This thing called the internet: part 2 of a post #opened15 textbook brain dump

This is part 2 of my post #opened15 brain dump on the role of open textbooks in higher education, prompted by many discussions about textbooks in the wake of #opened15.

In my first post, I touched on the role that open textbooks can play in bringing new people into the open community. This one is a bit more technology focused.

There is the tension around why we are even talking textbooks? Those static, information transmission devices of yesteryear. The textbook (like Powerpoint) is becoming a flashpoint symbol for bad pedagogy. That we should be post-textbook, even post-content, and that textbooks – even open ones – are prescriptive devices that enforce existing power and authority structures endemic in our education system. Textbooks are a barrier to truly progressive pedagogies, and open textbooks set up the the illusion of being progressive when really they are regressive and represent a content-centric view of learning.

Okay, that is likely just me heaping a lot of representational baggage on the poor old textbook. But this isn’t the fault of the textbook any more than a bad lecture is the fault of  Powerpoint. Poor pedagogy is poor pedagogy, regardless of whether a textbook is involved or not.

As I stated in my last post, the real problem (at least here in North America) is that, we have embedded a culture of textbooks so deeply within our education systems that it is almost impossible for many to imagine there are other ways of doing things.

And here is where I think open textbooks (and more broadly OER) are playing a crucial role, because they create an opportunity to see one different way of doing things, enabled by the internet.

See, I have this crazy belief that this thing called the internet has changed things, and I see OER and open textbooks as beautiful examples of what the internet enables. They certainly are not the pedagogical be all and end all of living in a networked world. I drank the networked learning kool-aid long ago.

the internet

But OER and open textbooks do represent one of the ways that higher education has responded to the new affordances of living in a digital, networked world where we can create, copy and distribute stuff with relative ease. And if it takes people using OER’s and open textbooks to help people see that the internet enables new ways of doing things, then that, for me, is progress. This is what brought me to open education. Open education is something the internet made possible.

So, to the innovators – keep on innovating and please don’t pull away from the community. Push the edges, do cool stuff, bring it and share it and show people that there is an open world post-textbooks (open and closed). We are all at different open paths along the spectrum, and in order to continue growing the community we have to have spaces for those on the edges to join – the legitimate peripheral participation places that allow people to build their own bridges into both open, and the net.


The Impact of OER on Teaching and Learning Practice

OER Research Hub is in the Cards

The OER Research Hub has published a new study in OpenPraxis looking at the impact of OER on teaching & learning practice.

The Hub has been working with numerous OER and open education projects around the world, gathering data clustered around their 11 hypothesis, and this report pulls data from 15 open projects, including the BC Open Textbook Project, where I’ve been working closely with Beck Pitt and the BC Open Textbook Faculty Fellows for the better part of the past year gathering regional data from BC faculty.

Aside: I think it’s quite excellent that we have a project like the OER Research Hub around capturing data on all these projects and enabling the kind of meta-analysis (like this report) to happen. Big thumbs up to the Hub.

While there is much to dig into here around the 11 hypothesis, a couple things stood out for me.

First, contrary to other findings on remix and adaptability that have shown relatively little customization of OER’s and open textbooks, the Hub’s research reports a relatively high degree of adaptation of OER’s (77.7% of educators, formal, and informal learners reported adapting content). However, this wide difference could be attributed to the fact that adaptation wasn’t explicitly defined in the research and was left open for the respondents to determine what qualified as adapting content.

Interestingly, it is not the open licenses that enables more experimentation with the content (only 14.8% of educators reporting that they use open licenses to share content), but rather the fact that the resources are online that enables adaptation. Being online is a much more important factor in reuse and adaptation that being openly licensed.

With all the recent post OpenEd talk of the value of open textbooks for changing educators practices, one of the more tentative findings that stood out for me showed that educators who are exposed to OER’s tend to seek out more OER’s and are more likely to share their own resources.

The findings here are primarily clustered around 2 projects: OpenStax and Siyavula. In the case of Siyavula, I know they have done extensive work in teacher training around the use and creation of OER’s, using book sprints as a workshop model. So, teachers using OER’s as part of the Siyavula project are not only using OER’s, but are deeply immersed in creating and adapting OER’s with support, which would tend to increase their overall understanding of OER’s. These types of collaborative sprints may also account for the fact that Siyavula teachers reported more collaboration with their colleagues as a result of using OER’s (50%) with over 70% of Siyavula teachers also saying that they often compare their teaching with that of their colleagues.

Also relevant to the open textbook debate and the value that open textbooks & OER’s in general have in changing faculty practices, there is evidence that faculty who use OER’s reflect strongly on their practice with 64.3% of those surveyed saying that they use a “broader range of teaching and learning methods”, and they are likely to compare their own teaching with others. There is also an interesting tidbit that over a third of educators who use OER have blogged in the past year, showing a connection between using OER’s and other forms of open participation.

Photo: OER Research Hub is in the cards Alan Levine CC-BY

Weller, M., Arcos, B. de los, Farrow, R., Pitt, B., & McAndrew, P. (2015). The Impact of OER on Teaching and Learning Practice. Open Praxis, 7(4), 351–361.

Killing technological generativity

If there is one way to kill technology generativity, lock the technology up to such an extent that you can’t even repair it, let alone hack at it to do something new and innovative.

I’ve written about generativity before (in the context of open textbooks). Briefly, generativity is the capacity a system has to be changed and modified by someone other than the original developer to do something new and interesting that the original developer may never have imagined.

As I read this Motherboard article How to Fix Everything, it hit me again just how difficult technology companies make it for their systems to be repairable, much less generative.

“Normally if I purchase a hammer, if the head of the hammer falls off, I’m allowed to repair it and fix it. I can use the hammer again,” Charles Duan, director of Public Knowledge’s Patent Reform Project, told me. “For a lot of these newer devices, manufacturers want to say ‘We want to be the only ones to repair it’ because they make more profits off the repairs. They’ve found lots and lots of way to do this. Intellectual property law, contracts, end user license agreements, lots and lots of ways to try to make sure you can’t do what you want with your stuff.”

A few weeks ago I came across the story of farmer Matt Reimer and his brilliant robotic hack that turned an old tractor into a remote controlled tractor, saving him time, money, and from sending his old tractor to the landfill. If his tractor was a John Deere tractor, he would not have been able to make these modifications as John Deere makes it impossible to tinker with their tractors.

John Deere told the copyright office that allowing farmers and mechanics to repair their own tractors would “make it possible for pirates, third-party developers, and less innovative competitors to free-ride off the creativity, unique expression and ingenuity of vehicle software.”

Think about that for a moment – a farmer not allowed to fix his own equipment. If you are from a farming community, you know how ludicrous that sounds.

But beyond the silliness of not being able to repair your own stuff (let alone the terrible environmental consequences of forcing people who use their products to live in an even more disposable society), corporations that lock up their technology send a clear message that the only way innovation can happen is within their narrow confines and vision. It limits the scope of innovation to only what a corporation wants, and only in the ways that serve the corporation.

Because we should all have the ability to turn pop bottles into lights.


The (open) future is here, it's just not evenly distributed

This is post 1 of a 2 part #opened15 brain dump about open textbooks (part 2 here).

I’m post-conference OpenEd15 metaphorically hungover, so forgive me if this goes astray or meanders.

Textbooks. Ugh. Who needs them.

The one hazard of organizing a conference is that you don’t actually get to attend a number of sessions, so my context here is from the backchannels, the post conference wrap up blog posts and hallway conversations.

The one overarching narrative strand I have come away with is that open has grown to the point where pathways diverge as the nuance and details of actual on the ground projects begin to reach a certain state of maturity.  No longer are we talking of “the promise” or “the potential” of open. There is much “doing” of open in many wonderful ways.  The multitude and variety of projects flying open banners is impressive to see as the field matures.

But there is tension in the community around open textbooks. This tension that there is too much emphasis placed on both the “textbook” as pedagogical tool, and the financial savings to students.

Additionally, there is a divide as to whether open textbooks mark an entry point into open education for new people (and there was a massive number of people at OpenEd for the first time), or whether open textbooks are the beginning, middle and end of the open journey for some.

From my own perspective after working on an open textbook project for close to 3 years, all of the above are tensions I negotiate with myself constantly.

My experience with this project has shown that, for some, open textbooks represent a starting point into open. None of us who are working on this project want the open textbook to be the be all and end all of open. But for many  faculty it will be. For some, they will simply swap closed for open and that will be  innovation enough. And frankly, I’m ok with that. If, at worst, open textbooks saves students money and lowers the cost for access to higher education, that is a fine and worthy application of open that is a very student-centric solution to a problem, as Amanda nicely points out. Cost, in many jurisdictions (especially in the US and Canada) is a major problem that we can solve with OER, and as a community we need to recognize that open textbooks are one pragmatic and practical application of open being used to solve a real problem. There is no “potential to” or “promise of”. This is real and it is happening, and that is a wonderful thing.

However, for some, their switch to an open textbook will mark a deeper journey into open. I look at faculty like Rajiv Jhangiani, who started with an open textbook and found a like minded community at people. Open textbooks were an entry point for Rajiv, as they were for Gill Green, the UBC Geography Faculty that participated with us in the textbook sprint, who came away with the moment that really synthesized what we hoped would happen with that sprint project.

One of the most powerful lessons for me was that I should not simply be focusing on using open textbooks in my courses; I should be encouraging students to build open textbooks as course activities. By doing this, we teach not only discipline specific content, but also increase students’ ability to engage in the democratization of knowledge.

Sure, we created a textbook. But more importantly, an open textbook helped to create space for that moment to occur. For me, this moment was what the booksprint was all about.

Problematically, textbooks are so deeply ingrained in our education systems that trying to find others ways of doing education for many is very difficult, especially in an education world where we continually remove capacity for those faculty who DO want to change and experiment and try different things. Rarely will you ever find a faculty member who says they have enough time to do their job, let alone undertake a radical overhaul of their pedagogy. Often faculty are p/t, or only brought in at the last minute to teach a course and grab at that teacher-proofed course-in-a-box (which I’ve written about before).

But there are faculty out there who do want open who don’t even know that we, the open education community, exist. Or that what they are doing, or want to do, has a name and support and community. Open textbooks have created the space to allow others into the community who may not have even known this community existed. And we shouldn’t undervalue the importance of this.

Part 2.


Opportunities to virtually connect at #opened15

We’re just a few days away from the kickoff to the 2015 Open Education conference in Vancouver, Nov 18-20. The plans have all been planned and all that is left is the doing.

If you are not coming to Vancouver next week, we still have opportunities for you to participate.

First, the conference Twitter hashtag #opened15 is where I suspect most of the virtual action will happen.

We will be livestreaming the two conference keynotes. Michael Feldstein & Phil Hill will take to the stage at 8:30am PST on Wednesday, November 18th. Their talk is on Openness and the Future of Post-Secondary Education.

Then, Friday at 8:30am PST, current BCcampus Executive Director (and my boss) Mary Burgess and former BCcampus Executive Director David Porter will be talking about the BC Open Textbook Project and a bit of the history of open in higher education in British Columbia.

The livestreams will be accessible from the OpenEd site. We’ll also archive the keynotes post conference. And in keeping with the spirit of accessibility, we are planning on live transcribing and caption the keynotes.

The BCOER Librarians will be on site doing some impromptu Periscope sessions with session presenters. These will be short (5-10 minute) post-presentation interviews with presenters asking them to talk about the content of their presentation. These are not scheduled and will happen ad hoc at the conference.  Watch the conference hashtag for these Periscope interviews to pop up. And, being that it is Periscope, these will not be archived and will only be available for 24 hours.

I’m really excited about having the Virtual Connecting volunteers on site for the conference and giving people who cannot attend the ability to contribute and participate beyond the conference hashtag and Twitter backchannel. Maha Bali and the Virtual Connecting crew (led onsite by Alan Levine) will be doing some Google Hangouts from the conference. This is a chance for those of you who are not at the conference to be able to interact with conference presenters, keynote speakers and participants. Schedule of OpenEd VConnecting sessions.


This will likely be my final post before OpenEd next week, and I just want to take a sec to publicly acknowledge and thank some of the people who have been working hard for the past year to make OpenEd happen next week.

We, of course, have been working closely with David Wiley and the Lumen Learning crew, particularly Shannon Coates and Julie Curtis, for the better part of a year since OpenEd 2014 in Washington ended. Personally, it still blows me away that I have had this opportunity to work so closely on a project with David after following his groundbreaking work in Open Education for so many years. Thank you, David.

There are countless volunteers who were part of the program evaluation committee, and who you will see at the registration and information desks,  convening sessions and greeting people at the social event. People have  contributed to locally crowdsourced list of personally recommend Vancouver activities & restaurants, and are handling umpteen tasks, from setting up booths and tables, to hauling equipment, and coordinating the virtual participation (including the fantastic Leva Lee and the BCOER librarians). A preemptive thank you to all for your contributions to OpenEd15.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the BCcampus people who have been working so hard on this event with me for the past year. Erin Beatie will be handling social media and watching the hashtag during the conference, Tracy Kelly and Jason Toal will be doing the graphic recording of the keynotes (with Jason is doing double duty as Dr. Jones at the OpenEd15 social on Wednesday as well), and our extremely talented graphic designer and communications manager Barb Murphy who did all the wonderful visual design for the conference.

To Lauri Aesoph and Amanda Coolidge. Lauri has been the lead planner of the social event on Wednesday, while Amanda has pulled together all the session conveners and has coordinated the special accessibility area, all while planning her own presentations and juggling the demand of coordinating countless meeting requests from people to talk about the BC Open Textbook Project. Both Amanda and Lauri never cease to amaze me with their work effort and willingness to throw themselves fully into a project. I am truly blessed to have them as colleagues.

And then there is Christy Foote. I really don’t know how OpenEd would happen without the efforts of Christy. OpenEd is the last (and biggest) of 3 back to back conferences that BCcampus has organized this month, all of them with the support of Christy Foote. I can’t quite express how in awe I am of Christy and the work she has done, from sourcing venues, negotiating contracts (Christy is someone you want to come with you to the bank when you go to renew your mortgage) to coordinating payments, building menus, ordering shirts and umbrellas……you name it, Christy has taken care of it. Saying thank you somehow seems inadequate for the amount of effort she has put into making OpenEd happen. But, thank you.

Ok, that’s it for now, and likely from me until after OpenEd.  For those of you coming, may the rains hold off, may the conversations be stimulating, the connections plentiful…and the WiFi be strong.


An open edtech playground infrastructure (or the magic of Grant Potter)


Grant Potter and Brian Lamb have been cooking up some open edtech goodness.

Earlier this week, Grant sent me a tweet with a link to a project that he and Brian have been working on, and it is exactly in line with my musings lately around an open web edtech infrastructure.

What Grant and Brian have done is take a whack of current open web infrastructure platforms and launched an open edtech web playground for BC edtechies to try out.

In the backend there is the UBC hosted higher ed virtualized cloud services EduCloud, a fully FIPPA compliant cloud hosting service. On top of this, Docker containers running Sandstorm, a web application platform that has, as a primary goal, making the deployment of web applications as easy as installing an app on a smart phone. One click and you have a fully functioning web application, like Etherpad or WordPress.

While this development stack is mighty impressive in that it represents a very modern web workflow, it is Sandstorm that holds real interest to me because it allows you to build customized web apps that can be deployed with the click of a button. This is incredibly powerful as it allows you to define the defaults of programs that you want to deploy, and controlling the defaults often means controlling how a user interacts with an application. This is powerful.

Say, for example, that you wanted to make a number of different WordPress installations available to your faculty, each with a separate set of defaults, plugins or themes enabled by default. Theoretically, you could create a Sandstorm SPK file (via Vagrant) for the different versions of WordPress you wanted to make available to your users and let them decide which version they wanted to install. Want the standard blog platform? Here is the WordPress button. Want Pressbooks? Here is the Pressbooks button. All deployable with the click of a button.

Well, that is my working theory of how this works right now. How it works when I actually dig deeper into the system may vary from this high level conceptualization. But if this stack works like I think it works, this will make an excellent platform for the simple deployment of customized web applications where the default is set to “education”.

We really need to come up with a proper way to recognize the technical wizardry of Grant Potter. Maybe a medal?

The Award Winning Grant Potter