Remix, Mashups, Aggregation, Plagiarism oh my

I am about to criticize and show examples from a copyright poster (or, for you new-fangled kids, an infographic) I received in the mail today from Turnitin, the anti-plagiarism company. Fair dealing y’all.

The title of the poster is The Plagiarism Spectrum:  Tagging 10 Types of Unoriginal Work, and lists the top 10 types of plagiarism based on the findings of a global survey of nearly 900 secondary and higher education instructors. The poster ranks the severity of the offense (#1 being highest level of severity, 10 the lowest) and shows a scale of 1-10 based on how often each type of plagiarism appeared in the survey results. I tried to catch a full size shot of the poster (you can click the image for a larger, more detailed version):

Well, I have some problems with this. Let’s zoom in on the areas I find troublesome.


Remixing is the 4th most nefarious form of plagarism, and mashups are #7…at least according to these 900 teachers and instructors. This saddens me because I happen to consider these two activities some of the most creative and original cultural acts happening today. And to think there are 900 some instructors and teachers out there who do not recognize the creative value  and sheer amount of work it takes to create something new and original out of what existed before.

Quite frankly, it astonishes me that in this day and age, remix and mashups are thought of as plagiarism. I am of the school that everything is a remix.

History is populated with examples where multiple ideas, products, music, literature, you name it were mashed-up, remixed and otherwise recontextualized to create something completely new and original. As Brian Lamb puts it in his 2007 Educause article Dr. Mashup; or, Why Educators Should Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Remix:

Elements of reuse have always been present in creative work, even though the borrowing may have been framed in terms of “tradition,” or “influence.” Artistic and scholarly works build on the work of others.

Yet, according to this study, we in education consider these acts of stealing; of unoriginal thought. Plagiarism. Laziness. Look at how lazy these remix people are. They work in bed in their pyjamas for crying out loud.

No good can ever come out of that.

If this is the true and accurate sentiments of educators in general – that remix is, in fact a form of plagiarism – then it makes me realize just what kind of uphill battle we might face here in British Columbia as we move towards creating and modifying Open Textbooks. The challenge being that if educators have this underlying core value that remixing  someone else’s content to create something new is plagiarism, then they are coming into the open text book project with the preconceived notion that we have to build something from scratch; reuse is not an option because it is plagiarism.

For me, this is the wrong way to approach an open textbook project. In order for the open textbook initiative to be successful, I think we need educators to come to the table with an open mind about reuse and remixing existing materials; to modify already existing open textbooks and openly licensed content to fit their specific needs. Not only do I think that starting from scratch is an arrogant place to begin (we are the only ones who know best), I think that if we try to recreate the wheel and start from scratch, we start at the bottom of the hill and put a big boulder in the way. Anyone who has written anything at length knows that it is much easier editing and modifying than staring at a blank piece of paper in the typewriter.

I also have a problem that this:

and this:

are practices being painted with the plagiarism brush.

A retweet serves many purposes, not the least of which is attribution. If someone retweets something that I send out and keeps my Twitter handle in the tweet, I am notified. It is a signal to me that they find what I tweeted valuable – so valuable that they wish to share it with the people in their network. For the person being retweeted, this underlying message you receive when someone retweets one of your tweets is that the people in your network find that type of content valuable. It is a prompt to share more. We all know how important knowing your audience is in communication and writing, and a retweet is a signal back to the original source that someone in the audience found the content valuable, please share more like this. Retweets serve an important function in that it helps me know my audience.

Aggregation is, in essence, curation, a skill that I think is incredibly important in education. There is great skill to being a good curator of resources; a filter. I value the curators in my network.  As educators, we constantly curate resources. It is one of the core learning activities we do – vet resources for our learners and point them in the direction of what we think is important. This is what aggregations is all about.

But the biggest problem I have with this poster is that it brings all of these things together in one handy, scary resource, and makes these practices appear fraught with danger, when in fact, I believe these are core skills required to create understanding in today’s world. This poster is being sent out to other educators like myself in the hopes that it will get posted in a hallway or office so that other educators will see this. The underlying message they take away after viewing this poster is that these practices: Remix, Mashup, Aggregation and Retweet are riddled with risk (thanks, Tracy for helping me articulate this). That whatever positive purpose they may serve in an educational context, the risk is not worth it. And I fundamentally disagree with that.

So, I am going to hang this poster in my office and I am going to use it to trigger a conversation. But I am going to modify it a bit.


Open Education Matters Why it is important to share

Earlier this year, the US Departments of Education held a video contest asking for videos that answered the question “why does open education matter?” The top three videos are located on the Department of Education website.

All the videos are well done, but the third place video caught my eye as it really emphasizes what can happen when content is shared and reused, and how it could then benefit the original creator of the content, creating the type of virtuous cycle that is possible when resources are shared.

This is open education. Knowledge as a public good.


Buzzkill (or these are not simple times we live in)

Yesterday was Black Friday. But yesterday was also Buy Nothing Day, and this post in in the spirit of Buy Nothing day.

This video keeps popping up on my Facebook feed. You might have seen it.

At first blush, this is the kind of video I love. Showing that people are basically good and altruistic.

But there was something that bothered me. I watched the video again. Then I zoomed in on the final shot where one guy passes a beverage to another. A Coke.

It’s a Coke commercial.

And then I got angry. Not that it was a commercial riding on the feel-good factor – commercials have always done that. Just don’t try to fool me and hide your message. It’s deceptive and dangerous. When people find out, they become angry and cynical and that beautiful message that the world is a great place completely gets blown out of the water and is replace by the message that the world is full of deception. Had there been a simple logo shot at the end of the commercial saying it was sponsored by Coke, I would not have felt so duped. So stupid. So cynical.

I was tempted to go back to FB and start commenting on everyone’s feed, “Nice, but it’s a damn Coke commercial.” But, you know. Buzzkill. No one likes to be the one to pop the feelgood balloon. Who likes to have it pointed out that they have been duped?

But wait a sec. Who have I been duped by?

I started to dig around and look into the organization that had their logo tagged on the end of the video, Love Everybody (where I am seeing comments that others are suspecting the same thing I am about the Coke product placement). I was certain I would find out that they were funded by Coke somehow. But if they are, it is not obvious from their website.

And then as I continued my research to try to uncover whether this was really a Coke commercial or not, I came across this version of the ad on YouTube:

Now in this version, there is a very definite Coke logo and product shot at the end. It is obvious in this version that this IS a Coke commercial and the message was sponsored by Coke. I see this version and I am okay with this. Coke has been explicit.

So, why did Love Everybody edit the video to remove the Coke logo at the end that clearly showed that it was a Coke commercial? What was their motivation to do this? Did they want to use the video as a vehicle for their own organization? Try to re-edit in such a way that they would get the feel good factor out of it? Or are they really funded by Coke and have re-edited the video to make the Coke message obscure and almost subliminal? Or are they engaging in some form of culture jamming and it is actually a sophisticated ploy to use the message of a corporation to provoke exactly the kind of negative reaction and backlash to a mega-corp that I felt? Or perhaps they are funded by the state and are trying to soften the perception that constant public surveillance is a good thing?

And here in lies the problem. Going down this road has made me start questioning what this simple little message that seemed so sincere and earnest really means. The message that the world is a good place has been replaced, and that pisses me off because I want to believe that the world is a good place and people are basically good. That may be a naieve attitude, but as a father trying to raise engaged kids who don’t end up living a cynical life steeped in fear, I NEED to believe that.

I like to think of myself as fairly media literate. I worked in that world, on both the commercial and alternative media sides and feel I have a good bullshit detector. But it reminds me that we are living in complicated media times where messages and media can easily be manipulated. For me, this is another indicator of the importance radical transparency in everything we do. We need transparency as a core value in our society today or risk creating a cynical society that lives in fear, uncertainty and doubt. We need to push at our governments, corporations, institutions, and ourselves, and believe that being open and transparent and making our motives & actions visible and explicit is the only option.

Cross posted from my other blog.



take me...

I have been thinking a lot about leadership lately.

Perhaps it is because our Director has recently moved on to another position with another organization and I (as well as the other manager in my unit) have been called upon to backfill that role. Consequently, in the past 2 months I have found myself working at a higher level in the organization than normal, sitting at the table with our senior academic leadership team & getting a firsthand view of academic leadership.

I am also fortunate to be in the enviable position of being on the hiring committee to hire a new Director for our centre (how nice to be able to have a say in who your new boss will be) and so I have been able to not only witness a number of potential leaders articulate what their vision for our unit might be, but also get a sense of what leadership qualities the other institutional leaders on the hiring committee value.

Because of these two things, I have been thinking about my own leadership role and trying to unravel the complex feelings I have about being a “leader”. I am realizing more and more that there are people that are expecting this of me and my unit. Heh. Only took me a year and a half to figure that out. Yeah, a bit slow on the uptake sometimes. There’s a good leadership quality.

Those quotes around the word leader in the above paragraph aren’t modesty. I genuinely find the thought of being a leader uncomfortable. Leaders are the ones up there at the front of the room. I am not a stand in front of the room kinda guy. Those who have met me in a f2f context would probably say I am the quiet fly-under-the-radar guy sitting over there in the corner.

There is a reason I used to work in radio. I wasn’t very good at it. I got better and could have probably forged a decent career if I had the desire to continue, but it never felt natural. It always felt like I was working against something inside me. But I took a lot away from that career that has served me well to this day. If it wasn’t for working in a  highly social and public forum like broadcasting that forced me out of my shell and into the spotlight, I would probably be this Ted Kazynski-ish hermit shunning humanity and living off the grid in some cabin in the woods. Minus the crazy. Maybe.

I am the quiet one because I often struggle to do one of the things that I think a leader has to do to be a good leader – articulate a vision of what the future could look like, and then convince people to come along for the ride. It takes a level of salesmanship to sell your ideas in a room full of people.

It’s not that I don’t have a vision. I do. I just have a hard time clearly expressing what that vision is. I struggle. I lack the salesmanship. Which is probably why I have always gravitated to writing. I joke that I am an asynchronous guy living in a synchronous world, and I find it much easier to express things in writing than I do in a highly interactive social situation. But standing in front of a room and selling your idea is something a good leader does.  I am sure the expression “take a stand” emerged out of being the one who stands out and passionately illuminates a different way.

I admire those people and seek them out. The ones who inspire. Who are the big thinkers. The ones who can cut through the noise and find the signal. I feel much more comfortable finding those people who have articulated a vision that matches mine – who have found the words to say what I am thinking and (more importantly) what I am feeling (I am an INFJ after all), and then saying “Yes! I want to follow you! I want to help you reach that vision.” I want to be part of your wolf pack (again, minus the crazy).

Like my radio days, there is something about being the leader that doesn’t quite align with how I see myself. But I know there are people in my organization who are looking for me to be that, and I am beginning to see that I need to spend some more time figuring out how to reach some sort of stasis with what people expect of me (and, more importantly, what I am beginning to expect of myself), and who I feel I am. It is a state of cognitive dissonance that I want to resolve because there are things I want to do and achieve that will require a level of leadership in my organization to make happen.

It is a learning opportunity, one that will require some courage and probably take me away from some of the things that I love to do in order to achieve the things I want to do. But the first step is recognizing the gap. Now to work at filling it.

Image: Take me to your leader by Zaykowski used under Creative Commons license.


Create a book from Wikipedia articles

While doing some random surfing last night, I stumbled upon a new tool in Wikipedia that I didn’t know existed (but has been around for a couple of years).

You can create books (both print and e) of selected Wikipedia content.

The Wikipedia book tool is located in the left hand navigation of Wikipedia under Print/Export. Click the create a book link,  activate the book creator tool and you can start compiling pages in Wikipedia.

As you go from page to page, you will see a new toolbar at the top of each page prompting you to add this page to your book.

Once you are finished, click Show Book where you can add a title and rearranging the articles.

Once you have the book tweaked as you like, you can then output & download to EPUB, PDF, OpenDocument, or OpenZIM (a format I am not familiar with), or send a copy to a print on demand service called Pediapress which, for a small fee, will print and ship you a physical copy of the book.

I gave it a try and in about 5 minutes had created a very simple ebook containing the biographies of the current Canadian mens national soccer team (sigh we came so close this time) and the current state of our national soccer program. Here is a Canadian soccer primer from Wikipedia in PDF (yikes – 13 meg) or ePub (1.6 meg) format.

Video on how to create a Wikipedia ebook.

After I tweeted this, Alan Levine & Scott MacMillan replied to me and pointed out that UBC has this feature set up on their wiki’s as well.

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Turns out, there are extensions for any MediaWiki site that can enable instant, on the fly publishing ebook format.


What my bike is teaching me about learning

For the past 15 years, I’ve been a bike commuter, and I try to ride to work at least a couple days a week.

I love riding my bike. I also like to tinker, but for whatever reason I haven’t spent a lot of time over the years tinkering with my bike. The city I live in is cycle crazy, and there are just as many bike repair places in town as there are coffee shops, so it has been quicker and more convenient to just let the experts deal with it. But in the past year with a longer commute, I have found that I spend more money each year on bike maintenance. So, a few weeks ago when I noticed that my rear cassette and chain were starting to slip and grind, I thought I would try to save a few bucks, teach myself a new skill, and learn how to replace the drive train.

I started doing a bit of research on the web last weekend. I found a few decent videos and websites that explained the process and tools I would need. Late Saturday, I went down to the local bike shop, bought a couple of new tools, a new rear cassette and chain.

Sunday morning, I got down to work.

It started off well, and I had the old chain broke and old cassette off in about 20 minutes. It was then I noticed I had a broken spoke. I’ve never replaced a spoke (but have many times paid $15 bucks at the bike shop to have it done – owch), and figured that since things were going well, I might as well give that a go. So, after watching a few more videos and figuring out how to true a wheel without getting into expensive gear, I went back to the bike store to buy some spokes and a spoke wrench.

“What size do you need?” asked the bike store mechanic. Uh, they come in different sizes?

Back home to get the wheel, and back down to the bike shop.

With spokes in hand, I decided to tackle the spokes first and get the wheel built before getting to the new drivetrain. Turns out, I had 3 spokes that needed replacing, and spent the better part of that Sunday getting the tire trued up.

Last Sunday night, I tackled the drive train. The new cassette went on and I threaded the new chain through the gears. I thought it went well, but when I started rotating the pedals, I heard a chunk-chunk-chunk clicking sound coming from the rear derailleur. I had threaded the chain incorrectly. So I had to break the chain, rethread it and try again.

Second time through it seemed to work. No clicking. Until I geared down to the lowest gear possible and saw that the chain was sagging. There was no tension.

Huh? I did everything that the videos told me to?

It was then that I compared the old cassette with the new and saw that the gears on the new cassette were half the size of the old one. Turns out there is more than one kind of 8 speed gear-set with different gear ratios.

So, off comes the new cassette, back into the box it goes. I spent last week without my bike.

This Saturday, I bring the cassette back to the store. I also bring the old cassette with me so I get the correct size this time. I speak directly to the in store mechanic, feeling sheepish I didn’t speak to him in the first place. He hands me a new cassette (which actually cost $15 less then the original one I bought), and gives me one of those Mike Holmes-ish smiles that says (in a very kind and empathetic way), “I’ll see you next week when you bring me your bike to clean up your mess.”

I get home, put the new cassette on and…

As my chain sags I am reminded...

As I sit here looking at my sagging chain once again, I am reminded that learning new stuff is not easy. It means making mistakes and enduring moments of frustration as you struggle to figure out what went wrong. It means recognizing that you are blind to what you do not know.

It also highlights the siren song of the availability of abundant resources. Right now, I am crashing on the rocks. Nowhere in the resources I looked at did anyone speak about correct gear ratios, or the fact that cassettes can come with different gear configurations.

I am learning this the hard way. But I am learning. I am not beaten yet. I still have some tricks up my sleeve, including going to the network, which I haven’t done yet, but will soon because I know at least 4 people in my network who are avid commuters and can help me figure out what I am doing wrong.

My drive train is my bow drill. And I will figure this out.