The General Confusion Around “Open”

For some time now I’ve been concerned because we don’t understand openness. A recent conversation involving Tony, Rory, and Terry demonstrated this confusion, even among (rightly) respected experts in the field. The crux of Rory’s response to Tony’s original post is instructive. Over and over again, he dismisses Tony’s criticisms by saying ‘this is not an argument against OER.’ Rory is claiming that criticisms of OER that don’t actually have anything to do with OER are terribly unfair. It should go without saying that claiming benefits for OER that don’t have anything to do with OER is also unfair. Consequently, before we can talk about importance, value, contribution, impact, or make any other evaluative statements about OER, we have to be crystal clear about what open means in this context, and how open educational resources are different from educational resources.

Some time ago I applied for an OLNet Fellowship. I was waiting to post my proposal here on my blog until I heard back from the OU, but (1) it’s so relevant to the ongoing discussion that I decided to post it anyway, and (2) literally as I was typing this post I received the happy news that my application had been accepted. So, here is the (brief, word count-limited) synopsis of the work I proposed to do if awarded the fellowship.

The published literature is filled with educational researchers’ claims about the many benefits of open educational resources (OER). Stated in another manner, the published literature is filled with claims that open educational resources have benefits that – by implication – other non-open educational resources do not. Apparently there is large agreement on this point, because these articles continue to survive the peer review process, and hundreds of universities around the world continue to collectively spend millions of dollars turning educational resources into open educational resources. Thousands of individuals also self-organize and spend tens of thousands of hours creating open educational resources.

Despite this pattern of behaviors by editors, organizations, and volunteers, I believe these claims related to the benefits of openness to be both woefully under-specified and embarrassingly under-examined. The former is a result of the latter. Under-examination comes from the willingness of educational researchers to accept – as articles of faith – arguments and thought experiments about openness that could and should be subjected to empirical verification. This lack of interrogation of the construct results in under-specification. Under-specification has lead to a startling lack of precision in the discourse about open educational resources in which, for example, benefits which actually accrue from an educational resource being online are mistakenly attributed to the resource being open.

The first step in bringing precision to the discourse about the benefits of openness is isolating the construct of “open” from others closely related to, and typically highly correlated with, it. In the proposed study I will work from the premise that any copyrightable artifact that is licensed under a Creative Commons (or similarly open) license is an open educational resource (and I will not be delving into well-trod philosophical and other arguments around Noncommercial and ShareAlike clauses).

For example, most open educational resources are also online educational resources. However, “open” and “available online” are distinct properties of an educational resource, even if they are highly correlated:

Available Online Only Available Offline
Open Khan Academy videos A printed copy of Lessig’s The Future of Ideas
Not Open The BBC website A printed copy of the New York Times

Likewise, open educational resources are provided free of any cost. But even though free access is a necessary condition of openess, it is not a sufficient one. Consequently, there are many resources that are free but not open:

Access is Free Access Costs Money
Open Khan Academy videos (N/A)
Not Open The BBC website A research article in a typical scholarly journal (both online or in print)

Once we have appropriately partitioned off closely related and highly correlated attributes (like “online” and “free”) from “open,” we can articulate specifically what is “left over” and clearly identify the specific benefits that may accrue to individuals or organizations when an educational resource is open.

If you’re familiar with work on concept instruction, this is basically the notion of isolating critical attributes (Jen has a nice paper on this on her site if you’d like a refresher). How can you classify an educational resource as OER or not OER if you can’t clearly specify the critical attribute(s) whose presence or absence determine category membership? You can’t (at least not with any confidence).

A clear understanding of what’s comparatively beneficial and what’s comparatively hazardous about the “open” in OER when compared with typical ER cannot come until we reach this clarity. Now that my Fellowship application has been successful, I’ll be able to dedicate some time to doing this work in a more formal, rigorous manner. Hopefully then we can finally have some evaluative conversations about OER based on more than unfounded hype, unfounded fear, and general confusion.

Of course, given the comments and responses to my toothbrush post, there seems to be an almost ubiquitous disinterest in evaluating anything to do with OER. Stephen’s response was typical of the others, after stating that “you don’t have to evaluate everything you do,” he went on to encourage:

let OERs be like toothbrushes – we distribute them without a whole lot of fuss and overhead because (a) they’re not harmful, (b) they’re dirt cheap, and (c) we know that, if people use them, they will be helpful.

I’m by no means convinced that OER necessarily meet any of the three conditions he’s outlined above. A and C seem to be two sides of the same coin, and I’ve seen several OER that violate these assumptions (i.e., OER that are demonstrably inaccurate and would do a person who “learned” from them harm). Since OER are by definition free to users, B seems to be describing the production costs of OER. And with some OCWs spending as much as $30k per course they share (even under the classroom exhaust model), assumption B isn’t necessarily true either.

I fully agree that it would be great if there were loads of examples of educationally effective, dirt cheap (to produce) OER in the world… But we can’t meaningfully ask if that’s currently happening or even possible until we can define OER with precision. So, I’m off to the OU to work on that!

4 thoughts on “The General Confusion Around “Open””

  1. You write, “I’m by no means convinced that OER necessarily meet any of the three conditions he’s outlined above.”

    I never made the claim that OERs *necessarily* meet these or any other conditions. And certainly, among the attributes that are important to an entity’s being an OER, these are not the three that spring to mind as most important.

    It is, therefore, entirely consistent with my assertion that there may be:
    – OERs that are harmful, such as those that are deliberately inaccurate
    – OERs that are expensive (to produce), such as MIT’s OCW
    – OERs that are not helpful, such as LOLcats

    This does not refute the proposition that there are many (and may even be a majority) of OERs that are not harmful, cheap (to produce), and helpful. And my assertion is that *given* that there are these, then it does not make sense to spend more time and money evaluating them than it does to produce and use them.

    That does not mean that I think there is no value to evaluation. It means that I do not believe that the entire value of OERs can be realized, and seen to exist, only through formal evaluative processes. Just as Joe Furrytooth can feel for himself the benefits of brushing, so also can a user of Khan videos, or JQuery instruction manuals, or whatever, see for themselves the value of the OERs.

    I think it would be wise to get away from the idea of OERs as something academic, produced by academics, and intended for academic use. Maybe some people learn from classroom exhaust, but I would imagine most people would find classroom materials exhausting. The short, sharp pointed help people send each other in pragmatic situations is much more useful, and much more revealing.

  2. What about commons theory? Understanding OER as a commons provides a theoretical framework for evaluating why OER are more beneficial to society than non-OER. I’m thinking of theorists, as you know, like Bollier, Boyle and Ostrom, as well as the CBPP work of Benkler. Certainly, commons-based approaches to understanding OER are not going to justify all those many claims that you point out, David, that people make, but it does give the OER community a place to start to make some claims that can be reasonably supported through academic argument. Plus, my practical preference for the approach is that commons theory allows us to critique the sustainability of more traditional practices of ER production.

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