OpenFiction [Blog]

OER and FLOSS

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on October 16, 2006

The IIEP forum is back in action, this time with a discussion of the relationship between OER and FLOSS. This follows on a discussion over on the FLOSS forum about how lessons learned in the FLOSS world might be useful in the OER context. Claude Martin provides this summary of lessons learned on the FLOSS side:

During the recent FOSS Community discussion we considered what lessons the OER movement might be able to take from the FOSS movement. We would like to share the ideas that were discussed in the FOSS Community. The lessons learned are grouped into the following categories:

1) OER and FOSS are complementary
2) OER development can mirror and take advantage of the FOSS collaborative model
3) FOSS can promote creation of OER content in developing countries
4) OER developers should commit to open licenses
5) Managing OER content design and editing is easier than FOSS programming
6) More inclusive formats for document exchange should be used
7) FOSS can support better searching of OER
8) FOSS can ease concerns over perceived technical demands of OER development
9) There are differences between OER content and FOSS software

There were a number of follow-on comments discussing differneces between FLOSS and OER (quality control was raised early) and so I wanted to throw in my two cents (ok, a good nickle’s worth at least, but I am wordy by nature):

One basic difference [between FLOSS and OER] I think might be helpful to point out early on is an observation Yochai Benkler made about MIT OCW in The Wealth of Networks:

“As an intervention in the ecology of free knowledge and information and an act of leadership among universities, the MIT initiative was…a major event. As a model for organizational innovation in the domain of information production generally and the creation of educational resources in particular, it was less significant.”

In OER more significantly than in FLOSS, the production and distribution aspects of open sharing can be disaggregated. As Benkler correctly points out, MIT OCW represents grafting of an open distribution mode onto a traditional production mode. Typically in a FLOSS project production and distribution are typically tightly intertwined. The open distribution is what supports iterations (and thus production) by a wide community. Their are certainly great examples of this happening in OER as well–Connexions comes to mind–but open sharing and open production need not necessarily occur together in OER (nor of course in FLOSS–the IBM patent releases are one example). But because there is less economic incentive for faculty to retain copyright of educational materials than there is for traditional software producers to control ownership of their products, there is the possibly that open sharing of traditionally produced content might become the norm in academic practice, rather than the exception, as IBMs case appears to be. The looser control of IP in OER as opposed to software (i.e. in the US ideas can’t be copyrighted, only expressions–more or less) also allows for looser connections between production and distribution. In the content realm, I can borrow from traditionally produced and fully copyright protected works at the idea level, so long as I don’t borrow the expression.

As we discuss OER in terms of the FLOSS experience, I’d suggest it’s worth keeping this difference in mind. Educational content will likely always be produced in a wide range of ways, including the traditional single-faculty paper or digital document approach; collaborative approaches involving multiple faculty or faculty and instructional designers; collaborations between loose-knit groups of learners; and many others. The FLOSS experience certainly points to new and exciting production modes, and I think we all hope many will bear fruit. But it may require somewhat nuanced approaches to understanding production-related issues. In principle I think we all agree that the most flexible possible formats ought to be used to reduce the time required for repurposing content, but asking faculty widely to change the way they produce their content is asking them to assume a whole new level of production effort. In the US we are fortunate to have skilled and talented educators throughout our higher education system. At big research universities, state schools, small private colleges and community colleges there are many many talented faculty creating content appropriate to very different contexts. One question to consider is do we want only those willing to invest the extra time and effort to learn to produce in new formats (or to collaborate with those who understand the formats) to share their content? Or do we, at this stage in the development of OER, just want to encourage as many people to share as much educational content as possible, regardless of format?

I don’t want to get too deep into the format question, as I’m using it as an example of a complication raised by the looser connection between production and distribution in OER. Benkler’s observation is one that impacts OER on many other levels, so it’s one I believe deserves some thought as we begin the discussion.

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