Are you: free / open / none of the above ?

Where I tinker with the notions of open and free: how are they different? how do they overlap?

Do we need a definition of ‘open’?

Last week in #whyopen, we reflected on the meaning of open as it relates to our lives and practise. After discussing our views on various online platforms, we asked ourselves whether we should try to define openness or leave the definition open.

On this issue, I agree with Pat Lockley who says:

Defining is hard, as we have come to realise during last week’s exercise. Yet, most of us in the discussion felt that we needed to come to a common understanding of the term ‘open’ so as to be able to rally around it. If we have no clear benchmark for what open is, how can anyone decide if something is open or otherwise?

Defining ‘open’ sounds all the more crucial that we are confronted with arguments raging back and forth between free culture and open culture.

Free is absolute

Comparing two possible definitions of free content and open content, I find ‘free’ more uncompromising a label than ‘open’. Whereas an artifact is either free or not free, it can be more or less open.

Open is a more flexible concept, that allows for a continuum of positions within the realm of openness:

Content is open to the extent that its license allows users to engage in the 4R activities [4R: reuse, revise, remix, redistribute]. Content is less open to the extent that its license places restrictions (e.g., forbidding derivatives or prohibiting commercial use) or requirements (e.g., mandating that derivatives adopt a certain license or demanding attribution to the original author) on a user’s ability to engage in the 4R activities.

This difference is clearly spelt out on the Free cultural works wiki:

We discourage you to use other terms to identify Free Cultural Works which do not convey a clear definition of freedom, such as “Open Content” and “Open Access.” These terms are often used to refer to content which is available under “less restrictive” terms than those of existing copyright laws, or even for works that are just “available on the Web”.

Is free the extreme end of open, the most radical stance? Conversely, is openness a diluted version of free culture?

Differing ideologies

In an interview with Forbes, free software advocate Richard Stallman posed an ideological grounding for free culture which is opposed to the more pragmatic approach he attributes to the proponents of open source:

Where we differ from the proponents of open source is in what those goals are. The open source viewpoint cites only practical-convenience goals, such as making software powerful and reliable. Our primary goals are freedom and community. We appreciate convenience too, of course, but we do not put that above freedom.

So, essentially, open source people are sell-outs who abandoned the fight for freedom in favour of … convenience!

I’m not sure that everybody championing openness fits the portrait of practically-minded people with not an idealist’s bone in them. Both open source and free software advocates strive against proprietary software: they just don’t agree on the means to do that or indeed on the priorities of the movement.

This is as far as I’ve gone in my reflection on open vs. free. Admittedly a bit scant, but I hope I’ll be able to deepen my reflection as the days go by and the discussion progresses.

Open, closed…and everything in between!

Reading through the survey answers to the question “What does open mean to you?”, the perspective offered by an anonymous librarian had me thinking about ‘open’ and ‘closed’ as the extreme ends of a spectrum. Are there degrees of openness?

Open and closed can be thought of as binary positions, but I think it’s more accurate to see it as a continuum. There are degrees of openness. A college might be called open if it accepts everyone who applies, but tuition and the applications process are still hurdles that close it off to some. Some courses call themselves open but are only open to registrants, and closed to anyone else. When it comes to open education or open learning, I think an open-mindedness on the part of course facilitators is important, so that they’re open to learners establishing their own goals and having a hand in defining their own learning paths and assessments – open outcomes/open assessment.

Anonymous librarian’s answer to a preliminary survey for P2P University course on the item: What does ‘open’ mean to you?. Audio recording by Marie-Laure Le Guen under CC BY 3.0.

In higher education, MOOCs are often regarded as the quintessential example of openness. Indeed, on the surface, participation in a massive open online course requires little more than a reliable Internet connection, an awareness that the course is offered and a bit of time on one’s hands. In practise though, being open isn’t just about uploading a couple of video lectures and letting students grapple with the material on their own.

All MOOCs self-identify as open but they clearly do not apply the same yardstick. To measure how much openness goes into a particular MOOC, we would need a multidimensional framework that would help us determine the type and the degree of openness realised in a given course.

I see several dimensions to consider, which I would formulate along these lines:

1. Open enrollment

This is currently the minimum requirement for any MOOC: anyone with an Internet connection should be able to join, regardless of their location, educational background, professional credentials, financial status, etc.

Open enrollment usually means that there are no restrictions as to the number of students joining, which explains the massive scale of some recent courses. An Artificial Intelligence class offered by Stanford in 2012 saw over 58,000 people [pdf] sign up !

Some courses such as Why Open? have however enforced a limit on the number of participants in an effort to manage the pace of the discussion forums. The irony wasn’t lost on Terry Elliott:

This looks like a worthwhile August project and I would love to be a part of it, but I am struck by the delicious irony that a course called “Why Open?” is already closed 😉

Is it enough to allow anybody to sign up at no cost to claim complete openness in terms of enrollment? Well, not exactly. Setting aside the obvious issue of Internet access and cost, the following barriers to enrollment may still exist:

  • Language: the vast majority of MOOCs are offered in English, by English-speaking facilitators or instructors and thus end up being dominated by native English speakers or at least proficient English speakers. Instruction, discussions and assessments generally take place in English which puts some potential students at a great disadvantage. I would therefore rate a multilingual course as more open than a monolingual one. The practical implications aren’t simple but it is a fact worth noting.
  • Self-censorship: Even though the platform is meant to be open to all, potential learners may feel intimidated by the academic qualifications of other participants or the technical terms used in the introduction page and decide that they are not welcome because they do not fit into the culture of the virtual university.

It appears that even on an issue seemingly as straightforward as open enrollment, degrees of openness emerge.

2. Open participation

Which aspects of the course can participants model according to their individual or group needs? The answer to this question will determine the course’s level of openness-as-participation.

This would involve checking whether students are able to define their own learning goals and paths, whether they are expected to create their own learning materials or just use those provided by an external authority, whether they can ‘come and go’ as they wish or are bound by certain rules. It is mostly about who has control over what happens in the course.


  • It is often taken for granted that the tools used in MOOCs are mastered by all the learners. It isn’t always the case and, in the absence of appropriate scaffolding, the lack of technological literacy is going to be a barrier to participation.
  • Low connection speed and firewalls are major hurdles in many parts of the world, and this digital divide is most acutely felt in the case of learners trying to follow video-based lectures. I’ve experienced this myself time and time again!

According to this framework, a course is all the more open that is gives leeway for participants to forge their own paths and provides an appropriate technical infrastructure taking into account everyone’s needs – including for instance alternatives to video lectures and tutorials to help bridge the technological literacy gap, etc.

3. Open resources

What are participants allowed to do with the course materials? Is the software infrastructure open source?

For a MOOC to qualify as fully open in this regard, it would have to release its course material under an open license and use open source software. Here, the restrictions imposed by the chosen license will define the degree of openness, using only copyrighted material being farthest on the closed end of the spectrum while using exclusively works from the public domain would conversely place a course in the most open position (to take extreme examples…).

This is a side of openness often ignored by the bigger xMOOC players.

4. Open assessment

Since the motivations for joining an MOOC typically vary from improving job prospects to simple curiosity for the subject matter, it would not make sense to look at assessment through a single lens. In an open course, learners are free to set their own achievement goals, so the conditions of assessment should be flexible enough to accommodate the diversity of student expectations.

What would open assessment look like then? Pretty much anything that makes sense to the learner will work. Pragmatically, it comes down to a choice between grading (robot grading, peer assessment…), port-folio based assessment or no formal assessment at all. Some students are pushing for access to formal university accreditation.

As usual, it would be fantastic to hear from you on this. Any feedback? Ideas on how to visualise these 4 dimensions ?


Daniel, J. (2012). Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility (pdf). Accessed 2013-08-05.

Breslow, L., Pritchard, D. E., De Boer, J., Stump, G. S., Ho, A. D. & Seaton, D. T. (2013). Studying Learning in the Worldwide Classroom: Research into edX’s First MOOC. Research & Practice in Assessment, 8(3), 13-25. Accessed 2013-08-05.

#whyopen: What is ‘openness’ anyway?

Open data, open source, open educational resources, open knowledge, open university, Massive Open Online Courses (the famous MOOCs)…Openness has become pervasive in online jargon and even in many an offline conversation. But do we really know what ‘open’ means in the first place? What do all the initiatives claiming the ‘open’ label have in common – if anything ?

Perhaps the most striking feature of the world of openness is that there isn’t a single understanding of what being open entails. As part of this ongoing conversation, I am attempting to put into perspective my own views of openness to make sense of the concept.

Open can mean transparent.

This is precisely what the open data movement thrives towards: achieving greater transparency to enforce checks and balances. Although it seems like a good idea on the surface, transparency is not without its pitfalls. How open do we want governments to be? Some institutions may open up access to their databases but provide only marginally useful raw data which effectively precludes meaningful interpretation and may even have unintended harmful consequences. Releasing data for public scrutiny also implies that people possess the necessary skills to interpret it. According to Danah Boyd, “access alone will not empower people”.

Open can mean participatory.

In the wake of protests over the banking crisis, Iceland’s new Constitution was drafted by a council made up of 25 ordinary citizens who engaged with the general public through a process of online consultation. Iceland’s netizens were able to comment and debate on the proposed draft and interact with the members of the Constitutional council. Dubbing it a ‘crowdsourced’ constitution (like the New York Times and Wired did) would be jumping the gun, though it certainly was an instance of short-lived open governance.

Open can mean ongoing

A software is said to be open source if its source code is freely available for all to study, improve and distribute. Users can thus propose modifications, provide feedback and even participate in developing the software: this is truly a community-based process where the product is refined by incremental steps. One important aspect of open source software is that it can never be completed. Instead, the code is always potentially susceptible to give rise to new versions, thus making it a permanent work-in-progress.

I see openness as a cyclical process of granting access to information, sharing or spreading it, and modifying it. The the new content thus produced forms the basis of a new cycle of access, sharing and modification. This definition includes all three features mentioned above on various levels: repetition of the ‘cycle of openness’ ensures that the process is ongoing; access makes for transparency; sharing and modification are two modes of participation.


The first condition of openness is access, which means that anybody, whoever and wherever they may be, should be able to read, view or listen to the content, as the case may be.

Although it constitutes the first brick towards openness, access is not as simple a matter as it might seem. The following barriers may prevent access to content:

  • Lack of Internet connectivity or slow connectivity. Constraints for internet usage, e.g. if it is only available at an cybercafe.
  • Cost of access
  • Technical difficulties (format compatibility, technological literacy, …)
  • Language barrier: if the content is not in a language one understands, access is denied de facto (example here)
  • Disabilities
  • …?

It may be useful to keep these challenges in mind when considering the issue of access to content.


Sharing content is another key element enabled by the Internet. Once it is made accessible, the content will reach various users through a web of networks. Sharing one’s work is actually at the heart of the open content movement, with people willing to communicate their knowledge and skills, exchange ideas, build bridges across disciplines and countries.


In the spirit of openness, everybody is in turn both a consumer and a producer. As such, one is empowered to reuse content to fit one’s purpose : it is common practice to draw from creative commons licensed photos on Flickr to illustrate blog posts and articles for instance.

Some conditions might be imposed on the downstream users, such as linking back to the original producer (attribution). This appropriation of content may take the form of remix, mashup, reuse, etc. Copyright is of course a major restriction on the whole process of openness.

The free flow of content ensures the cross-fertilisation of ideas which is the very basis of innovation. To me, encouraging openness is the best way to harness the power of networks so as to advance and spread knowledge.

Answers other people gave...

Answers other people gave…

What is your own understanding of openness? I welcome your comments and suggestions.

* FLOSS: acronym for Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS)

This post is a response to this prompt for week 1 of the course “Why Open?” on P2PU:

What do you think “openness” is? Focusing on your own field or context (if you wish), describe what it means to do work openly, or to make one’s activity or artifacts open. Alternatively, you could talk about what you think “openness” means generally, what sort of definition might fit all open activities or works.

Photo credits: AttributionShare Alike John Britton