An Odd Era for Open

Two weeks ago I received an email where someone characterized me as “in the trenches” of open education. When I started down this path, “the trenches” was not my desired destination. I’m not sure how I ended up here.

It has been a funny few weeks in the world of open culminating with Pearson’s announcement of an LMS that is, “freer than Moodle,” and the resulting, disappointing, predictable press coverage that tries to bait us into holy wars and worn generalizations.

We are bickering and grousing around the edges of open while there is legitimate threat to the core.

Grammatical irony of a “freer” learning platform aside, a small battle has been won which warrants acknowledgement. Large, resource-rich companies are trying aggressively to co-opt the terminology of open and free. Score one for the little guys. The academics, technologists, and non-profit organizations within higher education have gained mindshare that free and open are indeed important attributes to education. This seems so obvious that it is easy to overlook the heroic efforts that have brought us to this point. The same marketing engines that are battling for open and free status today, were previously engaged in convincing us all that they were synonyms for “risky,” “unsustainable,” and even “expensive.”

With this success acknowledged and my deep and sincere gratitude to those who contributed expressed, I believe it is irrelevant to score freeness and openness from a value-based perspective. They are large enough terms to embrace progress across the spectrum.

To Pearson Learning I say, “Nice press release, guys.” When your learning platform proves to support expanded and unfettered access to a full range of content and resources that improve learning, then we’ll talk free. I hope to see that day.

I have patience and empathy for my fellows in the trenches who are short-tempered with the language and press coverage. It was frustrating when Blackboard espoused its openness in the market while arming its salesforce with innuendo and untruth. It was frustrating when SunGard Higher Education announced the first industry ERP community source initiative a full year after Kuali had released a full-featured financial system. Sigh. Let it go, my friends. Every move toward openness and freedom is a move in the right direction. In order to focus on progress, we have to leave the comparatives and superlatives behind. They are only helpful in practical discussion, not in philosophical debate.

I am increasingly concerned that denominational debates are distracting us from important work. I have three areas of concern.

First, I fear that we (using the pronoun loosely to encompass all who believe openness to be important to education) have moved too quickly past the basics, and I believe the very core of open lies in licensing. The current level of education and use of Creative Commons licenses is grossly insufficient and incredibly costly. Too many organizations and educational institutions are creating resources with the express intent that others use the resources freely, and then slapping a copyright on them. Whatever the underlying cause of this, it penalizes each user of the resources and reduces their educational value. I can’t pull a resource into my course, but am forced to link to it. I can’t modify it to match my learners’ needs or my curricular requirements. I must use precious time and resources to monitor the links and the content changes, or choose not to use the resource.

This is happening pervasively.  We must become more effective and vocal advocates for CC BY licensing within and across our organizations.

Next, the immense progress that our community has made on the policy front is at risk. We have seen considerable progress by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, US Department of Education and US Department of Labor in supporting the view most elegantly stated by Cable Green.

For the purposes of the open policies that contribute to the Commons, we define policy broadly as legislation, regulation, and/or funder mandates. If we are going to unleash the power of billions of dollars of publicly funded education, research and science projects, we need broad adoption of open policies.

National / state / provincial governments and education systems all play a critical role in setting policies that drive education investments, and have an interest in ensuring that public funding in education make a meaningful, cost-effective contribution to socio-economic development. Given this role, these policy-making entities are ideally positioned to encourage or mandate recipients of public funding to produce educational resources under an open license. While there are many open licenses, publicly funded educational resources should use an open license that allows the public to revise, reuse, remix and redistribute those materials.

If we get this simple idea right, OER sustainability will cease to be an issue because: (a) there will be plenty of public funding to build and maintain all of the teaching, learning and research resources the world needs, and, (b) “open” becomes the default and “closed” becomes the exception.

 The House Appropriations Committee just released the draft fiscal year 2012 Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS) funding bill. The legislation includes the following provision (see page 37 of the bill), which would have a significant impact on the open licensing of materials funded by the departments of education, labor, and health and human services.

SEC. 124. None of the funds made available by this  Act for the Department of Labor may be used to develop  new courses, modules, learning materials, or projects in  carrying out education or career job training grant programs unless the Secretary of Labor certifies, after a comprehensive market-based analysis, that such courses, modules, learning materials, or projects are not otherwise  available for purchase or licensing in the marketplace or under development for students who require them to participate in such education or career job training grant programs.

I’m not sure yet what advocacy is required from each of us to influence this process, but I hope to gain insight at the OpenEd 2011 conference next week and will share what I learn. I am quite confident that those on the other side of the issue are further along in their campaign.

Finally, in licensing, philosophy and practical partnerships, I encourage all of us to carefully evaluate and guard against anti-commercial biases. While a Creative Commons NonCommercial license will prevent a company from profiting from your work, it will also prevent commercial investment in enhancing it or spreading its adoption.

The open content world has a chance to steal a play from the open source software world: embrace and reward the right commercial partners. Imagine where Linux adoption and maturity would be without Red Hat. How many Moodle institutions would have made that decision without MoodleRooms? It is unclear to me whether Brad Wheeler of Indiana University or John Robinson of rSmart has personally influenced a greater level of investment in Kuali, but refreshingly, both are grateful for the role that the other has played. When we choose not to engage with the commercial players, we lose the chance to shape their investments and contributions. We also lose access to great minds and genuinely good people who choose to contribute to improved education through a .com rather than a .edu affiliation.

When we are using budget meetings to argue how best to spend a surplus of educational funding…when we are wondering how to fill our educational programs because we have educated humanity too rapidly and effectively…then, we can turn on each other. We’re not there yet.

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About Kim Thanos

Kim Thanos' work focuses on identifying pockets of innovation in education and scaling them to achieve systemic impact. Often, this is done through her company, Thanos Partners.
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3 Responses to An Odd Era for Open

  1. Patrick Masson says:

    I just added the term “Open” to the Wikipedia page on Buzzwords under Education and Science & Technology ( It fits nicely into the other commonly used, poorly defined and vaguely understood words, originally sparked by a real need/observation and representing a desired attribute, ultimately creating value for adoption, yet ultimately eviscerated as it is over-applied (whether through honest mis-understanding, hopeful optimism, or out-right fraud): the “cloud-based,” “data-driven,” “evidence-based,” “framework,” “free,” “next-generation,” “integrated” “inter-operable,” “scalable,” “standards-based,” “transparent,” “…solution” (oh, and “open”).

    As long as folks continue to ignore, mis-state or usurp the ideals, and yes requirements, of openness to promote their own agenda, thereby increasing ambiguity and ultimately reducing value, those who have pushed for directed-change need to continue to question authenticity and challenge motivation. I don’t think that simply because organizations (campuses, companies, consortia, foundations) are now labeling their activities, initiatives, projects, wares, as “open” we’ve won anything. Indeed this is potentially more detrimental to an effort, like openness, than outright disagreement, as it can both water down the term–and thus value, creating ambiguity–or mis-direct discussion, development and ultimately advancement.

    So while many may feel the term open is a large enough to embrace progress across the spectrum, I believe more specificity–maybe not a certification, but certainly a definition–is required to ensure adopting organizations are aware of and can be assured with how their local organizational ideals, priorities, interests and direction align (or not) with an open effort. To often, terms like transparent, free, libre and others are used as synonyms for open, yet each offers a unique value proposition for potential implementors, none of which are dependent on the other, but will each afford an organization different opportunities.

    Now that open has transcended from an idea to an ideal, we actually need greater rigor in our use of the term, and honest reflection and assessment of authenticity in any claim of openness.


  2. Molly Tamarkin says:

    Thank you for helping us focus our attention on the critical “signals” through the noise of openness. It’s easy to be distracted by the new and shiny and, as you note, vital to attend to the basics of licensing, legislation, and longevity in order to ensure continued development in the right direction. Commercial partners are important for sustainability, to provide service and support options to our community, and to help communicate the principles of open source.

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