On the Relationship Between Free and Permissions in “Open”

I’ve received lots of feedback since I published the problem with cost framing, some online and some in person at #OpenEd16. My main takeaway from that feedback is that, as ever, I continue to struggle to express myself clearly in writing. Let me try again, make some additional points along the way, and assign some additional blame to myself. Perhaps if I criticize myself rather than “the field” the criticism will be easier for people to hear and accept.

There is a massive misunderstanding in the field to which, upon reflection, I have made significant contributions. If you’ve heard me talk about open in the last three years you’ve heard me provide a two-part definition that can be summarized as “free plus permissions.” I fear this characterization of open has been a mistake. Let me explain why.

As I mentioned in my original post, I have been as guilty as anyone of engaging in cost framing. Cost is a huge concern for almost everyone and is often the path of least resistance into productive conversations. Consequently, many of us have walked this path. And in my desire to demonstrate explicitly how open solves the cost problem, I have allowed my description of open to intermingle causes and effects in a way that is confusing.

You see, permissions are causes and free is one of the several effects of these causes. When I say “free plus permissions” the relationship between free and permissions is misrepresented in such a way that you can’t help but hear free as something separate and distinct from permissions. This naturally leads people to think about open in ways that are mushy, imprecise, and harmful – because misunderstanding is always harmful.

Why are open educational resources free? Have you ever stopped to think about that? If not, it’s probably because a definition of open like “free plus permissions” simply asserts that things must be free in order to qualify as OER. And that’s the wrong way to think about it. OER are free because you have permission to make as many copies as you like. Want that awesome open video you just watched? You don’t have to pay for it (like you would pay for a movie or tv show) because its open license gives you permission to make and keep your own copy. And none of your friends will have to pay for it either, because you have permission to make additional copies and to share those copies with your friends. In other words, free is purely a function of retain plus redistribute. Free is a result of permissions.

“Free plus permissions” leads people to think that the 5Rs are concerned solely with issues of revising and remixing, and that OER are free for some reason independent of permissions. That is simply untrue. Unfortunately, the “free plus permissions” definition makes permissions the Robin to free’s Batman. It turns permissions into a forgettable sidekick.

If “free” belongs in the definition of OER, which I believe it does, it belongs there not as “free plus permissions” but as “a free grant of permissions.” Many of the 5R permissions are available in traditionally copyrighted materials if you’re willing and able to pay for a license. What distinguishes openly licensed resources from traditionally licensed resources is that the 5R permissions are granted to you for free by the open license.

From this small but critically important pivot the language of the argument can proceed largely as before – I don’t have to pay for and I don’t have to give up personal information like an email address or zip code in exchange for the permissions. They are simply granted to me for free by means of the open license.

Looking back at some of my older presentations, I actually used to talk about open this way – as a free grant of permissions. However, it appears that in my desire to address the cost problem in a simpler and easier to understand manner my language morphed from “a free grant of permissions” to “free plus permissions” at some point. It’s time to fix that, and I will correct it in my presentations going forward effective immediately.

Going Forward

Inasmuch as cost framing is such an incredibly easy way to begin a conversation with people, it would be wonderful if there were a way to continue to use the cost frame without creating the problems I described in my previous post. It will probably take a talk or seven and the wonderfully confused Q&A that will follow to refine a version of that message that works, but my first attempt will look something like this:

  • Textbooks are immorally expensive
  • Those high costs harm student learning
  • We need a solution to this problem
  • Open educational resources provide a free grant of the 5R permissions
  • The 5Rs are retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute
  • Retain and redistribute mean you can eliminate or greatly reduce the cost of learning materials for your students
  • Revise and remix mean that you and your students can personalize and improve your learning materials, either individually or collaboratively, and that this collaboration can happen with people in the same class, same institution, or anywhere around the world
  • Reuse means the original or improved materials can be used in class, online, in labs, in study groups, and in other formal and informal settings
  • OER simultaneously solve the textbook cost problem and open the door to a wide range of new pedagogies

Yes, it’s a little longer than the argument many of us currently use (see the previous post). But it’s possible that this version can leverage the immediacy of the problem with textbook costs without watering down open to mean nothing more than a free textbook. We’ll see.

And yes, the post I promised on problems with textbook framing is coming next. In the meantime, enjoy this classic post from 2012 – 2017: RIP, OER? Some of the details are wrong, but the broad strokes appear to be dead on (pun intended). Yes, we have made meaningful progress in the past four years, but my core concern remains and is intimately related to textbook framing.

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  • hapgood

    My take on the cost side is this:

    Free provides free. And free is good. But free without permissions is not sustainable.

    Imagine someone gives you a free car, but the only one allowed to work on it is the dealer. I think it won’t be a free car for long.

    Imagine someone gives you a free car, but it can be taken away. How long will that car be free?

    Open gives you BOGO rights to content the same way you have BOGO rights to the car. And when your free thing comes with permissions, you can rely on it being free down the road.

    We know this from software where every free product that emerges that is *not* open software eventually extracts a cost — whether that’s your data, your privacy, your money.

    With permissions, free stays free. Without permissions, it’s little more than an introductory offer.

    I’m not sure how you work the Open Pedagogy side into that. But the 5Rs fit into that well. All the 5Rs make free sustainable. Retain protects you from people taking it away. Revise allows you to keep a resource up to date even if no one else is. Etc.

    Just a thought. Open is the sustainable version of Free.