microsoft-linuxStephen Downes points to some older but interesting posts by Lisa Petrides and Bill Fitzgerald about the role of commercial actors in the open space. It’s a topic that I’ve been thinking about recently, particularly with yesterday’s revelation that Microsoft has joined the Linux Foundation. For someone who was online during the 90s, this is completely unimaginable. I had to read the full announcement to convince myself it was true. What the heck is going on?

The open source software side of the open house has absolutely no issue with commercial entities using or contributing to open source software. Think for a minute about all the people and companies that have created really amazing commercial offerings based on Linux, Apache, MYSQL, PHP, Ruby, Node, React, or WordPress. The reason you’ve never heard anyone claim that tax status disqualifies companies from participating in or benefiting from open source is that Article 6 of the Open Source Definition – No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor – explicitly prohibits us from doing so. To my mind, this commitment demonstrates a level of maturity that the open education side of the open house has yet to achieve.

Try to imagine what the internet would be like today if open source licenses could preclude commercial use. Seriously – stop and think about it for a moment. Now compare what you just imagined to the state of open education today.


“But wait!”, you declare, “the overwhelming majority of OER in the world are licensed in ways that permit commercial use, so what’s the problem?” The problem is the way that those involved in education – including those in our community – stereotype commercial entities. (And yes, I realize that I myself am guilty of generalizing as I write that sentence.) For many in our community, for-profit organizations have no business (pun intended) being involved in open education in any way. How can we move from our current closed-mindedness to a more open future? I think there are two steps:

  • Today: Blind distrust of, and even antagonism toward, commercial entities
  • Near Future: Thoughtful evaluation of the degree to which an entities’ behavior aligns with the open education community’s norms and values
  • Distant Future: No discrimination against fields of endeavor

What is the argument for moving ahead? Academics and educators are supposed to be thoughtful, analytical, and beyond intellectually lazy habits like stereotyping. There’s no excuse for judging an organization based on whether it was incorporated as a for-profit or non-profit entity. Our only justifiable concern with an organization from the perspective of open education is the degree to which their behavior reflects the norms and values of the open education community.

Let me give you an example. Imagine an organization with the following characteristics:

  • All the content they create is published under a CC BY license.
  • They provide free and open access to all their content online.
  • Their platform for hosting, authoring, and remixing OER is open source and available via GitHub.
  • They offer paid options for accessing their content in additional ways that are more convenient or useful.
  • They are developing additional tools to support personalized learning with OER with funding from a major foundation.
  • They are deeply committed to the sustainability of their organization.

As you think about the potential role of this organization in the open education community, does it matter whether it is incorporated as a non-profit or for-profit? I’d say no. Does it “belong?” Is it a “good citizen” of the community? I’d say the answer is a resounding yes – this is exactly the kind of behavior a good member of the community would engage in. (Just out of curiosity, can you tell whether I’m describing OpenStax (a non-profit) or Lumen Learning (a for-profit)?)

I believe the reason Lisa feels compelled to call out Pearson’s behavior as “pillaging” is because it ignores the core value of open education – sharing. Pearson doesn’t share under open licenses – not content, not metadata, not source code. Their behavior is completely extractive and, consequently, places them outside the norms and values of the open education community.

But let us not forget that there are a number of non-profits whose behaviors are also completely extractive. For example, if a non-profit organization’s sole activity is reformatting existing OER for print and selling printed copies of these OER at large markups, would we consider them good members of the community? They don’t share anything. Are they acting within the community’s norms and values? I’m not going to name names here, but rest assured that these organizations exist.

Suffice it to say that our lazy stereotyping is just as inappropriate when it comes to non-profits as it is with for-profits. Not all for-profits are evil, and not all non-profits are righteous. It’s not difficult to see this fact after some reflection. What matters is how organizations behave. I hope that during the next five years or so our community – and the broader education community – will come to appreciate this slightly nuanced view of the world.

To end where I began, let us pause to consider the open education analog of Microsoft joining the Linux Foundation. Can you imagine a future in which Pearson, McGraw Hill, or Cengage announce that they had openly licensed part of their catalog, publishing it online for the world to freely use, download, edit, and share? (Before you laugh at the impossibility of this, let me remind you that Microsoft just joined the Linux Foundation.) How would the community respond? How would you respond? I would welcome them with open arms, and hope you would as well. Just as open source software has benefited immensely from respected and valued contributions from IBM, RedHat, Google, and other companies, open education would benefit significantly from greater contributions from companies. Specifically, students would benefit significantly from these contributions. We, the open education community, just need to restrain ourselves from running organizations out of town on a rail simply because they’re for-profits.

I hope that in the near future we can collectively reach a place where we judge organizations by their behavior and not their articles of incorporation. We should be welcoming, cheering for, and supporting companies that behave in ways that are consistent with our values. I’ll reserve dreams of a distant future where we achieve No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor for the mid-2020s.

PS. Yes, as you probably guessed, the description of the hypothetical organization above correctly characterizes both OpenStax and Lumen Learning.


I’ve received lots of feedback since I published the problem with cost framing, some online and some in person at #OpenEd16. My main takeaway from that feedback is that, as ever, I continue to struggle to express myself clearly in writing. Let me try again, make some additional points along the way, and assign some additional blame to myself. Perhaps if I criticize myself rather than “the field” the criticism will be easier for people to hear and accept.

There is a massive misunderstanding in the field to which, upon reflection, I have made significant contributions. If you’ve heard me talk about open in the last three years you’ve heard me provide a two-part definition that can be summarized as “free plus permissions.” I fear this characterization of open has been a mistake. Let me explain why.

As I mentioned in my original post, I have been as guilty as anyone of engaging in cost framing. Cost is a huge concern for almost everyone and is often the path of least resistance into productive conversations. Consequently, many of us have walked this path. And in my desire to demonstrate explicitly how open solves the cost problem, I have allowed my description of open to intermingle causes and effects in a way that is confusing.

You see, permissions are causes and free is one of the several effects of these causes. When I say “free plus permissions” the relationship between free and permissions is misrepresented in such a way that you can’t help but hear free as something separate and distinct from permissions. This naturally leads people to think about open in ways that are mushy, imprecise, and harmful – because misunderstanding is always harmful.

Why are open educational resources free? Have you ever stopped to think about that? If not, it’s probably because a definition of open like “free plus permissions” simply asserts that things must be free in order to qualify as OER. And that’s the wrong way to think about it. OER are free because you have permission to make as many copies as you like. Want that awesome open video you just watched? You don’t have to pay for it (like you would pay for a movie or tv show) because its open license gives you permission to make and keep your own copy. And none of your friends will have to pay for it either, because you have permission to make additional copies and to share those copies with your friends. In other words, free is purely a function of retain plus redistribute. Free is a result of permissions.

“Free plus permissions” leads people to think that the 5Rs are concerned solely with issues of revising and remixing, and that OER are free for some reason independent of permissions. That is simply untrue. Unfortunately, the “free plus permissions” definition makes permissions the Robin to free’s Batman. It turns permissions into a forgettable sidekick.

If “free” belongs in the definition of OER, which I believe it does, it belongs there not as “free plus permissions” but as “a free grant of permissions.” Many of the 5R permissions are available in traditionally copyrighted materials if you’re willing and able to pay for a license. What distinguishes openly licensed resources from traditionally licensed resources is that the 5R permissions are granted to you for free by the open license.

From this small but critically important pivot the language of the argument can proceed largely as before – I don’t have to pay for and I don’t have to give up personal information like an email address or zip code in exchange for the permissions. They are simply granted to me for free by means of the open license.

Looking back at some of my older presentations, I actually used to talk about open this way – as a free grant of permissions. However, it appears that in my desire to address the cost problem in a simpler and easier to understand manner my language morphed from “a free grant of permissions” to “free plus permissions” at some point. It’s time to fix that, and I will correct it in my presentations going forward effective immediately.

Going Forward

Inasmuch as cost framing is such an incredibly easy way to begin a conversation with people, it would be wonderful if there were a way to continue to use the cost frame without creating the problems I described in my previous post. It will probably take a talk or seven and the wonderfully confused Q&A that will follow to refine a version of that message that works, but my first attempt will look something like this:

  • Textbooks are immorally expensive
  • Those high costs harm student learning
  • We need a solution to this problem
  • Open educational resources provide a free grant of the 5R permissions
  • The 5Rs are retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute
  • Retain and redistribute mean you can eliminate or greatly reduce the cost of learning materials for your students
  • Revise and remix mean that you and your students can personalize and improve your learning materials, either individually or collaboratively, and that this collaboration can happen with people in the same class, same institution, or anywhere around the world
  • Reuse means the original or improved materials can be used in class, online, in labs, in study groups, and in other formal and informal settings
  • OER simultaneously solve the textbook cost problem and open the door to a wide range of new pedagogies

Yes, it’s a little longer than the argument many of us currently use (see the previous post). But it’s possible that this version can leverage the immediacy of the problem with textbook costs without watering down open to mean nothing more than a free textbook. We’ll see.

And yes, the post I promised on problems with textbook framing is coming next. In the meantime, enjoy this classic post from 2012 – 2017: RIP, OER? Some of the details are wrong, but the broad strokes appear to be dead on (pun intended). Yes, we have made meaningful progress in the past four years, but my core concern remains and is intimately related to textbook framing.


UPDATE: See this follow-up post.

There seems to be an emerging concern among those who work in open education that we need to be careful not to “oversell” open. I understand the sentiment and appreciate the concern. However, I think the field is in far more danger from its systematic “underselling” of open. This has been worrying me for quite a while now, and I’ve been as guilty of it as anyone else.

The problem begins with the context in which we talk about open. That context almost always goes something like this:

– Textbooks are immorally expensive
– Those high costs harm student learning
– We need a solution to this problem
– Open textbooks are the answer

This contextualization is problematic in many ways, but for now I want to focus on one that I will call “cost framing” – presenting open as the answer to a cost problem. Cost framing draws people’s attention solely to issues of cost (causing them to equate open with free) and wholly neglects the permissions that come with open licenses. This is why so many people fail to appreciate (nevermind consider taking advantage of) the permissions granted by open licenses. “Thanks for helping me find a free textbook for my students! Why are you still talking? And about copyright licenses of all things?!?”

Not only does cost framing cause people to ignore what is most powerful about open, but it also exposes open to attack by publishers. If open is simply a matter of cost, there are ways publishers can counter the “threat” of open by lowering their costs or offering discounts.

Let me pause here to mention another version of this problem. Because textbooks cost so much, many students have to wait until their financial aid checks arrive to purchase textbooks. This two or three week delay in gaining access to their learning materials puts them at a significant disadvantage academically. For years open advocates have touted “day one access” as one of the primary benefits of choosing OER instead of traditional materials. However, publishers have now found a variety of creative ways to provide day one access to their materials, like the “all access opt out” model. For faculty who adopted OER primarily because they provided day one access for students, OER are now indifferentiable from publisher materials.

In these and other ways people trying to advocate for open inadvertently end up making arguments that play directly into publishers’ hands. This happens primarily when people advocate for open based on one specific benefit of the permissions provided by open licenses (like improving affordability or providing day one access) which publishers can approximate. We should instead be advocating for open based on the infinite possibilities derived from the full bundle of 5R permissions granted by open licenses.

Listen carefully to how publishers talk about open. They always bend the definition in a way that allows them to compete favorably with (their warped definition of) open. Does open mean lower costs for students? They can compete with that. Does open mean providing day one access for all students? They can compete with that. Does open mean low “quality”? They can compete with that.

If we want to differentiate open from publisher solutions, and do so in ways that are absolutely defensible over the long term, we have to talk explicitly about permissions. And not as an afterthought in the last ten minutes of our presentations – permissions need to be at the core of our argument about what makes open powerful and desirable.

Cost framing open hurts more than our ability to differentiate what we do from what publishers do. It hurts students, faculty, and the broader movement when we introduce people to the idea of open by telling them that it’s the answer to their cost problem. Cost framing limits faculty and students’ vision in ways that are difficult to overcome. If “open textbooks” are simply textbooks that are free (that is essentially what we’re saying when we position them as the answer to the problem of expensive textbooks), why would I ever consider changing my pedagogy or assessment strategy in ways that might dramatically improve student learning? I don’t typically make meaningful changes to my pedagogy or assessment strategy when I adopt a new textbook. (The textbook framing of OER is a separate problem, but not the one I’m addressing here.)

If the open education movement is going to facilitate dramatic improvements in learning by all students, we must center the conversation about “open” on permissions. We can’t expect to create astonishing improvements in student outcomes by making miniscule tweaks to our pedagogy. We will need to leverage the qualitatively different opportunities provided by open in our teaching, and those new opportunities exist because open gives us permission to do new things.

Great, you say. If we’re not going to talk about open in terms of cost framing then how should we talk about it? This is an excellent question, and not one I’m sure we have a satisfactory answer to. My current best answer is what I call the possible/permitted framing.

For several years I have introduced open by first talking about how education is a specific form of sharing (sharing know how, feedback, encouragement, passion, etc.). I then describe the internet as the most powerful platform for sharing ever created. Combined, these two statements argue that the internet could be the most powerful platform for education ever created. However, the things the internet lets me do that make it such an effective platform for sharing are exactly the things that are regulated by copyright. This sets up a tension between what is possible and what is permitted.

Napster provides a well-known example of the tension between the possible and the permitted. As Napster showed the world, one of the things the internet makes possible is the free sharing of content instantaneously with anyone around the world. And as the court demonstrated to Napster, copyright does not permit this kind of sharing. Hence the tension. The question becomes – how can we resolve this tension so that we can bring the full technical capability of the internet to bear on education? And the answer is, in a word, open.

Open licenses provide us with a range of permissions, including the permission to share freely online. Thus, one of the things we can do thanks to these permissions is solve the textbook cost problem. (Because of the permissions granted me by open licenses, I can freely share OER with students instead of asking them to buy textbooks.) That’s so amazing that many faculty struggle to believe it at first. Once they wrap their head around the idea, their very next thought can be “If the permissions granted by open licenses empower me to solve the cost problem, what else can I do because of these permissions?” The possibilities are limitless, because in the context of open what is possible = what is permitted.

When faculty ask themselves “what else can I do because of these permissions?”, we’ve come within striking distance of realizing the full power of open.

Let me point out that this possible/permitted framing still makes the point that open can solve the textbook cost problem – it just shows explicitly that open solves the cost problem by means of permissions. This was always the case, but faculty are blinded to this fact by cost framing.

Now granted, this explanation doesn’t fit into a 30 second elevator ride – meaningful solutions to complex problems seldom do. But this narrative can easily be laid out in 15 minutes, and it accomplishes two things. (1) It avoids luring people into reductionist thinking about OER that equates them with free textbooks. (2) It leverages the “wow!” moment of solving the cost problem to demonstrate that the permissions granted by open licenses are extremely powerful, and encourages people to think about what else might be possible because of these permissions.

After providing this explanation I give examples of some of the things faculty are doing in terms of open pedagogy (including disposable / renewable assignments) and the empirical research on the impact of OER adoption on student success. I then try to point faculty’s minds forward to a range of benefits that are emerging because of the network effects open enables. Internet-scale human collaboration is perhaps the most powerful force the world has ever known, but it is literally impossible in the context of traditionally copyrighted resources (when you can’t access, modify, or share materials there’s nothing to collaborate on). If we’re careful stewards and gardeners, open educational resources will be the fertile soil in which these massive collaborations in support of student learning grow.

I’d love to hear your criticisms and other thoughts about the possible/permitted framing. I’d love it even more if you would come up with a better way of framing open that puts permissions front and center!