A Broader Form of Openness

Ethan Senack
Aug 29, 2018 · 3 min read

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The very concept of ‘openness’ is revolutionary. It’s a radical departure from the deeply individualized, consumer-oriented economy and society that we live in today. Sharing, collaboration, centering the public good, a vibrant commons — these are powerful qualities inherent to openness.

When I started working on openness in education six years ago, I saw it first as a way to save students money. At a time when state support for education was flat-lining and our pathways to tackle tuition costs seemed narrow, high textbook prices were a worthwhile nemesis.

Even then, I knew savings alone weren’t what I was after. The conversation around permissions, adaptability — open educational resources (OER) have the ability to save students money and the potential to improve the quality of education.

But despite that potential, some flaws in our education system run too deep. This year’s teacher strikes reminded us that crumbling schools and moldy books still exist in our country. Thousands of students log into obsolete desktops in their school computer lab, or leave access to the Internet behind when they go home at the end of the day. Others look at books and don’t see any faces that look like theirs, or struggle with instruction that is too disconnected from their own experiences. In college, they go to class hungry, or take notes through bleary eyes after a restless night sleeping in their car. If they graduate and become educators or researchers, they’ll teach too many students for too little money and without healthcare or benefits.

It’s systemic inequities like these that raise the question — how far does the revolutionary vision of openness extend?

Certainly, it’s unfair to expect open licensing alone to fix these problems, or for open advocates to tackle them all at once. Lack of access, inequity, exclusion: these power structures are too deeply ingrained in, and perpetuated by, our education system.

But personally, I see the possibility for a radically improved system — one that treats education as a public good, includes narratives from a variety of perspectives, ensures fair wages for researchers and authors, and most of all, re-establishes education as a force for equity and social mobility — and I think open licensing is a crucial piece of that equation.

I’m not content, though, with open licensing being the extent of our vision, and I hope many others feel the same way.

So, it’s up to us to find a middle ground. We desperately need a broader vocabulary around our goals, because licensing as a litmus test only gets us so far. We need to add nuance back to the conversation, and most importantly, we need to start assessing our efforts based on their impact, their outcomes, and their progress toward this wider vision.

We need to ask: when we advocate for openness, do we do it in a way that further entrenches these problems, or do we do it in a way that keeps a broader set of values in mind? Moreover, how can we work toward openness and further our progress towards these values at the same time? How can we help others like us — who care deeply about addressing these systemic issues — find a way to infuse these values throughout their own open work?

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