Anyone who went to EDUCAUSE this year had to come away with the impression that Open is the new black. This product now comes with 50% more openness! That one’s openness is 99.44% pure! It’s easy to get jaded about all of this and cry “openwashing,” as Anya Kamenetz did, among others (including me, at times). But while it’s perfectly appropriate to hold vendors accountable for hype, it’s also important to look carefully at the announcements beneath the hype. Because they are not all the same. I proudly serve on the Sakai Foundation Board of Directors and proudly provide all content on this blog under a Creative Commons license, but I also recognize that there are different kinds of “open”—and different kinds of “free”—vendors can provide that have different kinds and levels of utility.
Case in point: The respective announcements by Pearson and Blackboard last week reflect very different ideas of both “open” and “free.” Those differences matter. If we simply throw up our hands and declare the use of these words by all for-profit entities as meaningless marketing babble, then we will miss some valuable information.
In the cases of both Pearson and Blackboard, we have to understand what they mean by “free” before we can get a sense of where they are coming from with “open.” Both Pearson’s OpenCourse and Blackboard’s CourseSites are free in the sense that neither institutions nor instructors nor students have to pay to use them for hosting courses. But the terms and goals are pretty different. CourseSites is a program that has fairly clear, well-defined, and relatively modest ambitions. First, the company was concerned that, as customers were going through LMS evaluations, they were comparing their old on-campus Blackboard product (could be Blackboard 7,x could be CE 6, etc.) against the latest, greatest version of the competing platforms. They wanted to make sure that everybody could access the latest and best version of the Blackboard platform as easily as possible in order to get a more favorable comparison during the purchasing process. Second, they want a laboratory in which they can give customers (and prospects) early access to features that they are working on for the main Enterprise product. It’s good for both marketing and market research purposes. For both of these reasons, they created CourseSites as a free service. CourseSites are free for individual faculty members to use for experiments or even teaching, but the system is not set up for institution-wide use and is not in any way intended to be something that entire schools can adopt. Because Blackboard sees CourseSites as (in part) a marketing tool that will not cannibalize sales, they don’t need to monetize it. There is a limit to how much they will likely be willing to invest in it, but since it’s largely a self-service version of the mainline Blackboard code, and since it isn’t intended to scale massively through widespread adoption, that’s probably not a big problem.
As I discussed in a previous post, Pearson’s reasons for a “free” offering are entirely different. They clearly want to scale massively. And despite’s Blackboard’s criticism that OpenClass does not yet have enterprise integration, both Pearson’s current integration with Google Apps for Education and their declared intention to support the IMS LIS standard indicate that they have serious aspirations to provide an LMS that can be adopted for free by entire institutions, with all the enterprise integration that entails. Less clear is the business model. OpenClass is much more ambitious in scope than CourseSites and will need some kind of monetization. We know that Pearson plans to have some sort of content store, but beyond that, we don’t know much about how Pearson will earn back the substantial business expense that OpenClass will generate, particularly if it is as successful at widespread adoption as the company hopes.
Likewise, the two companies’ respective EDUCAUSE announcements about their “openness” are also quite different. Blackboard had two last week. The first was that they have changed their customer contracts so that non-revenue-generating users of Blackboard at a school (e.g., professors from another institution that are collaborating on a project, non-enrolled guests from the community, etc.) don’t count as users for purposes of Blackboard’s annual license fee. This certainly isn’t “Open” as in “this gives Blackboard-using schools all the flexibility that open source software does”, but it is “open” as in “we have been very restrictive in our customer contracts before, but now we’re trying to make them more open.” It’s the kind of thing that a for-profit entity in educational technology should be doing to align its business practices with the missions of the customers it serves. Not worthy of a medal, but certainly worthy of a mention.
Their second announcement is more about Open with a capital “O.” Some background is in order here. Last year, Blackboard announced that they support IMS Common Cartridge export in the latest version of Learn. Common Cartridge is an LMS course content interchange standard. Most of the major LMSs support the import of Common Cartridge, but few support export. To my knowledge, neither Moodle nor Sakai do at this point, for example. Common Cartridge reduces LMS lock-in by making it easier for faculty to move their course content out of one system and into another. In this respect, at least, Blackboard has been more “Open” than either of the most popular open source LMSs for a year now. Last week, Blackboard announced that CourseSites would enable CourseSites users to attach a Creative Commons license to their Common Cartridge (and Blackboard cartridge) exports and automatically post them for download in a basic publicly available catalog. Furthermore, CourseSites makes it possible to tag those cartridges with metadata that is compatible with the budding Learning Resource Metadata Initiative (LMRI) that has been co-sponsored by Creative Commons. In other words, Blackboard is making it easy for teachers to export their courses in a standard, platform-neutral format under a Creative Commons license and make them more discoverable. The company claims that this real and potentially significant step forward in Openness will be rolled into a future version of Blackboard Enterprise.
In contrast, it’s hard to make heads or tails of the substance behind Pearson’s announcement because some of it is about software that I haven’t seen yet and some of it is about functionality that hasn’t been built yet. Pearson has made several statements regarding openness. First, they claim the platform will be open to all kinds of content. At the moment, I’m not aware of any LMS that isn’t, so this seems to be a defensive statement about open as in “not as closed as you might fear a platform owned by a textbook company might be.” They have promised to support the IMS LTI, LIS, and Common Cartridge open standards in the future, but I tend to put relatively little stock in announcements of intentions to implement until I see shipping software. (For the record, I will give equally little credit to Moodle’s announced intention to support Common Cartridge export until that code ships as well. I try to apply the same standards to proprietary products and open source projects alike.) Pearson has also talked about enabling students and teachers to collaborate across course and institutional barriers. This could be a significant kind of Openness, depending on exactly what it means and how it is implemented. For example, in the book Opening Up Education, Oxford University’s Stuart Lee argued that just such a capability in the open source Bodington LMS made it a significantly more Open system than more traditionally structured LMSs. Again, though, it’s hard to know whether Pearson’s implementation amounts to the same kind of openness without knowing the details of the software implementation.
To sum up, these two vendors’ approaches to both “free” and “open” are quite different. And yet they have been lumped together in many of the conversations that I have heard (often accompanied by much eye rolling). And the characterizations of them are often wildly inaccurate. I have heard more than one person describe Blackboard’s announcement as a “reaction” to Pearson’s, which clearly can’t be true since Blackboard must have spent months developing the software functionality and has only known about Pearson’s announcements for a few days (at most) before their own announcement hit. I have read at least two blogs go on about Pearson providing OpenClass as open source, despite the fact that Pearson never suggested they would do anything of the kind.
I hear pervasive complaints that vendors are beating “openness” into meaninglessness. There is undoubtedly truth behind these complaints. But the degree of sloppiness with which the academic community is evaluating the vendors’ claims strikes me as being equally complicit in the continuing devaluation of the word.
- Thanks to Blackboard’s own Jarl Jonas and George Kroner for giving me an overview of this functionality. [↩]