Openness as social praxis
First Monday

Openness as social praxis by Matthew Longshore Smith and Ruhiya Seward



Abstract
Since the early 2000s, there has been an explosion in the usage of the term open, arguably stemming from the advent of networked technologies — including the Internet and mobile technologies. ‘Openness’ seems to be everywhere, and takes many forms: from open knowledge, open education, open data and open science, to open Internet, open medical records systems and open innovation. These applications of openness are having a profound, and sometimes transformative, effect on social, political and economic life.

This explosion of the use of the term has led to multiple interpretations, ambiguities, and even misunderstandings, not to mention countless debates and disagreements over precise definitions. The paper “Fifty shades of open” by Pomerantz and Peek (2016) highlighted the increasing ambiguity and even confusion surrounding this term. This article builds on Pomerantz and Peek’s attempt to disambiguate the term by offering an alternative understanding to openness — that of social praxis. More specifically, our framing can be broken down into three social processes: open production, open distribution, and open consumption. Each process shares two traits that make them open: you don’t have to pay (free price), and anyone can participate (non-discrimination) in these processes.

We argue that conceptualizing openness as social praxis offers several benefits. First, it provides a way out of a variety of problems that result from ambiguities and misunderstandings that emerge from the current multitude of uses of openness. Second, it provides a contextually sensitive understanding of openness that allows space for the many different ways openness is experienced — often very different from the way that more formal definitions conceptualize it. Third, it points us towards an approach to developing practice-specific theory that we believe helps us build generalizable knowledge on what works (or not), for whom, and in what contexts.

Contents

Introduction
Shades of openness: From typologies to practices
Problematizing open artefacts
Openness as social praxis
From praxis to generalizable theory
Openness theory?
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

Since the early 2000s, there has been an explosion in the usage of the term open, arguably stemming from the advent of networked technologies, including the Internet and mobile technologies (Mizukami and Lemos, 2010; Pomerantz and Peek, 2016). The progenitor of this explosion is usually traced to the free and open source software (FOSS) movement, an early instance of commons-based peer production (Benkler, 2002; Benkler, et al., 2015). Soon, across myriad domains of social life, others were adopting and experimenting with the novel ideas embedded in peer production, particularly in terms of the principle that collaborative and non-proprietary (free) content can underpin the production of high quality knowledge goods such as web-server software, college textbooks, and even previously unsolved mathematical proofs (Mizukami and Lemos, 2010). Now openness is increasingly taking many new forms: open knowledge, open education, open data, open Internet, open medical records systems, open science, open innovation. The list goes on. These applications of openness are having a profound, and sometimes transformative, effect on social, political and economic life.

The explosion in the popularity of openness is also problematic. One problem stems from an increasing ambiguity and confusion with respect to what ‘open’ and ‘openness’ mean. In their paper, “Fifty shades of open”, Pomerantz and Peek (2016) highlight the problems of multiple meanings, and attempt to disambiguate open in different contexts:

Open source. Open access. Open society. Open knowledge. Open government. Even open food. Until quite recently, the word “open” had a fairly constant meaning. The over-use of the word “open” has led to its meaning becoming increasingly ambiguous. This presents a critical problem for this important word, as ambiguity leads to misinterpretation.

This paper builds on their argument, and offers an alternative approach to understanding the multiple meanings of open. We argue that the starting point for attempting to disambiguate openness is inherently problematic. This is because the majority of uses of open refer to open artefacts (or things), such as open data or open knowledge. These artefacts [1] have specific characteristics that make them open. For our alternative approach, we argue that it is more useful to conceptualize openness as social praxis — the act of doing or instantiating theory in action, which manifests as processes and practices [2]. We propose that openness as social praxis can be broken down into three processes: open production, open distribution, and open consumption. Each process shares two traits that make them open: you don’t have to pay (free price), and anyone can participate (non-discrimination) in these processes.

We argue that the social praxis approach helps to tackle a variety of problems that result from the current attempts to define openness. In particular, we show how it allows for a more bottom-up, context-sensitive understanding of openness, rather than top-down definitions that may or may not apply in different arenas. Furthermore, we also argue that openness as social praxis points to practice-specific theory which we believe helps build generalizable knowledge on what works (or not), for whom, and in what contexts.

This article starts by showing how the two main current uses of openness include openness as artefacts and openness as process. We then problematize the current, and essentially consensus, approach to defining openness as artefacts. We then suggest an alternative approach to conceptualizing openness only in terms of process, and consider how the focus on social praxis can be the basis for further theory development and field building. Finally, we conclude with some thoughts as to why this particular approach to understanding openness is beneficial and useful.

 

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Shades of openness: From typologies to practices

“Fifty shades of open” (Pomerantz and Peek, 2016) provides a useful starting point for our argument as it lists upwards of 30 different uses of the term (see Table 1 below). As the authors suggest, their piece is one of the first attempts to provide clarity around the meaning of openness and unpacks the many ways the word is used. The article provides useful descriptions and encourages greater specificity on what we mean when we talk about openness.

 

Table 1: Examples of openness identified in “Fifty shades of open” (Pomerantz and Peek, 2016).
Examples
Open source hardware
Open source software
Open access
Open knowledge
Open content
Open design
Open knowledge
Open access publishing
Open access journals
Open access to knowledge
Open data
Open government data
Linked open data
Open GLAM
Open educational resources
Open courseware
Massively open online course
Open courses
Open government
Open science
Open source democracy
Open education
Open shelves
Open stacks
Open university
Open food
Open society
Open standards
Open house
Open air
Open door

 

One of the key ways the authors seek to provide clarity is through listing a series of different meanings that openness encompasses. These “meanings of openness” include openness as rights, access, use, transparency, participation, philosophical alignment with open principles, and enabling openness. While this categorization may help to provide some clarity, we do not find it as useful from the perspective of developing a clearer understanding of what openness is.

One reason, at least in terms of understanding what openness is, is that there are so many overlapping elements between each category. For example, consider the following three categories: openness as rights, openness as use, and openness as enabling openness. Here “openness as rights” refers to the intellectual property rights (or copyright) of a typically digital resource. These rights provide the freedoms of use that people have when using that resource. The authors discuss copyright extensively in their examination of “openness as use” section, and appropriately so. While affordances around the use of digital resources also emerge from technical factors (such as being machine-readable), copyright and licensing are still generally critical factors in some contexts. Similarly, in terms of “openness as enabling openness,” the authors speak of the set of affordances “either technical or legal, for a specific type of resource, of which a user may make use.” Here again we are talking about factors influencing use, which includes copyright.

It could be that there are more parsimonious ways of categorizing openness, for instance identifying what openness is in the world, an approach that moves from analyzing different concepts of open to exploring the artefacts and practices to which these concepts point. To do this we begin by dividing openness into four categories (with a few outliers): pre-Internet open precursors, open digital content, ICT-enabled open production, and what we call open social institutions (see Table 2). We distinguish between these different types because the groupings are qualitatively different, despite all deploying open in some manner. This categorization helps us to see how openness as typically used refers to both open things and open practices. This will then set the stage for the central argument of the paper, that openness is perhaps more useful conceptualized as social praxis.

 

Table 2: All the ‘open’ terms in “Fifty shades of open”, plus a few others not listed in ldquo;Fifty shades” in italics. Note that this is just one of many potential categorizations. The authors offer a different categorization.
Categories of open
Digital artefacts
Open source hardware
Open source software
Open access
Open knowledge
Open content
Open design
Open knowledge
Open access journals
Open data
Open government data
Linked open data
Open GLAM
Open educational resources
Open courseware
Massively open online course
Open courses
Open standards
Open access
Open access publishing
Open access publications
Open production models
Open source software
Open standards
Open innovation
 
 
Open social institutions
Open government
Open science
Open source democracy
Open education
Open development
Pre-digital
Open house
Open air

Open shelves
Open stacks
Open university
Open food
Open society

 

Pre-Internet open precursors

There is a history to openness. A wide variety of open concepts existed prior to the emergence of the Internet. Terms such as “open house,” “open door,” “open stacks,” “open shelves” and “open universities” refer to the sharing of resources “to which all had access,” and several have a long history in the English language (Pomerantz and Peek, 2016). For the purposes of this paper, we are categorizing these examples as pre-Internet precedents because, despite the etymological similarities with current uses, these concepts existed prior to the Internet and are qualitatively different. That is, open houses, doors, stacks and shelves may involve sharing resources, but they are actually greatly restricted in their scope compared to digitally networked openness examples. For example, a library can only lend to people who are able to physically come to the library, and an individual is limited by what she can hold and by the size of the books themselves.

“Open society,” a term coined by Karl Popper (2013) is another pre-Internet precursor. Open society was coined to contrast authoritarian and democratic societies, with open referring to a plural society built on liberal democratic principles and tolerant of diverse views and critical thought. Though liberal governance is suggested in ideas such as open government, the principles of open society speak to a different set of issues than the more recent digitally networked forms of openness, which typically involve the production and distribution of open content. Open society is constituted by a set of norms tied to liberal democracy, not to a set of principles defining governance in the digital sphere. This is not to suggest that open society and open government are not often related; a society that is more plural and democratic also tends to (at least discursively) aim for transparency and accountability through digital mechanisms of open government, if they have the resources to do so. Yet a government can engage in many open practices and not in any way be democratic or plural [3].

There are also several other uses of the term open that preceded the Internet. Open government is a pre-Internet open precursor with a long philosophical history, but one that has evolved and incorporated digital tools to further the goals of transparency and accountability. What started as freedom of information requests and general public scrutiny over political processes is now more easily facilitated with open data platforms and digital networking tools (Yu and Robinson, 2012) [4]. Open education also existed prior to the emergence of the Internet. For example, Barth (1969) describes open education as educational practice in classrooms that had children taking a more central role in decision-making around their learning and education. Open science was also used well before the digital age to express the idea of non-scientists and amateurs participating in the research process (Fecher and Frieskike, 2014).

Finally, another type of pre-Internet openness is the open university. The first open university, established in 1969 in the United Kingdom, uses open to mean open to all (i.e., it has no formal entry requirements). However, in contrast to almost all other uses of open that imply free of cost, the university charges tuition fees (McAndrew, 2010). Agbu, et al. (2016) refer to this as “classical” openness, contrasting this with digitally networked openness in education that includes open educational resources (OER).

Open digital artefacts

Open digital artefacts are shared resources, typically distributed via the Internet, with specific legal and technical characteristics. Despite some variation, there is effectively a consensus on the qualities that makes these artefacts open (for a discussion on this consensus, see: Wiley, 2016a). The key qualities are the legal characteristic of a “copyleft” (as opposed to full copyright) license [5] that provides users with access to the content for free and guarantees users certain freedoms to use and manipulation of the content (such producing derivative works).

Types of open digital artefacts include open knowledge, FOSS, open data, open government data, OER, and open access journals. Note that these can be granular, either discrete pieces of content (e.g., a single component of an OER that teaches a mathematics concept or a piece of music) or a composite set of resources (e.g., a course module or an open access journal that contains many journal articles).

ICT-enabled open production

Open production taps into the distributed collective intelligence of people to accomplish something, such as co-creating a digital artefact, solving a problem, or completing a task. There are two main types of open production models implied in this use. The first, and perhaps most well-known, is peer production, which is the production of digital goods based on a distributed governance structure that relies on the non-proprietary nature of the content being produced (Benkler, 2006). The most prominent examples are the FOSS production model and Wikipedia, although people have adopted this production model in a variety of domains. For example, open legislation applies the FOSS principles to the writing of legislation; it uses “the Internet to facilitate broad participation, relies on the resulting community to structure and monitor itself, decentralizes and modularizes the development, and opens up the entire process and development details to the public” [6]. Another example of peer production is the polymath project that provides a wiki as a platform to collaboratively solve previously unsolved mathematical proofs [7].

It should be noted that some uses of open, such as open standards and open knowledge connote both a digital artefact and a production process. For example, open standards are not just free and openly licensed standards, but also refer to a collaborative and consensus driven process of developing that standard [8]. Open knowledge is similarly both “knowledge that one is free to use, reuse, and redistribute without legal, social or technological restriction” as well as “a set of principles and methodologies related to the production and distribution of knowledge.” [9]

The second type of open production is crowdsourcing [10]. Crowdsourcing centralizes rather than distributes its governance, and outsources tasks to an undefined network of people through open calls. In “Fifty shades of open” crowdsourcing only emerges once — in the description of “open source religion,” described as a form of “crowdsourced truth-seeking” (Pomerantz and Peek, 2016). Yet crowdsourcing is applied in many instances of open innovation, open science, and open government. Companies that engage in open innovation seek to harness external ideas and innovations outside their formal boundaries (Chesbrough, 2006, 2003). For example, the Lego Group crowdsourced design ideas from customers, even producing products labelled as “created by Lego Fans.” [11] Similarly, some researchers engage in the open science practice of crowdsourcing for data collection [12] and open government initiatives tap into citizens through crowdsourcing to try to improve social accountability and governance (Bott and Young, 2012).

Following from these two distinct open production models it is important to note that some instantiations of these processes arguably enable voice and representation in a variety of different ways with broader normative implications that are important to consider and understand. For instance, open legislative processes enable citizen engagement in a way that might be contextualized as an inherent ‘good’ for democratic governance, while open source software development for a new kind of smart toaster does not have the same normative weight. Both production processes enable ‘voice,’ but in different ways and with different implications. Thus, it might make sense to expand the current typology. For now, however, we are only signaling these differences.

Having said that, peer production and crowdsourcing are fundamentally different both in the structure of the processes (see Figure 1) and in the practice of sharing. Peer production requires free sharing of the informational resources produced, making it open in both production and distribution. By contrast, crowdsourcing is solely open in terms of allowing unfiltered participation for production; sharing is not a necessary part of the crowdsourcing production process.

 

Graphic representation of crowdsourcing
 
Figure 1: Graphic representation of crowdsourcing (left) with a centralized governance structure, compared with peer production (right) with a decentralized governance structure. Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/opensourceway/4370250237.

 

Open social institutions

Finally, open social institutions [13] (e.g., open government, open education, open science, and open development) refers to institutions such as government, education, and science that should be engaging in a series of open activities as they are public-oriented and socially-embedded in particular norms. While there are tensions around what constitutes open in the context of government and governing, fundamentally, networked-enabled open government refers to a diverse set of open processes as a means to help citizens oversee and engage with government and the broader public interest. For example, the U.S. described its open government initiative under President Obama as having the goals of institutionalizing “the principles of transparency in their operations, public participation in agency decision-making, and collaboration with their stakeholders” (Linders and Wilson, 2011). Open science is commonly characterized as “processes that involve sharing of research plans, data and publications, participatory citizen science, distributed ‘crowdsourced’ forms of data collection ... and new forms of international scientific collaborations, enabled by networked technologies and peer-to-peer production” [14]. Open education and open development (i.e., openness and open practices in developing country contexts) similarly involve a wide range of open processes embedded in a set of norms (Smith, et al., 2011; Smith and Riley, 2013; Bentley and Chib, 2016).

Outliers in the open

There are several openness outliers not explicitly discussed in “Fifty shades of ppen”, but which are nonetheless useful to mention. The first is open Internet, which Pomerantz and Peek (2016) allude to, but do not deal with directly. The open Internet is considered “open” because it is an instantiation of the normative values that underpin Internet neutrality. Net neutrality is the principle that there should be a non-discriminatory flow of information between computers, and has been a key feature of the Internet since it originated (Hoem, 2006).

Another use is open access broadband that connotes a policy approach related to “whether or not companies which own broadband telecommunication infrastructure (such as cable operators) should be required to provide access to their facilities for competing businesses which do not own physical infrastructure.” [15] This is effectively economic competition policy, and could be contextualized as ‘market-based openness’ because while it might expand access to a resource, it only does so to those who pay a fee. Open universities also fit into the ‘market-based’ openness category, given they charge tuition fees.

Examining this categorization, we see digitally networked forms of openness really refer to two types of things: artefacts and production processes. These two meanings are in part why the multiple meanings of openness presented in “Fifty shades of ppen” are overlapping rather than distinct. Following this, we argue that defining openness only as a process — enacting open as praxis — provides a parsimonious and useful conceptualization. To help motivate this argument, we first problematize the tendency to see openness as an artefact.

 

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Problematizing open artefacts

In this section, we argue that the uses of openness that refer to open artefacts (e.g., OER, open data) and open social institutions (e.g., open government, open education) are problematic. Open artefacts and open social institutions are attractive concepts because they provide an illusion of clarity and solidity through what appear to be clear and often consensus definitions. However, when subject to empirical enquiry, definitional issues emerge because in reality the boundaries of openness in practice are much more blurry than the theoretical boundaries of any one definition of an open artefact or social institution (consensus or otherwise). What we find is that the attempts at clear definitions do not hold up in a variety of contexts. Here we provide two sets of examples to help illustrate this point. The first focuses on the role of licensing models in the definition of open artefacts, and the second on the uses of open as social institutions.

Licensing models

As discussed, a necessary (indeed the central) element of the definition of an open artefact is that it has an open license. By these definitions, if the artefact is proprietary (i.e., carries no open license), it isn’t open. It is debatable which open licenses are “more open” than others, and some argue that openness exists as a “range” rather than a binary proposition (Eaves, 2013; Reilly and Smith, 2013). However, this perspective is still at least partially predicated on the existence of a copyright license.

The relative importance of this legal characteristic is, however, contextually sensitive. Copyright legislation, institutions of enforcement, and even the culture of copyright vary widely across different countries. In some contexts, people behave as if proprietary materials are open — accessing, using and manipulating them — even though they do not legally have the right to do so. Some view this as illegal and not an example of using of open digital materials (e.g., Wiley, 2016b). This response, however, is self-referential. It begins from the premise that open artefacts necessarily have copyleft licenses of some sort. Furthermore, it also ignores the fact that importing the legal institutions of copyright (upon which copyleft licenses rely) into contexts where they did not previously exist can actually restrict prior freedoms to reuse, reproduce, and so on. Under these circumstances, what was once a common culturally accepted practice of sharing is now labelled “piracy.” Or, where a copyleft license is used, some freedoms may become restricted (for example, by restricting uses to non-commercial purposes), which is more restrictive than a situation where copyright is irrelevant and ignored.

This context-sensitive nature of copyright institutions and culture means that equating openness with a copyleft license is problematic in a variety of contexts. For example, what happens when a country passes a law, as Uruguay has done, that decriminalizes certain types of copying and re-use of proprietary educational materials (El Observador, 2016)? Does this make the content open — or, at least, more open in that context for a defined group of people? Also, consider how research on an OER-based, participatory professional development model for teachers in Karnataka, India found that only around eight percent of the educational content the teachers created and shared had an explicit copyleft license (Kasinathan, 2015). The presence or absence of a copyleft license was effectively irrelevant to these teachers. Rather, they have a shared understanding that the content can be freely shared, used, and reused, and therefore behave accordingly. Kasinathan (2015) refers to these as “implicit OERs” as opposed to the “explicit OERs” that have a clear copyleft license.

The same phenomena can be witnessed with open government data. The Open Data in Developing Countries [16] project supported a series of case studies on open government data. They found that very few datasets were clearly openly licensed and that there were varied opinions as to the importance of open licensing for open government data (Davies, 2015). Should we disregard these instances of sharing government data as non-open simply because the data sets lack an explicit license, even when governments assert that they are indeed open government data sets? Again, they are implicitly rather than explicitly open.

Social institutions

The second set of examples illustrating the problem with the definition of open as artefact arise from the use of openness in terms of social institutions. It is exceedingly difficult to develop a meaningful, clearly defined, operational definition for an open social institution. Consider open government: what type of data and to what extent must a government share in order to be considered open? How many citizen engagement processes must a government have and in what domains before we call it open? What is transparency in the context of governance, and what is the threshold for something to be transparent? As Pomerantz and Peek (2016) write: “The problem with defining openness as transparency, at least in the context of government, is that certain parts of government operation will never be completely transparent, nor, arguably, should it be.”

Similarly, at what point would we agree that an education process is open? When using open resources? What if some resources are proprietary and some are closed? Must teachers engage in a participatory way? How participatory should the approach be? There are no clear right answers here [17], rendering the term “open” effectively useless from a conceptual definition perspective. Rather, open social institutions are better understood not as things but as aspirational norms — they are normative statements about how government, education, and science should be or aspire to, rather than definitions of what they are.

This inability to clearly define what a particular open social institution is also facilitates “openwashing” (Thorne 2009). Openwashing describes situations where the term “open” as a (generally positive) adjective actually obscures the fact that content, processes, platforms or institutions are in reality not “open” or at least not in the ways others think they should be. A government might declare it is open because certain ministries or institutions share some data, whereas others might object to that description because none of the data that is shared has any political traction (Yu and Robinson, 2012). A relevant parallel to openwashing can be seen with how a term like “participation” — particularly in the context of international development and ideas like “participatory development” — is loosely used to describe processes or project activities that in practice only serve to reinforce an already established agenda [18]. This overuse, or misuse, of the term “participation” to cover all kinds of activities (including those that have nothing to do with authentic bottom-up changes) not only renders it meaningless, but also subverts the underlying principles or norms that initially drove the need for broader participation. In development, this means that rather than truly supporting people to make their own decisions, programs continue to operate with mandates driven by donor country needs rather than by the needs as understood by beneficiaries.

These examples illustrate two ways that defining openness in terms of open artefacts, be it content with an open license or a social institution, is problematic. Openness as derived from a licensing model has shortcomings in addressing the diversity of openness in practice. Open social institutions are effectively not definable, so while they may be useful as an aspirational goal, they do not provide a solid foundation for deepening our conceptual and empirical understanding. Consequently, openness is easily co-opted to mean whatever fits a given agenda. As we argue below, we are interested in openness as social praxis rather than open artefacts because the intentional practice of openness drives open processes and ultimately the potential benefits that flow from openness.

 

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Openness as social praxis

In this section, we develop a typology of openness as social praxis (see Table 3 below). Building on the discussion above, we identify three main processes:

  1. Open production: This is the expansion of who can participate in a production process through the practices of peer production or crowdsourcing. The key features that make these two models of production open are: (i) participation is both free and voluntary, and (ii) they are non-discriminatory with respect to who can participate (considering the locational/interest boundaries of whatever is being crowdsourced) [19].
  2. Open distribution: This is the sharing of digital content for use by others, typically on the Internet. The key features are: (i) content is shared for free, and (ii) is non-discriminatory with respect to who can access and use the content.
  3. Open consumption: This is the set of uses of freely shared digital resources. For FOSS, for instance, these uses are operating, copying, distributing, studying, changing and improving the software [20]. For OER, these are the 5Rs: retaining, reusing, revising, remixing, and redistributing (Wiley, 2014). The Hodgkinson-Williams (2015) framework provides a useful extension of Wiley’s 5Rs with variations of the Rs and an additional sixth practice, that of creation (see Table 4 below). Note that redistribution refers to both consumption and sharing.

 

Table 3: Three main types of open processes, key characteristics, and examples.
Open processOpen practiceKey characteristicsExamples
Open productionPeer productionDecentralized governance
Non-discriminatory
Voluntary contributions
Free to participate
Open source software production, Wikipedia, open legislation
CrowdsourcingCentralized governance
Non-discriminatory
Voluntary contributions
Free to participate
Open innovation, citizen science, Ushahidi, ICT-enabled citizen voice
Open distributionSharing, republishNon-discriminatory
Non-proprietary
Typically via platform
Open government data portal, OER Portal (e.g., Khan Academy), open access journals
Open consumptionRetain, re(use), revise, remixFreedoms to useTranslating educational materials, taking a massive open online course (MOOC), intermediary visualizing open government data

 

 

Table 4: Expanding Wiley’s 5Rs in OER. Source: Hodgkinson-Williams (2015).
Type of reusabilityWays of reusing OEROperational activity
REUSEUse “as is” or copy verbatimCopy: Make a copy of the original
REVISEEdit, modify, adapt and improve the OER so it better meets your needs by re-authoring, contextualising, re-designing, summarising, versioning, or repurposing the contentContextualize: Changing content or adding new information in order to assign meaning, make sense through examples and scenarios.
Redesign: Converting content from one form to another; presenting pre-existing content in a different delivery format; translating, personalising, re-sequencing content.
Summarise: Reducing the content by selecting the essential ideas.
Repurpose: Reusing for a different purpose or altering to make content more suited for a different learning goal or outcome.
Version: Implementing specific changes to update the resource or adapt it for a different scenario.
Translate: Restating content from one language into another.
Personalise: Aggregating tools to match individual progress and performance.
Re-sequence: Changing the order or sequence of the materials.
REMIXCombine the original or revised content with other open content to create something newDecompose: Separating content in different sections, breaking content down into parts
Remix: Connecting the content with new media, interactive interfaces or different components
Reassemble: Integrating the content with other content in order to develop a module or new unit
RETAINMake, own, keep and control (curate) copies of the contentSave: Make and save a copy
REDISTRIBUTEShare the original OER or your new version with othersShare: Share the original OER or your new version
CREATEProducing original materials with the intention to share them beyond the initial target groupCreate: Produce, develop OER “from scratch”

 

Note that we are not suggesting that the relationship between the three open processes is linear (production to distribution to consumption), although it sometimes follows that pattern. More often, these processes are cyclical, which is typically how co-creation happens. For example, peer-production processes include sharing and open consumption as key components. Alternatively, there can be an iterative nature to content that is shared by someone and then later remixed, revised and shared anew by another. Crowdsourced information is unique in that it takes in contributions from many, but sharing of the result is not required — though there are many instances where crowdsourced content is shared as part of a larger strategy to achieve a particular aim.

Commonalities across open processes

Openness in production, distribution and consumption all have two elements in common: non-discrimination and free cost. This is what make these practices open. Non-discrimination means that there are no criteria for engaging in the process, and free-cost means that if you have access, there is no fee charged to engage in the process.

It should be said that non-discrimination and free cost are in only completely so in theory. In practice, even the most well intentioned participation process discriminates against some, and there are some costs associated with accessing and using content, even if it is just one’s time. In many contexts, people are often unable to access, use or contribute due to social, economic, political or cultural barriers (e.g., low levels of literacy or numeracy, little to no access to digital tools, poor skill sets, and other social or economic factors) (Elder, et al., 2013). For example, Buskens (2013) illustrates how gendered social constructions inhibited women from accessing the free computer lab at their university (in Harare) — and thus the educational resources available therein. Similarly, while access or use might be free in some circumstances (e.g., in a situation where there is free wi-fi at a local library), in reality there are usually connectivity costs associated with accessing the infrastructure, and expenses related to acquiring the tools needed to do so, such as computers or mobiles. While non-discrimination and free cost are key elements for a process to be open in theory, openness in practice also requires a connection to the specifics of the context where those practices are carried out.

 

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From praxis to generalizable theory

Thus far, this paper has argued for an understanding of openness as an overarching concept that includes three processes (and subsequent practices): open production (crowdsourcing and peer production), open distribution (sharing), and open consumption (use, remixing, etc.). This is a first step to disambiguating the term. However, it is not yet specific enough for generalizable theory building.

We propose that the core of this theory building should be the open practices of peer production, crowdsourcing, and sharing. As we detail below, there are two main levels of theory building here. The first, and more concrete level, is the merging of broader theory on open practices with domain-specific theory of particular instances of open practice. The second is generalizing across these instances to more abstract theories of peer production, crowdsourcing, and sharing.

The approach to theorization proposed does not involve statistical generalization, but rather a contingent or typological generalization that emerges from “members of a class or type of phenomenon” [21]. One way to think about typological generalization is as tendencies — how a process tends to happen. For example, sharing an open textbook on a platform with a CC-BY license tends to enable the use of that book. This is a different approach than the more deterministic hypothesis such as OERs will improve student performance/satisfaction [22]. Tendencies are another way of expressing causal mechanisms that are inherent in the set of things (physical and social) which structure an open process and causally contribute to a particular outcome. This switch to tendencies may seem subtle, but there are important implications for theorizing. A key implication is that for openness theory to be generalizable to other contexts, it must include the following elements: characteristics that structure the openness practice, the context that modulates the process, and the outcomes that result from the practice.

 

The four key elements of an open process
 
Figure 2: The four key elements of an open process.

 

In general, we see four main elements of any open process (see Figure 2 above). The first is the [open] practice that propels the process. Then there are the characteristics that structure the practice, which typically include the legal and technical features that undergird the current consensus definitions of openness discussed above, like copyleft licensing and being in a machine-readable format. These characteristics structure how the open process happens. Then there is the context within which open processes play out, as context co-determines how, to what extent, and who participates in the process and consumption. That is, open praxis requires an understanding of both how to engage in the open process, as well as the socioeconomic, political, and cultural contexts that modulate the process itself.

Finally, the outcome is the consumption or use of the content, which can be anything from expressing one’s voice in a political process, to enjoying openly shared music, to accessing and learning from a free textbook with content that was previously not available. Consumption of content is ultimately what allows people to benefit (or not) from open processes, and through those benefits, realize other impacts, such as saving money or achieving better grades.

Open distribution, open consumption

For theorizing, open distribution and open consumption practices go hand in hand. The act of distributing or sharing — placing content somewhere online where it can be freely accessed — enables the use of content (see Figure 3 below). As Wiley (2017) writes on sharing in education, “... when one child offers some M&Ms to another child, and that child declines them, we would not say that sharing has occurred. ... This framework of a willing offer and a willing acceptance is the core of the commonsense meaning of sharing.” In other words, sharing is only realized when what is shared is consumed; and ‘consumption practices’ are only open when they involve the consumption of something that has been shared. Legal and technical characteristics contribute to how something is shared, which in turn shapes the affordances provided. The type of content (say, an open statistics textbook or an open dataset of government budgets) shapes who will be interested and what they are able to do with that content. The technological infrastructure through which content is shared also affects who will use it and how. Furthermore, contextual factors such as individual skill sets and access to technology then modulate the sharing process, and ultimately the resultant use (or not) of whatever is shared.

 

Openness as the practice of sharing in context
 
Figure 3: Openness as the practice of sharing in context.

 

Research on open government data in developing countries illustrates how these different factors shape the use of that data (Davies, 2015). For instance, in many cases, data were made available through open data portals, but for a variety of reasons was hardly (if ever) used. A common set of reasons, as discussed in the research, include data not being of adequate quality, not current, and not relevant for the intended users.

A further illustration of how different factors shape use comes from research on the use of MOOCs. Early research on the usage patterns of MOOCs in developing countries found that users who benefit from the courses tend to have a higher level of education (Rohs and Ganz, 2015), are male, and tend be from higher socio-economic backgrounds (Christensen, et al., 2013; Ho, et al., 2014; Hansen and Reich, 2015). However, another study by Garrido, et al. (2016) looking at the use of MOOCs in Colombia, the Philippines, and South Africa offers some contrasting nuance as they found that actually 80 percent of MOOC users in these countries come from low- and middle-income populations. The central motivations for taking the courses included obtaining job-specific skills, continuing education, and professional certification. They also found that women “were more likely than men to complete a MOOC or obtain certification.” Unsurprisingly, they found that poor quality of access to technology is an obstacle to engaging with MOOCs.

Peer production

Developing theory around peer production is inherently more complex than sharing as it is a collaborative production practice predicated on open distribution and open consumption (see Figure 4 below). Typically, a platform such as a wiki (or repository such as GitHub for FOSS) facilitates peer production, enabling people to coordinate their contributions. Often these platforms involve more than just technological features, including norms, values, and roles that shape the nature of individual participation and contribution in the collaboration process. For instance, we know that the editorial structure of volunteer contributors and the norms of contributing to Wikipedia can work to inhibit particular types of content (Graham and Hogan, 2013). Furthermore, research has shown how cultural factors and broadband connectivity also influence who is able to contribute (Graham and Hogan, 2013). On a global scale this results in striking inequalities of participation on platforms such as Wikipedia. For example, more edits on Wikipedia come from Hong Kong than from the whole continent of Africa combined (Graham, et al., 2015).

 

Openness as peer production in context
 
Figure 4: Openness as peer production in context.

 

In the context of the Karnataka OER example discussed above (where teachers create and share educational resources through an online platform), the content fits the local cultural context and particular curricula, and is used by other teachers who have a need for that type of content. The platform is structured so that it can be easily used by teachers and, the parameters of the intellectual property regime do not matter to the teachers, who freely create, contribute, and reuse content. What is more important is the relevance of the content to the users and the fact that sharing enables other teachers to access and use the material. In other contexts with a stronger culture of copyright, however, the intellectual property might make a big difference to whether or not and by whom open educational content is created, shared, and reused.

Crowdsourcing

In contrast to peer production, crowdsourcing centrally organizes and manages processes. Crowdsourcing is typically run and moderated by a government institution, civil organization, private sector company, or even sometimes by individuals (see Figure 5 below). Distributed and unconnected actors contribute to the central organizer, often, but not only through an online platform. The participants are typically self-selected, meaning that they are not a representative sample of the population. Many factors shape the ability to participate, including skill sets and the available modes of access to the crowdsourcing platform (e.g., in person, by phone, SMS, e-mail, or via a Web platform). Indeed, skills, education levels and socio-economic position likely determine whether one even hears about the opportunity to participate in a crowdsourcing effort. The information generating/collecting process itself shapes the outcome and generates benefits when the outcome is used/consumed by the central entity running the process, or when it is shared publicly as part of a larger change strategy (e.g., social mobilization, or accountability).

 

Openness as crowdsourcing in context
 
Figure 5: Openness as crowdsourcing in context.

 

A synthesis of several uses of crowdsourcing to facilitate citizen-voice illustrates how the structure of the process and context critically shape resulting outcomes (Peixoto and Fox, 2016). The study found that to achieve government responsiveness to the data collected, it was critical to have the government involved in the crowdsourcing process, either as the institution behind the crowdsourcing, or in partnership [23]. Furthermore, of the seven high-impact crowdsourcing implementations reviewed, six involved off-line citizen engagement that was necessary in those specific contexts [24]. For example, one study included in the synthesis was an implementation to track water provision, Maji voice. They found that a large majority (75 percent) of complaints were filed in person, and only three percent via SMS or online. Another example is research on U-Report, a social monitoring system supported by UNICEF in Uganda that used inputs to inform public debate and Members of Parliament. The study found that around half of respondents had some university education (47 percent) and another 25 percent were government employees. This was considered a disappointing finding given that low-income rural citizens most in need of public services and having their voice amplified were underrepresented [25]. These examples illustrate how the structure of the crowdsourcing process and the context influence the nature and extent of participation by different groups.

 

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Openness theory?

There already exists a literature and some theorization around the processes of crowdsourcing and peer production. They are not unique to openness, and thus do not require new openness theory. However, it does suggest a way to build on and expand the current theorization. From an openness perspective, crowdsourcing and peer production are open because they do not discriminate and therefore theoretically facilitate participation. There exists a broad literature focusing on participation in a wide variety of domains — political, social, economic, and cultural. Crowdsourcing and peer production can thus be seen in that light: as ways of enabling or facilitating participation through new digital means (see, for instance, Chambers, 2010). We don’t have the space to engage with this literature here. However, as the crowdsourcing and peer production literature develops, we believe it would benefit from connecting with and contributing to literature on participation and participatory practices. Whether this constitutes another dimension of openness theory is not really of consequence here. Rather, what is important is to bring together ideas that are similar enough that useful lessons can be drawn and transferred.

The approach to disambiguating the term openness discussed above does, however, suggests an area for multi-disciplinary theorizing that could be seen as unique to openness. This is the study of the connection between open distribution practices (such as digital sharing) and open consumption practices, which is both critical and central to openness, and as of yet is underexplored. This area of inquiry could consider the variety of ways that institutions and people engage in the practices of digital sharing and use, and what the effects are thereof. There is no specific literature or set of theories known to the authors that focus on these connections and resultant outcomes. There is a large and growing body of domain specific research on openness that involves sharing practices (e.g., open access, open data, open educational resources). However, something that is fairly consistent in domain specific openness literature on, for instance, open data and open educational resources is that the connection between digital sharing and use is not well understood or theorized, despite it being key for the success of the initiatives. The praxis lens we take in this paper makes it clear that if we want to deepen our understanding about the effects of openness in terms of digital sharing, we must understand how digital sharing connects with open consumption.

There are early pockets of literature that focus on these connections. One set of literature focuses on intermediation — that is, the important role of key actors to help make sense and translate the information for others to use, among other purposes. For example, Reilly and Alperin (2016) discuss five models of open data intermediation: decentralized, arterial, ecosystem, bridging, and communities of practice. Similarly, van Schalwyk, et al. discuss the roles of intermediaries in developing countries in helping “democratize the impacts and use of open data” through a variety of means [26].

Levels of theory

As mentioned above, theory building can happen at two levels. The first is domain-specific theorization. Open practices as described above will never fully explain what happens at any one particular instance of open practice — they are merely a particular set of practices with affordances that can occur in a wide range of social domains and contexts. A more complete understanding of any one instance necessarily requires the combination of the open practice with domain specific theory. So, for example, understanding how the sharing of an open educational resource might have contributed to specific learning outcomes requires some incorporation of theories of learning, such as how the open resources are incorporated into the pedagogy in the classroom.

The second level is to generalize, when possible, from the domain-specific instances to a more general understanding of the key mechanisms at work in sharing, peer production and crowdsourcing, and how they connect with different types of open (end use) consumption. Of course, as discussed above, this generalization still needs to include elements of the context that are enablers or inhibitors of the key mechanism. It is at this level that the theory “travels.” In other words, lessons at this level can inform activities in different disciplines — provided that the transfer of the ideas is done with sensitivities to the new context.

 

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Conclusion

Research on openness is still relatively new. Researchers have been struggling with how to define and understand the term in order to operationalize it. This particular approach to defining openness as social praxis emerges from that struggle. For several years now, the technology and innovation program at IDRC has been funding and observing research on openness, with a particular focus in developing countries. The emergence of the tensions between universal definitions that emerged almost entirely from ‘Western/Northern’ contexts and what is happening in real life settings in developing countries became too significant and recurring to ignore. It became increasingly clear to the authors that the emerging consensus around the definition of openness is not able to account for the diversity of applications and experiences of openness in geographically varied contexts (Smith, 2014).

The approach we outline in this paper of open production, distribution and consumption is an attempt to think anew about openness in a way that that accounts for the embeddedness of openness in practice. More specifically, the paper argues that the focus for understanding and learning should be around the open practices of sharing, peer production, and crowdsourcing.

In particular, thinking of openness as social praxis brings a variety of benefits:

  1. Simplicity without being simplistic. In other words, it allows for the complexity of how processes play out in myriad contexts, while still providing the common denominator necessary for theorization.

  2. Cross-domain synthesis. This common denominator allows for synthesis within (e.g., comparing across open data studies) and across domains (e.g., learning across the fields of OER, open data, and open science). The key insight is that the focus of comparison should not be around the characteristics of openness, but rather around open processes (production, distribution, and consumption) and the other key components that constitute open processes.

  3. Clarity of terms. Thinking of openness as praxis rather than as an artefact helps counter the problems of openwashing. It is more difficult to hide behind the normative shield of stating that you are open; instead, you have to be more explicit about exactly how you are being open. Therefore, rather than debating whether something is open or not, or seeking a more rigorous definition of open [27], one can ask exactly what open practices the government is engaged in. We hope that a discussion on the relative merits of these activities is the basis for more productive engagement, and is in fact the basis of praxis.

  4. Connects openness to outcomes through use. Researchers have struggled to research the outcomes or impacts of open artefacts, like OER or open government data. This is because a static piece of digital content does not do anything on its own; it has to be part of a process of use for an outcome to emerge. Questions like: “What is the impact of open data?” or “What is the impact of OER on student learning?” are not answerable questions. Connecting open process to outcomes requires specification of how open practice through open consumption results in the outcome. For example, Wiley (2014) provides examples of how OERs make new learning practices possible (practices he calls “open pedagogy”). While it does not make sense to ask what the impact of OER, it does make sense to research the impacts of open pedagogy on student learning, or other relevant outcomes.

The concept of openness in modern parlance is more than just a set of social practices predicated on technological affordances. Openness carries the weight of a wide range of norms and value, and is often presented as a way of organizing aspects of society that is in contrast to the dominant market paradigm. This includes a shift in the understanding of the motivations of individuals from being fundamentally self-interested to being more pro-social (Benkler, 2011). While this paper attempts to bracket off these normative (axiological elements — i.e., what things ought to be), ultimately it is impossible to fully understand all the dimensions of how sharing and use plays out in the world without taking into consideration these values and their impacts. Specifically this paper attempts to focus on what openness is in practice, and how we can better research and understand it. This approach arises from a focus on what works, rather than a belief that more openness is always better (Smith and Reilly, 2013). In doing so, we are free to move from ideal conceptions to a definition and understanding generated largely from a bottom-up approach, focusing on what is actually happening across many diverse contexts. In doing so, we hope to contribute a first step towards a better and deeper understanding of the dynamics of openness, and thereby ensure more productive and beneficial open processes in the future. End of article

 

About the authors

Matthew Longshore Smith, Ph.D., is Senior Program Officer at the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa, Canada.
E-mail: msmith [at] idrc [dot] ca

Ruhiya Kristine Seward, Ph.D., is Senior Program Officer at the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa.
E-mail: rseward [at] idrc [dot] ca

 

Notes

1. See Davies (2012) for a discussion on distinguishing artefacts and process.

2. Note that ‘praxis’ (like open) has a long philosophical history, the discussion of which falls outside the scope of this paper. In the context of this paper, praxis is ‘action’ oriented — the instantiation of theory through processes and activities. It also has a deeper political meaning relating to participation and engagement which aligns with the broader constructs of open.

3. See for instance, “Why open data doesn’t mean open government” (at https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/2015/dec/02/china-russia-open-data-open-government) about how countries such as China and Russia are selectively sharing state information with the public, but in contexts that are not generally considered ‘democratic’.

4. Though open society and open government are distinct ideas, there is often definitional slippage between the two terms. See for instance, the Open Government Partnership (OGP, at https://www.opengovpartnership.org) and Hillary Clinton’s comments about the OGP: “In the twenty-first century, the United States is convinced that one of the most significant divisions among nations will not be north/south, east/west, religious, or any other category so much as whether they are open or closed societies. We believe that countries with open governments, open economies, and open societies will increasingly flourish. They will become more prosperous, healthier, more secure, and more peaceful” (U.S. Department of State, 2012).

5. Copyleft uses copyright law to foster, encourage and support the right to copy, share, modify and improve creative works of authorship. See: https://copyleft.org/.

6. Ewerdt, 2008, p. 63.

7. See: http://michaelnielsen.org/polymath1/. Originally proposed here: https://gowers.wordpress.com/2009/01/27/is-massively-collaborative-mathematics-possible/.

8. Committee for Economic Development, 2006, p. 10; Dardailler, 2007. See also: http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-T/ipr/Pages/open.aspx.

9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_knowledge.

10. http://crowdsourcing.typepad.com/cs/2006/06/crowdsourcing_a.html.

11. Some scholars frame private sector crowdsourcing as produsage in terms of the way it exploits users’ free labor (Brown and Quan-Haase, 2012; Bruns, 2008; Lovink, 2011; Rushkoff, 2013; Fuchs, 2012). With this kind of crowdsourcing, users often “do not immediately realize how their free labor and online socializing is being monetized by Apple, Amazon, e-Bay, and Google” (Lovink, 2011, p. 5).

12. Chan, et al., 2015, p. 88.

13. Here we are talking about social institutions broadly defined. We are including both organizations [or systems of organizations] like governments and educational systems, as well as conventions, norms or rules of practice like ‘science.’ Since the idea of social institutions encompasses such a wide range of philosophical notions, we are not going to spend time elaborating, as others have done it much better. A good review can be found at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/social-institutions/.

14. Chan, et al., 2015, p. 88.

15. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broadband_open_access.

16. See: http://www.opendataresearch.org/.

17. See also: https://open.bccampus.ca/.

18.There are endless references on this subject; for example, https://crawford.anu.edu.au/rmap/devnet/devnet/db-75.pdf.

19. For example, consider applications like Harassmap or Una Hakika that draw information from a local context, in these cases, Cairo, Egypt and the Tana Delta, Kenya, respectively.

20. See: https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.en.html.

21. George and Bennett, 2005, pp. 112–113.

22. See, for example: https://oerknowledgecloud.org/sites/oerknowledgecloud.org/files/Paper_51-OER-Impact.pdf.

23. Peixoto and Fox, 2016, p. 19.

24. Peixoto and Fox, 2016, p. 22.

25. Peixoto and Fox, 2016, p. 19.

26. Van Schalwyk, et al., 2015, p. 1.

27. “In addition to the bile being vented in the blogosphere, many open communities have responded to openwashing with more rigorous definitions of what ‘open’ means” (Pomerantz and Peek, 2016).

 

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Editorial history

Received 26 October 2016; revised 17 February 2017; accepted 11 March 2017.


Copyright © 2017, Matthew Longshore Smith and Ruhiya Seward.

Openness as social praxis
by Matthew Longshore Smith and Ruhiya Seward.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 4 - 3 April 2017
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/7073/6087
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i14.7073





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