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.

8 thoughts on “Adoption as Linking: A Response to the Stephens”

  1. David,

    From my experience, you are one of the rare teachers who put in the personal effort to provide “personalized experience[s]” in formal education. I think the feelings you describe (insulted, treated rudely and carelessly) are very common in students whether their teachers use textbooks or not.

    I like the thought that “teachers who can be replaced by computers, should be replaced by computers.” There are far too many teachers who simply offer little of value beyond the materials they “link to” (either through computer networks or the library). Perhaps we could also say that “materials that can be replaced by adopting OER, should be replaced by OER.”

    As for credentials, I agree that they have value, and that they are far too expensive. They have practical value for job seekers, but little value otherwise. I think you would agree that we all know people with high-level educational credentials who “can’t even attach a file to an email”, as you put it. It’s not just undergraduates that struggle with competency, it’s graduates, too. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the only thing you can assume about people with degrees is that they are willing and able (read: submissive and financially capable) to jump all of the hoops that “the system” places in front of them.

    So in addition to the educational resources problem you so aptly describe, I think traditional schools have a human resources problem. We don’t need most of them anymore. We don’t need their permission to share knowledge, learn from the past, or make a contribution to the world.

    To top it off, they have a credentials validity problem.

    I think most people can identify with your friend who needs credentials. I don’t know his personal situation, but what often makes situations like that worse is the fact that many people without credentials are very capable and knowledgeable. The problem is not making knowledge available to them, it’s getting someone to certify that they are capable and knowledgeable without them wasting tens of thousands of dollars and years of their life walking an approved treadmill to prove it. This is one think that I really like about Western Governors University. They have ways of letting you progress and prove your competency with fewer hoops and less time than most, although they have clearly had to make some concessions for their accreditation.

    The sad truth is that much like high school, the only thing you need to do to graduate from a university is to show up. As has been widely documented, you can graduate from public high school without being able to read. In many cases, you can also get multiple degrees if you are able to game the admissions system, pay your bills, and put up with the treatment of careless bureaucrats for years.

  2. +1

    “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.”
    1)I have yet to find any suitable OER to revise/remix.
    2)The development of teaching resources is part of strengthening that learning community. It is often not the ‘not invented here’ mentality but part of a wider strategy of empowerment.

    You ask, “I wonder how much they’re saving?”
    Saving on frustration! I have on numerous occasions found material I wanted to photocopy for a handout. I have been prevented because of copyright.

  3. As much as possible, I link to and embed “resources” that carry free licenses. I link free sound tracks, images, recorded talks, text, because I don’t know if or when I may need to reuse that content in a context that is potentially limited by copyright restrictions. I might decide to create a text for printing, hard if over the years you’ve been linking, you allowed restricted content to seep into your field of view. I might decide to make a video documentary about something a group did.. again, restrictions abound.

    In saying all that, I do think a large proportion of the OER projects are over developed, and wrongly evaluated – which I think is really what SD is saying. OER, like the old learning objects crazy, are anything and everything. They are a Wikipedia entry, or just a graph in the wikipedia entry, they might simply be a link to a paper on that entry! They’re a Youtube playlist, or a Youtube video alone, or just a frame of two from that video. Whole courses compiled on Wikiversity for example, are reusing and remixing all these levels of content. No one seriously expects the Wikiversity page to be reused.

    So in the end, OER is only a copyright license, and a format. To this end, The Wikimedia Foundation has acheived the most, without calling itself OER too.

  4. “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.”

    I agree. You are completely right. This is the “hook,” the rhetorical strategy that will start institutions and individual teachers down the path to seriously consider all of the principles behind OER. Savings of time/money are often a major impetuous for change in policy at educational institutions that, in turn, can initiate changes in the culture of the institution. When institutions adopt OER for financial reasons, they will promote their decision to do so as part of the larger vision for OER because of the PR benefits. Because of the cognitive dissonance between adopting OER purely for self-interested reasons of saving time/money and the more altruistic reasons for OER that they will be promoting, I believe that an institutional culture will, in the long run, be likely to more fully embrace OER as a defining part of what it is.

  5. Thanks for this post, which I found greatly encouraging. EduBlogging and caring about the formal structures of education is bad enough… try doing it in the UK right now!

    Regarding use/remix evidence for OER, the UKOER phase 2 programme is attempting to collect case studies and other evidence for this. I’ll admit I’m nervous about what we will find, but we need to try. I’ll keep you posted.

  6. David I think you are absolutely correct. When looking at the core challenges of finding adoption and the reluctance of users to allow OER resources in whatever format they may exist to find their way into the mainstream of learning, it is mostly not because of the ultimate quality of the asset and content piece, but mostly because it is difffcult to use and augment “my piece” with other potentially complementary content and have the teaching resources delivered with it to help the educators relate the content to their audience whoever that may be. We have seen in many discussions within UNESCO communities over the years as well as in schools in the US, India and Africa the question being asked of relevance and the possibility of disaggregation of the unit as a course and the option to adopt small nuggets of a larger resource in a contextual manner. And not only that but the question “How do I teach that?” A link does not speak to that. So David’s statement is clearly the drive towards evolution of the original idea of OCW global initiatives of an easy way to present and make available good content from institutions in more than just the html format and a pdf link. When looking back at EOE and the NSF funded Apple work in 1995 as the early forerunner to OER, the ability to use a small chunk of content was considered then but it seems we have stopped to want to make it user friendly and provide OER consumers an easy way to do just that. There are many referatories out there where good sources are referenced but the requirement of a teacher or educator to find a relevant piece is not accomlished by a 1000 result search return or a broken link. More importantly teaching resources in a formally referenced manner will allow educators to properly extend the “services” sourrounding OER and that is a piece we always seem to forget. There is Resources but they only become alive with the right delivery. And one more thing that comes to mind is timely relevance in a contextual manner.

  7. I absolutely agree. OER should be primarily about remixing. It’s rare that I ever want to use something in my teaching without modifying it. Plus, I’d like to have control over hosting the content – if only to make sure any availability issues are due to my own. Keeping track of links is sometimes just too much trouble.

  8. Dear Dominik
    OER, academicearth courses do not need remixing. I use them as they are.
    And I do not want to modify at all.
    I have the control over hosting the content as it is . But everyone at the university can access to it as well.

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