Sunday, April 01, 2007

Open Education, Media and Electracy

Just back from a great conference at Rice University, in Houston, sponsored by Connexions and the Hewlett Foundation. The conference was on Open Educational Resources – which I must admit gets my vote for worst name for an important concept since Net Neutrality. Open Educational Resources (OER) essentially means what it says, even though it doesn’t say it memorably - to make resources available for free for educational purposes. It’s more than that. In fact, it’s a movement with global participants, and it’s something which filmmakers and those working with them (foundations, organizations, etc) should know and think more about.

A recent analysis of the OER Movement (pdf) defines OER as:

…teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use or re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.

The best way to think about OER is to imagine a hypothetical “student.” Imagine, for example, a college-aged teen in Guatemala (or Kansas, it doesn’t matter) who can’t afford to attend MIT, but who could go online to the MIT Open Courseware site (perhaps via cellphone) and have access to the same materials on engineering that an MIT student has access to – the syllabus, the readings, the videos shown in class, a videotape and/or podcast of the entire semester’s lectures, the notes of students in the class and even the emails or online comments back and forth between students and faculty. Imagine still further that the Guatemalan student could also easily link to works referenced in the course, and have access to those for free as well. For example, the student could be watching a video of a lecture given by MIT faculty on the mathematical principles behind bridge construction practices. When the professor shows a clip from a PBS documentary on the subject, the student could watch not just that clip, but could opt to watch the entire film. When someone in the film references a study done by scholars in London, the student could hyperlink to that study, and access it online, for free, immediately and in a format that allowed the student to easily reference the study in her future scholarship.

I could go on with this example, but I think it’s easy to imagine the possibilities – which, by the way, aren’t new, but have been inherent in the nature of the internet and hypertextuality for years, but are now called web 2 or 3.0. The possibilities for further study by this student are immense. The possibilities for education outside the system, the possibility that this student may never attend a university but could be educated and perhaps make change in her society are immense and real. The underlying idea – that anyone anywhere could (should) have access to the same educational resources as anyone else, that education should be open to all – is powerful. In fact, I believe it is more than powerful, I think it’s a natural belief – i.e., one that resonates as “correct and incontrovertible” by all but the most hard-hearted. The possibilities for our world are staggering – that anyone, anywhere, even the poorest among us, could have access to the same knowledge that anyone else, even the richest, have access to and use it to become educated. I don’t think I need to elaborate much, but the same study on OER that I mentioned references astounding figures given by Sir John Daniels, currently President and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning in Canada, and formerly Vice-chancellor of the Open University, UK.

  • Half of the world’s population is under twenty years old.
  • Today, there are over thirty million people who are fully qualified to enter a university, but there is no place available.
  • This number will grow to over 100 million during the next decade.
  • To meet the staggering global demand for advanced education, a major university needs to be created every week.
  • In most of the world, higher education is mired in a crisis of access, cost, and flexibility. The dominant forms of higher education in developed nations—campus based, high cost, limited use of technology—seem ill-suited to address global education needs of the billions of young people who will require it in the decades ahead.

The possibilities of OER to address this situation are limitless, except by the bounds of our imagination. Unfortunately, our legal systems, our educational practices and our societal norms are more confining than our imaginations.

Imagine again the hypothetical student above. While the MIT Open Courseware site exists, not all that is put forth could probably be done now. There are potential copyright concerns, privacy concerns, financial concerns – policy concerns that are real, and which undermine a truly open system. Further, there are the concerns of academic journal publishers, professors, not to mention university presidents about how to get paid for this stuff. Further still, are the concerns of parents wondering why they should pay Harvard prices if all the info is available free online (of course, that’s not the same as a Harvard education). There are economic, political and even technical problems, but it doesn’t take much imagination to envision a world where these could be addressed and worked out. But, the concerns are real, and at times just as staggering as the possibilities.

All of these concerns, and more, are being thought about and addressed by many people around the globe, people who share the belief that OER is a good goal, but who know it won’t be easy. Copyright concerns, for example, can be partially addressed by Creative Commons licenses and the new Creative Commons Learn project. They can also be addressed, at times, by Fair Use. But, that won’t solve everything. They can be addressed in conferences like the one I attended, in academic circles, in governing bodies like WIPO, in federal, state and local governments, and - more practically – by those of us producing knowledge for others, by thinking about how our cultural production meshes with the concepts of OER.

How could OER affect a filmmaker, for example? It means at least that we need new economic models so that filmmakers could be compensated for their work, yet the work could be accessible under OER frameworks. It means that educational distribution will change dramatically. It means that filmmakers will have to think quite differently about their films – perhaps people only need parts of your film for their education, and you may have to think not just about different versions, but also about people literally snipping clips that are relevant to their class, and then a student perhaps “visually quoting” a clip of that clip from your film in their thesis - which will no longer be a paper, but instead a hyper-linked website that might compare your film clip with someone else’s, and perhaps not in the context you intended.

This may all seem a bit much – something that can be ignored until you have to think about it, or perhaps irrelevant to you – you don’t make educational films. But, I would argue that these changes affect all visual media, and that as our world becomes more visually based, so will our education. In fact, Greg Ulmer argues that we are moving from orality to literacy to electracy. Ulmer describes electracy as electronic enabled thought, processes, writing, storytelling, business practices - all based on electronic, visual, motion media communication. The media arts then are not just the visual heritage of our society, but are also crucial to our future development as a culture. If he’s right, which I think he is, then your fiction, non-educational film, may become perfect material for someone else’s educational use, and these concerns will affect you. If he’s right, then we need to think about a system that enables electracy, but also enables media artists to make a living while contributing to our culture.

I’m not advocating that any filmmaker get too ensconced in OER theory and practice, but if you make films because you think that art can contribute to the world, and possibly change it, then perhaps you should think a little about the concepts behind OER. As I said, this is a global movement, and while you haven’t heard much about it yet, you will hear more soon. I do think that organizations like the one I run, and many others, should be part of this conversation – there’s a lot of work to be done, and lots to think about. When people are debating new models, we should be advocating for systems that take into account the needs and concerns of media artists. When visual media is so central to these new developments, we should be making sure that our best practices remain central to the debate. Too, we have much to contribute – we can tell stories, make visual representations of these concepts and arguably create the most important potential OER materials – visual, motion-based media.

OER, like its unwieldy name (an even worse one is being proposed - Open Participatory Learning Infrastructure or OPLI), is a little concept that gets bigger the more you think about its implications. I’ll be thinking about what it means for the field of media arts for more than a little while, and will probably have more on this topic soon.

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