Openness has won – now what?


As we start the new year and survey the open education landscape, it's hard not to conclude that openness has prevailed. The victory may not be absolute, but the trend is all one way now – we'll never go back to closed systems in academia anymore than we will return to the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Whether it's open access publishing, open data, MOOCs, OERs, open source or open scholarship – the openness battle has largely been won.

Time to rejoice! But, of course, it's never that simple. When it was simply open vs closed it was a clear distinction. Openness was good, closed was bad. As the victory bells sound though it doesn't take much examination to reveal that it has become a more complex picture now. This is completely natural (it's not a failing). I always used to wonder what happened after the credits rolled in big good vs evil films (where good had been triumphant naturally). In Star Wars, the Empire is destroyed, the Rebels have won! Now what? Well, my guess is you'd go back ten years later and find bickering amongst former allies, that trade wars had arisen, political struggles for power were in place and differences which had been set aside during the great struggle were now coming to the fore. The same with Lord of the Rings. You think the elves, dwarves, hobbits and humans were all still chums 20 years after Sauron had been defeated? Oh no.

In both cases things were better than the dark days, but they wouldn't be simple sweetness either. People (and aliens, and dwarves, and elves) have a tendency to find forms of conflict and disagreement. I apologise slightly for the military language in this post (war, battle, peace, etc), but in many ways that is my point – in the good old days of openness, it felt very much like a conflict – for example between open access publishing and commercial publishers. But that type of language no longer suits the world we are in.

So it is with openness. And that's okay, I know Gardner Campbell bemoaned "that's not what I meant at all", but we shouldn't view this as either an opportunity missed (we could have had the openness camelot!) or romanticise some brief period when it was all okay. The general direction is positive, but it just doesn't seem as noble or simple as it once did.

We replace open vs closed with a set of more complex, nuanced debates, which are, to be honest, a bit boring for many. For example:

  • xMOOCs vs cMOOCs
  • CC-By vs CC-NC
  • Gold vs Green OA
  • Self-hosted vs Third party services

But that's the nature of these things – after the grand struggle comes the hard work of the peace. This isn't sexy work, it's about drafting policies, agreements, processes. All of which consolidate the peace and move things forward. It's interesting that history teaches us that often the people who were the leaders and pioneers in the war, aren't the same people you need for the peace. I wonder if the same is true in ed tech?



  • mweller

    That’s my point David – this is what winning looks like. It never turns out how you envisaged it. It’s always messier and a bit unsatisfactory. But it’s still won. Coursera feels open to many people who study courses they enjoy for free. That’s more open than it was. And of course now we’re in the refinement stage. It wasn’t the openness we thought it might be, but it’s still the victor across so many aspects.

  • Putt1ck

    It’s hard to declare a victory at the moment. Maybe a few key battles have been won. But the rate at which schools are announcing they’ve bought iPads (or worse, declaring parents must buy them for their children) suggests a new and more expensive era of closed, not increased openness.

  • Ambrouk

    I very much agree that things rarely turn out as you imagined it will. I agree with what david and “putt1ck” say that openness hasn’t won everywhere but I’d also say that 10 or even 5 years ago it would have looked like most content would end up behind £ paywalls. I still think it’s a victory that it isn’t: it wasn’t obvious that attention paywalls would take the place of £ paywalls.
    I made an unsuccesful attempt to say something similar in these slides in sep 2012
    key messages i stand by:
    Polarisation often masks the real questions. There is often a dialectic around open and free. Often it’s not just one model that comes to dominate.
    Sometimes when mainstreaming happenswe don’t recognise it.
    but perhaps I missed a point here:
    I said “Change can take a lot longer than we hope” but sometimes the ground shifts very VERY quickly.
    Whether MOOCs do what the hype says is a different question, I think Martin’s point here is about how our discourse changes.
    The notion of openness that is becoming mainstream is not the pure version that triggered the disruption: it is diluted and morphed. Today’s mainstream concept of openness as it relates to MOOCs is the “£free” concept. And I personally still think £ matters, so I choose to call that progress.


    I agree that the debate will become more nuanced but not by more either/or arguments – the nuance will be in the how not the whether. For example, to use the example from @dkernohan ‘s comment above. (BTW Gold OA doesn’t have to be as he describes – see our excellent work at RiLT But where it is, it could damage the ‘openness’ not at the point of consumption but at the point of creation where those not funded can’t be published for reasons of finance not quality. It could also damage the power relations of author attribution
    I also agree with what @ambrouk says about MOOCs and hype. The argument seems to be about the name and not how the practice of doing MOOC-like things – which let’s face it happened long before MOOCs were around.

  • Mdeimann

    This is just a wonderful example of the “Wars on story”, see:
    We have all the necessary ingredients: Good (OER, Open Access, “true” MOOC), villain (publishing industry, Coursera, Udacity), morals: education is a fundamental right and must thus be free for everybody, and the story.

  • Joecar

    In many HE Institutions the discussion has not even started yet.
    In schools, things are still peaceful in middle earth, the war or even mild debate is still a long way off .
    Still very much in the thrall of commercial interests but they don’t know it.

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