A Response to “Change that prevents real change”

George Siemens has written a very thoughtful analysis of Flat World Knowledge (and the change process generally) titled Change that prevents real change. I want to respond to a few of his thoughts.

FWK will succeed for the wrong reasons. It will succeed because it tweaks the existing model of textbooks just enough to disrupt publishers, but not enough to disrupt the industry as a whole. FWK is integrated into the system of education: authors, bookstores, faculty, and students. It uses existing reward metrics (recognition and a little bit of revenue for the author) and addresses the biggest complaint students have about textbooks: costs. Essentially, the existing system is used as the infrastructure for FWK model. And that’s the problem.

I would argue that using the existing system as infrastructure is the most brilliant part of the FWK strategy (disclosure: I am the Chief Openness Officer of FWK). Because FWK recognizes and works within the existing context, it is actually able to affect real change. Over 400 faculty and 40,000 students will use openly licensed, DRM-free FWK textbooks this fall – enabling extensive, legal faculty localization of materials and saving students and their parents over $3 million. No matter how you measure it, FWK will have a larger direct impact on higher education affordability this fall than all of the previous open educational resources projects have had combined.

With regard to educational reform, our thinking should be future-focused. What is the impact of FWK? Is there a better way? Can we reduce costs and promote openness in an anti-textbook model? What could that possibly look like?

There is undoubtedly a better way – no right thinking person or organization will claim that they have discovered the universal best way to do anything that can never be improved upon throughout all eternity. In answer to the question “Can we reduce costs and promote openness in an anti-textbook model?” the answer is also yes. However, there is a very small number of situations in which an anti-textbook model exists. Textbooks are a critical piece of higher education, whether we like it or not. The question is like asking, “Can we improve the speed of race cars in an anti-tire model.” Cars today have tires – they just do. In a future world they may not. And in a future world, where higher education doesn’t rely heavily and extensively on textbooks, there may be an opportunity to affect a large-scale change in affordability of content without working with textbooks. But that future world is not here today. There is a critical need for people like George who are willing to dedicate their energy and resources to decade or multi-decade reforms. And I can confidently say that creating an broad culture of rejecting textbooks in higher education is at least a ten year project, if not a longer one.

Perhaps we should pursue a more visionary approach – one that is tied to high ideals and provides the greatest number of future options.

As I said above, long-term work creating viable future options is something important that desperately needs doing. However, improving affordability and accessibility for students taking courses fall 2009 is important as well. At this point in my career I want to help as many people as I can here and now. When the future scenario becomes the current scenario, I’ll adapt my work for that context to help as many people as I can. This is FWK’s approach as well. You certainly can’t build a sustainable business that makes a large-scale impact on affordability and accessibility if your assumptions about the market won’t be true for another 10 years.

George reviews arguments from Scientific American, myself, and Yochai Benkler, all of which argue empirically (instead of theoretically) based on existing books (and not potential future books), that collaboratively written textbooks fare poorly in comparison with textbooks written by one or a few authors.

Simply stating that collaborative projects have to date not produced the quality of resources that has been produced under the traditional authorship model is not satisfactory… It’s too early to convincingly declare select-authorship models of textbooks to be superior to wiki-created textbooks. Or, if we do make the declaration (as Wiley, Benkler and others have done), we need to focus on understanding why. It seems wrong to declare that connected intelligence is not capable of achieving the same level of quality as individual intelligence.

I don’t think anyone is making a blanket judgment or general statement about what “connected intelligence” is or is not capable of doing. I think we’re saying something very specific about textbooks. We’re saying that all the empirical data indicate that “select-authorship models of textbooks [are] superior to wiki-created textbooks.” Neither George nor anyone else who is unhappy with this conclusion has pointed to counter-examples in their arguments; as far as I know there’s not even a single exception to this rule. The argument is always one of potential, an argument about what could be. I would love to be proven wrong on this point, because the implications for the scalable provisioning of high-quality initial content would be earth-shattering. However, without a single positive example, and with several less than positive examples, I won’t allow myself to be caught up in the hype.

Books on the [FWK] site are primarily confined to business and finance – another drawback: mediators seek areas of highest return first.

This is a simple misunderstanding. FWK started with business textbooks because the company’s two founders both came out of the business textbook division of a major publisher, and this is the world they know best. We’re expanding very quickly into general education areas now that we’re up and running.

The concept is open enough to keep many revolutionaries at bay (isn’t that often the main intent of partial change? provide enough change to satisfy the slightly less peripheral agitators? Staged or transitional change often plays a negative role in this regard. Partial change now pushes substantial change into the future).

I would respectfully disagree. I think taking reasonably-sized steps forward is a great idea. No one in FWK is trying to keep revolutionaries at bay – on the contrary, we’re trying to disrupt the status quo as much as we can as quickly as we can.

Now, if we can just find a way to make the pursuit of highest ideals (open & collaboratively produced textbooks produced by communities/networks of vested participants in this case) as rewarding (or compelling) as the pursuit of ‘good enough’.

It’s unclear to me why a collaboratively produced textbook is more virtuous than one produced by one to four individuals. Also, the conversation quickly devolves into a Sorites paradox: how many individuals need to be involved in writing before the textbook becomes virtuous?

At one point in the article, George draws a distinction between “Convenient Change vs Principled Change.” Another way to frame the difference between the approaches he describes is “Immediately Actionable Change vs Boil the Ocean Change.” On the ground people recognize that the world needs ocean boilers; I hope that on-the-grounders can get some respect as well.

2 thoughts on “A Response to “Change that prevents real change””

  1. Hi David,

    The strength of your argument (that empirical evidence for the FWK model exceeds that of collaboratively produced texts) also reveals our differing philosophical views on the subject. I’m arguing for ideological considerations. You are arguing for implementation. I’m suggesting that FWK will succeed because it does exactly what you (and FWK press releases) state: lots of people will save lots of money. While I don’t agree that FWK will have “larger direct impact on higher education affordability this fall than all of the previous open educational resources projects have had combined” (do you include Wikipedia or other soft open resources? What about open access journals like IRRODL?), I fully agree that the impact will be significant. Many students will be singing FWK’s praises this fall.

    But that’s not my point. My point is that openness is the virtue to be pursued (I feel silly making this statement to you – you’ve done more for this “movement” than almost anyone else has). Not sorta-openness. Or sorta-affordable openness. Full openness to download, edit, reuse, add media, etc. is the target. Settling for affordable quasi-openness may sell cheaper textbooks and may delay more foundational change.

    If the peer production model is not yet capable of producing textbooks, my question is: why not? Benkler suggests it’s a function of coherence of subject matter and that contributions to sites like wikipedia work because they (the contribution) is granular and not interconnected. The value point in education, as a result, is in integrating and connecting resources into a coherent narrative. Benkler, FWK, and you would argue that this is not well managed by networks or communities. Instead, focused efforts in small groups of 1-4 people will write textbooks of better quality than groups of 20-100 will.

    Which raises questions such as:

    *What are our organizational models missing when individuals are not capable of collaborating in writing complex resources (like textbooks)? Is it about incentives? Could we, have networks of educators write textbooks? Let’s say a group of psychologist profs got together and decided to write a full text for first year students and posted resources in a wiki. Each prof could then extract the resources for their own use or direct link to the wiki in their courses. If FWK is trying “trying to disrupt the status quo as much as we can as quickly as we can” why not experiment in serving as an infrastructure role in openness at this self-organizing level with profs?

    * Should we still be thinking in textbooks? What is it about textbooks that is so valuable that we transition the concept fully into the digital world? Maybe we should first abandon the textbook model.

    You ask an important question: why are collaboratively produced text better (virtuous). I would argue all texts are, by virtue of reuse of ideas generated by others in the long lineage of science and the academy, collaborative. Collaboratively produced resources, in the wikieducator sense, are better suited for reuse because, in theory at least, no one has a motive – such as profit – other than to produce learning resources. Does FWK permit one student in a class to download a book and then distribute copies to other classmates without fee? Can an educator download the book, copy and paste into a wiki and then edit it to customize the text? Even the small reading window for reading a text online is an illustration of control exerted to influence purchasing the text. If a group/network collaborates on the text, then (again) in theory, they wouldn’t need to play “soft control” games of this nature. Pure openness would be the target.

    In my view, if it (research, course content) comes from the public purse it belongs to the public. If it’s privately funded, it’s a different matter. FWK is a private entity that is in business to make a profit. Nothing in the world wrong with that. But is it the best way for academics to approach opening up content/curricular resources?

    David, whether you lay claim to the title or not, you are the (or at least “an”) ideological leader of openness in education. Which is why I was a bit surprised to see you accept the FWK model. I’m sure there are considerations I’m not aware of, or philosophical views that are perhaps not as strident as might be expected from a leading figure. To me, it seems to be trying to balance openness with economics…and the economic model has precedence (i.e. charges for downloads of digital versions). It’s a “having your cake and eating it too” situation (off topic: I never understood that metaphor – I know what it’s supposed to mean, but what’s the point of having cake in the first place if you have no intention of eating it?? Anyway, I use it here in its societal meaning). Your work around advancing openness, by nature of this role, will be subject to scrutiny. If you have a view on copyright or commercial reuse, it will be criticized. If you have a view on how to increase the impact of openness at the school or university level, it will be scrutinized. Is it fair? No. But that’s a burden that comes with the role.


  2. This is a fascinating dialogue. I’m going to step back, however, and suggest that any innovation–especially if it has the chance to disrupt an industry–is worth allowing for, because though we can anticipate some outcomes, we can’t always foresee the longterm consequences.

    The scrutiny that George notes is important, and the critical eye will always be with us as long as we have the right to speak freely. And while there is clearly wisdom in encouraging folks to evaluate their actions with respect to philosophies, I also fear overthinking new ideas–whittling away at them with disparate knives of criticism until they are nothing more than a sliver, something with no potential but to be discarded.

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