5 lessons for OER from Open Source and Free Software

While the OER community owes some of its genesis to the open source and free software movements, there are some aspects of how and why these movements work that I think are missing or need greater emphasis.

open education week 2014

1. Its not what you share, its how you create it

One of the distinctive elements of the open source software movement are open development projects. These are the projects where software is developed cooperatively (not collaboratively, necessarily) in public, often by people contributing from multiple organisations. All the processes that lead to the creation and release of software – design, development, testing, planning – happen using publicly visible tools. Projects also actively try to grow their contributor base.

When a project has open and transparent governance, its much easier to encourage people to voluntarily provide effort free of charge that far exceeds what you could afford to pay for within a closed in-house project. (Of course, you have to give up a lot of control, but really, what was that worth?)

While there are some cooperative projects in the OER space, for example some of the open textbook projects, for the most part the act of creating the resources tends to be private; either the resources are created and released by individuals working alone, or developed by media teams privately within universities.

Also, in the open source world its very common for multiple companies to put effort into the same software projects as a way of reducing their development costs and improving the quality and sustainability of the software. I can’t think offhand of any examples of education organisations collaborating on designing materials on a larger scale – for example, cooperating to build a complete course.

Generally, the kind of open source activity OER most often resembles is the “code dump” where an organisation sticks an open license on something it has essentially abandoned. Instead, OER needs to be about open cooperation and open process right from the moment an idea for a resource occurs.

Admittedly, the most popular forms of OER today tend to be things like individual photos, powerpoint slides, and podcasts. That may partly be because there is not an open content creation culture that makes bigger pieces easier to produce.

2. Always provide “source code”

Many OERs are distributed without any sort of “source code”. In this respect, license aside, they don’t resemble open source software so much as “freeware” distributed as executables you can’t easily pick apart and modify.

Distributing the original components of a resource makes it much easier to modify and improve. For example, where the resource is in a composite format such as a PDF, eBook or slideshow, provide all the embedded images separately too, in their original resolution, or in their original editable forms for illustrations. For documents, provide the original layout files from the DPT software used to produce them (but see also point 5).

Even where an OER is a single photo, it doesn’t hurt to distribute the original raw image as well as the final optimised version. Likewise for a podcast or video the original lossless recordings can be made available, as individual clips suitable for re-editing.

Without “source code”, resources are hard to modify and improve upon.

3. Have an infrastructure to support the processes, not just the outputs

So far, OER infrastructure has mostly been about building repositories of finished artefacts but not the infrastructure for collaboratively creating artefacts in the open (wikis being an obvious exception).

I think a good starting point would be to promote GitHub as the go-to tool for managing the OER production process. (I’m not the only one to suggest this, Audrey Watters also blogged this idea)

Its such an easy way to create projects that are open from the outset, and has a built in mechanism for creating derivative works and contributing back improvements. It may not be the most obvious thing to use from the point of view of educators, but I think it would make it much clearer how to create OERs as an open process.

There have also been initiatives to do a sort of “GitHub for education” such as CourseFork that may fill the gap.

4. Have some clear principles that define what it is, and what it isn’t

There has been a lot written about OER (perhaps too much!) However what there isn’t is a clear set of criteria that something must meet to be considered OER.

For Free Software we have the Four Freedoms as defined by FSF:

  • Freedom 0: The freedom to run the program for any purpose.
  • Freedom 1: The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish.
  • Freedom 2: The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  • Freedom 3: The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits.

If a piece of software doesn’t support all of these freedoms, it cannot be called Free Software. And there is a whole army of people out there who will make your life miserable if it doesn’t and you try to pass it off as such.

Likewise, to be “open source” means to support the complete Open Source Definition published by OSI. Again, if you try to pass off a project as being open source when it doesn’t support all of the points of the definition, there are a lot of people who will be happy to point out the error of your ways. And quite possibly sue you if you misuse one of the licenses.

If it isn’t open source according to the OSI definition, or free software according to the FSF definition, it isn’t some sort of “open software”. End of. There is no grey area.

Its also worth pointing out that while there is a lot of overlap between Free Software and Open Source at a functional level, how the criteria are expressed are also fundamentally important to their respective cultures and viewpoints.

The same distinctive viewpoints or cultures that underlie Free Software vs. Open Source are also present within what might be called the “OER movement”, and there has been some discussion of the differences between what might broadly be called “open”, “free”, and “gratis” OERs which could be a starting point.

However, while there are a lot of definitions of OER floating around, there hasn’t emerged any of these kind of recognised definitions and labels – no banners to rally to for those espousing these distinctions .

Now it may seem odd to suggest splitting into factions would be a way forward for a movement, but the tension between the Free Software and Open Source camps has I think been a net positive (of course those in each camp might disagree!) By aligning yourself with one or the other group you are making it clear what you stand for. You’ll probably also spend more of your time criticising the other group, and less time on infighting within your group!

Until some clear lines are drawn about what it really stands for, OER will continue to be whatever you want to make of it according to any of the dozens of competing definitions, leaving it vulnerable to openwashing.

5. Don’t make OERs that require proprietary software

OK, so most teachers and students still use Microsoft Office, and many designers use Adobe. However, its not that hard to develop resources that can be opened with and edited using free or open source software.

The key to this is to develop resources using open standards that allow interoperability with a wider range of tools.

This could become more of an issue if (or rather when) MOOC platforms start to  ”embrace and extend” common formats for authors to make use of their platform features. Again, there are open standards (such as IMS LTI and the Experience API) that mitigate against this. This is of course where CETIS comes in!

Is that it?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, OER to some extent is inspired by Open Source and Free Software, so it already incorporates many of the important lessons learned, such as building on (and to some extent simplifying and improving) the concept of free and open licenses. However, its about more than just licensing!

There may be other useful lessons to be learned and parallels drawn – add your own in the comments.

Originally posted on Scott’s personal blog

e-Book authoring platform Pressbooks going open source

Pressbooks, a popular platform for creating and distributing e-books, have announced they will be making the code for their platform open source. Pressbooks builds on top of the open-source blogging platform WordPress. If done right, this could be very good news for the education sector, which has shown keen interest in e-books recently.

Tablet and Print Books side by side. Image by remiforall @ flickr

e-Books have been one of the big topics in education this year, with the California “open source textbooks” initiative, the launch of Apple’s iBooks, and the popularity of e-book readers such as Kindle and Nook  - not to mention the rise of tablets such as the iPad as e-book readers. Earlier this year a preview of Preparing for Effective Adoption and Use of eBooks in Education by James Clay was released which is well worth taking a look at.

Pressbooks builds on WordPress to deliver a web-based authoring and production environment for e-books including visual editing, as well as distribution on popular platforms such as  Kindle, Nook and Apple iBooks.

The open source announcement was made fairly quietly in a presentation by Pressbooks founder Hugh McGuire in a talk last month.

There are already other open source e-book editors available such as Sigil and BookType; BookType and Pressbooks share a lot of features in common – both are web based with distribution and collaboration features, and support the same range of e-Book formats – so it will be interesting to see how they compare when both are available as open source.

According to Pressbooks, the platform will be made open source in Q1 2013; however they are already reaching out to development partners for early access to the code. For more information, visit pressbooks.com.

 

Image credit: remiforall, CC-BY

 

Microsoft’s OOXML Wins ISO Approval

Perhaps wary that the date might detract from the news, ISO – the International Organization for Standards – waited until today before announcing that Microsoft’s Office Open XML (OOXML) document description schema has finally been accepted as an ISO standard as of April 1, 2008. There has been a long and bitter battle over whether this schema should be adopted. For one thing, an ISO-approved XML standard for describing office documents already exists in the form of OpenDocument created in association with Sun Microsystems by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards or OASIS. Many argue that having multiple standards for the same objects defeats the purpose of establishing standards in the first place. While this is on the face of it a reasonable argument, it seems a little Utopian to expect complete global unanimity on these subjects, particularly where such valuable commercial interests are at stake. After all, the world has not even managed to agree on a standard standards body, so expecting agreement at any lower level seems over-optimistic. Microsoft’s OOXML has been a standard according to ECMA International since 2006, while OASIS approved OpenDocument back in 2005.

So why is there such bitterness over this issue? Well, some of it comes from the perception that OOXML is in itself an inadequate standard which has triumphed through Microsoft’s expertise at lobbying ISO member bodies for their votes. Critics point out that the standard is itself is incredibly long and complex – over six thousand pages. It has also been widely observed that rather than trying to select a set of characteristics that need to be described in order to define a document minimally and efficiently, OOXML instead describes a huge set of overlapping characteristics that define the many different ways Microsoft has described documents over the almost twenty year life of the Microsoft Office product. It is easy to see why they have done this; it greatly facilitates conversion of all legacy documents into the new format. Still, it also results in a swollen specification that competitors will find very difficult to implement in their products. For example, OOXML defines many functions such as shapeLayoutLikeWW8, which instructs a rendering application to arrange text around a shape in the same way as Microsoft’s Word 97. Clearly Microsoft will have an advantage over competitors in making their products reliably behave in these ways.

Back in September 2007 OOXML lost an adoption vote at ISO, partly as a result of muscular lobbying from the free and open source communities, and hundreds of changes to the standard were requested by the voting members. While many of these were implemented by Microsoft and ECMA, the majority remained unimplemented at the time of OOXML’s approval.

Another controversial aspect of the OOXML standard is Microsoft’s patent non-enforcement promise that accompanies it. International standards must at the very least include fair and non-discriminatory terms for the licensing of patents that their use might infringe. Generally the standards bodies prefer that associated patents are licensed at no cost, and this is essentially what Microsoft has done with their Open Specification Promise. It promises that Microsoft will not enforce their patents against anyone as a result of their activities implementing OOXML readers, writers or renderers. However Microsoft make no explicit promise that subsequent versions of OOXML will also be covered by such a promise, merely saying that they aim to continue the promise in areas where they continue to engage with open standards bodies. This has alarmed many people, pointing to a possible future where everyone has adopted OOXML only to find that Microsoft withdraw from engagement with standards bodies and also withdraw their patent promise for subsequent versions. In comparison, Sun’s Non-Assertion Covenant for OpenDocument offers a perpetual promise not to sue for both version 1.0 and all subsequent versions. In the run-up to ISO’s decision, the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), a free-and-open-source-supporting public interest legal practice, released a document filled with dire warnings about Microsoft’s Patent Promise, and telling anyone writing software under the GNU General Public License to shun it. SFLC’s argument is twofold. Firstly they argue that, despite the promise, a piece of multi-purpose code might be protected when used to implement the standard but infringing when used for something else. Secondly, they argue that Microsoft’s failure to extend the promise to future revisions of OOXML means that projects attempting to progressively implement newer and newer versions of the standard may hit a legal brick wall down the line.

Are these worries justified? Certainly the SFLC’s first point is well taken, given the propensity of free and open source developers to repurpose code. The second point is less persuasive, I think, and a little opaquely worded in their document. To be clear, implementations of the current version of OOXML will always be protected from patent action by Microsoft, whether they withdraw the promise from future versions or not (provided the code in question is actually used to implement the standard). As to whether Microsoft will actually withdraw the promise from future versions, it is a difficult issue to predict. Microsoft got into the open standards game in the first place in order to win procurement contracts – often in the public sector – where open standards are listed as pre-requisites. While it may be notionally possible for Microsoft to partially re-enclose their format by either withdrawing the promise from a future version or withdrawing from the open standards process altogether, the practicality of such a move would depend heavily on how Microsoft’s users would respond to it. Thus the future of the standard really depends less of Microsoft’s whim and more on ourselves and the organisations for which we work.