The “O” Space

As I have been creating and compiling my final project for Open Educational Resources, the question of copyright has come up several times before we have actually gotten to the subject in our course readings.

I’m not unfamiliar with questions of copyright because part of my work is in educational publishing. In that professional space, permissions is a unique function for textbook publishers who wish to use others’ material in their books or to republish, for example, a storybook for children put out by a trade publisher. For instance, currently I’m wrapping up a book for K–8 teachers on writing research, a resource guide that reprints article excerpts from a number of research studies on children’s writing development, teaching strategies shown to work, writing and technology, and so on. Each has to be permissioned from its originating source, whether an academic journal or a book. Luckily in my role as compiler and editor, I hand off the permissioning function to an outside freelancer who specializes in this area.

I say “luckily” because I find the whole thing sorta boring to me, for the same reason I didn’t follow the other English majors from Washington University to law school after we graduated.

But thinking about copyright, fair use, and all that in the context of OERs is more complicated and thus more interesting. When you publish an OER, the “O” says it all: you have opened up your thoughts and skills to a very wide audience that will do all sorts of things with them you could not have imagined. Unlike a traditional academic publishing model, where there is a sort of weird secrecy about what you’re working on until you actually publish something or present it at a conference, publishing in the “O” space is immediately public. And no matter what, you have absolutely no control over what people do with your content. Put all the licensing options you want on it, it is still electronic and on the Web and by definition is thus easily replicable. Contrasted with a book, which you could only remix and reuse if you retyped the whole thing or photocopied/scanned it, bits and bytes are really easy to reproduce. With CC-BY and other restrictions, unless someone gets caught reusing materials, the originator is left pretty much relying on the goodwill of others, hoping that they honor her wishes as to how “open” the material is. On the other hand, outright stealing is easy to find if you look for it.

A few years ago, I had the experience of catching a plagiarist who was trying to pass off part of a short reader as her own work. The reader was one of the small, paper books typically accompanying large published reading programs for textbook publishers of early grade materials. As I was reading the manuscript, I had that funny feeling seasoned writing teachers get when something about a student’s work just doesn’t feel quite right: you are reading along, and you realize that the voice you had gotten used to somehow…shifted as suddenly the kid writing in simple sentences becomes almost wordy and complex. The little book was about the solar system, and so I typed directly into Google (with surrounding quotation marks) a couple of the sentences that struck me as different from the rest of the book. And lo and behold, I arrived at the PBS website to find several paragraphs of the “original” manuscript.

(As an aside…stealing words from PBS? Like stealing wine from a cathedral: sinful.)

Likewise, if someone used your work on the Web, it maybe pretty easy to find if you have some suspicion it’s out there. But what if they used your work in another context? It would be impossible to attend every lecture, watch every YouTube video, or visit every classroom that might be using your materials. It seems to me that if you publish Internet materials, you have already entered the O space, whether you define your materials as available for remix or reuse or not. It’s a tricky space to be in. In my final OER project I mostly link to other materials, many of which are copyrighted, rather than try to embed them or rework them in some way. To do this is the easy way to acknowledge the creation of others as well as to demonstrate (potentially) how to use them in a context that I am creating, much like academic papers cite sources of other ideas and conclusions.

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Public libraries and OERs

The closest libary to me is the Fairfield County District Library, a public library with one main location and four outlying branches. It is not intended as an academic library per se but as a community library.

As a result of Gov. John Kasich’s drastic measures (shifting the burden of most public expenditures to the local level so he can say he has cut state spending), the local libary has substantially cut services, even closing at different times to furlough its employees. The Main branch is in Lancaster, Ohio, which is a small city of about 38,000, according to the latest Census data. Only roughly 13% of people here have their bachelor’s degree (0.3% have a doctorate; I guess that would be me and 10 other people). The median household income is just over USD$38,000, compared to the state’s median of USD$50,000. Poverty is estimated at about 10%. Luckily, it’s fairly cheap to live here.

Because I’m self-employed, I spend a lot of time at the library, and I see three general types of patrons during a typical workday: mothers with small children, elderly persons, and people using the computers. It’s unclear what the unemployment rate is here, but Ohio’s is about 10.5%, and my best guess is that Lancaster, given the educational levels of residents, may be higher than that.

People in Lancaster need their public library. And the library does a lot more than just check books in and out: it’s part of the larger community, and I’ve seen librarians take an hour helping someone with the online GED materials, for instance. Compared to university systems, a public library is ultra democratic. With the university library, you’re already putting a “firewall” between potential users and the library’s resources: the only way to really access materials is to be a student, faculty member, or staff. Public libraries, on the other hand, only ask that at some point you wander down and fill out a short form to get a card. They ask that you live there, but even that is negotiable. And around here, that card is good for your whole life.

So the Fairfield County Public Library is a repository for mostly physical and some digital materials. Of its limited digital materials, some are housed in collections (mostly photographs) and a few are linked to other sites that might be considered OERs. In the catalogue search, I typed in the keyword “writing” and got 2,943 hits. Narrowing my search to Electronic Resources culled the list down to 507 entries. I further narrowed it by the category Adult Education; the result was a list of 83 resources; here is the top of the list, which contains a link to an online course for high school students:

To go further I had to log in to the statewide Ohio Public Library Information Network, so in this way the Fairfield County library functions as a limited referatory. Here it gets a little more interesting. When I get to the OPLIN, it seems to share more of the qualities of a repository like the ones housed inside an educational institution; clicking the tab Skill Building for Adults gives me the following screen of choices, for example:

This is actually new to me: I have never before visited this site (which brings up a point for me, so what might that mean about other folks using the Fairfield County library, who may not be able to navigate as intuitively?), which contains learning objects called eBooks, Tests, and Courses. As the Educause article  notes, many other respositories such as MIT organize their collections in these familiar ways (p. 5). You can search for a word and a type of resource. Many of the Test resources seem to be preparation for civil service positions, police officer exams, GED preparation, or practice for the Federal Clerical exam (these are the ones under adult skills). Just for fun I took the Diagnostic Writing Skills test; it turns out I’m pretty good at grammar and mechanics.

I chose a public library instead of one associated with a teaching institution because I think there is a huge “repository” potential in truly public libraries to collect helpful learning materials and make them available to all sorts of patrons. I did not expect that it existed in even a sort of limited form as it does in OPLIN. But that seems to be a first step in some basic OERs. Could a next step be for those currently placing OERs in more institutional settings to migrate some of them to public libraries? What kinds of audiences are some of the OERs that are online now (MIT, Open University, etc.) targeting and getting? It seems to me that public libraries could capture more types of people than just the university crowd. I don’t think the folks at my local branch are going to go online to find courses at MIT; I’m not sure that would even occur to them. But they might just start with a search at their familiar, comfortable library that will end taking them into learning experiences they may not have anticipated. And then who knows what could happen with their journey?