Response to George on “Openness”

I’m extremely grateful for George’s recent post, “Open isn’t so open anymore.” It’s thoughtful and thought-provoking. I won’t respond to the post sentence for sentence, but I do want to respond to some of the major points. Hopefully an interesting dialog will ensue (I believe this is George’s goal as well). I’m going to cut and paste pieces from throughout together in order to respond to similar thoughts in one place.

We need some good ol’ radicals in open education. You know, the types that have a vision and an ideological orientation that defies the pragmatics of reality. Stubborn, irritating, aggravating visionaries. Today, I fear, open education is beset with a more moderate spirit…

Richard Stallman has been somewhat replaced by, or even written out of, the open source movement. Stallman was (and still is) an uncompromising radical. Or at least that is how the well established proprietary software field sees him. The open source movement developed in response to what others perceived as Stallman’s unpalatable views for mainstreaming openness.

I’ve stated in the past that I’m concerned about open education suffering the fate of Stallman – marginalized because it is not palatable at the “power table”. I still think this is a valid concern. But we first need a Stallman in open education before we can even begin to marginalize him. We need an idealist that sets the stage for thinking and debate around openness.

I would disagree and say that we have plenty of stubborn, irritating, aggravating voices in the open education space. A few examples that I respect greatly: First, it’s well known how much Stephen aggravates me, and how uncompromising he is. Second, Kim Tucker works so hard to bring the purity of Stallman’s ideas into the open education space that he sometimes appears to be a reincarnation of St. Ignucius himself. Derek Keats is also a champ in this regard. The UNESCO listserv “discussions” (aka battles) over licensing issues, which are at the very core of openness, were really something.

I don’t want to launch into a full-on defense of pragmatism; however, it is easy to see why the open source movement had to emerge from what Richard was doing with the “free software” movement. He couldn’t get a seat at “the table” because he wouldn’t speak in a language anyone at the table cared about. He still refuses to – and he still doesn’t have a seat at the table. Now, being uncompromisingly committed to principle is fine, as long as you don’t mind being ignored by certain groups. It can mean a life of “being translated” so that others can understand you, which consequently means a life of not having a direct impact, because your message is always being rewritten by a mediator so that it can be understood. (Hence, Eric Raymond has been an extremely popular consultant and wielded a huge direct influence on the computing industry, while Richard has not.) If you want the attention of those groups “at the table,” and you want the opportunity to engage them directly, you have to speak their language. And sometimes you have to adapt your message. I believe that protecting one’s ability to adapt appropriately for different audiences is one of the key benefits of openness, so I will be curious to hear whether George thinks adaptations are appropriate or not.

While we often hear criticism of Stallman’s inflexibility, he has done more to advance openness by not accommodating than he could have possibly done by assuming a moderate or even commercial stance.

I disagree wholeheartedly. Without translators like Raymond, who adapted Stallman’s message so that a broader audience could both (1) understand and (2) see the value of it, Stallman and his philosophies would still be niche players on the global scale today. (Let the firestorm begin.)

David Wiley states that open is a function of gradients (“a continuous, not binary, construct”). According to Wiley, openness is not an ideological concept, like democracy, but rather a functional or utilitarian construct: like a door or window being open or partly open. I can see the appeal of this view – the value of something is discovered in its implementation. But it seems wrong to me when applied to an ideological concept such as openness.

I’m not sure why George makes the leap from my more nuanced view of openness to my somehow not believing that openness is an ideological concept. Of course openness is a concept – and of course people are ideological about it’s meaning. But, like democracy, little concrete debate can be had about the concept (and no implementation of the concept can occur) until it has been operationalized. How can you debate a concept without a concrete proposal as to it’s meaning?

Unfortunately, many people have taken the stance that the open education movement’s notion of openness should be exactly the same as the open source software movement’s definition. Because software and content are different in meaningful ways, I don’t think such a simple-minded, whole-cloth adoption makes sense. This is why I have proposed the 4Rs Framework for thinking about openness specifically with regard to content (including educational resources):

1. Reuse – the right to reuse the content in its unaltered / verbatim form
2. Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself
3. Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other content to create something new
4. Redistribute – the right to make and share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others

I guess George doesn’t see value in my “framework” for thinking about openness. His discussion makes me believe that he doesn’t see the 4Rs Framework as being able to disqualify things from being open (“The gradient of democracy has a threshold”). However, as I’ve discussed in the past, there is content that clearly fails to grant any of these rights (and so is closed). There is also content that only grants reuse and redistribution rights, while denying revision and remixing rights (which I call “2R open”). Finally, there is also content that grants all four rights (which I call “4R open”). Clearly, traditional textbooks are not open according to this framework. Anything with a standard (c) statement is not open according to this framework.

In response to my statement:

Licenses have therefore provided people with license options to help them more effectively accomplish their personal goals. This tolerance for different goals and explicit support for people in achieving them is something we should cherish and extend beyond our licenses into our community discourse and behavior. If another person or institution’s approach to openness doesn’t help you meet your goals, then look for help somewhere else – don’t criticize them.

George says:

We should criticize. We should debate. By not criticizing gradient views of openness, by failing to establish a solid foundation on which to discuss openness, we are providing an ideology for our generation, not one that serves as a future-focused movement. Openness is a hard topic to discuss ideologically because it’s important. Yes, pragmatics are easier. But pragmatics have a short life span.

Openness is not a methodology. Openness is an ideology along the lines of democracy. It is worthy of theoretical discussion. And various modes of implementation should be subject to debate and criticism.

Two things are entangled in my comment and George’s response – the productive criticism of the ideals of our movement, and the criticism of individuals or institutions that gets personal and becomes both unprofessional and unproductive. I strongly believe that we should engage in criticism and debate with regard to the ideals of our movement itself. No meaningful progress can be made if we don’t. We also desperately need to engage in criticism and debate about the processes and methodologies in which these naked ideals are clothed in the real world. No meaningful progress can be made if we don’t. However, when everyone starts bashing MIT, or starts talking about how stupid anyone is that would ever use the NC clause, or what a waste of space institutions who share pdf files are, then what could be productive conversation turns into vindictives that move the field backward.

Why spend days, even months, debating seemingly insignificant details of openness? Why not just produce something and share it in any manner you wish?

The debate is great, and productive, and I think this series of posts shows that some of us are engaging in it. We just don’t want to discourage people from making their first forays into being open by slamming their “moronic decisions.” They’re worried enough about whether or not they should be open without us attacking their first attempts. We should be supporting them, not belittling them. I’m not claiming that George belittles people, but there is far too much of that in the open education movement right now.

As I’ve said above, I believe that because content and software are meaningfully different from one another, their definitions of open should be meaningfully different as well. I’m not sure if George shares that sentiment, since his article seems to flow freely between software systems and other aspects of open education. Though he does make this nod:

What does it mean to be open? What is an open methodology? What does openness look like in relation to technology, information, learning content, administrative systems (transparency of the student record and related data collection by an institution), and pedagogy?

George continues with a quote:

Robert Hutchins has stated that “the death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment”. A similar concern exists for openness in education.

I think a great example of that undernourishment is the belief that open means the same thing no matter where you find it. While we’re appreciating the differences in software and content, we should look ahead and see that when the ideal of openness finally starts to make its way into the broader institutional policy discussion, it’s definition will have to adapt again. Neither the Open Source Definition nor the 4Rs Framework will be sufficient for the language spoken at that particular table.

We also have to realize, admit, and feel comfortable with the fact that openness does not belong everywhere in education. For example, if students want to keep their grades private, they should be able to. And the existence of one area where openness does not and should not apply should lead us to look sincerely for other areas where it does not and should not apply. I don’t believe George is promoting it, but you don’t have to look far to find voices calling that all copyright should be abolished and all information should be open. This is the cry of a zealous fanatic, not the impulse of a thoughtful person.

Remaking our educational institutions into places where openness is a core, ambient, unconscious value of all who work there is a more intricate and involved matter than giving everyone on campus a copy of the OSD and saying “apply this in all aspects of your professional and personal life.” “Openness” the ideal needs to mean specific things in specific contexts in order for it to be applied usefully in those contexts. It will mean one thing in the IT context, another in the research / scholarship context, another in the teaching and learning context, another in the broader policy context, etc. And we need to thoughtfully develop these different meanings through writing and debate.

Many of us, myself and George included, are aggressively pursuing systemic change in education. (Some of the more radical voices in the field simply want to burn education down and plant new seeds in its ashes.) George asks an important question that each of us should be open about answering – ‘why are we pursuing this change?’ Personally, my reasons for wanting to increase the openness of all aspects of education, each in their own appropriate way, are moral, ethical, and ultimately religious. I continue to be inspired by the great 1975 address by LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball to the BYU community, which included the following statement:

We must be willing to break with the educational establishment (not foolishly or cavalierly, but thoughtfully and for good reason) in order to find gospel ways to help mankind. Gospel methodology, concepts, and insights can help us to do what the world cannot do in its own frame of reference.

Ideas like “sharing” are not concepts that flow directly out of the market, and there is little that the market can tell us about how to do it well. I would never claim that Mormonism (or Christianity more broadly) has cornered the market on loving and serving your fellow man, but my personal belief that I should “love my neighbor as myself” is the bedrock on which my life-long pursuit of increasing openness is built. That principle, sometimes called the “second great commandment,” is one which certainly requires adaptation to the individual, but never needs to be compromised.