Responses to the Rev and Stephen on “Openness”

I love these longer, more thoughtful discussions…

The Reverend contributes to the latest round of the conversation about “openness:”

The larger question in my mind is that what is under girding this discussion is an even more insidious logic than a denatured sense of open, and that’s a sense of entitled leadership. Fact is, the push to make sense of open as a term and discuss it’s meaning, future shape, and ultimate value seems to be the most definitive step in forming an institutional structure of power around it.

What is the alternative to ‘pushing to make sense of the term “open” and discussing it’s meaning and future shape?’ Studiously ignoring the term? Turning a blind eye to what is happening in the field? Is the concern about “institutionalizing a structure of power around the term open” that only a few get to participate in the discussions?

Who gets to discuss what open is? Where do they do it?

It is being discussed in the blogosphere by anyone who cares about it enough to type, right? George chimed in, I chimed in, the Rev chimed in, Stephen has chimed in… Anyone who wants to can take part. I’m sure many more will join the fray.

Importantly, there are at least two parts to this conversation. There is global part of the conversation, where we will discuss aspects of openness (openness of content, openness of research, openness of software, openness of credentialing, etc.) outside the context of specific implementations (i.e., individual institutions or projects). Then there will be the very concretely grounded discussions about specific implementations in specific contexts. The comparison is a little rough, but these will be akin to theory / practice conversations. Both are important, and they should inform each other.

Companies don’t really care to 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?

Why do we open education people need to have a seat at the table in department meetings, dean’s council, and when the VPs meet with the provost and president? The same reason that open source software needs a seat at the table with Dell, HP, Gateway, and Lenovo. Sure, the hackers of the world can blow away that Windows 7 install, repartition their hard drive, and do a clean Ubuntu install. But how many more people would open source reach / how much more influence would open source have if the major vendors shipped Ubuntu or Red Hat or (name your favorite distro here) straight to consumers? Significantly more – infinitely more.

And, of course, the radicals on each campus can put their course notes on their personal website with a CC license without engaging their administrations – just like hackers can write open source software without talking to hardware vendors. But how many more people would open educational resources reach / how much more influence would open educational resources have if the institutions themselves made wide-reaching commitments to the principle of openness? Significantly more – infinitely more.

Yes, we want a seat at that table. We need a seat at that table. And until we have it, the potential good of open education is going to be severely limited in reach – restricted to the educational equivalent of the computer user who is capable of repartioning his hard drive and doing a clean Linux install. Yes, those users are out there, but they’re the vast, vast minority.

Why does their need to be a continental congress on open? Why do we have to conflate it with system and then elect officials to define it for us? Part of the power and the hope of this space for me is a new scale of working though this ideas that is both hyper-individual and communally local at the same time. To frame the discussion around a table of designated players that move us forward seems in many ways contrary to possibilities these connections and relationships provide us.

Where is this conflated meeting of elected officials happening? The conversation I’m participating in about the meaning of openness is on publicly accessible, openly licensed blogs that have comments and trackbacks enabled. How much more open and participatory is the conversation supposed to be? What am I missing?

I don’t think of this so much as radical as an alternative to the models of leadership, promotion, and adoption of ideas that have utlimately placed them squarely within a system that is moving in a unilateral direction of progress in the name of growth and profit.

Isn’t growth the whole point of openness – growing the number of people who have access to educational opportunity? For an institution like BYU, that for years has had a “zero square foot growth” policy with regard to buildings on campus, wouldn’t a commitment to openness be all about growing the number of people the institution can reach, support, and bless? If openness isn’t about growing or increasing both the amount of educational opportunity available and the number of people who can access those opportunities, what is it about?

And – here comes the part where you can all throw things at me – if we want those opportunities to still be available 3, 5, and 10 years from now, shouldn’t someone worry about how we support them? I’m not saying that we need 2008-destroy-our-economy-and-take-the-world-with-it-style capitalism in open education. But we do have to get over this notion that any time we talk about money or sustainability we’ve tainted and contaminated ourselves.

In his summary of this round of the conversation, Stephen notes:

David Wiley responds to George Siemens’s post calling for more radicalism for open education. It’s a moderate response, reminding people to heed to the goals of education, and not the means. In this I agree – open education is not an end in itself, but part of the means by which we reach our goals of an education for all in a just and sharing society.

See! It can happen! Stephen and I can agree with each other…

And he argues that, therefore, “the ideal [of openness] needs to mean specific things in specific contexts in order for it to be applied usefully in those contexts.” This is true as well – at the margins. But the examples cited by Siemens – Twitter, Blackboard, Facebook – aren’t marginal cases, and claims that they are somehow ‘open’ in a way that is conducive to a free education in a just and sharing society somehow ring hollow.

Perhaps I need to use all caps to make my point clearer than I have been able to in my past posts. MY DISCUSSION OF THE MEANING OF OPEN DOES NOT EXTEND TO SOFTWARE (LIKE TWITTER, BLACKBOARD, OR FACEBOOK). WHEN I TALK ABOUT “THE MEANING OF THE ‘OPEN’ IN ‘OPEN CONTENT’,” I MEAN I’M DISCUSSING THE ADJECTIVE “OPEN” AS IT MODIFIES THE NOUN “CONTENT.” This is the same “open” that occurs in “open educational resources.” This is the world to which the 4Rs framework applies.

It is NOT the same “open” that occurs in “open source software.” We don’t need to discuss whether software is open or not. “Open source software” is already a trademarked term with a vouchsafed definition. Twitter, Blackboard, or Facebook are not open source, full-stop, end of story. They can claim that their software is “open” in some other manner, but no one believes it – I don’t even think they believe it. (Facebook also goes around saying that they care about protecting your privacy. Do we need to define privacy? No. Everyone knows Facebook is doing whatever is in its best interest and that it could care less about privacy or openness.) There’s nothing to discuss here except to complain about companies who mislead the public to make a buck. But there is no special relation to openness in this regard.

Stephen writes that my claim “the ideal [of openness] needs to mean specific things in specific contexts in order for it to be applied usefully in those contexts” is only true at the margins. In this case, I think Stephen is simply wrong. (See, we can disagree, too!)

The differences between software and content are not marginal. The necessary and appropriate considerations of openness in these two contexts are significantly different. People taking the naive position of “OER is like open source software for content!” fail to carefully consider what they’re saying and consequently miss important differences. (It’s like when people used to say “learning objects are like LEGOs!” After some reflection, we can see that this metaphor stuck so powerfully in people’s minds – and was so wrong – as to have contributed meaningfully to the inability of learning objects to deliver on their (over-hyped) promise.)

Our inability to speak and write with precision and clarity about the differences in the openness of content and the openness of software is a huge roadblock to the progress of open education. The “OER is open source software for content” metaphor is so powerful as to be blinding. These differences are not marginal. The differences in the openness of research, the openness of data, and the openness of credentialing are not marginal, either. We need a more mature, more developed, and more precise discourse about open education. And I think that open blogs on the open web is the right place to have it.

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  • David,

    Wow, thanks for the lengthy and thoughtful reply, I guess one can expect nothing less than you, but two focused and articulate responses in one day—that’s a ton of work, and it is appreciated. And let me start this comment by saying that I understand that I am neither precise or entirely realistic when I approach the question of open education. I’m working through many of the ideas on the fly, and my deep-seated concerns about leadership and the institutionalization of opened is by no means cogent in my mind, in fact I am using this space and your help to develop these ideas, and I have a lot more work to do, so thank you for helping me to think about and articulate these amorphous ideas more precisely.

    One of my questions in response to your thoughts is how the figure of radical becomes anyone that is in some ways outside of the upper echelons of the institutional hierarchy. At UMW, as a case in point, we have a large number of faculty members and students posting their class notes, syllabi, resources, and a semester’s worth of engaged discussion on course blogs that often have CC licenses. This is not a mandate from above and very few of the faculty would consider themselves radicals, in fact this is a community and culture of discussion, thought, and ideas that has born a practice of sharing resources. What’s unique about this process is that it is remarkably cheap and flexible, and at the same time has not been handcuffed by the idea of administrative buy-in—we ultimately got that, but only as a result of its success. What’s more, is that I think it gets at both the global and particular sides of the question of oepn you discuss early on in your post. We have managed to premise our system on an idea that anyone is able and willing to join the conversation within at UMW—no restrictions—and they can use it as they see fit. More than that, we have worked with faculty and students to show them how they can act like hackers to create their own space online to publish their notes, syllabi, discussions, etc, and they are doing it in no small magnitude. This was a relationship premised as much on a need as it was on the idea that making this stuff available allows UMW to share the content created here widely.Google has become our friend in this account, and by doing such an experiment on a smaller, localized scale, the implications for sharing our working and allowing faculty and students to own their investment has been powerful. What’s more, is that this has been a grass roots, reciprocal relationship born out of both necessity and experimentation, and institutionalizing it has happening to some degree, but on terms outside of an official administrative blessing—it has become a part of the fabric of the UMW landscape because people use it regularly and it seems to work for many of them. We really don;t have to dicate the terms of openness for the entire system, rather we have conversations about these ideas, and allow students and faculty to choose the level of open that they want for themselves. This is a case where we can see the ease of publishing and the searchability of blogs that are managed by individuals begin to redefine the open educational resources landscape on a small scale—but one which I think is happening to some great degree outside of educational institutions.

    The point is that this is an example of how the web works, and by providing that possibilities through a series of discussions, demonstrations and relationships goes much further than an institutional position on open that is handed down to faculty and students, and seem as yet another directive—whether or not we see the value of it—and I agree with you that open and accessible resources are the reason behind the push, and have immense pwoer and possibility. That said, the process through which a community comes to this, and realizes it is extremely important, and need not necessarily be born out of a bill of rights or specifically defined idea of open, rather it comes from a community working through this together.

    And this is where the idea of the conversation happening in the blogosphere, and the back and forth that we both appreciate seems to me to capture the spirit of the process through a distributed group of people that care about this topic. And while I use the straw man of an imaginary table to suggest a kind of elect group of people defining open, I would suggest that I do this because I think the more we try and grow and scale open ed out of a specific set of principles neatly defined, the more we homogenize and dilute the generative process of individuals working together in distributed and localized networks to think through the implications of open access to content within specific contexts for themselves. This doesn’t mean the ideas of a few don’t greatly inform that community, it simply means that it isn’t stifled through a series of laws and essentialized principles.

    As for the necessity of an increasingly greater scale of openness, this is one I am still struggling with, but I have to believe that the idea of open need not grow and develop in any one, re-defined way. The ideas are out there, and that is where these conversation are so key, what I don’t know is if they need to be thought of in terms of real estate development—a kind of sprawling growth for the sense of reach and profit, not to say that there isn’t some real reward from more people sharing their work, but I wonder if it isn’t best accomplsihed through more specific communities making this happen for themselves. Do we bring open to them? Or do they define it and make it work within their own context for their own reasons? There is a crucial idea of empowerment here that is not bestowed upon one, but gained through a sense of self realization. Does that make any sense? And growing to grow is not necessarily an end in and of itself if it is a blanket vision.

    Now, I tried to address some of the issues, but probably missed some, but I wanted to step out on a limb here at suggest that the confusion surrounding the metaphors comparing open content movement and open source software movement may be born out of the way in which you use the comparisons freely in a post like this. As yo suggest above:

    The differences between software and content are not marginal. The necessary and appropriate considerations of openness in these two contexts are significantly different.

    And this I agree with, they are rather different in teir design and application, but it is when you make comparisons in your argument like the following tht it seems you are conflating those differences:

    Why do we open education people need to have a seat at the table in department meetings, dean’s council, and when the VPs meet with the provost and president? The same reason that open source software needs a seat at the table with Dell, HP, Gateway, and Lenovo. Sure, the hackers of the world can blow away that Windows 7 install, repartition their hard drive, and do a clean Ubuntu install. But how many more people would open source reach / how much more influence would open source have if the major vendors shipped Ubuntu or Red Hat or (name your favorite distro here) straight to consumers? Significantly more – infinitely more.

    In this regard the idea of open content is thought of as a final product like a release version of OSS, rather than the relational process of programming the release. And I would argue that content is far closer to that process of relational discussion around ideas than a finsihed product like a textbook. And therein lies some different, more nuanced, considerations of just what open content might be. I think the 4Rs does make sense, but it is a fairly complex relationship to picking up pieces and parts from a variety of different works that may or may not be openly licensed or “official” educational resources. Fact is, we can provide that open content from a variety of positions and varying levels of polish on a regular basis that others can re-use, re-mix, etc. without some official mandate or centralized repository. The emergence of localized networks and an imperfect process of sharing may have as much, if not more, value than a sytemized idea of OSS or open content, and the comparison above to make the point about content through the example of OSS may be part of the conflation, and also lead to a necessary push of systemitizing a process of sharing that need not be.

    Ok, that’s it for now, but once again thanks for keeping me sharp, and I hope we can continue to go one like this because it pushes my facile thinking to the next level, and I both appreciate and need that right now.

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  • Well, David, it is the _content_ in Twitter, Blackboard, and Facebook that is being called open (nobody would say that the software is open, and I am not discussing these sites as software, but rather, as content sources). And the argument is that calling this content ‘open’ stretches the meaning of the term ‘open’ beyond recognition.

  • Reverend’s comments remind me of the slogan: Anarchy does *not* mean “chaos”; it does not mean “no government”; it means “no leader.”

    I personally won’t stop people from having conversations about what “open” means, but I also won’t respect their authority to issue edicts on the matter.

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  • The differences between software and content are not marginal. The necessary and appropriate considerations of openness in these two contexts are significantly different.

    @the reverend and @david, this is my favorite part of the discussion. For many I think that the difference is not acknowledged (which is why we rail against FB and Bb and Twitter).

    In fact, it nearly pops up here too (in the original post about defining openness); if it’s the content that’s open, individuals putting a CC badge on their twitter account, Bb course or Facebook activity stream could truly have “opened” their content on a closed software. I think that’s an important detail to note (not to mention that if we raise issues of “sustainability”, who better to safeguard content and guarantee it’s long-term availability than Google or Facebook?–note, I say that last bit with only half sarcastically).

  • You wrote: “The differences between software and content are not marginal. The necessary and appropriate considerations of openness in these two contexts are significantly different. People taking the naive position of “OER is like open source software for content!” fail to carefully consider what they’re saying and consequently miss important differences.”

    “Our inability to speak and write with precision and clarity about the differences in the openness of content and the openness of software is a huge roadblock to the progress of open education.”

    If I consider Wikipedia (and the other Wikimedia projects) and recall the original idea of the projects, I do not see that there have ever been huge difference between the free/libre/open source software and free/libre/open content.

    In practice the original idea of the Wikipedia was to try out if one could use the free/libre/open source software development model with content.

    More interesting than the question of free/libre/open educational resources is the next step, the free/libre/open education, that includes (1) access to the free/libre/open content and (2) arrangements of meaningful learning tasks (some people call this teaching).

    How these could be provided free/libre/open for all?

    This would be something one could call free/libre/open education (choose the first word based on your priority)?

    PS. The Wikimedia’s mission is “to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally” (http://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/Missiaon_statement).

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  • As per your post it’s ill advised to conflate open source software initiatives with some of the other open initiatives that academics are working on. I was impressed by how Christopher Mackie described them in “Open Source in Open Education: Promises and Challenges.” ( http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=11309&mode=toc ) All this said, isn’t it important to also identify the commonalities between these endeavors? More collegially isn’t there utility in articulating the interests and educational visions that you, Ira Fuchs, and open source programmers share? Call it coalition building or something else but to me this seems like one tactic worth pursuing in reinvigorating the missions of the university that are best aligned with the ideals of openness.

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