Scott Leslie has a good post up ruminating on the moving target of open textbooks which reminded me that I have long intended to write a follow-up to an exchange that he, I, and Rob Abel had in the comments section of a post a I wrote a while back. Scott lamented that the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges was releasing its open course content in IMS Common Cartridge format, which seemed to him to be not so easily accessible or universally usable as one might like. I wrote in response,
Fundamentally, I don’t believe in cartridges. I don’t believe in forking a copy of a digital resource and stuffing it into another system. It’s bad for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to the implementation challenges that Scott ran into with Moodle (although it’s fair to say that some LMSs handle CC import better than others). Common Cartridge made more sense 5 or 10 years ago, but it’s late to the game and is ultimately destined to be eclipsed by in-place APIs, including but not limited to IMS LTI. (By the way, I’m not so sure it’s such a good idea to let Google own our integration API either.)
Unsurprisingly, Rob Abel, as CEO of the IMS, took issue:
If there is agreement that CC helps with the issue of content in an LMS then, well in your scenario the content is inside the publisher “LMS” (or equivalent).
Can I tailor it? Can I put things in there – like a syllabus – and get it out? If I’m the student and I create something in there can I get it out? Can I mix and match with other publisher materials? Can I archive that mixing for next term? Can I share what I did with my faculty peers who might want to learn from it? Can I create assessments in there and then use them somewhere else or just put them somewhere so that I can use them in the future?
Common Cartridge – or something like it – helps solve those issues. Fits right into the topic of openness. But, most importantly, in the digital education age we need to make digital education easy for the faculty and the students. Otherwise there won’t be a digital education age
Perhaps a mixture of OER and publisher proprietary stuff might be a solution. IMHO, some stuff needs to be tailored, remixed, moved in, and moved out. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a publisher platform or an LMS. Faculty want their stuff. Students want their stuff. Publishers need to help them, not thwart them.
I said that the binary choice Rob was offering up wasn't the right one and promised to elaborate in a future post. Here, at last, is that response.
Let me start by reviewing an argument that I have made here before, which is that there should only ever be one copy of a learning resource except under very limited and specific circumstances. In this era of iframes, you can embed content pretty much wherever you want. By keeping the single canonical copy at one URL and surfacing it where it is needed (as opposed to copying it), you both maintain access to the most updated version from the authoritative source and preserve the ability to do in-depth usage and learning analytics. Who is using this content to learn what in which contexts? If you have a thousand copies of the same resource floating around, you can't effectively aggregate this data (especially if you don't know whether or how the content has been altered in those copies). There are only two circumstances under which it makes sense to make a second copy of a web-based learning resource: (1) you want to cache it locally for access in offline or bandwidth-constrained environments, or (2) you deliberately intend to fork the content and create a new version of it. And the first case should be addressed as a caching problem rather than a copying problem.
We have a number of formats today that are designed to take web-based resources and organize them for a particular type of consumption. Common Cartridge is one such format. It provides the content wrapped in metadata so the LMS knows where to put it. EPUB and the .ibooks derivative are other examples; they pull together disparate web-native resources into a book-like sequence and user experience. That's fine. I have no problem with it. My problem is when those resources are copied and stored locally for no good reason. If you want to use one of these formats as a metadata wrapper to surface the remotely stored content within a context and user experience that makes it most useful, then yay. Use iframes or some similar technology and wrap them in the metadata you need. But don't make local copies of the resources unless you have good reason to do so.
I would argue that efforts like the one by Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges should make the OER content available in canonical copies on their servers as plain old web pages and then provide cartridges that include pointers to those copies. Since one of the values of OERs is being able to remix, then maybe Common Cartridge should be extended to include an option to pull down the remote resource for local editing, constrained by the particular machine-readable license of that remote content. (I actually have an idea that would allow remixing but still maintain the "chain of custody" to the original resource for the purpose of learning analytics, but that's another post for another time.) But the decision to download should be a deliberate one, not a default one, and all resources should be available on the naked web and not locked up by default in some metadata container that you have to crack open if you want access to the content.