Via iterating toward openness by David Wiley on 3/8/10

I had an absolutely brilliant time at TEDxNYED over the weekend, reconnecting with old friends like Larry Lessig, George Siemens, Neeru Khosla, and Dan Cohen, and making new friends like Michael Wesch, Gina Bianchini, Amy Bruckman, Chris Lehmann, and Dan Meyer. The videos of our talks will be online in a few weeks.

In the mean time, I’m posting the final version of the notes I wrote before creating slides for the talk. This is the fifth or sixth version of the notes, and due to time constraints not even all of this version got in – but much of it did. My words on stage didn’t mirror these rough notes directly, but the notes capture the spirit of the talk. You can view the slides for the talk on Slideshare.

Open Education and the Future

What is meant by “openness” in education?

Let’s begin by defining terms.

For over a decade, openness in education has been an adjective describing educational artifacts.

Open content, open educational resources, open courseware, and open textbooks all mean teaching materials that are shared with everyone, for free, with permission to engage in the 4R activities.

The 4Rs are reuse, redistribute, revise, remix.

Open access to research means that articles describing the results of research are shared with everyone for free, generally with permission to engage in the first 2R activities (but sometimes all 4).

While the nouns being modified (content, resources, courseware, textbooks, and research articles) differ from each other, the activities that we associate with operationalizing openness is the same – acts of generosity, sharing, and giving.

Openness is about overcoming your inner two-year-old who constantly screams, “Mine!”

Unfortunately, much in modern law and policy works together to enable us to shout “Mine!” ever more loudly, to stomp our feet with ever less self-control, and to hit each other with harder and sharper toys, all the while soothingly whispering in our ear that this unbridled selfishness is appropriate behavior. Regrettably, many educators and administrators have allowed themselves to be swayed by the siren’s song that sings the half-truth, “It’s ok. It’s legal. Go ahead.”

Openness reminds us of what we knew intuitively before society gave us permission to act monstrously toward one another.

What is the appropriate role of openness in education?

The question is deeply insidious. The question implies that openness might play any of several roles in the educational enterprise. The question distracts people from seeing that openness is the sole means by which education is affected, and that education is inherently an enterprise of generosity, sharing, and giving.

Suppose we have two people: One has some kind of expertise, the other desires to have this expertise but does not. At its core, it is this asymmetry that makes education possible. And education is the sacred relationship of sharing that these two individuals enter in to. If the one refuses to share with the other, there is no education.

And in fact, we call those educators most successful who share the most thoroughly of themselves with the most students.

Of course, this sharing isn’t a simple “want one of my cookies?” kind of giving away. First, the sharing we call education is a complex, conjoint effort in which the offering act and the receiving act are equally important and have to come into coordination and the actors have to come into an at-one-ment with each other.

The nature of the sharing we call education is significantly affected by new media and technology.

Expertise (or whatever you want to call the source of the asymmetry) has the magical property of being nonrivalrous or noncompetitive – meaning that a teacher can give of them without giving them away. You are probably familiar with Jefferson’s comparison: “He who receives ideas from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine receives light without darkening me.”

(It’s a good thing for society that expertise works this way, or else teachers would be like the proverbial honeybee who can sting only once and then dies.)

While expertise can be given without being given away, external expressions of expertise (like a book) cannot.

Or could not, until recently. New media and technology have given digital expressions of expertise this same magical quality. While you have to wait for a book to be put back on the shelf before you can read it, everyone in this room can read the online version of the book simultaneously.

For the first time in the history of humanity, external expressions of what we know have the same magical property as knowledge itself. Like the flame of Franklin’s candle, both ideas and their expressions can now be given without being given away.

This ability to give without giving away provides us the technological capability to share on an unprecedented level. In other words, the Internet enables education on an unprecedented level.

(There are additional important aspects of education beyond sharing external expressions of expertise, things like debate, discourse, discussion, and other types of communication. And it turns out the Internet is pretty good at facilitating these as well.)

However, technology never appears on stage alone. Technology always plays opposite its nemesis, policy. And this pair have quite a stormy history.

The 15th century saw what many have argued to be the greatest technological advance of the millennium – Gutenberg’s printing press. In contrast to this unprecedented capability to produce books, leaflets, and other expressions quickly and inexpensively, the 15th century also saw restrictions on the distribution of information that make a global DMCA seems like a parade of rainbow sparkle ponies.

While Gutenberg’s own masterwork was a 42 line edition of the Bible in Latin, the common people were desperate for access to an edition of the scriptures they could actually read. Rather than utilize the new capabilities afforded by the press to provide meaningful access to the word of God, the church instead used the press’s efficiencies to ramp up production of indulgences (papers you could purchase to have your sins or the sins of a deceased ancestor forgiven), while affecting policies outlawing possession of memorization of the scriptures in various vernaculars. For example, 15th century English law read,

“Whosoever reads the Scriptures in the mother tongue, shall forfeit land, cattle, life, and goods from their heirs forever, and so be condemned for heretics to God, enemies to the crown, and most arrant traitors to the land.”

However, as it always does, capability plus demand made for a thriving market for pirate Bibles. And during the first year this law was in
force thirty-nine people were hanged for its violation and their bodies burned.

This collision of powerful new technology, outdated policy, and overwhelming demand enabled the series of major historical events we now call the Reformation.

In our own day, as new media and technologies provide us with mind-boggling capabilities for sharing and education, we occasionally run into outdated policies and ways of thinking. For example, we see technology being turned against it potential and made to conceal and withhold. For example, a course management system like Blackboard theoretically has the potential to greatly improve educators’ capacity to share. But instead CMSs takes the approach of hiding educational materials behind passwords and regularly deleting all the student-contributed content in a course. If Facebook worked like Blackboard, every 15 weeks it would delete all your friends, delete all your photographs, unsubscribe you from all your groups, etc.

In 2008 a Florida professor began legal proceedings on the theory that his lectures were his copyrighted intellectual property, that students’ notes were derivative works of his copyrighted material, and that he as the rights holder had the authority to say what students could and could not do with their notes. After screaming “Mine!” and stomping his feet at students and administration, he decided to throw a toy. After all, in the current legal context and climate of “intellectual property rights,” it was legal and apparently acceptable for him to do so.

It makes me wonder… could any of these students go on to be professors in this field? If they did, would they need his permission to “publicly perform” a lecture based in part the notes they had taken in his class? Or could any of these students take jobs in this field, since applying what they had learned might constitute another kind of public performance? Do we really want to head down that path?

We also see demand for education growing at an unbelievable rate. Worldwide, in higher education there are currently around 120M students. The increase in demand is estimated to be an additional 150M students. In India alone, two new universities would have to be built each week for the next decade to meet demand. While this demand is growing, our funding is shrinking. This both diminishes our capacity to provide education and makes what we do provide more expensive.

In short, education finds itself using radical new technology in backwards ways, reinforcing those outdated ways of thinking with law and institutional policy, and unable to satisfy rapidly increasing popular demand. Sound familiar? We are pitched on the edge of another great Reformation.

Which brings us back to openness.

Education has to some degree lost its way; forgotten its identity. We’ve allowed ourselves and our institutions to be led away from our core value of openness – away from generosity, sharing, and giving, and toward selfishness, concealment, and withholding. To the degree that we have deserted openness, learning has suffered.

We’ve been blessed with incredible technical capabilities in our day. Will we use them to increase the openness, generosity, and sharing of our institutions? Or will we use them perversely, against their own potential, to further close, conceal, and withhold?

New media and technology do have a critical role to play in the future of education. But regardless of how they audition, new media and technology will only get to play the part we assign them. The only legitimate role for new media and technology in education is to increase our capacity to be generous with one another. The more open we are, the better education will be.

David Wiley


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