audreywattersThere are no simple answers to the growing demand for openness in relation to education technology and scholarly communication. Audrey Watters takes a look back at how the term ‘open’ has been discussed in the last year. As open continues to triumph in many ways, its appeal has also led to an expansion of ‘openwashing’ activities. The education community is currently embroiled in an ongoing struggle to define “what is open”.

As with the trend of “data,” “open” is something I’ve touched upon in each of my annual year-end reviews (in 2011 and 2012. Again, I recommend reading those posts to gain a sense of past, present, and future). In some ways the two –“data” and “open” – represent opposite directions in ed-tech: the former towards a consolidation of power; the latter towards its distribution. The former towards an extraction of value from the learning community, from the public; the latter towards the cultivation of a commons.

But that’s a terrible over-simplication, in part because both “open” and “data” have become so deeply intertwined in what Evgeny Morozov in To Save Everything Click Here calls “technological solutionism” – this notion that technology can provide us with simple answers (in this case, with more data or more openness) to complicated questions we can’t fully articulate or haven’t fully explored. (My review of his book as it pertains to ed-tech is here.)

In addition to the publication of his book this year, Morozov also penned a particularly brutal critique of Tim O’Reilly, coiner of the term “Web 2.0,” champion of open source and open government, and, in Morozov’s words, “Meme Hustler.” Morozov’s article – both very long and very harsh – raises important questions about the politics of software, the rhetoric of openness, and an embrace of “algorithmic regulation.” What do the forces of “big data” and “openness” have in common? What are the politics of “open,” or is “open” often simply a substitute for politics?

What is “Open”?

Morozov writes,

Few words in the English language pack as much ambiguity and sexiness as “open.” And after O’Reilly’s bombastic interventions—“Open allows experimentation. Open encourages competition. Open wins,” he once proclaimed in an essay—its luster has only intensified. Profiting from the term’s ambiguity, O’Reilly and his collaborators likened the “openness” of open source software to the “openness” of the academic enterprise, markets, and free speech. “Open” thus could mean virtually anything, from “open to intellectual exchange” (O’Reilly in 1999: “Once you start thinking of computer source code as a human language, you see open source as a variety of ‘free speech’”) to “open to competition” (O’Reilly in 2000: “For me, ‘open source’ in the broader sense means any system in which open access to code lowers the barriers to entry into the market”).

“Open” allowed O’Reilly to build the largest possible tent for the movement. The language of economics was less alienating than Stallman’s language of ethics; “openness” was the kind of multipurpose term that allowed one to look political while advancing an agenda that had very little to do with politics. As O’Reilly put it in 2010, “the art of promoting openness is not to make it a moral crusade, but rather to highlight the competitive advantages of openness.”

Not surprisingly, Morozov’s article about Tim O’Reilly wasn’t well-received in many open government, open source, and open data circles. Tim O’Reilly is a well-liked guy, not simply a powerful one. But Morozov’s provocations are important, I’d argue (even if folks feel they’re impolite) as the adjective “open” becomes ascendant, or indeed, as “open” wins.

“Open” “Wins”

A list, in no particular order, of some of the “wins” for “open” in 2013:

  • The Open University turned 40.
  • MIT OpenCourseware turned 10. The project saw record levels of traffic too.
  • University of Mary Washington’s “Domain of One’s Own” initiative (one of the very best things in ed-tech right now) has been picked up by other universities, including Emory and Davidson. Also, in addition to the Domain of One’s Own project, we saw efforts to “Reclaim Your Domain” and to Reclaim Hosting.
  • The White House issued a directive, instructing “Federal agencies with more than $100M in R&D expenditures to develop plans to make the published results of federally funded research freely available to the public within one year of publication and requiring researchers to better account for and manage the digital data resulting from federally funded scientific research.” The White House also issued an Executive Order requiring federal government information to be open and machine-readable.
  • Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Al Franken (D-MN) introduced a bill that would promote openly-licensed textbooks “by offering grants for pilot projects that produce high-quality open-access textbooks, especially for courses with large enrollment.”
  • The British Library released over a million public domain images from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries onto Flickr.
  • The Getty Museum launched an open content program, “to share, freely and without restriction, as many of the Getty’s digital resources as possible.”
  • Open education advocate David Wiley launched a startup called Lumen Learning to help colleges support OER initiatives.
  • The Digital Public Library of America officially launched. (Much of its code is open source; the metadata is CC0.)
  • The Saylor Foundation launched a K–12 program for open online courses (in American Literature, Calculus, Algebra, and Geometry).
  • P2PU launched the “School of Open.”
  • Washington State’s Open Course Library released 39 more openly licensed textbooks, in order to meet its goal of making available for free the materials from 81 high-enrollment college courses.
  • OpenStax College, Rice University’s open textbook initiative, said it will double the number of fields in which it offers free and openly licensed textbooks by 2015. OpenStax also releasedits Introductory Statistics textbook.
  • The National Library of Norway announced it would digitize all its books and make them available to search and read online.
  • PeerJ launched as a “high-quality, low-cost, new breed of open-access publisher.” (Cue the “this changes everything” headlines.)
  • There was a call for more open data about what happens to grad students, leading to the PhD Placement Project.
  •, one of my picks of the best ed-tech startups of 2012, went through a number of changes – offering titles from publishers, pivoting towards becoming “a bookstore for books that want to be free.”
  • The British Library uploaded one million public domain scans from 17th–19th century books to Flickr.
  • Google continued its “Summer of Code” initiative, placing college students in various open source projects.
  • (One of my favorite ed-tech open source startups, I confess) LearnBoost was acquired by Automattic, the folks behind WordPress.
  • Inkling and the 20 Million Minds Foundation and OpenStax partnered to make the latter’s free and openly textbooks available on the former’s interactive platform.
  • Boundless continued its legal battle against publishers who’d accused it of copyright infringement, opening late this fall a platform to encourage teachers to contribute, use, and remix OER.
  • Oregon State University adopted an open access policy. The Academic Senate of the University of California also adopted an open access policy.
  • India launched a national repository of open educational resources.
  • The EU launched an “Opening up Education” initiative to promote the usage of OER in schools.
  • Creative Commons released the latest version of its licenses, and David Carroll and Joseph McArthur developed an “Open Access Button,” “a browser bookmark tool that allows users to report when they hit paywalled access to academic articles and discover open access versions of that research.”
  • The MacArthur Foundation sponsored a Reclaim Open Learning initiativeSome video footage from a weekend hackathon.
  • The Hewlett Foundation issued several reports on the state of OER: “The Open Education Resources ecosystem: An evaluation of the OER movement’s current state and its progress toward mainstream adoption” (PDF) and “Open Educational Resources: Breaking the Lockbox of Education” (PDF).
  • 71% of college students say they’ve used OER.
  • A running total calculated at the 10th annual Open Education conference estimates that openly licensed textbooks have saved students over $100 million.
  • OERu launched.
  • The California Community Colleges Board of Governors voted to require that “any works created under contracts or grants funded by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office carry the Creative Commons Attribution license that gives permission to the public to reproduce, distribute, perform, display or adapt the licensed materials for any purpose so long as the user gives attribution to the author.”
  • On the eve of leaving office as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton announced an “Open Book Project,” an “initiative of the U.S. Department of State, the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization and leading education innovators to expand access to free, high-quality open educational resources in Arabic, with a focus on science and technology and online learning.”
  • US Circuit Judge Denny Chin agreed with Google’s arguments and dismissed the claim by the Authors Guild that contended that the search giant’s book scanning efforts were copyright violations.
  • Facebook launched “Open Academy,” an initiative that offers college credit to students who work on certain open source projects.
  • The MOOC platform edX began open sourcing the code for its LMS. StanfordUC Berkeley, and the University of Queenslandsaid that they would contribute code to the platform. Google said it was joining the Open edX platform too. So much open source LMS and robo-grading code! Whee.
  • Mozilla’s Open Badges project reached version 1.0. President Clinton announced his support. The LMS Blackboard announced its support for Open Badges.

See. “Open” gets weird…


In the face of “open” triumphs, we also saw this:

  • MOOCs galore – the incredible hype over something often far afield from its origins within open education. “An Avalanche is Coming” warned Sir Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rizvi (all employees of Pearson Education) in a report issued in March that argues MOOCs would bring about a (profitable) revolution in education. Once upon a time the “open” in MOOC referred not simply to “open enrollment” but also to “OER” and/or to “open negotiation among learners as to the direction of the course itself.” In 2013, the “open” in MOOC more often referred to the startups who were “open for business” – Coursera and Udacity to name just two. And to invoke Gardner Campbell’s 2012 OpenEd keynote, that’s not what we meant at all.
  • Rubbing more salt in that wound, Udacity unveiled its “Open Education Alliance,” an industry alliance to support tech training, prompting David Wiley go all Willy Wonka with an angry response: “‘Wrong, Sir! WRONG! … You get nothing!’ … there is nothing whatsoever ‘open’ about the ‘Open’ Education Alliance.”
  • The English-language learning company Open English raised $65 million in funding, one of the largest ed-tech investments this year. “Open.”
  • Google shuttered Google Reader, another blow to RSS, an important open standard for the Web. (Another piece, perhaps, of what technologist Anil Dash has described as “The Web We Lost.”)
  • The UK MOOC platform FutureLearn briefly toyed with an “English only” component to its Terms of Service. MOOCs: “open” to anyone who wants to learn in English.
  • The UKOLN was “decimated by cuts.” Indeed, there were layoffs and “reorganization” in a number of open education initiatives in the UK, with some of the kindest, smartest folksgetting the ax this year.
  • Open source continues to be “Way Whiter And Maler Than Proprietary Software.” (See also: Ashe Dryden on “The Ethics of Unpaid Labor and the OSS Community.”)
  • The American Historical Association freaked out at the notion that PhD students would publish their dissertations openly and immediately, urging them instead to embargo their work for 6 years or so… or face certain doom.
  • Prince George County’s Board of Education weighed a proposal that would allow the school district to retain copyright over the content created by staff and students.
  • The MPAA continued its copyright campaign with curriculum that teaches kids thatdownloading is bad. (You can find some alternatives here that help students understand Creative Commons, fair use, and so on.)
  • The International Publishers Association issued yet another report that called into question the “quality, sustainability, and public funding of Open Educational Resources.” Yawn.
  • Elsevier bought Mendeley. Techcrunch used “open” in its headline of the news. But let’s be honest: if you care about open access and open research data, you’re probably using the open source Zotero and trying hard to boycott Elsevier (which has been sending takedown notices when scholars publish their articles online).
  • Pearson used the word “open” 37 times in its press release to describe its “OpenClass Echange,” “a significant expansion to its open and free learning environment, OpenClass.” Because “open.”
  • Facebook used the word “open” 7 times when it announced its plans to make sure everyone on the planet has access to Facebook the Internet.

What We Lost

Boston Wiki Meetup

On January 11, Aaron Swartz took his own life. It’s a death that has loomed over the entire year – for me, at least. It’s a loss that colors how I frame “open” and “data” and “scholarship” and the politics of all of the above.

Swartz was a hacker; he was an activist. He had played a role while still a teenager in the creation of RSS, Creative Commons, Reddit.

He was 26.

Swartz was indicted in 2011 for downloading millions of academic articles from a JSTOR database through an Internet connection in the MIT library. He was charged multiple felony counts – two counts of wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act – and faced up to 35 years in prison and over $1 million in fines.

As investigations into Swartz’s death unfolded, it became clear that federal prosecutors had been quite vindictive and MIT quite complicit in the events that led up to his death.

I thought about Aaron Swartz often this year; his death weighed upon me not simply because of friends and colleagues who knew and loved him well. With all the talk I have heard this year about an ed-tech “revolution,” oh how few of those folks know what it means to live under the scrutiny, the investigationthe prosecutionthe violence of those in power.

Aaron Swartz’s politics of “open” were a politics. “Open” wasn’t simply an adjective plugged into a press release, attached to a startup pitch, embedded in a tech blog headline. Aaron Swartz’s politics of “open” were enmeshed with a challenge to intellectual property law; they offered a challenge to the economics of restricted access to scholarship; they were intertwined with the technologies of the open Web – and those technologies, let’s not forget, are political as well.

If, as I suggested in my previous “Top Ed-Tech Trends” article on data and privacy, that revelations (thanks to Edward Snowden) of the sweeping NSA surveillance programs are the most important story of 2013, then I’d add too that that story cannot be fully separated from Aaron Swartz’s – the control of information and data, the use of technology to “liberate” information, the persecution/prosecution of these “hackers,” systems of power (that liberal IP licensing doesn’t necessarily unseat), the battle for “open.”

The Battle for Open

Open University’s Martin Weller recently argued in an essay called “The Battle for Open” that “Openness has been victorious in many ways,” but Weller cautioned that “at this point of victory the real struggle begins.”

If you look at openness in research, teaching, publication scholarship, then it’s hard to argue that openness hasn’t been successful over the last few years in establishing itself as a core approach in higher education. It isn’t something just a few oddballs bang on about now, it has moved to the centre of discourse (and, more importantly, funding).”

And yet it doesn’t feel like it should. We aren’t seeing David Wiley leading triumphant processions down Wall Street. The MOOC invasion and backlash is the most visible part of all this, but I think that is just representative of a wider story.

This battle involves the ongoing struggle to define “what is open.” It involves the narratives that dominate education – “education is broken” and “disruption is inevitable,” for example – and the “solutions” that “open” purports to offer. It involves a response to the growth of corporate ecosystems and commercial enclosures, built with open source technologies and open data initiatives. And all of this, I would argue, must involve politics for which we shouldn’t let “open” be an easy substitute.

This is Part 8 of the Top 10 Ed-Tech Trends of 2013 series.

This originally appeared on Audrey Watters’  blog Hack Education and is reposted with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

Audrey Watters is a journalist specializing in education technology news and analysis.  Although she was two chapters into her PhD dissertation, she decided to abandon academia, and she now happily fulfills the one job recommended to her by a junior high aptitude test: freelance writer. 

Print Friendly