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Open Source, Open Standards, Open Access – A Problem For Higher Education?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 11 February 2011

Over on the JISC OSS Watch blog Ross Gardler has highlighted an area of concern from the recently published HEFCE Review of JISC. Ross states that:

… there is one paragraph that I am, quite frankly, appalled to see in this report:

“JISC’s promotion of the open agenda (open access, open resources, open source and open standards) is more controversial. This area alone is addressed by 24 programmes, 119 projects and five services. [7] A number of institutions are enthusiastic about this, but perceive an anti-publisher bias and note the importance of working in partnership with the successful UK publishing industry. Publishers find the JISC stance problematic.

In his post, which is titled “Is UK education policy being dictated by publishers?“, Ross goes on to summarise the benefits which can be gained from the higher education community through use of and engagement in the development of open source software.

The wording in the JISC review – open agenda (open access, open resources, open source and open standards) – reminded me of a paper written by myself (based at UKOLN), Scott Wilson (of JISC CETIS) and Randy Metcalfe (Ross Gardler’s predecessor as manager of the JISC OSS Watch service) which was entitled “Openness in Higher Education: Open Source, Open Standards, Open Access” and build on previous papers in this area.

Now if the paper had provided a simplistic view of openness I think criticism that the paper was promoting an ideological position would have been justified.  But whilst the paper highlighted potential benefits for the higher education community to be gained from use of open source software, open standards and open content the paper was honest about shortcomings. Rather than, to use the words of the review document, the “promotion of an open agenda”  the paper argued that institutions should be looking to gain the benefits themselves and not open source software, open standards or open content per se.

Perhaps such distinctions aren’t being appreciated by the wider community and openness is being seen as a ideology and used as a stick to beat commercial providers such as publishers. This approach quite clearly isn’t being taken by the co-authors of our paper. Indeed as can be seen from yesterday’s blog post on the failures of W3C’s PICS standard, the failures of open standards are being identified in order that we can learn fromsuch failures and avoid repeating the mistakes in future.

A few days ago I published a post in which Feedback [was] Invited on Draft Copy of Briefing Paper on Selection and Use of Open Standards – if open standards can prove problematic advice is needed on approaches for the selection of open standards which will minimise the risks of choosing an open standards which fails to deliver the expected benefits.

But I am sure that there is a need for continued promotion of the sophisticated approaches to the exploitation of openness which the JISC Review seems to be unaware of.  A poster summarising the approaches is being prepared for the JISC 2011 conference which will be displayed on a stand shared by UKOLN, CETIS and JISC OSS Watch.     A draft version of the posted is embedded below (and hosted on Scribd).  We feel this provides a pragmatic approach which will help to provide benefits across the HE sector and avoids accusations of taking an anti-publisher approach.

Your comments on these approaches are welcomed.

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5 Responses to “Open Source, Open Standards, Open Access – A Problem For Higher Education?”

  1. Thanks for you post Brian.

    I fully agree that the objective here is to learn where, when and how the sector can benefit from openness. My original blog post is littered with links to documents describing the benefits that can be achieved when managed well, including examinations of how firercly closed companies, such as Microsoft, have learned to benefit from openness.

    Like you I don’t object to caution, but I do object to allowing self-interested parties trying to slam the door shut and close the curtains.

  2. Ben Toth said

    Good luck – this looks like a useful response to ‘openness is problematic’

    Only comment is that it would be to see more emphasis on what makes a standard successful. I like to compare the fate of RSS with ICE.

  3. imho, one of the principal characteristics of ‘all things open’ is that barriers to use are reduced but can only be regarded as having been removed conditional upon the potential user having the skill/effort to make effective use of what is ‘open’. And making what is open usable to more than the few might require some value added treatment by a third party.

    I put it this way for three reasons.

    First, vendors (publishers and others) have self-evident vested interest in selling things at a price or on a licence fee basis. We should not be surprised or shocked by that. The surprise is that some use free, and sometimes open, as devices for selling something else – eg your eyeballs.

    Second, Use of free/open stuff is not free of cost, just not requiring payment of a price or a licence fee. The potential user has to have and to pay for the skill/effort of staff to make effective use of what is ‘open’. What you save in software licences is offset by salaries for developers. Commerce does this as much as universities etc.

    Third, just as there is a cost of use, so there is a cost of provision and that too must be recompensed in some way – and advocates of use of ‘all things open’ surely should be advocates of encouraging work/financial contribution to such as open source software; a challenge to all users of OSS as well as their funders. We need to be able to justify finance and staff time dedicated to keeping the codebase (and its equivalent) healthy. That is an economic challenge to the business model of open.

    PS OER deserves a mention or five when addressing issues of open in (higher) education

    • Peter,

      Everything you say is correct. But you seem to be making the assumption that there are no open business models.

      This is simply not true. There are plenty of business models built around making open resources usable and appropriate for all users regardless of skill set.

      See my blog post, linked from Brians, for more on open source business models.

      • No such assumption implied by me. But nothing simple about open business models imho, although I think we seem to be saying the same thing: [quote] making what is open usable to more than the few might require some value added treatment by a third party [/quote]

        making open resources usable and appropriate for (all) users regardless of skill set is largely what several of us have been doing for a while.

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