Viral Spiral - How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own
David Bollier (2008)


A Viral Spiral of New Commons


Managing educational resources as a commons can make learning more affordable and exciting.

In the late 1990s, as Richard Baraniuk taught electrical engineering to undergraduates at Rice University, the furthest thing from his mind was revolutionizing learning. He just wanted to make digital signal processing a more palatable subject for his students. Baraniuk, an affable professor with a venturesome spirit, was frustrated that half of his undergraduate class would glaze over when he taught signal processing, perhaps because it involves a lot of math. But then he explained the social ramifications of signal processing — for wiretapping, the Internet, the airwaves, radar, and much more. Students got excited.

“If I wanted to reach a broader class of people, outside of Rice University,” Baraniuk said, “that would be very difficult. The standard thing is to write your own book.” But he quickly realized that writing the 176th book ever written on signal processing (he counted) would not be very efficient or effective. It would take years to write, and then additional years to traverse the editorial, production, and distribution process. And even if the book were successful, it would reach only five thousand readers. Finally, it would be a static artifact, lacking the timeliness and interactivity of online dialogue. A book, Baraniuk ruefully observed, “redisconnects things.” 425

As chance had it, Baraniuk’s research group at Rice was just discovering open-source software. “It was 1999, and we were moving all of our workstations to Linux,” he recalled. “It was just so robust and high-quality, even at that time, and it was being worked on by thousands of people.” Baraniuk remembers having an epiphany: “What if we took books and ‘chunked them apart,’ just like software? And what if we made the IP open so that the books would be free to re-use and remix in different ways?’”

The vision was exciting, but the tools for realizing it were virtually nonexistent. The technologies for collaborative authoring and the legal licenses for sharing, not to mention the financing and outreach for the idea, would all have to be developed. Fortunately, the Rice University administration understood the huge potential and helped Baraniuk raise $1 million to put together a skunk works of colleagues to devise a suitable software architecture and nonprofit plan. A colleague, Don Johnson, dubbed the enterprise “Connexions.”

The group made a number of choices that turned out to be remarkably shrewd. Instead of organizing teaching materials into a “course” or a “textbook,” for example, the Connexions planners decided to build an open ecosystem of shared knowledge. Just as the Web is “small pieces loosely joined,” as David Weinberger’s 2003 book put it, so Connexions decided that the best way to structure its educational content was as discrete modules (such as “signal processing”) that could be reused in any number of contexts. The planners also decided to build a system on the open Semantic Web format rather than a simple interlinking of PDF files. This choice meant that the system would not be tethered to a proprietary or static way of displaying information, but could adapt and scale in the networked environment. Modules of content could be more easily identified and used for many different purposes, in flexible ways.

By the summer of 2000, the first version of Connexions went live with two Rice University courses, Fundamentals of Electronic Engineering and Introduction to Physical Electronics. The goal was to let anyone create educational materials and put them in the repository. Anyone could copy and customize material on the site, or mix it with new material in order to create new books and courses. Materials could even be used to make commercial products such as Web courses, CD-ROMs, and printed books. By the end of 2000, two hundred course modules were available on Connexions: a modest but promising start.

It turned out to be an auspicious moment to launch an open platform for sharing. A wave of Web 2.0 applications and tools was just beginning to appear on the Internet. Innovators with the savvy to take advantage of open networks, in the style of free and open software, could amass huge participatory communities in very short order. For Connexions, the living proof was Kitty Schmidt-Jones, a private piano teacher from Champaign, Illinois. She discovered Connexions through her husband and posted a 276-page book on music theory to the site. “Kitty is not the kind of person who would be a music textbook author,” said Baraniuk, “but she thought that music education is important, and said, ‘I can do this, too!’ By 2007 Understanding Basic Music Theory had been downloaded more than 7.5 million times from people around the world. A Connexions staffer attending a conference in Lithuania met an educator from Mongolia who lit up at the mention of Schmidt-Jones. “We use her work in our schools!” he said.

Besides curating a collection of educational content, Connexions has developed a variety of open-source applications to let authors create, remix, share, and print content easily. The project has also developed systems to let users rate the quality of materials. Professional societies, editorial boards of journals, and even informal groups can use a customizable software “lens” to tag the quality of Connexions modules, which can then be organized and retrieved according to a given lens.

It was a stroke of good fortune when Baraniuk and his associates learned, in 2002, that Lawrence Lessig was developing a new licensing project called Creative Commons. As the CC team drafted its licenses, Connexions helped it understand academic needs and then became one of the very first institutional adopters of the CC licenses. Connexions decided to require that its contributors license their works under the least restrictive CC license, CC-BY (Attribution). This was a simple decision because most textbook authors write to reach large readerships, not to make money.

The real expansion of Connexions as a major international repository of teaching materials did not occur until early 2004, when the software platform had been sufficiently refined. Then, with virtually no publicity, global usage of the Connexions site took off. It helped that Rice University has never sought to “own” the project. Although it administers the project, the university has deliberately encouraged grassroots participation from around the world and across institutions. Electrical engineering faculty at ten major universities are cooperating in developing curricula, for example, and diverse communities of authors are adding to content collections in music, engineering, physics, chemistry, bioinformatics, nanotechnology, and history. In 2008, Connexions had 5,801 learning modules woven into 344 collections. More than 1 million people from 194 countries are using the materials, many of which are written in Chinese, Italian, Spanish, and other languages.

One of Connexion’s neatest tricks is offering printed textbooks for a fraction of the price of conventional textbooks. Because the content is drawn from the commons, a 300-page hardback engineering textbook that normally sells for $125 can be bought for $25, through a print-on-demand publishing partner, QOOP.com. Ten percent of the purchase price is earmarked to support Connexions, and another 10 percent helps disadvantaged students obtain textbooks for free. Unlike conventional textbooks, which may be a year or two old, Connexions materials are generally up-to-date.

By providing an alternative to the spiraling costs of academic publishing, Connexions’s publishing model may actually help a number of academic disciplines pursue their scholarly missions. Over the past decade, some sixty university presses have closed or downsized for economic reasons. “If you’re in art history, anthropology, or the humanities, you get tenure based on your monographs published by a university press,” Baraniuk said. “The problem is that, as university presses shut down, there’s nowhere to publish books anymore.” It is often financially prohibitive to publish art history books, for example, because such books typically require highquality production and small press runs. An overly expensive market structure is blocking the flow of new scholarly publishing.

One solution: a new all-digital hybrid business model for academic publishing. As the Connexions platform has proved itself, Rice University saw the virtue of reopening Rice University Press (RUP), which it had closed ten years earlier. 426 The new RUP retains the editorial structure, high standards, and focus on special fields of a conventional academic press, but it now works within a “branded partition” of Connexions. RUP posts all of its books online as soon as the manuscripts are finalized, and all books are licensed under a CC-BY (Attribution) license. The press does not have to pay for any warehouse or distribution costs because any physical copies of the books are printed on demand. The sales price includes a mission-support fee for RUP and the author’s royalty. “Because the RUP has eliminated all the back-end costs,” said Baraniuk, “they figure they can run it from five to ten times more cheaply than a regular university press.”

The Connexions publishing model has inspired a group of more than twenty community colleges to develop its own publicdomain textbooks to compete with expensive commercial textbooks. The Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources 427 —led by Foothill–De Anza Community College District in Los Altos, California — plans to publish the ten most popular textbooks used in community colleges, and expand from there. The consortium will make the books available for free online and sell hardcover versions for less than thirty dollars. Even if the effort gains only a small slice of the textbook market, it will help hold down the prices of commercial textbooks and demonstrate the viability of a new publishing model. More to the point, by slashing one of the biggest costs facing community college students, the project will help thousands of lower-income students to stay in college.

MIT’s OpenCourseWare Initiative

The other pioneering visionary in open education has been MIT. In April 2001, MIT president Charles Vest shocked the world when he announced that MIT would begin to put the materials for all two thousand of its courses online for anyone to use, for free. The new initiative, called OpenCourseWare, would cover a wide array of instructional materials: lecture notes, class assignments, problem sets, syllabi, simulations, exams, and video lectures. Putting the materials online in a searchable, consistent format was expected to take ten years and cost tens of millions of dollars. (The Hewlett and Mellon foundations initially stepped forward with two $5.5 million grants, supplemented by $1 million from MIT.)

The project had its origins two years earlier, in 1999, when President Vest charged a study group with exploring how the university might develop online educational modules for lifelong learning. The assumption was that it would sell MIT-branded course materials to the budding “e-learning” market. At the time, Columbia University was developing Fathom.com, a bold for-profit co-venture with thirteen other institutions, to sell a wide variety of digital content. Publishers and universities alike envisioned a lucrative new market for academic and cultural materials.

OpenCourseWare (OCW) was a startling move because it flatly rejected this ambition, and appeared to be either a foolish or magnanimous giveaway of extremely valuable information. Knowledge was assumed to be a species of property that should be sold for as dear a price as possible; few people at the time recognized that the Great Value Shift on the Internet was reversing this logic. The idea that giving information away might actually yield greater gains— by enhancing an institution’s visibility, respect, and influence on a global scale — was not seen as credible. After all, where’s the money?

After studying the matter closely, MIT decided that the online market was not likely to be a boon, and that posting course materials online would send a strong message about MIT’s values. President Vest conceded that the plan “looks counter-intuitive in a market-driven world.” But he stressed that OpenCourseWare would combine “the traditional openness and outreach and democratizing influence of American education and the ability of the Web to make vast amounts of information instantly available.” 428 Professor Steven Lerman, one of the architects of the OCW plan, told the New York Times, “Selling content for profit, or trying in some ways to commercialize one of the core intellectual activities of the university, seemed less attractive to people at a deep level than finding ways to disseminate it as broadly as possible.” 429

MIT also realized the dangers of propertizing college courses and teaching materials, said computer scientist Hal Abelson, another member of the OCW study group (and a CC board member). Ownership, he said, “can be profoundly destructive to the idea of a university community . . . The more people can stop talking about property and start talking about the nature of a faculty member’s commitment to the institution, the healthier the discussion will be. It’s not really about what you own as a faculty member; it’s about what you do as a faculty member.” 430

School officials stressed that using MIT courseware on the Web is not the same as an MIT education. Indeed, the free materials underscore the fact that what really distinguishes an MIT education is one’s participation in a learning community. Unlike the Connexions content, MIT’s OpenCourseWare is a fairly static set of course materials; they are not modular or constantly updated. In addition, they are licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA (AttributionNonCommercial-ShareAlike.) license. While this prevents businesses from profiting from MIT course materials, it also prevents other educational institutions from remixing them into new courses or textbooks.

Despite these limitations, MIT’s OCW materials have been profoundly influential. The course Laboratory in Software Engineering, for example, has been used by students in Karachi, Pakistan; the island of Mauritius; Vienna, Austria; and Kansas City, Missouri, among scores of other places around the world. 431 Ten of the leading Chinese universities now use hundreds of MIT courses, leading three noted OER experts, Daniel E. Atkins, John Seely Brown, and Allen L. Hammond, to conclude that MIT’s OCW “has had a major impact on Chinese education.” 432 Noting the life-changing impact that OCW has had on students in rural villages in China and West Africa, Atkins and his co-authors cite “the power of the OCW as a means for cross-cultural engagement.” Over the course of four years, from October 2003 through 2007, the OCW site received nearly 16 million visits; half were newcomers and half were repeat visits.

OCW is becoming a more pervasive international ethic now that more than 120 educational institutions in twenty nations have banded together to form the OpenCourseWare Consortium. Its goal is to create “a broad and deep body of open educational content using a shared model.” 433 Although plenty of universities are still trying to make money from distance education courses, a growing number of colleges and universities realize that OCW helps faculty connect with other interested faculty around the world, build a college’s public recognition and recruitment, and advance knowledge as a public good.

The Rise of the Open Educational Resources Movement

While Connexions and MIT’s OpenCourseWare have understandably garnered a great deal of attention, all sorts of fascinating educational projects, big and small, have popped up on the Internet as Web 2.0 innovations matured. Some of these projects have become celebrated, such as Wikipedia, the Public Library of Science, and the Internet Archive. Others, though less celebrated, represent a dazzling mosaic of educational innovation and new possibilities. In a sense, the Long Tail has come to education; even the most obscure subjects have a sustainable niche on the Internet. The groundswell has even produced its own theorists, conveners, and infrastructure builders. Utah State University hosts the Center for Open Sustainable Learning, which is a clearinghouse for open educational tools. Carnegie Mellon has an Open Learning Initiative that designs educational courses. And so on.

While American institutions and educators have been the first movers in this field, it has quickly taken on an international grassroots flavor. Thousands of commoners from around the world have started their own projects. MathWorld has become the Web’s most extensive mathematical resource. Curriki is a wiki that offers lessons plans and guidance for teachers. The British Library’s Online Gallery features digitized versions of Mozart’s musical diary and sketches by Leonardo da Vinci. U.K. and Australian high school students can now use the Internet to operate the Faulkes Telescope on the island of Maui, Hawaii. Students around the world do much the same with Bugscope, a scanning electronic microscope that can be operated remotely.

It is hard to set a precise date when the practitioners in this area realized that such wildly diverse projects might constitute a coherent movement with a shared agenda. But as more grantees began to discover each other, the movement-in-formation adopted a rather ungainly name to describe itself — “Open Educational Resources,” or OER.

Most OER projects share a simple and powerful idea — “that the world’s knowledge is a public good and that technology in general and the World Wide Web in particular provide an extraordinary opportunity for everyone to share, use and reuse knowledge.” That is how Atkins and his co-authors define OER. It consists of “teaching, learning and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use or re-purposing by others.” 434

The heart of the OER movement is, of course, open sharing and collaboration. OER advocates regard learning as an intrinsically social process, and so they believe that knowledge and learning tools ought to freely circulate. Inspired by the GPL and the CC licenses, OER advocates believe they should be free to copy, modify, and improve their learning tools and pass them forward to others. There is a presumption that artificial barriers to the free flow of information should be eliminated, and that teachers and learners should be empowered to create their own knowledge commons.

The OER movement has a special importance for people who want to learn but don’t have the money or resources, which is to say, people in developing nations, low-income people, and people with specialized learning needs. For the 4 billion people who live in the developing world, schooling is a privilege, textbooks are rare, and money is scarce. In many African nations, there would not be libraries if books were not photocopied. The OER movement aspires to address these needs. OER projects can provide important benefits in industrialized nations, too, where subscriptions to research journals are often prohibitively expensive and many community college students drop out because textbooks cost more than tuition.

The OER movement is currently in a formative stage, still trying to make sense of the many players in the movement and understand the complex impediments to its progress. Some of this could be seen at a “speed geeking” session at the iCommons Summit in 2007 in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Speed geeking, a puckish variation on “speed dating,” consists of people listening to a short presentation, asking questions and then moving on to the next presentation. After five minutes, a moderator blows a whistle and shouts, “Everyone move — now!” A speed geek can learn about twelve different projects, and meet twelve interesting people, in a single hour.

In this case, the speed geeking took place in a sweltering loft space without air-conditioning, in a medieval building overlooking the Adriatic Sea. At the first station, a group of participants marveled at a sturdy lime-green laptop of a kind that was about to be distributed to millions of children around the world. The One Laptop Per Child project, the brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s Media Lab, is an ambitious nonprofit initiative to build a sturdy, kidfriendly laptop filled with open-source software and Wi-Fi capabilities for $100. 435 (The cost turned out to be $188, but is expected to decline as production volume grows.) Hundreds of thousands of the so-called XO laptops have now been distributed to kids in Peru, Uruguay, Mexico and other poor nations.

Tweet! Next stop: the Free High School Science Textbooks project in South Africa is developing a free set of science textbooks for students in grades ten through twelve. The project depends on volunteers to write modules of text about various physics, chemistry, and mathematical topics. Paid editors then craft the text into a coherent, high-quality textbook; printing is funded by donations.

Five minutes later, it was on to Educalibre, a Chilean project that is installing free software on old computers so that they can be reused in classrooms. Educalibre is also trying to integrate free software into high school curricula, especially math. The project seeks to bring open-source software principles into formal education.

Next, Delia Browne of the National Education Access Licence for Schools, or NEALS, explained that some ten thousand Australian schools pay millions of dollars each year to collecting societies in order to reprint materials that the Australian schools themselves have produced. NEALS wants to eliminate this expense, as well as millions of dollars in photocopying expenses, by creating a vast new commons of freely shareable educational materials. Its solution is to persuade Australian schools, as copyright holders, to adopt a special license so that participating schools can copy and share each other’s materials.

Tweet! At the next station, Ed Bice of San Francisco explained how his nonprofit group, Meedan.net, is developing a “virtual town square” for Arabic- and English-speaking Internet users. Using realtime translation and social networking tools, the site aspires to open up a new global conversation between Arabs and the rest of the world. It plans to break down cultural barriers while opening up educational opportunities to Arab populations.

Tweet! Tweet! Neeru Paharia, a former executive director of the Creative Commons, introduced her fledgling project, AcaWiki. Paharia is concerned that too many academic articles are locked behind paywalls and are not readily accessible to everyone. AcaWiki plans to recruit graduate students, academics, and citizens to write summaries of academic papers. Since many grad students make abstracts as part of their routine research, it would not be difficult to pool thousands of summaries into a highly useful, searchable Web collection.

The speed geekers in Dubrovnik were sweaty and overstimulated at the end, but gratified to learn that there are a great many OER projects under way throughout the world; they just aren’t very well known or coordinated with one another. Two of the participants — J. Philipp Schmidt of the University of the Western Cape and Mark Surman of the Shuttleworth Foundation, both of South Africa — conceded that “there is still a great deal of fuzziness about what this movement includes,” and that “we don’t yet have a good ‘map’ of open education.” But the significance of grassroots initiatives is unmistakable. “There is a movement afoot here,” they concluded, “and it is movement with an aim no less than making learning accessible and adaptable for all.” 436 “Education,” another participant predicted, “will drive the future of the Commons movement.”

In a sign that the OER movement is getting serious as a movement, thirty of its leaders met in Cape Town, South Africa, and in January 2008 issued the Cape Town Open Education Declaration. 437 The declaration is a call to make learning materials more freely available online, and to improve education and learning by making them more collaborative, flexible, and locally relevant. The declaration outlines the challenge: “Many educators remain unaware of the growing pool of open educational resources. Many governments and educational institutions are either unaware or unconvinced of the benefits of open education. Differences among licensing schemes for open resources create confusion and incompatibility. And, of course, the majority of the world does not have access to the computers and networks that are integral to most current open education efforts.”

New funding support is materializing from foundations like the Open Society Institute and the Shuttleworth Foundation, and the Creative Commons has instigated a new project, ccLearn, headed by Ahrash Bissell, to help coordinate OER factions and tackle barriers to further progress.

Despite the challenges it faces, the Open Educational Resources movement has a promising future if only because it has such an appealing ethos and practical value. It offers to lower the costs and increase the efficiencies of learning. It helps to generate high-quality materials that address specific learning needs. Where markets are too expensive or unresponsive, collective provisioning through the commons can meet needs effectively and in socially convivial ways.

Such intangible satisfactions may be one of the secrets of the OER movement’s success to date. Institutions and individuals take pleasure in contributing to the public good. There is pleasure in helping people who thirst for an education, whether in Africa or in a community college, to acquire the resources they need. For learners, the OER movement offers new, more flexible styles of learning. Over time, it seems likely that OER projects will transform the familiar “information transfer” models of formal education into more informal and participatory learning communities. Passive students will more easily become passionate, self-directed learners.

Finally, at a time of great geopolitical rivalries and cultural animosities, the OER movement holds itself forth as an arena of transnational cooperation. It regards diversity as a strength and social inequity as a challenge to be squarely met. It is a measure of the movement’s idealism that Schmidt and Surman, the South African OER commoners, compare open education to “a flock of migratory geese, moving back and forth between North and South. The flock combines birds from all places. Each goose takes a turn leading the flock, taking the strain, and then handing over to their peers. The flock is not confined to just the North, or the South. It flourishes as a global movement.” 14

 425. Interview with Richard Baraniuk, January 21, 2008.

 426. Rice University Press homepage, at http://www.ricepress.rice.edu.

 427. http://cccoer.pbwiki.com.

 428. MIT press release, “MIT to make nearly all course materials available free on the World Wide Web,” April 4, 2001.

 429. Carey Goldberg, “Auditing Classes at M.I.T., on the Web and Free,” New York Times, April 4, 2001, p. 1.

 430. Interview with Hal Abelson, “OpenCourseWare and the Mission of MIT,” Academe, September/October 2002, pp. 25–26.

 431. David Diamond, “MIT Everyware,” Wired, September 2003.

 432. Daniel E. Atkins, John Seely Brown, and Allen L. Hammond, “A Review of the Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement: Achievements, Challenges and New Opportunities,” February 2007, at http://www.oerderves.org/wp-content/uploads/2007/03/a-review-of-the-open-educational-re sources-oer-movement_final.pdf, p. 23.

 433. OpenCourseWare Consortium, at http://www.ocwconsortium.org.

 434. Ibid.

 435. See, e.g., John Markoff, “For $150, Third-World Laptop Stirs a Big Debate,” New York Times, November 30, 2006.

 436. J. Philipp Schmidt and Mark Surman, “Open Sourcing Education: Learning and Wisdom from the iSummit 2007,” September 2, 2007, at http://icommons.org/download_banco/open-sourcing-education-learning-and-wisdom-from-isummit-2007.

 437. http://www.capetowndeclaration.org. Schmidt and Surman, “Open Sourcing Education.”

License: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.

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