Perhaps ‘Open’ Is a Flag of My Disposition…

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.[1] 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.

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  1. Thanks to Blackboard’s own Jarl Jonas and George Kroner for giving me an overview of this functionality. []

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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17 Responses to Perhaps ‘Open’ Is a Flag of My Disposition…

  1. Ben says:

    Have you looked at OpenClass yet? We just activated it at my organization based on your positive comments about it from a couple weeks ago. I feel like I must be missing something. The home page looks modern and interesting. Then I “created a course.” I felt like I was stepping into a time warp back 10-15 years. What I saw (which appears to be re-branded e-college) is definitely not the future. Integrating with google apps is great. Old 90s interface that is even less inviting than moodle is not. But, seriously, I’m thinking that I really must be missing something.

  2. No, I think I’ve been fairly clear in my posts at saying that I have not seen OpenClass yet.

  3. I’m genuinely curious about OpenClass but also haven’t seen it. But as this isn’t the first comment I’ve seen that its LMS design doesn’t live up to the promotional emphasis on “amazing”, I’m puzzled by the risk that appears to have been taken: that the LMS design in itself wouldn’t matter, despite the fact that the academic LMS market is already titanically cranky with other major providers.

    Being able to detach LMS access from LMS cost is going to be a complicated proposition for education: I suspect some of the potential will be inhibited by traditional institutions who will need to be able to justify the reason they’re paying to maintain a pool for the neighbours’ kids to swim in. But I think you’re right that this is a significant kind of openness that’s worth pushing for.

  4. Rob Abel says:

    Wow! What a great post – nothing like a little clarity.

    I just want to let everyone know that there is only one way to know for certain if a shipping product implements IMS Common Cartridge and has passed interoperability testing. It’s the public IMS conformance certification page:

    The page lists specific versions of products that have passed testing – and, for Common Cartridge there is a column that designates if the product supports export of CC. If you go there as of today, Nov 30, 2011, you will see, for instance, that Blackboard v9.1 SP6 supports export of all versions of Common Cartridge. The other platforms that have passed conformance certification for some version of their product and support export are: Agilix, ANGEL, ATutor (open source), ATutorSpaces (open source), and Merlot Content Builder (public OER tool). There are a bunch more that support Common Cartridge import (like Sakai and D2L).

    It is extremely important for buyers to look at this page before buying. If a supplier is telling you that they can do Common Cartridge – either import or export – and they are not listed on this page, well, it means that it has not been tested by the IMS Common Cartridge community that has agreed to cooperate together to ensure interoperability. Via this community, IMS not only oversees the testing, but also works with the community members to run to ground any interoperability issues that may occur. Also, as you will note from the different versions of Common Cartridge, it is evolving to support to new features once or twice a year If the product you are considering is not on this list, it is a good indicator that the company may not be following or may not be committed to incorporating these improvements as they occur.

    For IMS, and for users, it’s all about actually achieving the interoperability in practice from these standards – not a marketing seal or claim. So, looking at the above page as the authoritative source is another way to get clarity on what your product can or cannot do.

    I will say that MoodleRooms has told IMS that they are very close to being able to run their code through the conformance process and get on the list. I’ve also been told by Pearson that they would like to get OpenClass certified ASAP. This is all great! But, even I, Mr. IMS, only believe it for sure when it has passed and is on the list and part of the community process.


  5. And I, Dr. Chuck, only add a vendor to my “LTI Ring of Compliance Tattoo” when they have formally and officially passed the certification test as mentioned above. There are only three more openings in the tattoo – so the next three major LMS vendors to pass the compliance test will be the last three in the tattoo as that will complete the tattoo’s design.

  6. Pingback: Crosstalk: The Meaning of "Free" and "Open"; Mobile Presentations - Wired Campus - The Chronicle of Higher Education

  7. Phil Hill says:

    Too bad that consultants can’t make any tattoo rings.

    Michael – great post, and good points about the very different nature of the ‘free’ and ‘open’ offerings from Pearson and Blackboard. One issue, however, is that you make the assumption that Blackboard’s announcement could not possibly be a reaction (or ‘counter-move’, which I used in a post) to Pearson’s announcement “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 submit that it is quite possible that Blackboard knew about the Pearson announcement a while ago, or at least the broad outlines of the announcement. I heard no fewer than 6 people talking about the announcement months ago, and don’t forget that Pearson had 6 or 7 “design partners” working with them – including classes being taught using portions of OpenClass. It seems that no one spoke publicly about it, through blogs, tweets, etc, but there were quite a few people who knew. Blackboard is good at the corporate strategy game, and I would actually be surprised if they did not know some details months ago. I personally do not know for sure either way, but it is very plausible that they knew and at least framed their announcement at Educause as a counter-move.

    That being said, I do agree with your point about needing to avoid sloppiness in evaluating vendor announcements.

  8. Well, OK, I suppose it is possible in principle that Blackboard knew about OpenClass, knew it would be called OpenClass, and knew that the thing that would send people into a PR frenzy about it is “openness” despite the fact that there are very few specifics in what has been announced about the product that highlight “openness.” But let’s apply Occam’s razor here. Blackboard has been banging the “open” drum for a couple of years now. They started working on improving open standards support soon after Ray arrived. They did the whole open database thing. This latest announcement is entirely consistent with a multi-year strategy. While you can disagree with Blackboard’s definition of “openness,” it’s hard to argue at this point that they have not made a serious strategic commitment to it as they define it.

  9. Greg Ketcham says:

    NDAs generally preclude public comment on a pending product launch from those involved, so I’m not at all surprised by the lack of widespread pre-launch public comment on Pearson. I offer this rhetorical question: how open is a platform intended to be when it’s pre-launch code name is “Project Berlin”?

  10. Just an FYI that I found it useful to review the post from Anya that Michael links to ( ). While it’s important to delineate the different types of openness that exist in the Pearson and Blackboard products we shouldn’t forget the more fundamental types of openness that I think Anya is alluding to in using the term “open-washing.”

  11. Cable Green says:

    Well said, Michael. Creative Commons looks forward to working with OpenClass (& any other educational technology tool – open or not) to make it simple for their users to share their creative works with a CC license.

  12. As Michael correctly points out the Bb Announcement was just the continuation of a series of “Openness” updates Ray has given since his first blog post after the ANGEL merger. Blackboard and Pearson make announcements at Educause every year. This year they both happened to include the word “open” because “open” has become like “enterprise” was a few years ago.

  13. Pingback: OpenCloud and Free Learning Mangement | The College of 2020 | Future of Higher Education

  14. Bob Yavits says:

    Open Courses, Open Textbooks, Open Educational Resources, and now Open LMS’s? Are Open Wall Street and Open Banks on the horizon?

    Somewhat more seriously, the term “open” seems to be best interpreted as analagous to an “open” door. It can be anywhere from slightly ajar to “fully” open. I’m glad to see that Creative Commons has applied at least some differentiation to various forms of open licensing.

  15. Pingback: EduGeek Journal » The Battle For Openness In The LMS Market

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