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open content

Eric Frank of Flat World Knowledge on CBC Radio

The CBC has posted a great interview with Eric Frank of Flat World Knowledge about open textbooks. While an abbreviated version will run on the air, you can listen to (and download) the full, uncut interview online.

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open content

More Response to George

George has responded to my response to his earlier post as a comment on my recent post. It’s a great bit of thinking and writing worthy of being its own post! I respond below:

My point is that openness is the virtue to be pursued (I feel silly making this statement to you – you’ve done more for this “movement” than almost anyone else has). Not sorta-openness. Or sorta-affordable openness. Full openness to download, edit, reuse, add media, etc. is the target. Settling for affordable quasi-openness may sell cheaper textbooks and may delay more foundational change.

I’m not sure how content licensed By-NC-SA can be considered sorta-open, unless we’re heading down the path toward an NC discussion (let’s please not go there). Full openness to download, edit, reuse, add media, etc. is what people have with FWK books because that’s what the license provides. What is the criticism here?

What are our organizational models missing when individuals are not capable of collaborating in writing complex resources (like textbooks)? Is it about incentives?

At least partly, if not primarily, yes.

Could we have networks of educators write textbooks?

With the proper incentives, of course we could. If we paid each faculty member $10,000 I bet we could get them to participate.

Let’s say a group of psychologist profs got together and decided to write a full text for first year students and posted resources in a wiki.

But – and I’m not trying to be thick-headed here – wouldn’t the size of the group of profs need to be rather large before this activity became interesting to you? When you say ‘a group of psychology profs’ I think of a group of 5 plus or minus a few. Is that a network? How is it different from five authors who develop a By-NC-SA textbook for FWK? In theory, one difference might be that anyone outside the core group could contribute to the text, but in practice we see that participation in “wikibook” projects from outside the core group is basically nonexistent.

If FWK is trying “trying to disrupt the status quo as much as we can as quickly as we can” why not experiment in serving as an infrastructure role in openness at this self-organizing level with profs?

(A) Because Wikieducator, Wikibooks, PBWorks, and a hundred other sites already provide the infrastructure necessary for the kind of experiments you’re talking about. (B) Because all the data to date confirm that those experiments fail to result in quality textbooks. In other words, the world doesn’t need FWK to enable these experiments – they’re already sufficiently enabled and they’re already failing to succeed.

Should we still be thinking in textbooks? What is it about textbooks that is so valuable that we transition the concept fully into the digital world? Maybe we should first abandon the textbook model.

We don’t get a clean slate when thinking about changing a system – we have to respond to the realities of the system. Some in the open education community seem to be arriving at a conclusion along the lines of, “the constraints of higher education are too confining, so let’s disconnect ourselves from HE completely and go innovate over there.” I wish them luck.

Does FWK permit one student in a class to download a book and then distribute copies to other classmates without fee? Can an educator download the book, copy and paste into a wiki and then edit it to customize the text?

Yes, full stop. The license FWK uses for all of its books, CC By-NC-SA, allows anyone and everyone to download, adapt, and redistribute the book, students and educators alike.

Collaboratively produced resources, in the wikieducator sense, are better suited for reuse because, in theory at least, no one has a motive – such as profit – other than to produce learning resources… Even the small reading window for reading a text online is an illustration of control exerted to influence purchasing the text. If a group/network collaborates on the text, then (again) in theory, they wouldn’t need to play “soft control” games of this nature.

There’s a lot of “in theory” in this line of thought. (As Firefly’s Jane once said, “I smell a lot of ‘if’ coming off of this plan.”) “In theory” is difficult for me to accept given the rather large amount of actual data and experience available to us to base our judgments on.

Pure openness would be the target.

I actually just finished blogging about this in Feeling Out of Place.

In my view, if it (research, course content) comes from the public purse it belongs to the public. If it’s privately funded, it’s a different matter. FWK is a private entity that is in business to make a profit. Nothing in the world wrong with that. But is it the best way for academics to approach opening up content/curricular resources?

It depends on their goal. To me, openness is a means not an end. So, to answer your question, we must ask what is the faculty member’s goal in being open? If “being open” has become the goal in and unto itself, I would propose that there is a problem.

David, whether you lay claim to the title or not, you are the (or at least “an”) ideological leader of openness in education. Which is why I was a bit surprised to see you accept the FWK model. I’m sure there are considerations I’m not aware of, or philosophical views that are perhaps not as strident as might be expected from a leading figure. To me, it seems to be trying to balance openness with economics… and the economic model has precedence (i.e. charges for downloads of digital versions).

One of the greatest heartbreaks of my life came when I left USU to come to BYU. For a complexity of reasons, some of which were my own fault, when I left USU the grant funding for many of the “open” projects at USU ended. Within 30 days of my coming to BYU, much of what I had worked to build over a 5 year period was gone. It was personally devastating. I committed to myself then that I would never again waste my effort on projects that can disappear overnight when grant money dries up. This has led me to adopt a keen focus on the sustainability of open education projects (see, for example, the study on making OCW pay for itself we’re conducting at BYU). If open education is to have a long-term impact we have to insure that it will survive over time. So, when you think you see an emphasis on economics in my work you are quite perceptive and absoultely right. However, I’m only interested in the sustainability of open projects – I have no interest in the sustainability of pseudo-open projects.

When Jeff and Eric first approached me about being involved in FWK (I’m not a founder, but am hire number one), my very first thoughts were “Are these guys going to do it right? Are they going to (1) get the openness right and (2) be sustainable enough to make a large-scale, long-lasting difference? Or are they going to take some half-open approach and/or botch the business part of it and be gone three years from now?” I was convinced FWK was going to get the business part of it right, and could sense that they wanted to get the openness part right. That’s why I joined as Chief Openness Officer – my core function is to make sure we get the openness part right. And because FWK produces Creative Commons licensed textbooks that are just as open as any content you will find anywhere, and because we have 40,000 students lined up for fall, I think the openness and the sustainability aspects of our work are going awesomely.

Your work around advancing openness, by nature of this role, will be subject to scrutiny. If you have a view on copyright or commercial reuse, it will be criticized. If you have a view on how to increase the impact of openness at the school or university level, it will be scrutinized. Is it fair? No. But that’s a burden that comes with the role.

No, the increased scrutiny is not fair at all – it is a great blessing that very few people have access to. It is a manifestation of the classic problem of the “rich getting richer” – I think I have some reasonable ideas on the topic of openness and education. These draw scrutiny, which I weigh seriously. Then my reasonable ideas get a little better, which gets them pushed out further, which draws further scrutiny, etc. Its a virtuous cycle that I am deeply grateful for; I actually feel guilty sometimes that other people’s ideas don’t get the “airtime” and the scrutiny that mine do.

And I’m enjoying this specific conversation that we’re having quite a bit.

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open content

A Response to “Change that prevents real change”

George Siemens has written a very thoughtful analysis of Flat World Knowledge (and the change process generally) titled Change that prevents real change. I want to respond to a few of his thoughts.

FWK will succeed for the wrong reasons. It will succeed because it tweaks the existing model of textbooks just enough to disrupt publishers, but not enough to disrupt the industry as a whole. FWK is integrated into the system of education: authors, bookstores, faculty, and students. It uses existing reward metrics (recognition and a little bit of revenue for the author) and addresses the biggest complaint students have about textbooks: costs. Essentially, the existing system is used as the infrastructure for FWK model. And that’s the problem.

I would argue that using the existing system as infrastructure is the most brilliant part of the FWK strategy (disclosure: I am the Chief Openness Officer of FWK). Because FWK recognizes and works within the existing context, it is actually able to affect real change. Over 400 faculty and 40,000 students will use openly licensed, DRM-free FWK textbooks this fall – enabling extensive, legal faculty localization of materials and saving students and their parents over $3 million. No matter how you measure it, FWK will have a larger direct impact on higher education affordability this fall than all of the previous open educational resources projects have had combined.

With regard to educational reform, our thinking should be future-focused. What is the impact of FWK? Is there a better way? Can we reduce costs and promote openness in an anti-textbook model? What could that possibly look like?

There is undoubtedly a better way – no right thinking person or organization will claim that they have discovered the universal best way to do anything that can never be improved upon throughout all eternity. In answer to the question “Can we reduce costs and promote openness in an anti-textbook model?” the answer is also yes. However, there is a very small number of situations in which an anti-textbook model exists. Textbooks are a critical piece of higher education, whether we like it or not. The question is like asking, “Can we improve the speed of race cars in an anti-tire model.” Cars today have tires – they just do. In a future world they may not. And in a future world, where higher education doesn’t rely heavily and extensively on textbooks, there may be an opportunity to affect a large-scale change in affordability of content without working with textbooks. But that future world is not here today. There is a critical need for people like George who are willing to dedicate their energy and resources to decade or multi-decade reforms. And I can confidently say that creating an broad culture of rejecting textbooks in higher education is at least a ten year project, if not a longer one.

Perhaps we should pursue a more visionary approach – one that is tied to high ideals and provides the greatest number of future options.

As I said above, long-term work creating viable future options is something important that desperately needs doing. However, improving affordability and accessibility for students taking courses fall 2009 is important as well. At this point in my career I want to help as many people as I can here and now. When the future scenario becomes the current scenario, I’ll adapt my work for that context to help as many people as I can. This is FWK’s approach as well. You certainly can’t build a sustainable business that makes a large-scale impact on affordability and accessibility if your assumptions about the market won’t be true for another 10 years.

George reviews arguments from Scientific American, myself, and Yochai Benkler, all of which argue empirically (instead of theoretically) based on existing books (and not potential future books), that collaboratively written textbooks fare poorly in comparison with textbooks written by one or a few authors.

Simply stating that collaborative projects have to date not produced the quality of resources that has been produced under the traditional authorship model is not satisfactory… It’s too early to convincingly declare select-authorship models of textbooks to be superior to wiki-created textbooks. Or, if we do make the declaration (as Wiley, Benkler and others have done), we need to focus on understanding why. It seems wrong to declare that connected intelligence is not capable of achieving the same level of quality as individual intelligence.

I don’t think anyone is making a blanket judgment or general statement about what “connected intelligence” is or is not capable of doing. I think we’re saying something very specific about textbooks. We’re saying that all the empirical data indicate that “select-authorship models of textbooks [are] superior to wiki-created textbooks.” Neither George nor anyone else who is unhappy with this conclusion has pointed to counter-examples in their arguments; as far as I know there’s not even a single exception to this rule. The argument is always one of potential, an argument about what could be. I would love to be proven wrong on this point, because the implications for the scalable provisioning of high-quality initial content would be earth-shattering. However, without a single positive example, and with several less than positive examples, I won’t allow myself to be caught up in the hype.

Books on the [FWK] site are primarily confined to business and finance – another drawback: mediators seek areas of highest return first.

This is a simple misunderstanding. FWK started with business textbooks because the company’s two founders both came out of the business textbook division of a major publisher, and this is the world they know best. We’re expanding very quickly into general education areas now that we’re up and running.

The concept is open enough to keep many revolutionaries at bay (isn’t that often the main intent of partial change? provide enough change to satisfy the slightly less peripheral agitators? Staged or transitional change often plays a negative role in this regard. Partial change now pushes substantial change into the future).

I would respectfully disagree. I think taking reasonably-sized steps forward is a great idea. No one in FWK is trying to keep revolutionaries at bay – on the contrary, we’re trying to disrupt the status quo as much as we can as quickly as we can.

Now, if we can just find a way to make the pursuit of highest ideals (open & collaboratively produced textbooks produced by communities/networks of vested participants in this case) as rewarding (or compelling) as the pursuit of ‘good enough’.

It’s unclear to me why a collaboratively produced textbook is more virtuous than one produced by one to four individuals. Also, the conversation quickly devolves into a Sorites paradox: how many individuals need to be involved in writing before the textbook becomes virtuous?

At one point in the article, George draws a distinction between “Convenient Change vs Principled Change.” Another way to frame the difference between the approaches he describes is “Immediately Actionable Change vs Boil the Ocean Change.” On the ground people recognize that the world needs ocean boilers; I hope that on-the-grounders can get some respect as well.