The future of OERs and the current publishing paradigm

This blog post relates to my study of Open Educational Resources as part of my Emerging Technologies for Learning Program of study at the University of Manitoba.

I recently read a blog post of a class mate relating to the future of OERs.  It has got me thinking further about this very topic and how technology is affecting the way we share online.

Stu says of OERs in five years time:

Instead of OERs what will we be talking about in five years?
We will still be talking about OERs in five years.  What I think we will be talking about more is the increasing ease of quality creation and the increased ease of distribution. Publishers are already under pressure because of this and that pressure will continue. Apple’s recent release of iBooks Author is a great example of this trend.  Even though the tool requires that content be distributed within the Apple ecosystem the ease of use and quality level achievable is astounding.

I tend to agree with your thoughts on what we will be talking about more in five years time – easy creation and distribution of artefacts.  You mentioned the pressure on traditional publishers as a result of the growing accessibility of self-publishing, and the introduction of new technology and services creating new markets for creators to sell their wares, such as Apple’s new iBooks.

I doubt the traditional publishing fraternity will rest on their laurels and will fight tooth and nail to retain their business model and profit margins as any corporate entity would do.  Of course, it may also mean a changing of the guard where the old tyrants are replaced with the new – Apple may well become a new breed of corporate control of the world’s intellectual property.  Money perverts altruism every time, but I am a cynical one.

Stu continues with a discussion of officialism in publishing:

First…should some OERs be “official” and others “unofficial”?
I don’t think it matters.  The most important thing for students is to have the skills and tools to find, verify and then appropriately use the resources they locate.  It does not matter if they are “official” or not.  In fact…the idea that a resource or piece of information is “official” I believe tends to lull people [students] into a state of complacency.  Everything should be looked at with the appropriate degree of criticism and be improved by the application of that criticism.

It would seem to me that it is only of value when there is trust in whomever the official may be.  Trust is a weakening commodity in the 21st century as our information age has given rise to many vectors by which to mislead and deceive others.  Fraud is rife online with all manner of cons being perpetrated.  Of course, as the information age provides the means for fraudsters, it also provides a counter in terms of being able to validate and verify what we are being told online – cross-referencing information from other sources.  Consider plagiarism detection systems for instance ( But what do you do when you cannot verify information? For instance, the Australian Bureau of Statistics ( publish aggregated information based on census surveys.  The data however is not available to be validated against the reports produced.  I’m not suggesting at all that the ABS has fabricated any of their reports, and to my knowledge, they have quite a high degree of trust in the community, but there is no way of independently verifying the information they publish.  It is an Australian Government Department, which makes it more difficult (not impossible) to fabricate information.  Large international companies however have far less scrutiny and that is where I am very mistrusting.  Google’s algorithms for search results are a highly guarded secret, and yet it is the most widely used searching tool in the world.  Who audit’s Google’s practices here?  They have been accused in the past of manipulating the results.  The EU has started an Antitrust investigation into Google.

When answering the question “Are OERs just a cute kitten?”, Stu asks the following rhetorical question: “[Is there such a thing as a well trained cat?]”.

The mention of kittens (or in the case of this little anecdote cats) reminds me of a comment made by a colleague who described the management of academic staff (faculty) akin to herding cats.  So my gut tells me the answer is “No!”  More seriously, while managing people who are effective critical thinkers is very challenging, these people serve an important role – questioning is what purported to be “official”.


OERs: Publishing Software – Open source or Open API

This blog post relates to my study of Open Educational Resources as part of my Emerging Technologies for Learning Program of study at the University of Manitoba.

I have been asked to comment on the use of “free” open source applications in the context of OERs.  I blogged about this just recently.  My classmate, Stu has responded to the same question in his blog post where he discusses the virtues of open source software in the creation of content in Education. Comparisons have also been drawn between the virtues of open source software, and open educational resources.  It is true that there are some similarities in the spirit of each of these models of publishing and sharing.  Like me in my blog post, Stu highlights the benefits of free technology such as Google Apps in education. However, a clear distinct needs to be made – Google Apps is not open source software.

Google Apps is part of a new breed of software known as cloud computing software.  It brings new ways of sharing and re-using information.  While in spirit, cloud computing software appears to be “open source”, it is in fact typically “open API“.  So what is an API?  In short, it is a published and standardised way for computer programs to interact with one another, typically on the web.

An example will do well here.  Consider flickr.  There are many different software products for uploading your photos into flickr. Each of these products uses the Flickr API to login to your flickr account, select your photo files, tag them, title them, and upload them into Flickr, and so on. Google has similar APIs for interacting with their Google Apps services, and in fact most of their cloud services.

While the API is open and anyone (who is authorised by the service provider) can write programs to interact with the service, the service software programming source code isn’t is open.  So it’s behaviour cannot be changed or extended or adapted for other contexts.  It also means that if the service provider decides to change the terms of the service (Ning) or simply decides to shut them down (ask Google Wave customers about that), then you are out of luck.

Week 4: OER Content Creation

This blog post relates to my study of Open Educational Resources as part of my Emerging Technologies for Learning Program of study at the University of Manitoba. Questions for this week in my course are:

How familiar are you with these [Audacity, GIMP, Joomla, Drupal, WordPress, Blogger, Open Office, Google Docs, Blender, and so on] tools? How can you use them to create and develop content for use in your own institution? What personal or general perceptions characterize your use of “free” open source applications in your institution for teaching, learning or working purposes (whichever applies)?

Not surprisingly, given my IT background, I have been using open-source software for all sorts of applications for many years.  At one stage, I designed, built and managed an 86-node supercomputing facility using nothing but open source software, thus maximising investment in providing the highest capacity computer hardware.  A similar approach to maximising the efficient use of funds, as described by Stu.  I have used many of the software products described in the OER Handbook.

Most of the software that I use today for content creation is provided online as a service.  Software for creation and publishing has converged to the extent that they are often one and the same.  Googledocs, is a classic example of this and is something that I frequently use.  It’s desktop publishing functionality is quite poor (try nicely formatting a Googledoc – blah), however its collaborative writing capabilities are very innovative.  Watching a co-author’s cursor skirt about the same document you are writing, and watching them type was such a buzz the first time I saw it.  Your document can be published at any stage of its development, and can continue to evolve after it’s been published.  Skills required to use googledocs stray little from those to use a typical word processor such as MS-Word.  I tend to only use MS-Word when I need to professionally format my final document, usually for hardcopy production.  This is becoming less and less common.

I also mention Googledocs specifically because my institution has adopted Google Apps for Education – a suite of hosted services from Google including Gmail, Googledocs, Google Sites and so on, specifically for educational institutions.  One of the marketing points for this service is that it is free for the institution, and the accounts provided to students are free for life, even after they graduate.  They keep their email address too.  I see such promise in the use of these creation/publication products.  But alas, I think they have been underutilised since their introduction at my institution.  Reasons vary, but one is that there is little integration of the google apps into our existing online systems, and in particular Moodle.  Simple things like the ability to automatically create and share an empty googledoc based on groups of students within a Moodle course – the simple no fuss beginnings of a group-essay.  When marking, you can also see the contributions of each group-member to the document through the revision history.

Yes, like many Universities in Australia and New Zealand, our institution is using Moodle as our Learning Management System.  Moodle is an open-source product and we have customised our installation enhancing its capabilities, integrating it with other aspects of our organisation, and adapting its functionality to our own operational needs.  Not always easy to do with a proprietary system.  The use of this open-source software however does very little for the OER movement, because all our course content is locked behind a username and password.

Moodle at our institution is generally understood to be the central learning technology for our students.  There are a handful of academics who venture outside the walls of Moodle and use alternate technologies, but they do so at their own risk, and without the institutional support of the IT department.  Even the use of youtube is discouraged in favour of an internally written video uploader in Moodle, on the grounds of tracking metadata of the content.  This video uploader is only a recent addition to Moodle.

So exposure to software well suited to the creation of OERs is limited in my context.

Google’s terms of service for Picasa just stink!

I am looking for an option for sharing my photos with family and friends.  I like the licence agreement afforded by flickr, but sadly I would also like a client interface that provides simple and efficient synchronisation of my photo albums.  I want to be able to add my tags, captions, titles, descriptions and photo albums in a local application, and then replicate that to an online presence with a single click.  I have yet to find this for flickr.  Picasa on the other hand provides this functionality in conjunction with Google Web Albums, and I was all but ready to sign up until I read their terms of service.

Point 11.1 states:

11.1 You retain copyright and any other rights you already hold in Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive licence to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. This licence is for the sole purpose of enabling Google to display, distribute and promote the Services and may be revoked for certain Services as defined in the Additional Terms of those Services.

As pointed out by  Sam, it is abhorrent to think that by simply using their services, you are granting them a “perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free” licence to your images to “promote” their services.  Even if you cancel your agreement with Googe in using their service, they still have perpetual access to your content.

By contrast, Yahoo!7 has this to say regarding their services (including Flickr):

With respect to photos, graphics, audio or video you submit or make available for inclusion on publicly accessible areas of the Service other than Yahoo!7 Groups, the license to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such Content on the Service solely for the purpose for which such Content was submitted or made available. This license exists only for as long as you elect to continue to include such Content on the Service and will terminate at the time you remove or Yahoo!7 removes such Content from the Service.

Note that if you remove the content from their service, you also revoke their licence to use it.  Furthermore, the licence only applies to contact you make publicly available – perfectly reasonable and necessary for them to carry out the service.  So your private photos that you share only with your friends and family are off limits.  Congrats to Yahoo for taking such a fair and reasonable approach to their terms of service.

Come on google, don’t be so greedy.