Sunday, February 9, 2014

How wide is open?

As I continue through the course Open Content Licensing for Educators it's time for further reflections that are also of general interest to readers of this blog.

One general point that has struck me on this course is that so far it is not exactly objective towards its subject. The course investigates the principles of openness in education, the advantages of open licensing forms such as Creative Commons and the benefits of open textbook publishing. Given that it is organised by the OER university partnership the assumption is that openness is inherently good and as far as I can see all participants are in remarkable agreement. Now I am also one of the converted here but somehow I rather miss a devil's advocate on this course to ruffle our feathers a bit. There's plenty material explaining the absurdities of current copyright restrictions and we have stirring speeches from inspirational figures such as Lawrence Lessig, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Stephen Downes and David Wiley to present the case for openness. However I would like to see some rational but opposing views in here to make us think a bit more. The sort of views our skeptical colleagues often voice. Maybe some voices from the publishers; I know many who are sympathetic to the open movement but have sound and interesting reservations. Let's hear from them too. Otherwise the course risks becoming a case of preaching to the converted.

One such objection that a colleague of mine voiced last week is worth raising. Many teachers are worried that if they allow reuse and adaptation of their resources, parts of their lectures could be taken out of context and made to support arguments that they do not agree with. We all know how tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines can take an innocent remark out of context and blow it into a hot scandal. What do you do when your Creative Commons licensed lecture is heavily edited and used to appear to support an extremist cause? Of course you can try to reason with the person responsible but the damage is already done and the film could have already gone viral. This is a genuine fear for many and we need to address it.

Another problem is whether you can afford to be open. In affluent western societies teachers have reasonable monthly salaries and can afford to be open but it's not always so easy. I read a few years ago about an OER initiative in a developing country (sadly I cannot remember where or provide a reference) where teachers at state universities were being encouraged to publish their resources openly. Although this seems an admirable move from our perspective (ie developed affluent society) it backfired on simple financial grounds. Teachers were extremely poorly paid and one way to make ends meet was to write the textbook for your course and earn a little extra by selling it as required course literature. Without this extra income teachers claimed they would find it very hard to survive. Here the barrier to OER adoption is connected to teacher salaries and the state of the nation's economy.

I have however learnt from this course how complicated openness really is and that there are many subtle shades to consider. It's easy to exclaim that everything should be open and free but to really make openness work we need to deal with all those "what ifs" and accept that freedom can and will be abused and how we should deal with such abuses. Maybe the next part of the course will reveal more. Stay tuned.


  1. Hi Alastair,

    That's fair comment. The OCL4Ed course does have an open bias. The introductory sessions focus on the concept of open education and the discussion on barriers and opportunities is designed to play the devil's advocate and contra position.

    For some reason, the devil's advocate discussion has been rather quiet during this instance. In previous offerings of OCL4Ed this has been a valuable, rich and very active discussion exploring the contra position. Perhaps we have too many open advocated participating this time round.

  2. re: What do you do when your Creative Commons licensed lecture is heavily edited and used to appear to support an extremist cause?

    CC Licenses contain a "non-endorsement clause" for just this scenario.

    Cable Green
    Director of Global Learning
    Creative Commons

  3. Thanks Cable. I know that in CC you can ask for your attribution to be removed but in cases where your work has been abused I doubt if those responsible will react to your complaint and even if they do there's maybe footage of me appearing to endorse something I oppose and the damage is done. That's what I hear from teachers who fear their work will be manipulated. Of course this can also be done to copyrighted work and it's not a CC problem per se. But it's one genuine fear about openness.