OER as the new dictionary (OED) – a vision of a possible future

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.

Crazy quest.

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”

$2billion for OERs could end the textbook industry as we know it…

The quite excellent work that has been done by Cable Green and others at in washington seems like the pinky toe into the water of today’s announcement of 2 billion US dollars being funneled into OER for community colleges and ‘other qualified institutions of higher learning’. The difference, of course, being that Cable’s has a plan, (and i think an awesome plan) and this is just money to support plans… either way. There is now BIG money out there to encourage people to build stuff they have to give away. muhahaha etc…

So, uh, dave… what does this have to do with textbooks
Cable’s project, and one of my hoped for results from this project, is about the creation of free (or next to free) textbooks for introductory courses in education. One of the most maddening part of being in the edtechosphdere is that we all know that if someone could just pull it together, we could have really nice, compelling textbooks that could provide nice free education to people. Five years ago, we were asked by the Nord Family Foundation to look into the idea of creating wikitextbooks for schools and pretty much came up with the fact that we just weren’t ready. This kind of commitment from the government, money at that scale, that much commitment to the idea of creative commons… this tells me that we might be ready to rid ourselves of the $150 introductory textbook and move to open content.

My dislike here is for a specific kind of textbook
I am not speaking about the collections of copyrighted, existing texts containing articles written by experts in a field. While I’m not crazy about this kind of copyright, it’s an entirely different argument. The works contained in those ‘textbooks’ are sifted from existing work and you are paying for the work of collecting these texts, pulling them together, and paying the rights (ideally to the authors…) to those who own them. It’s unfortunate that things work that way… but they do.

The kind of textbook that i mean is the one that is created to introduce people to various standard tasks in a field. Some of them are works of art written by a dedicated author after a lifetime of experience teaching a subject… at least, I’ve heard people claim these exist. I’ve never seen one. More likely they are factory built collections of barely passable material recycled from the 30 previous years of the same kinds of textbooks assembled by people treated like drones, with ‘authors’ who are paid at the end of the process for the rights to use their names, and then a $150 price tag is slapped on top of them.

They are not all like this. But certainly enough of them are to make the bar for being able to afford them ludicrously high. This kind of money (used wisely etc…) could fuel the kind of open textbook movement that could actually get entire states/countries to move to an open standard for textbooks, thereby saving crazy amounts of money, and making me happy (which is, of course, the main goal of any country)

Why I think this could be the end

  1. The US government support of Creative Commons removes the risk from trying it out. The biggest impediment to innovation, in my experience, is the inability for government educational professionals to shoulder the risk of innovation. We have long said “no one ever got fired for hiring IBM” and this has stayed fairly true in our industry. The open innovators have been outliers. And looking down the face of the public and answering the “but if it’s free doesn’t that mean it isn’t worth anything” question has always been a problem. No longer. Someone else bigger leaped first.
  2. This is enough money. In LAK11 we just read the bigger is different article from the 70’s. When this kind of money steps out onto the playing field, innovators from around the sector (and certainly outside of it) will come running. With this on the table even the most suspicious administrator will be tempted. (there are a host of problems associated with this… but that’s for later in the post)
  3. They aren’t alone. A host of funders have moved into the open game in the last few years (if not on a governmental scale) and there are a large number of people with skills to provide excellent advice. Just today I received an email from Doug McManaway (who admittedly works for a social media comms agency on behalf of the funder) pitching the http://nextgenlearning.org/ wave 2 funding. With Hewlett, Gates and a host of others putting money into things that people can’t sell… we have a chance to reach that tipping point (if you’ll forgive the expression.

Ideally… what does this look like?
These will, of course, vary from person to person and from circumstance to circumstance. There are some trades here in Canada, for instance, that have a rigidly standardized testing process. Let’s take welding as an example. The Red Seal in welding test is exactly the same across the country. The curriculum is created in almost every single school, updated 100 times over in 100 places. This is a super easy scenario for creating a standard curriculum saving everyone (except the publishing industry) a pile of money.

There are any number of introductory courses that generally fall along standard lines. There are concepts in math, philosophy, biology, computing, english… that are pretty consistent across general lines. There are already likely way more OERs out there than we need to create first year textbooks for these, but, as i mentioned earlier, this kind of support gives the green light for more people to risk the innovation. These OERbooks might fall along general topics lines with a grab bag of options that separate instructors could choose from for each topic. Doing intro to Python? Use a little MIT syllabus, mixed with some OERs from connexions, one from Dr. Jimmy, one from Jane the python geek and two of your own. Doesn’t matter. And, I might ad, this is already happening… just not on a broad scale.

The third option is for different groups to create their own unique books and release them to the public. One of the biggest criticisms to the OER move is that it will remove the choice from instructors from choosing texts. This problem will start to fall by the wayside if 20 different groups create competing complete open textbooks. In the end, I think this is the model with the best likelyhood of success. One company steps up to host the site where we can all vote on our favourite first year philosophy open textbook (I’m looking at you Creative Commons!) and we’re done. Anyone can find a complete open textbook that is free to students.

And if the idea doesn’t happen?
The PROBLEM with throwing lots of money at a problem is that it attracts a number of people who aren’t otherwise interested in the problem you currently have. Two billion dollars is enough money to attract ‘professionals’ form other fields who are looking for a payday. I imagine there being sharks flying in from dimly shielded existing textbook companies claiming to provide “more scholarship” or “better rubrics”. I fear that this might sound appealing to the people giving out the money who are likely to have come from a system where this has always been the way of judging the ‘value’ of a given piece of content.

Broadly speaking, large amounts of money rarely solves any problem. The model that Cable is running out west sounds really great to me, all the more due to the collossal amount of money that already been spent on OER projects that didn’t really get very far. More money thrown on a bad plan doesn’t make that plan better. I hope they call Cable and few other smart folks out there and get good advice.

There is also the tricky problem about how we deliver these textbooks to students. If we are giving web based textbooks to people who don’t have computers… that doesn’t help very much. How are we going to deal with stale content? How is it going to be maintained over time? How are all those people out there who are worried that students will simply copy and paste out of textbooks into answer keys going to learn that that doesn’t qualify as instruction? 🙂


I like the idea of free textbooks. Particularly for those topics at the entry level where we all pretty much agree on what needs to be taught. It gives us a chance to open specialties to people who might just want to peak inside or to those who might want to engage. I think the textbook industry (at this level) is an artifact of an earlier time when we needed to package knowledge in ways that could fit in a truck. I can’t believe i’m saying this… but Senator stevens was right… the internet is not a dumptruck. We don’t need them anymore. I imagine that this will cost good people jobs, and that they’ll have to move elsewhere… and that sucks. The emancipation of millions of people, however, I think is worth it.

We really need to do this, I think, and I applaud the government for taking a run at it. I just hope they engage the open community for help. Please. We’re all out here 🙂

MOOC newbie Voice – Week 2 Big Data… must be important… it’s big!

Response to my week 1 slackers guide was quite nice thank you very much so i thought i would take a run at doing week 2. I found the title of this week a touch intimidating but found the actual articles quite approachable. There is something going on with data out there, and we are increasingly at the mercy of the data that is out there and, if nothing else, knowing something about it makes us a little more paranoid.

Week 1 skimming
There’s a reason why people are addicted to the ‘top ten’ reasons style posts. They’re easy to skim. My pick for skimming this week is The Telegraph article on the 10 ways data is changing how we live. It gives you that 10,000 foot view of why you should care about big data… some of the other articles might drill you with ‘content’ and ‘research’ about his topic, but my selection will allow you to just kinda drift through the content and get a vague sense that you know what is going on. Which, of course, is how we like it.

Notes on some of the other resources

  1. For those of you interested in getting started thinking about how to interpret data… I really like this blog post from the extra resources list. http://www.dataists.com/2010/09/the-data-science-venn-diagram/ A beginners guide to figuring out what the charts might mean and connected to a bunch of other resources.
  2. If you’ve never read “more is different” it’s a classic. it says that… uh… more is different. Is short and approachable.
  3. stephen wolfram’s TED talk. Interesting brain candy, and a nice introduction to his work, but not really the sort of thing that leaves you with a sense of what its going to do for you.
  4. This one... a gonzo style interview with a dude who’s been in the industry and gives you an interesting background into how the web ACTUALLY works from a web perspective and how new data has changed that. You’ll need a bit of server understanding (and care about it) to get the full understanding, but it’s a really cool introduction. I liked it 🙂

This week’s activity
SNAPP is uh… kind of a snap. I haven’t poked too far into what I’ll be able to do with it but the video offers you the opportunity to look like you’ve done the test… which is what we are looking to provide here at ombuds central. Feel free to watch the vid, get a quick sense of what SNAPP is, and speak offhandedly about it at your next staff meeting.


This week’s presentation – Ryan S.J.d Baker

This is a more content based presentation than the one we saw last week. It’s got that ‘what is it, give me an example of it, move to next sections’ kinda presentation. If you like your things ordered and your definitions where you can reach them, this is the presentation for you. This is the end of the business that i am very, very suspicious of. The speaker is talking about how students manage their work inside their specially structured educational software. Build software, create it so you can test things, and then draw conclusions from that. Suspicious of it… but still happy that i saw the presentation.

Don’t tell George, but i found the middle part of the presentation where george was asking questions, to be the most valuable for getting a sense of what they actually do with the testing. (you can pick that out by checking out the blue progression lines at the bottom of the screen and pick the spot where there’s a big space between slides)


MOOC newbie voice – a slackers entrance into lak11

As LAK11 starts to ramp up (for me at least, I”m a few days behind) I thought i would take a shot at being a useful helper/facilitator for the course. My hope during this six weeks is to give a tad more guidance than i normally would in an open course and provide a safe place for discussion from people who might not know much about learning analytics, who might be new to an open course, or who are just slackers like me.

A few words on being the ombudsman
While we were talking about the roles that each of the five facilitators could take up during this course, i suggested that a voice for newbies might be useful. A person who could respond to “uh… what the xxx are they all talking about” style questions, and who could feel frustrated and confused right along with you. The simple fact is that while i’ve dabbled with LA, I’m not exactly a luminary on the subject. I’m going to be learning along with everyone else… which is why i signed on.

So feel free to ping me on witter (@davecormier) or connect with me some other way if you’re wondering what you’re supposed to be doing in this course, what a ‘hunch’ is or to complain that you can’t quite figure out what George is talking about.

I’m thinking of providing a common list of cheater options for each week, an article to skim to get a vague idea of what’s going on, a description of what i did with one of the activities and maybe some other thoughts as the week goes on. we’ll see.

Week 1 – skimming
My skimming suggestion this week is the article by Tanya Elias http://learninganalytics.net/LearningAnalyticsDefinitionsProcessesPotential.pdf. It has awesome skim potential. It’s well layed out, with titles that identify whether or not you need to read that particular part of the article. It gives you a nice background of the bits and pieces that learning analytics has grown out of and also, the potential to skip right along to the page 4 section that describes analytics… culminating with this very nice quote by dawson (also computers page 11 and theory page 14)

Although it is now accepted that a student’s social network is central for facilitating the learning process, there has been limited investigation of how networks are developed, composed, maintained and abandoned. However, we are now better placed than our predecessors to use digital technologies for the purpose of making learner networking visible…. network- poor earlier in their candidature, it becomes possible for them to make timely and strategic interventions to address this issue. (p.738)

You might very well skim this article and then decide that it’s worth the full read. ’cause it is.

This week’s activity
Hunch is pretty painless. No excuse not to be a star this week and do the activity. It gives a little window into what analytics are all about and is kinda fun to boot. I recorded myself doing it. If you just want to hang back and cheat over someone’s shoulder… be my guest.

This week’s presentation – John Fritz
It is an introduction to learning analytics. The sound is nice and clear… which is always important. It’s a nice introduction to a part of the field. Something you could easily turn on and run on your desktop while you’re working on your assignments. http://www.learninganalytics.net/?page_id=71

  1. I found it really helpful.
  2. It’s focused on Learning(course) Management Systems
  3. If you’re an analytics ninja, you might want to go back to doing your weird code stuff.
  4. Includes a use case of ‘why learning analytics’

Bottom line? Wanna sound smart at your next meeting on this topic? Watch this presentation, take notes so you can refer to the articles he talks about.

Is this useful?
If I get some sense that this is useful, I’ll do one of these every week during the course. I’ll also take feedback collected from this blog post and bring it to the friday sessions if people like?

Need stuff added? Stuff here that isn’t useful? Let me know.

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