My reaction to a news story about an education company acquisition seems to have set off a debate in my twitter feed about the intersection of open educational resources (OER) and the role of the private, for-profit sector in the K-12 content/curriculum market:

I said my piece in the updated article that spurred my original comment (including that the service the company in question provides looks “interesting and valuable,” especially in the context of the K-12 assessment market). I stand by my comments in the article and don’t have any particular interest in commenting further on this specific company or on its marketing practices.

What I do want to comment on (in greater than 140 characters) is the practice of ‘openwashing:’ what it is, why I believe not being able to go beyond a pro-OER elephant test for organizations and service providers is untenable in practice, and some thoughts on what we can do about it.

Open is the New Green

Organizations looking to generate buzz, gain a loyal following, and generate revenue use specific marketing tools and techniques to do so. These include the use of various terms to describe their brand and their products and services (e.g., ‘new,’ ‘improved,’ ‘recommended by doctors,’ ‘improves test scores,’ etc.). Since we are inundated with marketing language, many people do not even consciously notice it or give it much of a second (or third) thought.

Yet, on occasion people do snap out of this linguistic fog and object when the difference between the marketing claim and the truth is too great. Just ask Subway, which was accused of selling footlong subs that weren’t, well, quite a foot long. In their (less than successful) defense, Subway in fact claimed that “footlong” wasn’t intended to be a measurement of length. Sorry, wrong.

The term ‘openwashing’ is derived from the term ‘greenwashing,’ which Wikipedia describes as “a form of spin in which…green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that an organization’s products, aims or policies are environmentally friendly.” Marketing claims by organizations with respect to pro-environmental terms (such as ‘natural,’ ‘organic,’ and ‘recycled’) grew to be so common and confounded that the federal government stepped in to establish standards and protect consumers (see the Federal Trade Commission’s Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims).

In the education market, OER and openness is beginning to gain the same sort of positive linguistic cachet as pro-environmental causes, so it should come as no surprise that organizations are increasingly adopting the language of the open movement in marketing language to advance their interests. When an organization claims its brand or products and services are pro-open when they aren’t, they are openwashing. (And, to be clear, I am not claiming here to be the first to define this term or highlight this trend.)

The Pro-OER Elephant Test

In the legal context, the so-called ‘elephant test’ was most famously applied by Lord Justice Jeremy Stuart-Smith who (in Cadogan Estates Ltd v Morris) said:

This seems to me to be an application of the well known elephant test. It is difficult to describe, but you know it when you see it.

We know that ‘footlong’ means 12 inches (and thanks to some lawyers, so does Subway now). But for issues that are (intentionally or not) confounded, like what open means in the context of education or the health of Monty Python’s Norwegian Blue parrot, we may be tempted to apply the Lord Justice’s elephant test rather than take out our proverbial, (but valid and reliable) ruler to settle the matter once and for all.


Which begs the question of whether such a pro-OER ruler even exists should we wish to apply it (and reliably so).

Perhaps. Perhaps not…

How Can We Tell if an Organization or Product is Pro-OER and not OERwashing?

One can imagine various criteria (beyond the elephant test) that could be applied to determine whether an organization or product was in fact pro-OER and not just claiming to be, such as the organization’s or product’s:

  • Terms of service about intellectual property rights;
  • Use or inclusion of OER, including but not limited to (a) the creation of new OER, and/or (b) the inclusion of third-party OER, and/or (c) the inclusion of metadata or value-added information about OER;
  • Implementation of technical formats and technology associated with the use or inclusion of OER;
  • Revenue/business model;
  • Relationship to the OER community or broader open movement; and,
  • Trade name(s) and other marketing messages.

While it seems to me that each of this criteria would be important to evaluate in the move beyond a pro-OER elephant (“I know it when I see it”) test, how one would apply them may not be as straightforward.

For instance, to claim to be pro-OER, I would expect to see the adoption of intellectual property licenses for a product’s educational content in sync with widely accepted definitions of OER (whether a standard Creative Commons license or an alternative custom license). However, I don’t think this is close to being a sufficient test. For instance, it seems important also to consider any additional restrictions on content re-use that may be included in a product’s terms of service that sit alongside or in some way circumscribe the content license. If these additional terms of use restrict the freedoms granted by the open license, can such a company or product truly claim to be pro-OER?

I certainly would expect to see the inclusion of OER in a product or service that claimed to be pro-OER, but could it also include proprietary content? Is including 10 percent OER in a product enough to claim an affiliation with the open movement? 50 percent? To claim such an affiliation, must all content included in and created with a product be OER? I suspect that different people may draw the line in different places.

It is well understood that some file formats for digital content are easier to work with than others or may require specialized, proprietary, or expensive software in order to take advantage of the re-use rights granted by the creator. Must pro-OER products and services provide access to easily editable and shareable file types for their OER content? Is this a place where the free/libre software movement intersects with the OER community?

On a related note, can one claim to be pro-OER, but implement a technology platform that restricts full access to that OER in whole or part behind user registration requirements?

All but wholly volunteer organizations need revenue to sustain their operations, and some organizations maintain more aggressive revenue goals than others. In my experience, at least in education, it can sometimes be hard to distinguish the actions of private non-profit actors from private for-profit actors. (Indeed, I am reminded of a time an acquaintance once quipped, in reference to interactions she had with the executive director of a not-for-profit education organization for which she served as a board member: “Non-profit is a tax status, not an organizational goal.”) The open movement is grappling with the question of acceptable business models and grapple we must. In the meantime, it is not clear to me that one’s tax status is a reliable indicator of being pro-OER or not. And, if an organization’s tax status is not the best proxy for revenue or business model, the movement may have to dig deep to define acceptable practices and remain nimble to respond to and evaluate new models as they emerge.

I would advocate for the inclusion of criteria about the relationship of an organization to the OER community. In research on the open source software movement, I’ve seen characterizations of the relationships of firms to the larger community. Some firms maintain a symbiotic relationship, giving something back to the community in exchange for the value they extract. Others maintain a commensalistic relationship, meaning in extracting value from the open community, they respect its conventions but neither do it harm, nor advance it. The final type of firms maintain a parasitic relationship, extracting value from the community as they violate its norms and undercut its work. Must a firm extracting value from OER contribute back to the OER community (and not just respect its norms) to be considered pro-OER?  If so, are there clear and obvious ways for firms interested in doing the right thing to do so? It is not evident to me that there are. (As an aside, I think this topic is worthy of much more consideration and hope to return to it in a future post).

Finally, with respect to marketing and branding, should we hold a higher standard for organizations that reference ‘openness’ in their brand or product names and in their marketing materials? Certainly, it would be folly to believe that just because a firm uses ‘open’ as part of their name that we should otherwise suspend judgment about their operations and actions. Indeed, there is a long and sordid history of this sort of deceptive branding.

Reading through these criteria and considering the nuances, I am struck by the ways in which different stakeholders and open community members may interpret and apply these (and other) criteria in evaluating whether an organization or product is pro-OER or not. Indeed, we don’t have one elephant test for being pro-OER; each person brings their own. The result: a veritable parade of pink elephants, each special and unique like a (psychedelic) snowflake:


While this helps explain the debate in my twitter feed, I’d assert that this lack of an objective measure is both untenable and undesirable in practice. Should an organization want to market its products and services as being pro-OER they should be able to do so with some confidence that (1) there are clear ways they can demonstrate this and (2) that the OER community would support them. Despite the fact that many in the community advocate for commercial use of OER (by privileging the CC BY license as being ‘most open’), we lack a clear standard by which to judge commercial actions as being pro-OER versus something else. Do those who advocate against NC clauses not have an obligation to help define the pro-OER elephant test for the rest of us?

A Modest Proposal

Like greenwashing, I think openwashing is a problem in the burgeoning OER movement. We need to call out disingenuous actors, just as we need to reward those who support the community and advance the movement. In so doing, I would make a modest proposal. I would like to see an effort (or set of aligned efforts) that would result in consistent organizational and product standards: a sort of pro-OER rubric or OER scorecard (as has been proposed by others with respect to open source software). Whether the end result is a bright line (black and white test) or something less than that (with levels or a scale), such a rubric or scorecard could be enormously helpful.

Ultimately, these standards – vetted by a broad array of stakeholders including publishers, K-12 and postsecondary educators, educational technology providers, and open advocates – could then be parlayed into the development of a voluntary certification process for organizations or products, perhaps marked by the ability to display a pro-OER seal of approval for those who meet the criteria and qualify. The presence of such a seal could offer confidence to OER community members that the organization or product does indeed share their values and commitment to openness. For organizations that want to associate themselves with the cachet of ‘being open,’ such a standard and certification program would define how to do so and give organizations confidence that their efforts would be recognized.

While the idea may be simple, I don’t suffer under the illusion that gaining a consensus or launching a certification process with acceptance in the education market would be straightforward or easy. (Of course, there may be others already working toward this or a similar end of which I am unaware. In that case, we could jump start our efforts.)

Nonetheless, until such time, I do have some sympathy for organizations trying to do the right thing by OER. When everyone interprets the meaning of being pro-OER differently (yet reacts strongly to perceived slights), it can be hard to feel welcomed to the movement.