More Response to George

George has responded to my response to his earlier post as a comment on my recent post. It’s a great bit of thinking and writing worthy of being its own post! I respond below:

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.

I’m not sure how content licensed By-NC-SA can be considered sorta-open, unless we’re heading down the path toward an NC discussion (let’s please not go there). Full openness to download, edit, reuse, add media, etc. is what people have with FWK books because that’s what the license provides. What is the criticism here?

What are our organizational models missing when individuals are not capable of collaborating in writing complex resources (like textbooks)? Is it about incentives?

At least partly, if not primarily, yes.

Could we have networks of educators write textbooks?

With the proper incentives, of course we could. If we paid each faculty member $10,000 I bet we could get them to participate.

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.

But – and I’m not trying to be thick-headed here – wouldn’t the size of the group of profs need to be rather large before this activity became interesting to you? When you say ‘a group of psychology profs’ I think of a group of 5 plus or minus a few. Is that a network? How is it different from five authors who develop a By-NC-SA textbook for FWK? In theory, one difference might be that anyone outside the core group could contribute to the text, but in practice we see that participation in “wikibook” projects from outside the core group is basically nonexistent.

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?

(A) Because Wikieducator, Wikibooks, PBWorks, and a hundred other sites already provide the infrastructure necessary for the kind of experiments you’re talking about. (B) Because all the data to date confirm that those experiments fail to result in quality textbooks. In other words, the world doesn’t need FWK to enable these experiments – they’re already sufficiently enabled and they’re already failing to succeed.

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.

We don’t get a clean slate when thinking about changing a system – we have to respond to the realities of the system. Some in the open education community seem to be arriving at a conclusion along the lines of, “the constraints of higher education are too confining, so let’s disconnect ourselves from HE completely and go innovate over there.” I wish them luck.

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?

Yes, full stop. The license FWK uses for all of its books, CC By-NC-SA, allows anyone and everyone to download, adapt, and redistribute the book, students and educators alike.

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… 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.

There’s a lot of “in theory” in this line of thought. (As Firefly’s Jane once said, “I smell a lot of ‘if’ coming off of this plan.”) “In theory” is difficult for me to accept given the rather large amount of actual data and experience available to us to base our judgments on.

Pure openness would be the target.

I actually just finished blogging about this in Feeling Out of Place.

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?

It depends on their goal. To me, openness is a means not an end. So, to answer your question, we must ask what is the faculty member’s goal in being open? If “being open” has become the goal in and unto itself, I would propose that there is a problem.

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).

One of the greatest heartbreaks of my life came when I left USU to come to BYU. For a complexity of reasons, some of which were my own fault, when I left USU the grant funding for many of the “open” projects at USU ended. Within 30 days of my coming to BYU, much of what I had worked to build over a 5 year period was gone. It was personally devastating. I committed to myself then that I would never again waste my effort on projects that can disappear overnight when grant money dries up. This has led me to adopt a keen focus on the sustainability of open education projects (see, for example, the study on making OCW pay for itself we’re conducting at BYU). If open education is to have a long-term impact we have to insure that it will survive over time. So, when you think you see an emphasis on economics in my work you are quite perceptive and absoultely right. However, I’m only interested in the sustainability of open projects – I have no interest in the sustainability of pseudo-open projects.

When Jeff and Eric first approached me about being involved in FWK (I’m not a founder, but am hire number one), my very first thoughts were “Are these guys going to do it right? Are they going to (1) get the openness right and (2) be sustainable enough to make a large-scale, long-lasting difference? Or are they going to take some half-open approach and/or botch the business part of it and be gone three years from now?” I was convinced FWK was going to get the business part of it right, and could sense that they wanted to get the openness part right. That’s why I joined as Chief Openness Officer – my core function is to make sure we get the openness part right. And because FWK produces Creative Commons licensed textbooks that are just as open as any content you will find anywhere, and because we have 40,000 students lined up for fall, I think the openness and the sustainability aspects of our work are going awesomely.

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.

No, the increased scrutiny is not fair at all – it is a great blessing that very few people have access to. It is a manifestation of the classic problem of the “rich getting richer” – I think I have some reasonable ideas on the topic of openness and education. These draw scrutiny, which I weigh seriously. Then my reasonable ideas get a little better, which gets them pushed out further, which draws further scrutiny, etc. Its a virtuous cycle that I am deeply grateful for; I actually feel guilty sometimes that other people’s ideas don’t get the “airtime” and the scrutiny that mine do.

And I’m enjoying this specific conversation that we’re having quite a bit.

3 thoughts on “More Response to George”

  1. By-NC-SA may allow educators to do what they like with the texts, but it doesn’t allow other people to set up commercial alternatives to the existing educational system. It is free in the sense that anyone in the existing system can use and reuse it, but it is not free in the sense that anyone can use it to create a superior alternative.

    If these textbooks are good enough that people would read them of their own free will, and actually learn things from them, then not licensing them under CC-By-SA holds people back. It prevents the establishment of a competing system of education, which could itself charge for admission / accreditation or even for access to personal instruction.

    I suppose the only consolation for such tutors is that most textbooks aren’t worth using to begin with.

  2. I guess there’s an obvious response to that last comment: That you don’t want to hand a loaded weapon to someone who will use it on you.

    As you noted in your presentation, though, the concept of higher education itself is becoming obsolete. Paul Graham noted in his essay, After Credentials, that the purpose of higher education is to certify that a person can do something … but people are increasingly finding ways of judging each other’s performance that don’t rely on credentials, or even ways of letting the market decide directly.

    There are people out there right now who aren’t just writing competing textbooks, but creating a world in which there’s no longer a need for textbooks. If your efforts do nothing to help them, but instead forestall the inevitable, you aren’t helping but hindering; both “openness,” and people’s ability to be judged by the marketplace, a process on which higher ed is fast losing its monopoly.

    It may be that the most pragmatic thing to do, in iterating towards openness, is to realize that iteration won’t work.

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