Open isn’t so open anymore

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.

72 Responses to “Open isn’t so open anymore”

  1. [...] I’ve posted a rant/whine on the current state of thinking in openness: Openness isn’t so open anymore [...]

  2. Side note on Google’s openness stance, and competitive principles/pragmatics as its driver: There’s arguably a gap between Google’s commitment to open information and its not-quite-free flow of data. The inconsistency may be due to technical rather than philosophical hang-ups, but an unconvincing show of walking the walk is ultimately an erosion of core principles. The Data Liberation Front, an internal engineering team at Google, has stepped in to mind the gap and act as openness watchdogs.

  3. roy says:

    Open is not new, but the kind of Free Software Openness a la Stallman has yet to be achieved. OK.

    Maybe we need different institutions, building on the ‘genius’ awards that Stallman, amongst others, was awarded.

    1. Cut the ‘genius’ tag, its soooo last season, and represents the worst of american celebrity culture.

    2. Shift to the ‘Mastery’ tag, as used in Japan, still, and used many years ago in awarding Masters degrees to people in their field (rather than in their academic courses) who had achieved mastery.

    3. The deal is, having been awarded the recognition of mastery, you can do what you like, and are paid a stipend to do so, but you have to pass on what you have mastered to others.

    • gsiemens says:

      Roy – while Stallman’s FS movement has not attained the openness it promotes, I still think it’s valuable for drawing a distinction between the current dominant proprietary model and alternatives. In a pre-copyright era, I imagine Stallman would have appeared far less radical.
      btw – agree about the celebrity culture concern. Pedestals are too quickly erected…

  4. I completely agree that the term “open” has lost all meaning. When Facebook and Blackboard are described as open, it’s clear that the word doesn’t mean what we thought it once did.

    The thing with educators (specifically teachers in the trenches) is that they are pragmatists out of need. They (largely) don’t have the luxury to step back and get ideological. They need to solve a problem, teach a lesson, manage a class, etc… They don’t care about Openness any more than they do about what brand of floor wax is used to keep their classroom clean. Openness isn’t the goal. Solving problems is.

    Teachers (and faculty) are more aware of openness now than ever before – because it’s solving problems for them. They use creative commons searches regularly, to find open content to use. But they don’t create their own content to share with others under the same license. They use open source software to facilitate discussions between students in a course. But, more often than not, those discussions are closed to outsiders.

    They’re aware of openness, they are starting to see the value, and are starting to push back against the commercial lock-in platforms. Every single faculty member I talk to goes on at length about how they hate Blackboard. They hate the closedness of it. They hate the design of the software, and our inability to readily integrate it with other things without paying someone a lot of money (which was just deleted from budgets anyway).

    At the university level, most faculty aren’t educators. They teach, but don’t have an educational background. Hoping for an ideology of openness is putting the cart before the horse. First, we’re working with them to get them thinking about education, about what it means to teach and learn, and THEN we can work with them on openness and ideology.

    I absolutely agree – openness has been devalued to the point of being a worthless buzzword (which, ironically, has been taken up by the proprietary vendors and closed systems as a marketing checklist item). But there are lots of people who hold openness as a key and critical stance/value/ideology, and who work hard to try to model and instil it in others – but you can’t force someone to embrace openness, or even to see what it really means.

    Even MIT, who have publicly embraced openness, been hailed as the pinnacle of openness, and put every course they teach online (in one form or another) is really just using openness as a marketing ploy.

    • gsiemens says:

      D’Arcy, you make several important points…the one that most resonates with me: “The thing with educators (specifically teachers in the trenches) is that they are pragmatists out of need.”

      I have similar experiences with educators. Between teaching load, faculty meetings, research, publications, most educators are too focused on advancing in their own field to begin looking at ideological concepts such as openness. But that might be part of the problem. Openness is seen as an add on, not a central aspect of teaching and learning. Maybe the importance of openness hasn’t been presented in the right way…maybe it’s not seen as relevant…or maybe philosophical discussions appeal to everyone (though, at a university level, I would think this should not be a problem. K-12 teachers – yes, philosophical discussions might not be seen as being critical – whether due to interest or available time).

      Given these challenges to ideological discussions, it’s even more important for leaders in the OE movement to attend to this. We don’t have to be experts in democracy to enjoy its benefits. But a society needs to ensure that someone is thinking about these topics in a theoretical way. Everything – laws, rights, policing – flows from this theoretical consideration. The on-the-ground teachers are, as you’ve noted, pragmatics by circumstance. Academics, however, should be taking on the challenge of ideological debate and critique.

  5. Jason says:

    You should check out Cory Doctorow’s new novel, “Makers.”

    It discusses the free/proprietary, open-source/centralized debate in a really interesting way through fiction. Also, it will definitely make you want to make stuff for free.

  6. Gary Lewis says:

    Thanks, George. Refreshing, direct, passionate. All wonderful. But you set your sights too low. It’s not just about open education. It’s about the type of world we want for our children and their children. Definitely, there should be vigorous discussion, debate, and disagreement around open education. But that’s a dead-end unless related issues also get considered. For example, you may have a vision of what open education means. But what has to occur to make that vision a reality? It’s all tied together in complex ways, so if you start at one point with something like open education you need to be prepared to trace through the various threads that present themselves. As I said, it’s all about our hopes for the world.

    I’ve made a suggestion previously (can’t remember where) that I’ll make again. You kicked the discussion about open education up a level with your post. It would be great if there existed a forum in which that could happen more systematically from all different perspectives, voices, cultures, biases, political leanings, whatever. I don’t know how it would work. Maybe one of those curated blogs with multiple and invited authors. Tomorrow’s learning as the core, but explorations afield to broaden the context. Another example. Michael Bauwens follows open education pretty closely on his blog but it is grounded in some pretty radical ideas that cut across typical boundaries like economics and culture. I’d love to have a forum (of some kind) where Bauwens might offer an occasional post about tomorrow’s learning and the world we might strive to see.

    Again, thanks.

  7. [...] extremely grateful for George’s recent post, “Open isn’t so open anymore.” It’s thoughtful and thought-provoking. I won’t respond to the post sentence for [...]

  8. Seth says:

    I agree with D’Arcy that teachers are pragmatic by necessity (and he said it better than I would). I would extend the argument to suggest that part of the reason teachers choose sites like Ning because there is no *easy* open alternative. Maybe there’s a half-baked Sourceforge project that does what they are trying to do, but the deficit is on the part of open source, not the teachers.

    The most successful open source projects are ones that appealed pragmatically. Apache had more flexibility than IIS. Firefox beat IE6; continues to have a rich ecosystem of plugins. Open Office did most of what people wanted from Microsoft Office at an attractive price point.

    Moving to how “open” is envisioned, I disagree with the binary concept. Actually, I suppose I see it as a binary within a gradient. Sure, if a resource/software is placed at an obscure URL, in a half-closed format with a restrictive license, then for most intents and purposes it is closed. I think the issue is that David would put that threshold at a lower standard than you or some others in the field might.

    I think the driving point for David is that he doesn’t want people scared out of open education simply because they don’t meet some sort of mob mentality or advocacy organization definition of what is truly open. I don’t mean to put words into David’s mouth, but I think he would suggest that one of the reasons open source has succeeded is because companies like Red Hat and Novell have embraced it. And they are criticized regularly for what are perceived to be anti-open decisions (I might disagree). The open source continues to have disagreements about what is open (see GPLv3 controversy)

    The Red Hat of OER doesn’t exist, in part, because idealists won’t allow it to exist. Think of the initiatives/efforts closest to sustainability in open education (the list might will vary, but might include Wikipedia, MIT OCW, Flat World Knowledge). Each of these have been heavily criticized from within the field for not fitting into one definition or another. I’m not suggesting that large projects should be immune for criticism (and I don’t think David did either). But there’s a difference between suggesting an initiative is a “marketing ploy” and “a start, but here’s where I think we should go from here. These are the benefits of greater openness…and we start by doing…”
    I have regular disagreements with people in open education about one point or another. But I don’t question their sincerity. How many people are you willing to chase off to maintain ideological purity? Until it is a movement of one?

    I sympathize what D’Arcy is saying about the term ‘open’ being diluted. He’s right to be jaded. But we need to make distinctions between outright misusing a term, and being open in a way that we disagree with.

    >Yes, pragmatics are easier. But pragmatics have a short life span.

    Without pragmatics we would only have a mountain of tweets, whitepapers and a yearly conference in which a bunch of people get together and take about how the establishment “doesn’t get it.” In fact, about every six months someone will post a “Really aren’t we all just blowing a lot of hot air.” That person gets praised for calling people out and things get reset for another six months. We need philosophers, idealists and people with ideas in this field, but short-changing people who try to produce something is less than helpful.

    • gsiemens says:

      Hi Seth – thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      I’m trying to find a suitable example or metaphor to express why I think openness needs to be considered in a less pragmatic manner. The history of democracy is the one that comes as close as any to making my point. Democracy is a field of inquiry – a subject of study. It has been debated for thousands of years. Yes, a pragmatic base exists in that discussion, but it [pragmatism] flows from ideology. Locke, Mill, Rousseau, Tocqueville, the Federalist Papers, etc. provide the theoretical underpinning for the pragmatic actions of government. University departments and foundations discuss the attributes of democracy. Organizations are formed to serve as “watchdogs”. My concern with openness is that we are bypassing the lessons learned in the maturation of democracy and going straight for pragmatics.

      Your final point – about the need for pragmatics – is important. Practical action is needed. But I’m not deterred in the least by someone saying “it’s all hot air” or “it’s too philosophical”. It’s an important discussion. And it’s hard. Not everyone will be interested in addressing abstract nuances. I just hope that enough people will be interested to ensure that openness in educational contexts is sufficiently considered to provide a foundation on which to build future education models.

  9. Chris L says:

    Strangely binary thinking here that openness “is not a methodology, but an ideology” when it is, of course, both. The methodology– the pragmatics– DO have a short lifespan, and should. The philosophy and ideology are what, in a healthy symbiosis, should drive those pragmatic operations. I don’t know how many Stallman-like figures we need. People like RS are necessary but insufficient, as are those who are radical within their on small systems and those who are preach and practice openness in their own small niches within (and outside of) institutions.

    You are making a rather large (and I think so far unsupported leap) to make a parallel between being open and alive. Can a window be partly open or a car door ajar? We can argue whether either of these things are practically useful or positive in a given situation, but to argue that they can’t happen, that there is only open and closed like there is alive or dead, or pregnant or not? I call “shenanigans.”

    That being said, I agree with your main contention– we need more work on the philosophy and subtleties of openness. But we need it at all gradations. Ironically, what we also need a lot more of is at the “opposite end” of things– people committed to simple, practical, open teaching, learning and living. As I’ve said before and will say again, that’s the currency of the ecosystem. Without that, the philosophers and grand theorizers and coiners-of-terms have only their individual coin without a mint.

    • gsiemens says:

      Hi Chris, “The philosophy and ideology are what, in a healthy symbiosis, should drive those pragmatic operations.” I fully agree. “Healthy symbiosis” is an articulate way of expressing what I’m trying to communicate. Pragmatism should flow from ideology/philosophy. I’m concerned about the lack of ideological consideration. If it’s happening, I’m not aware of it. Pragmatics are driving the “revolution”. And I don’t think it’s a healthy long term model.

      WRT to open/alive – I debated that for a while. I wasn’t feeling horribly creative when I wrote the post, so I guess I gave up on finding a better analogy too soon! My point: being alive has a threshold. There’s a point where we are, for all practical purposes, dead (as in when a person is actually dead or comatose and on life support). This threshold also applies to a window/door. Either can be open in gradients, but gradients are secondary to it being open. A threshold is reached with a 1mm open window could be classified as open, but not for any intent that might warrant utilizing the term.

      had to smirk about your final point – grand theorizers and coiners-of-terms! Well put. (good thing i’m not a term-coiner!)

  10. [...] following the beginnings of George Siemens‘ and David Wiley’s discussion of the term open as it relates to the open education [...]

  11. When I hear the word education, I reach for my revolver…

    Gary’s onto it. Put less emphasis on the word education and we might do better than the practical and belittling limitations of what it presently means to teach and learn. Take eduthink out of the context of industrial strength, institutionalised teaching and learning, and relate it more to wider individual and social concerns. Through this wider reference I might add, we already have our pure radicals. Stallman, Olbet, Lessig(?), Illich, Marx… even Christ..

    Inspiration, ideals, ideology, and radicals (should) come from outside education – most obviously because of the scary power over society that education associates with, and the relative privilege it holds.

    So I think the ideological references already exist. So it becomes a relatively simple task of inviting them to speak at our conferences, republishing their work in our journals, hosting discussion panels on their principles, basically packing the education agenda with such references and squeezing out the “economic rationalists” and “pragmatists” that have lowered our gaze to such inhumane levels. Through this coordinated and overwhelming curration of context, we will see policy, practice and culture change within the institutions, but more importantly I think, we will make room at the table for real alternatives.

    • gsiemens says:

      Hi Leigh – I’m reluctant to disagree with someone reaching for a revolver :) . While I agree with that much work has been done in developing ideals and ideology in many areas of society – democracy, human rights, rule of law – I view openness as a subject worthy of its own theoretical base. To leave the theoretical work to those outside of the field, and concerns ourselves only to pragmatism, seems wrong to me. We are the best caretakers of what is important and relevant to us, our learners, and our field. We can certainly draw inspiration from others. But we ought to own the theoretical underpinning of teaching/learning/education.

  12. Lanny Arvan says:

    Perhaps giving attention to the opposite extreme would help. IMHO a good representation of that was the recent TV miniseries, The Prisoner,, where all the side characters were afraid to say what was actually going on, for fear of the repercussions. I saw a good deal of that in the course I taught this fall – the students were so into pleasing the professor with whatever they produced that they didn’t know what it meant to please themselves.

    In that sense openness is about saying what we mean and staying true to our inner beings. Can that happen within a classroom, real or virtual, that is otherwise closed? Ironically, I argued with Leigh Blackall several years ago that it could happen in such an environment and indeed that was needed to protect the students from each other. My more recent experience is that it is so unusual to ask the students to be open that they need some shock to their systems to get there, so doing this out on the open Internet is necessary, at least at present.

    I have no clue how this translates to whether the software has to be open source, but that it is password protected is counter to what is necessary.

    • gsiemens says:

      Hi Lanny – I can relate to your experience of students finding openness foreign. Asking students to participate in open forums and engage with each other is often a new experience. Formal education is usually concerned with finding the right answer and the educator is the arbiter of that answer. Social networked learning seems too chaotic and too open when contrasted with closed/structured systems. Sometimes a bit of coercing is needed to get individuals to broaden their learning views…

  13. Kim Tucker says:

    Hi all,

    Are these links of interest to this discussion?

    Say Libre:


    A charter (libre interpretation):



  14. wow, two awesome posts back to back (the LMS/SNS was one of my favorite of 2009).

    To be brief, I think the most salient point you made (and also reiterated in the comments) was that the idea of open is like democracy, it’s a system in which things operate. If that’s the case, then the system is open, just like our democracy is democratic, on a spectrum. The “fabric” is there already and resources are being added, etc. Sure some are really closed (but just like in democracy, some decisions are not made by the people).

    I agree that things have become clouded, but it’s all relative. These companies we all point at for being open (applause!) or closed (boooo) all are trying to become more open (the definition just isn’t the same).

    So what really is open education? How can a new educational technology, text book or teacher epitomize what it is to be open? How can they afford to? How can they not? Those are the clarifications that I think will really make a difference as we continue to move through “openness”.

    • gsiemens says:

      HI Joseph – “so what really is open education?”. heh. wish I knew :) . Before we even talk about open education, some working definition of what openness is (and what it looks like) is important. David Wiley posits a 4R framework for “thinking about openness”: . In terms of open education …a very anemic wikipedia – – article offers this: “Open education is a collective term that refers to forms of education in which knowledge, ideas or important aspects of teaching methodology or infrastructure are shared freely over the internet.” Slightly related, Giving Knowledge for Free ( states that OERs are “digitised materials offered freely and openly for educators, students and self-learners to use and reuse for teaching, learning and research”.

      Short answer – the confusion around the application of openness in education is reflected in the lack of general agreement on openness in the first place.

  15. Doug Holton says:

    “We should criticize. We should debate.”

    Yeah but where. Blogging is now so huge a space that one can safely ignore criticism. Criticisms of connectivism aren’t really addressed for example (I’m not meaning to pick on you or Stephen). Wiley’s ideas aren’t criticized or else they are ignored unless you are one of the top bloggers I guess.

    That’s why twitter has usurped blogging somewhat – you can’t ignore criticisms as easily there, and that’s good. But twitter is getting too huge now also. Usually when a field matures you’d move to using something like a journal to publish ideas and respond and criticize, but a lot of open education debates are still not happening there. Perhaps a new open education journal is in order.

    Anyway, I’m actually agreeing with your post if it’s not clear, thanks for sharing it. I agree we need more ideological stalwarts and more honest criticism and debate in open education.

    I started working on a blog post with some other ideas (and ‘tips for the open professor’), but blogging just doesn’t have that feedback loop like it used to (unless you are a top blogger).

    • gsiemens says:

      Doug – that’s a good question…and I’m not sure where the conversation should happen. The space is rather vast – blogs, groups, forums, Twitter. It almost seems as if a person needs to be part of a network before she/he can gain from the value of being connected. The suggestion of an open education journal is interesting. How many journals are currently devoted to the topic? I must admit, I can’t think of any…the UNESCO mailing list (a somewhat periodic venture) tackles openness periodically, but not with enough of a sustained focus to address the concern you are raising…

      Gary – your point seems related to Doug’s – i.e. the need for a forum for discussion on openness in education. I’ve been somewhat involved in the conversation for a few years. As such, I have some familiarity with the voices, the issues, and the spaces in which to interact with others. Even then, it’s a chaotic and distributed conversation. I’m comfortable with that…but if I was new to the discussion and wanted to get up to speed with key issues, it would be very difficult. What suggestions do you have for a conversation space? Do we need something more rigid? Or should we emphasize people making sense of the openness by participating in networks they find most accessible?

  16. there’s the other side of the forced-pragmatism coin. teachers are pragmatic out of workload, systemic strain, etc… they’re busy running the teaching factories. but openness may make the factories obsolete or irrelevant.

    I really don’t see how we can get people to embrace anything – tech, openness, baconators – unless they want to. unless they see the need. unless they see how it will make their lives better. if it adds risk, or work, or complicates their lives, it’s a non-starter.

  17. >chmod 777 education

    George, are you ready to hit “Enter”? :)

    ( )

  18. Hi really enjoyed the post and the comment/debate. I am really struggling to understand why more work has not been done with ‘Open Education’. Lots of work on tools + content + technology; but for me, the missing bit is the ‘curriculum’ or whatever it is that motivates/directs/suggests what it is that learner needs/should/wants to learn – struggling with this at:


  19. Roel Cantada says:

    From the beginning of the use of the term “open” in education, imho it has been a compromise with businesses. I think RS does not emphasize openess in his ideology but rather freedom, and rights granted to specific individuals i.e. software producers and users to guarantee that freedom. If there is/was/would be a radical in open education what freedoms would he grant? And to which individuals? I personally would limit it to scholars (teachers who are also learners or vice versa), and not include non-teaching, non-learning people in the education system.

  20. [...] be some reluctance to pin down the meaning of the word open, George Siemens seeing it a word whose meaning has become lost through abuse, Dave Cormier seeing openness as too Zen for definition whereas David Wiley argues for more [...]

  21. Frances Bell says:

    Great post George. I really enjoyed reading it and the responses it has provoked. Here is my twopennorth

  22. [...] 31, 2009 · Leave a Comment George Siemens has written a post arguing for a clearer understanding of what the ‘open’ in [...]

  23. Tim Kastelle says:

    Very interesting post George. I’ve got two thoughts.

    The first is that a big part of the value of Stallman is as an anchor. It doesn’t matter if he every makes it to the table himself – by advocating an idealistic vision he shifts the terms of debate in his direction. This makes ideas that might have seemed radical otherwise less so in comparison, and it gets others to the table that could not get there without Stallman’s reframing of the terms of debate.

    The second is that a big part of the problem is sloppy business thinking. I don’t have as much of an issue as some with viewing universities from a business perspective. But I think it is a critical error when people do this lazily. So the idea that students are customers is not a business idea, it’s a stupid business idea, which is just wrong. It is a large part of what is driving people towards thinking that their teaching materials are ‘intellectual property’. If our students are our customers, then our product must be our courses, which means that course materials must be protected. I think this entire line of thinking is wrong. If, on the other hand, the universities produce educated citizens, this actually creates a strong argument in favour of openness, since continued and broad access to learning materials supports this objective.

  24. [...] field. Back in November, David Wiley wrote a post called “Defining ‘Open.’” George Siemens weighed in with “Open isn’t so open anymore” in which he took issue with David’s statement that: “open is a function of gradients [...]

  25. Judy Breck says:

    [I also posted this comment at Iterating toward openness.]

    Since 1997, I have pushed the vision of what I think is the pivotal mechanism for learning online. In a post today on my blog, I have made comments based on the Wiley-Siemens-Reverend-Commentors conversation. Min is this one fundamental point:

    Pedagogical tools and the knowledge they teach are not the same thing! It is the knowledge that must be open for learning gold to emerge from the internet swamp. Knowledge itself is network of cognitive nodes that has nestled into the online open network. It makes little difference if pedagogy is open, nuanced, or behind a wall. Curricula, courses, textbooks, lesson plans — pedagogical content — are great to have online, but are essentially analog teaching tools.

    The huge change when knowledge itself is open online is that emergent patterns can mirror directly into the networking mind of a student. Open (yes, binary open) is absolutely necessary for every node that participates in patterns of this sort.

    There is more of this stubborn, irritating, aggravating idea – complete with pictures – at my post:

  26. [...] Open Education debate is continuing – see contributions by George Siemens, Dave Wiley, Frances Bell, Jim Groom and Stephen [...]

  27. [...] said, we’ve still left a lot unexamined in our sphere of consensus – the basic questions of ideology. One idea that is there is that students are our customers. Another is the idea that it’s [...]

  28. Catching up, here:

    This observation matches my experience: “Educators are using tools like Ning, Blogger, Facebook, and SecondLife, with little or no consideration to ideological openness. Pragmatics reign.” Working with instructors across the US, this is the default state. I have to introduce the ideological questions, most of the time. I second D’Arcy’s comments about time.

    Blackboard is “open”? Says who?

    I like this point a lot, Judy, separating “Pedagogical tools and the knowledge they teach”.

    It’s crucial to add the effects of the Great Recession here, especially in the US. The crisis in academic funding is enormous. One effect (of many) is to make open education more appealing, to many audiences. Again and again I find academics (faculty, librarians, instructional technologists) more interested in Web 2.0 tools than ever, due to the price point. “Ning is free? cool, I’ll try it…” In my work, this is a huge shift from the pre-Lehman Brothers world.

    In the world of 2010, I suspect we’ll see open ed keep coming up as a topic, based on 2009 trends.

  29. [...] worth reading in full and has the links to the twitter and blogging conversation that preceded it. And don’t miss [...]

  30. [...] Open isn’t so open any more [Connectivism blog] [...]

  31. Jason says:

    Some great opinions and feedback here.

    Unfortunately I think the more people who have been introduced to open source via a Google (or other commercial outlet) have little interest to take part in the community behind any development of programs or tools. And to a large extent that is fine, it’s expected to have a certain size of users who don’t contribute, but what does that say about openness? The point is to have participation that will in turn be in the interest to protect openness for all. Instead it’s become more disinterest on the part of building the open source process and more about the commercial pragmatism you talk about; how open becomes a product to reach a broader consumer/user base.

    I think the more devastating factor is that open source is going by way the marketing paradigm with the help of those like Chris Anderson’s “Free”. We do need a new Stallman, someone to bring perspective back to the importance of the ideology and correct this direction of making open source become nothing but a freemium. But unfortunately this also requires battling much of the advertising of companies who have latched onto open source and try to appeal to consumer narcissism (and a prime example is the current android phenomena).

  32. Open: A decision-making process recognizing communities of distributed stakeholders, as opposed to a centralized authority, in determining operational and strategic direction. Open is differentiated from transparent, in that transparency provides the stakeholder community access to–and perhaps even a platform to inform–the reasoning, debate, considerations, outcomes, etc. that affected an authority’s organizational, operational or strategic decision, whereas openness shifts authority for decisions to the stakeholder community.

  33. karl says:

    When someone says ideology, I often, think « church » and all its derivatives : zealots, blasphemy, etc. An healthy ecosystem has diversity is hackable and makes it possible to have different outcomes.

    1. Prehistory: « Open » being a kind of underground culture for a very long time became finally famous. Circumstances of the society, new priorities, new generation of people (geeks) helped to achieve that.

    2. The age of iron: For anything which is successful at a macro level in the society come the second generation of people who want benefits of it. First they are the initial « believers » who were living from another activity and wants to live accordingly with their beliefs. It is the first shock and the first softener of the ideology. They have to make compromise with the other markets of the ecosystem. It’s when we start to hear *pragmatic* discourses. Few of them will be successful and then will start bending some rules.

    3. The age of industrial revolution: The ecosystem of is here and there are a lot of secondary activities and people. Some people who were not believers but who were just mere employees of the believers. This includes marketers, businessmen, business angels, etc. They want to make a living, they want to invest into it. A lot of tools are available and people using them don’t even know they are the byproduct of this original philosophy. Some people think we have to be careful and keep a minimum of the principles and they organize control organizations (certification, labelling, etc.). It can even reach the legal and political framework of the society.

    4. The age of financial market: The original philosophy is gone, the system remains. Some of the original believers think it is a big success for the philosophy. Some getting older became a lot more flexible than when they were young. Some are angry (sometimes very angry) because the principles have been forgotten. They will fork, restart a small group (prehistory) or go on a deserted island and exclude themselves with broken flowers in their dreams.

    This happens in many many social groups. Look at organic culture for example, or certain think tanks. It all depends on which levels you want to be, which matters to you. Global or local.

  34. Teemu L says:


    Let’s simply forge and start to call the “ideological education” “free education” with reference to libre, freedom, free culture, free software …

  35. Adrian says:

    The Open Knowledge Foundation has – among other very good projects – done really good work in defining ‘open’ choosing a rather radical approach. Have a look at

  36. [...] debate was sparked off by a blog post by George Siemens entitled ‘Open isn’t so open anymore‘ and appealing for more time to be “spent in establishing idealistic roots – rather [...]

  37. DolorsCapdet says:

    Interesting debate.

    Of course, it is essential theorize and document the need for Open Education.

    But, I would like offer the following a realistic point to reflection.

    The movement Open Source (= free software) is socially accepted, by their economic value more than by ideology. In some cases because it has become an business alternative (development of programs and subsequent maintenance). In other cases because is of we use free and save a lot of bureaucracy and the disappointment of receive an negative answer for lack of budget, …

    But what is the economic value of Open Education? Producing content is priced. Implement courses requires hosting, a mentoring, and this has a cost, … Who pays?

    We can not base the future of Open Learning in altruism. We must seek a formula that allows governments to accept and implement this model as a common good, and therefore of priority need.

    One final point. It is interesting open a large forum or publication to discuss the issue as suggested by some answers. But the audicencia will always be limited. I believe that once the theoric points, funding and ROI, are established, is requires devise a campaign of widespread dissemination for generated the indisputable need of an Open Education for all.

  38. [...] George, though, is cool. [...]

  39. Stephen says:

    Great discussion – we should clarify that open source, does not mean free. Martin Lamonica’s article ( is one of many that highlight that free is not practical in terms of any application of openness. The philosophers can certainly debate and pontificate on openness as a construct, but once you apply it to any human enterprise, whether software development or education or windows for that matter, there is a pragmatic consequence: resource implications that mean some form of monetization, as well as opportunities for benefit – often economic, though also developmental.

    Perhaps we should consider if the objective is about openness or about ownership and opportunity – and change our terminology appropriately: “community-based” (rather than “open source”), and “shared/peer developed” (rather than “open” education)?

  40. Stephen says:

    Sorry about the link – for Martin Lamonica’s article it should be,-open-wallet/2100-7344_3-5934144.html

  41. DolorsCapdet says:

    :-) Stephen, of course, the concept of Open Source not is free software but I encourage you to do a survey to find out what percentage believes that if is the same thing.

    For two years, I was the Director of Training of an Official College of Engineering in Computer. I know, therefore, the subject and I can assure that the supporters are few, but very actives and radicals ideologically while the rest do not hesitate to say he is not interested in the topic. :-(

    With Open Education is the same case. Also it is considered free and therefore of little value. :-(

  42. [...] George Siemens posted some thoughts on the topic of openness as an ideology, and a dialogue began to take shape around whether the open [...]

  43. Truly inspiring. You make some really great points about the current fad of joint collaboration and shared knowledge among our industry today. We are working on an open methodology project and would love your input (whether it be criticism or applause) at We are of the opinion that criticism and suggestive feedback is necessary to move things forward.

  44. [...] just read a very thought-provoking post on Connectivism titled “Open isn’t so open anymore.”  It got me thinking about the core value behind the open methodology concept.  It is [...]

  45. [...] Open isn’t so open anymore « Connectivism   « Daily Digest for January 4th |   [...]

  46. [...] through the original post by George Siemens (“Open isn’t so open anymore”), the long comment thread that has ensued, and the many fine follow-ups (see: David Wiley’s [...]

  47. [...] through the original post by George Siemens (“Open isn’t so open anymore”), the long comment thread that has ensued, and the many fine follow-ups (see: David Wiley’s [...]

  48. Scott Leslie says:

    George, is there anything preventing YOU being the “good ol’ radicals in open education” that we need? How many do we need? What’s not being said that needs to be said?

    And where can I sign up for the “George Siemens for Prime Minister” campaign? I’m only being half-facetious here; many of the things that appear to irk you (e.g. the expedience of free over open) seem like somewhat natural reactions of people in systems being affected by larger forces over which they have little control.

    I want to be sympathetic here as I do believe your desire for change is sincere and your frustration palpable. But I also have a hard time seeing how “What should we be doing? I’m unsure” is a great start to a response. The other suggestions – well, I’m lukewarm on them, they seem to be more of the same model we already have, just now aimed at ‘openness. Which leaves me thinking – you do your thing, I’ll do mine. But I take that to be one of the motivations behind this screed, that this lack of coordination is part of what’s “killing” openness. If so, I’m left wondering if what reads like a set of nameless yet pointed indictments is the best way to enlist conspirators. But hey, I’m just some shmoe from Vancouver Island, not an internationally renowned figure trying to foment revolution.

    • gsiemens says:

      Hi Scott,

      I don’t completely follow what you are getting at with your opening statement. I have no idea how many radicals we need. Is it a numbers game?

      In terms of what is not preventing me from being a good ol’ radical, I’m trying to be just that in advancing a theoretical discussion. I’m working on a project that will be starting in a few weeks that will flesh this [theoretical discussion] out a bit more.

      Sorry – as an immigrant to Canada, I don’t qualify for prime minister :) . But you’re right about people being in a system that is restrictive to change. D’Arcy alluded to this in his comments as well. Our attention should be focused on systemic change, but, it’s hard to direct change of a system when many are content to function within the system (change within, rather than change on a system). Hence my rant about the need for discussions of ideologies, not only practical activities.

      My “I’m not sure” comment is driven by the fact that, well, I’m not sure. I’m inviting conversation. I want to engage in dialogue, in philosophical/theoretical details of openness. And other than a post on my blog, I don’t know, at this stage, on the best direction to take.

      Can you clarify “nameless yet pointed indictments?”

      And, no, you’re not some shmoe from Vancouver Island. You’ve been playing in and contributing to this game longer than most.

  49. Scott Leslie says:

    I really resisted wading in here in the first place and I am doing my best not to get into this anymore. I really don’t find it productive. But the whole post brought to mind a famous quote about the real founders of the internet, the IETF from one of it’s members, David Clark: “We reject kings, presidents and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code.”