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 veteran) Doug 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.”