How do we talk about “open” in the context of courseware?

In an article from a few years ago, Michael Feldstein describes courseware as the combination of (1) content, (2) platform, and (3) design (see the graphic at the bottom of the article.) In another article, he includes examples of “courseware” ranging from Cengage MindTap and Pearson CourseConnect to Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative and Lumen’s Waymaker.

Much has happened in the courseware space since he wrote these articles, but Michael’s multi-part definition still provides a useful framework for thinking about how the idea of “open” pertains to the idea of “courseware”. We need help thinking about open in the context of courseware because the question, “Is [insert specific courseware offering] ‘open’?” is not a question we know how to answer today. And our inability to answer this question in a coherent way is causing some consternation among parts of the open education community right now.

I will exclude design, the third component of Michael’s definition, from the discussion that follows and explain why at the end.*

We know how to talk about the component parts of courseware with regard to open. When we ask whether or not content is open, we mean is it openly licensed (is it OER)? When we ask whether or not a software platform is open, we mean is it openly licensed (is it open source)? It is worth pausing to appreciate that content licensing and platform licensing are completely independent of one another. Putting All Rights Reserved content (e.g., from Pearson) in an open source platform (e.g., Moodle) does not convert it to OER – the content continues to be All Rights Reserved. Likewise, putting OER (e.g., from Lumen) in a proprietary platform (e.g., Blackboard) does not convert it to proprietary content – the content continues to be OER.

Given that content and platform can be licensed independently but are combined in courseware, the specific question many are asking now is, “How do we talk about courseware that integrates open content into a proprietary platform?” We know how to talk about them separately – open content and proprietary platform – but how do we characterize the courseware as a whole with regard to “open”?  This question applies to CMU’s Open Learning Initiative and Lumen’s Waymaker, as well as more recent courseware offerings from commercial publishers that incorporate OER.

(Unfortunately, the somewhat obvious phrase “open courseware” was equated with static content like PDFs in the popular imagination over a decade ago. Attempting to revive it here would only add to the confusion.)

From a practical perspective, the best approach may actually be to not treat courseware as a single entity when we discuss it in the context of open. Given how hard it is just to help people understand what OER are, the prospects for getting faculty to think about open in the more nuanced way required by the interaction of content licensing and platform licensing seem poor. Perhaps our best, most pragmatic path forward is to help people understand that courseware is a combination of content and platform, and teach them to ask about the licensing of the content and the licensing of the platform separately. (Is the content OER? Is the platform open source?)

For the time being, the majority of answers will be “the content is OER and the platform is proprietary”.

I think there are four important implications of taking an approach that explicitly calls out the licensing of content and the licensing of platform.

First, an understanding that courseware is a combination of content and platform should help people understand why it doesn’t make sense to ask if a piece of courseware is OER. We may ask if its content is OER, and if it’s platform is open source, but asking if the courseware is OER confounds content with platform in a way that is unhelpful.

Second, helping people understand that courseware is a combination of content and platform – each of which is licensed separately – may reduce the confusion expressed in the question “why are people charging for OER?” Once you understand that it is possible for content to be open and the platform to be proprietary, as is the case for almost all courseware containing OER today, it becomes quite clear what’s being sold. It’s not the content.

Third, and perhaps most importantly over the short term, knowing that courseware can be comprised of open content in a proprietary platform helps us understand that we can copy the open content in courseware out of its proprietary platform and share it freely with the world online. Consequently, if the community is unhappy with the way any person or organization is handling OER in the context of their courseware, in addition to upbraiding them publicly we can also jailbreak their OER and make it available on an unlimited number of third-party sites. Critically, if a courseware provider tries to implement any technological measures that prevent you from doing so, or tries to craft a Terms of Use statement that says you’re not allowed to do so, or tries to use any other tactic that prevents you from engaging in the 5R activities with regard to the CC-licensed content within their courseware, they violate the CC license (just like failing to provide attribution violates the license) and they lose the permissions necessary to use the OER in their courseware. (See, for example, 2.a.5.B of This provides the community with a practical tool for encouraging good behavior.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly over the long-term, repeating the message that content and platform are licensed independently will eventually get people thinking about the licensing of courseware platforms.

The battle to open source these platforms will be a very different battle than the battle over content licensing. The majority of faculty members are capable, in theory, of creating and choosing to openly license a collection of materials that could replace the textbook they use for their course. Not so with courseware platforms. While the cost of creating, maintaining, and hosting software has dropped significantly in the last decade, creating a courseware platform is still orders of magnitude more expensive and orders of magnitude more complex than creating an open textbook. (You can’t incentivize the creation of a courseware platform with a $5000 mini-grant to faculty.) There are many complicated problems to be solved here, the least of which is not funding for these efforts, but talking about content licensing and platform licensing separately cues up these longer-term conversations.

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* I’ve omitted the design component from Michael’s definition from this discussion because, after accounting for what is copyrightable in the content and platform (and, consequently, potentially openly licensable), many of the remaining elements of the design (decisions about scope and sequence, or when to use disposable assignments vs renewable assignments, etc.) are neither copyrightable nor licensable and, consequently, don’t fit into this discussion of open. When people ask “is this courseware open?”, they generally aren’t asking about the philosophical or epistemological commitments reified in its pedagogical decisions. While these are important factors to consider, they are not part of the conversation happening right now about the openness of courseware.


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