I’m sitting in my hotel room near LAX early in the morning and I have a little time between the legs of my trip to reflect on the amazing experience I just had at The OPEN Forum. I must say, Thanos Partners did a superb job of organizing a fun, fascinating, and frictionless conference. (And the food. OMG.) I expect to write a number of posts reflecting on different facets that were covered during the forum, but this first one will mainly be a brain dump to capture a bunch of raw observations before they have a chance to fly out of my head.
First, a little background on the forum. It turns out that the thinking behind this gathering is remarkably similar to the philosophy informing the EDUCAUSE Openness Constituent Group—i.e., that we accrue substantial benefits when we think about open source, open educational resources, open textbooks, open scholarly publishing, etc., under the same banner. We can identify common best practices and, in some cases, get economies of scale by working several of these problems at once. While there is some danger of getting lost in abstractions or of glossing over the differences between the various flavors of openness, I am persuaded that this is a sound approach on balance. (Patrick Masson and Ken Udas, you were sorely missed.)
That pretty much exhausts the coherence that I can muster at this early hour. Now, some disjointed observations in random order:
- We don’t have the language to talk about openness yet: If you believe in openness as a broad principle, then you believe that process determines product. John Seeley Brown drew the connection between openness and distributed cognition (or social connectionism, if you lean that way). Moodle, Sakai, uPortal, Oracle Database, Microsoft Sharepoint, and for that matter, the Chevrolet Volt and quantum theory are all second order effects of the network of people that produced them. But we don’t have vocabulary to describe those networks, so we are reduced to pointing to examples of their success. We need new discourse models.
- Higher education needs to have more detailed and frank conversation with their vendor ecosystems about business models: Across a wide range of domains, educational institutions are paying more and more money yet seeing diminishing returns. There is a growing but still inchoate sense within the community that moving to open models could change the equation. But the dots need to be connected. There is a temptation to blame capitalism and assume going to openness will magically cause the problems to go away. But that’s like blaming your hammer for being ineffective at turning screws. Furthermore, you don’t get rid of markets simply by going open. You may shift some of the exchange from currency to barter, and you may change the balance of power among the participants, but the market is still there. The problem for education is not that the market exists. It’s that the market isn’t efficient. We can’t solve that problem without having schools and vendors work together.
- We have an opportunity to Obama this: Our President-Elect has a talent for seeing the deeper interrelations among seemingly disperate problems and get some synergistic solutions going. Green infrastructure building can be an economic stimulus. They key to getting at al Qaida in Pakistan is to broker peace in Kashmir. Likewise, (for example) building out infrastructure for open education resources also gives us a leg up on open scholarly publishing. Brad Wheeler has a very good map of this landscape.
- David Wiley and Vijay Kumar are my new heroes: I am not an edupunk. That is not a value judgment; it is simply an observation about my personal style when it comes to fomenting revolution. There are many good edupunks in the blogosphere (and elsewhere) who I respect but could never emulate. David and Vijay are different. One the one hand, they are fiercely and relentlessly idealistic. They do not settle for a world that is merely somewhat better. But on the other hand, they have managed to crawl deep into the belly of the machine and begin taking it apart from the inside out. They are equally comfortable, gracious, and fluent whether they are talking to a middle school teacher or a head of state. That is the kind of person I want to be when I grow up.
- I need to take OER more seriously: I have tended to ignore a lot of the discussion around open educational resources, for a couple of reasons. First, some of the popular articulations of what it is and what it can do come across as naive, and that has turned me off. Second, getting OER to really take off requires solving some hard problems that will take a while to fix, and I tend to be attracted to problems that have 3- to 5-year solution horizons as opposed to 8- to 10-year ones. But I am now persuaded that OERs are too important to ignore.
- Open textbooks are a no-brainer: This is not, by the way, a sounding of the death knell for textbook publishers. Not by a long shot. But really, current business model for textbook publishing is badly broken and everybody knows it. We do not need to have students pay three million dollars for the 973rd edition of linear algebra, different from the 972nd edition only in that it has a cool new picture on the cover. Textbook publishers have lots of good people with good skills. They can ride the wave of creative destruction and new ways to add value. The current ecosystem isn’t particularly good for them either. We need a new contract (social and otherwise). For more good stuff on this, check out PIRG’s Make Textbooks Affordable campaign.
- The scholarly publishing market is unbelievably fracked: I mean, gosh.
- I know what great new invention is going to revolutionize scholarly publishing: It’s the printing press. Seriously. It turns out that one of the biggest challenges is maintaining an enduring record in a format that you can be confident will be readable more than 10 years in the future. There is just no beating low-acid paper for that. But we don’t want to give up all those wonderful economies that come with digital publishing. The answer? Low-cost print on demand machines, like Espresso.
- Somebody actually has good data on LMS market share (and a bunch of other important stuff): The Campus Computing Project. Why didn’t I know this?
- Free software may not be free as in beer, but it can be cheap (as in beer?): I think there is a tendency to fight the last war and cede the ground of cost savings in anticipation of the argument that license fees are only one part of the total cost of ownership. Fair enough. But the thing is, license fees are one part of total cost of ownership. Open source isn’t inherently cheaper from a TCO perspective, but a mature open source product has a head start toward TCO that can be decisive in some cases. Also, many early adopters in the United States and other relatively rich countries end up spending more money on their open source installations because…well…they can. If they need the system to work differently, or to integrate with another system, they may have to work hard to find a pocket of money they can allocate, but these early adopters tend to be leaders who are resourceful at finding those pockets. And the money is usually there for the resourceful to find even at the relatively poorer institutions. But in Third World nations, adoptees often take what’s free without modification because if they didn’t they would have nothing at all. There are no pockets of money to be found. Would you rather eat at McDonalds or not eat at all?
- Twitter is a better live blogging tool than WordPress: I have never been able to get myself to live-blog a conference, but I was able to…uh…tweet large portions of this one. (I hate that word, but I don’t have a better one.) For a…tweet stream (ugh!) of the event, see here.
- It is important to agree on a (short!) Twitter hashtag before the conference starts: Once again, I bow to my Twitter guru, Nate Angell.
- Twitter needs the equivalent of unix “pipe”: Normally, the stuff I Twitter may be of interest to my friends on Facebook but isn’t appropriate for my work-focused blog. When I’m live tweeting (damn!!), the opposite is true. I want to be able to route to particular consuming applications (at least in cases of the ones that I “own”) from my Twitter client.
I’m going to stop now.