Adoption as Linking: A Response to the Stephens

I recently suggested that we need to begin looking beyond simply sharing OER and get around to adopting them. The post generated several comments, and I want to respond specifically to comments from Stephen and Stephen.

Both Stephens agree that my idea of adoption, which involves revising and remixing, is wrong-headed. Downes writes “Here at OLDaily, I have been ‘adopting’ open educational resources for ten years, linking to a half dozen or so of them every week day… Who needs the grief [of adapting OER]? We link to them and let learners use them directly.” And Carson agrees, “blog-like linking makes sense for OER for a number of reasons.”

If linking is going to constitute the primary method of adopting OER, every penny spent on the process of openly licensing material for OCW or OER publication has been wasted. I can link to CNN. I can link to the New York Times. I can link to Mashable. I can link to Apple and Microsoft. You don’t need openly licensed anything to build a course out of links.

I know that Downes has a more disciplined definition of openness than his comment implies; however, the comment is telling. While he says “I have been ‘adopting’ open educational resources for ten years, linking to a half dozen or so of them every week day,” it’s clear that a large number of the resources he has linked to in the past 10 years has not been licensed under an OPL, GFDL, or CC license. There’s an easy temptation to equate the term “open educational resources” with anything that (1) you can link to, and that (2) the link-clicker can access without paying. While Stephen doesn’t define OER this way, I know many people who do. And this slip from one of the most careful thinkers and writers online should cause you concern. The larger community is slowly losing the rough consensus we previously had around the meaning of OER. OER used to mean content that used an open license. This impoverished idea of OER as “anything you can link to for free” is not going to prove helpful. Looks like the OER definition is headed into the the quagmire of “learning object” land. But I’m digressing…

When you define “adoption” as linking, there is literally no need to concern yourself with licensing or openness. When you define adoption as linking, you undermine everything that separates OER from the other resources on the web. When you define adoption as linking, spending a million dollars a year to support the process of openly licensing materials is like paying $150,000 to buy a 250 MPH sports car when you live in a nation with 75 mile per hour speed limits. It begs the question – why did you waste the money? You’re never going to get to drive that fast… Are you having a mid-life crisis? If you’re going to define adoption as linking, why not just maintain traditional copyright over the things you publish online? It will be significantly less expensive and troublesome than open licensing (try asking the Copyright Clearance Center to help you get CC like rights to anything), and everyone in the world can “adopt” your materials.

Carson continues:

I’m sure it will be described as “arrogance” to assert MIT profs are likely to reuse materials primarily from the MIT site, but I believe educators will adopt the materials most suited to the academic needs of their students and the academic structures of their programs, to the technologies at use on their campus, and to the cultures in which their educational activities are embedded. There’s less localization needed that way. I’ve articulated this as the idea of nearest approximations. And what is the nearest OER approximation to the needs of an MIT professor? Likely, materials on the MIT OpenCourseWare site.

This statement essentially says, “Localization is too hard to be bothered with. So rather than adopt others’ OER and deal with the issues involved in localizing them, we create materials from scratch and then share them with others.” And what are those “others” supposed to do with those OER? If localization is too hard / expensive / time consuming for a group of people as smart and well-resourced as MIT faculty, are we really expecting others to be able to engage successfully in this process? And if the answer is “no, we just expect them to link to our materials,” then I have to ask again – why spend the money to openly license materials if the assumption is that no one will ever exercise the rights we spent so much money granting them under that license? Downes’ comment “who needs the grief?” seems to echo Carson’s sentiments.

Now that I think about it, the assumption that adoption means linking might partially explain why so many OER projects make media choices (like using PDFs instead of HTML for text content) that preclude meaningful revising / remixing right from the get-go. (I understand that there are other issues, like cost, that factor into these decisions as well.) But let’s say we promote OER with hype that says “you can revise and remix our materials to suit your local conditions and the needs of your local learners!” Let’s also say we believe, in our heart of hearts, that people won’t revise our materials – they’ll just link to them. And since we really believe that to be true, we feel safe reifying that assumption in our media choices. Now which is the cause and which is the symptom? Are we using PDF and other uneditable media because people aren’t going to revise our OER? Or are people not revising our OER because of the media choices we’ve made?

Maybe the “not invented here” syndrome isn’t the real cause of what appears to be an almost complete lack of revise / remix of OER. Maybe the root cause is actually the “revise / remix is too hard” syndrome. If you have this syndrome, why are you doing OER? Why not just post your materials online under default copyright? People will still be able to adopt (link to) them…

In the deleted scenes of my OpenCourseWars chapter (a [fictional] history of the OER movement) I wrote:

Much was said behind closed doors about the great tradition of “Western Imperialism.” OCW was even compared to the famous Trojan Horse and made out as a vehicle for bringing Western pedagogies, ideas, and language into a variety of cultural settings where these would otherwise have been unwelcome. It worried me.

It worries me even more now that I realize that some of the foremost thinkers in the OER space are willing to define adopting as linking.

Oddly enough, Downes shrugs off the one tangible benefit you could actually get from “adoption is linking” thinking in his dismissal of formal education and the institutions that provide it. He writes:

He [Wiley] is locked into the idea of them [OER] being adopted by instructors and merged into course packages. But I still think he has the wrong model. Here at OLDaily, I have been ‘adopting’ open educational resources for ten years, linking to a half dozen or so of them every week day, a total of some 16,000 in all. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, of people have used them. No, maybe not instructors. But who cares?

I care. Deeply. Here’s why I care if instructors are adopting OER or not: I care about people’s access to formal education. Whether you like it or not, many jobs require some type of post-secondary credential. You can rail about this all you like, but a degree / certification requirement is the reality for many people seeking jobs today, including a good friend of mine. About 25% of the jobs on in our area require a post-secondary credential, including most of the “good paying” jobs. Out of work and with a family to support, he doesn’t have time to philosophize about whether post-secondary institutions should continue to exist or not. He needs a credential.

The cost of formal education is the main barrier for him and others. Post-secondary education is ridiculously expensive. Out-of-reach-for-many-people expensive. Crippling-even-successful-graduates-with-terrifying-student-loan-debt expensive. And textbooks and other educational materials are a huge chunk of that cost – as much as 70% of the annual cost depending on the kind of post-secondary program you’re in. At a time of near-record-low education funding and near-record-high unemployment, it is all but criminal if OER are not being adopted by faculty. And to be specific about what I mean by adoption, I mean it is a travesty that OER are not displacing traditional, expensive textbooks and other materials, thereby making education significantly more affordable and accessible.

This is one concrete OER benefit that could be realized even in the “adoption means linking” scenario, but Downes’ gives a different answer to the cost problem, essentially recommending that we burn down universities and plant something more useful in their ashes. This proposal seems to be based on the assumption that typical undergraduates (many of whom can’t even attach a file to an email) can successfully navigate a MOOC or something like one. (If you’re not familiar with MOOCs, these appear to be collections of learning experiences in which facilitators work as diligently to avoid providing direction as Berg and Schoenberg worked to avoid establishing a tonal center in their music. And apparently for similar reasons.) I don’t find this proposition believable. Yes, formal institutions have a host of problems, but they’re also a lynch-pin of society. We can’t just throw them out, ignoring the avalanche of problems that would come cascading down if we were to make such an attempt. Fixing them is much harder, yes, but worth the additional effort.

This is why, for me, the gold standard in OER adoption is and will continue to be “displacing adoptions” – cases in which OER actually save someone money. In the post-secondary case, a displacing adoption saves students money. In the primary and secondary cases, a displacing adoption saves institutions and taxpayers money. I’m sure MIT OCW is saving MIT students money. I wonder how much they’re saving? How many displacing adoptions are happening inside MIT thanks to the existence of MIT OCW? Since their OCW is the largest of them all, they could potentially be saving their students more money than anyone else. I’d love to see some data on this out of MIT OCW.

Now, this is not to say that I devalue the kinds of linking and uses Carson refers to:

Public health workers around the world benefit from the materials Johns Hopkins and Tufts have published. We’ve spoken to entrepreneurs in Haiti who’ve used MIT’s materials to further their solar panel business, bringing light to some of Haiti’s poorest neighborhoods; to NGOs designing locally appropriate recycling technologies for Guatemala with OCW; and to educators in Indonesia recasting their architecture curriculum using ours as a reference.

These are fabulous uses that provide real, concrete benefit to the public. However, if these are to be the primary uses of OER, then we should rename them Open Public Good Resources, or Open Philanthropy Resources, or Open Informal Learning Resources, or some other name that indicates that our primary interest is not reforming education. If our primary interest is reforming education, then OER is an appropriate name.

I realize that I will further ostracize myself from the ed tech blogging community by saying this, but I really care about formal education. I think it’s important societally. I think many of it’s traditions are grand and inspiring. I think it’s worth saving. And while I know the job of reform is much harder than throwing up our hands and trying something else, I’m committed to trying.

While my gold standard for OER adoption is the displacing adoption, my platinum standard is the localized displacing adoption. Have you ever set through a keynote address where the presenter used slides s/he’d obviously prepared for a different talk weeks or months earlier? A deck of slides s/he hadn’t bothered to tweak for the event at which you heard them speak? It feels insulting, rude, and careless. It’s the same feeling students get from the highly decontextualized, generic textbooks and other materials we assign them. They’ve just never had a personalized experience in formal education, and don’t know that anything else is possible. And in a sense they’re right – when materials are copyrighted, or when adoption is defined as linking, nothing else is possible.

OER change what is possible – if and only if we exercise the permissions and rights to revise and remix we’re granted in OER. As Mark Twain suggested, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” Similarly, the man who does not revise / remix OER has little advantage over the man who doesn’t.