Degrees of Openness?

November 12th, 2012

At the EDUCAUSE conference in Denver last week, Clay Shirky did the big keynote. Though you wouldn’t know it from its title (“IT as a Core Academic Competence”), it was all about openness. The coverage given it in the Chroncile‘s blog — “The Real Revolution Is Openness, Clay Shirky Tells Tech Leaders” — makes that pretty clear.

What is less clear these days is what we mean by openness. And that’s increasingly important. An odd indication of that was a display in the middle of the registration area at the conference: a rectangular mat of astroturf was marked “The IT Landscape” and three “real estate” signs planted in it read “MOOCs” and “Openness” and “Analytics.” (Whoa, I thought. Just three things? Was someone stealing the signs?)

Whether there are other prominent trends, I think we all recognize not just the importance of these, but their complexity, the ambiguity and ambivalence around them. It’s not hard to see that “analytics”  – use-tracking, data-crunching, and the like — is rich and vareigated, and the recent NY Times piece on MOOCs (see my blog entry last week) stresses a growing sense that MOOCs come in vastly different sizes, flavors, and  valences. But isn’t open, well, an open-or-shut deal?

No. In a consumer culture that taught us all, at a very early age, that “free” almost always meant “strings attached,” we’re finding that open doesn’t always mean wholly open. This varies according to what we put the word “open” in front of — words like “access” and “standards” and “source” — but we shouldn’t get lost in the weeds. Some restrictions on just how open things are matter more than others, because some things are matters of flow and principle.

A big one — it was certainly big in Shirky’s keynote — is not just what “open” means you have access to but what you can do with it. For some people (I count myself one), the idea that you are on the ‘net not just to look but to do is key, the Web  2.0 difference, the difference between passive consumption and creative re-production. In what Lessing has taught us to call a “remix” culture, the ability to use what we find and even repurpose it is critical.

Which is why one response to Shirky’s keynote — an article appearing the day after in Inside Higher Ed– is worth noting. In “How ‘Open’ Are MOOCs?” author Steve Kolowich reports Shirky as saying that “the most provocative aspect of MOOCs is not their massiveness; it is their openness.” “Or their lack thereof, ” continues Kolowich, and then goes on to cite the terms of service from the big MOOC providers: edX ‘s statement that “All rights in the Site and its content, if not expressly granted, are reserved”; Coursera’s restriction that, beyond personal and informal use, users may not “copy, reproduce, retransmit, distribute, publish, commercially exploit or otherwise transfer any material, nor may you modify or create derivatives [sic] works of the material”; Udacity’s similarly worded prohibition that its users “may not copy, sell, display, reproduce, publish, modify, create derivative works from, transfer, distribute or otherwise commercially exploit in any manner the Class Sites, Online Courses, or any Content.”

This is not the point to get all huffy and suggest that these entities, having invested so heavily in their free (but only to a point) offerings, have no right to say as much. Openness is more a spectrum than a state, and I find one of my earliest entries on this blog, over three years ago, was a meditation on how open the CUNY Academic Commons should be. (The consensus-determined answer can be had with a quick scroll to the bottom of this or any page on the Commons: the default is licensing under Creative Commons; just which license can be confirmed with a click.)

What makes the restrictive terms of service from the major MOOC providers a real issue may be their role, less as massive open online courses, than as conspicuous  (“massive”) elements in the universe of open educational resources (OERs). Here, it seems, they are not on the most open end of the open-ended spectrum, restricting not just the use of materials but also the capacity of their courses to count for anything. ”You may not take any Online Course offered by Coursera,” Kolowich quotes from that company’s terms of service, “or use any Letter of Completion as part of any tuition-based or for-credit certification or program for any college, university, or other academic institution without the express written permission from Coursera” — this to explain why Antioch University had to enter into a contract with Coursera to count any of its courses for credit.

Again, the issue is not whether Coursera had a right to do what it did when it “drew a line on the extent to which the company would allow outsiders to use its resources without paying to do so” (as Kolowich puts it). The issue is whether we are all fully aware of how not-so-open are some massive open online courses whose openness is declared in their label and encoded in their acronym. And this seems especially consequential in light of a survey Kolowich reports on but doesn’t actually mention by name: Growing the Curriculum: Open Education Resources in U.S. Higher Education (November 2012). The survey shows that 65% of the chief academic officers surveyed thought OER could save money for their institutions, but when Kolowich asked Jeff Seaman, one of the survey authors, if any were aware of licensing issues or any restrictions on openness, his response was telling: ”‘Not mentioned,’ said Seaman. ‘Not on the mindset at all of these chief academic officers. The idea of who did it, how I can use it, what the permissions are for use, can I re-purpose it — never appeared in any of the examples that they described.’”


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