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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.