The Content Paradox

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 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.

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)

Posted on: November 24, 2015admin

7 thoughts on “The Content Paradox

    No one uses a textbook without changing it, but then the ability to change becomes fetishised because it presumes a latent demand to do so, ignoring the engineering economy of learning object reusability, whilst banging the textbooks saving drum until the skin is thinner than that of the snake eating its own tail.
    But hey, blame copyright for a conditioned failure to reuse, ignoring that the paradox is correct, how can a complicated x be remixed if there is no tool to do it? The scale is as much, if not more, the literacy required to do so, over the shadow of some copyright conformity.

  2. Love it. I like the progression of this, how you told the story. A postmodern perspective on open. What i realized reading it, esp w ref to Global South, is that alternative perspectives are easier to see when you change the context.
    I would like to see, though, when open (content specifically) would be “plain wrong”. It isn’t enough to make this claim without examples, right?

    I think open content reproduces dominant Anglo perspectives on everything. But that was the case before dominant. It just doesn’t challenge the status quo on that. It doesn’t make it plain wrong.

    Would it be wrong to be open when a MOOC is used to replace an instructor in a univ or deprofessionalize faculty? If this is wrong, it isn’t the MOOC’s fault. It’s the University’s.

    Is Einstein responsible for Hiroshima & Nagazaki? And why is the Holocaust remembered more than that tragedy? Though both occurred during WW2 (no offense to anyone). Is making more OER about Holocaust than Hiroshima unethical? I don’t think so. It’s just a reflection of dominant discourse.

    Am I off track here?

    1. Hi Maha,

      Thank you for the thoughtful read and excellent pushback. We might go off track here, so let me know where I am doing that and we can come back around.

      First, you asked for example of when open is plan wrong, later thinking of the surveillance angle…which is one that weighs heavily in my critique (Western social infrastructure is bound in clandestine surveillance — political bloggers being outed, trolling, #gamergate is all a cultural extension of what Deleuze would argue is a foundational aspect of Western society of control). That’s where I was going with my statement, but you made me think, “This is not necessarily a learning object or an OER; the information is bound in networks and thus appropriate for connectivism and social constructivist theory but it is raw data rather than scaffolded material.” That might be ticky-tack, and much of my paradox is that we have left the safety of copyrighted information once we have banded together behind the Open flat, but I want to be certain I am providing an honest critique of the state of Open today.

      So, when is it ‘plain wrong’ for a learning objecet/oer/content to be Open? We can find many examples of wrong open for items appropriated to a learning space, but what about items created for a learning purpose? The recent Mao MOOC from edX is an interesting example as it is getting pushback for whitewashing Mao’s regime and not being critical. That’s a good critique (when does selective information become propaganda), but what does an open critical take on Mao look like when built by a Chinese university? With the power of surveillance through telecommunications, there is good reason to not build OER in some hot-button instances at this point. In the US, the AIDS MOOC offered by Georgia Tech via Coursera, when first offered in 2013, was flooded by trolls attempting to shift the discourse to their agenda. Dr. Sessions Hagen worked hard to keep them at bay, but in doing so did have to close off some of the things she had first planned as open.

      I think you are correct about dominant discourse continuing to produce the majority of content, and so my problem with the pragmatism angle of Open is that it becomes an appendage to serve the dominant discourse even though it says it stands steadfastly against it. As I noted in the blog, the advertising coming out of open circles regarding the efficacy of textbooks and the potential for global solutions is eerily reminiscent of the praise heaped unto MOOCs in 2012; granted, it’s not the same media players sharing it, but the Open movement cannot be frustrated by MOOCs when they are selling the same praise just with a different modality.

      The OER Network recognizes it started as a group of ‘small, localized efforts’ and grew into a ‘broad, international network.’ My criticism is that by celebrating the international scope it has replaced the networks of local agents with the power of bureaucracy. This is not to say bureaucracy does not have its place, but it needs to be considered for the needs of the movement, and the needs of the Open movement, at least from how I interpret, are to serve local initiatives. It is awesome that the US Department of Education is sponsoring #goopen. It is great that there are alternatives to expensive textbooks. But I struggle with the Open movement outside of this increasingly narrow view of efficacy. Why is a Khan Academy art history course worse than the Saylor text-based materials? The degree of open license makes no difference to most people.

      1. Actually, the Khan Academy art history courses are stellar, the best part of Khan Academy. That’s partially because they purchased SmartHistory after it’s pedagogy was firmly developed. But yeah, I’d recommend those videos to anyone.

  3. Great post, Rolin. Even for crusty folks like me who spend most of our time telling people that they have gotten all the definitions and history wrong. So little here to criticize in that way that I guess I’ll have to say something substantive. 😉

    I’m reminded by your post that speculative fiction sees paradoxes (e.g. ones created by time travel) as something one is *in*, and to resolve the paradox is to exit to a new reality. Inside the paradox, the paradox is everything, ripping the space-time fabric asunder. Resolve the paradox and you exit to a new reality that is more stable, but importantly, not defined by the paradox anymore.

    As you know, I see the simple, idiomatic presentation of these ideals to be useful to activism, as long as we don’t let that simplicity affect our own thinking. I think most people still live in the paradox, and there is much more to do there. I think tools that allow us to build and recombine the work of others are particularly underdeveloped, and that becomes more and more clear as the copyright issue becomes less of an issue. And I still marvel at how little decent open material exists even in moderately niche subjects.

    That said, I agree — in those places that open content has been most successful we start to see how insufficient it is as a value. It’s particularly depressing to see places where it has replicated or exacerbated de-contextualized education, non-participatory pedagogy and the like. Because the HEART of that paradox is not openness. The heart of that paradox is supposed to be an education that thrives on learner and teacher context. Openness is presented as a way to protect that context from scale. If it can’t do that, it’s not such a great escape hatch after all.

    I should be clear — I think it can help a lot, but not if we forget what openness was meant to preserve. If that’s what you are saying, I agree whole-heartedly.

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