Guest Post: What Does Working Openly on the Web Mean in Practice?
Posted by Doug Belshaw on 12 March 2014
The third annual Open Education Week (#openeducationwk) takes place from 10-15 March 2014. As described on the Open Education Week web site “its purpose is to raise awareness about the movement and its impact on teaching and learning worldwide“.
Myself and my Cetis colleagues are supporting Open Education Week by publishing a series of blog posts about open education activities. The Cetis blog provides a series of posts from Cetis staff which describe Cetis activities concerned with a range of open education activities. These posts are complemented by a series of guest posts on the UK Web Focus blog from people I have worked with who are working in open education.
The second guest post in the series is written by Doug Belshaw whom I’ve known in Jisc circles for several years. Last year Doug, who now works for the Mozilla Foundation, was a plenary speaker at the IWMW 2013 event. In this post Doug asks “What does working openly on the web mean in practice?“. This is a very timely post in light of today’s Guardian article on “An online Magna Carta: Berners-Lee calls for bill of rights for web“.
What Does Working Openly on the Web Mean in Practice?
I’m what’s known as a ‘paid contributor to the Mozilla project’. You may think that’s just a quirky way to describe being an employee of the Mozilla Foundation but I think it highlights something important that I’d like to explore in this post.
Image CC BY-NC-SA mag3737
Mozilla is a mission-driven organisation. You can read the manifesto here. But it’s not only Mozilla’s mission that makes it different. After all, there are plenty of charities, NGO’s, and even for-profit organisations that aim to change the world for the better. Something fundamentally different about Mozilla is a commitment to ‘working in the open’.
There are many definitions of what ‘open’ means. At one end of the spectrum are those who use the term to mean nothing more than something being ‘accessible to everyone’. People who take this approach allow you to access their resources if you have the required hardware and/or software. At the other end of the spectrum (where you will find Mozilla) is what might be called ‘open practice’. This goes several stages further. You may access the resource and use it under the terms of an open license. You may remix (or ‘fork’) the resource to improve it or better fit your context. And you may discuss and suggest changes to the resource with those responsible for maintaining it.
Many of Mozilla’s working practices are heavily influenced by the Free Software Definition. However, it’s applied more widely then just to the creation of software. For example, Mozilla uses it when creating teaching resources as part of our Webmaker programme. It’s used when planning the future of the Open Badges Infrastructure. Mozilla chooses open source tools and protocols like Bugzilla, IRC and Etherpad that default to publicly-accessible outputs. Unless there’s a very good reason for doing otherwise, anyone can see what’s going in within Mozilla projects.
Working open is not only in Mozilla’s DNA but leads to huge benefits for the project more broadly. While Mozilla has hundreds of paid contributors, they have tens of thousands of volunteer contributors — all working together to keep the web open and as a platform for innovation. Working open means Mozilla can draw on talent no matter where in the world someone happens to live. It means people with what Clay Shirky would call cognitive surplus can contribute as much or as little free time and labour to projects as they wish. Importantly, it also leads to a level of trust that users can have in Mozilla’s products. Not only can they inspect the source code used to build the product, but actually participate in discussions about its development.
There’s a well-known saying called Linus’s Law that states, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” In other words, problems can be fixed if you get enough people to work on solutions. Of course, there needs to be an architecture of participation to make the process distinct from chaos, but get this right and — like Wikipedia and Mozilla’s Firefox, you end up with a competitive advantage. The cognitive surplus can be channelled away from TV watching towards things that benefit humankind.
In practice, working open for Mozilla looks like this: if you’re interested in something (whoever you are and wherever you’re from) you can turn up and get involved. If the community find your input useful, then you are likely to be given more responsibility. There are many ways this can happen, but becoming a module owner is a good example. Module owners are people in charge of a module or sub-module of code within a particular codebase. They have responsibility and authority that has been earned through a meritocratic system. For more on this, I’d highly recommend reading Peer Participation and Software: What Mozilla Has to Teach Government (it’s a free download).
But what does all this mean for education? As someone who’s worked in both schools and universities, I know how different the brave new world of the web can feel from the lived reality of institutions. One way to shake things up is to continually ask the question, “can we make this public?” And if that’s too radical, how about “is there any reason why this shouldn’t be shared with everyone at the institution?” It’s a truism that innovation comes from the edges; you’re unlikely to know where the best ideas are residing unless you give people a platform to share them. And one of the easiest ways to provide such a platform is to use the web.
I won’t deny that there may be legitimate reasons for sometimes restricting access to resources, using closed-source software, and privileging top-down decision making. However, I’d suggest that these cases are probably rarer than we collectively admit. Why not try inviting comments from everyone connected with your institution or organisation next time you’re drafting a new policy? How about throwing open the doors (perhaps virtually?) of your next meeting? Next time you’re choosing a digital tool, is it worth considering privileging Open Source software?
There’s much to say on this issue, but if you’ll excuse me I’m going to have to go. A Mozilla contributor is pinging me on IRC…
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