on open ed 2007

I’m not going to write up a summary or wrap-up of the conference. Others have done that better, and faster, than I. But I do just want to throw some thoughts out there on my Open Ed experience.

First, it was an amazing conference. There aren’t many events that bring together such a vastly diverse group of people – from widely different technical, cultural, geographical and economic backgrounds. Many of the conferences I have been to have felt largely homogeneous. A strong feeling of “sameness” that, while comforting on one level, is diametrically opposed to the real value of these conferences. What a conference can add, above a similarly structured online event, is the serendipitous exposure to people, ideas, philosophies, strategies, and techniques that one wouldn’t ordinarily be associated with. A cosmopolitan conference adds so much more value than one that is simply bringing together like-minded individuals. The irony is, this small conference in rural Utah felt more cosmopolitan than some large conferences I’ve attended in major urban centres.

Open Ed was a conference where I didn’t really know what to expect. All I knew was that it was organized by David Wiley and his C()SL krëw, and that Brian has raved about each of the previous iterations of the event. That’s all I need to make me want to check it out. I’ve been trying to get my head into the open content/education movement, and figured this was the best way to make it real for myself. Boy, did I underestimate that.

One of the reasons I was rather incoherent and rambling during our Open Ed presentation was that the event was affecting me deeply, and I was actively working through the process of internalizing and understanding some of the ideas that had been brought forth prior to our session (note: I’m really not meaning to sound like I’m using the Royal We – Jim was my compadre for the presentation so it was very much a “we” kind of thing).

What was so striking, that it caused me to shift the topic of my presentation in mid session? I’m still not sure it’s clear – I’ve been chewing on it for a few days now, and still don’t think I can put it into words. It’s likely going to take me quite awhile to make some sense of what happened. Some of the concepts include:

  • open education is about sharing freely, in every sense. a truly free sharing experience values and honours all participants (not just professor/teacher/expert), is conversational and iterative, and is recontextualizable without friction.
  • for open education to be successful, we must have both open content and effective open communication.
  • for open content to be truly successful, we must stop wasting resources (time, energy, money) in creating infinite versions of essentially the same content. it is not acceptable to build a new piece of content simply because you aren’t aware of the existence of already available content, or because you simply want to change a small portion of that available content (“that’s great, but I don’t like this diagram” or “good, except for chapter 3. can’t use that. so let’s build our own” – or worse “let’s build it so we can charge $50 to let people access it.”). Use what’s there. Build upon it. Extend it, refine it, and share your derivations.
  • if we’re actively working on building content that will be locked behind logins, we’re actively working against open education.
  • there is a strong need to raise awareness that “business models” and sustainability can’t be tied to restricting access to content. if the only way an organization can raise money is to act as a gatekeeper to its content, they have no value and are irrelevant or dead (but likely don’t or won’t know it for some time)
  • open content is not the same as open source, as it relates to source code. content needs to be much more remixable – software, while mixable to some extent – is largely self contained. content needs to be able to be reused at a very small level of granularity – a paragraph here, an image there – and the resulting derivative/aggregate work needs to be available for similar remixing by others. what does this mean for copyright? copyleft and viral licenses are not compatible with this type of remixing.
  • I’m still struggling with the suggestion that open content and open education are “moral imperatives” – I think in many cases that much of the content that we have now could easily be deleted without causing any ill effects. Is there a moral imperative to ensure that all content, no matter how self-congratulatory and crappily written, be made freely available for use by all?
  • on the “conceit and arrogance of originality” – I’ve certainly been guilty of this with respect to software development. Sure, other tools are available, but it’d just be better if I wrote my own from scratch. I’ve also been involved with countless content development projects with the same perspective. Resources allocated, perhaps wasted, building new content because existing content wasn’t “perfect”. Wasteful. Arrogant. Conceited. Much better to take those resources and allocate them to refining existing content.
  • unless you’re actively thinking about, and planning for, sustainability, you’re wasting your time. (meaning, if you aren’t planning on how to keep a project alive, any effort put into the project will be wasted when the project eventually withers and dies)

As I said, I’m still struggling through these ideas. There are voices bouncing around in my head, and I’m trying to make sense of the story they are telling.

All I do know is that Open Ed 2007 has left me changed. My perspective is different now than it was last week. I have a rough idea of what I need to do, in order to affect meaningful change at my own institution, if that’s possible.

Oh, there was one thing to add to a conference recap. While the people were amazing, the presentations mostly profound and deep, and the conversations life-changing, the conference food sucked on all accounts. What was that slurry served in glasses during Friday’s lunch? At a conference with attendees quite literally from around the globe, not a single person could identify it. And it was nasty. Next year, maybe hire Quizno’s to cater?

Finally, I’ve been working through Susan Sontag On Photography, and some of the concepts she lays out in her series of essays have relevance here as well. The arrogance and aggression that can be implicit in the act of photography can also be found in the process of creating content (open or otherwise). Mindblowing stuff that is also changing how I think about many things.

Out of Print: session recap

Our Out of Print session went off pretty well (I think) this morning. Jim worked his usual Bavamagic, weaving early American history, WordPress, wikis, and student conversations into a pretty cool demo. Then, I showed some of the OpenContentDIY resource site, and rambled unexplicably for about 25 minutes. From what I remember, I either sounded like the teacher in Charlie Brown, or somehow managed to touch on empowerment of students, open content and reuse as a moral imperative, communities (both in content and open source).

Some of the points that I was surprised to hear myself talking about were:

  • “flavours” of interaction imposed by various tools
  • although tools are relatively unimportant, the philosophies embodied within them subtly (and not so subtly) alters the nature of discourse
  • we need to honour and value the contributions of all participants – students add value to the conversation, so why should we lock their contributions behind a walled garden? Raving about John Willinsky’s “go public!” throwaway comment from Northern Voice 2007.
  • baby stepping from closed content, through walled gardens, and into the open. important to evangelize the importance of Going Public.
  • LOTS of great alternatives for tools (wordpress, openocw, drupal, etc…) – it’s more important to choose to be open, connected and social, than to worry about which tool(s) you use.
  • individual ownership of blogs is essential to meaningful conversations. Community/communal blog services lack individual “voice” in blogs – as opposed to more individual-focussed services like WordPress µ
  • likely a bunch of other stuff that’s blurry at the moment. hope it wasn’t blurry for the attendees…

During the presentation, Jim and I went off on some tangents that weren’t in the original plan. It felt like the tangents were much more important and interesting than the simple tech demo that was originally planned. I hope that’s what the attendees got. It was a bit strange for me – my thinking on the topic of Open Education and open content was shifting while I was talking. As I was speaking about this stuff, I could feel the thoughts coming together in my head. Thanks for the venue to cause that to happen!

After the presentation, I had the chance to talk with someone from Turkey (sorry! I’ve forgotten your name!) about the WordPress.com blockade in Turkey. I suggested she get in touch with Matt to see if there’s anything they can do together to move the blogs within Turkey’s borders so they can keep their communities going.

I also talked with Fred Mednick from Teachers without Borders. He’s looking for some help setting up some projects in Drupal – some pretty cool stuff that should help Make a Difference. If anyone can help Fred with some Drupal configuration and pimping-out, please let me/him know.

On content as infrastructure

Kananaskis - June 17 - 12David suggested in his opening comments yesterday that “content is infrastructure.” He was (I think) meaning to imply that content is an enabling platform, and that if a robust library of open content is available, that individuals and groups will be able to build new things from that library. Things that can’t be predicted by the librarians and publishers. Things that are evolutionary and revolutionary. I completely agree that having freely available and reusable content is an extremely important factor in promoting education and community programs, especially in regions without the resources to build all content from scratch.

But, the “content as infrastructure” analogy doesn’t sit well with me. Infrastructure is stuff like electricity, plumbing, roads and communication networks. Infrastructure’s value is that you don’t have to think about it – it’s Just There™, and is “always on”. You flick a switch, and don’t need or want to think about the electrical infrastructure that heats up the filament in the bulb. You flush the john, and don’t need or want to think about the water supply and sewage infrastructure. Hopefully, you won’t have to.

But – content is one thing that you need to think about. It can’t be pushed so far down the stack that it becomes a mindless and invisible component, akin to electricity. Content needs to be mindful, contextual, active, and interactive. It’s not just a series of bits to be transported via TCP/IP (which could be considered infrastructure) – it’s the context for a conversation.

Arrived in Logan

The Edtech krëw just wrapped up an epic day of travel to make the pilgrimage to Logan, Utah for the Open Education 2007 conference. So far, Utah’s been interesting. The people are all very nice, and the scenery is great. Unfortunately, most of the scenery we had the chance to actually spend time enjoying was the inside of SLC, and the almost-dark-moonlit-mountains on the drive north to Logan. The Good Reverend was decidedly quiet, and Scott was gracious enough to drag our freeloading carcasses along in his gigantor rented van. I tried to talk him into renting a Hummer, but nooooo, he got all “dude, that’s just wrong” on me. Whatever, dude. What’s the environment ever done for me? Let’s ride in STYLE! Yeah. Whatever. He didn’t go for it either.

I did manage to get a good shot of the mysterious Reverend Jim, while waiting for El Guapo in the SLC rental car terminal. It’s a long exposure, so he’s a bit hard to see. The Ghost of The Good Reverend is in there somewhere…

SLC - 3