Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Creative Commons ≠ Free

In David Warlick’s blog post, It’s Going to Happen Without Them, Mssr. Warlick makes a wide-eyed prediction that the Creative Commons (CC) is going to put the textbook industry out of business. Unless they do what? Should the for-profit textbook industry begin to give away their products (and profits). Now that’s a formula for corporate success!

Warlick writes:
My take is that if the Textbook industry does not work really fast to reinvent itself in the image of a more participatory, reader directed, and people connecting information environment, then it’s going to happen without them.

OK, let’s say I agree that learning should be more participatory, learner-centered and collaborative. What does that ideal have to do with the Creative Commons?

The Creative Commons isn’t about making all content free. The purpose of the Creative Commons is to provide creators with more control over the copyright and subsequent use of their creative output.

Don’t believe me? The top of the CC homepage states its mission as:

“Creative Commons provides free tools that let authors, scientists, artists, and educators easily mark their creative work with the freedoms they want it to carry. You can use CC to change your copyright terms from "All Rights Reserved" to "Some Rights Reserved."

We must stop wrongly conflating the open-source movement with free. They are not the same thing.

I believe that the purpose of Warlick’s post was to pass along news of the Creative Commons’ new project, ccLearn, the education division of the Creative Commons. Right away I have problems with underlying assumption of this project. Such initiatives are based on the flawed premise that education equals access to content (information). Once again, this falls prey to what I call the information fallacy. Knowledge is constructed as a result of experience. Access to information represents, but a small piece of the learning process.

Besides, how does a teacher reconcile a desire to make all content free and accessible with schools’ ongoing obsession with plagiarism and cheating? I’m OK since I haven’t given a test or quiz since 1990, but what about the sheep-like teachers for whom textbooks are created?

Faulty assumptions

There are three deeply flawed assumptions underlying the notion that the latest CC scheme and its competitors, such as Curriki, will reform education.

1) No amount of groovy new wave talk of mashing-up or remixing of content can disguise that this is yet another form of tabula rasa education wrapped in a web page. This latest initiative Creative Commons initiative is about access to arbitrary educational content. This is a fancy way of saying delivery of information to students.

2) Just because a space is created for the sharing of educational “materials,” it is unlikely that many teachers will actually do so. After all, teachers do not share lesson plans. They may share ideas, but ideas are hardly what we mean by “educational materials.” Look at any of these “sharing” sites and you’ll find lesson plans, PowerPoint presentations and worksheets. Great teachers are not dependent on such static artifacts created for other students and weak teachers are unlikely to improve if their job is reduced to finding pre-chewed materials.

I suspect that the same sorts of teacher who think their worksheets are better than everyone else’s will publish “digital resources” for other teachers. A few will make a bit of money, but these materials will have zero impact on the daily practice of most teachers and even less positive influence over the education their students enjoy.

This fantasy is hardly new or dependent on Web 2.0. Your local bookstore offers countless workbooks and backline masters for sale. Do we want to extend this tradition to the powerful medium of the Web?

Look at Curriki and see the profoundly dull, random and mediocre materials being touted as a way to revolutionize learning. Can you tell that a billionaire finances Curriki? Who owns the content? Why would educators wish to write textbooks when there is so little to gain and when primary sources abound, both on the web and in convenient book form? Many of these sites look like a garage sale of content far beneath the exacting standards of even Frank Schaffer.

Textbooks are a technology that has had an enormously deleterious affect on learning. They are filled with homogenized factoids, written by anonymous committees possessing dubious qualifications and are designed to enforce a uniform teaching experience regardless of individual student differences. Textbooks are by definition one-size-fits-all approaches to teaching in which learning is at best an accidental side effect.

I’ve seen countless cases where a school district has gone to extraordinary lengths in order to fund new textbook purchases. In one case, science teachers were fired so the district could afford new science textbooks. Politicians get elected promising new textbooks and under-funded schools beg for textbook money.

This is the golden age  of (real) publishing. I like to take teachers to the local bookstore and demonstrate that there are better trade paperbacks on any subject at every conceivable developmental level than a textbook. Yet, states spend billion on such backpack ballast and add insult to injury by requiring that the books not be updated for five, or in some cases, ten years.

3) It is fantastically naïve to suggest that teachers sharing worksheets online endangers the textbook industry in any way. They are a multi-billion dollar industry most Americans (and certainly politicians) equate with education. They’re as American as spelling tests and handwriting instruction. The textbook industry is not going to roll over and play dead just because some teachers are blogging.

The keys to success in textbook publishing are simplicity, uniformity and compliance. Textbooks are about control (real or imagined) of the public school system. The companies make it very easy for school districts to buy and rollout new textbooks like clockwork. Nobody buys a textbook because it’s good. They do it because it’s quick, easy and asks nothing of teachers while promoting a public image of progress.

Recent trends like the Open Court Coaches (snitches) employed in Los Angeles and other districts; along with scripted curricula like “Success for All” demonstrate the destructive power textbooks hold over classroom instruction. These models also demonstrate how willing decision-makers are to enforce compliance and homogeneity on their teachers.

In too many cases, textbooks are weapons used against learners. It hardly matters if the weapon pointed at children is created by teachers for free on the web or by multinational conglomerates adroit at separating taxpayers from their treasure.

Textbook companies are incredibly nimble. Emphasize authentic literature and the next textbook series will have literature included. The problem is that the 32 page Sarah Plain and Tall will be abridged and each paragraph will be followed by a multiple-choice comprehension question that destroys the narrative and distracts the reader.

The Zelig-like shape-changing ability of the textbook industry has found a way to wreck every new technology that may render it obsolete. Now students can be bored with incomplete misinformation not only by reading a hardcover text, but on their iPod and laptop as well. Yippee!

Throw a new technology at textbook publishers and they’ll turn it into a textbook.

Underestimate the power of the textbook industry at your peril. Where do large district superintendents work after they retire? Textbook companies. Why? They are hired for their rolodex and access to other superintendents (re: customers) Visit Austin, Texas and see the textbook publishing offices walking distance from the state capital. Coincidence? Hardly!

Three foreign conglomerates control the vast majority of American textbooks. Why isn’t Tom Friedman or the Congress upset about turning our educational system over to foreigners? These same companies control standardized testing and test-prep. Their dominance is formidable and likely to be with us for a very long time.

Textbooks even play a role in our history. Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy from the Texas School Book Depository, not the Creative Commons.

Lawrence Lessig can afford the luxury of eating his own dog food by giving his books away. He’s a world-class attorney and tenured academic at Stanford.

Is David Warlick giving his most recent book, Classroom Blogging: A Teacher’s Guide to the Blogosphere, away for free?

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  • So what's the solution?
    On a local level, I frequently tell any school board member that textbooks are an unnecessary expense due to the proliferation of online resources - primary, secondary. Yes, one must filter through to select the most accurate and "best" resources which can be time consuming compared to the ease of using pre-selected, scripted curricula. Textbooks are HUGE business as you point out, and no research exists that validates their use in the classroom as superior to other instructional materials or methods.
    Another huge concern to me, is the reality that textbooks are inaccessible to millions of students with print disabilities. Textbooks are static and inflexible - you can not manipulate the text for students with vision impairments, you can not attach a voice for students with print disabilities, they can not be accessed by students with physical disabilities, they can not be cognitively rescaled for students with cognitive disabilities.
    (On that basis alone, shouldn't be they removed from the classroom for civil rights violations - violating IDEA 2004 and ADA?)

    By Anonymous Karen Janowski, At July 28, 2007 4:00 AM  

  • Karen,

    You ask a great question. It may be very difficult to ween the system off their addiction to textbooks. Indiana makes parents buy books and makes their use optional, but a State official recently told me that not a single school district has opted NOT to use textbooks despite the freedom to do so.

    An intermediate step may be to use trade books written by experts. They're cheaper, better and still books.

    By Anonymous Gary, At July 28, 2007 2:59 PM  

  • Gary: You are correct that sometimes (I have done this in the past) open source and "free" are incorrectly conflated. I think the potential for collaborative content projects to make inroads in changing education has promise, however. Of course I could just be naive, that is entirely possible. I am somewhat familiar with Curriki-- but the textbook project which may hold even more promise is Wikibooks. I think you make valid points about the generally coercive nature/culture of schools and the way textbooks are used to reinforce standardization and control. However, being a vocal advocate for high quality expertise, I would think you'd see value in these projects (and I'll include Wikipedia also) which are putting high quality content and resources in the hands of learners equipped with computers and connections to the web. I don't think projects like WikiPedia, Wikibooks, or even Curriki represent another educational project we've seen before. I suppose I could be intoxicated with the potential and collaborative reality which the read/write web presents all of us, but I do see us in a different day. You are right, the textbook lobby is powerful and extremely nimble. Probably like the oil and gas industry, they have billions at stake in the status quo, so it should come as no surprise they are statists rather than dynamists when it comes to change. I think David Warlick is correct that these projects and the disruptive potential they offer (and will offer) to traditional models of content access (textbook publishing) is HUGE and will get more notice as time marches on. In all this, I see more reason for 1:1 computing initiatives which provide learners with access to the protean (a new scrabble word for me) informational environment of the web.

    By Anonymous Wesley Fryer, At July 30, 2007 6:52 AM  

  • Wes,

    It seems odd to me that the same people who speak about the obsolescence of school wish to preserve perhaps the most pernicious technology in school, the textbook. I am not saying that you are in this camp.

    Primary sources are good. Textbooks are by definition their antithesis.

    By Anonymous Gary, At July 30, 2007 4:45 PM  

  • I'm not sure what this statement means in the context of this post:

    "We must stop wrongly conflating the open-source movement with free. They are not the same thing."

    Do you mean free as in libre or free as in gratis?

    Also, I'm a little unclear on your perception of CC's motivation. You seem to be insinuating something, but I'm not sure what.

    By Anonymous Tom Hoffman, At July 30, 2007 8:52 PM  

  • It sounds like a rhetorical/marketing strategy, to make the textbook industry the bad guy in order to drum up attention and financial support. The problem is, as you mentioned, replacing expensive textbooks with free online textbooks still leaves us with a passive, largely ineffective learning resource (textbooks). The textbook _industry_ may be a bad guy, but so is _text-centered instruction_. A text-based learning environment is not the most effective.

    So why so much focus on "content" (which really means: text and a few pictures). A little media theory might help, such as mcluhan's 'the media is the message.' The web is still mostly just text and static images. Those are easier to create than animations/simulation/participatory environments. So cc and wikis and bloggers and so forth focus pretty much exclusively on text and static images.

    We do this all the time, trading off what is the best solution with what is the easiest to do solution. That's why most programming languages suck, text-centeredness, also a lack of understanding of how people think and learn. A lazy developer finds it is easier or quicker to parse code that uses curly braces or that forces case-sensitive identifiers, for example. Which leads to a catch 22 situation, where text (programming languages) is holding back the easier development of environments that go beyond text such as animated games and simulations.

    Finally, what surprised me also about cclearn is that there is not a single learning specialist on their board. Curriki was also created not by a learning specialist, and not based on some theory of learning, but by a former head of the Sun corporation.

    By Anonymous Doug Holton, At July 31, 2007 8:04 AM  

  • Free as in gratis Tom!

    I am NOT insinuating anything about the CC. I think it's a brilliant movement that protects creators.

    I am insinuating that lots of educators (wrongly) view it as validation of their refusal to pay for goods and services.

    By Anonymous Gary, At July 31, 2007 10:21 AM  

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