What Does 'Open' Mean? One Academic Weighs In

"Openness is nothing like an absolute value."
Shutterstock/Kevin George

When talking about educational technology, what does the idea of “openness” mean? The word “open” appears in both “open-access publishing” and “MOOCs” (massively open online courses), but does it represent the same things? Does it stand for the same values, or help the same set of people?

A small essay by Amherst College professor John Drabinski, published today, examines the word in the context of a higher education institution confronted with contemporary technological choices.

In 2013, Drabinski writes, the Amherst faculty had to decide on three big questions:

  1. Should they make a digital repository of faculty publications available?
  2. Should they make Amherst College Press, the college’s official publisher, an open-access press?
  3. Should they accept or refuse offers from Udacity, Coursera and EdX to convert some of the college’s best-known courses into MOOCs?

All of these questions turn on the concept of “openness.“ Two concerned “open-access publishing," one "massively open online courses." The Amherst faculty chose to create a digital repository and make Amherst College Press “open-access," but not to capitulate to MOOC manufacturers.

Drabinski’s post has a long explanation of why, in addition to a great inside look at what it feels like to be wooed by a MOOC instructor. (The companies continually assured Amherst of its “specialness.”) Ultimately, the faculty decided the first two were beneficial to the fellowship of scholars, and the latter was not. MOOCs could put scholars out of work; an open-access repository could make more knowledge available to good researchers who were not affiliated with an institution or university library.

This is the developing, conscientious line among academics: Pro-openness on open-access; anti-openness on MOOCs. (Just last week, a professor at Princeton, Mitchell Duneier, stopped teaching his popular MOOC “out of concerns that it would undermine public higher education.”

So when is openness good? Drabinski’s little explication is, I think, useful:

It occurred to me then, after we discussed this in pairs and groups and as a whole faculty, as it occurred to most, that openness is nothing like an absolute value. In fact, it is a value that is made good by what it enhances in self and offers to others. When we publish, openness is a value because it enhances our visibility and offers ideas to others without classist and cultural conditions. If you think that is worth doing, you support (in this case) the repository and the press.

He continues, and it’s worth reading. But this is an elegant, short rebuttal to the  always-positive buzzword senses of “open,” and a nice framework for thinking and handling the whole rhetoric of openness. “Openness is nothing like an absolute value.” Well said.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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