Why Bother Being Open?

I recently realized… as long as I’m spending some of my time evangelizing on behalf of openness, maybe it would be a good idea for me to develop a deep understanding of the benefits of openness. I’ve always been an “argue by describing the benefits” kind of guy as opposed to an “argue on grounds of moral superiority” kind of guy (which is why I end up in the open camp more often than the free camp). I’ve been blogging my reflections and out-loud-thinking about the concrete benefits of openness, and MIT OCW’s Steve Carson has been one of the people helping push my thinking along. Steve recently made another incredible contribution to our ongoing dialogue about the benefits of openness in general and of OCW in particular. Loads of new data available in his post that we’ve never seen anywhere before. So first, a big thanks to Steve for taking the time to contribute in that way.

Here’s what I’m thinking today.

1. The operational definition of “open” in OpenCourseWare means that the course materials are licensed with an open license (the OCW Consortium website says this explicitly). In other words, a free-to-access, online “digital publication of high quality university-level educational materials… organized as courses, and often includ[ing] course planning materials and evaluation tools as well as thematic content” that does not use an open license is not an OpenCourseWare.

2. There are significant expenses involved in the open licensing process. In describing why you should donate to support MIT OCW, the website says, “Each course we publish requires an investment of $10,000 to $15,000 to compile course materials from faculty, ensure proper licensing for open sharing, and format materials for global distribution.” The MIT OCW website lists 26 staff on the OCW Team, two of whom focus exclusively on IP issues. I believe that a significant portion of the workflow the Publication Team (11/26) members engage in also relates to IP clearance and management issues (e.g., scrubbing out copyrighted material so that everything left is OK for publication under an open license). Hopefully Steve will correct me if I’m wrong, but I’d guess that about 25% of the per-course publication costs (not technology infrastructure or external outreach costs – I’m talking about costs directly related to publishing a course) derive specifically from the desire for the final publication to employ an open license.

3. Clearly there’s a significant institutional commitment and significant financial investment being made in ensuring sure these course materials are published under an open license (and not simply default copyright).

4. So, my question is, what is the return on this investment? What benefit are users deriving from open licensing that they could not derive if MIT published these materials online with a default copyright statement?

Below I’ve embedded the data tables from Steve’s post for your convenience. I invite you to read through this rather extensive list of benefits, and ask yourself this question about each benefit: Would users still receive this benefit if MIT OCW were posted online with a traditional, full copyright statement?

If we define “Incorporating” as linking, as Steve argues we should, then all of these benefits would be available from a fully (c) MIT OCW.

All of these benefits would be available from a fully (c) MIT OCW.

All of these benefits would be available from a fully (c) MIT OCW.

All of these benefits would be available from a fully (c) MIT OCW (note the benefits focus on methods, not materials).

All of these benefits would be available from a fully (c) MIT OCW.

If “Finding Materials” means finding materials to link to, then all of these benefits would be available from a fully (c) MIT OCW.

If “Providing” means providing links, then all of these benefits would be available from a fully (c) MIT OCW.

All of these benefits would be available from a fully (c) MIT OCW.

All of these benefits would be available from a fully (c) MIT OCW.

All of these benefits would be available from a fully (c) MIT OCW.

All of these benefits would be available from a fully (c) MIT OCW.

I assume Steve would adopt the “link to things” definition of terms like “incorporate” and “provide” based on comments in his previous post:

If I had to put a stake in the ground on how OCW generates benefit for others, right now I’d say primarily as a reference tool that is used for a range of academic activities, including independent (not distance) learning, curricular planning and development, supplements to classroom learning, academic planning, and professional development and problem-solving. Interestingly, many of these benefit from accessing the materials in situ, embedded in the OCW site and MIT curricular structure.

The use of an open license in no way contributes to people realizing this very lengthy list of benefits or the benefits mentioned in the prose. Everyone one of these benefits would be realized by users even if MIT OCW were published under full copyright.

In that same previous post, Steve wonders if I’m employing a rhetorical device in order to demonstrate that OCW is unsuccessful. Let me be clear: I don’t want OCW to be unsuccessful. I want openness and transparency to become absolutely ubiquitous throughout formal education. I’m not trying to tear down MIT OCW or any other OCW initiative (I’ve been involved in a couple myself). I’m just trying to be the little child who asks a naive question about the emperor’s new outfit: Why are we investing so much in the use of open licenses if open licenses don’t enable the benefits we care most about? And, If open licenses don’t enable the benefits we care most about, what benefits do they enable? Are those secondary benefits worth the very significant investment we’re making in them?

5 thoughts on “Why Bother Being Open?”

  1. Fascinating conversation. A few thoughts and questions:

    Just the ability to link to web resources is tremendous. If all open licensing does is to remind us of the value of the web, because upon analysis that’s where most of the value is, great!

    I wonder what the delta is between clearing copyrestrictions adequately such that materials can be published on the web under an open license and just adequate clearance such that materials can be published on the web by an institution?

    If linking is enough, clearing ought be easier — link to anything questionable. 🙂

  2. One of the arguments for being explicitly ‘open’ is that it removes the need for people to ask before re-using stuff. Without it, everything boils down to an “am I allowed to do this?” type question and many forms of re-use will stop at that hurdle because the costs of getting the answer are too great.

    To counter this, you argue, I think, that linking is a sufficient form of incorporation (i.e. re-use). I’m not convinced. I can’t argue against that point whole-heartedly because I am not a teacher and I’m not involved in day-to-day teaching… but it feels to me like just ‘linking’ is not sufficient for most forms of re-use in the ‘classroom’.

    On that basis, I think being explicitly ‘open’ does meet a need beyond what could be met thru a “default copyright statement”.

    So my question would be, is linking really a sufficient form of ‘incorporatio’n for teaching and learning purposes? I don’t think it is but I’d be willing to be argued out of that position. If I’m right, then your rhetorical argument above breaks on probably the most significant benefit of OER – that of re-use.


  3. This is a very, very useful post, David. I like the way you track the (c) through so many datapoints.

    I wonder about what Mike says. Does selecting an open license boost overall link behavior in an incremental way, or even increase the profile of one’s own work?

  4. One aspect of OCW sites I have struggled with is that they have been designed in a traditional producer/consumer fashion. It does not surprise me, then, that the primary use/benefit of OCW sites are similar to traditional producer/consumer engagement models.

    If I were draw the roadmap for the next five years of OCW Consortium, I would include a series of partnerships with third-party providers, with the hopes of creating an Open API. The kinds of projects I would seek out would include:

    * Community review sites – We need a way of highlighting and directing traffic toward high-quality OCW course pages … most OCW course pages are useless, so it is important that when a course is done really well, that it should be put on a pedestal.

    * Collaborative note-taking – I would partner with projects like finalsclub.org to allow students to improve the OCW materials by annotating them, adding more notes, and sharing additional info.

    * Curriculum development – I would partner with sites such as curriki.org to allow for some import/export tools so that OCW materials could flow between sites that are specialising in sharing curriculum materials (although, curriki.org might be a bad example, as they have done a poor job at collaborative/community development).

    Lastly, I would make sure that the API has some sort of two way function. When material gets used, there should be some sort of RSS-like feed that gets updated on the OCW site to let students and professors know … obviously there are concerns for SPAM/etc, that is why I put this onto a 5-year roadmap 😉


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