What is open?

Thursday we finally had our initial project team workshop for the OSTRICH project. The team from Leicester spent a full day with us in Derby to kick off the project. Capturing all we discussed in a single post would be madness, so I decided to focus on something that captured my personal attention. Something which I don’t think has had much attention yet elsewhere.

What does it mean to be open? I’m not talking licences, or business models here. I’m talking very practically about the content itself.

Aside from teaching, I also have an extensive background in software development and so I am quite familiar with the Open Source ideology as it developed there, and naturally tend to draw comparisons between FLOSS (Free / Libre Open Source Software) and OER (Open Educational Resources). One aspect that I would like to look at now concerns dependencies.

Software is generally not considered to be truly open if it depends on other software that is not. An Excel macro for instance can not be truly open, as I will need to buy and use Excel to use it. Similarly software that plays mp3 files cannot be truly open, as the mp3 format is actually licensed and therefore not free and open.

Extending this to educational resources raised 2 important questions:

  1. What formats do we use?
  2. What references and dependencies to other materials can we use?

The format issue might be relatively straightforward, as it is relatively easy to avoid closed formats if we are aware. Ensuring we release Open Document format or Portable Document Format (PDF) in stead of using Microsoft word is easy enough. Deciding whether it is acceptable to use Wimba Create for the generation of open course content might be a bit more ambiguous. But regardless of the outcome of that discusssion, provisions area easilly made to comply with that.

The issue of references is more complex however. Is it acceptable, for instance, to refer to a journal article that is only accessible via a commercial publisher? Sure, other universities will probably have access to said journal, but do schools in Africa? How open and free is our resource really if the only way to utilise it is to pay expensive access fees to a publisher? The problem of course, is that there are not always easy alternatives here. The most influential articles are often still published in closed journals, which means that replacing those with references to open scholarly resources might be settling for second best.

Personally I think we should work hard to remove these dependencies wherever we can. Because if we do not, we are perpetuating the problem. References and citations are a key currency in higher education, and the HE market will go where that currency goes.