What Does ‘Open’ Really Mean?

What Does ‘Open’ Really Mean?

Editor’s note: This post was first published on Wiley’s blog in response to an EdSurge story.

Yesterday EdSurge published an opinion piece by Stephen Laster, the Chief Digital Officer at McGraw-Hill Education, titled The Future of Education Isn’t Free. It’s Open. The article makes a strong argument for the importance of interoperability among learning platforms, tools and content. I enthusiastically and wholeheartedly endorse this message—interoperability of platforms, tools and resources is absolutely critical to education becoming significantly more effective—and significantly less annoying—in the future.


While I wholeheartedly support, endorse, approve and praise arguments extolling the virtues of interoperability, I unequivocally renounce, oppose and reject arguments that attempt to weaken the meaning of “open.” Unfortunately, the article seems to be as much an attempt to redefine open (by equating it with interoperability) as it is an attempt to argue for interoperability. While I think this is more accidental than malicious, as I’ll explain below, the article needs a clear response.

Several paragraphs into the article we read, “There’s some debate about just what we mean by ‘open’ in the context of education.” I want to briefly demonstrate that there is in fact incredibly strong consensus about what we mean by “open” in the education context, and then explain why a small amount of debate remains in spite of this overwhelming consensus.

The Smallest Possible Review of “Open” in Education

The idea of “open” intersects with education and educational technology in many places—open content, open educational resources, open access, open data, open knowledge, open source and open standards. Let’s take a quick tour of what open means in each specific setting.

Open Content

Defining the “Open” in Open Content here on opencontent.org states:

The term “open content” describes any copyrightable work (traditionally excluding software, which is described by other terms like “open source”) that is licensed in a manner that provides users with free and perpetual permission to engage in the 5R activities:

  • Retain: the right to make, own and control copies of the content (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage)
  • Reuse: the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
  • Revise: the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
  • Remix: the right to combine the original or revised content with other open content to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
  • Redistribute: the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend)

Open Educational Resources

The most frequently cited definition of OER is the Hewlett Foundation definition:

OER are teaching, learning and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials or techniques used to support access to knowledge.

If you would like to read an entire literature review of the subtle nuances between early alternative definitions of open educational resources, see this pre-print of Open Educational Resources: A Review of the Literature, which includes a section on definitions.

Open Access

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition definition of open access is:

Open Access is the free, immediate, online availability of research articles combined with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment. Open Access is the needed modern update for the communication of research that fully utilizes the Internet for what it was originally built to do—accelerate research.

Open Data

The Open Data Handbook defines open data as:

Open data is data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyonesubject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and sharealike.

Open Knowledge

The Open Knowledge Foundation defines open knowledge as follows:

Knowledge is open if anyone is free to access, use, modify and share it—subject, at most, to measures that preserve provenance and openness.

Open Source

The Open Source Initiative defines open source as software licensed in a way that meets ten criteria. (Click through to read about them in more detail.)

  1. Free Redistribution
  2. Source Code
  3. Derived Works
  4. Integrity of The Author’s Source Code
  5. No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups
  6. No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor
  7. Distribution of License
  8. License Must Not Be Specific to a Product
  9. License Must Not Restrict Other Software
  10. License Must Be Technology-Neutral

Open Standards

The Wikipedia page for open standard defines the term as follows:

An open standard is a standard that is publicly available and has various rights to use associated with it, and may also have various properties of how it was designed (e.g. open process). There is no single definition and interpretations vary with usage.

Summary: The Consensus Around Open

Each and every one of these terms containing the word “open” and relating to education or educational technology has two things in common:

  1. Free access to the content, resource, journal article, data, knowledge artifact, software, or standard, and
  2. A formal grant of rights and permissions giving back to the user many of the rights and permissions copyright normally reserves exclusively for the creator or other rights holder.

As a shorthand, we might say open = free access + open licensing (e.g., GPL or Creative Commons). Here we see that the article’s claim that “For some time, the term has been synonymous with free content, usually found online, which educators can use in the classroom” demonstrates only a partial understanding of what open means, and consequently a limited understanding of why open is powerful. (For an overview of why the permissions granted by open licenses are absolutely critical to enabling future innovations in education, see this post.) The tl;dr is—try to imagine the emergence of the internet and its billions of platforms, tools and resources without open source operating systems like Linux, open source server software like sendmail, apache, mysql, perl, php, and ruby and open standards like TCP/IP. Spoiler alert: You can’t. Even Blackboard was originally a Linux/apache/mysql/perl, or LAMP, app!)

So Where’s the Debate?

Recall that the article states “There’s some debate about just what we mean by ‘open’ in the context of education.” Having demonstrated that there is strong consensus about the meaning of “open” across a range of terms pertaining to education and educational technology, we may rightly ask, “Where is the debate?”

As far as I can tell, the only people actively engaged in a debate about the meaning of the word “open” in the educational context are (1) those who genuinely misunderstand it because they haven’t become part of the community yet, and (2) those whose business models would collapse if the public had free access to and open licenses for their products.

This article seems to fall into the first category.

For some time, the term has been synonymous with free content, usually found online, which educators can use in the classroom. While free resources play an important role in education, a far more useful definition of open is technology or content that can integrate painlessly with other resources.

I must admit to completely agreeing that defining open as free isn’t very useful and that a better definition is needed. However, as we saw above, equating open with free is inaccurate, and a much better definition of open already exists. But open = free appears to be Laster’s sincere understanding of “open” at the time he wrote the article, and it seems like this misunderstanding is what motivated him to argue for a more meaningful definition of open. I can certainly understand and support that. I’ve liked what I’ve read by Laster in the past and am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt with regard to his intentions in this opinion piece.

A Gentle Reminder about Openwashing

Having said—and truly meant—that I give Laster the benefit of the doubt here, I would be remiss in my duties as a steward of open if I did not pause for a moment and say a few words about openwashing as a gentle reminder and general warning to organizations and people everywhere.

Because the power, and ethics, and brand of “open” are so universally admired and respected, many organizations want to be associated with it. If an organization can’t reshape its business model in order to actually be open (that is, provide free access and open licenses to its products), then the only way it can benefit from the public’s good will toward open is to redefine the word as describing something their business model actually permits. We have seen clear examples of this in the past. Members of the open community immediately recognize such behavior and call it out as openwashing: “to spin a product or company as open, although it is not.”

A desire to benefit from the public’s goodwill toward open is one reason to engage in openwashing, but it isn’t the only one. A second motivation for openwashing is to distract people from the pragmatic benefits of open. Unfortunately, many people (including many people in education) still don’t know that “open” exists. For example, as the recent Babson survey demonstrated, on the most liberal measure of awareness, 65.9 percent of faculty are completely unaware of OER. On a stricter measure, 73.6 percent of faculty are completely unaware. If people can be inoculated against open by first being exposed to a weakened form of it—like “we have an API, so we’re open”—they may be less likely to become fully invested in the real power of open when they encounter it in the future. When a business recognizes its inability to be truly open, this inoculation strategy may help protect it from competitors that are truly leveraging the power of open.

Note that the inoculation strategy is different from the FUD strategy of the 90s and 00s that simply sought to convince people that open leads to poor quality, no support and a lack of sustainability. We still see a small amount of this, but 20 years later it’s so obviously false that few people try this line of attack anymore. Instead, we’re seeing the emergence of more sophisticated anti-open strategies like the “good will” and “inoculation” strategies of openwashing.

Again, to reiterate—I’m not accusing Laster of openwashing here. I think he falls into the group of people who simply misunderstand what open is about. Hopefully if he reads this response it will draw him a little further into the community and improve his understanding of what we mean by open.

A Concluding Agreement

Laster concludes his article by writing:

Learning technology has advanced more in the last five years than the last fifty, but a lack of openness is one of the key factors keeping it from having the massive effect on results that it should. By committing to a more open, collaborative future, we can accomplish our goals by putting students and educators in a better position to achieve theirs.

I couldn’t agree more with the notion that increased openness—free access to and 5R permissions in the platforms, tools, and resources they use—will put students and educators in an infinitely better position to achieve their goals.

Inasmuch as Laster is really arguing for interoperability in his article, I should make one final point. I wholeheartedly agree that companies, nonprofits and other creators of educational platforms, tools, and resources should conform to standards that maximize their interoperability—standards like HTML5 for content, LTI for tools and QTI for assessments. I hope that MH will become a role model worthy of emulating in this regard. Heaven knows the market would benefit from strong leadership by a major publisher. However, when platforms, tools and resources are truly open, the community has the permissions necessary to fix any interoperability issues we discover in the platforms, tools and resources we find otherwise valuable. That’s just one more benefit of being truly open.

David Wiley (@opencontent) is Co-Founder and Chief Academic Officer of Lumen Learning.

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