What role do educational organizations play today?

Open education is more than open content

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The famous playwright George Bernard Shaw once said: "If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples, then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas."

I love that quote, and in May I shared it with a room full of educators, administrators, and open source advocates at New York University during the Open Summit, an open conversation about education. I believe it reveals something critical about the future of education and the positive role openness can play in the future, if we embrace it.

As I shared in The Open Organization, the nature of organizations is changing, because the nature of how we organize to create value is changing. Educational organizations are realizing this more than most, because their stock-in-trade isn't something primarily physical (like apples). It's ideas. And ideas are becoming more plentiful, not less.

How we prepare people for life in these new organizations—where an ability to innovate and produce the new is much more important than an ability to work efficiently and reproduce the same—has to change just as significantly. We need to use the power of open to rethink education.

Unfortunately, much of what I read about "open" in education applies to the sharing of educational content: the materials educators use to teach students, from lesson plans to activities to syllabi to entire curricula. While sharing content is certainly valuable, I think we can do more to make education more open.

To me, what makes openness such a compelling path forward for education has less to do with specific licensing decisions and more to do with the attitude we adopt toward educational practices altogether. It’s the way we both imagine and work to build value around educational experiences (the "downstream" benefit of being open, as open source developers might say). More specifically, thinking openly changes how we create, interact in, and sustain educational organizations.

Creation beyond control

By default, most traditional educational organizations aren't inclined toward sharing. Just look at the ways many activities central to them—like tenure, publication, and advancement—tend to emphasize solo authors, thinkers, and inventors. In the context of higher education, we like to imagine scholars and scientists toiling away in isolation, dreaming up big ideas and releasing them to the world in brilliant form.

But we tend to forget a critical piece of the scene: The ever-present “Works Cited” or “References” pages that list every idea and innovation a scholar builds on when creating something new. Instead, educational organizations’ cultural norms push against open exchange and collaboration and reward individual careers built on singular efforts—even though this isn't how innovation occurs.

And that's more evident today than it ever has been. Take big data, for example. In this exciting new field, every major innovation has been open sourced and shared, and what's been possible has been because of developers' desire for transparency and collaboration.

Thinking of ideas as possessions individual people create and control is a relatively new historical development, of course. In the context of the industrial era, people wanted informational goods to function more like physical goods, so they invented things like copyright and patent law to make ideas work more like apples. And those inventions influence not only how we think about our creations and their value, but also how we build them.

When open education advocates focus too narrowly on content distribution, they can miss the act of content creation—and then risk missing ways we might change the pace and quality of the work we're doing together. Quite simply, co-creation allows better, richer, more diverse solutions and insights. It also allows us to succeed or fail faster, so we can accelerate the pace of innovation necessary today. Reforming our criteria for valuable educational contributions might help us begin rewarding an open approach to creation rather than discouraging it.

Interaction beyond prescription

When openness does become a default attitude, people's interactions change dramatically. Today we're enjoying the fruits of some of the largest distributed groups we've ever seen: organizations of creators and innovators spread across the entire globe. Each of them has something to teach us about the way we relate to and communicate with one another.

This is no less true for educators. But educational organizations (like public schools, to name just one kind) are still rooted strongly in certain values that emerged during an era of industrialization—where the purpose of education was preparing people to perform rote tasks repeatedly in closed organizations with little contextual perspective.

And yet, as we're seeing, the organizations that graduates join when they leave school (especially in the global West) are less and less industrial—and even the ones that are industrial are reinventing themselves for largely post-industrial activities. These organizations demand new models of both cooperation and leadership: new ways of working together, new standards for effective interaction, and new rules for distributing authority.

In the meritocracies that so frequently form inside open organizations, formal titles mean less than reputation with regard to power relationships. Leading an increasingly educated and savvy workforce involves creating context for great work rather than prescribing and specifying every detail in order to mitigate deviation. Directing is less important than catalyzing. What might happen to classrooms if we began teaching this way?

We need to think seriously about how we're educating tomorrow's organizational participants and leaders, because—for now, at least—we're emphasizing modes of interaction that are just outdated.

Sustainability beyond transmission

Thinking about educational organizations as catalysts raises one other interesting point: What happens to these organizations in an age of abundance?

This is a particularly hot topic among folks in higher education, who are beginning to realize that imagining universities as machines for the transmission of information is no longer working. Under traditional models, schools market themselves as places with the best educational "content" for students. But today—a time when we're celebrating much easier access to information—these organizations no longer have a monopoly on ideas. Many are even putting their courses online and making them available at little or no monetary cost to students. The "content" is losing its place as a key value generator.

That's prompting educational organizations to face a kind of existential crisis—one that raises difficult questions. When abundance is the default, what happens to an organization that depends on scarcity? How does its purpose change? And what happens to the revenue-generating mechanisms that allow it to persist, thrive, and grow?

These aren't easy questions, by any stretch. But they're exactly the ones that challenge us in the open source software business, where our ongoing task is to create business models around abundance.

Red Hat's product, for example, isn't software. The software is open source, easily accessible to others, and licensed to promote sharing. Development is community-oriented. The "content," in other words, is free and abundant.

Red Hat adds value to the open source ecosystem by leveraging abundance to create more and better abundance. We support people using the software. We contribute to communities creating new, more advanced versions of the software. We patch and secure the software. We sift through the abundance, make sense of it, and help other people leverage it effectively. That's our product (and we're very good at making it!).

As they ponder their place, role, and function in an age of relative abundance, educational organizations must find new ways to generate value from that abundance. The longer we conceive of education as an enterprise focused solely on "content," the longer we're going to miss opportunities to help those integral organizations survive.

Reimagining education today might begin with a few simple questions:

  • What value do educational organizations provide?
  • What is their product?
  • What role can they play today?

Answers to these simple but difficult questions will differ for everyone involved. But in an age of abundance, the educational organizations that survive will be those most focused on what they can add, what they can catalyze—and how they can best harness the power of openness to change the ways they create, interact, and sustain themselves.

About the author

Jim Whitehurst - Jim Whitehurst is President and Chief Executive Officer of Red Hat, the world’s leading provider of open source enterprise IT products and services. With a background in business development, finance, and global operations, Whitehurst has proven expertise in helping companies flourish—even in the most challenging economic and business environments. Since joining Red Hat in 2008, Whitehurst has grown the company, and its influence on a variety of industries, by reaching key milestones—the most...