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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?