Open Content: Considerations and Thoughts in #change11

This week found our #change11 MOOC focusing on open content with David Wiley. Not familiar with David’s work prior to the first synchronous discussion of the week (the recording is here), I had only a cursory understanding of open content, after which I started to learn that it involves content that can be reused, revised, remixed, and redistributed with more flexibility than traditional published content.

I had initially thought of open content as a panacea, and in many ways too good to be true. You know what happens when things are seem that way, right? Why share quality content without generating revenue? How good can free stuff really be? How can we confirm free content is of sufficient quality to be able to rely on it?

After the somewhat contentious live session (I reacted somewhat strongly when the concept of “doing the right thing” was raised, as if an objective “right thing” exists that is naturally self-evident), I started to think of open content in a different way, one which is much more skeptical than I initially began. Open content here was described as something that can be free or for pay, depending on the delivery mechanism. Let’s face it–people work because they get paid. Sure, volunteer efforts are done for the benefit of others, and non-profits exist to work toward their mission while covering their costs. It seems that open content tries to do the latter, but since some of the open content providers that were discussed in the live session were for-profit companies, I cannot get my mind around how open the content really can be. Consider Google, in that everything it does is oriented toward revenue, including providing all those nifty and (on the face) free services. Even its “free” Android operating system is on track to generate $2.5 billion in advertizing revenue. How free is free when strings, often very hidden ones, are attached?

In this way, are companies that provide goods under an open content license doing anything different than implementing a business model that revises a traditional publishing method into a new dissemination strategy? Yes, the content, such as in Flatworld Knowledge, can be freely available in some forms (provided the economically-focused users want it in that way), or still available in a traditional manner (for cost). What this means is they get the benefit of being considered a “good” company that is committed to sharing available resources (like Google, perhaps, which claims “You can make money without doing evil.” However, I am not sure Google would be classified as an open content provider, even given its freely available Reader, Documents, GMail, and the like), while strings are still attached on the back end. Go ahead and look at the website–how can a company exist without revenue? OK, try to see where they generate it; I could not locate it. That alone makes me suspicious, ironically, of something that claims to make solid content freely available.

I know, what is the big deal? If companies can provide open content and thereby benefit some people, then what is the harm in that? Nothing, insofar as the process is transparent. I am always skeptical when it is not clear how a company makes money, as companies are companies to generate revenue for stakeholders (or else they would exist as non-profits).  In this way, it reminds me of how Google was free and then ads appeared and then they started tracking user movements. Facebook does the same thing by selling user movements and interactions to advertisers. I am still wondering about Twitter’s business plan. But these are all known to be revenue-generating companies. Are open content generators just doing the same thing under the guise of being generous content sharers (for those who are economically challenged . . .)?

Granted, I agree that issues around peer reviewed journals and the tenure process and annually updated textbooks are all imperfect systems, though I am not convinced open content academic providers are the magic bullet to what comes down to fundamental issues of supply and demand. I don’t have answers as to why costs are so high in academic books and publications, except to say that for-profit providers of content do what providers of everything else do–they charge what they believe the market will bear. Perhaps open content providers will help to change that, though I believe the problem lies more with the corporatization of education itself, with the content providers simply following along.

9 thoughts on “Open Content: Considerations and Thoughts in #change11

  1. The concept of the advocatus diaboli comes to mind in this post, as I just do not trust corporate bodies to intentionally do good for anybody except their stakeholders. I hope this post sparks some discussion or consideration.


  2. Hi Jeffrey,

    Open content still enables the existence of a transactional entity (reputation instead of $$). However, when the content in question is funded by public $$ or student tuition, my thinking is a bit more extreme: it should be open. From the public purse, for the public benefit. If a private university funds content development, they may still benefit, reputationally, from sharing. However, I think you’ll find very, very few academics make money from their publications. They benefit far more from influence and reputation.

    1. @George-

      Thank you for your comment!

      I agree about who funds things should benefit from them (though by extension perhaps public-funded tuition in the form of grants should require public service?!), and I also agree that academics do not make money from their publications (or rather from their journal publications), though books may be a different thing. This week’s open content was more about book publishing, I think (or at least as I experienced). As I think journal publishing is an entirely different issue, perhaps that would be a great topic of discussion, especially regarding indexing and using reviewed materials that are available in open journals (take that, SSCI!).

      BTW, you are doing a great job lining up wonderfully engaging facilitators, and I think this attribute of the MOOC (which is open, though somebody has to be funding it, too . . .) is quite welcome in the area of sharing and expanding ideas in an open manner.


  3. Hi Jeffrey,
    You make some interesting points. I guess it all depends on which side you are: publisher (would like to see money), writer (would like to protect his writing) and reader (would love to have it for free). I am in favor of free open content. It creates a balance in society much needed (more people can study). Also, there might be a lot of content that is perfect to use but never gets a chance now because it has not been written in a certain way (publishers are like gods, they think they can decide on everything and they throw most of the writing on the pile of “no good”).
    Shouldn’t education be free? (then content would have to be free) Is it not a basic need? I am not worried at all if I don’t know how a company makes money, as long as they produce stuff we can use, preferably for free 🙂
    And what we are trying to do in education with connectedness, so is Google (and Fb and Twitter etc.): they all try to connect everything together to get ahead……And we want to do the same, right?

    1. @Irene-
      Thank you so much for your comment!
      If education were free, somebody will still have to fund it? Teachers and writers and publishers and institutions will not work without paying expenses, so how should it be paid for? Somebody in the chain of education will need to fund everything; the question just seems if it should be at the point of the end-user (student) or the government.
      I am not sure about education being a basic need, though even if so, should every need be paid for by anybody other than the person who has the need?
      Just wondering . . .

  4. Jeffrey – as other commentators say, reputation is a great motivator. But also, if you already get paid to work as a teacher, and then you create content which you share openly (perhaps video, audio, slideshare, Prezi, etc), then others can use it. If enough do this, there will be rich content available, and there will be a critical point reached which would make this approach seem normal. Some recent initiatives include i-Tunes U and even changes in pedagogy (Flip lessons, course websites, etc) are making this type of content easily searchable and available.
    True, publishers are trying to protect their business. But teachers can benefit much more by sharing.

    1. @George-
      Seems you are raising an issue that may warrant further discussion, namely that there are other ways of academic compensation (which does not need to happen with money), such as improving reputation as you say.
      Do you know if there is any research around this?

  5. Good question. Bread and milk (I hate milk) are supposedly basic needs and mostly it is funded by the person who needs it. Although I know enough schools where those are provided because the kids don’t get it at home for whatever reason (parents drinking the money is one that comes to mind in Canada and no money at home is what I saw in South Africa). Basic needs are kept at a certain price so people can afford it on a minimum income. That is what I would like to see with education: affordable (free for some if necessary) but not only available to the elite group (in Holland, where I am from, education was for the longest time for people with money).Sure, writers and publishers need money also to sustain their life, but somehow that is not my concern….:-)

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