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?

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