Your source for official open educational resources

Recently I’ve started a project for (gasp!) a traditional educational textbook publisher, writing most of a new student edition for a middle school textbook. Within pages and pages of instructions (and revised instructions) for the inclusion of sidebar material, questions, lesson reviews, primary sources, and so on, there is this:

Wikipedia, an encyclopedia that people can change to make accurate or more up-to-date, is also available online. It is a useful reference, but should never be used as a single source and should not be cited. However, there are footnotes and links that go with the articles that can be helpful in tracking down scholarly information on the topic you are researching. 

I’ve been curious about the undertones of this short cautionary note. Clearly the words are mostly positive: people change Wikipedia entries to make them “accurate” and “more up-to-date.” Wikipedia is “useful” and “helpful,” too. Its footnotes and links direct you to “scholarly information.”  However, Wikipedia should “not be cited” and “never be used as a single source.” Like many so-called scholarly resources, Wikipedia is peer reviewed. Literally, sometimes, thousands of people have agreed that the information contained about Thing X is accurate. That’s way more people than a scholarly journal relies upon when it vets articles for inclusion (perhaps three outside volunteer reviewers, with luck). What “scholarship” has that Wikipedia does not is an institutionalized history, external forces propping it up (think “publish or perish”), and sometimes a profit motive behind it (think of those conferences). Scholarly journals are officially sanctioned because…well, because we all sanction them.

My professor in my University of Manitoba “Open Educational Resources” course wondered whether the future of OERs would include “official” OERs. By that, I am assuming he means given the old okey-dokey by teachers, scholars, researchers, practitioners…or perhaps there will arise some sort of Council of Officially Blessed Resources for the Academy  (COBRA)? More acronyms and bureaucracy always lead to order and civil society. With officialism we can sleep more soundly knowing that an organization is  looking out for us. The squirrelier part of me wants to add “COBRA” to the Wikipedia page that lists all possible cobras as acronyms or snakes. I could perform an experiment to see how long it might take someone to stumble across the page and question the entry. To foment the illusion, I could also create a fake COBRA website complete with downloadable forms that ask respondents to “submit your Educational Resource with the accompanying 12-page form” and wait six weeks for “a decision from the committee of scholars in your subject area.” Using the web, I could insert photos of people in suits hovering over the round tables that hotels use when you tell them your meeting is “interactive.” Then I could get on Twitter and complain that COBRA rejected my educational resource, directing people to my anti-COBRA Facebook page where my friends would log in and demand that COBRA identify its rationale for acceptance of some OERs and not others.

With all this evidence, would anyone know it’s a mirage?

Last semester when I taught first-year composition, my students were surprised that I encouraged them to use Wikipedia; evidently, none of their other professors found it acceptable. But as I explained to them, using Wikipedia actually requires a little bit more of them as researchers and readers than does an article they find in a scholarly journal. They must actively verify whether the information on Wikipedia is worthwhile. How they accomplish that intellectual task is another opportunity to further their education and develop the skills they need to be actively engaged, questioning beings.

I suspect there may be some COBRA-type organizations springing up now or later, but it’s all rather silly. The only good reason I can think of for a body to sanction OERs is as a result of collectively organizing against those whose interest is vested in deminishing any online information source (say, for instance, textbook publishers) or those who want only their own version of what “education” means (say, Bill Gates, the Khan Academy, and so on). But a reactive position is never a strong one. The stronger position invites more and more people to create, redefine, criticize, question, and use OERs.

Open educational resources, editing, and economics

This graphic was created by my mom, who runs

It’s impossible to disagree with the principle of, as Ilkka Tuomi says in Open Educational Resources: What they are and why do they matter“a world where teachers and learners have free access to high-quality educational resources, independent of their location. Who wouldn’t want that? And what makes sense to me in the Cape Town declaration is the idea that if the public is paying for educational resources, the public should have free access, and “the public” includes the students using them. Last semester I taught some freshman composition courses, and my students at the community college paid more than $150 for the books for the course! For a writing course! The initiative from Cable Green and Washington State makes good sense for that reason alone. At the same time, however, that initiative is funded by a private foundation, Gates, which of course has its own agenda for educational change and certainly won’t keep underwriting this kind of development for every state in the union. In addition, it’s finding some challenges in the process (see thet commentary in the linked article about Washington State).

I want to be selfish for a minute, though, and figure out what all that means for me, given all the hats I wear. For instance, one of my larger clients is an academic journal publisher, for whom I edit papers appearing in seven different journals. I copyedit for the researchers and statisticians, making stylistic choices to adhere to the journal’s formal tone as well as ensuring things like all the citations in the text have sources listed in the References list. I also see journals, whether open or not, that are not edited in this way, and my eye immediately goes to the typos and infelicitous uses of language, errors, and usage problems. Likewise, when practitioners promote their theories on their blogs in order to foment that public discussion, I’m intrigued and interested in the results—while at the same time, I cringe at the run-on sentences, comma splices, typos, poor organization, unclear references, incorrect use of words like “comprise,” and so on. (I also cringe at these in the materials generated by my stepdaughters’ teachers.)

Definitely, my eye is more finely tuned than a normal person’s to grammatical nuances. But language primarily communicates, and poor language usage means that a reader is not receiving the clear communication she wants. Frankly, not all academics or teachers are, in fact, writers. Is there a place in open educational resources for qualified professional editing? Or do I need a new job?

This question becomes even larger: not everyone who knows about a subject is an expert in organizing content so that learners have the best experience they can, especially younger learners. Not everyone understands children’s cognitive and social-emotional development. That’s why K-12 teachers are required to attend hours and hours of professional training every year in order to remain a teacher and renew their licenses: in theory, at least, it helps them keep up with research in these subjects. That’s also why textbook publishers often pay for their editors to attend graduate school for MA degrees in education. My other clients are mostly educational publishers who are worried about the death of publishing. Sure, textbooks are expensive. Too expensive. But not everyone understands the enormous work that goes into creating them. Just as one example, at the K-12 level in the United States, each state has its own set of learning standards for, say, social studies. Maybe “history” in the generic sense doesn’t change…but what each state deems important makes it change, at least for the publishing industry. My old day job used to be keeping up with these developments in state legislatures and education departments, and publishers scramble to keep recreating textbooks when states change their minds about whether Thomas Jefferson is a crucial part of the U.S. History curriculum or not.

Perhaps it’s just that I don’t understand the economics of open source. How can I create “content” to share freely with the world when I need to be paid, somehow, in order to keep the electricity on?

One of the three strategies of the Cape Town Declaration includes the call for “educators, authors, publishers and institutions to release their resources openly. These open educational resources should be freely shared through open licences which facilitate use, revision, translation, improvement and sharing by anyone.”  Fulfilling this and other strategies “will make it possible to redirect funds from expensive textbooks towards better learning.” I’m not seeing the step-by-step, flowchart kind of logic that shows this kind of business model, and I hope that my next course in the University of Manitoba Emerging Technologies in Learning certificate program, Open Educational Resources, gives me some ideas about how this can actually work in the context of U.S. elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education. The principles of open access to information and knowledge appeal to me greatly, especially as someone who simply loves to learn; I look forward to learning about some practical examples that show how it can work.