Opening the OpenEd Discussion

The fallout from the University of Guelph's 'OpenEd' trademark could be to batter down the OER hatches, or it could be to better understand our field's assumptions and criticisms

On June 8, Open Learning & Educational Support (OpenEd) at the University of Guelph responded to a ‘discussion’ about Guelph’s efforts to officially mark the word blend ‘OpenEd.’  This response has been anticipated for over a week; like many in education, I first became aware of any ‘discussion’ or trouble around OpenEd via Clint Lalonde’s blog from June 1 documenting an ongoing legal situation with Guelph.  Noted researchers, scholars and professors interested in topics around Open Education posed excellent questions; I personally gravitated to responses from Brian Lamb and David Kernohan.  In short — the University of Guelph had filed for an official mark to use the blend OpenEd, Guelph approached BCcampus regarding legal channels to also use the term (a term the University of British Columbia had used prior to 2009), BCcampus disagreed with Guelph’s mark in principle, and this branch of OpenEd via #UofG erupted on Twitter.

A great deal of the controversy around the Guelph situation regarded the definition of OpenEd; many of those who took issue with Guelph’s mark felt the University’s use of OpenEd had little to do with Open, arguing Guelph’s mission did not relate to the Open mission:

I agree with openness in education, and advocating for openness as both a utilitarian approach to resources involving the Five R’s and a philosophical value beyond access.  That said, Open as an educational term is ambiguous; the dominant paradigm sees open at best as a doorway rather than a makerspace, free-as-in-beer (opens to .docx) rather than free-as-in-speech.  As scholars, practitioners, researchers and instructors in the field of Open Education, we must negotiate the dominant definition in our practices and understand that how we see Open is often not shared.

Looking over Guelph Open Learning and Educational Support mission statement, their use of OpenEd takes the dominant definition of an open doorway and moves away from the free-as-in-beer access mindset towards a view of open as providing access to non-traditional learners; Guelph intends to reach a greater population of potential learners rather than provide free materials or remixable/revisable/reusable/redistributable materials.  This is a negotiation of a dominant view of Openness in society (whether through technology, education, etc), where it is not free-as-in-beer but instead advertising a storefront where any person can buy beer.  This is counter to both Open Access as well as OER.  Trademarking such a term is problematic, a problem Guelph recognizes as noted in their June 8 response:

…it is evident that the various meanings of the term ‘OpenEd’ will be challenged to co-exist and therefore, the University of Guelph is taking steps to release the official mark in its entirety, although this will make the mark available for others to attempt to make it their official mark or to apply to register it as a traditional trade-mark.

The last part of the quotation interests me: since Guelph saw an interest in marketing a space with a blend like OpenEd, someone else will likely try to trademark OpenEd.  An immediate reaction might be pragmatic — how do we make sure this does not happen again?  Such a lens focuses on symptoms rather than causes.

There are multiple definitions and meanings for OpenEd; Guelph shows one, OER another, and Khan Academy a third.  Moreover, there is a large OpenEd company offering (locked) resources, purporting itself to be the most used assessment repository in the world.  None of them are Right or True, however.

Was the debate around the Guelph/OER situation about a dialogue, or about Guelph being in the wrong not just with filing for a trademark but in their interpretation of OpenEd?  I worry the OER community conflates their definition of openness with the Correct definition of Openness, that pragmatic access to resources and tools will Solve Problems via fiat.  OpenEd as emblematic of the Five R’s and in concert with the creative commons is not Right or True; it is an approach to education with its own internal and external politics. It is not just poststructuralism that views a space such as Open Education as a potential contradiction (via Derrida, when something opens we are in fact heralding one gateway while shunning others), but there is an historical context that harkens back hundreds of years celebrating some hierarchies over others.  We as a field often fail to address this, being so focused on utility that we assume a shared philosophy when it is possible one does not exist.  The Open movement suffers from much of the same ahistoricism as less open entities such as Khan Academy display; I argued recently this was because of battle rhetoric involving entities and corporations engaged in less open practices/openwashing, all moving toward a goal of emancipating the learner. I wonder if the situation runs deeper.

Now that Guelph is “taking steps to release the official mark in its entirety,” it is important that the OER field does not see this as a battle victory or as any sort of finality on the topic.  Moreover, I hope the conversation coming from this event is not dedicated to thwarting future attempts to trademark or register OpenEd in other places and spaces.  In the same way the field this week criticized Guelph’s trademark of a blend word we use to denote an optimal space for educational resource utility, we should shine the light on ourselves in an effort to understand our specific assumptions and criticisms.  Our definition of Open is not sacrosanct. The current situation offers an entry point for meaningful discussion.

Editor’s Note:  The original version of this identified UBC as in dispute with Guelph, not BCcampus.  Thanks to Clint Lalonde for noting the error.

About Rolin
Assistant Professor & Director of EdTech & Media at Seattle Pacific University. Consultant w/ RAM TEC. Work with faculty, teach students, explore non-formal learning spaces (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums)


  1. Just one minor factual point of clarification in your post. This was a dispute between BCcampus and Guelph, not UBC. Guelph approached BCcampus, not the University of British Columbia and it was BCcampus who disagreed with Guelph’s mark in principle.


  2. Guelphs trademarked name was not even Open Education it was Open ……. and Education.

    The thing that leaves the most sour aftertaste is that there never was any participation from a person at Guelph: no response in social media, no response to blog posts, no human voice. The final decree is handed down by an unnamed author of a blog post. My hunch is that there was a lot of back channel communication with BCCampus but zero voices in the open space.

    Meet the new boss indeed.

    • Good point. This makes sense from the lens Guelph looked at Open, as a portal of access to paid subscriptions…such a viewpoint has roots more based in commerce than in learning as transformation. Even an airline or car rental company on Twitter will usually assign a name to the person running the corporate account and trying to put out fires. Not here. Corporations are People: the company speaks as the company, and it is not time-stamped or attributable. I did note…if anyone wants to cite this *decision* they have to do the very flimsy citation of an unnamed web source.

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  1. More irony
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