What Do We Mean By "Open"?

The adjective “open” ostensibly makes educational resources more easily accessible. But “open” can mean a lot of things: resources that are free; research that is publicly available on the Web and indexed by search engines; courses that offer open enrollment; materials that are openly licensed; content and code that can be copied and modified and redistributed. “Open” can mean “transparent.” Open versus proprietary. Open versus closed.

Licenses like Creative Commons and the various open source software options are supposed to codify what we mean by “open.” Or at least, these licenses provide a framework for openness and for restrictions on content or code. Can you reuse it? Can you modify it? Can you share it? Can you sell it?

There’s the problem, of course, if you can only answer “yes” to a couple of those questions above. Does the resource still count then as “open”?

Here’s where licenses don’t necessarily help clarify things, and in my recent research into OER, confusion over copyright, fair use, and Creative Commons is one of things that makes many educators hesitant about adopting any new resources, licensing be damned.

The recently-launched Creative Commons License Generator is an unfortunate example of how confusing this can be. The tool walks you through questions to help you pick your CC license (Allow modifcations? Allow commercial usage?) Straightforward enough. It generates HTML with the appropriate license to paste onto your website. Even better. Ostensibly there to make it easier to know which is “the right license” for you, the generator also gives you the warning, based on some of the answers you give, that “This is not a Free Culture License” — and that’s a whole other can of worms, a judgmental one at that.

But if this an effort to narrow the definition of what we mean by open by the "free culture" movement, more often, I feel, we find its definition is stretched beyond meaning. I wonder about some of the recent MOOCs this way, for example. Sure, anyone can sign up so they're "open" in that sense. But the materials themselves often aren't openly licensed.

There’s a lot of slippage in the term “open.” Some earnestness; some marketing spin; plenty of confusion, a lot of which licensing decisions won’t alleviate. Even if something is openly licensed, for example, there still may be technical restrictions or barriers: DRM, file format, a lengthy registration process, inequitable access, and so on. 

I’m not sure we could (or should) really nail down a strict definition of "open." Rather, I think the important thing is to recognize a continuum of openness and restrictions -- licensing, access, source code, transparency, reusability -- and to think about the context in which "open" is invoked. 

Disclosure: This article is part of a larger research and writing project I’m undertaking to examine the adoption (and obstacles to adoption) of OER. The research is funded by FunnyMonkey, a Drupal-based development shop out of Portland, Oregon. You can read other posts in this series here, here, here, and here.

Image credits: Ivy Dawned



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