When ideals meet reality
At ALT-C in early September I ran a session with David Kernohan on Openness: learning from our history. The theme of the conference was ” a confrontation with reality” so it seemed fitting to explore the trajectories taken by various forms of openness. What follows is just a short thought piece that I contributed to the session about some of the patterns I have observed over the past decade or so.
Curves and Cycles
The first thing to say is that we are all different in our encounters with new approaches Whether they are new technologies like badges or new delivery models like MOOCs. We are each on our own learning curves and changed curves, and we meet new ideas and solutions at different points in the hype cycle. That is a lot of variation. So when we meet new ideas, we can respond very differently. My first message is that every response is a real response.
It’s to easy to characterise people as pro- or anti- something It’s too easy to present things as a debate for or against But polarisation often masks the real questions, because we don’t hear them properly.
“The use of technology seems to divide people into strong pro- and anti-camps or perhaps utopian and dystopian perspectives” Martin Weller, The Digital Scholar 
Dialectics of Open and Free
There is usually a dialectic around open and free: free as in freedom, free as in beer . “Open as in door or open as in heart”: Some courses are open as in door. You can walk in, you can listen for free. Others are open as in heart. You become part of a community, you are accepted and nurtured . I always add: open as in markets?
To follow on from free as in beer …A great example of branching is the trajectory of the open source movement. there were big debates over “gratis vs libre” and that gave birth to the umbrella term Free AND Libre Open Source Software term – FLOSS. By enabling the practices of open source to branch off, to allow the community to branch off, we saw a diffusion of innovation. Towards profit-making business models in some areas, free culture models in others. Its interesting how github supports the whole spectrum
This has also been the approach of the UK OER Programme. We have been quite pluralistic about OER, to let people find their own ways. We have certainly had tensions between the marketing/recruitment aspect and the open practice perspective. What’s important to note is that often it’s not just one model that comes to dominate.
Tipping points into the mainstream
We don’t always understand what brings about mainstreaming. We very rarely control it.
Consider a story from open standards: the rise and fall of RSS aggregation. Is it netvibes or pageflakes that made the difference? Or google-reader? At what point did twitter and facebook start to dominate the aggregation game and overtake RSS? The OER programme gave freedom for each project to choose their platform. They didn’t chose a standard they chose a platform. It’s often when open standards are baked in to platforms that we see take-up without conscious decision making.
I’m not sure we always notice: sometimes when mainstreaming happens we don’t recognise it. When did e-learning become part of the fabric of education?
Finally, change can take a lot longer than we hope. The 10 years since the Budapest Open Access Initiative  can feel like geological time. And yet the OA movement has achieved so much. Perhaps we need some time-lapse photography approach to recognising the impact of changes we started back then. So many more people understand OA now. So many more people care.
Change takes longer than you think
We are all unique in our encounters with new things. Polarisation often masks the real questions. There is often a dialectic around open and free. Often it’s not just one model that comes to dominate. Sometimes when mainstreaming happens we don’t recognise it. Change can take a lot longer than we hope.