Accidental Openness

Accidental Openness

I was reading my friend and colleague Jim Groom’s blog and came across another one of his spectacular posts … this one wasn’t long and detailed, just short and to the point. Jim, or the Reverend as he is nicknamed, is the mad genius behind the Blogs at University of Mary Washington, the EduPunk movement, and so much more incredibly cool stuff. I was lucky to get to present and hang out with him at the ELI annual meeting and I can tell you he gets this stuff. He gets it a level that is hard to describe … and he does it with his own style. His post, What I Learned from UMW Blogs Today …” calls out two interesting little facts he learned by reading posts on the Blogs at UMW about Salvador Dali and his work and influence on animation in the 1940s … to be honest I don’t really care at all about the topic, but the fact that he could learn that by browsing the Blogs at UMW is a wonderful little happenstance that needs to be explored further.

The same kind of thing is happening at Institutions all over the place — content that has been locked away in the LMS/CMS of choice is now being freed by the easy publishing enabled by Institutional blogging platforms. I find the notion that there is this vast sea of open content being generated without the official blessing of the Academy a wonderful incidental benefit to it all. Let me put it this way … MIT made a huge splash with a “real” open courseware initiative several years ago that cost millions of dollars. The money went to invest in content management systems, convincing faculty it is good, developing models for openness, to support faculty development, pay for marketing, and all sorts of physical and virtual infrastructure. No doubt MIT’s initiative is amazing and has been successful for lots of reasons, but the fact of the matter is that this information inherently wants to be free … so the bottom up community-driven approach I am seeing is a wonderful thing.

Here at PSU our own Blogs at Penn State environment is working to free content in new and interesting ways. Faculty who until recently would not have bothered writing and engaging students openly are doing so. I wonder if it is the toolset or the times we are living in? There is an unprecedented acceptance of technology in our everyday lives and I can’t help but wonder if we are a part of a larger movement in general … a movement in which citizen journalism is reaching into otherwise fortified verticals. Our own vertical, Higher Education, has been one that has promoted locked content for some time now … but what is happening is the convergence of easy to use platforms, social pressures and acceptance, and an interest in participation. It is amazing to watch it unfold. Can it continue in the absence of administrative blessings? I hope so.

Philosophy 298H Course Site
Philosophy 298H Course Site

I am seeing a day rapidly approaching where many of the major Institutions provide platforms that empower open content and scholarly activity … a place where the next LMS/CMS is simply a browser, a social bookmarking toolset, and perhaps a social recommendation space (like Times People). Imagine how amazing it will be when the best content is published in the open where debate, conversations, and discourse happens at the micro and macro level. Think of how concepts will be brought to life when a single blog post could generate a decades worth of comments from millions of people! Will it be like attending a Symposium on a single post where perspectives are shared from all corners of the globe? I can see how it will allow an individual to see the thinking of the author and react to it and the comments of the community … can that happen? Perhaps.

No matter how one looks at all of this, it is impressive. There will always be the need for closed environments for testing and grades, but why lock away original thoughts? The fact that there are open accidents happening all over the educational blogosphere gives me hope. Anyone care to chime in on any of that insanity?

7 thoughts on “Accidental Openness

  1. Hi Cole,

    The role of IT is becoming more and more blurry, as the need for huge centralized systems goes down. The idea of having faculty post their content in a LMS is definitely going away. I now see the role of a LMS has being a thin layer of protected data, either student information of copyright/fair use protected.

    This is where the Sakai community is heading. You should have a look at the Sakai 3 proposal and demo:
    http://www.sakaiproject.org/portal/site/sakai-home/page/89473b2c-31dd-4261-9823-c31a79e55532

  2. Cole,

    I absolutely love the title of this post, because it gets at a really crucial element of all of this, namely that openness is not necessarily prescriptive, it is something you can back into—which at times is even more effective. For example the work you are doing with PSU Blogs is primarily providing a service where people can control their own work and publish it easily online. The openness is in many ways a result of re-thinking ownership and ease of use, which allows it to quietly enable a whole community of openness that is at the core of changing education but need not be the center of the conversation to start with.

    Now, I can see the problems with this approach as well, why isn’t the resulting openness the premise through which all of this is discussed and built around. My first response would be the teaching and learning space this provides needs to first work itself out on a far more intimate level than a borader question of security vs. openness, IP, and copyright etc.–and while I personally think this issues are at the heart of all of this—I seldom make that claim with faculty and students who I introduce to UMW Blogs. I see it as a personl relationship with one;s work, ownership, and a kick ass way to publish simply. The conversations about openness eventually happen though, but the difference usually is that they begin to ask me how their work can be found and what the benefits of openness are. Preaching to a faculty member is next to impossible, and while a few read my blog, a majority still think I just have a WordPress fetish. And while this is true to a degree, the real value is that regardless of what they use to publish, the ultimate goal is an open, distributed conversation around ideas—and you can lecture that–it’s value must be experienced in some ways. That for me is why blogging in an educational institution is so important, it provides the means through which that experimentation and play can happen without an administrative mandate. An individual will figure it out for themselves, and that is what will ultimately allow all of this to scale beyond any one class, department, or institution.

  3. @ Jim I think that one of the core things we are exploring is the notion of personal content management and even though it is personal, it is exposed. I think you reference the notion of that when you say,

    I see it as a personl relationship with one;s work, ownership, and a kick ass way to publish simply.

    What I am interested is seeing long term is if these personal relationships people are making to their content can be viewed as contributions to a larger set of ideals. What I mean is when does the idea of simple online publishing become part of a collective conversation? How we push the discussion to the next level is a complex question but I am constantly amazed when people start to get that even though it is “their” stuff online that it can be discussed, linked to, reused, mashed, and form a whole much larger than the original contribution. That to me is the essence of what is beginning to happen — that some folks are seeing their work as part of something bigger … the Internet is coming of age.

    When I start to hear faculty and students start to talk about how they are linking to each other from class to class, semester to semester, and year to year I think we will have taken the next step. At the moment we are just getting to the idea that if I have space online that is mine then the content that goes there is mine. The next step is the exciting one to me.

  4. Yes, ownership is key. If a person sees making their ideas public an opportunity for others to steal them, especially in academia where research and publication is the bread a butter issue, then they will tend not to share. But the other way to see this is to tell yourself that if someone has taken the time to steal your ideas and to make them their own, then those ideas where probably worth something.

    And then you ask yourself if “stealing” is the right way to describe this behavior…

  5. @Mathieu Plourde But in the case of course materials I see it as a no brainer to publish in the open. Research in progress is kept behind a wall for good reason (one could argue), but it is a good thing to see content on the teaching side see the light of day! I also like your closing question … is stealing the right way to describe it?

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