The wiki and the blog
To return to the first aspect described from my notebook page, one reason the remix view gets so much traction is it resonates conceptually with two very powerful emerging models for content creation, Apple’s rip-mix-burn philosophy and wikis—especially the oft cited model of Wikipedia. I’m a big fan of both, generally, and see them as keystones of the emerging producer culture. In application to OER, though, I do think these conceptual models present complications, both because they are seductively powerful models and also because they (as is any application of one conceptual model to another field) are somewhat imperfect. The lego model for learning objects is another of these less-than-perfect conceptual models.
I’ve written before about the problems in applying the rip-mix-burn metaphor the creation of learning materials, but I suppose I should do so in a less impassioned and more reasoned way. Of course it is possible to use sampling and remix to create a new artistic whole, and possible to provide really effective critique and commentary by while doing so. But course materials typically operate more like an expository essay, where support is woven into an extended logical argument. The process behind this involves careful, systematic movement thinking through the argument, and the insertion and critique of evidence at appropriate places.
Educators (at least most of the ones I know, who are in almost all in humanities fields) must think through their materials at a very detailed level, and almost always on paper. This virtually necessitates rewriting, in one’s own words, the arguments and evidence used by others, as a process for understanding the materials. This is not to say that there’s no room for rip-mix-burn in the process of creating educational materials. Of course there are things that can be usefully picked up and dropped into a new set of course materials. It’s just not the beginning and end of the process.
Wikis also provide a seductive and imperfect model for the creation of course materials. Especially with the success of Wikipedia, there is tremendous interest in the creation of collaboratively developed course materials, and I don’t doubt that there will be such materials created. Careful thought about the differences between wikipedia and course materials, though, illustrates the limits of this model in its application to OER. Wikipedia is a tool for collaboratively coming to consensus about meaning. The project rests on the tension between competing views of topics, and that tension drives contributors to advocate for their view of the “real truth.” Pages either reach equilibrium as competing factions settle their differences, or pages get locked down while meaning is debated.
The key here that the Wikipedia model is great for achieving consensus, but less useful for structuring and supporting a multiplicity of divergent views in a coherent fashion. Education depends importantly on the ability to support iconoclastic thinking, and what is iconoclastic in one era becomes canonical in the next. The wikipedia model risks shutting the most innovative voices out of the creation of OER.
Another more practical reason is that, as Eric von Hippel has described in Democratizing Innovation, the wider an audience a product is designed for, the less satisfied–on average–any one person in the audience will be. Educational materials are designed to support very specific interactions of educators, students and curricular structures, each of which impose their own idiosyncratic needs on the materials. Coming to broad consensus around educational materials is likely to dilute their effectiveness in any one specific set of circumstances.
So, what else?
These two models, imperfect as they are, obviously provide insight into some important ways that OER use will develop. Nearly half of the educators coming to the MIT site reuse materials, and two thirds of them combine those materials with materials from other sources, and this is a critically important use. I’m less familiar with good examples of collaborative courseware development, but I’m sure they’re out there. But these two conceptual models, which tie OER use to emerging web technologies and practices, capture peoples’ imaginations far more than does the rather pedestrian idea of “reference,” which by comparison sounds like a dotty old librarian blowing dust off a book.
So what I’d like to do is propose a third forward-looking model, also imperfect, that provides a way of thinking about OER reference use in the context of emerging web tools and practices: OER as the “educational blogosphere.” This is not a model proposed to replace either rip-mix-burn or wikis as ways of thinking about OER any more than blogs themselves replace wikis or remix tools in the Web 2.0 world. The idea rather is to provide an additional way of thinking about OER that can help people envision reference as the valuable practice it appears to be from what I’ve seen.
The educational blogosphere
The idea is that, in some circumstances, it makes more sense for an educator to point at a resource (or provide a paper version of a resource without modification) rather than to grab it and digitally or physically edit it. For as much traction as the idea of localization gets, it seems pretty obvious, for for an educator, if a resource is close enough to her needs, she doesn’t actually have to change it to use it, she just provides students with a little on-the-fly context and off they go. This is analogous to the practices that have grown up around the use of blogs. I don’t edit the cool thing out there on the web I’ve found, I just point to it in a post that also provides my take or the reason why it’s relevant to what else I have to say.
Instead of depending on a few highly editable resources (as does the rip-mix-burn model) this relies on a wide range of resources that don’t necessarily need to be completely flexible from an editing perspective. If every school in the world is publishing their materials in a really simple format, chances are I’ll be able to find a near approximation to my needs that doesn’t require too much contextualization. Not only that, but in pointing to the resource in situ, I am allowing the learner to see the argument for which the resource was originally created, plus potentially (extending the model to include trackbacks) links to a whole range of ways in which the resource has been used. In other words, in a model that supports a multiplicity of divergent views.
So I’ll shut up now
I’ll re-make the point for emphasis that I don’t think the rip-mix-burn metaphor or the wiki metaphor are wrong, or any less perfect that the blogosphere model for that matter. But I do think that they all three have equal validity, and that each can lead projects to very different (and successful) decisions about a range of issues such as licensing and publication format. But those are topics for about a hundred other posts.