Yesterday I wrote a rapid fire reaction to news that the US government was going to be spending $2billion on Open Educational Resources. I talked about the end of the textbook industry as we know it. Since then, i had two chats, one with @marcparry and one with @sleslie. Marc asked me what i thought the most important thing about this was and Scott was taunting me for seeming to like OERs when I otherwise seem to not like them. You have them to blame for the following vision I had while putting Posey to bed.
The story of the OED (oxford english dictionary)
I’ve always loved dictionaries. I love all books for that matter… as much or more to look at as to read them. I love the promise of a book, the historicity of it. A few years back I read the Professor and the Madman a rollicking tale (if you… uh… like dictionaries) of the first massive scale live creation of a book. According to the author, the book was created one little slip of paper at a time. These slips were put into the mail by 10000 different authors, all of whom were tracking the first occurrence of a word in english usage in any book they could find. One man at Oxford (and lots of helpers) with a massive crowd sourced group of contributers hell bent on creating the entire word history of the English language.
But he did it. And, for all the good and bad of the standardization implied by that book, it was one of the most important books of the last five hundred years. It is standardization. It is the record of the words we use and what we know about them. If you’ve ever seen the 20 volume full version of the OED pull a copy out and be blown away by the awesomeness of the work involved in its creation. It was the dictionary of the last 150 years.
Hey! that’s wikipedia!
Umm… no. Wikipedia is also an awesome human achievement (not even really a crazy quest, as it wasn’t exactly planned) and is the result of a number of historical accidents (including, i should add, having it fall in the lap of some pretty clever people). But it is something that happened. It was not the result of a single minded effort to get a specific thing done, it is the result of the shaping of a million hands. Beautiful, but not something you could do on purpose.
What I would do with 2 billion dollars
You might think it a little presumptuous of me to offer advice on the spending of that much money and you’re right. It is. But I have this idea that I’d like to send into the ether. On the plane, on my way to Opened09 in Vancouver two years ago, I was trying to come to terms with the distinction I was making between OER (open educational resources) and what I was calling rhizomatic knowledge. One was something that could be brought back to first principles, something that comes close to being ‘objective’ and the other was something that was better thought of as a constant negotiation. I went digging through the video from the presentation to prove to @sleslie that I had nice things to say about OER on occasion. The exact quote
OER is the dictionary of our time
What i was trying to say was that open access to knowledge, and the resources that could be built to stand alone to “speak for themselves” as socrates would put it, could be the foundation upon which shared language was built. They could be the entry point, offer the foundation of information for any field, so that someone with enough time, effort, and access to wifi could make there way to becoming a ‘resident’ in a given field. To the point where they could have things to say about how the field could work, where they could challenge the status quo in a field.
What exactly would I do?
I think we could build it. And I would follow the exact model that was followed by the OED people. Make ONE person in charge of it. It’s a terrible amount of weight to put on one person, and they should have a great staff of people working with them… but make it one person. Someone with the authority to say yes and say no. To create a work plan that can be held to, who can put their nose down and hate every little piece that hasn’t been poked at, tidied, referenced and cleaned up.
The team would start with a list of the fields that needed the work done for it… pick the sections in any college campus calendar. (first year courses) Put that list up, request suggestions for addition and hammer the list out. Pick, say, five of them. Put the call out to those professions, get the material coming in, the stuff people have in their attics, and start to put it together. The trick is to make it comprehensive. It needn’t be a textbook when it is done, it is the master repository that textbooks are made from. It would need to be a group like archive.org… maybe the smithsonian… someone like that.
An dictionary of all the basic knowledge from every field. Free of copyright. Freely available.
OER as foundation
The dictionary is the foundation for many of the things we do. It underpins the book… and many of the ways in which we communicate on the web. This would be the next step after the dictionary. A massive catalogue of knowledge, open to all. It’s not all knowledge, and, in a sense, not complex knowledge that I’m talking about. That stuff lives in the network of ideas between us all and is in constant negotiation… but it’s the foundation of it.
My answer to Marc’s question about what was the most important thing about the government backing CC with so much money.
It’s a commitment to knowledge being free.
“If had two billion dollars, if I had two billion dollars… I’d be rich”