The “Open” Education Alliance

“Open” is a word with a wide range of meanings. The Oxford Dictionaries Online lists no fewer than 20 meanings. Consequently, we should not be surprised when we encounter the word used in a variety of ways. However, when “open” is used together with other words – as in the case of “open educational resources” – “open” can become part of a term of art and gain a very specific meaning within particular communities of use.

When used within the education community, it is broadly understood that “open” means (1) free and unfettered access and (2) liberal copyright permissions like those articulated in the Creative Commons Attribution license. For example, the US Department of Education provides a definition of “open educational resources” in its National Educational Technology Plan (p. 56):

Open educational resources (OER) are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits sharing, accessing, repurposing — including for commercial purposes — and collaborating with others. These resources are an important element of an infrastructure for learning.”

While there are dozens of definitions of “open educational resources” which emphasize and highlight different nuances, they all agree on the common features of (1) free and unfettered access and (2) liberal copyright permissions like those articulated in the Creative Commons Attribution license. (If you’re interested, Wiley, Bliss and McEwen examine these definitions in more detail.) And when “open” is combined with other words to create other terms of art in the education context, like “open access” or “open data,” the word “open” retains this core meaning.

As “open” has gained popularity and momentum within the education community, it became inevitable that people would begin to either accidentally misuse the term or deliberately misappropriate it. I’ve called out examples of openwashing in the past, but Audrey Watters provides an clear, tweet-sized definition:

Openwashing: n., having an appearance of open-source and open-licensing for marketing purposes, while continuing proprietary practices.

So it is with a mixture of sadness and frustration that I saw what Brian Lamb called a “Bold Innovation in Openwashing.” What was it that led Audrey to declare that “open education is now meaningless?”

The Open Education Alliance – a new “industry-wide alliance of employers and educators” that will “bridge the gap between the skills employers need and what traditional universities teach.”

With a name like that, it’s got to be good, right? Ponder the name for a moment – the Open Education Alliance – and then try to guess what the Alliance does. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

Perhaps you guessed:

  • Promote and utilize open educational resources

or, perhaps you guessed:

  • Promote and utilize open access to scholarly research

or, perhaps you guessed:

  • Promote and utilize open data to empower learners to improve their learning through analytics

or, perhaps you guessed:

  • Promote and utilize open source software systems

Think you got it? In the famous words of Willy Wonka, “Wrong, Sir! WRONG! … You get nothing!” I suppose it was a bit unfair to ask, however, because it was a trick question – there is nothing whatsoever “open” about the “Open” Education Alliance.

If permitting anyone and everyone to watch their videos and read their materials for free – without granting 4R permissions like those granted by the CC BY license – makes Udacity and their partners deserving of the moniker “Open Education Alliance,” then CNN and the BBC should be the “Open News Alliance” and Pandora and Spotify should be the “Open Music Alliance.” While each of these services are useful and valuable, clearly none of them can be accurately described as “open” – including the Open Education Alliance.

It’s time to call these fake open initiatives out for what they really are. It is time for us to stand up for and protect the idea and name that are so critically important to improving the affordability, quality, and equity of education around the world.

If you need a handy, slightly derogatory term to use in describing fake open initiatives, I highly recommend the term “fauxpen“:

Faux in French means “false” or “fake.” So fauxpen means “fake open.”

Examples of how to use this term appropriately would include “Fauxpen Education Alliance.”

Of course it’s not just enough for us to verbally stand up for the term and everything it represents to us. If “open” is successfully defined out from under us it will be because the mis-definers did something worthy of remembering with the term while perhaps we did not. What have we done with the term “open”? Which initiatives that use “open” properly would you suggest the whole world read about instead of the Fauxpen Education Alliance? Which initiative have you participated in that shows the world the real power of “open”?

We can’t just be complainers, we have to be doers. Of course, the odds are that if you’re reading this post, you’re already hard at work on an incredible – but under-recognized – open initiative. Thanks for all your great – and largely unsung – work. Let’s continue to increase the awesomeness of what we’re doing. Eventually, if our work speaks for itself, the world will catch on…