Friday, April 24, 2015

Mark Surman on Open Eduction and the Open Internet

Article and photo by Stephen Downes

This is a summary of Mozilla CEO Mark Surman's talk at Open Education Global in Banff April 24 (today). It is a paraphrase with lots of direct quotation, but shouldn't be taken as word-for word literal. All errors are my own.

We need to help 5 billion people over the next 5-10 years become web literate.

Three quotes from great Canadian thinkers: "We are trying to do today's job with yesterday's tools and yesterday's concepts." "We drive into the future looking only into our rearview mirror."
- classrooms are organized around how monks talked.

The experience of living in a small town as the only punk rock kid shaped me. And we lived in the media culture hegemony, and also we lived in a time of very conservative politics with a daily fear of nuclear war. What punk rock showed me was that we could play a role in shaping the world we want. And I was a photocopier kid - a big part of punk culture was cutting things up and remixing them. Records, guitars, and a scene: this idea of our media, our ability to produce it, and a community. It's an ethos very different from the television world we grew up in.

The last 40 years has been technology that lets us reshape our world. When I got a tape recorder that I could record on, that was radical. These technologies and freedom inspire me. And I couldn't but help myself when the modem came along. And when Mosaic came out in 1994, I said that's what I want to work on.

Second Canadian: Harold Innis. "The Roman Empire and the city states were essentially products of writing." They could issue edicts and laws. How do we build the world we're trying to build? There's a connection between power and words, power and communication, and what we're trying to do is shift that, and make communication more open.

Mozilla: it says in our incorporation documents: "we exist to guard the open nature of the internet." Best job I ever had. That's what drove m to work on the Cape Town declaration. We said it can't just be OERs, it can't just be open content, it has to be learning, it has to be participation.

So I would argue that we have a common ethos around that idea. And I see Mozilla as being the David that can take on the Goliath with those ideas. And so we have won a number of battles, we have a lot to celebrate. Firefox itself is a big victory - we went from 98% Internet Explorer domination, and Microsoft was determining where the internet was heading. Firefox was a huge victory in shifting that. That was 10 years ago, we haven't won much lately. Reference to Sunday New York Times advertisement for Firefox 1.0 (I contributed to that: SD)

There is a shift, even in mainstream, toward seeing publishers as expensive and in the way. By contrast we have organizations like Lumen, David Wiley's company, getting traction and VC money. Similarly you've heard lots over the last few days, more and more public money has gone into ensuring that learning resources are open. For example, $2 billion for OERs in colleges.

Those victories don't just limit themselves to this room. We have those dollars to people who aren't having this conference explicitly. Eg. local tax grant in Missoula. We have people around the world coming to OERs and open learning, and doing real stuff. We see a bias toward action. Lots of victories, lots to be proud of.

We have won many battles... but we are losing the war.

We are losing the battle for openness, the open web, and in transforming education. These - Pearson - are the kind of people are going to win. They may shift from selling textbooks to capturing analytics and selling data, but they're still winning. Mozilla isn't anti-business but we're against oligopolies. I'm more afraid that this is going to be Pearson - 'Classroom'. As much as I use Google every day, it's increasingly a company that controls vast parts of the internet. India - Google is effectively a monopoly with Android in smart phones. But unlike Windows and IE, they control the OS, they control the money, they're taking over the carrier layer - this is a monopolist with an intent to take complete vertical control over our internet lives. That is losing the war.

How many think Uber is the good guy? We don't think of them as relevant, but it is likely the next big monopolists. Their goal and intent is to become the monopolist in the area of physical motion - to know everything about us, everything about the movers. That is then cloaked ina positive aspect of creating a new type of work.

"Millions of Facebook users don't even know they're using the internet." People don't even know what they're using. They don't really know what the affordances are in any of the most basic ways the way we know. There's a massive gap between the general purpose computers we have in our pockets and what people think they have.

We're seeing the growth of the empires that will shape humanity with a new set of values for probably the next few hundred years. The centre of that empire is pretty limited - it comes from Palo Alto, it comes from Silicon Valley. It's not that diverse a place. Its not the kind of empire I want to see. I don't want to see empire.

Fork in the road.

Do we want 'the next Steve Jobs' or do we want Edward Snowden. Do we want creativity and freedom, or control and a lack of agency. Are we going to choose openness, or are we going to choose the Matrix.

William Gibson, third (sort of) Canadian: "The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed." The future I have committed to is a future where everyone has the know-how to be internet citizens in full. That's where we want to go - how do we win the war?

Most of the people in the room used Mosaic, most were online before 2000 - the internet soon will be 5 billion people - that's where the battle for open will play out).

Three things we are doing:

First, web literacy. The challenge we have is to help 5 billion know how to wield that general purpose in computer in their pocket. We try to put it into Firefox, we try to put it into everything we ddo (cf Doug Belshaw's competency map). Participation, using the open web, is a bit part of this.

Second, we need to commit to learning and not just to open educational resources. That's what I took from my early work in Shuttleworth to what I'm doing now. The language we use to talk about our approach to pedagogy is: learn by making, make stuff that matters (that's a key idea OER brings to the table, we can work on real material that is stuff we need), do it together (social for us has to be a part of a radical open pedagogy).

Third, think of ourselves as bigger than just those of us around a single table, bigger than just this room - think of ourselves as people who want to take this open road (you are invited to Mozfest in November).

A movement, a different approach to learning (web literacy), can help us go down the open road if we do it ambitiously enough.

We've been doing this at Mozilla. Eg., the Maker Parties. We've had teach-ins,. to have people teach digital literacy to those around them. And this year we want to rally people to move litreracy on a massive scale - we don't know how to do that. Mozilla Academy? We will put whatever resources to bear on this, and help people do this. There are 300 organizations that make the Maker Parties happen - we want to do this together, get on the ball, and move it a lot faster.

This is important. We are at a Gutenberg moment. We are at an early phase in internet technology. What gets written today will determine the future.

Q. I'm struck by the fact that there are many Davids. How do you unite the Davids.

A. You have common cause though you have many approaches. 'Open' has been the rallying cry. But in that rallying we have become inward focused. The concept of 'open' isn't something that will get into the water necessarily. The key is to think practically, do things that will help people, rather than be evangelical. That may be a rallying point, but still around our ideas.

Q. Net neutrality - where the telcos are trying to determine what speed you will have and more. Steve Jobs was a master at creating beautiful golden cages. You cannot have OER and openness within a closed hardware environment.

A. Another hour-long talk. In general, in building this movement for openness, Mozilla very public takes a much more pragmatic approach on whether everything has to be free. Of course we all know all of the pieces we wish were there, they're not even not there is an way even open-advocates can live in an all-open world. Eg. should we be implementing the DRM standard in HTML 5. Of course we're against that. But if we don't implement it and the other three browsers do, then millions of our users won't be able to watch videos.

Which road do we choose, in order to remain relevant, and still keep a principled stance? Hardware and net neutrality are very important in that. Hardware is the biggest vector for network surveillance (I should have added Sczchen to the core of the new empire, on the hardware level). And it's a big question about how companies like Facebook play into net neutrality - Facebook is marketing itself in India as the free internet, don't bother with the rest of it.

Q. I can't help but think about Aaron Schwarz. Will civil disobedience become an appropriate response?

A. It already is. We don't hope what happened to Aaron will happen to others. But people like Anonymous - it's a tricky think to know what appropriate civil disobedience is. There may be reaal criminals in there. We don't all have the same agenda. Tricky questions.

Q. Would the internet be different if we had women making it?

A. Yes. And we need more of that. Mitchell Baker is a champion for women in technology and as leaders. But we're still very male-biased. We do need to have gender as an issue as we build, we're not as aggressive as we want to be yet, but it has to be a part of what we think.

Q. The web literacy is the closest thing to what I mentioned yesterday as digital citizenship. Who are the right people to engage on this?

A. We are thee stakeholders to first engage. Many great conversations here, eg., talking with Cable (Green) about getting a course on web literacy. And Cathy saying one way to do it is immersion. This is a good group of people to try to get some of those approaches into the mainstream.

There's a lit of other stakeholders we think about. The right part of business, for example, even some of the goliaths - eg., the phone companies, who have a set of interests counter to the core Silicon Valley values. Eg. they want people to make and consume local content.

Q. It's very common for us to conflate the web with the internet. To what degree is Mozilla interested in non-web parts of the internet.

A. As an activist, conflating the web with the internet is now a problem in my view. We think of the web as the human interaction layer, at least for now. The rest of the web isn't really usable by people. But increasingly not. We contrast the web with what's happening on the smart phone right now - the web is open, iOS and Android are much more bundled and controlled. But we have to pick our battled.

Q. Read-write-communicate has me thinking about openness - are you making the same pitch to other segments of the internet? Is it the same pitch?

A. he answer is, I'm about to. I'm trying to figure out a crisper pitch. This is spring training. I'm taking this to Quartz, and giving them the same pitch. The same in OE Africa in may. To see who we can bring along with us.

Q. I don't like your metaphor with the word 'battle' and the word 'war'. Cf. Hal Plotkin. He was entertaining us and also warning us with an example from the U.S. establishing a so-called 'free university' which failed because people became too militant.

A. Many people don't like those metaphors. I think we're too passive. Let's see if we can find a middle.

Q. Facebook is bringing free 'mobile internet' to people which is Facebook(+Google+Wikipedia)-only -

A. They're kind of BS. But they will be influential BS. Even at the board level, we talk about, do we play with or not? I've been into these sorts of discussions for years - the old Internet Advisory Council in Canada. It's companies saying "we will solve the problem of access." It's an exceptionally simplistic view. People will get access. The market will take care of access anyway. They want to be seen as on the forefront of solving that problem, and to capture customers while they're at it, with monopolistic strategies. But if we help where half the peopel only have Facebook, that's a bad outcome.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Johns Hopkins Academic Freedom Statement - An Analytical Representation

Drafted in January and just released, the Johns Hopkins statement on academic freedom will no doubt be widely cited.I cite the full text below.

This post is a version of the document designed to draw out and represent exactly what it says, and to examine the assumptions underlying the document.

Note: on detailed analysis, the document reads as though it were actually two separate documents forxced into a not-always-happy merger. My analysis treats the document as a whole, but maintains reference to the two parts as follows:

(*) Means the point was made separately in paragraph 5
(**) Means the point was made separately in paragraph paragraph 8

Academic Freedom - Analysis and Discussion


  • the liberty to speak and learn and invite others to do the same,
  • to create and pursue research, and
  • to participate, on and off campus, in public debate
  • they should be free to rebut or even condemn ... speech (*)
Questions: this definition is strictly limited to expression and research. Should matters of opinion and faith be included as part of academic freedom (the document references 'freedom of thought' but is vague on whether it should be explicitly protected)? What about assembly into classes, clubs, associations, and the like?  What about publication and distribution of research results? It is arguable that this is far too narrow an account of the freedoms protected in academic freedom.
  • not to obstruct, prevent, or punish (speech)(and research?)
  • Example: speech on academic, political, or cultural matters, even when deemed offensive to some, is not alone grounds for sanctions against any member of the university community
Questions: who does this force apply to? It is not clearly defined in the document. For example, does it apply only to the management and administration of an institution? Or to all members of the institution? If so, then what is its force with respect to a person not employed at the institution (eg., students, visitors)? Is it also intended to have impact on, and be respected by the wider community? Can a government, for example, be accused of violating academic freedom? A lot of thought has gone into the nature of the governance, but not nearly enough on who, and how, it governs.

  • promotes a diversity of views and perspectives, and   
  • necessarily tolerates the expression of views on a broad range of academic and political subjects that are thought by some to be wrong, distasteful, offensive or even hateful. 
Questions. There are numerous references to the protection of opinions that are thought to be offensive or hateful. But a far wider range of expressions could be said to be impacted by this policy. For example, does it apply equally to statements that are unpatriotic? Does it apply to expressions of political opinion, support for political parties? Would it protect an avowed belief in astrology and witchcraft? Does it protect climate change denialism, creationism, and other unscientific theses? Does it apply to calls for war or defenses of torture? There seems to be an over-emphasis on protecting hate speech, without an emphasis on protecting political, cultural and scientific speech.

  • to all faculty, students, and staff alike 
Questions: the only statement of application is to faculty, staff and students alike. Yet several statements in the document refer only to faculty and professors, thus creating the appearance, if not the reality, of a two-tier system. Additionally, it does not explicitly apply to other entities associated with the university, such as governing councils or boards, advisory committees, not does it apply to offices (such as the Registrar), societies and institutes within the institution. The document does not adequately reflect its applicability to the full membership of a university community.
  • Academic Freedom is the wellspring of a free and open university
  • the freedom of thought it protects is at the core of the search for truth, and its free expression lies at the very heart of our university mission,
  • a university must have breathing space for free and creative exploration and experimentation, and for the sifting and winnowing of the ideas that define its very purpose
  • A professional and respectful exchange of ideas is integral to creating a positive and professional environment for learning, teaching, and research (*)
  • On occasion, university officials, faculty, or students, may disagree with, and even be offended by, a statement or other expressive activity (*)
  • intellectual freedom and open inquiry is an important part of its history, and its legacy (**)
Questions: the statements made here go far beyond the statement and account of academic freedom. And yet they reflect a remarkably limited perspective. It is interesting that 'learning' does not appear until the fifth paragraph, and only as an aside, when presenting a justification of academic freedom. While there is perhaps no real reason to disagree with the (desired) attributes of a university that necessitate academic freedom, it may be relevant to list them here:
  • free and open
  • freedom of thought
  • search for truth
  • creative exploration and experimentation
  • sifting and winnowing of ideas
  • exchange of ideas
  • environment for learning, teaching and reserach
  • history and legacy
Are these all and only the properties of a university relevant to the establishment and maintenance of academic freedom?  Is it permissible as part of academic freedom to oppose the proposerties of a university enunciated as part of the justification of academic freedom?

  • the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Question: is the basis for academic freedom really the U.S. constitution? Could there exist academic freedom in nations not governed by the U.S. constitution? The basis for academic freedom is not rooted in exceptional circumstances particular to the United States.

  • no right to defame or threaten
  • no right to deface or harass
  • no right to infringe on the privacy of others
  • no right to otherwise violate the law
  • reasonable (and) viewpoint neutral, restrictions on the time, place, and manner of expression (in order to) ensure the orderly functions of the university
  • no right to plagiarize or otherwise engage in academic or scientific dishonesty 
Questions: it appears as though this list of limitations is on the one hand too broad, and on the other hand too narrow. It is too broad in the sense that 'orderly functions of the university' may be very broadly, and disproportionately, defined. The definition of academic freedom should not be limited by 'reasonable' measures, only by extraordinary measures in extreme circumstances. Otherwise many manifestations of belief, such as political demonstrations, are exempt from academic freedom. It is too narrow in that it makes no mention of research and other ethics and standards. If academic freedom protects the freedom to research, it must define research ethics. Additionally, when the law requires or allows harassment, or the infringement of privacy, which prevails?

Additionally, and I understand that there is a cultural difference here, it would seem to me that academic freedom is no defense against racism, sexism, homophobia, and attacks of a strictly personal nature. These are forms of expression harmful to society as a whole, and a university cannot defend in its community the right to harm society. Many would also argue that the requirement of "a professional and respectful exchange of ideas" (see above) also prohibits the disparagement of culture, religion, background, appearance and language. You cannot on the one hand be "respectful" and on the other hand feel no restraint when being offensive to others. Academic freedom must not embrace a very narrow and (frankly) extremist view of 'freedom of expression' without regard to respect for others and impact on the wider community.
  • exercise of judgment on the basis of professional criteria and the highest intellectual standards:
    • in matters such as academic quality, and  
    • faculty and student performance evaluations
  • faculty / professors who express their personal views on controversial subjects in the classroom must make it clear that students may disagree with those views without penalty
  • when one is speaking on matters of public interest, it should be made clear that personal views do not represent those of the institution
  • the ... appropriate response to ... statements in an academic setting is objection, persuasion, and debate
  • nurturing that flame (of intellectual freedom and open inquiry) and passing it on (**)
Questions: these responsibilities (as suggested above) apply disproportionately to faculty and professors, and can be construed to give faculty and professors extraordinary rights over and above the academic freedom of staff and students. Perhaps this was intended. Nonetheless, 'professional criteria' and 'highest intellectual standards' are vague and could admit of wide interpretation, at the discretion of faculty and professors. The responsibility here should refer to some known, non-arbitrary, and neutral set of external standards not subject to malicious interpretation.

Additionally, it should be clear that the responsibilities listed here as being incumbent on faculty ought also apply to students; they should be enjoined not to sanction or punish each other as the result of the expression of opinion (this is an essential criterion for a free student press).

Additionally, there are many methods of persuasion that are presumably not sanctioned by academics, but which could be seen as allowed by this definition, for example, emotional or social pressure, boycotts and restraints of trade, physical force, ostracism and exclusion, and more. Presumably it is not the intent to explicitly allow these (or all of these) but the distinction is not properly drawn. What sort of non-rational forms of persuasion (strikes? boycotts?) are allowed, and which (torture?) are not? And on what basis? This document is unclear. The preference for rational forms of objection is clear, but the delinieation of permissible non-rational forms of objection is entirely absent.

Additionally, as noted above, there is no stated responsibility to adhere to any ethical or moral standard at all, including research ethics. Academic freedom must be exercised in an ethical manner.
  • (not limited by) contact with countries and cultures. and other institutions that do not share the same understanding of free speech and academic freedom principles. 
  • (not limited by) research, funding and other partnerships with external public and private entities
  • (not limited by) new roles and relationships with other organizations, many of which involve funding for university research and academic programs

Questions: this is probably the most important of the additions to traditional accounts of academic in recent years. I have employed the phrase 'not limited by' to stand for what was actually some very half-hearted language in the original document ("special care" is used twice, without any account of what "special care" entails). If academic freedom is a core value of the institution, it should not be allowed to be limited by engagement with other cultures, partners or funding agencies. This is especially the case regarding engagement with corporations and entities that profit by association with the institution.

I, personally, would go back to the drawing board, take a more ordered approach to the document, and try again.

Finally, and for the record, nobody simply grants you freedoms, academic or otherwise. Though not a contract, a freedom is a form of interaction between two parties, whether teacher and student, employer and employee, government and citizen. Each of these parties - and especially the weaker - must assert this freedom in order for it to exist. There are no natural freedoms, there are no contractual freedoms, there are only freedoms which live and breathe through everyday exercise to their full extent.

Johns Hopkins Academic Freedom Statement

Note: as the original document was released as an image file (!?) I took the liberty of subjecting it to OCR for presentation here; this may have resulted in some minor errors.

Academic Freedom is the wellspring of a free and open university. The freedom of thought it protects is at the core of the search for truth, and its free expression lies at the very heart of our university mission, Academic Freedom is the liberty to speak and learn and invite others to do the same, to create and pursue research; and to participate, on and off campus, in public debate, It promotes a diversity of views and perspectives, and necessarily tolerates the expression of views on a broad range of academic and political subjects that are thought by some to be wrong, distasteful, offensive or even hateful.

Although tenure may form its backbone, Academic Freedom extends to all faculty, students, and staff alike. A university must have breathing space for free and creative exploration and experimentation, and for the sifting and winnowing of the ideas that define its very purpose.

Like the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, on whose precepts academic freedom is based, however, Academic Freedom is not absolute. One does not have the right to defame or threaten, deface or harass, infringe on the privacy of others, or otherwise violate the law. Reasonable, viewpoint neutral, restrictions on the time, place, and manner of expression are legitimate ways to set the boundaries and ensure the orderly functions of the university.

Academic Freedom also entails academic responsibility. There is no protected right to plagiarize or otherwise engage in academic or scientific dishonesty. The exercise of judgment on the basis of professional criteria and the highest intellectual standards, in matters such as academic quality, and faculty and student performance evaluations, is both permissible and necessary. Faculty who express their personal views on controversial subjects in the classroom must make it clear that students may disagree with those views. When one is speaking on matters of public interest, it should be made clear that personal views do not represent those of the institution. Professors who express their personal views on a contested issue must make it clear that students may disagree with those views without penalty.

A professional and respectful exchange of ideas is integral to creating a positive and professional environment for learning, teaching, and research. On occasion, university officials, faculty, or students, may disagree with, and even be offended by, a statement or other expressive activity. They should be free to rebut or even condemn such speech, but not to obstruct, prevent, or punish it. Speech on academic, political, or cultural matters, for example, even when deemed offensive to some, is not alone grounds for sanctions against any member of the university community. The more appropriate response to such statements in an academic setting is objection, persuasion, and debate.

Johns Hopkins University is not a narrow enclave. Its mission, its influence, and its presence reach far beyond the traditional campus. This necessarily brings it into contact with countries and cultures. and other institutions that do not share the same understanding of free speech and academic freedom principles. In these situations, special care is required to maintain our standards.

Johns Hopkins continues to expand its connections to a range of research, funding and other partnerships with external public and private entities. It continues to develop new roles and relationships with other organizations, many of which involve funding for university research and academic programs. Some funding sources may seek to control data and research findings, or limit their dissemination. In response to such requests, special care must be taken to maintain the university's core principles of free and independent inquiry.

Johns Hopkins University was home to the very early development of the concept of Academic Freedom in the modern research university. The torch of intellectual freedom and open inquiry is an important part of its history, and its legacy. Each of us, in our time, as members of this community of scholars, bears a responsibility for nurturing that flame and passing it on. It is our heritage!

Saturday, April 04, 2015

My Viva

Patrick Dunleavy offers this list of ten typical questions that might be asked on your PhD oral exam. I always felt I would have aced my oral exam, but I never got to take it because my examiners did not want me to work on network theory.

So how would I have answered these questions? Dunleavy's post begs a response...

1. What are the most original (or value-added) parts of your thesis?

The semantics of distributed cognition.

In distributed cognition, there is no single location in memory where we might find an idea or concept. Rather, it is distributed across a set of connections between entities (a graph theorist might say it is constituted of a set of edges between nodes).

Like this:

We can say a few things about these distributed representations that are significant:
  • They are not representations at all - that is, they do not 'stand for' things or 'signify' things. This set of connections, for example, does not stand for the concept 'couch' nor the word 'couch'. 
  • They are not propositional - that is, they are not encoded in the form of a sentence, and we do not 'think' in words and sentences (there is therefore no 'encoding' that takes place when we communicate or perceive the world around us).
  • They are different for each person. No two activation networks are alike. Indeed, they are even different in the same person over time. There is no static constant that instantiates the concept 'couch' at all.
The best way to think of the web of connections is to think of it as being like the ripples that spread out when you throw a stone into a pond. The initial stimulus causes a cascade of interactions and water molecules bump against each other, a spreading wave of activation that follows the path of least resistance. The waves do not 'represent' anything, they are not 'about' the stone, and indeed, you cannot infer to the existence of the stone merely from the presence of the waves (although Kantian metaphysics is based on exactly that sort of inference).

To make life more complex, we only have one set of interconnected entities and connections between them, and exactly the same set of connections contains multiple concepts or ideas. So in addition to our thought of a couch (symbolized in red) we might have a thought of a dog (symbolized in green).

Like this:  

Again, these activations do not stand for anything; they are simply characteristic patterns of spreading activation that occur in the presence of a stimulus. It is typical for the green activations to overlap the red activations. This means that, in certain circumstances, the activation of 'dog' might, by association, cause the activation of 'couch', depending on the overlap of these and other associated concepts.

This is the basis for inferences. As Hume would say, "the far greatest part of our reasonings with all our actions and passions, can be derived from nothing but custom and habit." Our inferences from one thing to another, from cause to effect, from premise to conclusion, are based in repeated iterations of an associative logic, which is based on the mechanics of spreading activation.

There are different ways to talk about this. One way is to describe it mathematically, through the principles of network interactions and learning theories. Each individual entity has its own activation function, which determines how likely it is to be activated by incoming stimuli; each connection has its own weight, which determines how much signal it carries forward, and the creation and destruction of connections in a network, its plasticity, is determined by the learning theory, which derives these new connections from weights and activation functions.

Another way to talk about it (and the way I talk about it in my dissertation proposal) is to talk about it conceptually, by describing the relevant similarity between one concept and another. We might think of this as the degree of overlap between one concept and the next - a very loose statement of the idea would say that 'dog' and 'couch' have a similarity ranking of '3', based on the overlap depicted in the diagram.

It is this network semantics based on similarity that is probably my most significant contribution to the field. It follows the work of people like Amos Tversky in presenting a feature-based account of similarity, but analyzes this in terms of spreading activation in neural networks.

2. Which propositions or findings would you say are distinctively your own?


If you take the theory I've just outlined above seriously, you see that it would be inconsistent for me to say that everything is connected, and then for me to say that some proposition or finding is distinctively my own.

Indeed, I struggle with the idea that my thesis is based in propositions at all. This supposes an idea of a theory or model that is composed of a set of related propositions which are either all consistently and coherently maintained by some logical framework or all derived from a set of observations or measurements on the bases of some sort of inference calculus. And I doubt that either is the case.

At best what I offer is a perspective, a point of view, a set of outcomes as presented from the perspective of this entity given the experiences and observations obtained over a lifetime. But these are all influenced to a significant degree by interactions and communications with others.

My understanding of the word 'Paris', for example, carries with it the influence of every other occurrence of the word 'Paris' I have experienced in my lifetime. It can 'mean' nothing else. Indeed, if I were to say that the meaning of  the word 'Paris' were uniquely my own, there would be significant cause for concern, for either I would be asserting some sort of supernatural connection to Truth and Objects, or I would be asserting some sort of egotitocal priority of my own perspective above that of all others,

There is this totally false depiction of the PhD thesis, which is this:

which supposes that the individual researcher forges beyond the rest of knowledge on his or her own. But that's not how it works. We do all of our work entirely within the range of what might be called 'existing knowledge'. And when existing knowledge grows or changes, it does so on its own and not by virtue of one unique entity.

3. How do you think your work takes forward or develops the literature in this field?

Honestly, this question is just the same as the previous question, except that it refers to the localization of those propositions or findings.

The presumption in the question is that my new research builds on or extends previous research. It is a perspective or point of view that depicts knowledge as a mountain of propositions or facts, and it suggests that our PhD work is intended to extent that mountain (in an appropriately inferential of evidence-based way).

In my own case, if I had to characterize my contribution, it would be like this: same mountain, different view.

As I said in my answer to the previous question, there is nothing uniquely my own that has been added to human knowledge; I am working withing the same world, the same linguistic framework, the same logic and mathematics, the same sets of properties and qualities, as everyone else.

My contribution, if we must identify one, is that I see it differently from everyone else (of course, everyone sees it differently from everyone else).

One thing that I think is important is that I think that social knowledge and human knowledge are relevantly similar. Specifically, they share the same structure and the same logic. In both humans and societies, the structure of a concept or idea is the same: it is the set of connections between entities.

This general structure - what I called 'Learning Networks' and George Siemens called (more successfully) connectivism - calls into question even the concept of 'literature in the field', because knowledge is not divided between some privileged set of writings, 'literature', and everything else.  

At best, the 'literature' might be thought of as some stigmergic activity enabling each of us to contribute our own perspectives to a common object - a human intellectual anthill, of you will. But this thing that we build is distinct from the knowledge we have as a society, and does not hold any epistemic priority over other such network-based objects of knowledge, such as the 747 aircraft or World War II. It's a thing upon which each of us can reflect and obtain our own unique perspective take on collective knowledge.

So I am frankly not interested in developing 'the literature', except to offer the occasional contribution as a social gift, much the way I might contribute to Wikipedia or add to a cowpath in the grass by walking upon it. I don't think the objective of research or scientific enquiry is to develop the literature, or at least, not only to develop the literature. It is to engage, to contribute a life to society.

If I were forced to discuss there I think this is the greatest advance, I would probably say that it is the application of this thinking to education and pedagogy (keeping in mind that if it weren't me, it would surely have been someone).

Educational theory before connectivism is based almost completely on the idea that learning involves the recall of a set of propositions or facts, and is cumulative (much like knowledge in the literature) and stigmergic (analogous to a co-creation of knowledge). Dissuading ourselves of these propositions, and understanding that learning is network based, founded in the development of custom and habit, is the core of my work over the last ten years.

4. What are the ‘bottom line’ conclusions of your research? How innovative or valuable are they? What does your work tell us that we did not know before?

This is the same question again, but with a slightly different presupposition about the nature of enquiry. The presupposition actually takes two forms: first, as the 'bottom line' as a chain of inference or the conclusion of a logical argument; and second, as the 'bottom line' or net value (to society? to Bill Gates?) of the research.

Both presuppose a directionality to research. Both suppose that research works toward an outcome. And both, in their own way, focus on the utility or value of the research.

As we can no doubt infer what what I have discussed above, directionality is very much a matter of perspective. Sure, it is always possible to depict a progression or flow from one entity to the next to the next in a network. It is always possible to describe a series of activations, one after another, over a slice of time. But the idea that these lead anywhere is surely a matter of opinion.

So at best what this question is asking me to do is to imagine the perspective of some putative observer and to ask what my work looks like from their perspective (this is in fact the actual process I undertake when describing our research program in my current office).

For example, we could ask, "what is the value of knowing that learning is associative rather than propositional?" We can take the perspective of four distinct entities to draw out the implications:

- from the perspective of the individual student, it results in understanding that learning anything is based in a certain set of skills (which I call the 'critical literacies') formed around the idea that knowledge is not cumulative and constructed, but rather based in practice and reflection resulting in habitual recognition of relevant phenomena. In other words, it makes them better learners.

- from the perspective of the teacher, it results in the understanding that teaching does not consist in explaining or describing, because these depend on an already strongly developed association between the words and the concepts, but rather, that we c an at best show (ie., model and demonstrate) actual practice, and have them obtain direct experience and practice.

- from the perspective of the education technology provider, it results in the understanding that networking and interaction are essential components of learning, that new experiences must be based on past experience, which entails the development of personal and experiential learning environments.

- from the perspective of the employer seeking to address skills shortages it results in the shift from a formal class-based outcomes-based learning paradigm to an ongoing informal learning network, hands on support systems, and personal learning program.

These four might seem as large leaps from the answers given to the first and second questions, but they are not in fact so large - of course, depending on your starting point you might have to shift your thinking 180 degrees to get to this perspective, or it might click into place as immediately intuitive or rational.

5. Can you explain how you came to choose this topic for your doctorate What was it that first interested you about it? How did the research focus change over time?

Mostly by accident, by opting for what I thought was obvious, and by seeing opportunity.

The accidents are the vagaries of experience. Early exposure to science fiction in the local library stirred my imagination and led me to want to be a scientist; poverty led me (on the advice of my father) to investigate computers and technology; being overlooked for promotion led me to enrol in university to become a scientist; a full English section in my physics program led me to enrol in philosophy; my first course in philosophy exposed me to David Hume.

Why is this important? Because of my background in computers, I knew that logic is arbitrary, so I was sympathetic with Hume's scepticism. This led me over time to a district of cognitivist methods over time, and hence a Bachelor's thesis defending Hume's associationism and a Master's thesis questioning model-based semantics as arbitrary and unsound.

In my PhD years I worked on the idea of knowledge as based on relevant similarity, developing a logic of association, while at the same time creating huge conceptual maps of ideas, disciplines and a wall-sized history of philosophy. So I was ready with Francisco Varela discussed the essentials of network theory in a lecture at the University of Alberta, and between reading Rumelhart and McClelland and attending the Connectivism conference in Vancouver, had come to see that connectionism and associationism amount to essentially the same theory.

I came into the field of learning technology via distance education at Athabasca University. Given my background, it should be no surprise that I tried several things, including the creation of a Bulletin Board Service (BBS) and co-authoring of an academic MUD. At Assiniboine I created a website and online courses and eventually a learning management system. As I gained experience I found that network principles could be applied to learning technology. I explored the use of content syndication, developed the idea of learning networks, and with George Siemens created the first MOOC. These were all instances of connectionism applied to pedagogy.

My core academic interest lies in understanding knowledge and cognition -- the processes of learning, inference and discovery. Time and experience have refined my early thoughts on the matter, but I have always approached the subject from an empirical and scientific perspective. There are no magic symbol systems, there is no privileged access to nature. There's only experience and a very human - indeed, a very animal - way to comprehend it.

6. Why have you defined the final topic in the way you did? What were some of the difficulties you encountered and how did they influence how the topic was framed? What main problems or issues did you have in deciding what was in-scope and out-of-scope?

If I had to state in a sentence how I define my topic, it is in the previous paragraph: understanding knowledge and cognition through understanding the processes of learning, inference and discovery.

In other words, I am focused first on how we learn rather than what we learn. This is an epistemic choice; a cognitivist or rationalist approach will first describe what we know - "we know language, we know mathematics, we know who we are," etc. My view is that many of these knowledge claims are incorrect. We do not know universal truths, we do not have knowledge of ideal abstracts. We don't, I argue, because we can't.

As a consequence, through most of my career I have found myself in conflict with those who have very specific theories about what we know, and (therefore) how we know it. They depict these knowledge claims as givens and construct and derive theories of learning and pedagogy based on this.

For example, a common line of argument runs as follows: we understand scientific principles, therefore we have knowledge of abstract universals, therefore these must be codified in a physical symbol system, so learning is a process of acquiring and codifying these statements. This creates a view of knowledge and learning that is content-based and focused on the assimilation of a set of these statements by the most efficient means possible.

This is the dominant view, and the position I advocate meets opposition at each stage of the inference.

It results in the need to reframe knowledge and learning from the ground up. It becomes very difficult to decide that something is "out of scope" because each statement of an educational theory varies in importance and meaning depending on which of these perspectives you take. Even the idea of what constitutes a theory - and whether connectivism is one - depends on your perspective.

Throughout the last fifteen years or so I have assembled thousands of small items, hundreds of blog posts, and various talks and longer works. These do not lead from a basis of evidence to a single conclusion. Rather they are point by point observations on a welter of interconnected points, none of which is pure data, none of which is pure theory, all of which constitute an interconnected perspective on knowledge and learning that undermines, and advances an alternative to, the cognitivist view.

7. What are the core methods used in this thesis? Why did you choose this approach? In an ideal world, are there different techniques or other forms of data and evidence that you’d have liked to use?

As someone who wrote a presentation entitled Against Digital Research Methodologies I have to say I didn't use any core methods per se.It's not that I think that science is random. It's rather that, in the words of Paul Feyerabend, scientific method is whatever works.

I've given the talk several times and have tried to express this in different ways. I've talked about my work as being a process of discovery, in which I try things, explore things, and look for patterns that stand out, unexpected significance or meaning, patterns of change, and even observations and inferences.

In other cases I've talked about conduct by research and design (not, by this I do not mean "design-based research", properly so called). 

Maybe the best way to approach this question is to take on the question of data and evidence head on. Because the presupposition in a question like this is that the research methodology will either be inductive - that is, inference to a general principle or method based on evidence - or abductive - that is, inference to the best explanation of a body of data or evidence.

In my talks I argue that this depicts research as following a classical theory of science, one in which we express data as a set of "observation sentences" and derive from that a set of theoretical statements, which collectively form a model or representation of reality. Most people understand that in the end we cannot distinguish between observation statements and theoretical statements - this is why 'truth' is often defined as 'truth within a theory T'.

But they are less likely to agree with (or even understand) Quine's second proposition, that reductionismis a dogma. We don't in any way infer from evidence and data to generalization or method. Rather, the data show us only one of two things, either:
  1. that something exists, or
  2. that something is possible
Indeed, the bulk of my work takes the form: it can be done, because I've done it. My work, in other words, takes the form of modelling and demonstrating, of giving an example (nothing more) that others can use in their own thinking and their own reasoning.

It is often asked of me: if there are no universal principles or generalizations, then what are those statements that look like universal principles or generalizations? In response, I say that they are abstractions.

But then, continue my questioners, aren't abstractions themselves idealizations based on evidence? And my response is, no, abstractions (and therefore universals and generalizations) are not created by inference from a set of empirical data. They are created from subtractions from empirical data (sometimes even one piece of data).

There are many ways to create abstractions, but I'll illustrate just one: the elimination of extraneous data from two overlapping concepts. Consider the concepts of 'dog' and 'couch'., which I described above. If we keep the connections between those entities where the concepts overlap, and discard the rest, we have a new abstraction, which is whatever it is that dogs and couches have in common.

Like this:

How should we characterize this abstraction? This is where the characterization gets difficult. It might be the idea that dogs like to sleep on couches. It might the that both dogs and couches are things. What it means depends on everything else around it. The more we subtract, the less the overlap, the greater the range of possible things it could be.

8. What are the main sources or kinds of evidence? Are they strong enough in terms of their quantity and quality to sustain the conclusions that you draw? Do the data or information you consider appropriately measure or relate to the theoretical concepts, or underlying social or physical phenomena, that you are interested in?

This question doubles down on the idea that a thesis is created by assembling a body of data or evidence that supports a conclusion. Hence the thesis is evaluated by two criteria:
  1. the quality of the evidence (which speaks to the soundness of the thesis)
  2. the inference from evidence to conclusion (which speaks to the validity of the thesis)
I've dealt with inference above. But what are the criteria for good evidence?

Virtually all research that still uses this model will be based on some sort of statistical generalization; the days when we could reason inductively from evidence to conclusion are long since past, a relic of the world when Newton's theories held sway. Perhaps it is true, as Einstein said, that God does not play dice with the universe - but if so, then he is a mean poker player.

Evidence is based on two criteria: quantity and type. By quantity we are asking whether we have enough evidence to draw a statistical inference. There are some fairly well-established principles of probability that are at least as reliable as any other form of inference that will tell us that, for example, we cannot infer from 20 specific instances to a population of 7 billion instances.

But more significant is the question regarding the type of evidence, which is specifically focused around the question of whether the evidence is representative of the population as a whole. That's why you don't just ask your friends how they'll vote when you're predicting an election; chances are, your friends will vote like you do. It should also be why a class of 50 midwestern undergraduate psychology students should not be used as the basis for drawing conclusions about anything, but journals keep publishing the studies.

In my case, none of these matter, because I'm not generalizing (or, at least, I'm trying very very hard not to generalize).

In my case, the question is always: is this example an instance of the thing I'm talking about? If it is, we can say that it exists, and move on, trying to find associated phenomena. If it is not, then what was it that misled me about it? Either way, I learn.

In a world without universal (or even predefined, or even commonly understood) categories, answering questions like this is not a trivial matter. In some cases, it is sufficient to obtain agreement among a group of people that "this x is a y". In other cases, we have to take our time, be pedantic, and show that "this x is precisely a y". Most of the work involved unravelling confused, imprecise or inconsistent categorization. People assume that because we use the same words we mean the same things, while experience suggests that this is often not the case.

In my case, we consider the set of posts, papers and talks, etc., to be both the evidence and the conclusion (this is an instance of what I mean when I talk of 'direct perception'). There is no sense to dividing one set of my posts as the evidence and another as the conclusion. The same happens in the mind: the set of neural activations is at once the evidence and the conclusion. There is no thing over and above the set of neural activations that constitutes the 'thesis' being discovered or proven (or, to be more accurate, if there is, it exists only as an emergent phenomenon, and can only be recognized externally by a third party or observer).

So when we ask what the sources of the evidence are, and whether they sustain the conclusion, we are asking what is, in my mind, an incomprehensible question, or more accurately, one that embodies incorrect presuppositions about the nature of knowledge. Similarly, if one asks about the correctness of the evidence and the conclusion, we reach the same conclusion, that the question presupposes an incorrect epistemology.

I have developed and often talked about my response to this, which is what I call 'the semantic principle', and what is at best a set of methodological presuppositions based on some opinions about the most effective function of a network. So I ask whether in the entities and connections in my thesis are diverse, autonomous, open and interactive. There's a longer discussion to be had here (what does it mean to say a concept is autonomous, for example? what does it mean to say that the parts of a thesis are diverse?) But it gets, I think, to a deeper understanding of epistemic adequacy that a query about the soundness and validity of an argument.

9. How do your findings fit with or contradict the rest of the literature in this field? How do you explain the differences of findings, or estimation, or interpretation between your work and that of other authors?

I've discussed a lot of this in my discussion above. But I have as yet remained silent on the difference between my own approach and the major approach in learning theory, or perhaps I should say 'set' of approaches, under the heading of 'constructivism'.

If I had to put the matter in a phrase, I'd say that constructivism is cognitivist and connectivism is non-cognitivist. Of course some people will immediately respond that there are some varieties of constructivism that are non-cognitivist. I typically respond, only half in jest, that for any criticism of constructivism C, there is a version of constructivism not-C, for an indefinitely large set of criticisms {C1...Cn}.

In fact, though, theory-building, model-building and representation all had their foundation in philosophy and the sciences well before their appearance in education, and the emergence of constructivism in education is a not-surprising response to (for example) behaviourism and instructivism, just as they were responses to logical positivism in the sciences. Bas van Frassen, for example, offers a prototypical account of 'constructive empiricism' in the sciences. Other flavours of constructivism are found in things like Larry Laudan's 'Progress and its Problems'. Or Daniel Dennett's 'The Intentional Stance'.

They are at once responses to scientific realism, grounding science in logical and social structures (there's a strong strain of this as well in Kuhn), and at the same time are responses to the discredited idea of 'the observation statement', which was science's only response to the idealist and the rationalist. Scientific constructivism was a way to preserve rationality in science, without surrendering its basis in empirical grounds. Only these grounds would be served by proxy, through an actuive engagement with experience, a process of construction, the formulation of what Quine called 'analytic hypotheses', the presentation of tentative conclusions, models and representations which would be evaluated as a whole against experience, against reality.

It's a brilliant response, and I have no real quarrel with the overall approach. My major criticism is that while they jettisoned the 'positivism' of logical positivism, they kept the 'logical' part, and it was in the logical part that logical positivism actually foundered. Indeed, Quine should have called his paper Two Dogmas of Logicism, for that's what they were. Specifically:
  1. The analytic-synthetic distinction fails not because there are no observations, but because there are no observation statements
  2. The principle of reduction fails not because there's no empirical basis in fact, but because there are no logical principles of reduction
And this is where I find my difference with the constructivists. In (almost) all cases, they depict the creation of knowledge as one of construction, where we (intentionally) create models or representations, grounding them in a model or environment (literally: "making meaning"). Often this is depicted as a social activity (sometimes, it is depicted as only a social activity). As a stigmergic activity, as I discussed above, I can comprehend it. But not as a theory of learning.

And the reason it is not a theory of learning is simply this: in a person (in a network, etc) there is no third party to do the constructing.

The creation of a model or representation (or network or theory or whatever) that will be tested against experience (or reality, or a run computer simulations, or whatever)  is a representationalist theory which assumes a distinction between the model and whatever would act as evidence for that model (and, often, a set of methodologies and principles, such as 'logic' and 'language', for constructing that model).

But the network theory I've described, if taken seriously, entails the following:
  • the network is self-organizing; we do not 'create' sets of connections, these result naturally from input and from the characteristics of the entities and connections
  • the network does not 'represent' some external reality; 'evidence' and 'conclusion' are one and the same; the network itself is both the perceptual device and the inferring device
  • learning isn't about creating, it's about becoming
Someone recently said to me, "well that makes you a radical constructivist". Perhaps. But now the meaning of 'constructivist' has ceased to be anything that would be recognized by most constructivists. This is an outcome that could be predicted by my own theory, but not by most others.

10. What are the main implications or lessons of your research for the future development of work in this specific sub-field? Are there any wider implications for other parts of the discipline? Do you have ‘next step’ or follow-on research projects in mind?

I have several things in mind, though life may be too short for all of them:

  • I want to continue to develop in technology an instantiation of the concepts I describe in theory (understanding that there's no theory, etc., etc.). This is the basis for my work in MOOCs and my current work in personal learning environments, as instantiated in the LPSS Program. I want to see the various ways in which a learning network can grow and develop and help real people address real needs and make their lives better.
  • I want to draw together the various threads I've described in this post and offer a single coherent statement of connectivism as I see it. Related to this, but probably a separate work, I want to draw out and make clear the elements of 'critical literacy', which I believe constitute the foundations (if you will) of a new post-cognitivist theory of knowledge (the program above has funding but I have no funding for this work, so as a message to society at large, if you ever want to see this, consider some means of funding it).
  • I would like to see the principles of self-organizing knowledge applied to wider domains and to society at large, as (shall we say) a new understanding of democracy, one based not on power and control and collaboration and conformity, but one based on autonomy and diversity and cooperation and emergence. Society itself will have to do this; I can but point the way.
That's pretty much it, from an academic and professional perspective. But I also understand that the work is not possible in the confines of my own office working with texts and software. None of what I do today, nor indeed, have ever done, has been separate from the rest of my life and living. Each experience that I have, each society that I see, each new city and each new bike ride adds a nuance and a subtlety to my understanding of the world. It is a beautiful life and my greatest contribution to the future would be, I think, to continue living it.

That's my PhD oral exam. I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we've passed the audition.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Power of Reuse: Wikipedia in Action

Summary of a panel at the Hewlette Grantees' Conference. Errors are again my own.

Pete Forsyth, Wiki Strategies
(See also his blog post with resources for this panel at )

In the past we've been saying that it's important to the field of OER to improve content. But really, it's about teaching and learning. So what is it about Wikipedia that is an opportunity for learning?

Jeanette Lee, the Cambridge School of Weston

We are integrating technology in the classroom, and students are always asking whether they can use Wikipedia. We have a handout we created on how to use Wikipedia. One of the students wanted to use the message box from an article, and we had a conversation about how to use it. So, students are using Wikipedia and the question is how to integrate it.

Amin Azzam, UCSF

The peer review process has sort of a stranglehold on academic advancement, but they were interested in partnering with Wikipedia such that if an author updated an article it might be counted as a publication. The meeting on this was just yesterday.

The medical students all go to Wikipedia first when they go o look something up, because it's written in a way they can understand, and then they go to a more reliable source. So then someone suggested that students could contribute to Wikipedia.

Dan Cook, Wiki Strategies

I'm a voracious consumer of Wikipedia. My work is both as a journalist and as a consultant. This week for example there was the experience of going from an article being marked for deletion to the potential removal of the banner altogether. I have these experiences pretty much on a daily basis.

I was part of the 'new journalism' when it was coined in the 80s. Secret sources and fights with the editors and all that. But now Wikipedia is the new journalism of today; leave your ego at the door, don;t use any modifiers, we don't want any spin. But it's a hard place for traditional journalists to work; we have to unlearn everything we learned about journalism.


I compare Wikipedia articles to an expository essay, which students have to learn. So getting them to understand that Wikipedia articles have structure, they have references, etc. So the idea is making the use of Wikipedia in academia transparent. People are using it, they're just using it quietly. It was about how to get a language to move between Wikipedia articles and the more traditional essay.

A funny statistic from Pew, from February: 90 percent of AP and National Writing teachers find information online for their classes; 90 percent use Google, 87% use Wikipedia, but they discourage their students from using it. So there is this contradiction. So we need to get out in front and deal with this contradiction. We need a PR campaign or something, so people know it is legitimate to use in their classrooms.

Amin: Yes, 87-93% of medical students admits to using it.

Dan: If you could just get them to take the next step and look at their sources!

Jeanette: yes, that's what we want them to do, it's a great skill to develop.

Amin: there's roughly 26K articles in the medical field, but a lot of them have room for improvement. One thing wwith my students is they're in the final year of med school, so they can contribute, but they haven't lost the ability to speak English yet.

Pete: the articles I contributed to most were on topics I was learning about. Also, Amin mentioned 'English Wikipedia'. This points to a way where Wikipedia and OER have a lost of aspirations in common. (Reads from letter mourning the death of Babu Gi, from Kerala, and commemorating his contributions).

Amin: discusses the translation of medical articles into other languages. Wikipedia has an initiative called 'Data Zero' to give access to Wikipedia content for free. To me this is a no-brainer. (See )

Jeanette: opportunities for OER to learn from Wikipedia - I don't have students contribute to Wikipedia, but I do have students use materials from Wikipedia and OER Commons - I do hand over a lot of content to students, and then they create the content that everyone uses. I give them the option: either I lecture, or you do this project. Usually they choose the project. And they know that everybody will be using the material for understanding the text. I view Wikipedia as part of the OER community, and it's a way for them to use Wikipedia even if they can't contribute (they're just high school students, I would have too many permissions I have to fill out).

Amin: there's a source of med information by students for students called 'Up To Date', it's called 'crack for medical students', but it's subscription, and they don't realize how much the school has to pay.

Pete: where do students become ready to contribute to Wikipedia?

Jeanette: I think definitely there are high school students ready for that.

Amin: it's a question of what fraction of school work is contributing. For example in my class they have peer review. They need this support.

Jeanette: some projects are individual and some are group. Anything that's a presentation for the class, they grade it, I don't grade it.

Pete: I see this as a new journalism and I would like to see training begin in the classroom, so they don't get the bad habits I got. When will students work on Wikipedia?

Jeanette: there are concerns about privacy, that's the barrier. I do think it would be a hard sell for some districts. Showing districts how they can use Wikipedia would be much easier.

Amin: my students had to create user names, so we could track their contribution. They began with non-descriptive user names, but eventually made it clear they were future doctors.

Pete: there is this culture of anonymity in Wikipedia. It's a major part of the ethos. But then there's the potential for conflict of interest; we don't want the chief of Enron writing the article.

Dan: why did reporters have bylines? So they could be held accountable. Journalists especially need to have user names that are transparent and they should describe themselves in a transparent way. There needs to be a high level there. When I search to see if an article is credible, I don't like seeing that the author is anonymous. Wikipedians will have to grapple with this.

Amin: the concept of anonymity almost doesn't exist any more. They have their Facebook pages, they scrub them clean before going into med school.

Dan: I think it's people in my generation, they don't want to give up their social security numbers, etc.

Jeanette: developing people who are comfortable as Wikipedia users, as they go into college, they're used to working in that kind of environment.

Amin: my future students will be already equipped knowing how to be contributors.

Q: there are now things where you can remix in the OER space; but in schools there is this top-down ethic about who is eligible to do that (it has to be curriculum specialists, etc).

Amin: I consider the medical librarian an equal partner in the course, and the Wikipedia contributors to be equal partners. There's no way for any of us top be experts in everything. It takes a village.

Pete: Wikipedia and OER are characterozed by people coming together in ways that were never anticipated, and saying to previous generations, we're not waiting around for you any more. We want to address content gaps. Etc. The sort of thing that doesn't work well in that crowd-sourced way. Eg. the small number of contributions by women.

Q. Pete said to me, the first thing they do after you tell them about OER, they go to Google and search for it, and find the article on Wikipedia. Do you care about what they're reading? Do you feel this is your responsibility? What ought we be doing in this community?

Pete: it's not an easy process, it doesn't have easy boundaries, you have to decide what's important for yourself, and you have to think about how much you can get in, how to work with other people.

Amin: Wikipedia is not a democracy, it's a do-ocracy.

Q: it seems to be impermanent, in the beginning, anything we thought was of value was not surviving. But the value is where you should be participating. It does compel participation. We made a lot of mistakes, but most of our articles are surviving now; it's about participating in the community. Our students talk about 'surviving the Wikipedia process'. But that's the strength of Wikipedia.

Pete: we see this dynamic a lot. People contribute an article and it's highly imperfect, just what was in the newspaper. And then a few years later an expert comes along, and says there's all these errors. And I say to them, "when were you going to do this?" When would you write the article, without having seen all the errors.

Dan: I tell people, "go to the talk pages". That's where you can see the process at work.

Q: does it make sense to have a Wikimedian-in-residence in OER?

Amin: Brillian idea.

Jeanette: I totally agree with that. And Wikipedia has done a good job partnering with universities. Such a person could encourage partnering with districts.

Q: question was more whether it would conflict with the Wiki education foundation?

Pete: no it would not at all. I know most of those people, I think there would be delight.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

OER Business Models - A Debate

This is a summary of a debate including four participants, listed below, at OER2014. Errors and omissions are still my own.

What is your mission in OER and what is your business model?

David Harris - OpenStax

It's really about access, providing access to the highest quality OERs possible. A whole suite of products beyond the textbook. We've created an ecosystem around learning materials. This ecosystem is the core of our business. Eg. we might partner with John Wiley & sones. We works with multiple partners to provide more options and choice for our partners.

Lisa Petrides - IKSME

Our mission is about maximizing all of these open access tools that enable breakthroughs in teaching and learning. We build tools, develop capacity, support the OER Commons library, etc. There are two main components to the business model: first, the R&D side, and second, the service department, that offers services around the capacity-building piece, showing people how to organize and use their content. The core is, how does it impact the learner?

David Wiley - Lumen

Two-fold mission: save students money and improve student success. We have a particular focus on at-risk students, so especially the community college. The business model is based on helping faculty make the transition from commercial to open textbooks. Any course that we provide support for we charge a per-enrollment fee. All the content is CC-licensed content, and the platform is open source as well.

Gary Lopez - MITE / Ed-Ready

Our mission is to improve access to everyone. The goal of the inrov project is to make sure online K-12 content is available to every person at no cost. The business model supports business and mission goals. In addition tot he content, there is a membership component, whgich supports both goals.

Reactions: To Gary: if your're not a member of the community, what are your rights of access? Gary: if you're an individual you have full rights to use and re-use. We focus on institutions - if you're an institution, we ask that you join our membership.

What does it mean to be sustainable?

Lisa - ISKME is a non-profit. It's very much of a Linux model - the content itself should forever be free and open. Access is always available. It's different from what Gary talked about - it means that any wrap-around services are going to be another type of service, eg., we might to an LTI or API integration, or a workflow process - some such thing. The key to being sustainable is to always ask, how do we keep that part (the core part) free?

Gary - there a fundamental difference between for-profits and non-profits in their goals. In for-profits the business goals are financials, and officers have a responsibility to achieving financial goals. Unless there's a special arrangements to make supporting OERs the goal, the financial responsibility always rises to the top. When a non-profit is set up, the mission is the goal.

David - sustainability is critical to us, especially if you are on the producing side of OER, and especially if you think it has to be a market-based solution, which means it has to be of high quality. I think it is irresponsible of a non-profit to assume you will be given philanthropy. As you move toward sustainability you get greater independence and greater opportunity to pursue strategies that support the mission. As a non-profit we don't have the overhead that for-profits need to generate, so we can produce at a lower cost.

David Wiley - what's my ongoing ability to continue to meet my goals? For Lumen it means being able to continute to partner with institutions and continue to drop the price to zero, and be able to look beyond the grant.

Reactions: Lisa - the two people beside me came from the publishing side. What was that like?

Gary: I dodn't copme from publishing; I was faculty. My company got purchased by Harcourt. You don't have a cost of money. You can go into markets more aggressively. Davis Harris: we started out pro-market, but then it became just about the shareholders, which I didn't like. To provide the greatest access, we have to think about marketplace solutions.

Lisa: let's look at this. What's been working in open food has been from the bottom-up. But we are still working from a top-down perspective (eg., responding to concerns raised by publishers).

David Wiley: we became for-profit to maximize our ability to succeed, eg., we can partner with institutions, and we can get more traditional investment as well, so we don't have to rely on grants. The quality issue Dave prings up is interesting; hostorically nobody talked about quality - it was always some proxy for quality. What's the only actual condition? Whether kids learn from it. So we don't get distracted by how glossy it is.

David Harris: you are misinterpreting what really counts as quality. Eg. there are review boards, etc.

Gary: we're gathering data, that data has to do with efficacy, whether people succeed. It was before that the issue of whether people were actually learning never came into the equation (with commercial publishers).

Lisa: so 'sustainability' in OERs is about learning.

Ho do you define OER, and why do yopur think your busineess is OER?

Gary: we don't think about the definition of OER. We're focused on our mission to provide access to quality education for evertone. Whether or not something falls within the definition is secondary.

David Harris: I don't think it matters what I think it is, that's defined by the license we use. We use the CC-by license, which is critically important, because it provides freedom to the end user. We use this to sell the concept to academics. They realize they can publish derivative versions, for example.

David Wiley: I'm on the other end of the scale; I obsess about it. There's a two-part - there has to be free and unfettered access to the resource; and I have to have free and perpetual ability to engage in the 5R activities. As a matter of contract, any school we work with, the license says the work we produce has tp be OER.

Lisa: how we define OER is that it isn't a thing, it is a practice; it includes content and curation and quality and rigor and standards and change in teaching practice. When we say we are in the business of OErs it is about free and open access to the world's knowledge. It's in the last few years we've really understood our role as a public library; we're not serving an institution. The other thing about OER Commons is we aggregate all of the licenses into four buckets.

David Harris: we have to be careful as a community because over the next 12-18 months we will see more and more 'openwashing' by major publishers, because OER is establishing a brand identity. And questions about who should be producing it?

Gary: anyone who want to. Who shouldn't?

David Wiley: to Lisa, if the category becomes so broad, it's difficult to know what we're ftalking about. Eg. open pedagogy is different from OER.

Lisa: our open speaker used the work 'ecosystem'. You cna't just have the seed: you need the market, and the water. It has to be inclusive of the whole piece. Otherwise you have ssomething disjointed and not sustainable. Eg. if you have contenbt and nobody uses it, how is it that we have OER? It can't just be about this thing.

David Wiley: but each of the parts of the econsystem has a name, the ecosystem is 'open education'.

Gary: but it does show that just creating them and putting them out there has no value. You have to maintain them, have version control, etc. That's hard.

Q3. What does it mean to say we're giving the seeds away for free, but not the water, etc?

Lisa: well that'\s why we say it's a whole ecosystem. As opposed to the strategy of building this part, then that part, etc. If you build the whole thing at once, that's sustainable.

David Harris: yes, but we thionk we don't have to build the whole ecosystem ourselves. If you are going to build the whole system, you can't have everything free, all the time. You are going to need revenue.

Gary: lets get back to access and equity. Free access doesn't mean anything if you don't get back to the mission, which is to help people succeed. So there need to be measures you can measure to show that you can attain that. We should all be thinking about the mission. We don't have to build it all ourselves. We're all working in different ways, but united in purpose.

David Wiley: it's like the whole approach to OERs in the early days was like we set up a table with seeds, and said, here are free seeds, we've solved world hunger. Then we argued a lot about what the boxes look like, And we're learninging we have to add more support.

David Harris: but we're also learned that equity doesn't mean it always has to be free.

Gary: books are expensive because they're expensive to create. That's not free, and we have to find ways to pay for it, to bring the price down but not scrimp on the value we create.

David Wiley: it would be interesting to see what are all the steps involved in producing high quality materials. It would be interesting what happens when we pull out some of the steps and see whether there is a difference in equity.

David Harris: faculty would demand full evidence. That gets into scale. How many of those conversations could we have?

Gary: I think we can always come back to an economic argument to suppoort it.

Lisa: I think we should have an equivalent of true cost accounting for this.

David Harris: I don't think it will be looking at the efficacy of learning systems. But learning systems are not inexpensive to develop.

What is the impact of an open license on a sustainable business model?

David Wiley: two different ways: open licenses completely enable everything we do, because the licenses create the infracture that supports everything we do. On the other hand, because we have this licensing requirement, then  putting that license in a contract (and being willing to walk away when it's not there) helps us snowball the value we can provide every time we work with somebody.

Gary: David is sport on. But th impact is, any license will limit therange of business models that are possible. So a business model limited by an open license means not restricting usage of the system to people with buying power. And if usage is not so limited, then it opens up other models - by selling services, by selling secondary materials such as advertising, etc. You need to build the business model first, then craft the license.

Lisa: our business model depends on having etachers and institutions, etc., to actually work with on these projects. The license acts as a conduit to make this happen. Because without the license we wouldn't have the users. As nice as it is to have big government initiatives, the majority of people have actually created their own kind of license that meets their needs. That's why we've created this mapping into four buckets. One is a free-for-all, another is a remix-and-share, another is share, and another is read-the-fine-print.

Davoid Harris: i agree, you need a common set of licenses sso you have a common language. Gary's system would create a proliferation of licenses, you meet business needs, but not learning needs. people were concered about CC-by licenses, because you lose control. But these concerns were misplaced. I have seen very little profiteering from it. And on the positive side we have 30 ecosystem partners. It may be called an open license, I call it an innovation license.

Gary: yes, there would be a lot of versions. But the question is, how it impacts sustainability. If there are limited numbers of license, there are limited ways to create sustainability. That's what we're doing. A lot of what we have is CC-by, but other stuff has a different license. This was never going to be a debate. Business modles speak for themselves, they either work or they don't.

David Wiley: on license proliferation, even within Creative Commons, we have some Legos, we have some Duplos, we have some knockoffs that don't fit either. At the end of the day we have some questions about whether the different licenses actually fit. There's a finite amount of time and effort we can undertake to make them fit together.

David Harris: David is correct. If there were mnore standardization around a common license, there would be more activity, more remixing.

Gary: Let's get back to mission. If our mission is to help people learn, we can get stuck in a rut on this. There are many ways to help people.

How do you forsee your business models disrupting existing business models?

David Harris: we've disrupted the higher ed publishing industry in the folloing ways: from day one, all students have access to the learning materials; second, we have lowered costs even when open licenses are not used, because there is a ripple effectof lower costs; and third we are leveling the plaaying field of non-standard  producers. We are breaking barriers down. Forth, OER can be blended now, because of OpenStax materialss - people take small pieces and embed them in online learning envrionments. We are supporters of open data; publishers were previously very closed with their data.

Lisa: aside from the cost, etc., the role of what you teach and how you teach is often determined in a top-down way, especially in K-12, but we are actually empowering teachers to take back control of the professionalism of their own practice; they leave and take the practices back to their classrooms and we get calls from boards saying "what's going on?" Also, in some ways as a field, we went to far too quickly gto try to define what sustainability was.

David Wiley: i don't like to use the 'd' word. I don't think we're there yet. I think in some ways we're starting to be annoying to publishers. But I don't think we've broken open the market yet. Once we take a billion dollars oout of the market then we'll be there. Where there has been some stuff going on is this intuition that 'you get what you pay for' - this is opening up some efficacy reserach conversations. I would cite John Hilton's work is more exhaustive on OERs than all the peer-reviewed work on the efficacy of pearson's work.

Gary: we actually may have crossed over this year, and disruption many have happened. Eg. math product - the system has been adopted by states like Montana, Utaha, Hawaii, nd more. And we've been adopted  by hundreds of schools. So what does Ed-Ready disrupt? It eliminates texts, tuitions and time involved in math remediation. And the efficacy is bringing people from secondary to post-secondary at an unrepcedented rate. And those who are using Ed-Ready are remixing it. In Montana there are some 400 versions of it. And we are really upsetting Pearson.

David Harris: it doesn't take 30-40% market share to impact publihers. 10% works.

Gary: that depends on the market. It is true in the book market, but not the assessment market.

David Wiley: one strategy we've had is not to go after individual courses, but to go aafter entire degree programs. When you can flip the entire degree program, now as a student I can actually budget for it. We've now pulled a third of the cost out of a degree program.

Gary: what we're seeing is not opnly are we displaying high-stakes texts, we're creating pathways. We find ourselves being adopted by a college, and then being adpated by their feeder systems. The uptake by feeders systems has been breathtaking.

Lisa: I love and applaude these efforts, eg., the high stakes test alteratives. But what does it mean to ahve the market. We're still doing ecucation pretty much the way we were. It still costs money. I'm still looking to see what's possible in this market. What does it look like to have the corner store? What does it look like to have the seed exchange? We need a way to see what it could look like the other way.

Gary: we're beginning to see this. We're beginning to see what it looks like when people build things that meet their own needs. We're not just seeing people build more stuff. We're seeing people build stuff that works better. Eg. to supporrt personal learning. We're coming up against some of the real tenets of pub,lic education which is not working.

Closing Statements

Gary: I'm delighted we're analyzing and re-examining our mission. Also, though, we should be looking at how to rebuild the connectedness in the community. Perhaps that's because it seems like we're competing with each other. But we don't see that this is so; we're competing with pearson and the commercial publishers. So I hope this will be the start of a clear commitment to OER and to one another.

Lisa: pne one hand we're not competing in a traditional way, but at the same time I think some of our ideas and how we're going about them might be in conflict with others, but that's still OK, but we suffer from the milquetoast that we're all one big happy family - let's have more disagreement. Some people day "don't put a crack in what we're doing" but i think we should be innovative, have arguments - competition does push us forward.

David Harris. First, please recommend OpenStax to others. Now, there was a Gates report - there is great opportunity for OERs. But our market size is 3-4%. So we are an irritant. There is a debate of whether we focus on supply or demand. But of course we need to do both. Yes we need supply. But just building it is not enough. We need to build the tools. The goal is to get to 10% of the market - if we do, we can win the market. If we work together we can do it.

DavidWiley. So, amen and hallaluja to everything else that has been said. Don't make seeds and put them on the table. Pick a problem and go try to solve that problem. Pick developmental math and go try to solve that problem. Pick something concrete and go fix it. If it's concrete enough you'll know that you've fixed it. Everyone on this panel - we've picked a problem. Who is feeling pain, how can we fix this pain, then we went and solved it.

Closing points:

- over the next year or so, there will be ways to continue this conversation - eg.Creative Commons business model project (Lumen learning - )
- we don't all have to agree on things, it's good to have polite disagreements (Oscar Wilde - "friends stab you in the front")
- applause please

A Lexicon of Sustainability

This is a summary of a talk at the Hewlett Grantees' Meeting, San Francisco, March 25, 2015. Errors (and typos, etc) are my own.

Douglas Gayeton
Lexicon of Sustainability

Our food system is opaque. We asked people to develop a lexicon around food sources

We started with the word 'sustainability'. That is one of the most opaque words. I asked a native hunter - he said he watches what the animals eat; they always leave something behind. I asked a farmer; she said it was about survival. I asked Miguel, who started growing organic food because it was too expensive.

How to tell these stories? Photography is great, but it only captures one image at a time, one moment in time. I looked at a place where he grows fishg in boxes, the waste is used to grow tomatos, and he also grows worms. How do you tell that story in one photo? You can't - I made a compossite after taking thousands of photos.

What if I had him tell me what the word 'vermiculture' means? You can combine the words with the picture and tell a good story.

So we went around the United States and created a lexicon of sustainability. We created a book - the focus groups came back: "Nobody knows what 'lexicon' means."

The power of graphical ideas: thought bombs.Photo composites with words all over them. By making things graphical and textual at the same time you engage people's left brain and right brain at the same time. You create a deconstrucive nattarative. Thing Sherlock Holmes: "all the answers were in this room. We just had to piece them together in the proper order." From a passive learning experience to an active learning experience.

Knowing words - learning what they mean - can change the way entire industries work. A loaf of bread - a list of ingredients - most pof them did not exist 20 years ago. The Bible used to be written in Latin only - that is what an opaque religion looks like. But what if we published the book in the language that we speak?

Eg. rBST is the name of a growth hormone fed to cows. A farmer sold milk without rBST - he was sued by Monsanto (they eventually lost). Or consider - what is the "cage free egg"? What does it mean? I asked the producer what it means. Pasture raised. But nobody knows what that means.

What is the real cost of cheap food? People growing food according to values are competing against an industrial system that has externalized all its costs. The concept of 'true cost accounting' looks at hpw much something really costs. Consider a river - it provides free energy, and can be used to dispose of waste. We always pay when we get things cheap.

The best example when we look at food is the 'cow to pickup truck indes' - the value of a grass-fed cow compared to a truck. How can these compete against an indistrial system? Convincing people of the value of voting with their dollars. There's this idea of organics and eating locally.

There's a movement to have producers say whether food contains GMO organisms. It would force food producers to be transparent. It is opposed by Monsanto and others who benefit from an opaque system. GMOs aren't always bad - eg., a variant of papaya that was resistant to a disease, which was in danger of being wiped out in Hawaii. People talk about GMOs as privatizing seeds, etc - vbut that didn't happen here; he open-sourced the seeds.

Or another term - 'antibiotic free' - 80% of the antibiotics are fed to livestock, and they're not even sick, because they gain weight quickly. So there's going to be a movement to lable antibiotics in meat.

In fisheries, the term 'red snapper' doesn't mean you're getting red snapper. There's always the pressure to give you fish close enough to what you always get (so fish are predictable like tomatos). There's an initiative to tag a fish so you know where and how it was sourced.

The concept of 'identity preserved' gives us a sense of where the food that is grown goes - for example, wheat grown in California that is shipped to Italy to become pasta.

Before the second world war we spent 30 of our money on food. But after the war we applied economies of scale to everything. Everything was centralized. Everything was based simply on price. How do you reverse hat? It's a big challenge.

There's a town called Greensboro that died. They went and asked an old man what ahppened, he didn't know, but he said they they used to be able to get a pie of pie in a pie shop. They re-opened the pie shop, and the town began to grow again. You can't have commerce without food. Peopl are beginning to apply the principle of 'terroir' - the idea that everything has a place - to the food industry (in the shellfish inustry it's 'aguoir').

'Community Supported Agriculture' (CSA) - is where they get a box of food every week that is locally sourced. They are being more connected to their food, who grows it, where it's grown. Or a pie shop in San Francisco set up a CSAA for fish. This used to be commonplace. In Italy they knew to never buy fish on a Monday - wait until Tuesday when it's fresh. This is an example of people being connected to their food.

A regional food hub - people are rebuilding what was dismantled when the industrial food system came in. People in the community selling for many producers. Producers pooling transportation costs cooperatively.

There is the concept of a 'food desert' where there was no food in a 6-square mile range. I wenmt to a local supermarket - no food - just candy, chips, alcohol, etc. Consumers non't know they have other choices. There's a new 'corner store' movement - inserting places to buy local food in these corner stores.

It's a system that is made by people. The average age of a farmer is 57. People are scrambling to educate young farmers. The concept is 'green collar' - they give people land and training, for a period of time (then you have to find your own land). It's a 'farm incubator'.

And there's a 'kitchen incubator'. Setting up people with kitchens, business training, etc. - that's how you reinvent local food systems. Systems that are based on value.

So - what's the verdict? I'm not pessimistic when I see seed swaps. Upswaping, to convert lamnd to farmland. We took this to Mexico - in Mexico 'organic' didn't mean aanything. Every Mexican, though, knows the meaning of GMOs - because corn in their national food. We learned, we need to speak to people in their own language.

We do projects based on protability - PDFs you can distribute. We do puppet shows. We do food conferences. We help with street events. You can go to our website, you can download our resources. We have a website, launching next month, the 'lexicon of food'. All resources open sourced and free. Showing what people farms. Doing projects teaching people about aquaponics. We do 'market makeovers'. We have kids in Mexico making inages to explain their food system.

It's very powerful because it's made by people. It's people-sourced.

What will be your 'Road to Damascus' moment?

Q: what about school lunches?

A. people are confronting that problem. Politicians won't spend more money on school lunches until they see the value in it. Right now that's opaque.

Q. I don't know a lot about food, but what I do know about is beer. What I've seen taking over Virginia is craft breweries, where people grow their own hps, etc. Peo[ple are willing to pay $9-$9 per glass.

A. They say people always centralize industries but that's not true. Another example is the music industry.

Q. Often discussion of open educaation is overely cerebral. But food today is your #1 cool thing. You can convince poeple with photos with food, but in education it's harder.

A. Our projeect is not about food, it's about climate change. People don't identify with climate change. But you take all the ideas that contribute to climate change as clear as possible, so you can't mistake the message overall. The idea of the taxonomy is to pinpoint all the individual ideas of a thing and make them clear.

Q. We are using terms in education that people believe they already know and we are using them in different ways. How did you grab people and help explain the complexities.

A. First we make everything as conversational and without jargon as possible. And second, we say we are not out to make the definitivee lexicon of things. Wiords are shifting and changing. It's our biggest problem with Wikipedia - it doesn't have enough context to show all the contexts a term can be used in.

Q. termss - like taxonomy - can acquire baggage over the years. Eg. GMOs - we read all our foods are genetically modified over time. You see that in education all the time - all the different terms for 21st century skills.

A. We did a show; they kept asking for a list of all the images and we set them. It was only at the last minute we set up the GMO image of papayas. They said "what are you thinking?" There was a lot of opposition. All of these terms should elicit the fact that it's not a fixed idea, it's a dynamic idea.