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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Something Open This Way Comes

At Southampton we have a history of Open Access Research, and a number of my colleagues (in particular Les Carr and Stevan Harnad) are heavily involved with the Open Access movement. At its heart Open Access Research holds the principle that publicly funded research should be available for free. It challenges the existing publishing model, where researchers sign away the rights to their work to publishers of journals and professional proceedings, in exchange for the knowledge that those publishers will act as gatekeepers for quality, and disseminate their findings to other universities and libraries around the world.

The contention of the Open Access movement is that the copyright restrictions placed on academic authors by publishers is a price that is no longer worth paying, and that Universities will get far higher levels of dissemination by simply making their publications available through web-based institutional repositories such as e-prints. Peer review is still a mechanism that works in this world, but the role of professional bodies and publishers changes dramatically.

I recently attended the AACE e-learn 2008 conference in Las Vegas, where for the first time I became aware of the momentum building behind the other side of this movement: Open Access Education. Applied to education Open Access is about the principle that Universities and Schools should share their teaching materials for the common good.

Richard Baraniuk's opening keynote set the tone. Richard is Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice University and he spoke at length about the need for Open Access Education, in order to deal with a very real problem (especially in the USA) where text-books have become prohibitively expensive to buy for many poorer students and smaller colleges. In 1999 Richard founded Connexions, an Open Access website where teachers and lecturers can author and share learning content, or assemble existing content into book-shaped packages for their students.

Connexions is especially interesting to me, both because of my interest in Web Literacy, but also because we have a number of our own research projects looking at Teaching and Learning (TL) repositories (Faroes) and Institutional repositories (EdShare).

How do you Solve a Problem Like Copyright?

Faroes is focused on TL repositories for Language Teachers, and has produced a repository called the Language Box that allows teachers to upload and share their resources. The Language Box was a bit of a reaction to the previous crop of TL repositories - many of them based around complex Learning Objects, with larger metadata schemas and sophisticated content packaging - and re-imagines TL repositories in a Web 2.0 world. Many TL repositories have failed, and so our approach was not to scatter Web 2.0 glitter over the same old problems, but to go the core of what the repository is supposed to do.

In Faroes we learnt from the big Web 2.0 sharing sites such as YouTube and Flickr, and have re-imagined TL repositories as an online service for Hosting and Managing (rather than Archiving) digital resources. The Language Box is still in beta, but we're getting good feedback from our early users based around this approach. However Open Access is still an issue, and in our workshops many teachers are still concerned about copyright.

The Language Box

Julie Willems, from Monash University in Australia, presented a paper at e-learn that neatly summarized the problem. Julie talked about effectiveness of multi-model learning, and how images and video can be used alongside traditional texts to support different learning styles, but how copyright laws that allow fair use of materials for teaching in a classroom setting cripple our ability to use those materials online - or to share them via web-based communities.

Both Connexions and the Language Box are attempting to solve the problem by creating an online collection that is, in its entirety, licensed under one of the Creative Commons licenses. The issue is that many existing resources use copyrighted materials (often quite unintentionally, through the assumption that everything online is without copyright), and perhaps more seriously, that teachers are worried that their Universities may in fact have some intellectual property stake in materials that they create in the course of their job.

The Democratization of Education?

The Internet and the World Wide Web are often compared to the printing press in terms of their impact on society. Gutenberg's mechanical printing press invented in the 15th century was revolutionary not because it allowed the mass production of text (woodblock printing in China also enabled this centuries earlier), but because it was so cheap to assemble new texts for printing. This simple fact meant that not only did printed text become cheaper, but that more texts could be printed. In a way it was the start of The Long Tail.

Gutenberg and the Mechanical Printing Press

Through the printing press the age of mass publishing was born, a method that was later adopted by radio and TV and reinterpreted as mass broadcasting. The consequence of the printing press was much more than the availability of cheap texts, it was the democratization of reading, and the establishment of institutions (newspapers, publishers, universities, scientific societies) whose job it was to write, edit and produce materials that spread knowledge (both noble and scandalous) throughout the population.

But now the age of mass publishing is passing.

The Internet and the Web are so recent, so close to us, that the immediate effects are the ones that dominate our thinking: the creation of amazing collaborative works such as Wikipedia, the phenomenon of Blogging, and the emergence of online communities and social networks that have reduced distances, increased awareness, and made the world a smaller place.

But these effects should be understood as analogous to newspapers and books, in that they are historically important not because of what they are, but because of what they change. The consequences of the Internet and the Web will be much more than these tools and early applications, it will be the democratization of writing, and the impact this will have on the institutions and professions that are currently shaped by mass publishing.

And this is why Open Access Education is so important - because if Universities ignore the reality of what is happening to information and knowledge on the Web then they risk being sidelined in the short term, and potentially having their business models undermined in the longer term. The NSF in the USA and the JISC in the UK seem to have realised this and much greater time is being spent looking at Open Access and investing in the tools and mechanisms to make it happen. The challenge is to make the institutions and academics themselves realise that they may need to change their practices in order to ride the wave, rather than drowning beneath it.

It is possible to be a curator of knowledge and learning without being its gaoler.


Stevan Harnad said...

Bravo to my colleague Dave Millard for his inspiring essay on Open Access (OA) Research. But could I just clarify one point?

Southampton's historic contribution to OA progress has been and continues to be by way of helping to bring about universal "Green OA", which means free online access to refereed research articles. This means the approximately 2.5 million articles a year that are published in the planet's approximately 25,000 refereed journals and refereed congress proceedings.

Although the idea was likewise first mooted at Southampton, "Gold OA" publishing -- and alternative publish models in general -- are not what Southampton has been focusing upon. We have been providing the means for all the authors of all the annual 2.5 million target articles to make them OA by self-archiving them in their own institutional repositories.

That is nothing at all like turning the existing 25,000 refereed-journal/congress corpus into anything remotely like Wikipedia, Youtube or Flickr.

Dave Millard said...

Thanks Stevan - I wasn't aware of the clear distinction between Green and Gold OA publishing.

I'm not sure how this translates to the Educational context given the different models involved. Connexions is presumably an example of Gold OA, whereas university TL repositories that are open, like the Language Box and EdShare, are similar to Green OA.

In any case I share your apprehension about taking the Wikipedia or YouTube model to research materials - I wouldn't advocate that either. But in the educational domain - where teachers and their students are already working with exactly those tools - I believe that there is a good argument for Universities getting involved, and potentially shaping their own TL repositories in a similar way in order to take advantage of changing behavior, rather than being sidestepped by it.