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On the ‘openness’ of Open Badges.

Yesterday, on the Open Badges community call, we discussed briefly the ‘openness’ of Open Badges. To my mind there’s a dangerous conflation happening at the moment around ‘open’ and ‘free’. I want to take a moment to parse those two concepts. Bear with me.

The most common definition of ‘free’ is ‘free of charge’. In my experience, many (if not most) ‘open’ things are free in this sense. That’s not because things that are open have to be free of charge, it’s just that often the philosophical position taken by the person creating the thing that’s open often leads them to also making it free of charge.

Let’s take Pearson’s OpenClass as an example. They describe the product as being ‘open to everyone, easy to use, and completely free’. The phrase ‘completely free’ here actually means ‘free of charge at the point of entry’. Cost is actually not one of the four essential freedoms, as set by the Free Software Foundation:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

I’m fairly sure that Pearson doesn’t mean ‘free’ in any of these senses. So it’s merely ‘free of charge of charge at the point of entry’. Caveat emptor.

Moving on to what we mean by ‘open’ it’s more of a philosophy, an approach to the world than anything else. So when Pearson say that OpenClass is open because it is ‘open to the world’ that’s a bit of a misnomer. That’s like saying their business is ‘open’ because they don’t turn away customers. They’re conflating ‘open’ with ‘free of charge at the point of entry’.

On the Community call yesterday, Erin Knight very helpfully pointed out the various ways that Open Badges (and the badge backpacks) are indeed ‘open’:

  • Open as in free (anyone can create an account)
  • Users completely own their data
  • Anyone can push badges into it
  • Federation/open source infrastructure
  • Everything being planned publicly, working in the open!

We do, of course, welcome Pearson as a user of the Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI) and I was only really using them as an example. What we do need to be careful about going forward, however, is to be precise in our terminology and not to commodify (unintentionally or otherwise) words signifying important concepts.

It benefits everyone in the end. :-)

Image CC BY-NC tanakawho

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  • Bill Fitzgerald

    The appropriation and misuse of free and open has a long and ugly record going back to the slew of “free” sites (many of whom are out of business now) and “open” apis in the early days of Web 2.0.

    Free and open remain good marketing, for better of for worse, and we will continue to see very un-free and closed companies trumpet the “freedom” and “openness” of their products for as long as open source tools and openly licensed material is a viable alternative to proprietary products.

    Thanks for highlighting this incarnation of it.