Sunday, July 5, 2009

opening up scholarship: generosity among grinches

why academic research and open exchange of ideas are like that bottle of raspberry vinaigrette salad dressing you've had in the back of your fridge since last summer

The folks over at Good Magazine are tossing up a series of blogposts under the heading "We Like to Share."

The articles are actually a series of interviews with creative types in a variety of fields who share one characteristic: they believe that sharing of ideas and content is valuable and important. The edited interviews are being posted by Eric Steuer, the Creative Director of Creative Commons--a project which, though I admittedly don't fully understand it, I find deeply ethical and innovative with respect to offering new approaches to sharing and community.

So far, two posts have gone up, the first with Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook and the former online strategist for the Obama presidential campaign, and the second second with Flickr founder Caterina Fake. Talking about how much we've changed in our attitudes toward sharing, Fake explains that
[i]f you go online today you will see stories about Obama sharing his private Flickr photos. So this is how far the world has come: our president is sharing photos of his life and experiences with the rest of the world, online. Our acceptance of public sharing has evolved a lot over the course of the past 15 years. And as people became increasingly comfortable sharing with each other—and the world—that lead to things that we didn’t even anticipate: the smart mob phenomenon, people cracking crimes, participatory media, subverting oppressive governments. We didn’t know these things were going to happen when we created the website, but that one decision—to make things public and sharable—had significant consequences.

Hughes' interview is less overtly about sharing as we typically think of the term, but he points out that the Obama campaign was successful because it focused on offering useful communications tools that lowered barriers to access and then
getting out of the way of the grassroots supporters and organizers who were already out there making technology the most efficient vehicle possible for them to be able to organize. That was a huge emphasis of our program: with people all over the place online—Facebook, MySpace, and a lot of other different networks—we worked hard to make sure anyone who was energized by the campaign and inspired by Barack Obama could share that enthusiasm with their friends, get involved, and do tangible things to help us get closer to victory. The Obama campaign was in many ways a good end to the grassroots energy that was out there.

Both interviews, for as far as they go, offer interesting insights into how sharing is approached by innovators within their respective spheres. But though these posts present their subjects as bold in their embrace of sharing and community, their ideas about what sharing means and how it matters are Fake uses the Obama example to point out how far we've come; but really, does Obama's decision to make public photos of his adorable family mean much more than that he knows how to maintain his image as the handsome, open President who loves his family almost to a fault? I don't imagine we'd be very surprised to learn that Obama's advisors counseled him to make these photos widely available.

Indeed, the Flickr approach, in general, is this: These photos are mine and I will let you see them, but you have to give them back when you're done. It's a version of sharing, yes, but only along the lines of the sharing we learned to do as children.

The same is true of the picture Hughes paints of a campaign that successfully leveraged social networking technologies. The Obama campaign's decision to use participatory technologies was a calculated move: Everybody knows that a.) More young, wired and tech-savvy people supported Obama than McCain; and b.) those supporters required a little extra outreach in order to line up at the polls on election day. You can bet that if Republicans outnumbered Democrats on Facebook, you can bet Obama's managers would have been a little less quick to embrace these barrier-dropping communication tools.

What we're not seeing so far among these innovators is an innovative approach to sharing--one that opens up copyright-able and patent-able and, therefore, economically valuable ideas and content to the larger community.

I've been thinking about this lately because of my obsession with open education and open access. In particular, educational researchers--even those who embrace open educational resources--struggle with the prospect of making their work available to other interested researchers.

This makes sense to anyone who's undertaken ed research--prestige, funding, and plum faculty positions (what little there is of any of these things) are secured through the generation of innovative, unique scholarship and ideas, and ideas made readily available are ideas made readily stealable. As a fairly new addition to the field, even I have been a victim of intellectual property theft. It's enough to give a person pause, even if, like me, you're on open education like Joss Whedon on strong, feminist-type leading ladies.

But, come on, we all know there's no point to hiding good research from the public. As Kevin Smith writes in a recent blogpost on a San Jose State University professor who accused a student of copyright violation for posting assigned work online,

[t]here are many reasons to share scholarship, and very few reasons to keep it secret. Scholarship that is not shared has very little value, and the default position for scholars at all levels ought to be as much openness as is possible. There are a few situations in which it is appropriate to withhold scholarship from public view, but they should be carefully defined and circumscribed. After all, the point of our institutions is to increase public knowledge and to put learning at the service of society. And there are several ways in which scholars benefit personally by sharing their work widely.

Smith is right, of course, and the only real issue is figuring out strategies for getting everybody on board with the pro-sharing approach to scholarship. The "I made this and you can see it but you have to give it back when you're done" model is nice in theory but, in practice, limits innovation and progress in educational research. A more useful approach might be along the lines of: "I made this and you can feel free to appropriate the parts that are valuable to you, but please make sure you credit my work as your source material." This is a key principle at the core of the open education approach and of what media scholar Henry Jenkins calls "spreadability."

The problem is that there are enough academics who subscribe to the "share your toys but take them back when you're done playing" approach to research that anybody who embraces the free-appropriation model of scholarship ends up getting every toy stolen and has to go home with an empty bag. This is why the open education movement holds so much promise for all of academia: Adherents to the core values of open education agree that while we may not have a common vocabulary for the practice of sharing scholarship, we absolutely need to work to develop one. For all my criticisms of the OpenCourseWare projects at MIT and elsewhere, one essential aspect of this work is that it opens up a space to talk about how to share materials, and why, and when, and in what context. The content of these projects may be conservative, but the approach is wildly radical.

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