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On the Impossibility of the Community-based Production of Learning Content

UPDATE: I borrowed the “community based” language in the title of this post from Martin’s blog, which reminded me of Yochai’s article and prompted this post. That language has caused confusion on social media. (Long-time readers of this blog will be surprised to learn that definitions matter!) I should have used Yochai’s language of “peer production of educational materials” from the start. Perhaps that would have headed off some of the misunderstanding on Twitter. Perhaps.

In a post this morning, Martin wrote, “We’ve still not really cracked a community based production model for learning content.” It got me thinking.

Back in 2005 I was blessed with the opportunity to commission a short paper from Yochai Benkler (who did much of the first serious work on the economics of open source software development, e.g., Coase’s Penguin and Sharing Nicely) in conjunction with a keynote talk he gave at OpenEd that year. The paper he produced, Common Wisdom: Peer Production of Educational Materials, is what I believe to be one of the most important and least known writings in the first, formative decade of open education as we know it today.

Benkler’s main argument in the paper focuses on the relationship between modularization and integration. (The argument may sound familiar to readers who have encountered the reusability paradox.) He points out that the number of people who will volunteer to contribute to a project is directly proportional to how small the “smallest unit of contribution” is. If a contribution can be made in a few minutes, many people might be willing / able to contribute to producing learning content. If a contribution requires a minimum of a few hours, far fewer people may be willing /able to contribute. “As I have elsewhere discussed in great detail, the size of the potential pool of contributors, and therefore the probability that the right person with the right skills, motivation, and time will be available for the job is inversely related to the granularity of the modules” (pp. 21 – 22). Schweik and English would later empirically demonstrate that this is true in the context of open source software.

If modularization and its effect on the availability of volunteers is one side of the problem, the other is the leadership, administration, and integration necessary to bring a very large collection of very small pieces together into a useful whole. “Integrating and smoothing out the text, style, and coherent structure of a chapter from contributions in much smaller tasks becomes much harder. The result of making the modules more fine grained may be to make the integrated whole too difficult to render coherent” (p. 20).

He summarizes: “The larger the granules the more is required of each contributor, the smaller the set of agents who will be willing and able to take a crack at the work. On the other hand, the granularity is determined by the cost of integration—you cannot use modules that are so fine that the cost of integrating them is higher than the value of including the module. The case of textbooks seems to be, at present, precisely at the stage where the minimal granularity of the modules in some projects—like FHSST—is too large to capture the number of contributions necessary to make the project move along quickly and gain momentum, whereas the cost of integration in others, like WikiBooks, is so high that most of the projects languish with a module here, and module there, and no integration” (pp. 21-22).

(The one place where I would push back on Yochai’s analysis is in what he sees as the difference between the adopters of K-12 textbooks and college textbooks. While K-12 textbooks need high degrees of coherence and must be created in accordance with existing standards before they can be adopted, he proposed that the same wasn’t true for higher education. It’s generally up to post-secondary teachers “to construct, integrate, and use the materials as fits their needs. No higher order organization is required, and none therefore represents a barrier to contribution” (p. 23). Meaning that you could simply have a community create lots of very small pieces without requiring any centralized integration service, because every faculty member will undertake that work on their own and do it in a way that meets their specific local needs. While this statement might reflect the reality of faculty who teach upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses, it’s also true that over half of US college and university courses are taught by adjunct faculty who need a complete, coherent learning resource that is ready to pick up and teach from on day one. So, for the foreseeable future, the problems of modularization and integration apply to higher ed as well as K-12.)

The problems associated with the need to modularize and the need to integrate are just as real now as they were back in the early 2000s. (And, for those of you who worked on learning objects, in the 1990s.) This means that “we’ve still not really cracked a community based production model for learning content” is likely a dramatic understatement of the problem. There’s a good argument to be made that a community based production model for learning content isn’t actually possible. Yes, it might be possible to set up a system where some people will contribute small pieces of learning content to a repository, but for the reasons described above those small pieces will never see adoption at scale due to problems relating to integration and coherence. And we should consider any production model that results in the creation of learning content that goes unused to be a failed model.