The Open Flip


I wrote a piece for the Journal of Learning for Development recently, which expanded on an idea in a blog post, called the Open Flip. The basic idea is quite simple really (I’m a simple kinda guy) – it is that under certain conditions, there is an economic argument for shifting costs from purchasing copyrighted goods to producing openly licensed ones. Open Textbooks are an obvious example. This is a bit ‘no shit Sherlock’, but I think it’s worth exploring as a model in its own right. The paper only starts to do this really.

My argument is that most of the digital economic models, theories and ideologies haven’t really transferred across to education very successfully. This is either because the ideas themselves are rather poor (hello disruption) and don’t really transfer anywhere, or because the nature of education is different from a very straightforward consumer model. Education is structured differently, and is characterised by large grant or budget spends. In these circumstances that money can be reallocated, often leading to savings overall, and openly licensed content that can be adapted and used by all. The mythical win-win.

Apart from not being very good, one of my gripes with digital economic models is that are often over-applied, way beyond the context where they might be suitable. So I wanted to set out some conditions as to when the open flip might be applicable. My list of conditions is:

  • There is large scale spending on the purchasing of resources that can be practically refocused through single channels. This does not apply to standard consumer purchases, for instance.
  • The resources are largely digital in nature, or production can be cheap. The main component in the purchase price relates not to the physical aspect but to the intellectual property. For instance, the wide range in prices for academic textbooks is not related to any physical characteristics of their production, which varies only by a small degree.
  • The initial production of the content is a task that can be financed. With open source software and many community driven approaches, it has been found that money is not an effective incentive. These community driven, peer based models are more adequately explained by Benkler’s model.
  • Open licencing offers a particular benefit beyond just cost. While cost savings may be the initial driver, it is the advantages offered by openly licensed material that often sustains a movement. For example, the pedagogic advantages of adapting open textbooks.

With these in mind, the open flip model I propose could have applications beyond education – for example, GM crops. I don’t want to go into the whole GM debate here, but beyond some of the irrational fears (“playing God”) I think a very real concern about GM is that large corporations will own the genetic code for useful crops. An open flip model could spend money on developing certain crops (for example, ones that might better survive extreme weather in developing nations) and release that code openly. Producing the seeds then is relatively cheap. The same is true for certain medicines – increasingly drug companies are reluctant to spend the investment on drugs that actually cure people, since that’s a one-off purchase. Those that help ameliorate chronic conditions represent a better market. The current model puts the research costs onto Big Pharma, who will then recoup those costs through sales. But for some desired drugs different agencies might contribute to the research to produce an openly licensed drug, which is then cheap to produce. And so on. It won’t be applicable everywhere, but for certain problems, the open flip represents an economic model that utilises the advantages of the internet, digital solution and open licences. That’s my argument anyway.

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