Educause Review is open education and there are several excellent articles by some of the leading figures in the OER movement like George Siemens, Dave Cormier and David Wiley. Amidst all the enthusiasm it was interesting to read one article that cast a little shadow, Never mind the edupunks or the great web 2.0 swindle by Brian Lamb and Jim Groom.
The main point of the article is that despite the advances made by open education we are becoming increasingly dependent on commercial forces. We entrust vast amounts of our thoughts and creativity to corporations like Google, Facebook and Apple and the authors are worried that true openness can be compromised by commercial interests.
"Has the wave of the open web crested, its promise of freedom crashed on the rocks of the proprietary web? Can open education and the corporate interests that control mainstream Web 2.0 co-exist? What does "open educational technology" look like, and does it stand for anything? Do higher education institutions dare seize a mission of public service in fostering an open web worthy of the name? Can ambition and idealism prevail in an age of economic austerity? Finally, what is the role of the open educational technologist—that is, the "open ed tech"?"
As more and more universities distribute lectures via iTunes U or communicate with gmail or Google Apps there are also concerns about putting educational material in the hands of for-profit organisations. There are of course plenty success stories when it comes to open source tools, open access publishing and creative commons licensing. But when it comes to ease of use and attractiveness of design the commercial products are often just too tempting - and they're free.
The trouble with Facebook, Google, Apple and friends is that the prime customer for them is the advertiser because that's where the revenue comes from. We provide content and attract other users who will then see the ads. Should educational resources be placed in that arena at all, subject to market fluctuations? You can put your entire project in the hands of Google for example but what if they decide to pull the plug on the services or make it a pay service, as Ning did recently with its social networking tool?
Should education try to steer clear of commercial forces and aim for truly open solutions? The authors seem to think so:
"We strongly believe that higher education should embrace a mission to create, cultivate, and promote "safe spaces" that are not only open but also free from overtly commercialized interests ... We dream of higher education that embraces its role as a guardian of knowledge, that energetically creates and zealously protects publicly-minded spaces promoting enlightenment and the exchange of ideas. We need green spaces for conviviality on the web. Institutions of higher education—and the open ed techs who work in them—are in a unique position to create and preserve these spaces."
The suggestion is that web 2.0, having promised so much in terms of collaboration and freedom, has been hi-jacked by big business and that we somehow should try to avoid letting education sell its soul. I sympathise with the idea but whenever a good idea comes along someone will make money out of it. The challenge is to be aware of the drawbacks of relying on commercial solutions, especially if they are free, and to strike a balance between knowing when to take the commercial route and when to find a more open alternative.