open content

Connections, Counterfactuals, and the 5Rs

I absolutely love people who make the Herculean effort necessary to view well-known things from a distinctly different point of view. One person making that effort is Chiara Marletto. I was introduced to her work a few years and reminded of it again this week by the wonderful interview with her in Quanta Magazine. (I was ecstatic to learn that she has published a book about her work – The Science of Can and Can’t: A Physicist’s Journey through the Land of Counterfactuals – which is already loaded up in my Audible.)

Chiara is working on what is called Constructor Theory. The interview provides a wonderful introduction to the work, starting here:

The goal of constructor theory is to rewrite the laws of physics in terms of general principles that take the form of counterfactuals — statements, that is, about what’s possible and what’s impossible.

Amanda Gefter

I’ve been taken with counterfactuals since I went down the rabbit hole of causality a few years ago, starting with The Book of Why (which I enjoyed so much I gave copies to several people) and then graduating to other writing on counterfactuals and causal inference. I was happy to see counterfactuals pop up again in the context of constructor theory and thinking about the connection between these two has my mind spinning with possibilities.

What does all this have to do with the 5Rs, you ask? As you may recall, the 5Rs are:

  1. Retain – make, own, and control a copy of the resource (e.g., download and keep your own copy)
  2. Revise – edit, adapt, and modify your copy of the resource (e.g., translate into another language)
  3. Remix – combine your original or revised copy of the resource with other existing material to create something new (e.g., make a mashup)
  4. Reuse – use your original, revised, or remixed copy of the resource publicly (e.g., on a website, in a presentation, in a class)
  5. Redistribute – share copies of your original, revised, or remixed copy of the resource with others (e.g., post a copy online or give one to a friend)

The connection came as I was reading the FAQ on It reads, in part:

An unexpected bonus of switching to counterfactuals is that in constructor theory we can talk objectively about additional entities (such as knowledge or information) that traditionally are considered anthropocentric or subjective. This is because for example information is defined implicitly by the concept of information medium – a system with a set of states on which all permutations and also the copy-like task are possible. Likewise, knowledge is information that is capable of remaining embodied in physical systems. Nothing in these definitions appeals to an observer or a knowing subject. In this sense, constructor theory is superior to the traditional conception of physics because it can handle these concepts on objective grounds, while the traditional conception cannot. (emphasis added)

These definitions of information and knowledge map nicely into the 5Rs. (Information into the original 4Rs and knowledge into Retain, the 5th R.) This connection was totally unexpected and caused me to clap my hands in delight. I love learning new things and making new connections.

learning open content open education

We Should Pause and Ask the Question

There’s a really terrific conversation happening on the cc-openedu listserv. It started out as a question about OER, but has moved on to a conversation about the purposes of open more generally. Dr. Chuck contributed over the weekend, and his contribution provides a great opportunity for me to respond with the first substantive post since I changed the name of the blog.

All the pull quotes in this post are from Dr. Chuck. He writes:

[Y]ou can wave your hands and dream of open content and a complete open source chain of production where the raw material is openly licensed and *everything* in the value chain is also free. I have done this for *one* course – Python for Everybody. If you start with my github repo, you can build an LMS, a web site, an online teaching system, and even a camera ready textbook ready for printing using 100% free software. I use LaTeX and pandoc for the print book – it is perhaps less convenient that [sic] Word but it is free. P.S. I also have a README that tells how to do it.

It is possible with great effort, but there are a number of problems.

First, it is harder to keep a 100% open chain of production from beginning to end – you need solid technical skills and a lot of patience. I have shown 100’s of people my 100% open process – and literally no one has replicated it because it is easier to just fall into the easier path of proprietary approaches.

There is an incredibly important point that I think people frequently miss. We are often told that the most important purpose of being open is to increase access. In theory, when it comes to educational resources nothing could possibly provide more access to more people than openly licensed source code to an LMS, website, online teaching system, and camera ready textbook. It’s got everything you need. You can adapt it any way you like. You can run it anywhere you like. You can use it any way you like. And, in the case of Python, it actually exists – right there in Dr. Chuck’s GitHub repo. 

That’s the theory. But what actually happens in practice? Dr. Chuck tells us that, despite the thousands of hours of time and effort he has invested to both (1) make the full chain of tools and content open and (2) show hundreds of people how to use these tools and content themselves, literally no one has done so. 

We should pause and ask which approach really, truly, provides access to more people – (1) the Python for Everybody GitHub repo with an excellent README and all the 5R permissions or (2) the ready-to-use version of Python for Everybody on Coursera? Empirically speaking, it’s approximately one million times easier to take Python for Everybody on Coursera than it is to install, configure, troubleshoot, and run all these tools yourself. We know this is true because as of March 1, 2021, 985,081 people have enrolled in Python for Everybody on Coursera and remember no one has stood up the tool chain themselves. 

As a 100% open end-to-end person (one of the few) – I get it – and accept that 100% open is always going to be a hard path – it is like being a monk and sleeping on cold stone floors 🙂

I have nothing but respect for Dr. Chuck. There are often sacrifices associated with living according to one’s principles, and he is obviously making them. And the incredible difficulty of this 100% open path should cause us to pause and ask ourselves about the problem we are trying to solve. If the primary goal of being open is to increase access, the Python for Everybody example is extraordinarily interesting. Think about first-generation, minoritized, or otherwise at-risk learners. Think about the (primarily adjunct) faculty who serve them.

Now, sincerely, pause and ask yourself – which provides these students and their faculty with more access – an openly licensed GitHub repo or an easy-to-use offering on Coursera? Even when the Coursera option costs $49 – which provides more access to more people? Really think about it. In terms of raw numbers, how many people who might be interested in learning Python can come up with $49? How many people who might be interested in learning Python can get the 100% open tool chain up and running?

By the way – there is a way to make money on things like printing, hosting, support, etc etc without violating the principle of 100% open. The Occam’s razor is whether someone else can replicate what you are doing if they put their mind to it.

I understand what Dr. Chuck is trying to say here, but I want to point out that someone can always replicate what you’re doing if they put their mind to it. In fact, the stories of the most successful open source software are stories of someone putting their mind to replicating the functionality of proprietary software – Linux from Unix, LibreOffice from MS Office, GIMP from Photoshop, &c., &c. You might even argue that many popular OER work very hard to closely replicate proprietary textbooks. But back to the point I believe he was actually trying to make…

This is clearly a principle he feels strongly about, given the monk-sleeping-on-cold-stone-floor level of commitment he puts into making sure he provides both options for Python for Everybody – the DIY-able GitHub version and the much more usable Coursera version. But I suppose at some point it’s with pausing to ask the question: if no one takes advantage of the DIY version, how much effort does it really merit? Especially when that effort could go into other work that would have a much larger impact? 

When I was a Shuttleworth Fellow I received one of most difficult pieces of advice I’ve ever been given. The advice was this – “don’t let your principles keep you from accomplishing your mission.” (This was in the context of a discussion Lumen’s principle of never charging students directly.) I didn’t fully understand it at the time. In the early days of Lumen, I thought the important work we were called to do was to make more things more open. Open all the things!!! Make them as open as possible!!! 

But open is a means, not an end

Lumen’s mission is to “enable unprecedented learning for all students.” There are myriad ways that leveraging the 5R power of open helps us do that. But there are also cases when investing the time and effort necessary to be more even more open would actually work against our real mission, which is enabling unprecedented learning for all students – not being as open as possible.

The thing that pisses me off in conversations like these is how those who are “pretty open” or “open core” or whatever participate in these discussions with the intent of defining their variation of hybrid proprietary + open in the name of money as “good enough” or “the best we can do” or “an ideal compromise”. They want validation / kudos / accolades for their particular choice of non-open bits.

I get that there are a lot of “not 100% open” business models and those should be “allowed” – but they should not be “celebrated” as the “pinnacle” of open just because someone makes a speech about how *their* hybrid model is the best we can do.

I don’t know that Dr. Chuck is talking to me directly here, but even if he’s not I think it’s a productive exercise to spend time with critiques from smart people you respect and see what you can learn from them. 

Speaking personally, I’m not interested in creating a business model that is celebrated as the pinnacle of open by anyone. I’m interested in developing a model that maximizes positive impacts on student success. As I’ve written before, when you’re talking about the impact educational materials can have on student outcomes, I think the key metrics are success, scale, and savings: how much can you improve outcomes, for how many students, and how much money can you save them while doing so.

Open – as in openly licensed content – has an important role to play in this effort for me personally. It enables continuous improvement, which drives gains in outcomes for students. It sidesteps royalties, which means greater savings for students.  But open is not the star of the show. It plays second fiddle to a number of things, like evidence-based learning design. (Increased access to ineffective learning materials doesn’t help anyone.)

If your goal is to be as open as possible, it will lead you to make one set of choices. You will begin by assuming Everything Should Be Open™ and work hard not to lose ground on that commitment. If your goal is anything else, you’ll think about open instrumentally – as one of many tools to accomplish your goal. Each place you might choose to be open, you will thoughtfully consider whether doing so would increase the likelihood of you accomplishing your goal. You will feel like open is a means and not the end

We should pause and ask the question – is more open always better?


Renaming My Blog

My blog has changed names twice over the years. Today, after 15 years, it’s changing again.

Before I had a “real” blog, I published random thoughts on whatever personal website my then-current university would give me access to, starting in 1993. Remember tilde accounts? ( / has always (since 1995) been a personal home page, and not a place where I’ve published a lot of writing.)

In the early 2000s, Brian Lamb introduced me to RSS and Moveable Type and I put down some blog roots at That first “real” blog was named Autounfocus, in recognition of the way it bounced back and forth between a pretty wide range of topics:A few years later, when Movable Type announced they were considering changing from open source to a proprietary licensing model, I briefly experimented with Plone as my blogging platform. But I quickly ended up moving to WordPress – and – in February, 2005. At that point I renamed the blog Iterating Toward Openness, and later chose a new byline:Holy smokes! That’s 15 years ago now. How time flies.

I’ve slowly  – and sometimes painfully – realized over the last several years that I’m no longer iterating toward openness personally. Open isn’t the goal for me – my real goal is improving student learning. It’s true that “open” is one of the most powerful tools in my toolbox, and I have every intention of continuing to leverage it in the service of improving student learning. But open is only one of several powerful tools we need to leverage if we want to make a significant difference in student learning. Open is a means, not an end. Not a proper end, anyhow. And it’s not what I’m iterating toward. So it seems appropriate to update my blog to reflect this.

I wanted the new name and byline to create an intellectual space large enough for both my primary goal – improving student learning – and the wide range of tools and topics I try to leverage in that pursuit: a broad array of research, theory, and practice in instructional design, pedagogy, openness, data science, social entrepreneurship, continuous improvement, behavioral economics, learning analytics, professional development, self-organizing learning communities, learning engineering, models of peer production, the economics of public goods, &c. I’m sure there are many things I’m forgetting. And I’m sure there will be many more to come in the future.

As you’ve likely seen at the top left of the site by now, the new blog title is “Improving Learning,” and the new byline is “eclectic, pragmatic, enthusiastic.” I like this new name and byline. It feels like they set me up for another decade or so of good, solid work. I’m more committed to improving student learning now than ever, and I’m excited to continue revising and remixing tools and techniques from a diversity of disciplines in order to do so.