Stepping gingerly into the ‘open’ debate


<Image Open by Mag3737>

This is rather late to the party, but the changing nature of the term 'open' is one of my things, so I wanted to chip in.

George Siemens kicked off an interesting debate around 'openness'. George argues that the term has been diluted so as to become almost meaningless, and that an ideological (rather than, say, a pragmatic) stance on openness is important:

"We need some good ol’ radicals in open education. You know, the types
that have a vision and an ideological orientation that defies the
pragmatics of reality. Stubborn, irritating, aggravating visionaries….

Openness should mean something. It should be driven by ideology, rather
than convenience. As a foundational principle in education, openness
should be discussed, critiqued, encouraged, and aggressively preserved."

David Wiley then responded thoughtfully, and argues that the pragmatic approach is the best means to advance such interests beyond a niche audience, building on the open source movement and Richard Stallman example George provided:

"Without translators like Raymond, who adapted Stallman’s message so
that a broader audience could both (1) understand and (2) see the value
of it, Stallman and his philosophies would still be niche players on
the global scale today."

(As an aside, there are echoes of the Cato vs Cicero debate in this which I previously applied to Stephen and David)

Jim Groom, quite rightly I think, is suspicious that the term is being appropriated by commercial entities for marketing reasons:

it’s no surprise to me that corporations like BlackBoard, Google, and
Facebook would push for this label, and there is little question in my
mind that the market cache such a term has right now is increasingly
diluting any of its meaning, particularly given it’s not so much
reliant on technical infrastructure or content

He then goes on to express some concerns about the nature of the debate:

Who gets to discuss what open is? Where do they do it? Companies don’t
really care too much about that discussion, they just care about
appealing to users through a term, and if they make up the table, along
with administrators at universities and the like, then why do we need
to go to the table at all? Isn’t the push away from these legacies of
power and privilege a part of what open is working against on it’s most
powerful and truly transformative levels?

So here's some thoughts from me, because, hey, it's an open debate right?

Firstly, I share George and Jim's reservations about over-use of the term. I even had a half-baked post ready about how this time next year 'open' will be a naff, over-used term, like 'web 2.0' is now. So, in this respect, George is right in his call to arms to defend the term ideologically. But, I think Jim hits on something too – one consequence of George's call might be that a few 'chosen' people or people in preferred positions get to determine what 'openness' is.

George's position (I think, correct me if I'm wrong George) is that those in education should take control of what open education means. This seems logical, except I think that the concept of openness has been advanced mainly by people outside, or on the periphery, of education. Open source software, wikipedia, the open APIs of twitter and Facebook (more on this later), Google, slideshare, scribd opening up of content, etc.

Which brings me on to my main point – I can live with a plurality of definitions. In fact, I rather like it, and I think academic obsession with finding a precise definition often gets in the way of being productive – witness how every paper, conference presentation, or website about learning objects had a definition of what a learning object was, instead of getting on with just sharing stuff.

I work at the Open University (I think I may have mentioned that before ;)) – and what a lot of the new 'open' discussion misses out is what the OU thinks of as important in open education, namely 'supported' open learning. Access to content is not, in our experience, sufficient for open education to be successful. For students to learn at a higher level they often require a wide range of support structures (although not always, with the right content some students manage on their own). This aspect of 'open education' is largely absent from much of the debate, perhaps because it is taking the open source model and is largely focused around content.

I am not arguing that this should be the definition  of open education, but illustrating that under the umbrella term 'open education' there are many elements. It may be that some of these are not even complementary (for example, providing supported open learning is often expensive so may run counter to the open as in free branch of thought). I think we are too new in all of this to start pinning down definitions or excluding uses. As Clay Shirky (sorry George!) argued about the newspaper industry, we are living through a revolution and we don't know what will happen:

So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500,
when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it. The
internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than
half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the
developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

So, I'll go along with Twitter and Facebook saying they have open APIs, because one could see how open APIs may be the a really significant force in open education. I'd probably feel less inclined to include Blackboard in this because their history has shown their antipathy towards openness. And if Slideshare turns out to be a better model for OERs than MERLOT, then I'll take that on board too.

So I'd agree with David when he says that: "I think a great example of that undernourishment is the belief that open means the same thing no matter where you find it." Open is a big, buzzing ball of interrelated concepts, beliefs, technology and approaches at the moment, and I'm okay with that.


  • Tony Hirst

    “I’ll go along with Twitter and Facebook saying they have open APIs”
    Thy are open in the sense that:
    a) folk can use them to access platform services;
    b) folk can reimplement them (as WordPress did with the Twitter API recently).
    But they are not open standards because:
    I) their definition is controlled by a private commercial entity,
    which means that:
    Ia) the API may be changed as the owners see fit, without the ‘open’ community having a say.
    IIb) License conditions on use of the API may be changed.
    I’m not sure if it’s possible to claim copyright over the definition of an API? WordPress’ lawyers presumably didn’t seem to think that would present a problem though?

  • Martin

    @Tony – yes, absolutely, but at the moment I think their approach to openness has been useful. Whatever we think of FB it was their opening up of the API that really got a lot of people excited about the use of widgets and moving data about. So I think we just have to stay ‘open aware’ and if companies move away from open we move away from them.

  • Joseph Thibault

    I’m in agreement with your conclusion 100%: I know that slideshare isn’t OER (by many definitions) but as far as openness goes, they’re doing awesome. Where ever learning is only a link away (without bring prompted to login, register, etc.) then it’s open (in my humble opinion).
    If commercial sites figure out a way to do it best, kudos to them (and lesson be learned for anyone wanting “open” their educational resources).

  • Joel Greenberg

    Sitting here at my desk at home looking out at the lovely white stuff, an image comes into my head of colleagues passionately advocating openness. Yet many of them will be surrounded by their beloved Apple kit. As Apple is one of the most proprietary of vendors, yet does produce excellent technology, do we boycott it?
    So the words “fit for purpose” spring to mind. Interesting that the words used by one of the Google guys at the launch of the Nexus phone were – ” we are just giving people a choice”. What else could he say?

  • George Siemens

    Hi Martin,
    Thanks for diving in!
    Yes, you’re right in stating that I would like educators to take control of the “openness” discussion. But I don’t think this is an elitist stance. Education (as a field of study) is a net-importation field. We have a trade deficit with the other academic disciplines :). We import psychology, technology, philosophy, etc. from others. We are too accustomed to adopting what others have done. Driving the philosophical discussion of openness is an important opportunity to influence education as a discipline…and in the process ensure that ideological principles serve as the foundation.
    I’ve been reflecting on your final statement:
    “Open is a big, buzzing ball of interrelated concepts, beliefs, technology and approaches at the moment, and I’m okay with that”
    I think I agree. My focus in the post was not to call for a definition but for dialogue. I’m ok with things being big/messy/chaotic – many principles are: democracy, human rights, green movement, etc. I’m not calling for a single definition to serve as a long term foundation. I’m asking for a theoretical discussion – one that explores the principles on which we choose to act pragmatically.
    btw – happy b-day!

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