Are You a Platypus?

A few thoughts on David Wiley’s ESR conference keynote, in which he described FlatWorld Knowledge as “a bit of a platypus” in the market.

Think about it: A venemous duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed egg-laying mammal really shouldn’t exist. It’s no wonder that the european naturalists who first discovered the thing at first thought it was some kind of elaborate practical joke.

But the platypus does exist, last surviving member of its genus, and the remarkably well-adapted anchor of the Australian wetlands.

The point is this: Many of the most disruptive social innovations of all time have been playpuses–unexpected, even illogical ideas that reasonably shouldn’t exist. Like banks for people with literally nothing to put in them. Or peasant farmers who give eye exams. Or college textbooks you give away for free.

Each of these organizations, and many who will yet change the face of social entrepreneurship have adapted like the platypus–in some ways to better function in their environments (with webbed feet and self-sealing nostrils) and some in ways that help them shape that environment (like the beaver tail, or even the venom.)

One might argue that you have to be a platypus to make in the space.

But this much is sure. Any platypus out there can relate to the classic Ghandi quote that for me was the crux of David’s talk: “First, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Long live the platypus.

State of the Movement…

I’m taking “Introduction to Open Education” from David Wiley this semester. Incidentally, you can too! (love it when people practice what they preach) And I would highly recommend it. Our first “quest” (the course is an erratic spin-off of World of Warcraft) is to research and summarize the history of the Open Ed movement…briefly.

Like almost any revolution, OpenEd began in almost pristine idealism. Again typically, the idea germinated and finally erupted in several tight-knit enclaves almost simultaneously right around the turn of the century (still have trouble getting that term not to conjure up images like this). Wiley obsessed about reuse and learning objects and drafted his own open license. Downes evangelized connectivity and information access as a basic right. Creative Commons plotted mass expansion of remixable resources from audio to images to law briefs and drafted their own set of licenses. And MIT sent spasms of shock and awe through the higher education world when it announced plans to make all lecture notes, syllabi and course materials free and open to the public. Meanwhile, the giants of the Free and Open Software movement looked on with that wistful mixture of love and pity that only a group 10 years further down the road could understand.

Things have since gotten a bit messier. I’m not suggesting anything like the Reign of Terror at MIT or slaughtered innnocents at Rice’s Connexions hub, but (perhaps significantly in the twilight of multi-million dollar funding grants from giants like Hewlett and Gates) Open Education seems to have moved past the riot in the streets; “death to copyright–free education for all!” and on to the hunkered-down, brutal-facts strategizing, consolidating, and compromising that we all hope will move these rabble-rousing edupunks sustainably into the mainstream.

Today, nearly everyone seems to agree that sustainability is the issue–then again, nearly everyone today seems to agree that’s the issue. But whether they’re talking about incentive and reward structures for content creation, the current license compatibility issues that keep real content remixing part of the sales pitch rather than the lived experience, or the dark question haunting the server banks from Palo Alto to Houston to Logan–“will this thing survive once the funding dries up?”–the main voices in the arena seem to be doing a little less talking past each other.

So, while we are likely years if not decades away from the complete expulsion of copyright and other vestiges of colonial closed-ness, and there are still some minefields to be navigated, I’d say the open education rebels have won some signficant battles and at least educational content is well on its way to revolution.