Nov 7, 2007

Week 9 readings

This post will discuss some of the books I have read this year, and which I think are relevant for the OER movement, specifically regarding economic models for sustainability. I have pointed out interesting ideas, criteria, trends, rules, issues, and concepts that can be used in education and for sustaining OER. The following literature is discussed or referred to in this post;

  • The world is Flat, by Thomas Friedman
  • The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson
  • Democratizing Innovation, by Eric von Hippel
  • New Rules of the New Economy, by Kevin Kelly
  • Wealth of Networks, by Yochai Benkler
  • Wikinomics, by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams
  • Open Innovation, by Henry Chesbrough
  • The Nature of the Firm, by R.H. Coase
  • Understanding Open Source Communities, by Ruben van Wendel de Joode
  • Common Wisdom, by Yochai Benkler
  • A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pink
  • The Future of Work, by Thomas Malone
The World is Flat (A brief history of the 21st century)
The first book I discuss is the "World is Flat", by Thomas Friedman. I must say that it is a disappointing read, except for some interesting examples. The writer is quite happy with himself and all the connections he has with important people around the world. It annoyed me that the book could be written in less than 100 pages without loosing much of its depth. Despite these criticisms, I think the book offers a nicely illustrated view on the globalized and interconnected economies. Lower transaction costs, improved communication channels, spurring Internet technologies, workflow software, etc. make it easier to decentralize and be more efficient.

Economic transactions are like rivers: they find the least resistance. Low-costs countries like India and China are examples of how in the past few decades they have continuously profited from globalization (according to Friedman then), by embracing the enormous outsource and offshore activities of organizations in rich countries. He warns us that activities are not confined to just simple labor, because economic opportunities have given rise to better educated individuals as well. Better educated Indian and Chinese people write software, provide online support, and undertake other less simple activities in global value chains. The money they earn is usually allocated to pay for education, and although on average, their education might not be of the same quality level as ours (what is ours?), the sheer number of people enjoying education "threatens" the Western priviliged position of having an advantage in this field, which we have always exploited it in economical terms. In combination with the lower birth rate in for example Europe, we can expect Chinese and Indian highly educated groups of people (organizations) to become intrinsically part of our high-end economies, or maybe form substitutes for it. We will and cannot battle this trend, so we must embrace it.

It is a pity that the Chinese government is not democratic, protectionistic, corrupt, unconcerned with environment, etc.. This white-collar crime makes the playing field uneven, and it will be hard for us, great people of the West, to compete with it. This means we will join these networks, indulge ourselves in hardly legal activities because we do not have a choice, and make the situation even worse. Don't expect international regulation to step in.. nope, economic stakes are not to be touched. In the end, we have only ourselves to blame, I think.
End intermezzo

So what about a globalized economy and Open Educational Resources? I would not just look at the OER movement, but consider education in general. I think Daniel Pink mentioned something interesting in his book "A Whole New Mind", explaining how we, as individuals and as a society, should thrive in the "conceptual age". This is an age and an economy where creators and empathizers become the cornerstones of the economy, rather than the "traditional" knowledge workers of the 20th century. He explains that some things are hard to outsource, such as design, for which both left- as right brain activities are needed. Because left-sided activities (knowledge workers) can be automated or outsourced, the left-sided activities become more important, economically and socially. Another book, "The Future of Work", by Thomas Malone, focuses more on the effects on organizations and individual employees in a future economy.

Rather than the boring and trivial "World is Flat", one should read the classic article by R.H. Coase about transaction costs economics, which is used and remixed by Yochai Benkler. Understanding this simple but ingenious economic theory, and reading the index of "The World is Flat" will provide you more with insight than reading the entire 600 pages of TWIF. In addition, I agree with Jennifer that Thomas Friedman misses the point on education;
However, instead of embracing the same connective processes and technologies that create and foster this new flat world we live in, Friedman says we must "shut off the iPod" and avoid the "instant gratification" that technology has to offer in order to prepare students for this new flat world. He spends an entire book describing countless examples of how connective technologies are flattening the world, but then recommends that students put away these technologies when they learn. Given that the thrust of Friedman's book is about embracing the factors and technologies that have created and now foster this flat world, I find it troubling that Friedman does not make the connection that these same connective processes and technologies can (and should) support education.
The Long Tail (How endless choice is creating unlimited demand)
Chris Anderson supposedly coined the term "Long Tail", explaining a shift away from focus on mainstream products and markets at the head of the demand curve, and moving towards a huge number of niches in the tail. The long tail (of the demand curve) of goods and services is made possible with improved connectivity, better targeted goods and services, and little physical constraints (shelf space etc.) for distribution. Lower costs for distribution and production (music, films, etc.) allows many anyone to offer everything to anyone, a market can be created for almost any niche product. On the other hand, it does not dismiss the more traditional high-volume businesses, but it recognizes the transformation caused by the internet, and its implications for business models, such as those accompanying OER initiatives. Anderson explains the 6 themes of the Long Tail:
  1. In all markets, there are far more niche goods than hits;
  2. The costs of reaching these niches are now falling dramatically;
  3. More variety needs to be accompanied with filters and recommendation systems;
  4. The demand curve will flatten and to compensate for the newly created niche markets;
  5. The sum of all niches might comprise a market larger than the original 'hit' market;
  6. This will in the end reveal the 'real' demand curve, much more diverse than previously imaginable.
Clearly, some of the themes follow the same argument, and I consider them not significantly different. Besides the whole idea of the Long Tail, which is interesting and should not be overlooked, the only theme I find distinguishable in the above is the need for recommendation systems and filters. I think that recommendation systems will soon overtake the role of humans in creating personalized curricula or learning tracks, that collective intelligence, translated in personalized recommendations are much more powerful than any university representative deciding about a student's taste, previous (online) education and intelligence. These recommendation systems, clearly driven by use and contributions of connected people, will use any resource available on the Internet, and maybe even human resources. The recommendations will not be confined to just open educational resources, but any website, online movie, etc. This is something my university, but other universities should consider as well: machine is us/ing us.

So what roles are reserved for the university then? Many, maybe even more than there are now. I think new roles will emerge, and the flexibility of the university system will determine the success of any institution. For now, I will mention a number of preliminary recommendations:
  • Make educational resources attractive and of high quality, and give them away for free. That will attract people from all over the world, not only to use or change them, but additional requests are done as well. There are two ways to contribute to the value of the university's network: by giving financial input, or to contribute value in another way. The following options for revenue and contribution are deliberately described in generic terms, because there are many, many more possibilities to make money and create sustainability.
    • Sources of revenue could include (i) services that concern the original author of the resource, such as teacher services (ii) additional products and services that are provided alongside the resource, (iii) contacting targeted groups within the network, (iv) customization services, (v) face-to-face happenings, (vi) assessment and accreditation, (vii) valorization of innovations, such as selling licenses and IP, and so much more...
    • Sources of non-monetary contribution could include (i) improving the resources (discussing, answering questions, translating, adapting), (ii) adding resources, (iii) offering positions for learners and experts, (iv) increase network size and external visibility, (v) increase trust, etc..
  • Enable flexibility in your organization by decentralizing decision making about what to learn and what to teach, about who to work with, when and where. This means all the way down to the learner!
  • Enable flexibility in your system by using (and developing) open source or open standards that embrace and integrate external tools and content.
Democratizing Innovation
Chris Anderson claims that Karl Marx was maybe the original prophet of the Pro-Am revolution, where amateurs (better: hobbyists) and professionals work alongside each other in creating innovations, advancing science and technology, and producing cultural goods. Citizen-journalism, where amateur journalists participate in the creation of news items is just one example, but there are many more. Easier tools for production and connecting information items form the most important factor enabling this trend. Eric von Hippel describes in "Democatizing Innovation" a number of issues that relate to user-centered innovation. Without going into much depth into the content of the little book, I will discuss a number of issues that are relevant for the OER movement;
  • Mass production leaves many dissatisfied, because users' needs for products and services are highly heterogenerous;
  • Users provide most innovation, because they are better aware of their need and context of use (especially with "sticky information"). In addition, depending less on the principle and learning and pleasure form other incentives for users to innovate themselves rather than by the producers;
  • There are different reasons for freely revealing innovations, such as reputation gain (important for academics), efficiency (from the viewpoint of both social welfare and economic rationale), network effects, and increased reuse;
  • Within innovation communities the most important function is the accessibility of information. Other important criteria are that freely revealing has to be interesting, specialization, and additional functions, such as social networking and collaboration tools;
  • Manufacturers can involve and make use of users by offering or selling toolkits to ease users' innovation-related tasks, produce user-developed products/provide customization, or sell ancillary products. Especially lead-users are an important group of people, from which the largest part of innovation will flow. This group needs to be fostered.
The question that needs to be asked is: Who are users? Are they teachers, and should they be able to innovate the OER-web and content? Or are they students? Or both? I think we should consider both students (or self-learners) and teachers (or experts) users of the materials. Whereas a student may uptake the role of scrutinizing the resource, discussing it, translating it, and possibly adapting it, the expert will operate on a more meta level, focusing on innovating assessment resources, answering in-depth questions, providing guidelines for use and reuse.

New Rules for the New Economy
Only the term "Long Tail" by Chris Anderson is new, but the ideas portrayed in the book aren't. A somewhat similar book, but less specific on the Long Tail, is "New Rules for the New Economy" by Kevin Kelly (1998). He explains the power of decentralization, connecting everything with everything, with an emphasis on understanding self-organized networks, and explains that communication is the new economy. He stresses the more active participant in the economy, instead of the passive consumer, like Alvin Toffler did decades ago. He makes a number of valid propositions to embrace the changes caused by the internet. I will not discuss them all in detail here, although they are still very interesting and true, but just point out three interesting issues:
  • "Follow the Free". KK argues that by giving away something that is core of your business, you will attract more customers. You should then try to make an ancillary market for the product or service, so that you can make money and make it sustainable. This is the question being asked within the OER movement as well: we follow the free, but where is the ancillary market and what does it consist of?
  • Another very relevant proposition is his argument for opening up systems: because it is open, it can interact with other systems, and acquire some of the value of these other systems. The value of a system increases with the number of systems it interacts with.
  • Human attention will be the only thing being scarce in a network economy: so will the attention of students. The benefit of education is that not only students might be willing to invest time in some network if they see the benefits of contributing to it, but that an institution can also somewhat impose contribution, although this has its limits.

Wealth of Networks (How social production is transforms markets and freedoms)
According to Yochai Benkler, and me, and you, the Internet Revolution is not passé. The Internet has created new forms of individual freedom and democratic participation. It also is increasingly a medium to foster a more critical and self-reflective culture, and finally it is a mechanism to achieve improvements in human development everywhere. In "Wealth of Networks", he has taken a twist with the classic work of Scottish economist Adam Smith "Wealth of Nations". Rather than explaining the economy from viewpoints of division of labour, pursuit of self interest, and freedom of trade, Benkler argues that there an important mechanism is left out in traditional economics: social (or commons-based peer) production. He has investigated this phenomenon as a separate transaction, coming alongside the market and firm transaction, but acknowledges that it is easy to miss these changes, because
"they run against the grain of some of our most basic Economics 101 intuitions, intuitions honed in the industrial economy at a time when the only serious alternative seen was state Communism... an alternative almost universally considered unattractive today."
By the way, social production can by no means be compared to communism, which stifles individualism. Social production is all about the individual, and the only egalitarian issue concerns the ability to access the relevant information.

Social production, or, as Benkler has coined it: commons based peer production, represents a new mode of social and economic production in which the creative energy of large numbers of people is coordinated into meaningful projects. Commons are the opposite of property, in the sense that law does not determine who has the authority to decide what happens to it. This doesn't mean that commons cannot be regulated, take for instance sidewalks or roads, and open to just a defined group of people.
  • Within social production, the commons refer to the information belonging to it; and
  • peer production relates to commons as a set of practices around commons, referring to production systems that depend on individual action. This happens mainly through the use of Internet technologies that enable fast, structured and reliable communication between people.
The most important fact is though, that most of this production happens outside of traditional hierarchical structures and without any financial compensation. Some people share knowledge and collaborate freely out of ideologism, but this is not the only reason. People are diversely motivated beings, and money may be a motivational factor, but it surely is not the only one. One should be aware that it sometimes even can work the other way around (imagine the reaction of your date when you offer money for sex...). Exactly, although social production may not be as good as sex, it sometimes satisfies persons in other ways than money can ever account for. So why does it happen, and why is it likely that it will increase in importance?

Why is this happening?
Social production has always been a part of our lives, but until recently the emergence of this individual and cooperative nonmarket production of information and culture is threatening the incumbents of the industrial information industries. Still, as long as governments are pursuing policies that support these incumbents, and denying the liberative force of social production, which is much more efficient in terms of social welfare, the place social production will occupy in the future economy is still at stake. The free revelation of innovations, meaning that the innovator refrains from exercising intellectual property rights and gives unlimited access to all information concerning the innovation, makes the information a public good. Making information a public good, often at one's own expense, is something that happened long before the advent of Open Source Software. In "Democratizing Innovation", Eric von Hippel sums up a number of researchers describing this phenomenon in innovation concerning mining pumping engines, medical equipment, semiconductor process equipment, library information systems, sporting equipment, and of course open source software. Just now, with cheaper communication technologies, the socio-economic playing field is facing a possibly paradigmatic shift.

Although cheaper communication makes decentralization possible and more interesting, the same argument counts for centralization. According to Thomas Malone in "The Future of Work" is centralization still is the answer in some sectors of the economy, such as semi-conductor industries, but not in all. Still, in our knowledge-based, innovation driven society, as Daniel Pink argues as well in "A Whole New Mind", the critical factors for succes are exactly the benefits of decentralized decision making; creativity, motivation, and flexibility. Benkler, similarly, mentions the allocation of the only scarce resources in our economy: on the one hand human
creativity, time, and attention, and on the other computation and communication resources.

Why this is positive
Benkler describes many positive aspects of social production, on an individual level, but also on societal/economical level. One of the important positive economical and social results of social
production, or rather, decision making in a decentralized self-organizing network concerns the allocation of capabilities/self-identification. Persons, or rather, their talents and creativity is better identified for a task in a distributed model than in a centralized hierarchy.
"Human creativity is too special and divers to standardize and therefore very
difficult to be specified in the contracts necessary for either market-cleared or hierarchically organized production. As the weight of human intellectual effort increases in the overall mix of inputs into a given production process, an organization model that does not require contractual specification of the individual effort required to participate in a collective enterprise, and which allows individuals to self-identify for tasks, will be better at gathering and utilizing information about who should be doing what than a system that does require such specification."

Malone puts a more narrow, but practical perspective, by saying that when people are doing things for themselves, their motivation, creativity, flexibility in response to differences in their own situation, and quality of work increases. More choices in our work makes us think about what really matters to us, human values, such as making money, spending time with friends/family, having a sense of achievement of what you do, or making the world a better place.

More people have more freedom, and more and more people are becoming wealthier, the whole range of human values are becoming more important, not just the economic ones. Organizations now have to address this wider range of human values, enabling a market not just based on economical rules, but on human values. Information and communication technologies will make this better possible, and more likely to occur, because it is much easier to find a critical mass of people to do these things.

Social production and its relation to working
As said, social production depends on individual action. Individuals choose their tasks, and contribute without any hierarchical interference in a decentralized network. Thomas Malone, although concerned mainly with financial compensation for action in such a free market and the role of companies, provides a similar view in "The Future of Work", by stating that we are in the early stages of a change towards human freedom in business, and comparing this change in businesses with the introduction of democracy into politics. He justifies this grand statement by saying that now it is possible to have both the human benefits of a small organization, such as freedom, flexibility, creativity, and motivation, and the advantages commonly available for
just large organizations, such as economies of scale and knowledge. As mentioned before, the reduction of costs of communication because of information technologies forms the basis of this enhancement. Persons can now make sensible decisions rather autonomously, because information to make these decisions, and the technology to discuss this information is available at their fingertips. Benkler also assumes that social production will create the perfect match between task and person.

Social production and its relation to learning and OER
Between social production and learning some important analogies can be drawn with learning trends and theories, such as DIY, communities of practice, lifelong learning, networked learning or connectivism. In his article about the peer production of educational resources "Common Wisdom", Benkler focuses specifically on the creation of content resources. I would rather extend the focus on collaboratively creating a learning web, where rules and mechanisms are created collaboratively, learning contexts in addition to learning content. In "Wealth of Networks", he describes a number of criteria and rules for that apply for social production of any kind.

Criteria and characteristics
First of all, an important statement about peer production concerns the role of leaders. Leadership is important, but never authorative. Benkler (and others) describe some rules and criteria for fosteringsocial production:
  1. Information production must be ubiquitously distributed, meaning that all inputs must be under the control of individual users.
  2. There are two imperatives for harnessing the excess capacity of humans (in the form of creativity, time and attention). Social production exists of a large number of people working on their own on a small piece of an entire project. Their contributions vary widely in quality, quantity, focus, geographic location, and timing. Successful social production projects have shown a remarkable ability to to pool these higly diverse efforts effectively by being modular in structure, and composed of highly granular pieces.
    • "Modularity" is a property of a project that describes the extent to which it can be broken down into smaller components, or modules, that can be independently produced before they are assembled into a whole. Modularity reduces the costs of coordination, but is only possible when the interfaces between the modules are clearly defined. (van Wendel de Joode 2005, p.85)
    • "Granularity" refers to the size of the modules, in terms
      of the time and effort that an individual must invest in producing
  3. The social production efforts and cooperation are maintained by a number of constituents:
    • Technical architecture
    • Social norms and values
    • Legal rules
    • Technically backed hierarchy (validated by social norms)
In all, "Wealth of Networks" provides scholars with a wealth of information on how economics work, and specify what the implications could be for society if it embraces the opportunities made possible with the internet and other cheap communication and production technologies. It also acknowledges the threat of "permission culture", as defined by Lawrence Lessig and James Boyle.

Wikinomics (How mass collaboration changes everything)
Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams refer to Benkler in "Wikinomics" to back up their argument that we are changing into new forms of mass collaboration. They describe peer production as the open collaboration between lots of people and firms to drive innovation and growth in industries.
"Billions of connected individuals can now actively participate in innovation, wealth creation, and social development in ways we once only dreamed of. And when these masses of people collaborate they collectively can advance the arts, culture, science, education, government, and the economy in surprising but ultimately profitable ways. Companies that engage with these exploding Web-enabled communities are already discovering the true dividends of collective capability and genius."
Tapscott and Williams use a number of interesting case studies to explain different ways of how companies nowadays have embraced the collaborative power of all connected individuals. They explain that companies should find the right combination between incorporating external ideas and knowledge, with internal efiiciency and core knowledge, following the paradigm coined 'open innovation' by Henry Chesbrough (2003). I will post something about the changing relationships regarding employment and work in a separate post, but want to highlight one specific issue that I find extremely interesting in the book, because it can be a means for sustainaing OER.

Ideagoras are social marketplaces connecting the innovative ideas of individuals with the needs of (commercial) organizations. A great example of an ideagora is the website InnoCentive, where amateurs and professionals around the world can connect to solve problems, and organizations can use the collective intelligence of all these distributed individuals. Basically, the website hosts scientific challenges to which participants around the world can respond. These participants, being students, scientists and hobbyists (anyone), use their unique ideas and approaches to solve these problems and get rewarded for it. You can consider it a global R&D lab. Not only is it possible to connect problems with solutions, but it also is possible to do it the other way around. Imagine a company or individual with ideas and patents that may be very useful in other sectors.

Websites like Nine Sigma offer not only the possiblity of posting problems on which people can
respond, but also a marketplace where ideas and patents are transferred to anyone interested. One is the idea searching for a problem, and the other is the problem searching for an idea. You can imagine that in an OER environment, these two possibilities should be represented as well in order to create a thriving community where no idea or problem is left behind. My interest for this type of valorizing knowledge is that it can have a number of positive consequences:
  • It may form incentives for learning, because solving real-life problems can be both fun and rewarding;
  • It can also constitute an input for creating or remixing educational resources, or the result of the problem solving results in new educational resources that can be used and reused;
  • The value of education and educational resources is seen immediately because of its application within society/economy;
  • Such a platform creates effervescence and viability because people can form networks to solve problems collaboratively, and it offers a platform for individuals to make value out of their ideas. Etienne Wenger, amongst others, have researched the fact that experts in a field spontaneously form interest groups that communicate to exchange their views and learnings on how to carry out and improve the practices of their profession, similar to how participants in open source communities do that.
Criteria to set up such an environment are senior level support, and a high liquidity, i.e. involvement of sufficient buyers and sellers. Without that, the marketplace will not give enough opportunities and advantages for either sides. The OER environment and problem/idea platform should therefore be open enough for anyone to join. I think that convincing companies and participants to adopt a more or less open source philosophy, and showing them that commons-based peer production of ideas and solving problems will create the highest social value for everyone, the highest value will be attained.

This post has been quite voluminous again. I hope I have used headings and bullets well, so people without much time can skim through it. I have tried to take ideas that are described in different books treating socio-economical subjects, and bring these in an OER-context. In some future postings, I might describe another set of ideas that can make OER initiatives sustainable, but this will do for the moment.

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