July 21, 2014

Thoughts on the Value of Open Content

Lisa Lane's latest blog post - Tracking my elusive OERs - came at just the right time to prompt me to write up some thoughts about open content and why I value it so highly. I'm not someone who focuses on re-use in the sense of other instructors adopting my stuff. Especially as someone teaching in the Humanities, I'm very aware of the intense subjectivity of the subject matter, so to speak. The way I create my course materials is eccentric in the extreme: I am creating course materials in a very specific, very self-determined context — very specific to me, very specific to my students, very much determined by the courses I am teaching.

So, even though I put a high priority on the quality of my content, I do not expect other instructors to take on my content as they would adopt a textbook, say. Criminy, I can't stand textbooks to begin with, and I certainly have no ambition to write one. So, the reason I share my content online is not because I suppose any other instructor wants to teach a course like mine and adopt my materials (indeed, that would surprise me very much), but for these three hopeful reasons:

1. Informal Learners and Informal Learning. If my content is useful to others (and I know it can be), its usefulness would more likely be for informal learning rather than as part of a formal course. But hey, that's cool. In fact, that's very cool. In a person's lifetime, informal learning far outweighs formal learning, and I am so excited about the way the Internet is creating spaces and opportunities for people to keep on learning online, totally apart from school and the mind-numbing rigidity of the school curriculum. Just how much my content is used in this way is not something I can measure easily, but I do have thousands of subscribers to my long-running Latin blog, for example, and I get all kinds of nice emails from random people who write to thank me for what I publish online. That works for me! In order to promote this informal, ad hoc, serendipitous use of my content, I try very hard to make my content as modular as possible, while at the same time showing how it connects up to my own larger content projects. I find blogs incredibly useful for that, as blog posts are directly linkable and indexable, while the blog architecture helps people see the big picture.

2. Modeling Content Development for Other Instructors. Since I have been doing online content development very steadily since back in 1999, I have a lot of experience with that and, by sharing my content openly, I hope that my experience can be useful for others, providing a kind of working model. To promote that notion of "modeling," I also strive to document how the projects work (sources I use, tools I rely on), mostly by blogging about all that at Google+. In addition, for my latest project, I created a dedicated blog for the project process. I've managed to blog about the Myth-Folklore UN-Textbook every single day this summer, so one of my accomplishments is not just open content, but an open process to go with it.

3. Curating the Big, Beautiful, Messy Public Domain. I LOVE THE PUBLIC DOMAIN. But the public domain is a very big, very messy space; all those millions of books online need curating! So, my form of content creation is really content curation, as I take content from old public domain books, selecting really good stuff that, with a little tweaking, can be made useful for learners in the 21st century. That tweaking takes different forms. In my Latin work, the tweaking might mean standardizing the orthography or adding vocabulary lists (see my 1001 Aesop's fables project, for example, or the Latin distich project). For my Myth-Folklore UN-Textbook, it has consisted of making selections from books that students can easily manage to read in a week (while, of course, I am hoping to whet their appetite for more... and when the whole book is online, "more" is just a click away). At the same time that I am using these public domain books for my own specific and eccentric purposes, I also hope to be bringing these wonderful books and book sources to other people's attention so that they, in turn, can make use of those same books and book sources for their own purposes, which are surely different than mine. Not everybody has the luxury of spending hours and hours of time exploring sites like Hathi Trust, just prowling for good books... but that is something I love to do. This summer, for example, I have been having a lot of fun writing up good reference pages for the 100+ books I am using in the UN-Textbook (like this), and I am hoping that might grow into a bibliography project of its own in the future.

So, in terms of Martin Weller's "iceberg model of OER engagement," I would fall somewhere in-between "primary OER usage" and "secondary OER usage," which makes sense. As someone with a 100% teaching position, I really have to focus on teaching as my primary task, and I measure the success of my content development in terms of its value for my students. That is my only real measure of success in fact. At the same time, I fully believe that by sharing the content I make for my students openly, and trying to make that process as open as possible too, I can make a positive contribution, albeit indirectly, to the larger OER picture.

The poster below, which I share often online, features a tiny Latin poem about scientia (English "science" or "knowledge") that I found in a 19th-century anthology of rhyming Latin proverbs collected from medieval sources by Julius Wegeler: Philosophia Patrum Versibus Praesertim Leoninisa totally obscure and insanely charming book that I discovered by accident at Google Books about six years ago (thank you, Google Books!). As you can see, already in the Middle Ages some Latin-speaking scholars realized that the hoarding of knowledge would not do anyone any good. The same is true today, of course: if I create content, any kind of content, I put that content online ... and I know the author of this tiny Latin poem would approve!

When knowledge is hidden away, it rots;
when it is shared publicly, it grows.

Latin: Condita tabescit, vulgata scientia crescit.


  1. Laura - thanks for sharing your thoughts on why you took on such a huge project, and why you documented it so well....I think the process in this kind of endeavor is as important as the product sometimes.

  2. Thanks, Stacy! Now I just need to develop 20-20 hindsight, ha ha. Looking back on content projects from 5 or 10 years ago, I can see clearly the MANY mistakes I was making. So I am sure that I am making mistakes with this new project... but I cannot see them yet. Having the blog has been great, though. If I carry on documenting it, hopefully I will figure out the mistakes sooner rather than later. :-)

    1. well that is the beauty(?) of mistakes you can't see them when you are right in the middle, only when you look from the outside. But forcing your self to write/talk about something can help you have that point of view...

  3. This is very helpful Laura as an example of a wide range of practices around using, sharing open content. The OER label matters little to me.

    Yes... I am flummoxed why I cannot find at least a few people just to tell me a more granular story, and example of one time maybe you incorporated that public domain content into your mythology/fable content. What would it take to entice you to do a wee story? You do not even need to be in camera, I just want people to tell their stories

  4. Alan!!! I even have a story I meant to do for you ages ago when I read one of your reuse stories. I'm not a video person, but yes, I know what story I should tell and I will do that with pictures here TODAY and let you know. Thanks for the reminder!!!


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