The future of content: part 3 (beta!)

As part of a Martin driven experiment as explained here we are jointly creating a series of posts about the future of content.

Already there is Part 1, Part 2 and a reply, here is Part 3 and Will Woods is on to do Part 4.

By the way I think it is important to point out that this is a beta release, subject to improvement, change and being taken away and made better by someone else. To be clear about this aim I release this:
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

In this section perhaps it is worth taking a slightly different line to that of Martin and Ray: they have already provided thoughtful sections laying out the collected views and examples for moving towards more freedom of content and some of the potential pitfalls along the way. What I hope to do is take a more personal example and perhaps provide a case study in the middle of this collective essay.

My case study relates to the OpenLearn initiative where the Open University has released material on an open access basis offering free learning resources inside an open access learning environment. Doing this has meant facing all sorts of choices and there are various surprises for me and things to learn from what we have done – not all of these will make this beta release. Instead I want to look at the bigger picture and the hints it gives of a bright future around open educational resources and the freeing up of content.

the times they are a-changin’

Just a couple of years ago I would not have expected the place I work, The Open University, to take the step to make its content available for free. As a researcher it was hard enough to get permission to work with our content in funded projects so to free release seemed very unlikely. But now it has made this step and I feel that is a marker in itself. The OU is an organisation that has invested a lot of money in content, made it valuable as a resource and even got a return by selling the materials on. (And it wasn’t the only one, OU materials can fetch quite a good price on eBay!) Yet the OU has now opened up its content, and for some good reasons. Some of those reasons are complex, but underneath it I think there are two principles one altruistic and one more selfish:

Altruistic reason for open content: there is more value in having the world see this resource than if we store it away or try to sell it

Selfish reason for open content: if we don’t do it someone else will, and then what are we left with

For most cases in the education world it seems to me that the first reason is enough: content has been produced and used and its most likely future is to never be seen again. Then open content can rescue it and share it with the world and maybe give it a new life, or at least let everyone know that it exists. This becomes the “why not” answer to why produce open content and I think that can be a very valid approach, provided we get the barrier low enough. Altruism can also be a very valid reason in itself, OpenLearn’s sister project TESSA (Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa) sets out to help some of the world’s most needy by addressing teacher shortage in Aids damaged African economies. Then the value gained by saying “please take this and use it as you can” is much greater than any possible by retaining hold on the content.

The second reason must pass with time as there is no longer the chance to be first in with open content, at the moment though there is a chance to supply to root content that could be used to spark of collaborations, new versions and indeed attract the eye of those who might fund a worthy cause. Waiting to take part might undermine the way in which an organisation draws value from their stock and indeed how it behaves. Deciding that content itself might not be what you should value could lead to a fresher model of how to work, and help match behaviour to suit the changing times. [At this point I should provide a wonderful analogy in terms of some past industry that changed or failed to change (such as the rat fur traders of old London Town who failed to pay attention to who was getting the blame for the Plague) but I will leave that for the world or your imagination to supply one that is not made up!]

Some sensible actions by lots of people

Creative Commons has been one of those let’s just start to be sensible moments that can make a difference. It has made it (fairly) clear what people who are ok about not making any direct money out of their work can do to release their work for others to use and, if they wish, allow them to build on the work further. When we were starting the OpenLearn initiative how we should describe our licensing of material was seen as a big task; Creative Commons greatly simplified the process as it gave us a position to adopt and we were able to bypass a lot of careful legal work. Creative Commons has no magic formula, probably has a licence with a few flaws in it, but works because a lot of people have agreed to use it and get on with doing what seems right.

Open Source software is another example of joint actions by many that has resulted in good work. [Insert here favourite example of open source product – I will probably use Moodle when I get around to it.] The lessons of open source to open content though need to be carefully applied. Open source has an ideal of incremental development and new versions interating to an improvement. Open content so far has often been released with an existing stamp of source, and part of the reason for using it may come from its provenance: is it too good to be messed around with. I think that this can hold back some but as time passes and the opportunity is more obvious to add in new features, fit content to context or make major changes such as translations a move towards changing versions will be seen.

Wikipedia offers to me a best of the world but also some warning signs that might matter in the future. On the positive side it is a quite amazing collection of articles that I will constantly end up referring to (e.g. today about non-parametric statistics (thanks to Alan Woodley for raising the subject) and the lyrics of Bob Dylan amongst other things). These have been collectively produced with the reward an obscure sort of anonymous fame. However on the negative side the authority of the Wikipedia answer can take over and lead to repeats and mirroring in other explanations. In the Google Knowledge world of looking up what you need Wikipedia is the current leader, but it perhaps supports more the “faking it” approach to knowledge where with an open window to Google you can pretend to know sooo much. The alternative is the support for a thirst for knowledge and “learning” that certainly we would hope that OU/OpenLearn material gives. However at this point our own data leads us in two directions. First – yes we can see that people get deeply involved in our content and give us great and highly positive feedback. But also we can see that people bounce off our content after a quick visit. We are trying at the moment to really understand this better, but it perhaps leads to a split between “information seeking” and “knowledge seeking”. [Just wondered if that was getting on to dangerous grounds of picky word definitions but as Wikipedia has an entry for information seeking decided it is worth leaving in :-)]

looking into the future
Content is not king. Not very many years ago my colleague Robin Mason would use that statement as way to present a radical view. This seems to be becoming the new conventionalism and social actions (nearly wrote socialism but that would not do) are seen as the be all and end all: community is king. Actually while content is not king, it is not nothing. Similarly while community is important it is not everything to everybody. I find myself here having to switch my own arguments from the need to build as little content as possible to one where the content can feed in from all directions. We are in a more connected world and the connections can be social but they can also be independent, what I believe that should not be is unnecessarily protected.

In working on software, putting together proposals or even carrying out research, there are sometimes things that just feel right. Open content and free provision is one of those things. If that “feel” resonates with enough people then for reasons that Martin outlined in the first part free and open will carry over closed and priced. Ray looks for the sustainable models for open content and wonders if we remain a long way from the vision of free and open content that Martin proposes. Looking into the educational world (not as broad as Martin) the question of sustainable models is sufficiently complex that it probably has an answer (can you demonstrate that anything you do has a sustainable model!) and I also think that an open future is close enough as the critical mass need not be very large, the switch that is needed is to not just be producers of open content but also consumers and recognise its value.

I would like to add a warning though that a free and open world is not necessarily entirely Utopian. The confusing impact of Internet economics and global sharing means we need to watch out that we do not lose things we value along the way to openness – for us at the OU it is the great value in our Associate Lecturers (tutors), the great skills in integrate mixed resources together, and the way commented assessment can act to drag people through the sometimes painful process of learning. When it is all for free will learners volunteer themselves to experience that pain. (After all for me this post is part of learning experience with Martin in the role of torturer tutor.)


3 Responses to The future of content: part 3 (beta!)

  1. Martin says:

    Thanks Patrick – I’ve posted a response at my blog
    And what do you mean torturer? I have ways of making you blog.

  2. Ray says:

    I’ve just posted a very short response too, focused on the need for open content as the seed for future learning and content production.
    And since both of you seem to be interested in the subject of torture can I recommend the Balkanization blog at

  3. Pingback: The Future of Content (Part 4) - Version 0.9 « Weblog of Will Woods

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