Spoke yesterday on a panel at the US Patent and Trademark Office copyright workshop (thanks, Susan). This is a program they run for government officials of other countries to help them understand copyright issues. The highlight for me was meeting Arnie Lutzker, one of the people primarily responsible for the drafting and passage of the TEACH Act, which governs digital transmission of education materials. I’ve read enough about the shortcomings of the TEACH Act that I’d lost sight a little of just how much went into getting even those exceptions carved out. It’s truly a heroic accomplishment. It was great to hear the story from a participant.
The Atlantic is carrying an interview with a filmmaker who has done a documentary on the typeface Helvetica. The article is well worth the read both for it’s comments on fonts and filmmaking (and producer culture, for that matter). Don’t miss the embedded video.
Some tasty bits:
…what type designers do is amazingly complicated. The level of detail that goes into all the decisions while you’re making a typeface is just incredible. How close together two different letters should be when they appear next to each other, like an upper-case T and a lower-case o, for instance. How far does that o slide underneath the top of that T? It’s called a kerning pair. You’ve got to make these decisions for every pair of letters that could possibly come together.
The democratization of technology, whether it’s graphic design technology or filmmaking technology, is a double-edged sword. It lowers the barriers of entry so a lot of new designers or filmmakers can express themselves. It also completely clutters up the landscape with a lot of crap. There are some interesting things that YouTube has brought to a larger audience, but if you look at the percentage of stuff on YouTube that’s in any way worthwhile in a cultural sense, it’s a very tiny percentage.
Typefaces do pick up baggage from how they’re used. When I look at Helvetica, I think of American Apparel. I think of American Airlines. One of the things that’s amazing about Helvetica is it has been used or overused for decades, yet we still see it everywhere. And very forward-thinking young graphic designers still use it the same way it was used in the sixties. I can’t explain why, with the thousands of fonts that people have to choose from now, a large percentage of them still choose to use Helvetica.
For the record, I’m not a fan. I’ve already documented my preference for Tahoma when it comes to san-serif fonts.
Forbes magazine is carrying a commentary piece by Bill Gates on the educational challanges we face in the 21st century, which mentions MIT OpenCourseWare very prominently:
…technology can provide many of the tools needed to begin to tackle the challenge of scale. The combination of software, broadband networks and powerful, affordable devices is making it possible to put high-quality educational resources into the hands of any teacher or student who has access to basic technology infrastructure and tools. The unique ability of technology to enable today’s limited educational resources to scale quickly and affordably across great distances to a great many people makes it an essential ingredient in our efforts to transform education.
MIT’s OpenCourseware Initiative is an exciting example of how technology can help make great educational materials scale. Through the OpenCourseware Web site, lecture notes, exams and other resources for more than 1,800 MIT classes are available online for free. Developed by professors at one of the world’s great universities, these materials used to be available to only a small handful of students. Now, anyone, anywhere in the world, can access them, and on average more than 1 million people visit the site every month…
It’s of course wonderful to have someone so respected in both the business and philanthropic communities providing visibility to the project. His comments don’t capture the full energy of the OpenCourseWare/Open Educational Resources movement, but hopefully attention drawn to us will drive attention to all the other great projects as well. I also like that he points out that technology can enable educational change, but is not sufficient:
Of course, technology by itself is not the answer to all the issues we face in our efforts to live up to Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There are significant social, cultural and institutional challenges that must be overcome as well. Technology must be implemented as part of a thoughtful, holistic approach to education transformation that includes teacher training, relevant curricula, parental involvement and programs for children that fill unmet needs for basics like nutrition and health care.
One of the things I enjoy most about my work is the exposure on a daily basis to amazing people from all walks of life devoting their talents and energies to addressing all of these challenges. It’s something that allows me to maintain a level of optimism about our future.
A while back, I ended up creating a Facebook account in order to view some OCW-related content on the site (a group of Stanford students are using Facebook to organize a call for an OCW at Stanford). While I’ve read a fair amount about social networking sites, and received my share of invitations to join, I have to say, I’ve never been that interested. I have enough trouble keeping up with the online activities I already have going (this blog included). Once I signed up, it took no time at all for friends to find me (David Wiley spotted me in under six hours). Facebook, it turns out, was the one thing my entire family seemed to agree on. So I put a basic profile up, and have actually come to enjoy some aspects of it. But I’m still not sold.
There’s a lot out there on privacy concerns regarding Facebook, and some of it quite justified. I’m generally of the opinion, though, that the moment you turn on an internet-connected computer, you really ought to operate from the presumption that their is no such thing as privacy. Anything you do can be traced (and will be if Dick Cheney has anything to say about it). I’ve seen a few people shocked to learn that Google can find what you post on Facebook, which I find a little confusing. What can’t Google find?
By posting User Content to any part of the Site, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to the Company an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content for any purpose, commercial, advertising, or otherwise, on or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof, to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such User Content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing. You may remove your User Content from the Site at any time.
It says right after this that if you remove your content, the license “expires,” but I’m not sure how that jibes with “irrevocable” and “perpetual,” especially when sublicenses are in play. Given my experiences with CC licenses, I suspect whatever the wording, once the content is out there, it’s a practical impossibility to pull it back.
I’m not wildly concerned about photographs (except it seems prudent to limit the number of pictures of my children out there floating around under sublicenses). There is some information, though, that gives me pause. Members of my family, for instance, are into the Family Tree application, and are busily tracing our genealogy. As a privacy issue, I can live with this, but given Facebook’s ability to sublicense data, I can see this really causing problems. It won’t take much number crunching to see the the historical health issues my family has been blessed with, and I’m sure their are plenty of insurance companies who’d be interested in such data on a population scale. My kids are going to have a tough enough time getting decent and affordable health coverage as it is.
The less dystopian among us will point out that the very same genealogy data could really produce an awful lot of good as well, which is no doubt true. My concern is the way it’s being collected and aggregated and who ultimately ends up having access to it. And the above is a for instance. It’s not too far beyond the pale to imagine oneself under scrutiny for who one is “friends” with on Facebook, as already I am friends with acquaintances of acquaintances who I hardly know. Anyway, for the time being, I’m happy keeping most of my online footprint off a site like Facebook.
Just a follow on to the previous post: Here’s a post by Teemu Leinonen extolling the virtues of locally created content over localized content. While I don’t really have an opinion one way or the other on the infrastructure solution suggested, I do think the sentiment behind the perspective is similar to mine below.
I’m almost through reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, which if you haven’t read, you should. It’s easily one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in the last ten years and will really alter your perceptions of what and how you eat, and how you participate in a larger system of food production and consumption. Much of what he discusses I already knew, albeit in bits and pieces: Corn products, especially high-fructose corn syrup, make up a dangerously large portion of the “food” we consume. Industrial meat production is barbaric and biologically dangerous. “Health foods” aren’t all that healthy.
But like any great nonfiction book, it moves beyond fact to paint a really profound picture of the systems that generate those facts. It really has altered my perspective in important ways. One of the most dramatic distinctions he draws in the book is between industrial food production and artisanal food production. One could go one for a long time about the failings of industrial food production: its reliance on petrochemicals, the trend toward monoculture, the relentless logic of increased yield that leads to systemic mutilation and abuse of animals. He contrasts this with an example of a farm in Virginia that uses sustainable methods to generate a wide range of agricultural products in sync with the local ecology and seasons.
This isn’t a post about food, though, or even good non-fiction. It’s a post about the application of the industrial vs. artisanal distinction to education. I’ve realized in the course of reading the book that much of my thinking about education and open educational resources is colored by my sense that education done well is essentially and artisanal and deeply local undertaking, and that successful open educational resources generally honor this.
Why artisanal? I’ve said in the past that I think education is a highly localized undertaking because cultures, academic systems, and instructional technologies vary so widely, and this explains it in part. These differences have launched the thousand ships of the localization discussions in open educational resources circles, and suggest that most educational resources can be made appropriate for a wide range of contexts, if only they are sufficiently flexible to permit enough localization. I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the concept of localization, not because I think its not true, but more because it doesn’t feel sufficient.
Education seems to me to be artisanal because the best courses I’ve taken–and the best courseware I’ve seen–are the result of a particular teacher’s personal engagement and experience with the concepts and practices of a particular field. This may be a by-product of largely studying humanities, but I don’t think so. I’ve listened to enough hacker discussions of “elegant” code to know there’s more going on in software development than just getting a program to produce the desired end result. My sense is that most expert knowledge is the accretion over time of an organic and individualistic understanding of both fact and practice, and that courseware is a way of communicating that understanding. Learning in some sense then is a process of apprenticeship. To paraphrase John Seely Brown, not learning physics, but learning how to be a phyisicist.
There are obviously better and worse ways of communicating this accrued experience. Participatory learning, ways to engaging students and helping them to internalize practice, but teaching and courseware seem to me to be intensely dependent on the personal as well as the cultural, academic and technological, which is where localization reaches its limit. There are only so many pieces of courseware out there that are congruent with my experiences as a writer and writing instructor. No amount of rejiggering of format or examples or academic level is going to make some resource appropriate for my uses. It doesn’t mean they are wrong, or low quality. Just that they don’t helpfully engage (sometimes by challenging) my understanding of the practice of fiction writing.
And some of the discussions I find less engaging about education–competencies, learning outcomes, standardized testing–seem to me the result of an industrial attempt to create a uniform end result from an inherently non-uniform process. Don’t get me wrong, there are some areas of education where a standardized end result is important, but it also tends to be reductionist. Sure, it’s desirable for everyone to share some basic competencies, but it’s also important to encourage the pursuit of individuals’ unique engagements with subjects they are passionate about, even at the primary and secondary levels. And this has always happened for me though contact with teachers and students so engaged.
How does this apply to OER? OER can definitely provide resources that can be picked up from one context and used in another, and the extent that this happens naturally it’s a good thing. But I think that OER are at their weakest when they try to be all things for all people. Educational resources are remarkably resistant to industrial models of mass replication and application, even with significant localization. OER at their best present very unique and very local engagements with academic fields, deeply rooted in culture and personal experience. They present ways of being academically engaged that are less about digital resources that can be used and more about sharing practices and unique understandings. I can learn new approaches to understanding the craft of fiction writing by studying the courseware of a photography class, even though there are no materials I can directly use in my own instruction. Rather the site provides new approaches to creating my own materials. My suspicion is that one of the reasons OpenCourseWare turns out to be an effective model is that it presents as a whole a professor’s unique engagement with his or her field, that it models what it means to be engaged in academic practice in a deeply personal and individual way. It presents an artisanal model that can be instructive when applied thoughtfully to other unique environments rather than an industrial product designed for use in all environments.
There’s a nice article in the Michigan Daily on the OCW that’s been in the works there for a while. I’ve heard Joseph Hardin talk about their planned approach a couple of times. Their essentially attempting to make OCW production a part of the student experience, which is the only approach I’ve yet seen proposed that I think has a chance of scaling campus-wide and dramatically reducing costs.
It is a longer row to hoe in terms of changing university culture. The virtue of the large centralized organization we have is that we didn’t have to ask faculty or students to change what they were doing at all. We simply had to ask them to hand over the materials from the course. The down side is of course cost. Most of the cost-reduction measures we’ve discussed–such as having faculty enter materials into a common LMS and tag them for later OCW publication–require fairly significant changes in faculty practice, changes I estimate will occur at the pace of retirement if at all.
Hardin’s proposal, having students act as what he calls “dScribes,” collecting and publishing content for credit rather than pay, cuts out many of the fixed costs and asks the University to adjust to a new form of student engagement/participation in the teaching and learning process, one that I can see could have significant educational value for the students (especially if they plan at some point to teach), but doesn’t ask faculty to change behavior too much. Again, an indication that it might have a chance to succeed. Michigan is definitely on my list of projects to watch in the coming year or two.