UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Guest Post: Why the Opposite of Open isn’t Necessarily Broken

Posted by sheilmcn on 14 Mar 2014

Open Education Week 2014 logoThe 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 fourth guest post in the series published on the UK Web Focus blog is written by by Sheila MacNeill. In this post Sheila gives her reasons “Why the Opposite of Open isn’t Necessarily Broken“.

Why the Opposite of Open isn’t Necessarily Broken

When Brian approached me to write a guest post for Open Education week, I was flattered particularly when he told me about the other guest bloggers he had lined up. And I was relieved that my last excursion onto his blog hadn’t put him off! But more seriously it seemed to the perfect opportunity for me to share some of my recent experiences of open education and open educational practice. Later today, along with Catherine Cronin, I’ll be taking part in a webinar latsr today (from 13.00-14.00 on Friday 14th March) organised by David Walker, University of Sussex as part of their open education week activities. This post will hopefully complement the webinar, as well as contributing to the discussions on this blog this week.

The title of our webinar is “Open and online: connections, community and reality“. It will give us an opportunity to explore the research and realities of open education, online identities, networks, communities and connections.

As some of you may know, I have fairly recently changed jobs from Assistant Director with Cetis to a Senior Lecturer in Blended Learning at Glasgow Caledonian University. A large part of my work with Cetis was increasingly predicated by engagement in open, online communities. My visibility in a number of networks was a key part in me getting my current position. Openness, from open software to OER to open educational practice was and continues to be a core value not only for Cetis but for my own professional practice and values. However I am increasingly conscious that my practice is changing in response to my institutional role and new physical networks. This ties in really well to Catherine’s research on open online identity and the role of the networked educator.

When Brian and I were talking about this post, I half jokingly said to him that I felt a bit like a time traveller and a bit like Marty McFly was experiencing some back to the future moments. At other times I feel a bit like one of the Tomorrow People, who has to be very careful about where and when to use their special powers, particularly in relation to open education.

Over the past few years, I’ve heard in various places (both online and offline) that the “battle for open” has been won, or that open education is now “ mainstream”. I’ve always been slightly skeptical about such grand claims. Whilst the open education movement has made considerably inroads in the past decade, OERs and open educational practice are still not universally known about and used. Now, I’ve not started to work at some backwater on the edge of civilisation but believe me there are people here who aren’t even aware there has been a battle let alone have any idea of who/what has won, and what the legacy of the war is. Perhaps the greatest Trojan horse for open education has been MOOCs, as nearly everyone has heard about them.

Of course we do have some pockets of excellent activity not least from our library who are currently developing an institutional OER policy. But open practice, and to take an important step back to just sharing “stuff” doesn’t feature on the radar of many of my colleagues. It’s not because they are anti-open, or closed, it’s just not their practice. They haven’t developed open practices or habits in the way I have over the last however many years. And you know what? I think some of us in our open, care-y, share-y, OER-y community forget how hard it can be to start being open and develop open habits. I am getting a bit of a reputation here for saying (perhaps slightly flippantly) “just slap a CC licence on it”, and then more importantly “stick it somewhere other people can find and use it”. It really is that simple. However I am still being met with wide-eyes and doubting, knowing faces. Sharing and being open is a great thing in context, but the benefits aren’t always obvious and there is a lot of confidence building and hand holding to be done yet. And that is always the part of “the war” that seems to be forgotten about. Developing people and habits is where any education battle is really won or lost.

I have come from an incredibly privileged position where I was able to be in on almost at the start of developments, particularly in the UK, around OER and open practice. I had time to explore the issues, play with open playgrounds, build my online networks , be a very small part of the twitterati, build up my confidence around blogging and sharing my thoughts with others, sharing slides with images attributed, try things just because I could. Most jobbing academics, learning technologists, librarian and other support staff don’t have that luxury. I now have even more respect for those who do make time to engage externally. With cut backs to funding from bodies like Jisc, experimentation and risk taking opportunities are becoming less and less common. However I can (and am) doing as much as I can to support open-ness across our institution – from policy to hand holding level.

The irony of this is that as I am connecting and sharing more with my new internal networks I feel that I am sharing less and less with my external networks. I certainly don’t spend as much time on twitter, which maybe isn’t such a bad thing . . . In preparation for this week, I was heartened to see that people in my twitter network do still consider me an open practitioner (this storify collates a few responses). My former Cetis colleague David Sherlock in this response to a tweet from me point out another side to why people might not be open, that of who controls our open communication networks and who owns our data? That hadn’t been on my mind thinking of this post, but it is a crucial point. Our networks and data aren’t only valuable to us, they have other economic values. We do need to remember that seemingly open and free services do have economic models.

Last year at the Open Scotland summit, Cable Green gave a great line “the opposite of open is not ‘closed’, the opposite of open is ‘broken’.” However good a line that is, in reality things are more nuanced. In trying to support others to be open I may for a time, appear closed, and may even feel a bit broken and bruised. I’m not working with broken people or systems, just ones that need time and support to be comfortable with being open in ways that work for them. It is my open practice and the support from my open networks that continues to give me the support I need to continue to be open and contribute to our collective development and understanding of what being open actually means.

Biography and Contact Details:

Sheila MacNeill

Sheila is UK Learning Technologist of the Year, 2013.

She is interested in all aspects of the development and use of technology in education. She is a Senior Lecturer in Blended Learning at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Over the past 10 years her work has centred on developments in the Higher Education sector through her work with CETIS.

For further biographical details please see Sheila’s page.

Sheila MacNeill
Senior Lecturer
Blended Learning
Glasgow Caledonian University

Blog: How Sheila Sees It
Twitter: @sheilamcn

View Twitter conversations and metrics using: [Topsy] – []


13 Responses to “Guest Post: Why the Opposite of Open isn’t Necessarily Broken”

  1. ronmader said

    Beautiful essay! Thank you.

    I was not in Scotland but thanks to the miracle of webcasting, I heard Cable Green say “The opposite of ‘open’ isn’t closed. The opposite is ‘broken'” quoting John Wilbanks. The quip resonated with the crowd and with me. I knew it would be a conversation starter in Mexico where I had been working if I could just translate this properly into español.

    How do we get people started on the journey toward being more open, more caring, more sharing?

    The practice really is as simple as posting information where people can find and use it … but why is this so difficult for others?

    We are working against the clock to conserve the world’s biodiversity or at the very least to slow down the rampant destruction. But are our leaders aware of Creative Commons? Everything I read from the UN’s Environmental Programme seems to be marked ‘All rights reserved.’

    I work with educators, conservationists and travel pros around the world, but most expect people to somehow find their work, find their research, find their tours by some set of magic footprints that lead to treasure.

    I have no problems saying that our systems are broken and that by being more open, more caring, more sharing is the solution. The trick is finding a way of saying this without being insulting or taking on a holier-than-thou persona. We are in this together and it’s through humility that we learn how much we have yet to learn together.

    The opposite of 'open' isn't closed. The opposite is 'broken' @wilbanks @cgreen @unesco #oercongress #oer
    Lo contrario de “abierto" no es cerrado. Lo contrario de abierto es “quebrado". @cgreen @wilbanks #oercongress #oer

    • sheilmcn said

      Thank you so much for your comment Ron. I think the open debate really touches on some fundamental cultural issues. You are so right we really need to keep sharing and fostering peoples habits

  2. francesbell said

    Lovely post Sheila. Like you, I am not on the ‘militant wing’ of Open: for two reasons. First, when I was a Senior Lecturer I had to daily make decisions about how I could achieve my goals for providing materials and activities for students within (or sometimes beyond) the institutional infrastructure. Second, I am naturally suspicious of evangelical and hard-line approaches to anything – open included- as I always wonder what’s behind it and who is going to be sacrificed on which altar. I was part of a symposium at ALT-C 2011 that generated a useful debate on the possible downsides of Open. These issues remain important.
    I love your characterisation of MOOCs as a Trojan horse.- I am just wondering who are the Greeks?

  3. juandon said

    Reblogged this on juandon. Innovación y conocimiento.

  4. sheilmcn said

    Reblogged this on howsheilaseesIT.

  5. Great post Sheila. You re-sparked a few thoughts in my own mind.

    1. The continual confusion between Open and Free
    This diffusion of meaning of “Open” has dogged all aspects of ‘open’ in education. Open does not equal Free and neither should it. In some aspects the biggest enemies of the Open Access education movement are themselves. A little provocative, maybe, but the logic is as follows… When Free is seen as synonymous with Open, the opportunity for sustainability is affected. Open can have a wider variety of sustainability models than is available to Free models. There really is no such thing as Free in the absolute sense. It is just a matter of who pays and on what basis. This accounts for everything from those who take on the personal cost of making things Free by just giving them away (great but not broadly sustainable), to government funded models (government pays for the ‘Free’ content in education) to foundation funded models that necessarily have a ‘use by’ date on them etc. For Open to be sustainable, it must be seen as a separate quality to Free. They are not mutually exclusive, of course, but we need to make conscious decision as to when one or the other or both apply. The content of many MOOCs for instance may be Free but they are not Open.

    2. Ease of Engagement
    You point out that it is actually difficult for academics to move to Open models. Agreed. It has been a source of frustration for some time that while the only reason that OER (for example) exists is so that it can be subjected to the 4R’s (reuse, repurpose, remix, redistribute). In reality, the technologies and content formats make that very difficult when one tries to go beyond ‘as is’ reuse or ‘as is’ redistribute. Educational systems really do need to get serious about the 4Rs which means systematising OER that everything is routinely compatible with the model including everything from creation to licensing to the 4Rs once published. Current content models do not easily support this. If they did, in an intuitive manner, the OER engagement would dramatically increase.

    The ‘Opposite of Open is not closed, it’s broken’? Unfortunately Open is broken also, and we really need to fix it.

    Thanks for a stimulating post.

  6. sheilmcn said

    Hi Allyn

    Thanks for your comments, and yes we really do need to think more about the difference between open and free. John Naughton’s article in yesterday’s Observer has a really good bit about how he explains open source software using changing a recipe from a cook book metaphor – we need more of that contextualisation.


  7. […] Guest Post: Why the Opposite of Open isn’t Necessarily Broken […]

  8. […] Guest Post: Why the Opposite of Open isn’t Necessarily Broken […]

  9. […] have sympathy with this view, so wanted to explore what was meant by my claim. I think we can point to many examples that […]

  10. […] so what is next for them? In terms of mainstreaming OER has the battle really been won? Martin and I have slightly different opinions on this. The project research is showing some really strong […]

  11. […] the case for the battle of open very eloquently and persuasively in the book, I have still have some concerns about the battle analogy. That said,  I have been swayed a bit by the general argument running […]

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