Open Thinking

I am still reeling from my Berkman@10 experience last week … I have told a handful of people that the gathering was perhaps the most important thing I have done professionally in the ten years I have been in higher education. No kidding … there were moments that I was able to discover great clarity in some of my thinking — mostly followed by moments of great confusion. The things that resonated most for me centered on what was the primary theme of the event — openness. At the event the notion of openness took many forms — media, learning, politics, and access come to mind as the most critically discussed. I went in with a strong sense of how this would be discussed because of my recent opportunities to spend time with Lessig, but I didn’t expect my thinking to be impacted as much as it has by the event.

One of the more exciting opportunities the event afforded was having dinner with David Weinberger on the middle night of the event. I love David’s work (particularly the Cluetrain Manifesto) and was very eager to hear him in person. His work in the late 90s pushed me to embrace the notion of the conversation as the core tenant of the Internet and getting to spend time with him did not disappoint! At our dinner table was an executive from British Telecom, a young man working to break down information barriers in Cuba, an attorney and lobbyist who wrote some of the original briefs on network neutrality, a creative director from Public Radio International, and others. The discussion carried real depth for nearly two hours and I found that I was able to participate at an acceptable level, even choosing to move topics around and lead some of the discussions. It was outstanding. What I took from the dinner had everything to do with open access to knowledge and content via our networks. We take for granted just how open our networks are for producing and accessing information — in general we have clear access (without content filters) to anything available. This just isn’t the case on a global basis. That guy from Cuba I mentioned? He and his group use USB memory sticks to distribute content because their isn’t open access in Cuba. His stories floored me. After dinner I bought Weinberger’s new book, Everything is Miscellaneous. So far it is pushing me to think even harder about what I was exposed to last week. I recommend it.

Now, open content … I spent time listening to Jimmy Wales (founder of wikipedia) and while he can come off as arrogant and self-righteous (to some), there are some very powerful ideas in the things he says and stands for. I listened very closely to his notion of an open environment for creating knowledge and was particularly interested in the governance models supporting it all. It got me thinking about our own challenges in higher education as they relate to content creation and management for learning. Where is the wikipedia of course content? I am not really thinking about open courseware per say, what I am thinking about is how to create a discipline specific content space that could support the creation of articles by faculty for teaching and learning. Could a College or department work at the committee level to create the outline of the critical concepts within a given space and ask its faculty and students (and perhaps alumni) to create the wiki articles that satisfies these concepts? I think the answer is yes and would like to talk to some people about exploring this through practice.

The last thing I will mention here is an amazing quote by Jonathan Zittrain … “The Internet has no main menu.” If you really think about the web and what has won — open access via the browser over the closed content provider client applications (AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy) you see this is true. Information wants to be free and when the network is open it allows contribution. Our models for collecting institutional content is going to keep us relegated to the successes (and ultimately the failures) of an AOL model. We live in times where the open Internet beat the closed content environment … why not create that structure inside the academy.

Ok, let me hear it!

7 thoughts on “Open Thinking

  1. “Why not create that structure inside the academy?” Here, here! I honestly feel that is the direction the international academic community is headed. Any ideas for how to begin here at home?

  2. I enjoyed following your tweets during the conference, you could tell it was having an impact. The OpenEd conference in Utah has in the past had a similar effect on me, both in regards to openness and in regards to the presumptions we make in the developed world about the needs of the developing world. Indeed, I make a point lately, no matter what topic I am actually supposed to be speaking on, to work in something about the era-changing importance of the net neutrality debate. Look forward to seeing more reflections (and positive effects) of this event on your work in the future. Cheers, Scott

  3. Cole asks:

    Where is the wikipedia of course content? I am not really thinking about open courseware per say, what I am thinking about is how to create a discipline specific content space that could support the creation of articles by faculty for teaching and learning.

    What about Curriki?
    Scott McNeely from Sun is one of the main players.

  4. Jim … thanks for the link! What I am really curious about is evidence of this approach from within the academy. Does anyone know of an Institution that has embraced an approach that sees faculty being persuaded and rewarded for the ground up creation of curricular evidence?

  5. Cole

    It’s interesting that you bring up the question re: wiki for course content. I have been talking with the Chair of the Business School here, and sharing how we could use the wiki as an on-going repository. The idea is to have students learn about businesses (as you know, I have been having the students interview local businesses and create podcast profiles of them). Using the wiki, they would post their learnings, where other students, and faculty can see it. Then, rather than class after class rediscovering the same superficial truths about businesses, each subsequent class either starts a new company or, if they choose to look at one already seen, contribute quality content to the information about that company.

    As a school of business, I see us being able to expand the wiki for each company to deal with various aspects of what we cover in courses. Marketing. Accounting. Inventory control. Supply Chain. The “big picture” idea here is to give the students tangible learnings from the courses through seeing AND DEVELOPING real life connections between course content and practice.

    Know anyone that would like to help us on the endeavor?


  6. As a small counter-observation, I’d like to say that I talked to Jimmy Wales face-to-face for a while (as well as hearing his presentation) and didn’t feel he was arrogant and self-righteous at all, Rather, I found him passionate but interested in discussion. And this even though I believe his background political orientation is different from mine.

  7. Andy … my observations of arrogance are purely surface level — my point is that he comes off as smug, not that he is. His words and practice have both moved me to rethink nearly everything I used to believe about creating knowledge in a higher education space. The overall wikipedia approach — from governance to final display have inspired me to rethink how I will work to approach content creation/collection on my campus. I am not saying I didn’t find his affect to be a bit off center, but I am saying I find myself overwhelmingly sitting in the wikia camp. Arrogance isn’t necessarily a bad thing — and in the case of Jimmy Wales, he has earned the right to posture. In my mind his approach is right and he knows it. To some it may seem like an act, but in reality it appears he is just passionate about fulfilling his vision.

    I apologize if my characterization offended you. I appreciate the comment and I hope I’ve clarified my perspective.

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