The Content Paradox
But one must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. But the ultimate potentiation of every passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision, although in one way or another the collision must become its downfall. This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.
Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments (1844, translated 1985) p. 37
By definition, a paradox is not a negative engagement, which is at the heart of my trouble with the escape offered by David Wiley as an addendum to his reusability paradox. The reusability paradox states that the context of an OER content (at the time known as learning objects) positively correlates to its educational efficacy (the more/better the context the more/better the efficacy), but at the same time has an inverse correlation to scalability (the more/better the context the less/worse the reuse). This makes the paradox an example of a circular definition or an endless loop, because trying to be All Things results in a mediocre middle where the artifact is neither educationally beneficial nor scalable, essentially producing something sterile.
I find something beautiful about the dissonance within the reusability paradox — at the least it reminds me (as both a scholar and a practitioner) of the humanity behind educational materials created for an open purpose. Learning objects were intended to provide an opportunity to scale teaching in a way the paid curriculum of Pearson or Disney could not do. That this failed was not an indictment on what it means to be open but rather on what we mean when we talk about scale; we cannot exalt expansive use in the place of localized context. The field of open moved on, embracing Open Education Resources as an umbrella under which to produce open content, and the localized networks of successful development found political successes on national and international stages.
It is from this place of political success, whether UNESCO or the US Government, where Wiley offers what I have called an escape hatch, by considering the reusability paradox in terms of copyright:
The Reusability Paradox is only a paradox as long as your thinking about educational materials is caught in the ambient copyright trap. “Everyone knows” you’re not allowed to make changes to textbooks, learning objects, videos, and other educational media, and so the learning objects model is built partly in response to that “reality.” But the Reusability Paradox only arises when “reuse” means “reuse exactly as is.”
The way to escape from the Reusability Paradox is simply by using an open license.
David Wiley, Forgetting Our History: From the Reusability Paradox to the Remix Hypothesis (2015)
From this perspective, the discussion of content for OER has historically viewed copyright as part of the playing field, and the opportunity to open the hatch and let the content out of the paradox solves because it removes the copyright spectre.
The problem here is that when we were defining copyright as the playing field or the assumed normal for content, we could define content as a discipline-specific message/text/artifact. Within that space, if we open the escape hatch and remove copyright from the issue then the discipline-specific message/text/artifact that is the content can be moved and utilized and engaged without worry of Those Who Own.
Content is not just discipline-specific messages/texts/artifacts, though. Content, when David Wiley used it as part of Open Content in 1998, was the multimedia information a learner would engage and interact with. Much in the same way Wiley chose Open as his standard rather than Free, content was chosen to denote the multimedia sharing. Yet there is a long tail of sharing-related encryption, analytics and metadata that follow every node on every network through every usage. It is the back-end of this multimedia that has led to the formation and expansion of the content industry, an industry using the discipline-specific notion of content to push the lucrative collection and aggregation of how our interactions materialize and map. This might begin to sound like a semantic argument that changes if we stop calling it content and start calling it materials or texts or nodes. Except there is no absolute in meaning or language; terms and contexts are bound within their histories and cultures. Open Content became a term because it engaged the history and the culture David Wiley saw around openness and telecommunications through computing in the late 1990s; changing it today provides the Open subculture a new term and an old term that can be a pejorative, which will do nothing but further confuse the aims and objectives of Open scholarship (see CMOOC/XMOOC, here and here).
To easily and blithely write off the content industry to the commercialization of the Free Internet of the 1990s, moreover, is to accept a grand narrative of promise and potential without considering the negotiated history which views the content industry as the logical progression of the knowledge economy, shaped because of how Western societies of control marry surveillance and commerce in the governance of society. If we consider the manner in which the Global South negotiates the concept of openness, open looks much less Right and much more problematic. This has recently been negotiated within OER circles by the promise of lower-cost or free textbooks, a beacon of emancipation through the promise of education and the pragmatism of economics. These are high promises on a well-intentioned (and often helpful) product whose shelf life is already considered limited. It sounds like the MOOC mania of 2012 (the world’s education through video and LMS replaced with the world’s education through less expensive and/or editable textbooks), except this time the open advocates are spreading the platitudes rather than critiquing the platitudes.
In a content economy, access to materials will be the desired outcome for the majority of participants. In that case, why does it matter if Khan Academy, Coursera or Curiosity.com have licensed their artifacts as copyrighted under a non-exclusive, log-in enabled viewing? We can say we want society to evolve to more than a content economy, but such statements are a resistance reading to the dominant political and cultural forces the open movement has aligned with to push OER, #goopen and other policy-based endeavors. We can say that open is about ownership and empowerment and aligning with pedagogies that support the learner, but that is a conversation much larger than copyright, and one needing an armada of lifeboats rather than a simple escape hatch. Global political networks have handed OER a microphone to share its mission, and the subculture has responded not with the passion of the movement but a tinkering with the status quo.
This has led me to offer up The Content Paradox:
When we open the escape hatch from the reusability paradox and let the content out into a world unencumbered by copyright, we leave the safety of discussing open as a copyright problem and enter into a larger and more problematic space where open cannot be a use-value product nor a universal value. By opening the escape hatch and leaving the reusability paradox, we make open less absolute than when the hatch was closed.
It is incorrect to argue Open as Right, Just or Fair. We can make those arguments when open is only considered in terms of the copyright issue. However, as this issue has seen pragmatic resolution through Creative Commons, UNESCO and other political efforts, the Open community must face the reality of Open in a much larger sociocultural setting, where warranted criticism will go beyond its contention as an absolute to the contention that there are contexts where it is plain wrong, and unwarranted or debatable criticisms will go much further. Adoption of open as a principle means it needs to be personal and transformative rather than bureaucratized and passive. The struggles of Open in a greater space offer opportunity if we allow ourselves to embrace the paradoxes inherent in the movement.
Posted on: November 24, 2015admin
Great Principle of all we see,
Thou endless Continuity!
By thee are all our angles gently rounded,
Our misfits are by thee adjusted,
And as I still in thee have trusted,
So let my methods never be confounded!
O never may direct Creation
Breach in upon my contemplation,
Still may the causal chain ascending,
Appear unbroken and unending,
And where the chain is best to sight
Let viewless fancies guide my darkling flight
Through aeon-haunted worlds, in order infinite.
James Maxwell, A Paradoxical Ode/After Shelley (1878)