Down on Openness

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I’m feeling grumpy today. Must be the jet lag.

Why do people think that open source licenses are a kind of magic pixie dust? Here’s a little thought…. Let’s call it Wiley’s Anti-openness Thought Experiment (WATE):

A major publisher publishes a beginning algebra textbook which is not very effectively designed. Most faculty avoid using it; those who do find that their students perform more poorly than the last few semesters’ students. The word gets out on the street about the poor quality of the book, and sales suffer.

One day, the publisher has a brilliant idea. The publisher releases the second edition of the book, which changes in only one way: the standard copyright statement in the front of the book is replaced with a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Now I ask you: is the second edition of the textbook more educationally effective than the first?

The answer is, obviously, No. So why is it that PhD students looking for dissertation topics keep proposing to gather evidence to establish their hypothesis that “open educational resources are more effective than proprietary resources?” Why is it that very smart people I know from prestigious universities in the OER world keep falling into this same trap in their thinking? AN OPEN LICENSE DOES NOT MAKE A RESOURCE MORE EFFECTIVE!!!

Now, obviously, I am not anti-openness. In fact, I am the most pro-openness person I know. But what you have to understand is that what increases the quality of a resource is when someone **improves** the resource, not when someone **openly licenses** a resource. The improvement is partially made possible by an open source license, but is not accomplished by the license.

Someone once said that a person who doesn’t read is no different from a person who can’t read. In the same sense, and open educational resource that has never been adapted or localized is no different from a fully copyrighted resource.

Please, please, please, let’s learn this lesson.

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5 thoughts on “Down on Openness”

  1. David,

    I, really, fully agree but… what about the process?

    I mean: it’s likely that a book or a piece of educational resource with an open license has undergone a similar process. Thus, it’s probable that the makings of the written work would have been published, in parts, in a wiki or in a blog (just like you have sometimes done).

    Hence, even if the open licensed content does not – absolutely – guarantee any difference, I would, at least, mark it as “suspicious” of having had some external contribution, improvement, when it was a work in progress.

    Of course, copyrighted content is normally reviewed by editors, colleagues… but, is it the same thing?

    Summing up: I definitely agree that no, “AN OPEN LICENSE DOES NOT MAKE A RESOURCE MORE EFFECTIVE”, but something tells me that the openness of the license de facto watermarks the work as somewhat different because:
    – the process might have happened in an “open environment” too
    – the author, prone to openness, might have been also more permeable to external input

  2. Of course you are right, but refering to the scenarios in your OpenCourseware story, an OER has the potential to be quickly improved because it allows copying and remixing (by the students say). So on that ability alone (call it interactivity allowances) makes the second version text book better than the first.

  3. Did I miss a whole slew of open-content textbooks being released? Let’s not start up the criticism so soon. Your point is well taken: The first step is not the whole journey. Still, you can’t get where you’re going without that first step.

    I agree with you that this might not be the most fruitful research topic. Then again, have you seen some of the other research being done right now?

  4. I think it’s not so much that these edtech folk who gravitate towards open philosophies actually believe “open educational resources are more effective than proprietary resources”; they simply are so knee-jerk anti-corporate/anti-establishment–even anticapitalist–that it is difficult to accept that proprietary _for-profit_ resources could be effective at all, let alone _more_ effective than educational products borne of their own special brand of benevolent idealism.

    Me? I’m somewhere in the middle, which I’d like to think is nearer to objectivity than what you’ve described.

    Now if the question was, “Which version of the text is more valuable to society?” I’d fall in line with leighblackall’s comment above and suggest that the 2nd edition is distinctly superior to the 1st in terms of potential.

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