Tag Archives: meaning of open

Results of survey on meaning of “open”

Why Open Brainstorm, by Laila Le Guen, licensed CC-BY. This image was done by a participant in the Why Open? course, a brainstorm mixing her views on why openness is important with those gathered from the survey discussed in this post. Laila shared it on Twitter on the #whyopen tag.

As part of a Why Open? course I’m helping to facilitate, we sent out a survey to gather different people’s views of what they think “openness” means–we were hoping to get answers from people in various professions. As part of the course, we asked participants to respond to some of these definitions in the discussion area for week 1, at the bottom of this page. But my comments are going to be so long that I think they’ll be easier to read in a blog post! So I’ll post a link to this blog post in that discussion area.

We got 30 responses to the survey, which is quite a good number from something sent out for a couple of weeks on email lists, Twitter, and other social sites! You can see all the results of the survey in a couple of formats. Here you can see the answers to each question listed out under the question, and here is the spreadsheet where you can link question answers to the person who gave them (if they gave a name) and their profession.

There’s another, similar survey focused on teachers/faculty and what openness means in the context of research and teaching, here, done for another purpose. It also provides some interesting results, but I’ll focus here just on the survey we did.

I thought about trying to see if there were patterns amongst people with similar professions, but I’m not sure we have enough data to do that, really. There are quite a few different types of professions represented, so there aren’t that many people in each type of profession (except education and educational technology–there are a significant number of people in those fields).  So I decided to keep track of some common answers, and then comment on some of the uncommon ones that I hadn’t considered before or found interesting for some other reason.


Question on what people think “open” means, whether in general or in a particular field/practice/activity

Our first question was: What does “open” mean to you?

Common answers to the meaning of “open”

I did not do a super careful job of coding the answers, so others may come up with different numbers if they try to put answers together into similar categories! It was kind of a rough coding/categorization.

And I’m not attaching any great significance to these results–e.g., not suggesting that since these showed up quite often in our survey then it must be the case that most people who try to state their view of the meaning of “open” are going to have these in there. This was not at all a random sample. I include these just to give an idea of what one might often hear when people are talking about openness.

  • 17 of the 30 respondents said that open had to do with allowing things to be reused, revised, changed, remixed, and the like.
    • A number of people mentioned open licensing as a way to make this possible (I counted about 3-4)
  • 16 of the 30 said something about openness being related to accessibility, without barriers in the form of cost, bureaucratic hurdles, or other obstacles.
  • 13 said something about openness involving collaboration, ability for many people to participate in a practice or in creating a product.
    • E.g., government being open in part by allowing for public input, public decisionmaking in some aspects; students being involved in open education, being consulted in how courses go and being able to have their own goals, paths through courses.
    • A couple of people talked about institutions or practices being open to changing through feedback, and one noted that openness blurs the line between producers and consumers.
  • 8 people said it had to do with sharing work, products, activities or process–one said it was a different form of file transfer than that done legally when there’s copyright and pirating.
  • 8 people said something about transparency, or openness in communication, such as when governments are transparent about their processes, or that a practice is open if publicly documented.


 A couple of answers that were not common, but that I found particularly interesting

One person said that an important part of an open resource is that it makes clear that things are accessible, shareable, revisable, etc., and explains what those things mean in easy to understand terms (or links to a place that does so)–see dkernohan’s answer, here. Good point. Just because something is open and openly licensed for reuse and revision doesn’t mean people can easily find that information. I often see blogs that don’t clarify the license they have for their work, and without giving it an explicit license to the contrary, the default is copyright. If people want to share, they must be sure that a license and/or words stating so are prominent on their sites/artifacts.

One nice thing about Creative Commons licenses is that they have versions of the licenses that are in somewhat easy-to-read language (easier than the full legal code, anyway). So, for example, the CC-BY license that I use has a more “readable” version, with a link to the full legal version. Other licenses may have similar–I haven’t looked into many licenses.

I do think it’s important to not just say you’re using a license, but to link to it so people see the full terms, and if possible, to link to a version that explains it in somewhat clear language. And to make it prominent on your site. For those using CC licenses, this page is helpful for best practices in marking your work as CC-licensed.

A nice plugin I’m using for my blog, that you can use if you have a self-hosted WordPress blog (can’t add plugins on WordPress.com blogs, I think), is Open Attribute. It allows you to put a site-wide license on, as well as different license for different posts. There is also a web browser plugin called open attribute, that does something different–it puts an icon into your URL bar that allows you to easily cite information, images, videos from pages that have CC licenses (you can copy and paste in plain text or html).

 Another person said that openness has to do (in part) with a “hacker ethic” (see @wiltwhatman’s answer, here). Though this may not be what that person had it mind, to me, a “hacker ethic” means that things are open to change, to being remade. But it being an “ethic” means a bit more than that. To me, it means that the more things that are open to remaking, remixing, the more likely it is that more people may eventually move from passive consumers of information and knowledge to active makers and sharers themselves. It there are a lot of things open to changing, and inviting people to use and change them, then perhaps this could encourage those who didn’t participate in making things as much in the past to start doing so. Especially if it doing so is fairly easy.

For example, if an (open) educational resource like some slides from a presentation, or a digital animation that explains some process or concept is just available to reuse as is (so it’s open in that sense, but not in the sense of revision), then I can post it on a website for a course, or link to it, but I won’t be involved in adding or changing anything. And if most educational resources are like this, then I’ll be rather passive when dealing with things other people have made. But if there are a lot of OER’s that invite revision, remixing, then I may be inspired to change them so they fit my course better. And in this way I might make more things myself because while starting from scratch may be too much work, changing something someone else has created may not be. Again, depending on how easy it is to revise such things, and whether I have the right software knowledge, etc. It won’t be enough in itself to encourage more people to make things, but it might help.


Answers to why people participate in open culture, or why they think openness is valuable

We also asked people: “Why do you participate in open culture? Or, why do you think openness is important?”

Some common answers

  • 15 people said that openness is valuable because it allows for participation/collaboration, and that this is important for various reasons
    • e.g., 7 people said engaging in dialogue with others helps them work better in their fields, and create better things
    • a few people mentioned that collaborating is important because it helps build solidarity, altruism, teamworking skills
    • one pointed out that there are always more smart people outside your community/workplace than inside, so best to go outside these to share/discuss ideas
  • 7 people noted that openness can help create new and better knowledge, products; can help promote creativity and innovation
    • one said that we always build on the work of others when we create things, so the more work is closed off the less chance there is to build on it
    • one said that opening his/her work up may help to solve problems down the road that s/he isn’t even aware of it
    • a couple said that openness is helpful to bettering the world generally, solving common problems
  • 4 said openness can provide access to things that some people might not be able to afford otherwise, such as educational materials
  • Related to the above, 2 people mentioned that openness is part of promoting inclusivity, and one said that it spreads power and resources more widely
  • 4 talked about the value of transparency, that public institutions shouldn’t be able to hide what they’re doing, that it promotes accountability, publicizes and helps to prevent abuse


Some answers that weren’t common, but that I found particularly interesting

One person said, I want to share to increase the expectation of others to share too” (see Timothy Vollmer’s answer, here). Good point. I hadn’t thought of that consciously, but sure…if I am sharing some things I do, some people might find value in them and then decide that what they do could be valuable to others as well, and maybe they’ll be willing to share. If the norms in one’s field or activity are to not share, then few will do it. But it seems that if some people start sharing, others might begin to think perhaps it’s a good idea. I know if I benefit from something someone else has done, it

Another person asked an interesting question: “I share because I believe it to be a good thing. Is sharing innately open? Not so sure.Not so sure” (see Pat’s answer, here). I guess I just assumed sharing is open, but it probably depends on what is shared and how. And on what “sharing” means. Because if, let’s say, offering a free version of an app is “sharing,” but it’s not open to revision, then that’s not terribly open. And also if the free version is there mainly to get you to try it and then buy the paid version. That may not be what this person meant, though. I’m curious–can you think of ways in which sharing might not be “open”? Please respond in the comments, if you’d like!


Links to open projects/sites

We also asked in the survey if people wanted to provide us with links to a project or site that exemplifies their views of “open.” It’s best just to go to the survey results themselves to see these, because some have nice explanations attached! Some great resources there.

Thank you to those who took the time to fill out our survey!


[Why Open?] What does “open” mean?

I made this animated GIF using a mobile phone and GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program. 


For the next five weeks, I’m helping to facilitate an open online course at the School of Open called Why Open? The course starts today, and we’ve asked participants to start by writing a blog post on the following:

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.

I thought that after having read quite a few things about openness, and helping to put together this course, I’d have a clearer idea of what openness means. But instead, I recognize just how complicated the issues are surrounding openness, and so I have a hard time coming up with a clean, neat definition.

I could write a blog post that links to a bunch of resources on openness and see what they have to say, then respond to that, but that would be jumping the gun at this point. We’re starting off giving our own views, so let me try to put together some of my various thoughts about openness, as they stand at the moment (recognizing that things will change by the end of this course experience!).

I’ll be focusing on openness in my profession, higher education and research (I teach Philosophy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver).

My earlier views on openness in education and research

A friend (Pat Lockley) recently did a survey of academics to find out their views of openness. The results, and a slideshow presentation on how he and a collaborator used these results, can be found in one of Pat’s blog posts. My response is #3 on this spreadsheet (I tried to copy and paste it here, but I don’t think I have permission to do that).

Summarizing that, my view on openness in the context of teaching and research, at least when I answered this survey, was:

  • One part of openness is allowing something to be freely viewed, such as open access research and publications–anyone can see these without having to pay for viewing. Putting up one’s teaching materials on a freely-accessible website would count here too.
  • But that’s only one small part of doing academic work openly; to be more “open,” one would make one’s materials and research not only available for free viewing, but also for use by others, and for revision–adding to, subtracting from, mixing with other things, etc. So, for example, I could not just put up a syllabus or lecture notes or teaching video for others to view, but would give these things a license that would allow for reuse, revision, remixing (e.g., a CC-BY license). The same could go for research articles–it would be nice if parts of these, such as tables, diagrams and graphs, could be reproduced in other places, altered and posted elsewhere, etc. But a license allowing such use is helpful, as copyright doesn’t allow it without getting express permission from the author.
  • Another important thing to think about is the format in which you’re posting your materials. For example, PDFs aren’t easily editable by most people, so putting things up in PDF form makes them freely available, but not easily accessible for revision and reuse. I don’t know much about video or audio formats, but it’s possible that some are better than others for this sort of thing as well.
  •  Courses are “open” not only if they are free to participate in (like MOOCs), but also if the materials are available for reuse, revision, repurposing. Some MOOCs don’t allow anyone to use their materials for other purposes. Here is a quote from Coursera’s Terms of Use, for example:

Permission to Use Materials

All content or other materials available on the Sites, including but not limited to code, images, text, layouts, arrangements, displays, illustrations, audio and video clips, HTML files and other content are the property of Coursera and/or its affiliates or licensors and are protected by copyright, patent and/or other proprietary intellectual property rights under the United States and foreign laws. In consideration for your agreement to the terms and conditions contained here, Coursera grants you a personal, non-exclusive, non-transferable license to access and use the Sites. You may download material from the Sites only for your own personal, non-commercial use. You may not otherwise copy, reproduce, retransmit, distribute, publish, commercially exploit or otherwise transfer any material, nor may you modify or create derivatives works of the material.

Udacity’s Terms of Use have a similar provision, as do those of FutureLearn. By contrast, the license on P2PU materials is CC-BY-SA.

Also in that survey I started trying to think about openness in education more broadly, and began to feel my way towards that by saying that we could open up education further if we didn’t just think of it in terms of formal institutions and courses. Learning happens in many different ways, every day, and if we could come up with some way to recognize and value that (rather than only giving credit to what people have learned at formal institutions), that might be a way to make education more “open.”

I think that’s a good thing to pursue, though I’m not yet sure how I’d fit it into a defintion of openness. Perhaps ensuring that education is more open in the sense of being more available/accessible to more people? If we restrict credit for learning to formal institutions, then only those who can get into and pay for those can get credit.

What I’d add now

 What I’ve focused on above are things like free and easily-available access/viewing, licensing so as to allow revision and reuse/reposting, and allowing many people to be able to take courses, as well as get credit for learning in more informal ways. That latter is like access to some degree, so so far: access, reuse, revision.

Now I’d also add something about transparency, mostly of process, but perhaps of other things as well. So in education, the process used to reach students’ marks should be transparent, for example.

I’m not sure if this fits “transparency,” exactly, but I’m trying to be more open about my processes of research, in the sense of blogging about research as I go along, from my first thoughts about research questions and possible methods, to finalized research projects, to results. I do this because it’s a good way to get feedback from others who are interested in similar things, and, since I’ll be taking notes anyway and they might be useful to others, why not put them up in public?

Similarly, I’ve started blogging in the past few years about my teaching (that’s why I started this blog in the first place)–talking about what I’m planning, what has worked, what hasn’t worked, and why. Again, I can get feedback from others, and my experiences can hopefully be useful to others as well.

I’m putting all of this sort of stuff under “transparency,” though perhaps there’s a better word for it.


So at this point, I’d say openness, at least in education and research, has to do with at least the following: free and easy access (including for reading/viewing/listening to works, as well as access in the sense of being able to attend courses or learn in other ways), ability to revise and reuse works created by others, and transparency (in the sense of letting others in on your process).

Now, I’m sure there are things I’ve left out here, and I’m also sure that this view will change. In addition, none of this is to say that these things are always beneficial, or that there are no potential problems associated with being open. We’ll discuss some of those later in the course!

I also want to point out that simply putting things online for free viewing and licensing them for revision and reuse doesn’t mean they are actually generally accessible. There are many people who do not have stable, fast internet access, and making materials available to them is not simply a matter of putting them on the internet. That’s an issue I haven’t looked into carefully enough. I too often think I’m being plenty open when I post things online and let others revise and reuse them. But it’s only a subset of people who can do so.


Let me know what you think…have I missed anything that you think is important about openness?