OER: the cowboy gospel? #altc2011

“A lot of you need churchin’ – And some of y’all need birchin’ “

I was subject to significant ribbing regarding how easily the role of banjo playing, bible thumping, traveller preacher man came to me. In a session with more and weirder accents than a Bulgarian PC keyboard, what I said in a vignette of the old west was fairly close to the kind of thing I say anyway – as I think, in a way, it was for all of us.

We chose our roles freely – Amber the sheriff, Helen the gadabout, Dave the settler and me. And at many points during the panel session it was difficult to tell whether we were in character or not. Talking about William Tyndale to Diana Laurillard whilst dressed as an C19th preacher was, probably, the oddest thing I’ve done at a conference since – er – talking to Diana Laurillard about guitar tab and OLGA at #OER11 (note to self: maybe do some “proper” conference presentations one day?).

(image: with thanks to Jackie Carter)

To me, questions around the lasting place of OER as a concept were most interesting. There seemed to be general agreement that the gains in knowledge, experience and understanding we had made via the OER experience were permanent, and were a lasting part of the landscape we are cultivating beyond the frontiers of academic publishing. Whether we would continue to be using it as a term in future seemed more open to question… @ajcann and others argue (and argue convincingly) that OER is not, and should not be, a demand side term. They are right.

But on the supply side it is a useful bundle of concepts, and provides a focal encapsulation of a number of issues that academia (and I would argue, wider society) is struggling with. My contention was that OER was a symptom of a wider systemic issue, which takes in publishing, the idea of the public intellectual, online life, online practice and information as a right. As long as the machinations of legislators and company lobbyists keep propping up the bodies of the dead business models, we will need something like OER as an alternative. If we’re getting Hegelian about it, what is likely to emerge is a series of compromises that will require us “open evangelists” to sup with the devil and the (printer’s?) devils themselves to put down the pitchforks and open the gates a little.

As long as the aggravating conditions are still there, the symptom will be there in some form. Maybe we’ll be hurting our hosts in other places in the future, expanding fair use, improving citation… but there is no cure for us. And if left unchecked, we will do the system some real damage. It took nearly 400 years between Roman persecution of Christians, and the Romanisation of Christianity with the conversion of Constantine and the Edict of Thessalonica. We’ll be faster, though no-one will know the day or the hour when the publishers and the authors they exploit finally convert to openness.

Multimedia-wise there’s a full (if rough) audio recording of the session (which covers an amazing amount of serious ground alongside the cowboyLOLs), courtesy of @easegill and wonderful #ds106radio, on soundcloud. And @jamesclay offered a startling ALT Live Beta video interview with the four of us in full western regalia, complete with banjo music. I suspect there is more video to come from the session too. And of course the trailer. All of it brought to you by CC-BY!  

Thinking beyond edupunk and eduprog, Amber asked “have we invented ALT country?”

This post represents my own views, not those of my employer. It is available under a CC-BY license.

managing the transition – academia in a post-scarcity knowledge economy

Post-scarcity economics is an imaginary concept more usually found in “hard” science fiction than in contemporary public policy. It describes a situation where resources are near unlimited, and able to match the near unlimited range of human needs and desires comfortably. In some formulations of the hypothetical situation, automation has meant that human labour is based on interest and pleasure (creativity) rather than required to be exchanged for resources needed (or wanted) in order to survive. It’s not a new idea, by any means – Stallman was all over it in 1985!

Simply put: in a post-scarcity system there are no barriers (financial or pure availability) preventing us from having what we want. You can politicise this from either dominant perspective, as it demonstrates either the final triumph of the free market, or it’s inevitable destruction. Possibly both.

It is usually imagined across the entire range of an economy – a post-scarcity situation regarding all (food, medicine, technology, information…) human needs – deliberately not using the Mazlow hierarchy as it doesn’t mention information (and more generally because it is flawed, which is maybe a post for another time.).

However, my suspicion is that we are facing a situation currently where certain elements of human needs are scarce, and others are post-scarce.

Information is now post-scarcity. If knowledge exists, we can easily and near-instantaneously gain access to it. If openness really is the enemy of knowledge, with enemies like these, who needs friends? 

Digital media, meaning the digital objects themselves and their distribution, is also post-scarcity. This one gets a lot of people into a lot of trouble.

The problem we face as a culture arises because a lot of the other stuff we need to live is very definitely running on a scarcity model, which leads us to want to make a post-scarity system act as if it was a scarcity system in order to derive value from it that can be exchanged in other places.

This has led, via the growth of Digital Rights Management and restrictive licensing online, to a corporate- and government-backed attempt to import an artificial scarcity into a post-scarcity economy. Unsurprisingly, this has failed and will continue to fail. DRM and licenses are routinely broken and ignored, both knowingly and unknowingly, in day-to-day online life.  

People point to the likes of amazon and itunes (yeah, they don’t need the hits…) as examples of successful business models in this area, but really what they are selling is a user experience – specifically friendly and accurate search. If it was as trivial to find, download and listen to an album on a torrent as it is to find one on iTunes, there would be no business model for iTunes (I’m not counting insidious ecosystem lock-in…). It’s even possible to suggest that UI is the one thing that people will (indirectly) pay for online.  (as an aside, it’s worth noting just how steep the technical hurdles are – torrenting, usenet, drm removal – that people routinely negotiate to access digital content. I’d love to hear more about this in the digital literacies space…]
The digital economy has it’s own currency already – reputation. Yes, like “down and out in the magic kingdom“. (or “Accelerando“, if you’d rather. And, yes, I would). However, until the (unlikely) emergence of a reputation-$ exchange rate, it will remain as a parallel economy with only second-order impact on participation in the non-scarcity economy via stuff like “professional reputation” and “credibility” impacting on earning potential.

In the education world we are seeing a huge tension between the ideals of academic openness, and the “reality” of the market-driven exploitation of academic labour. Neither of these are going to make anyone any money. And happily, neither describe how academics generate income. Getting paid for having done something once is an exception, getting paid for having the ability to keep doing things – or to keep do things to order – is the rule. We have (or had) a system for the employment of creative people that supported this, which naive links to the monetised exploitation of content artifacts can only undermine.

This, as I’ve outlined above, is a massive global cultural issue. It’s not that we urgently need to find a means of financially sustaining academic online sharing. It’s that we can’t, because the business models that worked in tangible-object publishing for the 300 years since the enlightenment simply don’t work in this universe. The fix for this isn’t going to be micro-payments, or usage tracking. It’s going to be a wholesale reorganisation of our cultural concepts. And academia should seriously be at the cutting edge of that.

What we do is one of the few things that is – and will likely remain – scarce. The development and training of highly optimised and highly adaptable human mind – capable of drawing links and parallels from a variety of sources in to a coherent whole, that provides an insight into something interesting and important. As above, the insights aren’t the point, the point is we are set up to keep doing them. And there’s no short-cuts to being able to do this. Just years of training and experimentation. These skills work in a post-scarcity world. We just need to manage the transition.
This post represents my personal opinions only, and not those of my employer or colleagues. It is available under a CC-BY license.

The bubble of openness?

Is openness (in the form of open access to knowledge, and the open sharing of distilled knowledge) a contemporary bubble, destined to collapse as universities and industries seek to tighten their budgets? Or is it a wider phenomenon, intrinsically bound to it’s antithesis – the modern industry of publishing?

The industrial revolution in the UK coincided with the growth of a new industry, that of the publisher – which applied the lessons of manufacturing to the production of art. And a sample of legislation across that time demonstrates the increasing emphasis of the rights of the publisher over that of both the reader and author.  

The Copyright Act of 1709 (The Statute of Queen Anne, subtitled “An Act For The Encouragement of Learning…“, afforded the 18th century reader the right to complain about an unfairly high book price to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who could fine booksellers up to £5 for every overly expensive book sold.  

Around a hundred years later, an 1814 Act of Parliament permitted the author (as a protection against unscrupulous publishers!) full control of the exploitation of their work for “the remainder of his or her life“.

However, at the very beginning of the 20th Century the emergence of the model of “net prices” marked the institutionalisation of the right of the publisher to maximum profit – and highlighted the increasing separation between the bookselling, bookbinding and publishing industries. As the 1911 Britannica puts it:

“After much discussion between authors, publishers and booksellers, a new scheme was launched on the 1st of January 1900. Books began to be issued at net prices, from which no bookseller was permitted to make any deduction whatever. This decree was enforced by the refusal of all the publishers included in the [Publisher’s] Association to supply books to any bookseller who should dare to infringe it in the case of a book published by any one of them. In other words, a bookseller offending against one publisher was boycotted by all. Thus, what is known as the “net system” depended absolutely upon the close trade union into which the publishers had organized themselves.” 

And in 2009, 300 years after the promulgation of the Statute of Queen Anne, the Digital Britain Report recommended the statutory codification of the rights of publishers to police the “piracy” of their digital assets, via the disconnection of the reader from the network of computers that had become a primary means of obtaining knowledge.

In these 300 years the publisher has gone from a possible impediment to the advancement of learning, under the strictures of no less than an Archbishop, via the establishment of a cartel dedicated to the preservation of an artificially-raised “market value”, to a state-sponsored business model enforcement unit.  Whilst this has happened publishers have divested themselves of every vestige of the “work” of publishing – hiving off printing, bookselling and latterly quality review, to ancillary units with expensive overheads – whilst still maintaining a position as arbiters of “quality” and “trustworthiness”  to the reader. A “published” work is seen as a greater acheivement than any other indicator of intellectual labour, and is used as the primary measure of research effectiveness in academia.

Despite this, those 300 years have seen a growth in literacy and the free exchange of ideas via mass literacy and the extension of school provision (starting with the Factory Act of 1802, the gradual increase in the availability of knowledge via the establishment of public libraries (particularly after the 1850 Public Libraries Act), and now the explosion of freely-available information online. Each of these advances, though largely brought about by the judicious use public funding (lest we forget, the first multi-platform web browser was developed by a student from Leicester Polytechnic on placement at an institute co-funded by European governments), was greatly enhanced by the support of philanthropy and private investment.

So, on the one hand we have a trend supporting the growing access to, and demand for, free knowledge, on the other we have an industry devoted to reducing access to knowledge via the levy of fees. Viewed like this, the current cultural interest in “openness” is not a bubble, rather a continuation of a trend almost as old as the publishing industry that has grown to support the demand for knowledge.

A further interesting factor is the idea of a body of cultural reference. Giulia Forsythe paraphrases Lessig (via Jim Groom) to say:

“I believe this is OUR culture. We have a right to review, remix, and make meaning of the media we grew up with through the tools new media provides.”

Just because the majority of the media of our formative years (music, television, film, literature…) belongs to one or other of the big publishing conglomerates does not mean that it does not also belong to us. Part of the reason such intellectual property is so valuable to publishers is because of the value we (as readers in the widest sense of everything being a text) invest in it.

Which is very 17th century really – the land we are fighting over is in our minds rather than on managed farms, we want to own the means to grow ideas, not crops – but culture, like the earth, is a common treasury for all.

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of current or former employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.

Screwtape opens up

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of my employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.

I don’t know why (Christian apologetics are not generally my bag), but during my break I picked up the classic “Screwtape Letters“, by CS Lewis, and as I dropped off under the influence of a large glass of Old Pulteney I started to think about OER. I’m not entirely sure that “openness” is as black and white as theology, but if nothing else it was an interesting writing exercise. This is what I wrote:
I note your concerns with interest. For the last century the Groves of Academia (such as they are) have been ours, and what delights we have tasted because of it! The twisted and confused soul of a pro-vice chancellor, whipped into a frenzy of self-importance both at his own cleverness and low cunning, the nutritious sin of a “star researcher” smugly full of contempt for his fellow toilers – what feasts they have provided, as I’m sure you recall from your late visit to Our Father’s House.

Already, we are heightening the flavour of our next batch – pitting institution against institution, scholar against scholar, subject of study against subject of study; such delicious conflict, such fear, such snobbery, such self-immolation and despair! If all goes well we will feast again on your return, as richly and as lip-smackingly well as we ever have before, washed down with the finest Administrative Whines and accompanied with with our latest delicacy, tweetbreads.

When seen against these plans, your worries about “openness” seem at best misplaced. Every time Academia have tried to “share” what they have learnt and what they know, for the good of humanity (and how sickening the thought of the Enemy’s pleasure at such a disgustingly noble aim!) we have managed to distort this into the same old anxieties to lead them back to Our Father’s arms.

Remember the worries when they started to publish their research in learned journals? We convinced them to sell the journals to our expert friends in the publishing industries. So they could be managed better – and so prices would be such that they could only be read in Academic Libraries. Then, with the growth of their Internet, we ensured that sharing and learning would be behind paywalls and authentication. Even when the Enemy caused them to rise up and demand to own the fruits of their own labour, we hid these “open” resources inside repositories of astonishing complexity and scale – this, coupled with our uplifting purification of the Academic language to ensure impenetrability meant that that a merely interested member of the public would have next to no chance of finding an academic paper, and next to no chance of understanding it if he did.

But to make certain our victory, we started to reward scholars based on the amount of impenetrable research they published on the “right” subject in the “right journals”. The mechanics of human greed and aggrandisement are the most beautiful structures in the universe, and the savour of supposedly intelligent souls brought down by such supposedly base tools continues to spice our repast daily. Ah, such days!

I am certain you can adapt such tactics to your concern around “open educational resources” or “OpenCourseWare” (already a division – could you exploit this?) and that the list of suggestions that follows is superfluous.

1. My understanding is that a common worry in this endeavour is that of “sustainability”. You will know that our disguises have meant that this once-innocuous word hides a hoard of potential – do ensure that your Openers think only of the sustainability of their work, their projects, their roles. To do this once again means competition, the very highway Below. If an Opener is to chance to reflect on the wider sustainability of society or what they thrillingly call “culture” and the need for academic knowledge to support this, a new call for funding or conference papers will soon remove that unprofitable line of argument from their mind.

2. Speaking of funders – it is essential that you cement within their minds the concept of “return on investment”. Get them measuring, measuring, measuring! – who interacted with which resources, when, how and why. With luck you can get them to cancel the whole area of work as unprofitable – at worst you will be directing the majority of their attention to work that is of use to nobody and is never-ending (something that we have excelled at within so very much of Academia.). Never for a second allow them to dwell on serendipity or longer-term goals – you could easily ensure that funding is short-scale and must be re-argued for each year, for example. A deadline does much to allow us to work, as does the bringing of other pressures (such as the sterling work of our man Willetts) to bear. I am aware that you and your fellow Tempters have found great cause to rejoice within the Browne Review – but unless we push on with the idea of continued crisis it may cause our Subjects to pause to contemplate the nature and purpose of what Education is for. Such thinking is seldom to our benefit.

3. If you are unable to do this, think instead of quality and the “student experience”. Our project Apple – ah! that name! such rich symbolism… – has done much to conflate quality with a shiny appearance (and your cousin Grub has found much favour here Below for his part in this). As you know, there is no end of money that can be spent on getting the images, and the fonts, and the narration “just” so. Surely much of what is currently devoted to the fashionable cause of “open education” can be steered into this cul-de-sac – much more if you included the niceties of “pedagogic design” and “context”. As above, your goal here should be to ensure that the least possible amount of funding is devoted to the release of dangerously simple resources.

4. Licensing, IPR – such sweet words to all of our kind. Imagine our delight to see that already there are more than a handful of mutually-incompatible open (and semi-open) licenses, and that confusion and concern are already sown. I hear in many places actual lawyers – often our most devoted servants – are involved in what was meant to be a simple and cheap initiative. Legal issues can be made as utterly impenetrable and eternal as the works of the Enemy, and I trust that you (after your sterling work with academic contracts of employment) will need little instruction here. Remind them of the specialness of their circumstances, feed their naif insistence that nobody should ever profit from their work, and with the stroke of a pen they are yours.

5. As I have said before, “We live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet people who do not need to raise their voice.” Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a middle-ranking Russell Group University. You may see this as an occasion for complacency, but stay on your watch – should one of these “Openers” get the idea of sharing knowledge into one of these interminable minutes the whole game is lost. Universities do what they do because of interia and a misplaced love of tradition. If you can keep the emphasis on sharing as something new and alien you should effectively marshal opposition and prevent a decision being reached or recorded. Ideally we need working groups, if not consultants.

6. Most powerfully, of course, you have the sweet smell of hubris. If you can convince your subjects that their work is special, and unique, and most of all separate to other ways of sharing online we can ensure this potential movement becomes little more than an academic pipe dream. I do not need to underline the need to avoid, at all costs, the obvious mental link between sharing these resources and sharing other things. Separate conferences, separate funding streams – and above all a separate language – these are the tools that have brought about the successful fragmentation of academic knowledge. We would delight to see them work again here. Encourage also the “edupreneurs” (how I wish we had invented the word!) to see openness as a means of profit, a means of fame and a route to further power.

Encourage also the institutions to see openness as a new revenue stream.
Dear nephew Wormwood, there is little to worry about here. What at first seemed a great defeat of so much that we have worked for is simply an opportunity for a greater victory. Vice is best disguised as virtue, and the clearest virtues hide the oldest and basest vices. Philanthropy (and is this not what we have here, simple, old-fashioned, disgusting, philanthropy?) is often selfish and nearly always public. And we can generally benefit far more than the intended recipients.

Your affectionate Uncle,


P.S: It also occurs to me that Screwtape would have made an excellent Programme Manager…

#ocwcglobal and the state of OCW/OER 2011

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of my employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.

Just coming to the end of a useful few days in the US, meeting with Ithaka S&R and attending the OCWC conference. As usual with such visits, themes and commonalities have become apparent: I want to use this post to reflect on these rather than provide a who-said-what style comprehensive account.

Fundamentally, the OER/OCW movement is aligning itself, or being aligned with, the search for a “new model” (pace Anya Kamenetz) of Higher Education, which can cope with systemic massification and user needs better than the institutional model. 

“Open” accreditation – which is to say evidence of learning which is either open or accredited (not yet both) – has been a huge topic of conversation, with everything from Kaplan Knext and the OERU/Abathasca parasite/host model to Mozilla/P2PU “Badges” and the marvellous Brazillian “certificates of completion” from FGV.

Sustainability of OER globally remains a key issue – an encouraging number of new OER/OCW funders are emerging alongside a diminished contribution from Hewlett, with a range of different reasons for their activity, and a range of different foci and/or ideology. However, most of the remaining large Hewlett grant supported projects are currently coming to a close…

The confusion between content and learning remains, with a disturbing tendency to equate the two, with the natural expectation that we should now be focusing on some kind of “learner experience of OER” as a metric (or quasi-metric) for OER quality and utility. There is generally a greater emphasis in this global forum on independent learner reuse as a path in to higher study rather than academic-setting reuse of content. More generally there has been a rush to measurement of benefits which does have the possibility to lead us into dangerous conflicts between transformational potential and incomplete data

Despite an excellent record in moving OCW support (particularly) into Africa, South America and Asia it remains a very Westernised phenomena, almost a cultural imperialism where alternate models (for example China’s “Top Courses” programme) perceived as inferior even within host countries, and OCW often seen as a component of education system refocusing on employment chances (and institutional competition).

An increasingly visible elephant in the room has been the growth of private sector initiatives (everything from Khan Academy to corporate support for traditional OER release). There’s not really a response to this… “not-for-profit” seems to cover a multitude of positions regarding “Higher Education”, some of which see initiatives as a direct competition to “outmoded” traditional institution.

Some of the language around learner OER engagement has borrowed more from marketing than educational theory… I’ve heard the consumption of learning resources idealised as “addictive” and “compelling” – there’s a real “sales” approach to OCW/OER, several people have lamented low market penetration of the term. This all seems to point to a continued “ghettoisation” of OER as discrete from other forms of content (be it open or otherwise), as following different rules and having different attributes. Of course OER does have *some* different attributes, most notably the clarity of the license and provenance, but these do not separate it entirely from a wider understanding of content reuse.

Here are some key questions I am left with, from various speakers and conversations over the week:

* what is the learner benefit from attendance at a campus rather than online study? How does this link to institutional “uniqueness” and competition?
* is the sustainability of the existing model of higher education key to the development of new models?
* why has there been so little south->north and east->west migration of content and models?
* Is OER really a new model of education? Should it try to be?
* How can we make cases for OER investment based on long-term, long-tail, wide-spectrum benefits?
* Is OER a capital or marginal investment?

So what’s the deal with fair dealing?

These are my views and not those of my employer, or of projects and programmes I am responsible for. This post is available under a creative commons CC-BY license. I am not a lawyer or a legal expert, the post below reflects my interpretation of the law as I understand it, based on openly available materials.

A few people are starting to question why we need creative commons licensing for resources when we have fair use and fair dealing exemptions for education and research in most IPR systems globally. Here’s why:

1. Fair use/fair dealing rights vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Creative Commons is global, with teams of localised experts ensuring that the licenses are re-presented in language suitable for many jurisdictions. Using something under the terms of a CC license is the same in Boston, MA as it is in Boston, Lincolnshire. But “fair use” (the US terminology) for educational reasons is very different from “fair dealing” (the UK terminology) – fair dealing is much more restricted in the UK with much less scope for argument (an issue I’ll come to later).

In the UK, fair dealing rights are set out under the 1988 Copyright Designs and Patents Act. You have rights to use an “excerpt” of a copyright work for non-commercial research or private study, criticism and review or news reporting. You’ll note that none of these are defined precisely – those of you attending #OER11 will hear me speak about an example where a non-commercial research exemption which seemed to me pretty watertight was successfully challenged.

The web is global. Information is global. A jurisdiction-specific right is almost irrelevant in such a world
2. Fair use/fair dealing rights don’t allow for republishing or sharing.

Fair dealing allows for copies of excerpts of copyrighted works to be made for educational purposes by a librarian, tutor or student, for use by a known student or group of students. If you want to show your awesome materials to prospective students, you (legally) can’t. If you want to share slides with the woman you share your office with, you (legally) can’t. If you want to build something on top of data that is used under “fair dealing”, you (legally) can’t. And as implied above, if you want to use materials made by that guy from Michigan you met at that conference, you (legally) can’t. 

3. Fair use/fair dealing rights are legally arguable, CC licenses are clear and unarguable.

This for me is key – fair dealing isn’t something that keeps you out of court, it’s an argument you can use in court to stop yourself being fined for breaching copyright. It’s not a watertight defence, there are (intentional) grey areas an in the end it will all come down to the interpretation of a judge. You’ll be very unlikely to get to a stage where you can argue fair use – and there’s no financial legal aid for doing so. You or your institution will pay to make this argument. You are more likely to settle out of court with a publisher who has serious money and can afford to keep taking you to court until you give them more. Fair dealing is an occasionally valid excuse for copyright infringement – it does not mean that you are exempt from copyright law, and does not grant you the range of tangible rights that a license does.

There are very few examples of creative commons case law – this is because creative commons licenses are pretty much unarguable. They are clear, unambiguous user-friendly and well written. It’s not worth the bother of even going to court with a CC license, you know the license will be upheld.

Here’s a lovely UK summary of fair dealing produced by the UK Copyright Service and made available under a Creative Commons license, which I think is rather telling.

But this comes down to my interpretation. If people are going to talk about fair use/fair dealing as an alternative to creative commons at the very least we all need to learn more about it. I’d love a response from a real law person.

And here is a response from a real law person – Naomi Korn at OER IPR support.  Thanks Naomi!

Cor baby – that’s really free?

These are my views and not those of my employer, or of projects and programmes I am responsible for. This post is available under a creative commons CC-BY license.

There’s a new market price for learning resources. Free. So say (in the UK) the Guardian, the TES and now mobile network operator 02.

That’s free as in beer, which is substantially better than £30 for a textbook. Isn’t it? 

For the uninterested end user (the same group who couldn’t care less that Wikipedia is mostly CC-BY-SA), yes.

Unless they happen to feel that their personal information, contact details, browsing history and stated preference actually do have a market value beyond access to materials that are largely taxpayer funded anyway.

Unless they want to use the resources in unexpected contexts, excerpt from them confidently and stay “legal” whilst doing so.

Unless they have nagging suspicions that materials may be filtered, censored or altered by commercial entities who essentially see them as marketing tools.

Unless they want to share materials they have found with colleagues and friends outside of the provisions of the provided service.

Unless they don’t want to advertise the likes of O2 in their classroom, feeling perhaps that learning and the support of learning is not a branch of marketing or PR.

Unless they happen to live or work outside of the UK, or whatever jurisdiction the material they want to use is available in.

Unless they happen to think that maybe, the knowledge build up by centuries of human endeavour belongs to everyone and does not need to be commodified and marketised for consumption.

This is the first great victory for free education. We’ve won – the open education, open everything, filthy-hippy team eduBeard have vanquished all before us. Yeah! We’ve broken publishing. The new model of knowledge sharing is here. 

Now, do we need to get on and break marketing? Maybe take a few pot-shots at capital and the creation of value on the way?

Some would say that we don’t. If there is no “value” in openness other than availability, we’ve completed our job and got the achievement badge. You can now get to learning materials at no cost to the end user. Sure, you may need to sign in, sign over your most valuable commodity (your information), abide by arbitrary rules, and surrender any thoughts of ownership, personal control or even long-term availability of resources. But that might be OK. That might be enough.

For those on the other side: You’re going to be unpopular. The “no cost” argument is a strong one, as is the “reputational benefit to the provider”. One has been lost entirely, the other needs some serious analysis. And some unattractive, almost counter-intuitive politics need to be communicated, jargon- and assumption- free, in an attractive way. Oh, and some of the best funded and most able marketing professionals will be ranged against you, as you attack the very basis of their value assumptions. It’s going to be trouble.

My wife (a huge inspiration both professionally and personally) shared the following quote from Hunter S Thompson with me recently:

“So we shall let the reader answer this question for himself: who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?”

If we can’t do it for the truth, and we can’t do it for our rights, if we can’t do it for the future, we should do it because it is going to be the loudest, lairiest, mind-blowing headfuck of a ride in the end of civilisation.

Because if this is what winning feels like, then I’ve been playing the wrong game.

Dental Hygiene Dilemma

These are my views and not those of my employer, or of projects and programmes I am responsible for. This post is available under a creative commons CC-BY license.

So David Wiley (@opencontent) has built up an extended riff about OER supporting learning being like giving away free toothbrushes to promote teeth cleaning. Brilliant. I love metaphors and analogy around the open education field, I suspect we simply don’t have the mental models and patterns that we need to get a feel from the opportunities and threats around open education – and stories or images are a really useful way of providing these, assuming that they describe situations that are analogous to the debate.

Imagine a programme to promote dental hygiene that involved giving away free toothbrushes. How could you measure the impact of the free toothbrushes on dental hygiene, as opposed to, say, toothbrush ownership? Don’t people need toothpaste, running water and a patient parental figure to remind them to do their edges? Therefore you can’t measure the impact and the impact is unlikely to be total or anything close to total, so giving away toothbrushes is a waste of time.

But what’s a better way to promote dental hygiene? A awareness-raising mass marketing campaign? Expensive, and less likely to work than giving away the toothbrushes (of course, giving away the toothbrushes is a mass marketing campaign, just one that actually gives people something useful rather than some glossy bits of paper.). Paying a dental nurse to stand next to everyone’s sink and explain how to brush your teeth properly? Prohibitively expensive.  Compulsory dental inspections for all? Maybe a little bit nanny-state, even for a committed state-interventionist like me. Free toothbrush, toothpaste, indoor plumbing MOT, instructional video and a 1 in 1000 chance to tongue-kiss Jessica Alba? May be more effective than giving away toothbrushes, but pushes the expense up to unsustainable levels and still will not reach mass effectiveness. Or maybe you could release an OER

With the toothbrush model people get something actually useful (the toothbrush) which is reasonably cheap and also has a marketing and awareness raising function (if someone gave me a toothbrush I might think I may have bad teeth and need to brush more). It’s not going to improve dental hygiene in every case – but what will?

It’s like that with OER release – sure it’s not a perfect way to promote learning, but it’s pretty good, pretty cheap and even if it doesn’t work for everyone at least you’ve put something out there that someone can use. If David Wiley or anyone else has come up with a better way to promote learning at a higher level pretty well without a great deal of expense or effort and with significant additional benefits I’d love to help design a programme to implement it.

But more fundamentally I’m concerned with a growing confusion around the efficiency of innovation. Anya Kamenetz  has been looking for a Moore’s law corollary for higher education: computers and systems are getting faster and more effective, so therefore education should be getting cheaper. If education is not getting cheaper, we are using the wrong innovations so we should stop.

We know, as people actually putting innovation into practice, that this isn’t the case. There are countless studies that show that technology enhanced learning is more expensive than traditional models. But it can often be more effective in promoting learning. And can effectiveness lead to enhanced efficiency. Sometimes. Maybe. I don’t know, let’s test it.

Innovation is, essentially, a shot in the dark. We have a hypothesis, we may even have a model. But until we start doing stuff we don’t know what is actually going to happen. It’s easy to think “OK, this didn’t do what we expected, let’s bin it”, but that also throws away a lot of unexpected benefits. And the unexpected benefits are the interesting ones.

As a professional manager of programmes of innovation in eduction (stop sniggering, colleagues!) I’m actually more interested in stuff that doesn’t do what we expected but does do something else interesting. That’s where we learn about new ideas, and develop new hypotheses to test. If I just commissioned stuff that did exactly what I expected it would I’d be wasting everyone’s time. 

But sometimes, most of the time, we have ideas that mostly work. They do demonstrative good, but they don’t chance the world like we’d hoped. They’re good for some people, but not everyone. So we build up, gradually, a flexible, varied set of tools and practices, with those annoying, non-standardised differences. The tools and processes start getting out there, start becoming a part of mainstream practice. Learners start expecting them.

And one day, it’s a whole new world outside. Explore it, but don’t forget your toothbrush.

For a few dollars more? – OER, reuse and value.

The opinions expressed within this blog post are my own, and not those of my employer, or of projects or programmes I am responsible for. This post is available under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.


Allow me to start with a (deliberately) controversial statement: “The resources themselves are the least valuable aspect of OER, and academic reuse is the least valuable aspect of these resources.


I don’t propose to be able to defend that entirely – but it is indicative of the way my mind is moving after reading a wonderful post by Tony Bates yesterday, and continuing to reflect on David Wiley’s position and the findings of the UKOER Evaluation and Synthesis final report.


As someone who is involved in a major funded programme of OER release, I want to be doubly clear that I don’t think that this work has been a waste of time – or that the content created is without merit, or that current investigations into content reuse are worthless. Far from it. I’m more inclined to believe that that what we have gained from our work is not what many people have argue that we have gained. It is far, far, more.


(And the least valuable is still pretty damn valuable.)


(sorry about all the caveats – but I know I am at risk of being taken out of context here. Can you believe that some people read this blog purely to find things to complain about? Yes, really! )



OER is interesting – as a concept, as a process, and as an entity.


(image credit: cybermule [from personal archive] – obvious nod of the hat to Sergio)


As a concept – and as Joss Winn and Richard Hall have argued – it poses serious questions for our understanding of what education is, and what institutions should be doing. Both in grander terms, concerning our understanding of knowledge and the value our society accords to it, and in less radical everyday thoughts about attribution, and how we discover and use material. I think that the volume of critical thought that OER has already created is immensely valuable – it has served as a genuinely new contribution to the age-old “purpose of education” debates, which are becoming increasingly essential in a higher education sector dealing with rapid transformational change.


As a process, OER pushes consideration of intellectual property and pedagogy into the creation of materials for use in teaching. It makes us consider how much effort we put in (or don’t) to ensuring that we have the best possible teaching aids for use with our students. And it engages what used to be the sole academic – working on their own to produce a hand-out, slides or a complex tool – with both the idea and the actuality of a community of practice, doing the same and similar things. This is the theme that I don’t think many have focused on (though the OPAL project is a visible and notable exception) but it is where we are seeing a lot of movement. If you are engaged with OER creation, it becomes a part of your use practice. From properly citing images used on PowerPoint slides, to automatically searching for open resources as a preference, to thinking “could I create this in such a way I could release it openly” – involvement in or engagement with OER “release” fundamentally changes your “use” practices.


As an entity, an OER is available for use and inspiration. It can be modified, it can be altered, it can be used within agglomerations of material from a variety of sources, modified and republished. It can be linked to as part of a course. It can also be read and recreated (partially or fully), or read in order to inspire work in a particular direction. And all these things can be done by everyone, not just academics and students.


And, as David Wiley says – most of the “entity” points are also true of content that is simply visible. Not all (not the ones in the first line), but certainly the most common ones. I’ve been around the loop before concerning the long term (10yr+) goal of the UK government to see academic sharing as common practice, and (outside of a few excellent examples around community based projects like Humbox and Connexions) this has not been a resounding success. I don’t go as far as David does regarding openness being an additional production cost – academics produce resources anyway (which is where the cost is) making these resources OER at this point of creation is trivial – at most a few dollars more for 5 mins checking a license. You could even argue that making resources that are not usable by the whole world is a (substantial) additional production cost!


But I do agree that it is an additional attention cost. And I think that this is entirely a good thing. OER creation focuses attention on IPR and pedagogic choice. Precisely what we want academics to be thinking about when creating resources, and if we are connecting people together as they create (through a community like #ukoer on twitter, Humbox or something else), even better. And if we are contributing to discussions on the future of HE by doing so – fantastic. Note that none of these benefits require the actual availability or find-ability of OER – this is almost like a potential additional benefit. And this potential additional benefit is primarily to people outside academia entirely, or students new to academia – people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to that knowledge or that opportunity for learning. Wikipedia (and similar projects) fulfil a lot of these needs, and the growth of academic input (rather than hostility) is welcome. But sometimes actual academic resources – short paper, annotated diagram, lecture recording – can go further than that.


Academic reuse – it’s long-tail, at best. There is a chance that there will be something useful, but as the needs of educators are so varied, no more than a chance. It’s worth looking – but it’s equally possible that building your own materials is the best option. As Tony Bates concluded: OERs need skill and hard work to make them useful [to others], and selling them as a panacea for education does more harm than good. OER reuse will make some things easier for some academics, some of the time.


But is this our only reason for releasing content openly? The concept and process benefits are already being seen, as are (increasingly) the benefits to independent learners and new students – the entity benefits to academics are too but on a smaller scale, and will take time to become fully understood. Have we got the luxury of the time needed to make that argument, and explain why it may be of lesser impact than many initially suggested?


When the chimes end, pick up your gun.

An #ukoer Christmas Carol (and 9 Lessons)

These are my personal opinions and not those of my employer, or the programmes and projects I am responsible for. The following is available under a CC-BY-SA license.

This is a particularly grim and cheerless December for Higher Education in the UK, I hope you will forgive me a brief moment of levity and Christmas cheer.

An OER Christmas Carol (and 9 Lessons)

“The VLE was dead”: to begin with. There was no doubt whatsoever about that. The register of its burial was signed by James Clay and Co at ALT-C 2009. The old VLE was as dead as a doornail.

I’d never painted out the Old VLE’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the repository deposit interface. Some people called it the VLE, some people called it the Learning Object repository – ’twas all the same to me.

Once upon a time – of all the good days of the year, on Christmas Eve, I sat busy at my desk. I was counting up the number of learning materials in the repository, scowling at the list of figures as they steadfastly refused to add up to the required 360 credits. And unless we could reach that magical number by the end of term, the dastardly Lord Browne would call in his debts, and the Old Repository would be as dead as the Old VLE.

“Merry Christmas, repository manager, and God save you!” called my assistant through the door I had left open to keep an eye on her as she wrote the final and completion reports. 

“Bah!” I said. “Humbug!”

“Christmas – a humbug? returned my assistant gaily. “You don’t mean that, I am sure”.

“I do,” I said. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? With Lord Browne’s judgement due tomorrow you will be poor enough.”

My assistant left the room prudently, without an angry word. And as the hum of our ancient RAID array filled the void, I felt myself drift towards a strange and troubled sleep. Was I indeed asleep, or awake, or in some state between the two… as I picked up a case study I had previously discarded, and began to read the words on the last piece of yellowing recycled paper… 


Conclusions and Recommendations

1. Check the licence carefully.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16

” I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.” Revelation 22:18-19

It took some effort to find the license(s) for the Bible, as they are presented in a non-standard format, and are split between two sections of the material. What we appear to have is an attribution license, with specific authorisation for use in an educational context, alongside a “no derivatives” clause, which goes into particular and alarming detail regarding the penalties for a breach of the license terms. 

Clearly under the terms of this license the Revelation of St John of Patmos should never be included in an aggregation of material, or indeed translated. However the fact that this is actually what has happened suggests that the terms of this license were not clearly understood at the AD 397 Council of Carthage.

Seeing the Bible as an aggregation also gives us an issue regarding the Second Epistle of St Paul to Timothy – what did it mean by “all scripture”? Was the apostle referring to the present collection (as codified nearly 350 after the accepted date of composition), a specific class of document marked as “scripture” (there isn’t anything in Dublin Core), or something else entirely? Unclear wording of license terms has always caused issues for end users, but seldom of this magnitude.

Our conclusions here must be that “no derivatives” licences effectively must be broken in order to allow resources to be reused in any way, and that other licenses must be clear about the work that is being referred to.

2.  Building in openness from the start is easier than repurposing existing materials.

” A voice of one calling: 
In the wilderness prepare 
  the way for the LORD; 
make straight in the desert
  a highway for our God. 
Every valley shall be raised up, 
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
  the rugged places a plain.”
Isaiah 40:3-4

Preparation is everything in open release. Rather than have the Lord do all this tedious checking of individual components, a project manager by the name of John was engaged to clear the relevant resources.  However, this did not end well as he subsequently lost his life in a bizarre ritualistic killing in a Jerusalem nightclub, to which royal links have been made. The resultant lack of preparation may have been linked to later difficulties regarding the engagement of senior stakeholders.

3. Don’t ask too for much from metadata.

“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.” Luke 2:1-3

This is a classic example of the way in which repository managers can fail to appreciate the inconvenience that may be caused to depositors by an emphasis on the quality of metadata. A repository manager several steps removed from the user community chose to arrange records by their provenance, which meant that materials had to be returned to their original point of creation. This caused an enormous strain on infrastructure and storage systems, and brought the entire area to a grinding halt at the busiest time of year. We would conclude that it is essential that those with responsibility for repositories balance the user experience with the need for accurate data.

4.  Authorship and ownership are different concepts.

“This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Matthew 1:18-19

Here, an academic (Joseph) claimed ownership of a resource he had no part in creating, for selfless political reasons. Laudable as such an action is, this mis-attribution subsequently caused problems in assessing the provenance of the resource when it was re-used. It is important that resources are attributed to both the author, and the body claiming ownership of the work.

5. Content quality is more important than reputation

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
 though you are small among the clans of Judah, 
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
  from ancient times.”
Micah 5:2

Despite the generally low academic standing of the then Bethlehem University College (now the University of North Jerusalem) and reports of academics being housed in conditions suitable only for livestock, some very high quality resources have been released. Increasingly in an OER world, it is the quality of material, rather than its provenance, that is seen as important.

6.  Make intelligent use of marketing.

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. “ Luke 2:8-9

This is one of a pair of useful examples of dissemination practice drawn from this case study. Here, a great effort has been made to draw people to visit the resources, including celebrity endorsement and son-et-lumiere. However we must compare the probable expense of this marketing with its end results, as only a small number of shepherds actually visited the site in question. It appears wasteful to go to the expense of engaging the Angel of the Lord, a host of angels singing, and covering associated AV and event management costs in order to attract so few users. Better use could have been made of this marketing opportunity.

7. Make open content visible and discoverable.

” After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:1-2

Here, a much better example of marketing used a simple tag to draw international users to resources. Despite this, the users in question needed to ask a number of contacts in the Jerusalem area for further information, suggesting that the specific resource was not, after all, easy to find. The fact that the international visitors initially went to Jerusalem rather than Bethlehem may point to an underlying issue with Bethlehem’s reputation.

On finding the resource, the visitors were startled to see the low quality of the infrastructure, but recognised the quality of the resource and left a substantial endowment. There is no audit trail regarding the use of this endowment, which we ascribe to the poor overall standard of documentation.

8.  Open, informal, learning is amazing
“Not until halfway through the festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?” John 7: 14-15

There is real evidence presented here of the use of OER in informal learning, and the reputational benefits of informal learning. A community of scholars was initially incredulous, but eventually convinced by the quality of work produced. However, this led eventually to jealously and animosity from institutional managers, and serious problems faced in the later career of the academic in question. Had APEL been available within the Jewish Temple system then history could have been very different – independent learners often face difficulties in demonstrating their accomplishments.

9. Openness is (eventually) inevitable

“For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” Luke 8:17

Whereas the documentation suggests that the LORD will sit in judgement over all on a fiery throne, until that (often posponed) QA event occurs quality assurance has to be carried out by peers. There are currently two incompatible systems in place, one using a set of accredited experts and the other relying more on the layity offering advice and guidance. Simply in terms of scale the latter is more resilient, the former representing a huge overhead. Both systems suffer from disagreement and multiple interpretations of guidance documents – the hierarchical system is able to rule on these issues (though this is often criticised as ignoring the user voice), whereas the folksonomic sysem tends to fragment into competing subsystems. We await with interest the coming of the quality assurance manager, and hope that earlier predictions of this causing enormous upheaval, changes to working practices, war, famine, pestilence, death and water purity issues are overstated.

As all materials will be openly available at this point, it makes sense to recommend that users prepare for openness as soon as possible…


… rubbing my eyes, I awoke to find myself in my office, but not my office – a warm and bright place, filled with cheer and light and Christmas joy. My flushed and delighted-looking assistant pressed a glass of mulled wine into my hand. I sipped and yawned as she babbled…

“… so I put out a special request on the ALL-STAFF mailing list, and on the intranet, and on twitter with the #ukoer tag… so many people have been coming in and dropping off materials… images, text, video, audio, even SCORN-compliant learning objects… thank you!” – she smiled at the Dean of Philosophy who had put a DVD filled with correctly tagged reading lists on the pile – “… and everyone has really pulled together for the sake of OER…cheers!” – an august and bearded Professor of Applied Linguistics toasted us as he uploaded the last of his prized collection of dialect recordings to the repository – “… and look, here comes the music department…”

I heard a band playing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and before I knew it, I was dancing in a circle, singing, and beaming at everyone in the candlelight. I’d never felt so happy and at peace… until a black-gloved hand touched my shoulder.

“I see you are within reach of your end of year target,” purred Lord Browne in a dark, oily voice. “Allow me to contribute.”, and yes – his Report, his precious Report so written about and so feared – was disaggregated and rendered into granular objects ready for deposit. “Congratulations!”

“God bless you, you crazy old open learning repository” yelled the Academic Registrar, as around us dancers circled and church bells rang louder than the cheers of what appeared to be the whole body of staff and students. “Merry Christmas, every one of us!”.

“Till auld aquaintence be forgot, and never brought to mind…” we sang lustily, as a tiny ringing bell indicated another successful deposit…

(… and far above us, in CETIS, Wilbert Kraan had finally got his wings.)