During conversations this week at the semi-annual meeting of the Shuttleworth Foundation Fellows, I was struck by (what is for me) a new way of contextualizing and understanding “open” – as one of a long line of technological innovations that radically improve productivity.

History is filled with technological innovations that have increased our “productivity,” making it significantly less expensive for us to engage in some activity than it had been prior to the innovation. I have often thought of open as being part of the family tree of information technology innovations that includes inventions like writing, the printing press, computers, and the internet. But my previous conceptualization of these inventions was limited to a general notion of “inventions that enable us do that we couldn’t before.” This framing does not explicitly consider their impact of open on our productivity in a market sense. It was the juxtaposition of a conversation about sustainability with Fellows Peter Bloom and Johnny West against Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society, which I recently finished reading, that really catalyzed this new perspective.

Specifically, it hit me as I listened to Peter talk about his work with Rhizomatica, a project that provides open source cellular infrastructure and service in rural Mexico. As opposed to the proprietary approach to cellular infrastructure, in which it might cost a $100,000 to put up a radio tower, Rhizomatica can put up a radio tower based on open source software for about $7500. As opposed to a traditional monthly cellphone bill of $100 or more, Rhizomatica provides cell service for $1.70 per month.

Listening to him talk I was reminded of my own work with Lumen. Whereas it can easily cost a traditional publisher $250,000 to create a textbook under the incumbent, royalty-based content model, we can facilitate faculty creating an OER-based replacement for that textbook for under $10,000. And rather than producing an end product that can cost students $200 or more, we can provide hosting, integration, and support for that OER-based textbook replacement for $5.

In both these cases – textbooks and cellular service – open approaches create productivity gains ranging between one and two orders of magnitude in size. Orders of magnitude – meaning they make it between 10x and 100x cheaper than the incumbent way of doing things.

I was already intimately aware of the orders of magnitude impact open can have on the cost of textbooks. But seeing it mirrored back almost perfectly in the case of cell phone infrastructure and service unlocked something for me. One instance is an anomaly, but two starts to look like a trend.

If open can create these orders of magnitude productivity gains in the cases of both textbooks and cellular service, where else does it create them? A second’s reflection surfaces cases like writing software and encyclopedias… But those kinds of examples weren’t what was setting my radar off. There’s something about the idea of cellular service falling pray to these orders of magnitude productivity gains from open (OMPGO for brevity) that feels like a virus jumping from one species to another. Cell service isn’t the kind of thing that’s supposed to be susceptible to OMPGO, at least not intuitively. Something serious is going on here.

Upon reflection I’ve slowly been having this species-jumping realization in my own little microcosm of focus, education. Textbooks are intuitively susceptible to OMPGO, but learning outcomes, assessments, and credentials are not. The extension of open and, consequently OMPGO, to the fundamental pieces necessary to engage in education – learning outcomes, content, assessments, and credentials – makes up what I call the open education infrastructure. The potential impacts of the open education infrastructure on primary, secondary, and higher education are endless. What would our institutions and practices look like if they could be built upon freely available, openly licensed sets of learning outcomes, textbook replacements, assessments, and credentialing mechanisms? What types of alternatives to our traditional institutions would emerge in this fertile ground in which experimentation and innovation becomes orders of magnitude less expensive?

But cellular service… Where else can OMPGO travel? A second conversation with Peter later in the week suggested that it is already impacting energy, clean water, and a range of other functions at the foundation of society. In addition to the open education infrastructure, do we dare begin talking about the open society infrastructure? This got me thinking of Marcin, a Shuttleworth Fellowship alum who is creating the Global Village Construction Set, an open source platform that allows for the easy fabrication of the 50 industrial machines necessary to build a small civilization with modern comforts. Each of his designs bares the characteristic OMPGO signature of being orders of magnitude less expensive than their commercial counterparts (e.g., their open source tractor).

If OMPGO can work its magic on energy, clean water, machines, telecommunications, and education, where else can it go? What kind of matrix or framework could we build that might help us identify other OMPGO opportunities?

Little would make me happier than a fully developed open education infrastructure operating as part of a broader open infrastructure supporting an advanced society – where power, water, phone, internet, education, and other key infrastructure pieces were 10x – 100x less expensive than they are now. What a world that would be! Wouldn’t you like to be part of creating that world?

Postscript.

At the bottom of the OMPGO phenomenon lies a technological innovation called the open license. Open licenses stand in clear opposition to the ultimate viral copyright machinery, the Berne Convention, which automatically forces copyright onto each and every creative work whether the author desires it or not. Rather than envisioning a society built exclusively on protections and royalties, as Berne does, open licenses enable a society also built on sharing and cooperation. (And importantly, these two visions of society are not incompatible – the Internet, unarguably the biggest engine of the modern market, is built almost entirely on an infrastructure comprised of open source software.)

While it’s contours are still blurry, I can see in the far distance a vision of an entire society built more fully on open infrastructure, with the impact of OMPGO spread generously throughout every sector. It takes my breath away. For now, I’ll keep chipping away on the education part of the problem with the Lumen team and others in the space. But WOW there is so much work to do, in so many different spaces, and so much yet for us to learn from each other across spaces. My conversations with Peter and others at the Shuttleworth meeting helped me appreciate that more than ever.

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Another Way of Thinking About Open…

One of the many improvements in my life since I started running has been the number of books I’ve been able to read (trans: listen to). Some of my recent running reading has been swirling around in my head during the semi-annual meeting of Shuttleworth Foundation Fellows I’m currently attending in Malta. This meeting is always a fantastic opportunity to think, rethink, and reconceptualize “open.” No, I haven’t changed my mind about open. But I do think there is an additional way to think about open, another perspective that can add to our understanding of the construct, that I don’t hear people talking about.

One of the arguments in Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society goes like this:

  • History is filled with technological innovations that increased productivity, meaning that producing a widget after the technology was introduced was significantly cheaper than producing it before it was introduced (c.f., the assembly line).
  • In competitive markets where firms compete on price, improved productivity and the resulting lower costs mean that a firm can lower its prices in order to gain advantage over a competitor.
  • We are reaching the point where productivity gains are driving the marginal cost of many products toward zero.
  • When the marginal cost to produce a product tends toward zero, competition makes the consumer price of the product tend toward zero, which ultimately results in profits on that product tending toward zero.
  • When there is very little profit to be made, investors will not put their capital to work in that market because they can receive a greater return by investing it elsewhere.
  • Consequently, in highly competitive markets where technology has created huge productivity gains – driving marginal costs and profits toward zero – capitalism is quickly reaching the point where it has “run its course.” That is, when those with capital are unwilling to invest it in a market, that market can no longer be said to be a part of the “capitalist system.”

Rifkin makes several points in the book, but this observation that ‘capitalism is “eating itself” by investing in the creation of technologies that drive productivity gains so far that margins fall to the point that capital stops flowing into certain sectors’ is fascinating to me.

The Internet, of course, is the quintessential example of a technological innovation that has driven incredible productivity gains. It is now orders of magnitude less expensive to create and offer a whole range of products and services than it was in the days Before Internet.

The aha I had this morning, participating in the breakout group on sustainability, is that you can think of “open” as being a member of this family of technological innovations. That is to say that, among the many ways you can think of open, one way to think of open is as a particularly powerful innovation in a long line of technological innovations that drive productivity gains.

Take the specific context of textbooks. The move from physically setting type to digital authoring created huge productivity gains, the move from physical distribution to online distribution created huge productivity gains, and the move from reliance on proprietary / royalty-based content to openly licensed content created huge productivity gains. Consequently, open textbooks are orders of magnitude less expensive to create than traditional print textbooks, and they’re an order of magnitude less expensive to produce than digital commercial products. (When I say that open textbooks are one or more orders of magnitude less expensive to create than their traditional counterparts, I mean textbooks which you assemble from pre-existing OER – not textbooks you produce from scratch and place an open license on.)

This increased productivity in open textbook creation is one of the many benefits that we will enjoy more fully once the open education infrastructure has been built out more completely. Each layer in the infrastructure is an additional productivity multiplier. Imagine the kinds of things we’ll be able to rapidly build and iterate on… Imagine the kinds of things students will be able to do and iterate on… The costs will be so minimal that the opportunities to be creative in how we approach learning will be nearly unlimited.

I’m not entirely sure what new connections and understandings will arise from placing open in this new context, but I love, Love, LOVE new ways of thinking about and understanding open.

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Another Incredible Week for Lumen!

It’s been another incredible week at Lumen – we have more exciting news to share!

First, Lumen has been selected as one of seven winners of the Next Generation Courseware Challenge, a $20 million grant competition from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to build exemplary, affordable digital course materials that improve student success among low-income and disadvantaged learners. This work includes a singularly awesome set of design, research, development, and content partners, together with an amazing consortium of schools that will co-design and test the resulting open, competency-based courses. (http://lumenlearning.com/ann-courseware-challenge/)

Second, yesterday we won the EDUCAUSE Game Changers Business Competition, recognizing the great work our team is doing and validating Lumen’s potential to sustainably grow to impact millions of students, faculty, and institutions. (http://www.educause.edu/annual-conference/exhibitor/educause-game-changers-business-competition)

I’m feeling overwhelmed with gratitude for amazing and talented colleagues, wonderful partners, and great opportunities to do good work. Here’s to more awesomeness!

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