What Does Open Mean?

I’ve had lots of people ask me about the meaning of “openness” in the context of the work I do since returning from Open Ed 2009 two weeks ago and I am still struggling for an answer. I was working to frame my view of open based on my own experiences here at PSU, but it feels forced and difficult to grab — there seems to be clarity for a moment and then it just vanishes, slipping through my fingers and out of reach. I mentioned that I have a different perspective on open than many at the conference in my own reflection of the event, but it seems important to me to hash through a few more ideas that are banging around in my head.

I am moving closer to the notion that it can’t just be about access to open educational resources. I was exploring this more deeply in a response to my colleague, David DiBiase’s comment on my Open Ed reflection post. I had mentioned that there were many at the event who pushed on the idea of a moral imperative … I wasn’t saying I felt that way necessarily and I certainly do not spend my time thinking about distance education and access of those materials by everyone. Instead I was asking the question about what needs to be a part of something to make it an OER? Is a course blog an OER? Are a set of annotated Flickr photos an OER? Is a YouTube mediated conversation an OER?

These are things that I am really curious about exploring. Our team here at PSU spends our time exploring platforms to empower teaching and learning in new ways, we spend time working to impact faculty in positive ways, and we work to bring all of our thinking to the entire community in as a transparent way we can through both physical and virtual activities. How are we pressing openness when we don’t really deliver anything that is deemed educational in and of itself. We build the framework that we hope open happens on. I wonder if that makes sense?

A lot of my current thinking is built on a mash up of thoughts I have been working through since I heard Jonathan Zittrain speak at the Berkman at 10 event in Boston last year. My favorite quote from his talk is that, “there is no main menu for the Internet.” Its a mash up of thoughts because it resonates so well with the push button attitude of the web on which too many of us build our identities. In this context I am thinking specifically about the closed room that is Facebook. It is reminding me so much of the old days of AOL that is scary. You remember AOL, don’t you. It was essentially a fully top down, closed, main menu driven version of the Internet that eventually died when we all realized there was value in not navigating the path they wanted us to. The new web should be, by nature, empower openness — just like Zittrain said, the web is an environment that encourages us to party in a “BYOC — Bring your own content” way. Once we started to bring our own content, the proprietary providers couldn’t keep up. Will the same happen at Facebook?

There is no Main Menu for the Internet.

There is no Main Menu for the Internet.

Facebook is clearly different than AOL in that we still bring our own content, but instead of managing and sharing it openly, we are hoarding it and only letting our “friends” see it. Is that really any different than a $5.00 a month service? Facebook is free you say, but the content we deposit in it isn’t. If open is about global access, how does an Internet built on that vision match up? How can we feel good about watching our students (and faculty, staff, children, friends, parents, etc) drop a great deal of long-term learning opportunities into that box?

How does this rambling mess relate to OER? Well, that is for us to explore together, but if there is one thing I believe passionately in its the ability for all of us to have a platform that we can use to make decisions about how our content is shared. My colleague, Elizabeth Pyatt put it brilliantly when she insightfully told me that closed is a gradient of open. Our open movement here may have more to do with providing the opportunity to make the default decision be an open one. I know over the term of my digital life I’d prefer that I can make decisions about what is left there for others to consume. Open may be about letting people know they have the power to make that decision and giving them free access to BYOC.

Just a thought … any reactions?

Movable Type as an Open Content Toolset

I have been thinking more and more about the opportunities we have at our fingertips now that we have an enterprise blogging toolset in place here at the University. I’ve watched my online colleagues discussing open courseware and blog tools for about a week now and am ready to chime in with my own thoughts. I am impressed with the progress and ah-ha moments that have gone on around the edu-blog web for the better part of a week, although I am slightly surprised in that many of these same people are the ones who have been banging the “blog is more than a blog” drum for quite some time. I spent the better part of a year working that angle in hopes of getting our own decision makers to buy into an enterprise blog tool — “no, its a personal content management system …” So as I watched D’Arcy, Brian, Jim, and David show off the work they’ve done and the excellent thinking they are sharing I was a little confused by the excitement.

But then it hit me. The glorious piece to this is not the software, it is the philosophical underpinnings it is supporting. Openness. Open content that can be easily created, managed, searched, and then shared out (using a number of interesting methods) to other platforms so it can be customized and treated the way people want to treat content — ironically, as their own. What I mean is that we’ve all talked about online repositories for the last 10 or so years, what I see as the difference here is that I can find good open content, grab it, move it into a drop dead simple environment (like wordpress.com), and manipulate it and make it more like the environment I want it to be. We always wanted that but we (at least) couldn’t make it happen. Maybe we can now.

So, we have Movable Type as our enterprise blogging tool here at PSU. That means that anyone with an access account and webspace can log in and create a blog. A couple of clicks, some typing, and you are publishing. To me it spells a platform to support all sorts of learning content design and development. What if for a minute we envisioned a second install of MT that is built to be specifically for course design and development? A design team (including faculty) could build in this space using all the collaborative tools to do so, take advantage of tags, categories, and other meta-like data to help keep things straight, and create killer learning objects. This isn’t really new thinking. But what if all these things were just open and waiting to be exported (in MT format) and imported (in MT format) directly into our enterprise blog tool by a single faculty member who was interested in taking what was available and adding the parts they wanted the most — their own personal contexts to bring it to life.

A project like this would allow us to explore some things at an Institutional level and actually answer some questions … a few things that come to mind include:

  • Platforms: The blog environment is the perfect kind of place to hang all sorts of opportunities off … I am thinking about podcasts, streaming media, google maps, links to ANGEL, and all sorts of other small pieces.
  • Best Practices: What does it mean to use an environment like MT to produce learning content or objects … could we build a roadmap for others to follow?
  • OER Standards: We need to establish all sorts of baseline constructs if we are going to move into a more OER space … what is the granularity of content, what kinds of tags should be used, how do we manage assets, and all the other things we worry about with learning object design.
  • OER Policies: Even more critical to the long term vision is how do we position ourselves (and our content) for use and reuse? I know there is at least one College on campus already playing in the OER space, but what does it sound like as an Institutional conversation?
  • Attitudes: How will our stakeholders react and what do people really think about sharing?
  • Usability: Does this type of environment lend itself to use, and maybe more importantly is it the right kind of space to use in the first place?

It isn’t fully baked and I know there are holes in it, but I am willing to put a group of people together to aggressively explore it … what should we be thinking about — and at the end of the day, why shouldn’t we do it? I know this post is not articulate enough to really illustrate the vision, but it is my feeble attempt to get some input and get a conversation started around the concept. Anyone care to share some thoughts or participate in a larger discussion?