Open and Closed Networks

A lot of talk this weekend on blogs and twitter about Apple’s new wonder product, the iPad. Short of living under a very large rock in the bottom of a cave, I’m certain that you know all about it. Wired magazine has posted a great article about tablets and how the iPad has the possibility of leading change in the model of computing that we have. It’s worth your time to take a look at.

I’ve noticed many people talking with concern about the iPad being a closed space which will discourage innovation. This has given me pause to think. I’ve done some research and learned a bit over the last few years about networks, knowledge, change and growth. I have always and consistently been an advocate for open information spaces and opening up classroom networks to the world. While some people worry about the consequences of this, I worry about the consequences of not doing so. Time after time, I have seen classrooms that start blogging or working online in other ways close themselves off from the world out of fear, and their networks; which at first seem successful, struggle to evolve and then  slowly die.

While not a Linux or coding geek, I use enough open source software (Scratch, Gimp, Phun, Audacity, NeoOffice, etc) to truly appreciate the spaces that open source innovation makes possible. I understand how global projects like these push the boundaries of the possible and allow for innovation and spin off projects to emerge. In opposition to the open source model, Apple has been accused of being a closed system or loop and this is very true. My MacBook Pro and my wife’s MacBook Air seamlessly hook up and back up to our Airport base station’s harddrive at home. We can easily share music and files between our machines. We have three iPods at our house and the link between them, iTunes and our laptops allows us to buy and download music, applications, tv shows and podcasts by the hundreds. We are considering an iPad when they arrive in Canada at the end of the month (but, honestly, I think I’ll wait for an upgrade closer to Christmas… Version 2 of whatever Apple sells is always better). This closed loop has allowed the media patterns in our house to change and emerge in a different way. We can now consume content in all sorts of ways. This closed loop is easy to use and generally works flawlessly. As long as I am willing to continue paying the price, I will have a great media consumption system. Great for the average consumer or even a hyperconnected family like ours.

But make no mistake, there is a vast difference between media consumption and media production. My platform may be the closed network of Apple products, but when it comes to production, gears get switched. I use WordPress and open source themes on my blogs. My flickr photos, Youtube videos and blog posts are all licensed under Creative Commons. I like to use Gimp for editing photos, Scratch and Phun for animations and NeoOffice for all of my word processing needs. I love Audacity for making mp3s and troll sites like Jamendo incessantly when I am looking for music to use.

All of my tools for production are open source and free.

I believe that we are seeing a two – tiered system emerge. A pay system that charges premium prices for media, for tools and for information. These systems are slick, easy to use; and are often closed networks. These communities can have dramatic scale, users in the millions, and depend on their growth and their scale to survive. They are large enough to seem like open networks although in reality they are closed; but simply too large to see the edges. These communities are filled with all sorts of customers from newbies to power users. They are concerned mostly with media consumption. While certainly production takes place in these networks, the tools can be prohibitively expensive.

As well, are seeing large scale open networks. Ning communities, twitter, Linux, Wikipedia and RSS are all examples of tools and spaces that operate outside of “official” knowledge and production networks. These communities also scale. They may be global, but are often more tribal, based on interest and not geography. The tools for media consumption and production are built by users and are sometimes not as slick as those from the other community; but they may also be more often powerful and customizable. These open networks need time and attention from their users in order to be maintained. They are based on merit and not on who can afford the purchase price.

These two visions of networks potentially have massive implications for education. Companies often offer for sale closed networks of software and hardware for learning. They are expensive, well packaged and marketed, easy to maintain and promise easy solutions. On the other hand, open networks of hardware, software and connections can be more difficult to construct and maintain, but are available at lower cost and contain authentic voices.

Open vs. closed is certainly a continuum. Some schools, classrooms or districts use some software that is open source while other pieces may be proprietary. The same is true of the learning networks that teachers and students develop. Some schools close off the information spaces of their teachers and students, filtering tools and internet service heavily, while others are more open. I believe there are long term consequences of all of these decisions.

Make Magazine says best: “If you can’t open it up, you don’t really own it.”

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