Remain Calm. All is Well.

Just got back from UVic where I gave a talk to a small group from the Electronic Textual Cultures Laboratory. I was going to write a longer post than this, trying to situate my talk somewhere between the binaries of Disruption-as-Solely-the-Province-of-Neo-Liberal-Discourse and the Education-is-not-broken-at-all poles the discussion seems to be falling into these days (and apologies for picking on Martin, I’m just too tired to dig out a better straw man example of the latter argument.) Because I think there is a third (and fourth and fifth and…) possibility here, that

  • there are lots of pieces of education that don’t work very well but
  • there are some pieces that do and
  • there are values and people involved with educational institutions that shouldn’t just be chucked away in the pursuit of economic efficiencies but
  • the network is indeed a disruptive force, and
  • that disruption will not simply lead to some techno-utopian ideal and
  • commercial forces will use it to continue the march of globalization towards an uninhabitable planet filled with alienated, over-medicated people unless
  • we start to change many of our relations, along many vectors, and not just rearrange deckchairs.

But that doesn’t fit well on a t-shirt. Plus even those who think it maybe sounds like a good idea in theory don’t think it’s actually possible any longer, if it ever was, so we might as well shut up and enjoy the ride while it lasts.

Anyways, I’m not going to write that post. I (hope I) WILL keep working in “education” and “learning” in ways that embody the changes I think we need to bring about, which likely mean lots of beans and rice in my future, cause its a future where we stop living on borrowed time. But I’m growing weary of trying to convince anyone else. This talk was meant to simply offer some small examples of ways we can implement technology that both harness the liberating power of the network but also make small steps towards changing how universities relate to what’s outside their walls. These changes in and of themselves are insufficient. But they start to position institutions differently, in a way I think will serve them well in the battles to come (if they happen at all; I’m not so naive to think these aren’t rearguard battles, and despite a disdain for the language of warfare, make no mistakes, there are sides to choose.)

Anyways, the slides are below and the full text of the speech of the talk is available here (sorry, no recording.)

And I can’t help leaving you with this clip from Animal House, which comes to mind every time I hear another person downplay the enormity of the challenges facing us

All I want for Christmas…

UPDATE – on December 21st, 2012 it was announced that had preserved all of these texts. Read more here.


…is for you to buy a single Flatworld Knowledge textbook, before December 31. And then share it with the rest of the world.

About a month ago news made the rounds that as of January 1st 2013, Flatworld Knowlege had decided to remove free access from their “open” textbooks. This was accompanied by much gnashing of teeth and raising of fists at how FWK had played fast and loose with either the terms “open” or “free” in the past. All of which I agree with.

But then…nothing. As if we were helpless in the face of someone diminishing the Commons. Because make no mistake, that is exactly what is happening. All of FWK’s books are currently published on their site under a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-Alike license. This means that, even with the restrictions, both legal and technical, that they imposed, these books were in the Creative Commons. But because of the technical restrictions FWK placed on the books (they are not at public URLs but behind logins; the content is not easily copyable unless you pay for it) after the gate comes down on December 31 and the licenses removed (because surely they will) unless copies of them are made outside of these walls, they will have effectively been removed from the Commons.

My own efforts to date have been to port web-native versions of 4 books onto the Pressbooks platform (to be clear, this was done ENTIRELY outside of my previous role at BCcampus and on my own pressbooks sites.) They have not gone live yet because one of the things needed for pressbooks to really cook as an open textbook platform is custom book styles and a CSS-driven print engine, which will allow these ported books to come really close to their original.The nice thing about this is that I did this for free (with the exception of the time I volunteered.) I used the free web versions and some handy harvesting tricks (which I’m happy to share) to get the web content off their servers and onto another.

But sadly, time is running out. There are only 17 days before this content becomes lost to the Commons. Thus I urge you to purchase one copy of any of the textbooks on their server and then share it. Sadly, you’ll need to buy the $34.95 version to get the downloadable PDF. The cheaper version is still just the web version which would still need to be harvested.

Buy the one you think is the best or will serve students the most. Or coordinate with others – I have created a sheet of all the FWK textbooks and their status in being placed back in the commons. If you do buy a copy, place a note here (anonymously if you like) that you have. Ideally between all of us, we can cover as much of the catalogue as possible. Also note I am perfectly happy to act as the host for your copy if that is something you feel uncomfortable doing. Email/tweet/comment to me if you want to take up this option.


But why you ask? Don’t the licenses themselves mean that schools who charge tuition will not be able to have their students use this free copies?

Firstly, following David Wiley’s argument, I too feel this is non-sense. Paying tuition is NOT the same as charging for a book, and so it is entirely possible that these can still be used at NO cost by students in formal courses.In addition, unless we actually have opportunities to challenge that FUD, we won’t know if it’s true or not, and keeping these books in the Commons preserves this opportunity.

But on top of that, the whole point (in my eyes) of “open education” is that it is not just about formal learning or formal learners – there is a world of people without access to formal learning opportunities who can still benefit from the Commons.

The other argument I know is “yeah, but if we just download PDFs, all we’re doing is adding static content to the Commons – how un-exciting/un-pedagogically sound is that?” To which I’d say three things

  • PDFs don’t always have to stay PDFs – as I plan to write on in an upcoming piece, being able to decompose or shift previously locked media formats is one of the new digital literacies I think we can learn from the Pirates (arrr!)
  • systems like Evident Point’s ActiveTextbook allow students and instructors to upload an existing PDF and then annotate, discuss and customize it in useful ways, meaning maybe PDFs aren’t the dead end they’ve always seemed like
  • we do the best with what we have – do you have a better idea?

This is not about punishing FlatWorld Knowledge. As cheesy as I think there decision is, it’s their right to make it. All I am trying to do is exercise the rights we currently have to preserve material already in the commons.

So what I’m asking for Christmas is for people in my network and those who care preserving the commons is to take this small step to do so.


Free and Learning in Barcelona – A Trip Report

I leaked this on Friday on twitter, but in case you didn’t see it and have any interest, this is what my trip in Barcelona forced out of me. It is long and messy. But it is also the last thing you’ll see from me for a little while as I sit quietly to decide what the next chapter will be. Peace. – SWL

OLNet Fellowship – Week 1 Highlights

At the rate it seems to be going, my month here in Milton Keynes will be over in the blink of an eye, but my first week is coming to a close and I wanted to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned and experienced so far.

Community and Open Education

Two examples I came across my second day here really spoke to me about new ways of thinking about OER/Open Education in relationship to people and communities. The first is the iSpot project managed by Doug Clow, one of my colleagues here in the Institute of Educational Technology where the OLNet team from the OU is housed.

As Doug explained, the site allows people to post photos of they’ve taken of local species, and crowdsources their identification. The site has a sophisticated reputation system that awards participants and also identifies those with formal expertise in different fields and weighs their input accordingly. The OU have partnered with a number of BBC Television nature shows and radio programmes to popularize the site, so they are attracting an audience who then participate out of and existing passion and interest. The genius is To *then* weave OU courses into/around this community site and content, using it both as potential course content but also as a conduit for interested informal learners to find formal learning opportunities if they chose, and also interact and be supported in their informal learning community by discipline experts. When Doug described this to me my jaw dropped; it is so obvious yet really a brilliant turn. Too often in formal higher ed we have had the “build it and they will come” belief about our OER efforts, and when that hasn’t happened we’ve then shifted our focus to “building communities” around our content. But that is so wrongheaded. Communities exist already, and where they don’t, it’s not simply a matter of them forming around content, per se. By leading with a site that helped users scratch an itch they already had, however small, (“I keep spotting this bird in my back yard but I don’t know what it is”) and then building tools to support peer engagement and discussion, as well as personal identity and reputation, they’ve set the stage for community to form and share knowledge and only THEN weave formal offerings in and around this. It’s probably not perfect, but I think it offers strong suggestions as to how institutions can engage civil society in a way that leads to a permeable boundary between existing informal learning communities and formal learning institutions/scholars.

The second example was a bit different yet still inspiring. Another researcher on the OLNet project, Andreia Santos, gave a short talk on an initiative at the Brazilian university Unisul to experiment with ways to attract new learners through a mixture of Open Education, peer support and social networking. If I understood correctly (and I’m not sure I completely did, so I hope Andreia will see this and chime in with a correction or pointer to a longer write up), the university has begun offering access to a block of 10 courses, a mixture of open resources from the OU and themselves, within their own learning environment (so not just ‘content’ but a full VLE experience…). The part that tickled my fancy was that they do so during one of their “breaks” (in their case the Winter break that happens in June/July) and are in part marketing it to friends and families of existing students. This seems like a smart idea in that not only do they have stronger ties and so their message is much more convincing, but they themselves end up taking some of these courses to and because of their familiarity with the environment end up becoming a form of peer support. I understand that this year they have introduced a nominal fee but that students can take as many of the courses as they want and get a form of certificate at the end. Like I said, different than iSpot but still I think a strong example of interacting with community and existing ‘social networks.’

Repositories – some mothers do ‘ave ’em

Another part of my experience so far has been to listen to talks on a few different repository projects that shall remain nameless. The learning here wasn’t particularly new for me, but it did continue to confirm beliefs I’ve long held about the weak points of this approach: that they typically do not tap in or reinforce individual motivations for sharing; that their model of ripping content out of its original context for download goes against the grain of the web (more on this soon, as part of my Fellowship work on “OER Tracking”); and that they are a solution begged by the questions of VLEs/LMS silos, sharing modeled on “publishing” and that is ony half-heartedly committed to sharing. But… the one good thing I guess is that it made me feel slightly better about my own work, that I’m not the only one who’d hit these problems nor had to learn the hard way that content doesn’t build networks that share, people do.

On being at the OU

If I haven’t already made it clear, it is a HUGE honour for me to be a visiting academic with the OU through the OLNet Fellowship program. This institution has been (and still is) a global leader in the field of distance learning and open education, and there is a tangible passion here for the belief that education can radically improve people’s lives for the better. The opportunity to be physically here for a month is even more special to me because on a day to day basis I work from my home office, and while I am surrounded by a global network of peers who I talk with daily, the chance to be surrounded by so many smart people passionate about open learning, as well as have access to some fantastic services on this lovely campus is one I will never forget. I’d be remiss if I did not extend a special thanks to Karen Cropper and Janet Dyson for helping me find my way in the first few days and make me feel really at home, and a special thanks to “Liam and the librarians” for broadening my social horizons.

There’s lots more to tell, especially around my specific project of tracking OERs outside of the bounds of the repository (which I think we’ve now got a plausible model of how to do) but I’ll leave that for another post. For now I’ll leave it that it is good to be back in the land of great cheese and delicious warm beer with so many rich opportunities to learn ahead of me.

My Comment to CNIE on the Canadian Copyright Consultation process

You may have heard that the Canadian federal government is currently consulting with Canadians about planned changes to our existing copyright laws. In addition to getting my own submission together and working on something on behalf of BCcampus, I was extremely pleased to hear, via Rick Schwier’s blog, that one of the few groups in Canada with a truly national reach in education, CNIE (formerly CADE), were also planning a submission. Rick’s post encouraged comments and concerns be sent to their leadership, and here is the comment I submitted. There is MUCH more to be concerned about the previously badly crafted Bill C-61 (start with these few issues, to begin with), but the move to resign online educational fair dealing to ‘privately protected spaces’ is one I feel we must specifically resist, as not only does it corrupt the notion of education and fair dealing, but it does so in such a way that may enshrine incredibly impoverished models in our already beleagured institutions for decades to come.

Have you had your say yet?

I was very pleased to hear that CNIE will be submitting a brief to the Federal Copyright consultation. It is great that you are staking out a position for distance/online education and recognition that ‘virtual classrooms’ should be afforeded fair dealing rights too. However, I would urge you not to compund the currently stiffled innovation in online education by arguing that content need to be behind password protected “learning management system” sites or the like in order to qualify for fair dealing rights. While this at first seems like a palatable compromise with the copyright barons, it will only lead to a further entrenching of a fundamentally broken technology, the LMS, whose replication of the physical classroom in the virtual world looses almost ALL of the benefits the network has to offer learners.

Instead, I would urge you to stake out a position that the position and intent of the user/usage is of much more importance in ascertaining fair dealing, and that course and content delivered ‘out in the open’ should also be able to exert their fair dealing rights. I believe this is a truly important distinction to make, not only for distance education but indeed for higher education institutions in general, as their future will increasingly hinge on being able to integrate and interoperate with the larger community of informal learners who make up the entire Internet, and enshrining in law the requirement that any fair dealing be exercised solely behind closed doors will only continue our march into the margins.

August in Vancouver? Hmmm… Open Education 2009 Call for Papers

I know you have all been waiting with bated breath, well the wait is finally over – the Call for Papers for the 6th annual Open Education Conference (held for the past 5 years in Logan, Utah but this year moving to beautiful Vancouver BC, Canada) is now open.

I am pretty stoked about this, in no small part because I am helping to organize it with a few of my favourite people. I’m also excited because of some of the things we’re trying with the program; as you’ll notice in the CFP, we’ve introduced the notion of strands, the one I am most excited about being the StartUp strand. The Open Ed conference has never had any problem attracting leaders in the movement and encouraging a deep level of discourse around the topic, but I cannot imagine what it might have felt to be someone from a school not already immersed in OER to attend. Well I hope this strand (plus the number of great efforts currently underway to help people start their own Open initiatives) will attract those newcomers and catalyze another round of folks to start sharing openly.

So please, submit a proposal! Registration information is also coming quickly soon, I promise. Hope to see you on here in August. – SWL

Notes and Thoughts from Open Education 2008

Got back late on Friday night after spending most of last week in sunny Logan, Utah at the 2008 Open Education Conference. My notes are here for anyone who might care. As usual, the conference program itself was FAR outstripped by the hallway conversations and afterhour sessions, especially the chance to not just finally meet (after years of unabashed fanboy-dom) but spend a few days talking with Tony Hirst. And working most of Thursday night with one of my favourite people mashing up interviews from the conference attendees as they talked about their history with OER was lots of fun (even if the organizers ended up shelving the results due to a malfunctioning sound system.)

I won’t spend a lot of time commenting on the program except to say the one thing I was heartened to see was a renewed emphasis on getting the production of open content into the normal workflow and (and funding channels) of instructors and institutions. This clearly has to happen if we are going to move away from the $10-25K/year/course “publishing” model that seems all to prevalent in many of the OCW projects we heard about last week.

And a final note – next years’ conference is moving to Vancouver at UBC! There isn’t a site to point you too yet, but I can assure you, you will not want to miss it 😉 Much more to follow on that topic in the months to come… – SWL