Sorry, We’re Open


Sorry, we’re open used courtesy of oknovokght.

I have to be honest with you, I’m getting more and more confused with the term “open” when used in the context of educational technology these days. The term has been popular in software development for decades, particularly in relationship to free and open source software (FOSS). This approach is premised on community development which means sharing the source code freely, rather than patenting an application and closing it down. Open source applications have had considerable success over the past decade, and much of the usage of the term open in regards to education, such as Open Education Resources (OCR), Open Courseware (OCW), open content and open access, is credited to the principles and successes of the open source development initiative.

The term is often abstracted from any specific resource to signify a political position of “openness,” often referring to something both conceptual and concrete all at once. And while the technical definitions of what constitutes open content can quickly become a legal minefield of licenses and attribution clauses, the general idea of openness in education might be understood as something beneficial to the community at large by providing a means of freely sharing one’s work with others—all made infinitely easier given the new world order of “free and open” digital publishing and distribution platforms. Openness has for many in the educational field become synonymous with a kind of “common good” that benefits both teachers and learners worldwide.

Hell, bloggers I read regularly have the term open in their titles: David Wiley’s Iterating Towards Openness, Bill Fitzgerald’s Open Academic, and Alec Couros’s Open Thinking & Digital Pedagogy: Open, Connected, & Social (that’s two opens!). And over in Great Britain there is the legendary Open University, rich with an unfair advantage of knowledge and innovation represented by cats like Tony Hirst and Martin Weller. In fact, Brian Lamb’s struggles with publishing and distributing open content with loose syndication systems might be the best example of everything this term has come to represent in regards to expanding the educational resources available while thinking about the open web itself as the learning management system.

So, I thought I kinda knew what open meant when it came to educational technology and the like. Well, I thought I did, but there is some serious linguistic confusion emerging as of late that has me thinking about this ubiquitous term. Take a look at the following excerpt of an article (actually, it reads more like a press release) from Inside Highed Ed, which outlines BlackBoard’s announcement that they’ll be “connecting” with the open source course management system Sakai:

“There’s been some concern in the [open-source] community that this is a giant attempt to suck everything into Blackboard…. It really is done in the spirit of trying to be an open company, [to] really focus on something that will add value to the student experience,” Fontaine said.

So Blackboard’s an open company now? Is John Fontaine, Blackboard’s “technology evangelist” (yep there’s another fucking term out the window), confusing open with public, as in publicly trading? This may seem like a “knee-jerk” reaction—as the article promised there would be—but have we come to the point in our terminology where there are no fine distinctions anymore? What does “open” mean in this context? Is this the same open company that has re-opened its suits against Desire2Learn?–a fact that this article fails to mention, and kudos to Jeffrey Young’s article in the Chronicle which gives us at least that.

Point is that an announcement like this has very little to do with open source innovation, and everything to do with a marketing strategy to linguistically co-opt the term open. The word is used 21 times in this article, and while BlackBoard is working with the IT staff at Syracuse University to create a “dongle” (I refuse to call it a bridge) to connect with Sakai (hardly revolutionary),the actual language in the article is what’s important. BlackBoard is attempting to “brand” itself (which reminds me of a post I have brewing about the constant references to “personal branding” in education—but I digress) with the concept of openness. It’s a sales tactic, pure and simple. And the next time your BlackBoard rep comes to campus, they’ll not only be able to say we can do what those open source CMSs can, but he/she’ll even be able to say, “Hey, don’t worry about all those open source CMSs, we’re in bed with them now. We’re open too! Would you like me to show you the dongle?”

Which brings me to Sakai. After the Sakai Paris 2008 conference, Michel Feldstein suggests there is “a new Sakai” on the horizon. And he could very well be right, and while I was underwhelmed by what I saw of the old Sakai, the next two years could very well be a watershed for this open source application. Nonetheless, Sakai and Moodle have everything to gain by some kind of seamless integration with BlackBoard, and these open source applications by their very nature can take advantage of the opportunity thanks to the altruism(?) of BlackBoard. Let’s face it, by such a move to connect with these open tools (that aren’t that much cheaper in the end) BlackBoard gets that much more of a competitive edge in a market they already dominate. And, in my humble opinion 😉 , both Sakai and Moodle represent the worst kind of “learning” application (whether or not they are open source): course management systems. They ape the functionality of BlackBoard, but just in an open source model—they are course specific, they have few features that actually enhance learning, and they smack of an outdated model of ownership, control, and management—which makes them administrative tools, not learning tools.

What we have here is “large tools tightly joined.” And the moniker they are using to sell you this grand innovation is “openness.” In fact, why stop there, why not throw in another key term that has defined openness and innovation on the open web:

But Fontaine said that wouldn’t be the case. He said the connector would be “bi-directional,” giving users the ability to make a “mash-up” of data from different software systems.

Hey, it’s a data mash-up too! What it is is capital’s co-opting of the terminology of so many of these open tools and practices to erase any difference and assimilate any potential edge of a term like open into its brand.

I guess open is the new closed, and I’ll have to think twice before I use it so freely any time soon. Like lambs to the corporate slaughter. Looks like EDUPUNK is the only pure alternative 🙂

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25 Responses to Sorry, We’re Open

  1. Peter Rock says:

    In terms of software, “Open Source” was a way to draw the corporate mind to Free Software. But as we can see, it comes at a price. The term “free”, while ambiguous, is very clear. It’s either beer or speech. So long as the latter meaning is conveyed, it’s not a term easily co-opted by the proprietary world. The word “open” however, is weak and ripe for abuse. It’s arguable that the “open” subversion of the corporate software world was needed but clear that Free Software is, in the long run, the sustainable and socially proactive term given the inherent consistency of its definition.

  2. I.T. Happens says:

    Doubleplusungood, Reverend. Be careful, this looks like a Thoughtcrime. Did you get Upsub for this crimethink. Next you’ll be striving for your Ownlife. Get with the Blackwhite or you will be vaporized. Signed, Minitrue

  3. Reverend says:

    That’s a valuable distinction, and all the more interesting why the weaker of the terms, namely open, became the far more dominant rhetorically than free. Especially when it comes to education, or as far as I can tell. More than that, the idea of free is interesting in regards to software like Sakai for example, because while it is free to download, unless you are a have a Java programmer and Tomcat server specialist on hand it isn’t free to install, maintain, and modify –in fat it is quite expensive. The logic of free here has some nuance to it as well. And I think I might be referring to free as in beer rather than speech, yet most folks think of the free in the FOSS movement as an economic incentive rather than a constitutional one –am I missing the point here? For at what point does the community based idea of free as a right become surrendered to the idea of convenience, simplicity, and controlled consumption? All things we seeing playing out in the political and social realm of the US, and the disappearance of free as in speech has ultimately resulted in a continued inflation in ideas of security, protection, impermeable borders, and distrust. Free as in fear 🙂

    What language are you speaking? It is truly hip? The blackwhite, upsub, I want to get with your program and write and speak like that, it is like Clockwork Orange for the 21st century.

  4. Hello, Mr. Groom,

    Yeah, open has been co-opted, but that’s been happening for a while. The BB silliness just makes it official.

    I love it when I hear BB execs getting all Web Two Oh-ey, and mashing up their bidirectional data. It’ll also be fun seeing how well any of these “open” solutions they are talking about actually work.

    And, RE OpenAcademic: we were going to go with Closed and Confused, but it didn’t have quite the same ring.



  5. Andy says:

    This brings us right back to why Edupunk is a good term and why it ruffled feathers.

    Power absorbing language is commonplace, dangerous and complete in it’s effect. The best example from this era is ‘free trade’. Groups that use the imperial/colonial world order to exploit their advantages over the poor through control and manipulation call themselves ‘free-trade’ in the media – and they ‘are’. And all real debate about trade is stifled and hence action.

    It’s important to find terms that are offensive to those who seek to control and consolidate power, so that they drop their field of invisibilty in order to vent their outrage, exposing the cogs in the machine.

    Over at Mickey Z’s blog, readers struggled to come up with a term for themselves. The problem was that people who use and almost own terms like ‘left’ and ‘liberal’ and even ‘radical’ were actualy quite conservative and unable to see out of systems of power to come up with solutions for society.

    Finally, he came up with ‘expendables’.

    In my view it’s better to come up to each situation anew and not opt for a set of rules – but in the war of words, if you don’t fight it, you will be co-opted.

    For me, ‘open’ should mean that ‘users’ can participate in changing and developing the material – and have a platform to do so.

  6. I think what’s happening here is that the tech people have a single definition of “open” with reference to software which is open source code. The article and Blackboard use the term “open company”….whatever that means. However, it is an obvious ploy by Blackboard to confuse the naive into thinking Blackboard is going open source, which it isn’t (nor should it).

    As I’ve mentioned before, profits are not a bad thing. Profitable tech companies are what drove the industry to what we have today. Without Bell Labs, no UNIX or internet (and hence the WWW)…without XEROX, no Mac or Windows OS’s…without Netscape, no Mozilla. The pattern is obvious.

    So, while we may have disdain for Blackboard, it is certainly a driving force with respect to innovation. If it helps, think of Blackboard as Jobs and Gates and the open source community as Woz.

  7. Jerry says:

    I’m waiting for the next Blackboard press release that says how Edupunk the new BBD-Sakai connector is.

  8. The references to edupunk are a little ironic in the context of a call for being more precise with language. Seemed like there was a conscious effort to not nail down a meaning–that was part of the punk. And that’s useful, but as others have commented about the term ‘open’ it also makes it easily co-opted. That’s what we get for using language instead of telepathy. 🙂

  9. Joe says:

    “it is an obvious ploy by Blackboard to confuse the naive into thinking Blackboard is going open source, which it isn’t (nor should it).”

    This. Seems like Bb is trying to profit on the “buzz” surrounding the word “open.” “Hey guys, here’s a $20,000 piece of copper that lets you connect to open systems!”

    Give me a break. They have the right to make money, but not by being intentionally vague about it. Maybe they should market themselves as what they are: half-open.


  10. @Joe

    I never said it Blackboard’s ploy was a good thing, only that it was happening. Everyone tries to profit from buzz words in technology from webX.X to MEME and so on. They are being marketed to naive people….people who do not even know the difference between the web and the internet.

    Even the open source community is thinly veiled in deception. As is pointed out in the post, there is significant investment necessary to support a “free” CMS. Perhaps they should market themselves as what they are: expensive?

  11. Luke says:

    As Jim has argued, the thrust of Bb’s argument is administrative:

    (from Inside Higher Ed piece):

    Students should not have to worry about whether different technology is powering their online learning environments for different classes,” said Michael L. Chasen, Blackboard’s president and CEO, in a prepared statement. “With a single login* users should have access to all of their courses and course material. There should be one place they can go to get all of their course information.

    Students shouldn’t have to think about what’s under the hood. Faculty shouldn’t have to consider how new technologies are changing teaching and learning. Colleges shouldn’t offer their users a legitimate menu of choices. Just log in. You’ll have the chicken salad.

    Now, perhaps this improves the quality of the chicken salad. I like mine with raisins and some almonds. The chicken salad has gotten (slightly) better over the years, I’ll admit.

    But, what if I want the meatloaf? Now, chicken salad can be shaped into a loaf-shaped form. But it ain’t meatloaf. It ain’t salad. It ain’t matzo ball soup.

    This is perhaps a tangent from Jim’s larger point about the devolving meaning of “open,” but it’s the direction I’ve been going in while constantly being asked by faculty when I present them WP, “so, how is this better than BlackBoard?” It’s not. That’s like saying Kobe Bryant is better than Sarah Jessica Parker– she may shoot baskets from time to time, but she plays a different game.

    Sorry, perhaps one too many metaphors. Colleges should offer their communities a range of options. This forces faculty, students, and administrators to think more deeply about what they want to accomplish. It encourages students to be discerning. It creates multiple paths towards experimentation, innovation, and unique experiences. All of these things are possible through Bb. Probably slightly more possible with a port to/from Sakai. But tethering yourself to a single solution is limiting, no matter how robust or adaptable you argue that solution is.

    Bb’s argument is that it should be the gatekeeper, and that you can get whatever you need through that single login, and that it’s valuable not to have to “worry” about what’s in there. It asserts that as truth. But it just isn’t.

    It should be the whole point of liberal higher education to think about such things.

    (And this doesn’t even engage the whole “proprietary altruism” that lay behind this business plan..)


    * (Btw, with a willing sysadmin, WPMU is LDAPable, too).

  12. Jared Stein says:

    I’m predicting that Bb’s embrace of “open” will do precisely what it means to do: convince ignorant CIOs and IT folk that, whatever “open” means, Bb has it too, inappropriately squelching whatever open-based arguments Moodle or Sakai may have.

    I can actually hear administrators I know “educating” me on this point, “Well, Blackboard is open too, you know.”

  13. Michael Willits says:

    More so now than ever, I cringe when I hear the term “open” (in quotes intentionally). It’s the same reaction as to when I hear “user” or “solutions provider.” Open has nearly ceased to be a term connoting community (which itself now begins to make me cringe), equal access, and transparency, and is now a co-opted term devoid of any significant meaning beyond its ability to attract attention under the guise of “hey, let’s hold hands and sing together,” singing a twisted song with verses about solutions, premium products, open companies, value adds, and for that matter, freedom.

    Rhetorically, open, like the term freedom, means only what those who have, or have taken, ownership of the term choose to allow it to mean and how it should be used and by whom. Freedom today means something totally different than it did in decades past. Equality is defined by who gets to choose what each party gets to share. Liberty strikes now only of liberty relative to, and at the expense of someone else’s oppression. The right to choose one’s destiny is restricted narrowly by the options afforded to particular groups. Yes, we have the right to “choose” and believe we are “free” because, hegemonically we understand these terms within a set of boundaries about which we are largely unaware exist.

    What we know of openness is changing — however slowly — as it devolves from a respectable ideology to yet another marketing buzz word to be used in catchy phrases such as those used by Blackboard. Used in context, does “open” mean anything more than “solution”? Is it a word, overused and co-opted to the point of meaninglessness? Can open be reclaimed by the very community from which it was taken?

  14. Pingback: Mike Caulfield » Blog Archive » Sakai, Blackboard, and the Bridge to Nowhere

  15. Peter Rock says:

    Jim: “yet most folks think of the free in the FOSS movement as an economic incentive rather than a constitutional one”

    It is important then to continually make clear the notion of liberty rather than switching to an unambiguous but muddy alternative. Using a muddy term like “open” allows those who wish to abnegate freedom a better opportunity to do so. Of course, some claim that freedom is not important and that source code access is good only in a technical sense. For them, the term “open” is perfect.

    Here is an article of related interest.

  16. Reverend says:

    @Jared: I agree entirely, it is a very subtle and effective strategy that may sound silly when looked at in the macroscopic scale, but resonates deeply when trying to have a discussion with someone who has a rough idea of the landscape and can immediately suggest that Bb is open too.

    Which leads me to @Patrick’s point, I agree that EDUPUNK as a term is intentionally vague, and touchè on the telepathy comment. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of a…more seriously though, the difference for me is that this company, that has been draconian in their definitions of ownership and relentless in their pursuit to crush the competition is offering this term up in a staged press release to announce their relationship to openness and open source tools. It seems like they are running interference on a word that had some meaning within a specific context already, how ever meager as Peter Rock points out.

    As for EDUPUNK, as @Jerry suggested, it will be in their Fall press release for sure, which will give my the occasion for another blog post on the subject 🙂 Yet, as @Andy points out, and I agree with him, it is another term, at least for the moment, that kind of stands outside of the language that has been euthanized to the point where any one can apply it to their business model, no matter how open or closed it is.

    @Michael It kind of saddens me to see the term open become a buzzword like it is, and if you follow the link to Mike Caulfield’s blog post below, I think he does a far better job of defining openness usefully, and putting BlackBoard’s untenable position in a far more intelligent and removed perspective. I tend to agree with him, but that said I think what is interesting here that you make quite clear is that this is a struggle of language and marketing techniques. We are not losing sleep or time over this episode as much as we are being deprived of words, which may actually force people to become more creative and trace the different meanings and nuances of terms like free, freedom, and open as @Peter Rock does.

    I As @Bill Ftzgerald makes clear, this isn’t all that new, and it has been going on for years, and I don’t disagree with @Peter Naegele that BlackBoard needs to be sorry for making money for what they do, for they shouldn’t feel bad and I respect that they provide a service that many folks want and need. That said, they should just refrain from trying to conflate their practices with the logic of openness, in a rather Shystery way as @Joe suggests, that has had a relatively specific connotation in education.

    Finally, the possibility of many tools under various umbrellas for a wide range of different projects and experiments is what @Luke brings together nicely. I think what becomes the dominant, institutional logic for such a promise b is making or we are seeking is some kind of authenticated, single sign-on for all university applications, making integration the key components, although we will never really have two systems tuning.

    Wow, my first attempt to make a series of reply comments read like a cogent post response, interesting, but probably not very readable.

  17. Brian says:

    I’m reminded of the recent history of organic food — a small niche in the market, once it demonstrated its wider appeal in rushed the major agribusiness players. To the point that Wal Mart is now America’s number one seller of organic produce. That organic food culture largely developed as a counter to large-scale centralized agricultural production was lost – the pesticides might(?) have been eliminated, but the energy-dependent, economically skewed and fundamentally unsustainable model remains in place. Indeed, producers now have a new “premium” line it can push to new markets.

    Remember the 2006 e coli outbreak in ‘organic’ spinach? Turned out that a widespread and diversely branded amount of the tainted organic spinach all came from the same farm, contaminated by a cattle operation.

    And at least with organic food there is some set of standards regulating what can be called “organic” (though those standards are under constant pressure from agribusiness producers and retailers, and enforcement is sketchy at best). In our field “open” is just another marketing buzzword. Expect to see a lot of more of this sort of positioning and posturing.

  18. Pingback: University Update - Syracuse University - Sorry, We’re Open

  19. OK, I’m sufficiently frightened now 😉

    Perhaps we should move to the “libre” term, like some in the FOSS community?

    Or, no — we should do what you do here Jim, and fight to keep this term.

    It does seem a never-ending battle with people coming and stinking up perfectly good terms.

  20. Reverend says:

    @Brain (intentional misspelling 🙂 )
    That’s the analogy this post desperately lacked. You nailed it, as usual. In fact, Anto and I spent dinner talking about this comment, and the questions surrounding a term and its subsequent tributaries of community, sustainability, and a larger question of that trace of capital that seems eerily present in all the news releases and discussions, yet absent in any kind of debate or discussion of edtech more generally. I think lucychili is working towards this in her own work, but there is an example of it in the comments here.

    In fact, Brian, it is with you in mind that this post was written, I’m referring to all the unbelievable work you have done with framing the discussion around open resources and lightweight syndication publishing platforms. Your keynote at COSL last year represents my impressions of the term open, and to see it kicked around so loosely by a corporate machine that mows its competitors down with untenable lawsuits made me scared (and I’m glad Mike is finally feeling scared too after your comment here–those New England cats don’t freeze up easy ).

    In fact, this will be long-winded, so forgive me, but everything I write is long-winded, and I understand it is a disease I can get help for. My doctor recommended smoking to shorten my breath, still waiting for that benefit to kick in.

    Claudia Emerson and I were invited to talk about a Literary Journals class we worked on together for a project called LEAD at the Darden Business School at the University of VA. The project selected a group of top performing high school students from around the country that showed an interest in Business, and was generously funded by Exxon! So, one of the organizers met Claudia at another function and was impressed with her, as anyone would be, and she allowed me to tag along for a much needed payday 🙂

    If I could cut to the chase I would just tell you it was a blast, which it was. But here are the details, we had three hours to just talk with them about presentation styles, poetry, literary journals, teaching, community, online media, communication, blogs, open source software, whatever we wanted. We just sat with them and had a conversation between us (Claudia and I) and invited them slowly in, then we started asking them what they were doing in this program, and what they were working on. They started telling us about their projects, which were the capstone presentations of this program in which they had to come up with a business proposal for a new, innovative company. They asked us for feedback, presentation recommendations, etc.

    And now to the point, one of the projects that was being proposed reminded me of the morphed idea of organic in the face of a new market that you talk about beautifully. The group wanted to start a Green Landscaping and Development Company. The point was that they would both develop and landscape new houses and suburbs that weren’t organized around a sustainable living community necessarily, but rather were built with environment friendly materials, and the heavy equipment was run with bio-diesel fuel and electric powered lawnmowers, etc. The group was thrilled with the idea, and generally excited by the idea that “everyone wants to go green.” And while I didn’t want to discount the potential benefits of such logic—I tried to hold my tongue during their period of sharing—but when they were done both Claudia and I looked at one another and basically asked, “How can irresponsible development be truly “green” if it isn’t thought out at the local level by a community?” (Which is my problem with Sakai, but I’ll save that for another day.)

    The push for green developers, builders, and landscape architects is in many ways the same co-option of an idea like “Green,” that has some real thought behind it, being completely gutted of any value, and sold back because it is somehow resonant for a society, and it is believed (and often demonstrated) that people consume accordingly. And seeing a group of smart kids understand this, and present it as a viable business project which might indeed prove successful by capitalizing on the particular buzz of an “environmentally conscious” consumer—and you know I really can’t these statements with a straight face, especially after throwing that lighter on the sidewalk in Brooklyn—made me think this exploitation has everything to do with the absence of a community.

    If there is no viable and active community around organic agriculture or green development or educational technology thinking that is local and active, then ultimately the space of capital fills the void and makes you feel somehow righteous in your aloneness, despite the fact that you really haven’t made the true step that this world desperately needs, a space for contact, discussion, and sharing. It is hippie, I know and forgive me, but it is truly one potential antidote to the crimes against our ow humanity this cultural imposed alienation has wrought.

    All that said, at the end of the session one of the student whose name was Nicholas came up to me (and he wasn’t from that group) said, you know the point you made about green development (which was a meager point at best) that is exactly what’s happening in open source software right now, and he proceeded to quote Zizek on cooption. This was right after EDUPUNK became a “thing” and I was sitting there listening to this kid talk and wondering why do I think I uderstand what these kids are about or that they are merely going to grow out of their ideas or that I might know more and act accordingly. It was a special moment for within all the talk about language and subverting meanings, the act of being in the room and talking it through with all if them n an all too human style was something special. And something I miss with so many of the people in this comment thread.

    This was far too long a response, forgive me, I am feeling sentimental for some odd reason 🙂

  21. Steve says:

    I’m not going to defend Blackboard, but there’s a theme to this discussion that suggests that if Corporate America joins something, that something is irretrievably compromised or corrupted. Yet, big business is how mainstream consumers have always gotten new products. The converse is also true–absent big business, only fringe groups (like us!) get access to the products.

    Can you conceive of a corporate, but genuinely open initiative?
    How can open software reach mainstream consumers without big business supplying it?

  22. Andy says:


    Of course there’s alternatives to that. Jim and others who write these linked up blogs work for colleges and in teaching. In my native UK, at least, that makes it public sector. Higher Ed is paid out of your taxes in the UK. Well, that’s been attacked a bit in the past ten years – but I didn’t have to pay extra on top of taxes for it.

    We could simply change publically subsidised, privately profitable into publically subsidized, publically profitable.

    New products can be developed in an open source environment then implemented in libraries, community centres and a fully funded free education system. Not to mention in your own home if you have access.

    Private business needn’t be in the loop at all. And if they are there – they needn’t dictate the products themselves or the content.

    In fact, one of the cheekiest events in history is how (computers and then) the net was developed over years in the military complex on complete public funding – and then awarded to private corps to sell back to us once it became a usable product.

    There ARE alternatives. (In your face, Thatcher).

  23. Peter Rock says:

    Steve asks: “Can you conceive of a corporate, but genuinely open initiative? How can open software reach mainstream consumers without big business supplying it?”

    There are corporate-driven software projects that are free software (what is “open software”?). For example, Java is developed primarily by Sun yet under the GNU GPL. When it comes to software, it’s the licensing that determines whether or not the project is socially beneficial or not. Whether or not “Corporate America” is involved is not directly relevant. Of course, there is a high correlation between corporations and proprietary software – but free software is still business-friendly.

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