Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sean Eddy on "Open Education"

 
I've been thinking a lot lately about how to get my textbook online without asking everyone involved to work for free. It's not an easy problem.

There's a myth out there that some places like MIT are putting up all kinds of useful information for free. The Open Courseware project sounds really exciting until you realize that they can't publish any of the slides they use in their powerpoint presentations because they're all copyrighted. It also doesn't take much perusal to realize that many MIT professors don't know as much about their subjects as you might imagine.

There's a new book advocating the concept of "Open Education" ("Opening Up Education" T. IIyoshi and M.S.V. Kumar eds. MIT Press). The book is reviewed by Sean Eddy on PLoS Biology [Open Revolution].

Sean Eddy used to be an active participant on the talk.origins newsgroup back when he was a graduate student so I eagerly followed the link to his review. I wasn't disappointed. It's the same Sean Eddy that I knew 12 years ago. He can still recognize bullshit when he sees it.
So, while I like storming the establishment with pitchforks and torches as much as anyone, when I picked up Opening Up Education (or rather, when I downloaded the PDF to my Kindle), I was looking for pragmatism, not utopianism. After 500 pages of “the silos we all know about in higher education are under assault in the new world,” the “hated textbook publishers,” the “epistemological hegemony of higher education,” and the “noble philosophy” of making everything free—“traitors” and “patriots” and “communists,” oh my!—my hopes were beaten down. Many of the 30 essays in this collection are more manifesto than explanation, and many of the 38 authors are writing more for their fellow revolutionary comrades than for us.
Life is never as simple as the Web 2.0 fans make out. Somebody is going to have to do a lot of work before the quality of a website matches what's in the best introductory textbooks. And it's extremely naive to think that all that work is just going to be given away for free.

I'm not just talking about authors. There's a whole team of people involved in publishing my textbooks. This includes editors who correct my spelling and grammar—an onerous task in my case. It includes artists who make the figures and editors who obtain permissions and copyrights for photographs. Then there's the staff at the publishers who receive and mail out manuscripts for review and editing and who handle all the paperwork/electrons associated with a major project.

Are we going to ask all of them to work for free by putting everything on the web? Of course not.

Sean does an excellent job of bursting the bubble.
“Remix,” “collective wisdom,” “Web 2.0”—many of these essays ride a bubble of popular digital punditry enthusiastically but too uncritically. Many technologists today are infected with an idea that “community is king,” that high-quality content will rain down freely merely because we connect digital communities openly. This confuses ways of sharing ideas with ways of creating ideas. It is a kind of magical thinking that has much in common with the cargo cults that cut landing strips in the jungle and carved radios from sticks in hope that more sophisticated beings would parachute technological artifacts down upon them. With all respect to the passionate and pioneering initiatives described in this collection, building landing strips to receive open educational content will not be enough. More attention must be paid to the fact that someone still needs to spend time painstakingly developing artful ways to make difficult concepts understandable—to teach!—and that it will take even more time (thus money) to render these hard-won ideas using multimedia web technology compared with writing textbooks. Success hinges on the adoption of open licensing by the professionals who make digital educational resources, and on finding ways to finance their work.
I have some ideas. I'd like to put my book on the web so that everyone can read it but nobody can download it or print out the figures and text. If you need a printed version you can sign on to the server and print out a chapter for $3. The pages would come with your name and email address printed in the header and footer—or perhaps as a watermark. The idea is to make the material available at minimal cost to an individual user while inhibiting the distribution of photocopies.

No matter how easy it is to read something online, I think there's still a market for a printed version of the material. I know from personal experience that highlighting and scribbling in the margins on my computer monitor doesn't work.

Online textbooks have several advantages such as hyperlinks, frequent revisions and updates, and interactive learning. But we need to find a way to pay for it. If you think the work is going to be given away for free then you are living in a dream world. Check out the MIT Open Courseware site under Biology to see what the cargo cult version of Web 2.0 gets you.


[Photo Credit: Nature]

[Hat Tip: Jonathan Eisen at The Tree of Life]

13 comments :

  1. And it's extremely naive to think that all that work is just going to be given away for free.

    I wonder what makes you think that. It costs a lot of money, time and effort to do original research too, and yet the result of that work is given away for free all the time. Why don't qualified textbook writers apply for federal grants to produce a definitive undergraduate open-access textbook?

    ReplyDelete
  2. anonymous says,

    I wonder what makes you think that. It costs a lot of money, time and effort to do original research too, and yet the result of that work is given away for free all the time. Why don't qualified textbook writers apply for federal grants to produce a definitive undergraduate open-access textbook?

    Last time I checked the salaries of technicians, postdocs, and graduate students were somewhat more than zero. They don't give their work away for free.

    If someone wants to give me a $500,000 grant then I'll happily give away the work for free. That would allow me to pay all those people who need to earn money for a living. Just like a research grant.

    (Actually, the grant would have to go to my publisher 'cause they own the rights to the textbook.)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Say what? How much salary support for technicians, postdocs and graduate students do you need to write your textbook?

    Why does the government pay a percentage of anyone's salary to do research? If a textbook production grant from the government were to cover your percent salary effort that went into writing the textbook, plus the usual indirect cost matching to make your institution happy, you'd take that fraction of your time and write the textbook with it. The grant wouldn't go to your publisher, because you'd publish on the web, from whatever commercial or academic site you pay from budgeted grant money, and the granting agency (the government, which is to say, the public) would own the rights to the textbook, in exactly the same way that the NIH insists all work published with NIH dollars be expeditiously placed in the public domain.

    You know, if someone wants to give me a $500,000 grant for research, I'll happily give the results of that research away for free. In fact, that's exactly what all the grants I've ever applied for look like.

    Not possible as a model for generation of original educational books?

    ReplyDelete
  4. know from personal experience that highlighting and scribbling in the margins on my computer monitor doesn't work.

    You can get the white-out off your screen with a solution of 50% alcohol and a lint-free cloth.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Of course you can't give your textbook anyway for free. The whole enterprise was undertaken within the context of the traditional profit-supported publishing model.

    You wrote the textbook in a labor-intensive way, with a relatively small team of authors and editors etc, in a format that relies on mass-production via the 400-year old printing press. With the expectation that these costs would be recouped by selling lots of hard copies of said bookshelf ornaments to impoverished students.

    Open publishing requires open creation. A trivial amount of individual effort from a huge number of collaborators. No hard copies.

    Are you familiar with how open-source, freely distributed computer software is created? (Hint not by companies like Microsoft - they need to reap large profits to cover expenses).

    If you really want to make a good, free textbook, just start a Wiki and invite your distinguished colleagues from all over the world to contribute when they have the time.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Are you familiar with how open-source, freely distributed computer software is created?

    Yes I am. Are you familiar with how textbooks are created? (Hint, they aren't just a collection of facts.)

    If you really want to make a good, free textbook, just start a Wiki and invite your distinguished colleagues from all over the world to contribute when they have the time.

    You are really naive.

    That's no way to teach fundamental concepts in biochemistry. You would end up with a smorgasbord of conflicting, mostly superficial, articles that concentrated on the most popular research fields.

    Most of my colleagues have never given any serious thought to what should be in a textbook and how material should be covered.

    One of the key elements in textbook writing is "voice." What it means is that the various parts of the book should speak with one consistent voice. If you explain something in chapter three then the material in chapter eleven should reinforce and extend the concept. It certainly should not be written in another, conflicting, voice.

    Take the concept of Gibbs energy for example. Basic thermodynamics should be covered early on and this means explaining what real free energies mean and how they are interpreted in biochemical reactions and pathways. That same message should come across in later chapters when pathways such as glucnoeogenesis and the citric acid cycle are covered.

    If you constructed a textbook by stitching together voluntary contributions from a number of different scientists you would lose that voice and the consistency. Students would suffer.

    I don't think you understand that there are many scientists out there who don't really grasp some of the modern concepts in biochemistry, but aren't aware of it. I don't want them writing textbooks. My job is hard enough.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Larry,

    I haven't read the book, but the Utopian language Sean Eddy quotes makes me cringe. The concept of open source education, however poorly it has been implemented to date, may still have merit.

    The cargo cult analogy is valid but should be expanded. No, it is not enough to just set up a website and expect content to start streaming into it. Open source software has been mentioned and I think open source education could learn some things from it.

    Unix has always been a powerful and stable operating system, but for years its use was primarily for geeks, scientists and servers – far too complex for the average user. Linus Torvalds developed the Linux kernel and made the philosophy of open source software viable to a broader audience.

    More recently, South African billionaire Mark Shuttleworth developed Ubuntu, a version of Linux targeted to the average user. Ubuntu has also spawned additional distributions including Edubuntu, with a software package aimed at schools and homes with children.

    The “cargo cult” airstrip was there from the beginning of Unix, but it took the dedication and direction of people such as Torvalds and Shuttleworth to pave the runway, install the control tower, and built hotels and restaurants near the beach.

    I think most people would consider Wikipedia a success as an online encyclopedia, yet its educational sibling, Wikiversity, has not worked well judging from the paucity of content. Why? Is it because an encyclopedia better lends itself to short, discrete articles, whereas school lessons need to fit in the time line of education, drawing from what was previously taught and providing the background for future classes?

    Also, as you've pointed out, a textbook must be written with a consistent “voice”, especially for complex subject matter.

    The main question is why bother with a system of open source education? Isn't the best learning environment accomplished with knowledgeable, imaginative teachers interacting with dedicated students? Yes, but what about those dedicated students who are stuck in a class with a poor teacher, or a teenage girl in Pakistan's Swat Valley, or a group of children in a remote African village? A computer-based could at least give them some hope for the future, perhaps under the guidance of caring parents in the absence of certified teachers.

    The expense and logistics of producing a hard-copy book are far greater than presenting the same material in electronic form. With electronic documents you're less concerned about ensuring that the layouts are perfectly balanced, or that there are no spelling mistakes, or that you wish you had a better image of something – because you can make the changes later. With books, if you notice a mistake in the middle of 50,000 copy press run it's too late. Furthermore in electronic media, you can add in videos. In some instances it may work to simply videotape a class given by a gifted teacher, even following her around as she helps individual students on a project. Is that as rich an educational experience as actually being in her class? Of course not. But for a child with no other source of education, or a child with a bad teacher, it would be a huge benefit. It may also help parents or aspiring teachers.

    Yes, I think it's naïve to expect to “build it and they will come”. Perhaps it would never be viable at higher grades and university. In any case it would probably be more successful by starting at lower grades and working out the bugs before any expansion. No doubt it would require more coordination and direction than Wikipedia – just as Ubuntu needed Mark Shuttleworth to provide the philosophy, direction and support.

    I'd love to see the concept of open source education discussed. Yes, there are glitches and problems to work out. Perhaps it does require a philanthropic billionaire to coordinate the effort and pay for content, but it seems to me that the potential benefits to future generations, especially in undeveloped countries, make the topic worthy of further discussion.

    ReplyDelete
  8. @Larry:

    One of the key elements in textbook writing is "voice." What it means is that the various parts of the book should speak with one consistent voice. If you explain something in chapter three then the material in chapter eleven should reinforce and extend the concept. It certainly should not be written in another, conflicting, voice.

    Gotta agree with Larry here. textbook should be a "whole". Concept, approach, target audience - you name it. Covering different subjects while maintaining overall integrity is a major challenge. Hard to do for a single person, next to impossible to do with wiki.

    Take the concept of Gibbs energy for example. Basic thermodynamics should be covered early on and this means explaining what real free energies mean and how they are interpreted in biochemical reactions and pathways

    In fact, basic thermodynamics should not be "covered" at all! Anyone who didn't have physical chemistry before is basically wasting time taking up biochemistry. It may, superficially, let one pass an exam and all that, but that's about it. It will not result in much of the useful knowledge. An idea of teaching Gibbs energy in biochemistry course is a bit like teaching multiplication table as an introduction for a matrix algebra class. In truth, a qualified student only needs a brief reminder that biochemical reactions are no different and that dG still rules.

    ReplyDelete
  9. DK says,

    In fact, basic thermodynamics should not be "covered" at all! Anyone who didn't have physical chemistry before is basically wasting time taking up biochemistry. It may, superficially, let one pass an exam and all that, but that's about it. It will not result in much of the useful knowledge. An idea of teaching Gibbs energy in biochemistry course is a bit like teaching multiplication table as an introduction for a matrix algebra class. In truth, a qualified student only needs a brief reminder that biochemical reactions are no different and that dG still rules.

    Unfortunately your comment isn't valid because the way we use thermodynamics in biochemistry is very different than the way it's used in chemistry. That's what I mean by "basic" thermodynamics. I don't mean introducing them to enthalpy for the first time.

    One of the most obvious differences is the definition of standard Gibbs energy. In biochemistry we use ΔG°′ instead of just ΔG°. That's worth explaining, and it ain't easy.

    Furthermore, the concept of spontaneity is common in chemistry because they often deal with situations were two chemicals are added to a text tube and they want to know what happens. Those situations don't usually exist inside the cell where almost all reactions are already at equilibrium. Consequently the standard Gibbs energy value is almost useless in biochemistry except for calculating the equilibrium constant.

    It takes a lot of work to explain to biochemistry students that they need to start thinking about thermodynamics in a different way.

    Have you ever tried to teach students why the real Gibbs energy change (ΔG) for ATP hydrolysis to ADP + Pi inside the cell is about -48 kJ mol-1 whereas the standard Gibbs energy change (ΔG°′) is -32 kJ mol-1? They didn't learn that in physical chemistry.

    There are times when what students learned in physical chemistry is actually an impediment to learning biochemistry. For example, it's very hard to get across the idea that the Gibbs energy change for every reaction in a metabolic pathway can be close to zero. Students have trouble understanding how there could be any flux in the pathway under those circumstances.

    ReplyDelete
  10. One of the key elements in textbook writing is "voice."

    I've never written a textbook so maybe I'm missing something here.
    But I don't see why a singular "voice" is so important. If your only way of communicating is a singular, stand-alone, static product, then yes, I see why coherence is important.

    But a strength of a dynamic wiki is that it can support a diversity of voices. We all know that the textbook version of science, with it's singular "voice", is not representative of scientific reality. Why not let students see the diversity of scientific perspective that truly exists within a field? Rather than testing student's ability to regurgitate facts as dictated to them by the singular "voice", exams could then focus more on assessing student's abilities to critically examine multiple viewpoints existant across the scientific community and synthesize this information into meaningful conclusions for themselves.

    Rather than being the sole domain of a chosen few speaking with a "singular voice", synthesis can become an interactive exercise between professors and students alike. The results of such synthesis exercises can then again be published in a wiki-like format.

    Not to say that Wikis don't also require a certain amount of funding for permanent editorial staff to correct errors and impose some degree of consistency. I just don't see this being as big of a problem as some of you guys are suggesting.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Scott Rowed says,

    The expense and logistics of producing a hard-copy book are far greater than presenting the same material in electronic form.

    That's not correct ... at least it's not correct if the electronic version is done properly.

    I'd love to see the concept of open source education discussed. Yes, there are glitches and problems to work out. Perhaps it does require a philanthropic billionaire to coordinate the effort and pay for content, but it seems to me that the potential benefits to future generations, especially in undeveloped countries, make the topic worthy of further discussion.

    We're working on it.

    I think it's possible to put textbooks on the web where they can serve as a resource for millions of people.

    On the other hand, I strongly believe that an ideal university education requires working closely with a mentor either in small groups or one-on-one. I realize that the ideal is far from reality at most universities but at this point in time I'm not prepared to abandon the ideal entirely in favor of impersonal web-based education.

    Textbooks and other sources should always be supplements. They don't replace a good teacher.

    I believe that education is a two-way process. Information flows from expert to student but the real value of education manifests itself when things start to flow in the opposite direction as well. That two-way process will be hard to reproduce electronically. Only a small percentage of students are going to enter an electronic discussion.

    ReplyDelete
  12. the way we use thermodynamics in biochemistry is very different than the way it's used in chemistry.

    I did not know that. What exactly do you mean by that?

    ΔG vs ΔG°′ ... They didn't learn that in physical chemistry.

    In this case I'd say they were not taught physical chemistry properly.

    ReplyDelete
  13. That's not correct ... at least it's not correct if the electronic version is done properly.

    I'm not sure what you mean by done properly. The identical book saved as a PDF eliminates the pre-press costs, paper, ink, press time, bindery and shipping. That said, I admit that a document that is planned from the beginning as an electronic document will will not be identical to one destined for print. The page format would be a better fit as landscape rather than portrait to match computer screens, but that doesn't affect cost.

    A printed book is more constrained by space considerations. For example, a sheet-fed press must fit into signatures, or groups of pages representing a single press sheet, commonly 16 to 24 pages each, and the content must be edited accordingly. With electronic documents it doesn't matter. Furthermore, budgets often allow for a certain length and anything over that will require cutting, even if it's content that would be really useful for the student. I admit that there are times when ruthless editing can be a good thing, forcing the writer or editor to state things more concisely, but many times it means that richer, more complete explanations get eliminated. Even worse, photos may be reduced in size or deleted. Speaking from the point of view of a photographer, I find that appalling (just kidding)!

    Professional video production can be costly, but a lot can be done on a budget with these days. There's no need to hire James Cameron to video a class given by an excellent teacher.

    Textbooks and other sources should always be supplements. They don't replace a good teacher.

    I totally agree, but as you point out, the reality is often far from the ideal. And again, I think that perhaps the importance of two-way communication with a highly-trained teacher is more important at the university level than in elementary school.

    Perhaps the greatest benefit of open source education, at least in the early stages, would be to give children in undeveloped countries access to good educational material under the guidance of their parents or teachers that are dedicated but lack the training and expertise.

    Organizations such as the BBC may be convinced to allow a reduced royalty rate for videos such as Planet Earth for educational projects to undeveloped countries.

    In Canada and the US it could also help elementary and high-school students do supplementary learning in subjects such as evolution, where our education authorities have cut it out of the curriculum to avoid offending religious sensibilities.

    ReplyDelete