I only came across the concept (now an advocacy hashtag) of “openwashing” a few months ago. As it turns out, the international movement to denounce marketing claims of openness that do not reciprocate in corresponding user rights and freedoms has been going on for years.
In the age of social media, we seem to prefer taking stabs at the reputation of people and organizations in the public eye, before real scrutiny about policies and practices has taken place. So let’s try to remember that a trending topic does not equal guilt, (not yet anyway,) and examine things a little closer.
Having open components is not enough to prove an organization is open. Nor does charging for a product or services immediately make them an openwashing culprit. The criteria is clear:
- For a software company to be open, users should be able to obtain the uncompiled software for free and enjoy a fully-functioning application that, at its core, does not require proprietary elements or add-ins.
- For a content company to be open, users should be able to access and reproduce the content freely. The content can be subject to limitations in aspects such as modification and commercial use and the company can still be considered (and marketed) as open.
The principles are clear, although people are prone to get confused. Can I create open content using a proprietary software? Can I use an open source technology to develop proprietary content and software? At the end of the day, the two simple rules are good enough and have stood the test of time. (By the way, the answer is yes to both.)
Being compatible with open standards has nothing to do with openness. In the case of LTI, for example, users still need identities and tokens to reach the tools, meaning organizations still have the choice to charge for access via LTI. Furthermore, LTI gives a high level of control to organizations about the limits in technological access.
Perhaps the most contentious point about “openness” involves the role an organization plays in promoting the sustainability of open technologies. An organization can freely license their software and content and call it a day, which technically makes the organization open, even if it seems unconcerned about openness as a philosophical or humanitarian principle.
CallingCanvas LMS to the stand
Canvas’ defense –although I’m not sure it was initially intended as such– also started long ago, with Jared Stein’s update in 2011, titled “Canvas Tastes Like Open,” which I personally find ill-fated for a list of arguments why Canvas is in fact an open technology. (It might as well have been titled “Can’t believe it’s not open.”) But let’s focus on the arguments:
AGPLv3: This kind of GNU license is designed to not only give users access to the functionality, but to customize it and share the customizations with the community. As Instructure has an official repository where anyone can download the Canvas core, this argument is enough to clear it from openwashing indictments.
API: With this interface to connect applications, open or otherwise, Canvas takes an extra step to make it easier to access functionality and any course content. However, API access requires a token, which the owner of the specific Canvas instance is at liberty to charge for.
The remaining arguments are unnecessary and misleading: support for LTI, ability to publish content as Open Educational Resource (OER), and to “support open learning experiences.” I can create, build, and offer a fully open product using only Microsoft tools, but that does not make Microsoft open.
Back in 2011, Canvas bragged about how open they are. But last October, another update by Stein unveiled a different picture, where openness was pursued basically as a competitive strategy:
- “Early on, it was obvious that being open source provided some natural inoculation against being acquired by one of our competitors…”
- “The only parts of Canvas that we don’t open source are those related to our commercial hosting.” Canvas is a cloud-based service.
- “Canvas open source is one way to test whether or not educational institutions think (…) is worth paying for.”
Still, not openwashing.
It is also interesting that, while for many openness veterans, from Moodle down to Mozilla and Linux, there is little debate about what constitutes openness, business-friendly players believe “it seems like Open has been such a confusing term” or “Perhaps ‘Open’ Is a Flag of My Disposition…”
Anyone is free to use Canvas core and set up a basic LMS. Which by the way, would reinforce the idea that “Open Core” Canvas is not at the core a software company, and that when it comes to comparisons with Moodle, it would make more sense to compare it to a Moodle Partner. But all things considered, a case in favor of declaring Canvas an “openwasher” does not seem to have enough merits, at least on the technological level.
There is still one small detail that does not sit well with more radical open advocates. Both in Canvas Terms of Service, and the API Policy, there is this emphasis:
“PLEASE NOTE THAT THE TERMS ARE SUBJECT TO CHANGE BY INSTRUCTURE IN ITS SOLE DISCRETION AT ANY TIME.”
Let’s just not expect Instructure (Canvas parent company) to protect the values and principles that have maintained the open source community alive and thriving.