Open content

Openness – catch my disease


Post title pinched from Ben Lee – Catch my disease

I’m in Barcelona for the last FLOSScom meeting and I’m presenting at the Free Knowledge Free Transfer conference. The talk I was going to give was about using open source approaches in education, but I’ve changed it to one on how openness can be seen as a virus, which higher education is catching.

The argument goes like this: once you start being open about content, it becomes contagious to all aspects of your life. There are different ways the open virus can spread, and some people are more ‘resistant’ to it than others. One highly infectious carrier is The Blog. Once you start blogging you need to create posts so that provides an incentive to share more ideas, often before they are fully massaged into a conventional publishable format. The blog further increases the rate of infection by acting as a central hub for reusable material. For example you may start embedding video clips, images, etc from other people as you blog about their work.

Then the next step is that you feel you should reciprocate. An urge to share and reuse are classic symptoms of someone with open disease. You start using Slideshare to upload all your Powerpoint files. You become more confident when you receive positive feedback and feel you can risk a slidecast. Then you want to embed video clips and dabble with Seesmic.

At the same time you play around with some social networks. A colleague holds you with a glittering eye and convinces you, nay forces you, to try Twitter. Despite some early reservations you are soon addicted, and tweet all manner of things. The open disease has now begun to infect your personal as well as professional life.

And then you need to write a paper, but instead of huddling away you decide to do it in the open, and create a wiki, which others contribute to. The paper goes in to a journal, but you are asked to sign a copyright form forbidding you from releasing the work yourself, and the journal is not freely available. This doesn’t seem in the spirit with which you now live your life, and so you refuse, and go looking for an open journal.

You are now looking at your teaching load next year and thinking ‘how can I make this more open?’ Inspired by the likes of David Wiley, you create your course out in the open. Students come to your lectures, but you also upload these to the course blog and invite anyone to participate. You next eye the assessment and decide that a standard exam is no longer the best way to assess what students are doing and create a course repository where students are ‘examined’ by the contribution they make to the content for the next cohort.

Next you gain a research grant and are the Principle Investigator on a four-party research project. You figure that the open principles have served you well so far, so create a project wiki, invite others to rank the project’s objectives, ask for feedback on the final report and make all the findings freely available.

Open disease now infects all aspects of your life. Congratulations, now spread to others.


  • Laurie

    Openness is a fascinating topic. Your illustration looks great, for a certain level of seniority and success. Do you believe that a very junior researcher, being judged by more conservative bosses, can afford to take the route you suggest? And what about small setbacks, which can have a big impact on a lowly young academic, such as what happens when their slidecast gets rude comments about naivety from peers or programme managers?

  • Martin

    @Jared – not a Ben Lee fan then 🙂
    @Laurie – there is something in what you say, although I think increasingly a young academic might find themselves well placed by being one of the few people in their organisation who does ‘all that web 2 stuff’. However, part of what I wanted to argue was the way openness ‘infects’ what you do, and like a real infection, there’s not much you can do about it. Once you start down this path you begin to find closed systems which prohibit reuse just kind of strange.

  • James

    Great post. I don’t get swallowed by every 2.0 technology that comes along and I still hate Twitter, but I spare no expense preaching openness. Thanks for drawing my attention to Seesmic – looks very cool.
    Here in Canada, we’re also under assault with regard to IP, digital copyright and ridiculously high cell data rates.
    It’s very hard to move an educational institution from old protectionist modes to edupunk. Not sure it can actually happen.

  • Tony Hirst

    @laurie “Do you believe that a very junior researcher, being judged by more conservative bosses, can afford to take the route you suggest?”
    Depends on whether you want career progression or not…
    I think I’d liken openness to an addiction rather a disease; when you hit web junky status, you can say goodbye to advancement because you’ll be too busy finding the next quick fix to tick other people’s boxes…

  • David Gilmour

    It’s not often I’m pleased to read about an epidemic spreading, but I find this very encouraging.
    I’m not sure about the virus metaphor, though. That suggests something temporary, for one thing, and harmful.
    To me it’s more like fire, or the wheel – one of those genies which, once out the bottle, can’t be put back.

  • Brian Lamb

    One of those simple formulations that makes instant sense, one that will probably play in my mind for some time, and one that I’m almost certain to co-opt myself.

  • Chris Jobling

    Thanks Martin for the encouraging words. The viral impact of open tools had certainly been my experience and it’s nice to know that there may be some research kudos in what otherwise seems like a bit of a time sink!

  • Elaine Talbert

    Hi there,
    I like the use of the medical language to show the “catchiness” of these learning 2.0 tools. It is a fun approach but exemplifies how infectious they are for their ease of use and accessibility.

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