“Open” Educational Resources vs “Open” Pedagogy: Why Meanings Matter

The tl;dr. In many contexts – like open content, open educational resources, open source software, open access, and open data – “open” means “free plus permissions.” But when modifying nouns that aren’t copyrightable – for example, in contexts like “open pedagogy” or “open educational practices” – open necessarily means something else. There are significant costs when we aren’t clear about what we mean by open in different contexts.

A dozen or more years ago I was sitting in a meeting at MIT. There were fifteen or so people from around the world in the room and we were talking about open courseware. At some point the conversation turned to copyright and the incredible amount of time, effort, and resources it takes to review and clear all the material you want to share openly. A participant from China smiled broadly and said something along the lines of “That’s one of the great things about doing this work in China – you don’t have to worry about copyright! Nobody over there cares.” We all laughed appreciatively at his caricaturization of his own culture. As our laughter died down he added emphatically, over a flat stare, “I’m serious. We don’t even think about it.” Our laughter turned to awkward chuckling as we struggled to change the subject.

Matthew Smith has written a really excellent article over on the ROER4D (Research on Open Educational Resources for Development) site titled “Open is as Open Does“. This post is extremely timely for me, given that the #OpenEd16 Call for Proposals just opened yesterday and includes the themes “The Meaning of Open” and “The Ethics of Open.” There are numerous really smart and challenging ideas in Matthew’s post worth responding to, but I’ll focus this little bit of writing on the meaning and ethics bits.

Matthew begins,

As someone who thinks about and funds research on openness in developing country contexts, I’ve often wanted to ditch the word open altogether. It is such a value-laden term, with so many potential interpretations that people attribute whatever meaning they like to it – often with great passion. Then we end up in endless debates regarding effectively arbitrary definitions. Given that any application of “open” to a new social innovation (like open educational resources or open government) is really just a social convention, can we really say that one definition is the right one?

Asking after the universal single right meaning of a word seems like a less than fruitful enterprise, and it’s obviously not what Matthew means to do here – in fact, he’s suggesting it’s impossible. Let me agree with him for a paragraph or two.

There are cultural and contextual differences in meaning of words – what is the correct definition of “flat”? Does it mean “apartment” or not? The answer, of course, depends on when and where you are. Meanings vary by context. Even in the very same time and place, the same word can have multiple meanings which become clear only through their use in context. Is a “sentence” a set of words that convey a complete thought, or the punishment given to a person found guilty of a crime? Yes. Words only have meaningful definitions in context, and so part of our quest for clarity about “open” has to be a scoping of the context we care about. (Just for fun, look at Google’s definition of open. Be sure to click the down arrow at the bottom of the box to get all the juicy details – Google presents 15 major definitions of the term, none of which cover the specific context our current conversation imagines.)

While there is an important sense in which a certain level of ambiguity lubricates our everyday conversation, there are some contexts in which being specific about definitions matters greatly. Context: when the doctor says I need to take 100 milligrams of ibuprofen, it matters a great deal that we agree – with specificity – about what a “milligram” means (and what “ibuprofen” means for that matter). Context: if you spend $1000 for an Apple Macbook, you have an expectation that “Apple Macbook” means something very specific. Context: when the US Department of Labor offers $2B in grant funding on the condition that all materials created with that funding be “open” educational resources, they likely have something quite specific in mind.

Generally speaking, the importance of defining a term-in-context with specificity is directly correlated to the potential negative consequences of persistent confusion about the meaning of the term. I continue to argue – often with great passion – about the meaning of “open” in the narrow context in which I work because I believe failure to create a broad consensus about it’s meaning will have significant negative consequences for society. I’ll come to those in a moment.

Matthew continues,

Critically, what the research [in the developing world context] suggests is that open standards and/or legal permissions are neither necessary nor sufficient for some people to treat the material as open in practice (i.e., engage in the 5Rs practices) to make or do something useful or valuable with that technology or content. This is true particularly in developing country contexts without active copyright enforcement or culture. What the research in the developing world is revealing over and over again is that “free with permissions” can happen through social rather than legal means – it may be based on norms rather than law… “In situations where intellectual property enforcement is either impossible or counterproductive, people frequently behave toward protected content as if it were part of a commons, and as if intellectual property regimes did not exist, or simply did not matter.” (Mizukami & Lemos 2010)

You can now understand why reading this article reminded me of my uncomfortable experience at MIT all those years ago. I fully trust that Matthew is correct about what is happening on the ground in many developing world contexts. However, I don’t believe this reality changes the context specific meanings of open that I recently wrote about in my article on The Consensus Around Open. When used as an adjective to describe specific creative artifacts – like open content, open educational resources, open access research articles, open data, or open source software – the clear community consensus is that “open” means free plus permissions.

Matthew hints toward a path through the confusion later. He notes – and this is critically important – that permission to do something doesn’t guarantee that it gets done:

OER by themselves don’t do anything – they don’t have an impact just sitting in the cloud or on someone’s Raspberry Pi. It is only when they are used in particular ways that change can happen – and it is this change that motivates most people interested in “open” in the first place.

Here’s the intellectual pivot that I believe is important. The context Matthew is really writing about – open pedagogy, open practices, or open educational practices, depending on whose terminology you prefer – is meaningfully different from the context I just described. One is open as an adjective describing characteristics of creative works, which are copyrightable, and the latter context uses open as an adjective describing things people do in support of learning, which aren’t copyrightable. And since they aren’t copyrightable, it makes little sense to try to define them as being permissible or not.

I define open pedagogy as ‘the set of teaching and learning practices that are only possible or practical in the context of the free access and 5R permissions characteristic of open educational resources’ (e.g., here). Those who prefer other terms, like open practices or open educational practices, use different language that means largely the same thing.

Note that my definition of the “open” in open pedagogy doesn’t say how you ended up getting those 5R permissions – it only encompasses the range of things you can do once you have them. There are a number of ways you could end up with these permissions as pertains to a specific creative work you want to use in support of learning:

  1. You could be granted them explicitly by means of an open license,
  2. The creative work you want to use could be in the public domain, meaning there is no need to acquire permissions,
  3. The use you want to make could qualify as fair use / fair dealing, exempting you from the need to acquire permissions, or
  4. You could just not care about the legality of what you’re doing and proceed to act as though you had the necessary permissions when you really don’t, perhaps because you think there’s no way you’ll get caught

Matthew sees a lot of (4) happening in the developing world, and suggests that perhaps the way we define open should be based on what’s happening in the real world, rather than what we are imagining in our towers of ivory:

One alternative approach would be to take a grounded theory approach to the open definition. In other words, we build up a definition based more on what is happening in practice, rather than pre-conceived theory about open. Given the evidence emerging from IDRC supported research, the conclusion would be to focus on openness in practice, what that looks like, how to do it well, and its benefits – regardless of legal or technical status. I see this as the logical evolution of openness: First we define it (arbitrarily), then we research it, and then based on the new evidence, we redefine it.

I see two problems with this approach. First, it would equate open with breaking the law (we can argue about the ethics of this disobedience separately). In the US and other places we have worked extremely hard to demonstrate that open educational resources respect the law, comply with the law, and that it makes sense for government to embrace the principle of openness in many of its functions. If open became a synonym for violating the law, there is no way governments could support openness, no way that open policies could be enacted, etc. I don’t believe that making “open” mean a systematic disregard for copyright moves forward the work any of us are trying to do. (I could probably support a phrase like “guerrilla open” to describe these practices in order to acknowledge their broad practice and characterize them accurately.)

The second problem is by far the larger of the two, and pertains to both the forms of open pedagogy that rely on fair use and those that depend on guerrilla open practices. This is because forms of open pedagogy practiced in the context of a fair use exemption generally must remain private (in order to qualify as a fair use) and forms of open pedagogy practiced illegally generally must remain private (in order to avoid being caught and punished).

When work is done privately – when it is carefully hidden from the public – no synergy is possible. When the individual nodes remain disconnected, no network can emerge. When the giant hides, no one can stand on his shoulders. For example, we now know that Archimedes, in his The Method of Mechanical Theorems, developed several techniques similar to integral calculus. However, because Archimedes’ work was lost, it was nearly 2000 years before similar techniques were rediscovered by Newton and Leibniz. How would the world be different today if the calculus had emerged 1800 or 1900 years earlier? We’ll never know, because this incredible intellectual work never became public until quite recently.

Likewise, by relying on interpretations of open that require teachers and students to develop and perform new pedagogies in private we are no doubt missing out on amazing work that is occurring around the world. The same breakthroughs are likely made by multiple faculty or teachers, only to retire with them because the whole enterprise was illegal in the first place and so they could never speak about them publicly. Or perhaps it all depended on an interpretation of “fair use” that they weren’t willing to take a chance getting sued over, so they kept quiet about it. No doubt, we are more often failing to learn lessons about things people secretly tried that were ineffective, and these ineffective techniques are then replicated in classrooms around the world, too.

By contrast, when open pedagogy is practiced publicly its methods, tools, artifacts, and results can be made freely and openly available to the public. They can be disputed, replicated, evaluated, and argued about. There are shoulders to stand on. There are mistakes to avoid. There is progress to be made.

The opportunity cost of defining the “open” in OER as affordable or free (without permissions), or building the “open” in open pedagogy on a foundation of fair use or guerrilla open, is nothing less than potentially delaying the advance of society. That’s why I’m so passionate about understanding what “open” most powerfully means in each of the various contexts in which we find it.

2 thoughts on ““Open” Educational Resources vs “Open” Pedagogy: Why Meanings Matter”

  1. I was distressed to see fair use conflated with “”guerrilla open” as if one’s fair use right must be practiced in private. Certainly fair use in literary criticism isn’t done in the shadows as it well shouldn’t be. Educational fair use, as well, need not be surreptitious. That some behave that way doesn’t make it an imperitive.

  2. One could have a pedagogical resource that formally defines a pedagogical practice.

    For example, the IMS Learning Design specification provides a way to formally define lesson plans (in XML and perhaps other formats). The encoded lesson plan could be considered a resource. But, if a human teacher, or some tutoring algorithm, enacts the lesson plan, then it could be considered a pedagogical practice.

    There are software patents. But, as far as I know patent law does not extend to procedures enacted by a human agent. So, for example, I do not think that one could patent a surgical procedure, a legal procedure, or a teaching procedure if said procedure is to be carried out by a human being.

    On the other hand, if the procedure is carried out by a robot, a cyborg, or some intelligent software agent, then I don’t know whether that could be patentable or not.

    IMO, software patents are ill-advised, especially as the line between what it means to be a human and what it means to be an intelligent software agent begins to blur.

    I blog about how this line might begin to blur in education and in other important aspects of life at:

    Recommender Systems, Online Learning, Personal Software Agents, and the Path to Digital Immortality

    I’m not a lawyer, but my blog post does refer to a book written by a lawyer on the subject of intelligent software agents that can imitate (duplicate?) the behavior of a particular individual. The book is Virtually Human and it was written by Martine Rothblatt. It goes into great detail on the legal rights of intelligent software agents.

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