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.