open content

Feeling Out of Place

I had an odd sensation at the recent conference Open Education 2009. As you know, I founded the conference and have been deeply involved in its planning and execution each year. This year was really, truly excellent in that I was surrounded by so many smart, thoughtful, genuinely goodhearted friends both old and new. But the more conversations I had, the more out of place I felt. Something is changing in our field.

While I think everyone in the field of “open education” is dedicated to increasing access to educational opportunity, there is an increasingly radical element within the field – good old-fashioned guillotine and molotov type revolutionaries. At the conference I heard a number of people say that things would be greatly improved if we could just get rid of all the institutions of formal education. I once heard a follow up comment, “and governments, too.” I turned to laugh at his joke, but saw that he was serious. This “burn it all down” attitude really scares me.

I am concerned that open education is on the path to becoming as radicalized as the free software movement had in the late 1990s.

After a few years of Richard Stallman telling people that they had to unconditionally support free software and completely reject proprietary software – unless they were vile, unworthy, valueless, evil human beings – people got sick of being insulted. Additionally, the messaging of “free software” was wrong, which was problematic as well. Even today, the FSF website says, “We call this free software, because the user is free.” Huh? Because an agent capable of action (a user) has been granted certain rights you’re going to anthropomorphize 1s and 0s (software)? How does that follow? Everyone knows that software is incapable of experiencing or exercising freedom, so when they hear the term “free software” they are left to conclude that “free software” can only mean software that doesn’t cost anything. But I digress…

Anyway, telling people they are immoral wretches if they disagree with you turns out to be a poor strategy for motivating most people. So in early 1998, a group split off from the free software movement and became the “open source” movement. They were very careful to be pragmatic (rather than dogmatic) in their approach, and they tried hard to craft a message that was easier to understand. But the field was split (philosophically and methodologically) forever. This is unfortunate because energies are divided, efforts are duplicated, and worst of all, time is wasted on perhaps THE most pointless arguments ever known to mankind.

Now, don’t get me wrong – open education is not at this crossroads yet. We don’t really have a Richard in our field yet that people are rallying around and strapping bombs to their chests for. However, we need to get this conversation going before we reach a real crisis.

What is our collective purpose? I believe it is to increase access to educational opportunity.

As I recently tweeted, openness is a means, not the end. Increasing access should be the “end” of our efforts. Making everything open is not our goal. (Stephen has previously outlined a number of possible scenarios in which things are made open but there is no net increase in access.) Making things open is only one means to then end of increasing access. However, we can look around the community and see individuals who seem to have confused the means with the ends, and have made their ultimate goal the opening of all educational content. Problematically, when the means become the end, new means that might better achieve the original end are overlooked and frowned upon.

So, am I misunderstanding something? Or missing the boat? Perhaps I’m just not sufficiently radical to be involved in this field anymore?

open content

The future of open source (and open education?)

People love to analogize / equate open education to open source. There are huge problems with this way of thinking… The one that comes first to mind is that many changes to an open source program can be empirically tested to objectively determine whether or not they improve the program (by increasing its speed, decreasing its file size, etc.) at almost no cost (by recompiling the programs and running automated tests), but many changes to an open educational resource cannot be judged objectively (did changing these words really engage learners more? do these new examples communicate the educational content better?) and even when they can be meaningfully tested, this can only happen at rather high costs in time and resources (e.g., setting up and running usability tests or “horse race” research studies involving enough students to produce statistically meaningful results). Of course, this one difference in the community’s ability to judge whether adaptations should be kept or rejected makes a mountain of difference in our ability to collaboratively develop educational resources rationally and objectively. I could go on about the differences, but they aren’t actually the point of the post.

The point of the post is that, because it can be interesting to think about open education in terms of open source (if you’re careful not to push the analogy too far), Tim O’Reilly’s latest bit of writing called Open Source and Cloud Computing about very near future problems for the open source movement should be required reading for open educators. We will face similar problems in the not-too-distant future, and we should be thinking about them now.

As outlined above, I don’t believe we’ve figured out what kinds of licenses will allow forking of Web 2.0 and cloud applications, especially because the lock-in provided by many of these applications is given by their data rather than their code….

But even open data is fundamentally challenged by the idea of utility computing in the cloud. Jesse Vincent, the guy who’s brought out some of the best hacker t-shirts ever (as well as RT) put it succinctly: “Web 2.0 is digital sharecropping.” (Googling, I discover that Nick Carr seems to have coined this meme back in 2006!) If this is true of many Web 2.0 success stories, it’s even more true of cloud computing as infrastructure. I’m ever mindful of Microsoft Windows Live VP Debra Chrapaty’s dictum that “In the future, being a developer on someone’s platform will mean being hosted on their infrastructure.” The New York Times dubbed bandwidth providers OPEC 2.0. How much more will that become true of cloud computing platforms?

That’s why I’m interested in peer-to-peer approaches to delivering internet applications. Jesse Vincent’s talk, Prophet: Your Path Out of the Cloud describes a system for federated sync; Evan Prodromou’s Open Source Microblogging describes, a federated open source approach to lifestreaming applications.

We can talk all we like about open data and open services, but frankly, it’s important to realize just how much of what is possible is dictated by the architecture of the systems we use.

There are a number of ways to understand Tim’s point in the context of open education. If we consider the architecture of higher education, for example, the meaning of “lock-in by data” becomes clear. We can easily reconsider “social network fatigue” (which prevents you from joining too many social networks because you can’t stand to type in all your basic personal details for the nth time) in terms of “gen ed fatigue” by which students are prevented from moving from one university to another because they know credits won’t transfer and they can’t bear the thought of taking World Civilization again. A student’s own data – course grades and accumulated credits that belong to them – are not really any more portable across universities than your Facebook profile is across social networking services. Note that this is not a technical problem, it is an policy problem purposely designed to lock a student into a university. While the Bologna Process has certainly been criticized, it is attempting to make it possible for students to move freely between universities. And as my friend Al is so fond of asking, why shouldn’t a student be able to do their physics at UC, their engineering at MIT, their cyberlaw at Stanford, and their religion courses at BYU?

Of course, saying that LMS vendors try to lock our data into their systems would be another reading of this part of Tim’s article, but one that is too obvious because it is too technical; this is more of an open source problem than an open education problem.

Careful reading and thought will show that Tim’s insightful analysis does indeed point toward many of the problems open education will have to face in the near future. Just please don’t take the open source / open education analogy too far. 🙂

open content

Course on Open Source

A great course for listening in on (or viewing!): InfoSys 296A-2 / Law276.8 Open Source Development and Distribution of Digital Information: Technical, Economic, Social, and Legal Perspectives | Fall 2006, from the Berkeley open educational resource collection.