Clarifying the 5th R

There have been a number of responses to my decision to introduce a 5th R – “Retain” – to my 4Rs framework. Bill, Darren, and Mike have responded, among others. Some parts of the responses lead me to believe that I wasn’t entirely clear in my initial statement, so let me try to clear a few things up.

The original 4Rs were not an attempt to create a new group of permissions that open content licenses needed to support. Many open content licenses, from the CC to the GFDL to the OPL, already granted the rights to reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute long before I created the 4Rs framework. I created the 4Rs framework specifically for the purpose of helping people understand and remember the key rights that open content licenses grant them.

The right to Retain – i.e., make, own, and control – copies of openly licensed content has always been a right granted by open content licenses. Generally speaking, it is impossible to revise, remix, or redistribute an openly licensed work unless you possess a copy of the work. As Mike pointed out, the right to retain is strongly implied in open licenses, but never called out directly. Consequently, it has never been addressed directly in the discourse around open.

I maintain my original purpose for creating the 4Rs framework in adding “Retain” and arriving at 5Rs. The purpose of the framework is to help people understand and remember the key rights that open content licenses grant them. It was becoming increasingly clear to me that both producers and users of open content were unaware of, or forgetting to consider, this critical right to Retain.

As I said above, at least 3 of the original 4Rs are impossible to do without the right to Retain. This makes Retain a fundamental or foundational right, and yet it is completely ignored in the discourse around open. This is why I felt the need to call attention to Retain, and this is why I now place it at the head of the list of 5Rs – retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute.

Thinking along these lines – about how the systems we design can proactively enable people to exercise their right to Retain – has already proven extremely useful to me personally. (As I wrote about recently, we’re in the middle of designing a new OER transclusion system at Lumen.) If the right to Retain is a fundamental right, we should be building systems that specifically enable it. When you specifically add “Enable users to easily download copies of the OER in our system” to your feature list, you make different kinds of design choices. (Unfortunately, you can see all around you that many of the designers of OER systems either failed to think about how to enable users to exercise their right to Retain, or have purposively taken specific actions to prevent users from exercising it.)

Postscript. The name of my blog is “Iterating Toward Openness.” This name is meant to very publicly demonstrate my shortcomings as a thinker about and practitioner of “open.” I didn’t understand everything I needed to about open when I kicked off the open content work in 1998, and I still don’t understand enough about it today. My goal is to be constantly (if incrementally) refining and improving my understanding and appreciation of open. The change from 4Rs to 5Rs reflects one such improvement in my understanding. Who knows – maybe another seven years from now I’ll add a 6th R.

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I recently received the excellent news that I will receive another year of support as a Shuttleworth Fellow. These fellowships are extremely generous and I’m incredibly grateful for the foundation’s vote of confidence in the work I’m doing supporting widespread OER adoption through Lumen Learning. As many of you know, Shuttleworth Fellows also have the opportunity to pitch the Foundation for project funding. The foundation has also chosen to support our project proposal this year, and I’m extremely excited to start sharing the idea we’re working on with the community.

Over the past year Lumen has made great strides in promoting OER adoption, delivering OER and related services to thousands of students at dozens of institutions. However, we’ve struggled to find a highly scalable manner of doing so – for a very specific reason. We started out hosting our Open Course Frameworks in the Canvas learning management system because it’s both the best LMS out there (in my opinion) and is openly licensed. But over and over again we heard from faculty that they don’t want to send students out of their school’s official learning management system and into a second system from which OER are delivered, because this multiplicity of LMSs confuses students (and faculty). Instead, students and faculty want OER to be delivered within their institution’s learning management system. In order to meet this demand we spent much of the past year helping rebuild the same OER-based courses over and over again within several partner schools’ learning management systems. Obviously this process cannot scale to support thousands of schools and millions of students – which is the scale at which OER needs to operate in order to make a significant impact on the affordability and quality of education.

Beginning in January 2014 we launched a prototype of a new approach designed specifically to provide OER and related services to multiple schools in multiple learning management systems. In this new model, we host OER centrally and transclude it directly into multiple LMSs via the Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) standard. With this transclusion technique, we’re able to host, manage, and improve courses in a single platform and make the content “magically” appear directly inside multiple schools’ learning management systems. The prototype is currently in use by multiple schools in multiple LMSs and has been extremely successful, providing us with a path to drastically improve our ability to scale the impact of OER by making them significantly easier to use.

So, for our Shuttleworth funded project we are going to create an openly licensed, high quality, highly scalable version of this functionality. What we’re calling the “Candela” platform will make OER easily usable in all LMSs (as well as environments supporting other learning world views, like PLE tools) that support LTI.

We’re building the Candela platform on top of WordPress, and expect that this will facilitate a huge number of synergies both anticipated and unanticipated. We’re already looking at integrating a few key tools and plugins that will drastically improve the end user experience – tools like Open Embeddable Assessments for in situ formative assessment and Hypothesis for highlighting and annotating. Types and Views look like promising ways to support CC licensing and inline attribution, as well as fine-grained alignment of OER with learning outcomes. And Candela will give us an excellent context for experimenting with the idea that learners should be able to own their learning content and learning data (full-course content export that preserves your notes and highlights, anyone?). And given all the energy and momentum in the open ed community around WordPress I can’t imagine what kinds of unforeseen random goodness will come in the future.

Finally, I’m super excited to announce that Lumen is working with FunnyMonkey on Candela development. I’ve been hoping for a chance to work with Bill for years now, and at last we have one.

Overall, I’m extremely excited about this work and the degree to which it will enable us to make OER easy for faculty to adopt and adapt and easy for students to learn from and own forever. I’d love to hear your feedback on our approach… Thoughts? What are we missing? How should we be working together?

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The Access Compromise and the 5th R

It’s been seven years since I introduced the 4Rs framework for thinking about the bundle of permissions that define an open educational resource, or OER. The framework of permitted activities – reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute – has gained some traction in the field, and I’m happy that people have found it useful. The 4Rs play a critical role in my own thinking about OER, and my operational definition of OER now includes two main criteria: (1) free and unfettered access to the resource, and (2) whatever copyright permissions are necessary for users to engage in the 4R activities. But while the framework has served the field well – and has shaped my own thinking, too – I believe the time has come to expand it.

A year ago I wrote a piece on adaptive instructional systems, and how publishers are moving away from selling content to leasing access to services as a way of responding to the threat to their business models posed by open educational resources. I called it an “attack on personal property”:

When you own a copy, the publisher completely loses control over it. When you subscribe to content through a digital service (like an adaptive learning service), the publisher achieves complete and perfect control over you and your use of their content.

Over the last year my thinking about the attack on personal property has slowly expanded and generalized to include not just publishers, but our own campuses as well. Last month I wrote about “disappearing ink,” a way of characterizing the way that post-secondary institutions are trying to increase the affordability of required textbooks by decreasing student access to them. Specifically, campuses have initiated a number of programs like textbook buyback, textbook rental, digital subscription programs, and DRM-laden ebook programs, each of which results in students completely losing access to their required textbooks at the end of term. The more I’ve pondered the disappearing ink strategy, the more it has bothered me. I can understand commercial publishers acting in a way that favors business over learning, but not our campuses.

The Access Compromise

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to speak to a group of librarians at the annual SPARC conference. As I prepared for that talk, and after a great conversation with Nicole Allen of SPARC, I began thinking about this broader problem from the library perspective. I slowly came to see that libraries represent a compromise made centuries ago under a different set of circumstances.

There was a time before the invention of the printing press when books were unfathomably expensive – costing a full year’s wages or more for a single volume. In this historical context where ownership of books by normal people was utterly impossible – unimaginable, even – we compromised. We said, let’s gather books together in a single place and provide access to them. That access was limited to the privileged at first, but over time we have slowly but surely worked to democratize access to books through libraries.

Foregoing the idea of ownership and instead promoting the idea of access made sense in a world where books were incredibly scarce and new copies were too expensive for anyone but royalty to commission. However, in a world where books, journal articles, and other educational resources can be copied and distributed instantly and at essentially no cost, the “access compromise” doesn’t seem like such a bargain anymore.

Unfortunately, in the higher education textbook market we see this historical story playing in reverse. Books that were once affordable enough to be owned by students have climbed in price to a point where we find our own institutions trying to persuade students to make the access compromise. That should have been the trigger. It’s past time to turn the higher education textbook conversation away from access and back to personal ownership and individual control of learning content.

The 5th R

Which brings us back to OER. There is no possible short- or medium-term future in which commercial publishers do what is economically and technically necessary to make it possible for students to actually own their learning content. This means that any advances toward ownership will have to come from the field of open education.

Unfortunately, we the field of open education have completely bought into the access compromise. There’s not a single definition of OER I’m aware of – including my own – that speaks directly to issues of ownership. Yes, ownership is sort of implied in the “reuse” R, and is legally permitted by open licenses. But for all of their willingness to share access to open educational resources, how many OER publishers go out of their way to make it easy for you to grab a copy of their OER that you can own and control forever? How many OER publishers enable access but go out of their way to frustrate copying? How many more OER publishers seem to have never given a second thought to users wanting to own copies, seeing no need to offer anything beyond access?

This leads me to feel that the time has come to add a 5th R to my framework – “retain.” Hopefully this 5th R will elevate the ownership conversation in the open education community, allowing us to talk about it explicitly and begin the work necessary to support and enable it directly.

The 5Rs of Openness

- Retain – the right to make, own, and control copies of the content
- Reuse – the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
- Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
- Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other open content to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
- Redistribute – the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend)

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