in Education

Does Open Education and the Open Web need ‘defending’?

Over in the Mozilla Webmaker Google+ community it’s the final day of our online discussion as part of Open Education Week. Today’s prompt asks: Do we need to protect the Open Web and Open Education? If so, who or what from? How do we do that?

My short answer to this would be yes we do need to protect Open Education and the Open Web. We need to protect them from commercial, proprietary providers looking to profit from creating silos. How do we do that? I’d argue by innovating in ways that are different from those looking to make a quick buck.

It’s obvious, but worth stating: I’ve no problem with people charging for services. The issue is more to do with the overall landscape. If all you’ve got is shiny silos from which to choose, it’s a frustrating pseudo-choice. Openness proposes and provides a different way to do things than following the logic of the market.

The problem is that ‘Open’ is an ambiguous term and seems to have become the latest fad. Martin Weller points out that in many ways ‘Open’ is the new ‘green’:

The old “open vs. proprietary” debate is over and open won. As IT infrastructure moves to the cloud, openness is not just a priority for source code but for standards and APIs as well. Almost every vendor in the IT market now wants to position its products as “open.” Vendors that don’t have an open source product instead emphasize having a product that uses “open standards” or has an “open API.

As Audrey Watters has eloquently stated, the fight is now who gets to decide what counts:

This battle involves the ongoing struggle to define “what is open.” It involves the narratives that dominate education – “education is broken” and “disruption is inevitable,” for example – and the “solutions” that “open” purports to offer. It involves a response to the growth of corporate ecosystems and commercial enclosures, built with open source technologies and open data initiatives. And all of this, I would argue, must involve politics for which we shouldn’t let “open” be an easy substitute.

As the term ‘MOOC’ (Massive Online Open Course) has shown, you can’t have it both ways: if a term includes enough ambiguity and flexibility to be widely adopted, then those who originally defined it no longer have control over the definition. It’s out in the wild. Like a virus, the definition mutates over time.

It’s not the word ‘Open’ we need to protect, it’s the spirit behind it. We’re fighting a losing battle if we expect a word to mean the same thing for all eternity. Instead, as a community we should create, sustain and release new terms to help shed light on the things we believe to be important and hold dear.

Finally, as Audrey reminds us in the quotation above, to align yourself with an agenda of Openness is a political statement. As such we should be prepared to get our hands dirty and fight for what we believe.

Image CC BY-NC-SA John Carleton

  • Catherine_C

    Hi Doug – great post on a topic very close to my heart :) I’ve been researching various definitions of “open” and “openness” (and could nearly write a dissertation on this alone!); the different values, assumptions and belief systems which emerge are fascinating. One distinction of interest to me is openness in terms of “what you do” vs. “who you are” (and I thank Jenny Mackness for that language). Openness can be understood and discussed in terms of courses and resources, e.g. open access, open licensing, free/no cost, etc. But it also can be understood in terms of our attitudes and identities. In this sense, people variously refer to openness as “an ethos” (Jim Groom), “a state of mind” (Jenny Mackness), “a way of being” (Cameron Neylon), and — in sync with your statement above — “a political act” (Dave Cormier). I most often use a word that you also used in your post, is describing a “spirit of openness”. I’ll blog about this shortly and will include full references… I’m just referring to my mind map here :)

    Now this spirit and politics and these ‘ways of being’ are all well and good… but probably don’t mean much to the corporate and commercial interests that Audrey talks about. Not even on their radar. However, those of us who understand openness in these ways are, I would suggest, best placed to understand the complexities of openness and open education — for ourselves, for our students (if we are educators), and for wider society. So I’m all in for engaging in these discussions and debates. Glad to be in such good company too (hat tip to you & to all mentioned above). See you in the trenches ;)

  • Mathieu Plourde

    I’m getting tired of the meaning of the work Open debate myself, almost as much as corporate interests using the word Open as a bait and switch strategy. Besides licensing a la Creative Commons, what we really want is transparency. Publishing on the web, without a login or a pay wall, should be the default. People should need to justify why their content needs to be protected, not the other way around. Permissions and protection are useless anyway in a digital world, since everything that shows up on a screen can be copied and disseminated.

    As a consumer of digital things, I’ll be less and less willing to pay for content, and more and more willing to pay for infrastructure and services that allow me to be more productive in this new digital clutter.

    • Michael Ozeryansky

      Really like and agree with your comment Mathieu.

  • Graham Brown-Martin

    Good post Doug!

    Had we known how important search would become and how it would be monetised I think there would have been a good argument to support public development and ownership rather than the world’s knowledge and information being indexed according to the bias and whim of a private corporation.

    That today we are so unsure of the value of our private data that we give it away for network capitalists to trade and sell is an indicator of how naive we have been.

    Case in point is the recent acquisition of Renaissance Learning for $1.1 Billion. This valuation had nothing to do with the founders intention for the business that they started 30 years ago but the value of the data that has been accumulated from student assessment data that feeds its learning analytics algorithms and presumably future algorithms of 3rd parties.

    Your rhetorical question over defending Open Education and the Open Web should be answered with an imperative that we leave the big data, learning analytics and adaptive learning to commercial interests and proprietary algorithms at our peril.

    The potential for social engineering as a result of handing our education over to a handful of privately owned corporations is considerable and unless these algorithms are open source and in the public domain then the results are likely to be catastrophic

  • Michael Ozeryansky

    Great post, really in tune with my own thoughts. I tried to understand what ‘open’ means for a long time. At some point I came to this conclusion: the Internet itself is a huge learning machine and if some content by some vendor is ‘closed’, it doesn’t mean anything. There are plenty more fish in that sea. Smart ones make themselves really accessible, other ones need some help.

    And this is what we do at Smartifico – structuring and putting that fish in the right context, so it is easily discoverable by education system.

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  • http://dougbelshaw.com/ Doug Belshaw

    Great! (and thanks for the link :-)