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.