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.

7 thoughts on “Response to George on “Openness””

  1. I read George’s post, and your response with the intent to blog my POV. The meh-factor was too high for me to do more than this short comment.

    I was less impressed with George’s post. First, he apparently didn’t see our debate about whether a submarine door would be “open” if was only a 1cm open; openness is indeed based on context. Second, he worries that OER will suffer Stallman’s fate of irrelevance, but is upset that OER has no equivalent to Stallman. (Huh?) Not to mention that OER is a movement, while Stallman is a personality, but he couldn’t compare OER to Open Source and communicate the same disappointment.

    Finally, he lists several closed-source techs (iPhone, Kindle, etc.) that are changing the world, but fails to mention their more-open competition (Driod, Nook, etc.) that are now gaining share based almost entirely on the advantages (utility) openness affords.

    Open Source has –thankfully – always moved in two veins: The ideological/proactive one is that everyone scratches their itch and if it turns out that a lot of people have that itch, then the product goes mainstream (Linux, Apache, WordPress). The utilitarian/reactive vein watches the market and reproduces for free the important advancements of closed source (, Driod, etc.).

    Still, this dichotomy is false, as I mentioned in that post I keep going back to: “Wiley’s motivation, Tomaševski’s motivation, and the real reason people get into Open Education.”

    “The success of Open Education need not lie in the projection of our ideals on others, but may be found in that universal human vice: pride(3). Both greed (on which Wiley’s motivation hangs) and altruism (Tomaševski’s appeal to ameliorate the human condition) rest on our pretension that we are capable and worthy to bring about our end-goals.”

    I will now add George’s “ideological purity” to the list.

  2. Hi David,

    I am not anti-pragmatic. And I’m not zealous (i.e. – your blog subtitle of pragmatism over zeal). Idealogical purity is a slightly pretentious term, but I use it intentionally to draw attention to the importance of considering openness on par with other broad principles that have shaped humanity: democracy, human rights, rule of law, etc. These principles have evolved into separate fields of study, driven by the enormous consequence they have on society. If the proclamations of many individuals in the open source and open education space are accurate, openness will have as great an impact as democracy and human rights (though, openness obviously has partial roots in both of those principles). For this reason, I suggest openness is worthy of discussion and preserving ideologically.

    WRT to pragmatism – we absolutely need to see the practical instantiation of ideologies. The pragmatics of democracy are reflected in the practical preservation of basic individual rights. However, and this reveals my current interest in Jacques Ellul, the desire to reduce everything to techniques and pragmatics dampens creative intellectual exploration. What surprises me most is that the dominance of pragmatism as a world view has penetrated even the (what should be) most ideologically-oriented institutions – academia, church. I’m used to arguing the need for ideology over pragmatics with family members who are not in academic settings. I’m still a bit taken back when I see a similar mindset in educators. Yes, I know, the ivory tower should have impact on society, yes, we need to commercialize research, etc. But higher education should have a unique place in society. Contrary to what we see emerging today – Fast Company recently referenced HE as a “virgin forest” for globalization – HE is a balancing pillar in society. It is not business (though it is trying to become that more and more). It is not government. It is not a religious institution. And, it is not, or should not be, primarily concerned with pragmatics. As Edgar Morin has stated: “The major responsibility of education is to arm every single person for the vital combat for lucidity”.

    Am I too idealistic? Perhaps, but I think it only appears that way because we squeeze so much of life through a pragmatic filter. We value doing and creation over thinking and reflection. As Ellul has stated, technique consumes and dominates what it touches, pushing all else to the side. Technique (and by extension, pragmatics) leads when it should follow.

    Your post, David, raises many questions and possible areas of consideration. These would likely best be served in a conversation f2f, rather than a blog post, so I’m going to touch on the areas that are most relevant.

    First, you state:

    “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.”

    I’m going to take a religious approach – one that I hope is acceptable as this is the view you took at the end of your post. My argument here has nothing to do with Stallman, but rather with the value of principles and ideologies above pragmatics. The teachings of Christ stand very well on their own. And they are uncompromising. Consider: , verses 20-29. Seriously? I can’t be angry with my brother? Looking at a woman lustfully is adultery? Jesus has got to be kidding here. The principles are too high. The pragmatics of life are far more readily attainable. Shall we then turn to a mediator? Perhaps – different religions certainly permit a role for mediators/priests. But the need for a mediator (if we hold to that view in our spiritual perspective) in no way diminishes the principles or ideological purity declared in Christ’s sermon. Some would also argue that a mediator is not necessarily at all and are willing to nail 95 theses to a door to make that point.

    When applying this principle to the seat at the table (what Stallman doesn’t have, but Raymond does), what is most obvious to me is that we are talking about interlocking and self-enforcing systems. You only get to play if you bend to the rules. Which means that innovation is always constrained. What I’m questioning – and Jim Groom is getting at in his post – is that we need to question who decides who sits at the table. By sitting at the table, we are reinforcing the existing mindset/perspective.

    A pragmatic view says “do what is needed to sit at the table”. An ideological view says “what does it mean to sit at the table? And is sitting at this table what is really best for me/OE/whatever?”.

    I’ll leave this here and pick up on your other points later…

  3. Hi Jeremy,

    I wasn’t aware of your blog until now – not sure how I missed it. I’ve subscribed.

    Well, right or wrong, at least my view of “ideological purity” is on a list, somewhere.

    I don’t quite follow your criticism of my view on Stallman and OERs. I personally think being conflicted is a good thing. I mentioned that Stallman risks being ignored, but that I valued his appeal to ideals. I recognize the risk a stallman-esque appeal to openness bring, but I balanced that by stating the importance of having ideals to which we could react, or orientate ourselves toward.

    Your second last paragraph confuses me. You are speaking through a pragmatic filter…and it makes sense only if I adopt that filter as well. I’m not willing to do that. In fact, that’s the heart of my argument. I’m not focused on controlling or producing particular outcomes. I’m focused on advancing a discussion on ideals that exceeds a pragmatic orientation. If nothing practical is produced as an outcome, well, I’ll be dismayed (ideals translate and influence pragmatics), but that’s fine. I simply want to have a conversation that fosters my best thinking and participate with others in their best thinking on openness. I view it as a responsibility in light of the changes facing education. As I stated in my initial post, I’m concerned that a foundation of pragmatics will have a short life. Ideological purity provides a stronger, more suitable, future focus.

  4. Since 1997, I have pushed the vision of what I think is the pivotal mechanism for learning online. In a post today on my blog, I have made comments based on the Wiley-Siemens-Reverend-Commentors conversation. Min is this one fundamental point:

    Pedagogical tools and the knowledge they teach are not the same thing! It is the knowledge that must be open for learning gold to emerge from the internet swamp. Knowledge itself is network of cognitive nodes that has nestled into the online open network. It makes little difference if pedagogy is open, nuanced, or behind a wall. Curricula, courses, textbooks, lesson plans — pedagogical content — are great to have online, but are essentially analog teaching tools.

    The huge change when knowledge itself is open online is that emergent patterns can mirror directly into the networking mind of a student. Open (yes, binary open) is absolutely necessary for every node that participates in patterns of this sort.

    There is more of this stubborn, irritating, aggravating idea – complete with pictures – at my post:

  5. I’ve always liked the 4Rs framework, precisely becaues it is pragmatic and I’m able to work with it as an educator. I can explain it and promote it.

    “…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

    Resonant value can be found in the first condition listed in the framework. Adding any number of the others to the mix adds further value.

    If we could do a great job of promoting and honoring this way of thinking as simply common sense for an open content model, we’d move ahead more quickly, I believe.

    The continual debate over terminology keeps us trapped at a sub-optimal stage on the vision -> action trajectory, in my view.

  6. I understand the 4r framework, but I don’t agree that they are easily used for both the tool (software) and content in open education.

    I like the spectrum of openness idea, where content can be open to varying degrees (for example, on one side, “closed” content may be secured by password, payment or otherwise protected, the other side: open, organized, shareable, linkable…e.g. much closer to the 4r framework). In the middle there’s a lot of space (filled by LOADS of content).

    I know this is a simplistic view on open content, but if I can link to it, and a student clicking on that link can then access it, isn’t it open? (after all I’m able to add my comments, POV, and engage that content with my students/colleagues freely, so in the absence of an official permission to the 4r’s I can create my own version of it–until the content is removed or hidden). The internet is more open than I think we’d like to admit.

    It’s certainly a progressive perspective, but look at how we treat paths and trails in the real world…in many cases, if a public thruway has been established, private owners can’t even close access…so why not establish our ‘thoroughfares’ of openness now?

    Irregardless, this discussion is near and dear to my heart, and I thank YOU for leaving the door/window/trail open.

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