OER Hero? OLGA and Open Education (pt 1)

Finally had chance to write up my OER11 presentation, which is something I’ve been meaning to do for ages. Usual deal, post is my views and not those of my employers, CC-BY-SA license.

Sometimes the clearest precursor of an academic development comes from outside academia. I’d argue if you want to understand open learning, you’ve got to look beyond distance learning and the learning object. You’ve got to look at guitar tablature.

As long as there has been written music, there has been tablature (or tab) – it represents a far older, and less formal, system for notating music than “traditional” western notation. When writing tab, one records the actual movement of the fingers, rather than the notes produced, and timing information is explicitly approximate. For this reason, tab is very popular with students of the guitar and other stringed instruments – it provides exactly the information needed to play, it is easy to read, and – like playing by ear – it requires the development of listening (especially rhythmic listening skills).

I’d argue that it is a better fit for most music outside of the classical tradition, as it notates what is possible to perform on the instrument, rather than limiting performance to what it is possible to notate. It also presents a close analogue to “learning by listening and watching”, the traditional way that tunes and arrangements were spread throughout pre-literate society.

So, to look at an arbitrarily chosen piece of guitar tablature, you’ll see that each string of the guitar is represented by a line, and each line has numbers on it – which indicate which fret you should have your finger on when you play that string. The position of the numbers along the lines give an indication of timing and relationship, and a fluid and adaptable language of additional markings has developed to represents the huge arsenal of non-classical techniques and effects the modern guitarist has access to.

You’ll also have noted that tab is very easy to share electronically. All you need is a fixed-width font and a text editor. Such as your email client. So it should come as little surprise that tab was shared via newsgroups such as rec.music.makers.guitar and alt.guitar.tablature (both now pretty much dead, sadly) , and eventually archived on the OnLine Guitar Archive (OLGA). It was a participative, networked process – tabs requested, presented, tested, argued, refined and finally published in a way that feels more like a modern MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) than the later parallel of mp3 sharing on Napster.

Like movements around sharing more conventional learning material (because isn’t a tab simply a learning object?), the online guitar tab movement had to deal with issues of licensing. It chose the “fair use/fair dealing” route, providing one of the first serious digital-age tests of this defence.

But – and, I need hardly add, the resulting IPR story is both tragic and uplifting – the real interest to OER folks comes within a short 2004 paper by Thomas Chesney in the Journal of Computer Mediated Communications, detailing participants motivations. At OER11, I summarised these as follows:

Chesney also provides a number of quotations from survey responses concerning the benefits that participants felt they got from participating:

 get my name out there

[o]nce I’ve transcribed them for myself, it’s not hard to send them to OLGA or another site.

I have worked them out and someone else might want to learn that song

23o of the 72 respondents claimed they received no benefit from publishing tabs. Referring to benefits, one respondent claimed he got “none. others benefit. i benefit from their work.” Chesney concludes:

 The act of preparing (collecting, collating etc.) the material to be shared should have meaning in itself for the person who is preparing it. This was seen in the fact that most self motivations were motivations to transcribe a song and store that transcription in electronic form, and not motivations to publish the tabs. The publishing came later and all that publishing involved was emailing a file to OLGA. This result could be used by organizations with a little imagination.

To me, this sounds a long way from the received wisdom that academics are unlikely to share materials without some system of codified reward and recognition. Of course, your young guitar player – fixated on mass adulation and random sexual encounters in anonymous global hotels rather than becoming a professional transcriber – could not be further from our traditional view of an academic, but we do see in their reported comments the idea that the work is involved in creating the materials, and after they have been created sharing is little or no effort. In Martin Weller’s terms this is very much an argument for little OER.

I hinted darkly at the IPR-mageddon that essentially ensued from this proto-academic behaviour – and it was as far back as the late 90s that music publishers started to claim rights over transcriptions. Just to bring home how odd that is, imagine Damien Hirst claiming rights over a book about biology preservation techniques. The stream of takedowns and legal challenges ending in 2006 served to remove the fundamental folk idea of “playing by ear” from the commons. As Rob Balch from “Guitar Tab Universe” put it in The Register:

At what point does describing how one plays a song on guitar become an issue of copyright infringement? This website, among other things, helps users teach each other how they play guitar parts for many different songs. This is the way music teachers have behaved since the first music was ever created. The difference here is that the information is shared by way of a new technology: the internet.

When you are jamming with a friend and you show him/her the chords for a song you heard on the radio, is that copyright infringement? What about if you helped him/her remember the chord progression or riff by writing it down on, say, a napkin…infringement? If he/she calls you later that night on the phone or emails you and you respond via one of those methods, are you infringing? I don’t know.

It was an audacious attempt by music publishers not just to defend their rights but to own our interpretation and critical response to “their” products, which has as many implications for academics as it has for guitar students.

Needless to say, it failed.

How it failed is very interesting, has further parallels to the world of OER, and will be the topic of post two in this little series.

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