Archive for December, 2009

Open isn’t so open anymore

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

We need some good ol’ radicals in open education. You know, the types that have a vision and an ideological orientation that defies the pragmatics of reality. Stubborn, irritating, aggravating visionaries.

Today, I fear, open education is beset with a more moderate spirit. People are trying to make a living off of being open – i.e. openness as a utility to advance a career, gain recognition from peers, or make money. This is fine. But it’s not what I’d expect in the early stage of a movement. Ideological purity in open education had a very short existence. Instead of building a future foundation, we see instead a foundation to serve for career advancement.

This was made rather clear to me in a recent exchange on Twitter. I posted a tweet (in response to Dave Cormier’s Top 10 of 2009) saying openness is a stage through which we pass…the real impact is systemic change. Things lingered for a day or so until Alec Couros asked for clarification and I responded by saying “look at open software – we are on the way out of that movement. it changed things systemically. that’s the real impact”.

Well, then the gloves were off.

Most people who contributed to the conversation, while questioning my mental acuity, were at least willing to discuss/debate (one individual, however, took the passive/aggressive stance of someone responding as if I had questioned the Pope’s religious affiliation). D’Arcy Norman finally suggested that the conversation wasn’t too productive on Twitter and that a blog post might be in order.

That’s how we got here.

Let me start by stating that “open” is a term that is now essentially meaningless. Apparently Twitter is open. So is Blackboard. And Facebook.

David Wiley states that open is a function of gradients (”a continuous, not binary, construct”). According to Wiley, openness is not an ideological concept, like democracy, but rather a functional or utilitarian construct: like a door or window being open or partly open. I can see the appeal of this view – the value of something is discovered in its implementation. But it seems wrong to me when applied to an ideological concept such as openness.

Let’s briefly consider the gradient view of openness. It’s like saying being alive is a gradient. We are more or less alive. That may be true. A teenager, not positioned in front of a PS3, may have more “life” than a senior. But really, at some point, being alive has a threshold. Is being on life support part of the construct of aliveness? Or is a window that is open precisely 1 mm open? In both cases, we could say, well, yes, of course the patient is alive or the window is open. But not at all in a way that we commonly associate with the concepts. And, in the case of a window, of absolutely no practical use for why we would want to have a window open in the first place. Seeing openness as a gradient in education is an accommodating approach, an act of moderation.

Even democracy – a much abused and increasingly meaningless term – still has some relevance. Most of us would not say that China is a democracy. Or that the USSR was. The gradient of democracy has a threshold.

On holding hands and running through meadows with our friends

Richard Stallman has been somewhat replaced by, or even written out of, the open source movement. Stallman was (and still is) an uncompromising radical. Or at least that is how the well established proprietary software field sees him. The open source movement developed in response to what others perceived as Stallman’s unpalatable views for mainstreaming openness.

(If you’re interested, I explored this in a bit more detail in Free and Open Source Movements, part 1 and part 2 (somewhat related: Why we should share learning resources).)

I’ve stated in the past that I’m concerned about open education suffering the fate of Stallman – marginalized because it is not palatable at the “power table”. I still think this is a valid concern. But we first need a Stallman in open education before we can even begin to marginalize him. We need an idealist that sets the stage for thinking and debate around openness.

Wiley suggests that: “If another person or institution’s approach to openness doesn’t help you meet your goals, then look for help somewhere else – don’t criticize them”.

I disagree. We should criticize. We should debate. By not criticizing gradient views of openness, by failing to establish a solid foundation on which to discuss openness, we are providing an ideology for our generation, not one that serves as a future-focused movement. Openness is a hard topic to discuss ideologically because it’s important. Yes, pragmatics are easier. But pragmatics have a short life span.

Open source is often presented as a methodology, not an ideology – i.e. open source is an approach of collaborative work, shared creation, continual iteration (insert your favorative Torvalds or Raymond quote of bugs, many eyes, cathedrals, bazaars, release early/often, etc.). But openness is not a methodology. Openness is an ideology along the lines of democracy. It is worthy of theoretical discussion. And various modes of implementation should be subject to debate and criticism.

Interlocking, self-enforcing systems

We are at a point where the system of education, in spite of pundits proclaiming otherwise, is still firmly entrenched in the large interlocking systems of modern society. While we are seeing some change around the edges in online learning, this change is largely prohibitive of broader systemic change.

Ultimately, openness will be translated into systems. To a degree, we’re already seeing this. It’s Fad-wagon jumping. Just like the “green movement”. I’m sick of commercials with new cars driving through lush forests, suggesting that if only I buy their vehicle the world will be greener. Green is treated as a utility to sell vehicles. For many companies in the educational field, open is the new green: use it to sell your product.

Why is an ideological position on openness important?

Reality has a way of eroding the ideologies at implementation. In the US – and around the world, for that matter – numerous organizations exist to preserve democracy, individual rights, etc. This is necessary because theoretical ideals are shaped (altered) in the grind of reality. Sometimes this is necessary – eras change, values change. Sometimes, however, we must – through sheer will and stubbornness – bend reality to the ideals that have been thoughtfully debated.

If our foundation of openness is what we see today – where obviously closed systems like Blackboard and Facebook are called “open” – then I’m concerned about what openness will mean in the near future. At our current pace, openness will soon be indistinguishable from utility and monetization. While we often hear criticism of Stallman’s inflexibility, he has done more to advance openness by not accommodating than he could have possibly done by assuming a moderate or even commercial stance.

In education, open source is taking a back seat. Educators are using tools like Ning, Blogger, Facebook, and SecondLife, with little or no consideration to ideological openness. Pragmatics reign.

The open source movement is riding on the successes of the late 90’s, early 2000. Innovation has shifted to proprietary systems. Other than the usual reference to LAMP, what major new open source initiatives have gained attention in the last five years? Almost every popular software/technology developed during this time is not open source: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, iPhone, Kindle, etc. The only tools that readily come to mind are Wordpress, and to a lessor degree, Drupal.

Kinda-open tools rely on trust between the company and the user. But terms of use can change quickly. Yes, a public outcry has caused Facebook to step back from initiatives like Beacon and Amazon to apologize for deleting 1984 from Kindles. But the outcry of the masses is hardly a suitable basis on which to build openness. With each attempt at reducing our personal freedom (such as the recent soft-forced transparency in Facebook), we risk becoming acclimated. This seems to be Facebook’s approach – try something, weather outrage, implement it (i.e. status updates from several years ago).

Most of us have become satisfied with “free” in terms of cost, not in terms of code. In this regard, I often reference Mark Pilgrim’s post on “free enough”:

WordPress is Free Software. Its rules will never change. In the event that the WordPress community disbands and development stops, a new community can form around the orphaned code. It’s happened once already. In the extremely unlikely event that every single contributor (including every contributor to the original b2) agrees to relicense the code under a more restrictive license, I can still fork the current GPL-licensed code and start a new community around it. There is always a path forward. There are no dead ends…It’s not about money; it’s about freedom.

Where does this leave us?

Google has defined openness in their organization:

There are two components to our definition of open: open technology and open information. Open technology includes open source, meaning we release and actively support code that helps grow the Internet, and open standards, meaning we adhere to accepted standards and, if none exist, work to create standards that improve the entire Internet (and not just benefit Google). Open information means that when we have information about users we use it to provide something that is valuable to them, we are transparent about what information we have about them, and we give them ultimate control over their information.

Google is not interested in openness beyond a utilitarian view. In fact, Google is the ultimate user of openness – they proudly proclaim that they are “built on openness” and that they are “the largest open source contributor in the world, contributing over 800 projects that total over 20 million lines of code to open source”.

Why are they doing this?

For competitive reasons. If Google found the best leverage in competition with Microsoft (and others) on a proprietary premise, they would willingly pursue it. Google is direct in stating that they feel “openness will win”. For Google, openness is a lever of competition, not a principle to be pursued in its own right. If, and when, a different basis for competition is discovered, openness will take a back seat. The goal, after all, is profit.

What should we be doing?

I’m unsure. Openness should mean something. It should be driven by ideology, rather than convenience. As a foundational principle in education, openness should be discussed, critiqued, encouraged, and aggressively preserved. Or perhaps, openness can best be conceived as the cloth on which the patterns of education are stitched.

Obviously some type of definition of openness in education would be helpful. What does it mean to be open? What is an open methodology? What does openness look like in relation to technology, information, learning content, administrative systems (transparency of the student record and related data collection by an institution), and pedagogy?

On one level, it would be helpful if we were able to provide commentary on the degree to which an institution is open (an Openness Ranking?) by looking at their use of open source software, open scholarship, licenses applied to content, etc. Despite its failings, PISA is still capable of making its way into policy discussions and decisions.

Do we need an EFF-like organization that preserves openness? An advocacy group?

Do we need greater formalization and promotion of openness within education? Or will openness as an ideology have little or no traction outside of a small group of marginal fanatics?

The uncertainty on how to organize ourselves is precisely what has caused openness to veer to the pragmatic. Why spend days, even months, debating seemingly insignificant details of openness? Why not just produce something and share it in any manner you wish? Why not just let openness evolve as it is?

Robert Hutchins has stated that “the death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment”. A similar concern exists for openness in education.

The quality of our thinking in these still early stages of openness will produce future systems and related affordances. The Federalist Papers, for example, were important in shaping the future of the Western world. Much of the debate could be treated as irrelevant and inconsequential. But the time spent in establishing idealistic roots – rather than pursuing more readily achievable pragmatic goals – has paid substantial dividends.