Complex Simplicity

Brian’s been a-blogging, and I am grateful for his latest post where he dives into his own personal edtech history.

I took part in a lot of conferences, workshops and focus groups with higher education people who attended those “learning object” sessions because they were interested in reusing materials using the as-yet untapped power of the world wide web. I listened as “serious” educational leaders dictated that the platforms require users to adopt unfathomable and complex metadata to ensure that no tangential learning materials be encountered by mistake. I took part in meeting after meeting where technology leaders and faculty representatives demanded strict access controls to limit sharing within elite consortia or collections of funding partners, or even within faculties or departments. Later on in the process, I would try to facilitate workshops with other groups of working educators that rightfully complained that the resulting systems were unwieldy and useless.

I’m grateful that he wrote that because these stories and experiences from early efforts to build systems that enable reuse of OER are important for me to hear. They help me understand what has and has not worked with these earlier efforts and give me a historical frame of reference for the work I am doing now. Learn from our collective edtech history.

Brian’s post (and a conversation I’ve been having with Adam Hyde in response to my post yesterday about the work Brad has been doing to extend PressBooks to enable some of that unfathomable and complex metadata that Brian referred to) have been making me thinking about remix & audience. Specifically, the different audiences we have who may want to reuse or remix the content we are creating as part of the open textbook project.

First, there are educators; the faculty. The people who are using the resource on the ground in their class. For this group, simplicity & ease of use are key consideration. As Brian points out:

Later on in the process, I would try to facilitate workshops with other groups of working educators that rightfully complained that the resulting systems were unwieldy and useless.

Adam’s comment underscores that point

The trick is in the re-use. Making it easy to reuse. I think copy and paste is MUCH slighted in this area. It solves a lot of problems that other ‘more sophisticated’ approaches don’t (and its OS independent). IMHO tech systems that try and ‘enable’ remix beyond what C+P can do often create problems and ‘dis-empower’ people since somehow the techno whizzy magic makes them forget that Cut and Paste even exists

The power of cut and paste. Such a simple tool. And one I bet that most educators use on a routine basis. I wonder what kind of answer you would get from faculty if you asked them if they have ever “remixed” content? Chances are the answer would be no. But ask them if they have ever cut and paste content from one place and used it in another and the answer might be different. Ever copied a photo off a webpage and used in a lecture presentation? Congratulations! You have just remixed content! You have taken something from one context and reused it in another (and I appreciate Adam’s point about the language we use to talk about this remix/adapt/translation behaviour that we are trying to enable).

Really, isn’t a course a remix? I mean, you are taking a whole bunch of disparate content – a textbook from here, some course readings from here, some quiz questions you create, a YouTube video – and you stick it all together to create “a course”. Something new. Something that didn’t exist before. Made from disparate parts. Isn’t a course the result of remixing a whack of content together? (Before the ID’s reading this go apoplectic, I know that there is much more than content selection that goes into course development. My example is merely to make the point that “remix” is something educators do all the time already).

So, when it comes to enabling faculty to “remix” our open textbooks, maybe we need to focus more on really simple things like cut and paste. I wonder if that message would resonate with faculty moreso than “remix this textbook” which, as you can imagine, is a pretty daunting task for reasons beyond the technical challenges (like licensing). Here is a textbook. Feel free to copy and paste a case study for your own course notes. Like that chart in chapter 3? Copy it. Put it in your presentation.

Easy. Simple. That is the mantra for audience #1.

Then there is the second audience group for our content where remix has a different, grander meaning. Bigger scale. I think of projects like ours. What can I do to our content now to make it easier for a future project like ours to reuse our material? This is where the importance of things like metadata comes in. For these projects, we need to pay attention to more complex pieces to ensure that the content can be shared and reused by these other projects at scale. Want to take 12 books from our collection and put them in yours? Here’s a way to do that. Want to extract all the self assessment questions from that Sociology textbook we made? Oh, here is an API that allows that.

Both those audiences need to be satisfied if we really want our project to have lasting value, both locally within BC and for the wider education system.


Exactly what we hoped would happen with open textbooks

I’m really happy right now, and it is all Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani’s fault.

Dr. Jhangiani is an instructor at Capilano University who I first connected with this summer when we were looking for faculty reviewers of open textbooks as part of the BC open textbook project. Dr. Jhangiani came to us with a Research Methods textbook that we didn’t know about and asked if he could review it as part of the project. At the time I thought it was fantastic that we had faculty bringing us open resources that we were not aware of. Really that was just the beginning of Dr. Jhangiani’s awesomeness.

A few weeks ago I was presenting on open textbooks at a conference in Vancouver where I had the pleasure to meet Dr. Jhangiani in person. We had a brief chat and he told me that he had adopted the textbook this fall. Awesome moment #2 from Dr. Jhangiani.

But today…today he took it to another level.

This morning I read an email he sent to me pointing me to his personal website where he has posted his revised version of the open Research Methods textbook that he reviewed. Seeing that completely made my week.

Dr. Jhangiani took an existing open textbook and did exactly what we hoped an instructor would do; revise it to meet his needs and then release it back to the commons under an open license for others to use and reuse.

And I suspect that the changes he made to the open research methods textbook will become valuable for others in the system as he has taken a textbook that was written with an American perspective and Canadianized it, removing American examples and replacing them with Canadian examples. He also modified the book to make sure that Canadian laws and perspectives on research were included, and added a table of contents, which the original textbook was missing. Heck, he even nailed the Creative Commons licensing.

Here is an instructor who has taken an existing open resource that was 80% of the way there and instead of going “this doesn’t meet my needs so I am not going to use it” took full advantage of the open license on the book and modified it to work for him. Not only has he saved his students money by making a free, open textbook available to them, but he has also made a valuable resource that others will no doubt use and benefit from.

This is the EXACT use case we have been hoping to see with the open textbook project. I have dreamed of seeing this happen and I am freakin’ PUMPED to see a vision realized. Thank you, Dr. Jhangiani! You have no idea how happy I am right now.

Okay, off to do a happy dance, Big Lebowski style

Ok, that might be a bit intense. Maybe more like John Candy style

Or….really…just take your own pick and join me in my happy dance.


What I like about Siyavula


I first came across the Siyavula project in the spring of this year when I met Siyavula’s Megan Beckett at the BC Open Textbook Summit in Vancouver. Siyavula is a South Africa based open textbook project (originally funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation)  that has produced a number of open textbooks to support k-12 curriculum in South Africa.

There are a couple of things I like about the project.

First, building on what I was talking about in my last blog post about developing a community centered around an open educational resource, Siyavula textbooks are authored in a unique way; through a series of teacher hack-a-thons or textbook sprints. These events organized by Siyavula bring together groups of educators & technicians to create a textbook in a weekend. Over this summer, another textbook sprint to develop Physics and Chemistry open textbooks (remixing both the Siyavula and OpenStax Physics and Chemistry resources) was organized with the assistance of Siyavula. In his wrapup blog post, Siyavula’s CEO Mark Horner emphasizes that the aim of these textbook sprints is to “seed Communities of Practice (CoP)” for the textbook, and speaks to one of the challenges of getting educators to participate – the fear of sharing:

Sharing is scary (at first anyway), because it involves making something available for public scrutiny, something that is actually an investment of your time and energy, and people may be critical. People may also be very positive, but we tend to worry more about what might go wrong than right.

Mark then goes on to point out that, even though sharing may be scary for some, there are benefits to sharing resources and expertise.

The long-term benefit of sharing, in my opinion, is that even if people are constructively critical, the material improves and a community of practice with a shared knowledge base and best practise can emerge.

So, even though there are challenges with developing the community of practice and getting educators to share resources, Mark believe the challenges are worth it because in the end, better resources and a stronger community will emerge.

In my experience, the fear of sharing is often more in my head than the reality. Most of the resources I have ever developed and shared have been received graciously, and criticism has been positive and collegial.

The second thing I really like about Siyavula is how they are sharing their textbooks, and appear to be committed to making the books available in remixable formats. For example, if you look at their Physical Science Grade 10 textbook, you’ll see that students have a lot of choice as to how they want to interact with the textbook. There is a website, a downloadable PDF file, or students can order a printed copy (it doesn’t look like an ePub version is available, which is the only other format I would add). But in addition to those formats aimed at students, they also have the source formats available for download, in this case the original Open Document and TeX files. This allows other teachers or open textbook projects to be able to edit or remix the textbook in the native technical format that the book was written in, which increases the likelihood that this open educational resource will be remixed and customized.

Finally, the textbooks also contain a Teachers Guide, which educators find a valuable additional resource that will increase the likelihood of adoption by other educators. And the source files for that are also available for download so it can be easily customized.

The development of a community of practice, remixable formats, and supplying additional teacher resources. Three things that make the Siyavula project stand out for me.


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.


Adobe to add DRM to Flash video?

I imagine video remixers around the world are holding their collective breath today in hopes that Adobe will not go ahead and include Digital Rights Management (DRM) encryption in the new version of Flash servers.

One of the great byproducts of the emergence of powerful, free and easy to use media production tools like Jumpcut, iMovie and Windows Movie Maker is the emergence of the video mashup. Someone posts a video, perhaps to a video sharing site like YouTube, DailyMotion or a similar site, which then gets captured by someone else, remixed and recut to create something new.

Flash video is one of the technologies that is making this easy to do. The vast majority of video sharing sites are using this relatively new video protocol which, up until now, has been DRM free, unlike many other streaming media technologies like Real and Windows Media which have had DRM encryption fro quite some time. Ironically, the new version of Real Player includes a video download tool that allows you to download and save Flash video, but not Real video. Go figure.

Remixing is nothing new. But in a digital age, video remixing is becoming a powerful tool of both expression and media literacy. Seth Schoen at the Electronic Frontier Foundation makes a great point in his article:

Before we understand how to read media messages, we must first learn how to speak their language — and we learn that language by playing with and remixing the efforts of others. DRM, by restricting the remixing of Flash videos, stands to bankrupt a rich store of educational value by foreclosing the ability of students and teachers to “echo others” by remixing videos posted online.

There is another angle to this story. The fact that Adobe can use this new tool to effectively lock out any client side player except for an Adobe player. I don’t imagine Adobe would be so stupid as to shoot themselves in the foot and do this. One of the major reasons we are currently looking at purchasing a Flash server at our institution is precisely because it is much more platform neutral than Real, Windows Media or Quicktime. But corporations have done sillier things in the past in an attempt to control a market.

This will probably be a minor annoyance in the future as workarounds and hacks will become available should Adobe follow through with the plan to do this. But still it puts a hurdle in the way of remixers looking to build upon previous works to create new forms of art and express themselves in new and interesting ways.