How to sell soul to a soulless people

This was the question posed by Public Enemy back in 2007. Apple’s answer is to put U2’s album on everyone’s iPhone. This has been commented about endlessly, but I was interested by my own reaction when I saw it there. I felt something akin to revulsion. Now I know logically that I can just delete it, what’s the big deal. And I also know apps push stuff at me all the time, so what’s the difference here?

Pondering my own reaction (and that of many others), I think the answer is that music is related to identity. I posted many years ago that digital formats changed our sense of ownership, and that owning music used to be a strong part of your identity. “Look through my record collection” used to be an invite to get to know someone better. This has undoubtedly changed, one has only to consider what it’s like to be a Spotify customer where you have immediate access to just about every record ever made. Selection and ownership are less important then.

But I think what Apple failed to understand (or understood perfectly well, but didn’t care), is that your music library still feels like yours. On Twitter people pointed out to me that I didn’t own a phone, but rather rented a content delivery service. But I still feel like that library is mine. I’ve chosen what goes in there. I know no-one else cares, but it’s like your real library at home, those books have been selected by you. Some you may hate, some you may not have finished, some relate to a specific point in your life, and so on. But they are an extension of who you are. Having someone else place items in your music library feels far more intrusive than pushing an advert at me, or sending me a notification because it is eroding a sense of identity. And the more I think about it, the more I believe that tools that help us establish and define that identity in a digital age are the ones that will be successful. Apple demonstrated that their belief is that the only identity to have is theirs, and for such a modern company, that seems an old-fashioned view.

Now, if they had put this track on everyone’s iPhone, I wonder what the reaction would’ve been:

To what extent is education a digital product?

This is an obvious, even old-fashioned question. I was thinking about it the other day, and I realised that not only is it actually the question I’ve been answering on this blog for the past 8 years or so, it is the key question for education. Having been to numerous ed tech conferences, it is also the overarching question each of them is really addressing.

The “to what extent” is the important element, because that doesn’t mean “it is”. The answer can be “not at all”, “some bits” or “completely”, depending on your perspective. If you look at many ed tech developments, and the reactions to them, they can be boiled down to different interpretations of this question. MOOCs are an obvious example, for the MOOC hypers, Clay Shirky, Thrun, et al, the answer to this question was pretty near 100%. For many MOOC critics, the answer would be nearer 0% (education isn’t a product, and the components you can make digital are the least important).

You could take issue with the “product” part, and can replace that with “service”, and you could make a case against the underlying neoliberalism inherent in the question. But I would contend that even if this is the case, then being able to defend and articulate a position against this question is what you will be doing for much of the next decade, because this is the question everyone else is implicitly, or explicitly, seeking to answer.

If you have a new Vice Chancellor, boss, colleague or whatever, I would suggest that asking them this one question might be quite illuminating. And more importantly, ask the question of yourself. As for me, I think it’s…


Kill yr idols (or not)

I’ve been meaning to write a “twitter isn’t as much fun as it used to be” kind of post for a while. Then Bonnie Stewart went and did it, but you know, with added eloquence and thought. It’s been an idea a few ed techers have been mumbling about online for a while now. On almost the same day as Bonnie’s post David Kernohan gave an excellent talk at ALT-C on this subject.

The argument goes something like this: online communication and networks used to be fun, but they’ve become not only boring now, but as David put it, scary. This is partly a result of professional types now manipulating social media, and partly because people now pay attention.

Sheila MacNeill asked David a good question which was along the lines of “are you just upset that the great unwashed have turned up now and ruined your place that used to be cool?”

I think there is something in this. Back in the day, those of us who blogged and then used twitter were always advocating how great they would be if everyone used them. And then they did. The thrill of being right (for once) was offset by the disappointment at what inevitably happened. And here is the quandary for ed tech – we want people to take it seriously, but when they do it becomes something else. As soon as what you said in social media mattered then people wanted to control it. Or at least fire people who said the wrong thing, and as this Pew Internet report highlights, this leads to self-censorship and a spiral of silence. Self censorship is still censorship.

The same might be said of MOOCs. It was fun when no-one was watching, but then everyone started paying attention and it got all corporate. In the TV series Extras, Ricky Gervais character is given this very blunt choice by his agent:

“do you want fame and fortune, or do you want integrity and respect?”

Because he can’t have both. And this is what I’m not sure about, can we have both in edtech? Or must this year’s fun thing always become next year’s VLE or die?

Anyway, here’s Sonic Youth telling you to kill your idols. Because it’s the end of the world, and confusion is sex, or something like that.

Open researcher open course

man spraying "open" on grafitti wall

Led by Beck Pitt, the OER Research Hub has developed an open course (don’t use the M word) on P2P University on being an open researcher. It is four weeks long, although you can study it anytime and it’s all available at once. The weeks cover:

  • Open research
  • Ethics in the open
  • Open dissemination
  • Reflecting on open

It’s based on our experience of running the OER Research project as an open project. There are a number of interesting things that happen when you try to operate in the open. For instance, what ethical considerations are there to releasing data? What communication methods are most effective? The course explores these, using the fictional Mr O’pen. He’ll be in a pixar film before you know it.

The facilitated course starts on 15th September, although you could be doing it now if you want. There will be a weekly Google Hangout every Thursday over the 4 weeks of the course, with one pre-course hangout on the 11th. Take a look, we’re all finding out what being an open researcher means still, it’s not a defined set of approaches, so maybe there will be something there that works for you.

Quote of the day


I’m on holiday at the moment, in a cabin by Loch Ness with my daughter. Being a teenager she rarely sees pre-noon so this gives me the morning to have a run, and also to finish off my book edits. I have been collecting quotes to add to each chapter, but have been debating whether to use these.

I have a love-hate thing going on with quotes. I used to love a good quote, but the internet has ruined them. A quote on any subject is just a google search away, and twitter is full of those inspirational quotes that are meant to make you want to be the next Steve Jobs. If you want me to unfollow you on twitter, then an inspirational quote a day is a pretty sure way to realise it. That all of the beauty, complexity and nuances of life are reduced to pithy, Nike-advert type quotes makes me want to become a recluse in a cabin by Loch Ness and communicate solely through the medium of beard growth.

But having said that, I do love the judicious use of quotes in both literature and non-fiction. They not only bring in a different voice, but when used well, add a different perspective to the text you are reading that the author themselves cannot provide. So, I’ve decided to plough ahead with quote use, but adhere to these self-imposed rules:

  1. The quotes must be from material I have read myself and not just searched for a relevant quote
  2. They are not directly referencing the content, eg there aren’t quotes about “open”, or “education”
  3. They are slightly oblique to the content of each chapter, so hopefully consideration of the quote in relation to the content adds something extra
  4. They are well written, so the discerning reader can use them as stepping stones of quality to navigate the peaty bog of my own prose.

I’ll leave you to be the judge as to whether they work or not. Because as Emerson said “I hate quotations”


Infrared instead of sun

In case you missed it, The Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers have proposed some new open access(ish) licences for their research articles. They argue that: “CC licenses are intended to be used across the entire creative sector, and are not designed specifically for publishing, or for academic and scholarly publishing”. Well that was kind of the point of CC licences, they were simple, effective and could be applied across many domains. That they are simple is not a fault, but the result of hard work and good minds. Compare the CC-NC definition with this one from STM:

“STM stand-alone non-commercial+TDM+Translation and some commercial uses other than “Reserved Commercial Uses”: rationale see comments under B above for those not having a be-spoke publisher licence or not wishing to use a UCLA licence or a CC licence or other licence”

I do what now?

Needless to say most open access people have decried this unnecessary attempt to add confusion to the sector, and pointed out that we’ve been getting on just fine with CC licences, thanks. Here is the PLoS response, who state that the new licences would “make it difficult, confusing or impossible to combine these research outputs with other public resources and sources of knowledge to the benefit of both science and society.”

Other people more knowledgeable than me can point out the problems of the licences (see for example this discussion I had with Cameron Neylon on Twitter) but the story is interesting to me for two reasons. The first relates to my digital scholarship interest, as it demonstrates a rather irritating academic habit, which is to say that the thing used by everyone else isn’t quite suited to the special needs of academia, and they need to create their own specialised, more complex version. It’s like academic versions of Twitter, or the death by metadata of learning objects. This is often well meaning, in that there may be some fine issues with using a general tool, but the benefits are worth the sacrifices. For a start those popular tools are popular for a reason, usually simplicity of use. As Cameron points out there is also a benefit to be gained form being part of a bigger, global community. Why create an academic ghetto of specialised use that no-one else relates to?

The second reason I find it interesting relates to the battle for open stuff. One could view it cynically and see it as a move by commercial publishers (many of whom STM represent) to either muddy the open access waters, or to control what the new definition of open is. Either way, open ends up not meaning what you think it means. And once that happens they can reclaim it to have any meaning. It could mean “Publisher X brand of open”, which means it is open to anyone who pays a subscription to their system. In this sense it is a good example of how the battle for open moves from big claims (open vs closed) to more detailed arguments which actually determine its future (CC vs STM open licence).

Unless they are forced upon authors, I’m hoping they’ll go the way of other unnecessary academic complications to perfectly functioning systems. People vote with their feet.


Battle for Open – references

I’m doing some revisions to the final text of my book The Battle for Open at the moment. When you’re going through it like this, you notice a few names keep cropping up. So I did a count for certain names, and this includes whether they are mentioned in the text and then in the references, so you get a double hit. The top names were:

  • David Wiley – 38
  • Sebastian Thrun – 25
  • George Siemens – 14
  • Dave Cormier – 14
  • Stephen Downes – 10
  • Audrey Watters – 8

I’m a bit surprised Audrey isn’t more to be honest, as one blogger said of something I’d written “he seems to be channeling Audrey Watters”, and that pretty much feels like much of what the book has done, so maybe I should go back and check that.

Anyway, David Kernohan suggested (nay, demanded) that I put up the references:

So here they are in the, yes, not very open, formats of Word and PDF – if people have suggestions for other useful formats let me know. I haven’t been through these in the final copyedit yet so there may be some bits missing, don’t go all reference purist on me.

The Battle for Open refs (PDF)

The Battle for Open refs (word)

[Update - At Alan Cann's suggestion, I've put it on Figshare too]


Why don’t we talk about PLEs anymore

I know some people will immediately respond to this title by declaring “I do! And look at all these other people who do”. And yes, there is a PLE conference. But my sense is that we don’t use the term, or more significantly, discuss the concept of Personal Learning Environments, like we did in 2010 say.

This is not to disparage the term or work on it, I think it was very useful to frame the difference in the way we began to operate when all these new, easy to use tools suddenly became available. I’m interested from an educational technology perspective in what the decline in its usage tells us. Google trends backs my impression up that we don’t talk about it as much, and given that terms tend to linger, I would suggest that it shows it definitely isn’t a hot topic amongst ed tech people:

If you accept for now the premise that it isn’t discussed as much, then what does this tell us? There are a number of possible reasons:

  1. It’s become commonplace, so drawing the distinction between your set of tools and an institutional learning environment isn’t necessary. It’s a bit like saying “my phone is mobile!”
  2. It’s become absorbed, so it is seen as an extension of the LMS, or rather the LMS is just one other part of it. We don’t differentiate between tools for different settings because the boundaries between personal and professional have been blurred.
  3. There has been a shakedown in the market, so actually we’ve all settled on the same few tools: Twitter, YouTube, WordPress, Slideshare, plus some other specific ones. My PLE looks pretty much like your PLE, so it’s not really a Personal one anymore. Just like with the early days of search engines, we don’t talk about whether you prefer Lycos or Webcrawler now, we just Google it.
  4. It wasn’t a useful term or approach. There were projects that attempted to get data passed between LMSs and PLE tools, or to set these up for people, and in the end people just opted for some tools they found useful, and didn’t feel the need to go further.

For some of these reasons you could argue that the PLE was a success, it made itself redundant as a term, which illustrates it reached penetration. For others you could argue it was maybe a case of academics inventing something that wasn’t really there. For me, I found it a useful way to think about these new tools and moving away from pre-packaged solutions, but that’s become second nature now. Anyway, it’s useful to revisit terms and see what they tell us about the current situation. I shall now go into hiding from the pitchfork (some hand-crafted, some mass produced) wielding PLE mob.

New home

I’ve finally (after 8 years) moved from Typepad to WordPress, and even more importantly, my own domain. Blame Jim Groom, that guy just wears you down until you say yes. Have tried a new theme, expect I’ll mess around with it and also widgets. If you’re here from the old place and use an RSS reader (I know, who uses them now?) then the new feed is

All you WordPress geeks out there can tell me what plug-ins I must have. Time to start annoying the neighbours.

The iceberg model of OER engagement

I'm pretty sure I'm the first person to ever use the iceberg analogy…

I've been pondering ways of thinking about open education awareness, and OER usage that might help shape OER policy. So here's one I want to try out.

Open education in general, and OERs specifically, form a basis from which many other practices benefit, but often practitioners in those areas are unaware of OERs explicitly. It is likely that these secondary and tertiary levels of OER awareness represent a far greater audience, than the primary “OER-aware” one, so one can view the sizes of these audiences like the metaphorical iceberg, with increasing size as we push into these unseen areas. The three groups of OER usage I see are:

Primary OER usage – this group is “OER aware”, in that the term itself will have meaning for them, they are engaged with issues around open education, are aware of open licences and are often advocates for OERs. This group has often been the focus of OER funding, conferences and research, with the focus on growing the ranks of this audience.
Example: Community college teacher who adopts, and contributes to open textbooks

Secondary OER usage – this group may have some awareness of OERs, or open licences, but they have a pragmatic approach to them. OERs are of secondary interest to their primary task, usually teaching. OERs (and openness in general) can be seen as the substratum which allows some of their practice to flourish, but they are not aware, or interested in open education itself, rather in their own area, and therefore OERs are only of interest to the extent that they facilitate innovation or efficiency in this.
Example: Flipped learning teacher who uses Khan academy, TED talks and some MERLOT OERs in their teaching.

Tertiary OER usage – this group will use OERs amongst a mix of other media and often not differentiate between them. Awareness of licences is low and not a priority. OERs are a ‘nice to have’ option but not essential, and users are often largely consuming rather than creating and sharing.
Example: A student studying at university who uses iTunes U materials to supplement their taught material.

 David Wiley has talked of Dark Reuse, that is whether reuse is happening in places we can’t observe, analogous to dark matter, or it simply isn’t happening much at all. He poses the challenge to the OER movement about its aims:

“If our goal is catalyzing and facilitating significant amounts of reuse and adaptation of materials, we seem to be failing. …
If our goal is to create fantastically popular websites loaded with free content visited by millions of people each month, who find great value in the content but never adapt or remix it, then we’re doing fairly well.”

By considering these three levels of OER engagement, it is possible to see how both elements of Wiley’s goals are realisable. The main focus of OER initiatives has often been the primary OER usage group. Here OERs are created and there are OER advocacy missions. For example, Joanna Wild suggests three levels of engagement for HE staff that progress from piecemeal to strategic to embedded use of OER. The implicit assumption is that one should encourage progression through these levels, that is, the route to success for OERs is to increase the population of the primary OER group.

Whilst this is undoubtedly a good thing to do (assuming one believes in the benefits of OERs), it may not be the only approach. Another approach may be to increase penetration of OERs into the secondary and tertiary levels. Awareness of OER repositories was very low amongst this group, compared with resources such as the Khan Academy or TED. The focus on improving uptake for these groups is then to increase visibility, search engine optimisation and convenience of the resources themselves, without knowledge of open education. This might be realised through creating a trusted brand to compete with resources such as TED.

There is evidence that openness has a virus like quality, in that once people are exposed to it, awareness grows and they seek opportunities to expand open practice in other areas. If this is the case, then emphasising effort on this initial exposure should be a high priority for funders in the OER world.

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