When Opens Collide

In my recent post How is Open Pedagogy Different?, I defined open pedagogy as ”the set of teaching and learning practices only possible or practical in the context of the 5R permissions” – a definition I have been using in my writing and public speaking since I first blogged about open pedagogy back in 2013 (except there were only 4Rs back then). Although none of my other posts or talks on this topic over the past four years managed to, How is Open Pedagogy Different? elicited quite a response. Many of these responses were deeply interesting and informative. For example, I learned that when I first started writing about open pedagogy in 2013, I made the cardinal mistake of not checking to see if the term might have a long history of use by others in a context completely outside the one I was writing about. It does. Oops. However, this is not actually what led to the strong reaction to my post.

As I continue to ponder the Twitter conversations with Mike, Robin, Maha, and others, as well as what’s been written on blogs like those by Clint (which came before mine) and Jim (which came after), it appears that what is happening is that the “open” in open education is colliding with the “open” in open web.

As I’ve written about at some length before, whether you’re talking about open content, open educational resources, open access (to research), open data, open knowledge, open source, or open standards, in all of these contexts “open” means:

  1. Free access to the content, resource, journal article, data, knowledge artifact, software, or standard, and
  2. A formal grant of rights and permissions giving back to the user many of the rights and permissions copyright normally reserves exclusively for the creator or other rights holder.

The consensus in these contexts that open = free + permissions is extraordinarily strong. However, it turns out that this consensus is separate from the “open” in “open web.” One of the most influential descriptions of the open web was written by Tantek back in 2010. You should really read the whole article to get the nuance of his argument. He closes by saying:

And that’s my rough working definiton [sic] of what is the open web. In summary:

  • open content and application publishing
  • open ability to code and implement the standards that such content depends on
  • open access to content, web-applications , web standards implementations (browsers), and the internet.

In other words, an “open web” is a web on which:

  • You don’t need anyone’s permission to publish any content or create any web app you want to (like my blog or Amazon.com)
  • You don’t need anyone’s permission to write code that conforms to or implements relevant standards (like web servers or browsers)
  • You have access to all the content, web apps, and tools because all content / traffic is treated equally (net neutrality)

Tantek’s vision of an open web is closely related to Adam Thierer’s notion of “permissionless innovation.” Permissionless innovation is the ability to create and invent without seeking and obtaining prior approval, allowing “the creativity of the human mind to run wild in its inherent curiosity and inventiveness.”

Imagine, for example, that you want to start your own radio station. The FCC has a few forms for you to fill out before you begin. Or perhaps you want to start your own television channel. The FCC isn’t even accepting applications for new television stations currently. Compare this ripe-with-regulations communications environment, where you can’t do anything until you receive approval, with the internet. Imagine if you had to fill out forms, apply, and then wait to be approved before you could start your own YouTube channel or podcast!

On reflection it seems that the subtle difference between these two forms of open is that the open in OER, etc. is a matter of free access plus copyright permissions, while the open in open web is a matter of free access plus no requirement to seek approval before creating or inventing.

The assumptions underlying these two forms of open are subject to change and have, in fact, flip-flopped very recently. The internet, for example, has not always been a bastion of openness.The 1982 MIT handbook for the use of ARPAnet — the precursor of the Internet, instructed students:

It is considered illegal to use the ARPAnet for anything which is not in direct support of government business… Sending electronic mail over the ARPAnet for commercial profit or political purposes is both anti-social and illegal. By sending such messages, you can offend people, and it is possible to get MIT in serious trouble with the government agencies which manage the ARPAnet.

The idea that the internet (or web) is somehow inherently open (free + no approval required) is simply not true. And the idea that it should be open and that we should fight to protect that openness is a very recent – and worthy – notion (cf. current #EUcopyright proposals).

Similarly, until very recently there was little need for Creative Commons licenses and formal legal mechanisms for sharing creative works. In the United States, before 1989 no creative work was protected by copyright unless the creator opted in to protection by reigstering. Open (free + permissions) was the default. It was only in 1989, when the US joined the Berne Convention, that protection of all creative works became automatic and closed became the new default, requiring people to opt-in to sharing. After Berne we needed things like the CC licenses to share creative works with each other in ways that allowed for remixes, mashups, localizations, and other reuses.

Differences in our understanding of open pedagogy, then, seem to be artifacts of our approach vector. Jim (“I don’t need permission to be open”) and Clint (“what makes open pedagogy open is that students are working in the open with their work on display to the world”) seem to be coming to open pedagogy from the open web direction. People like Rajiv (“my take is that open pedagogy refers to innovative teaching and learning practices that are only made possible through the application of open licenses”) and I seem to coming to open pedagogy from an OER direction. Others like Robin (“my OpenPed definition changes every time I give a presentation about it”) are still undecided.

All this thinking and writing has led me to appreciate the open web point of view more than my previous post implied. No doubt we have yet to see definitions of open pedagogy that approach from other open traditions, like the “open” in open government where open primarily means transparent. (Incidentally, life is no better for the confusingly related term ” open educational practices.” Half of the definitions listed on Wikipedia explicitly reference OER, while the other half come from very different places.)

I do remain concerned about a few things, though. Here’s one.

“Open” – regardless of whether you come from the open content or open web tradition – does not have anything to say about the nature of learning. Maybe the thing that’s become the clearest to me as I’ve laid awake at night thinking about these issues is that you can’t actually build a pedagogy on a foundation of open (well, not one that isn’t incredibly impoverished). Your foundational commitments in terms of pedagogy should be to an understanding of how learning happens. Once we have made fundamental commitments in terms of a theory of learning, then we can add open to our list of facilitating methods in order get better leverage.

I wonder if it isn’t nonsensical to talk about “open pedagogy” at all (fully recognizing that this would make me the most nonsensical party of all). Perhaps we should only use open as a modifier for other pedagogies, like “open constructionist pedagogy” or “open connectivist pedagogy” or “open constructivist pedagogy.” It’s clear in each of those cases how open gives you better leverage in terms of supporting learning. For example, what I call “renewable assignments” (fortunately this phrase had no back history!) is an instance of open constructionist pedagogy.

Without clarity about our foundational commitments, it can be easy to wander. A foundational commitment to how learning happens provides a collection of first principles from which pedagogical practices can be logically derived. Without this principled commitment, we’re left to gather instructional principles opportunistically, like seashells. For example, Hegerty’s model of open pedagogy includes attributes like “innovation and creativity,” “reflective practice,” and “peer review.” It’s unclear to me how you arrive at this collection of practices unless the decision rule is “collect practices that could synergize powerfully with open.” This seems like a less appropriate way to build up a pedagogy because, in its desire to be grounded in open, it has become disconnected from a coherent theory of learning.

In summary, there’s lots to think about here. It seems clear that we shouldn’t label the “open” advocated by open web proponents as openwashing. It’s a legitimate – but meaningfully different – way of talking open. This acknowledgment makes it even more important for those of us who care about and advocate for open to be extraordinarily and explicitly clear what we mean by “open” in our writing and speaking. And it does feel like there’s little chance of coming to consensus around a common definition of “open pedagogy” – which it turns out is a phrase that was already being used in other ways for decades.

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  • Rajiv Jhangiani

    Thanks for writing this, David. At #OER17 (where the theme was the “Politics of Open”) there were several excellent, vigorous, and thoughtful discussions about borders, boundaries, and the future of the open movement. Between racist legislation that inhibits that free movement of people and xenophobic attempts to withdraw from the global community I can fully understand how definitions are often written or co-opted as instruments of exclusion.

    After you first wrote about open pedagogy and I began dabbling with it (https://thatpsychprof.com/pilot-testing-open-pedagogy/), I immediately began to notice examples of practice that reflected what I saw as the spirit of openness (if I may use that phrase) but that did not meet your formal definition of open pedagogy. For example, when my students write (and submit for publication) op-ed pieces, they are not taking advantage of open licenses. They are, however, performing public scholarship in a way that they find meaningful, that provides a resource for their communities, and that helps them develop and refine important skills along the way (e.g., constructing a evidence-based argument, communicating complex ideas in a clear fashion, etc.).

    I firmly believe that the open movement needs to be a big tent and as welcoming as possible. This is why I support the application of any open license that the creator feels comfortable with (including the much-derided NC clause). I warmly welcome those interested in open textbooks that look, smell, and taste like those published by the Pearsons of this world. If they want to plug and play and change nothing about their pedagogy, I will gladly support them. And I will celebrate the impact of their decision on student access and learning. If others are entirely uninterested in OER but fascinated and inspired by OEP such as renewable assignments, I am also happy. Like Robin, I believe this is where the magic lies, but I don’t think that being judgmental about a different approach is an effective approach for advocates of openness. The evolution of my own position from reviewer to adopter to adapter to creator to researcher to advocate is enough to stop me from erecting a minimum threshold of openness to entry in our community.

    Like you, however, I am concerned about using the term “open” so broadly and in so many ways that it becomes essentially meaningless. At the same time, I don’t think the term “openwashing” (fabulous as it is) is the right one here, especially when you are describing the work of people who are working with the spirit of openness. Rather, I think we are talking about open diluting (credit for this term goes to the brilliant Daria Cybulska of Wikimedia UK). This is why I agree that it is good practice for people to be clear what they mean when they use the term “open.” At the same time I absolutely recognize that even though we may operationally define open differently, we are still coming from the same foundation that values access, agency, transparency, and quality.

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