Openness as feature

What We've Got Here, Is a Failure To...
(going with the “if in doubt, use one of Alan’s pics” approach)

Sorry, this is two ‘open’ posts in a row, I’ll blog something else soon (if you want something very different, I’ve started a film a week blog, it’s reassuringly uninformed).

There have been a few announcements recently that made me reflect on the co-option of ‘open’ in a commercial sense. The first was Amazon’s Inspire announcement where they look to be getting into the OER game. Amazon & OER, that is big time and has Battle for Open written all over it. It could be amazing, it could miss the point of OERs altogether. Audrey Watters blogged her reaction to it, but I guess we’re playing a wait and see game at the moment. I will say, as far as I know, the Amazon team haven’t spoken to people in the OER world and haven’t previously engaged with that community (not that they need to of course, they’re Amazon, but they might learn something useful).

The second was actually an old article (from 2014, practically prehistory I know), that I only recently came across. It was predicting how SOOCs (selectively open online courses) would be better than MOOCs, because SOOCs would have “an entrance requirement designed to reduce the unwanted diversity.” As the kids say: I can’t even. Unwanted diversity? Selectively open?

One more – a piece in Inside Higher Ed about Coursera beginning to charge for more of its MOOCs. The piece says that learners can explore freely but “To turn the course materials into an actual course, learners have to pay.” The Coursera blog said ““We are on a mission to change the world by providing universal access to the best learning experience, … The changes that we are making this year will move us toward sustainability and enable continued investment in our learning experience, without compromising our commitment to transforming lives for people around the world.”

What these highlight to me is that openness is a feature when you’re developing a business model or technology. Will it get you more money or users? If yes, then adopt it. If no, like any feature it can be dropped. Compare this with universities and non-profit organisations for whom openness is a principle. It is embedded in what they do, and matches their core mission (or should do, although the increasing commercialisation of universities may see more ‘feature’ based thinking). So while the announcement of any big company that they are adopting open gets headlines and is exciting, it is worth examining to what extent is it a feature versus a principle?


  • Rosie Hare

    What the flipping heck is ‘unwanted diversity’?!?!?! I was going to use some stronger language there but I refrained.

    This post raises some good points and it’ll be interested to see how all this develops. It seems that a lot of the principles of education (HE especially) are becoming ever more marketised and concerned with generating income rather than top quality education.

    • Maha Bali

      I can’t believe someone explicitly wrote “unwanted diversity” but can totally believe some ppl have that position/sentiment.

      Is the difference whether ppl want openness for its own sake vs for the sake of social justice and empowerment of humans? The difference between feature and principle is maybe the difference between our motivation behind open?

      • Martin Weller

        Hi Maha. I think what you suggest may be part of it. But I also wonder if it’s down to the different pressures and values in these approaches. I’ve met people who are developing commercial enterprises who are absolutely passionate about openness and convinced. But then pressure comes to make money, and it gets adapted, modified, abandoned. Which I understand, people have mortgages to pay and all that – it just means we should be wary about relying on such enterprises to deliver or own openness.

  • Simon Wood

    Selective openness?

    “the essential act…is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary.”

  • Mark Smithers (@marksmithers)

    I talking with a colleague about the sad state of affairs in Australia where the term Open in relation to highered has been owned for a long term by a highly commercial organisation that is ostensibly owned by a number of universities but is entirely profit driven. IMO it’s caused untold damage to the idea of “open” in Australia.

    • admin

      Yes, it’s like ‘distance ed’ which has a very negative connotation in the US as meaning ‘dodgy correspondence courses’

  • Caroline

    A comment on the openness of universities which you refer to, entry requirements and large fees don’t equal open especially at the rather expensive OU.
    I appreciate that true openness is an ideal which we can’t deliver at the moment.
    As you said in a different post, even MOOCs are expensive to create and maintain and have a high drop out rate – I guess that is the unwanted diversity referred to above.

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