Did 2019 See The Birth Of The First Fully Open Learning Organization?

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Could it be your own?

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It’s been a hectic year for openness:

  • The landmark Open Education Conference hit the highest attendance records yet. (Popularity is not the reason why it will be the last one, at least its current state.)
  • The Apereo Foundation held another successful gathering, as flagship Sakai LMS steps up its game come 2020.
  • Moodle held its first Global MoodleMoot with flying colors.
  • The company’s CEO also held the first Open EdTech global, an attempt to coordinate the several Open EdTech threads loose around the world. Outcomes TBD.

Despite the countless efforts, we all seem to keep struggling when it comes to practical solutions to the many problems Openness stumbles upon in real life. Open advocacy is at an all time high. Yet critical challenges remain unaddressed, and as time goes by, its number only seems to grow.

What would a fully Open EdTech organization look like?

Perhaps the most poignant issue of all is the inability to integrate every good idea and practice into a tidy structure, business model or action plan. We may not even know what would satisfy the requirements of Openness on each dimension or component.

But let’s give it a try:

Open mission, open Core Value Proposition

Openness should be instated at its highest level and represented inside and out. This implies the need of values such as transparency. Which might explain how most organizations stumble at the gate.

Open strategy

Could a company survive if it discloses key information about how it operates, its plans and marketing campaigns? The common wisdom suggest this is the case, but there is no evidence that backs this. If anything, modern project management approaches would argue this free exchange of information would lead to innovation and competitiveness. (Unless there’s only one doing it, of course.)

But that should not be a concern of a non-profit organization. In which case, generating unique organizational insight and keeping it under wraps seems contradictory in the most benign point of view.

Open departments

Organizations might be wary of sharing their information with the world. But they can be downright scared of revealing secrets between their own members. Recent history is not all that kind to initiatives such as disclosing compensation on an individual level or marginal contributions. There is no doubt that protecting information has a basis on complex social phenomena the organization is in, powerless to effect any change in them.

Open technology

Last but not least. It was tempting to begin here, but the reality is that using only open source technology is in fact not enough to declare oneself open. The same goes for open source development companies, especially if its open version is just a limited edition of its portfolio.

To much chagrin, many companies tout their use of open technology as a show of openness when it is in fact a PR ploy or a cost-cutting measure. This is how we get our current hall of “Openwashing” companies.

But while using open source technologies disconnected from values and a core message of openness may do nothing to further the cause —no matter how extensive its usage gets—, there is an argument that open technology can be a gateway to more widespread internal practices.

Organizational openness in 2019: A survey of one

A case in point: Janayugom, a news desk in Kerala, southern India. Defying the industry standard, it shifted from Adobe InDesign on Windows to Scribus on Linux. Scribus does not demand a monthly license usage fee which is nice, but it also provides uncontestable compatibility and flexibility features. A critical one is full Unicode compatibility encompassing Malayalam script. As obscure as it might look for Adobe product managers, it is the first language of over 35 million people, including most of Janayugom’s readership.

Editors note: While it is unclear whether InDesign in fact supports Malayalam, the script seems to be supported by other Adobe apps, albeit with limited support and the need of additional libraries.

Janayugom had the good fortune of being acquainted with a Debian developer in Kerala who happens to be a Free Software advocate. This allowed the newspaper leadership to connect with the small but fervent community of Scribus users in the country, eventually the world and the Scribus development team themselves. Through the Free Software Community of India, Janayugom found a provider of support, customization and consulting services. The relationship not only optimized Scribus for Janayugom’s specific bureau operations (all 14 of them), it also led to the creation of three new open source fonts in Malayalam, 100% Unicode compatible and free to everyone. Other Open organizations have jumped in to help support and maintain the fonts and built solutions, which currently include GIMP, Inkscape and LibreOffice in addition to Scribus in a workflow setup now known as Janayugom Edit. This will enable other organization to jump in with a technological head start, whose open nature in India’s journalism space has a whole spectrum of political tints.

Open Education at last?

Who would be the Janayugom of education? For good measure, it is also worth asking if this is desirable and for which reasons. Do we want open because it’s cheaper, more efficient? Or do we avocate for practical open solutions as a social and political statement?

In any case, in addition to the facets of openness for all organizations, other key parts of the learning deserve attention:

  • Content. Reasonably, OER would be the starting point of the conversation. Content Management, media platforms and authoring tools are welcome too.
  • Platform. The Learning Management System is the baseline, as well as its ceiling. Related systems such as SIS and even CRM are worth mentioning.
  • Evidence, Data and Learning Analytics. A place where open solutions should be thriving, as they are more susceptible to scrutiny. In my view, the performance of open organizations makes for an ideal research project for open data scientists looking to make a name for themselves.
  • Networks. What use is there for vast evidence repositories, if they are not put in the hands of those who need it the most? It seems as the most often overlook element of the Open organization: Its ability to promote and engage in dialogues.

Hopefully 2020 and the decade thereafter proves fertile in actual solutions that are put in practice and solve the critical issues of our time.

Bonus resources


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