I’m quickly turning into a curmudgeonly whiner.
Last week I was busy complaining about the flaws in existing open education models and how current activities a) fail to give educators a seat at the policy/power table and b) will, in the long run, hurt the socially conscious ideals many reform advocates strongly support.
If we are to have change, we might as well have the right kind of change. If we are going to expend energy envisioning a new world of education, we might as well be bold, creative, and future-focused. After all, good change and bad change require roughly the same amount of effort. Might as well pursue the highest ideals we are capable of forming.
All ideas need critique. When I encounter a new concept such as Flatworld Knowledge or open educational resources in general, I soon turn to exploring the critiques. If critiques are not available, I (naturally) wonder why. Not many things are “all good”. With connectivism, for example, I’ve sought out and highlighted people who disagree with what I’ve written on the subject. A theory or concept is only as good as the rigor to which it has been subject.
Let’s talk publishing.
Last year, with much attention, Flatworld Knowledge announced a new approach to textbooks.
I’ll start nitpicking: I don’t like the term Flatworld. As a concept it is obviously tied to Friedman’s text and has the air of hype. When I hear flat world references, I become critical of attached concepts. Why build a company on a buzzword that has been aptly criticized by Richard Florida? But this is a petty complaint. If the company is innovative and offers a new model, the name isn’t that consequential. Eventually it’ll be reduced to FWK Publishing (i.e. the KFC approach – when “fried” food became a health concern, the initials will do just fine).
But is the approach innovative?
On the surface, it appears to be. Learners can read the textbook online (though in an intentionally small window that makes reading unpleasant), or – for a fee – download for-print and audio versions as well as purchase a physical copy. Educators can customize (still in beta with the text I tried) textbooks by rearranging chapters and sections and adding annotations.
FWK textbooks are written by experts. Educators adopting texts can be reasonably assured of quality. Authors get paid. Students get a low cost text. Everyone wins. I think it’s a great model and I think it will succeed. More publishers will adopt this model. It’s almost inevitable.
But FWK will succeed for the wrong reasons. It will succeed because it tweaks the existing model of textbooks just enough to disrupt publishers, but not enough to disrupt the industry as a whole. FWK is integrated into the system of education: authors, bookstores, faculty, and students. It uses existing reward metrics (recognition and a little bit of revenue for the author) and addresses the biggest complaint students have about textbooks: costs.
Essentially, the existing system is used as the infrastructure for FWK model. And that’s the problem. I don’t believe we need the publisher as a mediator.
What is and what ought to be
TMI: I grew up in a very religious community. As an immigrant to Canada, I was taught (by my parents and the broader church community) that progress was inherently bad. Technology – computers in particular – were leading us to the end times. I grew up without television, radio, and many of the worldly tools/devices available to my peers.
I don’t regret my upbringing. It forms who I am as a person. One church-inspired lesson that has always stuck with me is the way in which the greater good (idealism) is manifest in practical daily grinds. Jesus, for example, calls his followers to impossibly high standards in Matthew 5-7 (Sermon on the Mount). How can a human being possibly live up to that high a calling?
The high standards serve as a target. The Greek word for sin (Hamartano) means to “miss the mark”. The pursuit of highest standards is important, in this line of reasoning, for the people we become through the process of longing to attain high ideals, not for the standard itself.
Bringing my religious background together with my technological life produces a similar appeal for high idealism. Mark Pilgrim’s rant about open enough is instructive: we too often accept open enough resources out of convenience rather than out of long term considerations.
This is a central conflict in web 2.0 vs. open source. Web 2.0 has few of the ideals of the open source movement. For many users, this is fine – free is the desirable trait. Monetarily free is not without cost. When Google decides a product is no longer valuable, it shuts it down (Notebook, Jaiku, JotSpot). When financial conditions change, companies holding our data suddenly disappear.
With regard to educational reform, our thinking should be future-focused. What is the impact of FKW? Is there a better way? Can we reduce costs and promote openness in an anti-textbook model? What could that possibly look like?
Convenient Change vs Principled Change
When trying to change a complex integrated system that includes numerous stakeholders – such as universities – a seat is required at the power table. Higher education is integrated into national competitiveness strategies, democratic societies, and corporate success/viability. Multiple stakeholders require engagement with all stakeholders in order to craft change. Grassroots revolutions are not of sufficient momentum to transform universities. The system is too integrated (i.e. a networked integration – systems of systems) and serves too many roles to be changed from single tension points.
When trying to disrupt a field – such as happens regularly with technology (iPod, Google Docs) – a brilliant idea is sufficient in itself. While systems like textbook publishing are integrated, the integration is within the system itself, not with other systems.
That sounds counter intuitive. I’ll clarify. Textbooks are systemically integrated in that the relationship between author/publisher/teacher/student is linear. It’s not a network integration (systems of systems). The student needs the textbook only because the educator does. Loose networked integration means commitment to the process wanes as the product moves down the line. When authors no longer need textbook publishers, the game is over.
Google is a company that understands systemic integration quite well. The prospect that I will abandon Google for another service diminishes as my use of their offerings becomes more and more integrated (Android, Latitude, Docs, iGoogle, Gmail, Reader, search, Blogger). Integrated webs create committed (locked in?) customers. Linear integration – where each entity down the line depends only on decision of the previous entity and the connections are not mutually enforcing – produce weak loyalty. I’ll abandon an email client (Hotmail, Yahoo) for a better service if it’s not integrated with other software.
Time to tie a few of these ideas together: textbook publishing is a weakly integrated field. The model itself is ripe for innovation. FWK will be successful because it tweaks enough of the system to keep the linear integration in tact, but not enough to disrupt the field itself. Perhaps we should pursue a more visionary approach – one that is tied to high ideals and provides the greatest number of future options.
Change that preserves and extends future options
An evaluation (.pdf) of Wiki Educator states the site produced “71 Book equivalents…during 1 January 2008 to 30 June 2009″. The drawback? These resources are not always coherent. Scientific American explores the challenges of the “everyone contributes” model: “While the real power of open-source textbooks, Bridges and others say, is being able to tap into the knowledge of the nation’s 3 million schoolteachers, a look at the recent crop of books suggests that’s not an accurate reflection of how educational content is being created. So far, the front-runners were typically written by just one or several authors…” (remember the We Are Smarter book initiative? The goal was to have many people write the text. It failed. In the end, traditional authorship (two authors, I believe) produced the book).
It appears that we value collaboration more in principle than we do in practice.
David Wiley suggests that the “wiki way” = poor quality. Why do we collaborate less than our rhetoric suggests…and when we do collaborate, produce resources of (arguably) lower quality?
Perhaps we produce lower quality resources through collaboration because we are not used to writing together. Perhaps it’s because the reward system encourages egoistic publication. Perhaps it’s human nature. I don’t think War & Peace would be the same quality resource if it had been written by a network. But I really don’t know that for sure. I don’t think it has been tried often enough to be found wanting. I think it has been left largely untried.
Simply stating that collaborative projects have to date not produced the quality of resources that has been produced under the traditional authorship model is not satisfactory. Benkler’s assertion that (.pdf) module granularity and integration challenges are antagonistic to the wiki model (p. 22) is valid (at least he added “at present” in his argument ). However, as a culture of remix takes hold beyond a few early adopters, it’s reasonable to expect granularity integration to be less restrictive than it currently is seen to be. Perhaps a move from tecno brega to edu-brega?
It’s too early to convincingly declare select-authorship models of textbooks to be superior to wiki-created textbooks. Or, if we do make the declaration (as Wiley, Benkler and others have done), we need to focus on understanding why. It seems wrong to declare that connected intelligence is not capable of achieving the same level of quality as individual intelligence.
The need for collaboration is amplified by the growing complexity of information. As Kress and Pachler (.pdf) have stated: “What we have here is a transition from a stable, settled world of knowledge produced by authority/authors, to a world of instability, flux, of knowledge produced by the individual.” Single author models are not capable of innovating rapidly enough, or for that matter, providing a broad enough perspective of a subject.
If scientific research, development of art and literature, the internet, and the web all attest to the value of integration/connection/collaboration, I’m inclined to suggest the problem is not with wiki-textbooks, but instead with how we are approaching them. Something is wrong in our model of implementation, not with the model of creation.
When I first started thinking on this subject, I was quite negative on FWK. Having reviewed their site and their model in more detail, I’m less extreme in my views. FWK is an important advancement for textbooks. Many students this fall will be rather pleased at the reduced costs (though the books on the site are primarily confined to business and finance – another drawback: mediators seek areas of highest return first) of FWK texts.
The concept is open enough to keep many revolutionaries at bay (isn’t that often the main intent of partial change? provide enough change to satisfy the slightly less peripheral agitators? Staged or transitional change often plays a negative role in this regard. Partial change now pushes substantial change into the future). The idea is good enough to make investors quite happy – see open textbooks gaining ground. In this regard, I wish FWK well. It is an important contribution.
Now, if we can just find a way to make the pursuit of highest ideals (open & collaboratively produced textbooks produced by communities/networks of vested participants in this case) as rewarding (or compelling) as the pursuit of ‘good enough’.