Some Musings On Barriers to Remix

There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?

Mike Caulfield penned a quite brilliant post titled Simon’s Watchmakers and the Future of Courseware. This response was partly inspired by David Wiley’s post OER: Some Questions and Answers which was partly inspired by an op-ed by Pearson. Note that these are arguably all required readings before really taking in what I’m about to attempt to lay out. But this is one of those reminders on what is fun about the distributed nature of the web. Caulfield uses the story of Tempus and Hora to illustrate how the Pearson can talk about their high value of what Caulfield refers to as “end-to-end” production of textbooks:

Rather than being an aggregation of sub-assemblies, it’s an end to end treatment of a subject meant to be tightly coupled to a course sequence.

But us common folk can leverage our own technology to subvert this model and add our own thoughts. In some ways, this ability to respond and build is a “sub-assembly” of the value/complexity that exists within “open.” And the nature in which it has been assembled couldn’t be a closer mirror to how the different camps work. One can only imagine that Curtiss Barnes, Managing Director, Global Product Management and Design, at Pearson and the author of the Pearson op-ed, wrote and ran the piece by a number of internal stakeholders who added input to how to best deliver the message; only to publish purchase sponsored content space on the very passionate space Education Dive. No, really, they’re really passionate about education. Their parent company, Industry Dive, is also passionate about eleven vertical markets (BioPharma, IT strategy, Construction, Food, Retail, Utility, Waste, etc etc). Oh, I see. Well then.

Others like David and Mike have independently crafted pieces of thought from their respective vantage points. And that’s fantastic. This is how the field(s) has been able to further itself. In plain sight as an aggregation of sub-assemblies.

As Mike notes, David’s piece blurs the lines of post and essay. Mike’s own piece is riddled with stories matching his nature of knowing much about a lot of things. My thoughts are a lot less formed and will more than likely take the shape of “thinking out loud” and will likely come to a lack of conclusion or, better, a stab at my utopia. In fact, I’ll probably note things like this “will more than likely take the shape of ‘thinking out loud.'” Oh good. I’m on the right track.

Rolin Moe and I have been chatting for about a year about the complexities of “open” with a particular attention to audiovisual resources (spoiler alert: we argue that licenses do very little for this more complex medium). Mike has helped us think through some of our ideas via Twitter.

This culminated in a presentation at OLC Innovate last week which, as I’ve noted, was a bit of struggle for me (again–we’re still forming over here). So here’s a quick attempt to look at some of the biggest issues I’m currently seeing that are affecting OER, open, and, perhaps more broadly, sharing in general.

Technology has fundamentally shifted away from ownership to access.

What resonated to me from Mike’s piece above everything else was his recognition of a clash between usefulness and remixability. Resources that tend to be universally useful (PDF) tend to not be remixable. Resources that tend to remixable (let’s say open source code) tend to only be accessible by a privileged few who understand how to unlock the technology into a matter that is actually tweakable.

This privilege gets smaller and smaller as technologies do not sell goods per say, but rather the opportunity to rent goods. You don’t own the source file of your iPhone app for instance. Rather Apple tells us that the apps “are licensed, not sold, to You.” The same is for Netflix and videos, Amazon and books, etc. Your purchase is more like a perpetual entrance to the show that will last until the cast is tired of performing for you or because it’s no longer economically feasible or because it’s bought out or whatever.

This idea of the “subscription economy” as described by Tien Tzuo is to maximize “flexibility” on the end of the customer. One could change from short term to long term to pay-as-you-go price models.

But flexibility, in this sense, is not flexible in the sense of open (which makes sense since the idea is rooted in economic rather than technological terms). The problem is ownership (or rather access to source materials) is fundamental to remixability. One needs to be able to access the raw data–be it simply text, code, footage, etc.

My fear is that, as general markets becomes more accustom to renting rather than purchasing access to data, remixable pieces of media will become harder to find as it will continue to be de-prioritized within the development cycle. Instead, we will just continue to cross our little fingers that cloud services continue to maintain 99.9% uptime and websites will continue to link to/sell us access to the resources we wish to see–only to create a larger gap between those who want access and those who are granted it.

To me, remixability is much more than making sure we have access to change text. It’s also a rallying cry for maintaining a specific type of development that prioritizes individual agency.

Sharing of source files has been demonized.

This next thought probably reflects a little bit more issues in America and I would appreciate anyone who could bring a more international perspective.

The court cases of the early 21st century around peer-to-peer sharing of illegal files (specifically Napster) and further cases around hosting/streaming files (Pirate Bay, BitTorrent, Megaupload) demonized the whole notion of sharing across the web. As the United States Copyright Office and U.S. courts opted to take the side of big industry instead of the individual user (they literally refer to it as “file sharing piracy“), I’ll make the assumption that the public has began to assume that it is best to not share materials broadly. This has led to a broader confusion copyright law, what we call “fair use” within higher education, and what models exist for working and sharing within the laws of copyright (such as Creative Commons). It’s worth adding an extra emphasis that I’m not publicly advocating that the sharing of illegal materials is good. I’m merely surmising that the media coverage around such acts has had a net negative on sharing of anything digital in general.

It makes me wonder what a subscription service to OER textbooks would like. Before you balk at the idea, hear me about for a bit. Consumers feel that the ability to make a secure transaction makes the purchase of goods legal. I assume that there’s some market of consumers that would pay a company to assure the textbook they are using has been vetted by some governing body plus hosting services. So there’s a free business idea.

Remix literacy needs to be prioritized

There is a long documented history of remix. One famous story is how 200+ alternative versions of Alice in Wonderland where published within twenty years of it’s release. Some of these publications were the first for many children’s book authors and were used to express everything from support for women’s suffrage to opposition to socialism. Carolyn Sigler’s book Alternative Alices: Visions and Revisions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Books argues that this appropriation is one of the reason’s it’s one of the most often quoted works in history.

Being a media guy, I frequently come back to Henry Jenkins’ ideas on media literacy. In his 2009 book Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, Jenkins’ laid out the “skills” essential to students in the new media landscape:

  • Play: The capacity to experiment with the surroundings as a form of problem solving.
  • Performance: The ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery.
  • Simulation: The ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real world processes.
  • Appropriation: The ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content.
  • Multitasking: The ability to scan the environment and shift focus onto salient details.
  • Distributed Cognition: The ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities.
  • Collective Intelligence: The ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal.
  • Judgement: The ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources.
  • Transmedia Navigation: The ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities.
  • Networking: The ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information.
  • Negotiation: The ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms

Jenkins uses the above story of Alice in Wonderland to illustrate this idea of appropriation:

So, we are making two seemingly contradictory claims here: first, that the digital era has refocused our attention on the expressive potential of borrowing and remixing, expanding who gets to be an author and what counts as authorship, but second, that this new model of authorship is not that radical when read against a larger backdrop of human history, though it flies in the face of some of the most persistent myths about creative genius and intellectual property that have held sway since the Romantic era. Both ideas are important to communicate to students. We need to help them to understand the growing centrality of remix practices to our contemporary conception of creative expression, and we need to help them to un- derstand how modern remix relates to much older models of authorship.

Appropriation, specifically the remixing kind, has found its way into youth culture and higher education through literary courses as Jenkins would argue, but I’m not certain it’s finding it’s way into the core of academia. We still think within the means of original author, citation, or possibly hyperlinks if we are looking in the digital realm. For instance, I’m linking to what Caulfield and Wiley and others have said rather than building on top of it. This would likely change if I was working within a collaborative technology such as a Google doc or Github repository or wiki.

What if someone built a forkable blog?! But, seriously, no one is thinking better than this one than Caulfield right now with Federated Wiki/Wikity. I said this a couple of months ago:

As a society, we’re a bit stuck. Some (see Indie Ed Tech) have a desire to own data and build on their own technologies, but building a deep literacy on how to do so is awfully difficult. The open pedagogical ethos that compliments Indie is really good for sharing ideas (possibly moreso than assets). In the opposing corner, industry wants to lock everyone in to economic models which do the opposite–making it easy to access data but have zero ownership of it. This model is possibly better for sharing assets but little on the idea side.

If we are really are interested in sharing of both assets and ideas (<<do these words incapsulate OER and open pedagogy?) in a free and open matter, I’m curious to what extent we should break the traditional model of single owner > cite and begin to work in models built within a more socially constructed medium.

Oh it looks like I went the utopia route. Good for me.