Forget self driving cars, Matt Reimer has a self driving tractor

And he learned how to build it using open courseware from MIT and open source software.

Matt is a grain farmer in Manitoba. Like most farmers (at least the ones I have known in my life) Matt is resourceful and always looking for ways to improve his processes, especially when it comes to saving time. For a farmer, time is critical, especially at harvest when the window of time to get your crop off the field is short.

To help with the harvest, Matt wanted to try to make the tractor that automatically pulls up alongside a combine to collect the harvest. As he talks about in this story from CBC’s excellent weekly tech show Spark, harvesting is normally a 2 person job; one driving the combine, and a second driving a tractor. Normally the tractor driver spends about  5 minutes collecting the grain, then 20 minutes sitting in the tractor doing nothing waiting for the combine hopper to fill up again.

So, he wanted to try to make his tractor doing this automatically and autonomously. Where did he learn how to do this? He found an open course from MIT’s open courseware MITx and taught himself the basics of robotics. He then used open source software to build the robotics that powers the tractor. Bingo. Robot tractor that frees up his hired help to spend their time doing more useful tasks around the farm than sitting around waiting for a hopper to fill up.

Open made this happen. A farmer with a bit of curiosity, access to free and open knowledge and open source software is able to develop a robot that saves him time and money. Love this story.

 

Is it Time for Canada to Implement A Unified Open Strategy for Higher Education?

Transcript of my talk at the UBC/SFU Open Access week forum on October 22, 2015

My perspective on the question is influenced by my work in open educational resources, especially the work I’ve been doing for the past 3 years as the Manager of Open Education at BCcampus, and working on the BC Open Textbook project; a multiyear project funded by the BC Ministry of Advanced Education to promote the use of Open Textbooks in the BC post-secondary system.

Open textbooks are a subset of Open Educational Resources.OER’s are openly licensed teaching resources, like videos, courses, textbooks and lesson plans. Most often these are licensed with Creative Commons licenses, which allow the resource to be freely copied, shared, modified and reused by educators without having to ask for permission from the original creators. The permission to copy and reuse is given ahead of time by the creator of the resource when they choose to license with a Creative Commons license.

So my perspective on the question “Is it time for Canada to implement a unified open strategy for Higher Education” emerges from this field of OER and the work I have done over the past number of years.  And the fact that I am framing my response as coming from a very specific open perspective tells me that, yes, having a unified national strategy on all things open is likely a good idea for the simple fact that it gets all the various strands of open – open access, open education, open source software, open pedagogy, open data –  in the same room. And any reason to bring people together to talk about their commonalities is a good thing.

However, we can’t assume that open is always a good thing. Facebook, for example, would like us to all to be open and share everything about us. But this desire by Facebook for us to be open is motivated by their business model. The more open we are, the more we share, the more Facebook can better target advertising at us. For Facebook, open is their business model. Is that a good thing?

We also cannot assume that there is a common  understanding of what open means in education… as MOOC’s have shown us. Many Massively Open Online Courses use the word “open” to mean “open registration”. However, to open educators involved in OER, Open also means openly licensed. And for those of you who have worked with, or taken course by a commercial MOOC provider like Coursera or Udacity know that these courses are not openly licensed for other educators to take the content and reuse.

But these are not arguments against a unified strategy. Indeed, a unified strategy for higher education could help to address these issues. To develop a collective voice to help define what it is that we mean by open, and call out openwashing when we see it. Rather than a multitude of diffused voices crying out, a single unified voice can carry weight. So, +1 for a unified approach.

On the other hand, perhaps there is more power in supporting a multitude of smaller voices. After all, the world we live is increasingly built on network models, and the nodes are full of a diversity of opinions, voices, and ways of being and doing that could get lost in a unified strategy approach. A unified approach is not alway an egalitarian approach, and a unified strategy would need to both acknowledge and respect the diversity of voices inherent in an increasingly network oriented world.

A unified open strategy would also have to tread carefully so that it isn’t viewed as a “top-down” approach to open. We have all likely experienced initiatives that have been perceived, correctly and incorrectly, as “top-down” and have likely failed for that very reason. So, the best unified strategy approach is one that acknowledges that real substantive change often comes from both directions, and rarely from one alone.

I know I am coming across a bit down on the idea of a unified open strategy, which I am not. A unified open strategy for higher ed is an admirable goal and one that would have great benefits, like providing a clear and purposeful focus, a single vision often needed to help coalesce support and make projects happen. And in many parts of the world, having a unified open strategy has given open educational resources a boost in profile and credibility.

For example, according to the 2014 State of the Commons report from Creative Commons, 14 countries around the world have made national commitments to open education and open educational resources. These commitments often originate with government in the form of policies driven by the simple rationale that publicly funded resources should be openly licensed resources. If we, the public, pay for something, then we should put into place measures that make that something as widely usable as possible and provide the maximum benefit to the public.

When it comes to higher education, many countries have it easier than Canada enacting unified strategies because in other countries post-secondary education is often a national responsibility. In Canada, the responsibility for post-secondary lies with the provinces, not the federal government.

Not that a federal government is the only place where unified strategies can happen. Provinces can work together on unified open strategies, as was the case in 2013 when the premiers of BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan signed the tri-provincial Memorandum of Understanding on Open Educational Resources. This three year agreement signed under the New West partnership agreement, has provided projects like the Alberta OER project and the BC Open Textbook Project a collaborative framework to work together on open education initiatives. Recently, the province of Manitoba has launched an open textbook initiative, and we have worked closely with them to set up an open textbook repository and textbook review process with Manitoba faculty. These collaborative initiatives may not have happened if there was not a unified western Canadian framework to enable them.

So, despite opening my talk with some cautious concerns about developing a pan-Canadian unified open strategy, I ultimately agree that the time had come. Open education has been bubbling along for the past 20 years, slowly and consistently building a movement and momentum that is showing some real tangible benefits. The potentials are being realized. Open textbooks, for example, have saved students in British Columbia over a million dollars in textbook costs, and research into the learning outcomes of students using open textbooks vs publishers resources are showing encouraging results that students using open educational resources are doing, at least as well if not better in some cases, than students who use publishers resources in the class. We now need to build on the successes of the past 20 years and push to make open education the default, not the exception. A unified open strategy can help make that happen.

 

A slight shift in focus

Just over a year ago, BCcampus went through a significant change in leadership. Mary Burgess, who was the Director in charge of the BC Open Textbook Project, was named acting Executive Director for BCcampus. This change left a bit of a leadership gap for the OTB project. Mary asked that I take on a leadership role for the project. I agreed and became Acting Senior Manager for the open textbook project.  The initial term was to be for 6 months, but was extended to a year as we went through a ministerial mandate review before Mary was named permanent ED.

During this past year, I’ve done interesting and challenging work as the team leader. Coordinating a project like the open textbook project is massive, and I have been stretched in ways I couldn’t have imagined. But I do feel stretched. And in the back of my mind I knew that I was getting farther and farther away from a significant piece of what I love doing, and that is working with educational technology.

While there is certainly a tech piece to the OTB project, it has been far from front and centre in my day to day work. This past year, you would be more likely to find me at Ministry meetings, preparing budget reports, and working with other provinces on tri-provincial MOU’s. All important and meaningful work. And while I think I am a competent and decent administrator and did achieve much in the role,  it’s not where my heart is. I am an educational technologist, and the work I have been doing has been taking me farther away from that.

So, this summer, I spoke with Mary about moving out of the open textbook leadership role, and back into a role with a deeper focus on educational technology. She agreed and posted the leadership job.

Helping to make the transition easier was the fact that there were extremely capable people working on the project. Earlier this week, one of those capable people, my colleague Amanda Coolidge, accepted the role as the new team leader for the open textbook project.

The timing is very good for me to step aside. We have exceeded the deliverables of the original project, and in the next few weeks, will release the final open textbooks in trades and skills training. Our original AVED project draws to a close, and it feels like we are shifting to a new phase of the project.

Amanda will take over the project for an exciting new phase where the emphasis will be, not on the creation of new material, but the deeper integration of the OTB material within new pedagogical models, like open pedagogy. While we can’t publicly talk about much yet, suffice to say that the next 3 years will see exciting new work in open textbooks in BC. And Amanda is much more capable in leading this next phase than I am. Her background in Instructional Design and deep history with open education going back to her work with TESSA make her a natural for the leadership role.

For me, I’ll still be involved in open textbooks. I’ll finish out a few projects I am committed to, like coordinating the OpenEd conference in November. I’ve got an Open Access week event to do, and am heading to Alberta in a few weeks to do a workshop with eCampus Alberta on OER. But my future role with OTB will see me return to my original focus for the project, which is on technology.

I am eager to get to work on PressBooks and work towards making a self-serve instance of PB available to BC faculty. I am also interested in seeing how we can extend the platform and begin to integrate other tools within an open textbook, and explore how we can deeply integrate open textbook content in other edtech systems.

I also have a couple of other projects that I want to work on. As Brian noted, the open education working group was recently cut by BCNet, and I think there is important and exciting work to be done here exploring the role that open source software can have in higher education. It feels like the state of edtech in higher ed these days starts and ends with negotiating the best procurement deal for vendor software. With the exception of Moodle (and I expect someday in Canada, Canvas), open source software rarely plays a significant role in teaching and learning. I hope that we can set up a group to explore this within the work that Brian, Tannis Morgan, Valerie Irvine and Grant Potter had been doing with BCNet.

There are exciting technology developments, like Sandstorm and Docker, that could provide interesting frameworks for delivering a more customizable and configurable suite of open source software tools to faculty and students. I hope we can explore this.

I feel very fortunate to work with people and an organization who allow me the freedom and ability to shift focus. And I do think that, for the open textbook project and where the project is going in the next 3 years, Amanda is the right choice to take this project even farther. I’m looking forward to working with her in her new role and doing more amazing open work.

 

Copyright, Privacy and the TPP

Sons and daughters, you ain’t getting much for free.
Chalk Circle, 1989

After 5 years of secret negotiations, and just a few short weeks before Canadians go to the poll, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal has been finalized (although it still needs to be ratified in each of the member countries).

And still, no few details on the agreement have been released to Canadians.

TPP-trans-pacific-partnership-fraud

Our Prime Minister has touted  this secret trade deal as being “in the best interests” of the Canadian economy. Because, you know, the economy is the only interest that matters to this particular government, never mind the other public interests a government is supposed to look out for.

Like the privacy of Canadians. Apparently, under the new TPP deal, Canada will lose some of the power it has to protect our personal data as the TPP will “prevent national governments from cutting off data flows, by limiting laws that require local storage of data.” Let that personal data flow!

They see gold in your trees and gold in your people
They’ll be panning for it in your water

It will also take longer for works to enter the public domain in Canada as the TPP will extend the term of copyright from 50 to 70 years after the death of the creator. 20 more years for publishers to make a few more dollars off of the backs of people who have been dead for decades, and keep our own culture out of our collective hands. What is even worse is that this clause could be retroactive, meaning that works in Canada that are currently in the public domain could become locked up again. And, as the Society for American Archivists notes in their opposition to the TPP, a healthy public domain is, “…essential in fostering new creativity and advancing knowledge. It provides a storehouse of raw materials from which individuals can draw to learn and create new ideas or works.”

Then there are the other aspects of the deal that smell, like removing the ability of web browsers to copy websites – a necessary function of web browsers as this is fundamentally how a web browser works. When a browser visits a website, what you are seeing in the browser is actually a copy stored in your browsers cache of that website.

Or the controversial whistle-blower clause that would make it a crime to post leaked corporate documents on the internet (a clause that was, ironically, first leaked on the internet from the secret negotiations).

Of course, none of these are known because details of the deal have not been released. Just a high level overview.

Here in Canada, we go to the polls in less than 2 weeks, so this timing is critical. The deal will be touted by the current government as a boon for Canada without the Conservatives having to share the actual details of the deal in enough time to make it an actual election issue. Once again, as it has done so effectively in the past, this Stephen Harper government has shrouded their activities in secrecy.

Hold my beer

 

When in Vancouver for #OpenEd15

I’m crowdsourcing/compiling a list of things to do when in Vancouver for people from our of town coming to Vancouver for OpenEd in November.

There are many places on the web to find “things to do” and best restaurants, etc in Vancouver for people looking. What I am hoping to do with this list is something a bit different & lean on the knowledge of the local open community to help uncover things that they love about Vancouver beyond what people can find on Yelp or TripAdvisor. We’ll distribute this list to people coming to the conference.

If you live in Vancouver, or know the city well, then please feel free to add one or two items to the list.