Contrary to Popular Belief: A Mid-Year Review of Books

I’ve read some really interesting books this year. As new ideas are supposed to do, several of these have significantly impacted my thinking. The books that are affecting me the most professionally are those that are giving me language and frameworks for making progress on ideas that have been stagnating in the back of my mind for a while. Some of the “slow hunches” I’ve been pursuing run contrary to popular belief, including questions like:

  • Isn’t there a research design better than a randomized controlled trial (RCT) for going beyond correlation and allowing us to talk with confidence and rigor about causation?
  • Isn’t there a better metaphor for the work we’re doing in OER than “the commons”?
  • Isn’t there a better way to think about OER than as static content like a PDF?

Just a word or two about each of these for now.

Getting to causation. Several titles on causal inference have completely rocked my world and are significantly impacting my thinking about and approach to research. If this literature is new to you (as it was to me), I would recommend (in this order) The Book of Why, Causal Inference in Statistics: A Primer, and
Counterfactuals and Causal Inference: Methods and Principles for Social Research (Analytical Methods for Social Research). And, of course, there is plenty of open source software for those interested in doing this kind of work, including the causaleffect package for R and the DAGitty package for R (also available in-browser).

A better metaphor. The commons is a powerful metaphor for the work that we do with OER, but it also comes with historical baggage that frequently leads people to make the wrong generalizations and draw the wrong conclusions. Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation is a delightful book about the power of remix. I also found it to be a compelling argument that we consider the coral reef as a new metaphor for our work with OER.

My deep-seated discomfort with PDF. Tim O’Reilly’s book What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us includes this little vignette that caught my attention:

One of my favorite popular definitions of Moore’s Law came in a conversation I had with Reid Hoffman, the founder and chairman of LinkedIn, and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) over dinner in San Francisco seven or eight years ago. “We need to start seeing Moore’s Law apply to healthcare,” I said. “What’s Moore’s Law?” the senator asked. “You have to understand, Senator,” Reid interjected, “that in Washington, you assume that every year things cost more and do less. In Silicon Valley, everyone expects our products to cost less every year but do more.”

O’Reilly goes on to name this insight – that technology products should constantly cost less but do more – Hoffman’s Law, and it brings my discomfort with PDFs and other static open content into sharp relief. It’s not just that PDF isn’t a readily remixable format, though that is certainly true. The deeper problem is that while a PDF of an open textbook costs less than the traditionally copyrighted digital learning materials it replaces, it also does less. What would “do more” mean in the context of learning materials? Things like (1) providing lots of opportunities to do combined with immediate, epistemic feedback and (2) supporting students as they create and publicly share openly licensed learning artifacts that have value in the real world.

More words to come as my thinking on these questions develops further. Or, no more words to come if these lines of inquiry don’t pan out.

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