Is open a means to an end, or is open its own end?

Is open a means to an end, or is open its own end?

This is a question worth thinking long and hard about. I’ve done some writing as I’ve been thinking about it, so I figured I may as well post it.

Think about the phrase “open education.” This phrase denotes something very different when you believe open is a means than it does when you believe open is the end.

When we consider open to be a means and education to be the end, open is subservient to education. In this relationship, open is a set of values and (legal, intellectual, pedagogical, and other) tools that can be employed in the service of improving teaching and learning. Open will often be useful. Sometimes it will not. Only careful attention to the impact of open on the goal – education – can tell us when more openness will be helpful and when it should be avoided.

When we consider open to be its own end, education becomes subservient to open. In this relationship, improving education is secondary to the goal of being more open. In other words, when open is its own end, more openness is always the right answer regardless of the impact it may have on teaching and learning.

It isn’t difficult to find examples of places where more openness would be detrimental to education. For example, it is impossible – not difficult or expensive, but impossible – to teach a modern literature or modern music or modern art course in a context where all course content must be open. If an institution were to pursue open as its own end, mandating that all courses use only open educational resources, classes like these would have to be removed from the course catalog. While that might seem like a win for increasing openness (“all courses now use OER exclusively!”), it would be a loss for education more broadly.

I normally succeed in seeing open as a means and not an end. I think most of us start there. However, because open is such an incredibly powerful means to so many important ends (education, science, scholarship, government, etc.), it can be easy for open to drift toward becoming its own end when I’m not paying attention. When that happens, open becomes a kind of religion whose primary article of faith is “if some openness is good, more openness is better.” That way lies danger.

I’m curious if anyone else thinks (or worries) about this. Do you think of open (in the context of open education) as a means or an end? Do you ever catch yourself heading towards (or smack dab in the middle of) means/ends confusion? How does it manifest for you? How do you fight it? Do you ever feel social pressure to think of open as an end rather than a means?

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