Last week, Audrey Watters blocked hypothes.is and Genius on her website. These two tools allow a ‘layer’ to be added to websites for annotation and discussion that can’t necessarily be controlled by the person who owns that site.
Blocking annotation tools does not stop you from annotating my work. I’m a fan of marginalia; I am. I write all over the books I’ve bought, for example. Blocking annotations in this case merely stops you from writing in the margins here on this website.
My first reaction? Audrey can do whatever she likes. Just as when she removed the ability to comment on her site a few years back, I didn’t understand the decision at first, but then it kind of made sense. Either way, it’s her site, and she can do whatever she wants.
So far, so why-are-you-even-writing-a-post-about-this? Discussions on Twitter, Mastodon, Slack, and elsewhere show that this is a live issue. So, naturally I’ve been thinking about it. I have to say that I agree with Mike Caulfield’s sentiments:
My take (of course) is that annotation works best through a system of copies. Anyone should be able to annotate a copy of your work. But it’s not clear to me that people have the right to piggyback on the popularity of an address that you’ve worked your butt off to promote. It’s not clear to me that they should get to annotate the master file. This has always been the problem with comments as well — they work best on small sites, and go bad when they give users a much larger platform than they have earned. As with everything online, the phenomenon is gendered as well.
It seems what Audrey is doing is protecting her ‘means of production’ from what she considers to be an active assault from those who wish to piggyback on the success of her work. Some people have questioned how that works with the explicitly ‘open’ stance that Audrey takes. However, I think any perceived tension between her move and open licensing goes away when we think of some other examples.
Pokémon Go — this location-based, augmented reality game used some people’s residences as ‘gyms’ where characters in the game did battle. This caused real-world issues. Most people thought that random strangers pulling on to their drive to play games was an infringement of their civil liberties.
Google Street View — this service involves a car mounted with 360° cameras taking photographs to improve Google’s mapping service. Faces were blurred out, but this wasn’t good enough for Germany’s stringent privacy laws. They’ve been prevented from capturing images at least once, especially when people are on their own property.
Robots.txt — this text file that website owners can include in the root folder of their domain specifies what web crawlers can and cannot do. If you say that you don’t want your site to be indexed, then search engines and other aggregation engines should (legally?) comply.
Using these as touchstones, it seems fair enough for someone to insist that you create a copy of their work to be able to annotate it. As Mike Caulfield hints at, giving people the ability to comment on the master document seems like a privilege rather than a right.
Perhaps those creating annotation engines should find a way to seek the domain owner’s permission? An easy way to do that would be to get them to add the necessary code to activate annotation (as we did with OB101), rather than make it a free-for-all…
My three main areas of research are Open Educational Resources (OER), Mobile Learning and Digital Literacies. I have no problem talking and writing about the latter of these – it is, after all, the subject of a thesis I’ve been writing for the last few years. Mobile learning, too, presents no great issue: I used mobile devices in the classroom as a teacher and Director of e-Learning. Moreover, because it’s a relatively new area there’s only a few ‘experts’ to which to defer.
OER is a different kettle of fish. Not only is it a increasingly-mature area of study but it’s a political minefield. Coupled to the fact that it’s very much a Higher Education-focused area of enquiry, I haven’t ventured many opinions publicly. However, as I continue to develop the OER infoKit with consultant Lou McGill I feel that I do have something to say about OER.
So here goes… (and this is my opinion, not my employer’s, etc.)
Recently I’ve been going back through the key posts in the OER debate curated by Lou McGill on the OER infoKit here. It makes for fascinating reading as, not only are there some very intelligent people arguing against each other (always interesting!) but it’s evident that OER is a battleground not over educational practice but ideology.
I’m a big fan of the philosophy of Pragmatism, as espoused by Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, and developed by luminaries such as John Dewey, W.V. Quine and Richard Rorty. My rule of thumb is that things worth pursuing should be ‘good in the way of belief’. In fact, it’s probably worth wheeling out the 10 guiding statements about what Pragmatism means from my thesis:
Pragmatism is an anti-skeptical endeavour.
Dividing lines between theory and action are arbitrary.
Truth is conditional and dependent upon a community of inquirers.
Human experience of the external world is ineffable.
Pragmatism is method of ‘un-thinking’ rather than providing an explicit framework.
A universally-held set of beliefs is impossible.
Any statement can be accommodated as ‘true’ by amending a belief system to a greater or lesser extent.
Knowledge is a matter of social practice rather than mirroring nature.
We ‘create’ rather than ‘discover’ truth.
New concepts are often understood through metaphor, enter common usage, and then ‘die off into literalness’.
So, what has this got to do with ‘user outcomes’? I think there’s three points I’d like to make about OER in this regard.
1. There’s nothing special about OER
Stripped back to basics, there’s nothing magical or especially revolutionary about Open Educational Resources. An educator allows others to use the materials they prepared. This has been happening ever since people have been able to share things.
The revolutionary thing comes in the co-ordination of the system around such sharing. The first massive massive boon to this has been the widespread adoption of Creative Commons licenses. These allow resource creators to state explicitly the conditions under which others can use what they have created. The second, which is perhaps where organizations such as JISC have been instrumental, is the expansion of open-access repositories like Jorum. Instead of merely unco-ordinated and fragmented institutional and personal repositories, there is a growing expectation that a copy of OERs will be deposited in such repositories.
As Mike Caulfield puts it, people do things out of habit because of established frameworks. He uses the simile of recipes:
If a recipe had to explain everything about cooking — what it was to beat an egg, what it meant to mix something, how broiling differed from sauteeing — well, no one would write recipes, and no one would use them. Recipes exist in a system of cooking that is relatively narrowly defined — the framework is in place, it just needs this thing called the recipe to work.
If we want people to share OERs then we need to make it easy for them to do so. But more than that, it needs to become just another thing that’s expected of educators.
2. There are no meaningful metrics for OERs
Not everything that can be measured should be measured; the pig doesn’t get any fatter by weighing it. If sharing and openly-licensing resources is a good thing that educators should do, then it needs to be an expected part of professional practice.
As I have often said with metrics such as numbers of followers on Twitter or winning awards, true influence is a fickle beast. Quantity is not quality. So what if one resource has been used 100,000 times and another one only 14? Unless you know in what circumstances and for what purposes it was used in each case, the task is meaningless. And even then the parts can be more than the sum – just look at the REF.
The point is that OER release is adding to and improving the quality of the sum of human understanding, in an even more profound way than a research paper or press release. A good OER is written to support deep learning and this is the advantage that academia, which is unique in grappling with these issues every day, can bring.
An OER might never find itself being reused, but the process by which it is created is inherently valuable. It’s about mindsets, not metrics.
3. It’s not about OER, it’s about Openness
I can feel the vitriol that this comment will no doubt engender, but just how many people banging on about OER have taught in a classroom environment? And I don’t mean the occasional webinar or guest lecture, I mean preparing lessons day-in, day-out over years. It makes a difference to the way you approach the issue.
Scroll back up and read statements 2, 6 and 8 again. Whilst academic ideas and debates are important, the point – to paraphrase Marx – is not to describe the world but to change it. Waiting for everyone to agree about OERs before getting on and doing something about changing the system is a fool’s errand. No amount of posturing changes practice.
What’s much more important is to change the mindsets of educators so that OER release and reuse is an outflow of something they want to do. Thankfully, I think that Amber Thomas (another JISC programme manager) understands this:
Its worth saying… that of course open content isn’t just about the content … because it is also a manifestation of a way of working … and the benefits of the open way of working are:
knowing that content will be public is an incentive to improve the content
collaborative development improves the work: the many eyes principle
the best thing to do with your data/idea will be thought of by someone else
if the public have paid, the public should benefit
It would be remiss of me not to reference the excellent critiques of OER by Joss Winn and Richard Hall at this point. Read them, they’re eye-opening and staggeringly well-written.
Sadly, what I think is almost entirely lacking in the debate (apart perhaps from in Amber’s commentary) is an understanding that OER is merely a supply-side term for something that, let’s face it, educators should be doing anyway. Joss Winn’s qualms noted, it still seems manifestly obvious that if educators are funded by the taxpayer then what they do should be for the public good. And to my mind, that includes being as open as possible. I’m not particularly bothered if OERs are good for marketing, good for career progression or good for the REF. They’re good in the way of belief.