Open isn’t free: What are the costs (hidden economies)

Image credit: Free is not the same as Open CC-BY cogdog https://flic.kr/p/errDTJ
Image credit: Free is not the same as Open CC-BY cogdog https://flic.kr/p/errDTJ

Updated with ‘the Web’s Hidden Economies’

At OER16 we explored letting some of our presenters present virtually. This raises interesting questions about cost. Whilst virtual participants won’t eat your food or sit in your venue there is still expenditure in resourcing and organising events. OER16 would not be happening if it were not for all the hours invested by the programme committee and other supporters. We also encounter the challenge for OER events that ‘open’ equals ‘free’. This area was recently touched upon by Martin Weller in his ‘Positive openness’ post:

… ‘open’ has become largely synonymous with ‘free’. But openness is something much richer and more complex than this. In order to make things truly open, then free may be the least interesting element in the overall equation. You need to provide support structures, to specifically meet the needs of the audiences you feel might benefit from open. And that costs money. So not only does the equating of open to mean free underplay other elements, but it also falsely gives people the impression that this is a cheap option. It is not.

The cost of open was touched upon in a number of sessions including the keynotes, Catherine Cronin highlighting the research by sava singh on how often it’s the privileged who can afford to be open:

Being open also means being open to constant and easy scrutiny, and that often means being open to various forms of abuse. For those at the top of the privilege pyramid, being open is a risk that they can afford to take and are often lauded for taking, without the kinds of repercussions those less privileged experience. Sadly, those who feel like they need to take that risk are often the ones that are most adversely affected by it.

Privilege is not just about cost, it’s also about age, gender, race and a whole host of other factors. With remote presentations we hopefully remove some of the privilege required to contribute to open educational practices but there is much more to do to address the inequalities in the world.

Update: An exchange with @Lenandlar and @Bali_Maha reminded me of the video below in which Tim O’Reilly highlights the hidden economies behind the Internet. As part of this Tim mentions the ‘Clothesline Paradox‘ first published by Steve Baer in 1975. This article relates to green energy highlighting how the accounting system used to record costs doesn’t account for hidden benefits. In particular when you look at solar energy “If you take down your clothes line and buy an electric clothes dryer the electric consumption of the nation rises slightly. If you go in the other direction and remove the electric clothes dryer and install a clothesline the consumption of electricity drops slightly, but there is no credit given anywhere on the charts and graphs to solar energy which is now drying the clothes.” … similarly there are a number of hidden economies in open educational practice

Image credit: Free is not the same as Open CC-BY cogdog https://flic.kr/p/errDTJ

2 Comments


  1. Great post Martin. Open definitely isn’t free, and thanks for acknowledging the work of the Programme Committee, on which I and many others were privileged to serve. Many people worked to make OER16 such a friendly and valuable conference. Let me also acknowledge ALT’s contribution. ALT resources, but more importantly, the ALT team (present at the conference and back in the office) were key to the smooth running of the conference. And so we should also acknowledge the members of ALT who, in part, enable ALT’s support of OER16.
    I thought that OER16 provided a reasonable balance of onsite and virtual participation. A hash tag may be relatively low cost virtual service but the smooth provision of livestreaming of sessions is quite demanding in human and financial terms. A modern day commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons like virtual resources for a conference may be relatively inexpensive in terms of digital resources but the human costs persist. And let’s face it, a conference where all sessions are streamed and all participants could contribute virtually without a fee wouldn’t be viable. Some conferences go down the route of closed access with cheaper delegate fees for virtual attendance but OER hasn’t done this and that seems to me to be a good balance in terms of making subsidised resources open for the many. ALT has a great track record in making resources open (journal at http://www.researchinlearningtechnology.net/index.php/rlt and repository at http://repository.alt.ac.uk/ and of course the web site at https://www.alt.ac.uk/)


    1. Thanks for your comment Frances … finding myself going down a rabbit hole thinking about hidden economies (updated post)

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