong case for “extremely efficient and affordable sharing”. A business case for the effectiveness of open resources and how they can effectively replace (or partially replace) existing options.
  • The Open Access influence is about the ability of a researcher to openly share their research and have access to the research of others.
  • “”Open teaching” began as a practice of using technology to open formal university courses for free, informal participation by individuals not officially enrolled in the course. In the university context, open teaching involves devising ways to expose the in-class experiences to those who are not in the class so that they can participate as fully as possible.
    • posting syllabi in publicly viewable blogs or wikis, where everyone can view them;
    • assigning readings that are freely and openly available, so that everyone can access and read them;
    • asking students to post homework assignments and other course artifacts on publicly viewable blogs or wikis, so they can catalyze further discussion of relevant topics; and
    • using a wide range of traditional and social media, including e-mail, microblogging, and blog comments, to carry on the course discussion.

In each of these cases, we see a strong focus on the creators of the content being central to the openness. The first two of the three ‘principal influences of openness’ are clearly about the creators, and the third allows the user to participate as much as they can by interacting with the content that is given made available in the open. While I certainly would not suggest that the statement is as strong as the ‘take it or leave it’ take that O’reilly offers for users of open source software, I sense a creator focused ‘offering’ to the outside world.

I’m not trying to pick on David (and he can certainly take care of himself anyway :)) but i’m going to continue to focus on the relationship between his work and open source. Here is one of the other resources that David sent me during this discussion around the meaning of open. He quotes “Wiley (2010) assumes common understanding of the term educational resources, and argues that open is a matter of (1) cost and (2) copyright licensing and related permissions”

We have a definition of open that has, as its values, the price of a thing and the ways in which it’s creator can license it. Here is the tie, I think, to O’reilly and Raymond. In an earlier paragraph, the long history of the meaning of openness as imprecise is cited from a 1975 book called “Open Learning: systems and problems in post-secondary education

“Open Learning is an imprecise phrase to which a range of meanings can be, and is, attached. It eludes definition. But as an inscription to be carried in procession on a banner, gathering adherents and enthusiasts, it has great potential”

Later in the same paragraph Wiley suggests that the meaning of open has changed little in the last 40 years. This would mean, in effect, that openness is about making content available to students for free. I don’t want to spoil the point I’m making by taking too close a reading on someone i look up to as a luminary in our field… but i think there is a pattern of discussion here that focuses on the creator, not the user. To fully make the point, however, we would need to establish the Stallman end of the equation, the ‘user focused openness’, and to do that we must cross the pond.

Open as in “Open University UK”
I have long heard from my colleagues in the UK that there is part of the openness discussion missing and that it involves the Open University.

This from the excellent Professor Martin Weller author of cool books and many papers, much of which deals with openness in education. So I decided to dig in a little.

Discussion with Dominic Newbould
During my debate on twitter I was sent a few messages from Dominic Newbould, 30+ year veteran of the OU who dropped this on me.

I asked him if he would mind having a chat with me to give me a sense of what he meant. We had a broad ranging discussion (lots of interesting (to me) detail for a future blog post) about the history of the OU and what openness meant to the institution from the early inklings in 1963 to launch in 1969 and through the time he spent there from 1975 onwards. The part of that discussion of direct relevance here are the four kinds of open

  1. Open = accessible, ‘supported open learning’, interactive, dialogue. Accessibility was key.
  2. Open = equal opportunity, unrestricted by barriers or impediments to education and educational resources.
  3. Open = transparency, sharing educational aims and objectives with students, disclosing marking schemes and offering exam and tutorial advice.
  4. Open = open entry, most important, no requirement for entrance qualifications. All that was needed were ambition and the will/motivation to learn.

This position is supported by a quote from a recent JISC review of openness in the Open University
“The university was given the mission to be “open as to people, places, methods and ideas” by its founding chancellor in his inaugural address” http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/topics/openeducation/JISC_OU_CaseStudy.pdf

Or, to go a little further down the page on that 1975 book quoted by Wiley

“open has many meanings, and the aura of the most of them seemed generous and ‘charismatic’ – open-handed, open-ended, open-hearted, open house, open choice. ‘Open’ as contrasted with ‘closed’ carried suggestions demolishing or lowering established barriers between subject areas; of enlarging and enriching the areas of activity and experience graded as educational. It symbolized a shift in the relationship between teacher and pupil towards that of student and adviser.

Perhaps the most commonly used sense of ‘open’ has been the idea of creating opportunities for study for those debarred from it for whatever reasons, be it lack of formal educational attainments or shortage of vacancies, poverty, remoteness, employment or domestic necessities. Open Learning: Systems and problems in post-secondary education Mackenzie, Postgate and Scupham, 1975

Here then, we find a version of openness that takes as its starting point the user/learner. I certainly sense a shifting of goals in the Open University from its original incarnation to what it became and is becoming… but no matter. What we’re looking for here are core values. How does your openness influence the decisions that you make. Important to remember the comments that Stallman made about the difference between free software and open source “Different Values Can Lead to Similar Conclusions…but Not Always”.

MOOCs and beyond
I don’t mean this article to make any claims on what ‘values’ drive David Wiley or anyone else to make decisions. What I’m speaking to is the way we’ve spoken about openness and the values that one can extrapolate from that. When I coined the term Massive Open Online Course in 2008 the open part of it was the most important element. I don’t think my exact view of openness coincides with the ones that Stephen and George had (designer/facilitator of the first MOOC, so called) or necessarily exactly matching up with my UK friends or anyone else. Openness was very much about ‘demolishing established barriers’ of all sorts. It is a political act, regardless of how unpopular that position is to many.

I do think that with all the talk and work going on right now around the idea of openness and the way so many people are trying to use the word for their own devices that we need ways to talk about the strands of openness that appear in our work and see where they come from.

I think there is something fundamentally troubling about a creator focused value system for open learning. While I understand the ‘value’ of open content, and believe in it’s value, I think the fundamental decision making process needs to be from the position of the user, not the content.

I think the content becomes the neutral ground, the thing that we can all agree on across our politics and our feelings about what a just society could be. The other side, the ‘what do we want to encourage our learners to be’ the social justice side of this is much, much harder.

How do we want to open our society? That, in the end, is the open learning/education that I want to talk about.



Other research referenced in the twitter discussions but cut out of the blog post.

Note: The Margaret Thatcher part of this post I removed as I started writing it before she died, and have no interest in making my post about her. Here is the quote i was going to use and spoke about on twitter.
“quite apart from the political considerations, the unit cost per graduate produced in this new institution could well be substantially less than in the orthodox university system.” Margaret Thatcher on why they shouldn’t close down the Open University, 1970.

25 year old book on open education

Jim Groom Keynote on openness… which is classically awesome jim.

On the value of Open Access and it’s incredible importance.
“I recently met a physician from southern Africa, engaged in perinatal HIV prevention, whose primary access to information was abstracts posted on the Internet. Based on a single abstract, they had altered their perinatal HIV prevention program from an effective therapy to one with lesser efficacy. Had they read the full text article they would have undoubtedly realized that the study results were based on short- term follow-up, a small pivotal group, incomplete data, and were unlikely to be applicable to their country situation. Their decision to alter treatment based
solely on the abstract’s conclusions may have resulted in increased perinatal HIV transmission.” http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/84/5/339.pdf

Briefest, laziest history of Open the word
The word itself seems one of those rare birds that hasn’t changed much in the last thousand years or so. Open as in ‘the gate is open’, ‘public’ that kind of stuff. According to The Online Etymology with the exception of some racy connotations, it pretty much has always meant what we think it means… not shut. My favourite bit is “Meaning “public knowledge” (especially in out in the open) is from 1942, but cf. Middle English in open (late 14c.) “manifestly, publicly.”

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

21 thoughts on “What do you mean… open?”

  1. FYI there’s also an important definition of open here: opendefinition.org


    [Disclaimer: I work with the Open Knowledge Foundation, we’re a non-profit, and we *really* care about these things like the defintion of ‘open’]


  2. Incredibly interesting read, and as an aside, I agree that I think we have missed the boat with consumers and their blind use of technology.
    You are completely write about education though, and I think that there is a debate to be had about the quality of such provisions with MOOCs and with open learning, where open is seen to mean accessible (rather than free) – there is a need to ensure that a ‘consumer’ of education is not engaged only with the end means. Your end questions, how do we open society, and what do we want our learners to be? Are very apt!


  3. Excellent post, which I had been looking forward to and finally had a chance to read in depth. Thank you for doing all this research and sharing it with the rest of us.

    I am not quite seeing your point, though, about a move towards focusing on the creator in ideas about openness in education (before your discussion of OU). The example from Wiley and Green, with the three influences on openness in education, doesn’t, to me, focus on the creator as much as seems to be suggested here.

    OER could be focused on the creators mostly, of course, if the creators just put out there stuff that they’re already using for themselves and aren’t too worried about whether it’s usable to others. But the best way to approach OER is to find ways to ensure that the works are as effective from the users’ perspective as possible, such as eliminating technological or licensing barriers to revision/remixing.

    Open Access could be thought of as creators just putting their work out there for anyone to pick up or not, but in my experience, a good deal of the motivation behind people doing that is for others to actually be able to access the research (especially when the public has already paid for a good deal of it). Many researchers already have access to each others’ work; mostly what’s needed is broader access. And there are discussions in the OA community about being more open than just allowing “access”–ensuring that licenses allow for not only viewing, but also remixing.

    Open education in terms of just putting course materials on the web may not, I agree, be much more than just the creators being “open” and not worrying too much about the users’ experience.

    Finally, Wiley’s quote about open being a matter of cost and copyright seems to me to be focused quite a bit on the user: their ability to access the work in terms of money as well as their freedom to do various things with it in terms of licensing.

    I feel I may be missing something important here, perhaps misunderstanding your point about the creator focus, since to me it seems the user is just as much a focus in many of these discussions (though not all).

    I do agree that some of the meanings of open from Newbould, such as interactivity and transparency, seem more user-oriented. Those are good.

  4. Hi Christina,

    Thanks for the thoughtful critique. I worried about the point that you’re making while i was writing the post and hoped that the open source analogy would help explaining the point i was trying to make.

    I am in no way suggesting that it is ‘not possible’ to have the user in mind in either the open source or OER vision of open education. I am suggesting that when one focuses on licensing of content, however good, well meaning, incredibly well structured that content, one is focusing on the product and not on the user.

    Let me try and create an example. If two groups of people were given a million dollars to work on open education, one from one model and one from the other, how might the difference in their core values affect the approach they would take to project planning?

    In a creator based approach you might go around, look at the content that is being currently used, find ways to create better content, maybe cheaper content, maybe more ethical content. You would find some great content creators, do some research into where the content is, build a project plan that might create some great course textbooks… think the school library project or the new one at BC Campus. (I’m throwing ideas here… work with me. We’ve all seen terrible wastes of money in both kinds of open projects… i’m trying to find a middle ground 🙂 )

    Look… i think open access is a critical component to the future of any education system that i want to be part of… i just think that it often becomes the goal rather than the instrument. I think this happens because, as I’ve tried to illustrate here, it’s roots are in the creator culture of open source, where we build things SO THAT THEY WILL SPREAD first and foremost. It’s the secret neo-liberal underpinning we inherited from O’reilly.

    When your first and foremost goal is widening participation… I’m thinking… that changes the ways in which you choose instruments. Maybe the instrument you need is something like OER, maybe it isn’t. But for me ‘openness’ is better when it isn’t restricted to the creator class and is lasered in on the user.

  5. Okay, I was right–I WAS missing something. After re-reading the post and a couple of the linked resources, I think I’m getting it better.

    I see that focusing on creating content, whether it be teaching/learning materials like OER, or research publications, and deciding how to license them, is, in a sense, focusing on the “creator” side of things. And even though licenses often are about what users can do with the stuff, choosing licenses is about what the creator is comfortable with in terms of letting others use their stuff.

    So, to look at open learning from the “user” side would be to focus more on the user experience, somehow. Using the OU examples above, one might be concerned about things like: user access to educational materials/courses w/o social/economic/educational barriers, having more dialogue and interactivity in learning, and more transparency about processes. Though the accessiblity piece is part of what is “open” in open access and OER, of course…but again, I think I see the subtle distinction here.

    Now I’d like to think further about what such a change in focus might look like in open learning. And I think it would help if I had a better sense of what values might drive the “user” end of the spectrum. If the “creator” end is driven by things like providing good quality content and hoping it gets spread (among others, likely), what values might drive a focus in open learning on the “user” side–as “freedom” does for free software? I guess that’s the next step in this sort of discussion, rather than something I can ask you to provide right now. But then I’d be able to better see how our decision making might change.

    But there’s one more thing. The free software example is a bit different because the “creators” and “users” there tend to often be the same people (though not always, of course). Many of the people who create things also use others’ creations to do so, building on their work. Then the users of that work themselves can be creators of something new. So the freedom of the users is also the freedom of the creators, in many cases. (this is a view from the outside of that community, so maybe I’m wrong)

    Now, I wonder if we might start to think of open learning more like that–in the sense that those who are the “users” can also be “creators” of learning materials, and vice versa. This is something I got from an article by Stephen Downes (“Models for Sustainable Open Educational Resources”). Instead of thinking of OERs, for example (what Downes was talking about) on the model of creators providing work for others to use, and thus as rather static entities that just spread with lots of people using them, we might think of the educational materials as things that are created even in their use. This means revising, remixing, redistributing. But importantly, it isn’t just that other teachers revise and remix, but so do students, so that the creator/user collapse involves a teacher/student collapse as well. At least that’s how I understood it and talked about it at the end of this blog post.

    Problematizing the creator/user distinction itself might lead to even different approaches, I wonder?

  6. I am wondering if there might be a third option (orientation) to the two you’ve described (i.e. openness focused on the creator and one focused on the user)? For me, I tend to think first of the community when assessing (i.e. defining) openness. That is, how do the value/principles of the leadership of the project (aka the creator) enable community (participation/collaboration/contribution), and how are the artifacts (objects used by the users) accessed, shared, distributed, customized, etc?

    I wonder if it might be helpful to index the attributes associated with these three perspectives, i.e. the values of openness from the creators’ point of view, the values from the user’s point of view, and values from the community’s point of view. From this aggregation, a definition–that is, the requisite attributes of openness–might be distilled. Indeed it may be openness, as a quality, is broader than simply any one point of view or reference. However, I would argue open is like pregnant, you either are, or are not.

    Considering the above, I can imagine all three types (creator, user, community) would value openness in contribution. That is the creator wants new ideas/fixes to improve the project, the user wants his/her enhancements to be included, and the community enjoys increased pace of development of a more stable and versatile project. However, would all three groups want open governance, i.e. the ability to participate in the direction of the project? It might be that the creator, whose vision led to the project, wants to retain the role of setting direction. Is a project “open” if those involved cannot contribute to governance, decision-making, direction? Attributes like self-organization might be only of interest to the community while customization might be specific to the users (please, I have not thought these through, I am just modeling here). I have arrogated a list of benefits to open source (co-authored with Michael Feldstein) that it might be interesting to map the three perspectives.

    I have seen many open source software projects “released as open source” in order to leverage the crowd (get free labor). Unfortunately most of these efforts are short-lived as the original development team cannot develop a model for shared decision-making. In addition, there seems to be a bit of developers pride and, if I can be so bold, arrogance with those who “lead” projects. Being the visionary of a project is very alluring and much better than a participant. There are over 50 open source LMS’s out there, I wonder why edX is compelled to lead the effort in creating a new one rather than contribute to an existing one?

    I commend you on your effort to qualify the term as open-washing is now so prevalent leading many people/organizations to find themselves out of alignment with “open” organizations where their expectations for participation (collaboration, contribution, direction) are not aligned with the organizational or operational practices/principles of the “benevolent dictator,” board or directors or community of members.

    At the end of the day, I would hope open/openness could be defined and even “certified” in order to remove the ambiguity (and at worst, fraud) occurring across all open initiatives: open access, open content, OER, open source, etc.

    Can’t wait to see your final work and thanks,

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