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TED talks – Baraniuk on open source

Richard Baraniuk

Listened to a TED talk by Richard Baraniuk (Rice University and founder of Connexions, a platform for open source educational material)

Baraniuk critiques the process of publishing educational materials and suggests a change in practice. He uses an analogy to the music industry as a way of understanding flaws in the current model for educational  publishing and a framework for thinking about a new model. Baraniuk states this aim

‘so want I want to talk about today, is trying to take these ideas, right, that we’ve seen in the musical culture and try to bring these towards reinventing the way we think about writing books, using them , and teaching from them’

A model for open source educational publishing

The music industry model and it’s utility as an analogue to educational publishing can be summarised by the ways content can be created and reused. Specifically the ability to;

  • Create – access to authoring and publication
    • an open source model remove barriers to publication
    • ‘anyone can contribute anything’
  • Rip – copying and reusing material
    • for example, translating educational texts into another language
  • Mix – combining existing material in new ways
    • allows the creation of customised text books based on open source content
    • integrate interactive material to venture beyond traditional model for textbooks
  • Burn – the physical publishing process
    • publish on demand allows for much cheaper physical instantiations of texts by cutting out the middle man
    • the concept of ‘edition’ loses meaning as content is continuously updated

Limitations to the model are discussed specifically technological, legal and quality control concerns. I am more concerned with how our society will react rather than the technical enablers such as XML and as such will limit my response to these domains.

Intellectual property

The issues related to IP in this model are summed up well by Baraniuk;

This is where I told a big lie … because, in fact, I got up here and I talked about how great the music culture is. We can share, rip, mix and burn, but in fact, that’s all illegal. … We would be accused as pirates for doing that.

To enable open source publishing, Baraniuk calls for a IP framework that makes sharing safe and easily understandable, taking inspiration from successful open source software project such as linux.

Creative Commons licences are sited as the solution as they provide a ‘no-nonsense, human readable document, a deed, that tells you exactly what you can do with this content‘. Such licenses allow a legal framework  for distribution, duplication and derivative works, that is ripping and mixing, providing that the original author is attributed. Baraniuk suggests that this legal framework is appropriate for academic and educational publishing on the basis that the motivation of the author is usually to share knowledge and make an impact, as opposed to financial gain.

Quality Control

The statement that ‘anyone can contribute anything’ is hugely powerful and as such, demands great responsibility (Uncle Ben or FDR?).

Baraniuk recounts the story of Kitty Jones, a private music teacher who,

wanted to share her fantastic music content with the world, on how to teach kids how to play music. her material is now used over 600,000 times per month…  …in fact, a lot of this use is coming from United States K through 12 schools because… …as schools scale back, the first thing that’s cut is the music curriculum.

It is reasonable to ask about the author. Who is she, what are her credentials and qualifications? Further, what review process has this work been subjected to? Should our society be satisfied with potential non-experts being invited into our children’s education? Is this pedagogicaly sound?

Baraniuk and Connexions have attempted to address the issues surrounding quality control through implementing social software enabling peer review. Is this enough?

The accompanying powerpoint presentation asks the questions: What is quality? Who decides? Who is the expert?

The social dimension.

Mixing may prove to be one of the most powerful ascpects of open source textbooks. Baraniuk explores the idea of building customised courses supported by equally customised textbooks, mixed from freely available open source content. This will allow us to venture beyond the traditional model for textbooks and include highly interactive applets and siumlations such that textbooks can support learning through exploration.

There’s a social aspect here too.

‘Just providing free content to people has actually been likened by people in the developing world, to a kind of cultural imperialism. That if you don’t empower people with the ability to re-contextualize the material, translate it into their own language, and take ownership of it, it’s not good’.

This plays into the questions of equity, but further, suggests a model for actualising the concept that human knowledge belongs to all humans.

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