A response to David’s response :)

This is a comment I left on David Wiley’s post “Responses to the Rev and Stephen on ‘Openness'”, it’s extremely long, and should really be read in the context of the post on David’s blog, but for posterity I wanted a version here, because I think it outlines some of my facile thinking on openness that I need to work through and tighten up. Nonetheless, another shot in the dark, and more than anything it feels good to be blogging again, Twitter is no substitute for the real thing 🙂


Wow, thanks for the lengthy and thoughtful reply, I guess one can expect nothing less from you, but two focused and articulate responses in one day—that’s a ton of work, and it is appreciated. And let me start this comment by saying that I understand that I am neither precise or entirely realistic when I approach the question of open education. I’m working through many of the ideas on the fly, and my deep-seated concerns about leadership and the institutionalization of opened is by no means cogent in my mind, in fact I am using this space and your help to develop these ideas, and I have a lot more work to do, so thank you for helping me to think about and articulate these amorphous ideas more precisely.

One of my questions in response to your thoughts is how the figure of radical becomes anyone that is in some ways outside of the upper echelons of the institutional hierarchy. At UMW, as a case in point, we have a large number of faculty members and students posting their class notes, syllabi, resources, and a semester’s worth of engaged discussion on course blogs that often have CC licenses. This is not a mandate from above and very few of the faculty would consider themselves radicals, in fact this is a community and culture of discussion, thought, and ideas that has born a practice of sharing resources. What’s unique about this process is that it is remarkably cheap and flexible, and at the same time has not been handcuffed by the idea of administrative buy-in—we ultimately got that, but only as a result of its success. What’s more, is that I think it gets at both the global and particular sides of the question of open you discuss early on in your post. We have managed to premise our system on an idea that anyone is able and willing to join the conversation at UMW—no restrictions—and they can use it as they see fit. More than that, we have worked with faculty and students to show them how they can act like hackers to create their own space online to publish their notes, syllabi, discussions, etc, and they are doing it in no small magnitude. This was a relationship premised as much on a need as it was on the idea that making this stuff available allows UMW to share the content created here widely. Google has become our friend in this account, and by doing such an experiment on a smaller, localized scale, the implications for sharing our working and allowing faculty and students to own their investment has been powerful. What’s more, is that this has been a grass roots, reciprocal relationship born out of both necessity and experimentation, and institutionalizing it has been happening to some degree, but on terms outside of an official administrative blessing—it has become a part of the fabric of the UMW landscape because people use it regularly and it seems to work for many of them. We really don’t have to dicate the terms of openness for the entire system, rather we have conversations about these ideas, and allow students and faculty to choose the level of open that they want for themselves. This is a case where we can see the ease of publishing and the searchability of blogs that are managed by individuals begin to redefine the open educational resources landscape on a small scale—but one which I think is happening to some great degree outside of educational institutions.

The point is that this is an example of how the web works, and by providing that possibilities through a series of discussions, demonstrations and relationships goes much further than an institutional position on open that is handed down to faculty and students, and seen as yet another directive—whether or not we see the value of it—and I agree with you that open and accessible resources are the reason behind the push, and have immense power and possibility. That said, the process through which a community comes to this, and realizes it is extremely important, and need not necessarily be born out of a bill of rights or specifically defined idea of open, rather it comes from a community working through this together.

And this is where the idea of the conversation happening in the blogosphere, and the back and forth that we both appreciate seems to me to capture the spirit of the process through a distributed group of people that care about this topic. And while I use the straw man of an imaginary table to suggest a kind of elect group of people defining open, I would suggest that I do this because I think the more we try and grow and scale open ed out of a specific set of principles neatly defined, the more we homogenize and dilute the generative process of individuals working together in distributed and localized networks to think through the implications of open access to content within specific contexts for themselves. This doesn’t mean the ideas of a few don’t greatly inform that community, it simply means that it isn’t stifled through a series of laws and essentialized principles.

As for the necessity of an increasingly greater scale of openness, this is one I am still struggling with, but I have to believe that the idea of open need not grow and develop in any one, pre-defined way. The ideas are out there, and that is where these conversation are so key, what I don’t know is if they need to be thought of in terms of real estate development—a kind of sprawling growth for the sense of reach and profit, not to say that there isn’t some real reward from more people sharing their work, but I wonder if it isn’t best accomplished through more specific communities making this happen for themselves. Do we bring open to them? Or do they define it and make it work within their own context for their own reasons? There is a crucial idea of empowerment here that is not bestowed upon one, but gained through a sense of self realization. Does that make any sense? And growing to grow is not necessarily an end in and of itself if it is a blanket vision.

Now, I tried to address some of the issues, but probably missed some, but I wanted to step out on a limb here and suggest that the confusion surrounding the metaphors comparing the open content movement and open source software movement may be born out of the way in which you use the comparisons freely in a post like this. As you suggest above:

The differences between software and content are not marginal. The necessary and appropriate considerations of openness in these two contexts are significantly different.

And this I agree with, they are rather different in their design and application, but it is when you make comparisons in your argument like the following that it seems you are conflating those differences:

Why do we open education people need to have a seat at the table in department meetings, dean’s council, and when the VPs meet with the provost and president? The same reason that open source software needs a seat at the table with Dell, HP, Gateway, and Lenovo. Sure, the hackers of the world can blow away that Windows 7 install, repartition their hard drive, and do a clean Ubuntu install. But how many more people would open source reach / how much more influence would open source have if the major vendors shipped Ubuntu or Red Hat or (name your favorite distro here) straight to consumers? Significantly more – infinitely more.

In this regard the idea of open content is thought of as a final product like a release version of OSS, rather than the relational process of programming the release. And I would argue that content is far closer to that process of relational discussion around ideas than a finsihed product like a textbook. And therein lies some different, more nuanced, considerations of just what open content might be. I think the 4Rs make sense, but it is a fairly complex relationship to picking up pieces and parts from a variety of different works that may or may not be openly licensed or “official” educational resources. Fact is, we can provide that open content from a variety of positions and varying levels of polish on a regular basis that others can re-use, re-mix, etc. without some official mandate or centralized repository. The emergence of localized networks and an imperfect process of sharing may have as much, if not more, value than a sytemized idea of OSS or open content, and the comparison above to make the point about content through the example of OSS may be part of the conflation, and also lead to a necessary push of systemitizing a process of sharing that need not be.

Ok, that’s it for now, but once again thanks for keeping me sharp, and I hope we can continue to go one like this because it pushes my facile thinking to the next level, and I both appreciate and need that right now.

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7 Responses to A response to David’s response :)

  1. Pingback: Ideals or ideologies - open minds and mouths

  2. Nice one Jim. This line is shaping up my thoughts on it too. Keep it coming.

  3. Chris Lott says:

    Uh oh, The Reverend Jim is philosophizing now. Are you going to get kicked out of the holy circle of “doers?” After all, no single person can be both of the withered sere lands of philosophy and the kick-ass land of getting things done…

    I guess you aren’t just a person, though, you are the Reverend, so perhaps those disparaging this kind of discussion with a binary conception of abstraction and pragmatism will be forced to relent in your case.

    And wherever else it’s convenient 🙂

  4. Pingback: » What’s Really Going on in the Latest “Openness” Discussion? Chris Lott

  5. Reverend says:


    I am that anomaly, and lest you forgot, I walk on water too, baby!

  6. Scott Leslie says:

    Jim you nail it here so well. It isn’t an either/or, I don’t mind George agitating at one level to make awareness and increase the volume and pressure, but UMW has led by example, and has led by providing a *simple* *personal* way for people to create, publish and share and then just let them do it rather than dictate from on high “Thou Shalt Share” and the form which this will take. I am not opposed to (some) philosophizing (I have 2 degrees in it fer crying out loud!) but this charge (and I read it as such) of “not enough radicals” and then the proposed steps of “standards of openness” and agencies to police “openness” just rubbed me SO the wrong way.

    Ultimately it may be that this does need to happen *outside* the institutional structures that already exist. As much as I want to believe in reform, in *people’s* ability to change and grow, I have my grave doubts (and certainly my grave doubts about my OWN abilities to shift existing power *structures*). This is one of the reasons, though, that I really prize posts like Peter Rawthorne’s recent one. While I’m certain that framing it in terms of tax payers and ROI will ruffle many feathers, it is an informed and sympathetic critique of the existing structure from a (relative) outsider. Maybe I’m ust getting too middle-aged, more comfortable with being a taxpayer than a radical, but I found this post more useful for advancing the cause that George’s. But in the end, I’ll settle for “rough consensus and running code” as the old adage goes. Finally, apologies for any misinterpretations of your position, they are clearly my own.

  7. Reverend says:


    Rest assured, we are right…righter than rain! And institutionalizing radicals that have no real relevance beyond the walls of the institution hasn’t really worked out too well for the university over the last twenty years or so, just look at the labor market. In fact, I’m not too worried about being cut from my institution after all, because they are already making those cuts by not re-filling tenure tracks and getting on the adjunct train. Part-time exploitation will save the day after all!

    I mean if we can;t see how deeply screwed higher ed is right now with examples like the University of California’s implosion, than I don’t know how many more examples are we gonna need to know that an institutionally sanctioned approach is not only a deal with the devil, but increasingly irrelevant. That said, I would gladly give my taxes for some good public education, but then again i live in the US, not Canada or Italy, where there is still such a thing as affordable higher ed, despite the particular challenges of each system, at least it isn’t a loan factory for the lower middle class ideals of “moving up the economic food chain.” How can taking out 50 or 100 thousand dollars in loans ever be considered a good investment for an undergraduate degree? it’s as barbaric as our health care, just not as obviously life threatening in the same ways.

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