OpenFiction [Blog]

A hima for educational and cultural materials?

Posted in intellectual property, open access, open education, Open Educational Resources by scarsonmsm on March 28, 2013

I am always interested in ways that the concept of sharing common resources (like open educational resources) does (and does not) translate across cultures.  Especially with the recent work we’ve done in supporting the Open Book Project, I was intrigued to come across this piece on the tradition of a physical commons in Arabic cultures:

There was an ancient Middle Eastern tradition of setting aside certain lands, called hima (“protected place” in Arabic), for the enjoyment of local chieftains. Muhammad “transformed the hima from a private enclave into a public asset in which all community members had a share and a stake, in accordance with their duty as stewards (khalifa) of God’s natural world,” according to Tom Verde, a scholar of Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim relations.

In the seventh century, Muhammad declared the region of Al-Madinah, now the holy city of Medina, “to be a sanctuary; its trees shall not be cut and its game shall not be hunted.” Many of the hima lasted well into the 20th century, when the tradition fell victim to modern beliefs about land ownership.

This echos for me the important role that Arabic cultures played in preserving knowledge throughout the dark ages.  I like the idea of a cultural and educational hima in which we all have “a share and a stake”—both access to and responsibility for a vibrant common resource that benefits all.

A whole new school?

Looking at the stats from the OpenStudy groups linked to MIT OpenCourseWare, I see there are ~12,000 unique registrants, and about ~18,000 “participants” in group discussions (meaning each individual on average participates in 1.5 groups).

MIT itself has ~10,000 students. Working with OpenStudy, we’ve created a free, peer-facilitated, non-credit learning community on the scale of the Institute itself. Too bad that–with the notable exception of iLabs–we don’t have the capacity to share facilities as widely as educational content.

Washington open text effort

The Chronicle is carrying an article on the open text effort in the state of Washington.  It highlights some of the difficulties in adoption and adaptation of open resources, but I think the end note is more or less right: they are going to get there.

Many course designers thought they would find everything they needed in the open content offered by universities like Carnegie Mellon. Those treasure-troves, developed with grants from several foundations, offer free courses in addition to lecture notes, virtual laboratories, and online “cognitive tutors” that guide students through complex problem-solving exercises. One company, Flat World Knowledge, offers free online textbooks that professors can customize for their own classes. (Flat World makes its money by selling ancillary study guides.)

But instructors in this group were annoyed with the assumption that it’s just a matter of plucking ripe fruit off the Internet tree. They said they had been surprised to discover how few open-source sites cater to students who struggle with basic math, which describes many at the community-college level.

One of the reasons so few resource are available for remedial math is that the schools teaching remedial math have so few resources and thus can’t launch OER efforts, so they are stuck using overpriced textbooks.  It’s a bit of a vicious circle, but it will be broken at some point, especially with help from groups like the Gates Foundation.

For those of you in Boston…

…interested in knowing more about open education:

“Open” is transforming how we think about education in the 21st century. Perhaps you’ve heard of “open eduction” and have wondered what it’s all about. What is it? Why is it important? What does it mean for you, your institution, your institution and the world? This course will help you understand the background, history and implications of open education.

Open Education Practice and Potential is designed to introduce open education to a wide range of students from graduate students, to professionals and to teachers/faculty in K-12 and higher education.

EDUC E-107 Open Education Practice and Potential
Harvard University Extension, Spring term (4 credits)
M.S. Vijay Kumar, EdD
Senior Associate Dean and Director, Office of Educational Innovation and Technology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Brandon Muramatsu, MS
Senior IT Consultant, Office of Educational Innovation and Technology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Class times: Thursdays beginning Jan. 27, 5:30-7:30 pm.
Course tuition: noncredit and undergraduate credit $975, graduate credit $1,900.

Open education builds upon the best traditions of educational innovation and the open source movement. It is a field that foresees remarkable transformations in institutions and teaching and learning at all levels. This course explores innovations in open education from a variety of perspectives. It examines the various dimensions of open education from traditional to contemporary. It explores the micro impacts—impacts at the course, curriculum, and program levels—as well as the macro impacts, those at the university and national educational policy levels. Finally, the course examines the remarkable transformative potential of open education on individuals and institutions.

The course is interactive and seminar-style, it will that encourage active discussion and participation by all course participants. The course will be based on presentations and readings. Additionally the course will have a number of leaders in open education as guest speakers. Guest speakers will come from K-12, higher education, policy-making and the corporate sector, and they have been selected to provide a breadth of exposure to open education

Open Education Practice and Potential will be graded on a number of individual and group projects throughout the term. The class culminates in a final project in which students develop an action plan for themselves or for their organizations describing how they will explore and implement open education principles.

Another decade of benefits piece

Here’s the next installment of the decade of benefits series:

When Megan Brewster, a recent materials sciences BS graduate of the University of Washington, arrived in Guatemala to begin volunteer work for the non-profit Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG), she immediately wished she’d brought her old textbooks with her.

Read more…

I feel like I write one thing…

and David hears another….

Steve (10/29):

I do hope that OER will be able to generate some cost savings, and I see the best opportunities for this in open access journals and open text books. These would seem to offer savings opportunities, though, not because of their relationship to formal education, but because of their relationship to a media industry that is struggling to make its peace with the digital environment, and not doing a good job. OpenCourseWare is different (at least in the higher ed realm) in that there is no significant media industry out there making money on the sales of course content alone.

David (11/24):

Steve wrote persuasively that MIT OCW does not translate into cost savings, and that we probably shouldn’t look for cost savings in the OER context generally.


Steve (11/22)

In addition to the direct benefits of open licenses, they set (or continue) a community ethos that education is about sharing, and most of the universities that have come into the OCW movement have come in out of a commitment to the mission of disseminating knowledge. On a tactical level, the licenses are an important part of the “sell” to faculty considering participation. It’s an expression of the gift economy that educators have long participated in.

So, open licenses help to grease the wheels and do add some benefits (in some cases quite significant ones), and I don’t see huge cost savings in eliminating them. David is covering territory I’ve written about for a while (reference vs. remix uses of OCW). Finger in the wind, I’d say open licenses contribute to about a quarter to a third of end user benefit (if you include translations and aggregations such as in addition to individual uses of the licenses).

David (11/24):

I can kind of cope with it mentally when people not really involved in the space fail to differentiate between the benefits of (1) materials published on the public web and (2) open educational resources. But this conversation with Steve is a repeat of several conversations I’ve had lately. In many cases, people in-field can’t articulate a difference at all, which is disappointing but not depressing. In other cases, more articulate people clearly know the difference and seem to have rejected the necessity of open licenses.

I don’t know how much more clearly I can state:

  • I believe open texts and open journals have the potential to save money because they supplant an entrenched and failing industry; I don’t see the cost savings in OCW, and it does a disservice to both adopters of the practice and the movement as a whole to sell OCW on those merits.
  • I believe open licenses are an important part of OER both because they set a community standard of openness and because they allow for the materials to be modified and redistributed in ways that magnify the benefits of sharing the materials (in the case of MIT OCW, I’d say 1/3 to 1/4 of all benefits).
  • Based on the data I’ve seen, I believe that the bulk of the benefits of open licenses come from macro-level activities such as translation and redistribution that permit reference-based non-remix micro uses rather than the micro level rip-mix-burn by individual educators, although we do see some of this occurring.

I really feel like we are swinging from hyperbolic statement (If open education practitioners cannot move from large-scale sharing to large-scale adopting, the field is dead) to hyperbolic statement (if linking is adopting, every penny spent openly licensing has been wasted) with little connection to data.

It’s quite possible that open licenses are very valuable even if only a small minority of users take advantage of them. These may either be users that can have widespread impact, such as translators and redistributors, or they may be young innovators who will change future practice down the road. But let’s move from what we observe to an understanding of how the field is generating such remarkable impact, rather than starting from a conceptual notion (individual faculty saving money through rip-mix-burn) and when it doesn’t appear in practice claiming the sky is falling.

By the way, all the benefits listed in Table 4B of my previous post are benefits of open licenses, as they relate to faculty incorporating materials into their own courses.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Failure to define success

I guess the thing I’m feeling most strongly out of the most recent exchange over the issue of cost savings and OCW is my own failure to get more data out there about how OCW generates benefit. I have several years’ worth of survey data that we simply haven’t had the time to package up neatly and get out there, and so if we aren’t showing how it works, I guess we can’t complain when others attempt to define success for us.

So this is in small measure an attempt to insert some fact into the speculation. David is currently postulating that cost savings from adopting OER is the key benefit, and if that benefit isn’t generated the movement has failed. The data below is from a 2008 survey of OCW users with more than 5,000 self-selected respondents. Educators were 9% of respondents and so we are already looking at a small portion of overall traffic. How does this subsection of the audience use the content?

Graph showing educatior scenarios of use

As it turns out fewer than 1/3 are using it in a way that would require direct adoption (20.2% incorporating materials + 7.9% developing curriculum).  The other three modes of use—personal learning, learning new teaching methods and finding reference materials for students—have nothing whatsoever to do with adoption of materials in the way David describes (although the reference materials for students might be done via linking).

We can look even more granularly at these modes of use and the benefits they produce.  So, for example, personal learning, which is 30.5% of educator use:

Table of personal learnign uses

As can bee seen, educators use the site largely to learn new material, either within or outside their field, and secondarily to refresh their knowledge of the basics.  What are the benefits in doing this?

Table of  educator personal learning benefits

Mostly making them better teachers, it would seem, through the availability of better information and the motivation it provides.

What about learning new teaching methods, the second most prevalent mode of use in Table 1 at 22.9%?

Table of ways educators learn teaching methods

Primarily they learn new methods for themselves, and secondarily for their wider community of educators.  What benefits does this activity generate?

Table of teaching methods benefits

I’m sure this will be interpreted in some circles as promoting backwardness, but interestingly, most educators learning teaching methods from the site believe they become better lecturers, and only secondarily learning to make instruction more interactive or project based.

OK, onto the issue that has David’s attention, incorporation of materials at 20.2% of educator use.  What does this actually look like?

Table of incorporation modes

No surprise most faculty are incorporating materials into an existing course, which means the formats, approaches, language, etc. all have to be a pretty good match for direct adoption.  Interestingly, the second most prevalent way is looking for ideas on how to design a course, which may or may not be the kind of direct adaptation David is interested in.  The last mode, adoption for a new course seems to me to be the clearest path for adoption in the way David describes it.  And the benefits?

Table of adoption benefits

Time savings fall pretty low here, and cost savings even lower.  So the benefit David is focusing on is 37% (24.9% time + 12.1% cost) of 20.2% (% of educators incorporating materials) of 9% (% of educators) of the benefit we’ve identified.  That’s less than 1% of the benefit.  If indeed this is the key benefit of OCW, we are truly in trouble.

Let’s complete the data set with the student reference use (15.1% of educator use):

Table on educator refence uses

Largely, educators appear to use the materials to help students better learn concepts in the class or to study more advanced topics, and less for remedial work.  How do they characterize the benefits?

Table on reference benefits

Increased student learning and increased student motivation appear to be the key benefits here.

Finally, curriculum development, at 79% of overall educator use:

Table on curriculum development

Here is an even split between existing and new curriculum.  And the benefits?

Table on curriculum development benefits

Cost was not addressed directly in this instance (the possible benefits were generated through an analysis of open-ended questions regarding benefit in previous surveys).  Generously assuming all “other” responses to be cost- or time-savings related is still only 5.9%.

So scanning the benefits in all of the tables above, most of the responses have to do with increases in quality of instruction or learning, or with student and faculty motivation.  There are two ways to make a system more efficient, make it cost less or increase the output.  I don’t see a lot of evidence in this that OCW can make education cheaper (though open texts and open access journals may), but I see lots of evidence that it can help us all get more out of the investments we do make in education. The above analysis does not even take into consideration the benefits generated for students, who are 42% of our audience.

Of course there are things that could be said about the data–it’s self-selected, the benefits were preselected and incorporate bias, it represents what is rather than what should be and if OCW were more adoptable more people would adopt it…  All of these are likely true to an extent, and show just how difficult it is to conduct evaluation on a resource like OCW.  But I doubt the cumulative effect is enough to change the picture dramatically.

Why is this important enough to spill so many pixels over?  Because selling chickens as a source of milk will disappoint the customer.  If the institutional administrators, Department of Education staff, grantors, donors and other sources of support are brought in on the cost savings argument, and those savings fail to materialize, the movement will lose support.  For formal education, it’s very important that we actively promote OCWs ability to increase quality of education through transparency and open publication, and to also look for cost savings where they emerge.  If we are going to do OpenCourseWare, we ought to do it for what it does—increases the quality of education at our institution and provides educational opportunity for millions—not for what we wish it did.

Anyway, in future posts, I’ll share parallel data for students and independent learners.  But more immediately, I have a follow on case study to this educator data that illustrates how “adoption” is not simply plug-and-play or a matter of a few localizations, and why the impact is more quality and less money.

Haunted by the ghosts

A couple of difficulties is talking about OER:

One: “Open educational resources” represents a broad and diverse field of practices that function in a range of ways, and to speak of them as a unified whole (unintentionally or intentionally) or expect them all to function in the same way is to confuse apples with oranges.

Two: Since OER is a relatively new field, and grew out of a number of precedents including open source software, open content and learning objects, one of the consistent issues I see arise is that people tend to projects their agendas from other realms onto the relatively blank slate of OER, rather than looking at what is actually going on.

I see both of these issues at work in David’s latest installment on OER adoption. Being unable to travel either to OpenEd or the Asia OCW Conference this year, I find myself with time to unpack how the issues above are at work in his response.

Disposing of the first issue above, throughout the post, David treats OER as a unified whole that must have a unified goal–in this case saving money. I do hope that OER will be able to generate some cost savings, and I see the best opportunities for this in open access journals and open text books. These would seem to offer savings opportunities, though, not because of their relationship to formal education, but because of their relationship to a media industry that is struggling to make its peace with the digital environment, and not doing a good job.

OpenCourseWare is different (at least in the higher ed realm) in that there is no significant media industry out there making money on the sales of course content alone. Outside of The Learning Company’s videos of lectures and a few other niche products, OCW hasn’t been trying to supplant some other for-profit producer that’s been raising prices on paying customers to offset losses due to digital copying as journal and textbook publishers have. That’s what has enabled OCW to spread as widely as it has and what makes it an effective wedge to begin discussions of open sharing on campuses. The success of OCW at MIT no doubt made the discussion of an MIT open access publishing policy easier to have. To lump OCW together with other OER and say the point of the thing is cost savings is a mistake.

On the second issue above, a common rhetorical device I often see in discussions of OCW, and one David uses here, is:

1) The value of OCW is (insert agenda here).
2) There is no evidence of (agenda).
3) Therefore OCW is unsuccessful.

David employs this in asking:

How many displacing adoptions are happening inside MIT thanks to the existence of MIT OCW? Since their OCW is the largest of them all, they could potentially be saving their students more money than anyone else. I’d love to see some data on this out of MIT OCW.

Is there evidence that MIT is saving MIT students money with OCW?  Not a lot. Does this lack of evidence mean that OCW doesn’t benefit MIT students? No, and we’ve actually documented considerable benefits for MIT students generated by the site. 93% of undergraduates and 82% of graduates use the site; 70% of MIT students use the site materials to compliment those they receive in class, 46% use it as a course planning tool, and 39% use it for personal learning; 58% of students rate the site’s impact on student experience as “extremely positive” or positive” and only 4% indicate no positive impact. Lots of benefit, just not the particular benefit of cost savings, which is David’s interest.

From a broader perspective, there’s no doubt that OCW and other OER are producing tangible benefit on a relatively large scale. Millions of people are accessing the materials and hundreds of universities are sharing open educational resources. I suppose its possible that these millions are people we don’t really want to serve and that all these universities have been duped and deluded into believing there is some benefit for them in sharing their materials as they are when there really isn’t. Or it’s possible that lots and lots of people are being helped by the open sharing of educational materials and that there really are tangible benefits for universities even if they turn out to be not the ones that we were expecting.

I learned this early on in my experience with OCW. If your asked 2003-vintage me what the benefits of the project would be, I’d have said, “Oh, definitely, with faculty reusing the content. This is stuff someone is going to have to take and modify and teach in a classroom. It’s not stuff you just dive into without guidance.” When the early returns from our surveys indicated half the people visiting our site had no connection to a university, either as a faculty member or student, I decided it was a better idea to look at what the data was saying rather than guess how I thought the resource would be useful. After all, you can beg a chicken all day for milk and she’s only ever going to give you eggs, but eggs are pretty good too.

Is OCW useful to formal higher education? I’d say the data indicates it is. After all, if 50% of our visitors are not associated with a university, that means that about 50% are. That’s a lot of people, 400-500K a month to the MIT OpenCourseWare site alone, and from virtually every higher ed institution out there. We’ve gotten 2,600 visits this year from BYU, not all of which I assume are coming from David. Have we documented a raft of cost-saving opportunities for faculty and students at other universities? Again, not a lot. One third of students at other schools are using OCW to complement materials from their enrolled classes, and 12% of those indicate the site has saved them money in doing so. That’s a relatively small portion of the overall use. Does this mean there are no benefits?

If I had to put a stake in the ground on how OCW generates benefit for others, right now I’d say primarily as a reference tool that is used for a range of academic activities, including independent (not distance) learning, curricular planning and development, supplements to classroom learning, academic planning, and professional development and problem-solving. Interestingly, many of these benefit from accessing the materials in situ, embedded in the OCW site and MIT curricular structure, rather than disaggregated and localized. Thus, linking is a better strategy to support many of these activities.

David discusses at length the evils of linking, making absolute (and intentionally provocative) statements that in his mind follow from reliance on it at the expense of remix/reuse:

If linking is going to constitute the primary method of adopting OER, every penny spent on the process of openly licensing material for OCW or OER publication has been wasted.


When you define “adoption” as linking, there is literally no need to concern yourself with licensing or openness. When you define adoption as linking, you undermine everything that separates OER from the other resources on the web.

Here again, only true if you believe adoption and localization by individual faculty members is the primary reason for the open licenses. If you take a view that reference uses are a large part of the benefit, and you look at the area where the open licenses have been employed to greatest effect, it becomes clear that the licenses are quite important. Since we launched the site, more than 800 translations of our courses have been made into a range of languages. My best estimate is that back-of-the-envelope these represent about $10 million in funds and effort contributed by other organizations, and all made possible by the open licenses. They’ve attracted a huge amount of traffic–at least 30 million visits–and I would guess that most of the use on the other side of the language divide has been largely reference rather than remix as well. Licenses are a vital part of providing additional access to the content.

How does OCW benefit MIT if not through cost? Right now I’d say largely though transparency. MIT as an institution has better visibility into what it teaches and how; faculty teaching advanced courses understand more about what their students learn in foundational courses. Faculty also likely improve their materials in preparing them for open publication; they definitely make new connections based on the open publication; they increase their own professional standing and that of their departments. Students at MIT make much better academic decisions and understand how their chosen field relates to other disciplines (crucial in addressing cross disciplinary challenges like energy, cancer and environmental preservation); before they come to MIT, they have a better idea of what the academic experience at MIT will be like through visiting the site. Does any of this make MIT any cheaper? Maybe at the margins. Does it make MIT better? No doubt.

Great article

Posted in open access, open education, Open Educational Resources, OpenCourseWare by scarsonmsm on August 13, 2010

This is one of the better articles I’ve read recently on open educational practices (as opposed to the narrower field of open educational content, which is my particular patch of the weeds). I’m struggling to find which of the excellent passages to quote, but I’ll take from the conclusion placing open courses in the wider context:

Open courses are not a new way to pass on knowledge from the initiated to the acolyte. Rather, they are an acknowledgment that passing knowledge from one to another is not, and has never been, the primary goal of the academy. The academy seeks to grow knowledge by engaging learners and members of society in a discussion, an exploration. Open courses permit educators and a global network of learners to participate in research, learning, and sense-making around a given topic. In opening our doors to collaborative participation, we are making a value judgment about what we want higher education to be and are also, perhaps, opening the door to new research, learning, and business models of our own.

Definitely worth reading the whole piece.

I’ll pair that with this article, which headlines the New York Times today, in which Alzheimer’s researchers seem astounded to learn that sharing data openly leads to progress:

At first, the collaboration struck many scientists as worrisome — they would be giving up ownership of data, and anyone could use it, publish papers, maybe even misinterpret it and publish information that was wrong.

But Alzheimer’s researchers and drug companies realized they had little choice.

“Companies were caught in a prisoner’s dilemma,” said Dr. Jason Karlawish, an Alzheimer’s researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. “They all wanted to move the field forward, but no one wanted to take the risks of doing it.”

Go figure.

Top shelf

Posted in intellectual property, open access, open education, Open Educational Resources by scarsonmsm on February 2, 2010

Here’s an absolutely top shelf project, Student Pulse, an online journal of student papers. I found myself drawn right into the featured paper on skyscraper design. I could lose a lot of time digging through this one.