Of Openness, Ecosystems, and Type I and Type II Error

Andrew Rickard has written a thoughtful essay on OER, open pedagogy, and commercial interests. In it, he reflects on several topics, including his honest misgivings about the recent OpenStax / Knewton partnership announcement. His doubts are not unique; I think there is a broad sense of uneasiness regarding the participation of commercial players in the open education space. And I think it’s a topic we should be talking about more.

In the interest of transparency let me remind the reader that I co-founded and currently work at Lumen Learning, a for-profit entity that works in the open education space. And let me preface this post by saying that Adam posed a thoughtful question deserving a thoughtful response, but on reflection I see that below I’m responding more to my personal experiences and observations of the past several years than I am his specific post. Sorry, Adam.

I wrote thousands of words in response to Andrew’s post which maybe I’ll share at some point in the future. But the overall logic of my response is equivalent to the way we think about Type I and Type II error. In essence, it’s impossible to select a single decision rule about the involvement of commercial interests in open education that will be “acceptable” (by whatever metric you care to use) in all cases where it will need to be applied. Therefore, you need to consider the two types of errors that might result from potential decision rules and decide which type of error you are most comfortable making.

  1. Decision rules that preclude commercial interests from working with your OER (i.e., using NC) will ensure that no company ever profits from your OER, but will also ensure that no company ever contributes to, improves, or provides support for others using your OER.
  2. Decision rules that allow commercial interests to work with your OER (i.e., avoiding NC) create the possibility that a company will contribute to, improve, or provide support for your OER, but also create the possibility that a company will profit from your OER.

Where do you land?

Think about our older sibling, the open source software movement. (While making analogies between open content and open source software can be dangerous, I think a closer look at open source software has something to offer us here.) The thriving open source ecosystem is comprised of individual volunteers and altruists, universities and other nonprofits, as well as major corporations and startups. And this is critically important, because in the same way that biodiversity is critical to the success and sustainability of natural ecosystems, incentive diversity is critical to the success and sustainability of the open source ecosystem.

There are an infinite number of reasons to contribute to an open source project. As a few examples, some people contribute to open source projects because they love the ideals of open source, some people contribute to open source projects because it is a condition of their research grant, and some people contribute to open source projects because their employers pay them to. While that last may seem counterintuitive (why would a for-profit company pay it’s employees to give their work away?) the practice is widespread. For example, as IBM describes on a page dedicated to open source we read:

IBM has committed to open source in a big way with contributions to more than 120 projects, including more than $1 billion in Linux development.

Likewise, Google has open sourced over 20 million lines of code in over 900 projects, Facebook has released dozens of projects as open source, and the list could go on and on.

These and many other companies are both active users of open source software and active contributors to open source software. Would the open source ecosystem be healthier and more sustainable if companies were precluded from participating? Pretend for a moment that such a feat could be accomplished. Would the “cost” (in terms of lost contributions to open source projects) of preventing IBM, Google, Facebook, and other companies from profiting from open source software be worth the “reward” of ensuring that no company ever benefits financially from the work of volunteer or nonprofit open source contributors? I believe the answer is a resounding NO. Imagine where core pieces of internet infrastructure – like Linux or Apache or hundreds of others – would be without the contributions of companies who are active users of open source software paying their employees to contribute to open source software…

The internet would be a vastly different, and markedly inferior, place.

The same logic applies to OER, but as a community we continue to cut off our nose to spite our face. I believe that part of the reason the open education movement continues to struggle with sustainability is because there is a dangerous lack of diversity in our incentive ecosystem. For whatever reason, several people in our field are very vocal about their distrust of (or utter contempt for) for-profit participants. When would-be entrants into our community are met with loud assertions that they can never participate or make contributions in a way the community will value, do we wonder why they don’t stay (or even show up)?

This is a place where the open education movement would do well to learn a lesson from the open source movement. The OER ecosystem will be far stronger, more robust, and more vibrant as we (1) increase the number of people who participate in using, creating, and improving OER and (2) increase the diversity of incentives that drive their participation in our community. Yes, there will be for-profit companies who will free ride, extracting more from the commons than they contribute. There will be individuals and nonprofits who will free ride, too. There will be companies who will violate community norms. There will be individuals and nonprofits who will violate them, too. There will be companies who do things we think are ridiculous or who will make absurd claims. There will be individuals and nonprofits who will embarrass us, too (present company included).

Once you realize what the opportunity cost of preventing occasional bad or annoying behavior would be, I think it becomes clear that it’s in our community’s overwhelming interest to tolerate it. We are, after all, supposed to be the open education community. If we were more accepting, welcoming, and inviting of diversity, perhaps we would have more success catalyzing the change we are collectively trying to make.

2 thoughts on “Of Openness, Ecosystems, and Type I and Type II Error”

  1. Great post David! I agree completely – it’s not black and white, and remaining OPEN to all supporters is the better way to go. BTW, I am sure you’ve noticed that the CC licensing OpenStax does is the most open licensing, including the potential to use the resources in a commercial manner. I was kind of blown away the first time I saw that, but your article leads me to think that they probably thought this through and decided that was the better, less restrictive, way to go.

  2. I think there are some participants in the OER movement who have ideological positions that include antipathy and distrust towards anything that involves free market activity. They view all education as something that should be “untainted” by activities related to profit.

    This is naive. As you point out, the internet, for example, is a public space that would be far less developed if for-profit enterprises were excluded.

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