Openness as reuse, and openness as transparency

I’ve been looking at a number of comparisons of Carnegie Mellon’s OLI resources to MIT’s OCW, most stimulated by David Wiley’s course on Open Education. The comparisons are interesting, and it’s great to see the different angles people have found on this.

However, I haven’t seen what I consider to be the core difference articulated — at least in the precise way that I would articulate it. So at the risk of kibbutzing the class here, I offer my unsolicited analysis.

Openness is an umbrella term for a number of things. In the mashup era we tend to think of it in terms of reuse. And in the OLI model that is paramount. OLI is about reuse. 

MIT OCW (in my completely unofficial opinion) is about the value of transparency. And transparency, not reuse, is the core concern.

It would be tempting to say that while separable concepts, the aims of reuse and transparency are so synergistic as to never be at odds. But this isn’t the case. Engineering for reuse takes a certain type of investment that constitutes a drag on transparency efforts. Transparency is most effective when as much is made transparent as possible. The principle behind transparency is that you never know what bit of internal information may be valuable to outsiders. And you shouldn’t really spend too much time worrying about it — get as much open as you can.

Reuse, when materials have to be reformatted, has different goals. Find what is useful, and put effort into the objectification of it. 

Programmers will recognize this division immediately as the OO vs. scripting religious war, transposed in a different key. Does the world belong to elegant APIs and object models, or does it belong to those who open up the spaghetti code of their script to the world?

The answer ends up being that the world needs both — but if you apply a Perl or Python aesthetic to a COM object the COM object comes up lacking, and vice versa. 

Worth keeping in mind. 

On a slightly related note, I saw a documentary about Tom Dowd yesterday, the guy who did sound engineering on everything from John Coltrane to Aretha Franklin to Eric Clapton.  And one of the weirdest stories in the film was this — he went over to England in 1967, and was visiting with the Beatles, and they thought, hey, since you’re here, maybe you could engineer something for us. Dowd went looking for an eight track board — the kind by Ampex that Atlantic Records had been using since 1958. And all he could find in 1967 England was 3 tracks. They had no idea that the soul and R&B recordings in America were being done on 1-inch 8 track devices. 

In fact, George Martin, the Beatles’s producer, had the only four track in England. He thought he had the most advanced machine available. And so Sgt. Pepper’s, one of the most sonically ambitious records of its time,  was recorded with a pair of four-tracks, bouncing tracks back and forth (with each bounce costing fidelity). Let me repeat this for emphasis: In Britain they had no idea that the eight track machines that had existed almost a decade in America existed.

Nowadays, I imagine Dowd — who was never proprietary about his techniques when asked — would run a blog, talking about the experience of mixing the eight tracks he used on 1961’s Stand By Me and other Atlantic classics. And George Martin would read that blog and have Sgt. Pepper’s — heck, have Revolver — mixed on the Ampex eight-track, just as they ended up using an Ampex 8-track for portions of the White Album, after they learned of its existence.

That would be the power of transparency — a decade leap in sound technology for Britain. A long way of making the point, I suppose, that we shouldn’t underestimate the power of a professor looking at someone else’s class materials and saying — hey, I wonder how they do it over there… if anything, the classroom is a far more closed space right now than the studios of 1967, and we can only imagine what innovations we might find if we opened the whole thing up…

9 thoughts on “Openness as reuse, and openness as transparency

  1. Nice post Mike. Both points in it. The notion that design-for-reuse may have drag of efforts towards transparency is certainly something I can testify for. I’ve been trying to achieve both at the same time. But the result is a staff member who is not only overwhelmed by the cultural shift required to embrace transparency, but the technical shift needed to use open formats and design curriculum with re usability in mind. There is certainly a drag, and all I have been hoping for is a tipping point like critical mass. But I’m still waiting, still hoping.

    The 8 track story is a beauty. Thanks for sharing it. It will certainly help in conversations on the virtues of transparency.

  2. I like this additional analysis, and agree with you on the transparency value of MIT OCW. But though OLI’s is more “reusable” out of the box, it is not easily remixable–we’re talking about generated, non-semantic HTML often mixed with SWFs.

    On the other hand, each MIT OCW is downloadable as an IMS(ish?) package, and as Tony Hirst has shown it can be quickly, if not easily, remixed and mashed up. Tony has demonstrated that the value of the potential for remix/mash-up may rival the more automatic value of ID’ed content programmed for learning.

    As good as OLI’s stuff is, it’s served up in a way that naturally “protects” it from my greedy, remixing hands (but I haven’t given up yet). You mention API vs fully open access, but OLI hasn’t really given us either of these options. Indeed, I felt as though the choice of technology project is committed to brining users into the site, not letting content out.

  3. Good points — remixable is probably the wrong term — reusable is more what I was thinking because of the modular nature of the resources from a curricular viewpoint — technically they don’t have APIs etc, but they seem to me based on the same principle that informed COM — here’s a modular black box you can drop in your course on I don’t know — Boyle’s Law or something. (OK, so I now reveal it’s been about a year since I was over there….).

    But yeah, on the technical level they are not remixable — they are atomic units.

    Here’s where I reveal my predjudice — I’m a spaghetti code guy. I don’t want an object that I can plop in my course as much as I want to see your code and rip off what you’re doing. Because the object, in my experience, never quite fits, no matter how much you think through the interface.

    So I prefer the model where the ceator doesn’t consider my needs in the slightest, but shovels the stuff he/she produces up where I can grok the code. I think the history of programming throughout the nineties shows the relative strenghs of the different approaches and time and time again open code (the MIT approach) beats modular units (OLI).

    The marketplaces of reusable java objects? Fiction. A COM development ecosystem? Fantasy. What ended up saving us all was me not giving a crap aboutyou the reuser, but letting you see what I did so you could rip it off.

    Does that make sense?

  4. A very interesting discussion. The distinction between reuse and transparency is interesting. There is absolutely a huge value in having more stuff “out there”. Right now I am doing research on the Chinese government CQOCW project, and although there is a massive amount of information out there in Chinese, and it’s hard to sort through, just the fact that it’s there (and that Google often ends up finding stuff that perhaps wasn’t meant to be public, .doc files in upload directories etc :)), whether it’s policy briefs, or evaluations, internal reports, grant applications, powerpoints – is extremely helpful.

    When it comes to reuse, I was always skeptical to the learning objects concept, and I’m more of a scripting person (I do the same in Ruby, cut and paste :)) … but at least give us material in text format so we _can_ cut and paste… Doesn’t have to be super-nice or semantically marked up, although that would be nice…

    I also find that OLI is not at all very “reusable”. I think part of the reason is that they are collecting huge amounts of data which they use for their research, and so they are much more interested in having other people using their hosted installation, than having lot’s of OLI installations around.

    I still would like to see more focus on actual cases of remixing/reuse/adaptation of OER/OCW… I’m trying to track them down in China right now, and it seems that all the cases focus on how the students of that same course benefitted (ie more of using it as a CMS – the fact that it’s open to the world doesn’t seem important), and many of the presentations at Open Ed conferences have been about the same… I know there is a huge push for universities to put out their own material, branding it etc, but it would be cool if some institution or teacher highlighted what amazing work they had done repurposing somebody else’s materials…

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