Open

Spent part of Wednesday at a gathering of folks who are into open content and open source.   You could even say it’s the folks who have a monopoly on open right now…Anyway, really interesting conversations and learned a lot more than I new about the issue.  I’m left with a couple of questions though.  

First, in the wake of the rescue of the NY Times reporter in Afghanistan and the resulting death of a British soldier and a translator, Atlantic editor James Bennet observed that if information so wants to be free then why does it cost so much?  It’s a serious point on a few levels with some macro implications.   At one level, if open source displaces newspapers and traditional media outlets here it could inhibit rather than help the flow of information.   All the tweets from Tehran were nice but the actual reporting ultimately told the story.  So while I’m excited about what open-source can bring we should also be pretty careful about what’s getting torn down in the process.  There is a parallel in K-12 publishing although I don’t think the big publishers are at any risk of going the way some newspapers are.

The risk here is quality.   There is something to be said for a formal editorial process in news-reporting and in education publishing and media.   I’m not one of those who thinks that all things open-source are unreliable, but open media and education applications seem particularly prone to content quality problems.   It’s easy to think of examples of free content in our space now that is more than a little unreliable on issues that it takes a trained eye to discern.  Given the absence of a common core in education around which to focus and validate work and the lack of expertise in many places, that problem seems all the more acute.

Before we even get to that point, however, there seems to be a clash brewing between traditional vested content (publisher) interests in education and the ethos and process of open-source.  At one level, that’s a problem for all the obvious reasons.  But at another it’s an opportunity because the hybrid model here of more professionally developed cores with wraparound open-source generated content seems the most promising.   That’s what Wireless Generation pulled off in Florida.  Doesn’t mean there is not going to be some turf realignment, only that it’s nowhere near zero sum.

That also raises the issue of economics, which is related to quality, because it’s unclear what the sustainable model is here that ensures quality and access.  The big costs in textbook development, at least initially, are development rather than distribution.  There is a reason for that.

Finally, until you really delve into it it’s still hard to understand what a lot of the open movement is talking about and a lot of the thinking around it and that’s going to be a barrier, especially given how fundamentally conservative and risk-averse K-12 education is.  To lay ears a lot of this will sound risky and that doesn’t help the politics of the open-sourcers at all — especially in the coming state debates about this.

All that said, there is obviously a lot of promise here.  More dynamic content, more tailored applications for teachers, and more access to high-quality content are all powerful levers.   Be open to open but be realistic, too.

More from Goldstein on an aspect of this here.

Update: Send more Kool-Aid, stat! ES’ Bill Tucker adds his thoughts here and NASBE’s (and fish porn veteranDoug Levin does below.  Bill thinks the charter school example might assuage my concerns.  If that’s the model then I’m even more worried!  They both argue that open is a way past the dysfunction of the textbook process and market today. You’ll find few who don’t agree that the current approach to textbooks (and adoption/procurement of them) is a disaster in a variety of respects.  But that’s obvious and it’s a long way from there to a workable model for quality and sustainability. At this point we’re largely being asked to take on the faith that this will certainly be better and sustainable. I think we’re all saying mostly the same thing in terms of the hybrid model that’s likely to come out the other side of this but I’ll stand on my last point even though it apparently lacked sufficient enthusiasm: “There is obviously a lot of promise here. More dynamic content, more tailored applications for teachers, and more access to high-quality content are all powerful levers. Be open to open but be realistic, too.”

3 thoughts on “Open

  1. Doug Levin

    The internet has or is in the process of fundamentally redefining all of the industries based on a scarcity of content: music, video, print, etc. This is a disruptive process and one that has happened and is continuing to happen very quickly – changing business models, reshuffling the dominant players in the market, and introducing many, many new innovators and ideas. As you gnash your teeth about the good old days and worry for today’s dominant players (which have heavily consolidated), it is also important to understand that such change has happened because real benefits accrue and to far more people (like to all of your readers who have benefited from your insights and thoughts via this blog over the years…even if they don’t subscribe to the publications for which you write).

    With regard to quality, I think you’re making a few unfounded assumptions with which I’d quibble.

    First, I would love to see evidence that links cost to academic quality and student outcomes in traditional instructional materials. In fact, lots have pointed out some of the problems with the current processes: Fordham, Edutopia, SIIA, etc.

    I’d also love to see evidence on the availability/accessibility and use of instructional materials today. Last I saw from MetLife Foundation was that over a quarter of urban secondary schools didn’t have enough textbooks and the system in place to serve special populations, like students with disabilities, is nothing short of a disaster and national disgrace.

    And, with state budgets hurting, we are seeing adoption cycles (which lock content approved for use in schools for six or more years) lengthen. (Check your kids’ science textbook to see how many planets are in the solar system.) This is an area ripe for reform: adoption processes, repositories, textbook caravans (!?!), etc.

    We spend nearly $9 billion a year on textbooks and other instructional materials in schools; don’t we need a more nimble system, better aligned to standards and assessments, better able to be customized for use with all kids? Couldn’t we save money by sharing the development costs via open copyright licenses? Don’t public officials have the obligation to taxpayers to do so?

    I’d assert that (1) the paradigm of the printed textbook as the dominant form of instructional materials isn’t serving kids, especially at risk kids, and (2) the current highly-regulated marketplace we have today could be changed to allow for innovation and to better invest public dollars for the public good over the long-term. Open educational resources can be created and assembled for K12 with an ecosystem to support teacher professional development, continuous improvement of the quality of those materials, and at a lower cost. I think we all may be surprised at how fast this could tip.

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