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)

13 thoughts on “The Access Compromise and the 5th R”

  1. You’re fighting for a right that students have demonstrated they largely do not care about. If students really wanted to own their textbooks, then the used textbook market wouldn’t be such a big headache for publishers. There are probably several reasons for this. First, a lot of textbooks are…what’s the word?…bad. They suck. Students don’t buy textbooks because they are embracing the learning that they supposedly represent. They buy them because they are told that they have to have them in order to pass the course.

    Which brings me to the second reason. These books are not the sole sources of the information they contain by any means. In the vast majority of cases, a person’s need to access information in them post-college would likely be better satisfied by an alternative (and often free) information source like Wikipedia anyway. Their primary utility is in an academic context, and a relatively constrained one at that.

    If you want to argue for this, I would suggest subsuming it under Reuse and thinking about framing it somewhat like Richard Stallman’s Freedom 0 (“the freedom to run a program for any purpose”). In other words, I should be able to use the content however I want, whenever I want. I don’t think retention merits calling out as its own R separate from reuse (although I agree it’s worthy to bring up as a topic of discussion as you have done here).

    • David — Great post. More (and hopefully deeper) thoughts later.

      Michael — I tend to think of this in much more systemic terms than what students (know they) want. Take for instance the wonderful videos from Open Yale Courses up on YouTube. The unstated assumption with almost all OER providers is you’ll go and look at their version of the video. Whether we admit it or not, copying is looked down on. If I went and copied all Yale’s OCW to my own YouTube channel, or to Vimeo, or zipped it up and torrented it out, what would happen?

      I’m not sure actually. I don’t think anything legally. But weirdly this behavior is not encouraged.

      That turns out to be important from an institutional standpoint, because as long as only Yale provides those copies, there’s a single failure point. We’re all dependent on the good graces of Yale’s upper management and legal team. And if we think this is just a thought experiement, we only have to look to the last days of Flat World Knowledge’s open period, where people found themselves frantically downloading material after a license change.

      From a legal standpoint, you might be right — the right to make and keep copies might be implied in the other rights. From a cultural standpoint it’s really clear that we’ve got a lot of people in the open community who I think do value the 4R’s but somehow think that the propagation of repositories is anti-community.

      I remember when Academic Earth first came about the big thing people kept saying was it was OK because it only *pointed* to the institutional channels and videos on YouTube — it didn’t copy them to a new channel. Copying them would have been different, a spammer tactic, somehow creepy. This gets rolled up into the confusion that attribution means “route viewers through through the provider’s repository if possible”. No, no, no. If that’s what you want, then choose another license, because CC-BY does not come with a requirement to up your view count.

      What’s really going on (and what David gets at up top) is that we are still in a repository mindset. This is why at the meeting we were at in Denver someone posed the “We should have one big repository” comment and I bit my tongue til it bled. Someone always says that, at every freaking OER meeting, but they have it the wrong way round. If you really care about access, if you really want to make things findable, you don’t waste time talking about how to build the One True Repository. Instead you make as many copies as you can and put them into as many places as you can, and let search and versioning software sort out the mess.

      In a world where we had a functioning culture of copies there’d be huge support for anyone who wants to to go get all the Connexions documents, and the OCL documents, the OCW documents and put them on a big server somewhere with CLONE buttons on them. Over time, it’d be very hard *not* to find a resource your looking for. Instead we spent the last 8 years building search engines to “drive traffic” to repositories. It hasn’t worked. Time for a new approach I think.

      • “This is why at the meeting we were at in Denver someone posed the “We should have one big repository” comment and I bit my tongue til it bled.”

        This. Many times. To the extent that it has got me in to trouble.

        We already have one big repository, it is called the internet. And there are some *great* search and content discovery tools out there.

  2. I think you are here opening the arguments around ownership and control of academic labor, and that this is an important and worthwhile step for the “open education” movement more generally.

    A large part of the concerns that people (and I’m thinking OER producers here, because without OER producers there would be no OER!) have with open practice is that it often means surrendering your work for a reputational benefit that is largely accrued to an institution or foundation. If a piece of work is released under any kind of license it should be the decision of the person that did the work – not a condition of grant or an expectation of employment.

    UKOER was a huge and messy undertaking, but I think one of the things we did well is kept the connection between the academic and publishing – the academic chose to publish, we gave them tools and support to help them do so. Whereas this has not resulted in the kind of shiny OER corpus that some may expect, it has developed a range of amazing (and continued, beyond funding…) practice that is rooted in an academic agency rather than an institution.

    If I’m honest the benefits to students here are, as Michael points out, initially negliable (though can later become apparent). The benefits to academics, and especially early-career peripatetic adjuncts, is immense.

    • It’s interesting you bring this up, because, as I argue below, a big part of this problem is that “attribution” requirements have been interpreted tacitly as “route people through the institutional repository” requirements. But this is not the kind of attribution that matters to academics. Academics would be far better served by a culture of copies, that gets their attributed work into as many repositories (institutional and individual) as possible. The “OER as institutional adverstisment” pitch was effective, but maybe too effective — we now have a system that largely puts the publicity concerns above the interests of both the author and consumer of the material by implying “open materials” = “open repository”.

      • I agree with both of you that the faculty cultural change angle is far more impactful than the student angle. Which only reinforces my feeling that couching it as “retention” is not the right move. The GPL Freedom 0 is more closely akin to academic freedom. Revise, Remix, and Redistribute are more closely related to the value that faculty recognize in having their work cited.

        I will note that the downside of many copies is a negative impact on our ability to do data-driven revision and remixing. It may be a trade-off worth making, but it is certainly a trade-off worth noting.

      • “I will note that the downside of many copies is a negative impact on our ability to do data-driven revision and remixing.”

        This was always the argument against it. In 2010 I wrote a piece on this issue arguing we need to move OER to a culture of copying (I should find the link, it was halfway decent) and the big reaction people had was that forking would have a negative impact on aggregate benefits (like updates, tracking, community revisions, etc).

        But I think what we are starting to see is that if copying is not made part of the system then it happens off the radar, and that hinders our ability even more. The beauty of a system like GitHub is it just assumes forking that happens should happen and then tries to deal with it technologically. The technical problem of a merge is so much more addressable than the cultural problem of treating forking as betrayal or bad practice. You can’t have aggregate benefits without having a community first, and communities need to accept forks as a normal thing.

      • How many levels deep will Disqus let us nest?

        The interesting thing about GitHub is that it is a repository. So you’re talking about a hybrid strategy. That could at least partly address the analytics trade-off, if it’s designed right.

      • Absoutely, GitHub is a repository that exists for tracking purposes. And that decoupling of the aggregate benefit from control of the local instance is the powerful lesson that we’ve learned. The fact that GitHub handles tracking means I can fork on my local instance and still get benefits.

        Github also encourages you to copy things out of GitHub to wherever else you want. I’m not anti-repository. I’m anti the idea that each thing belongs in precisely one place.

        (I know you know this, just working through it to highlight the relation).

        The Federated Classroom WIki that Tim and I are working on uses the same principles, every server has its own instance but also contains a repository of all the copies on other servers that you federate with. The idea is you can deliver the benefits of aggregation while maintaining the control and identity associated with a separate instance.

      • The challenge is that GitHub-like solutions are difficult to design from both engineering and usability perspectives. From an engineering perspective, I suppose the answer to finding something GitHub-like is to just use GitHub. But that won’t cut it for usability, which is probably why we keep talking about needing a “GitHub for education.”

        (By the way, the answer to the Disqus nesting question is apparently four, which is probably one level deeper than it should be.)

      • GitHub really doesn’t work for non-code situations as well as it might. Tim and I tried using GitHub directly at first for the OER project, but found the amount of pings you’d have to endure didn’t make sense. Code needs to stay somewhat in sync. On the other hand, I don’t really care about the evolution of an OER piece until I actually need the OER piece. And I don’t care about a codebase — just the pieces I need. Finally, we have to accept that my document is always going to be different than your document even if yours is perfect — I have local needs that cannot be perfectly abstracted the way code can be abstracted from databased content.

        In some ways, this makes the educational environment simpler, I think. We can get pretty far if we just make sure that versions of OER are connected, so that if I find one imperfect fit I can tap easily into a network of alternate versions people have made. What Tim and I have talked about on top of this is a “gardener” — someone on salary whose job it would be to go out and try to reconcile and combine competing versions, partially through research, and partially through talking to people about why they made the changes. These edited versions would feed in as another federation node that you could privilege if you want.

        [If anybody from Gates, Hewlett, Carnegie, or Lumina is reading this, all this can be yours for pennies on the dollar of ROI….]

        David — I hope this isn’t hijacking the thread? I’ve got no one to talk to here about these ideas, when I see a post like this that resonates, they all come tumbling out….

      • I think there’s a great opportunity to flip tools like TurnItIn on their heads in order to help us find ~positive~ instances of reuse around the web. And because all of the content we’re talking about is open, we can harvest it for analysis and engage in the data-driven revision and remixing processes that we’re all keenly interested in supporting.

      • Turnitin is also a central repository model. Again, that’s not inherently bad, but it does pose all the challenges that we’ve struggled with regarding repositories. Turnitin deals with those challenges, in part, by finding ways to not let people opt out. Which solves some problems but creates other (worse) ones.

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