OpenFiction [ Blog ]

March 10, 2008

OER can make for strange bedfellows

Filed under: , , — Stephen Carson @ 9:41 am

Even I am a little surprised by this one:

MIT, Elsevier Offer Free Content From More Than 2,000 Journals

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Mar. 7, 2008 - In a move to encourage open education, MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) and Elsevier have agreed to make available figures and text selections from any of Elsevier’s more than 2,000 journal titles for use on OCW.

Of course it’s not the full text of the articles, but it makes available a lot of content that was heretofore unpublishable for us and it shows Elsevier is giving serious thought to access issues.

February 8, 2008

The cost of copyright

Filed under: , , — Stephen Carson @ 9:22 am

D’Arcy Norman’s recent post illustrates the (not so) hidden costs of copyrighted materials. They are easier to find, but because of DMCA/TEACH and similar laws, ultimately more expensive to deploy. The comments on this post are a great read as well. I’ve felt for a long time that one of the additional costs of a reliance on copyrighted materials is that much of the development energy for LMSs goes into copyright management rather than tools that actually support learning.

I’ve done enough teaching to understand that there’s no practical way to avoid using some copyrighted materials–a contemporary lit class would be a difficult one to pull off, for instance, without copyrighted works. The problem is that is in using these materials–and the protection measures they require–a lot of material that doesn’t need to be locked up gets hidden behind firewalls. As a best practice, then, only lock up what you have to. Get the syllabi, the assignments, the quotes used in the context of criticism, etc. out there. Over time, this will help move things in the right direction.

February 14, 2007


Filed under: — Stephen Carson @ 12:16 pm

Makes me sad to hear Mia Garlick will be leaving Creative Commons. Mia gave a great presentation at OpenEd 06, and has been tireless in her efforts to sort out the real issues in open licensing from the imagined terrors. It was a great pleasure to work with her. Best of luck at Google, Mia.

October 16, 2006


Filed under: , , , , — Stephen Carson @ 8:36 am

The IIEP forum is back in action, this time with a discussion of the relationship between OER and FLOSS. This follows on a discussion over on the FLOSS forum about how lessons learned in the FLOSS world might be useful in the OER context. Claude Martin provides this summary of lessons learned on the FLOSS side:

During the recent FOSS Community discussion we considered what lessons the OER movement might be able to take from the FOSS movement. We would like to share the ideas that were discussed in the FOSS Community. The lessons learned are grouped into the following categories:

1) OER and FOSS are complementary
2) OER development can mirror and take advantage of the FOSS collaborative model
3) FOSS can promote creation of OER content in developing countries
4) OER developers should commit to open licenses
5) Managing OER content design and editing is easier than FOSS programming
6) More inclusive formats for document exchange should be used
7) FOSS can support better searching of OER
8) FOSS can ease concerns over perceived technical demands of OER development
9) There are differences between OER content and FOSS software

There were a number of follow-on comments discussing differneces between FLOSS and OER (quality control was raised early) and so I wanted to throw in my two cents (ok, a good nickle’s worth at least, but I am wordy by nature):

One basic difference [between FLOSS and OER] I think might be helpful to point out early on is an observation Yochai Benkler made about MIT OCW in The Wealth of Networks:

“As an intervention in the ecology of free knowledge and information and an act of leadership among universities, the MIT initiative was…a major event. As a model for organizational innovation in the domain of information production generally and the creation of educational resources in particular, it was less significant.”

In OER more significantly than in FLOSS, the production and distribution aspects of open sharing can be disaggregated. As Benkler correctly points out, MIT OCW represents grafting of an open distribution mode onto a traditional production mode. Typically in a FLOSS project production and distribution are typically tightly intertwined. The open distribution is what supports iterations (and thus production) by a wide community. Their are certainly great examples of this happening in OER as well–Connexions comes to mind–but open sharing and open production need not necessarily occur together in OER (nor of course in FLOSS–the IBM patent releases are one example). But because there is less economic incentive for faculty to retain copyright of educational materials than there is for traditional software producers to control ownership of their products, there is the possibly that open sharing of traditionally produced content might become the norm in academic practice, rather than the exception, as IBMs case appears to be. The looser control of IP in OER as opposed to software (i.e. in the US ideas can’t be copyrighted, only expressions–more or less) also allows for looser connections between production and distribution. In the content realm, I can borrow from traditionally produced and fully copyright protected works at the idea level, so long as I don’t borrow the expression.

As we discuss OER in terms of the FLOSS experience, I’d suggest it’s worth keeping this difference in mind. Educational content will likely always be produced in a wide range of ways, including the traditional single-faculty paper or digital document approach; collaborative approaches involving multiple faculty or faculty and instructional designers; collaborations between loose-knit groups of learners; and many others. The FLOSS experience certainly points to new and exciting production modes, and I think we all hope many will bear fruit. But it may require somewhat nuanced approaches to understanding production-related issues. In principle I think we all agree that the most flexible possible formats ought to be used to reduce the time required for repurposing content, but asking faculty widely to change the way they produce their content is asking them to assume a whole new level of production effort. In the US we are fortunate to have skilled and talented educators throughout our higher education system. At big research universities, state schools, small private colleges and community colleges there are many many talented faculty creating content appropriate to very different contexts. One question to consider is do we want only those willing to invest the extra time and effort to learn to produce in new formats (or to collaborate with those who understand the formats) to share their content? Or do we, at this stage in the development of OER, just want to encourage as many people to share as much educational content as possible, regardless of format?

I don’t want to get too deep into the format question, as I’m using it as an example of a complication raised by the looser connection between production and distribution in OER. Benkler’s observation is one that impacts OER on many other levels, so it’s one I believe deserves some thought as we begin the discussion.

October 6, 2006

OpenEd 2006

Filed under: , — Stephen Carson @ 12:04 pm

Once again, the folks at USU’s COSL group put on a fantastic conference last week, one that I will be digesting for some time.  Mia Garlick, Creative Commons’ General Counsel lead things off with a great talk about the impact (or non-impact) of the non-commercial clause on open educational resources, making a number of interesting points.  She pointed out that the NC clause really wasn’t the sticking point between CC licensed materials and Wikipedia, one of the oft-cited examples.  The licenses have other incompatibilities that prevent remixability.

I was most interested in her explanation of what non-commercial really means, which reinforces what I’ve understood previously: it essentially says that if you’re not sure your use is non-commercial, you really ought to ask.  Many people object to this situation, saying it’s little better than full copyright if you are going to be imposing this level of transaction cost on any use that might potentially be considered commercial, but I don’t agree.  I think over time, sites or groups like the Consortium can build list of affirmative statements of acceptable use, clearing an increasing number of use cases from transaction costs while still retaining a measure of control over how materials get used.

For instance, on tOFP, I specifically note that use at non-profit educational institutions that charge tuition is acceptable.  It’s in the interest of the materials owner (in this case me) to keep the transaction costs down on those uses I’m not concerned with. I don’t want every instructor looking to use the materials in a class to contact me—it is a drain on my time, since I’ll always say yes.  But I do want someone working for a for-profit writing workshop to contact me before using the materials.  I may approve the use, but I want to have a look at how it’s going to be used first.  As I come across other clear areas where I can make a blanket statement on the site about acceptable use, I’ll continue to include them.

The most compelling argument I’ve heard in the whole discussion is that the NC clause limits the possibilities for redistributing the materials offline in developing regions.  Companies looking to distribute educational materials on CD for instance need to at least recover production and operating costs, and the NC clause might prohibit this.  But again, it comes down to simply asking.  I haven’t met anyone producing OER that feels that if the materials were distributed in Sub-Saharan Africa on CD, they distributor shouldn’t be able to recover costs.  I do know of some who want to review potential distributors and have safeguards in place to ensure the materials get to end users at cost, however, and there are I’m sure some distributors I wouldn’t be comfortable with.

Are the transaction costs too high in this scenario?  Perhaps, but that may be where umbrella organizations such as the OCW Consortium can play a role.  With one entity representing large chunks of content, the amount of communication and deliberation can be significantly reduced, and institutions sharing content can pool oversight resources.  There are certainly challenges around the NC clause, but it doesn’t yet appear to be the poison in the well that some seem to suggest.

October 5, 2006


Filed under: , , — Stephen Carson @ 8:45 am

From David Wiley’s forthcoming review of learning object literature, a description of perhaps the earliest formulation of a learning object system, suggested by Ted Nelson in the ’60’s:

The Xanadu design, which describes Nelson’s ideal hypertext system, calls for all content to be archived in a fixed, uneditable manner. Whenever a user desires to make changes to a piece of content previously stored in the system, those changes are stored separately, and users have ongoing access to both versions of the document. (The modern Connexions system developed at Rice University – uses a similar system.)

Because a specific version or historical view of a specific document is guaranteed to exist in a specific location in perpetuity, it is possible to reuse portions of documents in Xanadu by reference. For example, if an author wanted to quote a portion of an existing document in a new document, instead of cutting and pasting the text into the document the author would reference the specific starting and stopping locations in the existing document, and the content from that existing document will be rendered dynamically in the new document whenever the new document was rendered. (This functionality is currently available as the open source Xanadu Transquoter -

Issues of granularity and context that plague current designers and reusers of learning objects are completely and elegantly sidestepped. Rather than requiring authors to design and build content with future reuse in mind, breaking their content into chunks, etc., in the Xanadu approach authors simply create and publish their content as they see fit. Other authors who desire to reuse portions of the content later on simply indicate the section of the existing document they wish to reuse, and this section is rendered dynamically within the new document later. Also, issues of context of learning objects are also completely avoided, as readers of the new document can always navigate back to the original document from which the snippet came, in order to better understand the context of the learning object. (This functionality is currently approximated in the Purple system -

What’s not mentioned here is the way this system would impact the thorny licensing issues that have emerged in the OER world. Since the reused content is being rendered unedited here, the reuse is a compilation work, not a derivative, and each reused bit can carry with it whatever license it was made available under.

And while I won’t claim to be nearly as bright as Ted Nelson, I can’t help but hear echos of the linking based or blogosphere model for OER reuse I’ve been noodling on. Once again, I find myself on the cutting edge of fifty-year old thinking.

September 12, 2006

Here be dragons

Filed under: , , — Stephen Carson @ 2:00 pm

Quick note about a project I’ve started over on tOFP wiki, A Map of the Open World. I keep hearing about so many new and interesting open projects that I can’t keep score. This is my attempt to do so. I’d love help from anyone interested in contributing. Unfortunately, spam makes login required, but happy to provide access…

June 20, 2006

CC license use estimates

Filed under: — Stephen Carson @ 9:56 pm

Here’s the latest on CC license use distribution.  As with previous data they’ve released, NC licenses are still a majority of those out there.  There seems to be a shift of five or six percent in the last year and a half or so, though this could be measurement error.  More impressively, they’ve jumped from 45 M linkbacks to 140 M linkbacks (again possibly measurement error).  Great to see the pool of openly licensed materials expanding regardless of flavor.

June 19, 2006

A note about passion

Filed under: , , — Stephen Carson @ 8:21 am

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is the daily contact with people from all over the world who are passionate about doing good things. I can count on probably two fingers the number of people I’ve met in the States and abroad through the project who aren’t just absolutely hell-bent on positive change. Amid the chaos of violence and hatred that seems to dominate the news, this passion continually refreshes my hope that the world may yet be a better place for my children. Yes, there are debates about the best way to effect change, but these debates all occur within a shared framework of passion for a better world, and I see them all as steps in the right direction.

Which is a long-winded way of saying I appreciate Joseph Wang’s passion for open sharing, but I’m frankly not sure I can keep up with him and keep my day job! See his posts here, here, here and here. Anyway, I’m happy to keep up a dialogue, but unless we can bring a little more focus to it, I’m not sure I can respond effectively. I’d like to hear carefully reasoned support for the repeated assertion that the NC clause kills mass collaboration, as I’m still not convinced on that point. Why for instance, would Wikipedia have been less successful had they included an NC clause? Are there comparisons of NC vs. non-NC projects out there that demonstrate this effect?

Here’s the one piece of evidence I’ve heard on the subject, from David Wiley writing on the IIEP forum list:

It should be intuitively obvious that the more restriction-options included in a license, the less freedoms the license presents the end user. What may not be immediately obvious, however, is that license selection behavior by users increases as the number of license restrictions increases. In other words, almost no people want to reserve no rights, and almost all people want to reserve all rights. This is hypothesis is empirically verifiable and, at a high level, the behavior is very stable:

So, providing CC-By as a default license does create the greatest freedom for users downstream, but very few people are apt to adopt this license. Providing By-NC-SA provides slightly fewer freedoms to users downstream, but many more people are apt to adopt this license. In a recent survey of Flickr discussed in the paper above, there were 1,212,885 photos licensed By-NC-SA and only 338,543 licensed By. A correlation of photos licensed with all licenses between October 2004 and August 2005 shows that selection behavior is *highly* stable (r = 0.997) even though the total number of photos licensed grew from 81,090 to 3,466,052 during this period.

The result? If we’re going to choose one license and force participants to use it…we appear to have a choice between a very few, very free contributions and a larger number of less free contributions.

Passion is an essential ingredient for open sharing, yes, and I agree with a great many of the points made by Joseph. But I do think there’s a need for careful reasoning and examination of evidence in all of this, as I’m just not seeing the damage that’s being described. If anything, the above suggests that Wikipedia would be even more successful with an NC clause. In the end, this may simply be a question of whether you value contributors’ rights over the rights of others to use the contribution. Perfectly willing to accept this may be a matter of perspective.

June 16, 2006

And don’t miss

Filed under: , — Stephen Carson @ 10:14 am

David and Stephen’s discussion of the NC license issue.

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