sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

Archive for the ‘spreadability’ Category

how to eat pistachios and where to buy your jeans

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on October 6, 2009

Here’s how the infamous ex-soon-to-be-son-in-law of Sarah Palin, Levi Johnston, eats them:

And speaking of advertising campaigns that have no problem taking advantage of perfectly unsuspecting people, Levi Strauss & Company has unveiled a new campaign called “Go Forth.” Here’s a sample commercial that embodies the tone and spirit of this most recent sales offensive.

This campaign takes on a tone similar to the 2000 Volkswagen commercial that featured Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” and a group of young adults in a VW Cabrio who choose the purity of a beautiful nighttime drive over the stumbling chaos of a college party.

To be honest, the Nick Drake commercial seriously moved me, and I bet if I’d had the money I would’ve gone out and gotten me a Cabrio. Though if we’re going to be really honest about it, I was that kind of 20-something: I read a lot of Ginsberg. I bought extra copies of On the Road to hand out to my friends. I listened to Dylan, refused to own a TV, and made sure everyone knew it oh god I was such a lame-o.

I was, I’ll admit, curious enough to go to the campaign website, which features a Blair Witch-style video featuring the lost treasure of Grayson Ozias IV. Ozias, according to the site, was a close friend to Nathan Strauss, a nephew of Levi Strauss, and he disappeared in the late 1800’s to explore the Great America. Along the way, he buried $100,000, presumably his entire inheritance. Levi’s has Officially Discovered the cash and will give it away to whoever locates it.

The Levi’s commercial–in fact, the entire campaign–is beautifully executed and would be pitch perfect if it weren’t for the tiny detail that the whole thing is engineered to sell run-of-the-mill clothes manufactured by a company whose labor practices are controversial at best.

God, it’s all a lie. Over at ARGNet, Michael Anderson explains that one key member of the campaign is Jan Libby, formerly of lonelygirl15. If you know your YouTube history, you know that the lonelygirl15 webisodes were carefully (some might say brilliantly; others might say a bit too preciously and heavy handedly) engineered so that viewers couldn’t tell whether Bree, the protagonist, was completely real, kind of real with a scripted story, completely made up or some combination of the above. (If you don’t know which category she ultimately fell into, then I leave it to you to go forth and see the Great Wikipedia Page.)

I can handle the idea that a group of smart(ass), young, new media types would try to make money off of an enormous cultural dupe. I can even accept that Volkswagen and Gap would see nothing wrong with climbing the economic ladder by stomping on the heads of our most awesome dead celebrities.

But Levi’s is trying to out-Whitman Whitman. It’s trying to out-Christopher McCandless Christopher McCandless. It’s trying to out-Dorothea Lange Dorothea Lange. This is a case of a company that wants so badly to be viewed as a Real American Original that it will go so far as to manufacture a Real American Backstory even though nobody’s buying it.

Seriously: Go to the site. There’s a Last Will and Testament of Grayson Ozias IV. There’s the hint at a cast-off pedigree (he is, after all, the fourth and presumably last of the Grayson Oziases, and he turned his back on all that mantle could have meant). The video presents beautiful young men and women frollicking to the backdrop of a grainy sound recording, apparently of Ozias himself explaining his decision to set forth into the great Unexplored America. “Therefore,” he states with unequivocal soundness of mind, “I commit the fortune I have made in my travels back to the earth from whence it came” (cut to beautiful young people in Levis uncovering and then reburying an old-timey trunk).

This is clearly a corporate attempt at harnessing the spreadability factor of social media. And I wonder how well it’s working. For my part, the only message I’m interested in spreading is a message about how lame it is to create a fake genuine American hero to sell fake genuine American apparel.

Posted in advertising, America, celebrity, convergence culture, creativity, lame, literature, spreadability | 2 Comments »

cross-post: on matthew robson, teens & twitter, and why we’re such fans of the declarative sentence

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 14, 2009

cross-posted from my post at the Guardian’s CIF: America

You know you’re living in the middle of a social revolution when all of the following things happen:

The story of Matthew Robson is, depending on your general stance toward social media, young people, and media moguls, some combination of comic and / or terrifying and / or compelling and / or sad and / or absurd. Meanwhile, freaked-out CEOs worldwide are asking: “Is Robson right that teens don’t use Twitter?”

That, my friends, is the wrong question. The right question is this: Why did this teen’s memo, short on evidence but long on declarative sentences, get so much play among mainstream media outlets? In other words: Why is one 15-year-old’s middling analysis of teen media use being interpreted as the new bible of social media?

The answer is simple: We’re lost in a forest and we’re looking for a guide to lead us out. We live in a world where knowledge is abundant and access is near-ubiquitous. What’s scarce is the ability to sift through the information, to extract, synthesize, and circulate key ideas to a public that’s starving for someone to serve as an intelligent filter.

The knowledge-abundance model is a first for humankind, and we’re struggling to come to terms with what this shift means for every institution we’ve erected, from economics to education to religion to work. Older adults especially, and especially those who feel overrun and overburdened with media messages, are alert for anybody who appears to speak this new “knowledge-abundance” language with anything approaching fluency. Young people, more adaptive in general and more capable of living with ease in a high-stimulus media environment, make social media seem so easy that people who should really know better will sit still and soak up every word.

Robson’s memo, all questions of accuracy and expertise aside, displays a remarkable air of confidence and credibility. Look at this sample passage, about teens’ willingness to read print media:

The only newspapers that are read are tabloids and freesheets (Metro, London Lite…) mainly because of cost; teenagers are very reluctant to pay for a newspaper (hence the popularity of freesheets such as the Metro). Over the last few weeks, the Sun has decreased in cost to 20p, so I have seen more and more copies read by teenagers. Another reason why mainly tabloids are read is that their compact size allows them to be read easily, on a bus or train. This is especially true for The Metro, as it is distributed on buses and trains.

So: in a revolutionary shift, nearly everyone has nearly the same access to the bulk of human knowledge. Knowledge, ostensibly the great equalizer, doesn’t in practice equalize a thing because there’s simply too much information out there for any one person to make sense of it. We’re surrounded by so many unfamiliar trees that we can’t begin to figure out which of them might bear fruit. It’s why we rely on blogs and Twitter to distill our news and point us, quickly, to a few key stories; it’s why we keep track of a vast network of friends and acquaintances through social networks like Facebook and MySpace; and it’s why a 15-year-old intern’s memo is taken at face value because it offers a simple roadmap for navigating social media use among teens.

When you’re lost in a forest, it appears, you’ll follow anybody who promises to lead you to a clearing. The next question is: How long until we realize that the guide may be walking quickly as if he’s following a path but is in fact just as lost as everyone else?

Posted in journalism, lame, participatory culture, social media, social revolution, spreadability, Twitter | 1 Comment »

opening up scholarship: generosity among grinches

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 5, 2009

why academic research and open exchange of ideas are like that bottle of raspberry vinaigrette salad dressing you’ve had in the back of your fridge since last summer

The folks over at Good Magazine are tossing up a series of blogposts under the heading “We Like to Share.”

The articles are actually a series of interviews with creative types in a variety of fields who share one characteristic: they believe that sharing of ideas and content is valuable and important. The edited interviews are being posted by Eric Steuer, the Creative Director of Creative Commons–a project which, though I admittedly don’t fully understand it, I find deeply ethical and innovative with respect to offering new approaches to sharing and community.

So far, two posts have gone up, the first with Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook and the former online strategist for the Obama presidential campaign, and the second with Flickr founder Caterina Fake. Talking about how much we’ve changed in our attitudes toward sharing, Fake explains that

[i]f you go online today you will see stories about Obama sharing his private Flickr photos. So this is how far the world has come: our president is sharing photos of his life and experiences with the rest of the world, online. Our acceptance of public sharing has evolved a lot over the course of the past 15 years. And as people became increasingly comfortable sharing with each other—and the world—that lead to things that we didn’t even anticipate: the smart mob phenomenon, people cracking crimes, participatory media, subverting oppressive governments. We didn’t know these things were going to happen when we created the website, but that one decision—to make things public and sharable—had significant consequences.

Hughes’ interview is less overtly about sharing as we typically think of the term, but he points out that the Obama campaign was successful because it focused on offering useful communications tools that lowered barriers to access and then

getting out of the way of the grassroots supporters and organizers who were already out there making technology the most efficient vehicle possible for them to be able to organize. That was a huge emphasis of our program: with people all over the place online—Facebook, MySpace, and a lot of other different networks—we worked hard to make sure anyone who was energized by the campaign and inspired by Barack Obama could share that enthusiasm with their friends, get involved, and do tangible things to help us get closer to victory. The Obama campaign was in many ways a good end to the grassroots energy that was out there.

Both interviews, for as far as they go, offer interesting insights into how sharing is approached by innovators within their respective spheres. But though these posts present their subjects as bold in their embrace of sharing and community, their ideas about what sharing means and how it matters are woefully…limited. Fake uses the Obama example to point out how far we’ve come; but really, does Obama’s decision to make public photos of his adorable family mean much more than that he knows how to maintain his image as the handsome, open President who loves his family almost to a fault? I don’t imagine we’d be very surprised to learn that Obama’s advisors counseled him to make these photos widely available.

Indeed, the Flickr approach, in general, is this: These photos are mine and I will let you see them, but you have to give them back when you’re done. It’s a version of sharing, yes, but only along the lines of the sharing we learned to do as children.

The same is true of the picture Hughes paints of a campaign that successfully leveraged social networking technologies. The Obama campaign’s decision to use participatory technologies was a calculated move: Everybody knows that a.) More young, wired and tech-savvy people supported Obama than McCain; and b.) those supporters required a little extra outreach in order to line up at the polls on election day. You can bet that if Republicans outnumbered Democrats on Facebook, you can bet Obama’s managers would have been a little less quick to embrace these barrier-dropping communication tools.

What we’re not seeing so far among these innovators is an innovative approach to sharing–one that opens up copyright-able and patent-able and, therefore, economically valuable ideas and content to the larger community.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because of my obsession with open education and open access. In particular, educational researchers–even those who embrace open educational resources–struggle with the prospect of making their work available to other interested researchers.

This makes sense to anyone who’s undertaken ed research–prestige, funding, and plum faculty positions (what little there is of any of these things) are secured through the generation of innovative, unique scholarship and ideas, and ideas made readily available are ideas made readily stealable. As a fairly new addition to the field, even I have been a victim of intellectual property theft. It’s enough to give a person pause, even if, like me, you’re on open education like Joss Whedon on strong, feminist-type leading ladies.

But, come on, we all know there’s no point to hiding good research from the public. As Kevin Smith writes in a recent blogpost on a San Jose State University professor who accused a student of copyright violation for posting assigned work online,

[t]here are many reasons to share scholarship, and very few reasons to keep it secret. Scholarship that is not shared has very little value, and the default position for scholars at all levels ought to be as much openness as is possible. There are a few situations in which it is appropriate to withhold scholarship from public view, but they should be carefully defined and circumscribed. After all, the point of our institutions is to increase public knowledge and to put learning at the service of society. And there are several ways in which scholars benefit personally by sharing their work widely.

Smith is right, of course, and the only real issue is figuring out strategies for getting everybody on board with the pro-sharing approach to scholarship. The “I made this and you can see it but you have to give it back when you’re done” model is nice in theory but, in practice, limits innovation and progress in educational research. A more useful approach might be along the lines of: “I made this and you can feel free to appropriate the parts that are valuable to you, but please make sure you credit my work as your source material.” This is a key principle at the core of the open education approach and of what media scholar Henry Jenkins calls “spreadability.”

The problem is that there are enough academics who subscribe to the “share your toys but take them back when you’re done playing” approach to research that anybody who embraces the free-appropriation model of scholarship ends up getting every toy stolen and has to go home with an empty bag. This is why the open education movement holds so much promise for all of academia: Adherents to the core values of open education agree that while we may not have a common vocabulary for the practice of sharing scholarship, we absolutely need to work to develop one. For all my criticisms of the OpenCourseWare projects at MIT and elsewhere, one essential aspect of this work is that it opens up a space to talk about how to share materials, and why, and when, and in what context. The content of these projects may be conservative, but the approach is wildly radical.

Posted in academia, academics, collective intelligence, Henry Jenkins, intellectual property, MIT, open education, open source, President Obama, spreadability | 2 Comments »

america: land of the free (often, but not always, as in free beer, not so much as in free speech)

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 4, 2009

Here is a tribute to some of what’s best about online America, starring a series of awesome free speech-type videos I shamelessly stole from YouTube.

One time, a few years ago, I was watching fireworks with my sister in City Park (which also happened to be the park where I was employed as a just-above-minimum-wage seasonal laborer after earning my first graduate degree). As they fired up the finale, a young man on the blanket in front of us yelled, gruffly, “Fukk yeah. God bless Amurrica.”

God bless him, I’m not sure if he knew that pretty lights and powerful explosions are not the same thing as patriotism.

Posted in America, awesome, creativity, culture, spreadability | Leave a Comment »

doing my part to destabilize national security

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 5, 2009

A special announcement from Stephen Colbert:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Exclusive – Where and When Is Stephen Going to the Persian Gulf – Iraq Announcement
colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Keyboard Cat

Posted in awesome, spreadability, Stephen Colbert | Leave a Comment »

awesome: social media classroom

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 15, 2009

A letter of support for Howard Rheingold’s Open-Source Education Project
I’ve been participating in a pair of hosted communities at Social Media Classroom (SMC), an open-source web service that offers social media tools for educators and students. If you’ve been following my posts on sleeping alone and starting out early, you probably already know that if it’s open source, I’m gonna be on it like Henry Jenkins on fan practices. (For proof of my open sourceness, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Actually, though, it was the experience of working with SMC that led me to my open-source fervor. When I first joined the community, I didn’t even really know what the open source movement was. The experience convinced me that open source software and its younger cousin, open education, have tremendous potential for teaching and learning.

Okay, first, some background. As the main site points out, Social Media Classroom was started by Howard Rheingold, through a HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Arts Collaboratory) award, and is supported by lead developer Sam Rose, among others. The Drupal-based service can be installed for free, or SMC developers will host a community site for people who don’t want to install their own.

Okay okay okay, that’s the background, but here’s what’s awesome about the project itself: It sets up a goal of opening up education by offering spaces for sharing, collaboration, and remixing of class content via forums, blogs, wikis, chat, social bookmarking, widgets, and a load of other features. The “Invitation to the Social Media Classroom and Collaboratory” offers this description of the project:

It’s all free, as in both “freedom of speech” and “almost totally free beer.” We invite you to build on what we’ve started to create more free value….This website is an invitation to grow a public resource of knowledge and relationships among all who are interested in the use of social media in learning, and therefore, it is made public with the intention of growing a community of participants who will take over its provisioning, governance and future evolution.

To that end, we’re launching an instance of the Colab as a community of practice for learners and teachers, educators, administrators, funders, students of pedagogy and technology design, engaged students who share a common interest in using social media to afford a more student-centric, constructivist, collaborative, inquiry-oriented learning.

Not to beat a potentially dead horse, but: promise, tool, bargain, you guys. The promise comes in showing community members that their engagement matters. Clay Shirky argues that in order to get a social group off the ground, the founders need to engage as much as possible (or as much as is required) to convince the community that their participation will be noticed and will make a difference. Focusing on the photo-sharing site Flickr, he argues that building up a critical mass of engaged members took a lot of early legwork:

Like the proverbial stone soup, the promise would be achieved only if everyone participated, and like the soldiers who convince the townspeople to make the stone soup, the only way to hld the site together before it reached critical mass was through personal charisma. Caterina Fake, one of the founders of Flickr, said she’d learned from the early days that “you have to greet he first ten thousand users personally.”

When I joined Howard’s SMC group, I posted an introduction to myself which got a near-immediate response from Howard Rheingold himself. I was all, “omg Howard Rheingold TALKED to me! *swoon*” And you know what happened next? I headed right back in to join in on other conversations on the site–because, after all, HOWARD RHEINGOLD WAS PAYING ATTENTION. The community is still small enough that a core group of participants are able to recognize and engage with each other in a highly personal way.

For Howard, promise and tool appear to be linked. As a new-ish open source project, SMC is not perfect; but as my sensei Dan Hickey has pointed out, “open source software succeeds by failing”–and Howard and Sam have been enthusiastic about getting community members to identify problems and offer suggestions. In fact, my experience is that if you point out something that’s not working, they fall all over themselves to try to find solutions. This means that part of the promise of the site is that members can help refine the tool itself. (Hey, Howard and Sam: Do you think you could add a “search” feature so I can find past posts more easily?)*.

Okay, that’s promise and tool. The bargain is something like this: We’ll offer you a space to create a vibrant, active collaborative learning community, and we’ll respond quickly to problems or suggestions; and your job is to fill in the vibrancy, the activity, and the collaboration. Which is exactly what’s happening in the SMC site for two of Dan Hickey’s classes in the Learning Sciences program at Indiana University. (Alert readers may remember that this is the program I’ll be joining as a doctoral student in the fall.) What’s neat about this space is that even though the classes are held in a physical learning environment exactly 1008 miles from my house, I get to participate in discussion about the readings, join in on collaborative activities (like working together to build a pathetically measly Wikipedia entry describing the field of Learning Sciences), and–if I write something especially awesome, get included in class discussions even though I’m not actually present. To quote Eddie Murphy, What a bargain!


A map depicting the shortest route from my house to Indiana University

In making the graduate-school decision, I recently talked with a third-year doctoral student at a school other than IU. She told me that she recently got into an argument with a professor and challenged a key idea he presented about education.

“…and I realized,” she said, “that I’m starting to feel like I can engage with professors, like I know enough now to challenge them.”

Maybe I’m just too mouthy for my own good, but though I haven’t officially begun doctoral work yet, I’ve been challenging–engaging with, asking questions of, pushing back on ideas of–professors on SMC for the last year. What I didn’t realize until talking to this student is that my experience is not common.

And this is what’s neatest about Social Media Classroom: It’s a space for thinking about how participatory culture and social media can change how we think about expertise, knowledge, and community. It’s no longer that a handful of experts can, should, or do hold expertise in their head and dole it out as they see fit; in a participatory culture, knowledge is distributed across media environments and can be accessed by people who buy into the promise, tool, and bargain of those social spaces.

It’s working, so far. So far, it’s working. And it’s why my crew (Dan Hickey, IU doctoral student Michelle Honeyford, ELA teacher Rebecca Rupert) and I are planning to work inside of this platform in the service of exploring Spreadable Educational Practices. Keep an eye on this space for updates on our work on SEPs, that most awesome of projects.

[Update: as proof of concept, Sam Rose responded to my request to add a “search” feature within minutes of my publishing this blog. The beginning of his response:”Thanks Jenna!! FYI, there is a search feature up at the top if the site (over to the right) :-)”]

Posted in academia, awesome, blogging, Clay Shirky, Dan Hickey, distributed cognition, education, Howard Rheingold, open education, open source, participatory culture, Ph.D., social media, spreadability | 4 Comments »

the sleeping alone review of books: Opening Up Education

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 6, 2009

Good book on the open education movement: Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge (2008, Toru Iiyoshi and M.S. Vijay Kumar, eds.). You can purchase the book through the MIT Press, though an electronic version is available for download under a Creative Commons license here.

What makes this book so useful is that it offers up a framework, from inside of the world of open education, for analyzing–and, if I may be so bold, at times criticizing–the early fruits of its own movement.

Below, I summarize and review one chapter from the book, followed by a critique of MIT’s OpenCourseWare, one of the flagship projects of the Hewlett Foundation’s Open Educational Resource Initiative; if you want, you can skip the review and jump down to the meaty stuff down near the bottom.

The Review
The book is divided into three sections: Technology, content, and knowledge. As the authors explain, this division is intended “largely as a convenient and easily understood framework. Naturally, the three categories are not mutually exclusive. In fact, their natural interrelationships become evident from the very beginning.”

I want to skip ahead to the very last chapter of the book, “What’s Next for Open Knowledge?” by Mary Taylor Huber and Pat Hutchings. The authors point out that the vision of open education–“dramatically expanded educational access, more widely effective teaching models and materials, and ongoing, systematic improvement in teaching and learning as educators generate and share new pedagogical knowledge and know-how”–is more than just a vision. In fact, many educational institutions have embraced and joined in on a shift toward open educational resources (OER’s), and have assisted in the building of what Huber and Hutchings label, borrowing from their own earlier work, “teaching commons: an emergent conceptual space for exchange and community among faculty, students, administrators, and all others committed to learning as an essential activity of life in contemporary democratic society.”

How, then, the authors ask, do we continue to expand and preserve the ethos of open education and the teaching commons? “It is well and good,” they write, “to make as many educational resources as possible accessible to as many teachers and learners as possible. But, to borrow a line from the movie Field of Dreams, if we build it, will they come?”

Promise, Tool, Bargain
The Field of Dreams question is one echoed by Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody, only for him, the question aligns with entrepreneurial impulses to build and market the next killer app. The question, then, is something closer to “What can we build to make people come?”

Shirky’s answer is simple: “Promise, tool, bargain.” These three elements, properly aligned, he argues, will lead to success of a group relying on a social tool; improperly fused, they lead to failure. (For an example of how this does or does not work, take a look at my blogpost on the promise, tool, and bargain of Facebook here.)
Given that there are really only three things to worry about, then, why do so many new groups or movements fail? Two reasons, according to Shirky:

First, because getting each of these elements right is actually quite challenging, while getting all of them right is essential. Second, as with groups themselves, the complexity comes not just from the elements but from their interactions.


The application of promise, tool, and bargain of open education: Promise

Though Huber and Hutchings use different language, choosing to focus their efforts on two distinct categories–“Knowledge that Matters” and “Inviting and Maintaining Openness”–they are essentially considering the categories Shirky identifies. (Know that aligning Huber and Hutchings with Shirky is a somewhat arbitrary move; I might just as well have said that Shirky essentially considers the categories identified by Huber and Hutchings.) The promise, Shirky writes, is the “why”–why a person would want to join a group or use a tool. For Huber and Hutchins, the “why” is more aptly described as “knowledge that matters”; in considering this point, they explore the promise of the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL), a program that

seeks to support the development of a scholarship of teaching and learning that: fosters significant, long-lasting learning for all students; enhances the practice and profession of teaching, and; brings to faculty members’ work as teachers the recognition and reward afforded to other forms of scholarly work.

To Huber and Hutchings, “knowledge that matters” is collaboration and sharing of scholarship and research around contributing to the improvement of teaching and learning both within individual classrooms and on a larger scale. This knowledge is built and shared around situated approach to teaching, a presumption that context matters. “In short,” the authors write, the momentum that the scholarship of teaching and learning has established over the past decade clearly points to the value of pedagogical knowledgte that is deeply contextual and closely tied ot the particulars of classroom settings.

We might say, then, that the promise of joining a program like CASTL–the “why”–is that it offers teachers the opportunity to draw on a bunch of lesson plans, assessment strategies, and so on to the immediate benefit of their own teaching practices, and at the same time offers a feedback loop whereby teachers can share classroom successes with other teachers. They give back to the community of educators and in so doing have an opportunity to influence teaching beyond their local environment.

Tool: the “how”
The tool, Shirky explains, is the “how,” and in open education this becomes a question of how to develop resources that invite and maintain openness without standardizing or allowing for decreased quality of the content. As Huber and Hutchings explain,

Where traditional views of educational reform tend to assume a small number of approaches that can be “scaled up” and widely adopted, open knowledge (and, more broadly, open education) offers a different path to improvement, eschewing the “fat head” for the “long tail” (to use Chris Anderson’s now well-traveled metaphor) in which many approaches find smaller groups of adopters and champions.

Often, the authors write, the “how” is ensured in development of tools that allow for “close-to-the-classrom knowledge” to be captured in ways that will travel to other settings.” The authors offer the exampe of the KEEP Toolkit, which they argue provides a useful model that combines user-friendly features with readable and usable templates.

The bargain: What we expect from one anotherThe bargain, Shirky writes, is where things get tricky, “in part because it is the least explicit aspect and in part because it is the one the users have the biggest hand in creating, which means it can’t be completely determined in advance.” The bargain is the–ideally shared–agreement between users about community expectations.

For Huber and Hutchings, the bargain of open educational resources is, put simply, openness. Openness, in this case, means both access and the spirit of collaboration and community. As they explain,

The “stuff” of open knowledge for teaching and learning is on the rise, happily, both in supply and in the variety of materials and representations of teaching and learning…. But having good stuff is not enough. Those committed to this work must also push for policies and practices to ensure that what is open stays open in the fullest, most vital way. This means maintaining access, certainly, but it also means creating a culture in which people want that access, both as contributors to and users of knowledge in the teaching commons.

First, they write, it’s essential to allow the commons to remain open for teachers across disciplines who want to contribute to collaborative knowledge-building, even if they contribute only infrequently. This, however, gives rise to a second concern: Questions about who can (and can’t) contribute. “Open education,” they write, “does not necessarily mean ‘free.'”

Additionally, the bargain in education is not simply between users and makers of educational content; increasingly, teachers and learners are being held accountable by outside stakeholders. (Most significantly, we see this in the phenomenon of testing the souls right out of our young learners.) Huber and Hutchings express concern

about how to maintain a space for educational experimentation and exchange in a period that seems headed for increasingly bottom-line forms of accountability, with its concomitant calls for institutions to make evidence of student learning outcomes available to the public…. At one level, the value of evidence is something that any responsible educator would share. Faculty care about their students, and they want to know that the resources they find in the teaching commons will serve those students well. The danger comes when high stakes constrict people’s ability or willingness to explore new pedagogical ideas.

Case Study: MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW)
Promise, tool, bargain. It’s a difficult combination to get right, even when you have financial backing, institutional support, and a critical mass of contributors, as MIT’s OpenCourseWare project proves. Let me be clear: OCW is a success, at least in most important senses of the word. But in its efforts to succeed, it has had to sacrifice some of the most important tenets of the open education movement.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll once again make clear that I am employed at MIT, though I am not affiliated with the Hewlett Foundation, the group that funds the OCW project, and not in any way connected to OpenCourseWare.

The project is awesomely ambitious. As the OCW site explains,

MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) is a web-based publication of virtually all MIT course content. OCW is open and available to the world and is a permanent MIT activity. By November 2007, MIT completed the initial publication of virtually the entire curriculum, over 1,800 courses in 33 academic disciplines.

And that’s the modest explanation. In a February 2007 report on Open Educational Resource projects funded by the Hewlett Foundation, Atkins, Brown, and Hammond exclaim:

This world-changing project emerged from MIT faculty and administrators who asked themselves the following question: “How is the Internet going to be used in education and what is our university going to do about it?”

The answer from the MIT faculty was this: “Use it to provide free access to the primary materials for virtually all our courses. We are going to make our educational material available to students, faculty, and other learners, anywhere in the world, at any time, for free.”

Fantastic premise, right? And MIT, backed by Hewlett, is putting its money where its mouth is, investing resources into the continued and ongoing development of OCW. The result is a fabulous early stab at an open education resource, one that really does offer high-quality content to the general public–absolutely free.

It turns out, though, that while OpenCourseWare is strong on promise (“You can access course content from some of the greatest minds of this generation!”) and bargain (“…and it’s all free!”), it’s still a little light on tool (“…but genius is not included.”). As I mentioned in a previous post, I read voraciously and omnivorously in my capacity as the primary blogger for sleeping alone and starting out early. One place I never, look, though, is on paid-content news sources like the Wall Street Journal. Another place I never look is OpenCourseWare. Why? It kinda…well, first, the download process is confusing, and once you successfully figure it out, you’re rewarded with a file folder that looks a lot like this:

Assuming you eventually manage to extract the relevant content, all you really get is a pile of .pdfs, a syllabus, and some course notes. The brilliance, the spark, the certain something that makes a class a mind-blowing experience…that’s not available for download.

And, of course, there’s the cost involved: Approximately $25,000 per uploaded course, according to the Hewlett report. Add it up: 1,800 courses means $45 million. (Just FYI, that’s enough to cover four years of public college for more than 6,800 students, according to stats from the College Board.)

OpenCourseWare is an admirable, but so far unsustainable, model for opening up education–especially since OCW seems to prohibit free appropriation and remixing of course materials. As the site explains under the FAQ category of intellectual property,

The intellectual property policies created for MIT OpenCourseWare are clear and consistent with other policies for scholarly materials used in education. Faculty retain ownership of most materials prepared for MIT OpenCourseWare, following the MIT policy on textbook authorship. MIT retains ownership only when significant use has been made of the Institute’s resources. If student course work is placed on the MIT OpenCourseWare site, then copyright in the work remains with the student.

These are meaty issues for Hewlett, OCW, and the open education movement to keep working on. As goes OpenCourseWare, after all, so goes the movement.

Posted in academia, assessment, book review, Clay Shirky, convergence culture, distributed cognition, education, intellectual property, MIT, new media, open education, open source, participatory culture, schools, spreadability, teaching | 3 Comments »

why the Hewlett Foundation should toss some cash on over

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 25, 2009

A Modest Proposal: integrating Spreadable Educational Practices into Hewlett’s Open Educational Resources Initiative

Because of my interest in spreadable educational practices and in the open source movement, I’ve been drawn lately to the work of the Hewlett Foundation’s Open Educational Resource (OER) Initiative. The goal of this initiative is, as Hewlett puts it, “making high quality educational content and tools freely available on the Web.”

(Now you’re going to ask me why a foundation whose money is linked to Hewlett Packard, the largest technology company in the world, would fund an initiative that seems to run counter to its profit motives. Apparently, the Hewlett Foundation, though originally established by HP co-founder William Hewlett, is run completely independent of the company–which may explain why so much of its money goes to so many amazing projects.)

The Hewlett Foundation has invested a good deal of its resources into the OER initiative, funding research into three distinct categories of OER resources (these categories come from the OER movement in general, and not from Hewlett’s website, though they do apply to OER grantees):

  • Learning content: full courses, course materials, content modules, learning objects, collections, and journals.
  • Tools: Software to support the creation, delivery, use and improvement of open learning content including searching and organization of content, content and learning management systems, content development tools, and on-line learning communities.
  • Implementation resources: Intellectual property licenses to promote open publishing of materials, design-principles, and localization of content.

A 2007 report, “A Review of the Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement” (Atkins, Daniel E.; Brown, John Seely; & Hammond, Allen L.), discusses multiple resources made available through the OER Initiative and presents a logic model for the initiative itself:

The report identifies key projects that have emerged out of Hewlett’s OER Initiative, including MIT’s OpenCourseWare project, the Connexions Project at Rice University, open content work at Utah State University Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, and Creative Commons and Internet Archives.

Significantly, while these and other resources discussed in the report point to a great deal of enthusiasm for the OER movement (which, by the way, extends far beyond the funding of this single initiative), the authors also point to challenges to the movement. Aaaand here those challenges are:

  • Sustainability
  • Curation and Preservation of Access
  • Object Granularity and Format Diversity
  • Intellectual Property Issues
  • Content Quality Assessment and Enhancement
  • Computing and Communication Infrastructure
  • Scale-up and Deepening Impact in Developing Countries

At the moment, I’m most interested in the first challenge, sustainability. As the report explains,

A challenge of any fixed-term, externally funded initiative is long-term sustainability by an entity other than the original investor, in this case the Hewlett Foundation. In the MIT project, bringing a course to the OCW costs approximately $25,000 per course plus maintenance and enhancement. The MIT OCW model involves professional staff taking course material in almost any form from faculty and bringing it into a uniform, professional format. This was appropriate for the rapid startup of a large-scale, pioneering project but it will not work for many other places.

May I suggest…a consideration of spreadable educational practices? While it’s true that the above challenges are significant, they are not insurmountable–insofar as the work of open education focuses on fostering and helping to spread effective educational practices instead of disseminating effective instructional routines. MIT’s OCW and the other Hewlett programs work from an assumption that porting, curating, and maintaining instructional materials to a central online resource is valuable. And don’t get me wrong, it IS valuable. It’s also quite expensive and, by the way, only partially hooked in to the general ethos of the open source movement. As I explained in a previous post, open source culture

is the creative practice of appropriation and free sharing of found and created content. Examples include collage, found footage film, music, and appropriation art. Open source culture is one in which fixations, works entitled to copyright protection, are made generally available. Participants in the culture can modify those products and redistribute them back into the community or other organizations.

Hewlett’s work links up with the “free sharing” and “general availability of copyrighted materials” aspects, but so far it seems to be missing the link to the spirit of open source: the free, voluntary, and creative exchange of ideas and work for the purpose of helping the community. While the resources funded by Hewlett are a valuable–perhaps even essential–beginning to the work of the open education movement, the resources matter only to the extent that the practices contained within these resources can spread.

It does appear that Hewlett is headed in this direction with its current emphasis on research and development of open participatory learning environments and on teacher training. As the OER Initiative homepage argues,

The ability of users and experts to give feedback online and modify open content enables the rapid improvement, development, and adaptation of material to fit different purposes, languages, and cultures. This aspect of openness helps equalize access to high-quality and useful materials and engages users in making content changes that create efficiencies and reduce costs. Further, when students and teachers transform materials, this itself is a creative, powerful act of learning. Together, the two broad dimensions of openness give us opportunities to rethink traditional notions of where, when, and how people teach and learn, so that we can explore alternative paths to meet educational demand.

Agreed, agreed, agreed.

Posted in collective intelligence, Dan Hickey, education, graduate school, intellectual property, MIT, new media, open education, open source, participatory culture, spreadability, teaching | 1 Comment »