Politics of openness

[The following is an adapted extract from the upcoming Battle for Open book, which I'm bouncing off you lot first].

I am not by nature an overtly political person, in that I don't interpret everything through a political lens. So, rather like Clay Shirky and higher ed, writing on politics is not my strongest point. Which is by way of saying, sorry of what follows is a bit rubbish.

I often avoid given a tight definition of open education, because I want to admit degree and variation in practice. Whilst some areas, such as OERs, have a very clear definition, others such as open scholarship, represent more of a general approach and set of beliefs. Finding one definition would exclude some elements of the open education story that are interesting, hence I prefer to think in terms of a set of coalescing principles. This approach however does allow for a vagueness in the term which potentially renders it meaningless, or subject to abuse.

In his thoughtful critique of open source publisher Tim O’Reilly, Morozov argues that this vagueness around the term has been deliberately constructed by O’Reilly to create good PR:

“Few words in the English language pack as much ambiguity and sexiness as “open.” And after O’Reilly’s bombastic interventions—“Open allows experimentation. Open encourages competition. Open wins,” he once proclaimed in an essay—its luster has only intensified. Profiting from the term’s ambiguity, O’Reilly and his collaborators likened the “openness” of open source software to the “openness” of the academic enterprise, markets, and free speech. “Open” thus could mean virtually anything.”

For Morozov, O’Reilly’s co-option of the term allowed him to ally it to economics, which the market found more palatable, allowing O’Reilly and many in the software movement to “look political while advancing an agenda that had very little to do with politics”.  Openwashing suggests that there is market capital now in proclaiming open credentials, and ambiguity around the term facilitates this.

Stephen posted a piece last week about the OU, history and MOOCs (we had a bit of a misunderstanding about it), which highlights that history has political connotations. Many accounts of open education usually have one of two starting points. The first is the founding of the Open University, for instance Andy Lane contends that “The discourse around the role of openness in higher education can be said to have seriously started with the inception of the United Kingdom Open University (UKOU) in 1969”. The second, alternative, starting point for history is that of the open source movement, which is what Wiley & Gurell use, while admitting that “Histories are difficult to write for many reasons. One reason is the difficulty of determining where to begin telling the story – for there is never a true starting point to a tale woven of people, events and ideas.” The choice of starting point will have an influence on the type of interpretation of open education put forward: the OU based one may suggest a university and student focused approach, whereas the open source one might indicate a more technological and license driven perspective.

Peter and Diemann propose a longer historical perspective, highlighting aspects of open education in the Middle ages with the founding of universities which “contained in them the idea of openness, albeit by no means comprehensive. This period highlights “open” as learner driven, resting on a growing curiosity and increasing awareness of educational opportunities.” Open education can be traced through the 17th Century with coffee-houses and then into the industrial revolution with schools and working clubs. Their overview of this broader history of openness is shown below:



A history of Openness From Peter, S., & Deimann, M. (2013). On the role of openness in education: A historical reconstruction. Open Praxis, 5(1), 7-14. ) released under a CC-By license

This longer historical perspective has some illuminating lessons for the current debate. The authors conclude that “Historical forms of openness caution us against assuming that particular configurations will prevail, or that social aspects should be assumed as desired by default. … After a period of open movements many times there have been slight but important shifts from “pure” openness towards “pretended” openness, i.e. some aspects have been modified to offer more control for producers and other stakeholders.”

This illustrates that openness has always been perceived as problematic, and one of its principle difficulties is that it operates against an individual’s, and more significantly, an organisation’s need to control. And to return to my original subject, where there are issues of control then there is undoubtedly a political aspect. Peters and Britez are blunt about this in their book on open education, opening with the statement “Open education involves a commitment to openness and is therefore inevitably a political and social project.” It is possible to argue, as the open source community do, that openness is simply the most efficient way to operate, and there is some truth in that, for instance the argument for learning objects and OERs makes this case. But even if that is so, a degree of politics follows. This can be a set of assumed beliefs, in democracy, altruism, sharing, and a general liberal perspective for instance, or more directly, it can be political lobbying, for instance to introduce open textbooks into a country or a region.

There have been explicitly political criticisms of aspects of open education. For instance MOOCs have been seen as exploiting academic labour, and of having a neoliberal agenda. The Silicon Valley narrative can itself been seen as embodying a form of neoliberal capitalism, and so there should be no surprise that MOOCs can be seen from the same perspective. For others, the open education movement is not being radical enough in its reconceptualization of the role of universities. Joss Winn asks “Is Open Education being used as a method of compensating for a decline in the welfare state? Is government advocacy of OER a way of  tackling resource scarcity in an expanding system of higher education?” Winn and others favour a more social interpretation of openness, which draws on some of the historical trends mentioned above,  as well as the strong ethical basis of Stallman’s free software movement. In this interpretation, open education leads to a cooperative university which is “a free association of people who come together to collectively produce knowledge. It is also a political project.”

Even if one ignores such politically explicit aspects of open education there is an unintentional (or maybe intentional) form of cultural imperialism associated with exporting the open education beliefs which are inextricably aligned with open education resources. Dave Cormier suggests that OER can be viewed as a means of exporting an educational model. The power of an global institutional brand, such as MIT, combined with free (as in cost), makes it difficult for local providers to compete, both in terms of cost and voice. As Dave puts it “How are local professors, debating the relative value of their curriculum against the standardizing power of a major university, going to be able to forward their own ideas?”

So even in our definition of open education (or lack of one), our history and practice, there are political dimensions. When it was just straightforward open vs closed the fine differences between these perspectives may not have mattered, but if I had to make a prediction, I'd say that we will see more explicitly political arguments about the direction of open education over the next decade.


  1. Sheilmcn says:

    Hi Martin
    Another great post -really looking forward to the book now! I’m struggling a bit with the whole “open” thang just now. I sometimes feel a bit like I’m a character from Back to the Future or Dr Who or anyone who can time travel. I’ve come from the “the battle for open has been won” utopia of futurologists and the who’s who of learning technology into an institutional context, where apart from a few solitary voices, no-one really gives stuff about open. It’s just not on people’s radar. They are in the classic way just to busy doing their day job to even think about it. So I think in my context I do need some (internal) politics to kick in. We are starting to do some “stuff” like develop an institutional policy on OER which is great and all that, but for anything to really get traction we are going to have play a political game. Anyway you have got me thinking so I will try and articulate this more on my own blog at somepoint too.

  2. I am very much looking forward to this book, too – and the above excerpt is a valuable and fascinating contribution. I have commented on your ‘conversation’ with Stephen Downes and won’t rehearse my argument here, but I would like to add a small ‘codicil’ to your testament of openness.
    When I joined the OU in 1978, I knew very little about it. At the time, it was visible mainly on BBC TV and radio, and in the film Educating Rita, which probably gave misleading impressions of the OU. When I left the University, 33 years later, I felt that we had determined a kind of model of open that had never existed before, and it is just as you have described, Martin.
    But I would add that the element of openness that I found exciting, and still do, is the collaborative transparency of the OU and its professional staff. Working in teams to create courses, openly sharing drafts, bringing in eminent external consultants to assess and evaluate the material before course presentation, sharing of learning objectives and assignment feedback with students, and so on… All this contributed to the outstanding quality of OU materials and the remarkable support provide for students who are mostly time-poor, remote learners.
    This collaborative transparency has helped to raise the bar for university teaching, such that other universities are often heard to be remarkably defensive about the supposed advantages of traditional, face-to-face education.

  3. I’m not sure why my comment above hasn’t revealed my name but, in case you didn’t guess, this is me, Dominic Newbould!

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