OpenFiction [Blog]

What does peer production of educational materials look like?

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on September 1, 2006

Still gnawing on Wealth of Networks, and have come back around to the mention of MIT OCW. There was actually another passage a few pages on that I’d missed on my vanity read, with a little more extensive assessment. Benkler has very kind things to say about the project, but does again repeat that, while MIT OCW is in his words a “major event” as an intervention in the ecology of free knowledge and information, it really doesn’t represent a substantial change from the production perspective. Fair enough, when discussing how the project works at MIT. The site is produced, and the course materials publication is facilitated, by a central organization funded by the school. It’s clearly not peer production.

This does raise the question of exactly what peer production of course materials looks like. Collaborative authoring of materials, such as takes place on the Connexions platform is one model, though might more properly be considered textbook authoring rather than courseware authoring. The sharing model of MERLOT might be considered as another model, at least insofar as the peer review process influences the development of the materials. Given that most are not peer reviewed, though, and are the creation of individual instructors unlinked to the work of others, maybe not.

Benkler actually touches on one of the reasons for the difficulty of peer-producing educational materials in the following discussion of collaboratively created text book projects:

The most successful commons-based textbook authoring project, which is also the most relevant from the perspective of development, is the South African project, Free High School Science Texts (FHSST). The FHSST initiative is more narrowly focused than the broader initiatives of Wikibooks or the California initiative, more managed, and more successful. Nonetheless, in three years of substantial effort by a group of dedicated volunteers who administer the project, its product is one physics high school text, and advanced drafts of two other texts. The main constraint on the efficacy of collaborative text book authoring is that compliance requirements imposed by ministries tend to require a great deal of coherence, which constrains the degree of modularity that these text-authoring projects adopt.

I’d go (and have gone) further than Benkler in suggesting that educational materials are really hard to generalize in most situations, given the specificity of the educational systems inwhich they are embedded, the needs of the particular audience of learners, and the styles and skills of the instructor. And attempts to “generalize” course materials are costly and tend to strip away the contextual information about the constraints above when information about those constraints might be helpful for both student and instructor.

I’d suggest (and I have before) that rather than thinking of peer production of educational materials looking like Wikipedia, where groups of educators develop consensus around a given set of content, collaboration is based on the use and reposting of individual iterations.  In other words, if I create a piece of content for the specific needs of my students, and then post it when I’m done–and if that is standard practice with a great many educators–then someone else teaching the same subject will have a rich array of “near approximations” of their needs (including potentially my content) to pick up and use (hopefully with verbal recontextualization or minor edits), and then repost in turn.  There’s no need for their use to conform to mine–it might even be a critique of mine.  The point is that no consensus is required, and that collaboration is really a process of rapid individual iterations.

I’m circling the same carcass here, I know, but lots of near approximations provides the possibility of overcoming two of the major challenges facing OER right now:  First, it doesn’t require complex or consistent formats, as the approximations ought to be close enough if the pool of materials grows large enough, because there will be a minimum of contextualization (or localization needed); and second, if you follow a blogosphere model and link out to the resources rather than trying to drag them into your local teaching environment, it allows you to get past license incompatibility issues.


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