Reflections on Open Education and the Path Forward

There’s been a lot of discussion about open textbooks, efficacy research, and student cost savings in the wake of this year’s #OpenEd15. The general theme of the conversation has been a concern that a focus on open textbooks confuses the means of open education with the end of open education. I’m compiling a Storify of examples of this really engaging writing – you should definitely take the time to read through it. I’m not responding directly to many of the points made in those posts here, but will in later follow-up posts.

The overall criticism about ends / means confusion may or may not be true – it depends entirely on what you think the end or goal of open education should be. This is a conversation we almost never have in the field of open education. What is our long-term goal? What are we actually trying to accomplish? What kind of change are we trying to create in the world? The recently published OER strategy document, as informative as it is, reads more like a list of issues and opportunities than what Michael Feldstein describes as “rungs on a ladder of ambition.” Answering these questions leads to additional, more proximate concerns, like what specific steps do we need to take to get from here to there? In his #OpenEd15 keynote, Michael pushed our thinking with some additional questions, like “Who are we willing to let win?”

As I have reflected on the post-conference conversation, and these larger questions about goals and purpose, I’ve decided to share some of my current best answers to these questions. (Disclaimer: my answers are guaranteed to evolve over time.) Your answers will almost certainly be different than mine – and that’s a good thing. I’m not sharing my answers as a way of claiming that they reflect the One True Answer. I’m sharing them in the hope that they will prompt you to think more deeply about your own answers. I find that nothing helps me clarify my thinking quite like reading others’ thinking I disagree with. As we all take the opportunity to ask and answer these important questions for ourselves, and to do that thinking publicly, out loud, who knows what might happen? Continue reading Reflections on Open Education and the Path Forward

Clarifying the 5th R

There have been a number of responses to my decision to introduce a 5th R – “Retain” – to my 4Rs framework. Bill, Darren, and Mike have responded, among others. Some parts of the responses lead me to believe that I wasn’t entirely clear in my initial statement, so let me try to clear a few things up.

The original 4Rs were not an attempt to create a new group of permissions that open content licenses needed to support. Many open content licenses, from the CC to the GFDL to the OPL, already granted the rights to reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute long before I created the 4Rs framework. I created the 4Rs framework specifically for the purpose of helping people understand and remember the key rights that open content licenses grant them.

The right to Retain – i.e., make, own, and control – copies of openly licensed content has always been a right granted by open content licenses. Generally speaking, it is impossible to revise, remix, or redistribute an openly licensed work unless you possess a copy of the work. As Mike pointed out, the right to retain is strongly implied in open licenses, but never called out directly. Consequently, it has never been addressed directly in the discourse around open.

I maintain my original purpose for creating the 4Rs framework in adding “Retain” and arriving at 5Rs. The purpose of the framework is to help people understand and remember the key rights that open content licenses grant them. It was becoming increasingly clear to me that both producers and users of open content were unaware of, or forgetting to consider, this critical right to Retain.

As I said above, at least 3 of the original 4Rs are impossible to do without the right to Retain. This makes Retain a fundamental or foundational right, and yet it is completely ignored in the discourse around open. This is why I felt the need to call attention to Retain, and this is why I now place it at the head of the list of 5Rs – retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute.

Thinking along these lines – about how the systems we design can proactively enable people to exercise their right to Retain – has already proven extremely useful to me personally. (As I wrote about recently, we’re in the middle of designing a new OER transclusion system at Lumen.) If the right to Retain is a fundamental right, we should be building systems that specifically enable it. When you specifically add “Enable users to easily download copies of the OER in our system” to your feature list, you make different kinds of design choices. (Unfortunately, you can see all around you that many of the designers of OER systems either failed to think about how to enable users to exercise their right to Retain, or have purposively taken specific actions to prevent users from exercising it.)

Postscript. The name of my blog is “Iterating Toward Openness.” This name is meant to very publicly demonstrate my shortcomings as a thinker about and practitioner of “open.” I didn’t understand everything I needed to about open when I kicked off the open content work in 1998, and I still don’t understand enough about it today. My goal is to be constantly (if incrementally) refining and improving my understanding and appreciation of open. The change from 4Rs to 5Rs reflects one such improvement in my understanding. Who knows – maybe another seven years from now I’ll add a 6th R.

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)