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┬áhave 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. ­čÖé

Image CC BY-NC tanakawho


#ukedchat #fail: TES attempts takeover cover-up whilst Pearson muscles-in on grassroots Twitter teacher CPD.

Fail Whale

Every Thursday night on Twitter there’s an hour-long conversation around the hashtag #ukedchat. The idea is that interested parties (mostly teachers) vote on what they want to talk about relating to UK education (almost always UK schools) and a moderator keeps things on-track. It’s a bit anarchic and intense, but worth it. I dip in and out and have moderated one session on the purpose(s) of education. Afterwards the moderator tries to ‘tell the story’ of what was discussed, including the most influential (usually the most reteweeted) tweets. It’s a fantastic example of grassroots innovation and, dare I say it, even a form of CPD.


Last night the topic was the Pearson learning awards, hosted by someone from Pearson. I wasn’t the only one who thought that was a bit strange and that #ukedchat seemed to be going in a new direction. Low and behold I received a couple of Direct Messages (DMs) that suggested not only was Pearson muscling in on the success of #ukedchat but that, in fact, the Times Educational Supplement (TES) was taking over the running of the weekly discussion. Those who had been told were hushed to secrecy.

Being committed to open education and transparent practices I decided to, without revealing the names of those who told me, inform those involved in #ukedchat discussion. Things were already going so awry that the moderator had decided to switch topics half way through the hour. It was an example of companies doing social media in completely the wrong way. Whereas for-profit organizations such as Scholastic and BrainPOP! really do get social media as being about openness and conversation, the TES and Pearson seem to have conspired to commodify #ukedchat in an underhand, Machiavellian way.

I can’t tell you how disappointed I am, despite the claims of the TES to the contrary, that #ukedchat – an example of grassroots innovation by teachers, for teachers – has been effectively ‘sold off’ behind closed doors. Part of the problem is that busy teachers are delighted when a big name comes in and is interested in their enterprise. What often occurs, and my teaching career is littered with examples of this, is that companies become parasitic upon the goodwill and enthusiasm of teachers. They take what they can and suck the life out of it.

Teachers, don’t let this happen. Strike for better pensions on the 30th November and, if necessary, set up a new #ukedchat. You’re worth it.

(I’ve curated tweets from that hour using Storify here)