Stereotyping, Behavior, and Belonging in the Open Education Community

microsoft-linuxStephen Downes points to some older but interesting posts by Lisa Petrides and Bill Fitzgerald about the role of commercial actors in the open space. It’s a topic that I’ve been thinking about recently, particularly with yesterday’s revelation that Microsoft has joined the Linux Foundation. For someone who was online during the 90s, this is completely unimaginable. I had to read the full announcement to convince myself it was true. What the heck is going on?

The open source software side of the open house has absolutely no issue with commercial entities using or contributing to open source software. Think for a minute about all the people and companies that have created really amazing commercial offerings based on Linux, Apache, MYSQL, PHP, Ruby, Node, React, or WordPress. The reason you’ve never heard anyone claim that tax status disqualifies companies from participating in or benefiting from open source is that Article 6 of the Open Source Definition – No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor – explicitly prohibits us from doing so. To my mind, this commitment demonstrates a level of maturity that the open education side of the open house has yet to achieve.

Try to imagine what the internet would be like today if open source licenses could preclude commercial use. Seriously – stop and think about it for a moment. Now compare what you just imagined to the state of open education today.


“But wait!”, you declare, “the overwhelming majority of OER in the world are licensed in ways that permit commercial use, so what’s the problem?” The problem is the way that those involved in education – including those in our community – stereotype commercial entities. (And yes, I realize that I myself am guilty of generalizing as I write that sentence.) For many in our community, for-profit organizations have no business (pun intended) being involved in open education in any way. How can we move from our current closed-mindedness to a more open future? I think there are two steps:

  • Today: Blind distrust of, and even antagonism toward, commercial entities
  • Near Future: Thoughtful evaluation of the degree to which an entities’ behavior aligns with the open education community’s norms and values
  • Distant Future: No discrimination against fields of endeavor

What is the argument for moving ahead? Academics and educators are supposed to be thoughtful, analytical, and beyond intellectually lazy habits like stereotyping. There’s no excuse for judging an organization based on whether it was incorporated as a for-profit or non-profit entity. Our only justifiable concern with an organization from the perspective of open education is the degree to which their behavior reflects the norms and values of the open education community.

Let me give you an example. Imagine an organization with the following characteristics:

  • All the content they create is published under a CC BY license.
  • They provide free and open access to all their content online.
  • Their platform for hosting, authoring, and remixing OER is open source and available via GitHub.
  • They offer paid options for accessing their content in additional ways that are more convenient or useful.
  • They are developing additional tools to support personalized learning with OER with funding from a major foundation.
  • They are deeply committed to the sustainability of their organization.

As you think about the potential role of this organization in the open education community, does it matter whether it is incorporated as a non-profit or for-profit? I’d say no. Does it “belong?” Is it a “good citizen” of the community? I’d say the answer is a resounding yes – this is exactly the kind of behavior a good member of the community would engage in. (Just out of curiosity, can you tell whether I’m describing OpenStax (a non-profit) or Lumen Learning (a for-profit)?)

I believe the reason Lisa feels compelled to call out Pearson’s behavior as “pillaging” is because it ignores the core value of open education – sharing. Pearson doesn’t share under open licenses – not content, not metadata, not source code. Their behavior is completely extractive and, consequently, places them outside the norms and values of the open education community.

But let us not forget that there are a number of non-profits whose behaviors are also completely extractive. For example, if a non-profit organization’s sole activity is reformatting existing OER for print and selling printed copies of these OER at large markups, would we consider them good members of the community? They don’t share anything. Are they acting within the community’s norms and values? I’m not going to name names here, but rest assured that these organizations exist.

Suffice it to say that our lazy stereotyping is just as inappropriate when it comes to non-profits as it is with for-profits. Not all for-profits are evil, and not all non-profits are righteous. It’s not difficult to see this fact after some reflection. What matters is how organizations behave. I hope that during the next five years or so our community – and the broader education community – will come to appreciate this slightly nuanced view of the world.

To end where I began, let us pause to consider the open education analog of Microsoft joining the Linux Foundation. Can you imagine a future in which Pearson, McGraw Hill, or Cengage announce that they had openly licensed part of their catalog, publishing it online for the world to freely use, download, edit, and share? (Before you laugh at the impossibility of this, let me remind you that Microsoft just joined the Linux Foundation.) How would the community respond? How would you respond? I would welcome them with open arms, and hope you would as well. Just as open source software has benefited immensely from respected and valued contributions from IBM, RedHat, Google, and other companies, open education would benefit significantly from greater contributions from companies. Specifically, students would benefit significantly from these contributions. We, the open education community, just need to restrain ourselves from running organizations out of town on a rail simply because they’re for-profits.

I hope that in the near future we can collectively reach a place where we judge organizations by their behavior and not their articles of incorporation. We should be welcoming, cheering for, and supporting companies that behave in ways that are consistent with our values. I’ll reserve dreams of a distant future where we achieve No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor for the mid-2020s.

PS. Yes, as you probably guessed, the description of the hypothetical organization above correctly characterizes both OpenStax and Lumen Learning.

7 thoughts on “Stereotyping, Behavior, and Belonging in the Open Education Community”

  1. Very well said. As long as the actors are acting in the best interest of students then the “for profit” or “not for profit” status is irrelevant. I was on a call with “for profits” and a large university “non profit” this last week and the non-profit university was looking for kick backs (the “nice” term was revenue share) on student fees. These type of kick backs will eventually be borne by students. Who is the good actor in this case?

  2. Actually, the post that you are referring to above was about metadata, not open educational resources per se. My example was specifically about someone taking refined, curated, and enhanced metadata, and creating a commercial product (not allowed in this case, hence “pillaging”), with no attribution (even a CC BY would have required that).

    However, it is true that personally, my favorite open licenses require sharing, which to me, is a core value of open education. And while I do agree that the argument has little to do with profit vs nonprofit, I prefer my educational transformation efforts to be mission driven vs profit driven. That ensures that when tough decisions need to be made, a return on mission can override a monetary return.

  3. Conflating Open source software and open educational resources isn’t useful and neither is confusing OER with metadata about OER They aren’t the same things. The problem with for-profit involvement in OER is the nature of the involvement not the tax status of the entity. The issue is how much money derives for the benefit of faculty and students and how much goes to investors of the for-profit. What are the drivers and determinants of that decision?

  4. There is, at least in US law, still a very important distinction between non-profit and for-profit status that has potential relevance for questions of open-ness. I am in this case specifically referring to non-profit as an organization having 501(c)3 status in tax code. The difference isn’t necessarily important in comparing ongoing operations, but deals with what happens should the organization struggle. A for-profit may always be either sold to new owners who are not bound by the commitments to maintain open practices, or it may be sold-off in bankruptcy or fire sale to new owners. Yes, previously released intellectual property already issues with a sufficient open license (CC or GPL) maintains that status but what about other things such as data and logs. Upon a sale, those might be monetized.

    In contrast, a 501(c)3 cannot do that. The assets, including data, must be maintained for the charitable purpose.

  5. For the record, David and I had a discussion on this same issue 6 months ago revolving more specifically around the issue of the nature of the platform used to connect students to OER content. That discussion can be found here Also for the record, the feature comparison of content via LTI to a separate platform vs content within an LMS never got much traction.

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