Drops In A Bucket

Over at Kairosnews, Charlie Lowe has a great post on some of the challenges (and the means to overcome them) regarding creating reusable open content.

Charlie draws the distinction between a reading designed to give an overview/structure to a topic, as compared to a lesson or an activity designed to increase the depth or breadth of understanding around a topic. And this distinction is accurate, as it identifies and highlights two mutually supportive aspects of teaching and learning: the text which is studied, and the lessons/processes through which the text is explored.

Ink and Water

While I would love to see both types of resources created and shared under open licenses, at this stage, I'm more concerned with the second category: the lessons/processes through which the text is explored.

For example, back when I was teaching, I would use a technique with some pieces of literature where I would select three (or more) passages from a work that highlighted a characters' arc, or a significant thematic element from the story (or something else entirely, depending on the text). Then, I would break the class into three groups (one per passage), and have each group work out an explanation as to how or why the text was significant. In the pre-digital days (and yes, I was teaching then, thank you very much), this activity would lead to student-led discussions. Once things began moving online, and I had web sites supporting my classes, the work from the different groups moved online and became part of the online resources that students collected around a text.

I use this example not because it's an amazing lesson, and precisely because it's not rocket science: it's just a technique around using a text that someone might find useful. An actual shared lesson around this would identify select quotations from a work, provide some context for these quotations, possibly provide some lead-in activities and some follow-up activities, and that's it.

I had some success teaching Shakespeare with this technique. Limiting the focus to specific sections of the text (that they could figure out, analyze, and place in context) made them feel more confident interacting with the language of Shakespeare.

To be clear, this lesson is not the same as writing a book about Shakespeare or any one of his plays. I would argue that, for most of us, that's not necessary. These background sources exist. The primary sources exist. Individual classroom approaches to using these sources are in scarcer supply.

Our approach to making open content easier to use for more people is to simplify the middle steps in the process: collecting resources shared in different places should be easier; once these resources are collected, editing and reorganizing them into a new structure should be easier; once these resources have been edited and reorganized into their desired structure, they should be simple to redistribute. These are technical issues, and they are not particularly difficult to solve.

The difficult piece in transitioning to open content involves shifting people's attitudes and expectations around what constitutes a text. The fact that a text can be easily edited and redistributed is a good thing, but it's unfamiliar simply because both the technology and legal structure around traditional textbooks makes that behavior both difficult and illegal.

Fortunately, past habit does not need to dictate present and future practice.

So, here's what I propose:

If you are a teacher, share your lessons.

Share them in a reusable format - and really, that's a fancy way of saying put them on a blog that has an RSS feed. Wikis are good too, but with most wikis, the content is mildly more difficult to redistribute.

Use tags to classify and categorize your work. Most blogging software supports tagging out of the box.

Share under an open license - we recommend the Creative Commons - Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike.

It doesn't need to be finished to be worth sharing. If you found it useful for your class, chances are hundreds of other people will too.

Over the next few weeks/months, we will release out the tools to build the system that simplifies the collection, editing, and publication process. Each lesson is a drop in the bucket. Individually, filling the bucket is a daunting task, but collectively, our buckets are already filled to overflowing. I'm looking forward to seeing how people can organize and use what we already have.

Image Credit: Photo "Ink & Water" taken by Gagstreet Parmar, published under an Attribution Share-Alike license.


Some random thoughts:

* You made me realize something today. While we can build complete OER content for many courses, for classes in literature, music, and some other humanities disciplines where great works are read (listened to) and those works are not in the public domain, education will continue to be dependent on commercial publishers. And even when those works are in the public domain, we will likely not "remix" them as teachers (well except maybe for adding annotation) as the primary content to be learned. Students need to read the original. So I can see how the focus on developing "the lessons/processes through which the text is explored" becomes the primary OER materials that teachers need.

* Where courses don't have to rely on copyrighted great works, does "the text which is studied, and the lessons/processes through which the text is explored" have to be mutually exclusive? Can't a text be constructed such that it includes activities that lead the student to explore the concepts within it? For instance, one of the chapter for the 2nd volume of Writing Spaces will have students "break" from the reading to complete mini writing exercises.

In situations where a better/different frame is needed, the text that defines the subject and the process that explores it can (and maybe should?) be one and the same.

And with open content, this type of reimagining becomes easier, as a started text licensed in a way that allows remixing can be modified t support the exact types of exercises you describe.

I definitely need to spend some time checking out Writing Spaces.

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