OpenFiction [Blog]

Ends and means

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 29, 2005

I’m still slowly working my way through Sen’s Development as Freedom, which is well worth the effort, though not a book I recommend reading in twenty-minute sessions (the length of my train ride home). Sen makes a great point about evaluation that I think can be usefully applied to the OER movement, which is that ends and means are often confused in evaluation. The example Sen gives is in measuring poverty, the overwhelming majority of evaluations examine comparative income. He points out that increasing income is a means for poverty reduction, but that the possession of more income does not in and of itself reduce the state of deprivation that poverty creates, nor do equal amounts alleviate poverty equally for all people. Some people–the ill, the old, the handicapped–will require substantially more money to alleviate their deprivation that the young and healthy. He also points out that comparisons of income do not reflect critical “tipping points” points in sustainable income–i.e. the loss of a relatively small percentage of overall income can precipitate a rapid decline into a state of dramatically increased deprivations.

For OER, it’s important to recognize that open educational resources are a means to a goal or set of goals and not (necessarily) the ends. “Helping developing regions” has been one explicit goal of OER projects from the beginning, and it’s here that OER intersects with Sen’s definition of the goal of development, which I think can be usefully adopted as an OER goal: to increase, for as many people as possible, the “substantive freedoms–the capabilities–to choose a life one has reason to value.” I think few would deny that access to education limits the capabilities of a great many people to choose a life they have reason to value. Access to basic education, information regarding sanitation, health, public policy and civil engineering is one clear means to increasing the substantive freedoms to people in developing regions.

There are of course a number of other ends that OER could and should serve, but if the above is at least a high priority, then in can help in guiding decisions regarding the provision of OER. For example, while OER sharing is enabled by the cost efficiencies of delivery via the world wide web, the vast majority of learners, especially in developing regions, will not be able to learn on the web. This suggests that while OER are distributed via the web, they should move gracefully into offline teaching environments. I’ve argued before that increased formatting reduces the total possible audience for a given resource. The more it is tied to web use, the fewer (especially those in developing regions) will be able to use the resource.

Increased formatting also presupposes a knowledge of the “best” formats, which seems to me a gamble based on incomplete knowledge. What appears to be the best format in one instance (XML, for example) may, if adopted as a “universal” format, become a significant barrier to the distribution of indigenous knowledge from developing regions, as educators in these areas will likely lack the time to learn the additional skills required to distribute their own materials. Increased formatting can also at some level introduce cultural and academic barriers to reuse. The more tightly materials are integrated into an online delivery mechanism, the harder it is to adjust for cultural difference or to account for the skill level or prerequisite knowledge of students who might use the material.

If there is any one constant right now in the OER field, it is that everyone is operating on incomplete knowledge. To get back to Sen, it’s not clear yet how OERs are used in practice, what materials are most valuable, or what barriers are most difficult to overcome. In other words, we haven’t yet established what the best means to the ends are. All the learning objects in the world, or PDFs, or XML documents may not be of much use at all to developing countries (or developed ones for that matter). This suggests that the choice of formats is best left to educators, at least in the near term. If educators create resources using the best technologies and pedagogies for their local learners, and the OER movement focuses on the most cost-effective ways of making those resources available to wide audiences without intensive reformatting, the best formats will emerge in a market-economy environment, and these formats may differ significantly from region to region. The point is not to converge on a universal format, but to allow for academic exchange across formats, cultures and learning levels.

So here’s a funny thing…

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 27, 2005

On my passport application last night I wrote “Educational Technologist” for occupation. I think there’s something on the form about making false statements… I’m not a technology guy, really–I’m a content guy who likes to play with technology, which usually means I know just enough about technology to make me dangerous–just ask our Director of Technology. (What I know about writing is another matter entirely.) I’ve just been lucky enough to work my way into really interesting academic projects that happen to use technology.

Anyway, that’s a longwinded way of saying the last entry was a comment on technology from a content producer/deliverer point of view. By chance, a “least effective technology” story is breaking today from the viewpoint of a real technologist. I won’t claim to have a handle on all the details, but clearly, the spirit of Adam Bosworth’s message is in keeping with the LET approach.

Least effective technologies

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 27, 2005

With apologies to Edward Tufte, I’m going to return to the concept I mentioned before of “least effective technology.” Tufte, in discussing graphic presentations of data, suggests that elements of an illustration should be different only to the extent necessary to make the illustration effective, the “least effective difference.” He says not to use wildly clashing elements, as these distract from the presentation of the data. Likewise, I’ve previously explained one of my goals for tOFP coursework to use the least effective technology—or perhaps more properly, the least technology that would be effective in conducting the class. For this reason, I limited technologies used for the course to HTML and e-mail. I did use a school-mandated LMS when teaching the course (first BlackBoard, then WebCT), but without a doubt, these were the least effective (in the traditional sense) of the technological elements. This was in 2002, so I assume they’ve improved, but they did more to impede the class than to facilitate it.

I used the least effective technology rule because I was delivering the class to a group of adult distance learning students who could not be expected to have more than a dial-up internet connection, and could not be expected to be familiar with web technologies beyond e-mail and web browsing. Using the same logic, the least effective technology rule can be usefully applied to OER. I’ll suggest the goal of the OER movement is to make the largest possible body of educational materials available to the widest possible audience (setting aside for now the possible opposing view that it ought to be limited to a body of materials from leading institutions only). Using the simplest possible technologies makes publication of OER technologies scalable, and it also expands the audience that can make use of those materials by using only those technologies widely implemented and familiar to the general web population.

The good news is that the horizon for effective technologies has shifted considerably since I developed the class, a shift that was important to the transformation of the class into tOFP. In no particular order, tOFP was facilitated by cheap and reliable web hosting, free blogging services, PayPal (more about the thinking on this later), and (most recently and least tested), H2O Playlist. Beyond the technologies used for tOFP, there are emerging technologies that are rapidly making other formats practical. PDF has really arrived as a technology for cheaply and accurately delivering OER content; the format is much easier to extract content from than ever, with automated conversion to HTML and text available through the Adobe website, and options for copy and past in the free Adobe reader. I’d nominate wikis, too, as an emerging least effective technology. So while I’m a strong advocate of keeping things simple, simple is clearly becoming more sophisticated at a rapid pace.

Drafting – Opportunities

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 25, 2005

What’s this?

I find it particularly difficult in redrafting to remain open to opportunities, and increasingly so the more times I’ve written though a passage. On the second or third draft, it’s still relatively easy for me to crack open a passage, add and remove text, and insert whole scenes. But once I’ve done four or five drafts, it begins to feel like the tracks are laid and it becomes harder to reimagine the piece, and especially the opportunities within. I often catch myself on autopilot in redrafts, simply retyping and noodling with phrasing, rather than redrafting in any real way.

I mentioned in a previous post that I had figured out what I did not want in an added scene between Foster and Annabel–which was good to know–but I hadn’t until this morning figured out what I did want in that scene. I was trying to sort through a number of problems, including the general issue of the relationship developing too quickly and Annabel sharing a very personal piece of her past too easily. Beyond that, I also have a chapter immediately following that goes back to Foster’s childhood and revisits the death of his mother, and there was no logic in the story as to why this chapter is there. It was written as a piece of back story originally, and I was considering cutting it from the current draft.

I think now, though, that I’ve provided myself an opportunity in adding this scene that will address these multiple problems. Foster is by far more impulsive and open that Annabel, and if in the added scene he shares something about the death of his mother–and he can surprise himself with his openness even–then it deepens the relationship in a meaningful way, makes Annabel’s subsequent revelations a measured reciprocation rather than a spontaneous opening up, and also provides the story some logic for circling back to revisit this episode in Foster’s life. It’s an unusual moment in a redraft when I am able to solve multiple issues like this and make substantive improvements. I’d like to find ways to make myself more open to these opportunities.

Are learning resources overbuilt?

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 22, 2005

Am I the only one who feels like we might be overbuilding learning resources in the OER context? I’ve been trying to think through issues of scale, reusability and derivatibility as they relate to open educational resources, and I’m feeling once again like the goals of educational technologists are getting tangled up with the goals of OER sharing. It’s really easy to spend time and energy on the technical aspects of open educational sharing, but I’ve always felt that the genius of the concept was not in technology, but in the revolutionary intellectual property practices involved. The intellectual property practice—sharing your educational materials with the world—is enabled by new technologies. It wouldn’t obviously have been practical before the web, but the heart of it is the IP practice. It feels like the energy of the movement should be around making the concept of openly and widely sharing resources the default practice among educators.

Technology in the service of OER sharing ought to do the minimum required to take materials from their native format and get them online in an open and searchable format. Every step further down the technology road represents:

• Effort that might have been applied to publishing other content.
• A judgment about the relative value (to an unspecified global audience) of a given piece of educational content as compared to any number of others.
• Assumptions about the academic, cultural and technological circumstances under which the materials might be adopted or adapted.

All of the above are fine in the context of specific educational technology undertakings, but if you are talking about making the largest possible body of materials available for reuse by the widest possible audience, the choices inherent don’t scale.

Educators themselves are not the best people to be making decisions about the global value of their teaching tools (witness tOFP). We wouldn’t be using the materials we create if we didn’t think they were the best tools for teaching a subject, but I’m sure there are plenty of writing instructors (and instructional designers) out there who’d argue with tOFP content or the way my course is designed. The point with the tOFP is that they were the right materials in the right format for a particular instructor and a particular group of students at a particular historical moment. When an instructor’s enthusiasm for his or her materials drives them (or others) to expend effort in reformatting the materials for some hypothetical wider audience, odds are that effort will miss on some of the judgments and assumptions above. If the OER movement focuses on the wholesale issue of getting as much good content openly available—including teaching materials, research, textbooks, and journal articles—local educators will do the retail work of adapting the content to local conditions, and that effort will be guaranteed to meet the needs of at least some learners.

Genre – Novels are the wrong way to learn to write

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 20, 2005

What’s this?

I wish that writing short stories came more naturally. I’ve written them, and will almost certainly write more, but they are not the most natural form for me. Like many novelists, I tend to fixate on particular characters and themes, and so it’s difficult for me to create new worlds and new characters, and it feels like a waste to go to all the effort for ten or twenty pages. In the novel, I cover three different eras of the main character’s life–an adolescent period, an early adult period, and the present time of the story, in which he is in his early thirties.

That being said, novels are just the wrong way to learn to write, and I’d suggest that anyone learning to write not attempt a novel until they’ve written quite a number of short stories. There’s just too much invested in a novel, and writing skills (at least mine) develop such that after about eight or ten chapters, I could already feel a change in the quality of the writing. If I’d written ten short stories, I’d have just thrown out the first four or five. With a novel, I had to circle back and rewrite the early chapters, which I’ve done about three times. I’ve also gone back to add a prologue to the novel, all of which has made the writing and the learning probably more laborious than it had to be.

Stories also provide practice at writing all the way through a story line–my case completing the arc of a profluent plot. Writing out the novel as a short story–and having complete a number of other stories–provides me a sense of confidence that as I move the story forward, I won’t get lost. I don’t have the whole novel plotted out in any detail, but I know enough to gauge where I am in the story’s progression, to recognize the right direction to be heading, and know when I’m getting off track.

tOFP is

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 18, 2005

A quick (uncompensated) plug for my hosting service, Warped, which is cheap, easy to use, and has some nice features, such as Webalizer stats tracker. I found Warped though a recommendation from a colleague, which is the best way to find anything. One month after launching tOFP, I’m thrilled to find out via Webalizer that tOFP site has been recommended on, the social bookmarking site that is generating so much talk in Berkman and ed tech/OER circles. Two users have recommended the site, in fact. Thanks for the endorsement.

Signal when you’re through, please (II)

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 18, 2005

The first post by this name outlined some of the decisions made in developing the courseware, in particular, the decision to structure the material in HTML outside of any course management system, and to use e-mail as the main mode of communications. These decisions were made because at the time (2001), HTML and e-mail were the only technologies I could trust that continuing education students would be familiar with, and the only ones I could count on. The decision to place the materials outside of a learning management system was also made for another practical reason–it’s really impossible to manage the volume of text in the course materials within a web interface. Without the option to do universal searches and replacements, it would have taken forever to manage even small changes. Over time, I experimented with bulletin boards and instant messaging, and ultimately adopted the WebCT bulletin board as the tool for managing story workshopping and the online craftbook, but the course remained largely e-mail and HTML based.

Given these decisions, in practice, some aspects of the course worked very well, and some not so well. In particular, the course did a good job of pushing information out (no surprise). I was able to include in the course materials quite a bit more information than I was able to cover in a traditional course. Some students told me how much they appreciated the materials, with a few even printing the while site up to keep as a “textbook.” Because the course was about written texts, it was fortunate to serve students who were generally accustomed to reading as a primary mode of learning; and because it was an introductory course, it included a large body of material to be pushed out in a “banking concept” mode. An advanced course would have needed to rely more on student interaction and less on content, and would have been much harder to pull off at the time given the technological constraints.

E-mail seemed to work well as the main mode of exchanging assignments and feedback. It provided a different type of interaction than a traditional classroom would have–since I didn’t have to devote the time to actually conducting a class, I had more time to devote to responding to assignments. In the traditional version of the class, I rarely had time to do more than make a small comment and assign a grade to the assignments in the course; with the online version, I was able to make very detailed, line-by-line comments on student assignments, which turned out to be very rewarding for me, as I was often able to see the skills students acquired appearing later in their stories. It often allowed me to address higher-level issues when it came time to provide feedback on the stories.

E-mail and the bulletin boards did not work so well for the workshopping aspect of the course. If you’ve never taken a class that involved writing workshops, the idea is that students take turns commenting on one another’s work, often in small groups. Because the workshops were online, I felt I had to be more prescriptive about the type of responses that students provided one another. This completely killed the spontaneity that is often the best part of an in-class workshop. And moving the workshop from a spoken to written environment meant that there was no “conversation” involved. Even on the bulletin board, the workshop consisted of the posting of the story and the student critiques, with a rare question from me or the author about the critiques. Neither the students nor I really had the bandwidth to do more. If I were to teach it again, I’d certainly work hardest on leveraging new technologies (and increased student familiarity with technologies) to improve the workshops.

Metafiction – Postmodern writing exercises

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 15, 2005

What’s this?

One of the truly wonderful things about Emerson’s graduate program is that most of the literature courses taught there are taught not for students of literature but for practitioners of the craft. The program takes something like fifty graduate writers in each year–some would say a few too many–but it means that the literature instruction is focused on helping writers to better understand writing.

A great example of this, which happily also intersects with open sharing of educational resources, is a course that’s been taught recently by DeWitt Henry. I was never able to squeeze in a course with DeWitt, but got to know him a little while I worked there, and he is well-respected and liked by faculty and students. The class covers various aspects of postmodern fiction, primarily through readings from an anthology. But since most of the student are writers, he’s able to assign them each two creative assignments, which he’s begun anthologizing online.

Given my focus on realist fiction, tOFP is also lucky that the students are assigned to create postmodern writing exercises, which I’d have to work at creating on my own. A section on writing postmodern fiction, or metafiction as the coursework calls it, would be an obvious and valuable counterpart to the Realism section of the Fiction & the Real World discussion unit.


Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 14, 2005

As open educational resources proliferate, and the number and diversity of open educational projects increase, the question of what characteristics make resources most useful is going to pick up steam. There are a number of obvious candidate characteristics: size, reusability, level of instructional automation, etc. I’d like to nominate another characteristic for the list: derivatibility, or the extent to which a resource supports the creation of derivative educational resources.

For example, a few years back I attended a WebCT conference session in which a representative of a company called AliveTek offered to make a learning object for free out of the best proposal submitted from attendees. I submitted a proposal for a learning object describing the narrative arc, a central concept in plotting, which was chosen for creation. The narrative arc learning object is a nice little Shockwave animation, which would seem to be fairly reusable. It is, however, far less derivatible than the same description of the narrative arc in the courseware. With the courseware version it would be much easier for another instructor or educational technologist to grab the text or HTML code and the accompanying images, and make changes to suit the technical, academic and cultural environment in which they are teaching.

This becomes important in situations where open educational resources are targeted at the widest possible audience. For example, while a pretty wide audience can be assumed to have read or seen a version of “A Christmas Carol,” there are certainly audiences out there who haven’t. In the case of the learning object version, this is hard to overcome. “A Christmas Carol” is deeply embedded in the object. In the case of the courseware, it might be an hour’s work by someone with minimal HTML and Photoshop skills to swap out “A Christmas Carol” for a story their audience can be assumed to know.

Likewise, the learning object version is tied to a set of technologies. You almost have to have a computer and Shockwave installed to use it. I suppose you could take screenshots and drop them into PowerPoint or print them as handouts. You could transcribe the audio perhaps, but all of these solutions are inelegant and time-consuming. The courseware version is much more derivatible in this respect as well, given that you could print the pages, copy and paste the text into a wide variety of environments, and easily capture and manipulate the images. It moves offline and into classrooms much more elegantly.

Finally, there is the legal angle. The courseware is available under the Creative Commons Non-Commercial, Attribution, Share-alike license, which makes it legally very derivatible, whereas the learning object, while owned by me in compiled form, has its source code still owned by AliveTek. I’m happy to make the content available under the CC license, but the technology is not open source.

AliveTek’s approach certainly makes for a prettier presentation, and is in some ways more self-contained and plug-and-play, but it is so at the expense of derivatibility.