Forgetting Our History: From the Reusability Paradox to the Remix Hypothesis

Wow, there’s been some great writing lately. I’ve been particularly reinvigorated by Brian Lamb, Mike Caulfield, and Bracken Mosbacker. And Audrey Watters’ ongoing work on the history of educational technology is vastly more important than anyone seems to realize. It should be absolutely mandatory reading for every student in a graduate program on educational technology or learning sciences, period.

Audrey’s constant refrain that “no one seems to remember our history” was made for her again this week when McGraw-Hill and Microsoft announced a new project based around – I kid you not – learning objects. Reading this news created in me an irresistible urge to join Audrey in reminding the field of its not-at-all-distant and yet already-forgotten history regarding the Reusability Paradox.

Learning objects are meant to be aggregated into a wide range of larger instructional structures. Over a decade ago I worked through the problems implied by this statement in excruciating detail. The tl;dr is that any learning object needs to fit into the aggregation in which you want to reuse it. The degree of fit is purely a function of two contexts: (1) the internal context of a specific learning object and (2) the external context created by the juxtaposition of the other learning objects in the aggregation. Unfortunately, it turns out that the amount of internal context of any learning object is directly correlated with its educational efficacy, while that same amount of internal context is inversely correlated with the number of aggregations the learning object “fits” into. This is the famous Reusability Paradox – the pedagogical effectiveness of a learning object and its potential for reuse are completely at odds with one another. (While the Reusability Paradox was singlehandedly sufficient to quash the realization of the learning objects ambition – I spent over five years of my life on this stuff – there are also numerous other flaws underlying the model as it is traditionally conceived. See sections 2 and 3 in that link, but be warned – it contains Vygotsky, Leontiev, Wertsch, Friere, and M. Night Shyamalan references.)

The Reusability Paradox typically leads designers of learning objects to attempt to “strike a balance” between effectiveness and reusability. This generally results in materials that are neither particularly effective NOR particularly reusable across contexts. No one wants to trade efficacy for reusability (or for lower cost, or for anything else – as the recent Babson survey showed, faculty want proven efficacy more than anything else). And yet we do this all the time without really realizing it. Instead of targeting a specific audience and a specific context, almost all teaching materials adopt their own version of Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View. Educational materials – and learning objects specifically – try to be just generic enough so as to not be offensive to anyone. They lack what Giant Robot Dinosaur calls a Minimum Viable Personality.

For example, take teaching materials about the Ruby programming language. Here are the first three results that come up for me after searching for Ruby tutorials – Ruby in 20 Minutes, My First Ruby Program, and Ruby Quick Reference Guide. They’re each so bland and generic as to be almost indistinguishable from each other. Contrast these resources with Why’s Poignant Guide to Ruby. You can actually distinguish this resource from the others. It was obviously written with a specific audience in mind – and they love it. But the internal context created in Why’s Poignant Guide – the cartoon foxes, Blix the cat, etc. – are SIMULTANEOUSLY what makes it awesome for a specific audience and what prevents it from being reused more broadly.

So what are we to do? We have three choices – we can either (1) create highly decontextualized resources that can be reused broadly but teach very little, (2) we can build highly contextualized resources that teach effectively in a single setting but are very difficult to reuse elsewhere, or (3) we can shoot for the mediocre middle.

There’s actually a fourth choice. The Reusability Paradox is only a paradox as long as your thinking about educational materials is caught in the ambient copyright trap. “Everyone knows” you’re not allowed to make changes to textbooks, learning objects, videos, and other educational media, and so the learning objects model is built partly in response to that “reality.” But the Reusability Paradox only arises when “reuse” means “reuse exactly as is.” According to this pervasive view, learning objects can never be altered after they’re created – so the author has to make a trade-off between effectiveness and reusability and the rest of us have to live their choice.

The way to escape from the Reusability Paradox is simply by using an open license. If I publish my educational materials using an open license, I can produce something deeply contextualized and highly effective for my local context AND give you permission to revise and remix it until it is equally effective to reuse in your own local context. Poof! The paradox disappears. I’ve produced something with a strong internal context which you have permission to make fit into other external contexts.

This brings us full circle back to the Remix Hypothesis. Learning objects that are published using open licenses – also known as open educational resources – eliminate the Reusability Paradox. However, making something possible is not the same as actually doing it. OER make it possible for us to contextualize our resources and customize our pedagogies to support more effective learning, but they don’t do the work for us. We have to take advantage of the 5R permissions and actually do the work of contextualizing and customizing our open educational resources and open pedagogies. Thus, the Remix Hypothesis states that changes in student outcomes that occur in conjunction with OER adoption will correlate positively with faculty revising and remixing activities.

Which brings me back to the announcement of the McGraw Hill – Microsoft partnership. The press release reads, in part:

A key component of McGraw-Hill Education’s relationship with Microsoft is the ability of educators to develop compound learning objects through Office Mix, a media-rich extension of Microsoft PowerPoint that is free to the education community, and combine them with McGraw-Hill Education content and technology…. Compound learning objects will serve as the basis for all of [McGraw-Hill]’s K-12 products going forward starting next year, with its higher education portfolio soon to follow.

From these and other statements in the release, it sounds like a core goal of the partnership is to get teachers to make their own learning objects in Powerpoint and then upload them into McGraw-Hill’s platform, to be used side-by-side with MH’s own learning object-ized content. This is an “adaptive and analytics” platform, consistent with MH’s goal of “becoming the world’s foremost learning science company.” At the end of the day, this is a technical partnership that focuses on platform – Microsoft’s Office Mix platform and McGraw-Hill’s (unnamed in the release) adaptive and analytics platform.

This emphasis on platform belies a belief that innovations in platform can solve the problems that have beset earlier learning objects initiatives. For 15 years now organization after organization has made the mistake of thinking that the reason past learning objects initiatives have failed is that the platforms supporting revise / remix were too hard for faculty to use (or were broken in some other way). How many times have we heard someone exclaim, “Our breakthrough platform will finally make it possible!”? While ease of use of platform will certainly have a role to play in making a learning objects initiative successful, the platform issue is not the fundamental issue that must be resolved – it is a secondary issue. The Reusability Paradox is the primary issue to overcome, and this can only be done by means of the 5R permissions granted by open licenses. If the Reusability Paradox is not resolved there’s very little need for a platform – no one wants to reuse decontextualized resources that don’t teach effectively, it’s very difficult to reuse highly contextualized resources that do, and there’s no real difference between all the content that shoots for the middle (so there’s no point substituting one learning object for another).

Oh how I wish the field could remember that.

Comments on this entry are closed.