In his keynote at the recent Educase conference, Internet zealot Clay Shirky made the case that MOOCs are not provocative because they are massive, but because they are open—except they are not really that open.

So, I’m no big fan of Shirky’s fanatical obsession with Internet openness, but he’s right in this case. Still, it’s worth pointing out that there’s nothing particularly unique about MOOCs in their facility to be open or not to be open. Writing articles and books and publishing lectures online (on a website or on iTunes U or whatever)—these are practices no less able to be “open” or not to be compared to MOOCs or to anything else.

Generally speaking, it’s important to remember that “openness” is less often a virtue or even an activity than it is a declaration, a rhetorical framing, a kind of branding. It’s often used to make something appear open that isn’t (part of Shirky’s point), or to associate a product or domain with the spirit of openness. In this case, most things called “open” really aren’t, just as most things called “green” really aren’t. Some of us have been calling this openwashing”. Contemporary technology culture loves the idea of being “open” so much, it spreads the rhetorical ideal in place of the reality through the “opener than thou” logic of shame.

Incidentally, if we take openness to its logical extreme, you get two possible outcomes:

  1. Social welfare. This shouldn’t be a dirty word, it just means that things like education are public goods that should be funded and supported by governments and made available to everyone. That is absolutely NOT what is happening with MOOCs. MOOCs are private and corporate. Yes, even edX.
  2. Marketing. Calling something open is just a way of producing attention that can be converted back into financial instruments elsewhere. Writers of Shirky’s profile are experts in this domain—write articles and books in order to produce the opportunity for lucrative speaking gigs. Likewise, MOOCs produce attention that can be turned back into…well, nobody really knows yet.
published November 8, 2012


  1. Roger Whitson

    I agree that “open washing” is widespread and that “openness” is a kind of marketing. But I’m not entirely sure that’s a bad thing, nor do I think it calls into question a speaker’s commitment to openness. What’s the problem if Shirky produces open content in order to market himself?

    The rhetoric of openness should definitely not be used only for marketing purposes. In this sense, I agree that a commitment to the idea of education as a public good is important. Both you and David Parry were right to call out MLA when they were engaging in open washing. But there’s also a distinction that I think is important to retain: producing open content doesn’t mean that ALL content you produce has to be open. You can produce OA knowledge and still publish other content in traditional venues or use open content to get great public speaking gigs. I don’t see hypocrisy there.

    BTW, I’m not saying that your article makes these rhetorical moves, but I can see someone interpreting them that way.

    Ooh, before I forget, what’s your captcha plugin?

  2. Green

    MOOCs are different from previous online learning mechanisms because along with providing information, they register a user’s achievements in the class.

    Previously, only predatory institutions like universities could do this, even though they are several centuries out-of-date. While information has been open online and on paper previously, credentials are now being also made more open.

    While credentials are no longer controlled by predatory institutions, prestige is still controlled by predatory institutions. The universities will loose their control when humanity becomes rational. That will never happen.

  3. Ian Bogost


    There’s no problem. The key is being, well, open about it, isn’t it. Fessing up to the marketing function rather than saying nothing or hiding it under the pretense of “democratization” or some other uber-virtue. Shirky’s certainly less “guilty” (if that’s the right word) than many, and I don’t mean to single him out in particular. He’s just a part of the larger trade-book-as-speaker-calling-card culture.

    PS – The captcha plugin is custom code.

  4. Jonathan Worth

    Thanks Ian this helped me. My background is as a photographer not an academic. When I wrote some undergraduate classes for a university in the UK and then opened them up online lots of people came (almost 35,000 last Sept-Dec) and since then I’ve been asked to talk about MOOCs a lot.

    I didn’t know what a MOOC was until recently but my classes aren’t moocs – my classes are open undergrad classes which live on and leverage the internet. The students experiences (good and bad) do act as a profile raiser for the classes and the Uni but most of all they act as network-hubs for the students themselves.

    My point is that you’ve helped crystallise these differences- thanks. jw

  5. Jim Groom

    I love the idea of point 1, taken to its extreme open should mean public infrastructure to support learning. That is the open I want to be a part of. Also, I heard about your talk on Ms. Pacman recently and was intrigued, the idea of hacking Ms. Pacman to make a game better than the original is in line with the idea of open, but not so much as a virtue but as prying loose.