Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Battle for Open

Grading has slowed my writing and reading, but I couldn't help noticing a few posts, the first one from Audrey Watters about The Battle for "Open". As I had just written about open systems, I was curious to compare her idea of openness with my own. I did not find an explicit statement about openness in her post, but if I'm reading between the lines correctly, then I think we are coming at the idea from quite different perspectives.

Watters links to some of her earlier posts about openness, and I pick up from them that openness for her has to do with how we define things, especially access to things, "culturally, pedagogically, politically, financially".  In a 2011 post, she says, "I think we're in store for lots of conflict over what constitutes "open" -- how it's funded, how it's labeled and licensed, who mandates "what counts."" Then in her next end-of-year post, she mostly writes about the open textbook movement and the friction it is experiencing from slow adoption by students and faculty and from challenges by commercial vendors. If I understand correctly, then, Watters is working with openness in cultural, pedagogical, political, financial, and legal contexts. These are likely the contexts that most interest most readers, and eventually, they are the contexts I have to move into. However, I have been coming at openness through complexity and open systems theories, which can be more than just a bit abstract. Still, it has likely left me with a slightly more optimistic perspective than Watters', as the natural laws that describe complex, open systems give me great confidence that in the long run openness will win out. Complex systems are open, and I count all humans, collective and individual, and all knowledge as complex systems. Thus, I'm confident that in the long run, humans will always find ways to open communication.

This does not mean, however, that the legal and normative laws that function at the social level cannot impede or modify the exchange of information among complex systems, at least in the short term. They can and they do. We all see that. We pass laws, for instance, to govern the exchange of music, and those laws can cause great trouble for those who enact more open exchanges than the laws allow. Openness (or piracy as the music conglomerates and their lawyers term it) is inevitable, but vested interests will fight it, sometimes vehemently, even violently.

I also want to note that openness for me is a relative term not an absolute term. Nothing is ever completely closed or completely open, but always on a sliding scale of more or less open. If complex systems were totally open to their environments, then they would lose their internal integrity and collapse, merge, or die. The boundaries of complex systems are fluid, flexible zones that interpenetrate other boundaries, but they are not totally open. Exchanges are always managed, or the system suffers. We humans, for instance, have to be open to intake food, but we can't intake the wrong kind of food or too much of any kind of food. If we do, we damage ourselves. Watters no doubt supports near universal access to low/no cost textbooks, but she would not favor a virus spread by such textbooks, or an attack to change the content of all those texts to something damaging (but then that raises the question of damaging to whom?). In other words, Watters likely favors, as most all of us do, some management of the boundaries of any complex system, virtual or real. Where to put the boundary and who should enforce the boundary is always the point of contention, and that issue will never, ever go away. Moreover, the boundary will shift as technologies and social structures shift. As we shift from print books to tablets, we are inevitably changing the rules of exchange of academic information, but we should not expect the textbook publishers to be happy about it, or acquiescent. We are always and forever negotiating our boundaries. It's a messy process, and never completely pleasing to anyone. As near as I can tell, it's the burden of living.

Still, I applaud what Watters is doing, and I'm most jealous that she can keep track of all these developments in education. She is such a better scholar than I. Still, I have to keep in mind that the boundaries of any complex system, such as a textbook, always tend to open more and more to the ecosystem (if it survives as a textbook at all), but a complex system is never totally open without losing itself and its identity. Finally, negotiating the boundaries of any system is a never-ending task (just try keeping things out of a baby's mouth, for instance). It's the hard work of life and must be embraced.

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