When Opens Collide

In my recent post How is Open Pedagogy Different?, I defined open pedagogy as ”the set of teaching and learning practices only possible or practical in the context of the 5R permissions” – a definition I have been using in my writing and public speaking since I first blogged about open pedagogy back in 2013 (except there were only 4Rs back then). Although none of my other posts or talks on this topic over the past four years managed to, How is Open Pedagogy Different? elicited quite a response. Many of these responses were deeply interesting and informative. For example, I learned that when I first started writing about open pedagogy in 2013, I made the cardinal mistake of not checking to see if the term might have a long history of use by others in a context completely outside the one I was writing about. It does. Oops. However, this is not actually what led to the strong reaction to my post.

As I continue to ponder the Twitter conversations with Mike, Robin, Maha, and others, as well as what’s been written on blogs like those by Clint (which came before mine) and Jim (which came after), it appears that what is happening is that the “open” in open education is colliding with the “open” in open web.

As I’ve written about at some length before, whether you’re talking about open content, open educational resources, open access (to research), open data, open knowledge, open source, or open standards, in all of these contexts “open” means:

  1. Free access to the content, resource, journal article, data, knowledge artifact, software, or standard, and
  2. A formal grant of rights and permissions giving back to the user many of the rights and permissions copyright normally reserves exclusively for the creator or other rights holder.

The consensus in these contexts that open = free + permissions is extraordinarily strong. However, it turns out that this consensus is separate from the “open” in “open web.” One of the most influential descriptions of the open web was written by Tantek back in 2010. You should really read the whole article to get the nuance of his argument. He closes by saying:

And that’s my rough working definiton [sic] of what is the open web. In summary:

  • open content and application publishing
  • open ability to code and implement the standards that such content depends on
  • open access to content, web-applications , web standards implementations (browsers), and the internet.

In other words, an “open web” is a web on which:

  • You don’t need anyone’s permission to publish any content or create any web app you want to (like my blog or Amazon.com)
  • You don’t need anyone’s permission to write code that conforms to or implements relevant standards (like web servers or browsers)
  • You have access to all the content, web apps, and tools because all content / traffic is treated equally (net neutrality)

Tantek’s vision of an open web is closely related to Adam Thierer’s notion of “permissionless innovation.” Permissionless innovation is the ability to create and invent without seeking and obtaining prior approval, allowing “the creativity of the human mind to run wild in its inherent curiosity and inventiveness.”

Imagine, for example, that you want to start your own radio station. The FCC has a few forms for you to fill out before you begin. Or perhaps you want to start your own television channel. The FCC isn’t even accepting applications for new television stations currently. Compare this ripe-with-regulations communications environment, where you can’t do anything until you receive approval, with the internet. Imagine if you had to fill out forms, apply, and then wait to be approved before you could start your own YouTube channel or podcast!

On reflection it seems that the subtle difference between these two forms of open is that the open in OER, etc. is a matter of free access plus copyright permissions, while the open in open web is a matter of free access plus no requirement to seek approval before creating or inventing.

The assumptions underlying these two forms of open are subject to change and have, in fact, flip-flopped very recently. The internet, for example, has not always been a bastion of openness.The 1982 MIT handbook for the use of ARPAnet — the precursor of the Internet, instructed students:

It is considered illegal to use the ARPAnet for anything which is not in direct support of government business… Sending electronic mail over the ARPAnet for commercial profit or political purposes is both anti-social and illegal. By sending such messages, you can offend people, and it is possible to get MIT in serious trouble with the government agencies which manage the ARPAnet.

The idea that the internet (or web) is somehow inherently open (free + no approval required) is simply not true. And the idea that it should be open and that we should fight to protect that openness is a very recent – and worthy – notion (cf. current #EUcopyright proposals).

Similarly, until very recently there was little need for Creative Commons licenses and formal legal mechanisms for sharing creative works. In the United States, before 1989 no creative work was protected by copyright unless the creator opted in to protection by reigstering. Open (free + permissions) was the default. It was only in 1989, when the US joined the Berne Convention, that protection of all creative works became automatic and closed became the new default, requiring people to opt-in to sharing. After Berne we needed things like the CC licenses to share creative works with each other in ways that allowed for remixes, mashups, localizations, and other reuses.

Differences in our understanding of open pedagogy, then, seem to be artifacts of our approach vector. Jim (“I don’t need permission to be open”) and Clint (“what makes open pedagogy open is that students are working in the open with their work on display to the world”) seem to be coming to open pedagogy from the open web direction. People like Rajiv (“my take is that open pedagogy refers to innovative teaching and learning practices that are only made possible through the application of open licenses”) and I seem to coming to open pedagogy from an OER direction. Others like Robin (“my OpenPed definition changes every time I give a presentation about it”) are still undecided.

All this thinking and writing has led me to appreciate the open web point of view more than my previous post implied. No doubt we have yet to see definitions of open pedagogy that approach from other open traditions, like the “open” in open government where open primarily means transparent. (Incidentally, life is no better for the confusingly related term ” open educational practices.” Half of the definitions listed on Wikipedia explicitly reference OER, while the other half come from very different places.)

I do remain concerned about a few things, though. Here’s one.

“Open” – regardless of whether you come from the open content or open web tradition – does not have anything to say about the nature of learning. Maybe the thing that’s become the clearest to me as I’ve laid awake at night thinking about these issues is that you can’t actually build a pedagogy on a foundation of open (well, not one that isn’t incredibly impoverished). Your foundational commitments in terms of pedagogy should be to an understanding of how learning happens. Once we have made fundamental commitments in terms of a theory of learning, then we can add open to our list of facilitating methods in order get better leverage.

I wonder if it isn’t nonsensical to talk about “open pedagogy” at all (fully recognizing that this would make me the most nonsensical party of all). Perhaps we should only use open as a modifier for other pedagogies, like “open constructionist pedagogy” or “open connectivist pedagogy” or “open constructivist pedagogy.” It’s clear in each of those cases how open gives you better leverage in terms of supporting learning. For example, what I call “renewable assignments” (fortunately this phrase had no back history!) is an instance of open constructionist pedagogy.

Without clarity about our foundational commitments, it can be easy to wander. A foundational commitment to how learning happens provides a collection of first principles from which pedagogical practices can be logically derived. Without this principled commitment, we’re left to gather instructional principles opportunistically, like seashells. For example, Hegerty’s model of open pedagogy includes attributes like “innovation and creativity,” “reflective practice,” and “peer review.” It’s unclear to me how you arrive at this collection of practices unless the decision rule is “collect practices that could synergize powerfully with open.” This seems like a less appropriate way to build up a pedagogy because, in its desire to be grounded in open, it has become disconnected from a coherent theory of learning.

In summary, there’s lots to think about here. It seems clear that we shouldn’t label the “open” advocated by open web proponents as openwashing. It’s a legitimate – but meaningfully different – way of talking open. This acknowledgment makes it even more important for those of us who care about and advocate for open to be extraordinarily and explicitly clear what we mean by “open” in our writing and speaking. And it does feel like there’s little chance of coming to consensus around a common definition of “open pedagogy” – which it turns out is a phrase that was already being used in other ways for decades.

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Another Response to Stephen

A quick search via Google shows that Stephen Downes is mentioned over 500 times on the pages of Iterating Toward Openness. What would I do without him to disagree and argue with? I would certainly be intellectually impoverished. As I’ve said before, everyone needs a Stephen in their life. Anyway, here’s another page to add to the pile…

In commenting on the recent announcement about the partnership between Follett and Lumen, Stephen asks:

What if students don’t want to pay money for these ‘open’ educational resources? Are they denied access? Isn’t this exactly one of those closed marketplaces people said would never happen?

Let me provide some additional context and then address Stephen’s concerns (and air quotes).

The Follett partnership is focused on two of Lumen’s offerings – Waymaker and OHM (Online Homework Manager). Both of these products wrap significant additional functionality around OER. Waymaker is Lumen’s platform for personalized learning. It wraps pre-assessments, in situ formative assessments, and summative assessments around OER. Waymaker provides each student a data-driven study plan that helps them understand where they are in their mastery of course concepts and how to best allocate their study time. Faculty also have access to a range of tools that make it easy to identify and reach out to students who are struggling while there is still time to do something. Similarly, OHM is a system for creating, managing, remixing, and delivering automatically generated and automatically graded homework problems in math and other quantitative disciplines. Like Waymaker, OHM wraps these and other features around OER.

Let’s answer Stephen’s questions now.

What if students don’t want to pay money for these ‘open’ educational resources? Are they denied access?

NO. Courses offered in Waymaker and OHM have public-facing “master” versions where all the OER are freely and publicly available, openly licensed, with detailed attributions. These are the versions that faculty review before making an adoption decision. (And yes, in the section-specific versions of these courses where students are enrolled things are exactly the same – all the content is licensed with exactly the same open licenses, with all the same detailed attributions). No one is ever denied access to the OER in Lumen courses for any reason. In fact, teachers can “adopt” a Lumen course and use it to teach their class by just linking their students to the publicly available content and never talking to – or paying – Lumen.

If you don’t pay, what you won’t have access to are personalization features, assessments, teacher analytic and communications tools, LMS integration, gradebook write back, and things like that. You’ll never be denied access to OER because of an inability to pay, unwillingness to pay, or for any other reason.

(I should add that, not only are the OER open, but the entire OHM codebase is also open, as is a good portion of the Waymaker codebase.)

Isn’t this exactly one of those closed marketplaces people said would never happen?

NO. Providing value-added services, whether it’s around open content or open source software, does not enclose the open content or OSS. And it particularly does not result in enclosure when you go out of your way to ensure free and unfettered public access to all the content via your website.

Not only does the enclosure you’ve feared for so long not happen in Lumen’s context, just the opposite does. Our work results in the creation of significant new resources that are contributed to the commons under the most open license. See, for example, the content of our College Success course, the majority of which was newly commissioned by Lumen and is licensed CC BY. Lumen has committed repeatedly and publicly that all new content we create will be licensed CC BY, and we have kept that promise from our founding almost 5 years ago.

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Of Progress, Problems, and Partnerships

In 2012 Kim Thanos and I founded Lumen Learning because, through our Gates-funded work on the Kaleidoscope Project, we had seen first-hand how hard it was for faculty to replace publisher materials with OER. The 2000s were an inspiring decade as institutions and individuals created and published a huge amount of openly licensed educational materials (e.g., MIT OCW, Wikipedia, Khan Academy), but in 2010 it was difficult to find a faculty member who had made the switch. It seemed like lots of people wanted to publish and share their own OER, but no one wanted to use anyone else’s.

Actually, plenty of faculty wanted to use OER – they just didn’t want to use them badly enough to fight through all the obstacles that involved.

The difficulties faculty had – and still have – adopting OER is a huge problem for several reasons. First, when faculty don’t adopt OER there’s no opportunity for OER to save students money. Second, when faculty don’t adopt OER there’s no opportunity for OER to facilitate new forms of pedagogy that invigorate both teaching and learning. And third, when faculty don’t adopt OER there’s no opportunity for OER to support significant improvements in student learning.

These are the problems Lumen is still chasing today. How can we help as many faculty as possible adopt OER, leading directly to significant student savings? How can we help those faculty who have made the choice to adopt OER wrap their heads around the pedagogical benefits enabled by OER? How can we help faculty and students use OER in ways that will result in improvements in measures like final grade, completion rate, persistence rate, and graduation rate?

It’s been a humbling and amazing experience. We’ve learned some things about working effectively with faculty through the course redesign and OER selection process. About how to carry forward the best work of previous faculty to a new group of faculty so they can stand on the shoulders of those who came before and go much faster. About hosting, managing, and integrating OER into LMSs where faculty and students already are. About license vetting and CC attribution management. About using data to support the continuous improvement of both content and assessments (watch for more on this topic in weeks to come). About the intersection of instructional design, personalization, learner agency, metacognition, and behavioral economics (nudging). About building and running entire degree programs on nothing but OER.

As we’ve learned more we’ve been able to help more. We more than tripled the number of students we supported from 2014 (~10,000 students) to 2015 (~35,000 students), and more than tripled again from 2015 to 2016 (~110,000 students). Across those three years these students saved almost $15 million. Peer-reviewed research has shown, for a range of outcomes, that when we support students using OER they perform the same or better than their peers using publisher materials. (And the most exciting research, looking in much more depth at our Gates-funded work on personalization and OER, is still to come.) And faculty are slowly coming to appreciate the range of novel things (like renewable assignments) that OER adoption enables in their pedagogy. There’s a mountain of work left to do, but it feels like we’re off to a solid start.

But it’s really just a start. While Kim is magically staying the same age, I’m getting older – and neither of us is really interested in running a cool little project that improves things for a small fraction of postsecondary students and faculty. Neither are the other amazing people who’ve found their way to Lumen over the years. (And did I mention we currently have five positions open?) To only lightly edit the language from my original application for the Shuttleworth Fellowship back in 2012:

We want to push the field over the tipping point and create a world where OER are used pervasively throughout schools, colleges, and universities. In our vision of the world, OER supplant traditional textbooks for all courses at all levels. Organizations, faculty, and students at all levels collaborate to create and improve an openly licensed content infrastructure that dramatically reduces the cost of education, increases student success, and supports rapid experimentation and innovation.

I’m keenly aware that this kind of system-level change can’t be facilitated by a single person or a single organization. This scale of change requires collaborative efforts on the part of many, many people and organizations. So what kind of collaboration could move the field meaningfully closer to this vision of a world where OER are the default?

First, what do we know about why OER aren’t already the default? According to the most recent Babson survey of faculty about OER, the biggest obstacles to OER adoption in higher ed are:

  • the majority of faculty don’t know that OER exist, and
  • for the minority who do know about them, OER are too hard to find.

So how do you address that problem at a scale large enough to make a difference?

Today Lumen announced a major new partnership with Follett. Follett operates more than 1,200 local campus bookstores, and they’ve made significant investments in tools, processes, and people to make it easy for faculty to review and adopt course materials. The new partnership will integrate Lumen’s open courseware offerings into Follett’s systems, making them super easy for faculty at about 1/3 of all US higher education institutions to find, review, and adopt. The partnership also adds, for the first time, the option for students to pay Lumen’s course support fee rather than the institution. (Previously our model only allowed institutions to pay these fees, and that has made it difficult for some schools to work with us.) This new option makes it possible for individual faculty to choose to work with Lumen, which hasn’t been possible due to the institutional focus of our model. Now there’s an easy way for everyone to work with Lumen – from an entire institution to a single faculty member. The press release has all the details.

I’m incredibly excited about this partnership because I think it will go a long way toward overcoming the biggest obstacles to OER adoption Babson identified. It should result in millions more students and faculty using OER and enjoying the wide range of benefits they provide. And it will provide a terrifically interesting case study of a new OER adoption model that we haven’t seen or studied before, hopefully inspiring more creative thinking in this space.

“We’ve only just begun,” as the song says. We won’t realize our entire vision by taking this one step, but this one step certainly moves us forward.

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