My academic work can be split into a few overlapping phases. In 1998, shortly after the summit where the phrase “open source” was coined, I began to feel that the same methodology should be applied to educational materials. That summer I made up the phrase “open content” and began trying to promote the idea. I launched the opencontent.org website and produced a modified version of the GPL intended for use with non-software creative works (the “OpenContent License”). In 1999, in collaboration with Eric Raymond and others, I released the Open Publication License. In addition to being broadly adopted back in its time, the OPL established the conceptual framework upon which the Creative Commons licenses would later be established (an Attribution requirement, and options to restrict commercial uses and the creation of derivative works). This advocacy of the idea of open content, the idea that open content needs open licenses, and my contributions to the OPL are arguably the most important conceptual work I have done or will do in my career.
From 1997 – 2006, I worked on “learning objects,” which can be characterized as educational materials designed with the understanding that they will be reused in a broad variety of contexts. First I worked to establish a rigorous theoretical foundation for the idea, and then turned to writing critiques of the path learning objects research seemed to be taking.
As I began to recognize what I believed to be problems in the thinking underlying learning objects work my focus changed to what I called online self-organizing social systems (2002 – 2006). Many learning objects researchers and funding agencies were pushing to fully automate the selection and assembly of learning objects, essentially driving all human participation in the design of instruction (and all human interaction during learning) out of the educational experience, because humans are too “expensive.” I studied very large-scale, stable, highly interactive online communities (like Slashdot) in an effort to understand the mechanisms by which this type of massive group effectively self-organizes to support the informal learning of its members.
I characterized another problem with learning objects as the “reusability paradox.” The paradox claims that the more context laden a given educational resource is, the more effectively it teaches but the more difficult it is to reuse in a novel context. Conversely, the less context laden a given educational resource is, the less effectively it teaches but the easier it is to reuse in novel contexts. So with learning objects, you had a choice – a great resource that is essentially impossible to reuse, or a really poor resource that you can easily reuse. Of course, the universal, ambient assumption underlying the reusability paradox is that learning objects must be used “as is” due to their copyright status. This realization allowed me to connect my passion for openness to my academic work on learning objects. From 2004 until today I continue to focus a good portion of my thinking and work on open educational resources – “learning objects with an open license.”
A new vein of related work (2009 - today) involves “learning analytics.” In the context of my Open High School of Utah work, I came to realize that legal permissions to revise OER were essentially meaningless without strong empirical data guiding the way you exercise these permissions. This work on “continuous quality improvement” in education, together with an interest in providing teachers real-time suggestions about the best way to use their next 10 minutes, are relatively new areas for me.
Early on I began to feel a kind of dissatisfaction with the work I was doing. Yes, it was getting published, and yes it was getting cited, but I don’t think anyone who really ponders the difference they’re making in the world counts either of these metrics. This has led me to be involved in a number of entrepreneurial activities where I have tried to find ways to dramatically increase the number of real people in the world (i.e., not academics) whose lives are concretely benefited by the work I do. Examples of these activities (which are also, in many ways, the most fertile research grounds) include my role in the founding / startup of a number of organizations:
• Neumont University (http://www.neumont.edu/), a university with a highly collaborative, project-based approach to teaching computer science;
• FlatWorld Knowledge (http://flatworldknowledge.com/), the first commercial textbook publisher to release all of its textbooks under a Creative Commons license;
• Open High School of Utah (http://openhighschool.org/, and its soon-to-open sister school the Open High School of California), the first high school in the world to commit itself to using open educational resources across its entire curriculum; and
• Chapman Music Institute (http://chapmanmusicinstitute.org/), a blended (i.e., partly online, partly face-to-face) afterschool program providing underserved students with opportunities to participate in ensemble music programs (including orchestra, band, and guitar ensemble)
This same yearning to increase the practical impact of my work has led to another new strand of work for me, which involves collating empirical evidence refuting arguments against using open educational resources and using these evidences to influence policy. A particularly exciting example of this strand of work is the Utah Open Textbooks project, where 4000 high school students have used $5 (printed) open science textbooks (http://utahopentextbooks.org/) and we are comparing their test results on standardized exams with the results of students who used $100 textbooks. If data from the UOT project, for example, can persuade state legislators that open textbooks are terrific way to save 60% on their curriculum expenditures without harming student learning outcomes, that clears a path for open textbooks to be added to the state’s formal list of “adoptable” materials. This would be a huge win, potentially impacting hundreds of thousands of students each year.
While I can’t fully discuss my life’s work in 1000 words, I think this is a reasonable path through it. Perhaps parts I’ve excluded from this narrative will emerge in the week’s discussion.
Readings and videos:
• OpenContent – The First Decade. http://vimeo.com/1796014
• Online Self-Organizing Social Systems. http://opencontent.org/docs/ososs.pdf
• Open Education and the Future. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rb0syrgsH6M
• The OpenCourseWars. http://www.opencontent.org/future/ (be sure to click the link at the bottom to read the remainder of the chapter)
• A Sustainable Model for OpenCourseWare Development. http://hdl.lib.byu.edu/1877/2353
Activities for #Change participants
I would like to invite students to reflect on the practical impact on people they would like to their educational technology / educational research work to have. What kind of change do they want to see in the world? What will they have to do, personally, to create that change? Do they need to start a university, a high school, or an after school program? Do they need to run for public office, or find another way to influence public policy? What kinds of resources or cooperation would be required, and from whom would these come? I would challenge students to create a concept map relating the specific change they want to see in the world and the related activities and resources they will have to engage in or influence in order to bring the change about. An explanatory video talking us through the map would be a great addition.