Sustainability Outside the Box

You pretty much would have to have been living in a cave for the past decade not to have picked up on the sustainability buzz sweeping through sectors from chemical production to health care to broadcast journalism. The Wikipedia entry on “Sustainability” has had almost daily editing activity for the past three years and includes more than 300 (top notch) citations/references. Still, the definition is far from universally understood and far from static.

Ratner (2004) points out that the whole concept may be expressed as statements of fact, intent, or value with sustainability treated as either a “journey” or a “destination.” In terms of media attention and general public awareness, sustainability is primarily an environmental issue. We think of “going green” and carrying cute canvas bags to the super market. But succession planning and resource utilization strategy are just as much part of sustainability as those cute canvas bags.

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“Quality” in Open Education

Training quest 3 has us exploring “ideals of quality” across two of the largest/highest profile open education initiatives.  I hear “quality” and immediately think in terms of comparative worth–excellence along any number of dimensions from durability to fit to taste and texture. While I could easily write a post about OLI’s Modern Biology animations or student argumentation skills in MIT’s Seminar in Ethnography and Fieldwork, discussions of quality as a global characteristic don’t seem particularly fruitful here.

But what if we think instead in terms of the first definition of quality: “an essential or distinctive characteristic, property, or attribute.” Instead of value, then, quality is more about values.

So, what do MIT and OLI value? What do they consider the essential or distinctive characteristics of what they’re trying to do, of who they are as organizations? Continue reading

Openness in the Information Economy

This thought first came up in a keynote at OpenEd 2008…and I didn’t make time to blog it.

Then it came up in David’s New Media, Social Media and Learning course last semester…and I didn’t make time to blog it.

Then it came up in a discussion in Cape Town with Mark Horner about his Siyavula project…and I didn’t make time to blog it.

Yesterday, it came up again…alright, alright, I’ll blog it!

Having come into this sort of second-generation of open education, I’ve heard a lot about sustainability. I’ve heard about the challenges of incentivizing quality content creation within the reward structures of schools and universities…and the headaches of license incompatibility…and the looming funding crisis. But so far, it seems like we’ve been diagnosing and treating an assortment of these micro-issues–symptoms of our larger, deeper sustainability issues–without doing as much to address the root requirements of sustainability.

Whereas traditional commercial ventures are forced to face the sustainability question from their inception, non-profit/NGO/academic ventures start life in a kind of artificial reality–grants and donors (never expecting to be repaid) offer their support based on the theoretical merit of the idea, the reputation of the players, and the warmth points or positive PR they receive in return. Most such projects are never required to articulate a value proposition or hash out their competitive advantage.

What is it, really, that open education offers the educational community with all its idiosyncratic (but very real) economic, social and political pressures that would make it worth the massive outlay of time, talent, resources and–perhaps most significantly–change required to sustain it?

Unless we can answer that question concretely, consistantly, compellingly…and soon, we might not be fretting about license compatibility for long.

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.