Despair in the Open Education World

Thus far, 2013 has been a tough year for open-education advocates.

As Flat World Knowledge promised at the tail-end of 2012, the publisher no longer provides a CC 3.0 NC SA version of its textbooks for students.  In response, Leslie Scott endeavored to defend the commons by crowd-sourcing an effort to harvest Flat World Knowledge’s catalog (see  “All I want for Christmas”).  Working independently, the Saylor Foundation harvested all of the FWK texts.  Over at Writing Commons, we also published a few of these works, particularly the business writing and public speaking materials.  Open-education enthuasists may take some solace in the pre-2013 harvesting of Flat World’s catalog, yet the days ahead are sobering for students and faculty who seek free textbooks.

While Flat World’s embrace of traditional publishers’ commercial practices may be somewhat dispiriting, if understandable (there are, after all, meaningful questions about the role of self-interest in open education), the suicide of Aaron Swartz is devastating.   As  Lawrence Lessig writes in his blog, “the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way.”  Given JSTOR didn’t seek criminal prosecution after Aaron returned his illegal download of JSTOR’S catalog of academic articles, you’ve got to wonder what motivated the U.S. Attorney’s office to prosecute him.  After all, Aaron Swartz’ contributions to digital culture are remarkable: he was one of the co-architects of .rss and co-founder of Reddit.

Back in the days when it was expensive to publish and disseminate scholarly works, the work of publishers and abstracting services was bounded by significant costs.  But now, nonrival goods like academic articles should be open and free.  As academics, we really need to focus on open-access publishing alternatives.  Meanwhile, Aaron’s friends and family are working with Representative Zoe Lofgren to introduce “Aaron’s Law,” which would at the very least result in a review of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

You can visit Demand Progress’ website to click on a form that will send a letter in support of Aaron’s Law:

4 thoughts on “Despair in the Open Education World

  1. Dear Joe,

    The change in FWK makes me happy I never explored writing a text with them. My question about open materials has always been “what happens after the first edition?” Lots of people are willing to put in the (effectively sub-minimum-wage) work to write a first version of a text, but updating/improving it is a different question. I can see a few different options for making that feasible, from generating a community broad enough to improve a text (or its forks) to crowdsourcing revisions. But I don’t think you can get away from the fundamental question of sustainability, and we don’t (yet) have a clear option on that.

    Sometime next week I’ll probably upload my own text to my blog for anyone to download. It will NOT be CC-licensed because I haven’t yet figured out my answer to the sustainability question, but at least this version will be openly available for students for free.

    • IMO, you’ve outlined the likely choices regarding sustainability:

      a) revise yourself
      b) crowdsource the revision

      But this second choice is so problematic: if you set up the project to run on peer review, as we have at, then you’ll probably find other academics want to write their own articles as opposed to revising/remixing/remediating your web text(s). So far, we’ve had about 70 submissions at Writing Commons–yet 0 offers to revise existing pages (and boy do we need some updating on some of our pages!)

      Now the alternative, I suppose, is to choose CC 3.0 NC SA, which would permit derivatives. The concern with that approach IMO is that you may never see what those derivatives are or you may disapprove of those derivatives. They’re just way outside your control.

      BTW, as an alternative (or in addition to publishing your book on your blog) you may want to work with the librarians who are running the Institutional Repository (Here at USF its Monica at Her ofice will set you up in the repository, tag you at World Cat and even offer an easy-to-use interface. Because of the way we’ve designed Writing Commons, that didn’t work for us, but it’s really viable.

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  3. Thank you for drawing attention to the Aaron Swartz tragedy. In addition to the link posted above, I would urge scholars who care about protecting the forms of dissent and public advocacy Swartz’s life exemplified to sign the two petitions calling for the removal from office of Swartz’s two prosecutors. This is of course only a very small step in the direction of a much bigger problem, but given that the prosecutor has repeatedly affirmed that her office acted appropriately, it seems necessary to call for their removal:

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