Who provides the seats at an open table?

boardroom table
Image credit: Torley’s “architecture”

I’m following the beginnings of George Siemens‘ and David Wiley’s discussion of the term open as it relates to the open education movement with great interest. I’m fascinated by the various connotations a term takes on as it gains popularity, and I think we can agree—that like organic or green—just about everyone is jumping on the term open in education right now, regardless of any real sense of what that term means or what qualities afford such a designation. It’s no surprise to me that corporations like BlackBoard, Google, and Facebook would push for this label, and there is little question in my mind that the market cache such a term has right now is increasingly diluting any of its meaning, particularly given it’s not so much reliant on technical infrastructure or content (though they are necessary and relevant), but rather dependent on a series of networked relationships that change the very logic of slapping a term on a product or being offered a seat at the proverbial table.  Who invites us to this table?

The larger question in my mind is that what’s under girding this discussion is an even more insidious logic than a denatured sense of open, and that’s a sense of entitled leadership. Fact is, the push to make sense of open as a term and discuss it’s meaning, future shape, and ultimate value seems to be the most definitive step in forming an institutional structure of power around it. Who gets to discuss what open is? Where do they do it? Companies don’t really care too much about that discussion, they just care about appealing to users through a term, and if they make up the table, along with administrators at universities and the like, then why do we need to go to the table at all? Isn’t the push away from these legacies of power and privilege a part of what open is working against on it’s most powerful and truly transformative levels? Why does their need to be a continental congress on open? Why do we have to conflate it with system and then elect officials to define it for us?  Part of the power and the hope of this space for me is a new scale of working though these ideas that’s both hyper-individual and communally local at the same time. To frame the discussion around a table of designated players that move us forward seems in many ways contrary to possibilities these connections and relationships provide us. I don’t think of this so much as radical, but rather an alternative to the models of leadership, promotion, and adoption of ideas that have ultimately placed them squarely within a system that is moving in a unilateral direction of progress in the name of growth and profit. Therein lies a deep-seated contradiction and paradox of our current discussions of open and freedom when so much of the meaning of these terms is every where circumscribed by ideas of ownership, property, and exploited labor.

I can’t say this is much of a well thought out response as it is a series of questions and reactions, and I’m fine with that, because I am fine with resisting the urge to systematize and officially organize an ideology like open around a definite group of leaders, institutions, and practices—not only is it far too early in  the thinking, but our current ways of thinking and systems in place would do nothing both bleed the life out of a movement (not an institution) that is composed of a group of people that are not designated to act, but think, write, and create out of a spirit of loosely coupled principles and beliefs that may not be a ratified Bill of Rights, but are born out of the ideas that a sense of freedom and openness is not something anyone can define en masse or institutions can grant through laws. The question is not so much about open, as it is about the state of our hierarchical thinking about leadership, institutions, and order—-I’m afraid under the current conditions an organized approach to open education can give birth to little but a privileged group of leaders that define an institutional course premised on compromise, acceptance, and personal gain—rather than forging ahead with grassroots, reciprocal relationships amongst people invested in their immediate situation and working for change within and through a conversation, rather than an institution or system, much like David and George are doing—I just don’t understand the push to institutionalize and systematize such an approach? Will it really happen if we aren’t pushed to accept or refuse a position, but rather think it through vigilantly and critically in relationship with others? In short, does open need a table? What’s behind the push to institutionalize its meaning?

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27 Responses to Who provides the seats at an open table?

  1. Ed Webb says:

    Open needs a network. Or, rather, networks.

  2. George Meadows says:

    That’s really well put Jim –

    “grassroots, reciprocal relationships amongst people invested in their immediate situation and working for change within and through a conversation, rather than an institution or system”

    I think open education only has meaning when its happening, and its best when it happens in the way you’ve described. A perfect example from just a week or so ago -Patrick G-M is interested in using Wii remotes to build an IWB, you blog about it, I read the BAVA and go to Patrick to find out how to do it, we play around with it, and now I’ve built my own that I’ll be using in my classes. And – no conferences were held, no money changed hands, but I probably should bring you all some more stuff from the Pancito bakery..

    I guess there is no way to stop it from being turned into conference fodder and/or advertising copy. Just keep letting it happen in the BAVA.

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  5. Steven Egan says:

    There are seats available?! Why didn’t I know about this?!

    Seriously though, it’s an approach thing. As you said Jim, if it’s a closed mindset trying to define open, it will end up being closed. Personally, I also think there should be more playing with the ideas. Experiment and try things out. If we get too focused on the purposes rather than getting things done, we won’t make much progress.

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  8. I think part of the frustration simply stems from the fact that someone (the companies listed herein) else has grabbed hold of the term and those that feel they are the originators balk at it’s use. It’s kinda like the edupunk discussion that flamed last year. A few started talking about it, then it quickly became a catch phrase embraced by anyone that wanted to jump on the wagon.

    Irregardless, I don’t think the discussion is detrimental, but I do think there are certain actions that can be taken in the short-long term

    +assert what your definition of open is (define)
    +open what content you want (contribute)
    +work to create better open systems than what are available (don’t lock content away)
    +push back on the companies that claim openness and point out their short comings (after all, it’s push back that’s lead to change that’s led them to adopt “openness” as a virtue…just look at Facebook)

    at least…that’s my plan.

  9. btw, I mean no disrespect RE: edupunk, I wasn’t trying to imply that you jumped on any wagons 😉

  10. Shannon says:

    I think you make an excellent point Jim. Especially as a student (and an undergrad one at that) there is a sense of powerlessness that comes when these things become institutionalized way over our heads. We become disenfranchised (or maybe disenchanted) when THE conversation about openness (or anything for that matter) is centered around experts, the ones with the biggest network, the best looking, etc. talking about what it means.
    Since the idea of openness seems to be both ideological and methodological maybe they necessitate two different approaches and two different and intertwining conversations. And maybe while people are busy having their conversations we will show ’em how its done, in true open fashion. Perhaps action and conversation are also intertwining, rising and falling at different points in the evolution of understanding open.
    I’m left with lots of questions and lots of incomprehension (should have taken more philosophy classes haha) but, I know if I head in an approximate direction with no end point in mind I think I’ll eventually find my way to “open”.

  11. Chris Lott says:

    I don’t see that there must be an “insidious logic” behind the desire to push further into what openness means– and by “means” here I’m talking about its consequences, subtle effects, and complexities.

    Unless your taking @cogdog’s preferred route (as I understand it) of dismissing philosophical conversation– which I find incredible difficult to believe given, well, all your philosophical conversation.

    Any discussion can lead to institutionalization. It’s not as if the companies who are perverting the concept now are laying awake at night talking philosophically about openness… shouldn’t we lay claim to that space? Or do we not dare to strike a match because fire can both warm and consume us?

  12. Chris Lott says:

    Shannon: I’m curious why you imply that it’s impossible for the two conversations to be part of the same person’s work? Are we so fractured that the same people who speak of openness can’t be recognized for their work promoting and engaging in it? And what happens when you follow your path and become one of those experts– are you expecting to be excluded summarily from the conversation, that this is just the way of things?

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  15. Shannon says:

    @Chris Hmm you raise some good questions. I don’t think there are necessarily two separate and distinct conversations (although my writing is kind of vague and implies that) I definitely see them intertwining as part of a bigger whole.
    While that is how I ideally view it maybe I am a bit cynical about the ability of people to come together in any coherent fashion, especially once people become “experts”, too much sophisticated jargon and need to be the “most important” in the conversation, again this is me being cynical at the moment (I far too often give into emotional thinking, I’ll admit it).

  16. Chris Lott says:

    Well, I certainly can’t claim to think or write from a place free of emotion 🙂

  17. Reverend says:

    @Chris and Shannon,

    You two need to get a philosophical room 🙂

    Mor seriousl, I agree that the theory and application go hand-in-hand, so I have no real qualms on that regard. I just don;t know why either of them need to be envisioned as a kind of systemic solution to something that seems to be operating on a very different level than we have seen before. That is, we have these decentralized relationships and possibilities of sharing that in many ways can build a momentum of relationships and possibilities outside of a open edict or institutional application. That i where I think the hope of open lies, and it requires both theory and application, but no the hierarchical ideas of power and reward that often ground the ideals that brought these things to light in the first place. Does that make sense?

  18. Reverend says:


    I agree, a term becomes so easily co-opted, and just looking at the term organic in food production, I see so many corollaries in content production 🙂 Content farms producing free range knowledge for less, and they are open and free—so who is to argue?

    It’s a tough issue, and I may be overstating it above, but at the same time I hate to think that a definition of open would necessitate an application, I think th application and definition should emerge together, in relationship to one another over time, but such a relationship is very hard to sustain when profit is the ultimate logic driving the exploration.

  19. Shannon says:

    @Jim Yeah, yeah looks like you are joining us in the philosophical room 😉

    I think I see what you are getting at. Is there a fear that this discussion of defining will lead to changes (that are unwanted) in the methodology? For example, is there a fear that “open” gets defined as “x” and what we are doing is more like “y” and that going to “x” wouldn’t quite work but, the University sees lack of doing “x” as a lack of fully grasping openness even though doing “x” wouldn’t really be as helpful as “y”?
    In any case, I can understand the fear of defining something that has methodological implications you aren’t comfortable with but, I think by having people who know what they are talking about (well at least I think there are smart) we can avoid the disaster of having the Bb or FB definition of open become the gold standard. The fear of having big corporations define open is what I think is driving the desire for this conversation.
    If we have this conversation among people who practice openness well I trust that an ideology that is neither too rigid or too structureless can be reached. I have to trust that the people who are practicing it well will step up to the plate and not throw some half-assed idea out there. For whatever reason I am bit more optimistic today.

  20. “I think the application and definition should emerge together, in relationship to one another over time, but such a relationship is very hard to sustain when profit is the ultimate logic driving the exploration.”

    I’ve been meaning to blog about this forever.

    Let’s say that you like open education – and you’re ok with the amorphous edges – even excited about them. You want to explore, play, learn, spread, advocate, challenge, break and build.

    But a university won’t hire you. What do you do?

    Is creating a job – where you have to pay yourself – inherently more corrupting than getting a job with a university that has to pay itself?

    On a side note – I’m not sure that it wouldn’t be easier for me to convince Blackboard of more open ed ideas than many of the colleges I talk to.

    If a for profit motive is more flexible than a non-profit motive, and the current paradigm is not what I want . . .

  21. Reverend says:


    Yeah, I know I always seem to come down hard on the profit motive idea, and it is a definite weak point of all my arguments, I recognize that. I also understand I am arguing from a privileged space of a university job—even if tenuous as opposed to tenured. That said, I do think open education as an idea has less to do with bankable business models than an approach to all elements of one’s professional life—which I imagine is working within the bosom of a institution or self-employed. Point is that being part of the conversation and making relationships around these ideas and working on projects is the lifeblood. It is not a sacred space owned by righteous asses like myself, but simply a matter of an engaged position within the conversation—this is where the cluetrain manifesto still rings so true on so many levels, and that was very much aimed at businesses and marketing. In fact, I ultimately return to a kind of shielding of education from this profit-driven model as a reaction to the increasing idea that everything is dictated by a profit motive, it may be true but I want to think it isn;t, and I would like to think the rash of sharing that has come to characterize the new web is a suggestion of something beyond profit, if not in place of it. But this is absolutely a large part of my thinking that is rather myopic, and I appreciate you reminding me of this from time to time 🙂

  22. Jim,

    Don’t worry about being righteous, we have that in common.

    So let me push on the “weak point of all [your] arguments,” because I’ve found that’s the place to kick a guy.

    I’m all for participating in the conversation, rejecting claims to authority and cluetrain. I think you’re wrong headed to talk about shielding education from the for profit motive because I think that is akin to shielding education from change.

    The terms for-profit and non-profit (“profit motive”) are too simplistic. (And importantly, based on the length of your blogs and comments, you need more complexity- just trying to help.)

    Illustrative personal anecdote:

    We started with the change we wanted to see (more engagement in education) and wondered out loud how to make that happen. We had a change motive. Intellectually, this led to open ed – which existed long before we heard about it, and technologically, led to a focus on networks and feeds.

    Money wasn’t the primary motive, but it was necessary for food and developers.

    We wanted to be non-profit. We tried grants and partnering with schools. It didn’t work (for us). We didn’t have the connections, seemingly, to get the grants and partnering with colleges is still a dreamy unicorn. We’ve been transparent about this on our blogs.

    Being “for-profit” and selling the change seemed to be the only way to build the change and get it used. For profit was the only option we had left. It was our plan C. We still might financially die, leaving only our blogs and ashes of credit cards behind.

    I’m just one example of the dynamic at play. It’s a “galvanizing potential change agents” problem. It’s hard to do. If you limit options by taking away plan c, you dramatically limit possibilities.

    Change requires money – to build software that embodies the change and for motivation. Motivation not just for the seller (which seems to bother you the most) but, critically, for the buyer as well.

    Yet another personal anecdote:

    When we gave our software to schools, they didn’t follow through. When we sold it to them for a little, some followed through. When we raised our prices more, we were forced to get the buy in from the existing power structure at the school and we got better results for it.

    In short: the more we charge, the more change we get.

    (Yes but! you may be saying, my school paid nothing for software! The trick is that you charge substantially more, through your salary, then I do for my software/training thing for a similar goal. You’ve created amazing change and that’s awesome. Pay for “people not software” is great, and I agree, but it is more expensive. The expense is an expression of the desire for change and a commitment to it. If every school wanted the change and was willing to invest in people like you, I would have looked elsewhere for a problem to solve, open ed would be here.)

    The world needs more students that can do what Shannon does.

    We need diverse approaches to accelerate that change.

  23. Reverend says:


    Because I like a good scrimmage, here you go:

    Why is profit and change equated here? I don’t see the reasoning at all. There can be radical change at a campus and not necessarily define profit as the motivator or outcome. I think using profit as the raison d’etre of education is one of the strongest arguments against commercial enterprises infesting education, which means that distinction I’ve made I still believe in. And one of your later points shores up the argument for me, so here you go….

    Pay for “people not software” is great, and I agree, but it is more expensive. The expense is an expression of the desire for change and a commitment to it. If every school wanted the change and was willing to invest in people like you, I would have looked elsewhere for a problem to solve, open ed would be here.

    The fact that institutions are not investing in people, but rather commercial interests that slap a band aid on a larger problem of community-wide engagement around ideas does not provide a solution, but rather a cosmetic face lift for the new web—that is just more promotional nonsense. This stuff cannot be accomplished without people, and bringing in consultants to train faculty on this stuff may have some surface effect, but it is not going to change things. So, in that regard, the profit motive is not really about change, but the veneer of change, the idea that administrators can buy change for the low, low price of mediocrity in social networking doesn’t seem like a solution to me. On the contrary, it makes the real efforts of people invested in this space—and paid like I am to do it—seem erroneously Herculean simply because there a terrible drought in the investment in people—which is a larger cultural phenomenon that The Wire traces beautifully.

    Therein lies the real horror of our moment, a disinvestment in people, which is aided and abetted by commercial interests that want to deliver the least common denominator service, sans the people which are too expensive, at a great discount—a Wal-Martean logic, if you will. And more than that, they label this approach as a solution, when in fact it is not a solution at all, but rather a part of the larger cultural problem of disinvestment in labor we are all facing as a alienated and disenfranchised group of workers. And the impulse to create a niche solution market always smacks of a kind of opportunism that ignores, or even exacerbates, the underlying problems.

    How’s that for righteous? 🙂

  24. Boone Gorges says:

    Jim, there may be fundamental problems with a for-profit model of educational technology, but your analysis fudges things in a pretty unfair way and leaves those problems somewhat mysterious. If your priority is for institutions to invest in people, then you must recognize a huge difference between investment in Blackboard and its ilk and investment in a business like Kevin’s. Big, old-model software companies are the very definition of commodification: they put a certain amount of resources into the creation of a product, then they market that single product to as many people as possible in order to maximize profits. A small company, made up of a handful of people, providing personal support and making real connections to a campus, is not the same thing – not by a long shot. If you want to put it in terms of valuation of labor, it’s clear that there is a much more direct connection between individual labor and reward at this smaller level than at the huge corporate level. Maybe it’s not the same thing as full-time employment of an instructional technologist, but it’s also not the same thing as buying a bunch of Windows licenses.

    In some perfect world, every institution might employ instructional technologists in the same population ratio as UMW. (Though, as an aside, I don’t think this is necessarily an ideal to strive for absolutely. The employment of full-time instructional technologists is certainly an admirable goal, but it is not the ultimate goal.) But that perfect world is very, very far from the real one. The instructional-technologist-to-student ratio at my institution is approximately 1:20,000. Spending money on external contractors, be they big or small, is at my public institution about 5,000 times easier than spending on another full-time person. If it’s possible to spend some money on an external contractor for a service that provides a legitimate benefit to the students’ educational experience or to the scholarly environment of the college, and if my choice is between buying the service or forgoing the benefit, then I’d be failing in my moral responsibility to the student body not to consider the purchase.

    We all want a system in which everyone is gainfully employed in a full-time position that takes advantage of their skills. We all want educational institutions to value the members of their communities. We all want the academic and educational environment to be as rich and meaningful as possible. In that perfect world, maybe all these things can be satisfied by the same setup. But what do you do in the meantime? Do you penalize the students and faculty who want to do good work right here, right now, for the sake of some distant ideal?

    I don’t presume to even know how to begin answering these questions. I do know, though, that rejecting certain paths out of hand because they are for-profit is to ignore a variety of other relevant considerations (of arguably equal importance).

  25. Reverend says:


    You certainly don;t luive in a perfect world at CUNY, and one of the real issues is that with an institution like CUNY, for example, administrators are willing to invest millions and millions of dollars in hardware and consultants, but do just about anything not to hire full-time employees. I was part of the disenfranchised workforce at CUNy for many a year, and the efficiencies and moral imperatives of weighing options is premised on an always already systematically under-funded public university system. So, the moral question arises somewhat after-the-fact if we are talking about perfect worlds.

    And pray tell, what is the ultimate goal of instructional technology at the university? Is it to ultimately empower the students and faculty with a few sets of tools, cause if that’s the case, Web 2.0 or not, you can accomplish that with Bb or any of these packaged goods out of the bag. The larger question is investing in relationships between students, professors, and instructional technologists that open up a huge conversation that needs to happen in higher ed, and most tenured professors are neither willing or able to have. Fact is, CUNY’s investment in hardware at the expense of people is criminal, and their lies the moral imperative that we tend to ignore as we weave or ideals around a pragmatics of the best for the most, which is always undergirded by an idea of accepting chronic underfunding and trying to do the best with what we have. I know that’s the situation we live in, but it is by no means a best of all perfect worldds, and the more we use outside contractors and the like as a means to replace and learn to live without a key element of the university landscape right now, the worse off we all are. Because we move our expectations continually to the least common denominator. I mean how much is everyone being paid to run the Academic Commons? That a good faith effort from what I understand, and while I think it is awesome, it is ultimately impossible for university to recognize and fund positions like ours that are essential to the changing models of scholarship and publishing. So, we eat it, and we claim some sense of superiority from it, but we change very little in terms of the economics of institutions, but much in terms of the culture. But if that’s the case, why invest so much in institutional culture? Why do we do it? And what would it mean to further remove that relationship to commercial vendors trying to forge these relationships o smaller scales in a system like CUNY? I would think next to impossible—what you have there is a community, and that is not something a small business can really get you, not i it something universities recognize until after the fact, and then it will be valued, and watch Academic Commons will be valued once it has proven its worth, but was profit the logic that brought it into being? No, and unfortunately, given our insistence on doing things for free because we think they are important, the actual money for people will be continually funneled into hardware, servers, consultants and the like. This reality increasingly tells me that the interesting work being done at universities is often not driven by the profit motive, though at some point it may get subsumed by it—and as an example, what are some of the companies on Kevin;s scale that are doing impressive things at universities around the country? I would guess none, because what is impressive right now is not the shiny web 2.0 apps, they are all available already, what is impeessive is actually imagining ways and doing the ground work to get people to think about them, and then actually sue them. How do you outsource that?

    malnourishment of a community of employees ho

  26. Jim-

    On righteousness – not bad, not bad at all. : )

    Your blog post leads by decrying “entitled leadership,” and you say you’re fine not systematizing open ed, but your comments then claim the mantle of moral judge (“band aid” “moral imperative” etc.) The meta loop of these positions is handy – you can be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

    It makes you the God of the old testament, before the commandments. All smite, no laws, just one directive: “thou shall not eat of profit.”

    There are obviously many parts to this discussion / debate. A big part of the challenge with large discussion tables (blogs) is that, invariably, participants will speak different languages. When we each say “profit”, I think we have significantly different meanings assigned to it.

    In the language of progressives: you are not hosting a safe space for discussion. You say “companies don’t care about the discussion,” but then dismiss all private companies as a plague that infests education.

    I think you are focused on intent and ethic when you are arguing against a “profit motive.” You are saying something like: “profit motive should be kept out of education because it can’t / won’t give us “real” open. It will give us the veneer of change at the expense of people.”

    Blackboard and its marketing are your evidence of veneer. I’m with you on this one, but one example does not a rule make.

    In your definition, it seems your salary is not “profit”, because you are clear on your motivation, but you don’t grant this basic flexibility to anyone outside of a university.

    I am talking about accounting and practical matters at the start of my (and anyone else’s) efforts. Starting from outside the university, I tried a “non-profit” legal structure (grants and partnering), to go with my non-profit motive, to get the privilege of working towards my version of “real” change and couldn’t make it work.

    To this problem, you seem to be saying – either a) you must work within a university like I do or b) from outside a university, non-profit just should work.

    Is this the advice you would give to Andre Malan (@ramcio) or Kyle Mathews (@kylemathews)?

    (Just two great examples of change agents who will need to figure out how to structure their efforts.)

    I say that I have a “change motive” and would like to be judged (by anyone, not just you : ) on the degree to which I am working towards and creating change to open ed. This judgement would require some definitions. It would require some criteria we could agree on, a checklist. Perhaps you and I will never come to a shared understanding of the role of money in creating change agents or change, but can we focus on what we do agree on?

    A few things I think we both like:

    1) Community

    2) Open source software

    3) Open / unencumbered content

    4) Pedagogy

    5) Networks

    6) Adoption / use of available tools

    Do you want the olive branch and the discussion or the old testament?

    At some point God realized that knowledge/money was just a resource, and part of the deal, and he probably needed to focus on specific behaviors. Forgiveness came much later.

    Maybe, as you say, it’s just “too early” for any of that.

    (P.S. I just couldn’t make it fit and Boone would make a great virgin mary in any performance of the christmas story, but there’s a great comparison here to “immaculate conception” and your use of wordpress. Especially because I’m interested in the start of things. In the educational myth, you get your current flavor of tech for free and magically, without the dirty deed of capitalism and profit motive, as if the investors that put 30 million! into Automattic never existed.)

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